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Posts Tagged ‘Books on the Nightstand’

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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Last week the bookconscious household visited Isle la Motte, Vermont. We rented a cozy cottage on the west side of the island, with copious views of Lake Champlain and its gorgeous sunsets. We walked, biked, ate large breakfasts of fresh local eggs accompanied by many pork products, picked raspberries, visited farm stands, grilled most of our dinners, made s’mores (a first for the Computer Scientist) over a camp fire, kayaked, canoed, looked at the lovely blue moon, sampled local maple creemees, apples, cider donuts, ice ciders, and beers, and relaxed. It was a really perfect end of summer week, and a memorable family vacation.

I took along four books and ended up reading all of those plus three and a half more on my iPad. It was heavenly. Spending long stretches of time lost in a book brought back my childhood summers and the joyful sense of freedom I felt, reading as long and as much as I wanted.

Most of what I brought had been in the “to-read” pile for some time: Dave Eggers‘ novel A Hologram for the King (funny and touching but felt to me like an overgrown short story), Margaret Drabble‘s novel based somewhat on her family history, The Peppered Moth (Wow! An amazing multigenerational story that’s also a kind of social history of women; I want to read everything Drabble has ever written!), Elinor Lipman‘s essay collection I Can’t Complain (sealed my previous view that Lipman is not only someone I’d like to know but also someone I’d like to be), and Paul Harding‘s forthcoming novel Enon (both devastatingly brilliant, as I expected it would be, and just plain devastating).

The three e-books were: Aimee Bender‘s The Color Master (short stories, which I checked out of the NH Downloadable Books website while giving a demo to a patron at the library a few hours before we left for Vermont because I remembered that Ann Kingman recommended it on Books on the Nightstand; I liked some pieces, including the title story, but didn’t like others), Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway (I had somehow managed not to read this yet, and I loved it), and Katharine Britton’s Little Island (which I’ll review in September’s Mindful Reader column).

The book I started on vacation and finished yesterday, also an e-book from the library, is Anthony Marra‘s A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaLongtime bookconscious fans know I am generally suspicious of “It” books that the literary industrial complex promotes heavily. I tend to be a contrarian about books I’m told I will love. Besides, with works like Mrs. Dalloway still to read, I’m not interested in every hotshot emerging writer that comes along. But in this case, the hype is justified. Marra is so young; like Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s hard to imagine how with relatively little life experience he managed to tap the emotional range required to conjure his characters, people of various ages living in war torn Chechnya. Which he didn’t even visit until the book was nearly finished. And like Obreht he blew my mind.

Great literature is emotionally evocative and universally relatable — it takes you so richly into the characters’ experience that it doesn’t matter whether it’s set in a place and time and culture you are unfamiliar with. I’m probably never going to live in a war zone, God willing. I knew only a little bit about Chechnya before I read this novel. But I ached to the core for these people, and Marra’s stunningly beautiful writing had me both turning pages and savoring, even the sections full of violence and horror that in lesser hands would have made me skip. It was especially moving to read in light of the conflict in Syria, as I followed the news and tried to imagine what it’s like for ordinary people caught in a civil war.

I’m really fortunate that I get to read so many good books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beyond good.

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I first heard about Ransom Riggs‘ debut novel (he has written several nonfiction books), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, on a Books on the Nightstand podcast. It’s a YA title, and I wonder about that — what makes some books like this young adult and others adult books with child protagonists? Certainly Briggs gives readers a complicated plot.

Perhaps it’s viewed as an illustrated book. That’s certainly a standout feature — it’s filled with strange black and white photographs, which Briggs says in an author’s note are all “authentic vintage found photos.”  The photos lend an eerie tension as readers see visual evidence of the fantastic things the protagonist, Jacob Portman, learns about his grandfather and the peculiars. As he is led to suspend belief in what he thinks he knows about the world and accept what his eyes are telling him, readers are right there with him.

Peculiar turns out to mean humans who have strange characteristics: a girl who can lift boulders, another who levitates, and one who has a “back mouth.”  A boy who is invisible. A girl who can make fireballs out of thin air. As a child, Jacob is impressed with his grandfather’s strange photos and stories of these peculiar children and of terrible monsters. He eventually decides these are just horrible old world fairy tales told by a man who is forever scarred by his escape from World War II Poland and his separation from his family, who he tells Jacob sent him to a home for refugee children on an island in Wales.

When he’s a teenager, Jacob’s grandfather dies, apparently mauled by wild animals. But Jacob sees the thing that kills him and has horrendous nightmares. His parents, who he already has a strained relationship with, think he’s losing it and take him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist thinks he should visit the island his grandfather spoke of so he can gain some closure and put the strange stories behind him. On the island, Jacob finds the house where his grandfather took shelter during the war. And he finds Miss Peregrine and the peculiar children.

I can’t really say too much more without spoilers, but I can tell you that this book was very entertaining. The writing is straightforward but evocative. Briggs doesn’t dumb down his explanations of the way the normal and peculiar worlds intersect nor of Jacob’s coming to terms with his grandfather’s life. His portrayal of Jacob as a disaffected 21st century teen struggling with strong emotions was spot on, and the action a the end of the book was quite suspenseful, without everything tying up neatly in a bow. The only thing I didn’t like was the ending, because I hate cliffhangers when the next book isn’t going to be out for awhile (in this case next January).

I’m heartened that books like this — quirky, thoughtful, smart stories, with emotional depth and allusions to history, mythology, and literature — still have a strong following in a world where the top selling books are often much less complicated. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children describes in a new and creative way the monstrous side of human nature and the heroic capacity we also have to resist and repel those monsters.

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I heard about The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, on Books on the Nightstand. It was the first library book I tried on the iPad’s Kindle app. I’m still not impressed with e-books, but I enjoyed this novel.

McCoy explores the trauma of war not only for soldiers but also for civilians. The cautionary tale? There’s no redemption in this story for soldiers who follow orders they know are wrong or make a bad situation worse. One main character, Elsie, has a fiancee, Josef, a Nazi officer wracked by psychosomatic migraines and insomnia; another, Reba, is the daughter of an alcoholic Vietnam vet suicide victim. Neither man deals adequately with the part he played in their respective wars. Both women live with their families’ war ghosts, both ultimately make their peace.

In fact, one of the nicest things about this book is Elsie’s ability to let her sorrows go. I don’t want to give too much away but she’s a very strong, interesting character who experiences real redemption and forgiveness and makes peace with all that happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Baker’s Daughter is set both in WWII Germany and present day Texas. Reba is a reporter in El Paso, with a troubled childhood and a fiancee, Riki, she isn’t sure she can commit to. Riki is the child of Mexican immigrants working for the U.S. Border Patrol, torn between his loyalty to America and its rule of law and his moral compass telling him that many of the people he deports are victims, not criminals. And that even those who try to enter illegally might be better served by compassion than scare tactics.

Reba meets Elsie and her grown daughter Jane at their bakery when she’s writing a magazine piece on Christmas traditions. Elsie doesn’t reveal all of her past in their interviews, but the book alternates between her life story — and that of her sister Hazel, who was a mother in the Lebensborn Program — and Reba’s, with brief forays into some of the other characters’ stories, especially Josef and Riki.

It was an interesting read, with characters facing many moral dilemmas and family secrets. The teenage Elsie begins to sense through her sister’s letters and her first Nazi social event with Josef that what Hitler’s Germany stands for is nothing like the ideal her father believes in. When an older SS officer assaults her, a Jewish boy who was made to sing at the party comes to her aid. He shows up outside her house hours later, begging for protection. Despite her extreme fear, she can’t turn him away. I loved this part of the story.

I also enjoyed the way the novel explores how people don’t know the whole story of an event as it’s happening. Riki and his fellow Border Patrol agents have to guess about the people they’re chasing. Elsie and her sister believe propaganda at first because it’s what they know, but the war begins to impact them in ways they never imagined and shades their understanding of the world. Josef is a young man who feels conflicted about carrying out his orders. When a younger Nazi gets carried away, Josef exacts his own justice, and is haunted by the event for the rest of his life. His story is echoed in that of Reba’s father who goes mad because of what he did in Vietnam.

Riki makes a different choice, following his conscience to find a different job.  All of these characters act within a community of family and friends; Reba and Elsie’s family represent those who love people living with hard choices. A book club could have fun hashing out the repercussions they all experience. There’s a particularly poignant scene between Reba and her sister when they discuss their parents.

McCoy presents several of Elsie’s secret Schmidt family bakery recipes in the back of the book. I copied down the recipe for “brotchen” which my son thinks are the rolls he ate when he went to Germany a few summers ago to play soccer. He called them “dope rolls,” which is teenager for “really good.” I hope I can do them justice!

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I really enjoy Books On the Nightstand, although I got a little behind on their podcasts over the summer. But at one point I heard about Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks on BOTN and then serendipitously, the book’s publicist heard about The Mindful Reader and asked if I’d like a copy to review. Dicks lives in Connecticut (a little beyond the column’s geographic limits), and my “to read” shelf is stuffed, but I told her about bookconscious and said I’d heard good things about Memoirs and would love to read it. (Thanks, Aleks!)

So this amazing story made its way to me and last night I did something I haven’t done in months: stayed up too late to get to the end. If you can’t imagine how a book narrated by a kid’s imaginary friend (Budo, friend of a boy named Max) could be so compelling, try it. It’s an imaginative story with very well developed and interesting characters — who readers meet through Budo’s eyes, mind you.

Max is “on the spectrum” (of autism) although his dad keeps saying he’s just “a late bloomer.” He’s very smart and very creative, so he’s imagined Budo as smart and creative as well, and older than many imaginary friends. He also didn’t imagine he’d need sleep, so as Budo says, “I have more time to learn.” His understanding of Max and the way his mind works, and of all the human relationships he observes, is just incredible. With no need for rest, Budo is also able to hang out at night with Max’s parents or at an all night gas station, so he knows a good bit about the adult world.

Which is good, because Mrs. Patterson, a disturbed aide at Max’s school, decides she knows better than anyone what Max needs. I don’t want to give away the page-turning plot, so I won’t say more, except that Budo, who no one but Max and other imaginary friends can see and hear, is on to her very quickly, thanks to Max’s imagination and his own curiosity about the world.

When children grow up, they forget about their imaginary friends, who then disappear. Budo loses Graham, his best friend other than Max, when her little girl no longer needs her. Dicks writes beautifully about the “death” of imaginary friends. And he sets up the central problem of the book: if he helps Max defy Mrs. Patterson, Budo will end up hastening his own disappearance.

It’s not easy to imagine what I’m describing, but Dicks manages it perfectly. Imaginary friends and their world became completely believable to me (just as rabbit culture did when I read Watership Down). And Mrs. Patterson is quite the villain — the last bit of the book had me completely drawn in and feeling I HAD to know what was going to happen.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend ventures into some very adult issues even though the central characters are a nine year old and his imaginary friend. Max’s parents are struggling to deal with their son’s differences and also with secondary infertility. Budo can tell that at Max’s school, some of the teachers are very good and others “play school.” There is bullying and crime and illness and injury in this book. It’s definitely not simple just because it deals with childhood. Budo’s insights into human nature and our tendency to misunderstand each other are very perceptive.

So if you’re looking for a book that will keep you glued to the page, maybe touch you with some very poignant observations about the human spirit, and perhaps even bring back some memories of imaginary friends (I know I had one, although I can’t recall too much about that, and my kids both did as well), check out this book. But allow for the fact that you may not want to put it down once you start.

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