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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

When I saw The Summer Book by Tove Jansson at The Green Hand bookstore in Portland in May, I was intrigued. Jansson is the Finnish-Swedish author of the Moomin books, and I didn’t realize she had also written books for adults. This book is about a young girl, Sophia, who spends summers on an island with her father and grandmother — by page nine we learn her mother has died. The book is made up of twenty-six brief chapters, each a glimpse into Sophia’s life.

Jansson herself spent most of the summers of her life on various islands in the Pellinki and Stockholm archipelagos. She describes both the wild natural beauty and the impact of people’s presence on the islands very vividly in The Summer Book (I could picture the house where Sophia’s family lived because two summers ago I read Finnish Summer Houses).

But far more than simply being evocative of a beautiful place, The Summer Book captures the strangeness of being a small motherless child growing up with a fair bit of freedom and a quirky grandmother who is a bit childlike herself. They talk and walk and play and Grandmother lets Sophia do things her father wouldn’t. They scold each other and use bad words and sing and Grandmother smokes.

Jansson tells readers what Sophia is feeling —  she gets angry with her cat for killing birds and stops speaking to him, she feels suddenly afraid of a seal skull she found on the beach, she shouts and gets frustrated and irritated with a friend who comes to the island and is afraid of the boat and the bugs. Jansson also tells readers what Grandmother is feeling. At one point she tells Sophia she couldn’t sleep and began “thinking about sad things.” She begins to describe being old: “I mean it all seems to shrink up and glide away,” Grandmother said, “and things that were a lot of fun don’t mean anything anymore. . . . ” Sophie gets upset and argues until Grandmother gives her an example: she can’t remember what it’s like to sleep in a tent, which Sophie has done.

“Well I’ll tell you what it’s like,” Sophia said. “You can hear everything much clearer, and the tent is very small.”

As Sophia goes on talking, Grandmother remembers better. And in exchanges like these, Jansson manages to portray what it’s like to be young and misunderstood and old and misunderstood. This is a lovely, quiet book, a series of sketches more than a story, an unfolding of life rather than a plot. If you want to be transported by your reading, this is the kind of book to do that. If you want a story with a beginning, middle and end, it might not be to your taste. I enjoyed it very much — I like to read books in translation, to experience a taste of some other place’s literature. I’m not going to any remote islands this summer, but The Summer Book took me to Tove Jansson’s and it was a wonderful place to visit.

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My book club is reading Case Histories. I really enjoyed Atkinson’s Life After LifeA God In Ruins, and Transcription, so I figured I would like this. I did, although this first in the Jackson Brodie detective series is very different than her other books. I always say I’m not much of a mystery person, although if you have been with me here at bookconscious for a long time, you know I dip into them from time to time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the detective-at-work part — usually that is very interesting, to see how someone would puzzle over the facts, inferences, and hunches until they’ve deduced who committed a crime. But I’m more of a Mrs. Pollifax and Maisie Dobbs sort of mystery fan. I prefer books like those books, that don’t have much description of violent murder.

So I almost stopped reading Case Histories after the first 44 pages, which laid out the three main cases in the book, because there was plenty of description of violent murder. However, right after that, Jackson is introduced, and I liked him. I liked many of the characters, and I really appreciated that Atkinson offers some good hearted folks, like Theo, alongside the really awful ones who do others bodily harm. The imperfect people in Case Histories — like Julia, who although not a psychopath is a bit of a narcissist, or Kim, who appears to be a very kind person but is also dating a gangster — are memorable and multifaceted characters.

I did find it strange that there would be multiple psychopaths in one city of just under 100,000 people, but maybe there are and I am overly optimistic. One of the things I liked is that the three main cases also point to other, less serious but still creepy and/or illegal activities, and the way Atkinson unravels these threads is interesting. When my “to read” pile gets a little shorter I will probably look for the other four Jackson Brodie mysteries. I’ll just have to remember that I’m there for the writing and the characters, and skim over the violent bits.

Because Atkinson’s writing is worth it. Here’s a passage about one of the characters’ lives after her three year old daughter disappeared: “Rosemary had slipped out of her own life very easily. She had shown no tenacity for it at all when she discovered that the baby girl she was carrying when Olivia disappeared had a twin, not Victor’s longed-for son, but a tumorous changeling that grew and swelled inside her unchallenged. By the time anyone realized it signaled a life ending rather than a life beginning, it was too late.”  Has cancer ever sounded so beautiful? There are equally lovely descriptions of a woman’s deep loneliness and a man’s asthma attack — Atkinson’s writing makes even the most unpleasant things lovely to read, in the same way that Ali Smith can manage to transform awful current events with her incredible writing in her Seasonal Quartet books.

Mysteries are good for summer, for tense times, really anytime you want an escape. Case Histories is plenty twisty and chilling, but also a really good read.

 

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Antoine Laurain’s newest novel, Vintage 1954, is a sweet story of time travel, romance, and family. One evening in 2017 at 18 Rue Edgar-Charellier in Paris, Hubert Larnaudie, the last member of the family that built his apartment building in 1868, descends to the cellar to look around at the mess he is considering cleaning up. Among heaps of old magazines and the detritus of generations of Larnaudies, Hubert spots a bottle of 1954 Beaujolais. Then some burglars shut him in his cellar and an American named Bob, newly arrived and booked into an apartment in the building through Airbnb, notices he is trapped and helps him out, enlisting the help of two young tenants, Julien and Magalie.

To express his thanks, Hubert invites them all into his apartment to enjoy the wine. Julien recognizes the bottle which comes from his family’s vineyard – where his great great grandfather disappeared in 1978. The same man who became known in his village as “Mr. Flying Saucer” after he saw a strange craft over the vineyard in 1954. The wine, it turns out, was impacted by the spacecraft and anyone who drinks it is transported to 1954. Now the four new friends have to figure out how to get back to 2017.

Like Laurain’s earlier books, especially The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook, there is a bit of romance, some family drama, a little mystery, and some famous historical figures sprinkled through the story. It’s a sweet tale, entertaining and quick to read. Perfect for a plane ride or a day at the beach!

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My bookclub read Mrs. Dalloway this month. I read it, and other work by Virginia Woolf, in college, but re-reading it was enjoyable. I remembered the book generally, but re-reading it I was struck once again by Woolf’s creativity and daring. She addressed things that we are still struggling to talk about today — gender roles in society, mental illness, post traumatic stress, income inequality and its impact on opportunity. And she did it in a beautiful, poetic book with some very memorable characters who are also reflecting on what they’ve done with their lives, and how they’ve fared in terms of love and family.

To me, the way that Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa Dalloway’s inner life with the other characters’, is brilliant. She compares the constricted life of Clarissa as a society hostess with the limits that restrict Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose promising future is strangled by mental illness; Miss Kilman, whose class, intellectual ability and fervor, and appearance place her firmly outside Clarissa’s and her daughter Elizabeth’s social orbit; and Peter Walsh, whose passions and probably bad luck seem to have limited his ability to achieve his full potential in life.

The minor characters are also wonderful — Septimus’s Italian wife Rezia, Clarissa’s husband Richard, Hugh Whitbread, Sally Seton, Lady Bruton. While the style of the book doesn’t call for full character development, I feel Woolf paints exquisite miniatures of each, and we get glimpses of their humanity, their longings, their minds, their limitations in the details she portrays — Peter with his pocket knife, Clarissa mending her dress, Richard bringing Clarissa flowers, Rezia making a hat, Lady Bruton holding court at lunch before consulting Richard and Hugh about her letter and then, snoring on her couch. Woolf creates these portraits with prose that is somewhat strange and quite lovely, a little like poetry, a little like a dream sequence in a film, such as this passage where Septimus is in a park waiting until it’s time to go on to Harley Street to see a new doctor:

“He had only to open his eyes; but a weight was on them; a fear. He strained; he pushed; he looked; he saw Regent’s Park before him. Long streamers of sunlight fawned at his feet. The trees waved, brandished. We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks — all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”

Mrs. Dalloway is a sad book, but that was the point — to help readers feel. As writer and scholar Maureen Howard wrote in her forward to the 1981 Harcourt paperback edition, “As readers of Mrs. Dalloway fifty years after its publication, we see that the novel endures. We admire the originality of concept, the brilliance of style, but it is the feelings in the book that remain so very fresh and we wonder that Virginia Woolf had to ask herself ‘How can one weigh and shape dialogue till each sentence tears the shingles in the bottom of the reader’s soul?'”

 

 

 

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I needed something that would be entertaining but not mentally taxing to read as I attended the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, a weeklong applied research methods intensive, last week. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman fit the bill. I’ve written about her books before here on bookconscious — novels and her wonderful essay collection I Can’t Complain. I love her wit, her smarts, and her wonderful writing, so  choosing this book to download was a no-brainer. I was away for 9 days and chose not to check a bag, so downloaded library books instead of packing the physical kind — I didn’t love the format, but I loved the light bag.

Good Riddance is about Daphne Maritch formerly of fictional Pickering, New Hampshire and now a New Yorker. When the novel opens, Daphne has been Kondo-ing her apartment and discards an old yearbook her mother bequeathed her. She can’t understand why on earth it was left to her. It’s for the Pickering High Class of ’68 and is dedicated to Daphne’s mother, the yearbook advisor. Over the years her mother attended many class of ’68 reunions and added commentary to her copy of their yearbook.

Daphne dumps it in the recycling like any ecologically minded apartment dweller, and her kooky neighbor finds it and starts digging into the story of the class of ’68, at first for a documentary, then a podcast. Daphne gets wound up by this and tries to prevent further embarrassment to her family, especially her father, Tom, who is getting back into the world about a year after his wife’s death. This is romantic comedy at its best, with Daphne and Tom both developing love interests while also developing theories about the yearbook and its significance. I got a kick out of the New Hampshire references as well.

A fun comedy of manners poking affectionate fun at New York, family dynamics, and social trends.

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A few year’s ago I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. When I saw Sourdough at a used bookstore in New Haven a few weeks ago, on the $1 cart, no less, I thought it looked like fun. I’m about to study research methods for a solid week so my brain needed something fun. Sourdough was as predicted.

To be clear, fun does not mean lightweight. This is an enjoyable, fast paced read but it examines some big questions: does technology have a place in the way we produce food and nourish ourselves? Is organic, farm to table food part of the solution or part of the problem? What about technology? How do we determine the value of work? What makes a good life?

Lois Clary, Sloan’s heroine, is a brilliant programmer who lands a coveted job at a tech startup in San Francisco. She moves there knowing no one and works such long hours she doesn’t even have time to cook. But she finds a Lois club like the one she and her grandmother belonged to (just what is sounds like, women named Lois), and she grows fond of the two brothers who run a small take out operation illegally from their apartment making a strange, spicy soup and bread. She learns to enjoy their strange music and food, and then they leave for Europe, gifting her with a crock of sourdough starter.

Lois stays in touch with one of the brothers via email. She tells him about learning to bake bread, he tells her the history if his people (a fictional group called the Magz), his family, and his dream of opening a restaurant. She works and bakes, and then she gets a chance to participate in a strange underground market in an old missile storage bunker. She meets a whole community of people doing unusual and interesting things with food. She gets into the market because her bread is weird and because she programs robotic arms.

The rest of the novel is the story of how her view of work, baking, and life evolve as she becomes more committed to the market and its mysterious but anonymous founder, and more convinced that she can solve the puzzle of her life the way she solves the puzzle of teaching a robotic arm to crack an egg — “not by adding code, but by taking it away.” She creates a technical “blink” in which her robot “was no longer second-guessing its second guesses a thousand times a second.” She calls her code Confidence. And this work, along with her bread-baking and her new friends, convinces her to live more boldly herself.

A lovely, fun, and thoughtful book. If you like Marie Semple, you’ll enjoy Robin Sloan.

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Last Friday I checked out a book for the weekend: American Spythe debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s cerebral in the same way that John le Carré‘s novels are — very much informed by the psychology and strategy of spy-craft and what makes spies tick. It introduced me to a part of Cold War history overlooked by history books that focus predominantly on white males (the kind of textbooks which dominate the American education system, or did when I was growing up). And it’s a page turner.

The spy of the title is a a black woman named Marie Mitchell, raised by New Yorkers of Caribbean descent. In the book’s opening pages she engages in a fight to the death with an intruder at her home in Connecticut. The rest of the book takes place in Martinique, where Marie’s mother lives, and where she flees with her twin sons with the help of a family friend. Once there, Marie begins a series of journals meant to tell the boys her story — their stories, too — in case she doesn’t return from trying to put an end to the threat that stalks her. We learn that she worked for the FBI, doing well until she ended up back in New York where her boss held her back with menial work. She was recruited by the CIA to get close to Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, and that story is what led to the attack on her life.

It’s both the terrific heroine — the merit of any good spy story is in its lead spy — and the incorporation of real events and people that I found compelling. It’s also a book which my grandmother would have loved. She introduced me to le Carré, and she loved books that had, as she put it “not one extra word,” by which she meant writing that was not only excellent, but contained no superfluous flourishes, spare storylines, or other distractions from good storytelling.

My grandmother was also a feminist and this book is full of wise observations about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood. Marie writes to her boys about a conversation she has with her oldest friend, a man she loves but is not in a relationship with: “He exhaled slowly, clearly frustrated with me. I didn’t care. There have been a lot of men in this world who have tried to shape it by getting it to conform to their own ideology . . . . I want something else. I want to form you into agents of change — that’s the way I want to fight.” A few paragraphs later she calls mothering, helping her sons become good people who can make a difference, “the most revolutionary work I could do.” My grandmother often told me almost exactly that when I was young parent, that the work I was doing raising my kids would make more impact than anything else, and I shouldn’t forget that.

American Spy is a terrific read! I didn’t love the ending, which felt abrupt — I don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but I also don’t like being left hanging. But I’m hoping it indicates that Wilkinson plans a sequel.

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