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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

It’s been some time since I read a Europa Edition novel, but if you go back through the years of posts here on bookconscious you’ll find that I have read many titles from this wonderful publisher. Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin, translated by Hildegarde Serle, reminded me why. Europa consistently brings interesting voices to print, and good reads.

Fresh Water for Flowers is the story of Violette, a woman who grew up in foster homes and marries at 18, has a daughter, and soon realizes that she is going to have to support her family while her husband chases other women. They work (well, she works, Phillipe fools around) at a “level crossing” — she goes out multiple times, day and night, to lower the barrier so cars won’t cross train tracks when the train goes by. Her little daughter waves to all the people on the trains.

A series of events leads Violette to move with Phillipe to another part of France, to become cemetery caretakers. Again, Violette does all the work. She takes the job after the previous caretaker, Sasha, has taught her everything he knows about gardening, and entrusts her with tending his extensive garden and caring for the people who work in and visit the cemetery. One day, a detective named Julien comes and tells her he needs to know about a man buried in the cemetery, a prominent lawyer named Gabriel, because Julien’s mother Irène has left instructions that her ashes are to be interred with Gabriel’s.

Julien reads about the man’s funeral in Violette’s records, and later returns with Irène’s journal. It becomes clear that Julien not only wants to lay his mother to rest, but also to help Violette solve some mysteries that can help her move on in life — with him. I’m trying not to give away any of the intriguing plot. It’s a lovely book, full of sensual details like the kinds of scent and clothing the different characters wear, the types of flowers, vegetables and herbs Violette grows, wonderful descriptions of food, and many musical references. There are also many details about the places the characters inhabit. It’s vivid and evocative.

It’s also very emotional — there are some relationships that are sad and harsh and hurtful, and there are beautiful friendships and deep kindnesses. At the cemetery, Violette’s circle of coworkers become a family of sorts for her. I loved the descriptions of meals in her kitchen or garden, conversation flowing, and the many cats and a dog the gravediggers and Violette have taken in swishing around the humans. I could see many scenes in my mind and read somewhere that there is already a deal in the works to adapt the book to television.

One of the intriguing things about Fresh Water for Flowers are the chapter epigraphs — every one a little poem of sorts, like this one: “November is eternal, life is almost beautiful, memories are dead ends that we just keep turning over.” Perrin uses a mixture of dialogue, narrative, and journal entries to unspool her story. In the end, I felt I didn’t want the book to end, as Violette says: “I close Irène’s journal with a heavy heart. The way one closes a novel one has fallen in love with. A novel that’s a friend from whom it’s hard to part, because one wants it close by, in arm’s reach.”

A terrific escape.

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After reading Conditional Citizens and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami, I checked out her most recent novel, The Other Americans. It opens with a tragic event in the lives of the the Guerraoui family, longtime residents of a small desert town in California near Joshua Tree National Park, originally from Morocco. Through different characters’ perspectives, a technique she also used in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami introduces the family, especially the younger daughter, Nora, who comes home from the Bay area where she is a classical and jazz composer. A few days after she arrives, she encounters Jeremy, a former high school classmate who served in the Marine Corps and is back in town working as a police officer and trying to help an angry fellow Iraq war veteran. Jeremy, we quickly learn, had a lonely childhood and found solace in Nora’s friendship when they were kids.

Nora struggles with not being the model daughter — her older sister both became and married a dentist — and with understanding her parents’ marriage, her mother’s constant critiques, and the expectations placed on her. She’s also dealing with anger and grief, and feels driven to help the police get the bottom of what has happened to her family. She tries to understand whether her growing feelings for Jeremy are a reaction to the pain they both feel or something more. And to understand not only her difficult family dynamics, but also her own sense of self.

As the story unfolds we also meet Coleman, a detective working on the Guerraoui case and trying to understand what is going on with her teenaged son who is also an outsider in the small desert town, Jeremy’s angry friend, Nora’s family members, Anderson, another classmate of Nora’s and Jeremy’s, and Efrain, an undocumented immigrant who struggles with whether to go to the police with his account of what happened the night of the tragedy. From all of these stories weaving in and out of Nora and Jeremy’s story we get a sense of what it was like to grow up in this small town, what it’s like to be an immigrant – legal or not — in a country where people whose heritage is non-white are othered, no matter who they are and what they do.

There is no thriller-level tension; rather than any dramatic twists and turns, the investigation is marked by plodding progress and a little luck. The family dramas happen in bursts followed by lulls. Same with the conflicts between friends. The pace seems very realistic, as each character mostly lives with whatever is bothering them held just under the surface as they move through the ordinary activities of life, just trying to do their best.

But even with the tragedy and the social undercurrents — and there are so many in this book as Lalami touches on displacement, war, PTSD, alcoholism, homophobia, xenophobia, racism — Lalami also spins a love story. Not only between Jeremy and Nora, but between parents and their children, and for places that hold painful memories but continue to draw people home. In fact the meaning of home, the sense of home, permeates the story and the characters’ lives as they leave, return, or long for home.

Late in the book, Nora’s mother is in the place where Nora has been staying: “As I cleared out the rest of her things from the cabin, I murmured a prayer for her, as I had so many times in the past, only this time I prayed for more than her health, more than her safety, more than her happiness. I prayed for her greedily, for the thing I had given up years ago and never found again. Home.”

Ultimately, The Other Americans is about people trying to be at home somewhere they don’t expect to be, don’t want to be, or can’t be. Although that sounds sad, some of them manage, and there’s the hope. A lovely read.

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After reading Laila Lalami‘s recent nonfiction book, Conditional Citizens, I wanted to read more of her writing, so I downloaded her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits from my public library. Lalami tells the story we see in the news as “illegal immigration” from the point of view of four very different people, Moroccans who try to reach Europe from Tangiers by paying a smuggler to take them in a small boat at night. The novel opens with the crossing — which ends badly. Then Lalami shifts the perspective back and forth. In part one of the novel, “Before,” she introduces us to Murad, who is unemployed and feels disrespected in his family; Faten, a young woman radicalized in her faith whose comments about the king put her in danger; Aziz, who wants the opportunities available in Spain so badly that he leaves his wife and mother behind, waiting for his return; and Halima, mother of three young children trying to escape her abusive ex-husband who risks everything so she and her kids can have a better life. In part two, “After” we find out what happens after the botched crossing, and learn more about the lives of Murad, Faten, Aziz, and Halima and their families and friends.

Each of them balances their hopes with the reality of having to live, to put food on the table, to navigate the challenges of their circumstances and find joy where they can. Lalami captures the tensions of relationships between spouses, grown children and their parents, and friends. Her characters are whole people, prone to the same kinds of small missteps and small right actions, small meanness and small kindness that all people make. It’s this ordinariness that gives their lives fullness and dignity. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is a book about the way all the moments of our lives make up the bigger themes of our stories, and how those themes are common to people whose lives on the surface seem very different. Men and women, educated or not, working or not, religious or not, these characters all hope for a life that will be free of oppression and want, for themselves and their families, and in each case, they give something up in pursuit of that hope. And when their hopes come to fruition, in each case it’s not what they thought it would be like. But they each feel a kind of gratitude for the imperfect flowering of their hope.

For example, Faten, the formerly ultra-religious teen whose new life is predicated on lying all the time (including to herself), decides to make a meal for Eid for her roommate, Betoul, a rather judgemental woman who doesn’t really approve of Faten. Lalami writes:

“Betoul looked as though she wanted to sleep rather than eat, but she said thanks, went to wash up, then sat at the table. Faten served her a generous portion of the lamb. Betoul had a taste. ‘A bit salty, dear,’ she said.

Faten smiled, grateful for the truth.”

It’s this kind of moment, this sanctifying of the ordinary, that makes Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits a book that is not only a good story, but a penetrating one. These characters will stay with me, icons of the millions of people who are trying to live freely in this world.

This would be a good choice for book clubs, and I enjoyed it so much I am now reading her most recent novel, The Other Americans.

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I downloaded The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald, when I went on an unexpected trip recently. I didn’t read it on the trip, but I enjoyed it this week. A short novel, set in 1912, it takes place over a brief time in the lives of Fred Fairly, a fellow of the fictional St. Angelicus College at Cambridge who studies physics, and Daisy Saunders, a young woman whose parents have died who has recently been forced out of nurse training when she tried to help a patient in a way that violated the hospital’s rules. Daisy, trying to make her way to a private mental hospital in Cambridge run by a doctor she knows in hopes he’ll hire her, and Fred are both hit by a farm cart while bicycling, along with another bicyclist who disappears after the accident.

When they each wake from the accident they are in a bed together; the well meaning lady whose house they are in thought they were married. Fred is entranced and sets out to convince Daisy they should be. Fitzgerald tells us a little about each of them, how they grew up, what their families are like, how they’ve tried to make their ways in the world. Daisy’s story illustrates how difficult it was to be a woman in the early 20th century, particularly a woman who is alone. She navigates a dangerous world where she survives by working hard, keeping alert, and staying one step ahead of those (mainly men) who would prey on her.

Fred’s had an easier life, but early in the book he goes home to tell his family he has lost his faith — and his father is a parish priest. When he arrives his mother and sisters are busy making a banner for a suffragette march and no one much cares about this faith. His college, St. Angelicus, doesn’t allow fellows to marry and he spends much of his time following arcane traditions and rules. When he meets Daisy, and more importantly when the truth about the night of the accident comes to light, his questioning takes a different turn, and he realizes, and tells his undergraduate students, that “there is no difference whatever between rational thought and ordinary thought.” He goes on to say that what they are there to study — “energy and matter” — are part of their own selves, too, and that “scientists are not dispassionate. Your judgement and your ability to do good work will be in part dependent on your digestion, your prejudices, and above all, your emotional life.”

In addition to this emotional awakening by a man previously devoted entirely to science, there’s an element of mystery as the pieces of the story come together, there’s a sort of gothic ghost tale told by an elderly don as he considers the strange accident, and there’s a ridiculous scene where Fred, who has accidentally knocked out someone who has done Daisy wrong, carries the unconscious man through the streets of Cambridge with a fellow scholar, who chats away about other things and then suggests they leave him in a pile of grass clippings. And the writing is so delightful — descriptive, pointed, and wise. There’s a passage where Fred has asked for Daisy at the mental hospital, and the receptionist imperiously replies that there is no nurse named Saunders; technically true, since Daisy’s job is to iron linens. The doctor overhears and comes out of his office and scolds:

“Don’t, in your ignorance, amuse yourself by turning away my callers. You are the receptionist. Receive!”

And here’s a description of Daisy, towards the end of the novel, carrying a bag on her way to the station:

“Out in the road, carrying the overfull Jemima, she felt she looked like someone taking kittens out to drown and changing her mind at the last moment. The rain threatened to get worse. At one point, she had had a good, strong umbrella, but not now. She had lent it to one of the two cooks at Dr. Sage’s, and she hated asking for anything back. It took all the good out of it.”

The Gate of Angels is described as a historical novel, but is also very funny, and warm in its way. The ending is ambiguous but hopeful. A really delightful read.

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My Dad sent me Max Perkins: Editor of Genius because he enjoyed it so much. It was made into a film several years ago, but apparently the book was published in the 1970s, and grew out of A. Scott Berg’s college thesis. The author went on to write several other biographies over his career. The book is interesting and fit into the time period of several other books I’ve read recently.

If you haven’t seen the film or don’t know about Max Perkins, he was an editor at Scribner’s and he discovered, mentored and published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and many other authors in the early-mid 20th century. The book describes his methods (he encouraged, cajoled, instructed, and even gave ideas to his authors) and quirks (worked at a standing desk before they were a thing, wore a hat all the time, doodled Napoleon during meetings, etc.). He lent Fitzgerald money, was a father figure to Wolfe and really constructed his novels out of thousands of pages of raw material, and vacationed with Hemingway. He was quite a character, and certainly had a genius for spotting and nurturing literary talent.

That said it was hard to read this as I was at the same time facilitating a conversation about Stephanie Spellers’ The Church Cracked Open, which addresses, among other things, white dominant culture. There were SO MANY incredibly talented Black authors working at the time Max Perkins was in publishing — off the top of my head, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and I am sure there are more I am not thinking of. Either Perkins and Scribner’s didn’t publish anyone who was Black or Berg doesn’t mention them. Either way it seemed like a strange omission.

Still, I’m weeding at work and I’m in the literature section; this book reminded me of some Pulitzer and National Book Award winners that I retained in the collection.

I went on an unexpected trip to see my mother who needed some help last week, and on the way out the door I downloaded a couple of library eBooks. On the first day/evening I read Kevin Wilson‘s Nothing to See Here, and it was perfect for the stress of travel and uncertainty of caregiving. It’s a funny, moving, razor sharp novel of manners. Lillian, former “underprivileged” scholarship kid at an elite girls’ boarding school, has never quite gotten her life together after taking the fall in her freshman year for her roommate and best friend, Madison, and being expelled. As the book opens Lillian gets a letter from Madison (it’s pre-text messaging time) inviting her to her rural Tennessee mansion, where she lives with her Senator husband and beautiful little son. Madison says she has a job for Lillian.

It turns out the Senator has two children from a former marriage, Bessie and Roland, who self-combust whenever they are agitated, as young children often are. Madison wants Lillian to be their “governess” — to keep them safe and out of the public eye. I feel like Jane Austen would adore this book. Lillian had less than stellar parenting from her own mother and is pretty dubious about her ability to do this, but she has nothing else to do. The rest of the novel tells the story of what happens when Lillian gets to know Bessie and Roland.

Wilson does a beautiful job of showing how Madison and Lillian are alike despite the cavernous economic and social gulf between them, and why they became best friends at school. HIs trenchant descriptions of Madison’s and her powerful husband’s class — rich, entitled, influential southerners — made me both angry and amused. But he manages to make Madison understandable, if not entirely likeable. Lillian explains, “It was so nice to hear her voice, to hear her voice and listen to her talk about what she wanted. I never quite knew what I wanted, the letters I sent her so wishy-washy and pained. Madison, she fucking wanted stuff. And when she talked or wrote about it, with that intensity, you wanted to give it to her. You wanted her to have it.”

And yet, this is a lovely book, terrific escapist reading but also thought provoking. I loved the little details of Lillian’s and Madison’s lives that Wilson shares — their mutual love of basketball, the stuntman gel and fireproof long underwear that the Senator’s body man Carl thinks Lillian can use to keep the children safe. I think it would be a wonderful book club choice, and also fun and interesting vacation reading.

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Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, was a gift from my friend Joan, who was one of my sponsors during my discernment in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. We certainly had as many conversations about fiction as we did about faith (although I think we’d both say those topics often intersect) and she has pointed me towards some wonderful reads over the last year. Migrations is both a fascinating story that keeps readers engaged with piecing together the main character’s story and an examination of the fragility of life for all earth’s inhabitants.

When the book opens, Franny Stone is in Greenland, pleased to have banded three arctic terns in terrible weather, and anxious to find a ship captain she can convince to follow the birds on their epic migration. Fisheries are terribly depleted, so much so that her pitch is that the terns will lead them to a catch. She thinks she’s found a likely ship to take her on when she rescues Ennis, captain of the Saghani. Until he says she didn’t rescue him. An intriguing start to the story, and I read on, assuming that Franny is a scientist and that the story would revolve around some kind of plan to save the birds. It’s doesn’t.

Turns out much of the book is about how nothing is as seems, particularly when it comes to Franny. Migrations is set in a time in the not very distant future when human selfishness has caused extinction of nearly all wildlife, a book that spotlights humans as a “plague on the world” as Franny’s husband Niall says. But McConaghy doesn’t tell the story of environmental degradation — she plunks us down in the midst of it to see how people are living with it.

And Migrations is about the big ideas that should have prevented mass selfishness and mass extinction: love, faithfulness, truth, hope, family. It’s a page turner, as Niall helps Franny delve into the mystery of her family, as we learn of a crime, as we see how far Franny and Ennis will go to finish her quest, and what she’s really set out to do. And it’s a story of someone who seems flighty and unreliable — fickle, as her mother-in-law implies — but is really traumatized. Like some of the creatures she loves, Franny is among the last of her family, and for much of the book, people around her mistake her restlessness with what seems to me an almost primal need to find a way to escape what’s harmed her, and somehow survive it.

Migrations would be a good vacation read — short, intriguing, and offering plenty to discuss with others. And I don’t know for sure what the connection is, but it sounds like the setting of McConaghy’s next novel, Once There Were Wolves is set in a place where Franny and Niall spend time in Migrations? Or a place very like it — a research and conservation station in the Scottish Highlands. I hope it will be as full of details about creatures and places as Migrations is. Part of what brought the book alive are things like a vivid description of a small ship steering up and over waves in a rough sea.

Because I don’t want to give away any more about the plot, I will leave you instead with a bit of McConaghy’s lovely writing:

“Most mornings I wake to a kiss as he leaves for work. This morning it was so early there was barely any dawn light peeking through the shutters and in the dark his lips could have been a dream.”

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You may get deja vu reading this post, because I just recently reviewed another book about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky, The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. I was telling a friend about reading that book, because she lives in Kentucky and I wanted to know her thoughts about it. She suggested I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Robinson. They both tell the stories of women delivering books in the mountains of Kentucky during the Depression. Apparently there has been some controversy, with Robinson feeling that Moyes may have taken material from her book. Honestly, it seems to me Facebook’s fault as much as anything — after Smithsonian ran an article about the horse riding librarians, stories have circulated regularly on social media, which keeps obscure but quirky stories circulating for a long time.

Having read both, I have to say that I didn’t think they were that similar, and that the things they both talked about — a woman being attacked by a drunken man, a black packhorse librarian, weddings, babies, certain books and magazines being delivered, religious intolerance, prejudice — seem common enough ideas that someone with an interest in the topic, the region, and the time period would have come across those ideas in their research. Anyone writing about women who were pioneering in some way would consider the ways they were kept in their place, including through assault. Anyone writing about the early 1930s (in Kentucky and many other places) would need to include racism, religious intolerance, bootlegging, and patriarchy.

Robinson’s book is about a “blue” woman, Cussy Mary, named after the town in France where her great-grandfather came from. Her skin is blue because of a genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia — her blood lacks an enzyme that is needed for oxygenation, so her skin has a blueish tint. I didn’t know until my friend told me about them that there was a community of so-called Blues in Kentucky. The entire book revolves around Cussy and her experience as a young woman who people fear, harass, and abuse because of her skin. Her love of books, dedication to her patrons and her sweet nature in spite of all the hardship, pain and grief in her life make her a lovely character. The brutality of the mining company, meanness of the prejudiced people who believe she is a heathen or worse, and extreme poverty of the Troublesome Creek area are vivid parts of the book. I appreciated that when the black librarian in town, Queenie, moves to Philadelphia and writes to Cussy about it, it’s not portrayed as a paradise.

There are some strange scenes that to me didn’t fit: for one, the town doctor who is later portrayed as kindly and well intentioned allows some horrifying mistreatment of Cussy at the hands of nuns in a hospital where he takes her to have some tests to determine why her skin is blue, but he later has an altercation with a doctor who wants to keep her overnight. And a sheriff also seems to act rather erratically and goes from being someone Cussy trusts to a maniac who beats someone up (ok, that’s pretty believable, actually). I suppose it keeps the characters from being one dimensional, but in both of these cases the out-of-character behavior gave me pause. I suppose the point was supposed to be that when it comes to skin color prejudice, even otherwise “nice” people act horribly.

I don’t see how anyone who reads the two books could think Moyes copied anything significant.The books have entirely different plots. Some details overlap, but again I think that is a matter of writing about something about which there are limited sources of information. Moyes writes about the librarians, two in particular, and focuses on their romantic lives, and the main source of conflict in the book is the idea that women living in a patriarchal, judgemental, and conservative society would want to have control over and enjoy sex. The characters who don’t want to marry in the two books have different reasons for that, and the babies in each book come from very different circumstances and storylines. Moyes also includes a murder trial that causes a fair bit of suspense and focuses on the extreme differences in circumstance between the rich and poor in her story. And as noted already, her main character observes things with an outsider’s view of Kentucky. Robinson focuses on Cussy, her reasons for serving as a librarian, her struggle with being physically marked as an outsider even though her “kin” go back generations in the area, and her developing sense of herself as more than a Blue person. Even though Cussy’s father is a miner and is organizing, there is almost no mention of the mine ownership, whereas Moyes makes the mine owner a major character who interferes with the women’s lives. Robinson describes the poverty of Cussy’s patrons very graphically, but we don’t hear much about the wealthy residents of Troublesome Creek and their cruel indifference to poverty is mostly implied, as the focus is on their colorism.

Both are good reads. As for why Jojo Moyes’s book is being made into a film? Well, the sex, I would think. Plus, she’s had a book adapted for film before. But Robinson is a bestselling author who has won awards, both of which are big accomplishments for a writer, so it seems to me both books did well.

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I had seen a number of mentions of the new book by Behold the Dreamers author Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were. It’s set in an unnamed African country in a village called Kosawa, in a district near the country’s capital, Bezam. Kosawa’s children are dying, their water and farmland and air poisoned by an American oil company, Pexton. The Kosawan leader is in Pexton’s pay, which results in his living in a well built home with luxuries the rest of his village does not enjoy, his eldest sons ensconced in government jobs, his younger children drinking clean water provided by his corporate and government sponsors. The country’s leader, His Excellency, turns over his cabinet every two years because he has so many enemies, ignores and laughs off the condemnation of hypocritical foreign governments he knows profit off of his country, and empowers the military to rape and execute at whim.

Into this hopeless mess, Thula is born. A quiet person who loves her family and her village, Thula does more listening than talking as a child, except with her beloved Papa, who sites on the veranda and talks with her about life. When he leaves with a handful of other men to go to Bezam and demand that something be done to stop Kosawa’s children from being poisoned to death, Thula and her family long for his return. As she begins to realize he won’t be coming back, Thula becomes certain of her life’s mission: to carry on in her family’s cause, to help her village overcome the corruption that is killing them. “I know nothing about how a girl makes men pay for their crimes, but I have the rest of my life to figure it out.”

Pexton starts sending mouthpieces to the village for “meetings” where they tell the village they will help them, giving no specifics. They return regularly for this charade, until the village madman interrupts one of these meetings and incites the village to take its fate into its own hands. Thula, and her “age mates” lives’ will never be the same after this; there are reprisals, violence, and more loss. But there is also international attention thanks to a reporter, Austin, child of an American man and a woman from Thula’s country. His work captures the attention of an NGO, Restoration Movement, which comes to reconcile the village and Pexton (which seems just as ridiculous as it sounds; you can’t have reconciliation if one party refuses to admit any wrongdoing).

Thula is the recipient of a scholarship from this NGO and she goes to New York, and studies justice movements at college. She remembers her father telling her “to never forget what it felt like to be a child when I grow up, never forget how it felt to be small and in need of protection, much of the suffering in the world was because of those who had forgotten that they too were once children.” She takes part in protests and also becomes reacquainted with Austin. And she writes letters to her age mates, who Mbue presents as a kind of shared voice, alternating their collective perspective with members of Thula’s family in different chapters.

Every letter Thula writes ends with “I’ll always be one of us.” She becomes the resistance leader of Kosawa, not only because her education affords her money and knowledge, but because her devotion and willingness to give up everything else in her life to the cause of justice inspires others to follow. When she returns, taking a job as teacher at a government leadership school in Bezam, she is single-minded. She will not be tempted to benefit from the graft that is rife in the capital. She will not be dissuaded from tirelessly working for justice, peacefully and persuasively, leveraging the law whenever possible. She loses more than she wins, but she keeps going.

The book takes place over decades, and in places drags a bit, but I think that is purposeful — justice (or lack of justice) for Kosawa is dragged out in American courts, in violent reprisals, in the slow, careless destruction of the environment by a corporation made rich and powerful because of people’s indifference, greed, and corruption. Thula understands that the work will be slow, and makes clear she is in it for the long haul. At first people beyond Kosawa follow her too, joining her movement; support dwindles when the cause seems hopeless. Her own brother, Juba, supports her only until it dawns on him that his wife’s urging to live differently is more appealing: “I’d traveled across the country with my sister, I’d borne witness to how little was changing despite her zeal, and I’d realized — while some men were heckling Thula at a poorly attended rally in the east — that my Nubia was right all along: our nation was decaying with us inside it, all one could do was abscond with whatever one could.” Nubia suffered injustice as a child as well, and she tells Juba “we’re only taking what’s ours; we have the right to do so.”

I should have sensed then the direction of the rest of the book. I won’t spoil the plot, but I’ll tell you it’s a bracing story of what happens to hope and justice when faced with the combined forces of capitalism and despotism. And the smaller force of people like Nubia whose pain teaches them to just get what they can from their oppressors. At the end of the book, change comes not because of collective action but because of globalism. And it isn’t the change Thula envisioned. The book’s epigraph is from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” I guess the light in this book is that people go on living and trying to make the best of their lives.

A powerful read.

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I loved Never Let Me Go when I read it, so when I saw that Kazuo Ishiguro had a new book out, Klara and the Sun, I got on the hold list for the library eBook. Although I also loved The Remains of the Day, I was excited to see Ishiguro return to a dystopian story. A beautiful and disturbing one.

The title character is an AF — artificial friend — and when the novel opens, Klara and her fellow AF Rosa are taking their turn in the window of the store where they hope children will choose them. The Manager trains and prepares the AFs, but it becomes clear that Klara learns a great deal simply by observing, and she picks up on subtle things Rosa can’t or won’t try to make sense of, like two taxi driver fighting. The AFs receive their “nourishment” from the Sun (capitalized, like God) and one day Klara observes a homeless man and his dog, who appeared to be gravely ill, returned to health in the sunlight.

Josie, a young teen, visits Klara in the window, and promises to come back; Klara senses that her mother isn’t necessarily on board. Eventually, Josie does get her way and Klara goes to live with them, out of the city. And through Klara’s eyes we learn that privileged children are “lifted” through some kind of procedure that can sometimes make them weaken or die, but if successful, gives them a boost that will ensure their entry into elite colleges and, it’s implied, successful futures.The lifted kids seem to need to be re-introduced to social life; Josie gets all of her schooling remotely, and specially arranged social sessions are meant to prepare them for “society.” Josie is also one of the people weakened by the lifting.

Klara’s observations are finely tuned but she only knows what she observes, and so our view of this world is limited to her vision of it and her conversations with others. We meet Josie’s childhood friend and neighbor Rick, whose aging actress mother chose the unconventional path of not “lifting” him. He is brilliant, but probably won’t go to college because of her choice. And we meet the strange Henry Capaldi, a man in the city who is making a “portrait” of Josie — one which causes a great deal of tension between her mother and father, particularly when Klara is drawn into the Mother’s plan.

On a visit to the city so Josie can sit for Capaldi, Klara persuades the Father to help her on a mission to do something special for the Sun, so that he might provide “special nourishment” for Josie as Klara observed the Sun do for the homeless man. As they drive, the Father tells her “I think I hate Capaldi because deep down I suspect he might be right. That what he claims is true. That science has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer. That people have been living with one another all this time, centuries, loving and hating each other, and all on a mistaken premise. A kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better. That’s how Capaldi sees it, and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right. “I won’t give away any more of the story, but I will say that this question of what it is to be human and live a good life suffuses the story with a kind of low grade tension.

Klara never stops having faith in the Sun, and to think well of just about everyone she meets. She is a unique narrator that I felt enormous empathy for; Ishiguro left me feeling more for the robot than the humans in this novel. It’s not a long book, but he captures so much. Klara has more simple faith and hope and gentleness than the parents maneuvering to get their kid a place in the world that will set them up for the future combined. But she is herself already old fashioned — a new generation of AFs will make her kind obsolete even as they cause people to be afraid that robots are becoming too smart and taking over too many things.

Ishiguro even makes her aging — her “slow fade” as the Mother calls it, poignant. Klara notes, “Over the last few days, some of my memories have started to overlap in curious ways.” That seems reasonably similar to what humans experience, but again, Klara observes it with an innocence that I found touching.

I loved Klara and the Sun and I think book clubs will find much to discuss. A really lovely and profound read.

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I’ve read a few of Sarah Moss‘s other books (Night Waking, Ghost Wall, and her memoir, Names for the Sea) and they all followed a fairly regular narrative arc, albeit with some shifts in time and place. Summerwater tells a story but not in a traditional way. Instead, Moss reveals pieces of the lives and experiences of several different people staying in vacation cabins — think small and inexpensive places with thin walls, close together — in Scotland. It’s summer, but it’s been raining hard for a week. The inhabitants are restless, tired in spite of being on vacation.

The views we have of them provide a view into one small aspect of their lives, on one day in one place. It’s a little more detail than you’d get from standing in the window of your vacation cabin staring into others’ windows, but only a little. Moss shows us an older couple, one of whom seems to be losing her grasp on memory, heartbreakingly able to recall poetry from childhood (which is where the novel’s title comes from) and even what she wore to recite it but not more immediate things like what she was looking in her purse for, the other of whom is impatient with that. A little girl from the “party” house, whose family are Eastern European, who isn’t dressed for the weather (another of the children in another cabin wishes she had “shiny patent shoes and white lace tights like that girl”) and who draws the attention of several other mothers, and a manipulative girl a little older than she is.

The mothers, and some of the fathers, are mostly on edge. Struggling to have a break while doing housework and cooking with shabby rental cabin kitchenware and tired ingredients because there are no stores nearby. I loved the description of being unable to slice some mushrooms past their prime so just hacking them up for a pasta sauce — been there! And entertaining kids without their usual toys and no internet, and trying to be sexy for their spouses (it’s a vacation, expectations or at least hopes are high). Worrying and tired and wondering if their kids are ok. The kids are also worrying — about their pecking order among siblings, about their fussing parents, or if they’re older, about being stuck with their parents. One teen discovers a veteran living in a tent in the woods and visits him. Another escapes by kayaking, even in a driving rain. Moss captures all of these different perspectives astutely, and slips from one to the other in brief chapters.

She even slips into the perspectives of the wild things nearby. I loved “Maybe They Dream” — a two paragraph chapter. “The trees change shape at night. In the darkness, limbs relax, leaves droop. Branches reach out for each other, like holding hands.” You have to read the rest. It’s lovely and, actually, dreamy. I will look out at the thin woods behind our house differently for having read this.

Similarly, she explores how birds, badgers, ants, foxes, and deer experience both the strangely torrential rain and the humans. Particularly the pounding music the emanates from the party cabin. It’s an interesting thought that even as the noise irritates the other vacationers, it disturbs all creation, right down to the ants in their underground nests. Even though this is really a book of character (and creature) sketches, not a plot driven story, Moss slowly builds tension, touching on many of the existential worries of our time — climate change, the hold our devices have on us, Brexit, gender roles. The end surprised me.

A quick read that will linger, with so many facets of human experience and range of emotions packed into a short, lovely book.

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