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Archive for November, 2019

I’ve only read one other book by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, but ever since reading that a couple of years ago, I’ve kept my eyes out for his other books. I bought The Remains of the Day at a used bookstore. I’ve never seen the film, nor had I read the book before. It’s pouring buckets today so I thought it might be a good day to read a book set in the English countryside.

The Remains of the Day is about a quintessential English butler, Stevens, who prides himself on having learned from his father before him how to embody the dignity derived from “a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” When the book opens, Stevens remains at Darlington Hall in the early 1950s, although this great house has been sold to an American who has cut back on the staff and does not live there full time. Stevens is concerned with some recent errors he himself has made while working under these conditions and is considering how best to appeal for more staff when a letter arrives from Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Benn, formerly Miss Kenton.

When his American boss suggests he take a break and even offers his car, Stevens sees an opportunity to visit Mrs. Benn and see whether he can persuade her to come back to Darlington Hall. The novel is taken up with Stevens’ reminiscing, as he travels, about their work together in the house’s heyday. As he muses, Stevens posits that to be a great butler, as he strove to be, meant “to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted.”

And he recalls the way his former employer’s reputation suffered because he truly believed that the Germans suffered after the treaty of Versailles and that the honorable way to treat a former enemy was not to saddle that enemy with reparations, but to leave the past in the past and “offer generosity and friendship to a defeated foe” as Lord Darlington’s godson Mr. Cardinal puts it. As Stevens recalls the events of the 1930’s and the men who came to consult with Lord Darlington and each other before WWII, it’s clear he is ruminating on Mr. Cardinal’s belief that, “Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts.”

Ishiguro’s beautiful and subtle writing never spells out the final position Stevens takes on whether Lord Darlington was wise or foolish, although he seems to trust that his former boss was sincere. That’s one of the things I love about Ishiguro, is that he respects the reader’s ability to connect their own dots. Among which, in this book, is whether Stevens has any regrets and what his visit to Mrs. Benn revealed to each of them abut their choices in life. Would the world have turned out differently had Lord Darlington and men like him had not had so much influence? Would war have been averted if left to “the professionals” rather than gentlemen? Why did Mrs. Benn leave Darlington Hall? Did Stevens realize it at the time, or does he only come to see it during this visit? This would be a wonderful book club read.

A lovely read on a gloomy afternoon.

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I was tidying my shelves this week in order to fit in a couple of used bookstore purchases from a recent trip to Arizona and came across a short story collection I hadn’t yet read, This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. I have to admit I can’t exactly recall how this book came to be on my shelves — possibly it was on a free cart, or a purchase at the Five Colleges Book Sale. At any rate, it looked good so I decided to give it a try.

This Close is a story collection, with a few stand-alone and two sets of linked stories. Many of the stories deal with someone young who we meet again as their older self. Parent-child relationships, especially with grown children, also feature prominently in this collection. Loss is a strong theme — not only of loved ones through death or divorce but also loss of health, loss of control, loss of pride.

The narratives are simple — a mother and her young son preparing for a yard sale, a woman grieving her daughter who can’t stay away from a drugstore where they’d had an unsettling encounter with a stranger, a daughter hosting a surprise birthday dinner for her father. But they often feature an odd twist — in the opening story, a young man in New York ends up looking after a small boy whose mother and grandmother run his neighborhood dry cleaner’s because he can’t figure out how to say no. A woman who prides herself on her skillful driving hits a parked car. Neither is entirely implausible but Kane explores what happens when our attempts to live an orderly life go awry.

The language in This Close is simple, without wasted words. Nothing overwrought, nor especially beautiful or lyrical, and yet, in these ordinary lives and plain words, Kane seems to expose the fragility of being human. To me that is really a sign of good writing, when straightforward language still manages to move or transport the reader. Her characters are sometimes stuck or caught being with people they don’t really want to be with, they hurt each other or themselves, they stumble and suffer and struggle or they just get carried along by life’s events rather than the other way around. Interestingly, even though all of this is painful, Kane’s stories didn’t make me cringe or feel like they were exposing too much or ripping off a bandaid.

If you enjoy short fiction, this is a good read.

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I am certain we had the boxed set of Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery at some point but they seem to have disappeared. But I just re-read the original Anne book, written in 1908, for my book club. I never read these books as a child, but did read the whole series aloud to my own kids. I remembered them as sweet, somewhat romanticized stories of an idyllic childhood on Prince Edward Island.

Re-reading Anne of Green Gables now, I noticed how much Montgomery comments on society, politics, morality, gender roles, etc. In the opening pages, it’s clear that Anne’s coming into Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert’s lives is accidental, and problematic because she’s a girl. That much I remembered. But I didn’t recall how diligently — and somewhat humorlessly — Marilla works to ensure Anne becomes hardworking, considerate, well educated, faithful, and humble not only because she believes she knows more about “bringing up a child” than Matthew does, but also because she’s afraid.

Marilla’s world is one in which a woman is not independent unless a man has made her so — a father, husband, or brother, for example, who provides either a home or an inheritance. When Anne has been selected for the “Queen’s class” to study for entrance exams for further education in town, Marilla notes, “I believe in a girl being fitted to earn her own living whether she ever has to or not.” Marilla knows that she herself doesn’t have that freedom. She’s afraid to leave Anne unprepared.

From the start of the book it’s clear that idyllic as their little town is, Anne and the Cuthberts are also not free of their neighbor’s opinions — Mrs. Lynde, Mrs. Barry and old Miss Barry, among others, weigh in on Anne’s behavior, personality, and looks. They live in a society where people adhere to expectations, and Anne is forever butting up against that set of strictures. And yet as far as I can tell, Anne’s only real “fault” seems to be a naturally optimistic and cheerful outlook and a tendency to let her imagination distract her.  And it becomes clear that these are qualities the adults in her world value, even if they think her “queer” or “odd.” Even Marilla, whose instinct is caution, comes to admire Anne’s spirit.

Montgomery was writing at a time when the world seemed scary. There had been  financial panic in 1907. Political changes, class and labor unrest, and signs that longstanding social and cultural structures and institutions were not necessarily as reliable nor benevolent as once thought made people uncertain and worried about the future. Perhaps because I reread the book in a time when people are afraid of similar things — economic concerns, social structures that have let society down, distrust of institutions and systems in education, labor, and government —  I seemed to notice fear and uncertainty rippling beneath the gentle story of a girl being brought up right in a small town in a beautiful place. I suspect anyone as imaginative and cheerful as Anne would be considered more than a little odd today.

Have you reread something from your or your children’s childhood and seen it in a new light? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

 

 

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Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

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