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Posts Tagged ‘England’

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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I order fiction at my academic library, and I like to order novels whose characters work in fields our students are studying. That is why Paradise Lodge caught my eye. Lizzie, the book’s heroine, becomes an “auxiliary nurse” at a nursing home in a former grand home in England in the 1970’s, because she wants to earn money and because a classmate is going to apply and she tags along. Lizzie soon learns that she likes working more than she likes school. Her mother wants her to study for her “O” levels, but she is drawn into the life of Paradise Lodge as it faces a crisis. The owner’s wife has gone to run a rival facility, and lures staff and potential patients away.

Stibbe peoples her novel with interesting characters — Lizzie’s free-spirited mother, a smart nurse manager, Sister Saleem, who is recruited to rescue Paradise Lodge, Matron, who may have had a tough life or may be a pathological liar (or both), the elderly residents. The story is a coming of age tale, following the ups and downs of fifteen year old Lizzie as she navigates her concerns for her family, a crush on her friend’s boyfriend, and her indecision about her future. It’s also a humorous examination of human nature, one that reminds me of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Margaret Drabble. Both the characters and the emotional tenor of the story seem spot on.

An altogether satisfying read. I hope it will be adapted to for film or television.

 

 

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At a holiday party, one of our guests asked people to name their 6 favorite books ever, and my eighteen year old included I’m a Stranger Here Myself. So as you begin to read this please know I am predisposed to think highly of Bill Bryson and whatever he writes, even though I tried hard when I was events coordinator at Gibson’s Bookstore to book him for an author event and couldn’t get an answer, let alone a booking.

I was actually a little afraid to pick up his newest book, which revisits some of the sites Bryson wrote about in Notes From a Small Island. That’s another favorite around our house, and sequels, which The Road to Dribbling sort of is, rarely hold up in my experience to the original. But this book is classic Bryson — that perfect mixture of laser-like cultural critique laced with laugh-out-loud wit, gentle self-deprecating humor, slightly squirm-inducing naughtiness (suggesting young litterers should be killed, for example), and an autodidact’s erudite appreciation for wherever he’s visiting, clearly explained so the reader is infected with Bryson’s own curiosity and admiration. Plus, he is openly admiring of so much.

I’ve heard people grumble that Bryson just gripes a lot (or bitches, as he’d call it) and profits off the unfortunate fools he lampoons in his writing. But I’ve always felt Bryson is generously affectionate where its due. Being unfailingly willing to call bullshit when he sees it, and to expose assholes or idiots, is a longstanding literary tradition, and more recently, keeps millions of people in America actively engaged with current events via programs like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight. Without this potent mix of fearless, intelligent commentary and sometimes inappropriate but always spirit-lifting humor, surely we’d all have lost our minds by now.

So if you like books that make you snort with laughter into your pillow as you vainly attempt not to awaken your spouse,* this book is for you. If you like books that will teach you something you had no idea you were missing (I’d never heard of Oliver Heaviside, or Motopia, or the species Homo Antecessor, or a good many other things), this book is for you. If you like books that fill you with a sense of warm recognition of our common humanity, our common intolerance for officially sanctioned idiocy, and our common appreciation for kind-heartedness and generosity of spirit, this book is for you. And for the record, I no longer book events at Gibson’s so I am not just sucking up. But Mr. Bryson, if you read this, the events coordinator who succeeded me is named Elisabeth, the store owner is Michael, and they’d be delighted to have you.

*I met Bill Bryson at a book signing in Seattle in 1999 or 2000, when he was touring for In A Sunburned Country. When he signed my copy of I’m a Stranger Here Myself, I told him I’d brought my whole family to the reading because the children wanted to see this man who caused their mother to laugh so much that she shook their father awake when she read at night. My son was about 8 at the time and was supremely impressed that Bryson read a passage of his book which included the word “fuck.” He thought Bryson was brilliant then, and he still does.

 

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Last May I wrote here about being pleasantly surprised by Me Before You  by Jojo Moyes. Last night I stayed up waaaayyyyy later than I should have reading the sequel, After You. Some people would probably derisively categorize this as “women’s fiction.” I don’t care — first of all I think labels are lame, and second of all, any book that keeps me awake because I can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen to these people is a good read.

When After You opens, Lousia Clark is reflecting on the eighteen months that has passed since the events at the end of Me Before You. She misses Will and doesn’t feel she’s doing what he asked — “Just live.” Louisa has moved to London but she’s stuck in a dead end job at an airport bar, the person she most frequently converses with runs the Mini Mart, and she’s drinking more than is healthy.

And then she has a freak accident. Her family, who had previously stopped speaking with her (because of the events at the end of Me Before You that I don’t want to give away), rush to her side. Louisa is happy to have her family back and the accident gives her some resolve. She’s going to turn things around, get a better job, start living. She joins a Moving On grief support group, mainly to appease her mother. And then Lily shows up.

Lily is sixteen, and she claims, to Louisa’s total shock, that she’s Will Traynor’s daughter. She has a terrible relationship with her mother, she’s been in trouble at school, she’s “a handful.” But Louisa can sense the hurt beneath the bravado, perhaps because she has her own private pain and public face. And getting to know Lily lets Louisa relish her memories of Will, as she tells the girl about her father.

In the midst of all this, Louisa gets reacquainted with Sam, the paramedic who took her to the hospital and with Will’s parents. As she worries about the people she cares about she tries to work out what “just living” will mean for her. There are a number of twists and turns and a lot of emotion, and I enjoy how Moyes gives her characters really interesting lives. Lily turns out to be a terrific gardener, for example, and Sam is building himself a house. Louisa’s mom takes a continuing education course in feminism and stops shaving her legs. All the little details make these people come alive.

At the end of After You Louisa has made a big decision and is about to embark on a new chapter in her life. I wondered whether Moyes has already decided there will be a third book? I’d certainly like to know how things turn out for Lily, Louisa, and the others. After You wasn’t quite as gripping as Me Before You — the drama builds more subtly, and the material is a little more familiar —  but it was still a lovely, entertaining read.

 

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If you’ve followed bookconscious for awhile you know I love Jane Gardam. I just finished The Hollow Land this morning, which I’ve had on my shelf for some time but remembered when I noticed on Facebook that Gibson’s Bookstore book club is discussing it on 12/7.

This lovely book is set in a village in Cumbria, and is listed among Gardam’s work for children, although I think it is absolutely a book for everyone. It’s a series of linked stories about Harry Bateman, who is a little boy the first time his family comes to stay in an old farmhouse called Light Trees, which is owned by the Teesdale family. From the start Harry and the Teesdale’s boy Bell, who is a little older, are friends, and over the years, the Batemans become a part of the community. Harry and Bell get into a number of childhood scrapes, getting stuck in an old silver mine shaft (hence the hollowness of the land), getting lost in a blizzard while they were off “on an icicle ride,” and in Harry’s case, tangling with the Egg-witch and her ancient, and by all reports dotty, mother, Granny Crack.

Gardam has a knack for rendering something as simple as a scruffy hillside beautiful: “They began to climb the far side of the cleft, pulling themselves up by bushes and rocks. A sheep racketed away from them from behind some gorse bushes and once a family of grouse shot up from under their feet making a noise like wooden rattles.” These descriptions combined with Cumbrian dialog and the telling of the quiet rhythms of the seasons — blackberry time, sheep shows, etc. — infuse the book with a deep sense of place.

What ties the stories together and makes The Hollow Land a cohesive whole is not only that sense of place but also the friendship of Harry and Bell and their families. This is a book about love, and about community, and also about loyalty and preserving what makes a place special. Harry tells Granny Crack, who says she’s never seen London, “It’s all right . . . . Up here’s better. More seems to go on up here.” As the generations grow they stay or return, even as the world changes. When Gardam wrote it she was cementing the place right into the future — the last story is set in 1999, and she published The Hollow Land in 1981.

If you’ve loved a place like Light Trees, a house “away from it all” where as a child you knew anything could happen, you’ll love this book. But even if that’s not a familiar experience, you’ll savor Gardam’s evocative prose and be transported to a place where, as Bell reassures Harry when he’s worrying about things changing, “Summat’ll fetch up. . . . See what tomorrow brings. It of times brings summat.” Timeless words for any kind of trouble. Like all good books, The Hollow Land speaks of things beyond the words on its pages.

 

 

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Here’s another brief review I wrote for the library.  I love Penelope Lively‘s writing, and I really enjoyed her memoir. It made me wish I could hear her speak, or even better, sit down and have a cup of tea (or glass of wine) with her.

Novelist Penelope Lively reflects on “old age,” “life and times,” “memory,” “reading and writing,” and “six things” – objects around her  house that hold special meaning for her – in this vivid and unique memoir. The book reads like a conversation with a wise older friend, and Lively’s nonlinear narrative and varied recollections make this a book you can dip into. For fans of Lively’s fiction, her descriptions of various stories’ origins are interesting and enlightening. For history buffs, there are remembrances of a WWII childhood in Egypt and as the war grew too close, Palestine and England. Throughout the book, Lively notes the importance of reading. “I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.” I found all of these in Dancing Fish and Amonites.

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