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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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I worked with many publicity professionals during my time at Gibson’s and then writing a book review column. A couple still stay in touch and occasionally send a book and one of those people is Scott Manning. When he tells me a book is worth reading it invariably is, and recently he sent me Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. I read it this week for one of the “Reader’s Choice” squares on my book bingo card.

To say this book is eye-opening isn’t really accurate — Dunbar tells readers what they could see pretty easily, if they paid any attention to American history. The south had slaves, lots of them, and the first President was a southerner. Mount Vernon was a plantation that depended on slave labor, one of a network of such farms belonging to the Washingtons and to Martha’s Custis relatives. And while some history books like to point out that George Washington had mixed feelings about slavery, he also signed the Fugitive Slave Act, in part because many Northern states were already beginning to move towards abolition and Southerners were afraid that runaway slaves would be beyond their grasp unless the federal government made it illegal to help them. And the Fugitive Slave Act did that, as Dunbar explains, “To be clear, those who purposely interfered with the recapturing of a slave, or who offered aid or assistance to a fugitive, could be fined an exorbitant amount — $500 — imprisoned, and be sued by the slaveholder in question.”

I will add, some details about the extent of the Washingtons’ efforts to keep people enslaved, to punish slaves who seemed in their views not to work hard enough or to have bad attitudes, and to flout Pennsylvania’s laws (they rotated slaves back to Mount Vernon in order that they not stay more than 6 months in Philadelphia, because they would have then been free), were new to me. Based on my very informal poll, which consisted of telling everyone around me about what I was reading and gauging their reactions,  these facts are not well known.

Dunbar’s writing about Washington is interesting but what makes her book stand out is the story of Ona Judge, a young woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon who as a teenager became Martha Washington’s personal attendant. Studies have shown that telling an individual’s story, for example in order to solicit funds for a massive humanitarian crisis, is highly effective, and Never Caught is a fine example of that psychological impact at work.

In telling Judge’s story Dunbar masterfully places the focus not on harsh treatment or back-breaking labor — Judge’s work was constant but not physically harmful, and she was not beaten or raped as far as the record shows — but on the undeniable, inhumane, supreme injustice of a person being owned by another person. Judge had no say in the matters of her life which free people take for granted. Even once she was “free” and even after the Washingtons both died, Judge was technically a fugitive, owned by the Custis family, and her children were technically born slaves, even though she raised them in relative freedom. At any time, someone could capture her and her family and take them back to Virginia and that would have been legal.

But fortunately, Judge ended up in New Hampshire, and apparantly people in my adopted state had the beginnings of a “live free or die” attitude and even the prominent and the powerful in New Hampshire were not always willing to tow the line politically. Washington did in fact track Judge down and tried to call in favors to get her back, but New Hampshire’s independent thinkers, and Judge’s own very strong desire to remain free, protected her. Yet she did not have a happily ever after life, and Dunbar spares no details in pointing out the suffering that Judge and her family experienced. Again, you may have learned about slavery in school, but did you ever think of how soul-permeating  the impact of being owned really was? Some free blacks prospered but Dunbar makes clear that for many others being an escapee was a life sentence of poverty, ill health, and struggle.

Dunbar’s book is full of details of post-Revolutionary America, and observations about the people who were already working to end slavery. It’s a painful read when considered in light of the continuing racial injustices in America, and it’s hard not to wonder if the founders had abolished slavery in the Constitution, how different things might have turned out. One tiny quibble I have, and this is likely an issue of my own taste — is that Dunbar sometimes speculates about the emotions of her subjects. For example, in writing about Judge’s son, Dunbar states, “His mother’s depression must have been suffocating.” Or “To Judge, Whipple seemed like a nice enough man; that is, he hadn’t yet called for the constable to have her arrested.” I think telling readers that Judge’s lot in life was pretty miserable by the time her 16 year old son decided to become a sailor is enough — readers can conclude that he probably didn’t want to be around her misery. Similarly, the exchange between Whipple (a man who realized who Judge was as she was applying for work) and Judge makes clear that she was able to continue the conversation, which is enough evidence that she didn’t feel he was a threat; we don’t need to be told Judge thought he was nice, which ventures into speculation.

To be clear, maybe somewhere in Dunbar’s research she came across something that said Judge thought Whipple was nice, I don’t know. I just don’t like the speculative style of nonfiction fiction writing that seems to be popular right now, and I blame it on the overly dramatic “historical re-creation” television programs that are ubiquitous. But this happens only rarely in Never Caught, which is otherwise an interesting and horrifying account of the beginnings of the split in our early union and the deplorable toll slavery took on people. And the well told story of a woman I’d guess most Americans have never heard of.

As for my other Reader’s Choice? Something completely different. I had a crummy week last week so I lost myself in a light read, Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. It’s everything an escapist read should be: funny, smart, and romantic. Plus, there are mouth watering descriptions of cooking, lovely descriptions of the Cotswolds, and sly jabs at high powered law firms and the newly rich. When Kinsella’s heroine, Sam, finds she has made a 50 million pound error on the very day she is supposed to hear whether she made partner at the most successful and prestigious firm in London, she freaks out and gets on a train. When she gets out she has a terrible headache, so knocks on a door to see if she can figure out where she is and ask for a glass of water. The person who answers the door thinks Sam is a housekeeping applicant. She gets the job she didn’t apply for and has no idea how to do — she isn’t even sure how the washing machine works or how to turn on the oven. Who helps her? A handsome and sensitive gardener and his kind mother. Romantic comedy that is screen-worthy. I’d go see it.

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I don’t really remember how this book got on my radar — probably I read an advance review somewhere. I haven’t read Chris Cleave before, but I knew he wrote “it” books that get loads of attention, and I have to admit, I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon of very popular books. For example, I was not as impressed with All the Light We Cannot See as many people were. So I was a little skeptical of another “it” WWII novel.

But I really liked Everyone Brave is Forgiven in large part because I could not resist Mary North. She’s a young woman from a well connected London family who “left  finishing school unfinished” to sign up for war work as soon as Britain declares war. The War Office sends her to a school, which she thinks is a joke or a cover for something more dashing but turns out to be life changing.

One of her tasks is to prepare the children for evacuation, and to go with them. But her headmistress thinks Mary is too familiar with the children, and tells her she’s not a good teacher and must stay behind. Mary is worried about Zachary, an African American boy whose father is in a minstrel show, and writes to him in the countryside. He’s being neglected.

That sets the rest of the plot in motion. Mary goes to Tom Shaw in the Education department and complains about the critique of her teaching and asks to have a school for kids who are making their way back to London because they’ve been rejected — or worse — by their host families. Before long she has a small class, Zachary and some disabled children. And she and Tom see more of each other.

Mary and Tom each have a best friend who also become involved in the story. But it doesn’t devolve into a light hearted romance. In fact, the descriptions of London during the Blitz and then Malta under siege are very bleak, but the view of love is almost as tough: “Tom understood why the good actors in the movies never said it with a smile. To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.” When Tom is despairing about being turned down by the Air Force and also that “it isn’t how it was” between him and Mary she says, “We must take turns, don’t you think? Every time one of us is buried like this, we shall dig the other one out.” I think that’s exactly what love in the midst of crisis is.

And Cleave shows the enormity of the crisis in London very very well. Mary has a keen sense of social justice and she notices all of the disparity that comes into greater focus during the Blitz. But also the despair that finally sets in. At one point when she has reached a personal low, she’s sitting outside and she hears women sweeping: “The hissing of the brooms carried a whisper: that life was cracked and gone. That any life left behind was not the good kind, which stubbornly built on rubble . . . . London was a stopped gramophone with no hand to wind it. It smelled of cracked sewers and escaping town gas and charred wood, wet from fire hoses.”

Tom’s friend Alistair has his own story; he’s a conservator at the Tate and once the art is secured, he volunteers. In the author’s note Cleave mentions that Alistair’s service on Malta is based on Tom’s grandfather’s service there. The horrors Alistair experiences, starting in training and right through to the end of the war, are also well told. They’re awful, but Cleave says he ‘hoped to highlight the insincerity of the wars we fight now — to which the commitment of most of us is impersonal, and which finish not with victory or defeat but with a calendar draw-down date and a presumption that we shall never be reconciled with the enemy. I wanted the reader to come away wondering whether forgiveness is possible at a national level or whether it is only achievable between courageous individuals.”

Just as hearing an author always give me a greater understanding of a book, reading this wonderful note at the end helped me like Everyone Brave is Forgiven even more.

 

 

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I was looking around for a classic to read for my book bingo card, which is filling up nicely. More than once in the past couple of months different people whose reading tastes I admire recommended Graham Greene, so when I saw The End of the Affair on a list (something like “classics you may never have gotten around to reading”) I checked it out. I’m embarrassed that this 40-something English major librarian had never read Greene.

It’s a lovely book, and an interesting read during Lent. It’s about Maurice Bendrix, an author living in London, and Sarah and Henry Miles who live across “the Common” from him in London. Maurice and Sarah have the affair in the title, and are happy, although Maurice is a jealous lover. One night towards the end of WWII, a V1 hits Maurice’s house and Sarah thinks he’s dead. Unbeknownst to him, she makes a deal with God: “I shut my eyes tight and I pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel nothing but the pain and I said, I will believe. Let him be alive and I will believe. . . . But that wasn’t enough, It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance . . . .”

As you can guess, Maurice wasn’t really dead. Most of the book is from his perspective, as he and Henry talk about Sarah, engage a private detective to see who else she’s been seeing, and learn why the affair actually ended. I don’t want to give away what she is up to or what happens to the three main characters, but I will say I didn’t want to put the book down.

But it’s so much more than a novel of manners. Sarah and Maurice in particular, and to some extent Henry, wrestle with God’s existence and whether — and what — to believe. It was this aspect of the book I found especially interesting, in particular the way Sarah’s doubt, which is steadfast before her moment of prayer in the bombed house, slowly evolves, even though she is angry with God. She is smart, and a person fully of her time, married to a government minister, perfectly satisfied with her secular London life. She even meets regularly with an atheist who preaches rationalism on the Common.

But God gets in. Not through her happiness, but through her pain. She write in her journal, “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too?  Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” I think that’s one of the most rawly human streams of thought I’ve ever seen expressed in fiction.

Maurice even shows signs of believing if not exactly in a favorable manner: “With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God. I hate You as though You existed.” Wow. That’s a seriously powerful line, especially as it comes towards the end of the book, and readers aren’t sure what will happen to Maurice. It’s also a perfect bookend to the first page of the novel, where Maurice tells the reader, “this is a record of hate far more than of love . . . .”

I didn’t want to put it down. Would any of them be happy? Did any of them actually love each other? What the heck IS love, actually? And hate? And how in the world do we deal with God, who is both real and “a vapour” as Sarah says? The End of the Affair is a beautifully written book, exquisitely structured, suffused with its London setting, which wrestles with some of the greatest questions people face. I loved it. Thanks, Juliana and J for the recommendations!

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Last May I wrote here about being pleasantly surprised by Me Before You  by Jojo Moyes. Last night I stayed up waaaayyyyy later than I should have reading the sequel, After You. Some people would probably derisively categorize this as “women’s fiction.” I don’t care — first of all I think labels are lame, and second of all, any book that keeps me awake because I can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen to these people is a good read.

When After You opens, Lousia Clark is reflecting on the eighteen months that has passed since the events at the end of Me Before You. She misses Will and doesn’t feel she’s doing what he asked — “Just live.” Louisa has moved to London but she’s stuck in a dead end job at an airport bar, the person she most frequently converses with runs the Mini Mart, and she’s drinking more than is healthy.

And then she has a freak accident. Her family, who had previously stopped speaking with her (because of the events at the end of Me Before You that I don’t want to give away), rush to her side. Louisa is happy to have her family back and the accident gives her some resolve. She’s going to turn things around, get a better job, start living. She joins a Moving On grief support group, mainly to appease her mother. And then Lily shows up.

Lily is sixteen, and she claims, to Louisa’s total shock, that she’s Will Traynor’s daughter. She has a terrible relationship with her mother, she’s been in trouble at school, she’s “a handful.” But Louisa can sense the hurt beneath the bravado, perhaps because she has her own private pain and public face. And getting to know Lily lets Louisa relish her memories of Will, as she tells the girl about her father.

In the midst of all this, Louisa gets reacquainted with Sam, the paramedic who took her to the hospital and with Will’s parents. As she worries about the people she cares about she tries to work out what “just living” will mean for her. There are a number of twists and turns and a lot of emotion, and I enjoy how Moyes gives her characters really interesting lives. Lily turns out to be a terrific gardener, for example, and Sam is building himself a house. Louisa’s mom takes a continuing education course in feminism and stops shaving her legs. All the little details make these people come alive.

At the end of After You Louisa has made a big decision and is about to embark on a new chapter in her life. I wondered whether Moyes has already decided there will be a third book? I’d certainly like to know how things turn out for Lily, Louisa, and the others. After You wasn’t quite as gripping as Me Before You — the drama builds more subtly, and the material is a little more familiar —  but it was still a lovely, entertaining read.

 

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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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There are a lot of new books that interest me but lately I’ve turned to the “to be read” shelves to try to chip away at the endless piles of books I have been meaning to get to. Part defense mechanism to keep the Computer Scientist from “tidying” the bookshelves? Maybe. Also, there is comfort in the familiar, and often books I buy are by favorite authors or on favorite topics.  Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s The Middle Ground.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Drabble. This was no exception, even though it was a little bit depressing. First of all it’s a novel set in the early 80’s and many of the socio-political issues Drabble mentions are still prevalent — wars, middle east conflicts, economic disparity, cultural misunderstanding, lack of equal opportunity for women, and so on. Also this is a novel about a circle of London friends in middle age, and they’re all a damn sight more successful than I am.

But they are people I’d want to know. Kate Armstrong is a writer specializing in women’s issues. She’s a single mother in London, living what seems to be a fairly charmed life. Except for the hate mail she gets, and the person she thinks it’s from. And several other stressful things. One of the biggest is the end of her long relationship with her best friend Evelyn’s husband, Ted. When Evelyn ends up in the hospital, caught in the midst of a domestic dispute in her job as a social worker, Kate sits with the children until Ted can get home. Then she sits with Ted, talking, and thinks, “They would gaze at one another forever, good friends perhaps, old allies, old enemies, across this impossible void, trying new voices, new gestures, making true efforts to hear, to listen, to understand.But hopelessly, hopelessly.”

She goes on a few sentences later, “Men and women can never be close. They can hardly speak to one another in the same language. But they are compelled, forever, to try, and therefore even in defeat there is no peace.” Drabble looks at that question, of whether men and women speak the same language, through Kate’s complicated web of family and friends, and through Hugo’s and Evelyn’s perspectives as well. The Middle Ground may be about middle age but it’s also about the space between people, even people who are very close.

Drabble makes this very complex thing crystalize in small moments. Her characters and their thoughts drive the novel; to me this is far more compelling than a page turner (although I sometimes crave those as well) even if it’s harder to read a book like this is tiny snippets before bed. I love immersing myself in imagined lives, messy and meaningful as my own is, entirely unrecognizable and simultaneously entirely recognizable. To paraphrase Paul Harding, Drabble’s work is true in a way I’ve always known to be true, but written in a way I’ve never read before.

When I read Drabble’s fiction I am left feeling a little better about the world and little bit expanded, in heart and mind. Which is why I read. Also on my to-be-read shelf, Drabble’s memoir, A Pattern in the Carpet, which was a birthday gift from a book-loving friend. I look forward to reading it soon.

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