December 15, 2010

Somebody is home and reading.

Dubravka Ugrešić is a novelist and academic, born in the former Yugoslavia, officially Croatian but living in self-imposed exile since the early 1990s.

It is clear from these two collections of essays that Ugresic does not take kindly to being labelled – especially with national labels – but the facts above explain her main preoccupations. In Nobody’s Home she writes about home (or lack thereof), globalisation, identity, exile in its many forms, alienation, ‘Ostalgia’ and the weight of history in former Eastern bloc countries, Europe and its problems with orientation – political, geographical and cultural. I especially like her thoughts about culture as a spiritual euro, and how politically correct respect for different cultures and cultural differences is often a mask for closet chauvinism. Ugresic begins with entertaining anecdotal pieces about flea markets and the nature of luggage, and gradually the pieces become longer and more serious, as she weaves history and politics into her personal reminiscences and tales of people she has encountered - most of them uprooted cosmopolitans as she is. She has the knack of reaching macro insights through the micro-narratives, and convincing with her tongue in cheek.

Most of these preoccupations pop up on a smaller scale in Thank You for Not Reading, though here Ugresic writes about being a writer in the global literary marketplace – specifically, about being a writer from a small country, a female writer, and a writer of serious fiction in an age of frivolity. The structure is similar to that of Nobody’s Home: semi-humorous personal anecdotes make the essays what they are, she begins with musings about Joan Collins, and the pieces get gradually longer and more theoretical. There is no shaky ground here she certainly knows what she is talking about. Ugresic admits in her foreword that the essays are ‘half fact and half fiction’, and she has adopted a persona to mediate between the light-hearted and the serious. If the quality of essays is determined by the number of individual ideas and flashes of brilliance per page, then these get top marks: my little reading notebook is now full of quotable passages, relevant page numbers, and thoughts and questions these books raised in my mind. It is thought-provoking reading, they give no answers, but rather encourage you to take up a pen and write down your own.

December 7, 2010

Since you ask…

…about a previous post, “Yesterday is ‘His’tory”.  In dozens of inquiries (from our “younger generation” no less) you ask what do I remember about John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, here goes...

My first clear memory is of a funeral, the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

I know it is a personal recollection, not of news clips, but of a horse, a horse named appropriately enough Black Jack.
News clips seldom show that part; it is always little John-John saluting, his mother, Jackie, looking elegant in her grief, the flags fluttering. I remember all of that, but the clearest thing to me is that black horse with the empty saddle and boots backwards in the stirrups.

There were more funerals, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Kent State, always ending in flag-draped coffins on black and white TV.

Nearly ten years after watching President Kennedy’s funeral, I discovered a book called The Torch is Passed which was full of photos from that event. Midway through the book was a picture of Black Jack. The backward boots I found out, is a tradition from the American Civil War to honor a fallen hero.

The book is large, coffeetable format, but quite thin. It is full of news photographs, beginning with the landing of JFK at Dallas airport an hour before the shooting and ending at the grave in Arlington Cemetery, four days later. As well as photos of the mourning public and visiting dignitaries, there are pictures of the moments after the president was shot, and Lee Harvey Oswald being killed by Jack Ruby. The photos are not captioned, but accompanying text gives a full report of the events staunchly in favor of the “Oswald acted alone” viewpoint.

Because this event loomed large in my youth, I subsequently read many books, saw movies and documentaries to help me understand what was behind those fuzzy black and white images I witnessed as a teenager. Later, analyzing the Zapruder film, I arrived at my own conclusions, based on my own extensive rifle practice (I grew-up German).

After finding The Torch is Passed, (the title is from Kennedy’s inaugural address), I found no more copies in book stores, so it must have been a special printing? I can understand people wanting it as a memento; though I doubt that anyone having company would ever say, “here is a new book we just got, would you like to revisit the time of a great national tragedy?”

I do not think we will ever know what really happened or why. To a young person, it was shocking. The Torch is Passed expanded those images I remembered.   It was so much more than a horse with his boots on backwards. The impact sharpened my political consciousness.

AP Productions 1963 100 pp.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich