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Posts Tagged ‘England’

I was at a coffee shop/used bookstore yesterday, picked up Graham Swift‘s Last Orders from a sale cart, and thought it sounded like a good read, sort of a male version of the kind of English social novel I like. When I got home and looked through it more closely I realized I’ve read it before, although a quick search of bookconscious seems to indicate I read it before I started the blog, so prior to 2007. I decided I’d read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Re-reading is something I don’t do often, but have intended to do from time to time. Like during a week when I have a lot of time to read.

Last Orders is about a butcher, Jack Dodds, and the men (and a few women) in his life, in Bermondsey, London. Although not the hip, White Cube Bermondsey of today; it never says exactly, but I think the book is set in the late 80’s, because four of the men, including Jack, are WWII veterans. When the book opens, Jack’s friends and Vince, the man he raised as his son after his family was killed by a bomb, are gathered in their pub, preparing to carrying out Jack’s final wish: that they spread his ashes in the sea at Margate.

The main arc of the story takes place all on that day, with different sections looking back on the men’s lives at different ages. We hear about their wives and daughters, and Jack’s widow, Amy, and Vince’s wife, Mandy, tell bits of their own stories, but most of the book is about and from the perspective of the men. It’s one of those books where most of what’s important to the character’s lives happened earlier, but the events of the book are a kind of climax, emotionally, in their lives.

It’s a lovely book, about long friendship, love, disappointment, unfulfilled dreams, finding what you’re good at, living your life as best you can. There aren’t a lot of novels that go into the emotional lives of men, I think, or else I don’t usually read those. Here’s a bit from a scene when Jack’s in the hospital, and he’s asked to see Vince, who has been thinking that even unwell there is something about the way Jack looks, “. . . it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.” As they sit there together, Vince goes on thinking:

“He looks right into my face like he’s looking for a little light too, like he’s looking for his own face in mine, and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow, like I’m empty, that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones, his way of holding his jaw and looking straight at you without so much as a bleeding blink. . . .  It’s like I’m not real, I ain’t ever been real. But Jack’s real, he’s realler than every. Though he ain’t going to be real much longer.”

So, I re-read, no regrets — although I have loads of books I haven’t read yet, I’m really glad I re-visited this one. Chime in and let me know: do you re-read? How often? How do you decide what gets a second read or more? I’ve heard of some people re-reading a particular favorite annually. The Computer Scientist used to read The Stand every time he was sick. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

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Penelope Fitzgerald‘s The Bookshop is one of the books I bought at the Five Colleges Book Sale, and I read it yesterday afternoon while waiting to hear what you all suggest I read next (so far the consensus is The Scapegoat, as soon as it arrives). In keeping with how she appears to have been treated in her lifetime, as this appreciation by Julian Barnes suggests, I purchased two of Fitzgerald’s books accidentally, because I was thinking of Penelope Lively. As I told the Computer Scientist, it all worked out, because somehow, I’ve never read Fitzgerald and she’s marvelous.

The Bookshop is a brief but brilliant tribute to the difficulty of being “not from around here.” The heroine, Florence Green, decides to open a bookshop in a very small town on the coast of England in 1959. She’s a widow, and as the book opens “she had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.” Having worked in a large book store in London, she decides that she’ll buy the derelict and aptly named Old House, damp and reportedly haunted by a “rapper” — a loud sort of poltergeist — and transform it into a bookshop.

In the course of 123 pages, Florence struggles to do so, encountering helpful Boy Scouts, a capable ten year old whose large family sends her to be a shop assistant, unhelpful and patronizing bankers and lawyers, and an assortment of customers. She also manages to meet and annoy the formidable Mrs. Gamart, who fancies herself a patron of the arts and has designs on the Old House, and Mr. Brundish, an elderly “descendent of one of the most ancient Suffolk families,” who becomes a friend of sorts, if an eccentric one in failing health. A young BBC employee, Milo, also seems to befriend Florence and the shop, although Florence can’t seem to get a read on him. All these characters and many minor ones march off the pages of this book, fully dimensional.

Florence fumbles her way, taking a big gamble on a new book, Lolita, and trying not to embarrass herself when her accountant comes around. Will she overcome her struggles and make a go of it? How will the town ultimately treat their outsider bookseller? What will become of her various friends, young and old? If you have a spare evening, you’ll soon learn. Fitzgerald writes in a way that portrays each scene vividly but with minimal words. For example, when General Gamart visits the bookshop to buy a war memoir, “He glanced about him as if on parole, and retreated with his parcel.” Fitzgerald succinctly shows us his discomfort. And to be clear, I shared that discomfort, by the end of this story, as Fitzgerald captures the pettiness of small towns everywhere. Still, I felt a ray of hope.

The other Fitzgerald I bought is apparently one of Barnes’ favorites, The Blue Flower. I look forward to it, and to deliberately hunting down more of her books at the next sale I attend.

 

 

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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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Librarians read lots of reviews, so I’d heard about Jon McGregor. But it wasn’t until a friend in my book group recommended Reservoir 13 that I finally got around to reading his work. I order fiction for my library so I knew the book, but I didn’t think I’d want to read it because it was about a missing teen. Only it’s not, as my friend noted when she raved about it. It’s really about the people who live in an English village where a teen goes missing.

McGregor’s prose is meticulous — he doesn’t talk about bugs and birds and plants, but springtails (which I learned, when I looked them up, are technically “hexapods,” not bugs), fieldfares, and teasels. He notes the passing of seasons by things like when it’s lambing time, when the badgers mate, and when fox cubs leave their dens. And also in human terms like when it’s time for the well-dressing, when the allotments are planted or harvested and what grows when in them, and when it’s time for the annual cricket match against a neighboring village or the village pantomime.  All this detailed observation adds to the rich pattern of the writing.

And that writing is melodious, almost musical, with certain refrains repeating again and again through the passing years of the novel. For example, this description of the girl: “Her name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer.” And phrases, like, “At midnight when the year turned . . . .” And “Cathy knocked on Mr. Wilson’s door and asked whether Nelson needed a walk . . . .”

This repetition, along with the turning of the seasons and the years, creates a sense of the ebb and flow of village life. Challenges and joys come and go, but things go on, the people who remain manage, look after each other, keep things running. Characters rise and fall — the focus isn’t on one or two people with minor supporting characters but instead on bits of many villagers’ lives. Some remain throughout the book, some move on, or fade into the background.

If you like a strong narrative, clear answers, or a lot of action, this book won’t be for you, but if you want a meditative, thoughtful read about the basic decency and humanity of people with all their faults and foibles, and the way people survive the few among them who lack that basic decency, this is a beautiful read.

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It’s hard to know how best to describe The Essex Serpent. Sarah Perry‘s writing reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson’s. This is a historical novel, set in the late 1800s. It’s also an examination of the nineteenth (and sadly, the 20th and 21st) century’s tension between faith and reason, religion and science. It’s a social commentary on the role of women in society, and on the responsibility of the wealthy and powerful to the poor, and on the way social welfare, such as housing programs, is often laced with paternalism and judgement. It’s about love in all its complexity and variety, especially as manifested in parenthood, friendship, romance, desire, and social conscience. It’s about fear, longing, joy, and despair. It’s about mythology and mob thinking. It’s about the beauty and also the strangeness of the natural world and our perception of it. It’s about illness and medicine, in particular nineteenth century surgery and the impact of tuberculosis on a patient’s mind. It’s about how a child likely on the autism spectrum would have been viewed in the nineteenth century (a bit eccentric and not prone to affection) It’s about the pros and cons of city and country life and what we need to make a life. It’s a book that hits on all the Big Ideas of being human without hammering the reader over the head with them.

Cora is a a smart, unconventional woman, a recent widow who is glad to be free of her cruel and abusive husband, and who would rather be tramping around in a man’s coat and boots looking for fossils but moves easily in a world of silk and diamonds and expensive treats from Harrod’s. She ends up in Essex with her companion, Martha, a socialist and fair housing advocate, and her son, Francis (the one who seems to me to be autistic). Their circle of friends includes the Reverend William Ransome, (who reminds me a bit of an older, more settled version of Sidney Chambers, nineteenth century style) and his wife Stella, who Cora and Martha meet through London friends, as well as the doctor, Luke, who attended Cora’s late husband and who makes history performing surgery on a stabbing victim’s heart, and Luke’s best friend George (mostly referred to by his last name, Spencer).

The way Perry intertwines her characters’ lives is brilliant. And the way she weaves through their lives the mystery of the Essex serpent is also well done; even those characters who aren’t directly interested in whether the beast exists are impacted by “the trouble” it causes. I loved that Perry’s inspiration was a real pamphlet (published in the 1600s and and reprinted in the 1800s as well as recently) alleging “Strange News Out of Essex.”  And I loved the language — here’s a passage that caught my eye (and ear) as I read it last night, as Martha is startled to see Francis in Stella’s lap: “What Martha later recalled most vividly of those last few fog-white days was this: William’s wife and Cora’s son, fit together like broken pieces soldered on the seam.” It’s not a straightforward narrative, as Perry sprinkles her text with the letters her characters write to each other. But it’s not a straight up epistolary novel either, as there are long passages without letters.

I loved it, and I loved how it ended — Cora has undergone change without being transformed beyond recognition, there’s no pat conclusion of the chaos she’s wrought or the pain she’s experienced, but there’s hope. A thoroughly entertaining and also thought provoking book — the kind of read that makes you long to talk it over with someone who’s read it too. And yes, it’s another of Simon’s recommendations from an episode (maybe several) of The Readers! Thanks, Simon.

 

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I’m not sure what to say about this book that will do it justice — it’s a good read, a novel that both tells a story and speaks truth, and it made me feel my white privilege acutely. Adichie manages to be both humorous and heartbreaking, and she takes readers into communities and cultures many of us don’t know. It you’ve read booksconscious for long, you know that for me, that’s pretty much the total package — good writing, truth, transport, compelling narrative. Oh, and characters who are alive.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and her childhood sweetheart Obinze. They come of age in Nigeria under military rule and both get fed up with the university strikes and decide to leave. Ifemelu follows her Aunty Uju to America, where she finds things are not what she expected. Obinze, denied an American visa, ends up trying his luck in England, where he has a cousin. I don’t want to give away details of what happens to each of them, but readers follow their struggles and successes until, full circle, the story returns to Nigeria.

Part of the story is that Ifemelu writes a blog about racism; in America she experiences being black for the first time (late in the book she tells a white American “I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black). The blog posts in the novel are particularly relevant, painful reading now.  She also writes in a refreshing way about the immigrant experience. I know refugees in my community, and I know how shocking it has been for them to come here and experience the reality of America as compared the image they held while waiting to come here. I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that some people, not refugees but other immigrants, don’t find what they are seeking and return to their countries. That’s not the story we’re told about the American Dream. I appreciated the view that America isn’t the end of people’s stories in this book.

Adiche, describing Ifemelu’s discovery of Obinze’s favorite books in her local library in Philadelphia, writes, “how could a string of words make a person ache for a place he did not know?” Of course, I recognized that feeling. If you do too, you will find that familiar, pleasant ache in Americanah. The thing is you might also ache for a place you do know — America. But right now, I can’t think of a better way to do that than to read fiction.

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I was adrift without a book to read on election day and after, having finished up reading a novel for Kirkus, and picked up Jane Gardam because she is wonderful, and because at times of turmoil, there is nothing like a new (to me) novel by a favorite author.

Gardam didn’t disappoint. Bilgewater, like God on the Rocks, Crusoe’s Daughter, and A Long Way from Verona, features a young female protagonist. In this case, Marigold Green, is in her final year of school, and lives with her widower father in St. Wilfrid’s school for boys (who nickname her Bilgewater), with their formidable matron Paula in the north of England.

Marigold says, “I never felt that Paula found me very important though. Far from it. She never had favourites. There is a great sense of inevocable justice about her and although one had the sensation that her devotions and emotions ran deep and true you never found her ready to discuss them–not the loving emotions anyway. . . . For me she had from the start a steady unshakeable concern that wrapped me round like a coat. . . . But she has never tried to mother me. She’s not a soft woman, Paula. She cannot stand slop of any kind and again and again she says– it’s her dictum, her law unquestionable– BEWARE OF SELF PITY.”

And so Marigold attempts to live by Paula’s dictum through awkward adolescence and preparation for Oxbridge entrance exams, and a crush, and a friend who disappoints her, and a lot of emotional disarray. At one point the awful friend tells Paula that Marigold is “mad.” Paula retorts, “Marigold’s not mad. That’s one thing certain . . . . She sees clear and pure and sometimes it’s a bit more than she nor anybody can bear.”

Gardam is a master of this kind of thing — a couple of sentences that not only capture something essential in the human experience, but are also achingly lovely. I come away from every Gardam novel wanting to be friends with her characters, and with her, and to write like her, or just to write half as well as she does.

If you’re looking for something real and true and beautiful (and yes, good fiction should be all of those things) to read these days, you cannot go wrong with any of Gardam’s work, and Bilgewater would be a wonderful place to start.

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