After visiting England in May, it was hard not to get caught up in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June, especially since I was already a fan of the royal family. So in addition to a hodge-podge of other books, I read a couple of biographies of Her Majesty, recommended in the Jubilee edition of Tatler, which I read on the plane home.
First, I read Elizabeth the Queen: the Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith. Tatler suggested this book as “anecdotal” and “entertaining,” but I learned some things as well, particularly about the monarch’s constitutional role and her family history. But Tatler is right, it is also a dishy book (as much as one can dish on an ultra-discreet person like Queen Elizabeth), providing all sorts of tidbits about Elizabeth’s everyday life, down to the tupperware cereal containers on her breakfast table and the painful details about family troubles over the years.
Even though I’ve more or less followed the royals from afar since I was a teen, many details in this thorough book surprised me. Bedell Smith quotes from some very poignant letters Prince Philip and Diana exchanged as he tried to help her deal with her marital troubles. Also, I knew the Queen is into horses but didn’t realize the extent of her enormous business breeding, training, and racing them, nor did I know that she pretty much put the original “Horse Whisperer,” a trainer named Monty Roberts, on the map when she decided her trainers would adopt his methods after a demonstration. Bedell Smith’s tone is mostly admiring; where she critiques, she is very gentle.
Andrew Marr’s biography, The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, is shorter and looks a little harder at the monarchy itself, and spends time speculating on what may be in store under King Charles (or whatever royal moniker he chooses). Marr, according to Tatler, “turned monarchist” during this project, which also resulted in a three-part BBC documentary. His tone, while no less respectful and admiring of the Queen herself, is slightly more skeptical of royalty than Bedell Smith’s. Marr seems to be concerned that Charles has too many personal agendas to rule with the dignity and detachment his mother has mastered. Marr portrays him as an opinionated person surrounded by “yes” men who are chafing a the bit to run Buckingham Palace their way.
But it’s no tell-all; Marr’s book is elegant, his tone a little like listening to a favorite college professor, as he reaches into culture, history politics, and current affairs to illuminate his points. He argues that the monarchy is “a kind of release valve” for British society, and that the current Queen is aware that it is her position that is special, not herself. He points to this humble devotion as the reason she is both popular and effective. Marr explains that her longevity, which represents continuity through all political seasons and whims, provides the British people with a democratic figurehead. The Queen, he believes, is someone who truly represents all the British, no matter who they vote for, no matter what they believe.
Bedell Smith does cover politics but mainly from a historical/biographical point of view. Her book looks in more detail at the personal and emotional life of the Queen and the way she has held up over years of tireless work on behalf of her country. Both books are very interesting and each in their own way offer an excellent insiders view of the workings of palace life.
Before we leave Britain behind, I just read one of the poetry books I won in a Cinnamon Press mini contest last year, Daniel Healy‘s Facsimiles. I really enjoyed it. These are short poems, mostly in stanzas of two or three lines.
Healy uses strong images, often with a figurative punchline, as in “Impression.” The poem reads, “Light rain/at the harbour/a cold wind/catches the nets/a woman’s hair/black with water/the cut of waves/mapping the air.” For the first six lines, a clear, vivid, imagistic poem, and then those last two lines, “the cut of waves/mapping the air” take the poem to a more imaginative level.
In some cases Healy leans more heavily on metaphor, as in “Vista” “For once/the sky is perfect,/a collage/ of half-remembered/images turning/the right/shade of blue.” That’s lovely, the idea that the sky is made of our memories, and in this poem, they fall into place. A poem to ponder in a hammock, perhaps?
I really like the way Healy’s poems combine simplicity with koan-like wisdom, presented as a small puzzle to unlock. For example, “Twilight” “In the orchard/dark lines/against the grey/the scent of a branch/fresh-cut/sweeter/than the fruit.” I sometimes use a title as a sort of first line or part of the first line, and I think it’s effective here.
Like all of Cinnamon Press’s books, Facsimiles is a nicely designed volume, with an evocative cover and clean layout. It’s well edited — the poems belong together. You’d do well to see the poems on the page because my parsing leaves out the stanzas which are part of the way the poems unfurl.
From Britain to France. A co-worker at Gibson’s suggested I read Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore. I read Lamb a few years ago and really liked it, and had always intended to try another Moore, so I happily borrowed her copy. What an imagination Moore has. He’s a real storyteller.
Sacre Bleu is about a mysterious Colorman whose most tempting pigment, the sacre bleu of Mary’s robes in Renasisance art, seems to have a strange effect on painters. A baker and aspiring painter, Lucien Lessard, who has his own brush with the bewitching blue paint and the Colorman’s companion, Juliette, decides to get learn who this mysterious man is and why his colors seem to make artists go mad. His friend, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, helps him investigate the pigment’s properties and the identity of both the Colorman and Juliette, who seems to share certain qualities with a beautiful laundress Henri once loved, as well the muses and mistresses of a number of their other artist friends.
It’s a wild ride and the breadth of Moore’s research into the time period (the 1890’s), the artists, Paris (and specifically, Montmartre), painting, baking, and the other gorgeous details of the book make the rollicking story that much more interesting. Even without all the research, this would be a fun read. But you’ll learn tidbits about Renoir, Manet, Monet, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Whistler, Pissarro, (but not Degas — Moore tells readers in his author’s note, Degas was too much of a jerk in real life to include in the book).
Plus, Moore is one of the funniest writers around. Lest you think all that time spent researching makes his humor highbrow, keep in mind he has Bleu (Juliette’s real name — I don’t want to give away how she changes identity but its both grim and brilliantly conceived) refer to the Colorman as “Poopstick,” syphilis plays a major part in the Colorman’s evil machinations, and Moore uses the “f” word liberally. If it were a film, it would be R rated. Still Moore is funny and I think the mystery at the heart of the book is quite smartly done. I loved the historical aspects of the book, and I always like a book that incorporates magical realism.
Also set in Paris, in the months before the Iraq War began, is the book I read for the Europa Challenge this month, Alexander Maksik‘s You Deserve Nothing. This was a much-hyped title when it came out last year, one of the first in Europa’s Tonga imprint. It’s about a popular teacher at an international high school in Paris who has an affair with a student. Maksik tells the story from the point of view of that student, Marie, another student, Gilad, and Will, the teacher.
Maksik is a cinematic writer — a scene where Gilad and Colin, a tougher student, show up at an Iraq War protest and watch it turn ugly and sectarian is particularly vivid, as is a scene where a disturbed homeless man pushes a commuter in front of a train in the Metro. As I read, I could see the streets of Paris, Will’s bleak apartment, the cafes and parks that Gilad frequents. The moody world Will and his adolescent students occupy comes to life in Maksik’s skilled hands.
Will is known to his adoring students as “dude” and “Mr. S.” He’s an archetype of the cool-smart teacher who is passionate, pushing the envelope and disdaining administrative blather because he’s all about setting his students’ hearts and minds on fire. Students say he changes their lives.
Except, the reader is uncomfortable with him almost immediately. Maksik lets us know Will isn’t quite as great as his students think. His best friend at the school, a woman named Mia who is also a good teacher but perhaps not as flamboyantly admired as Will, puts up with his distance, his silence, his inconsiderate behavior. There’s an uncomfortable scene where they are having dinner at her apartment with French friends who mistakenly assume Mia and Will are a couple. Will comes across as emotionally frozen, or indifferent. It’s hard to tell.
As the book proceeds, we learn bits and pieces about Will — he left his wife, apparently with little explanation, after his parents died. He teaches Sartre, Faulkner, Keats, Thoreau, Shakespeare, Camus. He talks a good game to his students about courage, about “the distance between desire and action,” encouraging them to “encounter” themselves, to engage with the world and each other, to argue their points in his class.
Meanwhile, Maksik portrays him as someone who is mostly just going through the motions, who does things to please himself, and who cares about other people only to a point. Will spends his life talking about how to live, but he mostly seems to live in his own little bubble; his interior monologue is quite focused on what he is seeing and experiencing, as if his mind is its own cinematographer, seeking the most beautiful way to capture the scenes he’s seeing. When he considers others it seems to be only slightly.
I didn’t like Will, and Maksik’s portrayal of Paris is pretty grim, as a place hard for outsiders (and almost every character in this book is an outsider in some way) to fit into, beautiful but distant (kind of like Will). I admired Mia, and some of the students at the school; Gilad is everything Will can’t seem to get around to being. His father beats his mother, he’s never felt at home anywhere, but Gilad is transformed by what he’s reading in Will’s class and is able to speak to his parents openly, to be true to his beliefs and his feelings as he comes to understand himself and them. I felt bad for Marie, whose mother is obsessed with her daughter’s appearance and who seems to just want to be loved, but she is one dimensional — we hear only about her affair and her toxic mean-girl friendship with Ariel, another student, and her distant parents, but little else.
Even though the book is uncomfortable and the characters, especially Will, somewhat unsympathetic, I think in the end it’s a “good” book because it forces readers to think about the questions it poses about morality, conviction, courage, charisma, friendship, love. How should we live? What is our responsibility to ourselves and to each other? What does it mean to take a stand? How do we know what’s worth risking ourselves for) How can we tell what we can and can’t change? How should we judge ourselves and others? What’s heroism and not just hubris? It’s a hard book to describe because I admired it without really enjoying it.
But it did one thing I feel all great writing does: led me to another book. As an English and Spanish major at a liberal arts college, I’d read most of the authors Will teaches in You Deserve Nothing. But I’d never read The Stranger by Albert Camus, so picked that up next. I don’t really think I can write about it well in a few sentences, but I really enjoyed it. Camus’ prose reminded me of Hemingway’s — spare, compact, unadorned, with nothing extravagant or unnecessary. Like multiple adjectives! The story of Meursault is in some ways reflected in Will’s life. His mother dies, he is alone like Will, and without much thought he engages in an act of passion (in his case murder) that will change his life.
Meursault is not as charismatic as Will, he doesn’t preach an examined life or anything else to anyone, and he seems strangely detached. He agrees to marry his girlfriend (also Marie), to be friends with Raymond (whose tangled life connects him with the eventual murder), to make career decisions, with no emotion. Meursault repeatedly says this or that event or possibility or person mean nothing to him one way or another. But Camus lets us in on the way Meurseault’s crime changes him, how he begins to think in jail, to understand himself. One of the most unsatisfying things about You Deserve Nothing is that we have no idea how Will deals with being caught, fired, and disgraced.
Both books explore existential ideas – that we are human, but that doesn’t mean anything by itself, each of us by living our lives define the essence of human existence for ourselves. If we live true to our own essence rather than according to other people’s expectations and ideas, we will be truly human. But we exercise our free will in a world without any meaning other than our own existence and so our freedom to act and our responsibility to try to understand ourselves is in constant tension with other people’s similar efforts. It’s been a long time since I studied philosophy and I never got past an intro. course in college, so I may be missing something. But I think that’s the gist.
Anyway, existential heroes in books are hard to understand because we aren’t in their heads so from an observer’s perspective, their actions might seem self-absorbed to the point of sociopathy — murdering someone, sleeping with a student. Trying to understand them is challenging and maybe impossible. So if you like wrestling with ideas or considering philosophical questions, The Stranger will be fun. If you find all of this aggravating and want a more straightforward, black-and-white understanding of a book you read, it’s probably not going to be your cup of tea.
Before we leave French thinkers and writers, I read a little book I picked up at Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank, Time for Outrage by French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor Stephane Hessel. Hessel also helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has devoted his life to its ideals. This essay, printed as a pamphlet, has been an international best-seller.
Hessel exhorts younger people (pretty much everyone, as he’s in his 90’s) to remember the things his generation fought for during and after the war: freedom, equality, and a fairer, safer, more economically just society. He cautions against indifference and consumerism, and insists that even today’s overwhelming problems can be overcome by engaged activism. He cites Sartre, who was “an older schoolmate” as inspiration, because he taught a libertarian responsibility — “people must commit themselves in terms of their personal, individual human responsibility.” A far more positive take on existentialism than I had before I read Time for Outrage.
Hessel says this lesson stayed with him as he fought fascism and later, opposes totalitarian communist regimes. He grants that climate change, the loss of rights in a world dealing with terrorism and sectarianism, and the Great Recession are daunting but calls on people to support the Occupy movements and other nonviolent protest, to work for change, and to remember the victories of the last several decades: the defeat of Nazi Germany, the rise of democracy in former communist countries, the fall of apartheid, to name three. He ends his pamphlet with a sort of manifesto/blessing/koan “to you who will create the twenty-first century”: “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST. TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”
The rest of my reading was not so philosophical, although you could argue that the underlying myths that The Song of Achilles is based on are tales steeped in philosophy. Author Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for this re-telling, which focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his companion Patroclus. Miller says that as she studied The Iliad, she “discovered an amazing man: exile and outcast, loyal and self-sacrificing, compassionate in a world where compassion was in short supply.” She sets out to give him — Patroclus — his due and to tell the love story she found in her studies.
It’s an atmospheric book; Miller is both a classicist and a dramatist and she makes Ancient Greece real for readers. I’m not sure I agree with a literary prize going to a re-telling (although I know some would argue that there are no original stories but only those that have been with humankind since the beginning), but this is certainly a masterful re-telling. It’s a very sensual read, full of the blood and sweat of a world at war. And it’s a beautiful love story, which brought me to tears. The image conjured by the last two lines of the book — which I don’t want to give away — is as romantic as anything you’ll read anywhere.
Miller explores the character flaws that make Achilles a difficult hero to love; he’s petulant, self-centered, arrogant, all the pitfalls of being anointed a golden boy from birth. Patroclus, who grows up in Achilles shadow, sees himself as weaker, less clever, a lucky follower incapable of inspiring or leading. But Miller shows him growing into a wise, smart, diplomatic man, a healer, a counselor, and a rock not just for Achilles but for many of the Greeks.
Miller writes beautifully about the minor characters in this story as well — Chiron, the centaur who teaches Achilles and Patroclus; Thetis, the willful sea goddess who is Achilles’ mother; Briseis, the Trojan woman whose capture aggravates the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon and who sees Patroclus for the fine man that he is. Song of Achilles is a very entertaining read, and Miller has written a story anyone, whether they know the Iliad or not, can enjoy.
It’s staff pick time at Regina Library where I am a nocturnal librarian during the academic year. My choice is another prize winner, the 2011 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman. If you’ve never heard of Edith Pearlman, you’re not alone. It’s probably her chosen genre — short fiction — that keeps her from attaining fame, but she is very well respected among her peers. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, she’s won the Pushcart and O. Henry prizes, and her three earlier story collections, Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, and How to Fail won prizes.
Binocular Vision includes twenty-one previously published and thirteen new stories set in many places and featuring characters from different walks of life and various cultures and time periods. While she sometimes surprises readers, Pearlman’s writing is clear and resonant and never flashy, and her plots are straightforward, never hyper-dramatic. This is evocative, detailed, even painterly prose; she creates vivid people and places readers know intimately in just a few pages. She can write from the point of view of men and women, young and old, about a range of emotions and experiences.
Pearlman’s subject matter varies but her themes are classic — friendship and family, identity, courage, aging, facing illness, the search for meaning, the importance of love and conviction. Certain ideas appear in several stories; Pearlman examines the ways children view the adult world in “Inbound,” “Home Schooling,” “Binocular Vision,” “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag,” and “Aunt Telephone,” for instance. A series of stories, “If Love Were All,” “Purim Night,” and “The Coat” feature Sonya, an American who works for a relief agency in London aiding escaping Jews during WWII, then moves to a camp in Europe to help resettle Holocaust victims after the war, and finally returns to New York. A number of stories deal with whether we ever really know each other completely.
One of my favorites, “Jan Term,” is a story told in two letters and a term paper written by a young woman about her work in an antique shop. It’s funny, wise, thoughtful, and moving. Another story I loved is “The Story,” about the parents of a young couple having dinner together; in one scene, Pearlman paints a vivid picture of these very different people brought together by marriage, and the ending is exquisitely poignant. Bookconscious regulars know I am a fan of short fiction, and Pearlman is a master of the form.
For the Mindful Reader column this month, I began with two books helpful to New England staycationers: New Hampshire Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Granite State by photographer Jennifer Smith-Mayo and author Matthew P. Mayo, and New England’s Natural Wonders: An Explorer’s Guide by John S. Burke.
In their introduction, the Mayos head off complaints about possible overlooked icons, but they don’t explain their selection process or the order in which they present the essentials of our state like moose, Motorcycle Week, and Mack’s Apples. New Hampshire Icons is a tribute to “the rich and amazing historic, geographic, and cultural breadth” of New Hampshire. Each two page spread includes photos and information in a friendly, conversational tone. One improvement would have been to list websites in one line instead of squeezed into hard-to-read insets.
New England’s Natural Wonders is organized by type: waterfalls, monadnocks (a kind of mountain as well as the name of one here in New Hampshire), bogs, etc. Burke provides an overview of New England’s natural landscapes, and each section also includes a brief introduction. His detailed entries for each wonder offer geologic and human history, notable flora and fauna, directions and visitor information. New England’s Natural Wonders is a coffee table sized book full of photos, not a portable guide. If you want to know more about the breadth of natural wonders in our region, including twenty-three in New Hampshire, it’s a readable reference.
If you’re heading to the beach, any of the novels I read this month for the column would be a great read. Massachusetts author Cathi Hanauer’s Gone is one you’ll have trouble putting down. Eve Adams and her husband Eric have been married fourteen years. She’s supported Eric’s art career and adapted her own as a nutritionist through a move and motherhood. He’s in a creative slump, but she’s just published a book.
Eric takes her out to celebrate and afterwards drives the babysitter home. But he doesn’t come back. When she sees he’s using their credit card on gas and hotels, Eve realizes he’s safe but gone. She tries to smooth things over for her kids, keep the family afloat, and deal with her own feelings. She also has to care for her clients, including a group of wealthy older women trying not to get fat, a teen mom, and an obese man who is literally eating himself to death.
Gone’s hard look at long marriage, parenting adolescents, finding oneself midcareer and perhaps only mid-way to one’s life goals, is all compelling reading. I found Eve’s internal monologue on nutrition somewhat distracting from the rest of the story. That said, Gone’s probing of midlife as a time to reassess and of imperfection as part of life’s messy beauty is worth the occasional rant about processed foods. I admired the way Eve gets on with her life even as everything familiar seems to be changing but would have enjoyed hearing more of Eric’s story; what Hanauer does reveal of him makes for a fuller picture of Eve and their family.
Betsy Woodman is a native of New Hampshire who lived in India as a child. Her debut novel, first in a planned series, will fill you with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of her fictional hill station town, Hamara Nagar, in 1960. Her heroine, Jana Bibi, inherits her grandfather’s home, the Jolly Grant House. She’s widowed with one grown child living in Scotland, but she feels more Indian than Scottish herself. She decides to go and live in the house with her multilingual parrot, Mr. Ganguly, and her housekeeper, Mary. Soon after they’re settled, they learn that much of the town will be underwater if a planned government dam is built.
Along with the local newspaper editor and a shopkeeper from the bazar, Jana Bibi works to put Hamara Nagar on the map so the dam will be relocated. Among the characters who play a role in this funny, endearing story are the students at a nearby multinational boarding school, an introspective Muslim tailor, his singer nephew who dreams of film star fame, an American diplomat who is writing a guidebook, a power-tripping police commissioner, and a variety of people who come to work for Jana Bibi, including a Ghurka bagpiper who scares away monkeys and a messenger boy.
Woodman touches on serious topics like Partition, (when India and Pakistan were split) political corruption, and the challenges of a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society, but she handles all of this with a light touch. The novel is tender but not treacly, the many characters and plot twists fit together pleasantly but not predictably.
If you like Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky, atmospheric novels or you enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes will appeal to you with its international charms, multigenerational characters, philosophical bent, and gentle intrigue. The book includes discussion questions, a glossary of Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic terms, and an interesting essay about Woodman and how she came to write this novel.
Finally, a friend suggested I read Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman, set in Concord. I hesitated. Why would I want to read a dystopian mystery by an author who parodied my beloved Jane Austen? Because Detective Hank Palace is a delightfuly quirky hero, and Winters’ premise is compelling: a giant asteroid is on track to collide with earth, so why solve a murder?
I really had no idea how much I enjoy a good mystery until recently. I guess because so many mysteries these days veer into thriller/crime dramas with shocking plots and gory details, and I’m not a fan of reading (or watching) violent or creepy stuff. My grandmother always told me that mysteries were the best stress busters, and the best antidote to the news. It’s true they are easy to get lost in. A good one will entertain and challenge you, but not in a my-brain-hurts-and-my-soul-will-soon-too way (like novels with existential heroes!).
I enjoyed following Palace as he cracked his case. He’s a lovable loser sort of a hero, a guy who hasn’t gotten around to decorating his apartment, pines for an old girlfriend (who is smart and nice, not just beautiful), eats the same thing at a neighborhood greasy spoon all the time. And I loved the detailed references to Concord; Winters did his homework. He’s a witty writer, and the minor characters in The Last Policeman are intriguing. A woman key to Palace’s investigation works in insurance but is trying to write the perfect villanelle before the world ends. Nico, Palace’s younger sister, seems like a mess but Winters leaves readers wondering if she’s smarter and craftier than we realized. I’m looking forward to the next Hank Palace book.
Up next? I have 4 or 5 books to read for the August Mindful Reader, I really want to get to Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker, and I may break down and get myself Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam, which I swore I wasn’t buying until I finish my to-reads but would be part of my Europa Challenge. I heard another great review of it on Fresh Air and also listened to a clip of the wise Nora Ephron in an interview talking about how we should eat our last meal now rather than waiting, because you never know. Same with books.
I’m a little over halfway through The Library Book, which I am loving. I want to read so many other things, and I am not making much progress on my goal of setting aside an afternoon a week to get lost in a book. But having a full, busy life isn’t a bad thing, and Teen the Elder is home for a few precious weeks before he goes off to college, so I am going to enjoy every day and read when I can. I hope you do, too!