The Saturday Read ‘I Was Amelia Earhart’ by Jane Mendelsohn

Sometimes the stories behind what we read are as interesting as the books themselves. We now know that the musical Hamilton had its inception when creator Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a book in an airport on the way to vacation.

Jane Mendelsohn, the author of this week’s Saturday Read, ‘I Was Amelia Earhart’ found her inspiration reading a newspaper article about the aviator while riding a train into New York .

“I didn’t know much about Amelia Earhart, but the idea of her surviving on a desert island, even if only for a little while, appealed to me, sang to me, waved furiously to me from a great distance. Perhaps this was because I felt at the time as if I were flying hopelessly around the world and searching for land, longing for one of those islands of stability some of us keep looking for in our 20s, a braceleted wrist held up to the face, hand shielding our eyes from the harsh sun of adulthood, not realizing that we will have to build that island for ourselves. Whatever the reason, I was certainly not the first person to be fascinated by Earhart’s disappearance. Nor the last.”

Where will you find inspiration this holiday weekend?

On this 79th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, go back in time as newspapers around the world reported the news:

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“Coast Guard headquarters was advised tonight that Amelia Earhart was believed to have alighted on the Pacific Ocean near Howland Island shortly after 5 P.M. Eastern daylight time today.

A message from the cutter Itasca, stationed in the vicinity of the island in the mid-Pacific, said:

“Earhart unreported at Howland at 7 P.M. [E.D.T.]. Believe down shortly after 5 P.M. Am searching probable area and will continue.”

Author Mendelsohn imagines the other side of story, as Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan transition from pioneers of the sky, to survivors on a tiny Pacific atoll.

“It went very quickly, those first few days. They got out of the plane, and together looked around and tried to make sense of their surroundings. Then all of a sudden, as if part of the choreography of a dream, they set about performing the necessary rituals of survival.

They check the radio, which picks up nothing, and the fuel tank, which is low but not empty, and they confirm their worst suspicions – that they have no idea where they are…They build a fire on the beach to attract attention. They know that a search will have already begun.”

It’s not too long before Earhart spots a plane.

“In the morning I see a speck appear on the horizon, a black spot the size of an insect.

The point of blackness, which at first appears to be nothing more than a gnat, keeps coming closer, heading directly toward the island, and I tell myself that it must be a figment of my imagination. But after two minutes, it assumes the form of a plane to such perfection that I need a moment to recognize what it is…At first I take off my scarf and gesticulate furiously, but as the plane appears to lose altitude, I begin to relax and wave it calmly, welcoming it ashore. Everything about this plane conveys purpose and assurance, as if it had been designed solely to rescue us. I find the promise of its shape more beautiful than anything I have ever seen, but strangely lost to me, although I don’t understand why until it comes closer and I am able to determine that despite my wish it is not coming toward the island at all. It looked as if it were heading directly at me, but as I watch it grow larger I see it pass overhead, high above, too far to see me as I desperately shake my scarf. It circles once – for an instant I image that it is heading toward the water and I think I can make out black pontoons for landing – and then it makes a wide turn, points back to the mysterious place from whence it has come, and flies away. It hasn’t seen me at all.”

The mystery of Earhart’s disappearance continues to arouse interest as researchers continue to search for a remnant of the missing plane. Mendelsohn’s narrative offers the reader an alternative history, employing beautiful prose to recreate a time when “Planes used to be vehicles for dreaming…As soon as you saw a plane, you started dreaming. It was a thrill just to catch a glimpse of one. “

In 2012 Jane Mendelsohn revisited the subject of her 1996 novel in an Op-Ed for The New York Times.

“We still wonder what happened to Amelia Earhart — perhaps soon we may even find out — but do we know what to do with her? Do we know how to make not just her mysterious disappearance but also her miraculous life relevant and inspiring to our global society? And could she matter across the globe, that ball around which she tried to fly that feels so much smaller today but is in fact exactly the same size it was then?

Historically, one thing America has been good at is offering inspiration. We haven’t been doing a brilliant job of it lately, but in Amelia Earhart we have something, someone, to offer the 21st century: a heroine. She was a leader, not a passive bystander. She was strong, not a victim. And she was not born into a rich family, as were many other women pilots of her day, but was lifted up by her own accomplishments. In other words, she gives us good shoes to fill.”

On this weekend, when we celebrate our nation’s independence, read ‘I Was Amelia Earhart’ and discover why her life still inspires.

“Amelia Earhart can be a beacon for our country and for women and men around the globe because everyone, each of us, needs to be “aware of the hazards” and accept “the inevitable risks.”… Earhart’s mystery endures because of who she was as a person, the pilot of her own destiny, mistakes, failures and dreams, reachable and unreachable. She still beckons.”

The Saturday Read ‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler

Too often we seek advice and counsel from the plethora of self-help books that line the shelves of bookstores. What we miss are the life lessons divulged under the guise of fiction.

The Saturday Read this week takes us to the Austrian Alps in 1933 to observe ‘A Whole Life’, the best selling German novel by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins.

The story is Andreas Egger’s, an everyman’s narrative of life, work, tragedy and values. It’s short, the perfect read for a plane trip or a couple of days commute. In this case brevity doesn’t diminish the tale. The simple, beautiful language reveals a literary character that will stay with you long after the story ends.

Throughout the book, the author stores small gems of wisdom, life lessons. In one scene, Andreas approaches the general manager of a construction site to negotiate a raise. Upon reaching agreement on a salary increase, Andreas promises to work even harder. The manager replies:

“You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.”

After years in construction, and more years as a prisoner of war, Andreas returns to his village and eventually finds work as a hiking guide.

“Egger didn’t usually speak on his walks. ‘When someone opens their mouth they close their ears,’ Thomas Mattl had always said, and Egger was of the same opinion. Instead of talking, he preferred to listen to these people, whose breathless chatter revealed to him the secrets of other fates and opinions. People were evidently looking for something in the mountains that they believed they lost a long time ago. He never worked out what exactly this was, but over the years he became more and more certain that the tourists were stumbling not so much after him, but after some obscure, insatiable longing. 

In the closing pages, we observe Andreas in retirement, at the end of his ‘whole life’.

“Once a week he went down to the village to get matches and paint, or bread, onions, butter. He had realized long ago that people there speculated about him. When he set off for home…he would see them out of the corner of his eye, putting their heads together and starting to whisper behind his back. Then he would turn around and give them the blackest look of which he was capable. Yet in truth he didn’t much care about the villager’s opinions or their outrage. To them he was just an old man who lived in a dugout, talked to himself, and crouched in a mountain stream to wash every morning. As far as he was concerned, though, he had done all right, and thus had every reason to be content… In his life he too, like all people had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone on his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.”

Reviewers have noted the book’s unique appeal as an understated novel in a publishing world sustained by hype and celebrity. Eileen Battersby concluded her analysis for the Irish Times with “No praise is too high for A Whole Life. Its daunting beauty lingers. This is a profound, wise and humane novel that no reader will forget.”

I agree.

The book, published in 2015 and shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize will be published in the U.S. in September.

 

The Saturday Read ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy

Are you one of the many who fumbles their way through a conversation of the classics, with vague memories of the Cliff Notes version, having never read the original? You’re not alone, and the ‘Saturday Read’ this week is the first step to fill in the blanks with ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy.

“Do you feel pressured to read certain books?” Journalist Alison Flood posed this question after a poll conducted by market research firm, ‘YouGov’, found that “Britons are weighed down with regret over novels they haven’t found ‘time and patience’ for”, garnering a series of Twitter comments concluding, you should try it, you might like it.

“…maybe it’s a classic because it’s good, not because it’s hard. I did precisely that with War and Peace; giving it a crack because I felt I should, and then being startled to discover that it was actually fun. Not a trial at all.”

Only 4% of Britons surveyed had read War and Peace, but that began to change with the broadcast this month of the Harvey Weinstein produced, BBC Television production of the novel as a four part, eight hour mini series.

“Judging by our recent sales … an awful lot of people have finally crossed this classic off their must-read list. Four different editions of the book have hit our bestseller list, shifting an almost equal number of copies each,” said Waterstones buyer Joseph Knobbs.

At publisher Wordsworth Editions, managing director Helen Trayler said that sales of War and Peace had grown steadily after the first episode of the new TV adaptation, with its edition in the top 20 of the Bookseller’s small publisher charts ever since the show launched.”

In December, 1,300 people joined together for a live, four day, marathon reading of the novel on Russian TV.

“Tolstoy’s great-great-granddaughter Fekla Tolstaya coordinated the participants, who are each reading a two to three-minute passage of the novel’s more than half a million words from schools, museums, libraries and other locations around the world.

Readers include Polish film director and Oscar winner Andrzej Wajda, Bolshoi Ballet director Vladimir Urin and Russian politician Valentina Matvienko. Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov contributed a reading from the International Space Station, and French readers were coordinated to read the book’s French sections”

 

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Yes, the book is written in French and English in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.

Clara Bell, reviewing the novel in 1886 for the New York Times criticized both the novel and Count Tolstoy’s domestic environment.

“In fact, War and Peace may be called an illustrated historical essay rather than a novel, there being no semblance of a plot, and the characters serving to develop the public events rather than being developed by them. This inversion of the usual rule, together with the subtle but unmistakeable savor of fatalism which pervades the whole work, disturbs the reader with the same sense of vague discomfort that must have chilled many of Count Tolstoi’s foreign admirers when they found their hero living in a shabby, comfortless, untidy house a little way out of Moscow, where carpets and clean tablecloths appeared to be equally rare.”

So we avoid reading ‘War and Peace’ because it’s described as daunting, boring, long, confusing and required. What if we took the advice of journalist Flood and read it for enjoyment? I did and it is long, but amazing and you will find the seeds of many subsequent classics, and ‘not so classic’ in the story.

It turns out Count Tolstoy had a lot to say about contemporary issues; the individual, happiness and occupation-work. One example, the thoughts of character Pierre Bezukov after he is released from prison at the end of the war.

“The absence of suffering, the satisfaction of one’s needs, and the resulting freedom to choose one’s occupation, that is, one’s way of life, now seemed to Pierre the highest and most unquestionable human happiness.

“…the satisfaction of his needs…now that he was deprived of them all, seemed perfect happiness to Pierre, and the choice of an occupation, that is, of a life, now, when that choice was so limited, seemed to him such an easy matter that he forgot that a superfluidity of life’s comforts destroys all the happiness of the satisfaction of one’s needs, and that a greater freedom to choose one’s occupation, the freedom which in this life was granted him by education, wealth, social position – precisely that freedom made the choice of an occupation insolubly difficult and destroyed the very need and possibility of an occupation.”

This is why we read ‘War and Peace’. It’s why Russian TV devoted four days to a live reading. And why one of Hollywood’s leaders decided to executive produce a screenplay of his favorite novel.

If you are still a bit of a skeptic, Philip Hensher of The Guardian offers ‘War and Peace: the 10 things you need to know (if you haven’t actually read it)’

” 7. Anyone who tells you that you can skip the “War” parts and only read the “Peace” parts is an idiot. The bits that interest you personally and the bits that you find of only abstract curiosity are going to change when you read the book at 20, and again at 50. The book is the product of a very big mind, who lost interest in almost everything War and Peace was about before he died. It is a living organism that is never quite the same as you remembered when you go back to it.”