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An acquaintance who reads widely recommended The Muse a few months ago and I remembered that Jessie Burton‘s first novel, The Miniaturist, had been an intriguing read, although I didn’t really connect with the characters. The Muse was even more intriguing and either wanted to be ash main character, Odelle Bastien, or be her friend.

Odelle is from Trinidad, and lives in London. When we meet her she has applied for a typist job at an art gallery. At her childhood friend Cynth’s wedding party, she meets Lawrie, a young Englishman with an incredible painting in the boot of his car. A romance and a mystery ensue.

At the art gallery, Odelle’s new boss is Marjorie Quick, who recognizes in Odelle a woman with creative ambitions. Although she’s clearly a well off, independent woman, Quick takes an interest in Odelle and her writing, and also warns her to be careful of Lawrie. Odelle — and we readers, in turn — isn’t sure what to make of Quick nor her interest. 

The book alternates between 1967 when these things are happening, and 1936, when the painting in Lawrie’s car came to be. In those sections, set in Spain, we meet the Schloss family: Harold, a Viennese art dealer, Sarah, his wealthy English wife, and Olive, his nineteen year old daughter. As soon as the Schloss’s arrive in Spain, brother and sister Teresa and Isaac Robles come to introduce themselves. Teresa becomes the Schloss’s housekeeper, and because she is about the same age, Olive’s friend. Isaac — well, who is is, what he does, and how he becomes involved with the Schloss family is part of the book’s mystery.

I don’t always love alternating storylines but I loved the way Burton built the tension in 1936 and 1967, respectively, leading the reader deeper into the story. The art, fashion, culture, and locations made me fervently hope someone at the BBC has already purchased rights to produce this — I would love to see it on Masterpiece. From the sunny pleasures of Spain before the Schloss’s and Robles’ fully grasp how imminently fascism menaces them, to the everyday racism of 60’s London, Burton brings man’s inhumanity to man to life, slowly, without overwhelming readers.

Also, and I add this because I listed to an interesting episode of The Readers about “impolite” reading, there are a little sex, politics, and violence, but they serve the purposes of the novel, rather than being extra to it. Burton gives readers clues about where things are heading, but they are thoughtful and neatly woven, not embroidered on top of the story. In fact, I’d call the whole book subtle — Burton reels us in with fascinating characters and a story that kept me on the couch a few evenings/afternoons. 

I just had a conversation Saturday with some work colleagues about literary novels that aren’t a bummer. I’m fine with reading about tough subjects if the underlying story offers some hope — a character who grows, a wrong that fate rights, redemption overtaking fear, hatred, or whatever other evil is present. One of the people at my table said that’s not how it works, books that aren’t a bummer are genre fiction (really longtime booksconscious readers know I don’t care much about these categories). I offered Exit West as an example of uplifting literary fiction, and I’d add The Muse as well.

In one of my first bookconscious posts back in August, 2007, I mentioned The Healing Power of Stories by Daniel Taylor, who suggests good stories shape kids’ growing sense of the world, and can impact emotional well being. I find myself avoiding the titillating and the toxic in my reading because there’s enough of that everywhere else. But it can be hard to tell before you start a book where it’s going to lead you, so The Muse was a pleasant surprise, a seriously good read about serious truths, challenging ideas, and painful history that still leaves readers hopeful that good people manage and good things happen in this world. And yes, I seem to be on a books about art kick. Leave me a comment if you know another good one. 

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At my book club’s last meeting it came up that I’d never read Donna Tartt‘s most recent novel, The Goldfinch. I’d always felt I didn’t have time, since it’s such a long book (over 1100 pages as a downloadable library book). But visiting family this week gave me the opportunity to download it. I finished it in only five days; I had no idea it was such a page turner.

For those of you who suspect that is a slight, it isn’t. I’m aware some critics found it unliterary, but I find that whole argument silly. Why shouldn’t a book, especially a long book, tell a story that is absorbing, compelling, even? I don’t see why people found the characters wanting, either. Literature may be full of beautiful mothers who die tragically, sweet father figures, lost boys who must err and be tested before we can call them heroes, roguish but loyal best friends, but isn’t that why humans love stories? And if it were a film we’d laud this “hero’s journey” theme, so why diss it in a novel?

I found it a very good read, one that kept me swiping pages because I cared about Theo, the young hero, and I wanted to know what would happen to him and to the painting of the title. Towards the end of the book Tartt writes, speaking as Theo,”Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.” That seems to me to be the entire point of reading, and recently I’ve read some more universally lauded books that seemed to justify despair rather than sing readers out of it. I could use more of this kind of story, a little bit familiar in some ways, surprising in others, but ultimately more about the human capacity to love, “to wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and heart open,” as Theo says, not letting life’s difficulties, above all death, overwhelm the love we can feel.

Theo is talking about love not only for people but for art. Which is probably why this book gained such a following. If you’ve been avoiding it like I did because of it’s length, give it a try.

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It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post and I’m still thinking about Sing, Unburied, Sing. In between I read a book for Kirkus. Along the way I was reading a little bit of The Power, by Naomi Alderman, before bed, but not much — I’ve been pouring it on in terms of coursework for my science communication and public engagement program, we went to see the former Teen the Elder, now a postulant for holy orders in the Episcopal Church, at Yale Divinity School, and last weekend the Computer Scientist and I caught some exhibits at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and MFA, so I’ve been busy.

But last night the university where I work called a snow day for today earlier than usual — by 9pm, after letting us go home at 3 in heavily falling snow — so I stayed up late and finished The Power. It definitely deserved a longer reading and I enjoyed finishing it. I’ve been sitting with how I felt about it all day, and I’m still not entirely sure. First let’s get out of the way that I think it’s well written and compelling — deserving of the accolades (it won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize, was named by NYT as one of the ten best books of 2017, and was on President’ Obama’s favorite reads of 2017 list, among others).

Second, I should apologize in advance to my bookclub, because we were trying to pick a more uplifting read, and somehow this came up in my research as that, and it’s not. Yes, it imagines what the world would be like if run by women. But the results are pretty chaotic much of the time, and pretty ugly some of the time, because it turns out it’s not being male that makes people with power assholes, it’s power. That’s my greatly simplified summary of this novel.

Still, it’s an incredibly relevant thought experiment, and I found three of the main characters, Mother Eve/Allie, Roxy, and Tunde, equally fascinating in their way. The structure of the novel is also very intriguing and made the ending rather breathtaking, to me. The opening and closing pages of the book are correspondence between a male novelist and a woman he asks to read his draft of The Power, which he refers to as a historical novel. All we really know about these people is that they live thousands of years after the events of his novel.

So why do I have mixed feelings if I was blown away? Maybe the premise of the book, which seems to be that there will always be a gendered power imbalance even if it doesn’t look like our norms, is more than is easily digested with all that is currently going on in the world? Maybe it’s a truth I find too troubling to embrace? Maybe I just need more time?

I’m realizing I’ve given you very little to go on in this review — it’s speculative fiction, set in times that seem very similar to our own, and imagines that women have something called “the power” which is physiological, cause unknown, girls are born with it and can help older women realize they have it and wake it up, and is kind of like electricity. The realization that this is happening causes massive changes around the world, and the book centers on how it changes religion, political influence and military power, and social dynamics. I look forward to the book club discussion, which always brings me more insight into any book.

Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to ask my blog readers — what is a book your book club really enjoyed reading and discussing recently? If it’s got a hopeful or uplifting theme, all the better, but anything that led to a great discussion is welcome. Leave a comment and let me know!

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Two people told me about this book recently, one who loved it and one who did not even like it. I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. I think it is an important story, one that touches on important issues in our culture and also tells a compelling story. It’s heart-wrenching, but there is also a redemptive piece that makes it more lovely than sad.  wouldn’t say it’s a hopeful book, however, given the realities of our country.

Sing Unburied Sing is set in coastal Mississippi, and it’s the story of JoJo, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his mother Leonie (although she isn’t always there) and her parents, Pop and Mam, as well as his toddler sister, Kayla. His father, Michael, is in a prison called Parchman, the same prison where Pop was sent as a young man, back when Jim Crow still ran the South. Pop tells JoJo stories about his time at Parchman, and they all feature a boy around JoJo’s age, Richie, who was a prisoner with Pop.

Michael is white, and his parents, especially his father, think of Leonie as a “nigger bitch.” They have nothing to do with her or their grandchildren. Pop and Mam are poor, but Pop grows a garden and tends animals and keeps his family well fed. Mam has been a healer all her life, making herbal remedies and praying to a mixture of Catholic and Voodoo saints. Mostly, they provide the children love and a kind of stability.

The book follows these characters through a period of just a few tumultuous days, as Michael is released from prison, Leonie takes the children and her friend Misty to go pick him up, and Mam’s cancer reaches a critical stage. But even though the action only takes up a short time, we learn a tremendous amount about the characters. How Given, Leonie’s older brother, and Richie, the boy Pop knew at Parchman haunt them. How Leonie and JoJo each deal with those hauntings. How addiction and mass incarceration and systemic racism and the long shadow of lynchings and police brutality and more everyday violence and the hard work of being poor impact them all, deeply, generationally, indelibly.

The hauntings and the faith in VooDoo comforts like a gris-gris bag Pop gives JoJo and the stones Mam asks Leonie to gather from the cemetery as her life withers away make this book more than a straight up narrative; there is a sense of mysticism to it. Somehow Ward makes the characters seem both concrete and symbolic, people with real lives and also people who represent millions of lives, millions of souls touched by the myriad harms of being poor and black in America.

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I picked up Linger Awhile at a favorite used bookstore, Book & Bar in Portsmouth.  I’d been meaning to read Russell Hoban for some time, after reading an article several years ago about how under appreciated he was as a novelist — like many people I knew him as the author of the Frances books for children. When I’m in a used bookstore I like to hunt around for things I can’t find easily in libraries, and his work qualifies.

Linger Awhile is about an octogenarian Londoner (yes, the 2nd book in a row I’ve read with an octogenarian Londoner protagonist) named Irving Goodman who lusts after a Gene Autry cowgirl named Justine Trimble and engages Istvan Fallock, a sound engineer who brings in Chauncey Lim, proprietor of a photographic novelties shop, to help him bring her back to life from nothing but a video clip. On this wild premise, the novel grows and introduces a small circle of people impacted by Irv’s need for Justine.

Add a stoic Detective Inspector, a medical examiner who can’t explain why several saliva samples from different characters match, a parrot named Elijah who quotes spirituals and Hebrew scripture, a Kosher Chinese restaurant proprietress, and a live (as opposed to undead) love interest for Irv and you have a sci -fi vampire cowgirl murder mystery love story that is also quite funny. Linger Awhile is about what happens when men fall under the spell of pretty woman and will do anything to have her, but it’s also about life, love, and the human tendency to feel we are in control.

A rollicking, highly entertaining read, and a cautionary tale of living with the consequences of hubris.

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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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