An Amazing First Person Account of the French Resistance

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Agnes Humbert’s Resistance  —  A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France is simply a wonderful book.  Humbert was an art historian in her forties when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940.  She immediately located fellow patriots and recklessly threw herself into acts of resistance.  Although her activities were largely confined to spreading dissident literature, Humbert and the other members of her group were soon betrayed and savagely punished.  Many of the men were executed, while Humbert ended up with a five year prison sentence, most of which was spent under appalling conditions in a miserable assortment of German prisons and labor camps.

Humbert kept a diary as long as she was able.  When that became impossible, she held on to her memories.  Once the war ended, she filled in the enormous gaps of her miserable incarcerations in diary-like fashion.  This approach makes her book extremely compelling because the tortures and privations she suffers are set forth in real time.  Humbert was imprisoned with women from all over Europe and who had been imprisoned for all sorts of reasons, ranging from prostitution and murder to black market violations, political dissent and simply being the wrong nationality or political party at the wrong time.  She was starved and beaten and phenomenally lucky to survive .

The manner in which Humbert survived is the genius of this book.  She was blessed with courage, maturity and no fatal illnesses, and that was all extremely important.  But her real strength lay in remaining optimistic and seeking friendship wherever she went.  She always managed to find at least one friend with a similar perspective who could always manage to find the humor in something.  The companionship of her fellow prisoners gave Humbert strength throughout her ordeal.  Humbert was far less reckless in prison than she had been in the Resistance, but she nonetheless seized opportunities to sabotage the goods she was forced to make for the German war machine.  She was really annoyed when she was placed in a factory where she couldn’t figure out how to sabotage the goods.

Once she was freed from prison by the advance of the Allies, Humbert lost no time in teaming up with like-minded colleagues and organizing the ensuing chaos.  She grasped political realities and helped restore order and human services, even as she helped compile the record of war crimes she provided to the Americans.

This is an heroic story, but it is not told in a conceited fashion.  So much of this book is written about how “we,” as opposed to “I,” suffered and about the courage and kindnesses of other prisoners and even a few of the guards.   Humbert comes across as a rather unremarkable individual who drew on her personality and her convictions to become a hero.  This is a unique and valuable first person account of a savage time and some very brave people.   I strongly recommend this book!

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One Fat Englishman — Kingsley Amis Strikes Again

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Kingsley Amis wrote bitingly funny academic novels.  Lucky Jim, published in 1954, made me laugh so hard that I wept.  Nine years later, Amis wrote One Fat Englishman in a similar vein.  I really liked Lucky Jim (which was reviewed on this blog this summer).  It was funny, and even though Jim was a hapless fool, he had some redeeming qualities.  His struggle to hang on at a mediocre university while unable to control his impulses was ultimately hilarious.  Whatever Jim was, he wasn’t deliberately mean, and so I more or less rooted for him even as I laughed at his predicaments.  Apparently I am much more likely to like a novel if I find the main character at least vaguely likable.  I completely subscribe to the Jennifer Weiner school on this and refuse to accept that literature is automatically more worthy if the main character is thoroughly reprehensible.

For these reasons, I had a problem with Roger Micheldene, the title character of One Fat Englishman.  He was consistently self-centered, lecherous, gluttonous and out of control, with a mean streak.  If Micheldene had redeeming qualities they were kept under wraps.  There were many funny scenes and predicaments, replete with an unending supply of self-important academics.   Reading this book just wasn’t as much fun as reading Lucky Jim, although if I were less annoyed by the main character, I would have to concede this is also a very funny book that sends up conceited, academic nitwits in stellar fashion.

Serving Victoria — A Boring, Tedious and Demeaning Affair

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Like a lot of Americans, I have always had an inexplicable fascination with royalty, and of course there is something incredibly romantic about Queen Victoria becoming queen of England with precious little preparation at a very young age.  When you add all her children and her being widowed fairly young, it makes for a great story, but I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that my fascination has been misplaced.

In Serving Victoria — Life in the Royal Household, Kate Hubbard does an admirable job of demystifying the household of Queen Victoria through the letters and diaries of her ladies in waiting and other retainers .  In these first person accounts, Victoria and her family generally come across as incredibly boring, not particularly bright and irrationally obsessed with etiquette and other minutiae.  Victoria and Albert were understandably anxious to maintain a prim and proper household, given their scandalous forebears, but surely there was no cause for the deadly dull regime of petty and belittling rules they created.

In a time when women were precluded from most legal ways of earning a living, serving Victoria did offer a decent salary to gentlewomen in somewhat distressed circumstances, and it was surprising how often the need to earn a little income drew women  to these positions.  One hired, they encountered an existence devoid of royal mystique.  Instead, they endured tedious meals in boring company, frigid living quarters and essentially no free time.

As Queen of England, Victoria assumed she was entitled to have everything exactly as she liked, and if this caused hardship to her retainers, well she really didn’t stoop to notice that.  In the diaries and letters, Victoria generally came across as a petty tyrant, who wasn’t particularly bright.  She was forever sending third parties to complain about some minor lapse of etiquette, and yet bitterly resented undertaking her own official responsibilities.

The diaries and letters of her retainers show that they were frequently bored, often annoyed and almost always unappreciated by Victoria.  Many of these writers appear to have been reasonably intelligent and were often able to see the humor in their situations, so it is hard to fathom why some of them stayed on so long.  None of them voiced much concern about Victoria spending all kinds of money on herself and her residences at a time when there was so much hunger and poverty amongst her subjects.  In fact, these writers gave the impression that Victoria didn’t think about her impoverished subjects at all, other than to host annual drunken holiday parties for her staff and neighbors in Scotland.  (Curiously, the book I am currently reading about Victoria’s second daughter Alice, Alice, the Enigma  —  a Biography of Queen Victoria’s Daugher by Alice Croft, gives the opposite impression and depicts Victoria as some sort of lady bountiful).

Ironically, Victoria’s relative lack of racial, ethnic and religious prejudice, generally drew scorn from these writers, who were particularly resentful of her Scots servant John Brown and the servants she imported from India.  In this one area, Victoria does seem to have been ahead of her time.

I did enjoy the book, even as the tedium of Victoria’s court was described again and again.  I did wish that at least one of these writers had told Victoria to shove it, just once.  But that doesn’t seem to have event occurred to them.   These people consistently came across as a placid crowd that accepted the status quo without question.  Still, they were faithful recorders and their accounts are valuable.

Is It Possible To Have Too Many Books?

Twice today I have come across the question of whether buying lots of books presents a problem.  No way!

I’ve just started Nick Hornby’s, Ten Years in a Tub, which is a monthly diary of book buying and reading.  Hornby happily acknowledges buying more books than he will read and doesn’t judge himself.  Amen!  I can’t wait to read the rest of Hornby’s book.  The first chapter was great, and I love Hornby’s writing.  The subject of potentially excessive book buying also arose In today’s New York Times.  In the paper’s Social Q’s  section (a wonderful and frequently hilarious social advice column), a reader writes for advice about what to do with a mail person who repeatedly complains and mocks the reader for buying lots of books.  Really?  Is this an assault on literacy?  The Social Q’s correspondent usually publishes letters from people with truly odd perspectives who need to be brought back to earth and common courtesy/  Happily today, on the all important subject of buying books, the Social Q’s columnist is breathtakingly level-headed and merely offers some tactical advice on how to get the mail person to shut up.

It is true that is generally unwise to buy books in lieu of feeding your children.  David Ben-Gurion’s wife famously complained that his family didn’t have enough to eat even as he continued to imports boxes of books from Europe.  I get that this could be a problem.  But the story I like better is the family that decided to make a budget to control their spending.  After carefully allotting funds for food and shelter, the subject of setting a budget for buying books arose.  Rebellion ensued because of an utter refusal to set a limit on book buying, and the proposed budget got tossed out the window.  I can report that this family did in fact manage to feed and educate their their exceptionally bright and well-read child.

I get nervous around people who happily tell me they don’t read books.  I have found that the best way to calm my nerves is to read more.   We recently moved from a largish house with endless books shelf space to a smaller apartment, so we have had to deal with more books than we can fit into our new place.  We happily gave away thousands of books to the local libraries and our friends, and our new place is still blessedly crammed with books.  I find it virtually impossible to give away books I haven’t read yet, and I have a lot of them.  It is important to have just the right book around, in case you need to lose or amuse yourself in times of stress.  Also unread books hold such promise  —  they may be amazing!  I know I take it to extremes, but there have to be worse flaws.  I buy electronic books and visit the library, but there’s no therapy as comforting as browsing in a bookstore!  For all the depressing reports of the demise of the books store, I am happy to report that the Upper West and East Sides of New York are hanging in there.  I feel it is my duty to support them; it is a matter of taking personal responsibility.

So, don’t judge me for buying books, lots of them!

Best Book This Fall — Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy

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After reading a number of books that were either meh or merely good, I am really pumped about this book!  I loved An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.

I resisted joining a book club for a very long time on the theory that I didn’t want to discuss a beloved book to death.  I have changed my tune, and An Officer and a Spy is one of the best reasons for joining a book club so far.  I never would have opened this book, but the book club I just joined had already selected it.

This is a wonderful, intelligent book, rich with all kinds of period detail and just one heck of a story.  It is told from the perspective of French army officer who somewhat reluctantly comes to the conclusion that Alfred Dreyfus was framed and then just can’t let it go.  Newly promoted to lead counter-intelligence, Colonel George Picquart is the relentless investigator.  He doesn’t always get it right, but he keeps going at great risk to himself.  The tension and pace of this novel are terrific.  As a lawyer, I particularly liked the book’s legal proceedings, but I don’t think that limits this book’s general appeal.  There are a wealth of interesting characters, and even if it is occasionally difficult to keep the various high level villains straight, each conversation propels the action.  In short, it was very hard to put down this excellent historical novel, and I highly recommend it.

The Prophets of Eternal Fjord — A Very Long Novel About the European Settlement of Greenland

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I was not a huge fan of Kim Leine’s immense historical novel about Greenland and the Europeans who settled there towards the end of the 18th century.  The Prophets of Eternal Fjord has a lot of vivid detail and a plethora of plot lines, and it is probably one of the very few books about Greenland that is available in English translation.  However, reading this book was a major effort and it’s not clear that my time was well spent.  I kept losing interest and putting it down.  Then I would pick it up and give it another go.  I almost always finish the books I start, and this was a real test of that practice, which I may need to reocnsider.

Prophets of Eternal Fjords is extremely long and goes back and forth in time, with some helpful dates to try to keep things straight.  The settings are richly drawn and immediate, with a particular emphasis on filth, reeking odors and catastrophes.   There are a lot of catastrophes.  Morten Falck, the main character is a miserable excuse for a cleric/missionary.  In another book, his utter unfitness for his responsibilities might have been funny, but not here.  Falck has flaws upon flaws and horrendous interactions with most of the people he meets.  He does a lot of damage, but he is in good company as the majority of the book’s characters are also pretty horrendous.  Any characters with redeeming human qualities seemed to get killed off pretty fast.  In fairness, I find long books with unsympathetic main characters to be very tough going, and there are lots of readers who may find this detestable character quite interesting.

I can’t recommend this book, but It did get a number of very good reviews.

Henri Matisse — A Small, Beautiful Book

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In 2014 and 2015, the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan presented an historic exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs.  The museums were deservedly mobbed for months, and I was one of many who made repeated visits, for it was well worth braving the crowds to see this epic presentation of Matisse’s cut-outs.

Alastair Sooke has written Henri Matisse  —  A Second Life, as a companion to the museums’ exhibition.  This brief, insightful book follows Matisse’s life and art from 1941 (in the middle of World War II) until his death in 1954 at the age of 84.  Sooke has provided welcome context and understanding, which I enjoyed even though I read the book months after I saw the show.

In the early 1940’s Matisse’s health was a mess and he was stuck in the middle of a war.  All things considered, it is amazing that Matisse even survived these challenges.  But challenge became opportunity, because this turned out to be the start of an amazing second act to Matisse’s already brilliant career.  It was in this period that he started working on his famous cut-outs.  The evolution of Matisse’s cut-out technique and creation of some of his specific pieces is described in the right amount of detail for the layperson.  A very clear and captivating picture emerges of Matisse snipping away rapidly and telling his assistants how to paint the paper and place the pieces.  Although this very short book has no pictures, other than some photographs of Matisse at work, it is easy to Google the particular pieces as they are discussed.  Read the book and Google away!  If you want to enrich your experience further, read the catalog for the show.  It is beautiful, too.

A Strange and Raucous Medical Novel: The House of God

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Samuel Shem’s The House of God  is one of the strangest and most unsettling books I have read in a long time.  The title is completely misleading  —  whatever this is, it is not  religious book.  The House of God is kind of a Mash/Catch 22  look at a medical internship at a big city hospital.  The humor is very dark, and generally at the expense of patients.  Since I am on the patient side of things, as opposed to the doctor side of things, the picture painted by The House of God is disturbing enough to make me consider converting to Christian Science!  There is a lot more to this book, but the overwhelming message is how much doctors can despise their patients.  Sorry, but the somewhat thoughtful evolution at the end of the book doesn’t really overcome this bewildering theme.  Perhaps this book is meant to be one big joke, but there is a morbid ring of truth to a lot of the interactions.

The book covers the internship year of Roy Basch, MD, a bewildered young doctor at a major urban hospital.  Basch and his fellow interns are completely unprepared for their internships, and they get precious little on-the-job training.  Their response is triggered by terror, immaturity and utter lack of sleep, and it isn’t good for patients.  It is distinctly unpleasant to read about how they learn to loathe elderly patients who don’t die and other unfortunate patients who have the misfortune to cross their paths.  There are some comforting words of wisdom from the Fat Man, a wonderfully drawn character, but let’s just say that dying at home seems like an excellent option.  I did appreciate the another theme, which was to stop torturing elderly patients with painful, futile procedures.

This book was written in the 70’s, and medical schools’ training programs have allegedly improved, but that may be wishful thinking when most medical students seem to follow their classes on-line, instead of in the classroom.  (DO training generally requires classroom attendance, I believe.)  The other part of the book that is arguably dated is the pervasive sexism, except for Basch’s partner, who across as the only sane person in the book.  The rest of the female characters are competent, yet randy, nurses and one senior resident who is treated with scorn by all.  There are more women physicians today, but they have a tough time getting into the senior ranks of medicine.

So, I hope the author was largely being ironic, and I hope things have changed, but this is one sour, depressing and humiliating book from a patient’s point of view.

Cliff Walk — An Excellent Mystery Set in a Very Seedy Rhode Island

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Cliff Walk, by Bruce DeSilva is an excellent murder mystery featuring Liam Mulligan as an investigative reporter for a failing Providence newspaper.  Mulligan stumbles on a murder off the Cliff Walk, in posh Newport, Rhode Island, and begins to investigate.  His search is hampered by layer upon layer of corruption and a plethora of threatening, if colorful characters.  Like Mulligan, these other characters are well drawn, while the failing newspaper adds a gloomy backdrop to the action.   As in most noir-type mysteries, most of the characters are drawn in different shades of murky gray.  At times the novel even seems claustrophobic, because so much of the action takes place in such a circumscribed area and because there are so many shady characters.  In the end, this is an entertaining and well written mystery, with a very intriguing setting.