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Archive for October, 2018

My experiment with reading only (or at least mainly) Europa Editions books til the end of the year might continue — after the last book I wasn’t so sure — because The Flight of the Maidens was the kind of terrific read I hoped for. Of course, I cheated because I knew if Jane Gardam wrote it, I’d love it. This is another book Gardam published quite some time ago but reissued. It’s set in 1946 and tells the story of the summer before three young women head to college — all having won scholarships, all set to leave their small Yorkshire town for a world they know little about, mainly because of the war.

Una Vane is the daughter of a widow who opened a hair salon in the house when she had to manage on her own. Una is off to Cambridge to study physics, but she wants to spend her summer trying to understand her relationship with Ray, who grew up in a poorer part of town and is now a railroad man dabbling in socialist politics. Hetty Fallows is off to a guesthouse in the Lakes District to try to read everything she thinks she hasn’t read before she goes off to college in London. Her father, a gentleman before WWI left him shocked, is a gravedigger and her mother is overbearing and flirts with both the vicar and Hetty’s first boyfriend. And Liselotte Klein, who grew up the foster child of Quakers, spends the summer before she starts at Cambridge piecing together her identity. She can’t recall much about Hamburg, and she knows nothing of how her Jewish family fared and whether any of the rest of them got out. She lands with a mysterious elderly couple in London and then with a distant aunt on the California coast, trying to understand her past so she can decide on her future.

The three friends — Una and Hetty since childhood, Liselotte since they all began to apply themselves to getting into college — go through the pangs of leaving school and starting adult life, along with the challenges of adapting to the postwar world.They have very different experiences but are all in flight, as Gardam imagines. As they struggle to reconcile what they know with what’s in the world and with the hopes they have for themselves and others have for them, the three girls teeter on the edge of womanhood with all the people they know rallying around them to one extent or another. The presence of these people, both dear to them and maddening, provides insights into all kinds of detail about England in the 1940s.

Gardam’s ability to bring people so fully to life, in such vivid detail, never fails to delight. Such vivid people and dialogue — more than many of her books, I could imagine this as a film. I hope it becomes one. Anyway, a terrific read about the end of childhood, the beginning of growing up, the challenge of recovering from war for those in it and near it, the carrying on so many people do when their lives aren’t full of great achievements but they hope their children’s will be. I’m sad that I seem to be all caught up on Gardam’s reissues now.

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I checked out the eBook version of 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool  late Saturday night, having finished a previous Europa Editions book on Hoopla. The blurb sounded good — an award winner and nominee,  translated from Italian. The main character meets a boy who teaches her Chinese ideograms, and “Camelia learns to see the world differently and, in it, a chance for renewal.” “Bittersweet and funny at times, heartbreaking at others . . . .”

My take? Dreadful. If I wanted to read about hopelessness and unhappiness, I’d read the news. Sure, there was some magical realism (it’s December for months, for example), and tragedy can, potentially, be transformative. But this book never transcended despair, and I found the unreliable time/date distracting (in a “look at me, I’m doing strange things with my narrative” manner) and the characters unlikeable and even uninteresting. I couldn’t understand the point of many of Camelia’s actions, it’s extremely unbelievable that a family, even an immigrant family, could elude the notice of social services in a place like Leeds if they were suffering to the extent that she and her mother are throughout this book, and Wen, the love interest, is two dimensional.

I don’t usually give negative reviews, but here it is: unless you like despair and pointlessness, don’t read this book.

 

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Longtime bookconscious followers will know I am a big Jane Gardam fan. I was browsing on Hoopla and realized they have a large selection of Europa Editions, including Gardam’s Faith Fox, which I hadn’t even heard about. I did the Europa challenge a couple of times, reading a certain target number of books from that publisher, and I really don’t think I ever disliked a Europa Editions book. But once I was working in an academic library, I didn’t get in to my public library all that often, and so ended up reading a lot of other things. I’m very glad to have found this trove of Europa titles easily accessible on my iPad. I still don’t love eBook reading, but I saw a number of books I want to read, so I may be eReading for a bit.

Faith Fox, like many of the Europa Editions Jane Gardam books, was published in England many years ago. It’s the story of a baby whose mother died in childbirth, and what happens to the people in her family and their friends. We’re introduced to several of them — Faith’s mother’s circle, from the South of England, and her father’s family, in the North. Faith’s father, a doctor in the South, takes the baby to his brother Jack’s farm and retreat center, the Priory, where Jack takes in various people — former inmates, Tibetan refugees, etc. — and now his tiny niece. Jack is the hub to the rest of the characters’ spokes, an Anglican priest whose “gentleness, his innocence, and his loving looks” reveal what several characters believe is his holiness. Others think he’s daft. At any rate, Jack is the one through whom all the other characters are connected.

Gardam as always examines society from many angles in this brief story, from family relationships and the meaning and manifestation of faith to the cultural differences between northern and southern England, the impact of education, the different ways people manage grief, and how people who are different than the cultural norms get by. One of the things I love about Gardam’s writing is that she writes about life unvarnished, and doesn’t shy away from the tragedies and traumas, but also doesn’t dwell in them. People get on, one way or another, as they do in the world. Her stories almost always offer some hope for humanity, which I appreciate. And she is really good at inhabiting so many different kinds of characters, male and female, old and young, well off or not.

This was a delightful read, and I’m looking forward to some more Europa Editions!

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It’s been some time since I read something in translation, which longtime bookconscious followers will know is one of my favorite things to do. When I was through with the graphic memoir I wrote about last week, I shopped my shelves and nothing was jumping out saying “read me now.” So I browsed Hoopla, where I had borrowed the previous book, and came across Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, which I heard about over the summer and hadn’t read yet.

It’s a short novel about a thirty-six year old woman, Keiko Furukura, who has worked part-time in a convenience store since she was eighteen. She was there when it opened and is on her 8th manager. We learn that growing up, Keiko was different — she reacted to things like a dead pet budgie in a park quite dispassionately, and seemed to have a literal take on the world. Her parents alternately worried and felt mortified that their child was different, and so Keiko learned to fit in by saying very little, and making sure that when she did, she sounded like those around her.

In the course of this novel, Keiko figures out that her untraditional life — living in a shabby apartment alone, not dating or socializing much, working part-time in a job mostly taken by immigrants, people stuck between jobs, or students rather than having a career trajectory — makes other people uncomfortable. People like her sister, who is married and has a baby, or the few high school acquaintances she still knows.

So Keiko tries conforming to society’s expectations. I don’t want to give away details about the way that plays out, but I will say I found myself fearing for her, and so when Keiko makes a strong stand for being herself, it came as a relief. I know that’s all vague, but you really should read this book, and I don’t want to spoil it!

Murata and her translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, bring the culture of the Japanese convenience store alive — from the regulars and the specials to the management and the manual. I appreciated that bits of Japanese, like the greeting the store workers are expected to call out when shoppers come in, are left in tact. Murata manages to make Keiko both a sympathetic character and a symbol of conformist society’s dehumanizing effects on those who do not choose to be outsiders, but instead cannot fit in as expected. It’s a darkly funny book in some ways, although it did not make me laugh as some other readers have commented it did.

I really enjoy books like this that are windows into lives very different than mine. Convenience Store Woman is that, and it’s also a brief story that stays with you, simple in and of itself but carrying greater truths that may cause the reader to keep turning it over in their mind, wondering, and being thankful to have entered into this little world.

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I first heard about the graphic memoir The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui from reading Bill Gates‘ list of the best books he read last year, and I also heard about it from one of my favorite readers at my last library. Now my book club picked it and I finally got it off my “to be read” list! This was the first book I’ve read using Hoopla. It wasn’t a bad read that way — I downloaded it to my iPad. It beat either paying for it (although I might want to own it someday) or waiting for an ILL.

I loved this book, even though it was a tough subject. The art is wonderful — beautiful, expressive, and somehow both detailed and subtle. It’s a story that lends itself to the genre perfectly. How many times have you read a memoir and found yourself picturing various scenes? With a graphic memoir, the pictures take you into the story.

And this story is both particular and universal. Thi Bui writes about her parents, who are each shaped by the events of mid-20th century Vietnamese history, which they lived through. As a young adult, as she tried to understand her family’s history, Bui discovered the country’s as well, and I have to say, I had only the barest of understandings, so that was interesting to learn. The experiences of her parents and the particulars of their lives are specific to their stories. The universal human experiences, of loss, generational misunderstandings, changing roles and cultural shifts, fears about parenting, about raising a family well, growing up, functioning as both an adult and your parents’ child, understanding parents as people and not just parents, these themes are not only important to Thi Bui’s life and family, but to readers’ own lives and families. As Mohsin Hamid said when I hear him speak recently in Manchester about Exit West, “We all lose everything, eventually.”

He was talking about why authors write about things like the refugee crisis (the subject of Exit West). He also said, and Thi Bui says this in her introduction, that writers often write to answer for themselves some fundamental questions about life and the world. The Best We Could Do describes how we all come to realize as adults that is all anyone can do — our best. And it won’t always work out well, it won’t always solve every problem, we might face challenges and setbacks, but in the end, we love each other as best we can, and go on.

The book ends with Thi Bui reflecting on her relationship with her son. She remarks, “I see a life bound with mine quite by coincidence.” When you think about it, that’s what families are, and this beautiful book is a reflection on family and how we grow to understand those whose lives are bound to ours.

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Last week I went to hear Mohsin Hamid speak in Manchester because his book Exit West was our community wide read. I loved that book and Hamid’s talk was really interesting, so I decided to read his other work, starting with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I enjoyed it, but not as much as Exit West.

In Exit West there is a narrator who tells readers not only what’s happening in the book but what will happen in the future, which is a little disconcerting. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist there is a first person narrator who is addressing an American man in a cafe in Lahore in about 2005 or 2006. The story he tells is interjected with comments that are directed at this man, which feels a little forced. For example, the narration is peppered with questions that represent the other man’s side of the conversation, like “How did I know you were American?” or “What did I think of Princeton?” or “But you are at war, you say?” At other times the narrator tells us about the man’s facial expressions or what he is looking at.

As a result, we get a very limited view of the other man, who is almost a stage prop. The narrator, Changez, tells us the story of his days immediately following graduation from Princeton, when he vacations with a group of fellow grads and begins to fall for one of them, Erica, and returns home to start work at prestigious finance firm that values businesses. The book traces the time from spring 2001 to winter 2002, when Changez moves back to Pakistan. There are many details about his relationship with Erica, whose life is more complicated than it initially appears, and his work. But at its heart the book is about the geopolitical awakening he experiences in the new post-9/11 world, as the war on terror begins and India and Pakistan seem to be heading for war as well.

Hamid’s structural choice means that Changez gets the last word — and really, the only word, since his monologue filters the other characters’ points of view. I appreciated that; it’s good to have different point of view than the one that dominated print and broadcast media after 9/11 in America. There are also hints throughout the book that the American in the cafe is on “a mission,” has a military demeanor and build, and is perhaps armed. The ending is both tense and nebulous — we’re left not truly knowing what is happening in the final moments of the novel, but suspecting.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a good story, of a man who comes of age by realizing that none of the things he’s been raised to believe will help him get ahead — education, hard work, good manners, respect for one’s elders — will matter in the new world he’s thrust into. I’m still not sure if I understand fully the role of his relationship with Erica in that undoing; I’ll have to consider that further. It’s a unique book, and I’m glad I read it, but it’s unsettling.

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I’ve written about a number of Howard Mansfield’s books over the years here at bookconscious. Today on the bus back and forth to Boston I finished his latest, The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down, and I’m pleased to report that like all of his writing, it is both a delightful read and one that will leave you better informed and perhaps pensive. Mansfield has the gift of writing both clearly and intellectually. His topic this time is property, particularly the American concept of property as “the rock-solid part of our creed of individualism.” From the colonies to climate change, Mansfield traces the ways we’ve sought, fought over, bought or taken land, and how we associate land with identity and progress.

I learned some things, as I always do when I read his work. I had not ever stopped to think about who lived on the land where the interstate highways now run. I’ll never pass exit 8 on I91 without feeling for Romaine Tenney, the bachelor farmer who, faced with losing his farm to eminent domain for the highway project, freed his animals, set fire to his barns and house, and killed himself in 1964. I’ll never visit the White Mountains without thinking of the Weeks Act, which I’d heard of but now understand better. I had no idea that New Hampshire’s north country was clear cut and burned, so denuded that Concord and Manchester flooded because the runoff overwhelmed the Merrimack. without the flooding, and the impetus to protect the mills that were big business, national forests might not have been established in the east. Mansfield also tells of the dark side of the Weeks Act, which permitted the government to preserve land but not what’s underneath, which is why mining and drilling can take place on national land.

Although I am very aware of projects which propose to install wind turbines, electric lines, or gas pipelines through private lands, I hadn’t ever really considered the extent to which people’s lives are completely disrupted, often with little compensation, when such a project comes to their neighborhoods. And although I’m concerned about climate change, I hadn’t heard about some of the things Mansfield illuminates, like marshes “walking,” and communities having conversations now about how they will survive sea level rise. Or about how we both care and blithely go on visiting the coast as if it will always be there. I know I do.

The book is definitely about hard things, but Mansfield doesn’t leave us entirely without hope. His suggestion for how to move forward is based in a Buddhist idea of accepting the reality of fragility, and living as if things are already “broken.” It’s interesting, and complicated, and thought provoking. And he lets Tocqueville have the last word, writing about the wilderness he saw as he traveled America, knowing that the American penchant for “progress” would conquer it: “It is this consciousness of destruction, this arriere-pensee of quick and inevitable change that gives, we feel, so peculiar a character and such touching beauty to the solitudes of America. One see them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of hurry to admire them.”

If you live near a wild place that is transient — as most of us do — that will be developed, or drilled, or dug, or turbined, or covered in rising seas, go on. Hurry to admire them.

** I should add, I realized this morning, that this book has a gorgeous design, and is published by a wonderful NH indie press, Bauhan Publishing.

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