Sunday, February 04, 2007

Books, books, books

Notes on two books I've read lately:

:: In the course of doing my usual work at The Store and learning new skills, I've been perusing a lot of books and magazines from the library about various aspects of home improvement and carpentry. Many of these focus on "how-to specifics" of certain jobs, like rewiring light switches and installing skylights and ceiling fans and the like. Not many books seemed to deal with discussing the tools themselves, outside of the jobs themselves, which is why I was glad to find Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter, by Norm Abram. Abram writes a bit about his life as a carpenter, and the things he's learned over the years about the hand tools he uses.

This book was a fascinating read for me, but I'm not totally sure about the audience at which it is aimed. I can't imagine that experienced carpenters will find much value in it, despite the "Lessons from a Master Carpenter" subtitle; the book doesn't quite read like the final distillation of wisdom from the learned master that acolytes on the verge of masterhood themselves only lack to take that final step. Nor is it exactly aimed at raw beginners, who walk into Home Depot and ask, "Where's the hardware?" It seems ideally aimed, frankly, at people like me: people who know what the tools are and what they're for, but don't have a whole lot of experience with the finer points of hand-tool use.

:: The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany by Martin Goldsmith is a wonderful book, in so many ways.

Goldsmith is a radio host for NPR, hosting a classical music program. His parents, George and Rosemarie, were Jewish immigrants to the United States in 1941, when they escaped Nazi Germany. The Inextinguishable Symphony tells the amazing story of their lives in a land gone haywire, while they met, fell in love, and spent their lives focused on music until they finally realized they had to leave Germany or die.

George (born Gunther) and Rosemarie grew up in post-WWI Germany, when the weight of reparations and the general punitive measures imposed on that nation by the victors of the earlier war drove that country into the arms of the anti-Semitic madmen waiting in the wings. Eventually Gunther and Rosemarie found themselves in the orchestra of a "Jewish Culture Association", or Kulturbund.

These organizations were set up throughout Germany as the country began the long process of segregating the Jews. The idea was twofold: to encourage the Jews to segregate themselves by providing them with cultural organizations of Jews and for Jews, and to provide a propaganda example that the Nazi government could use to demonstrate to the outside world that the German Jews had it just fine. I found it both fascinating and horrifying that the idea of the Kulturbund was a joint effort between a Jew and a high-ranking Nazi. The naivete of many German Jews that Goldsmith describes -- that eventually Germany would come to its senses, and that by doing good cultural work within the confines of the Kulturbund, they could eventually be judged worthy of returning to German society -- is simply heartbreaking. At many points the only response I, as a reader, could manage was to think, "How could they not see what was coming?" And it's all the more remarkable when Gunther emigrates early on to Sweden, but returns to Germany because he can't bear to leave the woman with whom he has fallen in love.

Amidst it all is the tender love story of Gunther, a flautist, and Rosemarie, a violist. Goldsmith's prose sings as he writes of the love that blossomed between his parents. What makes it work so well is that Goldsmith obviously knows his classical music; books about music by non-musicians never seem to flow quite so well. I am familiar with many of the musical works referenced in the book, works that were touchstone pieces in the lives of Gunther and Rosemarie: The Magic Flute, La Boheme, Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, Mahler's Second, Goldmark's Rustic Wedding Symphony. Clearly Goldsmith is as well. That Goldsmith can write so convincingly about these works, and what they clearly meant to his parents.

Goldsmith doesn't maintain his focus on just his parents, however; he sets their tale in the larger context not just of Nazi Germany and the fate of the Jews there but also with that of the remaining members of his extended family, most of whom came to bad ends. So few survived to carry on traditions of centuries of European life.

It's am amazing tale, and I highly recommend the book.

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