A Train in Winter

ATraininWinterCaroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter tells the stories of the women who participated in and were largely responsible for the Resistance during the occupation of France during World War 2. They were publishers, writers, scientists, nurses.  They were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and lovers. And they were absolutely crucial to the movement for which so many of them were willing to give up their lives.

The stories of the women are impossible to comment on. Their experiences embody a reality for which incomprehensible is an inadequate adjective. Their strength and the dignity with which they represented themselves and their country are the likewise the strength, arguably the only strength, of this book.

In terms of content, yes, Moorehead got this one right. Her depiction of occupied France and the ways in which she characterizes the women about whom she writes are moving and inspiring. However, the mechanical limitations of the book are enough to slow even the most rapacious of readers.

The book’s inconsistent pacing makes for a tough read, the first half of the book a tedious compendium of names and dates and vague character descriptions. At the book’s halfway point, however, the pacing increases rapidly, and the last half of the book is a quick read. In this case, the trudge up the hill of the narrative arc is in every way followed by a speedy slide into the book’s resolution. In order to get to that resolution, however, the reader must be willing to stick with the story.

Since reading is, in its most basic function, a form of communication, syntax is absolutely crucial for success. Moorehead’s sentence structure, however, leaves much to be desired. Varying sentence structure is undeniably important in good writing; however, when the reader is forced to constantly reread passages because of misplaced modifiers and awkward placement of dependent clauses, the overall success of the writing can be called questionable, if nothing else.

While the book is, overall, a success, it would have been nice to see more development of the women themselves, as the subtitle suggests, in the first half of the book. The details given in the first half of the book seem to barely skim the surface of their participation and importance to the French Resistance cause.

The Aftermath: A Character Sketch

Inside him is a pool, black in its depth, smooth, dangerous. It is composed of the feelings he’d rather not have, emotions he’d rather not feel, that which has been relegated but remains unavoidable. Most of the time the pool lies still behind the mask of what he wants people to see, the impression he wants them to have. But sometimes a pebble of reality falls through the cracks. Sometimes something from outside wakes the deep inside and wakes that which is better left sleeping.

When small truths penetrate the surface, when he’s made to confront himself, the pool becomes a maelstrom, violent in its intensity, ready to swallow whole whatever is nearest and dearest. Then eventually the water calms. He returns to his normal state but more alone, and those of us who became collateral, that which could be sacrificed, are spat out of the vortex on a side unfamiliar to us, left to wonder where there is left to go and if we can recover.


The Wordy Truth

“Why do you like to write so much?”

An innocent question. No subtext, no implication. Perhaps a little incredulity, but I expect that from freshmen composition students. If only the answer was as simple as the question.

I haven’t written in awhile, not for lack of things to say or words to say them. I really don’t know why. I’ve noticed an ever-growing compulsion to hoard myself, to gather the thoughts and feelings that compose who I am and keep them from those nearest and dearest to my heart. No excuse for that either, except that sometimes, when she can’t belong to the one who really matters, a girl simply needs to belong wholly to herself.

And writing is a promiscuous activity.

Writing is the drug, and I am bound to it. I’ve stopped asking why, for the answer is shrouded in the mystery of addiction. My fingers itch with the sharp points of the words that jab and poke, waiting to be bled out. Hyperbolic and overly figurative? You caught me, but I haven’t done this in awhile, so please be indulgent.

The urge is easy to ignore. Most of the time. The voice in the background crying, “Write me! Write me!” is easy enough to silence when you heap upon it steaming piles of life. And perhaps mine is a twisted literary masochism, a sick predisposition to delayed gratification. Because the time inevitably arrives when holding back ceases to be a choice.

The words adopt minds of their own. They rush forward and assume places on the page without care for or acknowledgement of the one from whence they’ve sprung. They settle there, take up residence in what they (in their wordy naïveté) believe to be permanent printed bliss, while I, their careful curator, am left with less of myself.

And oh God, does it feel good!

Novel Thoughts: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Media-painted portraits of Afghanistan are rarely favorable. What we see on the television and in newspapers and magazines exposes a war-torn country where everyday life is precarious and little to no order exists for its citizens. Over the last decade, the emotions of the American public have run the gamut from enraged to indifferent regarding the state of that country and the continued presence there of the US. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, however, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon carefully weaves the true story of what it’s like to live in a Taliban-centered world.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of the Sidiqi family and begins in 1996 when the Taliban first came to occupy Kabul. Through Kamila’s story and that of her family readers are able to see the human face of the conflict-ridden country, a valuable history for those of us who aren’t necessarily well-educated regarding the history of the Middle East prior to the events of September 11.

Lemmon’s writing style allows the reader to forget, if only momentarily, that she is in fact telling a factual story. Sure, details have been changed, altered, or omitted for the sake of safety, but nonfiction is not at all infallible as a genre. The storytelling style used in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads as though it is fiction until Lemmon includes a detail that makes the story altogether too real.

Kamila, the “protagonist” of the story, comes to be the head of her family when her parents are forced to move north after the Taliban occupation. Through her ingenuity she is able to sustain not only her own family but numerous other families in her neighborhood as well. Her story is one of intrigue, perseverance, daring, and danger, a timeless inspiration for any reader.

Although the book seems to be ultimately geared toward a female audience, both males and females will enjoy the history related in Kamila’s life story. Through the book, we come to learn that the conflict within the borders of Afghanistan was not initiated just prior to September 11, that the conflict had in fact been raging there for a number of years, something not necessarily pointed out in media reports today. Readers are also educated as to the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, an important detail since we generally tend to conflate the two terms.

By the end of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, readers will have gained a better sense of what it meant to live in Afghanistan then and what it means to live there now. While it remains certain that there are pockets of resistance (as there have been for a number of years), a sense of hope also remains, a hope that someday the country and its citizens will again assume their normal ways of life without the added stresses of war and conflict.

Novel Thoughts: After the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties

Catherine Gildiner’s continuation of her life story in After the Falls offers a first-hand experience of what it meant to participate in the social revolution of the sixties. Gildiner was admittedly a difficult child, and she was no less difficult as a teenager and young adult. In this second installation of her memoir, she explores the tension surrounding race and equality as she perceived it then.

Gildiner’s tone here is one of honesty in both the stories she relates and in her upfront admission that there has been some embellishment. She acknowledges the foibles of the genre within the first pages and quickly moves on. Throughout the story Gildiner is reluctant to linger on any particular event, exposing a conflicted sense of what it means to linger. To write a memoir in the first place suggests some predilection to linger in the past for whatever reason, but Gildiner provides the information and quickly moves on with little or no exposition.

While the stories themselves are entertaining (sometimes morbidly, sometimes not), the authorial voice feels reserved at times. Gildiner was involved in many efforts to promote equality, and she spends the most time discussing the seemingly innocuous ones. She quickly discusses her work with youth and social reform, but she doesn’t expound on her efforts or what became of them. She discusses her efforts with SNCC and SCLC, but when she leaves the movement (for reasons I won’t disclose here), readers are left wondering if she ever became involved in social change again.

The abrupt nature of her discussion foreshadows the end of the book, which happens far more quickly than the reader is prepared for it to happen. Gildiner closes out her story, and the reader is left wondering why. Why did she choose that moment as a stopping point in her story? Why does the reader feel somewhat unfulfilled at the end? Will there be another installation of Gildiner’s life story?

Conclusively readers will leave the book with a sense of curiosity both about the time Gildiner discusses and about the author herself. While Gildiner does discuss some of the important events of the sixties, she holds herself in reserve, something her readers will find lamentable at times.

Novel Thoughts: The Gospel According to Coco Chanel

Biography is unwieldy. It requires of the writer a certain amount both of subjectivity and objectivity, and that balance can be difficult to strike. For a writer to successfully accomplish the feat that is relating someone else’s life story, he or she must possess a certain level of ardour and incredulity. In The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, Karen Karbo has masterfully managed to relate the story of one of the most sought-after and coveted fashion icons of all time while avoiding the pitfalls of incrimination and idolization.

As per the title, Karbo’s book relates not only the facts of Chanel’s life, her loves, her losses, her idiosyncrasies, but also her philosophies, her business practices, and her overall sense of self-entitlement. Karbo makes no attempt to portray Chanel as more endearing on the page than she was in real life. Chanel was Chanel, and we as readers are invited to take her or leave her. You’ll probably want to take her.

Karbo’s tone is conversational but removed. Her voice invites readers to be as frustrated with the subject as we want to be, while latently reminding us of Chanel’s importance. We may not agree with her life choices. We may be exasperated with the incongruous vignettes that are her life story. But in the end, fascination trumps indignation.

Every story, life or otherwise, is multifaceted, and Chanel’s is no different. Arguably she never told the same story of herself twice. At least not for long. Karbo confronts these inaccuracies head-on. She is careful to ensure that her readers understand the tenuous nature of the story of Chanel, as told both by her and other people. By using this voice and making herself seem just as suspicious of the story’s accuracy as her readers are, Karbo builds credibility for herself in the mind of the reader.

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel is biography done well. It is the story of Chanel told creatively in a way that is entertaining and informative. Karbo relates the facts inasmuch as we can know them, but she does so with wit and humor, simultaneously exposing Chanel’s humanity and genius.

Get Lost

Life very seldom affords us the opportunity to lose ourselves. There are too many people depending on each one of us. But sometimes it seems that getting lost is necessary. If we lose ourselves, it follows that we will seek to find ourselves again, who we are, who we were, who we want to be. And it is during this quest that we recover parts of our personalities that inadvertently fell by the wayside. These are attributes of ourselves that at some point we decided were ill-suited to the person we were trying to be. Rediscovery makes them new again, and we remember why they were so important to begin with. We refashion them, turning them into useful parts of ourselves. We return to them because they belong to us, because they are us.

It’s time to get lost.