The Books of the Snowstorm

A week of heavy snow does give one time to read. Over the past week, I have read four books, two fiction, one memoir, one book of journalistic detective work.

First, I read, or better re-read, Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, the story of three people and Czechoslovakia of the late 1960s. Tomas is a divorced surgeon in Prague. Sabina is a sculptor in Prague. Tereza is a young woman from the provinces, who meets Tomas in the restaurant in which she is working, comes to Prague and eventually becomes his wife, although he continues to dally with Sabina and others. They all leave Prague and wind up in Switzerland. Switzerland does not really suit Tereza, so she returns, and Tomas follows her back. Sabina stays abroad. Sabina finds a new man in Geneva, a married professor. Tomas, for political reasons, is unable to continue in medicine and becomes first a window washer and then a farmer, living on a small farm with Tereza and their dog, Karenin. Tomas and Tereza die in an automobile accident.

I did not care for the book when I first read it. I did not like it much better now. When it first came out, I think it was its shock effect that captured so much attention. It is an erotic novel, about people leading erotic lives under a repressive regime. The fact that such a book could be written in the presumed grey Czech society was surprising. The fact that the book dealt with philosophy (what is life? what, if anything is important?) rather than politics (although the repressive post-1968 regime is central to the overall story) made it an intellectual erotic novel.

Perhaps I am missing something. I don’t find it a bad book. Just rather ordinary.

I felt differently about Antonio Munoz Molina’s “Sepharad”, a book I highly recommend. Published about five years ago, it is hard to call it a novel, although that is what it calls itself. It is more a series of novellas, or short stories, coupled with somewhat fictionalized versions of the lives of real historical characters – living through the hells of Nazi Germany, Franco Spain, Stalinist Russia. Some of the characters tie together, some do not. Some, from early stories, appear in later stories….perhaps. Part of the book is written in the first person, although you cannot always determine who the narrator is.

Sepharad is the story of the twentieth century in Europe. Of exile, or cruelty, of survival, and of failure to survive. Written in Spanish, I can only assume it was beautifully written. The translation by Margaret Sayers Peden won a translation award. Extremely well deserved.

Journalist Alison Frankel wrote a book titled “Double Eagle” which for some reason attracted me. An “eagle” is a $10 American gold coin; a double eagle a $20 coin. The most attractive of the double eagles were designed by Augustus Saint-Gauden, the well known sculptor (and resident of Cornish NH before J.D. Salinger arrived there). The final double eagle was minted in Philadelphia in 1933, just before Roosevelt took America off the gold standard. 500,000 coins were minted. They were all to be destroyed, with only two saved, both in the collection of the Smithsonian.

But in fact a few were not, but rather were stolen from the mint, and wound up as collector’s pieces, even though they were stolen U.S. government property, and that (from 1938 to 1965) it was illegal for U.S. citizens to own gold. But the small group of rare coin collectors were a world unto themselves, until collecting became a more widespread hobby, publicized mail auctions became common, and a 1933 double eagle listed for auction sale.

This caught the attention of the U.S. Secret Service, who tracked down and under threat of prosecution obtained the few of the coins that had escaped destruction.

One such coin was not returned to the government. This coin passed into the collection of King Farouk of Egypt. The history of that single coin (before and subsequent to Farouk’s death) is the basic story told in this book. And a fascinating story it is.

Finally, I have not read many personal accounts of the Iraqi War. A few years ago, I read an awful book called “I Love My Rifle More Than You” by a female American soldier, and now I picked up “Escape in Iraq”, the story of the capture and escape of U.S. civilian truck driver Thomas Hamill. It’s an easy book to read, and gives an interesting perspective of Iraq and the Americans in 2003. And Hamill, injured and captured when his convoy was attacked, certainly had his share of adventure.


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