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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

This was the second of two birthday gifts by Vita Sackville-West (in November I reviewed The Edwardians). All Passion Spent is about Lady Slane, the eighty-eight year old recent widow of Lord Slane, former prime minister and former viceroy of India. It’s a short novel, only 169 pages, and covers a year in the old woman’s life. When the novel begins, her husband’s body is still in the house but their children have gathered to begin planning their mother’s future. She acquiesces to their plans for the funeral, and for her to distribute her jewels (which she doesn’t do as they hope) and sell the family home.

But then she quietly announces she is moving to a home in Hampstead which she recalls seeing for rent thirty years earlier. Remarkably, she makes this plan without knowing it is empty once again. Escaping her meddlesome offspring she takes the underground to Hampstead, meets the landlord/owner, Mr. Bucktrout, and makes plans to move in with her maid, Genoux. Baffled but somewhat relieved to have her out of their hair, the family all retreat. And Lady Slane and Genoux, along with their new friends Mr. Bucktrout and his handyman Mr. Gosheron, spend quiet, happy days in Hampstead.

Lady Slane spends time ruminating on her youth, and this is where the story really gets interesting. She had always been an obedient, introspective daughter, never revealing to her parents that she really wished to be an artist. Now she sits in the sun in Hampstead remembering her secret desire, and the way that she was swept into engagement and marriage. It’s interesting that Sackville-West, who defied her own parents wishes that she make a “good” match with a very wealthy man of ancient title and instead married Harold Nicholson, whose family’s title was only as old as Victoria and who had little income, so aptly describes the opposite experience, of a young woman doing what’s expected.

Into this reflective time of Lady Slane’s life, an old acquaintance, Mr. FitzGeorge, who turns out to be a friend of Kay, the son she feels is most like her, comes into her life and becomes her friend, awakening long forgotten emotions and memories. Sackville-West writes, “It disturbed her old-age peacefulness. It revived the perplexities of her youth. It shocked her slightly, and pleased her more than it shocked. It was the very last thing she had ever expected — she whose days were now made up of retrospect and of only one anticipation.”

There are some delicious twists from this point on that I can’t give away. I adored the characters, even the loathsome, squabbling, money-grubbing family members. I loved the descriptions of Lady Slane’s life and homes. The story is charming. And the ending is just right. There’s a scene with a museum director, a police inspector, and Kay towards the end of the book that is funny and dramatic and dark in the excellent way of English literary novels. It’s a book that needs to be filmed (I understand there is an adaptation from 1986, but I can imagine one with Hugh Grant as Kay).

Smart, funny, insightful, an examination of the roles of women in Edwardian society. It was just what I needed after a difficult read.

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My book club chose Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett for our February meeting. I approached it with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. Curiosity because the book was nominated for and/or won several major awards, and because I enjoy the reading recommendations of my book club friends. Trepidation because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about the subject: the impact of mental illness on a father (John) and son (Michael) and on their family members (mother Margaret, siblings Celia and Alec). I spend a fair amount of my life energy thinking about mental illness already. It’s not something I want to do in my free time. Or that I felt entirely prepared to do. My instincts were right all the way around.

I was prepared to read Imagine Me Gone quickly and let it go until the book club meets. Like ripping off a bandaid, I told a friend. As I read, I lined up some things not to like about it: the first pages clearly give away what’s going to happen. There are alternating chapters told by different characters, which is not my favorite narrative structure, so I was ready to dislike that, or find it uneven. And there’s a verbal barrage of music information that struck me as a little show-offish.  Also Celia’s and Alec’s lives seem barely explored, and Margaret’s not much more.

But no matter how I tried not to like it, and no matter how raw and painful the story is, I couldn’t entirely dislike this book. It’s been several days since I finished reading Imagine Me Gone and I am still thinking about the characters almost every day. I concede that it’s probably for the best that Haslett hints at what’s coming as the novel opens. Hearing the points of view of the characters in turn definitely helps illuminate the wide ranging impact mental illness has on the family.  And all that detail about music and musicians is key to understanding the way Michael, the eldest son in the family, sees the world.

I still can’t say I enjoyed reading this book. It’s a hard book about painful topics, and it lays bare how much the mental health care system gets wrong in a way that I can’t quite fully deal with. I do think the alternating chapters were a little jumpy in places and that some of the characters didn’t seem to get enough attention — although that may have been a deliberate attempt to show them eclipsed by John’s and Michael’s mental illness. In particular, I alternately admired and felt frustrated with Margaret (as do her children) and while Haslett lets her finer qualities show a bit at the end, I found it hard to see her angry, unsupported and unsure of what to do for so long.

Do I recommend Imagine Me Gone? I think so. It’s about being human, just in a lot of really painful ways, and it is oozing that “big T” Truth that tells a reader things they always knew but never thought of in quite that way, both marks of good fiction. But if you are living close to the world of mental illness, consider yourself warned that you may feel sick by the end. I do look forward to discussing it, I think.

 

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The former “Teen the Younger”* gave me Queen of the Underworld for Christmas. I’d heard of but not read Gail Godwin. I seem to say that a good deal lately, don’t I? When this novel opens, Emma Gant is freshly graduated from University of North Carolina and is off on a train to her first job, as a reporter for the Miami Star. Her mother’s college friend, who Emma calls “Aunt Tess,” lives there, and helps Emma get settled into a hotel near the Star‘s offices, run by and full of Cuban exiles who have escaped Castro’s revolution. Her only other friend in Miami is actually her lover, the much older Paul Nightingale, who hired her as a waitress at his North Carolina inn the previous summer.

That backdrop sets the scene for Emma’s flowering life. Godwin infuses her heroine with the verve and hunger of an ambitious young writer hoping to make her mark, and fills her life with incredibly colorful characters — Paul and Tess both have interesting and complicated lives, and so do the many Cubans and fellow journalists Emma meets in her first ten days in Florida. And she meets the infamous titular character, a country girl from Georgia who was duped and set up as a madam by a young mobster.

Now known as Mrs. Brown, this former madam becomes Emma’s creative outlet, the story she can’t write for the paper but dreams of writing anyway. The setting of the novel is brief — covering under two months of Emma’s life — but gives us a view into her hopes for a novel, her visions of a future for herself, and the world in south Florida in 1959. It was a good read, interesting, educational (for me — I didn’t know much about the time and place, or the beginning of Castro’s rule), with a compelling heroine and no pat ending. In the afterword Godwin describes it as an “apprentice novel” and talks about other such works, and that essay alone is worth reading. The novel was a good escape into another uncertain and challenging time from our own. What a delight to receive a present like this!

*Longtime bookconscious readers know that for several years, I used to write about what my offspring, who I eventually called Teen the Elder and Teen the Younger in this space, and my spouse, The Computer Scientist, read as well as my own reading.

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Librarians read lots of reviews, so I’d heard about Jon McGregor. But it wasn’t until a friend in my book group recommended Reservoir 13 that I finally got around to reading his work. I order fiction for my library so I knew the book, but I didn’t think I’d want to read it because it was about a missing teen. Only it’s not, as my friend noted when she raved about it. It’s really about the people who live in an English village where a teen goes missing.

McGregor’s prose is meticulous — he doesn’t talk about bugs and birds and plants, but springtails (which I learned, when I looked them up, are technically “hexapods,” not bugs), fieldfares, and teasels. He notes the passing of seasons by things like when it’s lambing time, when the badgers mate, and when fox cubs leave their dens. And also in human terms like when it’s time for the well-dressing, when the allotments are planted or harvested and what grows when in them, and when it’s time for the annual cricket match against a neighboring village or the village pantomime.  All this detailed observation adds to the rich pattern of the writing.

And that writing is melodious, almost musical, with certain refrains repeating again and again through the passing years of the novel. For example, this description of the girl: “Her name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer.” And phrases, like, “At midnight when the year turned . . . .” And “Cathy knocked on Mr. Wilson’s door and asked whether Nelson needed a walk . . . .”

This repetition, along with the turning of the seasons and the years, creates a sense of the ebb and flow of village life. Challenges and joys come and go, but things go on, the people who remain manage, look after each other, keep things running. Characters rise and fall — the focus isn’t on one or two people with minor supporting characters but instead on bits of many villagers’ lives. Some remain throughout the book, some move on, or fade into the background.

If you like a strong narrative, clear answers, or a lot of action, this book won’t be for you, but if you want a meditative, thoughtful read about the basic decency and humanity of people with all their faults and foibles, and the way people survive the few among them who lack that basic decency, this is a beautiful read.

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When the Nobel prize in literature was announced this year I thought to myself, “there’s an author I always intended to read.” For no good reason, I started with Never Let Me Go rather than Ishiguro’s most recent novel. It’s a lovely book, full of the emotional force Ishiguro’s writing is known for, and like all really good fiction, it’s about being human. which is ironic, since Never Let Me Go is about people who aren’t considered fully human.

The three main characters, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, grew up together at a boarding school in England called Hailsham. As the novel opens, Kathy, now an adult, is reminiscing about their childhood, the “guardians” who ran the school, and the experiences they had after leaving Hailsham to begin their adult lives. Kathy works as a carer, and ends up caring for both Ruth and Tommy. Slowly readers begin to understand who and what the three characters are, why there is no mention of their families, and what their purpose in life is.

I know I’m being vague but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprising truth for you if you haven’t read it. Suffice to say that Ishiguro writes of a time and place that could be in the past or the present or the future, of people who live in England but could be living anywhere, with the same concerns and interests of people everywhere. This is not accidental, as he has stated, “I am a writer who wishes to write international novels. What is an ‘international’ novel? I believe it to be one, quite simply, that contains a vision of life that is of importance to people of varied backgrounds around the world.”

It’s this universality that I found most interesting as I read what could be considered a dystopian novel. There is nothing strange about this world Ishiguro creates — it is all too familiar. The emotions his characters feel are things we’ve felt too. And yet Never Let Me Go deals with a society that has decided collectively to use certain people for the benefit of others in a chilling and inhumane way.

Which makes it sound like horror or science fiction, which it isn’t. Just as it is unreal and yet ordinary and recognizable, it is scary without being creepy. Evocative, yes, maudlin, no. Hard to describe? Yes. A very good read, thoughtful and thought provoking. It made me want to discuss it with someone.

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I often find books to read when I am in the book stacks at work for some other reason — weeding, shelf-reading, or putting a display together. Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is, by Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, is one example; I was looking for books for an Advent display and saw it calling out to me.

The introduction explains, “One of the oldest anthems of the church, alleluia means simply, ‘All hail to the One who is.'” Each chapter examines something to say alleluia for. Some, such as faith, or life, or peace, seem obviously alleluia-worthy. Others are not things that seem at first like they would elicit the word that is “the acme of human joy,” such as doubt, conflict, suffering, or death. But these two erudite and pastoral people manage to make clear and relatable the ways we could, and possibly even should, say alleluia in nearly every situation.

My favorite chapter is on Exodus, in which Rowan Williams describes the Ten Commandments as a guide for creating a “mature human society.” Williams has a way of taking things you may have heard about since you were a child and shedding new light on them that never fails to open my eyes and heart to something new. Even if you’re not particularly religious, you’ve probably heard about the ten commandments. Williams says of them:

“Understandably, they begin by making us think about our relation with God. Don’t let anything get between you and the living God; don’t try to substitute for the living God the object and images you think you can comfortably cope with or control; don’t try to use God for your own purposes, as if he had given you magic words to manipulate the world. Be sure that the each week you spend time with God that is free from the pressures of business, problem- solving, or acquisition. And then we are told to turn to our fellow humans. What is due to those who gave us life? Be grateful and let it show. What is due to others who seek the same liberty as ourselves? Never imagine that anyone is indispensable. Keep the promises you have made and honor the promises of others in the world of human relations. Remember that the security you seek is what all want, and don’t set out to invade. Don’t imagine that what makes someone else secure and happy is exactly what you need to make you secure and happy if only you could get it from them.”

He goes on to say that “This is what responsibility amounts to. It is a deep concern not to lose sight of the radical otherness of God and an equally deep concern that we should both recognise what everyone desires and see the need for respect towards each other as each discovers this in diverse ways.”

I don’t know about you, but for me that is a fresh way of considering things. We lived in the deep South for a few years, and at the time there was a lot of discussion about the public display of the ten commandments and never did I hear anyone arguing that we needed them to be reminded of our “deep concern” and “respect” for one another, or our responsibility to “never imagine that anyone is indispensable.” This all seems brilliantly, bracingly clear to me. The whole book is full of this kind of illuminating, but very accessible, thinking.

In a chapter on faith, Chittister writes, “Faith is belief that God is leading us to become in tune with the universe, however different we see ourselves to be.”  And, if that isn’t enough to ponder, “Faith is trust in the unknown goodness of life without demand for certainty in the science of it.”  Clear and you knew it, but new, right? More challenging, but for me, very beautiful and true, is this: “Faith is confidence in the darkness, for the willingness to trust the deep-down humanity of others as well as in our own may be the deepest act of faith we can possibly devise.” If that seems impossible, I think what Chittister is saying is that we’re created in the image of God, who is love, and if we accept that as our humanity, we can see that in others too, even when we’re in some kind of darkness. This is not only Christian theology, either. Namaste means recognizing god in ourselves, seeing the god in others.

Anyway, thinking about this stuff deserves time and space, so this is a book probably better suited to slow digestion — maybe a chapter every Sunday afternoon, for example — but I read it  over the last week. I highly recommend it.

The Computer Scientist and I are celebrating 28 years of marriage next week, so got away for a couple of days to a lovely spot in Maine. It was cold, windy, and snowy, the perfect weather for reading a book straight through. I read Ali Smith’s Autumn this way. I chose it because my elder son encouraged me to give year-end “best book” lists a try after I scoffed that I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should read. I decided he was right, I was being judgmental. Autumn is on many such lists.

I don’t think I’ve read Smith before. I thoroughly enjoyed Autumn and I think I will seek out her other books. Autumn is about a young woman, Elisabeth, who was profoundly influenced by her next door neighbor, Daniel, as a child. He was older than other adults she knew then, although she insists not old, and is now 101, and “asleep” in a care home. Elisabeth hasn’t seen Daniel for 10 years and is moved to visit him regularly as she remembers the time they spent together. She believes he is not comatose and can hear her, and she reads books to him. Literature is something they shared — he always greeted her by asking, “What you reading?”

The novel switches points of view between Daniel’s dreams, memories, and impressions in his unconscious mind (very much like in Tinkers), and Elisabeth’s thoughts and experiences. She is feeling unmoored after the Brexit vote and goes to stay with her mother. It’s while she’s there she realizes Daniel is in the home, and as she processes what it means to be herself in the new world Britain is facing, she revisits her memories of Daniel and how he opened her eyes to what became a new world for her then, especially by introducing her to art.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that readers learn of how very much Daniel impacted the trajectory of Elisabeth’s life, and how she comes to reconcile what wasn’t a great relationship with her mother. It’s a very funny and also not-so-funny social commentary as well. The sections about Elisabeth trying to get her passport renewed and trying to make an appointment at a health clinic will make you nod and  maybe chuckle. There’s a hilarious and also chilling thread about a fenced off place — possibly an immigrant detainee center — going up near her mother’s village and how she and her mother each in their own way come to interact with the people behind the fences that go up. And a very touching outcome to her mother appearing on a reality TV show about people spotting treasures in junk shops.

All in all Autumn is a lovely, moving, thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Is it one of the best I read this year? There are enough of those lists in the world. But I will tell you it’s a good read.

 

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One of my book club friends mentioned Less was what she wanted to read next and it’s on several “best” of the year lists. Which I have a long history of quibbling with — I don’t like them because I feel like people should read whatever they like, which is not necessarily what critics like, but the former Teen the Elder convinced me to to stop judging and just have fun with them. Good advice. End of digression. Anyway, it was on the shelf at my library, and I hadn’t read Andrew Sean Greer‘s work before, so I decided to give it a try.

Less refers in part to Arthur Less, the hero of the story, whose former longtime lover, Freddy, is about to get married. Less decides to avoid the wedding by accepting a series of trips — some related to his work as a writer, some for pleasure — and string them together into a months long exodus from San Francisco, where he and Freddy live. He’ll venture from California to New York to interview a more famous author, to Mexico for a conference, Italy for a prize ceremony, Germany to teach a writing class, Paris on an unexpected layover, Morocco for a 50th birthday of the friend of a friend (Less will turn 50 there, too), then India for a writing retreat and Japan to write about kaiseki meals.

Less is a writer of lesser known novels, and in New York his agent tells him that his longtime publisher has rejected the most recent one. He’s also most well known for being the former partner of a Pulitzer prize winning poet. The reader begins to realize that this status as less-than is the defining characteristic of Arthus Less. Also he’s the type of person who bumbles into minor mishaps such as not being able to get into his German apartment, speaking foreign languages badly, losing his favorite suit to a tailor’s dog, getting locked in a room when a 400 year old door is stuck, and losing his luggage. Although really, who could travel that far without a bag being misrouted? He also bumbles into more pleasant surprises, which are so delightful I won’t spoil them for you here.

All of this endears Less to readers and to his friends. His story resonated with me in a way because I too faced that milestone birthday this year, and the wistfulness it can incite. My life hasn’t been as colorful or accomplished as Less’s but I get the feelings. Greer’s writing is beautiful and original without being overdone in that “look at me, I’m writing unconventional fiction” way that can be annoying. While the narrative is linear with a lot of passages looking back at earlier times in Less’s life, the narrator asserts himself as someone who knows Less, rather than as an impersonal third party, a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. But the narrator also turns out to be a character described in the third person throughout the novel as well, which is fun.

The language is fun too — describing Less trying a new outfit in Paris boutique, Greer writes, “He looks like a Fire Island supervillain rapper.”  There’s a wonderful passage where Less loses the “wedding” ring his famous author partner gave him (pre-marriage equality) in a bin of mushrooms and a group of other men think he’s going to be in trouble with his wife and try to help him find it. In Japan he sees “tourist buses parked in a row along the river their great side mirrors like the horns of caterpillars” from a rental car that “basically feels like an enameled toaster.” All the details of his travels are also delightful.

Less seems like a sad book, or at least a melancholy one, at first. But as you journey with Less things begin to look up and the ending is just lovely. It’s a book about a flawed human bumbling along but mostly doing fine. And even being happy here and there. A good read.

 

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