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Thursday, May 12, 2016

#12 goes to Austria

Never heard of The Post-Office Girl. Never heard of Stefan Zweig, who was, according to Wikipedia,  one of the most popular writers in the world during his heyday, the 1920s and '30s. An Austrian Jew (by "accident of birth" he said), Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 and died in Brazil in 1942 after fleeing the Nazis in 1934 for England, then New York, then Brazil. He and his second wife committed joint suicide because, he wrote in his suicide note, he was more and more depressed by the growth of intolerance, authoritarianism, and Nazism, and he felt hopeless for the future of humanity.

Not a fun guy. And not a fun read. But a compelling one. The book, published posthumously in 1982, tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, a post-office clerk in poverty-stricken, post World War I Austria. She lives in a stuffy, damp rented attic room that she shares with her ailing mother, her father and brother both having perished in the war. She works like a drone in her stultifying post office job. She makes barely enough to keep herself and her mother from starvation. And she has no hope for the future.


But then her aunt -- who had fled years before to America and married a wealthy man -- takes her away on vacation to a beautiful, elegant Alpine resort. It's like oxygen for the suffocating, food for the starving. And Christine opens to the beauty and hopefulness like a flower in sunlight. Until, of course, things change, and then change again.

It was not an easy story to read, but such an interesting one, not least because I've read so little about that time in European history, and never a story set in Austria. The awful poverty and sheer desperation of that time, the incredibly difficult recovery from the devastating war, and the losses upon losses it engendered...it's a world that seems to have no connection whatsoever to the swinging Jazz Age of America in the 1920s. The idea that F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby and Zweig's Christine Hoflehner could be living at the same time is hard to grasp.

The story takes unexpected twists and turns that continually surprise. And the ending, if it can be called that, is somehow both completely ambiguous and strangely satisfying. It's a book that stays with you, hauntingly, sadly, movingly, for a long time.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

#11: So very sad

I've read a lot of memoirs, but this one was one of the hardest to read. At nine years old, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a very dangerous form of cancer (she finds out later that only 5% of people with this disease survive). In the surgery to remove the tumor, she lost a third of her jaw. Two years of subsequent radiation and chemotherapy left her with fragile bones and teeth. Year after year of endless surgeries followed, in useless attempts to repair the damage.

The number of ways in which Grealy suffered are beyond count. The horrific pain of the surgeries and therapies, the cruelty of other children, the agony of chemotherapy, her father's death, the continual disappointment as each reconstructive surgery fails...the pain becomes difficult to read about, I can't even imagine how she lived through it all. She writes without sentiment and without self-pity, which makes the reading bearable (just). But she also writes without a redemptive message, and although I didn't want her to come to an epiphany that taught her some great emotional lesson, the fact that it all just...ends, made the reading even harder. And knowing that not too many years after finishing the book Grealy committed suicide makes it all so very very sad.

I had already read the book Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, written by Grealy's best friend, the novelist Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, State of Wonder), about their long and very close friendship, so I knew much of the story and also knew what happened afterwards: Grealy's drug use and eventual suicide. Although it was probably backwards to read Patchett's memoir first, together the two books chronicle so much love and loss and pain that it is truly heartbreaking.