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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.

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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.

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.

I had heard of John Dominic Crossan before, but first really dug into his ideas in Karen Armstrong’s St. Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate. I was intrigued enough that when I saw his book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer at a used/remaindered bookstore in Portsmouth a few weeks ago (Book & Bar) I picked it up. I started it the week before Holy Week and it took me a couple of weeks of reading it slowly to finish. It’s a book that requires some re-reading and thinking to digest.

Yes, this book is challenging, but only because it’s deep and rich and thorough. I grew up Catholic and have been Episcopalian for around 18 or 19 years. I didn’t grow up learning much about the bible, so I am still fascinated by the differences in the Gospels and their writers, which Crossan gets into. He also fills in historical context for both Jesus’ time and the writers’, and provides a good bit of literary analysis as to style, pattern, word choice, etc., honing in especially on the “key” words in the prayer: “Father,” “name,” “kingdom,” “will,” “bread,” “debt,” and “temptation.” And he’s a darn good writer himself. To be able to make clear some pretty heavy stuff, like whether God is a “God of nonviolent distributive justice, and restorative righteousness” or “a God of violent retributive justice and punitive righteousness” or both, is a gift.

Here’s what Crossan says at the beginning of the book that the Lord’s Prayer is ” . . . a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world . . . . a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth.” He had me at that. Addressing the criticism that has been directed at him, he notes this is not “Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism . . . . We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism, but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.”

Enoughism. Let that settle for a bit. Imagine it.

The book crescendos with a final short chapter addressing the aforementioned difficulty of understanding God, and concludes with Crossan’s brief but brilliant assessment of justice, comparing justice and love to the soul and the body — if you’re missing one of those, you’re dead. Just so, he says, “Justice without love or love without justice is a moral corpse. That is why justice without love is brutal and love without justice becomes banal.”

If you’ve come out of Holy Week into Easter fired up and ready to learn more, this is an excellent book about what it means to follow the Way of Love that Jesus taught his disciples and teaches us. If you’re just curious about the Lord’s Prayer as a hymn/poem, or about first century sociopolitical history in the Middle East under Rome, there’s something for you here as well. A great read.

On the way back from the Association of College and Research Libraries 2019 conference where I heard Viet Thanh Nguyen speak, I downloaded The Refugees from my library to read on the plane. I read The Sympathizer  a couple of weeks ago and found the brutality hard to read but the humanity of the story too important to important to put down. That, it turns out, is more or less what Nguyen said in his talk at ACRL. That the real story of America is much more complicated than the one we tell and that without the “narrative plentitude” that exposes both the beauty and brutality of America, we are perpetuating the power structures that sustain inequity.

So I was not sure how much brutality to expect when I read The Refugees, but I opened it with my eyes and heart open to whatever Nguyen had to bring, because I’m thoroughly convinced that he’s right, we have to face our whole history. That said, if you follow this blog you know I’ve been reading a fair amount about the brutal side lately. So I was pleasantly surprised — the short stories in this collection are as clear eyed and critical as his other work, but Nguyen focuses here on the emotional toll of being human. No less brutal, but somehow easier to read. That’s probably not good — we’re conditioned to accept that psychological damage is a fact of life. But I found these stories about betrayal, deception, addiction, grief, inequity, racism, disappointment and pain less challenging to read than chapter 21 of The Sympathizer, which is a detailed description of multiple torture sessions during wartime and its aftermath.

I guess the stories in The Refugees seem more familiar, and also, like the Sympathizer, remind me that for all the pain, there is also love. In “Someone Else Beside You,” for example, the father is in many ways an awful, violent, duplicitous person. But even though he only knows the most brutal ways to express it, he clearly loves his son. In several cases, while the characters are refugees the story is about something anyone might go through — a father who doesn’t approve of his daughter’s choices in “The Americans,” a man duped by a dishonest friend in “The Transplant,” a woman dealing with her husband’s increasing dementia in “I’d Love You to Want Me.” Without sounding too kumbaya, that’s what we need — stories about diverse communities that help us all understand we’re the same in some very basic ways, so the structures we’ve built up to raise white able people born in a particular place over others are absolutely ridiculous and have no basis in our humanity.

And these stories are not only important — Nguyen is such a good writer. In “Black-Eyed Women,” this paragraph really manages to orient reader’s to the narrator’s relationship with her mother in a brief, beautiful passage: “Ever since my father died a few years ago, my mother and I lived together politely. We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk. She constantly fed me gossip and stories, the only kind I enjoyed concerning my father back when he was a man I did not know, young and happy. Then came stories of terror like the one about the reporter, the moral being that life, like the police, enjoys beating people up now and again. Finally, there was her favorite kind, the ghost story, of which she knew many, some firsthand.”

At the ACRL keynote, someone asked Nguyen about ghosts in his work. He said that in some cultures, ghosts visit because they are seeking justice. In The Refugees Nguyen contributes to America’s narrative plentitude by adding to our collective story lives we must see if we’re ever to satisfy those ghosts.

If you’ve followed this blog for any time you know I’m a Margaret Drabble fan. At some point in the last year I came across the 1967 paperback edition of her 1963 debut novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. I read it over the past few days. It’s marvelous, and shows that she was already a powerful, insightful, beautiful, feminist writer at age twenty-four. It makes me both very glad she became a writer and very irritated with my own twenty-four year old self. I was still pretty silly at that age. And had certainly not come into my own thinking by then.

A Summer Bird-Cage is about two sisters. Louise, the elder of the two, who has been “down from” Oxford for a couple of years, and Sarah, who has just come down and then spent some time in Paris. She gets a letter summoning her home to be a bridesmaid for Louise’s wedding — a surprise, since she had no idea Louise was engaged. The rest of the book is comprised of Sarah’s reflections on that time and the months that followed, and what it’s like to be young, well educated, and female at a time when society’s expectations of women are still pretty limited.

At one point one of Louise’s friends asks Sarah what she’d like to do with her life, and she answers immediately, “Beyond anything I’d like to write a funny book. I’d like to write a book like Kingsley Amis . . . .” But she goes on just a few lines later, after the friend calls her “a little egghead,” arguing the term but owning the sentiment and then protesting, “But if you think that implies that my right place is sitting in some library, you couldn’t be more wrong . . . .” But she immediately misses the library. All this after a page or two earlier she told her sister she couldn’t teach at a college because “You can’t be a sexy don.” Sarah is seriously conflicted, in other words. She and Louise talk about wanting it all — love, freedom, intellectual challenge, satisfying work, etc.

In addition to being a novel of social commentary, it’s also, as all of Drabble’s work seems to be, a gorgeous examination of relationships. There are Louise and Sarah, sisters who haven’t been close but come together as they begin to understand each other as adults in a way they didn’t when they were younger. And there is Sarah and her fiancee, absent the entire book, a fellow scholar who’s studying at Harvard. And Sarah and her close friend Gill, who she tries living with in London after Gill’s marriage of equals turns out to be drudgery and falls apart. And Sarah and her cousins, the boring and unattractive Daphne and her brother, the far more attractive Michael.

Drabble is so insightful about human nature. Take this passage, after Sarah and Gill have had a routine roommates’ quarrel about washing the dishes:

Sarah begins, “But I really wanted to tell you about Louise.” And Gill replies, “So you did . . . . You came in full of Louise, and I shut you up like a clam, and here I’ve been going on about you not telling me things. Isn’t it strange how in this kind of thing everything seems to be its own opposite? You know what I mean?”

Sarah thinks, “Again, I did know what she meant, and the joy of having had so many intelligible things said to me during one morning sustained me for the rest of the day. Odd, that one doesn’t mind being called insensitive, selfish, and so on, provided that one can entirely understand the grounds for the accusation. It should be the other way round; one should not mind only when one knows that one is innocent. But it isn’t like that. Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it.”

Think of that, the next time you get into a spat with your roommate.

A delightful read, short but just lovely. The final page has one of those Drabble specialities, an anecdote one character shares and the other thinks something insightful about. I loved every word.

 

I actually got The Water Is Wide a year ago at a library book sale. I have family in South Carolina and while visiting got to talking about Dafuskie island and when we saw thus book they explained that what Pat Conroy calls “Yamacraw” in the book is really Dafuskie. I’ve seen The Water Is Wide described as a novel and as a memoir, but other than changing the name of the island I’m not sure what else Conroy fictionalized. It’s the story of his time – just over a year around 1969 – teaching at the island’s small school.

At the time almost the entire island was black, except for an older white couple he describes as having both a “paternalistic” and a “symbiotic” relationship with the islanders. Much of South Carolina, and the South in general, was still reeling from the end of Jim Crow and the relatively recent integration of schools. Being virulently, openly racist was common. Not that racism is uncommon today — it’s still alive and well, it’s just hidden behind politer language. But that’s another story.

The Water Is Wide is shocking and anger inducing in some ways. Conroy relates that when he took over his class of 18 children, 6 didn’t know the alphabet. None knew who the president was. Several couldn’t count or spell their own names. When the superintendent eventually fired him for his radical views that children, including poor black children, should get an adequate education and not be beaten and screamed at (as a fellow teacher did) the school board upheld his firing, and so did a court. His draft board status was changed to intimidate him. One of the grandmothers on the island who defended him didn’t get her social security check for months after speaking out.

While that’s all terrible, Conroy is a consummate storyteller and he finds the humor even in the darkest situations. He’s also very observant and self aware and can poke fun at himself, and recognizes that at times he was young and inexperienced and self righteous but also that he learned a great deal. He relates not only mean spirited and prejudiced resistance to change but also kindheartedness and “gradual and slow change.” He also manages to be empathetic to some of the most dreadful people in the story – the woman who beat the children for example – contextualizing their lives for readers and analyzing what caused some people to have such blinders to basic humanity. But he pulls no punches either – I especially appreciate how he notes the irony of some of the blackest souled racist behavior coming from people who loudly proclaimed their Christianity as a badge of character.

So, this is a good read and I think helpful to understanding the ridiculously intractable grip of racism, and the legacy of the inequity in our educational system.