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Holiday Book Bonanza ’09:
Benjamin Moser

It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favorite books.  This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors).  For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.  Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists.  If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).

Benjamin Moser is the New Books columnist for Harper’s and regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and Conde Nast Traveler. His new book, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, looks at one of the most popular but least understood of Latin American writers and demonstrates how Lispector’s art was directly connected to her turbulent life.

When I first started writing Why This World, my biography of Clarice Lispector, I was often asked about my favorite biographies. I immediately answered that the most thrilling biography I ever read was Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, the story of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, a book that Brodie, an apostate Mormon from a prominent Utah family, wrote in the forties, and which threw the Latter-Day Saints into turmoil. It’s the story of how a feckless young man from the “Burnt-Over District” of upstate New York transformed himself into a prophet through sheer dint of bad luck; and how the Mormons, a grab bag of oddballs from all over the United States, became a distinct people who aroused hatred everywhere they wandered and who therefore clung all the more stubbornly to their customs and laws. They were chased from town to town trying to find somewhere they could settle down to live as they chose, and some of them ended up, like Joseph Smith himself, murdered by angry mobs. I didn’t think that Joseph Smith had much to do with Clarice Lispector, the Jewish-Brazilian mystic writer. I just admired Fawn Brodie’s moving, beautifully written, and exhaustively researched book. But over the years I spent working on Why This World I realized that the Mormons were created by the same circumstances as the Jews: Lispector’s family was expelled from the Ukraine after the First World War in circumstances of unthinkable violence, and because of her experience of persecution and exile, and even though she had little link to formal Judaism, her personal history led her to develop the same psychology, and echo the same concerns, that have occupied Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. If everyone had ignored them, the Jews and the Mormons would have vanished long ago. But when people are subjected to outside pressures in their pursuit of their own truths, they will develop – in the Mormons’ case in only a few years, in the Jews’ case over thousands – an amazingly similar way of looking at the world.

I was lucky enough to have a mother who owned a children’s bookstore in Houston, which probably is as good an explanation as any of why I decided to become a writer; but these days, when I think of children’s books, I think of a very dear friend who recently died: Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, the unsung force behind Babar the elephant. Marie-Claude’s father-in-law, Jean de Brunhoff, started the series in the 1930s, and Marie-Claude and her husband Laurent took it over after their marriage in the fifties. Though she was never credited for her work, Marie-Claude – herself an artist, who created boxes in the style of Joseph Cornell – is visible, for those of us lucky enough to know her, on every page of the books that she and Laurent worked on: in the elephant family’s whimsy and sweetness, in their devotion to colorful fabrics and to cultural enrichment, in their endless curiosity and their dogged optimism in the face of the even the most grueling circumstances. When I page through them now, I think of my friend and hope that at the end of my life I will be as gracious when asked for autographs by people who mistake me for someone famous (Marie-Claude looked and sounded just like Jeanne Moreau) – as ready to take off for Palmyra – as ready to enter chemotherapy draped in a Missoni turban – as the unforgettable Marie-Claude.

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