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August 22, 2011 11:42 AM

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The Passionate Reader: August 22, 2011

Reading has shaped my life for as long as I can remember. As Robert Gottlieb told The Paris Review in 1994, "I was about forty years old when I had an amazing revelation -- it suddenly came to me that...

Reading has shaped my life for as long as I can remember. As Robert Gottlieb told The Paris Review in 1994, "I was about forty years old when I had an amazing revelation -- it suddenly came to me that not every person in the world assumed, without thinking about it, that reading was the most important thing in life. I hadn't even known that I had thought it, it was so basic to me."

What follows are my responses to the books that I have read in recent weeks.

lorna003.jpg"Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War" by Hal Vaughan (Alfred A. Knopf) is a beautifully designed book, with its black print in a classic Chanel font on a white background with black borders. But, unfortunately, that's actually its strong point. I have read many, many books about Coco Chanel, and this is the only one I found boring. While I am not at all inclined to take collaboration lightly, I feel that simply too much is made of relatively little evidence of Chanel's wartime activities on behalf of the Germans. Most of the information could have been contained in a magazine article. What she did was, for the most part, laughably inept -- as Operation Modellhut certainly was. Her greatest transgression could be summed up by her famous response to those who questioned her affair with Baron von Dincklage, "When a woman of my age has the chance of a lover, she does not ask to see his passport."

By contrast, Sebastian Haffner's "Defying Hitler: A Memoir" (Picador) is riveting. Haffner (whose real name was Raimund Pretzel) was an ordinary German who was neither Jewish nor a Socialist, but who simply couldn't tolerate the compromises asked of him under the Nazi regime. While he was preparing to become a lawyer or a judge, he had to go on a kind of retreat with other students, during which they engaged in lots of marching exercises. Nobody raised the issue of how strange it was that men who hoped to join the judiciary were being made to take part in this kind of military drill. Haffner eventually fled to England, ostensibly on a writing assignment, following his Jewish fiance, whom he had been unable to marry under Nazi rules, and he went on to become a noted historian and commentator. He wrote this book, then put it aside to write, "Germany: Jekyll and Hyde," which turned out to be a bestseller in his adopted country. The more personal "Defying Hitler" was only published by his son Oliver after his death.

Then there's "In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson (Crown). Larson, who also wrote "The Devil in the White City," starts with a terrific premise: What was it like for the American ambassador to Germany to be in Berlin during and after the triumph of the Nazi party? (The title comes from the literal translation of the name of the Central Park of Berlin, the Tiergarten, which once housed animals.) Larson writes from memoranda and journals kept by the ambassador, William Dodd, and his flirtatious daughter, Martha, who dated both a Russian agent and an SS man. Martha's often outrageous remarks help drive the narrative. Gradually, every member of the Dodd family (which included his wife and son) came to realize who and what the Nazis were. William Dodd, in fact, became one of the first Americans to consistently warn of the danger Hitler posed to the world. Larson has taken a brilliant idea and turned it into a gripping book.

lorna004.jpgAlso interesting is "Muriel's War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance" by Sheila Isenberg (Palgrave Macmillan). Muriel Gardiner was a brunette beauty who was the heiress to a Chicago meatpacking fortune, but, rather than become a socialite, she studied at Oxford and went to the University of Vienna medical school, training as a psychoanalyst with Anna Freud. After the Anschluss, she used her money and connections to help ferry Jews and political opponents of the Nazis to safety. Later, she returned to New York, but continued her rescue work. Gardiner became a prominent psychoanalyst and was one of the founders of the International Rescue Committee. Her life story was probably the model for Lillian Hellman's "Julia," although there are important differences, and those make the Hellman book fiction.

lorna001.jpgA very different type of journey is undertaken by Rory Stewart in his book "The Places in Between" (A Harvest Original/Harcourt). In 2001, shortly after the Taliban was routed, Stewart walked across Afghanistan, sleeping on the floors of houses and barns in small villages, and following the path of the country's first Mughal emperor, Babur, who left a memoir of his travels.

Afghanis, like other Arabs, are famous for their hospitality, but Stewart was given a rather mixed welcome in many places. A man in a small hamlet, however, gave him a 140-pound fighting mastiff, whom he named Babur and who accompanied him throughout much of the trip, although Stewart wouldn't allow him to fight any longer. The accounts of village headmen, teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and others are fascinating.

"Homer's Odyssey, a Fearless Feline Tale, or What I Learned About Love and Life from a Blind Wonder Cat" (Random House) puts a sightless cat center stage. At the urging of her vet, who couldn't place him, Gwen Cooper somewhat reluctantly adopted a small black kitten who had lost his eyes to an infection. She expected him to be a bit timid because of his disability, but he was exactly the opposite. His joyous, adventurous and rambunctious attitude toward life opened her eyes. He seemed to be capable of anything, including routing a burglar who broke into their apartment one night. She said that she learned from him, "Never let someone else define your potential." It was Homer who alerted Cooper to the fact that taking chances was the key to life, including taking the risk that she could have a romance with her best friend, Laurence.

"Sex and Philosophy: Rethinking de Beauvoir and Sartre" by Edward Fullbrook and Kate Fullbrook (Continuum) does exactly that. In what is anything but a dry philosophical tome, the writers make the case that Simone de Beauvoir originated many of the ideas in Jean-Paul Sartre's work. After all, she was described by her examiners as "the true philosopher" of the two when she and Sartre took their philosophy finals at the Sorbonne, but the examiners placed him first because he was a man. Interestingly, this is something that de Beauvoir herself made a major effort to obfuscate in her writings and other observations throughout her life. The Fullbrooks anatomize the meetings of the couple at the time that de Beauvoir was writing her novel, "She Came to Stay," and come to the conclusion that many of Sartre's notions about temporality and the Other came directly from there. The book also explodes the myth that Sartre was a philanderer who imposed his free-love ethos on de Beauvoir in their liaison; in fact, she was equally as interested in sexual freedom and took as much advantage of it as he did. But the writers make the point that, if this fact had been exposed when the two first came to prominence, it would have sullied de Beauvoir's reputation.

Sexual license doesn't pay a major role in "A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym" by Hazel Holt (Plume). But Pym, who went to Oxford, was hardly the prim spinster one might expect from some of the characters in her books, and was, in fact, very popular with young men at university and after. This book brings to life the story of a wonderful English novelist, who wrote, "Excellent Women," "An Unsuitable Attachment," "Less Than Angels," "The Sweet Dove Died" and other books set in classically English milieux. In one passage, she writes to a friend that the causes of people splitting from the Church of England were sometimes theological, but most often caused by someone "taking umbrage" -- a classically Pym situation. Holt, who worked with her for years at the International Africa Institute, makes the point that Pym could easily have married if she so desired. She herself once noted, "It's the only occasion when one really wants a husband -- in a pub with uncongenial company and a feeling of not belonging."

lorna002.jpgPeggy Guggenheim, by contrast, has always had rather a louche reputation. In her autobiographical "Confessions of an Art Addict" (The Ecco Press) she talks about her life as a woman and a collector. The book is full of wonderful anecdotes about the celebrated artists she knew and supported, including giving Jackson Pollock a stipend to live on during his time in Springs, L.I. She talks about her passions for Samuel Beckett -- who was famously impossible -- and Max Ernst, whom she managed with great difficulty to extricate, with his paintings, from Europe and later married. She said, his paintings were "greatly admired by the soldiers at borders and even by priests."
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