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After wasting two evenings on a book I could not get into (One Part Woman — unlikeable characters, glacial plot), I turned to another Europa Editions book: The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland. It’s a page turner, unlike many of Europa’s titles. In fact, last night I put my iPad down and tried to go to sleep and then tossed and turned for a long time, wondering what was going to happen and why the main character couldn’t see what was happening.

This book has a LOT of moving parts. It’s mainly the story of Jay Gladstone, a very wealthy real estate magnate and NBA owner, and how his life — and all his good fortune — falls apart. But woven into Gladstone’s story are many smaller stories, casting a bright light on a number of unsavory aspects of modern American society.

There’s an ambitious DA who wants to run for governor and makes decisions on two cases of white men killing black men based only on her electoral calculations, and not on justice. There is a ridiculous, expensive liberal arts college where people create their own majors and children play at being revolutionaries — until it isn’t play anymore. There is media that is out only for the sound of its own highly amplified voice, regardless of whether the stories it reports are true in any way. There are callous, spoiled rich wives, conniving family members, a hacker for hire, a radicalized ex-con Imam, overpaid athletes and the entourages they support. There is racism, anti-semitism, and all the other tensions and biases our culture holds around gender, sexual preference, class, power and its lack.

Jay Gladstone is a pleasingly complicated character, but he’s a man who truly tries to be good, and for a fair bit of the book I was waiting for him to be vindicated. Yes, he’s a little pompous, and a little too sure of his own position in life, and he blunders around making things worse, but it seems like his being brought low might have caused a transformation. Readers, however, don’t get to see what happens when he hits bottom, for reasons I can’t explain without giving too much away. Still, watching him fight to hang onto life as he knows it is a challenge (I found myself telling him to wake up and stop being stubborn), given that his rotten, conceited, dishonorable, selfish cousin seems to get away with his most grievous transgression.

A villain worth despising, a hero who isn’t perfect but makes the reader want to root for him, some terrific supporting characters you’ll love to love and hate. The frothy world of the rich and influential, with enough regular people to draw a contrast. It’s a novel Jane Austen could love — full of references to culture and society and brimming with the vagaries of human nature.  I enjoyed it, even though I thought the end was a little rushed, and a bit of a let down. But overall, a smart, sharp-eyed, entertaining, engrossing story.  Just don’t read it right before bed, or you’ll be mulling over which twists and turns Gladstone should have seen and what he could have done differently until late into the night.

 

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I read Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio in 2011, when I was first exploring Europa Editions in earnest. So when I saw Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet in Hoopla earlier in the week, I figured, why not? It’s also from Europa Editions. I had planned to possibly digress and try some other books but ended up sticking with my Europa streak. In between, I did try One Part Woman, which is the much discussed novel by a Tamil author, allegedly “charming” but I found the two main characters equally disagreeable and gave it up.

Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet is set in Turin, and the main character, Enzo Laganà, is a “southerner” – a man whose family comes from southern Italy. He is a reporter, but doesn’t seem to like it very much. He’s thirty-seven and showing no sign of settling down with a wife and having kids, so his mother hounds him, employing one of his neighbors and a housekeeper as spies, chiding him to eat what’s in his fridge (she has an inventory), and lamenting his careless life.

Enzo lives in the San Salvario neighborhood, a multiethnic place where he doesn’t feel as much like an outsider. His neighbor, a Nigerian named Joseph, has a little pig named Gino who wears a Juventus scarf. One day Gino ends up in the mosque, causing outrage. Enzo is also friends with the imam, and is well acquainted with an older man who runs an anti-immigrant neighborhood group. and has an old high school friend who is a committed animal rights activist, so he ends up conducting complex negotiations amongst the many parties who want to decide Gino’s future.

Meanwhile, bored at work and busy in Marseilles with a beautiful Finnish woman instead of on his beat in Turin, Enzo invents a story about Albanian and Romanian gangsters having a feud and files it with his paper, to cover the fact that he’s not there to investigate a string of murders. His editor eats up his “Deep Throat” story and Enzo is soon spinning the story further, attracting all kinds of attention, good and bad. As Enzo invents further, he begins to hear from another source, Very Deep Throat, who claims to have the real story of who is behind the murders.

Will Enzo’s mother leave him alone to fritter away his midlife? Will Gino’s happy ending be assured? Will peace be restored in San Salvario and the murders stop? Has Enxo stumbled on a real story while making one up? And what about the beautiful Italian woman who wants him to work on a TV series with her as a result of his newspaper stories?

An amusing novel with serious undertones. Very Deep Throat suggests Enzo interview a sociologist who explains how gentrification helps the mafia control real estate by “infecting” and “cleansing,” ratcheting up crime so people get scared and sell for low prices, and then moving their operations elsewhere and charging bonus prices when hip people want to move into the newly safe areas. His friends are from many cultures, national origins, and legal statuses. But despite the serious topics, Enzo’s story is absurd and that makes this a fun read.

 

 

 

I read another Europa Editions book over the weekend, The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot. It was a sweet read, veering near, but not succumbing to, saccharinity. The hero, Vincent, coaches the somewhat promising but mostly uninspired U16 team at a French soccer club. He is a loner, estranged from his mother and sister, Madeleine, because of his dysfunctional upbringing and abusive father. When Madeleine shows up and leaves his nephew, Leo with Vincent while she chases a crazy opportunity to improve her life, Vincent finds the boy strange, but they form a bond. In short order, he discovers that what makes Vincent different is Asperger’s and that it also makes him a brilliant soccer goalie. The different parts of the story aren’t all that challenging and are a little predictable, but the book is still different enough to be appealing and I enjoyed it. Vincent is fumbles with inept relationship skills, is forced to face his past (and inevitably, his sister and mother are as well), struggles to adapt his life to loving people and letting them in. I needed a relatively simple read, and I like soccer. If it sounds like I’m apologizing for liking this book, it’s because I know “heartwarming” has a bad name in literary circles. But I wanted to read about decency and kindness and people who’ve had a hard time finding a little happiness. The book doesn’t have a definitive tied-in-a-bow happy ending, but it ends on a positive note, leaving the reader feeling things will more than likely work out for the characters. I needed that. The Penalty Area is charming, and it’s easy to imagine it being a film. If you need a bookish boost, you can’t go wrong with this story.

This week I returned to reading Europa Editions (that said, my library got a shipment of new books and it’s possible I won’t stick to E.E. only for the rest of the year). I’ve said before here on bookconscious that one of the pleasures of reading Europa Editions is finding authors who aren’t well known in America, but are in their own countries. Joan London is a good example — she’s an award winning author in Australia, but not as well known here. The Golden Age is her fifth book and third novel, and the first of her works re-published by Europa Editions.

This book holds the memory of some really important 20th century history, for people everywhere, and not just in a particular country. The title is from the name of a rehabilitation home for children in Perth who survived polio but need physical therapy and specialized care before they can return home and go back to school and life. The main characters, Frank and Elsa, are the two oldest children at the Golden Age, on the brink of young adulthood. They form a bond that seems both simple — first love — and extraordinary — who but these two can know what it’s like to live as they do? So in part this novel is a book about the generation that survived polio and lived in its aftermath.

Frank’s parents, Meyer and Ida Gold, are Hungarian Jews, survivors of WWII who had to fight in order to live, and who were resettled in Western Australia. Ida was a classical pianist before the war and still thinks of herself as European. Meyer seems more at ease with himself in the world, aware of his difference, but still able to see the possibilities of their new existence than Ida can. And London shows us, but by bit, how Meyer is stretching away from the past and towards the light and warmth of his new country, imagining a good life, while Ida seems to continue to suffer her new home, accepting her fate but not embracing it. In this way The Golden Age is also about the aftermath of the wars that tore the 20th century apart, the Holocaust, and the postwar migrations that led people to adapt in ways they hadn’t thought possible.

Elsa’s parents are also interesting, although we don’t get to know her father, Jack Briggs, as well as her mother, Margaret. What we learn is that Jack is under the influence of his domineering sister, and that Margaret appears to others as stereotypically feminine (emotional and fragile), but her backbone will carry Elsa into the future she dreams of. Margaret is really representative of womanhood on the cusp of liberation from old roles, old rules. She sees a different future for her daughters, even as she contents herself with keeping house and keeping herself out of the way.

These three themes dominate, but the book is also about other things — Sister Penny, who runs the Golden Age, is another woman on the edge, of old and new ways, of choices previously unknown to women. She is also “truly good” as Meyer thinks of her. But she doesn’t wear this goodness comfortably. She is struggling to be true to herself and still adhere to outside expectations. So that’s another idea in this novel. Also the transformative powers of both nature — which seems to nourish certain characters — and art, which Ida still longs for even if it’s not the same in her new life, and which leads Frank into his own future, when he meets a young man just a little older than he is who introduces him to poetry.

And the writing is a delight. Here’s a passage, late in the book, where Meyer has pulled his drinks truck over near the beach, where Sister Penny has been spending a day off:

“‘Now I know why the ocean was ir-res-istible today,’ he called, walking towards her along the kerb, his hands turned up as if a message had come down from the heavens, almost hating his European charm. The winter sun suddenly emerged from behind a bank of cloud, a white brilliance that engulfed them, so blinding it was almost comical. Using their hands as visors they loomed, dreamlike, squinting at each other. Hard to know if their mouths were stretched into a smile or a grimace.”

I loved this book and I look forward to other Joan London books coming out here. The Golden Age is a good read, a book that immersed me in a different place, different lives, and yet reminded me of familiar feelings. There are so many different aspects of the story to discuss, it would be a terrific book club selection.

I broke my “read only Europa Editions ’til the end of the year” streak this week, because my local bookstore, Gibson’s, hosted Abdi Nor Iftin on Friday, so I wanted to read his book and hear him speak. Call Me American is the story of his growing up in Somalia, living through years of war and violence, and coming to America. Things are definitely not ideal in America right now, but if you want a fuller appreciation for why people around the world still look to us as a place to come and live in peace and freedom, you should read this book. If he’s touring near you, go hear him speak, too; there is nothing like hearing someone’s story in person.

I cannot imagine, nor can anyone I know imagine, what it was like for Iftin growing up in Mogadishu. Between the expectation that even as a small child, he must get water and food for his family, the requirement that he attend a madrassa where he was beaten when he didn’t do well enough or had done something considered evil (like watch American movies) out of a belief that this would make him a good Muslim, and the fact that he could not get an education (beyond memorizing the Koran) or a job and had to create his own, I was amazed with each chapter. Iftin didn’t even just survive, he survived with faith, hope and compassion intact. He still supports the imam who beat him, because he feels grateful that he knows the Koran and he understands the man sincerely believed he was doing right by the children he beat. Incredible!

So I have no doubt that Iftin is an extraordinary person, not to mention a very good storyteller, and that is part of what makes this memoir appealing. But in the back of my mind as I read, I thought about the grave injustice that our world flocks to the Iftins and abandons those who don’t have the charisma, grace, and strength he does. In fact, the only reason he is where he is today is because he made opportunities for himself at every turn — teaching himself English, introducing himself to a white man he saw on a balcony who turned out to be a reporter, and then working for both NPR and the BBC telling the story of life under warlords and Islamic fundamentalists. And it is right that people who heard his story through their speakers thousands of miles and a culture away rallied to help him and get him out.

But so many others are still living with the danger, fear, and deprivation that he grew up with and on the whole, Americans are fairly happy feeling good about stories like Iftin’s and then going back to our comfortable lives. We may give to charity and write to Congress when things seem really bad, but how often do we do any more than that? And what more can and should we do? In many regards, there is literally nothing we can do because the power systems in the world are completely aligned against the powerless and most governments adhere to a fear-based immigration system.

Maybe it’s a small thing, but one thing we can do is learn people’s stories. Learn about the systems that are hurting people and ironically building up the very extremism they are meant to protect against. I had no idea that Somalis in Kenya can’t work — I thought that the international refugee resettlement system was fairly consistent everywhere, and that if you are recognized as a refugee, you can start a resettled life. Iftin’s brother has been living in limbo for fifteen years in Nairobi, officially a refugee but not allowed to legally live there, or anywhere. That is the situation for Somalis — and there are refugees from dozens of other places, so it’s likely there are millions more who are not on the smooth path to resettlement. Especially now that the U.S. has decided to take thousands fewer refugees each year.

What can I do with this knowledge? I’m not sure. For starters I can keep contacting my elected officials and telling them I want America to remain a welcoming place for those who need a new home. I can learn about the places they come from, beyond the headlines. I can also make sure that beyond just saying hello when I hear someone whose accent reveals they are from somewhere else, I can tell them I’m glad they are here, and ask how things are going. That doesn’t seem like enough though. I don’t have answers. I just know this book made the world smaller for me. One thing I can do is write about how powerful it is and ask you to do read it. You’ll be glad you did and your view of the world will not be the same.

 

 

My experiment with reading only (or at least mainly) Europa Editions books til the end of the year might continue — after the last book I wasn’t so sure — because The Flight of the Maidens was the kind of terrific read I hoped for. Of course, I cheated because I knew if Jane Gardam wrote it, I’d love it. This is another book Gardam published quite some time ago but reissued. It’s set in 1946 and tells the story of the summer before three young women head to college — all having won scholarships, all set to leave their small Yorkshire town for a world they know little about, mainly because of the war.

Una Vane is the daughter of a widow who opened a hair salon in the house when she had to manage on her own. Una is off to Cambridge to study physics, but she wants to spend her summer trying to understand her relationship with Ray, who grew up in a poorer part of town and is now a railroad man dabbling in socialist politics. Hetty Fallows is off to a guesthouse in the Lakes District to try to read everything she thinks she hasn’t read before she goes off to college in London. Her father, a gentleman before WWI left him shocked, is a gravedigger and her mother is overbearing and flirts with both the vicar and Hetty’s first boyfriend. And Liselotte Klein, who grew up the foster child of Quakers, spends the summer before she starts at Cambridge piecing together her identity. She can’t recall much about Hamburg, and she knows nothing of how her Jewish family fared and whether any of the rest of them got out. She lands with a mysterious elderly couple in London and then with a distant aunt on the California coast, trying to understand her past so she can decide on her future.

The three friends — Una and Hetty since childhood, Liselotte since they all began to apply themselves to getting into college — go through the pangs of leaving school and starting adult life, along with the challenges of adapting to the postwar world.They have very different experiences but are all in flight, as Gardam imagines. As they struggle to reconcile what they know with what’s in the world and with the hopes they have for themselves and others have for them, the three girls teeter on the edge of womanhood with all the people they know rallying around them to one extent or another. The presence of these people, both dear to them and maddening, provides insights into all kinds of detail about England in the 1940s.

Gardam’s ability to bring people so fully to life, in such vivid detail, never fails to delight. Such vivid people and dialogue — more than many of her books, I could imagine this as a film. I hope it becomes one. Anyway, a terrific read about the end of childhood, the beginning of growing up, the challenge of recovering from war for those in it and near it, the carrying on so many people do when their lives aren’t full of great achievements but they hope their children’s will be. I’m sad that I seem to be all caught up on Gardam’s reissues now.

I checked out the eBook version of 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool  late Saturday night, having finished a previous Europa Editions book on Hoopla. The blurb sounded good — an award winner and nominee,  translated from Italian. The main character meets a boy who teaches her Chinese ideograms, and “Camelia learns to see the world differently and, in it, a chance for renewal.” “Bittersweet and funny at times, heartbreaking at others . . . .”

My take? Dreadful. If I wanted to read about hopelessness and unhappiness, I’d read the news. Sure, there was some magical realism (it’s December for months, for example), and tragedy can, potentially, be transformative. But this book never transcended despair, and I found the unreliable time/date distracting (in a “look at me, I’m doing strange things with my narrative” manner) and the characters unlikeable and even uninteresting. I couldn’t understand the point of many of Camelia’s actions, it’s extremely unbelievable that a family, even an immigrant family, could elude the notice of social services in a place like Leeds if they were suffering to the extent that she and her mother are throughout this book, and Wen, the love interest, is two dimensional.

I don’t usually give negative reviews, but here it is: unless you like despair and pointlessness, don’t read this book.