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Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

At a glance, the two novels I read in the last several days couldn’t be more different. One is a classic, the other a contemporary debut that could possibly be classified as a”geek mystery.” They both fit on my book bingo card.

Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner is on the Guardian‘s list of the “100 Best Novels.” The book is set in England between WWI and WWII, and features a “maiden aunt.” Laura, known as Lolly, doesn’t leave her childhood home until her father dies when she is in her twenties, past marriageable age, and then she moves to her elder brother’s home in London.

Stifled by her limited, proper existence she one day buys a map and a guidebook and is taken with a village called Great Mop, inconveniently located according to her sister-in-law, in the Chilterns. Free, finally, she begins to notice odd things about the village, including a kitten she sees as her familiar, and is eventually invited to a Witches’ Sabbath. She doesn’t really enjoy it but does enjoy the sense of coming into her own — when she was younger she had brewed herbal concoctions and she sees now that she is a witch, in league with the devil.

It doesn’t come as serenely as all that. There’s a threat to her independence when her nephew Titus comes to Great Mop, and Laura, in a state of great agitation goes out walking and finds herself in a field, surrounded by woods, just as boxed in as her family has always made her feel. She cries out, and ” . . . the silence that followed it had been so intent, so deliberate, that it was like a pledge . . . if any grimly favorable power had had been evoked by her cry, then surely a compact had been made. . . .” Shortly after, her nephew gets engaged and heads off to London with his fiancee.

Lolly is comfortable with the devil, who appears as a gardener and a hunter (the subtitle of the book is The Loving Huntsman), a man she can sit beside and talk philosophically with, and who offers her salvation from family ties that bound her to a life she did not choose. It’s an interesting novel, which I’d never heard of until I read Helen Macdonald’s “By the Book” in the New York Times. It would be a good book club selection, and deserves to be more widely read.

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore caught my eye because of the cover (yes, I sometimes choose wine by the label) and because of early reviews comparing it to Nick Hornby’s work. I didn’t find it as thoughtful, but it was entertaining. It’s a mystery set in Brooklyn, with characters like Jett (the heroine) and KitKat (the murdered woman) whose “boyfriend” is really gay (and black, so he feels he’s more easily accused of the murder) and Jett’s G.B.F. (guy best friend), Sid, who thinks he’s fallen for a stripper named Cinderella who turns out to have paid for her breast implants with a grad school research grant. A little much? Kind of, but not in an off-putting way. The thread that links Jett, her friends, and even the suspects is music.

Jett discovers the body when she lets herself into KitKat’s apartment to leave her mail, a mix tape that was inadvertently delivered to Jett. The tape evokes the rewind of the title as Jett unravels the clues in the mix so she can find the real murderer — she never buys the notion that the “boyfriend” did it —  and works her way through her own love life’s musical history, even re-entangling herself with a couple of exes along the way. The book is part romance, part coming-of-age (yes, Jett is older than most coming of are heroines but coming-of-age happens later these days), part geek noir, part playful send up of hipster Brooklyn where a vegan brunch hotspot and retro clubs are as important as Bath’s assembly rooms were in Jane Austen.

The result is pleasant enough, but I don’t know if I’m the target audience. I found the and mean militant feminist stripper depressing, and the social scene alarming (most of Jett’s acquaintances don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves, and the author’s take on marriage is not pretty), but Jett herself is endearing. She takes in her dead friend’s cat, is a kind soul, keeps her word, and wants to be like her grandma, who is, I grant, hipper than most grannies, but I liked that clue to Jett’s character. Mostly I found the nonstop stream of cultural references tiresome; even though I recognized most, it was distracting to place all of them all and stay with the story at the same time. I suspect that my kids’ generation, who are used to distraction in a way I’m not, will love this book.

So, looking at them again, do these novels have anything in common? Single women trying to live their lives the way they want to. Lolly has to make a pact with the devil to become truly herself — a witch — and be free of family ties. Jett gets her man (I won’t reveal which one) and solves a mystery. But Lolly feels serene and pleased about her future despite her deal, while Jett doesn’t make any progress in determining her life’s direction. That’s probably emblematic of our age — few people in their twenties or thirties today know what’s ahead. But like Lolly, Jett’s content. And in today’s multi-book deal world, I suspect we haven’t seen the end of her.

 

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Yesterday afternoon I was running errands with Teen the Younger. She had earbuds in so I switched off the car radio in order to think. I was considering an audio essay I’d listened to earlier, a “This I Believe” piece by Holocaust survivor Jay Frankston, who believes that if more people — especially those with influence, like the Pope — had reacted to the Holocaust the way the Danes did (a national act of collective resistance, something my children & I learned of when we read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars together) millions of lives might have been saved, and Hitler’s policies would have failed. He said that when he speaks in schools, he reminds children they “must speak up against wrongs, however small.”

I had recently had a conversation with the Computer Scientist about a workplace incident  in which someone was rude without recognizing it — the person was focused on getting the answer she wanted to complete something the way she preferred and not on consensus or consideration. I suggested that schools and workplaces would benefit from conflict resolution training, maybe also mindfulness training so people learn not to react immediately to the triggers that tend to set us all off. It seems we need remedial training to be in community with each other. We decided it was impossible to know what would solve the epidemic of self-absorption in contemporary culture.  As my grandmother used to say, you can only do your best yourself and hope others do too. (An update: today the Computer Scientist sent me a quote he finds helpful, if challenging:  “Life becomes easier if you learn to accept an apology you never get.”)

As I thought about these things in the car, I imagined a post in which I’d discuss an Op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times which made me feel sick and heartbroken and outraged. It was written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, one of the estimated 40 (40!) people currently on hunger strike in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a man who contends he has never done what he was suspected of (but has never been formally charged with) when he was captured and brought to the prison camp* 11 years ago. I was thinking that despite Guantanamo being a divisive and unpopular topic, by Jay Frankston’s humane standard, I must speak up. And that by doing so I’d  be encouraging the awareness of others that is so often lacking.

Then my phone rang as I stood in line at the local Goodwill store. It was my mother, calling as she often does when tragic events happen, to ask if I’d heard about Boston. Before we hung up she said, “Give everyone a hug. I’m glad you’re safe.” This wasn’t a reference to any of my family being at the scene — none of us had plans to attend the Boston Marathon yesterday. She was just stating a common response to senseless violence, relief that our loved ones are safe.

In the evening, I checked our local Patch.com site for news of local runners. I was disgusted to see in the comments section of the story another kind of response, vitriolic posts about gun control, President Obama, etc. I vented on Facebook that surely human history shows hate isn’t a good response to conflict. Two people who were among my closest college friends replied almost immediately that while that may be, hate and anger are easier responses to make and also the default for adults in our culture.

While I agree they’ve become the default, I don’t believe anger is easier than empathy. Loving kindness and empathy come easily to children. Anger grows as a habitual response to the unending stream of negative stimuli we are bombarded with. Like the woman who was blind to rudeness because of her own insecurities in the workplace, the Patch commenters didn’t think about the hurtfulness of their response. If you asked them why they felt it was right to focus on their own opinions at a time when severely injured people lay in hospital beds fighting for their lives, they would probably be shocked and argue they weren’t doing so.

This morning another Op-ed in the New York Times, this one by Jonathan Rieder about Martin Luther King Jr.’s righteous anger, caught my eye and led me to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I’d only read excerpts before and I’d never considered the letter in the way Rieder did. In line with the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading, it turns out that just before I finally turned off the radio and went to bed last night, heartsick as all of us are over the bombings, I’d texted with Teen the Elder at college about his own response to the day: anger.

At first I counseled against anger. But when he replied that this kind of news makes him want to be out of college and working in some way to make the world better, I realized, and told him, that righteous anger is an appropriate response to injustice as long as we avoid becoming bitter or hateful and channel it into right action. And when I read Jonathan Rieder’s piece and King’s words this morning I realized this is just what my son was feeling, and just what the world needs, along with people who are unafraid to speak up.

If you’ve never read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” do. It’s a response to eight white clergy who had issued a statement condemning the Birmingham demonstrations as “untimely.” It’s a remarkable piece, a reminder of the King’s gifts not only as a leader but as a thinker and writer.

Consider his words carefully and it will be hard to read the news: that gays should “wait” for marriage equality, prisoners should “wait” for justice, bullied children should “wait” for life to get better, ” the homeless should “wait” for year round shelters, college students should “wait” for a time when debt doesn’t shackle them for a lifetime, the uninsured should “wait” to not be bankrupted by medical bills, the elderly should wait for care that doesn’t require giving up a lifetime’s assets. U.S. citizens should “wait” for campaigns and voting to be fair and for politicians to engage in thoughtful work for the common good instead of partisan bickering, kids should “wait” while adults ban dodgeball and books in schools but allow assault weapons and high capacity magazines that make school shootings easier, low wage workers  should”wait” for a decent living, women should “wait” for equal pay, the mentally ill should “wait” for access to treatment, innocents caught in drone attacks should “wait” for the war on terror to end . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.

But King’s letter will also give you hope that Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, Jay Frankston, and countless others —  people just like those who ran towards the scene of the explosions yesterday to help the wounded, and just like those who opened their homes to stranded runners and their families in Boston, and just like all the people who take time every day to advocate for the voiceless and powerless, and just like Teen the Elder who feels fired up to join the ongoing march of humanity towards a just and peaceful world — are ready to lift hands and hearts and voices to that work.

*Also worth a read, a piece on the results of a nonpartisan report that without any access to classified materials concludes the U.S. engaged in torture after 9-11 and criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the lawyers and doctors who abandoned the core principles of their professions — upholding justice and not doing harm — to justify torture.

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