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Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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First the one I read and hated: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger. I chose it to fill the “book from the teen zone” on my book bingo card. It’s a graphic novel in a picture book layout and the premise drew me in: a woman escaping a fight with her partner finds a mysterious bookmobile stocked with everything she’s ever read, staffed by a friendly librarian. A blurb on the back said the message is that we are what we read. What’s not to love?

Except this book is about a woman who reads and enjoys remembering what she’s read to the point of obsession and madness. It’s a story about losing hope, clinging to to our own desires even if they make us lonely and miserable, and perishing in a mire of self — and then the ending glorifies that. Don’t read this book.

There.

On to a much happier selection, even though it’s about grief and pain and loneliness. It’s H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and it’s also about heart and hope and love, family and friendship and wildness. This is a story celebrating the redemptive quality of both seeking something we care deeply for, in Macdonald’s case hawking, and doing it well as a way of reminding ourselves how very alive we are when the world has overwhelmed us with sorrow. It’s beautiful and in some ways the opposite of The Night Bookmobile.

Macdonald can write. Damn, can she write. When the book opens she is describing a morning when she woke up feeling she must go out, and then “only when my frozen ancient Volkswagon and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going and why. Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest. The broken forest. That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.”

She goes on to describe how hard a task she’d set herself: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace; it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” It seems strange she’d just woken up and gone looking for them until not long after when she receives shocking news: her father has died suddenly.

Macdonald is stunned, horrified, immobilized by grief. She’d been devoted to hawking since she was a child, and as she processes her father’s death and struggles to stay sane, she revisits those memories, and her books on hawking. And before long, she has a goshawk, a young female she names Mabel.

And one of the books she re-reads is The Goshawk by T.H. White, the same man who also wrote The Once and Future King. Macdonald dips into many of White’s books in the telling of H is for Hawk. White, she sees, was deeply scarred by his childhood and deeply afraid of the potential pain and loss of human relationships. As an adult she can begin to understand that which she didn’t as a child. The reader watches as Macdonald’s compassion for White grows into healing for herself.

The brilliance of H is for Hawk is that it is several stories: Mabel’s and Macdonald’s, her father’s and White’s and also the story of hawking, and a loving tribute to the English countryside. It’s a book about grief and depression and how Macdonald manages to pull up as her life seems headed for a crash landing. And it’s the story of deep and abiding friendships –and Macdonald’s appreciation for them, and for Mabel, and ultimately, for life itself.

Often I don’t like this style — the Computer Scientist and I have discussed the fad for rambling, wide-ranging memoirs that seem not to have a clear point. But Macdonald manages both to ramble pleasingly and relevantly through history, literature, ecology, geography, hawking, and more, and to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.There is no forced cleverness, no jarring sense that you can see the puppetmaster’s strings distracting you. If you’ve struggled to like cross-genre memoirs, try this one and you’ll see how it really ought to be done.

H is for Hawk is also warm. It’s about horrible things, hard things, lost things, but it’s also about things that are soulful and heartfelt. There’s a sense of ancient continuity in what Macdonald and Mabel do, and what Macdonald is feeling. And everything Macdonald relates belongs. It all comes together as if you were listening to a very intelligent, very interesting friend.

And I did listen; I took out the audiobook, which I don’t often do. Macdonald read it, even doing different voices. I liked hearing her narrate her own story, and I managed to knit a good bit of a scarf while listening. I do think I probably get more out of reading than listening, but perhaps that has to do with the fact that I’m a novice knitter and my attention was divided.  I’d like to go back and read it in print.

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If you’ve followed bookconscious for awhile you know I love Jane Gardam. I just finished The Hollow Land this morning, which I’ve had on my shelf for some time but remembered when I noticed on Facebook that Gibson’s Bookstore book club is discussing it on 12/7.

This lovely book is set in a village in Cumbria, and is listed among Gardam’s work for children, although I think it is absolutely a book for everyone. It’s a series of linked stories about Harry Bateman, who is a little boy the first time his family comes to stay in an old farmhouse called Light Trees, which is owned by the Teesdale family. From the start Harry and the Teesdale’s boy Bell, who is a little older, are friends, and over the years, the Batemans become a part of the community. Harry and Bell get into a number of childhood scrapes, getting stuck in an old silver mine shaft (hence the hollowness of the land), getting lost in a blizzard while they were off “on an icicle ride,” and in Harry’s case, tangling with the Egg-witch and her ancient, and by all reports dotty, mother, Granny Crack.

Gardam has a knack for rendering something as simple as a scruffy hillside beautiful: “They began to climb the far side of the cleft, pulling themselves up by bushes and rocks. A sheep racketed away from them from behind some gorse bushes and once a family of grouse shot up from under their feet making a noise like wooden rattles.” These descriptions combined with Cumbrian dialog and the telling of the quiet rhythms of the seasons — blackberry time, sheep shows, etc. — infuse the book with a deep sense of place.

What ties the stories together and makes The Hollow Land a cohesive whole is not only that sense of place but also the friendship of Harry and Bell and their families. This is a book about love, and about community, and also about loyalty and preserving what makes a place special. Harry tells Granny Crack, who says she’s never seen London, “It’s all right . . . . Up here’s better. More seems to go on up here.” As the generations grow they stay or return, even as the world changes. When Gardam wrote it she was cementing the place right into the future — the last story is set in 1999, and she published The Hollow Land in 1981.

If you’ve loved a place like Light Trees, a house “away from it all” where as a child you knew anything could happen, you’ll love this book. But even if that’s not a familiar experience, you’ll savor Gardam’s evocative prose and be transported to a place where, as Bell reassures Harry when he’s worrying about things changing, “Summat’ll fetch up. . . . See what tomorrow brings. It of times brings summat.” Timeless words for any kind of trouble. Like all good books, The Hollow Land speaks of things beyond the words on its pages.

 

 

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Over the summer I posted my review of Nichole Bernier‘s debut, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., which was also in one of my first Mindful Reader columns. Last week, Nichole came to Concord to read at Gibson’s. During her post-reading Q&A, I asked what she’d read lately. She had several recommendations, but Crossing to Safety stood out because author Wallace Stegner is one of those literary lights I hadn’t yet read. Yes, even English majors/writers/librarians haven’t read everyone.

As Nichole said, this is a beautiful book. In a bit of bookconscious interconnectedness, the Modern Library edition has an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams, another author I hadn’t read until recently. I just mentioned Williams in my post about The Book of Mormon Girl.  I love these kind of links. Williams’ assessment is lovely and true: “The personal in Stegner’s fiction becomes the universal. Impatience turns to patience. Reservations become possibilities of transformation.”

Crossing to Safety is about Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang, friends who meet in Madison, Wisconsin in 1938 when Larry and Sid are both young English professors. It’s about their respective marriages and their friendships, and it’s also about ambition and dreams, hardships and how to live. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, WWII, and the culturally turbulent years after, it’s also very much an American novel, examining two paths to success in our country — influence and ingenuity.

Larry and Sally are Westerners (Sally a first generation American) with no money or family pedigrees. Charity and Sid are wealthy, well-connected Easterners. Charity insists Sid “publish or perish” even if it means abandoning poetry and his dreams of a simpler life in their rural compound in Vermont; Larry pursues his literary ambitions rather than chasing tenure.

Charity’s plans don’t always come to fruition, but the Langs’ landing is always soft. Larry succeeds as an author on his own merit but his road is made smooth by Charity and Sid’s largess and their connections.  He doesn’t seem to resent this situation, only to relate it.

The Morgans’ friendship with the Langs dazzles them: “We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull . . . .” A few sentences later he adds,”Both of us were particularly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.” Later in the book, Larry notes, “They worried about us more than we had sense to worry about ourselves. What they had, and they had so much, was ours before we could envy it or ask for it.”

And despite the imbalance, each couple benefits from the friendship. Charity is a matriarch who manages and bosses everyone. But she’s not unkind. Larry says, “She is often right. She is also capable of a noble generosity, and of cramming it on the head of the recipient like a crown of thorns.” Sally and Larry offer their friends a deep well of goodness and shared experience; they know them and love them, just as they are.

The book’s structure is a circle; it opens with the Morgans arriving in Vermont in 1972, summoned by Charity, who is ill. From there, Larry reflects on a lifetime of memories, on the meaning of success and failure, morality and its measure, friendship and marriage. In the end, we’re back where we began, feeling a little wiser for having gotten to know these remarkable characters.

Larry tells us,”. . . if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe time is circular, not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving.” A few sentences later he adds, “Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.” Reading Crossing to Safety felt just like that. Stegner’s luminous, sometimes searing writing makes this novel thoughtful, moving, and a very great pleasure to read.

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