In July of 2013, I began keeping a written record of the books I read. I no longer remember the catalyst for this list keeping and I’m sure I’ve neglected to record a few along the way, but when I look it over, I see a roadmap of my life. It reflects my interests, conflicts, and challenges through the years. Where some titles are like running into a familiar old friend, some I barely remember.
Last Saturday I was recording my last read in January when I noticed it had been a banner month. I normally average three books a month, but in January I had read seven! Mr. Smith did have a two-week cold in January which resulted in us spending more time than normal at home. I obviously put those hours to good use.
Early in January, I wrote about a couple of the titles I read, Rules for Visiting and How Reading Changed My Life. Of the remaining five books I read in January, one that I won’t soon forget is The Fires of Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Ms. Nemirovsky was of Ukrainian-Jewish origin. She lived more than half her life in France, but was denied French citizenship. By the 1930s, Nemirovsky had become a hugely popular and critically acclaimed writer. Then came the war and the Vichy government’s anti-Jewish laws. Nemirovsky was dropped by the literary establishment and was no longer able to publish under her own name. She was arrested as a Jew during German occupation and died at Auschwitz at the age of 39. Her husband, Michel Epstein, was arrested shortly thereafter and also died in Auschwitz. Their two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, survived the war due to the kindness of neighbors who hid them from the Vichy Government. The girls did not know the fate of their parents until after the war ended. Miraculously, a suitcase containing some of Nemirovsky’s writings survived the war. In the suitcase were family photographs, diaries and other writings, including the manuscript for Suite Francaise, first published in the United States in 2006.
The Fires of Autumn is considered its prequel. Set in France, it revolves around a group of friends and neighbors from the beginning of World War I through the early years of World War II. The main character is Bernard, a naïve young man still in short pants who wants to fight for the honor of France. Witnessing the realities of war, he quickly loses his idealism and becomes cynical. He returns home from World War I addicted to obtaining wealth and success. His doting mother feels she no longer knows him. His lover eventually leaves him. And then comes World War II. The book does start out a little slowly, or that may be just me. I’m always a little impatient with “setting the scene”, I want to get right to the point. I stuck with it and my reward was a satisfying read that taught me a lot and made me think. What more can you ask of a book?
A difficult read, but one that I didn’t want to put down, was JoAnna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls. At one level it’s an age-old story. Young girl gets pregnant, parents reject the boyfriend and force the girl to give the baby up for adoption. The baby, Elodie, is raised in Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system run by the Catholic church. On a deeper level, it tells the story of a dark time in Quebec’s history. Elodie’s life takes an even more tragic turn when, along with thousands of other orphans in Quebec, she is declared mentally ill as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages. Not only are the orphans declared mentally ill, these young children are forced to be caretakers of the truly mentally ill, feeding and bathing them, all while trying to avoid the wrath of the nuns. There were moments while reading I had to remind myself that this horrendous offense against thousands of orphans truly occurred as it is hard to understand such greed. But the Duplessis Orphans scandal, orchestrated by Premier Maurice Duplessis, a staunch Catholic, was real and took place in the 1940s and 1950s. Duplessis’s time as Premier is now referred to as “The Great Darkness”. This book is going to haunt me for some time.
I am considering making other book lists. One would be Books That I’m Searching For. A small notebook kept in my purse that I would have when I happen upon an extraordinary used bookstore would be just the place to record these titles. I may also start a list of books I’d like to purchase for my grandchildren, sharing some of the books I loved growing up as well as more current fare. After all, who doesn’t love a book list?
C’est la vie.