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If you’ve read bookconscious for a long time you know I was a regular listener of the podcast Books on the Nightstand. As they were preparing to go off the air, Michael and Ann recommended other podcasts for their fans and one was The Readers. I listened to Episode 171 a few weeks ago, in which Simon and Thomas were sharing their summer reading plans. I was especially intrigued by Simon’s description of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I decided it to check it out, and I am so glad I did — I loved it. So much so that I suggested it to my new book group on Monday, and happily, they chose it for our August read.

Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, young people in a city that is beginning to fall under the influence of militants as the book opens. Nadia, scandalously for a young woman in her city, has broken with her family and lives alone, while Saeed lives with his parents. As the various parts of the city fall and services are cut off, they find it harder to see each other. I don’t want to give away everything, so I won’t say how everyone in their city gets on, but eventually, Nadia and Saeed decide to leave.

What intrigued me is that the way to leave the city is through doors. Ordinary doors. Saeed and Nadia leave through one in a dentist’s and end up in Mykonos. Eventually they get to London, which has been overrun, “some said by a million migrants, some said by twice that.” People not just from Saeed and Nadia’s country but many other places, drawn by reports from other migrants living in places with better opportunities, move through doors to try and make a better life. “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move  . . . .”

Exit West is certainly about human migration, the refugee crisis, and what happens when people must choose to leave their homes.  But it’s also the story of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. Some of what they go through brings them closer, but they guard their feelings about some experiences, and find themselves less able to share them, or even to talk lightly. I don’t think I’ve read a lovelier description of a couple growing apart.

The book is also an examination of faith, which Saeed never loses. He prays, as his mother taught him when he was a boy, and when he and Nadia are finally settled he is drawn to a “place of worship” — Hamid never says mosque, although there are indications that Saeed is Muslim (he and his father go to Friday prayers together, for example). The preacher at Saeed’s new place of worship is African American. Here is how Hamid writes about that: “While this layer of nativeness was not vast in proportion to the rest, it had vast importance, for society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils, and to which Saeed in particular was attracted, since at a place of worship where he had gone one Friday the communal prayer was led by a man who came from this tradition and spoke of this tradition, and Saeed had found . . . this man’s words to be full of soul-soothing wisdom.”

At my book club (discussing The Underground Railroad) we got into a conversation about why people suffering at the hands of other people seem to turn to religion. One person suggested religion preys on the downcast and oppressed, but I countered that in my view, religion offers a vision of justice and peace that isn’t fully manifest in the world yet, but is possible. I should have added, that hope can be magnified in the acts of love carried out by believers who represent all that’s possible, and conversely, crushed by fundamentalism and intolerance. In Exit West Saeed and Nadia lose the place they love to militant fundamentalism and Saeed finds his way in a community run by a preacher who “worked to feed and shelter his congregants and teach them English.”

And he prays: “Saeed . . . valued the discipline of it, the fact that it was a code, a promise he had made, and that he stood by.” Now as a refugee in a strange country, “Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” That slayed me, but Hamid goes on:

“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in each other, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to . . . .”

I find that very beautiful. As I typed it I realized it’s also a style that may not to be everyone’s taste — a sentence that takes up nearly a whole page of this small book. But even if you are usually a fan of tidier prose, give this book a chance. It’s short but expansive. A simple story but one that provides a great deal to ponder when you get to the end. I’ve been thinking about refugees and and how things could be better and whether where we live makes us who we are, and what it takes to get to that sense of shared humanity through prayer that Saeed has, and whether humans really have potential to build a better world or when starting over are they doomed to repeat the same patterns that shattered their communities in the first place, and why some people can change and others can’t, and whether the African American experience “made possible all future transplanted soils” and why anyone becomes fundamentalist or even listens to fundamentalists . . . . And I haven’t looked at a door the same way since, either. Wouldn’t it be so cool to go through one and end up elsewhere?

I’ve read some good books so far this summer but this may be the best.

 

 

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I’ve been listening to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on my commute because it’s this month’s pick for a book group I’m invited to on Monday. Audiobooks are not my first preference but I figured it was a way to squeeze in reading another book, especially since I had a Kirkus assignment to read and review. The narration of The Underground Railroad, by Bahni Turpin, is very well done, if you do happen to be an audiobook fan.

If you haven’t already heard about this book it is a highly acclaimed novel by an author who was already well regarded before The Underground Railroad, which  won the National Book Award and drew reviews comparing it to BelovedLesMiserablesThe Invisible Man and other literary greats.  I think Whitehead’s brilliance in this book is in the way he mixes the actual American past with speculative history but hews always to the core truth of his novel: that racism is not going anywhere without justice, and that justice is impossible unless people choose it. Mabel, Cora’s mother, has her own very brief chapter towards the end of the book, in which readers finally learn what became of her (Cora believes she abandoned her, Ridgeway the slave catcher believes she is the only one of his quarry ever to elude him). As she is deciding what to do herself, Mabel thinks, “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

Simply put but true. That’s the central theme of this book. Unfortunately in Whitehead’s imagined nineteenth century America, very few people refuse, and those who do suffer unspeakable horrors from which they never fully recover, if they even survive. Nearly every character who helps Cora, black or white, ends up dead or hunted by those who wish them dead. Royal, who rescued Cora from Ridgeway after he’d finally caught her, tells Cora “. . . that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world, then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this; Cora’s story and those of the other black characters in The Underground Railroad are unrelentingly painful and hopeless — even if they reach “safe” territory or are “freed” they are not free of racism and they live in a nation where racial injustice and violence are the norm. The pain of reading this book isn’t in reflecting on America’s history — after all, Whitehead takes creative license with history, speculating enough that this is not merely historical fiction but something more radical, a work of imagined  historical fiction — the pain comes from the fact that the truth of the novel is not in our past. It’s our present, it’s the root of many of America’s problems today.

Reading this book in light of the recent actions to roll back many civil rights actions taken by the last administration, and to “double down” as the New York Times reports, on the war on drugs, despite much evidence that harsh penalties and harsh policing did not work, and has increased racial inequality and caused untold suffering, especially for women of color, is especially painful. The America we live in today, ruled by fear of the “other” based on a highly delusional sense of superiority, is quite recognizable in The Underground Railroad. While Cora’s America is somewhat more lawless, and some of the crimes perpetrated in The Underground Railroad would be prosecuted today even if they were directed at black citizens, there is still today official sanction of racist policies in the name of “justice.”  Perhaps this is even starker to me because I am in another book group reading The New Jim Crow month by month, one chapter at a time and sharing articles and talks with each other on racial inequality and injustice.

So, did I enjoy The Underground Railroad? That would probably not accurately characterize my experience of the book. I think it’s an amazing piece of writing. I certainly sat in my car more than once to hear a few more lines before it was time to go into work. It will stay with me, and I was left wondering about Cora’s fate – the ending was perfect. It entered my consciousness and interacted with other things I’ve read and thought. Parts if it threw me for a loop — it’s not straight narration — but that is in service to the story, not some writerly trick. All of that makes it a great read.

But be warned it’s also wrenching, and at times nauseating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling slightly wrenched by another’s fictional experiences is good for helping someone privileged, as I am, to try to wrap my head around what black Americans experience every day. So read it. Be ready to let it work on you. And then do something; take Mabel’s words and live them: refuse to be a part of the meanness of the world. One thing I’ve come to understand is that it’s not enough to reject racist ideas, what’s required in this world is to openly oppose them, in thought, word and deed. Call or write an elected or appointed official to oppose racist policies. Tell someone you hear victimized by racist talk that you are with them and you are sorry. Tell someone saying racist things that you will not listen to such talk. None of this is easy but it’s what’s required if justice is ever to come. The thing I will take away from The Underground Railroad is what it says about the role of free will in the world. Refusing isn’t just refusing, it’s choosing.

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Much of my reading lately has been about strong women; Night Waking is a novel about Anna Bennett, Dr. Bennett as she introduces herself to the police officer who insists on calling her Mrs. Cassingham (her husband Giles’ surname) when they interview her about the infant skeleton she and her son Raphael accidentally dug up as they planted an apple tree. Anna is an Oxford Fellow, working on a history of childhood in the 18th century. She’s with her family, Giles and Raphael and Timothy, who is still a toddler (the boys go by Raph and Moth, so hereafter I’ll call them that), on an island off the coast of Scotland, where Giles’ family has had a home for generations. Giles studies puffins, and to augment their academic earnings, they’ve made a vacation cottage out of an old building on the island and are about to host the first guests.

I first read Sarah Moss last winter when I chose Names for the Sea for one of my book bingo squares (a book set in a place I’d like to visit – although after I read Moss’s memoir of a year in Iceland, I wasn’t so sure). Her nonfiction writing is witty and smart, and so is Night Waking. Anna is fed up with caring for small children and managing the house (or not really, as she is frequently out of kitchen essentials, inconvenient when you live on an island with no shops) and mourning the loss of her intellectual life. This passage sums it up: “When we got to the beach, after passing half the morning in negotiation about putting on shoes, Moth walked into the sea and then had a tantrum because it was wet, and Raph stood with his back to the waves talking about potential uses of hydroelectricity on oil rigs. I sat on a rough rock, my arms wrapped around Moth as he drummed his heels on my shins and tried to bite my arms, and remembered the staircase in the Bodleian Library . . . . I decided that if I made Moth walk the whole five hundred metres back to the house he might take less than forty-five minutes to go to sleep after lunch and, if I didn’t rush him at all, stopped to inspect every pebble and touch each flowering grass, it might almost be time to start putting together an early lunch when we arrived.” Sound familiar, mothers of young moms out there?

Anna and Giles quarrel a bit, in a half hearted way, over the children and the work to be done and the work they’re not getting done, and Anna looks into the history of the island to try to determine why an infant might be buried there. There’s a side story about the family who come to stay — Zoe, an anorexic teen, her cardiologist workaholic father and housewife mother whose controlling attitude has driven her daughter to illness and despair. I didn’t like that storyline (I’m tired of the old trope of the mother causing anorexia), but it did move some of the story about Anna and Giles along. And Moss humanizes the harping mother, just a bit.

What I loved about the story is the way Moss wove Anna’s historical research into childhood and parenting and the lives of women and children on the island into the novel. The mystery of the infant skeleton is interesting, too. Of course I also appreciated the honest look at parenting — Anna is a bit extreme, but most parents of small children go through her familiar swings from boredom and exhaustion to almost overwhelming love and tenderness for their offspring. All in all it was a good read, one that made me chuckle at times, and that transported me to a faraway place and other people’s lives while also recognizing bits of my own, which is always enjoyable.

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Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and a psychologist, and both her vocations and her heritage are evident in her debut novel Salt HousesShe has a poet’s sense of imagery and language, her book is the story of Palestinian displacement over several generations, and her insights into the psychological wounds of war, statelessness, and resettlement are astute and moving. While I haven’t experienced being a refugee, I’ve volunteered with resettlement so I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of people who are at once American and something else, people who feel they belong everywhere and nowhere.

The main characters of Salt Houses are the progeny of Salma, matriarch of a family living in Nablus when the book opens. It is 1963 but the pain of fleeing Jaffa fifteen years earlier is fresh for Salma. Her younger daughter Alia is about to marry Atef, who is Alia’s brother Mustafa’s best friend. They live well in Nablus, even though Salma is a widow. The book moves forward a few years at a time, and in 1967, Nablus, too becomes a part of their past, when the Six-Day War scatters them. Salma goes to Amman, Alia and Atef join Alia’s older sister and her husband in Kuwait City. As you may recall, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait City in 1990, and so Alia’s generation is the next to flee a war with a fraction of their belongings, leaving behind jobs, neighbors, and a home. Alia’s children end up even more scattered, in Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Amman. In Beirut they again experience war, although they don’t flee. By the end of the book, Alia’s grandchildren travel from many countries to visit with her and Atef. Life goes on around them, but each generation retains the sense that within themselves, they are never far from where they come from, wherever they go. And where they come from, originally, is Palestine.

Through it all, Atef lives with trauma from the 1967 war that he can manage only by writing letters in secret in his study, letters he can never send. He also copes by focusing on his children, being present with them so that he doesn’t slip into the past. Alyan describes Atef’s feelings for his firstborn, “. . . he loves Riham beyond reason, a love tinged with gratitude, for when she was first placed in his arms, tiny and wriggling and red-faced, he felt himself return, tugged back to his life by the sound of her mewling. The arrival of Riham restored something, sweeping aside the ruin of what had come before.”

These family relationships form the heart of the story, which Alyan tells well. You want to know whether the tempestuous Alia and her equally strong willed daughter Souad will make peace, whether gentle Riham, so like her grandmother Salma, will be happy with her much older husband. Will Abdullah become radicalized? Will Manar find what she’s seeking? The many small dramas that make up a family’s life provide plenty for the reader to savor as the pages turn.

What makes this much more than a standout family saga is the greater narrative: the story of ordinary Palestinians – professional people, whose children watch too much TV and eat too much sugar, who work and worry about the same things families like theirs worry about around the world —  caught in a cycle of loss and displacement, the shadow of each generation’s pain resting on the next. They are resilient, and fortunate in many ways, but also perpetually grieving for what could have been, perpetually speaking with the wrong accent, and yet perpetually seeking and making home wherever they are.

This is a beautiful book and an important one. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have only a tenuous understanding of the Middle East, and even though this is a novel it gets at human truth in a universally recognizable way.  Definitely, we should all learn the facts of the region’s history and geopolitics, but it can’t hurt to also try to understand the feelings of people who just want the best for their families, as my wise grandmother used to say. whenever we talked about places caught up in conflict. Salt Houses offers one way to begin to understand.

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Ok, Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees I mostly read before vacation, but finished on Saturday. Roger Deakin, who died before this book was published, was a fascinating man. He renovated his Elizabethan farmhouse, which was more or less a ruin when he bought it, and was well known for his nature writing. What I most enjoyed about Wildwood is his delight in his subjects, whether the rooks in a nearby wood, the people who love the natural world as he does, artists, trees, hedges — he was apparently insatiably curious about the planet and the people on it and I learned all kinds of interesting things as I read, from how cricket bats are made to where apple trees originated. I found this book while shelf-reading (a project in libraries, in our case undertaken every summer, whereby staff compare a list of books that should be on the shelf to the actual books on the shelf, to check that they are where they should be). It was a serendipitous find of the highest order. I’d like to read Deakin’s other work, if only for the language. Here’s a bit from a chapter on a trip to the Pyrenees:

“We collect sweet, fresh chestnuts, easing them from their hedgehog husks. Following a steep-sided holloway veined with the exposed roots of beech, holly, hazel, chestnut, maple, ash, and oak, we drink from the woodland springs. As noon approaches, crickets begin singing hesitantly, and young lizards venture on to the sunny track.”

Even if I wasn’t already interested in his subject (and I am a little bit tree mad since reading The Hidden Life of Trees), I’d read that all day.

On our vacation to Maine last week — the first weeklong trip the Computer Scientist and I took alone in nearly three decades — I packed only a few books. One I’d been wanting to read for some time: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall. I reviewed her book about Margaret Fuller back when I was still writing a column, but this book came to me via my neighbor, who loved it. You may recall I wrote here about her family inviting me to choose books from her collection after she died — this was one of those titles. I’d been waiting for a good time to read it. I figured a week in Maine was a good time to take on a meaty history book and it was. I really thoroughly enjoyed it, both because the Peabody sisters are fascinating women and because I love learning about the history of New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marshall spent twenty years working on this book, explaining in her introduction that she had to learn to read the sisters’ handwriting and that of their family and friends in order to complete her research. I really respect the effort that went into the book, and the fascinating details of the may interwoven lives the Peabody sisters touched. If you don’t know much about them, the eldest, Elizabeth, coined the term “transcendentalism” before any of the men who later made it famous, and was an incredibly gifted thinker and writer. Her legacy to aAmerica, among other things, is kindergarten. Mary, the middle sister, was a teacher and writer who helped Elizabeth with her work and later, helped her husband, Horace Mann, with his. The youngest, Sophia, was an artist and also married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Marshall brings them and the people they knew to life, illuminating the social, cultural, and religious environment that shaped them and the day to day lives they led. I thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters and would like to wander around Boston and Salem visiting the places where these fascinating women lived and worked. I’d also like to read biographies of some of the rest of their circle, starting with Horace Mann.

When I was just about finished with The Peabody Sisters we visited Elements, a used bookstore, coffee house and bar in Biddeford (much like Book & Bar in Portsmouth. I was fairly restrained in my purchasing, but I did buy Gramercy Park: an American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein. It seemed to be similar in spirit to Marshall’s book; rather than covering one family’s impact on a period, it covers one neighborhood’s impact on several periods. Klein begins with Samuel Ruggles, who wished to preserve some open space as Manhattan expanded north, and began planning to create the neighborhood with its exclusive park in the center in 1831. By the 1840’s homes were being built around the park. Straight through the 1930s, when Klein’s book ends, a parade of interesting New Yorkers lived in Ruggles’ lovely neighborhood, and many more visited. I enjoyed reading about the many writers and artists but also about people I knew less about, like architect Stanford White and inventor and Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, critic, novelist, artist Carl Van Vechten (who was a close friend of Gertrude Stein, James Weldon, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Again the book made me want to walk the neighborhood — I’ve been to the Strand several times and never realized how close I was to Gramercy Park. Klein wrote several other books that I am interested in tracking down.

My final vacation read was a collection of William Trevor’s short stories, After Rain, that I found on the free cart at work (librarian benefits: we see donations before anyone else does). I’d never read the much acclaimed Trevor but as longtime bookconscious readers know, I enjoy short fiction. This book was a little sadder than I am in the mood for lately — world, local and family events offer enough difficult emotions for the time being. But I persevered because Trevor really is a master at this form. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and the title story were my two favorites. The former opens simply: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” The story goes on to tell of the two marriages, “He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.” It’s a lovely story.

“After Rain” is set in in a little “pensione” in a small town in Italy where a woman named Harriet visited for years with her parents, and has fled when a relationship ended. In a rain storm, Harriet takes shelter in the “Church of Santa Fabiola” and looks at an Annunciation, “by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain.” When Harriet walks back to her hotel, she is still thinking of the painting: “While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” Beautiful. And true — I’ve felt that way, where the connection I was trying to make was just beyond me.

The painting Trevor refers to is this one:

annuncia

Annunciation
1497
Panel, 176 x 170 cm
Duomo, Volterra, by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli

I wrote not that long ago about attending a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about another annunciation painting and buying a book abut the exhibit. On Sunday, just before we moved the former Teen the Elder (now nearly 24) out of his house in Boston, we stopped at the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Botticelli exhibit, which included some works by Fillipo Lippi. I’ve always loved when my reading and life intersect.

 

 

 

 

 

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NoViolet Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe, where her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, opens. Darling, a ten year old girl, spends her days with a small group of friends, stealing guavas in wealthy neighborhoods, playing games in the dust of Paradise, the collection of shacks where their families started over after their middle class neighborhood was bulldozed. Darling can remember their previous life, when her parents had jobs, and she went to school. It’s the early 2000’s; the children play “Find bin Laden,” and one character who dies in political unrest has a sign on his grave that lists his date of death as 2008. The story follows Darling for a few years, from Paradise, where her grandmother turns to God as interpreted by a preacher named Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, to Michigan, where her mother’s twin sister, Aunt Fostalina, lives.

I chose this book from a display at my library of books with yellow covers, one of the categories in our summer reading program’s book bingo. I usually like novels about places I haven’t been and lives I haven’t experienced.  Although it’s fiction, this book is firmly rooted in reality, and for a privileged white reader, it’s pretty uncomfortable. People from NGOs and the BBC watch and photograph Darling and her friends and their families, as if they are an exotic species. Americans are clueless and judgmental about African countries and cultures. And of course, our immigration system denies people the new life they hope for; even as various people feel sorry for what’s happening in Zimbabwe, the African immigrants in the book work menial jobs, regardless of how educated they are. They can’t go home, because without official resident status they won’t be allowed to come back to their homes and work — and their American born children. The way Bulawayo portrayed whites caused me to feel as if I didn’t really even deserve to be reading Darlings’s story.

Although reading about the poverty, violence, and pain of Darling’s early childhood is tough — she has a friend her age whose grandfather rapes and impregnates her, her own father returns from South Africa, where he went to try and find work, when he is in the final stages of AIDS, Darling and her friends watch a group of young black men smash up a wealthy white couple’s home — the despair she feels in America is worse. Her family in Zimbabwe pressures her to tell her aunt they need money for a satellite dish; they are living in a nice house now, that Aunt Fostalina has purchased by working two jobs and getting herself into credit card debt. Darling has begun working two low wage jobs herself. Towards the end of the book, she tries to Skype with her mother and the only person home seems to be her old friend Chipo, who named her baby after Darling, but who scorns her now, telling her Zimbabwe is not her country because she left.

Of course, Darling didn’t choose, her mother and aunt decided she would go to America, and in America, adults — either those she knows or those who created the laws and cultural norms that influence her young life — decide much of what she does. The ending is a flashback to a painful memory seared in Darling’s mind, from her early days in Paradise. This has the effect of illustrating what a circle of futility Darling’s life has been to this point. She thinks she has not been at home since the time when her family was stable and safe. She is not home in the place that was meant to offer a new beginning. She can’t go back to the home she left, where her heart seems to remain.

Bulawayo conveys all that longing and unfulfilled promise and the geopolitical and cultural mess the adults in Darling’s world have unthinkingly unleashed upon her generation. She writes Darling’s voice as a small girl and then as a young adolescent and finally as the book ends, as a young woman. Darling, like many children, often thinks figuratively, as in this passage describing mourners at a political activist’s funeral, who had only recently been praying after the election: “They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks, mauling whoever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshipers folded like a butterfly’s wings, and the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.” A book I’m glad I read for the same reason I exercise — I know it’s good for me, even when it’s hard.

 

 

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Over the past few weeks things have been chaotic in the world and in my family. I read another Sophie KinsellaMy Not So Perfect Life, about a young woman, Katie, trying to break into marketing who has a boss, Demeter, she both envies and finds overbearing and inconsiderate. it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, just what I needed in the midst of my chaos. As the story unfolds Katie figures out that she isn’t the only one spinning her social media life, and that Demeter isn’t as witchy as she once thought. As she’s figuring this out, Katie is also helping her father and stepmother open a glamping concern on the farm where she grew up in Somerset. The book left me a) wanting to go to London, b) wanting to go glamping and c) feeling ever so slightly at peace as I went to sleep, although only ever so slightly. I find Kinsella’s writing to be a pleasure, and her books tend to offer some social commentary that is interesting to contemplate as you’re enjoying the storytelling.

When I finished that I was fishing around for something else to download from my library that same night — I don’t care to try sleeping without disappearing into a book first these days — and I came across a book that caught my eye when it came out last year We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun. It’s a book about the Amy Biehl murder in a Cape Town township in August, 1993 (the same year my son was born). Biehl was my age, born in 1967. She was on a Fullbright scholarship studying in Cape Town (where my son has spent time) when she died at the hands of a mob, and her story made international headlines because while the killing was racially and politically motivated, Biehl was actually an ANC supporter and was studying the rights of women, especially black women.

Van der Leun’s book is not really about the murder, or at least not only. It’s primarily about the legacy, both in terms of how Biehl’s family, who had never been to Africa, became involved in Cape Town, founding a foundation in their daughter’s name and getting to know South African luminaries as well as their Biehl’s killers, and about the way the murder impacted those who were there, innocent bystander or violent mob member, and their families as well. In particular van der Leun examines the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, known around the world as a bright example of hope, peace, and nonviolent resolution to centuries of oppression, violence, and racism. I’ve never read such a measured discussion of the TRC. Van der Leun openly admires the ideal, but points out the many flaws in the process itself. For example, the wrongly convicted could not apply for pardon without claiming guilt , which meant innocent people (possibly some of Biehl’s convicted killers among them) had to admit to things they didn’t do to get out of prison. Truth seemed to be missing, to van der Luen, and reconciliation seemed a little discordant.

What I admired most is that van der Luen spent years getting to know all the people she writes about, Easy, one of the convicted killers whose reconciliation with Biehl’s parents made him a celebrity, Mzi, a Buddhist who was a militant member of the PAC, who helps her track down some of the other men implicated in the attack on Biehl, and many of their friends and family members. Van der Leun spends hours, day after day, in Gugulethu, the township where Biehl died and where most of the people involved still live. She gets to know many former gang and PAC members and talks to them about their lives pre and post apartheid and the violence they perpetrated. It’s a side of the struggle we outside of Africa often don’t hear about — we hold up the peacemakers, Mandela and Tutu, but we don’t think much about the violence that was a daily part of life. Nor do most of us think about the racism that is so steeped in South African culture that it remains an open part of life for many of the people van der Leun knows, black and white, rich and poor. No, thinking about racism in South Africa might lead to thinking about racism here in America, and no one wants that. (sarcasm) Truly, it’s human nature to avoid what’s hard and flock to the story we can feel good about.

We Are Not Such Things is, like all my favorite books, about being human. It’s about longing for identity and place, family and community, about the falsity of freedom if you’re poor or marginalized, and the myriad ways people hurt each other. It’s about hope, but it’s mainly about reality, which is, if not hopeless is somewhat less than hopeful most days, for most people. South Africa today certainly embodies that. There is a beauty in the broken world she describes, but not the voyeuristic outsider view of someone who just visited it to write about it. Van der Leun moved to South Africa to be with her fiancee, who grew up there. She openly writes about her discomfort living in the privileged white Cape Town and being more at home in Gugulethu, being an English speaker struggling with Xhosa, being a woman who fits in more with former gangster men than with their wives and sisters. Above all We Are Not Such Things is about the very human condition of discomfort, which is very familiar to me right now. Perhaps that is why I spent two weeks slowly reading it, and why I find myself still thinking about it now.

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