Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Glass Room

Simon Mawer's beautifully written novel is subtle and entertaining, and in some respects is a minor masterpiece. Intertwining the modernist house with the lives of the characters creates a metaphor that succeeds in working on many levels.

It is a novel of ideas, yes, and takes place against a fascinating historical backdrop of Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia, but is above all a drama involving the Landauers, their house, their family and their fate. Even when the family leaves the stage and the focus remains on the house, they are present on almost every page. The narrative is framed by the return of Liesel Landauer to the house, so the connection remains intact.

Hana is the one main character whose point of view is never taken. She in fact reflects the house. She is always there, appearing in the house in every occupation, absorbing it and loving its various inhabitants much as the house would itself if it were a sentient being.

There is a lovely irony throughout the book. The biometric laboratory that occupies the house during the war is shut down because the scientists cannot find a way to measure the physical differences between the Nordic races and Jews. Liesel apologizes for being so casual in relating Viktor's fate, but the author is equally casual in creating an ironic end for a builder of automobiles from a landlocked country.

But it is the shades of love that captivate the reader -- between Viktor and Liesel, between Viktor and Kata, between Liesel and Hana, between Liesel and Rainer, between Hana and Werner, between Tomas and Zdenka, between Zdenka and Hana. Mawer limns each of these relationships beautifully, making even the cad-like behavior of the men sympathetic. The scene where Liesel and Kata confront each other over their relationships with Viktor, sitting by the lake in exile in Zurich, is sensitive and delicate. Liesel struggles with her ambivalence, swallows her pride and accepts Kata's role in their family life. The suppressed emotion eventually explodes when Viktor risks the safety of the family in a futile attempt to ensure Kata's passage out of France.

The men are remarkably cold and selfish. Viktor, the rationalist, rationalizes his infidelity without breaking a sweat and Liesel is right to question whether he has ever really loved her. Tomas, the philosopher, is so emotionally limited that it is relatively easy for Zdenka to shrug him off. Both men get short shrift from the author. Lanik and Werner are each despicable in their own way, and Hana's husband, Oskar, is just pathetic.

The plot is elegant in the way the house is seamlessly interwoven into the lives of the characters. The arrival of Kata in the family is a contrived coincidence that the reader can accept, unlikely as it is. On the other hand, the superfluous ending with a meeting between the second generation is unnecessary.

Mawer's language is a revelation. I had picked up his Gospel of Judas as a remainder, and put it aside after a few pages. Now of course I will go back to it, but it seems to me that the powerful command of description that he displays in The Glass Room is miles ahead of anything in the earlier book.

There is that rugged Anglo-Saxon feel that British writers have so much more than American writers. As with Robert Goddard, Rennie Airth and even John le Carré, the very language propels the narrative forward. Are they more deeply immersed in Beowulf and Chaucer, or is it the very culture that connects them to these roots?

Mawer has made no secret that the Villa Landauer, with its glass room, is a fictionalization of the Villa Tugendhat, right down to the onyx wall in the spacious livingroom, with his fictional Mesto standing in for Brno and Rainer von Abt representing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mawer's passion for the objectives of functionalist architecture is infectious and truly makes the house one of the main characters, one you won't quickly forget.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reading as multimedia experience

Following on my previous post, more news from the wonderful age of digital media. I was reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which I'm enjoying, and one of the characters in this novel set in Czechoslovakia between the wars is playing Leos Janacek's On an Overgrown Path. In my ignorance, I was unacquainted with Janacek, let alone the work. So I go to the Pandora app on my iPhone and punch in Janacek. Pandora starts playing some lovely solo piano music -- serendipitously the very work mentioned in the book!

In this case, I was reading the trade paperback version of the book, and I plugged my iPhone into our living room stereo. I could have listened to the music on my earbuds, and I could have been reading the book on my iPad and listening to the music at the same time on the iPad. Alternatively, I probably could have ordered the entire work on iTunes, but Pandora has the advantage of being free.

I don't normally listen to music while I'm reading -- I find it distracting. But in this case, the music enhanced my reading experience my taking me further into the world being described by the author. Also, I discovered a new composer!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Buying books

Buying books has gotten to be pretty complicated.

I truly admire people who go to the library for most of their reading material. In the end, supporting libraries guarantees more sales of books. I got completely out of the habit living abroad for many years in non-English speaking countries. Also, my erratic reading habits – starting, stopping, reading two or three books concurrently – don’t lend themselves to library due dates.

So I buy most of the books I read. And as a book consumer, I’m very conscious that my choices are critical to sustaining the book publishing industry in its various facets.

I have many choices:

• Buy a hardback book at full retail price when it comes out. This is important to support authors and independent bookstores.

• Buy a discounted hardback at a megastore. Still helps authors and megastores are an important part of the landscape, too.

• Buy a remaindered hardback. Doesn’t do much for authors, but is good for publishers (which actually helps authors since it’s important for publishers to be able to sell overstock) and still helps the independent bookstore. Politics & Prose, for instance, works hard at keeping its remainder shelves stocked with good books.

• Buy the ebook version for Kindle or iPad. Cuts out the bookstore, but potentially adds to my convenience in reading, and still gives a royalty to the author.

• Buy the audiobooks version. Increasingly, this is released simultaneously with the hardback. This supports a whole new industry in narrators and gives me the convenience of “reading” a book while walking, driving, working out, etc.

• Wait for the trade paperback to come out. What I often do when I see a new book I think I might like or which got a good review is to look for earlier books by the same author that have already come out in paperback. This is not as good for author/publisher/bookstore as buying the hardback, but helps keep them all in business.

• Buy the heavily discounted hardbacks or trade paperbacks through Amazon. So easy, relatively cheap – especially when you’re a prime customer and save on shipping costs – and yet fatal for those independent bookstores and megastores where I can go in, browse, relax, have a cup of coffee.

• Wait for the mass paperback, though of course a lot of books don’t make it to this stage.

• Buy the remaindered trade paperback. Helps my budget; almost as cheap as a triple tall cappuccino.

• Take pot luck at the library sale, where a hardback can cost less than a cookie.

What are the factors in my decisions?

• I still love the printed book – the covers, the typeface, the creamy paper. Book publishers have realized that we baby boomers need bigger print and more leading, so the hardbacks and trade paperbacks are easier than ever to read. But these books can be heavy, cumbersome, or just inconvenient in many situations. I was an early adopter for Kindle but have since abandoned it. I just got an iPad and downloaded the Kindle app, so I may get back to reading ebooks.

• I’m not in a big hurry to read most books. This won’t stop me from buying the hardback, but it will make me think twice.

• I resist having my iPod/iPhone as a constant companion. I could “read” a lot more, for instance, if I listened to audiobooks while walking the dog, but then when would I daydream, or think about my stories, or hear the chattering squirrels, or exchange a greeting with neighbors?

In the end, I will buy books on various platforms. Sometimes there is no choice – many books may be available only in hard copy. Perhaps they are out of print and available only as used books on Amazon’s helpful site for booksellers.
Some books may lend themselves to a particular platform. A friend of mine says he reads poetry on his iPad while killing time in airports. This seems to me to be a stroke of genius. No one can carry around a bag full of tiny poetry volumes, but you’re never sure what poet you’ll be in the mood for. Yet a poem is the perfect length (generally speaking) for those broken bits of 10 or 15 minutes you experience in air travel.