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The Scapegoat is one of the purchases I made with my job leaving gift card. My book club ended up choosing it for our next read, and I am so glad, because I for one really enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Du Maurier except Rebecca, which my grandmother gave me one summer when I was visiting her and I remember loving. I wish she was still with us so I could ask her if she’s read The Scapegoat.

The story is simple, and I realized many other authors have used this situation, including recently, Antoine Laurain in The PortraitUnlike in that novel, where the protagonist finds his exact image in a painting, in The Scapegoat an English professor of French history who is nearing the end of a holiday in France in the 1950s meets a man who could be his exact double in a bar. The first man, John, is having something of an existential crisis, leads a very solitary life, and is on his way to a monastery where he hopes to figure out what to do with his life. His French opposite, Jean, a Count with many responsibilities and a tangled family and personal life, wants to escape all that.

Unlike in The Portrait, where I didn’t really care for the man who went to live another man’s life, this time I felt great empathy for John. First of all, he doesn’t choose — Jean foists the switch on him. Secondly, John very quickly develops true feeling for Jean’s damaged and dysfunctional family and in his own way tries to be kind and helpful, despite the extremity of his own situation. It’s not that he doesn’t cause any harm, but that he is trying not to, that endeared him to me.

The book’s surprising (to me, anyway) ending left me wondering what in the world would happen to Jean’s family, especially his young daughter. And to John. Du Maurier’s writing is just the kind my grandmother loved — every word serves the book, powerfully. The descriptions of John’s discomfort as he fumbles his way through another man’s life, and the observations he makes, are packed with insight. Consider this passage, as he talks with “his” mother, and she takes his hands in hers: “Her hands neither gave confidence nor sapped it: they turned the assurance I had to a different plane. The faith she had in her son was so intense that even if she did not know his secrets, or share more than a small part of his life, it was as though he remained with her, bound and sightless as he had been before birth, and she would never loose him.”

There is so much to discuss in this book: the nature of being a human in relationship with others; the choices the characters make; the way WWII impacted every person, whether they fought or not, in France; the way our concerns with meaning and purpose in life are bound up with the people we are connected with; the fact that some people carry with them a strong desire to do what’s right for others and others, only a strong desire to do what’s right for themselves.

I’m grateful that Simon of The Readers and Savidge Reads is a Du Maurier fan and brought her back into my reading life! I intend to hunt down more of her work.

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As I’ve explained before here at bookconscious, when Books on the Nightstand stopped broadcasting, I started listening to The Readers.  One book that Simon has mentioned several times is The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.  I was at our local Goodwill with the former Teen the Younger (now twenty) a couple of Saturdays ago and there it was, just waiting for me to find it.  Joanna Cannon‘s debut is set in the summer of 1976 in England (serendipitously, I found it while The Computer Scientist was in England, so I got to go there too, this way), and her heroine, Grace, is ten years old. She and her best friend, Tilly, decide to find out what happened to Mrs. Creasey, who has disappeared. Grace, the alpha of the pair, decides that if they can find God — who the vicar says is everywhere — they will find their missing neighbor.

The whole book takes place on the avenue where the girls live, and as you read you get to know all the people and their secrets. What they mostly have in common is that Margaret Creasey, who was easy to talk to, has been quietly helping several of the neighbors in different ways. As Grace and Tilly visit people and ask questions in the way only children can, it becomes clear that Margaret Creasey’s disappearance is only one of the mysteries being unraveled. Is Walter Bishop really a pervert? Did he really steal a baby? What is Sheila Dakin doing in her pantry? Why doesn’t Brian Roper move out of his mother’s house? What was Grace’s Dad doing meeting Mrs. Creasey on a weekend? None of this is overdone — in fact, it’s funny, in a way, not roar-with-laughter funny, just life-is-strange funny.

I really enjoyed the way the secrets are revealed just as a matter of course, the way they would be in real life — no dramatic revelations. I also like that there are no “good” and “bad” characters (no goats and sheep, as the bible verse referenced in the title describes) — everyone is a little of each, like actual people. All the little details about the time and place add up to a really recognizable  neighborhood, even to me, who would have been just a little younger than Grace in 1976, but growing up in America. I could see the houses and yards, the church and the library, and the all the people Grace and Tilly meet.

And for me, one of the other really appealing things is that this book, to me, is a profound examination of good and evil, faith and hypocrisy, community and herd mentality. It’s also about the mindless ways we humans hurt each other, and the healing that happens when we pay attention. Do the girls find God? In my mind they do, but perhaps not where they were looking or where they expected, and it would be fair to say if we could ask them, they might not be sure.

This book fairly cries out to be discussed. I’m dying to chat about it. If you’ve read it, leave me a comment.

 

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I read Ali Smith’s first  book in her planned “season” quartet, Autumn, last December, and loved it. Like that novel, Winter is set soon after the Brexit vote and is the story of two generations — one struggling with the implications of adulthood in the Brexit/Trump presidency world, and one that came before. Smith has plenty to critique about now, but doesn’t idealize the past, either. And as in Autumn, the world we live in plays a huge role, with art and nature both serving to bring people together and feed our souls, and sociopolitical issues hanging over the characters’ heads — in Winter, sometimes literally in the artistic hallucinations two of the characters experience.

Winter’s protagonists are mostly difficult folks; Art, whose life and work is steeped in the alternate reality of the Internet; his aging mother, Sophia, who lives in a house she owns in part out of spite, and that she’s letting go; Iris, Sophia’s elder sister who in Sophia’s eyes has always selfishly, foolishly, follower her ideals, ignoring her family in the process; and Lux, a student from Croatia whose funds have run out, who Art hires to pretend to be his girlfriend Charlotte because Charlotte has left him just before Christmas. Lux is the most likable, not only because her fate is at the mercy of populist nationalism and contemporary capitalism, both greedy “I’ve got mine” movements, but also because she manages to get Sophia and Iris to really talk with each other, she gets Sophia to eat, and she helps Art see the actual world he’s been oblivious to (or hiding from?) with his online work.

As in Autumn, Smith manages to shine a light on much of what is absurd about contemporary society: Art works for a bot, and writes a blog called “Art in Nature” that is mostly made up; the library is now “The Ideas Store” and is mainly a small public space (in an otherwise privatized building of luxury flats) where people wait to use computers; when Art’s awareness is awakened he is horrified to hear about people paying to fund boats that stop other boats from rescuing refugees at sea; the Grenfell Tower disaster happening in one of the wealthiest cities in the world; Trump’s actual speech to the Boyscouts in summer 2017. But she also allows for past absurdities that were different because they were less selfish — like women who chained themselves to a missile site in Britain, art that playfully exposes human foibles, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Barbara Hepworth.

In other words, this is a very political book but it is still fun, and somehow Smith doesn’t even leave readers feeling too pessimistic. Even as Smith draws attention to history’s ill effects (She alludes to the long lasting impacts of WWI & WWII on the British psyche, as well as the Cold War), she shows people surviving, adapting. If self-absorbed Art and his dysfunctional mother and sister can get along, so can we. If people like Lux still believe in the benefits of beauty when so much is taken from them, well, shouldn’t we?

Art, looking for Lux ,when he can’t find her actual person, in the things they learned about each other by spending Christmas at his mother’s, visits the British Library asking about a Shakespearean manuscript with the residue of a flower pressed in it. He tells the librarian that Cymbeline is “about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” Winter too seems to be about those very things.

There is so much more to enjoy, including the love story that resulted in Art, and the writing style — similar to Autumn, but not exactly the same– that infuses the book with a dreamy quality, and also a sort of art film sense of scenes more thematically than narratively linked. Despite the unconventional narrative and chronology, I was never lost.  I find myself wanting to discuss this book with someone, so if you’re in a book club, this may be a good choice for you.

Summer may be approaching, but trust me, you should treat yourself to Winter. My only regret is that I didn’t get to read it in one go like I did Autumn. 

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My book club chose Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett for our February meeting. I approached it with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. Curiosity because the book was nominated for and/or won several major awards, and because I enjoy the reading recommendations of my book club friends. Trepidation because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about the subject: the impact of mental illness on a father (John) and son (Michael) and on their family members (mother Margaret, siblings Celia and Alec). I spend a fair amount of my life energy thinking about mental illness already. It’s not something I want to do in my free time. Or that I felt entirely prepared to do. My instincts were right all the way around.

I was prepared to read Imagine Me Gone quickly and let it go until the book club meets. Like ripping off a bandaid, I told a friend. As I read, I lined up some things not to like about it: the first pages clearly give away what’s going to happen. There are alternating chapters told by different characters, which is not my favorite narrative structure, so I was ready to dislike that, or find it uneven. And there’s a verbal barrage of music information that struck me as a little show-offish.  Also Celia’s and Alec’s lives seem barely explored, and Margaret’s not much more.

But no matter how I tried not to like it, and no matter how raw and painful the story is, I couldn’t entirely dislike this book. It’s been several days since I finished reading Imagine Me Gone and I am still thinking about the characters almost every day. I concede that it’s probably for the best that Haslett hints at what’s coming as the novel opens. Hearing the points of view of the characters in turn definitely helps illuminate the wide ranging impact mental illness has on the family.  And all that detail about music and musicians is key to understanding the way Michael, the eldest son in the family, sees the world.

I still can’t say I enjoyed reading this book. It’s a hard book about painful topics, and it lays bare how much the mental health care system gets wrong in a way that I can’t quite fully deal with. I do think the alternating chapters were a little jumpy in places and that some of the characters didn’t seem to get enough attention — although that may have been a deliberate attempt to show them eclipsed by John’s and Michael’s mental illness. In particular, I alternately admired and felt frustrated with Margaret (as do her children) and while Haslett lets her finer qualities show a bit at the end, I found it hard to see her angry, unsupported and unsure of what to do for so long.

Do I recommend Imagine Me Gone? I think so. It’s about being human, just in a lot of really painful ways, and it is oozing that “big T” Truth that tells a reader things they always knew but never thought of in quite that way, both marks of good fiction. But if you are living close to the world of mental illness, consider yourself warned that you may feel sick by the end. I do look forward to discussing it, I think.

 

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I read Moonglow for my book group this month and was excited to do so, because Michael Chabon is one of those authors I always meant to read and hadn’t yet. I enjoyed it — the writing is really rich and muscular and evocative. I like the layers of detail. The story — which some reviewers call genre bending fictional memoir and others say is just a novel with a protagonist named Michael Chabon — was hard to follow. If you don’t like non-linear narratives, time leaps, footnotes, and other prose calisthenics you might not like it. I did, eventually, but because I have less time to read these days I found it challenging to pick up in my patchy reading time.

Those minor quibbles aside I did enjoy the main character, “my grandfather,” and the historical backdrop of his life, growing up in pre-war Philadelphia, putting his low regard for rules and his uncanny ability to jerry-rig or repair anything to use during WWII in a unit devoted to finding V2 rockets after D-Day, uncovering a cache of documents hidden by Wernher von Braun, and going back to America to lead a colorful life on the periphery of America’s space race. I don’t want to give away the details but his marriage to the narrator’s grandmother is the real meat of the story, and the way that his grandfather sees loving her as his purpose: “From the first that was a part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose. He thought that if he took on the job of loving this broken woman, some measure of sense or purpose might be returned to his life.”

This pattern begins in the grandfather’s childhood — he’s always helping someone who is kind of a mess, in one way or another, and I found that very endearing even though he’s not a classically endearing guy at all. I also enjoyed reading about the narrator’s mother and would have liked to hear more of her life. My bookclub mostly didn’t like or finish the book — one person had read it twice but otherwise, no one who came to the meeting tonight had finished. I’m glad I read to the end. There is a gentleness to the latter pages of the book that I enjoyed. Moonglow is a wacky novel, for sure, replete with some strange twists that don’t quite make sense unless you’re willing to just suspend belief and go with the narrative flow, disjointed as it may be. If you feel like something different, give it a try. Maybe take it on a weekend away or a long plane ride, so you don’t have time to get lost.

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If you’ve read bookconscious for a long time you know I was a regular listener of the podcast Books on the Nightstand. As they were preparing to go off the air, Michael and Ann recommended other podcasts for their fans and one was The Readers. I listened to Episode 171 a few weeks ago, in which Simon and Thomas were sharing their summer reading plans. I was especially intrigued by Simon’s description of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I decided it to check it out, and I am so glad I did — I loved it. So much so that I suggested it to my new book group on Monday, and happily, they chose it for our August read.

Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, young people in a city that is beginning to fall under the influence of militants as the book opens. Nadia, scandalously for a young woman in her city, has broken with her family and lives alone, while Saeed lives with his parents. As the various parts of the city fall and services are cut off, they find it harder to see each other. I don’t want to give away everything, so I won’t say how everyone in their city gets on, but eventually, Nadia and Saeed decide to leave.

What intrigued me is that the way to leave the city is through doors. Ordinary doors. Saeed and Nadia leave through one in a dentist’s and end up in Mykonos. Eventually they get to London, which has been overrun, “some said by a million migrants, some said by twice that.” People not just from Saeed and Nadia’s country but many other places, drawn by reports from other migrants living in places with better opportunities, move through doors to try and make a better life. “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move  . . . .”

Exit West is certainly about human migration, the refugee crisis, and what happens when people must choose to leave their homes.  But it’s also the story of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. Some of what they go through brings them closer, but they guard their feelings about some experiences, and find themselves less able to share them, or even to talk lightly. I don’t think I’ve read a lovelier description of a couple growing apart.

The book is also an examination of faith, which Saeed never loses. He prays, as his mother taught him when he was a boy, and when he and Nadia are finally settled he is drawn to a “place of worship” — Hamid never says mosque, although there are indications that Saeed is Muslim (he and his father go to Friday prayers together, for example). The preacher at Saeed’s new place of worship is African American. Here is how Hamid writes about that: “While this layer of nativeness was not vast in proportion to the rest, it had vast importance, for society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils, and to which Saeed in particular was attracted, since at a place of worship where he had gone one Friday the communal prayer was led by a man who came from this tradition and spoke of this tradition, and Saeed had found . . . this man’s words to be full of soul-soothing wisdom.”

At my book club (discussing The Underground Railroad) we got into a conversation about why people suffering at the hands of other people seem to turn to religion. One person suggested religion preys on the downcast and oppressed, but I countered that in my view, religion offers a vision of justice and peace that isn’t fully manifest in the world yet, but is possible. I should have added, that hope can be magnified in the acts of love carried out by believers who represent all that’s possible, and conversely, crushed by fundamentalism and intolerance. In Exit West Saeed and Nadia lose the place they love to militant fundamentalism and Saeed finds his way in a community run by a preacher who “worked to feed and shelter his congregants and teach them English.”

And he prays: “Saeed . . . valued the discipline of it, the fact that it was a code, a promise he had made, and that he stood by.” Now as a refugee in a strange country, “Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” That slayed me, but Hamid goes on:

“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in each other, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to . . . .”

I find that very beautiful. As I typed it I realized it’s also a style that may not to be everyone’s taste — a sentence that takes up nearly a whole page of this small book. But even if you are usually a fan of tidier prose, give this book a chance. It’s short but expansive. A simple story but one that provides a great deal to ponder when you get to the end. I’ve been thinking about refugees and and how things could be better and whether where we live makes us who we are, and what it takes to get to that sense of shared humanity through prayer that Saeed has, and whether humans really have potential to build a better world or when starting over are they doomed to repeat the same patterns that shattered their communities in the first place, and why some people can change and others can’t, and whether the African American experience “made possible all future transplanted soils” and why anyone becomes fundamentalist or even listens to fundamentalists . . . . And I haven’t looked at a door the same way since, either. Wouldn’t it be so cool to go through one and end up elsewhere?

I’ve read some good books so far this summer but this may be the best.

 

 

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My college friend Marybeth asked me a little while ago to ask if I would read a novel called Mine that her friend’s sister, Katie Crawford, wrote. I didn’t know anything about it, except that Marybeth had read the first chapter and liked it. I finished yesterday morning and I can tell you this: it’s better than most of the books Kirkus has sent me to review in 2016.  I really enjoyed it and I think it deserves a wide audience.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will not be surprised to learn it’s published by a small press, Deeds Publishing in Athens, Georgia. I know there are some good books being published by the big five and other large publishing houses, but I will continue to remind readers as often as possible: there are really good writers being published by independent small presses all over the place, and if you go to your nearest independent bookstore the booksellers can hook you up with some wonderful books you will very possibly not hear of otherwise. Ok, plug for indies over (for now).

Mine is the story of two sisters in a small mining town in Pennsylvania, Janie and Maggie. The story describes their bleak childhoods and how that upbringing impacts both of their lives. The most important events that inform everything that happens to them for the rest of their lives are their parents’ deaths and Janie’s becoming pregnant by a priest who was himself abused by a priest as a child.

I don’t recall reading a date, but hints in the story and the timeframe in which the mines closed (which they have by the end of the novel) make me think the girls’ childhoods might be in the fifties or sixties? As would have been common at the time, Janie is sent away when her pregnancy becomes obvious, to some nuns who take care of “fallen” girls; refreshingly in this novel, the nuns are very kind and caring. But she’s made to give the baby up. About a year or so later, Maggie & Janie move to Philadelphia, where Maggie’s new mother-in-law lives. But Janie is faithful, visiting both the hospital room where she last held her infant daughter and her parents’ graves every week.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the plot, but I do want to recommend this moving book. It would make a good vacation read because it’s one of those books you don’t want to stop reading. The ending is satisfying without being tied up in a bow. The writing is compelling. You probably know older women who were a little like Janie when they were young; no amount of personal tragedy could dim her faith or her kind-heartedness.

This would also be great for a book club. I’d recommend pairing this novel with the movie Spotlight; we finally watched it last weekend and Mine made me really think about not only the Catholic Church’s complicity but also the enormity of the human tragedy — this book reveals just a few victims, and when you scale that up worldwide, it’s pretty mind-boggling.

But I digress. Go get this novel. If you like fiction about women’s lives, historical fiction, or just reading something that’s not on every airport bookrack, ask your local bookseller for Mine, or suggest your library purchase it.

 

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