Day After Night

Day After Night

The nightmares made their rounds hours ago.  The tossing and whimpering are over.  Even the insomniacs have settled down.  The twenty restless bodies rest, and faces aged by hunger, grief, and doubt relax to reveal the beauty and the pity of their youth.  Not one of the women in Barrack C is twenty-one, but all of them or orphans.

Their cheeks press against small, military-issue pillows that smell of disinfectant.  Lumpy and flat from long service under heavier heads, they bear no resemblance to the goose-down clouds that many of them enjoyed in childhood.  And yet, the girls burrow into them with perfect contentment, embracing them like teddy bears.  There were no pillows for them in the other barracks.  No one gives a pillow to an animal.

The Atlit detainee camp was a detention center set up by the British to hold Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazis, trying to reach Palestine and what would soon become the nation of Israel.  Refugees were brought in, sprayed with DDT, and put into communal showers.  They were kept at Atlit until their papers could be verified, which was understandably very difficult for many holocaust survivors, as they escaped with nothing.  While nowhere nearly so horrific as what they had endured and fought against during the war, being held in a camp like prisoners was a bitter reminder to the inmates that they had no real home, no land where they were truly welcome. In October of 1945, the detainees of Atlit are rescued by the Israelis from the nearby kibbutzes.

Anita Diamant, author of the amazing The Red Tent, has taken this piece of history and written a wonderful book of historical fiction.  Day After Night tells the story of 4 young women who meet at in the limbo of Atlit.  They are Shayndel, a Polish Zionist who questions her own part in the movement; Tedi, a Dutch Jew who spent much of the war hidden away in the barn of a farming family; Leonie, a blonde who spent the war in Paris; and Zorah, a woman haunted by her memories of the Concentration Camp.  All four women have lost their entire families.  All four are alone in the world, all four had unspeakable experiences which haunt them and linger in their memories.  All four are hoping to find freedom and happiness in the new land of Israel, but are hesitant to allow themselves real hope.  It has been so long since any dreams come true.  For too long, their lives have been more reminiscent of nightmares.

While the story is framed around the historic event of the liberation of the prisoners of Atlit, the real story is that of these four young women, their friendship, and the weight of their memories and losses.  As their separate stories come out, their secret fears and secret shames, they are bound closer together. Together, they can begin to find some balance in the world, however temporary, before they part from one another and go their separate ways.

I found this to be a very compelling read. I’m not sure I liked it quite as much as I liked The Red Tent, but that is a tall order. I don’t like many books as much as I liked The Red Tent. Day After Night is a wonderful book, and I would highly recommend it.

The Almost Moon ~ Alice Sebold

I read The Lovely Bones a few years ago, and it almost broke my heart. If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of a teen aged girl who is raped and murdered by a neighbor, and it takes awhile for her body to be found. The oddly uplifting story is mostly of the girl watching her family from heaven, wanting to comfort them with the knowledge that she is OK now, and trying to come to terms with the transition from her earthly life to the non-corporeal existence where she now finds herself. It’s shattering and very well written. Alice Sebold’s other book, Lucky, is a memoir, and I believe mainly the story of her horrific rape, and her recovery, while she was in college. I’m not a brave enough person to read that book, though certainly tales of survival and recovery should be honored. (An interesting side note…I once read of Lucky that if rape were considered more honestly, it should be described as a form of torture, whereas in our culture, it’s more often looked at as ‘bad sex’.)

From that dark subject, Sebold has, in The Almost Moon, moved on to the subjects of matricide, mental health, and convoluted familial relationships. To include matricide in the list gives away none of the plot. The first paragraph of the book reads:

When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother’s core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers. She had been beautiful when my father met her and still capable of love when I became their late-in-life child, but by the time she gazed up at me that day, none of this mattered.

So here we are, faced with a protagonist who is a murderer, and who goes on to perform other perhaps unforgivable acts in the 24-hours following. We try to like her, but it’s difficult, as she is a hard person with so many walls put up to protect her from the slings and arrows thrust at her throughout her life by her mother, she is a hard nut to crack. These walls have affected her life in so many ways. Her choice of profession (she’s a nude model for art students – her mother was a lingerie model for department stores); her marriage (her husband never felt there was room for him in her heart, she was so consumed by the love/hate relationship with her mother); and her children (she seems to hold them at arms length, both fearing their love, and fearing that she might become a younger version of her own abusive mother). So she’s hard to like. But she’s not hard to sympathize with. When I read of her childhood, I could see how those walls would be built, how they would grow stronger and thicker throughout the years.

I don’t want to say much more about this book, because I don’t want to ruin it for you. I was really sucked into this story, though, and I’m glad I gave up waiting for the library to get it in stock, and instead purchased it. Alice Sebold is a wonderful writer, and I look forward to seeing what she’ll come up with in years to come. Right now, though, I need to re-read the final chapter, to see if I can make some sense out of how she came to her final decision. I didn’t quite catch it the first time around.

I read The Almost Moon for my 2nds Reading Challenge. I’m tearing through these at an alarming rate, and I’m really enjoying them. 🙂

Ethan Frome

I read Ethan Frome as part of my 2nds reading challenge, where you read a second book by an author of whose work you’ve previously only read one book. That’s just awkward…I always have trouble explaining this challenge. Anyway, awhile ago I read The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, for last winter’s classics challenge. I thought it was a sad, tragic tale, and so well written, that I wanted more of Ms. Wharton. So when I saw this challenge, I thought it would be the perfect time to pick up Ethan Frome.

If you haven’t read Ethan Frome (wikipedia page, plot spoilers!), it is the story of a man scraping out his existence on a small farm in Massachusetts, and sticking around to care for his aged parents. They die, and he is so afraid of the silence born by long, cold, dark winters that he asks his mother’s caregiver, Zeena, to marry him. So, they marry, and it turns out, ironically, that she isn’t much of a chatterbox either, and what’s more, she appears to be a hypochondriac. Lovely. So, now Ethan appears doomed to live out his life, suffering through the long, dark, cold winters with a woman who will not move to a livelier town (she likes to be somewhat of a big fish in a small pond), doesn’t talk much, and is forever spending what little money Ethan can force out of the rocky soil of his farm on one worthless treatment after another for her myriad ailments. And yet, there is perhaps hope, in the person of Mattie. Mattie is Zeena’s destitute, orphaned cousin, who has nowhere to go and no money, and thus will come and care for Zeena in exchange for room and board. Mattie is a cheerful person, and gives Ethan hope that life might perhaps not need to continue on its current bleak trajectory.

If I were to tell you that the graphic I found, above, was from an operatic version of Ethan Frome, would that give you any slight indication of how things turn out? Maybe? I liked this book quite a bit, though I confess that I kind of wish I were reading it in college, for a literature class, because it seems one heavy with symbolism, and while I am perfectly capable of figuring out symbolism on my own (cold, bleak landscape…land that is barely able to produce enough crops to keep them alive…rocks, snow, bleak bleak bleak…), sometimes it’s interesting to talk about it for a little while with your classmates.

Number the Stars

Number the Stars is the story of Annemarie, a 10 year old Danish Christian girl in 1943. Denmark is occupied by the Nazis, and now they are preparing to deport all of the Jews, including Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen, and her family. Annemarie’s family works with Ellen’s family to spirit them away, and the events occurring around Annemarie do not always make sense. But she wants her friend to be safe, desperately, and is willing to be brave to help.

While the characters in Number the Stars are fictional, the events portrayed are very much real. I had never read anything about the rescue of the Danish Jews before. What an amazing display of collective resistance. The people of Denmark worked together to save the vast majority of Denmark’s Jewish population, by spiriting them away to neighboring Switzerland.

I read Number the Stars for my 2nds Reading Challenge, where the challenge is to read a book by an author of whose work you’ve only read one other book before. I added it to my Book Awards Reading Challenge as well, as it received the 1990 Newbery Medal.

Number the Stars is a Children’s Book, and reads like one, but it is among the best in the genre. However, sometimes truth can be even more poignant than fiction. Lois Lowry includes an afterword to the book, discussing the facts and details of the rescue, and in that afterword she included a quote which spoke to me, much like the words of Anne Frank. These are the words of a young man, Kim Malthe-Bruun, a 21-year old member of the Danish Resistance.

…and I want you all to remember – that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one. That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to, and with pleasure feel he is a part of – something he can work and fight for.

That would be a great gift indeed, and one that is needed here and now, more than ever.

March

I’ve been intending to read March, by Geraldine Brooks, for awhile now. I first brought it up way back in January of ’06, when I was pretty new to blogging, and was thinking of books I might like to read. Well, I went book shopping, and intended to buy it, but they didn’t have it, so I grabbed another book by the same author, Year of Wonders, which I really liked. Finally, I bought March, but I put it on my bookshelf, and then it got packed away with 99% of our other books, and is now all cozy in our rented storage space, in an attempt to convince prospective buyers we don’t live with clutter, and thus, they won’t either if they just buy this house. So…I put it on not one, but TWO reading challenges, and grabbed it from the library. I started it last week, and I was hooked!

If you’re familiar with Little Women, the story by Louisa May Alcott, you know it is the tale of a year in the life of the March daughters, Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, and their mother, Marmee, and their growth and changes while their father is away at war. Mr. March is an abolitionist preacher who has gone along with the Union army in the Civil War, hoping to provide spiritual solace to the troops, and to ‘walk the walk’ that he has been talking for so long, about the sacrifices required to defeat the scourge of slavery. (And no, he would never say something so modern as ‘walk the walk’…that was mine.) His story is told partially in the form of letters home to Marmee and the girls, partially in his remembrances of his past, and partially in his telling of his current trip with the troops. He talks of his journey into the South when he was a young man of 18, how he was seduced for a short while by the beauty and gentile life led by the plantation owners there, and how he was disabused of his perceptions of their gentility. He came back North a more fervent abolitionist, and became a preacher. He tells of his meeting and the short courtship of his wife, Marmee, a much more fervent abolitionist than he. He tells of his dealings with John Brown, and what those dealings cost him. It is an intriguing story.

Toward the end of the story, he is layed low by fever, and Marmee is called to help him, just as happens in Little Women. At this point, the story changes to Marmee’s perspective for a few chapters, and we see that some of the assumptions that Mr. March has made, assumptions with repercussions deep and final, and based on his beliefs of what Marmee wanted and admired in a husband, were indeed false assumptions.

The part of the story that is told in the present tense, of his trip with the troops, and his time spent on a plantation that is being run by a northerner, with slaves who have been freed and are for the first time hoping to by paid for their labor, is heartbreaking and wonderful at the same time.

Brooks did extensive research on the period and on the Alcott family. The part of Mr. March is based upon Alcott’s father, a transcendentalist who kept company with the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom play parts in March.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, both for the writing, and for the glimpse of the abolitionist movement it gave. It was also nice to return, briefly, to the world of Little Women. Actually, when I returned March to the library yesterday, I checked out Little Women, in the hopes that Maya will enjoy it as much as I did.

Seconds Book Challenge

Joy over at Thoughts of Joy has issued a tempting little challenge…when I first saw it, I thought, what, another challenge? NOOOOO!!!

But I kept coming back to it, mentally…I would come across a book and think, hey, this could work…

So, I’m diving in. The idea is to “read 3 books by authors that you have only read one other”, and the time frame is October, November, and December of 2007. I’m going to list 5 books, because I’m having trouble deciding, and vow to read at least 3 of them. How’s that? 🙂 My 3 books, then, and two alternates, are:

March, Geraldine Brooks.

I’m already reading this book for my Book Awards reading challenge, as it won the Pulitzer prize. Last year, I went to the store with the intention of buying this book. It was out of stock, so I bought Year of Wonders instead. I really liked Year of Wonders, so I’m looking forward to reading March. Plus, I always loved Little Women.

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton

I recently read The House of Mirth, which I found to be both devastating and wonderful. Several people noted in their comments on Mirth that Ethan Frome was their favorite Edith Wharton book. So I’m looking forward to reading this one, and since CA winters are pretty mild, I’m not worried that it will depress me, weather-wise.

Number the Stars, Lois Lowry

I read The Giver for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. I’ve seen Number the Stars in the stores quite for awhile now, picked itup and wondered about it. But I thought it might be too heavy for Maya (it’s a children’s book). But she’s at the age now, I think, where she would be fine. And maybe I am too.

The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold

This book isn’t even out until October, but maybe I can get my hands on it before the end of December. (I just put a hold on it at the library…they say I’m 21st in line, with only two copies on order…so I’m guessing I may need to break down and buy this one, or, alternately, skip it for the challenge, and read it when the library gets it to me. We’ll see.) I previously read The Lovely Bones (prior to me blogging, so no J review available.) That book was crushing, and stuck with me for a long, long time. I’m eager to give Sebold a second visit.

Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

I mentioned this book long ago, when I was new to blogging, but I still haven’t read it. So this might be a good time to do so…Much longer ago, way before blogging was invented (late 80s, maybe early 90s), I read Remains of the Day. I was blown away by the language, and how Ishiguro was able to convey the stifled emotions of the main character so brilliantly. It made a pretty good film, too. Never Let Me Go, I have heard, is told from the point of view of a clone in a boarding school. I think. Whatever the case, I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

So that’s it, 3 books in 3 months, plus 2 extras, just in case. I have found that I’m really enjoying the reading challenge aspect to blogging…I find myself reading more, and trying to complete things for deadlines, and reading books that I might not otherwise consider. And yet, because I pick the books, I’m not reading outside of my interests, which is also great. Join in, if you’re so inclined. 🙂