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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

If you’ve followed this blog for any time you know I’m a Margaret Drabble fan. At some point in the last year I came across the 1967 paperback edition of her 1963 debut novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. I read it over the past few days. It’s marvelous, and shows that she was already a powerful, insightful, beautiful, feminist writer at age twenty-four. It makes me both very glad she became a writer and very irritated with my own twenty-four year old self. I was still pretty silly at that age. And had certainly not come into my own thinking by then.

A Summer Bird-Cage is about two sisters. Louise, the elder of the two, who has been “down from” Oxford for a couple of years, and Sarah, who has just come down and then spent some time in Paris. She gets a letter summoning her home to be a bridesmaid for Louise’s wedding — a surprise, since she had no idea Louise was engaged. The rest of the book is comprised of Sarah’s reflections on that time and the months that followed, and what it’s like to be young, well educated, and female at a time when society’s expectations of women are still pretty limited.

At one point one of Louise’s friends asks Sarah what she’d like to do with her life, and she answers immediately, “Beyond anything I’d like to write a funny book. I’d like to write a book like Kingsley Amis . . . .” But she goes on just a few lines later, after the friend calls her “a little egghead,” arguing the term but owning the sentiment and then protesting, “But if you think that implies that my right place is sitting in some library, you couldn’t be more wrong . . . .” But she immediately misses the library. All this after a page or two earlier she told her sister she couldn’t teach at a college because “You can’t be a sexy don.” Sarah is seriously conflicted, in other words. She and Louise talk about wanting it all — love, freedom, intellectual challenge, satisfying work, etc.

In addition to being a novel of social commentary, it’s also, as all of Drabble’s work seems to be, a gorgeous examination of relationships. There are Louise and Sarah, sisters who haven’t been close but come together as they begin to understand each other as adults in a way they didn’t when they were younger. And there is Sarah and her fiancee, absent the entire book, a fellow scholar who’s studying at Harvard. And Sarah and her close friend Gill, who she tries living with in London after Gill’s marriage of equals turns out to be drudgery and falls apart. And Sarah and her cousins, the boring and unattractive Daphne and her brother, the far more attractive Michael.

Drabble is so insightful about human nature. Take this passage, after Sarah and Gill have had a routine roommates’ quarrel about washing the dishes:

Sarah begins, “But I really wanted to tell you about Louise.” And Gill replies, “So you did . . . . You came in full of Louise, and I shut you up like a clam, and here I’ve been going on about you not telling me things. Isn’t it strange how in this kind of thing everything seems to be its own opposite? You know what I mean?”

Sarah thinks, “Again, I did know what she meant, and the joy of having had so many intelligible things said to me during one morning sustained me for the rest of the day. Odd, that one doesn’t mind being called insensitive, selfish, and so on, provided that one can entirely understand the grounds for the accusation. It should be the other way round; one should not mind only when one knows that one is innocent. But it isn’t like that. Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it.”

Think of that, the next time you get into a spat with your roommate.

A delightful read, short but just lovely. The final page has one of those Drabble specialities, an anecdote one character shares and the other thinks something insightful about. I loved every word.

 

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I actually got The Water Is Wide a year ago at a library book sale. I have family in South Carolina and while visiting got to talking about Dafuskie island and when we saw thus book they explained that what Pat Conroy calls “Yamacraw” in the book is really Dafuskie. I’ve seen The Water Is Wide described as a novel and as a memoir, but other than changing the name of the island I’m not sure what else Conroy fictionalized. It’s the story of his time – just over a year around 1969 – teaching at the island’s small school.

At the time almost the entire island was black, except for an older white couple he describes as having both a “paternalistic” and a “symbiotic” relationship with the islanders. Much of South Carolina, and the South in general, was still reeling from the end of Jim Crow and the relatively recent integration of schools. Being virulently, openly racist was common. Not that racism is uncommon today — it’s still alive and well, it’s just hidden behind politer language. But that’s another story.

The Water Is Wide is shocking and anger inducing in some ways. Conroy relates that when he took over his class of 18 children, 6 didn’t know the alphabet. None knew who the president was. Several couldn’t count or spell their own names. When the superintendent eventually fired him for his radical views that children, including poor black children, should get an adequate education and not be beaten and screamed at (as a fellow teacher did) the school board upheld his firing, and so did a court. His draft board status was changed to intimidate him. One of the grandmothers on the island who defended him didn’t get her social security check for months after speaking out.

While that’s all terrible, Conroy is a consummate storyteller and he finds the humor even in the darkest situations. He’s also very observant and self aware and can poke fun at himself, and recognizes that at times he was young and inexperienced and self righteous but also that he learned a great deal. He relates not only mean spirited and prejudiced resistance to change but also kindheartedness and “gradual and slow change.” He also manages to be empathetic to some of the most dreadful people in the story – the woman who beat the children for example – contextualizing their lives for readers and analyzing what caused some people to have such blinders to basic humanity. But he pulls no punches either – I especially appreciate how he notes the irony of some of the blackest souled racist behavior coming from people who loudly proclaimed their Christianity as a badge of character.

So, this is a good read and I think helpful to understanding the ridiculously intractable grip of racism, and the legacy of the inequity in our educational system.

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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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I am not exactly certain where I got Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but I think it was either a library free cart or sale. I hadn’t read Jeanette Winterson before. This was her first novel and I’ve seen it described as “semi-autobiographical.” It’s a coming of age story about a girl growing up the adopted daughter of an evangelical woman in northern England. Jeannette (the character, not the author) loves her mother, who tells her stories and teachers her music and tells her she’s destined to be a missionary. And she is part of her mother’s church family, mainly a group of women. Men are not at all central to the story, except for Pastor Spratt, a missionary and leader in her mother’s church, but even he appears sporadically.

When Jeanette is small, her mother is the star she orbits. When the school sends a letter saying Jeanette must attend (her mother had previously kept her home, calling school “a Breeding Ground”), she begins to see herself, and her mother, for the first time through the world’s eyes. As a teen, she falls in love with another young woman and this sets up the rest of the book’s drama as her mother and the church deal with this revelation and Jeanette chooses her path. Along the way Winterson writes at times affectionately, at times critically, and often humorously of the church people who form Jeanette.

The book’s chapters are named for books of the Old Testament, and there are legends and stories woven into Jeannette’s narrative. I especially liked the story of Winnet Stonejar, a young girl who becomes a sorcerer’s adopted daughter and apprentice. Jeanette is a careful observer, and Winterson gives her space to reflect, towards the end of the book, on her upbringing: “I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it . . . . As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and love me until death and know love is as strong as death and be on my side for ever and ever.” That goes on and develops into a beautiful reflection on why men find love challenging, why she can’t measure her own need, and what betrayal means. I can’t quote the whole two pages but it’s really wonderful and you should read it.

Altogether a good read, the kind that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

 

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I loved the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters, so I was excited to see that with Golden State he returns to the dystopian mystery genre (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Winters wrote another highly praised book, Underground Airlines, which I have not yet read). Golden State is even more dystopian than The Last Policeman. Golden State is a place sort of like California in a post-disaster world, a society where telling the truth is upheld by law, and lying can land you in jail or even exile. Our hero, Laszlo Ratesic, has been with the Speculative Service, which is tasked with protecting society from lies, for nineteen years. His old friend and mentor, Arlo Vasouvian, asks him to take on a partner, Aysa Paige, a young woman new to the force. They go out on what seems like a routine call, verifying the facts of a death, and from there, Laszlo’s life gets a great deal more complicated.

Laszlo and Aysa end up pursuing an anomaly, and as this fast-paced book unfolds, Laszlo’s certainty that the Golden State is a safe place where laws are upheld and truth is honored begins to unravel. From finding an irresistible “artifact,” a book “from what was” before the Golden State, to asking his ex-wife, who works in the Record (where everything that has happened to everyone who exists is recorded) for help, to uncovering several characters’ closely held secrets, Laszlo and Aysa chase their truth to the very highest levels of the Golden State.

Or do they? This is no formulaic mystery. What happens in the final hundred or so pages of The Golden State will give your book club plenty to discuss. What happens, in the end, with the information Laszlo uncovers? The implications of his discovery for the Golden State is open to interpretation. I’m fascinated by the madwoman/guide character and by Laszlo’s ex-wife, and would love to talk about their roles with someone else who has read the book. I appreciate that Winters leaves room for the reader to think about what happened to Laszlo and decide how it might turn out. Laszlo himself is on a new quest by the end of the book, and I’m hoping this means there may be room for a sequel.

The themes of the book are so timely — what are the consequences of making lies indistinguishable from truth, as we seem to have done? Can society go too far in seeking and upholding the truth? What is the relationship between evidence and truth? How should society deal with people whose truths are outside the mainstream? How does our society do this, even if it’s not as obviously extreme as the Golden State? What makes a person good, or bad, at what they do and how they live? Can a person have serious faults and be a hero? Can a person be a friend and a traitor? Some of these are age old questions, but I can promise you haven’t considered them in quite the same way as The Golden State.

Finally, and those of you who have followed this blog for any time know this is key for me — the writing is beautiful. In the scene where Laszlo tells Arlo about the novel he’s found disguised as a dictionary, and Arlo tells him it’s an artifact, Laszlo muses: “We are silent, then, silent on the steps of the Record, silent at the center of the State. There is a world that used to be and is gone. We live on it and in it, but we don’t know what it was. Its absence surrounds us.”

Truth, beauty, dystopia and the thrill of a page-turner that makes you keep the booklight on under the covers. Perfect. And what a work to pair with The Misinformation Age!

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I liked The Essex Serpent so when I saw that Sarah Perry had a new book out, Melmoth, I was excited to get it for my library. It’s different than Perry’s earlier book, but like that one, hard to characterize. It’s the story of Helen Franklin, originally from Essex but a longtime resident of Prague and a translator. When the book opens, Karel Prazan, “who constitutes precisely half her compliment of friends” stops her as she crosses the Charles Bridge over the Vlatva River and tells her he has something to tell her, a file to show her.

They go to a cafe and he begins to tell her about another researcher who like Karel and Helen, frequents the National Library. This man, Josef Hoffman, has recently died and left Karel his file on Melmoth, the Watcher. Melmoth or Melmat is a mythical woman who is witness to people’s worst moments. Hoffman’s file contains myriad accounts of her presence in various parts of the world and various times, including rural 16th century England  where heretics are bring burned at the stake to Turkey at the time of the Armenian genocide to Nazi occupied Prague. Karel is quite overcome by her story, and Helen soon becomes wrapped up in it too.

As the book unfolds, we learn that Helen not only has almost no contact with other people, but also she sleeps on a bare mattress, dresses only in plain, drab clothing, and denies herself all but the minimum of sustenance. Towards the end of the book we learn why, and there is what seems to me an unlikely closure to her story. I was telling a friend today I did not enjoy the ending very much — it felt like Perry was trying to draw in a few last threads and I felt the final Melmoth story could have come before Helen’s final part of the story and things would have flowed better.

Still, the friend I chatted about it with helped me make more sense of it than I’d had when I read it. A character from Helen’s earlier life appears in Prague and that seemed unlikely to me, but my friend noted that if the book is about your worst moments stalking you it makes sense that this character had to show up. Melmoth bears witness, but she also serves as a reminder of each transgressor’s guilt. Without her, these painful moments would not necessarily fade from memory, but they might be pushed away, as Helen has managed to push away what haunts her and live carefully within a routine. Melmoth forces her to actively remember. Just when it seems she’s pursued Helen to the breaking point, there is a tiny gleam of hope. And then at the very end of the book, it seems as if, with no one else to torment, Melmoth turns to us, the readers . . . .

A strange little book, a good read, full of interesting places and people, not without a bit of discordance.

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I came across two references to Giovanni’s Room recently, one in an article about reading fiction to deal with current reality, and the other, a re-post of the New York Times review from 1956 when the book came out, at Literary Hub. At some point in college I’d read some of James Baldwin‘s essays I think, but not his fiction. It seemed like time.

My library has a good bit of older fiction, so we had it on the shelf in an original $0.60 Dell paperback. I could have read it in a couple of sittings, given the time, but I’ve had a lot of reading and writing for grad school, so it took several evenings. If you’ve never read it, I recommend reading it through rather than splitting it into several shorter readings — the impact, I think would be greater.

The book is the story of David, a man old enough that his father thinks he should have settled down already, an American abroad in Paris. The whole book takes place on the evening before his former lover, Giovanni, an Italian who was tending bar when David met him, is going to be executed for murder. David is spending a sleepless night drinking and recalling his time with Giovanni, his early recognition that he was attracted to men, and his attempts to live as a heterosexual man, including only recently leaving Giovanni for Hella,  a woman he planned to marry.

David and Giovanni have a brief affair but one that profoundly impacts David. At first he is amazed by the way Giovanni so freely and openly loves him. But eventually he reverts to his old emotional pattern of shame and dread. Having grown up in America where being gay is not only scorned, but illegal, he has never felt anything else about his own sexuality.  Ultimately though, David’s shame isn’t simple self-loathing, it’s also tied up with confusion he feels in not really being able to reconcile who he is with who he feels he should be.  When he tries to live into this perception he holds, he ends up being more like what he dreads — heartless, thoughtless.

His recollections show how shame can infect every aspect of someone’s life, their aspirations, their relationships with family and friends as well as lovers. And Baldwin is an incredible writer, whose descriptive passages amaze even as they repel, as in this section describing a woman David has just taken to bed to forget his conflicted feelings about Giovanni and Hella: “She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated, but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety — as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.” Is that not the most gorgeous writing about something terrible?

Some of the conversations about what men and women are like are hard to read; perceptions of gender in society haven’t really progressed much, I fear. And the story is obviously emotionally difficult. But although it can be wrenching it isn’t bleak, even at the end when David is alone. He will go one, it seems, even if he isn’t any surer how than he was before: “The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope . . . .”  It’s dreadful for now, but there’s a sense David will survive.

I think I’ll be mulling this book over for some time.

 

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