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Bilgewater by Jane Gardam

I was adrift without a book to read on election day and after, having finished up reading a novel for Kirkus, and picked up Jane Gardam because she is wonderful, and because at times of turmoil, there is nothing like a new (to me) novel by a favorite author.

Gardam didn’t disappoint. Bilgewater, like God on the Rocks, Crusoe’s Daughter, and A Long Way from Verona, features a young female protagonist. In this case, Marigold Green, is in her final year of school, and lives with her widower father in St. Wilfrid’s school for boys (who nickname her Bilgewater), with their formidable matron Paula in the north of England.

Marigold says, “I never felt that Paula found me very important though. Far from it. She never had favourites. There is a great sense of inevocable justice about her and although one had the sensation that her devotions and emotions ran deep and true you never found her ready to discuss them–not the loving emotions anyway. . . . For me she had from the start a steady unshakeable concern that wrapped me round like a coat. . . . But she has never tried to mother me. She’s not a soft woman, Paula. She cannot stand slop of any kind and again and again she says– it’s her dictum, her law unquestionable– BEWARE OF SELF PITY.”

And so Marigold attempts to live by Paula’s dictum through awkward adolescence and preparation for Oxbridge entrance exams, and a crush, and a friend who disappoints her, and a lot of emotional disarray. At one point the awful friend tells Paula that Marigold is “mad.” Paula retorts, “Marigold’s not mad. That’s one thing certain . . . . She sees clear and pure and sometimes it’s a bit more than she nor anybody can bear.”

Gardam is a master of this kind of thing — a couple of sentences that not only capture something essential in the human experience, but are also achingly lovely. I come away from every Gardam novel wanting to be friends with her characters, and with her, and to write like her, or just to write half as well as she does.

If you’re looking for something real and true and beautiful (and yes, good fiction should be all of those things) to read these days, you cannot go wrong with any of Gardam’s work, and Bilgewater would be a wonderful place to start.

I order fiction at my academic library, and I like to order novels whose characters work in fields our students are studying. That is why Paradise Lodge caught my eye. Lizzie, the book’s heroine, becomes an “auxiliary nurse” at a nursing home in a former grand home in England in the 1970’s, because she wants to earn money and because a classmate is going to apply and she tags along. Lizzie soon learns that she likes working more than she likes school. Her mother wants her to study for her “O” levels, but she is drawn into the life of Paradise Lodge as it faces a crisis. The owner’s wife has gone to run a rival facility, and lures staff and potential patients away.

Stibbe peoples her novel with interesting characters — Lizzie’s free-spirited mother, a smart nurse manager, Sister Saleem, who is recruited to rescue Paradise Lodge, Matron, who may have had a tough life or may be a pathological liar (or both), the elderly residents. The story is a coming of age tale, following the ups and downs of fifteen year old Lizzie as she navigates her concerns for her family, a crush on her friend’s boyfriend, and her indecision about her future. It’s also a humorous examination of human nature, one that reminds me of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Margaret Drabble. Both the characters and the emotional tenor of the story seem spot on.

An altogether satisfying read. I hope it will be adapted to for film or television.

 

 

I bought Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle in summer of 2015, because it was on the reading list for Teen the Younger’s mandatory “Catholic Moral Theology” class. Over the summer the instructor who’d selected this book decided not to come back to her school, and the new theology teacher chose to teach from an very old and uninspiring textbook, and from a series of impenetrable and frankly uninteresting essays.

Which is a shame, because Tattoos on the Heart is a book that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” It’s not really a story so much as a series of stories about Father Gregory Boyle’s work with “homies” in Los Angeles. He was pastor of a church in one of the poorest areas of the city, and over the past thirty years has worked to help gang members find jobs and turn their lives around. His work grew into the nonprofit Homeboy Industries.

What’s most heart-expanding about this book is what Father Greg has to say about how he and his companions have done this work: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.” And,”We seek to create loving communities of kinship precisely to counteract mounting lovelessness, racism, and the cultural disparagement that keeps us apart.”

In between such cracking insights, Father Greg peppers his writing with “dog,” (sort of like dude) “cabrón” (jackass), ‘spensa (sorry), “homie,” “mijo” (my son) and other  English and Spanish slang that gives this book a down-to-earth feel. It’s thought provoking, too, as Father Greg writes about the stereotypes and bias people feel towards gang members and poor young men in general, and also about the endless pain of burying so many victims of gun violence. He also notes his own mistakes or moments of frustration and impatience.

It sounds silly to say this book made me laugh and cry but it’s true; Father Greg cites his own laughter and tears and it’s easy to join him. I found this book’s wisdom profound and also obvious — we have to stop thinking some people are more valuable than other people, and the only way to do that is to practice caring for each other with radical “no matter whatness.” Is that easy? Nope? Will be make mistakes? Yes. But as a society we could follow even an iota of Father Greg’s example, the world would be a far better place.

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t usually write about sequels but I love this series. Maisie Dobbs, “Psychologist & Investigator,” is one of my favorite characters. Journey to Munich seems to be a transitional story — when we last met Maisie, she was trying to escape the pain of losing her husband and child. In this book, she is still mourning but has resolved to make her life in London and Chelstone again. Circumstances at home and abroad lead her to Germany, however, at the behest of her former mentor Maurice’s old friends in the British secret services.

Maisie takes on the assignment somewhat reluctantly, and while in Munich she begins to exercise her former skills as an investigator. In an effort to put the past behind her she agrees to a side project, locating the spoiled Elaine Otterburn and urging her to return home. And she meets an American operative, Mark Scott, whose assistance proves invaluable to her as she locates the man she was sent to bring home, a businessman and “boffin” whose engineering ideas are valuable enough that the British government has negotiated with the Nazis for his release from Dachau, where he is being held for allegedly supporting a subversive underground newspaper.

By the end of Journey to Munich it’s clear that Maisie is ready to re-enter her former profession, one she had been willing to give up when she married James Compton, and even better, it’s clear that her former associates, Billy and Sandra, will be working with her again. Other than Maisie’s old friend Priscilla, and the gentlemen from the secret services, Robert MacFarlane and Brian Huntley, few of the wonderful supporting characters from the previous books appeared in Journey to Munich, although we met a couple new ones, including Mark Scott.  I am hoping very much that Winspear is at work on the thirteenth book in the series, because I look forward to seeing what Maisie gets up to next.

I’d heard good things about this debut novel about a young couple from Cameroon living in New York, trying to become Americans, around the time the Great Recession starts. I like books that offer a perspective different from my everyday life, so I gave it a try.

It was an entertaining read. The main characters, Jende and Neni, are working hard, trying to reach their American dream. Jende came first, working and living in a cheap apartment with several other people in order to save enough money to bring Neni and their son, Liomi, to New York. Neni gets a student visa and enters community college, hoping to become a pharmacist. She works, too, as a health aide. Jende gets a job through his cousin, working as chauffeur to a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark, and his family.

But Jende’s visa has run out and his application for asylum doesn’t seem to be going well. The novel deals with how this family decides what to do — stay in New York illegally, continuing to struggle and try to avoid any potential legal issues, or return to Cameroon. Meanwhile Clark’s family, wealthy beyond Jende’s and Neni’s imaginations, suffers a number of “first world problems” which only get worse as the financial crisis begins.

This juxtaposition between Jende and Clark and their fates and families is interesting reading. Mbue allows her characters to be flawed and conflicted — no one in this book has a smooth path or impeccable morals. The story got bogged down a few times, maybe to reflect the slow, imperfect progress of the immigration system? The ending was a little bit of a letdown, but again, this may be more art than accident, because there is no clear end of the story for the characters, only more change.

Mbue writes very well, and Behold the Dreamers kept me reading. Worth an evening or two of your time, if only to imagine what life is like for someone whose life is very different than your own.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

At work we’ve started a “RivRecommends” (short for Rivier University) cart where library patrons can put a slip in a recently returned book or DVD they enjoyed and suggest it to the community. One of my co-workers recommended Soft in the Head. It’s a French novel about a man, Germain, whose mother has always told him he was a mistake, who never learned to read properly, who is very tall and is often the butt of his friends’ jokes. Germain lives in a trailer in the back yard of his mother’s house, where he can keep an eye on his garden, he works at a temp agency mostly on manual labor jobs, and he likes counting pigeons in the park. One day he sits on a bench with Margueritte, an elderly woman as small as he is large.

Margueritte doesn’t find it odd that Germain counts the pigeons. She seems to enjoy his company. Eventually, she reads to him. They talk about all sorts of things. As Germain puts it, “. . . I thought that sooner or later she’d end up treating me like a pathetic moron. But she always talked to me like I was a person. And you see, that can change a man.”

Germain narrates the book, which keeps it from being a sappy story; my co-worker calls it charming, and I think that’s a good description. Regular bookconscious readers know I have a soft spot for books in translation. I feel like they take a reader somewhere new even more than books set in unfamiliar places but written in one’s native language.

I’ve also always liked books about unusual friendships, and Margueritte and Germain are terrific characters. This was a nice book to keep my mind occupied in this, our first week of being empty nesters — yes, Teen the Younger has gone off to college. And a good book for reading in the sun on a well-earned three day weekend.