In February, the Teenager and the Computer Scientist took a trip to England. I traveled to England through books, as well as to Greece, Russia, Israel, Peru, China, India, Morocco, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, plus Virginia and New York. Sounds like a poor substitute for actual travel, but I made it to more places. I’ve always enjoyed vicarious travel through books, especially in the long gray months of winter. I love traveling, but in the mean time, books are a good way to get away.
While the boys were in London, I was reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London. Gibson’s co-hosted her reading at the NH Historical Society library last week. Her book is amazing — I’ve read a fair bit about WW II, but she tells stories I’d never heard before. In particular, she writes about the crucial role the American Ambassador to Great Britain, John Gilbert Winant, played in forging and maintaining the Anglo-American alliance.
It is a real shame that Winant is mostly forgotten today. He was a politician, but one whose ideals trumped party loyalty. He was a man with a privileged background in a position of power and influence, but he walked the streets of London during the blitz, lending a hand and asking people how they were doing. He was both a great thinker — his vision for a more just postwar world inspired everyone from cabinet ministers to striking coalminers — and a humble public servant. He eschewed luxurious quarters for a simple flat and made a habit of seeing ordinary people without appointments, while “important” visitors cooled their heels outside his office.
Olson brings Winant to life, along with Averell Harriman, Edward R. Murrow, and a host of lesser known Americans who worked to support England in her “darkest, finest hour,” to bring America into the war, and to defeat fascism. Some of Olson’s stories about America looking out for its own interests while London burned made me sick. I had read a bit about how desperately Churchill pleaded for America to enter the war in Paul Johnson’s book, Churchill. I did not know Truman cut off food aid to Britain after the war, nor was I aware that England didn’t finish paying off its American war debt until 2006.
Roosevelt doesn’t come out looking very good in Olson’s book — nor had he in Paul Johnson’s biography of Churchill, which I read last month. But Harriman’s story is fascinating, as Olson shows him growing into a real diplomat after manipulating his way into politics as a rich, ambitious business man. Some of the minor characters Olson introduces are also very interesting, like Tommy Hitchcock. He popularized polo in the U.S., was a model for two of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, and a leading figure in saving the allied bomber program during WWII. Until Hitchcock, Winant, and others finally prevailed on war planners to send fighter pilots to escort our bombers, they were regularly shot down.
If all of this sounds dry, it’s not in Olson’s talented hands. She manages to make relatively obscure, potentially boring historical topics like the Lend Lease program and the intricate bureaucracy of the Allies’ war planning come alive with good storytelling and fascinating characters. Olson also tells personal stories of wartime romances between Churchill’s daughter Sarah and Winant, and Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela and both Harriman and Murrow. And, as Olson told the audience at her reading, despite the bombing and deprivation, London was the most vibrant place in the world during the war. Olson certainly makes it vibrant with her descriptive, vivid passages about wartime life.
Another book set in England, this time contemporary England, that I enjoyed this month was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. This novel struck me as a sort of twist on the aga saga; Major Pettigrew is the main character, and we also meet his son and some of his friends, but he faces classic “aga saga” issues, like mourning a spouse, getting along with his grown child, seeking companionship in his twilight years, finding ways to make a difference, and getting involved in local issues after many years of being otherwise occupied. Simonson addresses classism, racism, consumerism, and religious discrimination with empathy and humor, in a novel that might amuse Jane Austen with its gentle social skewering.
But Major Pettigrew manages to be more than a contemporary novel of village manners. Simonson delves into the tensions British citizens of South Asian descent feel when they are mistaken for foreigners, the age old problem of belonging to two cultures, and even the struggle of honoring religious faith without veering into extremism. She also weaves a subplot around development versus land preservation, without making either side seem villainous (an ensuring both have a shot at acting ridiculous). And the book’s love story is tender and realistic, and like the Major, charming.
Joe Hill was at Gibson’s a couple of weeks ago and as we chatted but what we’d each been reading, he recommended City of Thieves by David Benioff. At the beginning of the book a young man sits with his grandparents and asks what it was like in the war, during the siege of Leningrad. The rest of the story is what the grandfather tells him. It’ll keep you turning those pages even after you realize you’ve stayed up too late.
Like Simonson, Benioff deals with serious issues via comedy, but his humor is much darker. He also introduces characters which could easily become cartoonishly “typed” — the Nazi SS officer, the wealthy Russian colonel whose family feasts while Leningrad starves, the young heroes — Benioff gives them each personality and none of them falls flat. I enjoyed the historical details worked into the story, as well as Benioff’s delightful dialogue and his main character Lev’s inner monologue. It’s a quirky, well told tale.
Another quirky, quick read I enjoyed this month is Zachary Mason‘s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Mason re-imagines many of Odysseus’s adventures in shards and fragments, which are meant to be newly discovered versions of the stories, left out of the “official” Odyssey. Like pieces of broken Greek pottery, some scenes are easier to make out than others.
I especially enjoyed a story in which two Odysseus’s converse — and you have to concentrate to follow which is the real one, and which the imposter. A fresh take on the Cyclops’ tale, told from his perspective as Odysseus’s victim, was also intriguing. Mason makes readers wonder if stories, like geometric models, might hold their shape but look different from each perspective — the way the juncture of an angle look different when rotated, a flat face offers one view straight on and another one seen from above.
This idea that perspective changes the story is true in The Caliph’s House: A Year In Casablanca by Tahir Shah. Shah left London a few years ago to move his family to a large, crumbling villa in Casablanca. Although he’d visited Morocco, living there brings a series of challenges, cultural and philosophical, as he tries to renovate the house without angering its resident Jinns, settle his young family, get along with the neighbors (some of whom don’t seem to want him there), and learn about his beloved grandfather‘s final years in Morocco. Ultimately his wife tells him if he wants to put all these demons behind him, he has to “be like a Moroccan.” The book is exotic and fascinating, and I’d like to read more of Shah’s books.
Last Friday, Ted Conover came to Gibson’s to discuss his new book, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today. Conover traveled around the world to tell the story of six roads in places as different as tropical Peru and Palestine. In each place he got out on the road with locals, so the stories he tells are not just of his own travels but of the lives of the people he meets. Conover manages to be both a fan of roads and a fair observer of both the troubles they bring, and the benefits. I liked that he didn’t give pat analysis but left readers to ponder the balance of progress and problems, both human and ecological. This is a book with heart.
Earlier in February, I enjoyed a novel that also examined “progress” and how we deal with it, socially, culturally, and technologically. I’m a huge fan of Jasper Fforde‘s mind bending literary thriller series, especially his Thursday Next books. But in Shades of Grey, Fforde outdoes himself.
Set in Chromatacia, a dystopian society in what was once England, this novel is wacky, rollicking fun with serious undertones. Chromatacia is divided along color lines. The colors people can see determine their status, work, and mate. This highly regimented society arose after the fall of our own, which is preserved only in artifacts and ruins; Fforde alludes to a disaster, but it’s not clear what happened.
As in his other books, Fforde pokes fun at government bureaucracy, class consciousness, and human nature; he is wickedly funny, even as he addresses issues that are often depressing in real life. Fforde’s imagined new world is so detailed and nuanced, I am simply in awe of his creativity. But he isn’t just imaginative, he’s also a good storyteller, who makes you root for and against the zany cast he’s assembled, and wish the book wouldn’t end. Luckily, a sequel is already in the works.
Another book that left me hoping to hear more from the author in the future is In An Uncharted Country, by Clifford Garstang. He’s coming to the store this week to read from this collection of linked stories set in Rugglesville, Virginia, a small Appalachian town. A customer recommended we invite him, and since then I’ve learned March is Small Press month, so it’s a good time to welcome a talented small press author.
I enjoyed the way Garstang wove different generations’ stories together. I especially liked the way “Flood, 1978,” “The Hand Painted Angel,” and “The Red Peony,” worked together. But I also enjoyed “William and Frederick,” which was less directly related to the other stories, and “The Nymph and the Woodsman,” which is simply beautiful, and tragic. Actually, there wasn’t any story I didn’t care for, and I can’t remember the last time I read a collection where at least one story didn’t disappoint.
While the boys were away, I took the Preteen to browse Manga. We’d tried looking online, but it’s difficult to pick books that way. She is not interested in Manga with “lovey dovey” storylines, instead preferring stories of magic, hold the kissing. She ended up with Hollow Fields, Hibiki’s Magic, Big Adventures of Majoko, and Tokyo Mew Mew. She liked Hollow Fields the best, by far — lots of mad scientists, robots, and flashbacks in time. She’s taking a Manga class and that has piqued her interest in the genre.
We took her to see the new Alice In Wonderland movie, so she is reading Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, in a pretty illustrated version we found at the library. She also read a fun graphic novel called Wonderland, by Tommy Kovac, which is about Mary Ann, the White Rabbit’s maid. And I found another library book she hasn’t started yet called The Other Alice, all about Alice Liddell. I also cut out this great op-ed from the NYT called “Algebra In Wonderland.”
The Teenager took a couple of books on the trip, but ended up having such full days that he went straight to bed. He has a cold, which morphed into “Atypical Pneumonia.” So he’s laid low all week. On the first morning after the antibiotics began to make him feel better, I found him with a pile of photography books, including a Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness and Porter‘s In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (thanks, Grandpa and Jan) and The National Geographic Ultimate Field Guide to Photography. He took some awesome photos on the trip, which you can see at his Flickr stream.
He also picked up Three Steps to the Universe: From the Sun to Black Holes to the Mystery of Dark Matter. He was telling me today that he’s always been fascinated by space and astronomy. In fact, while he was gone, the Preteen and I watched some home videos (she had a cold, too, and that’s something she likes to do when she’s not feeling well), and I got a kick out of seeing the scale drawings of the planets we made, colored, and hung across the playroom walls when they were small. We also enjoyed seeing his diaper box space shuttle, with soup can exhaust pipes. It’s nice to see him continuing to enjoy his interests, with a good read.
The Computer Scientist also took books on the trip. He read another Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island. He said it was captivating enough that he thought about it between reads, and enjoyed the way Lehane kept readers guessing right up to the end. He also read some graphic novels recently, including an adaptation from one his all time favorite books, The Stand, and The Ghost In the Shell.
While in England, the boys visited Blenheim Palace, home of the Duke of Marlborough, and birthplace of Winston Churchill. He took Paul Johnson’s Churchill along, and enjoyed that it was concise but gave him a complete overview. He also bought a book of Churchillian witticisms at the War Cabinet Rooms and Churchill Museum.
What books are we all looking forward to? The Preteen went on another Manga foraging trip last weekend and has a few new titles. The Teenager has some British soccer magazines stockpiled. The Computer Scientist has a couple of books I recommended (including Citizens of London and City of Thieves). I see a few books on his nightstand, too.
I have more books from authors coming to Gibson’s soon, like Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved, and I’ve requested a couple of the books at the library, including The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. In April the Gibson’s Book Club is discussing Robert Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno — with Mr. Pinsky joining us via Skype at Red River Theatres — so I need to read that. I also have an intriguing memoir in my stack, Making the Grades, about the author’s experiences in the standardized test industry, and an advance copy of a new novel due in April about a summer in Louisa May Alcott’s life.
I’d better go dig in.