Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Honestly I picked up The Great Believers because in the same week, a friend from college posted about what an amazing book it is and Rebecca Makkai was bullied and threatened over a tweet. These quite disparate bits of information made their way to me via social media and both reminded me that I’d been meaning to read Makkai’s third novel. Trolls are going to troll, but I could read this book as a tiny act of solidarity with its author.

My friend is right. This is a beautiful book. I’d avoided reading it when it first came out because I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to read about young people dying. But it turns out, that while that is a central piece of the story, I needn’t have feared. The Great Believers is not really about dying, but rather about how we live when the world falls apart.

The story follows Yale, a young man living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, and Fiona, the younger sister of one of Yale’s good friends, Nico. Nico is among the first of Yale’s immediate circle of friends to die of AIDS. The Great Believers alternates between the 1980s and early 90s, when Fiona cared for a series of Nico’s friends as they became infected and died, and 2015, when she travels to Paris to find her daughter Claire, who has been out of touch for a few years and is now a mother herself.

Two threads tie the main characters’ stories together — how we live in a time of catastrophe and what those who live must contend with afterwards, and how art both tells the story of the people it portrays and protects their secrets. It’s also the story of the shame and fear that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s as people got AIDS, and the judgement and bigotry society perpetrated on them. I remember the irrational fears about AIDS, and the open homophobia. Makkai writes about these things as an organic part of her characters’ lives, never over or under dramatizing.

That’s one of the remarkable things about this book. Even though she’s writing about life and death, about tremendously painful things — even plumbing what one character calls “the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love” — every word fits. Makkai does not include a single scene, a single character, a single thought, that doesn’t need to be in this novel. She evokes places, times, feelings, without any fanfare and without drawing attention away from the story. I recently read a book I strongly disliked because it felt like the author’s every move was visible and that the book was a series of artistic stunts meant to display her prowess.

Makkai, by contrast, just tells a damn good story, very well. In a way that makes you want to stay home from work, turn off your phone, and keep reading (didn’t, but I sat at my desk wishing I’d done so). I was thoroughly invested in what was happening and even when it was clear what might happen next, the story flowed so seamlessly and the characters gave me so much to think about that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not going to try to describe the story — it’s complicated and you should just read it.

I’m honestly a little wary of books that win a bunch of awards or show up on “best books” lists, but this one is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. The Great Believers is a very good read, one that tells hard truths and exposes serious flaws in the world while also reminding readers of the best aspects of humanity, and the “miracle” of being alive with the people we love. If you’re looking for a good read, something to get lost in and talk about, something that you’ll be glad to have humming along in your heart after you put it down, read this book.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

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?'”

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »