Top Ten Tuesday—Fave Book Quotes

Top Ten Tuesday, formerly hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is favourite book quotes.

1. Just about anything from Monsieur l’Abbé T. in Thérèse Philosophe. This radical priest is on fire every time he opens his mouth! Lines like:

“Everyone agrees that God knows what will occur throughout eternity. But, they say, even before he knows what the results of our actions will be, he has foreseen that we will betray his grace and commit these same acts. Thus, with this foreknowledge, God, in creating us, knew in advance that we would be eternally damned and eternally miserable.”

2. Pistorius in Hermann Hesse’s Demian. “Don’t talk shit, man! One doesn’t hear of Abraxas by accident!”

3. “Pablo would be waiting for me, and Mozart too.” (Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.)

4. “(I still have that suitcase, and even now when I chance to come upon it, I run my fingers around the hole torn in it. It is a wound which cannot heal as wounds heal on bodies or on hearts. Things have longer memories than people.)”—Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (may his memory be for a blessing), Volume II of The GULAG Archipelago.

5. “Rosy-fingered Eos, mentioned so often in Homer and called Aurora by the Romans, caressed, too, with those fingers the first early morning of the Archipelago.”—Ibid.

6. “To taste the sea all one needs is one gulp.”—Ibid.

7. “Mama, I make this vow to you:  I will teach my sons to love life, respect man, and hate only one thing—WAR.”—Isabella Leitner, Fragments of Isabella.

8. “….You can rarely decide for another that he or she should not do this or that. How can anyone forbid you to love when Christ said that there is nothing higher than love? And he made no exceptions, for love of any kind whatsoever.”—Aleksandr Isayevich, November 1916.

9. “The voice lost in a faraway village church had found me again and filled the whole room. I spoke loudly and incessantly like the peasants and then like the city folk, as fast as I could, enraptured by the sounds that were heavy with meaning, as wet snow is heavy with water, convincing myself again and again and again that speech was now mine and that it did not intend to escape through the door which opened onto the balcony.”—The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski.

10. Last but not least, my love Dante:

Midway life’s journey I was made aware
That I had strayed into a dark forest,
And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
At thought of it strikes now into my breast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.
But, for the good it was my hap to find,
I speak of the other things that I saw there.
I cannot remember well in my mind
How I came thither, so was I immersed
In sleep, when the true way I left behind.

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A great story marred by little things

(This review of Anna Karenina is edited down from the 2,224-word post I wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

My translation: 4 stars

Overall rating: 4.5 stars

Translation issues, summed up:

The Louise and Aylmer Maude translation is dreadful. They “translate” names, refuse to use superdiminutives like Katyenka and Dolyenka, use inaccurate transliteration (e.g., Alesha instead of Alyosha), use Russian measurements without properly explaining their conversions in footnotes, and employ outdated language like “to-morrow.”

Particularly goofy is when Levin starts calling Kitty “Kate” after he realises she’s a full, mature woman. Did the Maudes think the nickname Katya were too foreign and confusing for Anglophone readers?!

Tolstoy’s actual material:

This book is for the most part very well-written, but there are parts I could’ve done without—Levin diddering about on his estate, shooting birds, mowing grass, planting crops, pontificating about agriculture, philosophy, and religion; Vronskiy’s horse race; the voting; and the death of Levin’s profligate brother.

Anna and Vronskiy are very draw to one another since meeting, dance all night at a ball, and have engrossing private conversations, but we’re given no motivation for their feelings and illicit affair.

Their so-called love story is rather unconvincing, since it doesn’t delve into their motivations or feelings for one another on a deep level. For two people having an affair, we don’t get any insight into their hearts and minds!

I was disgusted Levin is 32 to Kitty’s 18 when the book starts. Kitty’s also in love with 30-year-old Vronskiy, though he doesn’t realise it and breaks her heart by leaving town. However, Kitty and Levin really did seem to be in love later on and trying to make a happy family.

We know Levin loves Kitty and why, but we don’t get any motivation into why she loves him and accepts his second marriage proposal. I don’t buy a teen girl being head over heels for a guy in his thirties.

Levin talks it over with her dad, and decides to show her his diaries before the marriage so she’ll know all of him. In spite of her religiosity, she doesn’t mind he’s an agnostic, but finding out he’s not a virgin makes her weep. Come on, he’s 33 or 34. It’s hard to believe anyone that old would be a virgin.

Kitty’s family and Levin try to set Kitty’s 20-year-old friend Varyenka up with Levin’s 40-year-old halfbrother Sergey. I was supremely glad when Sergey decided against it, wanting to stay true to the memory of a tragic romance.

The title character only occupies about half the book. Levin’s story is an interesting subplot, but I expect a book carrying a character’s name to be mostly about her. Levin is boring when he’s musing about agriculture, religion, philosophy, and politics. He also starts obsessing about how it’d be better if he were dead.

He’d rather live like a peasant than a rich man. At the beginning of the book, he’s resigned from his seat on his local Zemstvo because he’s sick of politics.

Anna goes mad and becomes depressed. She’s shunned and avoided; spoken of as a vile, terrible woman; left hanging by her jerk husband over whether he’ll grant her a divorce; and legally denied rights to her son. Her husband is legally considered the father of the baby she had with Vronskiy, which means he can take her if anything happens to Anna.

Vronskiy is rather insensitive to the entire situation. He isn’t treated like a pariah. He gets to keep all of his old friends and hangouts. People don’t slander him in the streets or run away from him. He doesn’t seem to grasp what all this is doing to her. He thinks she’s selfish and unreasonable to demand he spend more time with her and be considerate of her feelings.

The famous scene with the train only ends Part Seven, not the entire book. For the next fifty pages, Anna’s barely mentioned. We barely gauge anyone’s reactions to what she did.

The ending was a complete cop-out and very disappointing. It’s supposed to tie up Levin and Kitty’s story, with him struggling to overcome his aversion to making a family life over his morbid musings about death and his boring ones about agriculture. However, I don’t buy Levin suddenly having an epiphany and getting religious faith, after spending the entire book as an agnostic.

2017 in Review (Books read)

Some of the books I read in 2017 were:

I highly recommend this book by a fellow Pittsburgher. It tells the amazing story of how, of all the 27 known hominin species who’ve walked Planet Earth, Homo sapiens sapiens emerged as the only one left standing. (Hominin is the more scientifically up-to-date term, and refers to both anatomically modern humans and our ancestors. Hominids are modern and extinct great apes, and include non-human primates such as orangutans, chimps, and gorillas.)

So many seemingly little things, like neoteny (having a childlike appearance into adulthood), a shortened gestational period, and the development of a sense of right and wrong, led to major evolutionary advantages contributing to our survival and emergence as the world’s most dominant species.

The book also examines the other hominins who’ve walked the Earth, some of whom have only recently been discovered. A number of these hominins inhabited the Earth at the same time, contrary to the formerly-held beliefs casting human evolution as a simple, direct line of descent.

Our 26 cousins may be long gone, but at least two of them, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, live on in the DNA of those of us with European and/or Asian ancestry.

By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), the authors (a married couple) had just had twins when their proposal for this book was accepted in 2007, and decided to take some time off to focus on their babies. Had they gone ahead and written this book by the September 2008 deadline, it would’ve immediately become obsolete. So many amazing new discoveries have come to light in the years since.

This book can feel a bit academic at times (esp. the sections on stone tool-making), but I really enjoyed it. There’s also a section on Neanderthal tourism, listing museums and archaeological sites linked to our awesome, unfairly maligned cousins.

The authors are committed to accurately portraying Neanderthals and trying to undo the damage from over a century of slander and misinformation. Like them, I can’t stand when someone with no knowledge of paleoanthropology uses the word Neanderthal as a synonym for stupid, brutish, unenlightened, behind the times, grotesque, etc.

The Neanderthals were good people, the closest cousins we ever had. Many Homo sapiens sapiens aren’t as kind, helpful, and loyal as Neanderthals were.

This book introduced me to the modern development of spelling Neanderthal without an H. It’s because the modern spelling of the German word thal (valley) is tal. I’ve long pronounced the name without an H (since that is the authentic pronunciation), but it’s a little harder to adapt to the new spelling as well.

This book examines the paleoanthropological and cognitive science evidence to show how Neanderthals may have thought about many things (family, love, hunting, security, etc.). They also speculate on what Neanderthals may have dreamt about, and how they used symbolism and language.

This book presents a cultural history of Chanukah in the U.S., going from the Colonial era to the modern day. Chanukah didn’t become a prominent public holiday, or associated with gift-giving, until about the mid-20th century, for reasons we can probably all figure out.

The book also examines the history of Judaism in America in general over the last few centuries, and how hard it was to maintain a religious lifestyle as a minority. Many Christians in the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th centuries matter-of-factly pressured their Jewish friends and neighbors to convert.

As late as the 1940s, it was perfectly legal to have numerus clausus (anti-Semitic education quotas), employment restrictions, limitations on where one could reside, bans on staying by hotels, and many other barriers to the Jewish community’s full, equal participation in American life.

Women were one of the primary forces in shaping Chanukah into an American holiday, since that was one of the relative few religious rituals they could perform in that era. This wasn’t a time when most Jewish women could expect to have a full religious education or role in public life.

The embrace of Chanukah as a major holiday also perfectly illustrated its lessons of staying true to one’s identity and resisting conversion attempts. Chanukah falls at a time of year when we’re most keenly aware of our minority status.

I enjoyed this memoir, one of several books I’ve read about Easy Company since watching the Band of Brothers mini-series. I love how Sgt. Malarkey noticed the exact same thing about the Stephen Ambrose book as I and many other readers did, how he focused WAY too much on bit player David Kenyon Webster!

The WWII generation is dying out, and Sgt. Malarkey himself passed away this September. We’re so lucky so many of them have left behind memoirs and recorded testimonies.

This was a cute collection of Dr. Seuss’s early cartoons and stories, many from college newspapers and humor magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote and drew many of these under the name Dr. Theophrastus Seuss. A particularly strange story is about his purported sex ed lessons to his nephew, where he says a whole lot of nothing.

I really enjoyed this book about the women of Paris during WWII and the early postwar years. It covers women from all walks of life, who did all sorts of things during the war. There are sheroes as well as victims and women with complicated actions. Some of them never had normal lives again, even the survivors or the ones who were rehabilitated after suffering national degradation.

Real history is often much more complicated than declaring such and such a person or action 100% good or 100% evil. There are so many shades of grey.

A bundle of letters

(This review of A Bintel Brief is edited from a post which originally was written for my Angelfire page around 2003 or 2004, but never published. I was saving my book reviews to publish as a list of links on a master page when they were completed, but that mentally unstable blogger and her sycophantic friends had my entire webpage taken away from me before that could happen. I was lucky to recover as many book reviews as I could from cache searches.)

4.5 stars

This book is a collection of letters from 1905–67, from a very popular feature in the Yiddish-language daily paper Der Forverts (The Forward). Originally a minor advice column for those who felt they had nowhere else to turn, it soon became wildly popular. People presented all sorts of problems, none too bizarre, personal, or embarrassing to hide from all-knowing editor Abraham Cahan.

Many subjects in the early years concern marriage, anti-Semitism, deadbeat husbands, unemployment, poverty, and labour unions. Others include feeling ashamed of having red hair and a husband who refused to shave his beard.

A childless woman said her husband of seven years kept reminding her it’s “sooner rather than later” till the time they must divorce. Under traditional Jewish Law, a man may divorce his wife if she hasn’t had any kids in ten years. Mr. Cahan began his response, “The husband is severely scolded for his inhuman behavior towards his wife.” He said childlessness is no reason to divorce a loyal, loving wife, and comforted the wife by saying she might still become a mother in the next three years.

Later subjects include Zionism, wanting to make aliyah (move to Israel), intermarriage, differences in religious practice among family members, the Shoah, and:

A man overcome with emotions when he encountered the Polish Gentile who’d murdered his sister, brother-in-law, and niece after pretending he was going to hide them from the Nazis. The editor said it was good he’d restrained his urge to kill the man when he ran into him by a boxing match, and that he shouldn’t take justice into his own hands.

A mother-in-law acting like a young woman and being a real drain on her daughter-in-law

A young man upset that the vibrant Jewish culture his grandparents grew up with isn’t being exhibited by his generation

Concern over a son who, while married to a Jewish woman and raising Jewish kids, put up a Christmas tree

A wife addicted to television.

No matter what the problem was, these people poured their hearts out to the wise, all-knowing editor, confident he or other readers would have a solution.

This is a great historical document, but the editorial commentary was written in the late Sixties, and therefore can be quite a bit dated.

The introduction says there are many similarities between the hippie movement “of today” and the freethinkers at the turn of the twentieth century. The comments about intermarriage are also very dated. The reasons and consequences have vastly changed, and most parents no longer force their children to break up with a Gentile.

There are also dated comments to a letter about a young woman who’s upset her parents, esp. her ultra-Zionistic father, by pretending to be Christian at work. He says that even nowadays, some Jews have to pretend to be Christians to work in certain places, and that one of his sisters wore a cross necklace to work and tucked it inside her clothes when she was on the bridge home.

Another fun bit of datedness comes from a letter sent in by “concerned” parents during WWII. They’re very deeply upset one of their sons has begun refusing to eat meat, and that he still refused to eat it when they took him to a restaurant to show him “everyone” eats meat. The editor’s response was no better, suggesting they take him to a psychiatrist who’ll figure out what gave him such a “terrible” idea and induce him to start eating meat again.

Following this is a letter from the Society of Jewish Vegetarians in America, giving information about their group and surprised the editor didn’t refer the parents to them. They rightly pointed out that more and more people are becoming vegetarians, and that it’s very possible to have a healthy diet without meat.

Still, however dated parts of it are, it’s a great chronicle of life in a certain place, culture, and time, which sadly is vanishing.

An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.