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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Longtime bookconscious followers will know I am a big Jane Gardam fan. I was browsing on Hoopla and realized they have a large selection of Europa Editions, including Gardam’s Faith Fox, which I hadn’t even heard about. I did the Europa challenge a couple of times, reading a certain target number of books from that publisher, and I really don’t think I ever disliked a Europa Editions book. But once I was working in an academic library, I didn’t get in to my public library all that often, and so ended up reading a lot of other things. I’m very glad to have found this trove of Europa titles easily accessible on my iPad. I still don’t love eBook reading, but I saw a number of books I want to read, so I may be eReading for a bit.

Faith Fox, like many of the Europa Editions Jane Gardam books, was published in England many years ago. It’s the story of a baby whose mother died in childbirth, and what happens to the people in her family and their friends. We’re introduced to several of them — Faith’s mother’s circle, from the South of England, and her father’s family, in the North. Faith’s father, a doctor in the South, takes the baby to his brother Jack’s farm and retreat center, the Priory, where Jack takes in various people — former inmates, Tibetan refugees, etc. — and now his tiny niece. Jack is the hub to the rest of the characters’ spokes, an Anglican priest whose “gentleness, his innocence, and his loving looks” reveal what several characters believe is his holiness. Others think he’s daft. At any rate, Jack is the one through whom all the other characters are connected.

Gardam as always examines society from many angles in this brief story, from family relationships and the meaning and manifestation of faith to the cultural differences between northern and southern England, the impact of education, the different ways people manage grief, and how people who are different than the cultural norms get by. One of the things I love about Gardam’s writing is that she writes about life unvarnished, and doesn’t shy away from the tragedies and traumas, but also doesn’t dwell in them. People get on, one way or another, as they do in the world. Her stories almost always offer some hope for humanity, which I appreciate. And she is really good at inhabiting so many different kinds of characters, male and female, old and young, well off or not.

This was a delightful read, and I’m looking forward to some more Europa Editions!

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It’s been some time since I read something in translation, which longtime bookconscious followers will know is one of my favorite things to do. When I was through with the graphic memoir I wrote about last week, I shopped my shelves and nothing was jumping out saying “read me now.” So I browsed Hoopla, where I had borrowed the previous book, and came across Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, which I heard about over the summer and hadn’t read yet.

It’s a short novel about a thirty-six year old woman, Keiko Furukura, who has worked part-time in a convenience store since she was eighteen. She was there when it opened and is on her 8th manager. We learn that growing up, Keiko was different — she reacted to things like a dead pet budgie in a park quite dispassionately, and seemed to have a literal take on the world. Her parents alternately worried and felt mortified that their child was different, and so Keiko learned to fit in by saying very little, and making sure that when she did, she sounded like those around her.

In the course of this novel, Keiko figures out that her untraditional life — living in a shabby apartment alone, not dating or socializing much, working part-time in a job mostly taken by immigrants, people stuck between jobs, or students rather than having a career trajectory — makes other people uncomfortable. People like her sister, who is married and has a baby, or the few high school acquaintances she still knows.

So Keiko tries conforming to society’s expectations. I don’t want to give away details about the way that plays out, but I will say I found myself fearing for her, and so when Keiko makes a strong stand for being herself, it came as a relief. I know that’s all vague, but you really should read this book, and I don’t want to spoil it!

Murata and her translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, bring the culture of the Japanese convenience store alive — from the regulars and the specials to the management and the manual. I appreciated that bits of Japanese, like the greeting the store workers are expected to call out when shoppers come in, are left in tact. Murata manages to make Keiko both a sympathetic character and a symbol of conformist society’s dehumanizing effects on those who do not choose to be outsiders, but instead cannot fit in as expected. It’s a darkly funny book in some ways, although it did not make me laugh as some other readers have commented it did.

I really enjoy books like this that are windows into lives very different than mine. Convenience Store Woman is that, and it’s also a brief story that stays with you, simple in and of itself but carrying greater truths that may cause the reader to keep turning it over in their mind, wondering, and being thankful to have entered into this little world.

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Last week I went to hear Mohsin Hamid speak in Manchester because his book Exit West was our community wide read. I loved that book and Hamid’s talk was really interesting, so I decided to read his other work, starting with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I enjoyed it, but not as much as Exit West.

In Exit West there is a narrator who tells readers not only what’s happening in the book but what will happen in the future, which is a little disconcerting. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist there is a first person narrator who is addressing an American man in a cafe in Lahore in about 2005 or 2006. The story he tells is interjected with comments that are directed at this man, which feels a little forced. For example, the narration is peppered with questions that represent the other man’s side of the conversation, like “How did I know you were American?” or “What did I think of Princeton?” or “But you are at war, you say?” At other times the narrator tells us about the man’s facial expressions or what he is looking at.

As a result, we get a very limited view of the other man, who is almost a stage prop. The narrator, Changez, tells us the story of his days immediately following graduation from Princeton, when he vacations with a group of fellow grads and begins to fall for one of them, Erica, and returns home to start work at prestigious finance firm that values businesses. The book traces the time from spring 2001 to winter 2002, when Changez moves back to Pakistan. There are many details about his relationship with Erica, whose life is more complicated than it initially appears, and his work. But at its heart the book is about the geopolitical awakening he experiences in the new post-9/11 world, as the war on terror begins and India and Pakistan seem to be heading for war as well.

Hamid’s structural choice means that Changez gets the last word — and really, the only word, since his monologue filters the other characters’ points of view. I appreciated that; it’s good to have different point of view than the one that dominated print and broadcast media after 9/11 in America. There are also hints throughout the book that the American in the cafe is on “a mission,” has a military demeanor and build, and is perhaps armed. The ending is both tense and nebulous — we’re left not truly knowing what is happening in the final moments of the novel, but suspecting.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a good story, of a man who comes of age by realizing that none of the things he’s been raised to believe will help him get ahead — education, hard work, good manners, respect for one’s elders — will matter in the new world he’s thrust into. I’m still not sure if I understand fully the role of his relationship with Erica in that undoing; I’ll have to consider that further. It’s a unique book, and I’m glad I read it, but it’s unsettling.

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I read an article stating that The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt is the best novel of the 21st century so far, and the stories (both the novel’s and the author’s, who seems to live an interesting life) seemed intriguing, even if I am no fan of declarations like that. So I ordered it on interlibrary loan. I read it this weekend, and I do think it’s original, even though it is the classic story of a young man on a quest. Ludo, the young man in The Last Samurai, is younger than many questers — only 11 — and is looking for his father. Sibylla, his unmarried mother, won’t tell him his father’s identity because the man is a writer who reminds her of Liberace, because like him, the man is prone to “slick buttery arpeggios . . . self-regarding virtuosity . . . And yet he was not really exactly like the pianist, because though he did genuinely have the emotional facility of the musician, he had only the air of technical facility . . . .”

The book takes place in London, where Sibylla has gone after deciding that Oxford, where she had a scholarship, is not for her, not because she can’t do the work expected of her, but because that work seems pointless. She meets a woman who can get her a work permit and a secretarial job in a publishing company, and that’s how she meets Ludo’s father. Around the same time an American company buys the publisher and, realizing her job will go away, she accepts a job typing back issues of obscure journals into a computer, which she can do at home while raising her child.

She answers all the questions Ludo asks and teaches him whatever he wants to know, and by the time he is 6 he knows Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic and is learning Japanese. By age 11 he knows about twenty languages along with a great deal of math and science and he’s read widely, including all the travel writing he can find, since that is one clue he has — his father is a travel writer. He and his mother watch Seven Samurai repeatedly, some would say obsessively. He gets the idea that he can seek and challenge seven men in his quest for a father. These men are well known — writers, an artist, a musician, a diplomat, a scientist. His exchanges with his mother and these men are the bulk of the book.

DeWitt says a lot about life, art, family, love, education (I really loved her send-ups of school), and the irrationality of modern life. It’s a book that refers to art and music and languages and cultures and mathematical principals and philosophical ideals you may not know (I didn’t know them all) but unlike some books that reference other works, The Last Samurai doesn’t condescend. It seems natural that the strange and brilliant Sibylla and Ludo are immersed in this kind of knowledge, and fitting that in London they can be immersed. Despite Ludo’s strange upbringing and Sibylla’s isolation, it’s not an unhopeful book. It’s an unusual story, interrupted by chunks of movie subtitles, passages in one of the many languages Ludo or Sibylla is learning or studying, or books he is reading. I’m glad I read it. I’m not making any declarations, however.

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I wanted to like this book. First, I wanted to like it because it took me two weeks to slog through The Trial. I was ready for a quick, satisfying read. I wanted to like it as well because people I like recommended it and my book club is discussing it.

But, as a fellow librarian told me today, it could make for better discussion since I didn’t like it. Maybe. Anyway, I couldn’t warm to the characters or the story. For the same topic — woman overcomes emotionless  (or damaged) upbringing, allies with desirable man, uses her own talent to launch him and pretends to all the world that she is just a muse and not the real talent — see Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Which to me was still a strange story about people I couldn’t identify with, but which seemed both wilder and more complicated and somehow also more likely. I just can’t accept the premise of The Wife. I didn’t dislike the writing, so I kept reading, but in the end, it didn’t work for me.

 

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The former “Teen the Younger” gave me a couple of books for Christmas last year, found in their thrift shop outings (my favorite kind of gift). One was Queen of the Underworld which I very much enjoyed. The other is a Modern Library edition of The Trial billed as “the definitive edition.” I decided a couple of weeks ago, when I’d finished a book I read for Kirkus, that I had time for a “tough” book like this before my new year in grad school began. Classes started yesterday and I just finished The Trial at lunch today. It was definitely not a fast read.

What I didn’t realize, but the rest of the world is hearing about (or remembering again) because of a new book out last week (Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint) is that Kafka might never have meant for The Trial, one of his most famous works, to be published. He left directions for his executor, Max Brod, to burn his papers, manuscripts, letters, etc. The Trial was unfinished; one thing that makes my copy “definitive” is that it was published with unfinished chapters, passages that Kafka deleted, and three postscripts that Max Brod wrote for various editions.

I admit that by the time I reached the end I didn’t feel motivated to read these “extras.” To say The Trial is a downer is putting it mildly. Especially in today’s world, to read about a man caught up in a legal system that is labyrinthine, sprawling, overreaching, all powerful, impersonal, and corrupt is somewhat distressing. If there’s hope anywhere in this story I didn’t find it — even the few people who show Joseph K., the self-proclaimed innocent (but not very likable) accused man some kindness are not really very kind, nor very helpful. My edition opens, “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”

It doesn’t get any better. K. begins by trying to fight the system, but is soon undermined at work, mocked at home, and thoroughly ensnared in “the Court.” A lawyer friend of his family seems ineffectual and encourages his maid to have affairs with his clients. A priest who seems to show an interest in K. is an employee of the Court and only tells K. a convoluted parable which he then makes more complicated by offering multiple interpretations. K. — and the reader — are left wondering whether the priest means any comfort or solace or is just playing a part in the same system that is grinding K.’s life down. Other people cause most of K.’s suffering, and he brings on some himself.

Still, I knew it wouldn’t be uplifting. But I’m not sure I even enjoyed it, and I almost feel better knowing it wasn’t really finished when Kafka died. It felt disjointed to me, and I don’t know whether that was intentional or inadvertent. And I don’t know I would like to read something else he did finish, to see whether I like Kafka or not. The Computer Scientist points out that conveniently, he picked up a collection of Kafka’s shorter work in a used bookstore this summer, so I’m in luck.

And now, back to reading about policy for my class.

 

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I haven’t looked at trees the same way since reading The Hidden Life of Trees. So when Richard Powers‘ latest novel, The Overstory, came out, I was immediately interested, because the reviews mentioned how Powers incorporates a lot of what’s in that book — trees have the ability to communicate, to adapt, to care for each other — in this novel. And he does, to amazing effect. 

Reviewers have also referred to The Overstory as “magisterial” and “operatic,” both of which may be code for “really long.” It takes just over 500 pages to tell decades of stories, about characters whose lives don’t even begin to intertwine until about a third of the way through.

But if you persevere you’ll begin to understand, perhaps in a muted and not very clear-eyed human way, how the characters are connected to each other and to the heart of the story — the overstory — of man’s inhumanity not only to man, but to the planet. The message is, there are some of us who see and understand that we’re on a self-destructing over-consuming mission, and some of us who don’t, but if we would just pay attention, trees, with their long memory, learned through thousands of years of interconnectedness and cooperation, could teach us to live. 

I’m still not exactly sure of all the characters’ roles — it may take me some time, and conversation with someone else who has read the book, to get how Ray and Dorothy connect with the others. And whether Patricia, the independent, earthy scientist whose work on tree communication is discredited and decades later, celebrated, is based on a real person. 

But a little uncertainty doesn’t detract from enjoying The Overstory. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates science and philosophy and economics, that digs into the way we and our world works and why, and what we can do about it. It’s a reflection on how much we don’t know, and how many of us live blindly, and might not even choose to know what we don’t know. Powers manages to work into his characters’ lives many of the seminal shifts in our lifetimes — communism, terrorism, globalization, environmental degradation, the computer age. And he works in the history of human threats to trees, which can be summarized as environmental mismanagement and cluelessness.

I love his writing, too. Take this description of Ray and Dorothy’s reading tastes: “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilization ascending to its still-obscure destiny. . . . Dorothy needs wilder reclamations, stories free of ideas and steeped in local selves.” Or this description of two characters with a tenuous relationship: “Douggie steps from the car with that stupid, air-eating, sun-eating grin Mimi has come to enjoy,  the way you might enjoy the yips of a dog you’ve rescued from the pound.”  

In the end, I’d describe this as a literary psychodrama in parts. There is the central thread, about five people who come together as environmental activists and turn to eco-terrorism after being ignored by the public and challenged by corporations and the law. That leads to a cataclysmic event. On the periphery are the stories of the aforementioned tree intelligence scientist, the married couple who seem to me to represent the ability of people to grow and change, and a brilliant computer programmer who creates a smash hit game that he comes to see as reflective of all the worst human instincts.

The programmer and the tree scientist are the people whose legacies may turn the tide. But Powers doesn’t say their work will be enough. He leaves us with a clear understanding of only one thing: it’s not over. Nick, one of the environmental activists, is in an unnamed place using downed branches and snags to create an art installation that consists of a giant word — STILL — on a forest floor. He’s done, ready to move on, when he hears a whisper: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”

 

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