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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

It’s hard to know how best to describe The Essex Serpent. Sarah Perry‘s writing reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson’s. This is a historical novel, set in the late 1800s. It’s also an examination of the nineteenth (and sadly, the 20th and 21st) century’s tension between faith and reason, religion and science. It’s a social commentary on the role of women in society, and on the responsibility of the wealthy and powerful to the poor, and on the way social welfare, such as housing programs, is often laced with paternalism and judgement. It’s about love in all its complexity and variety, especially as manifested in parenthood, friendship, romance, desire, and social conscience. It’s about fear, longing, joy, and despair. It’s about mythology and mob thinking. It’s about the beauty and also the strangeness of the natural world and our perception of it. It’s about illness and medicine, in particular nineteenth century surgery and the impact of tuberculosis on a patient’s mind. It’s about how a child likely on the autism spectrum would have been viewed in the nineteenth century (a bit eccentric and not prone to affection) It’s about the pros and cons of city and country life and what we need to make a life. It’s a book that hits on all the Big Ideas of being human without hammering the reader over the head with them.

Cora is a a smart, unconventional woman, a recent widow who is glad to be free of her cruel and abusive husband, and who would rather be tramping around in a man’s coat and boots looking for fossils but moves easily in a world of silk and diamonds and expensive treats from Harrod’s. She ends up in Essex with her companion, Martha, a socialist and fair housing advocate, and her son, Francis (the one who seems to me to be autistic). Their circle of friends includes the Reverend William Ransome, (who reminds me a bit of an older, more settled version of Sidney Chambers, nineteenth century style) and his wife Stella, who Cora and Martha meet through London friends, as well as the doctor, Luke, who attended Cora’s late husband and who makes history performing surgery on a stabbing victim’s heart, and Luke’s best friend George (mostly referred to by his last name, Spencer).

The way Perry intertwines her characters’ lives is brilliant. And the way she weaves through their lives the mystery of the Essex serpent is also well done; even those characters who aren’t directly interested in whether the beast exists are impacted by “the trouble” it causes. I loved that Perry’s inspiration was a real pamphlet (published in the 1600s and and reprinted in the 1800s as well as recently) alleging “Strange News Out of Essex.”  And I loved the language — here’s a passage that caught my eye (and ear) as I read it last night, as Martha is startled to see Francis in Stella’s lap: “What Martha later recalled most vividly of those last few fog-white days was this: William’s wife and Cora’s son, fit together like broken pieces soldered on the seam.” It’s not a straightforward narrative, as Perry sprinkles her text with the letters her characters write to each other. But it’s not a straight up epistolary novel either, as there are long passages without letters.

I loved it, and I loved how it ended — Cora has undergone change without being transformed beyond recognition, there’s no pat conclusion of the chaos she’s wrought or the pain she’s experienced, but there’s hope. A thoroughly entertaining and also thought provoking book — the kind of read that makes you long to talk it over with someone who’s read it too. And yes, it’s another of Simon’s recommendations from an episode (maybe several) of The Readers! Thanks, Simon.

 

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Lest you think all of my reading lately has come from The Readers podcast — see my previous post. But yes, this is another that Simon and Thomas discussed and Simon said he hoped to read by the end of the year. Since the plan is that I start an MSc in Science Communication at University of Edinburgh (don’t get excited, it’s a distance learning course) in September, I figure my reading for pleasure year is almost over. Pachinko is a big thick historical novel, so when I saw it on the “recently returned” shelf a few days after I heard that podcast, I thought, “no time like the present.”

Min Jin Lee is about my age and writes in her author note that this novel has been with her for thirty years — she had the idea in college, when she heard a guest speaker talk about Koreans living in Japan more or less stateless  because of WWII and the Korean War. Pachinko was informed by that story, and is the tale of Sunja, daughter of a poor widow who runs a boarding house in Yeongdo near Busan in what is today South Korea. Sunja is beloved, but uneducated. In her innocence and ignorance she is taken advantage of by a wealthy Korean man who lives primarily in Osaka but visits Yeongdo on business. Isak, a well born Korean man who is on his way to be a Presbyterian minister in Osaka, convalesces from tuberculosis at the boarding house and feels moved to help Sunja.

From there the story traces Sunja’s life and that of her family, in particular her two sons Mozasu and Noa, to 1989. It’s about the Koreans who were caught between warring nations, immigrants even if they were born in Japan like Sunja’s children and grandchildren, required to register as aliens even though they have not known any other country. It’s also about women; “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” Yangjin, Sunja’s mother, tells her and we hear that repeated over the decades. Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee must do what their husbands tell them to, and yet when war devastates the family it is these two who support and sustain the family. And it’s about love, especially first love, which impacts several characters, and maternal love, a sacrificial love so strong that Sunja worries it is idolatrous.

Lee suffuses her novel with sensual details — the way cloth feels, the smell and taste of food, the sounds and smells of various neighborhoods, vivid details about the way characters look. All of this drew me further into the stories of the characters’ lives. My only disappointment was that a subplot about some minor characters, Mozasu’s best friend Haruki and his wife Ayame, sort of trailed off with no resolution. Otherwise this was an enjoyable read, and one that took me to a place and time I hadn’t explored before.

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I picked up Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather because as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been listening to The Readers, and earlier this summer Thomas recommended it. Believe it or not I’ve never read Willa Cather before, and my library had this book, so I thought I’d give it a try. It took me a couple of weeks because of everything else going on in our lives right now, and because it’s a slower read as any classics are. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Shadows on the Rock is set in colonial Quebec city (or town as it was then), for one thing; the events in the book take place between 1697-1713, with some backstory referring to even earlier times in France. I can definitely say this isn’t a time or place I’ve read about before. Some of Cather’s characters are real historical figures, including Bishop Laval and the Count who served as governor of New France, Comte de Frontenac. As far as I could tell the main characters, the count’s apothecary Euclide Auclair and his daughter Cecile, who is twelve when the book opens, are fictional.

Cecile is a devout and compassionate girl who looks out for Jacques, the neglected little boy whose mother is poor and disreputable. Cecile also cares for Blinker, a cross-eyed man who helps with chores at the Auclair’s home and works for the baker next door, providing him food and drink as her late mother did. In fact she has taken on her mother’s role as homemaker, cleaning and cooking for her father, and helping him in his shop. Euclide studies Canadian plants’ medicinal use and considers himself a progressive man of science; his refusal to bleed patients doesn’t sit well with the town barber/surgeon or some of the colonists.

Cather paints a picture of the hardship people faced living in New France, especially outside of Montreal and Quebec in the wilderness, where priests were dispatched to convert the native people. She portrays the natural beauty of the place as well, and the colonists’ dependence on the successful arrival of ships from France to bring staples and luxuries alike. I’m very intrigued and would like to read more about colonial life and also would like to visit Quebec City.

I definitely would recommend this and I do also want to read more Willa Cather!

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I read a couple of good books and listened to a third last week as part of the book bingo challenges I’m doing at the library where I work and my local public library. But, The Computer Scientist has planted the idea in my head that maybe it would be good for me to deliberately not finish either book bingo. I haven’t decided for sure, but I’m reading whatever I want this week whether it fits a bingo card or not.

I read a graphic novel from the offspring formerly known as Teen the Younger, Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley, who wrote the Scott Pilgrim series. It’s the story of Katie, a young woman who is a chef with a successful restaurant, about to open a new one. Things are not going well with the renovation (something I, in the midst of a kitchen remodel that hit a much more minor snag this week, can identify with), or with the rest of her life. A strange encounter in the night leaves her with mushrooms and a note that tells her she can write down a mistake, eat a mushroom, go to sleep, and wake up with a new life.

Like any good fairy tale there’s are a couple of “witch” figures — house spirits, in this case. The heroine has to make several mistakes with the magic and things have to get much worse before they get better. It is a very enjoyable read, with interesting and vivid art, that moves along quickly.

The other book I read, The Purple Swamp Hen is a short story collection by Penelope Lively, whose How It All Began I loved, as well as Dancing Fish and Ammonites.  I love short fiction and this collection did not disappoint. The title story is one of my favorites; it’s told from the point of view of the unusual bird depicted in a Pompeii fresco, who tells about the decadent and mostly unkind humans in villa before the Vesuvius eruption. Which is not as weird as it sounds. I enjoyed the whole book really, but another standout was “The Bridge,” which deals with a long married couple living separate lives mainly because they have parallel memories of a tragedy, which allows one to move on and the other to remain stuck with holding that memory at bay. Lively is a genius at depicting human nature in all its faulty glory in a few brief pages.

I listened to the audiobook version of  One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva. It’s the story of Alex Khederian, an Armenian American teen whose strict parents are both a source of pride and frustration. Alex has to go to summer school even though he passed all his classes, because his mom and dad want him to be in honors classes like his older brother. There, Alex gets to know Ethan, one of the charismatic older students from the rowdy crowd at school known as the drop outs. Alex admits they’re not much in the way of troublemakers given that he lives in a fairly affluent school district in New Jersey. But Ethan drags Alex on a forbidden adventure in the City and in no time they are inseparable and Alex is taking chances he never dreamed of.  It takes Alex’s best friend, Becky, to help him see how he really feels about Ethan. As in any good romantic comedy, a mishap causes a minor disaster — Alex’s parents ground him, possibly ending his relationship. Will love prevail? Will the Khederians trust Alex again? Will he make honors? A funny, sweet, but not overly treacly, love story that attempts (fairly successfully) to deal with multiple cultures: suburban New Jersey high school, gay New York, and Armenian American. I was hungry after listening as Barakiva includes mouth- watering details about the Khederians’ favorite meals.

I’ve moved on to a book I heard about on The Readers earlier in the summer, that I don’t think actually fits any book bingo squares. I can resist the urge to fill every square. Really.

 

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I’m working on two Book Bingo cards this summer, one from Concord Public Library and one from Regina Library. For “a book with a summer word in the title” on Regina’s card and “a book set in a country you’ve never been to” for Concord’s I read Finnish Summer Houses by Jari and Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen. I’d listened to a 99% Invisible episode which introduced me to Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and then I looked in the catalog for a book with summer in the title and came across this gem, which seemed serendipitous since i had Finnish architecture on my mind. This book made me want to move to Finland and get a summer house. Which my offspring pointed out I probably can’t afford.

Anyway, fantasy aspect aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I read on my iPad. The design aesthetic of Finnish summer houses varies, but most in this book were meant to fit into their natural surroundings — lots of boulders, which are probably my favorite landscape feature, trees, lakes, coasts — which are pretty reminiscent of northern New England’s natural surroundings. So the houses are mostly simple and seamlessly relate to the land. And they are very practical, meant to be low maintenance places where a family can relax and enjoy themselves and enjoy nature. Lots of wood and windows, utilitarian kitchens, and built-in or built to fit furniture.

Several people I know whose reading tastes I admire have recommended another Scandinavian book, A Man Called Ove by Swedish author Fredrick Backman. I read My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry and Brit Marie Was Here back in March but Ove scared me because I knew it dealt with the main character’s suicidal thoughts. I needn’t have worried — it’s as charming, funny, and humane as Backman’s other books. Ove is a classic grumpy old man, tired of missing his wife, whose been dead six months. He decides he wants to die, but he keeps getting interrupted by various goings on in his neighborhood, where he’s lived for forty years. His neighbors all think he’s angry and unapproachable but as the book progresses readers come to know that under that exterior, Ove is kind, loyal, hard working, honest, and dependable. He cares about other people far more than he lets on, and he may use politically incorrect language  (he refers to a gay character as “bent” ) but he is tolerant and caring — he takes that same young man in when he has nowhere to go after coming out, and Ove convinces the young man’s father to talk to him later.

It may seem a little bit tired, the curmudgeon who is really a good guy underneath the gruff exterior, but Backman makes this archetype fresh and he works in social commentary in a way that pleases this Jane Austen fan. A Man Called Over is a brief book but it addresses masculine stereotypes and manliness, the lack of practical knowledge in today’s society (fixing a bike, making things, repairing an engine, etc.), immigration, social services bureaucracy, globalisation, aging and elder care, “problem” children in schools, and NIMBY-ism and gentrification, to name a few. Plus his main characters are just interesting. Parvaneh, one of Ove’s new neighbors, is someone I’d like to be friends with. Actually I’d like to live in their neighborhood. And, Ove takes in a half-frozen at missing a good bit of fur. Anyone who (however grumpily) adopts a needy cat is ok by me, even if he’s fictional.

A good read, probably just the thing if you can’t bear to look at any more news. it’s definitely the kind of book I’d take on vacation.

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I’ve been listening to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on my commute because it’s this month’s pick for a book group I’m invited to on Monday. Audiobooks are not my first preference but I figured it was a way to squeeze in reading another book, especially since I had a Kirkus assignment to read and review. The narration of The Underground Railroad, by Bahni Turpin, is very well done, if you do happen to be an audiobook fan.

If you haven’t already heard about this book it is a highly acclaimed novel by an author who was already well regarded before The Underground Railroad, which  won the National Book Award and drew reviews comparing it to BelovedLesMiserablesThe Invisible Man and other literary greats.  I think Whitehead’s brilliance in this book is in the way he mixes the actual American past with speculative history but hews always to the core truth of his novel: that racism is not going anywhere without justice, and that justice is impossible unless people choose it. Mabel, Cora’s mother, has her own very brief chapter towards the end of the book, in which readers finally learn what became of her (Cora believes she abandoned her, Ridgeway the slave catcher believes she is the only one of his quarry ever to elude him). As she is deciding what to do herself, Mabel thinks, “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

Simply put but true. That’s the central theme of this book. Unfortunately in Whitehead’s imagined nineteenth century America, very few people refuse, and those who do suffer unspeakable horrors from which they never fully recover, if they even survive. Nearly every character who helps Cora, black or white, ends up dead or hunted by those who wish them dead. Royal, who rescued Cora from Ridgeway after he’d finally caught her, tells Cora “. . . that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world, then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this; Cora’s story and those of the other black characters in The Underground Railroad are unrelentingly painful and hopeless — even if they reach “safe” territory or are “freed” they are not free of racism and they live in a nation where racial injustice and violence are the norm. The pain of reading this book isn’t in reflecting on America’s history — after all, Whitehead takes creative license with history, speculating enough that this is not merely historical fiction but something more radical, a work of imagined  historical fiction — the pain comes from the fact that the truth of the novel is not in our past. It’s our present, it’s the root of many of America’s problems today.

Reading this book in light of the recent actions to roll back many civil rights actions taken by the last administration, and to “double down” as the New York Times reports, on the war on drugs, despite much evidence that harsh penalties and harsh policing did not work, and has increased racial inequality and caused untold suffering, especially for women of color, is especially painful. The America we live in today, ruled by fear of the “other” based on a highly delusional sense of superiority, is quite recognizable in The Underground Railroad. While Cora’s America is somewhat more lawless, and some of the crimes perpetrated in The Underground Railroad would be prosecuted today even if they were directed at black citizens, there is still today official sanction of racist policies in the name of “justice.”  Perhaps this is even starker to me because I am in another book group reading The New Jim Crow month by month, one chapter at a time and sharing articles and talks with each other on racial inequality and injustice.

So, did I enjoy The Underground Railroad? That would probably not accurately characterize my experience of the book. I think it’s an amazing piece of writing. I certainly sat in my car more than once to hear a few more lines before it was time to go into work. It will stay with me, and I was left wondering about Cora’s fate – the ending was perfect. It entered my consciousness and interacted with other things I’ve read and thought. Parts if it threw me for a loop — it’s not straight narration — but that is in service to the story, not some writerly trick. All of that makes it a great read.

But be warned it’s also wrenching, and at times nauseating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling slightly wrenched by another’s fictional experiences is good for helping someone privileged, as I am, to try to wrap my head around what black Americans experience every day. So read it. Be ready to let it work on you. And then do something; take Mabel’s words and live them: refuse to be a part of the meanness of the world. One thing I’ve come to understand is that it’s not enough to reject racist ideas, what’s required in this world is to openly oppose them, in thought, word and deed. Call or write an elected or appointed official to oppose racist policies. Tell someone you hear victimized by racist talk that you are with them and you are sorry. Tell someone saying racist things that you will not listen to such talk. None of this is easy but it’s what’s required if justice is ever to come. The thing I will take away from The Underground Railroad is what it says about the role of free will in the world. Refusing isn’t just refusing, it’s choosing.

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Much of my reading lately has been about strong women; Night Waking is a novel about Anna Bennett, Dr. Bennett as she introduces herself to the police officer who insists on calling her Mrs. Cassingham (her husband Giles’ surname) when they interview her about the infant skeleton she and her son Raphael accidentally dug up as they planted an apple tree. Anna is an Oxford Fellow, working on a history of childhood in the 18th century. She’s with her family, Giles and Raphael and Timothy, who is still a toddler (the boys go by Raph and Moth, so hereafter I’ll call them that), on an island off the coast of Scotland, where Giles’ family has had a home for generations. Giles studies puffins, and to augment their academic earnings, they’ve made a vacation cottage out of an old building on the island and are about to host the first guests.

I first read Sarah Moss last winter when I chose Names for the Sea for one of my book bingo squares (a book set in a place I’d like to visit – although after I read Moss’s memoir of a year in Iceland, I wasn’t so sure). Her nonfiction writing is witty and smart, and so is Night Waking. Anna is fed up with caring for small children and managing the house (or not really, as she is frequently out of kitchen essentials, inconvenient when you live on an island with no shops) and mourning the loss of her intellectual life. This passage sums it up: “When we got to the beach, after passing half the morning in negotiation about putting on shoes, Moth walked into the sea and then had a tantrum because it was wet, and Raph stood with his back to the waves talking about potential uses of hydroelectricity on oil rigs. I sat on a rough rock, my arms wrapped around Moth as he drummed his heels on my shins and tried to bite my arms, and remembered the staircase in the Bodleian Library . . . . I decided that if I made Moth walk the whole five hundred metres back to the house he might take less than forty-five minutes to go to sleep after lunch and, if I didn’t rush him at all, stopped to inspect every pebble and touch each flowering grass, it might almost be time to start putting together an early lunch when we arrived.” Sound familiar, mothers of young moms out there?

Anna and Giles quarrel a bit, in a half hearted way, over the children and the work to be done and the work they’re not getting done, and Anna looks into the history of the island to try to determine why an infant might be buried there. There’s a side story about the family who come to stay — Zoe, an anorexic teen, her cardiologist workaholic father and housewife mother whose controlling attitude has driven her daughter to illness and despair. I didn’t like that storyline (I’m tired of the old trope of the mother causing anorexia), but it did move some of the story about Anna and Giles along. And Moss humanizes the harping mother, just a bit.

What I loved about the story is the way Moss wove Anna’s historical research into childhood and parenting and the lives of women and children on the island into the novel. The mystery of the infant skeleton is interesting, too. Of course I also appreciated the honest look at parenting — Anna is a bit extreme, but most parents of small children go through her familiar swings from boredom and exhaustion to almost overwhelming love and tenderness for their offspring. All in all it was a good read, one that made me chuckle at times, and that transported me to a faraway place and other people’s lives while also recognizing bits of my own, which is always enjoyable.

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