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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

Over the past few weeks things have been chaotic in the world and in my family. I read another Sophie KinsellaMy Not So Perfect Life, about a young woman, Katie, trying to break into marketing who has a boss, Demeter, she both envies and finds overbearing and inconsiderate. it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, just what I needed in the midst of my chaos. As the story unfolds Katie figures out that she isn’t the only one spinning her social media life, and that Demeter isn’t as witchy as she once thought. As she’s figuring this out, Katie is also helping her father and stepmother open a glamping concern on the farm where she grew up in Somerset. The book left me a) wanting to go to London, b) wanting to go glamping and c) feeling ever so slightly at peace as I went to sleep, although only ever so slightly. I find Kinsella’s writing to be a pleasure, and her books tend to offer some social commentary that is interesting to contemplate as you’re enjoying the storytelling.

When I finished that I was fishing around for something else to download from my library that same night — I don’t care to try sleeping without disappearing into a book first these days — and I came across a book that caught my eye when it came out last year We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun. It’s a book about the Amy Biehl murder in a Cape Town township in August, 1993 (the same year my son was born). Biehl was my age, born in 1967. She was on a Fullbright scholarship studying in Cape Town (where my son has spent time) when she died at the hands of a mob, and her story made international headlines because while the killing was racially and politically motivated, Biehl was actually an ANC supporter and was studying the rights of women, especially black women.

Van der Leun’s book is not really about the murder, or at least not only. It’s primarily about the legacy, both in terms of how Biehl’s family, who had never been to Africa, became involved in Cape Town, founding a foundation in their daughter’s name and getting to know South African luminaries as well as their Biehl’s killers, and about the way the murder impacted those who were there, innocent bystander or violent mob member, and their families as well. In particular van der Leun examines the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, known around the world as a bright example of hope, peace, and nonviolent resolution to centuries of oppression, violence, and racism. I’ve never read such a measured discussion of the TRC. Van der Leun openly admires the ideal, but points out the many flaws in the process itself. For example, the wrongly convicted could not apply for pardon without claiming guilt , which meant innocent people (possibly some of Biehl’s convicted killers among them) had to admit to things they didn’t do to get out of prison. Truth seemed to be missing, to van der Luen, and reconciliation seemed a little discordant.

What I admired most is that van der Luen spent years getting to know all the people she writes about, Easy, one of the convicted killers whose reconciliation with Biehl’s parents made him a celebrity, Mzi, a Buddhist who was a militant member of the PAC, who helps her track down some of the other men implicated in the attack on Biehl, and many of their friends and family members. Van der Leun spends hours, day after day, in Gugulethu, the township where Biehl died and where most of the people involved still live. She gets to know many former gang and PAC members and talks to them about their lives pre and post apartheid and the violence they perpetrated. It’s a side of the struggle we outside of Africa often don’t hear about — we hold up the peacemakers, Mandela and Tutu, but we don’t think much about the violence that was a daily part of life. Nor do most of us think about the racism that is so steeped in South African culture that it remains an open part of life for many of the people van der Leun knows, black and white, rich and poor. No, thinking about racism in South Africa might lead to thinking about racism here in America, and no one wants that. (sarcasm) Truly, it’s human nature to avoid what’s hard and flock to the story we can feel good about.

We Are Not Such Things is, like all my favorite books, about being human. It’s about longing for identity and place, family and community, about the falsity of freedom if you’re poor or marginalized, and the myriad ways people hurt each other. It’s about hope, but it’s mainly about reality, which is, if not hopeless is somewhat less than hopeful most days, for most people. South Africa today certainly embodies that. There is a beauty in the broken world she describes, but not the voyeuristic outsider view of someone who just visited it to write about it. Van der Leun moved to South Africa to be with her fiancee, who grew up there. She openly writes about her discomfort living in the privileged white Cape Town and being more at home in Gugulethu, being an English speaker struggling with Xhosa, being a woman who fits in more with former gangster men than with their wives and sisters. Above all We Are Not Such Things is about the very human condition of discomfort, which is very familiar to me right now. Perhaps that is why I spent two weeks slowly reading it, and why I find myself still thinking about it now.

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My class ended Monday evening, so when I got home, I started reading a book for fun. The publicist for  the debut novel  Ginny Moon, Shara Alexander, sent me an advance copy, because author Benjamin Ludwig lives in New Hampshire, and I used to write a column that mainly featured NH authors. I had seen reviews already, since I order fiction at my university, and I had already ordered a copy, because I like to stock fiction that features characters in professions our students will pursue — and we have programs in school counseling, teaching, nursing, and psychology, so I thought a book about an autistic girl that features many adults in helping professions might be of interest to them.

What I didn’t count on is that I would like it so much that I would read way too late under the covers with a book light cupped inside my hand so I wouldn’t wake my husband. Or that I would skip drying  my hair before work so I could finish the last couple of chapters while eating breakfast. Or that I would have to touch up my eye makeup because I would cry through the ending.

Ginny Moon is fourteen and lives with her adoptive parents. Her “forever mom” is pregnant and that makes Ginny think a lot about the baby doll she took care of when she lived with her birth mom. As Ginny remembers, or “goes into her brain” more often, her adoptive family are disturbed by the ways she acts out. Readers piece together what Ginny is remembering long before the adults in the book, and I found  myself feeling very frustrated and even angry with some of them — how could her teachers and other school staff not see that something is amiss? How can her “forever” parents be so clueless, and even somewhat selfish? Will anyone figure out what Ginny is hiding and what she is trying so hard to tell everyone?

I don’t necessarily like this kind of emotional page turner, but Ludwig manages the drama well. Yes, I cried, but I never felt manipulated to feel a certain way, as poorly written family novels can sometimes do to readers. I could vividly imagine what Ginny and the other characters looked like, and I could hear her voice. In my last job, I met many people on the autism spectrum, and it seemed to me that Ginny seems like a very authentic, human character, possibly because Ludwig is a father who adopted an autistic daughter, so he’s writing what he knows.  My favorite character is Patrice, the psychologist who has been with Ginny through her entire ordeal (the Blue House where she lives with her forever parents is not the first place she’s landed since being taken from her birth mother), has a cat named Agamemnon, and seems to be a little more clear-eyed and level headed than the other adults Ginny relies on.

This book will appeal to a wide audience — I would definitely recommend it to book clubs, and I think there is plenty to appeal to teens. When I worked in the public library I sometimes had people ask me for books for older readers who don’t like swearing and sex in their books, and this one would fit the bill (there are some descriptions of adults behaving badly, but told from a child’s point of view, so compared to other novels that mention sex or drugs or abuse, this one is pretty tame). If you know a special ed teacher or aspiring special ed teacher or counselor, this would be a good end of the school year or graduation gift. If you’re looking for some thought provoking but entertaining fiction to take on a plane trip or to occupy you while you wait for a repairman or at your kid’s softball practice, this is it. Just don’t expect to get much sleep once you’ve started reading it, nor to look good at work the next day.

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So I started a class, I as mentioned at the end of my last post, and have definitely not had as much time to read for pleasure. But I finished Britt-Marie Was Here last night. It’s a follow up to My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. It’s interesting because in that book, Britt-Marie was not a very sympathetic character. She was presented, as she herself describes in the follow up, as a “nag-bag.”

So it seemed brave to me that Backman chose to take his most annoying character and turn her into a heroine in her own right. And I think he absolutely succeeds. Britt-Marie is suffering from some of the events at the end of the previous book which I won’t give away here, and finds herself in a small rural town called Borg, which is struggling as a result of the global recession. She inadvertently becomes the soccer coach, even though she doesn’t know anything about it, and also bumbles her way into friendships, and finds herself helping people and even a rat. She’s able to reflect a bit on her life and through those thoughts she has, we learn why she’s so obsessed with cleaning and doing things properly.

I cried a fair bit, but it may be I was just in a good place for that right now. I suspect the Computer Scientist would call this book “sappy” — two recent films we’ve seen he’s referred to in that way (Hidden Figures and A United Kingdom). But like those films, these books deal with some serious issues in an accessible way, and I say any art that makes itself appealing but draws people into thinking and talking about things like race, class, community, family, and humanity are worthwhile, even if they tug at the heartstrings. And those of you who have read bookconscious for awhile know I am not a fan of stories that are overly sweet, so I would say if these were.

What do you think? Is there a book you’ve read that someone else criticized for being sappy?

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winter-book-bingo

I finished my book bingo card this week. For an old favorite, I chose Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. And for a book I haven’t read by an author I like, I chose Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and interestingly enough, Billy Collins wrote the introduction. They are both incredible and it was nice to return to poetry after not reading any for a long time.

For a biography or memoir, I listened to Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl  by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien’s story would be incredible if she only wrote about Wesley, the barn owl she adopted when he was only four days old, loved, raised, observed, lived with for nineteen years. But her own story is also incredible, from her musical childhood to her incredible fight against a mysterious, debilitating illness. I didn’t love the narration, honestly. I also don’t think audiobooks on my commute are the best idea — I’m probably going back to podcasts.

And for any book in a series, I read Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidant by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is a Maggie Hope novel. MacNeal gets into several interesting side plots, including an intriguing nod to Roald Dahl‘s life, as well as the continuing saga of plucky Maggie Hope, this time visiting the U.S. as part of Churchill’s team for the famous meeting with Roosevelt just weeks after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed it, but realized when I was finished that I don’t think I read the previous title in the series so I’m going to have to go back.

It was fun to finish my card, but I’m looking forward to just reading things because the mood strikes, or someone recommends something, or a book catches my eye.

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I worked with many publicity professionals during my time at Gibson’s and then writing a book review column. A couple still stay in touch and occasionally send a book and one of those people is Scott Manning. When he tells me a book is worth reading it invariably is, and recently he sent me Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. I read it this week for one of the “Reader’s Choice” squares on my book bingo card.

To say this book is eye-opening isn’t really accurate — Dunbar tells readers what they could see pretty easily, if they paid any attention to American history. The south had slaves, lots of them, and the first President was a southerner. Mount Vernon was a plantation that depended on slave labor, one of a network of such farms belonging to the Washingtons and to Martha’s Custis relatives. And while some history books like to point out that George Washington had mixed feelings about slavery, he also signed the Fugitive Slave Act, in part because many Northern states were already beginning to move towards abolition and Southerners were afraid that runaway slaves would be beyond their grasp unless the federal government made it illegal to help them. And the Fugitive Slave Act did that, as Dunbar explains, “To be clear, those who purposely interfered with the recapturing of a slave, or who offered aid or assistance to a fugitive, could be fined an exorbitant amount — $500 — imprisoned, and be sued by the slaveholder in question.”

I will add, some details about the extent of the Washingtons’ efforts to keep people enslaved, to punish slaves who seemed in their views not to work hard enough or to have bad attitudes, and to flout Pennsylvania’s laws (they rotated slaves back to Mount Vernon in order that they not stay more than 6 months in Philadelphia, because they would have then been free), were new to me. Based on my very informal poll, which consisted of telling everyone around me about what I was reading and gauging their reactions,  these facts are not well known.

Dunbar’s writing about Washington is interesting but what makes her book stand out is the story of Ona Judge, a young woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon who as a teenager became Martha Washington’s personal attendant. Studies have shown that telling an individual’s story, for example in order to solicit funds for a massive humanitarian crisis, is highly effective, and Never Caught is a fine example of that psychological impact at work.

In telling Judge’s story Dunbar masterfully places the focus not on harsh treatment or back-breaking labor — Judge’s work was constant but not physically harmful, and she was not beaten or raped as far as the record shows — but on the undeniable, inhumane, supreme injustice of a person being owned by another person. Judge had no say in the matters of her life which free people take for granted. Even once she was “free” and even after the Washingtons both died, Judge was technically a fugitive, owned by the Custis family, and her children were technically born slaves, even though she raised them in relative freedom. At any time, someone could capture her and her family and take them back to Virginia and that would have been legal.

But fortunately, Judge ended up in New Hampshire, and apparantly people in my adopted state had the beginnings of a “live free or die” attitude and even the prominent and the powerful in New Hampshire were not always willing to tow the line politically. Washington did in fact track Judge down and tried to call in favors to get her back, but New Hampshire’s independent thinkers, and Judge’s own very strong desire to remain free, protected her. Yet she did not have a happily ever after life, and Dunbar spares no details in pointing out the suffering that Judge and her family experienced. Again, you may have learned about slavery in school, but did you ever think of how soul-permeating  the impact of being owned really was? Some free blacks prospered but Dunbar makes clear that for many others being an escapee was a life sentence of poverty, ill health, and struggle.

Dunbar’s book is full of details of post-Revolutionary America, and observations about the people who were already working to end slavery. It’s a painful read when considered in light of the continuing racial injustices in America, and it’s hard not to wonder if the founders had abolished slavery in the Constitution, how different things might have turned out. One tiny quibble I have, and this is likely an issue of my own taste — is that Dunbar sometimes speculates about the emotions of her subjects. For example, in writing about Judge’s son, Dunbar states, “His mother’s depression must have been suffocating.” Or “To Judge, Whipple seemed like a nice enough man; that is, he hadn’t yet called for the constable to have her arrested.” I think telling readers that Judge’s lot in life was pretty miserable by the time her 16 year old son decided to become a sailor is enough — readers can conclude that he probably didn’t want to be around her misery. Similarly, the exchange between Whipple (a man who realized who Judge was as she was applying for work) and Judge makes clear that she was able to continue the conversation, which is enough evidence that she didn’t feel he was a threat; we don’t need to be told Judge thought he was nice, which ventures into speculation.

To be clear, maybe somewhere in Dunbar’s research she came across something that said Judge thought Whipple was nice, I don’t know. I just don’t like the speculative style of nonfiction fiction writing that seems to be popular right now, and I blame it on the overly dramatic “historical re-creation” television programs that are ubiquitous. But this happens only rarely in Never Caught, which is otherwise an interesting and horrifying account of the beginnings of the split in our early union and the deplorable toll slavery took on people. And the well told story of a woman I’d guess most Americans have never heard of.

As for my other Reader’s Choice? Something completely different. I had a crummy week last week so I lost myself in a light read, Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. It’s everything an escapist read should be: funny, smart, and romantic. Plus, there are mouth watering descriptions of cooking, lovely descriptions of the Cotswolds, and sly jabs at high powered law firms and the newly rich. When Kinsella’s heroine, Sam, finds she has made a 50 million pound error on the very day she is supposed to hear whether she made partner at the most successful and prestigious firm in London, she freaks out and gets on a train. When she gets out she has a terrible headache, so knocks on a door to see if she can figure out where she is and ask for a glass of water. The person who answers the door thinks Sam is a housekeeping applicant. She gets the job she didn’t apply for and has no idea how to do — she isn’t even sure how the washing machine works or how to turn on the oven. Who helps her? A handsome and sensitive gardener and his kind mother. Romantic comedy that is screen-worthy. I’d go see it.

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We had two snow days and a late start this week, plus as I mentioned in my last post, I’m really getting into my book bingo card. So I read three books!

I had three squares I wanted to fill. The first was “A book from the Books & Brew book lists.” I chose The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It’s a debut novel that got a lot of buzz last summer, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of four grown siblings in New York, the Plumbs, who’ve all been counting on “the Nest” — an inheritance fund their father, who made his fortune in absorbent materials found in feminine hygiene products, diapers, and meat tray liners, set up to distribute to each of them on the youngest sibling’s 40th birthday. Leo, the eldest, is the family ne’er do well, who made a bundle selling a gossip website and has been in trouble ever since. When the book opens he gets into a drug-addled crash, injuring a nineteen year old catering waitress. His mother taps into the Nest to settle his affairs, and the rest of the book is about how the other siblings await Leo’s reparations — Bea, a writer who has been stuck on a dead-end book for years; Jack, an antique store owner who didn’t tell his husband he took out a second mortgage on their summer place; and Melody, who can’t afford the perfect suburban life she is trying to give her teenaged twins.

As the novel unfolds, readers learn about the sibings’ lives and their families, but Sweeney also works in details about contemporary American life – 9/11, the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, SAT tutoring, gay marriage, the gentrification of Brooklyn . . . . Yes, it’s a book about New York, and that’s both a pleasure and an annoyance, in that it’s fun to vicariously enjoy the city, and it’s aggravating to read about privileged people feeling badly that they can’t keep their summer home or they can’t get away with not filling out financial aid forms or they can’t quite become an “it” novelist while living pretty much free in a dead lover’s apartment and having a job where they’re allowed to work on said novel. A few times I wanted to yell, “Hey, there are real problems in the world.” Still, it seemed possible that was part of the point, and also, it wasn’t enough of a detraction to keep from enjoying the story, which is Austen-like in it’s social commentary and it’s contemporary “novel of manners” sensibility.

Will Leo make good? Will Melody ever figure out what her daughters really want? Will Jack push his patient husband too far? Will Bea notice that her long suffering boss not only admires, but loves her? Just as there’s fun in reading about Jane Austen’s well-to-do characters, I didn’t ever completely lose patience with the Plumbs. My brief quibbles: a few minor characters play relatively important roles but we hardly get to know them. And the final pages skip ahead a year, and at one point even tell us what’s going to happen further in the future, a device I’ve never enjoyed.

The next square I wanted to vanquish was “A book of short stories.” I’d had my eye on Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith for some time, ever since reading that in the time it took her to write and edit the book, 1,000 British libraries closed. Smith wrote the book in part to draw attention to the importance of libraries, and she alternates short stories, all of which deal in some way with words or books, and brief commentaries on libraries by Smith and many of her writer friends. Public Library, Smith says, “. . .  celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced,  and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.” I read it in one sitting, and enjoyed both the fiction and the tributes. It’s one of those books that caused me to look things up and wonder things (How many libraries have closed in the UK? (depends where you look and how you define closed) Why haven’t I ever read anything by Katherine Mansfield? Why haven’t I heard of Olive Fraser?) This was the perfect read on a day when the snow was falling hard and I could sit and muse on the meaning of libraries in my own life. If you like short fiction, the stories are a delight.

Finally, I needed to fill the square “A book about weather or the environment,” so I read The Hidden Life of Trees by forester and conservationist Peter Wohlleben. This is one of those books that compels the reader to lift her head, exclaim, “Wow, listen to this,” and read fascinating tidbits to her family members, whether they want to hear them or not, and whether the only family members in the room at the time are feline or not. (Examples “There is a fungus in Oregon that is 2,400 years old and weighs 660 tons!” and  “There is a spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old!!” “There’s a quaking aspen in Utah that has more than 40,000 trunks and is thousands of years old!” “Trees scream!”) I couldn’t get over what I was reading and I will, as many other reviewers have stated, never look at trees the same way. Wohlleben explains the life of trees and their incredible abilities to deter pests and adapt to changes in climate, cooperate with each other and with beneficial partner species, raise their young, communicate, and learn from their environment. As the author says of trees, “I will never stop learning from them, but even what I have learned so far under their leafy canopy exceeds anything I could ever have dreamed of.” I learned so much from this book, not only about trees, but also about the human capacity to understand the world, and hopefully, to preserve it.

And now, on to the square “A book whose title begins with ‘W.'”

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This amazing novel, recommended by a friend, is about an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Ruth Ozeki, the author of this amazing novel, is an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Trippy? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The book opens with a diary entry: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being  is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is or was, or ever will be.”

We soon learn that Nao is a teenager in Japan, and that her diary washed up on the beach near Ruth’s and Oliver’s home, in a plastic bag, wrapped up with a watch, a parcel of letters, and another diary, written in French. As the novel unfolds, we learn about Ruth’s life and Nao’s. It’s a tough read, full of deeply important questions of human decency, purpose, belief, and meaning. Ozeki touches on an array of subjects as she tells her story —  First Peoples mythology, botany & ecology, meteorology & geography, Western philosophy, Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, computing and technology, consumerism, contemporary education, pop culture, and the relationship between people and cats, to name several.

Nao is terribly unhappy, but her father introduces her to her great-grandmother, who is 104 and lives at a temple where she is a Buddhist nun. From the start, Ruth is concerned about Nao’s well being, not only because she is troubled, but also because the diary appears on the beach after the 2011 Tsunami. Ruth wonders if Nao and her family are still alive. She becomes so wrapped up in determining what became of them that her own work suffers. Her interest teeters on obsession and possibly even madness, when she swears that Nao’s diary is missing words. Separately, she pursues tracking down Nao and her father, and finds out just enough to leave readers intrigued to the last pages.

Oliver, is sort of a modern Renaissance man, part artist, part scientist, part philosopher, and fully capable of wrestling the tricky generator they rely on when storms ravage the island, digging clams and oysters, and chopping firewood. He’s also Ruth’s counterbalance, a partner who supports her curiosity but also challenges it at times. The rest of the island gets involved too, once word gets out about their find. Much of what is in the two diaries is had to read — Ozeki captures man’s inhumanity to man pretty vividly. But it’s worth reading because A Tale for the Time Being is both a good story with a mystery at its heart and an incredible amalgamation of Eastern and Western culture and ideas. It’s a trip, full of heart, and a good read, and did I mention?  There’s a cat (and Schrödinger’s cat as well).

 

 

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