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It’s hard to know how best to describe The Essex Serpent. Sarah Perry‘s writing reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson’s. This is a historical novel, set in the late 1800s. It’s also an examination of the nineteenth (and sadly, the 20th and 21st) century’s tension between faith and reason, religion and science. It’s a social commentary on the role of women in society, and on the responsibility of the wealthy and powerful to the poor, and on the way social welfare, such as housing programs, is often laced with paternalism and judgement. It’s about love in all its complexity and variety, especially as manifested in parenthood, friendship, romance, desire, and social conscience. It’s about fear, longing, joy, and despair. It’s about mythology and mob thinking. It’s about the beauty and also the strangeness of the natural world and our perception of it. It’s about illness and medicine, in particular nineteenth century surgery and the impact of tuberculosis on a patient’s mind. It’s about how a child likely on the autism spectrum would have been viewed in the nineteenth century (a bit eccentric and not prone to affection) It’s about the pros and cons of city and country life and what we need to make a life. It’s a book that hits on all the Big Ideas of being human without hammering the reader over the head with them.

Cora is a a smart, unconventional woman, a recent widow who is glad to be free of her cruel and abusive husband, and who would rather be tramping around in a man’s coat and boots looking for fossils but moves easily in a world of silk and diamonds and expensive treats from Harrod’s. She ends up in Essex with her companion, Martha, a socialist and fair housing advocate, and her son, Francis (the one who seems to me to be autistic). Their circle of friends includes the Reverend William Ransome, (who reminds me a bit of an older, more settled version of Sidney Chambers, nineteenth century style) and his wife Stella, who Cora and Martha meet through London friends, as well as the doctor, Luke, who attended Cora’s late husband and who makes history performing surgery on a stabbing victim’s heart, and Luke’s best friend George (mostly referred to by his last name, Spencer).

The way Perry intertwines her characters’ lives is brilliant. And the way she weaves through their lives the mystery of the Essex serpent is also well done; even those characters who aren’t directly interested in whether the beast exists are impacted by “the trouble” it causes. I loved that Perry’s inspiration was a real pamphlet (published in the 1600s and and reprinted in the 1800s as well as recently) alleging “Strange News Out of Essex.”  And I loved the language — here’s a passage that caught my eye (and ear) as I read it last night, as Martha is startled to see Francis in Stella’s lap: “What Martha later recalled most vividly of those last few fog-white days was this: William’s wife and Cora’s son, fit together like broken pieces soldered on the seam.” It’s not a straightforward narrative, as Perry sprinkles her text with the letters her characters write to each other. But it’s not a straight up epistolary novel either, as there are long passages without letters.

I loved it, and I loved how it ended — Cora has undergone change without being transformed beyond recognition, there’s no pat conclusion of the chaos she’s wrought or the pain she’s experienced, but there’s hope. A thoroughly entertaining and also thought provoking book — the kind of read that makes you long to talk it over with someone who’s read it too. And yes, it’s another of Simon’s recommendations from an episode (maybe several) of The Readers! Thanks, Simon.

 

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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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It’s been almost two weeks since my last post; I have two reviews due for Kirkus tomorrow and both books arrived late last week, so I’ve been busy with those. Before that I was busy with the book I’m going to tell you about today — Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose this book for my “published the year you were born” title for Book Bingo; that said, I believe this book was written the year I was born and published a year later. This book is both uplifting and deeply disturbing.

Disturbing because I didn’t realize how little I understood the time it was written and because it was a disturbing time. The nonviolence of the movement MLK had founded was called into question when justice did not appear to be coming after federal legislation. Victories won on the national level did not mean equality in many communities. And the Black Power movement was not only questioning nonviolence, they were countering it. MLK writes of being booed by young black people in Chicago. I had no idea.

Why did I have no idea? Probably because white people wrote my history textbooks — and honestly, we never made it through the Civil Rights era in high school history class anyway. I guess I grew up thinking the civil rights movement was a success and that was all I needed to know. Of course I’ve since realized that is a trite and incomplete view of things.

Where Do We Go From Here is a moving book, as MLK passionately defends nonviolence as a tactic and gives eloquent and clear voice to where America — black and white — should go, together. The wisdom packed into this volume is almost overwhelming. King writes that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” And then he lays out, point by depressing point, all the ways American society is not governed by this kind of power, nor ruled by this kind of justice. That racism is so deeply ingrained as to be invisible, often leaving white liberals unaware of their deep-seated prejudices. Look around and you’ll see why it’s depressing — the same could be said of American society today.

King also wrote that poverty and militarism must be vanquished for all people, black and white, to ever come together and make a better world. That we are all linked, black lives to white lives, American lives to foreign lives. That we have to take care of the other in order to preserve ourselves.

I admit, I could not finish this book. The horror of realizing that a leader who saw what needed to be done to complete the work he’d started, saw that without economic justice there would be no racial justice and no peace in the world, was permanently silenced by just that kind of injustice and violence was more than I could stomach in the present climate.

But I know this: the thing that keeps me going is the belief that love eventually prevails, in the face of everything that stands against it. King knew it and refused to give up. It has to happen, as he writes, “The ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact.” One person at a time, that’s what we’re here to do.

I’ve been struggling with coming to terms with a difficult person I have to interact with regularly. As an experiment in cultivating compassion, throughout Holy Week I prayed silently for that person by name and also prayed for understanding on my own part of his situation; what could cause this anger and bitterness and malice, and how could I respond? Could I turn my heart of stone (fear, resentment, anger, irritation, suspicion) into a heart of flesh? No matter what you think of prayer or God, know that this mindful, intentional shift in perspective worked. By the end of the week I was able to not grit my teeth when I faced him, to reflect with compassion on his misery rather than react resentfully.

That’s love correcting everything that stands against love. That’s justice. It’s not perfect. It’s not complete – it’s an action, correcting. It’s not done yet, and may not be in my lifetime. But things will get better, and if we look hard enough, and reflect carefully enough, they will have begun without us.

 

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I read this book on the recommendation of a friend and because it fulfilled the “book with a non-human character” square on my book bingo card. Here’s the review I wrote for the library:

Have you ever listened to squirrels chattering and felt it sounded almost like words? Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is pretty sure she understands them. Her fiancée, Paul Vreeland, wants to trap the squirrels in her attic. The Portable Veblen is the story of Paul and Veblen. He’s a doctor whose invention, the Pneumatic Skull Punch, could prevent the damage that occurs from swelling after a traumatic brain injury. He’s been courted by a mega-pharmaceutical company and is about to oversee a trial at a VA hospital. Veblen is a volunteer translator with the Norwegian Diaspora Project. She loves the work of the economist she’s named for (as you may know, he invented the phrase “conspicuous consumption”) and lives in a simple cottage that was so ramshackle it was uninhabitable when she found it. He wants a house and a boat.

They have in common dysfunctional childhoods – he’s the son of hippies whose guilt over their disabled older child prevented them from really being present for Paul, she’s the daughter of an institutionalized Vietnam vet and a severe hypochondriac. Growing up, he took solace in science, she in words: “When you entered the cavern of another language, you could leave certain people behind, for they had no interest in following you in.” Can Paul and Veblen survive their engagement? Will things implode when their families meet? What is the squirrel saying? A quirky love story, for fans of The Silver Linings Playbook. As a bonus, readers get a crash course in Thorstein Veblen.

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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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Katherine Pancol‘s book The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles was quite popular at my library when it came out; we actually needed a second copy to meet demand. For some reason I never took a close look at it at the time. But our adult & teen winter reading program is book bingo, and one of the squares is “a book with a color in the title,” so I thought of it again.

It was an entertaining read.  It’s the story of Josephine Cortes and her sister, Iris. Josephine takes care of her daughters and works part time on medieval research, and she’s never been able to get out from under the shadow of her beautiful, stylish, wealthy sister. When her out-of-work husband Antoine leaves her for his mistress and goes to Africa to tend crocodiles for a Chinese firm, she’s left to take care of everything on her own for the first time. The situation is made worse when he can’t send any support and even drags her into his debt.

Feeling frumpy and stressed, she muddles along, doing some translation work for her lawyer brother-in-law that he asks her not to mention to Iris, and trying to love her little girl Zoe and Zoe’s precociously flirtatious older sister Hortense. She is attracted to a fellow scholar she sees at the library but can’t bring herself to approach him. Josephine’s mother, Henriette,  quits speaking to her when they argue after Antoine leaves. When it’s all too much Josephine turns to her neighbor, Shirley, a single mom raising her son Gary completely alone.

But Iris comes to her with a proposition that appears perfect for getting Josephine back on her feet. Iris has flirted her way into a book deal, and she asks Josephine to write the novel she’s described to her publisher as a 12th century story, offering to give her all the proceeds if Iris can pretend to be the author. Josephine agrees, never guessing how how much she’ll enjoy writing it, how over-the-top her sister will become, how successful “her” book will be, and how hard it will be to keep the secret.

As it turns out, nearly everyone in the book has a secret. There’s an entire subplot about Marcel, Iris & Josephine’s stepfather, and his mistress Josiane. Shirley’s backstory is another source of intrigue. And Iris has a history of bending the truth. Josephine is a good person, but she is so easily manipulated at first that it’s hard to get involved in her story. To Pancol’s credit, her character does grow, and throughout the novel, being a jerk costs people and being decent pays off. I won’t spoil it by telling you specifically what happens, but I will say some of the characters seemed meaner than was strictly realistic (maybe I’m just lucky not to know anyone like that), and a few celebrities appear just off-stage, which felt a little forced to me.

If it sounds relatively light, it is (although there’s some amount of musing on what it takes to be happy, and what success really is) but that’s ok. After something as intense as Station Eleven I was ready for a change of pace. I enjoyed The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles. But what is it with Princess Diana showing up in French novels? This is the second one I’ve read. Granted the other, An Accident in August, features her death fairly prominently, while she plays a much smaller part in this one. Anyway, if you’re looking for a fun read, and have some tolerance for annoyingly narcissistic and selfish characters, or characters who take a little time to stand up for themselves, or random insertions of celebrities into the plot, this is a decent book to spend a few evenings with.

 

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