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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

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.

 

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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.

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I’ve had a number of people tell me that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick is the basis for Blade Runner. Which is fine but I haven’t seen that movie. Instead, I was reminded of Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuin — contemporaries of Philip K. Dick who were also preoccupied with what havoc mankind could inflict upon itself with technology and more importantly, inhumanity. The Computer Scientist is a big fan of Dick’s writing, and when I told him I really enjoyed this book he said The Man In High Castle is even better.

The main character in this book, Rick Deckhard, is a bounty hunter whose job is to kill “andys” or androids, which have managed to escape and live among people left on Earth, an undesirable post-war place where “dust” (possibly nuclear fallout) has forced people into the least contaminated areas, leaving huge swathes of America decimated. Wild animals are gone. People save for pets — Deckhard goes into debt to buy a real live goat — which they keep on their rooftops. Those who can’t afford live animals get electric ones. People who have lower mental capabilities (which the dust seems to hasten) are called chickenheads. Unsurprisingly, they’re looked down on.

People use something called an “empathy box” to “fuse” with a mysterious, God-like man called Mercer, who seems to be moving up a steep hill on a sisyphean hike as people throw rocks at him. They use “mood organs” to dial their day’s emotional outlook. But they still have the same concerns we do. Deckhard feels torn about his work, wanting to keep the world safe but not cause further harm. He wishes his wife wasn’t depressed. He covets his neighbor’s real animal and is willing to go into debt to get what he wants. He’s prone to comparing himself to others. Mainly he just wants his latest assignment, to kill several andys that are at large after gravely injuring his coworker, to be over so he can get some rest.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a page-turner, but packed with things to discuss. I read it as a possible choice for a community-wide read and I could see it being a good choice for that, with many possible angles for programs. I’m definitely interested in reading more of Philip K. Dick’s work.

 

 

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I’ve been intending to read more of Karen Armstrong for years. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I read and re-read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life a few years ago. We have acquired a few of her other books over the years, but recently I turned to a Kindle version of St Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate. I’m a member of what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (yes, the guy who preached at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) calls “The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement,” and as part of his work, Bishop Curry has challenged people to follow The Way of Love. One of the recent challenges related to this was to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the season of Epiphany (which runs from the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6, to the last day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, which this year, is on March 5).

Romans is tough going. Although I have a serious church history and scripture nerd in my house (yes, the Computer Scientist is a man of many talents), and my own personal seminarian to call on (the former Teen the Elder) I found myself looking for more context for this repetitive, rambling letter than seems to contradict itself, and at times, to contradict the entire notion of loving your neighbor as yourself. At a discussion group about Romans at church I got a taste of what Karen Armstrong talks about in her book, and also several people recommended it.

Now, I was raised Catholic and except for a few years in my late teens and early twenties, I’ve attended church pretty regularly my whole life. But I learned all kinds of things I never knew from this book. For example, Pauls’s second letter to the Corinthians is actually five letters, out of chronological order, and with a couple of passages he probably didn’t write stuck in (including the infamous cover your heads, ladies, and the women should be seen but not heard in church). Paul was the earliest writer in the Jesus movement, and he wrote his letters and did his work before there were any written gospels. He only took on a trade (probably tent making or leather working) when he hit the road, as a way to connect with people and to make money for his travels. He believed the “Parousia” or coming of Christ was imminent, and he never meant his writing to be read later, much less a couple thousand years after he wrote. In fact, much of his advice to the communities he wrote to was very specific to their issues and concerns, and wasn’t meant to be taken as general advice for Christians (who didn’t exist yet, anyway).

I knew bits of this, but hadn’t ever read it all in one place before, nor had such an erudite but accessible guide to Paul as Karen Armstrong. She admits that as a young writer, she was prepared to dislike him (her first book was also about Paul) but she came to admire him as she researched. Other things in the book were a complete surprise to me — she writes that the American scholar John Dominic Crossan surmises that the disciples left Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and probably didn’t know what happened to him in the immediate aftermath, and reminds us that the passion accounts are “prophecy historicized” rather than actual history. The stories are so familiar to believers, and even to nonbelievers as a result of Western culture (even network TV showed Jesus Christ Superstar last Easter), that Crossan says “It is hard for us, I repeat, to bring our imagination down low enough to see the casual brutality with which he was probably taken and executed.” Armstrong notes that Paul, too, was probably killed brutally and without fanfare, as was the Roman empire’s specialty.

She reminds us that only seven of Paul’s letters were likely to have been written by him. And that his words, and his legacy, were mediated by various figures, from the author of Luke and Acts through Augustine and Martin Luther and various church figures over centuries. This I knew — and it is criticism that has been leveled at Armstrong herself. Mediation, of course, is impossible to avoid in human communication; we all make meaning out of what we take in, and are influenced by others’ frames and agendas. I’ll leave arguments about where Armstrong falls in the continuum of New Testament scholarship to others, but for me, this book was helpful. It reminded me that much of what we know about the first century Jesus Movement is uncertain, even that which we accept as gospel.

But this book also reminded me that the people who carried Jesus’ story to others then, and those who do now, are participants in a faith tradition that doesn’t need absolute historical facts and details. Exactly what Jesus did when and where and with whom isn’t really important, nor is what Paul said about it, nor how Martin Luther or others interpreted or misinterpreted what Paul said. What is important is that the transformative message of this strange, mysterious life, the life of a man at once a Galilean peasant and the Son of God, has endured down the ages in part because an imperfect man named Paul was called to make it his life’s work to tell people about it. Armstrong helps clarify that, and I recommend this book to anyone struggling to understand Paul a little bit more.

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I picked up My Life in France at last year’s Five Colleges Booksale, but it was something I’d been meaning to read for some time. Although it was written with and finished by her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, this is Julia Child‘s memoir of her years in France, from 1948 when she and her husband Paul first went to live in Paris, to 1992, when she gave up her small home in Provence after Paul could no longer travel. It’s a delightful book. How could any book about delicious food in a beautiful place, shared with interesting people, not be a delight?

But there’s much more to this book. Child was an amazing person who put her all into her life’s work — teaching people how to cook well. Until I read her memoir I had no idea how long it took her to research and test her recipes and how scientifically she worked to ensure consistent results for anyone cooking from them, and how carefully she explained why the recipes work. Her incredible work ethic, her astute observations of culture and society, her fond remembrance of people she knew well, from market sellers to her dear husband, make this book a really good read as well as a delightful one.

Paul and Julia Child were both very talented and were really a creative team, and the amount of work they did separately and together is quite impressive. Although this book only touches briefly on their time in the OSS during WWII, it does explore the bureaucratic mess of the postwar diplomatic service and the way McCarthy and his paranoia stretched across the ocean to impact longtime government servants abroad. Her observations are really interesting, and I admire Child’s lifelong efforts to learn and become better spoken about politics and culture as well as her own passions (food, restaurants, wine, cooking, and food production). As a lifelong learner myself, and as someone who didn’t begin to really form my own views until late in my 20s, I could identify with her sense that she hadn’t grown up in college, and she had not thought through her positions on important matters until she was well into adulthood.

I also think Americans who grew up knowing her PBS show don’t realize how much her initial “cookery bookery” as she refers to it was a partnership with not only her cookbook collaborators in France, but with the many French people who contributed to her culinary education — chefs, restauranteurs, shopkeepers, market sellers, teachers, friends, all of whom expanded her repertoire, her tastes, her knowledge and skill. Child’s ethos was her own, however: “nothing is too much trouble if it comes out the way it should,” and “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite.” Towards the end of My Life in France she sums up her advice to people: “Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun!”

And that sense of practicality, fearlessness, and fun permeates this book.

 

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I am not exactly certain where I got Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but I think it was either a library free cart or sale. I hadn’t read Jeanette Winterson before. This was her first novel and I’ve seen it described as “semi-autobiographical.” It’s a coming of age story about a girl growing up the adopted daughter of an evangelical woman in northern England. Jeannette (the character, not the author) loves her mother, who tells her stories and teachers her music and tells her she’s destined to be a missionary. And she is part of her mother’s church family, mainly a group of women. Men are not at all central to the story, except for Pastor Spratt, a missionary and leader in her mother’s church, but even he appears sporadically.

When Jeanette is small, her mother is the star she orbits. When the school sends a letter saying Jeanette must attend (her mother had previously kept her home, calling school “a Breeding Ground”), she begins to see herself, and her mother, for the first time through the world’s eyes. As a teen, she falls in love with another young woman and this sets up the rest of the book’s drama as her mother and the church deal with this revelation and Jeanette chooses her path. Along the way Winterson writes at times affectionately, at times critically, and often humorously of the church people who form Jeanette.

The book’s chapters are named for books of the Old Testament, and there are legends and stories woven into Jeannette’s narrative. I especially liked the story of Winnet Stonejar, a young girl who becomes a sorcerer’s adopted daughter and apprentice. Jeanette is a careful observer, and Winterson gives her space to reflect, towards the end of the book, on her upbringing: “I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it . . . . As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and love me until death and know love is as strong as death and be on my side for ever and ever.” That goes on and develops into a beautiful reflection on why men find love challenging, why she can’t measure her own need, and what betrayal means. I can’t quote the whole two pages but it’s really wonderful and you should read it.

Altogether a good read, the kind that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

 

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I loved the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters, so I was excited to see that with Golden State he returns to the dystopian mystery genre (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Winters wrote another highly praised book, Underground Airlines, which I have not yet read). Golden State is even more dystopian than The Last Policeman. Golden State is a place sort of like California in a post-disaster world, a society where telling the truth is upheld by law, and lying can land you in jail or even exile. Our hero, Laszlo Ratesic, has been with the Speculative Service, which is tasked with protecting society from lies, for nineteen years. His old friend and mentor, Arlo Vasouvian, asks him to take on a partner, Aysa Paige, a young woman new to the force. They go out on what seems like a routine call, verifying the facts of a death, and from there, Laszlo’s life gets a great deal more complicated.

Laszlo and Aysa end up pursuing an anomaly, and as this fast-paced book unfolds, Laszlo’s certainty that the Golden State is a safe place where laws are upheld and truth is honored begins to unravel. From finding an irresistible “artifact,” a book “from what was” before the Golden State, to asking his ex-wife, who works in the Record (where everything that has happened to everyone who exists is recorded) for help, to uncovering several characters’ closely held secrets, Laszlo and Aysa chase their truth to the very highest levels of the Golden State.

Or do they? This is no formulaic mystery. What happens in the final hundred or so pages of The Golden State will give your book club plenty to discuss. What happens, in the end, with the information Laszlo uncovers? The implications of his discovery for the Golden State is open to interpretation. I’m fascinated by the madwoman/guide character and by Laszlo’s ex-wife, and would love to talk about their roles with someone else who has read the book. I appreciate that Winters leaves room for the reader to think about what happened to Laszlo and decide how it might turn out. Laszlo himself is on a new quest by the end of the book, and I’m hoping this means there may be room for a sequel.

The themes of the book are so timely — what are the consequences of making lies indistinguishable from truth, as we seem to have done? Can society go too far in seeking and upholding the truth? What is the relationship between evidence and truth? How should society deal with people whose truths are outside the mainstream? How does our society do this, even if it’s not as obviously extreme as the Golden State? What makes a person good, or bad, at what they do and how they live? Can a person have serious faults and be a hero? Can a person be a friend and a traitor? Some of these are age old questions, but I can promise you haven’t considered them in quite the same way as The Golden State.

Finally, and those of you who have followed this blog for any time know this is key for me — the writing is beautiful. In the scene where Laszlo tells Arlo about the novel he’s found disguised as a dictionary, and Arlo tells him it’s an artifact, Laszlo muses: “We are silent, then, silent on the steps of the Record, silent at the center of the State. There is a world that used to be and is gone. We live on it and in it, but we don’t know what it was. Its absence surrounds us.”

Truth, beauty, dystopia and the thrill of a page-turner that makes you keep the booklight on under the covers. Perfect. And what a work to pair with The Misinformation Age!

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