Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November 2014 Books

Half in Love (surviving the legacy of suicide) by Linda Gray Sexton
Published: 2010
Rating: 4
Author web site

Another brutally honest memoir from the daughter of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton who died by suicide when Linda was 21 years old.

In her first memoir, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to my Mother, Anne Sexton (1994), Linda examines the complicated relationship with her brilliant but mentally unstable mother. I read and reviewed this in August - see post.

Years pass and Linda is now happily married with two boys. However the idyllic life ends as she spirals into deep depression/suicidal ideation resulting in three suicide attempts which tear her own family apart.

For someone who seeks to understand the suicidal mind, I found this memoir to be very helpful - similar to William Styron's Darkness Visible - see post on Josh's blog for thoughts on his book.

  • Her description of depression is harrowing: a hungry monster, strong, insatiable, looking to devour.
  •  Love is not enough to prevent suicide - neither the love for others to stop oneself nor the love from others to prevent. 
  • To cope with her intense internal pain, she became a cutter. She describes in excruciating detail her thoughts and feelings while cutting and why it worked.
  • She exonerates her mother and herself by saying that the motivation for suicide was a way, albeit extreme and final, to end pain.
  • She recognizes that to live with someone who struggles with depression and suicidal ideation is tough. Her own husband, father and sister could not cope with her. 
On a lighter note, she has written a third memoir called Besotted about living with Dalmations.

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Published: 2008
Rating: 4
Author web site

This historical WWII fiction is based on a diary of an East Prussian woman in which she chronicles her family's harrowing move west in 1945 - just ahead of the brutal Russian army.

Bohjalian gives a list of books that helped in his research - I've only read two and am interested in the others.

  • Armageddon by Max Hastings
  • D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Stephen Ambrose (read)
  • Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross
  • Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
  • On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of A Nazi Childhood by Irmgard A Hunt
  • What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany by Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband
  • Sins of the Innocent: A Memoir by Mirelle Marokvia
  • The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn
  • German Boy: A Child in War by Wolfgang W. E. Samuel
  • The Holocaust: Personal Accounts edited by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder
  • All My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein
  • Wartime Lies by Loise Begley
  • Crabwalk by Gunter Grass
  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (read)

Euripides III:  Hecuba  translated by William Arrowsmith
Published: 425-424 B.C
Rating: 4

Tragedy upon tragedy and suffering upon suffering is this play's theme.

Queen Hecuba is wife of defeated King Priam of Troy. She has lost everything: her husband, her children, her city, her title and now lives as a Greek slave. As a mother, she has seen her son Paris, start the Trojan War by abducting Helen; her first born Hector, die at the hands of Achilles; her daughter Cassandra taken by Agamemnon and now faces the death of two other children.

I can relate to her willingness to die in place of her daughter, Polyxena:
Let me take her place upon the tomb;
kill me, be merciless to me, not her.
And when she sees the body of her son, Polydorus:
O Gods in heaven, let me die!
 What amazes me in reading the Greek tragedians are the timeless truths written centuries ago:
That man is happiest
who lives from day to day and asks no more,
garnering the simple goodness of  a life.

That no man on earth is truly free.
All are slaves of money or necessity,
Public opinion or fear of prosecution,
forces each one, against his conscience, to conform.

The Blessing: A Memoir by  Gregory Orr
Published: 2002
Rating: 4

I ordered this memoir after reading his Poetry as Survival and read it in two days.

He begins with a question that can only be asked years removed from the trauma: "Do I dare to say my brother's death was a blessing?"

I cannot imagine how hard it was for him to drudge up memories and feelings of the time leading up to the moment when he accidentally shot his brother.  While reading, all I could do was write OMG in the margins over and over. He was only twelve years old - just beginning adolescence. His dysfunctional family offered no solace or comfort. Then his mother died two years later. How could this kid survive? Through the power of poetry.

My memories of the horrible day when I found Josh are millisecond snapshots that sometimes pop up in my head. When certain images threaten to linger, I shut them down.

Next up - read his poetry.

Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Published 1855 (1st edition) and 1892 ("death-bed" edition)
Rating: 5

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Published: 2004 (posthumously)
Rating: 4

I bought this book a while ago and decided to read after seeing it in Bohjalian's list of books that inspired his Skeletons at the Feast. 

The story of how this book was published reminds me of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. It is a miracle that both manuscripts survived WWII.

A French novelist from Jewish descent had a vision of writing an epic, five-part novel in the same vein as Tolstoy's War and Peace.  She began feverishly writing the first two parts while living in occupied France in 1941-1942, instinctively knowing that time was short.

She was arrested and deported in July 1942, leaving her husband and two young daughters. She died in Auschwitz the following month. Her husband was arrested a few months later and before leaving, entrusted their oldest daughter Denise, with Irene's unfinished manuscript. He also perished in Auschwitz.

Serendipitously the girls and manuscript survived but it wasn't until decades later that Denise finally decided to read what she thought was her mother's journal. As she read, Denise realized that her mother had written a powerful novel of life in occupied France.

She painstakingly deciphered her mother's teeny handwriting and took it to a publisher who recognized the historical significance of the novel. Published over sixty years after Irene's death, Suite Francaise became an instant bestseller.    

To learn more, read these articles from the NY Times and the Telegraph.

Americans In Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass
Published: 2011
Rating: 4

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published: 2014
Rating: 4

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