Sunday, March 16, 2014

Learning Something New

Title: Bobbed Hair and Bootleg Gin
Author:  Marion Meade
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books
ISBN-10: 0156030594

Much of the 21st century classic literature list in many high schools draw from the American writers of the 1920s - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thurber.  But more neglected are the women writers of the time - Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber.  I stumbled on this audiobook through my library and am very glad that I did.  It has given me a new perspective of these writers and my image of the Roaring Twenties.

Each of these woman resisted the traditional image of what women could do and be during the early part of the 20th century. Each of them earned their own money as a writer and made a lot of their own choices in where they lived, who they lived with and what assignments to take.  Parker was married, but was most often without her husband.  Zelda, often known as the wife of Scott, was a writer in her own right (at times, earning more than Scott) and pursued professional dancing later in life to prove that she could do it.  St. Vincent, as a young woman, was dynamic and irresistible to many men.   She flitted from man to man until she settled, a bit with one who became not just her husband, but her manager, secretary and nurse.  Ferber, author of Showboat and Cimarron, wrote fiction, non-fiction, articles and was both a serious journalist and a playwright. 

Like the famous men of the era, these women spent the Roaring Twenties roaring.  alcohol was the foundation of most social engagements and binge drinking was more the norm than unusual.   The literary circle in New York was fairly small - meeting at the Algonquin Hotel and using the same publishers and editors - and the circle greatly influenced each other. Many writers of the time also lived for extended time in Europe, and especially Paris, where Hemingway's influence became more pronounced.

However, what most surprised me was the portrayal of the 1920s.  It was difficult to imagine the setting with model T Fords, grainy sepia pictures and short flapper dresses rather than the modern New York of crowded streets, high fashion and business, and constant travel.    At times the story reads like a Kardashian reality show - with affairs, drugs, abortions, attempted suicides, nervous breakdowns, and rivalries.   Although I know the 1920s was an era of massive change - socially, politically and economically - my image has often been more like ancient history, rather than modern.  This books made me re-adjust how I think about the time period and has led me to re-discover these writers. 

The style of the book is chronological - each chapter is a year and the narrative switches between each of the authors and highlights important events or incidents during the year.  Therefore the book
is written a bit more like sound bites, rather than an authoritative biography.  Marion Meade has also written a more detailed biography of Dorothy Parker and there are many other biographies of the other women. But, when a book spawns further investigation into its subjects, I think that is a sign of a good book. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Family Secret, National Embarrassment

Title: Sarah's Key
Author:Tatiana de Rosnay
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st edition (September 30, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0312370849
I'm a sucker for historical fiction, and I'll blame/commend my dad for that. He was always interested in history and taught me to love it too. Like many other adolescents, I had my phase of reading through all the Holocaust books available for young adults - the ubiquitous Anne Frank, plus some fiction titles. I moved on to non-fiction adult titles, all in a quest to understand, like many others have asked, "How could it happen?"
Not long ago, I read and posted on "The Book Thief" which was clearly a fictional creation as the narrator was Death himself. In Sarah's Key, the narrator is a modern woman, Julia, trying to investigate a family secret and a French national embarrassment. Wrapped around the mystery is her disintegrating marriage to a French man and her re-emergence as an independent woman.  Spoiler alert - do not read if you don't want to know the plot.  There are some interesting surprises!

Julia, an American-born woman, inherits from her French husband's grandmother, an apartment in Paris. At the same time, as a journalist, Julia is assigned to report on a commemoration of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup.  As the Nazis occupied France, they coerced the local population and police into rounding up and deporting the Jewish adult population to the concentration camps.  However, the children were left behind in horrible conditions.  It is a part of French history that many wish to forget, as Julia is reminded by several people.
Flashing back in time, Sarah locks her brother into a hiding place in their apartment to keep him from the round up.  Not knowing the true intention, Sarah assumes that she will be back for him.  However, she and her parents are confined to an arena, and then separated. Her parents are shipped off and she is confined with the other children.  She convinces another child to escape and they are taken in by a sympathetic older farming couple.   However, her friend, being ill is both seen by and betrayed by a doctor, leaving Sarah with the older couple, desperate to return to Paris and free her brother.  Disguising her as a relative, the couple takes Sarah to the apartment, to find the decomposed body of her brother in the locked cupboard.  A new family occupies the apartment - Julia's husband's family.

Through Julia's investigation, she follows the trail of Sarah from Paris, to the US, and then to Italy.  Her husband's family both dread and are relieved to have the family secret in the open.  As Julia gets deeper into the story of Sarah, her marriage begins to dissolve.  But, Julia re-discovers her own personality and passions.

The constant shift of time and narrator at times was distracting.  Just as I began to visualize the story, it shifted to a new place and time.  At first I found Julia a bit whiny, but over time I began to understand how she had become who she was.  However,  my greatest sympathies, of course, were with Sarah, who had survived the Holocaust, but could never get past the guilt of that survival.