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Posts Tagged ‘motherhood’

Last Friday I checked out a book for the weekend: American Spythe debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s cerebral in the same way that John le Carré‘s novels are — very much informed by the psychology and strategy of spy-craft and what makes spies tick. It introduced me to a part of Cold War history overlooked by history books that focus predominantly on white males (the kind of textbooks which dominate the American education system, or did when I was growing up). And it’s a page turner.

The spy of the title is a a black woman named Marie Mitchell, raised by New Yorkers of Caribbean descent. In the book’s opening pages she engages in a fight to the death with an intruder at her home in Connecticut. The rest of the book takes place in Martinique, where Marie’s mother lives, and where she flees with her twin sons with the help of a family friend. Once there, Marie begins a series of journals meant to tell the boys her story — their stories, too — in case she doesn’t return from trying to put an end to the threat that stalks her. We learn that she worked for the FBI, doing well until she ended up back in New York where her boss held her back with menial work. She was recruited by the CIA to get close to Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, and that story is what led to the attack on her life.

It’s both the terrific heroine — the merit of any good spy story is in its lead spy — and the incorporation of real events and people that I found compelling. It’s also a book which my grandmother would have loved. She introduced me to le Carré, and she loved books that had, as she put it “not one extra word,” by which she meant writing that was not only excellent, but contained no superfluous flourishes, spare storylines, or other distractions from good storytelling.

My grandmother was also a feminist and this book is full of wise observations about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood. Marie writes to her boys about a conversation she has with her oldest friend, a man she loves but is not in a relationship with: “He exhaled slowly, clearly frustrated with me. I didn’t care. There have been a lot of men in this world who have tried to shape it by getting it to conform to their own ideology . . . . I want something else. I want to form you into agents of change — that’s the way I want to fight.” A few paragraphs later she calls mothering, helping her sons become good people who can make a difference, “the most revolutionary work I could do.” My grandmother often told me almost exactly that when I was young parent, that the work I was doing raising my kids would make more impact than anything else, and I shouldn’t forget that.

American Spy is a terrific read! I didn’t love the ending, which felt abrupt — I don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but I also don’t like being left hanging. But I’m hoping it indicates that Wilkinson plans a sequel.

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I read an article stating that The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt is the best novel of the 21st century so far, and the stories (both the novel’s and the author’s, who seems to live an interesting life) seemed intriguing, even if I am no fan of declarations like that. So I ordered it on interlibrary loan. I read it this weekend, and I do think it’s original, even though it is the classic story of a young man on a quest. Ludo, the young man in The Last Samurai, is younger than many questers — only 11 — and is looking for his father. Sibylla, his unmarried mother, won’t tell him his father’s identity because the man is a writer who reminds her of Liberace, because like him, the man is prone to “slick buttery arpeggios . . . self-regarding virtuosity . . . And yet he was not really exactly like the pianist, because though he did genuinely have the emotional facility of the musician, he had only the air of technical facility . . . .”

The book takes place in London, where Sibylla has gone after deciding that Oxford, where she had a scholarship, is not for her, not because she can’t do the work expected of her, but because that work seems pointless. She meets a woman who can get her a work permit and a secretarial job in a publishing company, and that’s how she meets Ludo’s father. Around the same time an American company buys the publisher and, realizing her job will go away, she accepts a job typing back issues of obscure journals into a computer, which she can do at home while raising her child.

She answers all the questions Ludo asks and teaches him whatever he wants to know, and by the time he is 6 he knows Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic and is learning Japanese. By age 11 he knows about twenty languages along with a great deal of math and science and he’s read widely, including all the travel writing he can find, since that is one clue he has — his father is a travel writer. He and his mother watch Seven Samurai repeatedly, some would say obsessively. He gets the idea that he can seek and challenge seven men in his quest for a father. These men are well known — writers, an artist, a musician, a diplomat, a scientist. His exchanges with his mother and these men are the bulk of the book.

DeWitt says a lot about life, art, family, love, education (I really loved her send-ups of school), and the irrationality of modern life. It’s a book that refers to art and music and languages and cultures and mathematical principals and philosophical ideals you may not know (I didn’t know them all) but unlike some books that reference other works, The Last Samurai doesn’t condescend. It seems natural that the strange and brilliant Sibylla and Ludo are immersed in this kind of knowledge, and fitting that in London they can be immersed. Despite Ludo’s strange upbringing and Sibylla’s isolation, it’s not an unhopeful book. It’s an unusual story, interrupted by chunks of movie subtitles, passages in one of the many languages Ludo or Sibylla is learning or studying, or books he is reading. I’m glad I read it. I’m not making any declarations, however.

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A brief and amusing backstory to this book: I bought The Accidental Pilgrim by Maggi Dawn along with an embarrassingly tall stack of other really intriguing books at the Yale Divinity School Student Book Supply, which is a terrific independent bookstore at YDS, last February when we were visiting the former Teen the Elder. He was in class, and joined us for the completion of the purchase since he’s a member. We then proceeded to the Marquand chapel for worship, which that day was a baptist service with very beautiful music and a wonderful sermon. I was into it, I admit, and sang along where I could and moved with the music and clapped — especially to a South African song I’ve sung with Songweavers & Songhealers (Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God). A woman who seemed roughly of my generation was seated next to me and we exchanged smiles. She also seemed moved by the service and the music.

Afterwards we had lunch, and I was showing our son the books I bought. Two were by Maggi Dawn, and he remarked casually, “Oh that’s who you sat next to in chapel.” Oh. Gosh. And swayed and clapped like a  slightly awkward privileged white middle class woman (which I am). Ahem.

Anyway, The Accidental Pilgrim is one of those books. I read it over the past couple of days at a time when I’m feeling a little at loose ends. My family is on a journey not of our own choosing right now, and the summer has been very wrapped up in it. In the end it will have changed our lives (hopefully for the better) and strengthened us individually and collectively, will have changed the way we see the world and our place(s) in it, and will have helped us see who we are and how we want to live. I hadn’t thought of it as a pilgrimage, and I hadn’t thought I needed to read about pilgrims. When I picked this up, I was here in the house alone (the Computer Scientist was away at a conference) and I made myself a comfort food dinner (poached eggs and beet greens on toast) and browsed my bookshelves. One book after the next seemed not quite right until I landed on this one.

Dawn organizes The Accidental Pilgrim around three times in her life when she was a pilgrim of sorts: in graduate school at Cambridge when she went to the Holy Land on a summer study trip, when her young son was still in a pushchair (stroller to we Americans) and she was facing doubts about what she could and couldn’t do as a woman priest and a new mother, and when she was laid up by an illness just as she and her son were going to embark on a weeklong walk on the Camino. In none of these instances did she embark on what she consciously thought of as a pilgrimage, and in each that is what she came to see herself doing.

I loved this book, and it was, like the sermon I heard that day in Marquand chapel, just what I needed. Some passages resonated with me; others spoke to me like the sort of straight talking friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth when you’re resisting the inevitable. For example: “. . . such a journey not only removes you from home comforts, but also forces you into the constant company of others. . . . sometimes uncomfortably so, for some dither about while others stride ahead like sergeant-majors, barking instructions to others to keep up. . . . And of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that you yourself are being seen close up by others. Any false impressions of noblesse or spiritual maturity is soon whittled away until the true picture becomes visible, but more often than not, in the midst of this dose of human reality there emerges a deepening sense of affection for, and dependence upon, others.”

I’m partway through an experience like that, at the painful realization of being seen close up by others part. Anyone who has done something challenging (intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, any which way) in community will recognize the truth in Dawn’s assessment. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully on the desert fathers, famous pilgrims and pilgrimages, “‘thin places’ where earth seems to touch heaven,” poetry, theology, travel, motherhood — all in a book that’s only 151 pages including notes. A smart book, a good read, and one that has given me plenty to think about.

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Much of my reading lately has been about strong women; Night Waking is a novel about Anna Bennett, Dr. Bennett as she introduces herself to the police officer who insists on calling her Mrs. Cassingham (her husband Giles’ surname) when they interview her about the infant skeleton she and her son Raphael accidentally dug up as they planted an apple tree. Anna is an Oxford Fellow, working on a history of childhood in the 18th century. She’s with her family, Giles and Raphael and Timothy, who is still a toddler (the boys go by Raph and Moth, so hereafter I’ll call them that), on an island off the coast of Scotland, where Giles’ family has had a home for generations. Giles studies puffins, and to augment their academic earnings, they’ve made a vacation cottage out of an old building on the island and are about to host the first guests.

I first read Sarah Moss last winter when I chose Names for the Sea for one of my book bingo squares (a book set in a place I’d like to visit – although after I read Moss’s memoir of a year in Iceland, I wasn’t so sure). Her nonfiction writing is witty and smart, and so is Night Waking. Anna is fed up with caring for small children and managing the house (or not really, as she is frequently out of kitchen essentials, inconvenient when you live on an island with no shops) and mourning the loss of her intellectual life. This passage sums it up: “When we got to the beach, after passing half the morning in negotiation about putting on shoes, Moth walked into the sea and then had a tantrum because it was wet, and Raph stood with his back to the waves talking about potential uses of hydroelectricity on oil rigs. I sat on a rough rock, my arms wrapped around Moth as he drummed his heels on my shins and tried to bite my arms, and remembered the staircase in the Bodleian Library . . . . I decided that if I made Moth walk the whole five hundred metres back to the house he might take less than forty-five minutes to go to sleep after lunch and, if I didn’t rush him at all, stopped to inspect every pebble and touch each flowering grass, it might almost be time to start putting together an early lunch when we arrived.” Sound familiar, mothers of young moms out there?

Anna and Giles quarrel a bit, in a half hearted way, over the children and the work to be done and the work they’re not getting done, and Anna looks into the history of the island to try to determine why an infant might be buried there. There’s a side story about the family who come to stay — Zoe, an anorexic teen, her cardiologist workaholic father and housewife mother whose controlling attitude has driven her daughter to illness and despair. I didn’t like that storyline (I’m tired of the old trope of the mother causing anorexia), but it did move some of the story about Anna and Giles along. And Moss humanizes the harping mother, just a bit.

What I loved about the story is the way Moss wove Anna’s historical research into childhood and parenting and the lives of women and children on the island into the novel. The mystery of the infant skeleton is interesting, too. Of course I also appreciated the honest look at parenting — Anna is a bit extreme, but most parents of small children go through her familiar swings from boredom and exhaustion to almost overwhelming love and tenderness for their offspring. All in all it was a good read, one that made me chuckle at times, and that transported me to a faraway place and other people’s lives while also recognizing bits of my own, which is always enjoyable.

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