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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Gardam’

I was adrift without a book to read on election day and after, having finished up reading a novel for Kirkus, and picked up Jane Gardam because she is wonderful, and because at times of turmoil, there is nothing like a new (to me) novel by a favorite author.

Gardam didn’t disappoint. Bilgewater, like God on the Rocks, Crusoe’s Daughter, and A Long Way from Verona, features a young female protagonist. In this case, Marigold Green, is in her final year of school, and lives with her widower father in St. Wilfrid’s school for boys (who nickname her Bilgewater), with their formidable matron Paula in the north of England.

Marigold says, “I never felt that Paula found me very important though. Far from it. She never had favourites. There is a great sense of inevocable justice about her and although one had the sensation that her devotions and emotions ran deep and true you never found her ready to discuss them–not the loving emotions anyway. . . . For me she had from the start a steady unshakeable concern that wrapped me round like a coat. . . . But she has never tried to mother me. She’s not a soft woman, Paula. She cannot stand slop of any kind and again and again she says– it’s her dictum, her law unquestionable– BEWARE OF SELF PITY.”

And so Marigold attempts to live by Paula’s dictum through awkward adolescence and preparation for Oxbridge entrance exams, and a crush, and a friend who disappoints her, and a lot of emotional disarray. At one point the awful friend tells Paula that Marigold is “mad.” Paula retorts, “Marigold’s not mad. That’s one thing certain . . . . She sees clear and pure and sometimes it’s a bit more than she nor anybody can bear.”

Gardam is a master of this kind of thing — a couple of sentences that not only capture something essential in the human experience, but are also achingly lovely. I come away from every Gardam novel wanting to be friends with her characters, and with her, and to write like her, or just to write half as well as she does.

If you’re looking for something real and true and beautiful (and yes, good fiction should be all of those things) to read these days, you cannot go wrong with any of Gardam’s work, and Bilgewater would be a wonderful place to start.

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I read a sequel (Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley) this week, and in general I hate reviewing sequels, because so much of a reader’s reaction is informed by the first book (I enjoyed them both, but by design, wasn’t as blown away by the second one because the first is just so mind-blowing), and also, blog readers may not have read the first one. So, instead, here is a bit of readers’ advisory for you.

One of the librarians at my library asked for a good book to take to a lake house — something fun to read that wouldn’t require too much concentration. When I asked what kind of books she liked, we chatted a few minutes and I got the sense that she enjoys books about family relationships.

Here’s the list I gave her, which I realized just now is in no order. The book blurbs are mostly from the publishers, or book sites, and you’ll see I added my comments. I am pretty sure I’ve written about all of them on bookconscious.

Hi!

Here are a variety of recommendations:

The Beach House by Jane Green — Disregarding local gossip that pegs her as an eccentric, sixty-five-year-old Nantucket widow Nan skinny-dips in unattended pools and steals her neighbors’ flowers before her dwindling funds force her to take in boarders, a change that brings an unexpected visitor. A really summery read!

The Hollow Land and anything else by Jane Gardam — Young Harry Bateman comes from London with his family year after year to spend the summer at Light Trees Farm in the Cumbrian fells country, until he feels that it is his real home. I read this for a book club, but I love every one of Jane Gardam’s books.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively — The mugging of a retired schoolteacher on a London street has unexpected repercussions for her friends and neighbors when it inadvertently reveals an illicit love affair, leads to a business partnership, and helps an immigrant to reinvent his life. Don’t be put off by the mugging; it’s a really interesting read, because that one event sets off a whole chain of other things, but Lively focuses on the relationships, not the crime.

Left Neglected by Lisa GenovaSarah, a career-driven young mother, suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that leaves her unable to perceive left-side information. The disability causes her to struggle through an uncertain recovery as she adapts to her new life. Same author as Still Alice; I was fascinated by the details about living with a brain injury, but the book is also about relationships.

The View from Penthouse B by Elinor LipmanTwo newly-single sisters, one a divorceé, the other a widow, become roommates with a handsome, gay cupcake-baker as they try to return to the dating world of lower Manhattan. Also, The Family Man — Reunited with his long-lost stepdaughter by an ex-wife’s hysterical plea for help, gay lawyer Henry Archer allows the young woman to move into his basement, where she reluctantly poses as the girlfriend of a down-on-his-luck former sitcom star. I also love her book of essays I Can’t Complain. She’s funny and wise.

French Leave by Anna Gavalda — Simon, Garance and Lola flee a family wedding that promises to be dull to visit their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a château in the heart of the charming Tours countryside. For a few hours, they forget about kids, spouses, work and the many demands adulthood makes upon them and lose themselves in a day of laughter, teasing, and memories.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain  — Dining alone in an elegant Parisian brasserie, accountant Daniel Mercier can hardly believe his eyes when President Francois Mitterrand sits down to eat at the table next to him. After the presidential party has gone, Daniel discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind. Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir, and as he leaves the restaurant, he begins to feel somehow different. I also loved The Red Notebook (same author) — After finding an abandoned handbag on the street, a Parisian bookseller endeavors to find its owner, the woman whose jottings he discovers in a red notebook within the bag. Both of these books are a mini trip to Paris!

The entire Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman – My grandmother introduced me to these, and Mrs. Pollifax is one of my favorite characters of all time. Mrs. Pollifax is a widow and senior citizen who decides one day to leave her comfortable apartment in New Brunswick, New Jersey and join the CIA. Funny, thoughtful, and absolutely charming books. The first is called The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai — Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes. I could overlook the somewhat improbable plot because the heroine is a librarian and favorite childhood books are an important part of the story.

The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben Winters – In the first book, which is set in Concord (the hero even goes to the Concord Public Library!), Earth is doomed by an imminent and unavoidable asteroid collision. Homicide detective Hank Palace considers the worth of his job in a world destined to end in six months and investigates a suspicious suicide that nobody else cares about. This series is fantastic, and I don’t usually like mysteries or pre-apocalyptic books. The author won both the Edgar and the Philip K. Dick awards, he’s funny and smart and so are his books.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer— In 1946, as England emerges from the shadow of World War II, writer Juliet Ashton finds inspiration for her next book in her correspondence with a native of Guernsey and his eccentric friends, who tell her about their island, the books they love, German occupation, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club born as an alibi during German occupation. If you didn’t read it when it came out, it’s a lovely book.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson — Forced to confront the realities of life in the 21st century when he falls in love with widowed Pakistani descendant Mrs. Ali, a retired Major Pettigrew finds the relationship challenged by local prejudices that view Mrs. Ali, a Cambridge native, as a perpetual foreigner. Really good characters and a light touch, even though it’s a book about serious issues.

All Together Now by Gill Hornby —  When their singing coach dies unexpectedly before a big contest, a motley group of singers ina community choir from a small English village must overcome their respective challenges if they are ever going to succeed. Again, how could a book about a small town fading be so much fun? The characters.

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby — Katie, a liberal, urban mother and doctor from North London, finds her life turned upside down when her husband, David, undergoes an outrageous spiritual transformation, in a hilarious novel about marriage, parenthood, religion, and morality. I love Nick Hornby; his charactars are funny and real.  I also loved High Fidelity — Follows the love affairs and belated growing up of a “Generation X” pop music fanatic and record store owner.

If you like nonfiction, both Calvin Trillin (I just recently read Travels With Alice, about vacations he took with his wife and kids; he’s hilarious) and Bill Bryson are fun and quick to read.

That’s probably too many books! But I wanted you to have options if some of these are not available.

 Enjoy!

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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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I’ve written here before about not finishing books and how hard I find that. This summer I’ve not only let go and left books unfinished, I’ve allowed myself free-range grazing in books — starting and setting them aside and returning to them. Why the change? I think this reading style fits the chaos of my life life right now.

One adult child is about to be a senior in college (yes, longtime readers, that’s the former Teen the Elder) and is working from home doing an unpaid internship, which as you can imagine isn’t very gratifying — there are a lot of requirements and stipulations from an organization that not only isn’t paying him, but also isn’t always doing what they said they would. He’s sticking it out but isn’t thrilled, and mostly hopes it will look good on his resume to have completed the internship. His younger sister (Teen the Younger) is going to be a senior in high school, another tumultuous time in life, and she doesn’t feel any more satisfied with her summer. I’m still reviewing for The Mindful Reader column and occasionally for Kirkus but both of those have not gone as planned this summer either — par for the course in journalism, but still an additional dash of unpredictability.

There’s a medical issue in the family, plus all the usual daily life stresses of work, errands, remembering to mail things, carrying on with keeping up the house and the laundry and all that jazz. We also decided to have some long-hoped for work done to the house, mostly outside, but disruptive nonetheless for around a month now. And Teen the Younger decided to completely redo her room (inspired in part by The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), which has been great, but has resulted in much of her old room moving into the garage and needing to be dealt with. Yes, the Computer Scientist helps, but he’s as caught up as I am in the maelstrom of generally unsettled and unsettling emotions and decisions and stuff out of place because of the work, and a million little things to be taken care of.

So, I’ve started and stopped reading. Repeatedly. I’ve returned more library books unread than I care to recall. At the moment I have two books going, both of which I’ve been reading for weeks: Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends With Yourself through Meditation and Everyday Awareness by Chogyam Trungpa and The Stories of Jane Gardam. Both are excellent. Both can withstand the chaos. Mindfulness in Action was compiled and edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian and is one of over two dozen posthumous works by Chogyam Trungpa. It goes beyond describing how to practice mindfulness meditation and gets into the nitty gritty of what mindfulness is and does. It’s wise and kind and gentle, and very insightful.

If you’ve read bookconscious regularly you know that I love Jane Gardam. I’d read her grocery lists. And I’ve reviewed many short story collections before as well — a good short story, like a good essay or poem, makes me happy. There’s something about compact forms, well crafted, that I find really satisfying. I’m around halfway through this collection and I haven’t read a story yet that I didn’t like. Gardam’s subject, as always, is humanity in all its messy, marvelous glory. Maybe the messiness is what is especially appealing to me, given the way things are around here these days.

Oh, and we have a kitten. Gwen, short for Guinevere. She’s compact and perfectly lovely too, but trying to introduce a kitten to our cat is also not conducive to finishing a book.

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We just got back from a week in Isle la Motte, one of the Champlain Islands in northern Vermont. Even though this year we spent a day in Montreal, I still somehow read eight books and finished a 9th (and nearly a 10th):

I finished Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer, which I’m reviewing in September’s Mindful Reader column, and which I loved — Keizer writes about a year in which he returned to teaching high school after 14 years. He recounts a bit about his earlier years teaching, his writing career, and the changes he observes, culturally and in the world of education, in his small Northeast Kingdom town. And the day we were leaving I was up early and very nearly finished Every Day in Tuscanby Frances Mayes. She writes about post-fame life in Cortona and includes recipes as well.

I read (in no particular order)

Ben Winters’ World of Trouble, the 3rd in the Last Policeman trilogy. A friend told me before I left for vacation that it was the best of the three and she is right. She also warned me it’s sad; also very true. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the ending, which could have been awful, but Winters write it beautifully. One spoiler: it’s not set in Concord, NH, like the first two in the series. But Hank Palace is still the last policeman, and I continue to admire his heart and dedication, his refusal to quit in the face of ridiculous odds, and his selfless pursuit of the truth.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This book is a “big” novel from a “big” author (his latest book, out in September is already on the longlist for the Booker Prize). Various reviewers compared it to The Great Gatsby and referred to it as a 9/11 novel, an immigrant novel, a great American novel, and a post-colonial novel. I thought it was an interesting story, well told, but I was a little doubtful about the marital problems of the main character, Hans van den Broek, and his wife Rachel. Basically she is so rude to him that I had a hard time believing he’d keep wanting to work it out, but I suppose love is strange. When the book opens, Hans has learned that an old friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricket referee and businessman with dreams of building a cricket stadium in New York, was found murdered. He reflects on how his friendship with Chuck developed after 9-11 when Rachel moved back to London with their son.  If I had to boil down what I thought Netherland was about I’d say it’s about isolation.

Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. I loved Impunity Jane when I read it to my daughter years ago, and this book had been calling to me from the used book section at Gibson’s for weeks when I finally bought it. When the book begins, Louise Poole and her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, have arrived in India where Charles Poole has been living, estranged from his wife and alone for many years. As the novel unfolds, readers learn more about the troubled family as well as the agricultural college Charles has helped build. We meet Narayan Das, a veterinarian, who scorns traditional Hindu beliefs and traditions and despises the caste system. And Anil, a Brahmin student who is only studying agriculture because his father insists, but really prefers writing poetry. When Emily’s dog dies, all of these characters’ play a role in the drama; most of them experience an epiphany of some sort. A satisfying, evocative read, which left me with much to ponder.

Marrying Off Mother and other Stories by Gerald Durrell. Longtime bookconscious readers know I adore Durrell. My Family and Other Animals remains of my favorite memoirs ever.This collection of stories is based in fact; some of the pieces have the same tone as his memoirs. Durrell is a unique writer, whose work is suffused with his love of the natural world as well as his warmth and the joy he seems to take in his unusual life. He also has a terrific sense of pacing; I always imagine it would be best to hear his work aloud.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. Another story collection, some of them linked, about people and their relationships with each other and with society. I liked it — not too dark, not too light, interesting characters. Kane’s stories remind me a bit of Ann Beatty’s. This is fiction about feelings, heavier on interactions than actions. But you don’t come away feeling like humanity sucks when you’re through reading this collection, which is good for a vacation read.

And the best for last:

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardamone of my favorite authors.  I was really looking forward to this one and it didn’t disappoint. Gardam’s writing is exquisite and this story really grabbed me. Gardam captures adolescence beautifully, and her main character, Jessica Vye, reminded me of myself in some ways — feeling different than everyone else and being both glad of it and repulsed by it. Every character is interesting, and not a word is misspent. I am not sure I can even put into words what it is about Gardam that I love so much; I always wish her books would never end.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Like a long, cool drink of water on a hot day.  Spufford is witty and clear, and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but nonetheless writes about contemporary faith in a way that is both reassuring and challenging. This book is his answer to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and I enjoyed it. I don’t think it would convince atheists to change their minds (at least not the ones I know) but it might convince them to allow that not all believers are mindless idiots, and that alone makes it a great contribution.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. If you’ve seen the BBC series, his is the first of three memoirs by the real Jennie in the series. She writes with great affection about the community of nurses and nuns where she lived and worked in London’s East End in the 1950’s. It was a perfect book to read after enjoying Alan Johnson’s This Boy. I intend to find and read Worth’s other books as well. She was a remarkable lady and her writing is vivid, cheerful, clear, and reflective.

 

 

 

 

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On Monday I read a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine about Colum McCann. Joel Lovell, who also wrote a very enjoyable piece on George Saunders this year, talked to McCann about his new book and writing but also traveled with him to meet a group of kids at the Newtown, CT high school who read Let the Great World Spin after the shootings at Sandyhook Elementary. Their teacher, Lee Keylock, chose the book as a way to help himself, as well as his students, work through their grief and disbelief and invited McCann to come to the class.

The last three paragraphs of the article, which describe Lovell’s and McCann’s visit with Keylock’s students, are incredible journalism, which take you right into that school and those conversations, and remind you that human beings may have an outsized capacity to hurt each other, but we do a hell of a good job at helping each other as well. The piece reminded me of Rolf Dobelli’s contention that news is bad for us (which I wrote about here). It hit me that “bad” news lacks the humanity I felt leaping off the page in Lovell’s piece, connecting me to these people I’d never met.

McCann told the students a bit about a new nonprofit project he co-founded — Narrative4 — explaining, as Lovell writes, that it “brings together kids from different places — sometimes directly contentious places, sometimes just places with their own hardships — and how over a span of days the kids pair off, one from each place, and exchange the story that most defines who they are. At the end of their time together, they tell the stories to the larger group, taking on the persona of their partner — an exercise, McCann said, in “radical empathy.” The image of young people “taking on the persona of their partner,” inhabiting each other’s stories, really got to me. That could be life-changing, so also world-changing.

I went to Narrative4’s website and blog and learned that many authors I’ve written about and even a few I’ve met, like the wonderful Firoozeh Dumas, are a part of it. And that all of us can participate in the project’s radical empathy by donating a little bit (as little as $5) at the website to read over 100 stories by authors who wanted to help launch Narrative4. 

There is a connection between my visceral reaction to this project and what I’m reading. I just finished Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, which revisits the characters in Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The book is a heart-rending look at how our life stories stay in our hearts and minds and souls right into old age, and impact our relationships and our inner monologue to the end. Gardam doesn’t flinch away from despair, and her elderly characters aren’t just sweet old souls, they are whole people with a trail of hurts and misunderstandings in their wake. But they are also, like all of us, capable of what McCann described to the students: “optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’” I thoroughly enjoyed Last Friends.

Finally, a true story: yesterday I bought Stray Bullet, Gary Rivlin’s piece on Atavist (Gary is a terrific writer and is also married to my cousin). I downloaded it to my iPad but you can also read Atavist stories on your computer. Stray Bullet is about Tony Davis, a man serving life in prison for the murder of a teenager in 1990. Gary met him while writing his first book, Drive By, and the two became friends. I’ve only just started it but I’m hooked.

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This weekend I finished the very unusual novel (one of two with this title released last month) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I’d only ever read a short story of Atkinson’s, in an anthology called Earth. I enjoyed this book not only because it’s incredibly original — more on that in a moment — but also because it melds interesting characters, compelling ideas, and rich writing.

Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, is born over and over. Not into different lives, not reincarnated into new existences, but as herself, in her family and place and time (a moderately prosperous British family in the early 1900’s — she’s a child when her father goes off to the Great War and a young woman when WWII begins). Her life(ves) turn on circumstances that she can recall or sense, so sometimes she manipulates events to prevent untimely death. Sometimes things are beyond her control but still turn out differently. As she lives longer and grows up she begins to sense the nature of her strange reality.

Readers never get a sense that she completely grasps it, nor are we ever sure exactly which existence trumps the others; right up until the end, this novel is a puzzle. At least for me it was — I found it endlessly fascinating but was never sure I’d got it assembled in my mind perfectly. If you require a novel with a straightforward chronological narrative, or at least easy to digest flashbacks, you may be befuddled. But if you’re willing to let those trappings go, this is a really intriguing book.

Ursula is a great character — bright and capable and mostly quite brave and independent-minded. Different, marked not only by her strange deja-vu lives but as her father Hugh describes her, “watchful, as if she was trying to drink in the whole world.” And its a world in the throes of change: the world wars, the ushering in of the modern era’s new moral, cultural, and political realities. Atkinson mines all of that rich historical context and also plumbs Ursula’s relationships and her emotional life from various angles: Ursula as daughter, sister, niece, friend, lover, aunt. In this regard Atkinson reminds me of Jane Gardam.

This is a book you will likely want very much to discuss when you finish. Beyond the obvious questions about how much we control our own fate, Atkinson also looks closely at human nature. What makes a person act horribly to those closest to him or her? Why do we insist on labeling each other and boxing ourselves into social roles and expectations? Why are there dictators? Wars? Why are some people driven by ambition and others by purer motives? Does love ever exist in its purest form, and what is it exactly?

As I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the questions and quandaries of Ursula’s fictional world I had our own very much in mind. At one point in the novel Ursula is a warden in an Air Raid Precaution unit. It’s a diverse group of volunteers from different walks of life, different ages and backgrounds, who come together to keep the people in their small sector of London safe, making sure everyone observes the blackout, takes shelter during raids, and is properly identified in case of injury or death. They respond to the horrors of the Blitz night after night. Ursula’s senior warden in a retired hospital matron and WWI nurse veteran, Miss Woolf. She’s unflappable and she keeps them focused on the higher moral ground at one point noting “it is intolerance that has brought us to this pass.”

It’s easy to think that was a different time, that there’s nothing comparable to such selfless service today — except there is. A Holocaust survivor, Irene Butter, spoke in Concord last week about her life, and the Concord Monitor noted, “Ten years ago, she also helped found the Zeitouna Project,” a group of women, Jews and Arabs, who are “refusing to be enemies.” In the UK, Faith Matters is working “to reduce extremism and interfaith and intra-faith tensions and . . . develop platforms for discourse and interaction between Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Hindu communities across the globe,” responding this week to the anti-Muslim backlash after the extremist murder of a British soldier.

And of course, people are still working to assist the Boston bombing victims, people impacted by the Oklahoma tornado, and in quiet, less newsworthy ways, people in their own towns and cities every day who need help: homeless people, the elderly, those afflicted with cancer or mental illness or other health challenges, victims of abuse and violence, and others who need a helping hand. I’m grateful for people who are willing give of themselves to do what’s right. And for literature that helps us understand and discuss human nature at its best and worst.

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