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This was another of the books I bought with my job leaving gift card. Bookconscious regulars will know I read another of Russell Hoban’s novels, Linger Awhile, not too long ago. I’d had Turtle Diary in mind for a while. Incidentally, this is another New York Review of Books classics title.

This short novel is about two Londoners in their 40s, William G. and Neaera H., and is set in the 1970s. William is a divorced former advertising executive who works in a bookstore and rents a room in a house, thinking to himself, as he cleans up after the other male tenant before he can use the shared bath and kitchen, “I’d had a whole life, a house and a family!” Neaera H. is a children’s book author and illustrator, successful by most measures, but lonely, and stuck, not just with writer’t block, but life block.

Their lives intersect because they both have an interest in the sea turtles at London Zoo. Unknown to each other at first, they each think the turtles deserve to be freed into the ocean, and each talk to George, the keeper in the aquarium area of the zoo. Through George they realize they are both thinking the same thing, and are drawn together. As William notes, “Funny, two minds full of turtle thoughts.” How can they not join forces? The story is told in alternating chapters from William’s or Neaera’s point of view, and sometimes their thoughts are worded nearly identically.

Besides this central story, Hoban writes beautifully of the pain of being lonely, unhappy, stuck, perhaps a little more sensitive to things than others. Both William and Neaera are close observers, who notice more than other  people do in the world — the letters and numbers on a manhole in his neighborhood (K257) is to William the number of Mozart’s Credo Mass in C. Neaera notices, as she passes a train, “the sky successively framed by each window as the carriages passed.Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.”

Or do they notice more? William, towards the end of the story realizes he’s been too much in his own head, “I’d always assumed that I was the central character in my own story but now it occurred to me that I might in fact be only a minor character in some else’s.” And that, to me is what Turtle Diary is about: getting out of ourselves and into the world enough to see, as both of them think in almost identical words: “I didn’t mind being alive at the moment. After all who knew what might happen?”

Getting through the dark times, the shark in the waters times as Neaera imagines them, requires getting out of our  heads. The way forward, Hoban seems to say, is to step away from our private way of tending the thoughts that keep our minds buzzing. I don’t know if he was interested in meditation — there is a scene where William goes with his coworker Harriet, to an “Original Therapy” demonstration with an American woman in a bikini holding eager volunteers in wrestling scissors holds until they experience the “primordial soup” or their own rebirth, that seems to be Hoban laughing a bit at the New Agey. But mindfulness is all about not allowing distracting thoughts to preoccupy you so much that you miss what’s right here now, in this moment.

William and Neaera get there, in their ways, in Turtle Diary without calling it mindfulness. It’s a lovely, wise book full of literary and musical references and myriad little details about London, and the Cornish fishing village of Polperro. It was the perfect read on my last day of vacation, sitting in a comfy chair looking out at the sea, not thinking of what lurks within, but just noticing the sun and the birds and the way the wind leaves itself behind on the sand.

 

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I was at a coffee shop/used bookstore yesterday, picked up Graham Swift‘s Last Orders from a sale cart, and thought it sounded like a good read, sort of a male version of the kind of English social novel I like. When I got home and looked through it more closely I realized I’ve read it before, although a quick search of bookconscious seems to indicate I read it before I started the blog, so prior to 2007. I decided I’d read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Re-reading is something I don’t do often, but have intended to do from time to time. Like during a week when I have a lot of time to read.

Last Orders is about a butcher, Jack Dodds, and the men (and a few women) in his life, in Bermondsey, London. Although not the hip, White Cube Bermondsey of today; it never says exactly, but I think the book is set in the late 80’s, because four of the men, including Jack, are WWII veterans. When the book opens, Jack’s friends and Vince, the man he raised as his son after his family was killed by a bomb, are gathered in their pub, preparing to carrying out Jack’s final wish: that they spread his ashes in the sea at Margate.

The main arc of the story takes place all on that day, with different sections looking back on the men’s lives at different ages. We hear about their wives and daughters, and Jack’s widow, Amy, and Vince’s wife, Mandy, tell bits of their own stories, but most of the book is about and from the perspective of the men. It’s one of those books where most of what’s important to the character’s lives happened earlier, but the events of the book are a kind of climax, emotionally, in their lives.

It’s a lovely book, about long friendship, love, disappointment, unfulfilled dreams, finding what you’re good at, living your life as best you can. There aren’t a lot of novels that go into the emotional lives of men, I think, or else I don’t usually read those. Here’s a bit from a scene when Jack’s in the hospital, and he’s asked to see Vince, who has been thinking that even unwell there is something about the way Jack looks, “. . . it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.” As they sit there together, Vince goes on thinking:

“He looks right into my face like he’s looking for a little light too, like he’s looking for his own face in mine, and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow, like I’m empty, that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones, his way of holding his jaw and looking straight at you without so much as a bleeding blink. . . .  It’s like I’m not real, I ain’t ever been real. But Jack’s real, he’s realler than every. Though he ain’t going to be real much longer.”

So, I re-read, no regrets — although I have loads of books I haven’t read yet, I’m really glad I re-visited this one. Chime in and let me know: do you re-read? How often? How do you decide what gets a second read or more? I’ve heard of some people re-reading a particular favorite annually. The Computer Scientist used to read The Stand every time he was sick. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

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I picked up The Enchanted April from a library book sale shop in South Carolina. I knew it would be a fun read and it was. I’d never even heard of Elizabeth von Arnim (I had missed the reference in Downton Abbey). But I’ve read other New York Review of Books Classics titles, like Lolly Willowes and loved them, so I knew it was a good bet.

Now I want to track down other books by von Arnim. I loved The Enchanted April. It’s a simple story, but full of the trenchant observations about people and society that make many British novels so endearing. Von Arnim reminds me, in all the best ways, of Jane Austen, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Lively, Muriel Spark, and Jane Gardam: authors whose close (sometimes sharp) observations and skilled dialogue make the domestic situations they bring to life so vivid, so gently funny, and so easy to slip into, even if you’ve never been in the same situations.

In this novel, everything starts with the absolutely wonderful Lotty Wilkins. Mrs. Wilkins lives a desperately quiet existence in Hampstead, wife of Mellersh Wilkins, a “family solicitor” whose main interest in her is taking her to church, for the purpose of meeting old ladies in need of solicitors. The marriage is dreary, and Mrs. Wilkins’ life is dreary, and one very dreary, rainy day, she notices two things at her women’s club in London: an ad for a monthlong stay in April in a medieval Italian castle addressed: “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” and a Hampstead resident she recognizes from church, a Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot. In a sudden burst of bravery, Lotty approaches Rose and before long, they are planning to rent the castle.

But being women of modest means — Lotty will be spending a fair bit of her “nest egg” saved from being thrifty with a clothing allowance — they determine that the most sensible thing would be to place their own ad, soliciting two more ladies to join their party. And that is how Lady Caroline Dester, a socialite tired of people admiring her, and Mrs. Fisher, a window in her sixties who is very proper and very cranky, end up sharing San Salvatore with Lotty and Rose for a month. Lotty has the sense that a holiday will help them be happy, something she perceives they need because “You wouldn’t believe, how terribly good Rose and I have been for years without stopping, and how much we now need a perfect rest.”

The imperious Mrs. Fisher and the aloof and conceited Lady Caroline are no match for Lotty’s infectious ideas. When Rose is thinking of her author husband, who has been estranged, although amiably, from her for some time, Lotty tells her, “You mustn’t long in heaven . . . . You’re supposed to be quite complete there. And it is heaven, isn’t it, Rose? See how everything has been let in together — the dandelions and the irises, the vulgar and the superior, me and Mrs. Fisher — all welcome, all mixed up anyhow, and all so visibly happy and enjoying ourselves.” When rose protests that Mrs. Fisher isn’t happy, Lotty predicts she will be — that even Mrs. Fisher can’t resist being happy in such a place.

You won’t be able to resist this happy little novel either, which had me laughing out loud in places. Von Arnim entertains, but she also slips in some social criticism, including a little feminism. A perfect read for a rainy afternoon, or a sunny day with wisteria — or whatever is blooming near you — in sight.

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When I read A Tale for the Time Being I knew I’d want to read more of Ruth Ozeki’s work. The friends whose house I’m staying at this week happened to have My Year of Meats on their shelves, so I decided that was sign. Also, the protagonist is a documentary filmmaker, which sort of segues from the previous two books I read, which both had something to do with the contemporary art scene.  Looking at the rest of the pile of books I’ve brought I’m not sure I can keep spooling out these connections, but we’ll see.

Anyway, My Year of Meats was Ozeki’s debut novel, and it’s stunning in more ways than one. Jane, the protagonist, is a Japanese American who is hired to film a series of programs promoting American beef, called “My American Wife!” The series will feature “real” American families and their beef recipes. Jane and her Japanese crew set off across America but Jane’s documentarian streak rebels at her remit and she keeps veering slightly off course, in ways that annoy the beef promotion syndicate’s boss, Joichi Ueno (“You get it? ‘John Wayno’!” Ueno asks in a Mississippi church). For example, Jane features lesbian vegetarians from Northampton in one of her episodes.

In the course of the story, Jane hears from Ueno’s wife, Akiko, who asks her about another issue that came to light in Jane’s research: whether hormones in the meat industry are contributing to lower fertility rates. This deeply impacts Jane, as she is a DES daughter — someone whose mother was prescribed DES to prevent miscarriage. when Jane realizes she has come across a feedlot in Colorado that is using the banned hormone, she risks everything — her job, her relationship, and even her health — to get her crew in to film before Ueno can arrive from Japan to foil her plan.

The book has a second set of storylines as strong as that one. Jane’s relationship with a musician named Sloan and her own fertility issues, and Akiko’s relationship with Ueno and parallel issues. Both Jane and Akiko are fans of Shonagon and her Pillow Book, which Ozeki quotes between chapters. The women make contact, initially, via faxes, which others read with various complications. It is charming and a little strange, to think that a few short years after the time of this novel, intercepted faxes would no longer be a viable plot twist.

This is in some ways a brutal read; there are horrible domestic violence scenes and the final filming Jane and her crew do in a slaughterhouse is awful. But despite the brutality the book is about truth and is also in many ways a celebration of love, and about the strength of these to overcome ignorance and pain. It’s also a philosophical study of collective ignorance.

Ozeki writes in Jane’s voice, “. . . ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence. I would like to think of my ‘ignorance’ less as a personal failing and more as a massive cultural trend, an example of doubling, of psychic numbing, that characterizes the end of the millennium. If we can’t act on knowledge, then we can’t survive without ignorance. So we cultivate the ignorance, go to great lengths to celebrate it, even.” This in a book written in 1998, set in 1992. Look where ignorance, and our cultural cultivation of it, has taken us.

Anyway, this isn’t a light read, but it’s a page turner. I really wanted to know what was going to happen to Jane, to Akiko, to the women in My American Wife!, to Jane’s crew and her mom and Sloan, so I tore through it. If you’re looking for a smart, challenging beach read this summer, this would be a good choice!

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I had this theory I wrote more about in the early days of bookconscious which I dubbed the “Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading” (if you’re interested search for that in the blog and you’ll see where I’ve written about it before). On a basic level I think it’s what leads us from book to book, sometimes making subtle connections, sometimes just thinking as we put one book down that it reminds us of another we’ve been meaning to read. On a more complicated level, as I wrote here in 2009, it’s about “the ways that we interpret ourselves through what we read, and the work interprets us, as we interact with it. In the process, we make connections for ourselves and with other people not just in reading, but in thinking about, writing about, discussing, reading reviews, and otherwise processing what we’ve read and placing it in our own mind map of what we know, believe, and love.”

What does this have to do with Smoking Kills? Well on the simpler level, I chose it because I had just finished The Scapegoat and had drawn a parallel between Du Maurier’s writing about men who looked identical Antoine Laurain‘s writing about the same idea. But on the deeper level, Fabrice, Laurain’s hero in Smoking Kills, made me stop and think about why it is that certain memories, especially those relating to our interests and pleasures, and to what may have reinforced those interests and pleasures in our lives, disappear to us on a conscious level and may need probing to find again later? And even if those memories are not consciously on our minds, how are they working invisibly to reinforce the pleasure we take in our interests now?

I’m not a smoker, but I’ve been called out for being addicted to reading. I probably am. Reading about Fabrice’s undergoing hypnosis to revisit the time just before he started smoking, the incidence of his first cigarette, and the reinforcing experiences that make smoking one of his greatest pleasures made me wonder what those memories and experiences are for me, with regards to reading? That said, reflection is all I want — watching Get Out and reading Smoking Kills, I’ll never undergo hypnosis!

So, the gist of this very intriguing and thought provoking novel, which is brilliant, by the way, is that Fabrice is a successful executive headhunter, married to Sidonie, the editor of a contemporary art magazine, and she wants him to stop smoking. They hear of a friend who used hypnosis to stop, Fabrice goes to the same hypnotist, and his pleasure in cigarettes is gone. But unfortunately for him, the hypnotist was not actually trained and the therapy he underwent had a very strange effect on him . . . he still likes to smoke, but only under one condition. He has to kill someone first.

As well as this page turning plot, there is so much more to ponder in Smoking Kills. Fabrice does not understand, appreciate, or even like much of the contemporary art Sidonie champions. So he spends time telling readers what he finds problematic and what he wonders about art. He also notes, “Having no opinions whatsoever in common with the person whose life you share is risky business. Even, I would say, impossible. . . .  After many years together, I would pay a heavy price for our aesthetic differences.”

How fascinating, even if no one in a relationship develops a murderous tendency! There are indications that Fabrice and Sidonie are still compatible, if not aesthetically. But what if you and your partner completely disagreed about something that one of you valued so much that you devoted your life’s work to it?

So, another wonderful book, less light-hearted and more introspective than some of Laurain’s other books but equally entertaining. And it has led me to pick up another book I recently bought at the new Manchester bookstore The Bookery. More on that soon!

*** I should point out that I read an arc; I thought the book was out next week but that’s the UK edition, and it comes out in August in the US. Worth the wait, however! ***

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The Scapegoat is one of the purchases I made with my job leaving gift card. My book club ended up choosing it for our next read, and I am so glad, because I for one really enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Du Maurier except Rebecca, which my grandmother gave me one summer when I was visiting her and I remember loving. I wish she was still with us so I could ask her if she’s read The Scapegoat.

The story is simple, and I realized many other authors have used this situation, including recently, Antoine Laurain in The PortraitUnlike in that novel, where the protagonist finds his exact image in a painting, in The Scapegoat an English professor of French history who is nearing the end of a holiday in France in the 1950s meets a man who could be his exact double in a bar. The first man, John, is having something of an existential crisis, leads a very solitary life, and is on his way to a monastery where he hopes to figure out what to do with his life. His French opposite, Jean, a Count with many responsibilities and a tangled family and personal life, wants to escape all that.

Unlike in The Portrait, where I didn’t really care for the man who went to live another man’s life, this time I felt great empathy for John. First of all, he doesn’t choose — Jean foists the switch on him. Secondly, John very quickly develops true feeling for Jean’s damaged and dysfunctional family and in his own way tries to be kind and helpful, despite the extremity of his own situation. It’s not that he doesn’t cause any harm, but that he is trying not to, that endeared him to me.

The book’s surprising (to me, anyway) ending left me wondering what in the world would happen to Jean’s family, especially his young daughter. And to John. Du Maurier’s writing is just the kind my grandmother loved — every word serves the book, powerfully. The descriptions of John’s discomfort as he fumbles his way through another man’s life, and the observations he makes, are packed with insight. Consider this passage, as he talks with “his” mother, and she takes his hands in hers: “Her hands neither gave confidence nor sapped it: they turned the assurance I had to a different plane. The faith she had in her son was so intense that even if she did not know his secrets, or share more than a small part of his life, it was as though he remained with her, bound and sightless as he had been before birth, and she would never loose him.”

There is so much to discuss in this book: the nature of being a human in relationship with others; the choices the characters make; the way WWII impacted every person, whether they fought or not, in France; the way our concerns with meaning and purpose in life are bound up with the people we are connected with; the fact that some people carry with them a strong desire to do what’s right for others and others, only a strong desire to do what’s right for themselves.

I’m grateful that Simon of The Readers and Savidge Reads is a Du Maurier fan and brought her back into my reading life! I intend to hunt down more of her work.

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Last Night In Montreal was on my list of potential reads for my week off between jobs. I got it with a gift card my former coworkers gave me. I loved Emily St. John Mandel‘s Station Eleven, so I decided to give another of her titles a try, and it arrived before The Scapegoat. It was a really good read, one that reminded me a little of a David Lynch film, and a little of a John le Carré novel.

It’s enough of a mystery that I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the gist is that Eli, whose thesis deadline passed over a year before the book opens, is struggling to find meaning in his work and life when he meets Lilia, a lovely young woman who like Eli, is interested in languages. Although she tells him about her strange life — she was taken from her mother’s house by her father when she was very young and as an adult, she can’t seem to stay in one place very long — Eli is still shocked when Lilia leaves him. He is bereft, and then a strange postcard arrives directing him to Montreal.

St. John Mandel tells the story as Lilia and Eli see it, and as Christopher, the Montreal detective who has searched for years for Lilia, and his daughter, Michaela, see it. It’s a weird story full of rich details about languages, tightrope walking, and travel. It’s a story about what people will do for love, even hurt others. And it’s a very absorbing book that might keep you awake trying to read a few more pages. I’ve never read anything quite like it.

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