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Archive for December, 2015

I  ordered The Illegal by Lawrence Hill at a library patron’s request a few months ago even though it doesn’t come out until Jan. 25. So when the book’s publicist got in touch and asked if I’d like to review it, I decided to give it a read. It’s a good time of year for a fast-paced novel, and I finished it in a couple of nights.

Hill’s story centers on Keita Ali, a boy from Zantoroland, a tiny island nation separated by the South Ortiz Sea from Freedom State, a larger, richer, whiter island nation. Zantoroland consistently produces excellent marathoners, and Keita aspires to be one. In the early chapters of the book we hear about his childhood, a coup in Zantoroland, and his journalist father whose stories appear around the world. In the latter part of the novel, Keita escapes to Freedom State, fearing for his life and his family. In Freedom State we meet both the rich and powerful and the residents of Africtown, a slum ruled unofficially by larger than life Lula DiStefano. And we learn that Keita has a very limited time to win enough races to ransom  a member of his family held by the government of Zantoroland.

The book certainly addresses timely topics — racism, cultural misunderstanding, fear of refugees, illegal immigration, economic and opportunity inequality, exploitation of women and the poor, sex trafficking, organized crime, corruption and graft, gender discrimination, and mistreatment of the elderly. But that’s an awful lot to stuff into one novel. Some of the characters are interesting, like John, a mixed race teen making a documentary; Viola Hill, a wheelchair bound lesbian reporter with far more ability than her editor sees; and Ivernia Beech, a white woman in her eighties who funds the prize John wins, and whose son wants her ruled incapable of living independently. Even Lula, the “queen of Africtown” who runs a brothel and nightclub but also organizes protests and presses the government for electricity and plumbing for the district, is villainous but potentially intriguing.

But these and other characters, including Keita, face so many obstacles — illnesses, crimes, and the aforementioned laundry list of social ills — that it’s hard to get to know any of them as the story rushes to its dramatic, action-packed conclusion.  Some of the subplots didn’t enhance the story so much as further complicate it.

I don’t want to be a total humbug this Christmas Eve. The issues the novel raises make it a potential book club pick for groups who like wrestling with ideas, especially in light of the crazy remarks some of our politicians have made about refugees and immigration lately. Hill’s writing and eye for detail are both fine. I absolutely loved the way Ivernia quietly subverts the official stance on illegals by issuing library cards. I just couldn’t stop seeing the writer as a puppet master pulling the strings, and to me, a good book doesn’t show the author’s machinations.

The Illegal isn’t bad, it just has flaws it doesn’t need to have, given Hill’s skill and talent. I think his ambitions for this novel simply outstripped the structure he had to work with.

 

 

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Three years ago I wrote here about Life After Life, Kate Atkinson‘s brilliant puzzle of a novel which featured Ursula Todd, who seemed to be born again and again into the same life, lived a little differently each time. I’ve just finished the novel Atkinson calls a companion, rather than a sequel, the story of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy.

A God In Ruins, unlike Life After Life, is mainly concerned with the characters’ adult lives. There’s a chapter in which Teddy is a child, but most of the remaining 400 some pages are about Teddy’s WWII service as a bomber pilot, and then his postwar life. In 2012, he is dying in a nursing home.

We learn of his time piloting Halifaxes out of a base in Yorkshire, the crews he serves with, and his several tours of duty. “Well, the job isn’t finished yet,” he writes in a letter when his family wonders why he went back to flying, instead of staying out of danger once he’d done his part. “The truth was, there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do. Flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was.”

Just as Life After Life was, among many other things, about the wartime experience of civilians in England who risked their own lives to aid people during the Blitz, A God In Ruins is about the men who flew for England, carrying our raids that were, for the first time, targeting civilians, firebombing cities, in the name of bringing the German war machine to its knees.

Teddy meets Ursula in London on leave, and they have a conversation about this “area bombing.” She asks, “Indiscriminate attacks. The civilian population considered to be a legitimate target — innocent people. It doesn’t make you feel . . . uncomfortable?” Teddy responds defensively, pointing out that Germany started the war, to which Ursula says, “I rather think we started it at Versailles.”

Teddy sees her points. He is in a difficult position, walking a line, as so many people do, between day-to-day truths and “big T” Truth. And he knows it. He says he wishes he could go back in time and kill Hitler, and Ursula says, “you could keep going back, unpicking history all the way, until you arrived at Cain and Abel.” Teddy responds, “Or the apple.”

And that, I think, is one of the things this book is about. Could mankind really turn out differently? Or are we destined to wage war, and is that a struggle against our very selves at heart? What makes us turn away from innocence and beauty  (this book is full of lovely countryside, meadows, birds, and plants) and choose instead to destroy each other, and ourselves?

But these questions, about human nature and goodness, our capacity to be kind or cruel, to love or not in the name of gain (our own or some other, perhaps national) are all part of the story, and certainly a continuation of Life After Life, but are in a way subverted in the end by an even greater question. Atkinson says in the author’s note: “And of course, there is a great conceit hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination . . . .” I can’t explain this without giving too much away. I had no idea what was coming, I must say, until the last fifty pages, and even then I wasn’t sure I was fully understanding what was happening. Atkinson gets at the heart of what is real and what is imagined, pushing the fictional envelope while also writing what is in many ways a much more traditional novel than it’s companion.

Teddy turns out to be every bit as marvelous a character as his sister, and the writing is also both keen and lovely. I wish I’d had a long stretch to really immerse myself in this novel, because it deserves to be read that way. Even in snatches before bed, it was a book I didn’t really want to end. And when it did I was left sitting, thinking, absorbing, and holding what I’d just felt. Atkinson makes clear the full marvel — for good or ill — of being human and the strange mixture of pleasure and pain that living brings. A God in Ruins is in a way a tribute to the capacity of the human mind. If you haven’t felt amazed by what you’ve read lately, this may be the book for you.

Should you read Life After Life first? I think this book could easily stand alone, but as a pair they definitely compliment each other.

 

 

 

 

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Last May I wrote here about being pleasantly surprised by Me Before You  by Jojo Moyes. Last night I stayed up waaaayyyyy later than I should have reading the sequel, After You. Some people would probably derisively categorize this as “women’s fiction.” I don’t care — first of all I think labels are lame, and second of all, any book that keeps me awake because I can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen to these people is a good read.

When After You opens, Lousia Clark is reflecting on the eighteen months that has passed since the events at the end of Me Before You. She misses Will and doesn’t feel she’s doing what he asked — “Just live.” Louisa has moved to London but she’s stuck in a dead end job at an airport bar, the person she most frequently converses with runs the Mini Mart, and she’s drinking more than is healthy.

And then she has a freak accident. Her family, who had previously stopped speaking with her (because of the events at the end of Me Before You that I don’t want to give away), rush to her side. Louisa is happy to have her family back and the accident gives her some resolve. She’s going to turn things around, get a better job, start living. She joins a Moving On grief support group, mainly to appease her mother. And then Lily shows up.

Lily is sixteen, and she claims, to Louisa’s total shock, that she’s Will Traynor’s daughter. She has a terrible relationship with her mother, she’s been in trouble at school, she’s “a handful.” But Louisa can sense the hurt beneath the bravado, perhaps because she has her own private pain and public face. And getting to know Lily lets Louisa relish her memories of Will, as she tells the girl about her father.

In the midst of all this, Louisa gets reacquainted with Sam, the paramedic who took her to the hospital and with Will’s parents. As she worries about the people she cares about she tries to work out what “just living” will mean for her. There are a number of twists and turns and a lot of emotion, and I enjoy how Moyes gives her characters really interesting lives. Lily turns out to be a terrific gardener, for example, and Sam is building himself a house. Louisa’s mom takes a continuing education course in feminism and stops shaving her legs. All the little details make these people come alive.

At the end of After You Louisa has made a big decision and is about to embark on a new chapter in her life. I wondered whether Moyes has already decided there will be a third book? I’d certainly like to know how things turn out for Lily, Louisa, and the others. After You wasn’t quite as gripping as Me Before You — the drama builds more subtly, and the material is a little more familiar —  but it was still a lovely, entertaining read.

 

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If you’ve followed bookconscious for awhile you know I love Jane Gardam. I just finished The Hollow Land this morning, which I’ve had on my shelf for some time but remembered when I noticed on Facebook that Gibson’s Bookstore book club is discussing it on 12/7.

This lovely book is set in a village in Cumbria, and is listed among Gardam’s work for children, although I think it is absolutely a book for everyone. It’s a series of linked stories about Harry Bateman, who is a little boy the first time his family comes to stay in an old farmhouse called Light Trees, which is owned by the Teesdale family. From the start Harry and the Teesdale’s boy Bell, who is a little older, are friends, and over the years, the Batemans become a part of the community. Harry and Bell get into a number of childhood scrapes, getting stuck in an old silver mine shaft (hence the hollowness of the land), getting lost in a blizzard while they were off “on an icicle ride,” and in Harry’s case, tangling with the Egg-witch and her ancient, and by all reports dotty, mother, Granny Crack.

Gardam has a knack for rendering something as simple as a scruffy hillside beautiful: “They began to climb the far side of the cleft, pulling themselves up by bushes and rocks. A sheep racketed away from them from behind some gorse bushes and once a family of grouse shot up from under their feet making a noise like wooden rattles.” These descriptions combined with Cumbrian dialog and the telling of the quiet rhythms of the seasons — blackberry time, sheep shows, etc. — infuse the book with a deep sense of place.

What ties the stories together and makes The Hollow Land a cohesive whole is not only that sense of place but also the friendship of Harry and Bell and their families. This is a book about love, and about community, and also about loyalty and preserving what makes a place special. Harry tells Granny Crack, who says she’s never seen London, “It’s all right . . . . Up here’s better. More seems to go on up here.” As the generations grow they stay or return, even as the world changes. When Gardam wrote it she was cementing the place right into the future — the last story is set in 1999, and she published The Hollow Land in 1981.

If you’ve loved a place like Light Trees, a house “away from it all” where as a child you knew anything could happen, you’ll love this book. But even if that’s not a familiar experience, you’ll savor Gardam’s evocative prose and be transported to a place where, as Bell reassures Harry when he’s worrying about things changing, “Summat’ll fetch up. . . . See what tomorrow brings. It of times brings summat.” Timeless words for any kind of trouble. Like all good books, The Hollow Land speaks of things beyond the words on its pages.

 

 

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The subtitle of Bacon & Aphramor’s book is What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand About Weight. An acquaintance who is a nutritionist recommended an article about body respect on Aphramor’s site Disruptive Women (yes, she had me at Disruptive Women) because she knows I have a teen daughter. I was so taken with the ideas in the article that I got the book on inter-library loan.

You’ve probably noticed that so-called sacred truths of dietary advice are frequently debunked. A widely discussed recent example was the Time magazine article last winter that examined why fat had been demonized when it turns out it’s not so bad. And dieting? Dieting, it turns out can make you fatter. Exercise? It won’t necessarily help you lose weight. I could go on, but you get the idea. This book is mind-blowing. And at heart, quite practical. We all have a “setpoint” — basically, a natural weight we settle at when we aren’t worrying about our weight. What Aphramor and Bacon suggest instead of dieting and following an exercise regimen is — get this — listening to your body.

They admit it isn’t easy, and it will take time to get used to, but they offer step-by-step plans to enjoy “Health at Every Size,” by respecting oneself and cultivating that respect through eating well, moving (their term for exercising) in ways that are satisfying and fun, and paying attention to emotional well being. All of which requires mindful awareness and a willingness to be open minded and try new things.

Why is that so hard? We’re conditioned to believe we should look a particular way, and to associate fatness with laziness, lack of willpower, or bad habits.We live in a sizeist society. Just yesterday, the BBC reported “fat shaming” on the Tube and around London. Aphramor and Bacon touch on the social justice aspect of this argument by noting there’s a great deal of evidence that people who are poor or who lack a “sense of agency” in their lives tend to have more health problems and to be stigmatized for them.

Body Respect notes that living in a world where being fat is “bad” not only stigmatizes people, it also causes our cultural obsession with body shape and size. Almost everyone has or is exposed to disordered thoughts about eating. Obesity is associated with disease and death, even though in many cases, other health and genetic factors are more debilitating than someone’s weight. If that’s not challenging enough to the status quo, Bacon and Aphramor go on to ask readers to let go of notions of “overweight” altogether.

I’ve read things along these lines before — I’ve written here about many mindfulness books, and I’ve read several articles in Atlantic Monthly about faulty scientific studies and the diet industry. I know that most of the diets Americans follow are not effective, that exercise should be enjoyable to be maintained. But Bacon and Aphramor say what I know to be true in a way I’ve never heard it said before — something Paul Harding says is a hallmark of good writing. He was referring to fiction, but good nonfiction can do the same thing.

Today I let my colleague who orders nonfiction know that this is an important read. It’s going to be on order at our library soon.

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