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Posts Tagged ‘England’

First I should say that I’ve done an unintentional experiment in reading Ondaatje‘s two novels, The Cat’s Table and then Warlight. I had  just finished The English Patient and was planning to check out Warlight in print from my library when I read Alex Preston’s review in the Guardian suggesting that the two narrators, Michael/Mynah in The Cat’s Table and Nathaniel in Warlight have a similar “voice and quality of perception.” I decided to read The Cat’s Table first, and found it was available to borrow as an eBook from my public library. It took me eleven days to finish the eBook and only two to read Warlight in print, even though Warlight is 304 pages to The Cat’s Table‘s 288. So the next time someone asks me why I prefer print I can say honestly, it’s much easier to read!

Anyway, these are beautiful books. The Cat’s Table is about an eleven year old boy traveling by ship from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England to meet his mother in the early 1950s. Flavia Prins, a friend of his family, travels first class and acts as a sort of guardian to him, and his cousin, Emily, is also on board. But Mynah, as he is known, spends his time at the “cat’s table,” far from the important passengers, and below decks, in the mysterious places where one passenger tends an exotic garden, others tend dogs and pigeons bound for England, and a mysterious prisoner is kept in chains. Mynah befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin.

Together these friends learn from the adults around them over the three week journey. There is a rich man dying of rabies on board, an incognito police detective sent to watch over the prisoner, a deaf girl who becomes Emily’s friend, and the people at the cat’s table, all providing the three boys fodder for speculation and intrigue as they roam the ship, hiding in life boats, eavesdropping, and watching the adults, unseen. At the heart of the story is a mystery, but The Cat’s Table doesn’t unfold in a traditional way towards a solution.

Instead it is the remembrances of a man reflecting on a boyhood journey, with all the uncertainty and unreliability of memory. A few things are sure: Michael/Mynah is changed by the journey, he learns that “Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves,” while others, seemingly of lesser status or on the fringes, make everything happen. And he learns that as his cousin Emily tells him decades later, “I don’t think you can love me into safety.” We must all make our way, Ondaatje seems to say, and love or friendship is not enough to protect anyone from the vagaries of life.

From this meditative, mysterious book I dove into Warlight, which I liked even better (but was it because I could read it more easily in print?). While the characters in The Cat’s Table ranged from exotic and intriguing to ridiculous, Warlight is a hero’s tale, seen again through the lens of remembered childhood. It’s the story of Nathaniel, who tells us in the novel’s opening line, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” From that surprising start, Nathaniel tells the story of postwar London and the shadowy world he and his sister Rachel find themselves in after their parents allegedly leave for his father’s job in Singapore. And of the long reach of wartime secrecy deep into the decades that follow.

The Moth and the Darter, the two men who watch over them inept, non-parental choices, who have what Nathaniel sees as “grudging, uninterested concern,” for them, but also all kinds of strange talents and knowledge. The Darter, for example, realizes Rachel is epileptic and inducts Nathaniel into his business, smuggling greyhounds. He is also unperturbed when Nathaniel presents him as his father to a girl Nathaniel has been seeing.

The Moth on the other hand has an even more opaque life. He tells the children about Mahler’s notation “schwer” in his scores — “Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

Understandably, this is a difficult thing for young teens to process, especially given their parents’ absence. Their unease is compounded by the people who come to see the Moth and the Darter, a strange and haphazard crew including a beekeeper, an ethnographer, and an angry Russian woman. Nathaniel explains, “And our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls, who, having at one time legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.” Rachel withdraws from this chaos, drawn into the theater. Nathaniel is immersed, and as the book unfolds we learn that like his mother before him, it becomes his life.

The story of the adult Nathaniel piecing together the story of his mother’s war work, her friends and colleagues, and the way they are linked to both is past and his present is, like Mynah’s story, a bit rambling and indistinct, as memories often are. But beautiful, and steeped in the detailed and lyrical language that are Ondaatje’s hallmark. His description of squeaky floorboards in Nathaniel’s grandparents’ Suffolk home, where he and his mother went to live, as “the nightingale alarm” because of the resemblance to the birds’ cries, for example. And a beautiful and heartbreaking scene where the adult Nathaniel returns to the village near that home to buy his own house, and talks to the owner, Mrs. Malakite, who cannot remember him. “Still it was clear watching and listening to her that the details about the care of her garden and the three beehives and the heating of the angular greenhouse would be the last things forgotten.”

I’ve enjoyed my foray into Ondaatje’s books and plan to read more of his work. In print, preferably!

 

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My friend Peg lent me this book after reading my review of The Enchanted April Elizabeth von Arnim wrote many novels, and The Caravaners was the eighth, published in 1909. It is meant to be the diary of Otto, Baron von Ottringel, an officious German army major who tells readers he is writing a book about his caravan holiday in England. Besides Otto and his wife, Edelgard, and their neighbor, the widow Frau von Eckthum, they traveled with an aristocratic German-English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Menzies-Legh, a niece of that couple and her friend, a Socialist MP named Jellaby, and a man “going into the church” named Browne, who Otto later learns is also Lord Sigismund, younger son of an aristocrat.

Otto has very definite ideas about women and the English, none of which are favorable. He believes Germany to be superior in every way, and looks forward to a time in the near future when he believes Germany will conquer England. Von Arnim was clearly writing with the impending World War on her mind. And with Otto, she satirizes German alpha masculinity as Otto appears more and more ridiculous throughout the book. Edelgard enjoys the holiday and comes into her own, even shortening her very proper skirts. By the end readers may wonder why she stays with him, when he is such a disagreeable, bullying, sanctimonious, self-absorbed man, but perhaps von Arnim knew what that was like.

At any rate, while the book is funny, it was less funny to read this past week as a similarly self-absorbed, misogynist alpha male blundered around Europe in America’s name. I enjoyed it, but my sense of humor is low at the moment. Still von Antrim is wickedly observant and I found her comparison of Anglican and Lutheran practices at the time interesting. Otto tells an Anglican priest “And Lutherans . . . do not pray. At least not audibly, and certainly never in duets.” I chuckled at that.

A good read, although maybe one not perfectly matched to my present mood.  I’m glad Peg thought of me though, and shared it.

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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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