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Honestly I picked up The Great Believers because in the same week, a friend from college posted about what an amazing book it is and Rebecca Makkai was bullied and threatened over a tweet. These quite disparate bits of information made their way to me via social media and both reminded me that I’d been meaning to read Makkai’s third novel. Trolls are going to troll, but I could read this book as a tiny act of solidarity with its author.

My friend is right. This is a beautiful book. I’d avoided reading it when it first came out because I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to read about young people dying. But it turns out, that while that is a central piece of the story, I needn’t have feared. The Great Believers is not really about dying, but rather about how we live when the world falls apart.

The story follows Yale, a young man living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, and Fiona, the younger sister of one of Yale’s good friends, Nico. Nico is among the first of Yale’s immediate circle of friends to die of AIDS. The Great Believers alternates between the 1980s and early 90s, when Fiona cared for a series of Nico’s friends as they became infected and died, and 2015, when she travels to Paris to find her daughter Claire, who has been out of touch for a few years and is now a mother herself.

Two threads tie the main characters’ stories together — how we live in a time of catastrophe and what those who live must contend with afterwards, and how art both tells the story of the people it portrays and protects their secrets. It’s also the story of the shame and fear that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s as people got AIDS, and the judgement and bigotry society perpetrated on them. I remember the irrational fears about AIDS, and the open homophobia. Makkai writes about these things as an organic part of her characters’ lives, never over or under dramatizing.

That’s one of the remarkable things about this book. Even though she’s writing about life and death, about tremendously painful things — even plumbing what one character calls “the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love” — every word fits. Makkai does not include a single scene, a single character, a single thought, that doesn’t need to be in this novel. She evokes places, times, feelings, without any fanfare and without drawing attention away from the story. I recently read a book I strongly disliked because it felt like the author’s every move was visible and that the book was a series of artistic stunts meant to display her prowess.

Makkai, by contrast, just tells a damn good story, very well. In a way that makes you want to stay home from work, turn off your phone, and keep reading (didn’t, but I sat at my desk wishing I’d done so). I was thoroughly invested in what was happening and even when it was clear what might happen next, the story flowed so seamlessly and the characters gave me so much to think about that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not going to try to describe the story — it’s complicated and you should just read it.

I’m honestly a little wary of books that win a bunch of awards or show up on “best books” lists, but this one is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. The Great Believers is a very good read, one that tells hard truths and exposes serious flaws in the world while also reminding readers of the best aspects of humanity, and the “miracle” of being alive with the people we love. If you’re looking for a good read, something to get lost in and talk about, something that you’ll be glad to have humming along in your heart after you put it down, read this book.

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When I read The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair couple of weeks ago, the section on heliotrope included notes Oscar Wilde makes in his play An Ideal Husband about the villainess Mrs. Cheveley when she enters a party at Lord and Lady Chiltern’s house in Grosvenor Square: “She is in heliotrope, with diamonds.” Just as I followed the trail from A Month in the Country to Under the Greenwood Tree, I decided this afternoon to read Wilde’s play and see whether Mrs. Cheveley, who St. Clair’s describes as Wilde’s “deliciously immoral antiheroine” and one of the many “badly behaved characters . . . often described as wearing the color” in literature is as wicked as all that.

And she is. I think I’ve only ever seen one play by Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest. I’d forgotten how funny he is. An Ideal Husband could be about rich politicians today . . . in fact I think it would be fun to see a contemporary setting. Lord and Lady Chiltern are pillars of London society, he a member of Parliament, she his political partner and very involved in worthy causes. They are widely thought of as good people. At a party, Mrs. Cheveley shows up, fresh from Vienna where she’s been living, and promptly blackmails Lord Chiltern. She has evidence of Chiltern selling insider information to a rich Baron when Chiltern was a young man, “well-born but poor.” She wants him to make a speech promoting a project he is set to denounce, which would make her a fortune. She threatens to expose his earlier misdeed if he doesn’t do what she wants.

Chiltern is terrified, not of losing his own position, but of disappointing and possibly even losing his wife. He turns to his dear friend, Lord Goring for advice. Goring is a vain young man whose father thinks he is lazy (his equally silly love interest, Lord Chiltern’s younger sister Mabel, counters this by noting that among other things he “changes his clothes five times a day and dines out every night of the season” and is therefore not “leading an idle life”). But he is a loyal friend, and does his best to help, to great comic effect.

The play moves along at a good pace and covers only one twenty-four hour period, so it was a quick read. Wilde skewers London’s “season” and comments acerbically on marriage, wealth, and greed — Mrs. Cheveley is really a nasty, selfish, mean-spirited person who has apparently despised Lady Chiltern since they were young and has stolen jewelry which she has the audacity to wear. But he is gentle on Chiltern, or so it seems to me. I could see how tempting it was for the young Chiltern to do what he felt necessary to put himself in a position of influence, and how he’d spent his life trying to make up for his ill gotten gains by using his ambition for good.

Wilde also writes fairly bitterly about relationships. At one point Chiltern is addressing his wife, after telling her about how he couldn’t admit his crime to her because she’d built him up into something he was not: “Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses.” That’s a pretty dark view of marriage.

I also appreciated this bit of Goring’s advice: “Well, the English can’t stand a man who is always saying he is in the right, but they are very fond of a man who admits that he has been in the wrong. It is one of the best things in them. However, in your case, Robert, a confession would not do. The money, if you will allow me to say so, is  . . . awkward. Besides, if you did make a clean breast of the whole affair, you would never be able to talk morality again. And in England, a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician.”

That to me is painfully funny — I love the understated ” . . . awkward”  and isn’t it true that politicians love to moralize, especially the ones who’ve done immoral things themselves? This passage seems to me to relate to much of what’s still wrong with politics and public perception of politicians today. An Ideal Husband was a really fun Sunday afternoon read. I’m interested in reading more — we have a a book of Wilde’s complete plays, so the next time I’m between books and casting about for something short and entertaining, I’ll know where to turn.

 

In the foreword to A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr notes, “During any prolonged activity, one tends to forget original intentions. But I believe that, when making a start on A Month in the Country, my idea was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” So when I finished Carr’s novel last weekend I decided to read Hardy’s next.

While Carr places his story in a village where tradition and social propriety are important and where the local vicar seems to wonder about whether he’d be better off with another assignment, his story is a melancholy look back at a summer when two war veterans, still processing their recent experiences, come to live and work in a village. They each harbor wounds from their personal lives, too, and the book turned out to be less a rural idyll than an examination of a changing society, seasoned with the tension of two young men whose futures are uncertain, and the temptation each feels in attractions that are forbidden to them (Birkin is briefly but dangerously drawn to the vicar’s young wife and Moon is homosexual at a time when that could land him in jail).

Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree is truly a rural idyll — one of his “Wessex” novels. It’s a much gentler story, of a young man in a village, Dick Dewy, who is in love with the school mistress, Fancy Day. Dick is from a large family and follows his father into tranter work (transportation or peddling from a horse carriage), and also sings in the “quire” with him and other village men, accompanied by various stringed instruments. Fancy comes from a slightly better family and is educated, so their relationship is endangered by her father’s aspirations for a better match and a couple of rival suitors.

The details of the social fabric of Hardy’s fictional village are vivid, and the characters are interesting. He covers some of the same ground as Jane Austen and George Eliot in this novel, with domestic and social drama at the center. Hardy takes on including people who are somewhat outside the norms in his story,  including Fancy’s step mother who seems to be what we’d identify as obsessive compulsive today and Leaf, a developmentally disabled man. But he treads some of the same topics, showing Fancy caught up in keeping a secret from Dick and also for a little while, appearing undecided about whether or not she loves him.

The book is written in colloquial language that slowed me down a bit. I enjoyed the side plot about whether to have organ or strings and voices accompany the congregation’s hymn singing. It was entertaining, and interesting to read and to contrast with A Month in the Country.

In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

Don’t worry, I’m still here. I know two weeks is a long time between bookconscious posts. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, for one, and also I spent over a week reading a book I disliked and don’t want to blog about. But I also read The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair which I enjoyed very much, but which took longer to read because it’s a collection of dozens of dense, fascinating brief essays and each requires careful attention. There is nothing to skim here — nor would you want to. St. Clair carefully and skillfully connects each color to the social, cultural, and historical context in which it was created or dominated as a pigment.

I heard about the book from an episode of 99% Invisible, one of my favorite podcasts. I think if you listen to St. Clair talk with Roman Mars you will want the book immediately, as I did. Part of its charm is St. Clair’s voice — she writes authoritatively but personably, so that you feel as if a very smart friend of a friend is talking to you. This keeps what is arguably a very specialized topic — the history of 75 different colors in art, fashion, and decor — from feeling impenetrable for readers who may never have really given it any thought before. Here’s a taste of her writing, in the essay on Heliotrope (a shade of purple):

“While this hue’s fortunes have suffered something of a collapse in the real world, it has a distinguished literary afterlife. Badly behaved characters are often described as wearing the color . . . . The word is pleasurable to say, filling the mouth like a rich, buttery sauce. Added to which, the color itself is intriguing: antiquated, unusual, and just a little bit brassy.”

Honestly, even though I like art and history, if I hadn’t heard this episode, I’m not sure I would have picked up The Secret Lives of Color other than to gawk at it’s lovely cover and the rainbow effect of the colors printed in strips that frame each essay (the book’s design enhances the text perfectly). But I’m very glad I heard about and then sought out the book. It’s an unusual format, just right for the topic, and a terrific read, appropriate for times when life is so hectic that finishing one exquisitely interesting, well-written essay is just what you can manage in the evening.

When I saw The Summer Book by Tove Jansson at The Green Hand bookstore in Portland in May, I was intrigued. Jansson is the Finnish-Swedish author of the Moomin books, and I didn’t realize she had also written books for adults. This book is about a young girl, Sophia, who spends summers on an island with her father and grandmother — by page nine we learn her mother has died. The book is made up of twenty-six brief chapters, each a glimpse into Sophia’s life.

Jansson herself spent most of the summers of her life on various islands in the Pellinki and Stockholm archipelagos. She describes both the wild natural beauty and the impact of people’s presence on the islands very vividly in The Summer Book (I could picture the house where Sophia’s family lived because two summers ago I read Finnish Summer Houses).

But far more than simply being evocative of a beautiful place, The Summer Book captures the strangeness of being a small motherless child growing up with a fair bit of freedom and a quirky grandmother who is a bit childlike herself. They talk and walk and play and Grandmother lets Sophia do things her father wouldn’t. They scold each other and use bad words and sing and Grandmother smokes.

Jansson tells readers what Sophia is feeling —  she gets angry with her cat for killing birds and stops speaking to him, she feels suddenly afraid of a seal skull she found on the beach, she shouts and gets frustrated and irritated with a friend who comes to the island and is afraid of the boat and the bugs. Jansson also tells readers what Grandmother is feeling. At one point she tells Sophia she couldn’t sleep and began “thinking about sad things.” She begins to describe being old: “I mean it all seems to shrink up and glide away,” Grandmother said, “and things that were a lot of fun don’t mean anything anymore. . . . ” Sophie gets upset and argues until Grandmother gives her an example: she can’t remember what it’s like to sleep in a tent, which Sophie has done.

“Well I’ll tell you what it’s like,” Sophia said. “You can hear everything much clearer, and the tent is very small.”

As Sophia goes on talking, Grandmother remembers better. And in exchanges like these, Jansson manages to portray what it’s like to be young and misunderstood and old and misunderstood. This is a lovely, quiet book, a series of sketches more than a story, an unfolding of life rather than a plot. If you want to be transported by your reading, this is the kind of book to do that. If you want a story with a beginning, middle and end, it might not be to your taste. I enjoyed it very much — I like to read books in translation, to experience a taste of some other place’s literature. I’m not going to any remote islands this summer, but The Summer Book took me to Tove Jansson’s and it was a wonderful place to visit.

I finished another book on the Yale Climate Connections blog “12 books about climate change ‘solutions’ that belong on your summer reading list,” Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. Presented by the Union of Concerned Scientists, this 2012 book is a non nonsense action guide. Nearly the entire book focuses on what we can do as individuals, in our communities, and as a society to reduce our carbon footprints, slow the pace of global warming, and protect the future. If you feel paralyzed or just uncertain about what concrete steps you can take, this book, and the accompanying website, is for you.*

The Computer Scientist and I have taken some steps already — some deliberately to reduce our footprint, like investing in hybrid vehicles, and some accidentally beneficial because they also make sense and save money, like trip-chaining or replacing our old drafty windows and adding insulation to the house when we replaced the rotting siding.

Although I found Being the Change very compelling, I’m not Peter Kalmus. Some of the changes he has made are impressive but not for me, like gleaning from dumpsters, converting an old diesel car to burn recycled vegetable oil,  or composting human waste. I admire his knowledge and commitment but I was left feeling like even if I took modest versions of his actions, things may not necessarily work out. Cooler Smarter‘s recommendations seem more accessible to me, a person with very few DIY skills who lives in a much colder climate than Kalmus.

Please don’t get me wrong — you should still read and enjoy Being the Change, learn what you can from itand feel glad for people living with this kind of passion for his values. Kalmus also addresses issues of justice and equity related to climate change in his book, and that is a key piece to understand. My advice: read both books!

Anyway, at my house, we’re going to try to take further steps, like eating less meat, installing programmable thermostats and living with colder winter temperatures in the house, and thinking carefully when we have to replace the water heater and our roof (both likely in the next decade) about energy use and conservation. Mainly we’ve committed to thinking more intentionally about climate change and the way all of our actions contribute to global warming.

As Cooler Smarter notes, “Can we accomplish the transition to a low-carbon society? Of course we can.” This isn’t a matter of not knowing enough, or not understanding what needs to happen — scientists have been telling us for decades. It’s a matter of will.

There is some good news. Cooler Smarter‘s team of science writers goes on to laud the progress already made around the world and shares their conviction that “Working together, we can step back from the brink of ecological disaster and move toward a more sustainable balance between the natural world and human civilization, ensuring a healthier planet for our children and grandchildren.” That is something very much on my mind these days, and in my prayers. I agree that it’s not too late, although it’s getting pretty darn close. If you’re frustrated by the inaction of our national government, take heart — there is so much happening in towns and cities across America to reduce the human impact on our world. And you can easily do so, too. Start by reading. You’ll be inspired to get going with this work.

*If you know anyone who is not yet convinced we should worry, Cooler Smarter also includes a very clear, 20 page chapter called “The Weight of the Evidence” that paints a compelling picture of the scientific consensus, although since this book was published, the situation has become more urgent and dire for earth’s climate.