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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

I love a book that expands my “to be read” list, and Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris did that. Not only does she recommend some classic books about Greece (such as Lawrence Durrell‘s and Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s work) but also, she writes eloquently about Homer and I have had Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad on my shelf for some time.

Mostly it’s a joy to read about someone’s passions, and for Norris, the Greek language, literature, and Greece itself are longtime passions. She was a young copy editor at The New Yorker when she first began learning Greek, and her boss, Ed Stringham, encouraged her and even agreed it would help her work so it could be paid for by the magazine. He encouraged her to travel and suggested things to read (like the books mentioned above). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone came across a mentor like that, who sees a spark and fans it?

Norris intersperses her writing about Greece and Greek with writing abut herself and her family, but this book doesn’t hit you over the head with interpersonal drama or devolve into navel gazing. Instead Norris is thoughtful, observant, introspective at times without being self-absorbed, curious about her family relationships without playing them up for effect. In short, she writes an intelligent, beautiful book that is informative and entertaining. Even though I went through a Greece phase of my own — we took a family trip when I read that there were deals to be had after the Athens Olympics, and I made sure the kids and I were immersed in all things Greek for about six months before we went — I learned a good bit reading Greek to Me, especially regarding connections between Greek and English.

Norris’s descriptive language is evocative and also makes the foreign familiar, as with this passage about the earthquake restorations at the Daphni monastery:  “The scaffolding inside made it look like trapeze school . . . by now multiple earthquakes had shattered the mosaics, which had collapsed onto the floor in jumbles of tesserae. The restorers’ work was of a magnitude I could barely comprehend: they were putting the Almighty together again.” Or this one, about the view from the Kalamitsi Hotel: “The sun left a pink smear above the distant gray-blue peninsula, and the sea was like a bolt of ice-blue satin, with matching sky, except that the colors of the air were not as nuanced, having no surface, existing as pure distance measured in light. In the grove in the foreground the trunks of olive trees twisted seductively A tongue of sea eased in from the Messenian Gulf below a steep hill covered with pines, plane trees, and pointed cypresses . . . .” It goes on, but you should read the book for the full effect.

If you’re staycationing this summer, this would be a great book to take you away, and if you’re planning a trip to Greece, this is a don’t miss. But even if neither of those describes you, this is a wonderful read. I wanted to sit down with the author over some coffee (or ouzo!) and hear more stories, take in her fascinating experiences, and enjoy her voice after I reached the end. In fact, I never looked for her first book, Between You & Me, about her time at The New Yorker when it came out, but I’ve added that to my list as well.

 

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I wasn’t able to see the film version of Red Joan while it was playing at my local indie theater, so when I went to Los Angeles I downloaded the Europa Editions novel by Jennie Rooney. I enjoyed it, although the ending didn’t do much for me. Still, a quick skim of the film reviews indicates the book was better, although Judi Dench gets good reviews for her part as the main character.

Joan is in her 80s, taking ballroom dancing and watercolor classes and enjoying living in England near her son and his family after many years in Australia. In the first few pages of the book, she reads an old friend’s obituary and MI5 agents come to her door to take her away for questioning — not in his death, precisely, but in relation to new evidence they have from a Soviet defector that Joan and her friend were spies.

Joan’s thoughts make it pretty clear — as does the title — that she was. Rooney uses the questioning, which takes place over a few days, as the mechanism for going back to Joan’s youth, her days as a physics student at Cambridge in the late 1930s, and her romance with Leo, a Russian emigre, and friendship with Leo’s cousin, Sonya. The cousins take Joan to communist meetings, which she points out to her interrogators was pretty common in those days; lots of intellectuals in Europe admired, at the very least, theoretical communism, and Stalin’s crimes were not yet fully understood. She never joins the party, even though Leo calls her his “little comrade.” The war comes, Joan decides to do her part, and Leo gets her a job at a metals lab in Cambridge, where she meets Max, the lab director, and an unhappily married man.

As Joan recalls her life, prompted by documents shown to her by the MI5 agents, her son, Nick, who conveniently happens to be a lawyer, finds out she’s a suspect and rushes to help her. As it dawns on him that she really did pass secrets from Britain’s nuclear program he is incensed. This conflict allows Rooney to slowly spin out the story of Joan’s loves and friendships, the way she was manipulated, and the choices she made. I appreciated that she is presented as neither purely a victim nor purely a traitor. For Joan, whose father lost a limb in WWI, and who lived through WWII, nuclear deterrence means peace, while for Nick, it is madness. While much has been made of the fact that Rooney credits a news story about an 87 year old English woman revealed to have been a Soviet spy as inspiration, she says in the author’s note that there is little else her character and the “granny spy” share and that she was also inspired by other historical events and people.

While as I said the ending wasn’t my favorite, overall this was an interesting read. I enjoy historical fiction and I felt like Rooney hit all the right notes. The ideas the characters grapple with are more nuanced than the usual good versus evil that often appears in books set in or after WWII. There is much for a book group to discuss, starting with the fact that Joan acts according to her values, believing that she is “sharing” secrets, not stealing them. I was intrigued enough to want to read late over the weekend to find out what happened.

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I needed something that would be entertaining but not mentally taxing to read as I attended the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, a weeklong applied research methods intensive, last week. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman fit the bill. I’ve written about her books before here on bookconscious — novels and her wonderful essay collection I Can’t Complain. I love her wit, her smarts, and her wonderful writing, so  choosing this book to download was a no-brainer. I was away for 9 days and chose not to check a bag, so downloaded library books instead of packing the physical kind — I didn’t love the format, but I loved the light bag.

Good Riddance is about Daphne Maritch formerly of fictional Pickering, New Hampshire and now a New Yorker. When the novel opens, Daphne has been Kondo-ing her apartment and discards an old yearbook her mother bequeathed her. She can’t understand why on earth it was left to her. It’s for the Pickering High Class of ’68 and is dedicated to Daphne’s mother, the yearbook advisor. Over the years her mother attended many class of ’68 reunions and added commentary to her copy of their yearbook.

Daphne dumps it in the recycling like any ecologically minded apartment dweller, and her kooky neighbor finds it and starts digging into the story of the class of ’68, at first for a documentary, then a podcast. Daphne gets wound up by this and tries to prevent further embarrassment to her family, especially her father, Tom, who is getting back into the world about a year after his wife’s death. This is romantic comedy at its best, with Daphne and Tom both developing love interests while also developing theories about the yearbook and its significance. I got a kick out of the New Hampshire references as well.

A fun comedy of manners poking affectionate fun at New York, family dynamics, and social trends.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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