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I don’t really remember how this book got on my radar — probably I read an advance review somewhere. I haven’t read Chris Cleave before, but I knew he wrote “it” books that get loads of attention, and I have to admit, I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon of very popular books. For example, I was not as impressed with All the Light We Cannot See as many people were. So I was a little skeptical of another “it” WWII novel.

But I really liked Everyone Brave is Forgiven in large part because I could not resist Mary North. She’s a young woman from a well connected London family who “left  finishing school unfinished” to sign up for war work as soon as Britain declares war. The War Office sends her to a school, which she thinks is a joke or a cover for something more dashing but turns out to be life changing.

One of her tasks is to prepare the children for evacuation, and to go with them. But her headmistress thinks Mary is too familiar with the children, and tells her she’s not a good teacher and must stay behind. Mary is worried about Zachary, an African American boy whose father is in a minstrel show, and writes to him in the countryside. He’s being neglected.

That sets the rest of the plot in motion. Mary goes to Tom Shaw in the Education department and complains about the critique of her teaching and asks to have a school for kids who are making their way back to London because they’ve been rejected — or worse — by their host families. Before long she has a small class, Zachary and some disabled children. And she and Tom see more of each other.

Mary and Tom each have a best friend who also become involved in the story. But it doesn’t devolve into a light hearted romance. In fact, the descriptions of London during the Blitz and then Malta under siege are very bleak, but the view of love is almost as tough: “Tom understood why the good actors in the movies never said it with a smile. To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.” When Tom is despairing about being turned down by the Air Force and also that “it isn’t how it was” between him and Mary she says, “We must take turns, don’t you think? Every time one of us is buried like this, we shall dig the other one out.” I think that’s exactly what love in the midst of crisis is.

And Cleave shows the enormity of the crisis in London very very well. Mary has a keen sense of social justice and she notices all of the disparity that comes into greater focus during the Blitz. But also the despair that finally sets in. At one point when she has reached a personal low, she’s sitting outside and she hears women sweeping: “The hissing of the brooms carried a whisper: that life was cracked and gone. That any life left behind was not the good kind, which stubbornly built on rubble . . . . London was a stopped gramophone with no hand to wind it. It smelled of cracked sewers and escaping town gas and charred wood, wet from fire hoses.”

Tom’s friend Alistair has his own story; he’s a conservator at the Tate and once the art is secured, he volunteers. In the author’s note Cleave mentions that Alistair’s service on Malta is based on Tom’s grandfather’s service there. The horrors Alistair experiences, starting in training and right through to the end of the war, are also well told. They’re awful, but Cleave says he ‘hoped to highlight the insincerity of the wars we fight now — to which the commitment of most of us is impersonal, and which finish not with victory or defeat but with a calendar draw-down date and a presumption that we shall never be reconciled with the enemy. I wanted the reader to come away wondering whether forgiveness is possible at a national level or whether it is only achievable between courageous individuals.”

Just as hearing an author always give me a greater understanding of a book, reading this wonderful note at the end helped me like Everyone Brave is Forgiven even more.

 

 

Imaginative, outrageous, darkly humorous, prophetic, satiric. Those were the words on my blind date with a bookseller selection from Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville. Big reveal: I’ve never read Kurt Vonnegut before! I know, I know, I need to read Slaughterhouse Five.

The Sirens of Titan was Vonnegut’s second novel. It is just about all of the descriptions above – I’m not sure about prophetic, I’m still thinking about that. It’s a sci fi novel about a wealthy New Englander, Winston Niles Rumfoord, who flies into a “chronosynclastic infundibulum” In his spacecraft. As a result he is no longer his physical self; he only materializes when his energy waves line up with a planet. So he and his dog show up in Newport, RI every 59 days.

If this isn’t wild enough, Rumfoord can also see the past and the future. He manipulates a “Martian” invasion of Earth and orchestrates other events – including the coupling of his own wife, Beatrice, with another eccentric wealthy man, Malachi Constant, and the marooning of that man on Mercury for a few years – in order to bring about a new religion on Earth.

That religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, is predicated on the “apathy” of God, which makes mankind “free and truthful and dignified at last” because “No longer can a fool like Malachi Constant point to a ridiculous accident of good luck and say ‘Somebody up there likes me.'”

Hmm. That seems like a pretty silly sendup of organized religion, but I guess there’s no denying that some religious leaders – like the aptly named Creflo Dollar – do claim that God approves of them and their flocks. That doesn’t make them right though, and in my mind it makes them as much a parody  of true religion as Rumfoord.

Still, that’s a minor quibble and The Sirens of Titan is funny and successfully satirizes the excesses of wealth and celebrity and the tyranny of extremism. I won’t tell you how it all turns out but I will say it’s a good read, intelligent and entertaining, and would be really fun to discuss in a group. I definitely want to read more Vonnegut.

Paul Hertneky lives in author-rich New Hampshire (in fact he’s going to be reading & speaking at the Hancock Library on June 9 at 7pm, and Rust Belt Boy is published by one of my favorite small presses, also in New Hampshire, Bauhan Publishing) but he grew up in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Ambridge was steel country, and the rise and fall of the American steel industry helped define the town. In his memoir Rust Belt Boy, Hertneky writes about what his hometown and his large immigrant family imprinted on his psyche, and also about what it was like to grow up there.

This book is full of vividly rendered scenes — Hertneky as a boy buying Friday pirohi (“The first bite made me close my eyes”) and asking his grandmother about communism (“my curiosity felt like a constantly full bladder”). His father making puppets out of the rabbits he’d just skinned: “Like the priests during Mass, Milt transformed death into life . . . .” Hertneky in the library which “made me feel whole” lost in the books that helped him dream of other places and other lives. The adult Hertneky at seminal moments, at the steel plant where his co-worker was nearly killed, and as he made a fervent declaration of love only to find it wasn’t reciprocal.

This is a book about one rust belt town where one boy grew up, which is fascinating, especially when I read about the Harmonists, who made Ambridge prosper before heavy industry and who I’d never heard of even though I grew up in Pennsylvania. But it’s also a universal coming of age tale reflecting on the fifties, sixties and seventies in America. Given how different Ambridge and places like it are today, Hertneky has gifted readers with the memory of a time and place that is mostly gone. Rust Belt Boy is a lovely read, interesting as a cultural and geographical story, as a memoir, and as a history of the aspirations of immigrants who made postwar prosperity their American dream.

Travel reading

It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks around here, with more to come. I ended one job and will be starting a new one in a couple of weeks (more to come on that, over at Nocturnal Librarian). This week, the man formally known as Teen the Elder graduates from college. Teen the Younger is a senior too, with the semester wrapping up, a senior trip to NYC, prom, finals, and more.

Also, the Computer Scientist and I decided to completely update our living room. An epic trip to IKEA ensued (our multiple carts and carriages attracted attention; one woman in the next line actually came around to see what the damage was when we paid — I kid you not). But before that, I decided to weed our books. And that felt so good I weeded the entire rest of the house. I sort of applied the Marie Kondo method, with a few of my own twists (see my review of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up here). Instead of thanking my stuff I mostly railed “Why have I been dragging this around for years?” At any rate we are feeling lighter and more organized. And the books — well, now we have room for more!

Which brings me to today’s actual topic: I took my mom to Asheville for a few days, and that involved a) selecting vacation reading and b) visiting four bookstores and the Pack Memorial Library’s “Frugal Friday” sale, where all the books were $.25. I enjoyed all the stores we visited. I didn’t get any $.25 bargains, nor did I find anything at the Friends of the Library shop, inside the library. At The Captain’s Bookshelf I bought Calvin Trillin‘s Travels With Alice. More on that in a moment. At Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, I bought Educating Our Daughters by Lynn White, Jr., published in 1950, partly because I had just visited the aSHEville Museum‘s “100 Years of Sexism in Advertising” and was primed for this book and partly because I want to read bits aloud to Teen the Younger and watch her alternately snort and be indignant. I also partook of a literary cocktail, the “Fahrenheit 451” — sparkling wine with cayenne, spicy chocolate, and a cherry. At Malaprops, it took three tries but I finally got a “Blind Date With a Bookseller” book I hadn’t read.

Blind Date Book

Revealed blind date

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could not resist reading Travels With Alice while traveling. I finished that book and loved it — I think Calvin Trillin is a wonderful writer, funny and observant, and this book is charming. I wonder if I can convince the Computer Scientist to refer to me as “the principessa” if we ever visit Italy together?

Trillin’s delight in the world around him and his wry wit make this book fun, but his affection for his friends, family, even the strangers he meets in his travels, make it a soulful read. His family’s preferred method of travel — hanging around, he calls it — sounds just right. “In the subtle negotiations that occur when time is up for grabs rather than strictly allotted, Alice had got her share of scenic drives and the girls had got their share of swims and I had got my share of fish soup.” Well before the concept of “being present” was trendy, Trillin practiced it. Travels With Alice is just the thing for reading in tumultuous times. Or while traveling.

On the way down on the plane I read Ignorance by Milan Kundera, which is decidedly not just the thing for a tumultuous time, but worked well as an airplane read because I could give it my full attention and read it in one sitting. It’s the story of Irena, a Czech emigre living in France who returns to Prague for the first time after her partner opens an office there. She’s not happy about returning, but on the way she meets Josef, a man she had a brief flirtation with before she left for France. The novel is framed around their re-encounter, as well as Irena’s and Josef’s seeing other Czech friends and relatives during their visits.

The narrator not only tells us their stories, but also lectures us on the lessons of exile and return in The Odyssey. Don’t get me wrong, this analysis of Homer’s themes is relevant to Kundera’s story. The narrator focuses on the irony of Odysseus’s constant longing for home culminating in a return that was confusing, jealousy inducing, and violent. Irena and Josef don’t have to fight anyone, but their returns cause them psychological struggle. I think that would have been clear without the lengthy discourse. Kundera’s narrator also muses on Czech poet Jan Skácel and Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg; interesting but I’m more of a fan of the narrative.

Ignorance is otherwise efficiently told, but it’s a book that stays with you. Passages like this one require some mulling over: “All predictions are wrong, that’s one of few certainties granted to mankind. But though predictions may be wrong, they are right about the people who voice them, not about their future but about their experience of the present moment.”  Hmm. It’s a novel ripe for discussion if your book club likes literary fiction.

Stay tuned for more on the other books I bought!

 

 

 

I’ve really enjoyed other books by Nick Hornby, and a patron recommended Funny Girl when he was returning it last week so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s set mainly in the 1960’s, although the end is in present times. It’s about a young woman, Barbara Parker, from Blackpool, who wants to be the next Lucille Ball. Barbara wants this so badly she is willing to leave her dad and her auntie Marie in Blackpool and go to London where she knows no one.

Hornby is respectful of Barbara’s ambition — in fact, one thing I really like about his books is that Hornby is respectful of all of his characters. Even the nakedly ambitious or the slightly mean-spirited or the completely irritating ones.  He has a a generosity of spirit towards all of them that is really endearing.

Back to Barbara, or Sophie as she is known in London. She is smart and funny and unvarnished and when she auditions for a comedy show on the BBC the writers, Tony and Bill, and the producer, Dennis, realize she’s brilliant and hatch plans for a series. But Funny Girl isn’t just about a happy young successful team and their smash hit show. Tony and Bill are gay, although Tony’s not sure if he is also attracted to women, especially after he marries one and is happy. Hornby writes about how dangerous it is to be gay in London in the 1960’s. And how society is changing swiftly but there are still people who use the word “courting” and are openly prejudiced. And how in the tumult of these changes, people mostly want what they always have.

In other words, in the framework of this funny novel about the birth of a modern sitcom in 1960’s London, Hornby talks about the ever changing, ever the same human condition. We struggle with our ambitions and hopes, and struggle to reconcile them with the ambitions and hopes of our family and friends. We hurt each other inadvertently or purposefully, we apologize and make amends or lurch off to do it again. We try to learn and be better people and be worthy of those who love us.

Hornby also notices that people have always thought the young were careless or unserious. In one scene Tony is trying to write a new show with Sophie’s friend Diane about a young woman making her way in London, and he asks ” What’s her problem?” Diane doesn’t understand his point, and he goes on to patiently explain that’s how scripts work — the characters have a problem that they work out. Diane, who is herself a young woman making her way in London, says “Yeah, but they’re all so depressing, those programs . . . . None of my friends want to watch them.” They go back and forth a bit and she tells him that only her parents and grandparents watch that kind of thing, and Tony’s appalled. It reminded me of modern conversations about which generations prefer which social media or online content.

Look for Funny Girl  if you’d like a historical novel of manners full of astute observations of human nature that has as much to say about our own world as the one it’s set in.

I really enjoyed Monica Wood‘s book Ernie’s Ark a few years ago and wrote here on bookconscious that I liked it much better than Olive Kitteridge. Today I reviewed her new book for the library’s “book of the week” feature in a local weekly paper.

The One-In-a-Million Boy is the story of the unlikely friendship of Ona Vitkus, a 104 year old Maine woman, and an 11 year old Boy Scout who comes to do chores for her on Saturdays. When “the boy,” as readers come to know him, dies suddenly, his father, Quinn, fulfills his son’s agreement by continuing to visit Ona for seven more Saturdays. As Quinn gets to know Ona he learns that she and “the boy” had become friends, and that he had convinced her to pursue some Guinness World Records.

Quinn mourns and tries to comfort Belle, his ex-wife, as they both get over the shock of losing their son. And without trying to, he too befriends Ona, and begins to see his son’s quirks through her admiring eyes. “The boy” appears in Ona’s and Quinn’s memories, lists he made in his journal, and the transcript of his interviews with Ona for a school project. The book examines the secrets each character keeps, the little things people hang onto through hard times, and the impact simple kindness makes on the lives of others. Wood’s characters are sympathetic without being sappy. Quinn, haunted by his own mother’s death and his failings as a father, is particularly well drawn. If you like your fiction heartfelt but not tear-jerking and peopled with misfits, you’ll enjoy The One-In-a-Million Boy.

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post; I have two reviews due for Kirkus tomorrow and both books arrived late last week, so I’ve been busy with those. Before that I was busy with the book I’m going to tell you about today — Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose this book for my “published the year you were born” title for Book Bingo; that said, I believe this book was written the year I was born and published a year later. This book is both uplifting and deeply disturbing.

Disturbing because I didn’t realize how little I understood the time it was written and because it was a disturbing time. The nonviolence of the movement MLK had founded was called into question when justice did not appear to be coming after federal legislation. Victories won on the national level did not mean equality in many communities. And the Black Power movement was not only questioning nonviolence, they were countering it. MLK writes of being booed by young black people in Chicago. I had no idea.

Why did I have no idea? Probably because white people wrote my history textbooks — and honestly, we never made it through the Civil Rights era in high school history class anyway. I guess I grew up thinking the civil rights movement was a success and that was all I needed to know. Of course I’ve since realized that is a trite and incomplete view of things.

Where Do We Go From Here is a moving book, as MLK passionately defends nonviolence as a tactic and gives eloquent and clear voice to where America — black and white — should go, together. The wisdom packed into this volume is almost overwhelming. King writes that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” And then he lays out, point by depressing point, all the ways American society is not governed by this kind of power, nor ruled by this kind of justice. That racism is so deeply ingrained as to be invisible, often leaving white liberals unaware of their deep-seated prejudices. Look around and you’ll see why it’s depressing — the same could be said of American society today.

King also wrote that poverty and militarism must be vanquished for all people, black and white, to ever come together and make a better world. That we are all linked, black lives to white lives, American lives to foreign lives. That we have to take care of the other in order to preserve ourselves.

I admit, I could not finish this book. The horror of realizing that a leader who saw what needed to be done to complete the work he’d started, saw that without economic justice there would be no racial justice and no peace in the world, was permanently silenced by just that kind of injustice and violence was more than I could stomach in the present climate.

But I know this: the thing that keeps me going is the belief that love eventually prevails, in the face of everything that stands against it. King knew it and refused to give up. It has to happen, as he writes, “The ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact.” One person at a time, that’s what we’re here to do.

I’ve been struggling with coming to terms with a difficult person I have to interact with regularly. As an experiment in cultivating compassion, throughout Holy Week I prayed silently for that person by name and also prayed for understanding on my own part of his situation; what could cause this anger and bitterness and malice, and how could I respond? Could I turn my heart of stone (fear, resentment, anger, irritation, suspicion) into a heart of flesh? No matter what you think of prayer or God, know that this mindful, intentional shift in perspective worked. By the end of the week I was able to not grit my teeth when I faced him, to reflect with compassion on his misery rather than react resentfully.

That’s love correcting everything that stands against love. That’s justice. It’s not perfect. It’s not complete – it’s an action, correcting. It’s not done yet, and may not be in my lifetime. But things will get better, and if we look hard enough, and reflect carefully enough, they will have begun without us.

 

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