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My friend Peg lent me this book after reading my review of The Enchanted April Elizabeth von Arnim wrote many novels, and The Caravaners was the eighth, published in 1909. It is meant to be the diary of Otto, Baron von Ottringel, an officious German army major who tells readers he is writing a book about his caravan holiday in England. Besides Otto and his wife, Edelgard, and their neighbor, the widow Frau von Eckthum, they traveled with an aristocratic German-English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Menzies-Legh, a niece of that couple and her friend, a Socialist MP named Jellaby, and a man “going into the church” named Browne, who Otto later learns is also Lord Sigismund, younger son of an aristocrat.

Otto has very definite ideas about women and the English, none of which are favorable. He believes Germany to be superior in every way, and looks forward to a time in the near future when he believes Germany will conquer England. Von Arnim was clearly writing with the impending World War on her mind. And with Otto, she satirizes German alpha masculinity as Otto appears more and more ridiculous throughout the book. Edelgard enjoys the holiday and comes into her own, even shortening her very proper skirts. By the end readers may wonder why she stays with him, when he is such a disagreeable, bullying, sanctimonious, self-absorbed man, but perhaps von Arnim knew what that was like.

At any rate, while the book is funny, it was less funny to read this past week as a similarly self-absorbed, misogynist alpha male blundered around Europe in America’s name. I enjoyed it, but my sense of humor is low at the moment. Still von Antrim is wickedly observant and I found her comparison of Anglican and Lutheran practices at the time interesting. Otto tells an Anglican priest “And Lutherans . . . do not pray. At least not audibly, and certainly never in duets.” I chuckled at that.

A good read, although maybe one not perfectly matched to my present mood.  I’m glad Peg thought of me though, and shared it.

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One of my book club friends mentioned Less was what she wanted to read next and it’s on several “best” of the year lists. Which I have a long history of quibbling with — I don’t like them because I feel like people should read whatever they like, which is not necessarily what critics like, but the former Teen the Elder convinced me to to stop judging and just have fun with them. Good advice. End of digression. Anyway, it was on the shelf at my library, and I hadn’t read Andrew Sean Greer‘s work before, so I decided to give it a try.

Less refers in part to Arthur Less, the hero of the story, whose former longtime lover, Freddy, is about to get married. Less decides to avoid the wedding by accepting a series of trips — some related to his work as a writer, some for pleasure — and string them together into a months long exodus from San Francisco, where he and Freddy live. He’ll venture from California to New York to interview a more famous author, to Mexico for a conference, Italy for a prize ceremony, Germany to teach a writing class, Paris on an unexpected layover, Morocco for a 50th birthday of the friend of a friend (Less will turn 50 there, too), then India for a writing retreat and Japan to write about kaiseki meals.

Less is a writer of lesser known novels, and in New York his agent tells him that his longtime publisher has rejected the most recent one. He’s also most well known for being the former partner of a Pulitzer prize winning poet. The reader begins to realize that this status as less-than is the defining characteristic of Arthus Less. Also he’s the type of person who bumbles into minor mishaps such as not being able to get into his German apartment, speaking foreign languages badly, losing his favorite suit to a tailor’s dog, getting locked in a room when a 400 year old door is stuck, and losing his luggage. Although really, who could travel that far without a bag being misrouted? He also bumbles into more pleasant surprises, which are so delightful I won’t spoil them for you here.

All of this endears Less to readers and to his friends. His story resonated with me in a way because I too faced that milestone birthday this year, and the wistfulness it can incite. My life hasn’t been as colorful or accomplished as Less’s but I get the feelings. Greer’s writing is beautiful and original without being overdone in that “look at me, I’m writing unconventional fiction” way that can be annoying. While the narrative is linear with a lot of passages looking back at earlier times in Less’s life, the narrator asserts himself as someone who knows Less, rather than as an impersonal third party, a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. But the narrator also turns out to be a character described in the third person throughout the novel as well, which is fun.

The language is fun too — describing Less trying a new outfit in Paris boutique, Greer writes, “He looks like a Fire Island supervillain rapper.”  There’s a wonderful passage where Less loses the “wedding” ring his famous author partner gave him (pre-marriage equality) in a bin of mushrooms and a group of other men think he’s going to be in trouble with his wife and try to help him find it. In Japan he sees “tourist buses parked in a row along the river their great side mirrors like the horns of caterpillars” from a rental car that “basically feels like an enameled toaster.” All the details of his travels are also delightful.

Less seems like a sad book, or at least a melancholy one, at first. But as you journey with Less things begin to look up and the ending is just lovely. It’s a book about a flawed human bumbling along but mostly doing fine. And even being happy here and there. A good read.

 

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Even though I stopped writing my review column for The New Hampshire Sunday News, I still hear from publishers, publicists, and authors. Often a book from Bauhan Publishing will appear in my mailbox — regular readers of this blog know they are one of my favorite small presses, and they are right here in New Hampshire. I can’t get to every book I’m sent, but recently I opened a package containing a copy of Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence and it looked intriguing. Then I flipped the book over and realized that the author, Paul Levy, lives in my small city, and that his wife is a retired librarian. Bookconscious regulars know I’m a librarian, too. So for no more scientific reasons than those, I decided to read this biography/memoir. Plus, I had a great uncle who served in WWII, who was Jewish and the child of Russian immigrants, like the subject of this book.

Finding Phil is the story of Phil Levy, a young American army officer, fresh out of college, newlywed, and full of a sincere desire to rescue France and defeat Nazi Germany. And it’s the story of his nephew Paul Levy, who describes his uncle’s journey but also his own, as he uncovered the story of a man his parents and other relatives almost never mentioned.

Phil died in France in the Vosges Mountains in January 1945, after being among the first American troops to cross into Germany. Growing up, Paul Levy knew about his uncle but never heard stories about him. When Phil’s widow Barbara died in 1987, her sister sent Paul his uncle’s journal, and that inspired him to learn more. As he did research into his uncle’s childhood, young adulthood, and military service, Paul reflected on not only his family and the silence surrounding his uncle, but also on larger themes of heroism, silence, and belief. He writes about all of that as well as what makes men go off to war and the different ways that shapes them, in Finding Phil.

Along the way he muses on the legacy of social justice and service to others that runs through the Levy family, on what his uncle might have worked for had he come home, and on how subsequent generations might process the atrocities of battle, civilian suffering, and genocide that are WWII’s legacy. Levy writes beautifully, and he clearly thought very deeply about his subject. In one passage, in a chapter describing what he learned about some members of the German unit and even the particular man who killed his uncle, Levy writes:

“Through it [the story of one of these men] I could begin to imagine more nuanced human beings beneath my simple stereotype. Some people might worry that such stories give escape routes to those who want to deny responsibility and that they encourage efforts at revisionist history . . . in which nations, cultures, and peoples try to distance themselves from their histories of deep antisemitism and downplay their complicity in the Holocaust. . . . I believe it is vital to insist on full responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to come to grips with the profound reality of engrained antisemitism. It is equally vital to see nuanced human faces beneath our stereotypes lest we fail to recognize how susceptible we all are to cultural demons and dynamics like those that fomented the Holocaust . . . .”

Read that passage again, and think about stereotypes for a second. Paul Levy is talking about considering a German man as a whole person in the context of his life, not just his time as a Waffen SS soldier, but it’s pretty easy to substitute other “cultural demons and dynamics” and think about today’s world. About the prejudices, perhaps subtle or even unconscious, each of us may hold when thinking about people who are part of a different religion, class, culture, or ideology than we are, or whose skin is different than ours. Presuppositions abound in contemporary society about people who live in certain places or do certain jobs. It’s different than antisemitism and Nazism, but our culture is still riddled with the kinds of demons that can incite people to hate or act violently towards each other. Or fall prey to fear mongering and hateful rhetoric and respond by allowing laws or regulations that call attention to difference and deny universal human rights. levy provides much to think about, which I really admire.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was that Levy did not try to artificially build and release tension in his narrative — he lets the natural ups and downs of the story carry readers along. I’ve noticed a tendency in some memoirs to jerk readers’ emotions around, and I think that’s a sign of over-writing or over-manipulating a narrative. Levy instead provides space for readers to process what they are reading. I also learned some things about the war and about people who are preserving the memories of that time, and I love a book that teaches me things.

Finding Phil is a good read whether you are interested in history, war, families, or the mysteries of long-ago memories. Reading about how Levy pieced fragments together into a story made me think again of my great uncle and what I could possibly learn about his war experience (he was stateside, because he was a chemist, but that’s about all I know). Maybe I will attempt to put my own family’s fragments together.

 

 

 

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