Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for May, 2019

A few year’s ago I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. When I saw Sourdough at a used bookstore in New Haven a few weeks ago, on the $1 cart, no less, I thought it looked like fun. I’m about to study research methods for a solid week so my brain needed something fun. Sourdough was as predicted.

To be clear, fun does not mean lightweight. This is an enjoyable, fast paced read but it examines some big questions: does technology have a place in the way we produce food and nourish ourselves? Is organic, farm to table food part of the solution or part of the problem? What about technology? How do we determine the value of work? What makes a good life?

Lois Clary, Sloan’s heroine, is a brilliant programmer who lands a coveted job at a tech startup in San Francisco. She moves there knowing no one and works such long hours she doesn’t even have time to cook. But she finds a Lois club like the one she and her grandmother belonged to (just what is sounds like, women named Lois), and she grows fond of the two brothers who run a small take out operation illegally from their apartment making a strange, spicy soup and bread. She learns to enjoy their strange music and food, and then they leave for Europe, gifting her with a crock of sourdough starter.

Lois stays in touch with one of the brothers via email. She tells him about learning to bake bread, he tells her the history if his people (a fictional group called the Magz), his family, and his dream of opening a restaurant. She works and bakes, and then she gets a chance to participate in a strange underground market in an old missile storage bunker. She meets a whole community of people doing unusual and interesting things with food. She gets into the market because her bread is weird and because she programs robotic arms.

The rest of the novel is the story of how her view of work, baking, and life evolve as she becomes more committed to the market and its mysterious but anonymous founder, and more convinced that she can solve the puzzle of her life the way she solves the puzzle of teaching a robotic arm to crack an egg — “not by adding code, but by taking it away.” She creates a technical “blink” in which her robot “was no longer second-guessing its second guesses a thousand times a second.” She calls her code Confidence. And this work, along with her bread-baking and her new friends, convinces her to live more boldly herself.

A lovely, fun, and thoughtful book. If you like Marie Semple, you’ll enjoy Robin Sloan.

Read Full Post »

The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.

Read Full Post »

I finished KooKooLand by Gloria Norris this afternoon, feeling like I just wanted to get it over with. One Book One Manchester has made KooKooLand our 2019 selection. It’s a good book, and the voice and writing are powerful. But it’s not the kind of book I usually seek out (although a quick perusal of my last several reads might cause you to question that — I seem to be on a literary tour of the worst of human nature lately) and for me finishing it quickly was like ripping off a bandaid — I wanted to get on with it so it wouldn’t hurt so much. That said, Norris writes about hard things with incredible empathy, never veering into sensation or trope. The humanity with which she portrays nearly every person in this hard story is truly admirable. And this book is about surviving about the most dysfunctional upbringing imaginable and becoming your best self anyway.

KooKooLand is Norris’s memoir of growing up in Manchester, daughter of Jimmy and Shirley. They were friends with the Piasecny family, whose patriarch, Hank, murdered his ex-wife and whose daughter, Susan, in turn murdered him years later. Norris got to know Susan again as an adult, and shares the story of this woman who successfully sued New Hampshire to force the state to build a women’s prison, and who struggled with the legacy of abuse and mental illness in her family until her final years.

One reason Norris is drawn to Susan is that she knows “That could have been me.” Jimmy is nearly as violent as Hank, and in fact threatened to kill Shirley and his daughters pretty regularly. He breaks laws regularly, and involves the rest of the family. When Norris was a child, Susan was someone she looked up to who seemed to have everything ahead of her. Once they reconnect when Norris is an adult, she realized Susan “had already given me everything I needed years ago — a road map for my life. Just because she didn’t follow the map herself didn’t make it any less valuable.”

Norris writes this graciously, as I said, about just about everyone in this story. She seems like a remarkably open-hearted and generous person. Which kept me reading. It’s a moving story. At the end she thanks her immediate family members who all supported her writing this book. Norris must be one incredible human to gain their trust to write so openly  and honestly about their lives. I can’t wait to meet her next fall!

Read Full Post »

Last Friday I checked out a book for the weekend: American Spythe debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s cerebral in the same way that John le Carré‘s novels are — very much informed by the psychology and strategy of spy-craft and what makes spies tick. It introduced me to a part of Cold War history overlooked by history books that focus predominantly on white males (the kind of textbooks which dominate the American education system, or did when I was growing up). And it’s a page turner.

The spy of the title is a a black woman named Marie Mitchell, raised by New Yorkers of Caribbean descent. In the book’s opening pages she engages in a fight to the death with an intruder at her home in Connecticut. The rest of the book takes place in Martinique, where Marie’s mother lives, and where she flees with her twin sons with the help of a family friend. Once there, Marie begins a series of journals meant to tell the boys her story — their stories, too — in case she doesn’t return from trying to put an end to the threat that stalks her. We learn that she worked for the FBI, doing well until she ended up back in New York where her boss held her back with menial work. She was recruited by the CIA to get close to Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, and that story is what led to the attack on her life.

It’s both the terrific heroine — the merit of any good spy story is in its lead spy — and the incorporation of real events and people that I found compelling. It’s also a book which my grandmother would have loved. She introduced me to le Carré, and she loved books that had, as she put it “not one extra word,” by which she meant writing that was not only excellent, but contained no superfluous flourishes, spare storylines, or other distractions from good storytelling.

My grandmother was also a feminist and this book is full of wise observations about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood. Marie writes to her boys about a conversation she has with her oldest friend, a man she loves but is not in a relationship with: “He exhaled slowly, clearly frustrated with me. I didn’t care. There have been a lot of men in this world who have tried to shape it by getting it to conform to their own ideology . . . . I want something else. I want to form you into agents of change — that’s the way I want to fight.” A few paragraphs later she calls mothering, helping her sons become good people who can make a difference, “the most revolutionary work I could do.” My grandmother often told me almost exactly that when I was young parent, that the work I was doing raising my kids would make more impact than anything else, and I shouldn’t forget that.

American Spy is a terrific read! I didn’t love the ending, which felt abrupt — I don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but I also don’t like being left hanging. But I’m hoping it indicates that Wilkinson plans a sequel.

Read Full Post »

This past week or so I’ve been reading Sy Montgomery‘s illustrated memoir How to Be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animalswhich my book club is discussing next week, and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The friend who went to the Five Colleges booksale with me last year went again this year and got Strapless. I had picked it up myself at some point (possibly on a free cart), so when I asked her lately what she was reading I decided to read it as well.

I’ve written about Sy Montgomery’s last few books here at bookconscious — if you’ve been here with me you know she is an excellent writer who combines eye-opening, thought provoking insights into the animal world with similarly observant and self-aware insights into the human animal. Many of her books are part memoir — she is a large-hearted person who shares her own thoughts and emotions and that’s part of what makes her writing so delightful. Reading her work often feels like listening to a friend telling you about their life.

How to Be a Good Creature is more like listening to a wise teacher. Montgomery reflects on how from a young age she felt more at ease with animals than other children, how she took a dream trip as a “citizen scientist” in the Australian Outback that changed her life, and how the many vertebrates and invertebrates (a tarantula named Clarabelle as well as more recently, the octopuses made famous in her best-selling The Soul of an Octopusshe’s known have contributed to her life and added to her understanding of the world. “Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding,” she writes. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

There are some tough things in this book; if you’ve read any of Montgomery’s other books you know she didn’t have the best time as a child and had a longstanding rift with her parents that she handled with grace and empathy. Montgomery has also lived with bouts of depression. But ultimately she has come through some very real challenges with her spirit and her large heart in tact with help from the animals she has known, and she writes about that here. So if you’re in the mood for a book that will restore your faith, if not in humanity (although there are also many wonderful humans in Sy Montgomery’s life and she writes affectionately about them as well), at least in the general goodness of creation, this is a book for you. And of course, if you’ve had an animal help you through difficulties you’ll be nodding along.

If on the other hand you want to read a book that will remind you that obsession with fame and a press that inundates readers with sordid and titillating stories and profits from feeding a perceived mass desire to judge people and relish in their bad fortune are nothing new, Deborah Davis’s Strapless is for you. It’s certainly also a book about John Singer Sargent, and about the wealthy, vain, eccentric French Creole woman, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who Sargent painted in his iconic portrait of Gilded Age Paris, Madame X. Even if you’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see that famous painting you’ve probably seen an image of it at some point. You may or may not know it caused a sensation and humiliating criticism for both artist and subject when Sargent showed it at the Paris Salon in 1884 in large part because it originally portrayed her with one strap fallen off her shoulder.

This is incredible to us today, but Davis does an excellent job of showing exactly how bizarre it was then, given the types of entertainment popular in Paris at the time. This aspect of the book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming examination of how humans have always created strangely detrimental ways of engaging with each other in society. A very popular activity in 1800s Paris was viewing dead bodies at the morgue, another was reading ridicule of famous people in newspapers, and still another was reading sensational reports of crimes. The next time you despair of the endless cycle of bad news and the obsession over Kim Kardashian’s shape, remember this is nothing new.

Beyond this disheartening reminder that dehumanizing popular culture is not a contemporary invention, Davis provides a really interesting look at the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art world, at Sargent’s career and work, at his friend Henry James’ role in helping Sargent gain the attention he deserved, and the many other people who befriended him, commissioned his work, or admired it. I am an admirer, and I also am a big fan of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose own scandalous portrait (which like Madame X does not appear scandalous today), is one of two portraits he painted of Gardner on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Which also holds one of his famous large scale works, El Jaleo. Gardner actually built a space to display El Jaleo before she even owned it.

Anyway, as my friend noted, there is a lot packed into this book, and it’s a really interesting read. I learned new things about Sargent even though I also read Sargent’s Women not that long ago. That book was also good, but focused more on the wealthy American and English women he painted (including Gardner). If you enjoy art, or even if you don’t but you’re fascinated by culture and history, you will enjoy Strapless.

Read Full Post »

I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in December 2016, and downloaded Purple Hibiscus in the Cleveland airport along with The Refugees as I was considering how to get more narrative plenitude into my to-read pile. Where Americanah is about the immigrant experience in America and how coming here for more educational opportunity is not necessarily the end of people’s stories — it’s not for Adichie’s characters, who leave to complete their degrees when Nigeria is experiencing university strikes and disruptions but return when America doesn’t turn out to be all it’s promised — Purple Hibiscus is about growing up in the conditions that lead to civil strife. In the book there is turmoil in the government and that in turn leads to uncertainty in people’s lives, which lead to strikes.

While those themes are present, the book is really the story of Kambili and Jaja, teenagers growing up in a strict and wealthy Catholic household in Enugu, Nigeria where their father, Eugene controls them and their mother. Eugene is a difficult character because like many autocratic dads he tells the children that what he does, he does for their own good. He is in many ways a well respected “big man” who provides for many people’s well being, and he even publishes a newspaper that dares to take on the government. How can someone whose beliefs are strong and in some ways good, who fights for what’s right, also hurt the people he loves most?

The drama in the book is not only the conflict in Nigeria about government control, freedom of expression, and civil society, but also about Eugene’s restrictive, dutiful Catholicism contrasted with his sister Ifeoma’s, which is more expansive. When Kambili and Jaja go to stay at Aunty Ifeoma’s their eyes are opened to a different way of living, where children can speak their minds (within reason — even Ifeoma has her limits when her son is rude to a University colleague) and Catholicism can rest side by side with their “heathen” grandfather’s traditional beliefs. Kambili in particular begins to see herself in a new light, not only because of Ifeoma and her cousins, but also because of her friendship with Father Amadi, a young priest who visits Ifeoma and her children often.

When Kambili watches Father Amadi coach some boys who are practicing for a track meet she has an insight: “It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.” She sees that despite their wealth and all its comforts, Aunty Ifeoma’s family, where food is scarcer and there isn’t always gas to get to work, is the more comfortable.

So you could say Purple Hibiscus is about which way of being produces more functional humans — autocracy and uniformity of belief or some version of democracy and pluralism? Of course it isn’t that simple; it’s also a book about all of the emotions and damage that are caused by a loved one hurting someone. The abusive Eugene, for all his philanthropy, and for all his own scars, would never be anyone’s idea of a good parent. But Adichie manages to write make him both hateful and pitiful. And she also writes, in Purple Hibiscus, a thoughtful socio-political novel, a frank book about belief and tradition, and a moving coming of age story, and makes it all beautiful.

Read Full Post »