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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Several years ago I found both The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett on the local library’s book sale shelves. The paperbacks are huge and heavy, and I suspected I’d want to read them back to back, so I’ve been waiting to have time to do that. I read one and have started the other over the past week, as well as a Christmas gift, The Book of Margery Kempe.

My edition of Pillars has a preface by Ken Follett about how he came to write about the building of a medieval cathedral. He grew up in Wales, and writes, “When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called Plymouth Brethren. For us, church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues, and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.” He goes on to describe living in London in his twenties, and buying a book to learn about architecture. This led him to visit the cathedral in Peterborough while he was waiting for a train on a reporting trip; he was so amazed that he says, “Cathedral visiting became a hobby for me.”

Eventually, he read The Cathedral Builders and The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel and learning this background planted the seed of an idea for a novel. He first sketched it out in 1976, but his agent didn’t think there was enough “melodrama.” He became a very successful writer of thrillers, including Edgar award winner The Eye of the Needle. But the cathedral book was still on his mind. He was on to something, because when he eventually wrote The Pillars of the Earth it became one of his best-selling books; he credits readers for this in the preface, explaining that word of mouth was what made it so popular.

I found it hard to put down. I definitely liked the story of Philip, Prior of fictional Kingsbridge (a different place than the real market town in Devon, apparently), the building of the cathedral, the running of the monastery, and the sections of the plot about the village, the wool business, and the community. The political, historical and social contexts are very interesting, as are the details of various building techniques and inventions. Follett hired Gimpel as a consultant when he was finally writing the book, around ten years after he thought of the idea. I didn’t care for the violence and brutality, realistic though it may be for the times (between 1123-1173).

But I think one of the appeals of The Pillars of the Earth is that Prior Philip, as Follett notes, has “a very practical, down-to-earth religious belief, a concern for people’s souls here on earth, not just in heaven.” To me, Philip represents the potential of the church to help people — especially people without much status, power, or money — thrive and live harmoniously, becoming their best selves despite human tendencies towards greed, revenge, and selfishness. That’s the overarching theme of the book, that even in a world full of unknown and unpredictable threats, as well as the more predictable and not always so benevolent dominance of a wealthy ruling class, true faith and the selfless love that grows out of it will see people through.

As heroes go, Philip is unusual: a celibate man of God who tries his best to atone for his wrongs and forgive his enemies. Also appealing are Ellen, who lives self-sufficiently in the forest for much of the book, and Aliena, who deals with numerous setbacks, mainly caused by men, but manages to live mostly as she wishes. None of these “good” characters are perfect; they sometimes do the wrong thing, which makes them more realistic. There are plenty of villains (and as I think about, they rarely do anything good) including other clerics, and reading about the civil and religious maneuvering and strife and the suffering they caused makes one marvel that mankind persisted.

Or that the church persisted, which brings me to Margery Kempe. Her Book, which covers much of her life (around 1373-1440), although it focuses on the period in her adult life when she received what she felt were revelations from God, is considered the first autobiography in English. Technically, she dictated it because she was illiterate, like many people (especially women) of her time, but it is considered her own account. The Computer Scientist thought I would find her interesting. I read her Book (actually, two books, published together) before starting World Without End, which starts in 1327, so overlaps with her lifetime.

I say she felt she was receiving revelations, because the translator (from Middle English) of this edition, Barry Windeatt, makes clear in his introduction and notes that her “assumption of a direct and special link with God” is in his view “a spurious claim, because her main concern, despite the attempts at visionary writing, would seem to be with the view others held of her as a person of particular religious capacity.” He goes on to say, “I don’t think there is any evidence of a continuing psychotic process at work here. The most satisfactory description would be of a hysterical personality organization; her behaviors served as a constant source of attention and, in her own terms, of confirmation from others around her.” He says “continuing” because by her own report, she had at least two breakdowns: one, probably post-partum depression and the other late in life for a period around two weeks long. Keep in mind that Windeatt comes to his scholarly conclusions after studying many other mystics, including some who claimed to have holy crying fits.

If someone acted like Margery today, no doubt people would suggest mental health treatment (or maybe she’d be running for office?). She had what many people in her time felt was a delusional sense that God, primarily in the person of Jesus, was speaking directly in her mind, and one manifestation of this was uncontrollable crying and “roaring” fits, often in churches. Margery even notes that she felt depressed “because of the dread that she had of deceptions and delusions,” but that God assured and comforted her. She also felt she heard directly from Mary and a number of saints. She was certain that she was persecuted for her mystical experiences, and honestly, seemed to relish this persecution because she felt is ensured her reward in heaven. And while there were many people who did harass, arrest, mock or threaten her, and she was often accused of being a fake at best or a Lollard at worst (a follower of John Wycliffe, whose views influenced later reformation figures), there were many others who thought she was telling the truth.

Either way, her book is an interesting view of the times and of an extraordinary life. She lived in and around Lynn in England, and was the child of a successful businessman who also served in many municipal offices. She married, had fourteen children, and had her own brewing business for a while. And during the times when she received her communications from God, she traveled all the way to Jerusalem, and took other pilgrimages in Europe, often setting out without much of a plan or many resources and managing to make her way. She annoyed her fellow travellers (some of whom claim they wouldn’t even take money to keep traveling with her, others of whom make up to her as soon as they see she’ll help them eat or travel better). She befriended a number of monks and priests, who read scripture and theology to her. She seemed to have what Windeatt believes in an excellent memory and an eye for detail. And when her husband was old and seriously injured in a fall, he “turned childish and lacked reason” so she “looked after him for years afterwards.”

Whatever you may think about her religious experiences, she seems to have genuinely believed, devoted herself to prayer, and acted generously towards others, both materially and in sharing what she learned and what she felt God was saying to her. She’s a fascinating character. And she would have known some of the places and possibly some of the people (she met a number of bishops) in Ken Follett’s books.

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Sarah McCraw Crow‘s debut novel, The Wrong Kind of Woman is set in New Hampshire, where we both live (Yes, I know her; no she didn’t ask me for a review). It’s set in the early 1970’s on a fictional college campus that, as McCraw Crow notes in her acknowledgements, “bears some resemblance to Dartmouth College before coeducation.” In the opening pages, Oliver Desmarais dies hanging Christmas lights, leaving Virginia, his widow, and Rebecca, his thirteen year old daughter. Much of the book concerns how Virginia and Rebecca each deal with Oliver’s death and their new lives. Virginia copes with the fact that she gave up her own academic life when she got married and became a mother and decides to revisit her unfinished doctoral thesis over a decade later. Rebecca tries to deal with missing her dad, feeling embarrassed by her mom, and navigating early adolescence.

There is another thread in the book about Sam Waxman, a junior at the college, who is struggling to figure out where he belongs on campus, in his family, and in the world, and what he wants to do with his life. He’s a math major taking a course in a new field — computer science — learning to program and listening to lectures that predict there will be computers in every office before long. He falls for an activist who wants to involve him in plans he’s not comfortable with, but he wants to impress her, so he struggles to find a way to help.

I think what impresses me most about this book is that the characters are very believable. They are imperfect people who sometimes worry too much about what other people think, or what the best way forward might be. They stumble. Sometimes they realize they’ve done the wrong thing and try to make amends. Virginia realizes she misjudged the small group of women professors on campus because she had taken her late husband’s view rather than forming her own, for example.

I also enjoyed how McCraw Crow captured the time not just in better known historical references like the Vietnam War and protest movements, but also in things like the back to the land movement, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (which produced Our Bodies, Ourselves), frosted lipstick, and pop and jazz references. Virginia’s idea for taking her dissertation in a new direction by writing about Sarah Miriam Peale is another interesting aspect of the plot — it makes sense that a woman with an emerging sense of the women’s liberation movement and her possible role in it would choose to elevate a lesser known female member of a famous art family.

An entertaining novel about people trying to change with the times and with their changing lives. Book clubs will enjoy it — not too long, solid writing, and lots of interesting relationships to discuss.

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I’ve enjoyed several of Nick Hornby‘s books over the years. Especially High Fidelity, How to Be Good and Funny Girl. So I knew I would probably enjoy his latest, Just Like You. And I did — I read it in two nights, unfortunately two very late nights because I didn’t start reading until way too late. It’s the story of Joseph, a black twenty two year old who works in a butcher’s, a gym, and a football club as a kids’ coach, and dreams of making electronic music and being a famous DJ. And Lucy, a forty-two year old white English teacher and single mom of two boys. As in many of Hornby’s books, these main characters fall in love and then struggle to figure out what to do, whether to work at being a couple of allow things to end, etc.

The age difference causes them some consternation. For example, Joseph figures out that Lucy and his mother are the same age. Their perspectives on Brexit are different, although Joseph sees both sides. And although Hornby takes pains to make clear that interracial relationships are not an issue in London, Lucy & Joseph experience some friction. For example, when Joseph plays a new song he’s working on and Lucy suggests it needs vocals and says he must know a lot of people who can sing, and he wonders whether she thinks all black people are musical. Or when her neighbor is suspicious of a young black man at her door at night. Or when a girl he took out gives him a bit of a hard time about the rumors that he’s dating a white woman, and when he takes Lucy out to a club with his friends and is afraid it will be awkward because he thinks she dances strangely (Hornby isn’t clear about why, and implies it’s a generational difference). And yet, Hornby’s enduring belief (at least in his books) in people’s underlying kindness prevails, because even when they stumble with each other (or others), Joseph and Lucy end up redeeming themselves.

Now, I have already noted I enjoyed the book. It was entertaining, and I can see it being adapted, as so many of Hornby’s books have been, into a film. There is an entire subplot about Brexit that is interesting (it gets into who is voting which way and what, if anything they know about each other’s perspectives). Hornby as always provides amusing social commentary with plenty of little details that bring the people and places to life. And as he often does, he looks at life through the eyes of people different from each other, with different backgrounds and experiences.

But, I couldn’t help but wonder about Hornby writing from a black man’s perspective — . Then I wondered, how do I feel about him writing from a woman’s perspective? And haven’t writers down the ages written from other genders and cultures than their own? Maybe because this book is well written, entirely fictional, and at its core, an entertaining love story, I feel better about this than I did when I recently reviewed a historical novel written by a white writer about a black man? And because Hornby makes both Lucy and Joseph, and their friends and families, complex people, and not “types,” who have to understand all kinds of differences about each other. Most of them are neither “good” or “bad” but whole humans who figure out what to do or say in the moment, like most of us. And Hornby also makes it clear that Lucy and Joseph share a lot: discomfort with their parents’ views, nervousness about whether their friends will be kind to their new partners, the desire to share each others’ interests, awareness of their own differences and a desire to bridge those, love for each other and for Lucy’s sons, generosity of spirit.

I kept hunting for stereotypes, and while Hornby has some fun with London liberals who think they’re so “good” (as he does in other books), I didn’t really find any. I don’t know his view on Brexit but he’s generous to both sides and makes clear that the “debate” in the public sphere wasn’t terribly helpful to actual publics, which is probably pretty accurate, if American “debates” are anything similar. I read a review that implied Joseph’s interests in football and DJing are “cultural” stereotypes, but I have a white son who at 22 was very into both. There are plenty of 22 year olds who are into some kind of sport and some kind of music, regardless of their “cultural” background. The same reviewer took issue with Hornby using urban slang. I wondered, again, if that isn’t more or less what writers have always done. And whether that is just his screenwriter’s ear for detail at work. I could see this being a good movie.

Anyway, this was a fun, humorous read, but with enough interesting materials to discuss (age differences in relationships, family dynamics, how the Brexit vote was presented to the public) to make it potentially interesting to book clubs that like love stories.

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I haven’t read many of Jodi Picoult’s books, but kept hearing about this latest one, The Book of Two Ways. After working my way through a long collection by Jonathan Raban, I was in the mood for a fast read. And something distracting. A love story, this novel had a twist: the main character, Dawn, is a death doula who was a highly promising Egyptologist before a family tragedy changed the trajectory of her life, and she is now facing a choice between continuing on her current path or returning to her prior one.

If it sounds a little too death and tragedy oriented, don’t worry. This book is more about living than dying. But in writing about Dawn’s two careers, Picoult definitely gets deep into the details of both ancient Egyptian burial rites (including coffin texts like the real Book of Two Ways) and contemporary end of life care. When it comes to Egyptian culture, Picoult doesn’t just talk about the myths and mummies you may have learned about in middle school world history, but also gender roles, love poetry, and different periods and rulers. And, after reading about Dawn’s second career, you’ll have a better understanding of what happens to the human body as it dies. Which you have to admit is an unusual topic for a novel that is mainly about a woman in love with two men and successful at two careers.

All of the dying is described from Dawn’s professional perspective, so none of it was sad, really. If I felt sad about anything it was that the characters are all so damn rich, smart, beautiful, and exceptional at their jobs. There is one guy who is a driver’s ed instructor. That was comforting, even if he’s married to a well off artist.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book, it was entertaining and I enjoyed all the details about Egypt (there are even hieroglyphs) and about death doula-ing. It was so entertaining that I actually ended up staying up too late reading. And it was, as hoped, a fast read. If you’re looking for an escape from the news, The Book of Two Ways is interesting and distracting.

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Summer is the final book in Ali Smith‘s seasons quartet. I have enjoyed each one (here are my posts on Autumn, Winter, and Spring). Now that I’ve read the whole series (and, I admit, looked at some other reviews) I’m aware that Smith mentions a different Shakespeare play, a different Dickens novel, and a different woman artist in each book. Summer opens with a sort of prelude about a film by Lorenza Mazzetti about “a man carrying two suitcases” “balanced on a very narrow brick ledge which runs round the edge of a high building.”

Just before Smith tells us about this film, she describes how “millions and millions” of people protested “lying, and the mistreatments of people and the planet” but “the people who knew the power of saying so? said, on the radio on TV, on social media, tweet after tweet, page after page: so?” We who are alive in this moment in time are the man, balanced on the precipice, carrying the baggage of partisanship and selfishness.

This sets us up to meet Grace, mother of two teens, Sacha and Robert, who link the people in this novel together. Grace is a Gen X mom, painfully self absorbed, and a leaver (in terms of Brexit). Sacha and Robert are slightly stereotypical as a teen worried about climate change and a younger bullied teen who kind of admires fascism, but really loves Einstein.

Sacha can’t understand why Charlotte (Arthur’s fellow blogger and missing girlfriend in Winter) is taking the siblings to see where Einstein stayed in rural England before emigrating to America. She warns Charlotte that Robert really likes her. Charlotte replies:

“If people think you like them . . . it can go either way. There’s a lot of powerplay in liking and being liked. Such powerful connection. It’s a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always a choice we’ve got.”

Throughout the seasons novels, Smith shows us characters who are making the world bigger or smaller for others. Sacha writes to a refugee she calls Hero. Robert reveals his admiration for Einstein to Charlotte. That was one of my favorite chapters, when Charlotte and Arthur stumble onto helping Sacha and meet her family. Charlotte’s chapter, where she is stuck in a huge old house with Iris, Arthur’s aunt, while Arthur goes to be with Elizabeth from Autumn, is also excellent.

Iris, ever practical, plans to have a bigger septic tank put in so she can take in refugees let loose from detention camps because of COVID (including Hero). And leaves soup outside Charlotte’s door when she is unable to deal with the world and Arthur’s betrayal all at once. I also loved hearing more from Daniel, the old man from Autumn, and learning about his sister’s work with the Resistance during WWII. Smith captures perfectly the pain, anxiety, and fear of our times, and of humanity generally.

This book, and the whole series, is about Brexit, and COVID, and fascism, and art, but also most of all, about humanity. Charlotte notes, “What art does is exist . . . . And then because we encounter it, we remember we exist too. And that one day we won’t.” Smith’s series does that — reminds us we exist in this dysfunctional world, that we’re connected to each other, as her characters are.

What Smith does is manage to write about the worst of human nature, all the ways we harm each other and the planet, all the ways power is corrupted, all the ways we twist love to suit our purposes, take nature for granted, and yet still somehow manage to get through, to carry each other, resist, and overcome. Charlotte, Iris, and Sacha, Daniel and Elizabeth, even bumbling Grace and damaged Robert and fickle Arthur, we’re all in this together. Somehow, as we stumble towards grace (the state, not the character), leaving our imprint on the world in the form of literature, music, and art. We come closer to what’s possible.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books and imagine I’ll re-read them in years to come.

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Another month of COVID, another Barbara Pym novel. I’m working my way through as much of her work as is easily accessible in library eBook platforms. Less Than Angels is another book with a spinster protagonist, Catherine Oliphant (did Gail Honeyman know this book when she chose to name her heroine Eleanor Oliphant? I don’t know), now one of my favorites of Pym’s many woman protagonists. And Less Than Angels is set partly in academia (where I work) as it is concerned with a group of anthropology students, from the nineteen year old Deirdre to Tom Mallow, minor gentry turned anthropologist, and Alaric Lydgate, whose years of field notes languish in his attic while he cranks out acerbic reviews of others’ work. Pym being Pym, she still pokes a little fun at the Anglican church but the main target of her gentle humor in this book is the world of seminars, grants, notes and theses.

It’s a remarkably melancholy book. Maybe because Deirdre’s inexperienced and heartfelt emotion are painfully reminiscent of my late teens. Catherine is also a more nuanced character than the sisters in Some Tame Gazelle or even Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings. She writes “women’s” stories and articles for magazines, has no living relatives, and manages to befriend her ex-lover’s new girlfriend. You get the sense there is much more to Catherine than “how to give an ‘inexpensive’ cocktail party,” which she is writing towards the end of the book.

She manages to befriend everyone from Deirdre’s aunt and mother to the young anthropology students Mark and Digby who visit her at both the start and the end of the book, to the eccentric Lydgate.Catherine is such sympathetic character, the kind of person that others lean on in good times and bad, that when she slips into a church and lights a candle for the absent Tom, off to study an African tribe, a priest mistakes her for one of the regular volunteers. She’s forever caring for people, but she’s no pushover; Pym makes it clear that she is taking care of herself as well.

I’ve discussed before that Pym is offering me some respite these days. I am appreciating what an astute observer she is, as in this observation about Dierdre, who is taken aback by Catherine’s frank assessment of Tom’s struggle to finish his thesis, “She was as yet too young and inexperienced to be quite sure that one can love and criticize at the same time.” And even though her characters are of a certain time and place* and social structure, we can still recognize their ambition, feelings, frustrations and limitations. It comforting in a way, even though nothing is really comforting right now.

*I should add that there is a very colonialist attitude towards anthropology in this book; studies are done to benefit British administrators even as the anthropologists may be interested in obscure languages or cultural practices.

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Over the summer I read Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel about the legacy of slavery that ranges over several generations. Last night I finished her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which is the story of one family, and focuses mainly on one character, Gifty, and to a lesser extent her older brother Nana and their parents. Much of the story is told through Gifty’s recollections of her childhood, and snippets of the the diary she kept. Because it’s a novel that takes place in Gifty’s thoughts, it isn’t a narrative tale; although Gifty eventually fills in much of her life’s story, her thoughts, like anyone’s, jump around.

As in Homegoing (and in Gyasi’s own life), Gifty’s family story begins in Ghana. But the book opens with Gifty’s childhood visit to Ghana to stay with her aunt. Even though we eventually learn that there is so much more to her mother, Gifty tells us in the first sentence, “Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-size bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student.”

Gifty then recalls what led to the overpowering depression her mother experienced, the losses she faced, the ways America did not live up to the dreams her mother had when she entered a lottery to emigrate, causing her father, embarrassed and unsettled by racism and poverty, to visit Ghana and never return. “For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her, but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two.”

Gifty’s athletic brother Nana, several years older than she is, is the next to go, when he gets hooked on OxyContin after an injury and cannot overcome his addiction. His overdose changes Gifty’s life even more tangibly than her father’s abandonment. Always an achiever, a child who yearns to be good by her mother’s and her evangelical church’s standards, she finds solace in math and science because of their certainty. As a graduate student, she has returned to a less certain world. What makes the brain work as it does? How much is science and how much is will? And what can science do to shape that will? Her experiments with mice and pleasure-seeking regions of the brain, she hopes, will prevent other little girls’ brothers from dying of an overdose, but shame and fear of being taken less seriously prevent her from sharing.

Gifty recalls,

“In the book of Matthew, Jesus says,”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Here is separation. Your heart, the part of you that feels. Your mind, the part of you that thinks. Your soul, the part of you that is. I almost never hear neuroscientists speak about the soul. Because of our work, we are often given to thinking about that part of humans that is the vital, inexplicable essence of ourselves, as the workings of our brains . . . . There is no separation. Our brains are our hearts that feel and our minds that think and our souls that are.”

Her work, she sees, is the same thing she was concerned with as a child: how much control we have over ourselves. “I am looking for new names for old feelings,” Gifty thinks. But her heart, in childhood and in adulthood, is the last thing she thinks about; it’s almost as if the trauma of her shattered family, compounded by racism’s psychological and economic tolls, piles up like bricks around Gifty’s heart. But the work she is doing gives her a kind of peace from the tensions of heart and mind, soul peace:

“The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.”

This deep thinking about mind and soul, neuroscience and faith, permeate Gifty’s story and make her who she is. And make this novel so much more than just the story of an immigrant family. It’s also beautiful — Gyasi’s writing is just a pleasure to read.

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After telling a friend about This is Happiness by Niall Williams, she told me that one of her favorite novels, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, also featured a storyline about electricity coming to a rural area, and was also lyrical. She reads a great deal and spoke so highly of this book that I knew I needed to read it, too.

It’s a novel about love, as well as humankind’s desire to harness science for our purposes. When the story begins, Ray Foster (Fos) has returned to coastal North Carolina where he was raised, to watch the Perseid meteor shower and observe the bioluminescence on the sea. He’s has a theory that there’s a connection between light-emitting creatures and “celestial lights.” He runs out of gas and meets Opal, a bookkeeper, when his truck stops and he asks her father for some gas. They fall in love, get married and travel back to Knoxville, where Fos’s friend and fellow WWI veteran Flash and he run a photography studio.

For a good while the story is about Fos and Opal’s relationship, about Flash’s wildness, his estrangement from his prominent family. Ordinary things. Fos and Opal travel around Tennessee going to fairs where Fos puts on shows as a “phenomenologist,” demonstrating an x ray machine and other scientific phenomena. They long for a child, meet Opal’s cousins in a rural county, learn that she has inherited some land adjacent to her cousin’s farm. Flash takes them fishing, and introduces Opal to his favorite books, including Moby Dick. Opal reads most of them, but not that one (she tries, like many of us, and gives up). They follow along with the Scopes trial, Calvin Coolidge’s election.

This goes on, and Wiggins beautifully spins out the story of these three people, living and working and longing — Flash, to escape his family history, which we get a glimpse of, and live his own life, Fos and Opal to have a family of their own. After almost 200 pages, there is a plot twist that shatters the three friends’ lives.

From there the story focuses on Fos and Opal, how they pick up the pieces and make a new life (in a rural place where the Tennessee Valley Authority promises electricity soon). At long last they become parents to a son, Lightfoot. Fos goes from demonstrating x rays to showing people the toasters and other appliances they will soon be able to use — just as in This is Happiness. Opal gets a New Deal job as a rural librarian. There are a few more plot twists that lead Fos back into photography and ultimately, to Oak Ridge, one of the sites of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. (A few years ago I reviewed The Girls of Atomic City about women at Oak Ridge).

And there, another plot twist is so shattering that I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning first reading, and then thinking about what was going to happen next. By the end of the book, Lightfoot is nearly twenty, meets “Uncle Flash” and the two of them take an epic road trip. A young man full of questions and an older one who tells him, “Life is a series of collisions . . . it’s not a narrative experience. My advice to you is to stop trying to make it one.”

I guess Evidence of Things Unseen is a series of collisions. It’s not a beginning, middle, and end kind of story; we catch the characters in the act of living and we don’t know, when the novel comes to a close, what will happen to them. I said it’s about love, and as I reflect I think it’s really a book about Opal’s love, a steadfast love that transforms Fos’s life and sustains her friend Flash and her son Lightfoot, and touches several other people. And I said it’s about our desire to harness science — Wiggins shines a light on the consequences when the pursuit of that desire, and the belief that science is our salvation, overpowers our natural instinct to love one another and care for each other.

A powerful read, that I am still mulling over.

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Some Tame Gazelle was Barbara Pym‘s debut novel, published in 1950. I thought it was a postwar book, because there are a number of unmarried women, but she started writing it in the 1930s, when she was still very young. It’s about two unmarried sisters, Harriet and Belinda, in their 50s but still hoping for love. Belinda has been in love with a man for thirty years, Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve (who had a cameo appearance in A Glass of Blessings), but he married someone else. He also happens to be the priest at their village church and a rather vain and self-important man. Harriet fusses over every curate that comes to work with Henry. She receives regular marriage proposals from an Italian count who lives in the village, a kind man who loves to garden and is working on a collection of letters written by his late friend, a gentleman diplomat well known to all in the village who died in the Balkans.

Belinda and Harriet, and several other unmarried women in the village, lead quiet lives that revolve around church, books, knitting, and what to have for luncheon, tea, and supper. Belinda, despite her thwarted love, is a dependable friend to the Archdeacon and his wife, Agatha. While Pym is clearly commenting on gender roles, and on the differences among high and low church Anglicans (including a moment when Belinda muses that it’s easier in the city where clergy can move in theri favorite circles, whereas in their country village the Archdeacon and his neighboring Anglo Catholic colleague make subtle digs at each other), her social commentary is understated.

Pym’s humor is also gentle — her characters are decent people even when they act in humorous ways, and she makes no one ridiculous. And some of what I found funny might not have been as she was writing it. Harriet has to hide the corsets she’s mending when someone comes to the door, Belinda worries over whether “cauliflower cheese” is a fine luncheon for the woman seamstress who makes and then after taking so much care, faces the fact that it goes uneaten because a caterpillar has stowed away in the cauliflower. There are also some archly funny bits about Belinda’s friend Nicholas Parnell, now librarian at their old University. Reading a letter from him:

“Belinda sighed. Dead Nicholas was really quite obsessed with the Library and its extensions. She wished he would remember that the two things which bound them together were the memory of their undergraduate days and our greater English poets.”

If it seems frivolous to read this kind of thing while our world is falling apart — while people are dying of COVID, black people are dying at the hands of police because legislators’ promises about change have faded away once again, our President is trying to prevent a free and fair election and our government systematically lies to us, well, maybe it is. I think it’s more of a defense mechanism. There are more Barbara Pym novels on Hoopla so I look forward to continuing to seek refuge in them.

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It had been years since I’ve read Niall Williams. I own the series of nonfiction books he and Christine Breen wrote about moving from New York to County Clare. We went through a serious phase in our thirties of wanting to live radically differently than we do. We researched various alternatives, and that was how I found the Kiltumper books.

I knew that Williams went on to write fiction (and so has Breen, I learned this evening), but I hadn’t read any of his novels until now. This is Happiness caught my eye in the spring when I still thought I’d be ordering new fiction sometime this year for the library. I put a hold on the eBook and just got to check it out last week.

It’s the story of Noe, a seventeen year old who has left seminary in the early 70s and comes from Dublin to Clare to visit his grandparents, Ganga, a perennially happy but not very productive small farmer and Doady, his long suffering wife. While Noe is staying with them, their Faha, is being connected to the electrical grid. Not long after he arrives, Christy comes to board. He works for the electrical company and is there to assure the various property holders have signed off on the paperwork necessary to install the poles and lines.

But as Noe learns, Christy is really in Faha on a mission. He jilted a woman fifty years before, and is there to gain her forgiveness. In the meantime, he rides bicycles around the countryside with Noe, seeking a particular fiddle player. An unlikely friendship, this older man who is trying to walk back his regrets and a young one, unsure of his future? Perhaps, but it makes sense. In a way they are both trying to understand how best to live.

Noe is recalling all of this as an old man. Williams weaves the stories through a spring and summer when miraculously, it stops raining. Noe’s and Christy’s stories unspool slowly, and maybe because I read this book during a week when it was hot and mostly dry, that seemed fitting. At one point, Noe explains his long, winding digressions:

“The known world was not so circumscribed then nor knowledge equated with facts. Story was a kind of human binding. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was telling everywhere. Because there were fewer sources of where to find out anything, there was more listening.”

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

The details are so vivid in this book you’ll see the “car” Doady and Ganga take to church, pulled by an aging horse, smell the turf smoke, feel the heat that induces naps and the people bumping close together in St. Cecelia’s where everyone just moves down the pew and makes space. Williams’ musical, witty turns of phrase can help you picture expressions. For example, describing a neighbor:

“Bat was a man who tried in vain to make himself believable. He often looked like he was in mid-sum and realising he had forgotten to carry the one.”

And, when Noe develops a truly crushing crush on a young woman:

“I said her name, and, like the first man to eat the egg of a bird, felt a little ascension, and like him wouldn’t have been surprised to find feathers at my back.”

While we actually never learn whether Noe decides his future, Williams does bring Christy’s story to a tidy conclusion. And we learn that it’s his philosophy that “this is happiness” — meaning we can be content in the moment, even when things aren’t going our way (as they frequently don’t, in Faha). Ganga also ascribes to this, as he tells Rushe, and engineer from the electric company, that he and Doady aren’t “taking” the electricity which Rushe tells them contains, “In one switch, all the cures for loneliness.”

“Aren’t we happy as we are?” Ganga asks.

Imagine that. a lovely book about life and love, and yes, happiness.

 

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