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Posts Tagged ‘Cambridge’

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 started The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble in Maine last Saturday, and then came back to the last minute cleaning, cooking, etc. and the Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities, and went back to work on Boxing Day, so it took me several days to finish. This is actually part of a trilogy about the same group of characters, centered around three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. When the book opens, one of them, Liz Headleand, a London psychiatrist, is preparing to host a huge New Year’s bash on the last day of 1979. It ends in June 1985, on her friend Esther Breuer’s fiftieth birthday. Which they spend together, along with their third university friend, Alix Bowen.

In the nearly 400 pages between, Drabble spins the story of these women’s adult lives, occasionally dipping into their childhoods, describing the society they live in (mainly well educated but not posh London, and the north of England, where Alix and Liz are from), the disciplines they devote themselves to (psychiatric medicine for Liz, art history and especially the Italian Renaissance painter Crivelli for Esther, literature and teaching it to under-served people, like women prisoners, for Alix), the men they love, and the children they bear.

As I’ve written here before, I love the way Drabble writes about people as they relate to each other — friends, relatives, lovers — and the way those relationships knit together create society. She works into the story politics and culture, literature and art, anthropology and history and myth, but always returns to the relationships. And these not only populate society but also Drabble’s fictional world. Kate Armstrong, the main character of The Middle Ground appears on the edges of The Radiant Way, for example. As in other Drabble books the women here are serious, thinking people no matter how they spend their days, and she captures the way they manage their own needs, goals, ambitions, work with the care of others in a way that really resonates with me.

I’ve read some criticism of Drabble — she gets too caught up in description and explanation, she injects too much (read too liberal) political commentary into her fiction, she writes about privileged people, her novels are uninteresting for all of the above reasons. But I love her lens, I love vicariously living in her England for a few days, and I love her writing, and I’ve started the second book in the trilogy, A Natural Curiosity.

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A brief and amusing backstory to this book: I bought The Accidental Pilgrim by Maggi Dawn along with an embarrassingly tall stack of other really intriguing books at the Yale Divinity School Student Book Supply, which is a terrific independent bookstore at YDS, last February when we were visiting the former Teen the Elder. He was in class, and joined us for the completion of the purchase since he’s a member. We then proceeded to the Marquand chapel for worship, which that day was a baptist service with very beautiful music and a wonderful sermon. I was into it, I admit, and sang along where I could and moved with the music and clapped — especially to a South African song I’ve sung with Songweavers & Songhealers (Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God). A woman who seemed roughly of my generation was seated next to me and we exchanged smiles. She also seemed moved by the service and the music.

Afterwards we had lunch, and I was showing our son the books I bought. Two were by Maggi Dawn, and he remarked casually, “Oh that’s who you sat next to in chapel.” Oh. Gosh. And swayed and clapped like a  slightly awkward privileged white middle class woman (which I am). Ahem.

Anyway, The Accidental Pilgrim is one of those books. I read it over the past couple of days at a time when I’m feeling a little at loose ends. My family is on a journey not of our own choosing right now, and the summer has been very wrapped up in it. In the end it will have changed our lives (hopefully for the better) and strengthened us individually and collectively, will have changed the way we see the world and our place(s) in it, and will have helped us see who we are and how we want to live. I hadn’t thought of it as a pilgrimage, and I hadn’t thought I needed to read about pilgrims. When I picked this up, I was here in the house alone (the Computer Scientist was away at a conference) and I made myself a comfort food dinner (poached eggs and beet greens on toast) and browsed my bookshelves. One book after the next seemed not quite right until I landed on this one.

Dawn organizes The Accidental Pilgrim around three times in her life when she was a pilgrim of sorts: in graduate school at Cambridge when she went to the Holy Land on a summer study trip, when her young son was still in a pushchair (stroller to we Americans) and she was facing doubts about what she could and couldn’t do as a woman priest and a new mother, and when she was laid up by an illness just as she and her son were going to embark on a weeklong walk on the Camino. In none of these instances did she embark on what she consciously thought of as a pilgrimage, and in each that is what she came to see herself doing.

I loved this book, and it was, like the sermon I heard that day in Marquand chapel, just what I needed. Some passages resonated with me; others spoke to me like the sort of straight talking friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth when you’re resisting the inevitable. For example: “. . . such a journey not only removes you from home comforts, but also forces you into the constant company of others. . . . sometimes uncomfortably so, for some dither about while others stride ahead like sergeant-majors, barking instructions to others to keep up. . . . And of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that you yourself are being seen close up by others. Any false impressions of noblesse or spiritual maturity is soon whittled away until the true picture becomes visible, but more often than not, in the midst of this dose of human reality there emerges a deepening sense of affection for, and dependence upon, others.”

I’m partway through an experience like that, at the painful realization of being seen close up by others part. Anyone who has done something challenging (intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, any which way) in community will recognize the truth in Dawn’s assessment. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully on the desert fathers, famous pilgrims and pilgrimages, “‘thin places’ where earth seems to touch heaven,” poetry, theology, travel, motherhood — all in a book that’s only 151 pages including notes. A smart book, a good read, and one that has given me plenty to think about.

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