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Honestly I picked up The Great Believers because in the same week, a friend from college posted about what an amazing book it is and Rebecca Makkai was bullied and threatened over a tweet. These quite disparate bits of information made their way to me via social media and both reminded me that I’d been meaning to read Makkai’s third novel. Trolls are going to troll, but I could read this book as a tiny act of solidarity with its author.

My friend is right. This is a beautiful book. I’d avoided reading it when it first came out because I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to read about young people dying. But it turns out, that while that is a central piece of the story, I needn’t have feared. The Great Believers is not really about dying, but rather about how we live when the world falls apart.

The story follows Yale, a young man living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, and Fiona, the younger sister of one of Yale’s good friends, Nico. Nico is among the first of Yale’s immediate circle of friends to die of AIDS. The Great Believers alternates between the 1980s and early 90s, when Fiona cared for a series of Nico’s friends as they became infected and died, and 2015, when she travels to Paris to find her daughter Claire, who has been out of touch for a few years and is now a mother herself.

Two threads tie the main characters’ stories together — how we live in a time of catastrophe and what those who live must contend with afterwards, and how art both tells the story of the people it portrays and protects their secrets. It’s also the story of the shame and fear that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s as people got AIDS, and the judgement and bigotry society perpetrated on them. I remember the irrational fears about AIDS, and the open homophobia. Makkai writes about these things as an organic part of her characters’ lives, never over or under dramatizing.

That’s one of the remarkable things about this book. Even though she’s writing about life and death, about tremendously painful things — even plumbing what one character calls “the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love” — every word fits. Makkai does not include a single scene, a single character, a single thought, that doesn’t need to be in this novel. She evokes places, times, feelings, without any fanfare and without drawing attention away from the story. I recently read a book I strongly disliked because it felt like the author’s every move was visible and that the book was a series of artistic stunts meant to display her prowess.

Makkai, by contrast, just tells a damn good story, very well. In a way that makes you want to stay home from work, turn off your phone, and keep reading (didn’t, but I sat at my desk wishing I’d done so). I was thoroughly invested in what was happening and even when it was clear what might happen next, the story flowed so seamlessly and the characters gave me so much to think about that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not going to try to describe the story — it’s complicated and you should just read it.

I’m honestly a little wary of books that win a bunch of awards or show up on “best books” lists, but this one is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. The Great Believers is a very good read, one that tells hard truths and exposes serious flaws in the world while also reminding readers of the best aspects of humanity, and the “miracle” of being alive with the people we love. If you’re looking for a good read, something to get lost in and talk about, something that you’ll be glad to have humming along in your heart after you put it down, read this book.

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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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This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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I read Ali Smith’s first  book in her planned “season” quartet, Autumn, last December, and loved it. Like that novel, Winter is set soon after the Brexit vote and is the story of two generations — one struggling with the implications of adulthood in the Brexit/Trump presidency world, and one that came before. Smith has plenty to critique about now, but doesn’t idealize the past, either. And as in Autumn, the world we live in plays a huge role, with art and nature both serving to bring people together and feed our souls, and sociopolitical issues hanging over the characters’ heads — in Winter, sometimes literally in the artistic hallucinations two of the characters experience.

Winter’s protagonists are mostly difficult folks; Art, whose life and work is steeped in the alternate reality of the Internet; his aging mother, Sophia, who lives in a house she owns in part out of spite, and that she’s letting go; Iris, Sophia’s elder sister who in Sophia’s eyes has always selfishly, foolishly, follower her ideals, ignoring her family in the process; and Lux, a student from Croatia whose funds have run out, who Art hires to pretend to be his girlfriend Charlotte because Charlotte has left him just before Christmas. Lux is the most likable, not only because her fate is at the mercy of populist nationalism and contemporary capitalism, both greedy “I’ve got mine” movements, but also because she manages to get Sophia and Iris to really talk with each other, she gets Sophia to eat, and she helps Art see the actual world he’s been oblivious to (or hiding from?) with his online work.

As in Autumn, Smith manages to shine a light on much of what is absurd about contemporary society: Art works for a bot, and writes a blog called “Art in Nature” that is mostly made up; the library is now “The Ideas Store” and is mainly a small public space (in an otherwise privatized building of luxury flats) where people wait to use computers; when Art’s awareness is awakened he is horrified to hear about people paying to fund boats that stop other boats from rescuing refugees at sea; the Grenfell Tower disaster happening in one of the wealthiest cities in the world; Trump’s actual speech to the Boyscouts in summer 2017. But she also allows for past absurdities that were different because they were less selfish — like women who chained themselves to a missile site in Britain, art that playfully exposes human foibles, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Barbara Hepworth.

In other words, this is a very political book but it is still fun, and somehow Smith doesn’t even leave readers feeling too pessimistic. Even as Smith draws attention to history’s ill effects (She alludes to the long lasting impacts of WWI & WWII on the British psyche, as well as the Cold War), she shows people surviving, adapting. If self-absorbed Art and his dysfunctional mother and sister can get along, so can we. If people like Lux still believe in the benefits of beauty when so much is taken from them, well, shouldn’t we?

Art, looking for Lux ,when he can’t find her actual person, in the things they learned about each other by spending Christmas at his mother’s, visits the British Library asking about a Shakespearean manuscript with the residue of a flower pressed in it. He tells the librarian that Cymbeline is “about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” Winter too seems to be about those very things.

There is so much more to enjoy, including the love story that resulted in Art, and the writing style — similar to Autumn, but not exactly the same– that infuses the book with a dreamy quality, and also a sort of art film sense of scenes more thematically than narratively linked. Despite the unconventional narrative and chronology, I was never lost.  I find myself wanting to discuss this book with someone, so if you’re in a book club, this may be a good choice for you.

Summer may be approaching, but trust me, you should treat yourself to Winter. My only regret is that I didn’t get to read it in one go like I did Autumn. 

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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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