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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

I read Honour, by Elif Shafak, for a discussion group at work. it’s a complicated novel about Adem and Pembe Toprak, Kurdish Turks who have emigrated to London in the 1970s with their children, Iskander (whose English friends call him Alex) and Esma. In England they have a second son, Yunus. While the family has a decent life in London, both Adem and Pembe bear the scars of their childhoods in Turkey, where rules about propriety, violence, and shame deeply impact them and their families.

Shafak changes point of view and time period frequently, which is something I don’t usually like and often find confusing. But I managed to follow what was happening in Honour, and the shifting narrative works well in this story. Different perspectives remind the reader that the same event, viewed through a different lens, might appear differently. And she is telling different generations’ stories, so the shifting comes naturally.

We learn early — right in the first chapter, from Esma, that she has a brother who is a murderer. The rest of the book marches steadily towards that moment. But it also veers back into the past, into Pembe’s childhood, where she and her twin sister, Jamila, grew up in village, in a family of eight daughters, and where their mother died trying to bear a son. And into Adem’s childhood, where he grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father, whose actions destroyed his family, even though his wife, Adem’s mother, is the one who brought them shame.

This is one of the book’s themes: men do plenty of dishonourable things, but women are the ones who bring shame to the family. And yet, there are a few kindly or wise men, and a few women who judge things shameful or enable or mete out the punishment to those who have brought shame; Shafak doesn’t oversimplify the moral universe of her book. She touches on extremism, nationalism, the pressures to conform to western standards of beauty, the dangers of forcing men and women into set gender roles, and the painful consequences of capitalism, all without forcing any of these things on readers — they unfold in the novel naturally.

Religion and belief play a strong role, but Shafak is once again skillful and nonjudgemental; even the most extreme beliefs appear within their contexts to be part of the lives she portrays. She doesn’t over-dramatize or make the God the culprit when humans act outside their own interest, but she also doesn’t belittle the strongly held beliefs some of her characters have. Love is also a central theme, and the relationships between family members, friends, and lovers. There wasn’t a relationship in the book that felt forced for the plot or unrealistic, and that’s saying something in a story this complex.

Shafak manages to write a book that doesn’t feel heavy or brutal, but empathetic and somewhat hopeful, even as she tells the story of people burdened by heartbreaking circumstances. A very interesting read, that took me into other people’s lives. I always love a book that transports me and this one did that, whether to Istanbul, a Kurdish village or remote areas of Turkey, London, or a jail cell in Shrewsbury. Oddly, there is even a brief outbreak of a deadly virus.

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Human Voices is a short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, set during the blitz at BBC headquarters. Fitzgerald worked there herself at that time, when she was in her 20s.  She writes about one department where Sam Brooks is “RPD” (Recorded Programme Director) and he has a young staff of assistants who manage much of the work while he signs endless piles of letters prepared by the motherly Mrs. Milne and designs field equipment for the time in the not too distant future when he expects BBC teams will be sent into Europe to cover the war on the ground. His longtime friend Jeff Haggard is “DPP” (Director of Programme Planning), higher ranking and often in a position to defend the somewhat eccentric and self-absorbed RPD.

Against this backdrop of the men in charge, Fitzgerald also weaves in the stories of the young programme assistants who work for the RPD of the younger people, like Willie, who is constantly planning for a future ideal society; Vi, who comes from a large family and is waiting for her boyfriend in the merchant marines to come home; Lise, a half-French girl who only works a short time in the RPD’s office and has one of the most dramatic scenes in the book; and Annie, still a teen and recently orphaned, who stands up to the RPD in ways none of the others has.

The DPP has another good friend, the American broadcaster Mac McVitie, who breezes in and out of London with gifts. There’s a scene where he’s given out oranges and the assistants in the Recorded Programme office are dividing them among themselves that makes clear how unusual McVitie’s presents are for the Londoners. When he’s there, he records at the BBC and goes out looking for a drink or a chance to meet ordinary people on the street with the DPP.

What’s most striking is that quirky as they are — one team sent into the countryside to preserve quintessential English sounds come back with hours of recordings of a church hall door opening, creaking louder when it’s opened wider — Fitzgerald portrays the entire enterprise as devoted to truthful broadcasting. And despite the tone, which is mainly breezy and focused on the younger people’s cares, which are much like young people’s cares anywhere, anytime, Fitzgerald shows very skillfully how the tension of the time creeps into every aspect of life. Relationships, work, leisure — everything is impacted by the struggle to overcome the daily strain of working in a war zone.

I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and this was just as enjoyable. I happened across it on Hoopla, when I was going through a list of books I’d hoped to find at the library at some point. Entertaining, but with enough humanity and pathos to keep me thinking about it long after I got to the end.

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I saw a review of The Imperfects, Amy Meyerson‘s second novel sometime since I’ve been working at home and put it on my library eBook holds list. It came up in my account over the weekend, and proved a good summer read (or Coronavirus and bad news all around read). It’s absorbing in the way I hear coworkers talk about certain streaming or TV series about dysfunctional families, because Meyerson’s characters, the Millers, can’t seem to be in the same room without getting into an argument.

But that, in and of itself, would not for me be very entertaining. Fortunately, there is a page-turning mystery at the center of this feuding family. Helen, the matriarch, has died and in her will, she surprises everyone by leaving her house to her daughter, Deborah, a somewhat flaky new-agey grandma who has failed at three dozen business ideas, can’t keep to her vegan diet, and seems to have had a string of equally flaky boyfriends. Helen also surprises them by leaving a brooch to Deborah’s daughter Beck.

The rest of the book is the breathless story of Beck’s realization that the brooch is not only a valuable heirloom, but also includes a diamond that was probably part of the Habsburg crown jewels, lost since the earlier 1900s. Having no idea why on earth her grandma had such a thing in her possession, she gets to work trying to determine its provenance and how it came to be Helen’s. And to determine how to stave off the many legal claims to the diamond once news breaks.

Because the siblings can’t keep their mouths shut. Beck’s brother Jake, a screenwriter whose one hit capitalized on his family’s dysfunction and caused a major rift, spills the story to his stoner friend as soon as he gets back to California. Worse, her sister Ashley, a Greenwhich housewife and former marketing executive, takes a valuation report to an auction house. And some of the people Beck trusts to help the family are less than helpful.

Helen’s story, and the story of the jewels she came to own drive the book. There is some interesting backstory about the end of the Habsburg empire, and then later, an effort to get fifty Jewish children out of Austria before the Nazis ship most of the adults off to concentration camps. Which Meyerson says in her author’s note is based on a real story of a Philadelphia couple who really rescued fifty children. That was all interesting.

Less interesting, to me, were some romantic (or at least lustful) side plots for each of the Miller family, which I think are included to round them out as characters, so they don’t just look like bickering siblings. I could imagine my grandmother suggesting these interludes were not needed, which is why I gave it some thought and tried to imagine why Meyerson included them. There are also some other non-romantic partner minor characters who play small but key roles, like Karen, the kind and honest HR person at Beck’s firm, Rico, the solid stoner friend, and Clara, a librarian who takes an interest in helping Ashley.

If you’re looking for a distraction, this book has mystery, history, and family histrionics. I read it in an afternoon and evening (and admittedly, late into the night to finish, because I wanted to know how it would end.

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I’ve had a couple different people suggest Barbara Pym as pandemic reading. I’d read Jane and Prudence, albeit quite some time ago. I was hunting all over for it, thinking I’d re-read it, and never found it. Tonight I realized, when I looked back at my review, that I took it to my grandmother!

Anyway, after a spate of more serious reading, I decided to take a look at whether any of Pym’s novels were available as an eBook through my libraries. I was able to find A Glass of Blessings and have enjoyed it. Pym’s work is not plot-heavy. Instead she explores the inner life of her main character, in this case Wilmet Forsyth, and the time they live in. Wilmet is a woman in her thirties, a former Wren, living in London in the late forties or early fifties.

Wilmet is married to her wartime beau, Rodney, and they live with his mother. Rodney works at an unnamed ministry. They have no children, and Wilmet is self-conscious about having little to occupy her time. She attends an Anglo-Catholic church, and has a few friends: Mary, a fellow parishioner who briefly explores a religious vocation; Rowena, her best friend from their Wren days, Rowena’s brother Piers. Wilmet, over the course of a year, entertains the idea of taking a lover, flirts with Rowena’s husband Harry, tries to flirt with Piers, and worries that she is “a horrid person.”

But she isn’t. She’s kind to her mother-in-law. She worries about Mr. Bason, who wasn’t any good at his ministry job and becomes the cook and housekeeper for the clergy at Wilmet’s church. She is concerned for Piers, who hasn’t settled into regular work and seems to be going through a low period. She befriends Pier’s flatmate Keith, even though he is a bore. She cares about Mary, who is grieving as well as determining what to do with her life. Wilmet simply can’t see all the ways she is helping people.

Pym captures Wilmet’s feelings, her thoughts, the way our minds work. In one scene, where she is visiting Mary, Wilmet can’t get to sleep. She thinks, “It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road.” And a few sentences later, “I tried to remember our time in Italy, but all that came into my mind were curious irrelevant little pictures — ” The pictures get tangled up with her current life’s pictures as she drifts into sleep. That seemed to me one of the more accurate descriptions of lying awake fighting an active brain that I’ve ever read.

The other striking thing about the characters in A Glass of Blessings is that none of them seem likely to be people whose lives would garner enough attention to be recorded in fiction. A bored housewife. A young, religious woman unsure of her future. A man who doesn’t have the kind of job or apartment expected of someone like him. A widow living with her son and daughter-in-law, with an amateur interest in archeology. A man with a talent for cooking and a taste for “beautiful things.” But Pym makes this mosaic of ordinary people doing ordinary things — living — into a lovely, quiet, and reflective story about who we are to each other.

I also thought it felt quite contemporary in another striking way: Wilmet and Mary are regular churchgoers but the rest generally don’t go, even at Christmas. There are any number of interesting Anglican issues of the day alluded to — the Oxford Movement, the question of the Church of South India (which I had to look up), the question of priest celibacy. There is also a sense of unreality reading something set at a time when ordinary people could afford to live in London.  All of that made A Glass of Blessing an interesting diversion. Probably not to everyone’s taste, but a nice, calm antidote to today’s reality.

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I’ve been reading War & Peace since March with the Tolstoy Together plan the folks at A Public Space, in particular Yiyun Li, assembled so that people around the world could read their way through this lengthy classic in manageable chunks (about 12-15 pages a day). I’d read some shorter Tolstoy (although I don’t seem to have written about it here; I’ve read Anna Karenina, What Men Live By, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich). I always admire these kinds of efforts at collective reading and #TolstoyTogether attracted worldwide attention. It seemed at the time so nice to imagine that we’d get through coronavirus by reading together.

That was before we all realized the full extent of how ill prepared the U.S was for a pandemic, how crazy our leadership is, and how disproportionately the poor and people of color have been impacted by the disease. Now we’re in the midst of reopening even though we are still a long way from being done with COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter protests make something as silly as taking time to read a long Russian classic about how powerful egomaniacs can bring their countries’ people to their knees while celebrating how great they themselves think they are seem pointless.

I wrapped up a few days early this afternoon. The main characters in the book are almost all Russian, French, or other European aristocrats. While they grapple with matters of faith, financial “ruin” and war, their problems are not too bad compared with the problems of the few peasants and serfs who appear in the story. Such as being owned by the rich characters. Or being mistreated or harmed. For example, Platon Karataev, who is a peasant and all around good person, has one of the more horrific things in the book happen to him.

Tolstoy interjects several times throughout the novel with nonfiction sections where he holds forth on various topics, mainly the meaning of history and man’s role in it. He points out that if a great man says he’s great but doesn’t actually pay attention to good and evil, he’s not so great, for example. And he notes at the end of the book that trying to make sense of history through these “great” men’s lives (because when he was writing no one would have bothered making sense of history through women’s lives, even noble women) you miss the fact that the story of humans is really stitched together from little stories of individuals, and that because of free will, many of those stories are not great. And therefore, making a grand study of themes of history without considering the illogical acts of willful people, whether historical figures or ordinary people, is fruitless.

At least I think that’s what he was saying. By the time I got to the end I was a little irritable from following actual 2020 egomaniacs with no consideration for good and evil and contemporary illogical acts of willful people in the news. I got a little tangled up in the idea that because of free will, mankind is not free — I get it, I think? The free will of the powerful keeps us all under their thumbs, so the rest of us have free will but only to a point because of the systems that keep us all in place, but is that really what Tolstoy, himself one of the rich and influential who historians credit with the course of history, meant? I am sure if I thought harder about it I’d make more sense of it, but again, since that truth (whether it’s what Tolstoy meant or not) is making itself all too known at the moment in the real world, that’s enough to process right now.

The novel itself was enjoyable enough. Pierre is an interesting character, and Princess Maria. I found it annoying that the kind and good hearted Sonja, an orphan whose true love ends up marrying someone else for money (although he comes to love a rich woman who is also good hearted), is left without a family of her own, more or less waiting on the young and old in the family who raised her.

But that’s probably realistic, and Tolstoy seems to have enjoyed demystifying people and showing them as they are. Even the good hearted have their moments of scheming and/or feeling selfish. And he doesn’t generalize — not all aristocrats are self-absorbed jerks and not all peasants and serfs are good like Karataev. People in War & Peace are mostly excitable and foolish when they are young. Things don’t always go to plan. It’s not a fairy tale, by any means, and Tolstoy is certainly not a fan of neat and happy endings.

I am glad I read it, and I appreciate the efforts of those spearheading #TolstoyTogether. Especially the reminder that everyone can find 30 minutes to read, and if you do so, you can read even a doorstopper of a classic like War & Peace. It’s just not necessarily as fun to read Tolstoy during a global existential crisis as I thought it might be.

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Abi Daré grew up in Nigeria and lives in the UK. Her debut novel, The Girl With the Louding Voice,  is about a fourteen year old, Adunni, who is sold to an older man as a third wife after her mother dies, when her father drinks away what money they have and cannot pay the rent. She is heartbroken to have to leave her younger brother, but her best friend tries to tell her being a wife will be wonderful.

It’s not. Her husband repeatedly rapes her and his senior wife hates her. But his middle wife is kind and does her best to protect Adunni, giving her an herbal concoction that she says will keep her from having a child. Adunni is trying to make the best of her life but everything changes in an instant when a tragedy befalls the middle wife and Adunni is terrified of being blamed. She sees no alternative but to run.

And that’s where I thought the book would take a more positive turn (I had read reviews that noted this was a humane and uplifting book). I expected that when Adunni left her village, she would find modern Nigeria and get a job and begin to understand that life could be different. However, first she ends up being taken to work as a housemaid for a mean, vain woman who neither feeds her adequately nor pays her, and worse, beats her and tells Adunni and everyone else within earshot, every chance she gets, that Adunni is illiterate and worthless.

While this is a book mainly about the perils of a patriarchy, it’s important to note that Adunni must overcome the perils of working for an entitled rich woman as well. Yes, we eventually learn that Adunni’s boss, Big Mama, is herself a victim of abuse. Daré clearly wants to illuminate the vicious cycle abuse creates. But there are other vacuous and selfish rich people in the book, so I think there is some social critique going on as well.

Anyway, Adunni works hard, and befriends the others working in the house, who can’t help but like this good natured girl. When her employer, Big Madam, hosts a party for other women, Adunni experiences another life changing moment. While there is a great deal of brutality in this book, a series of kind, humane acts by strangers eventually helps Adunni help herself out of despair. Daré is unsparing in describing the horrors of modern slavery, but she also sees a spark of hope in humanity.

Adunni is smart and determined and draws on the memory of her mother, who was determined to provide an education for her. She vows she’ll get that education and eventually be a teacher, for other girls whose families don’t think they need schooling. Adunni notes, “you must do good for other peoples, even if you are not well, even if the whole world around you is not well.” That resonated with me right now.

While I thought the end was a little bit predictable, that’s understandable in a debut. And honestly, I’ll take a slightly predictable but uplifting ending over brutal art right now.

 

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I first read Sarah Moss‘s memoir about living and teaching in Iceland, Names for the Sea, and then her novel Night Waking. I really like Moss’s writing, and admire the research and connections with history that go into her books as well as the recurring theme of gender roles. So when I saw she had a newish (I thought it was new, but it turns out it came out in the US in January 2019, and in 2018 in the UK) short novel set in the north of England, Ghost Wall, I got on the eBook waiting list at my library.

Ghost Wall has the characteristics I cited above. It’s really creepy and tense, however, which I didn’t realize, and which isn’t a) what I’m looking for these days — no more tension, please! nor b) my cup of tea, normally. Still, I stuck it out to the end, which is still pretty tense, but slightly hopeful. Kind of like real life.

The story centers around Silvie, a teenager in 1970s England whose dad is a self-taught prehistory buff (for reasons, Moss implies, that are not entirely academic, but possibly xenophobic). He’s also an opinionated bully who controls what Silvie and her mother do. Including accompanying him on a field trip with a college professor and a handful of his students to live as if they are in the Iron Age. They wear scratchy tunics, forage for nuts, berries, roots, and mushrooms, butcher rabbits, gather mussels, and cook what they hunt and gather in a cauldron over a fire. Silvie and her mother do, that is. The men make plans for further reenactment activities.

Silvie admires the only female student, Molly, and even possibly develops a crush on her. Molly is strong, educated, and comfortable stripping down to her lacy — and matching! — undergarments to go swimming. Silvie, repressed, afraid, without any idea of her future, is enchanted. Her father’s disapproval manifests itself in a belting, and from there, the plot centers around his and the professor’s darker reenactments, Silvie’s inability to extricate herself from their plans, and Molly’s interference.

In between, you may learn a thing or two about subsistence (which Moss does not romanticize a bit), bogs (which you don’t want to fall in), and the depressing idea that mankind has always been nationalist (or at least tribal) and pretty brutal (especially to women). It’s a gripping story, that would provide plenty for a book club to discuss and is a quick read. Just be ready for tension.

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I was looking for a break from heavy fiction (War & Peace, which I’m still reading a bit at a time for #Tolstoytogether) and nonfiction (see my last blog post) so I browsed the library’s apps for eBooks. Olga Tokarczuk‘s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a darkly funny mystery, featuring a former bridge engineer, Janina Duszejko, whose Ailment (possibly diabetes?) caused her to give up her exotic international work. She now works very part time as a cartetaker for other people’s country homes and as a primary school English teacher in a Polish village near the Czech Republic border. She also works on translating Blake with a former student, calculates horoscopes (who knew there was so much match in astrology?) and defends animal rights to the aggravation of the area’s hunters. Because sometimes she destroys their hunting pulpits.

When three prominent local men die in the area, Mrs. Duszejko sets out to determine who the killer is, and becomes certain that astrology holds the answer. She sees several signs in the dead men’s horoscopes that indicate animals may be the killers, and she tries to alert the police to this, despite her friends’ warnings that this makes her appear even more eccentric than she already did. Even though the book was first published in 2009, it feels both older and newer; at first I thought perhaps it was taking place in the 80s, but then I realized that one of the characters used a mobile phone early in the book. And towards the end, Mrs. Duszejko notes, “Newspapers rely on keeping us in a constant state of anxiety, on diverting our emotions away from the things that really matter to us.” Which felt like something we just talked about this week at my house.

In some ways Mrs. Duszejko is a sympathetic character; she seems to be very loyal and kind to her friends, is somewhat sweetly quirky, and stands in opposition to cruelty and toxic masculinity. But in other ways she is hard to like; cranky, rude, irrational. The book was enjoyable, but as is usually the case, I found it hard to get through, because e-reading is not my favorite. The ending was not what I was expecting, which is good where murders are concerned.

I’d say, look for it in print, from your local bookstore. It would be a really interesting read for a book club.

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I wanted to love On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Maybe in a less fraught time I would have. I recognize it as beautiful, imaginative, and important for representing immigrant experience and gay coming- of-age experience. Maybe I’m just weary of pain and suffering — in literature, in the news, in the world.

This is the story of Little Dog, a young Vietnamese American boy who falls in love with a white boy, Trevor, a little bit older and just as scarred. Both have single parents. Little Dog lives with his mother and intermittently, also his aunt and Grandmother, all of whom have trauma from wartime and postwar experiences and also live with mental illness. They are poor; the book also touches on some of what the a series in the New York Times exposed about immigrant nail salon workers.  Trevor lives in a trailer with his Dad. They are also poor, and traumatized by loss and violence and pain. As in so many families with trauma, they all hurt each other.

The story ranges from the 90s (with a few older flashbacks reflecting Little Dog’s family’s experiences in Vietnam) into the 2000s and touches on a few of the more recent cultural traumas, like 9/11 (very briefly) and the opioid crisis (which plays a major part in the story). So. Tough to read.

It’s meant to be a letter from Little Dog to his mother, but not one she’ll read (she can’t read). But it isn’t a letter that follows a narrative arc or tells a straightforward story. There are many asides, including, woven throughout, some digressions about Monarch butterflies.

Lovely? Even a little bit warmly humorous? Yes. Try this:

“My reflection warped over the storefront glass as we rode. The stoplights blinked yellow and the only sound was the clicking spokes beneath us. We rode back and forth like that, and for a stupid moment it felt like that strip of concrete called Main Street was all we ever possessed, all that held us. Mist came down, difracted the streetlights into huge, van Gogh orbs. Trevor, ahead of me, stood up on his bike, arms out on both sides, and shouted, ‘I’m flying! Hey, I’m flying!”

Yes, like the scene from Titanic, which Vuong references in the next sentence for those who might not make the connection. Perhaps he is a prize-winning poet, his editors wanted to ensure that readers of the future will get the reference, when Titanic may not be as familiar.

As I said, I get the literary merit. And beneath the sorrow, it’s a love story, about young love, and about Little Dog’s family. I didn’t enjoy it. I think that’s ok. It would hard to be human and enjoy this much pain.

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A few years ago I wrote here about Kerry Hudson’s debut, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My MaI described it as “squirm inducing”  and said “The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it.”

The same could be said for Douglas Stuart’s debut, Shuggie Bain. It’s the devastating story of Hugh, nicknamed Shuggie, who is growing up wit an alcoholic mother in public housing in Glasgow in the 1980s. There are a few glimmers of hope. But, having just read Peggy Orenstein’s Atlantic article, “The Miseducation of the American Boy: Why boys crack up at rape jokes, think having a girlfriend is “gay,” and still can’t cry—and why we need to give them new and better models of masculinity,” I found the toxic masculinity in Shuggie Bain hard to face. It was a reminder that as bad as we think things are now, they’ve been worse.

Even the teachers and coaches are mean to Shuggie. None of the other mothers look after him. No one does. I cringed through the depictions of sexual abuse, misogyny, homophobia, dysfunction, violence, and neglect. In fact at one point I thought “Why am I reading this?”

But, as with Hudson’s book, I read it to understand. To walk in someone else’s shoes, as I said when I read Tony Hogan. And to feel, in the end, happy that each of the three Bain kids gets out. In their way, the siblings love each other. And Shuggie is not entirely alone; Leanne, his lone friend, is a character I would love to see more of.

While Shuggie Bain is, as several reviewers note, a book about love, resilience, and strength, you only get to that after reading through a great deal of pain and suffering. Not for the faint hearted. But Shuggie is a character well worth knowing.

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