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My book club decided to read The English Patient after the recent announcement that it had won the “golden” Booker, chosen by readers from a shortlist (selected by judges) of 5 books representing the five decades of the prize. I’d never read it before, but I had recently ordered Warlight, Ondaatje‘s recent novel, for my library and was curious to read the book he’s possibly most known for.

The copy I read has the movie cover — a marketing trend I dislike — with a blown up image of a kiss between two of the characters. This image misleadingly indicates that this love affair, between the man known throughout most of the novel only as the English Patient (because is burned beyond recognition) and the wife of a fellow desert explorer is the central story. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

The story is actually four fragmented stories which come together, as the people they belong to do, at the end of WWII in an abandoned monastery, Villa San Girolamo. Hana is the first to be there, when it was still an active war hospital. Only twenty years old, she has served as a nurse throughout Italy, where she has suffered her own losses as well as caring for dozens of wounded and dying soldiers. When the allied hospital staff move on she turns in her uniform and stays, in a place where she “felt safe  . . . half adult and half child,” with the English patient, who is too injured to move. For some time it just the two of them in the ruined building, which really isn’t actually safe. Then Caravaggio, a man described as a thief who was Hana’s father’s friend in Toronto, shows up after hearing about the strange young nurse and her patient. Finally Kip, a Punjabi Sikh man from a British sapper unit, comes to stay at the Villa, clearing it of explosives, sleeping in a tent in the garden.

Ondaatje provides only glimpses of each of his main characters, just as one might get from meeting strangers in a war torn place in strange circumstances. Of the four, it is Kip we come to know best, and whose future Ondaatje most clearly portrays. And it is the love between these four, the comradely love that develops when people are thrown together in loss and danger, that is really the centerpiece, not the English Patient’s and his Cairo lover’s. I still think it is accurate to call it a love story set in wartime. But it isn’t just about passion.

It’s also the story of the end of the colonial world, and the rise of a world where wars will now have “mutually assured destruction” hanging over them in the shape of no longer theoretical mushroom clouds. The most moving parts of the book, for me, are towards the end, when Kip hears over his crystal radio set about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is horrified, realizing that as he has been risking his life throughout the war to disarm bombs, the allies have been planning to unleash this new weapon. He sees, suddenly, that these people he has come to love and admire are the enemy of “the brown races” just as his militant brother in India has warned him.

This isn’t a book with a lot of action, although again, Kip’s story has the most. It’s a book with a lot of scenes in the dark, where the English Patient’s identity stays for much of the time. It’s incredibly interesting — salted with history, geography, literature and art, and a few real historical figures who appear as characters. And it’s a drama about the human capacity to wound and to heal.

 

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As I wrote earlier this month, my church has started a 19th century British fiction book club. Our first book was Adam BedeIn August we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice. 

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least twice before, and have seen an adaptation. But I still throughly enjoyed re-reading it this weekend. I find Austen’s biting wit entertaining, but more than that, I enjoy knowing she was unafraid to assert her views at a time when women were often meant to be, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s younger sisters Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice, more interested in bonnets and balls than in independent thought. Austen approves of sensibility and goodness and doesn’t shy away from showing how silly it is to live a life of vanity and vacuousness. Eliot does this to some extent as well, for example showing Hetty in Adam Bede to be vain and foolish in believing that the young Captain Donnithorne, heir to the local squire, will marry her.

But Austen does it with humor, and allows the brooding but ultimately honorable Mr. Darcy to quietly come to the aid of the Bennet family when Lydia goes astray, while Eliot makes Hetty an object lesson, has her sentenced to death, and shows the good rector, Mr. Irwine, and the man guilty of causing Hetty’s disgrace, Captain Donnithorne, only able to spare her life, but not to rescue her. Hetty has to serve a sentence, Donnithorne goes away to do his own sort of penance. Both stories make for good reading, but I personally have a soft spot for Austen’s wit. In fact, regular readers of bookconscious will know that I often invoke Austen when praising contemporary books that employ witty social criticism as part of the story.

And she just has such a way with words. Take this line, describing the moments after Mr. Bennet has spoken with his cousin, the bumptious clergyman Mr. Collins, who due to entailment will inherit Longbourn, the Bennet’s home. Austen writes, “Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.” In one sentence, we can see understand how Mr. Bennet feels and how he is behaving, down to his expression.

And she doesn’t spare even her heroines or heroes from her sharp pen. Both Elizabeth and Darcy act with pride or prejudice or both, and it is only as the novel progresses that the two of them, independent of but in relation to each other, realize their errors and learn from them. It’s a credit to Austen’s keen observation of human nature that in her books there are often three types of character — those whose folly or unkindness never improves (mainly because they are unaware of their own faults), those who like Elizabeth and Darcy grow, often in order to be better people to those in they care about, and those who like Elizabeth’s older sister Jane are simply good people, able to maintain their equilibrium and to treat others with dignity even when they are silly or mean.

If you look around, we’re much the same today, and that’s the final reason I think Austen’s work holds up and continues to resonate with readers today. The things she observed were often “a universal truth” and still apply to our world even though so many social norms are different. For example, we still “make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn” — you only have to turn on a reality TV show to see that. If you haven’t re-read Austen lately, I recommend you spend a sunny summer Sunday afternoon with her soon!

 

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My friend Peg lent me this book after reading my review of The Enchanted April Elizabeth von Arnim wrote many novels, and The Caravaners was the eighth, published in 1909. It is meant to be the diary of Otto, Baron von Ottringel, an officious German army major who tells readers he is writing a book about his caravan holiday in England. Besides Otto and his wife, Edelgard, and their neighbor, the widow Frau von Eckthum, they traveled with an aristocratic German-English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Menzies-Legh, a niece of that couple and her friend, a Socialist MP named Jellaby, and a man “going into the church” named Browne, who Otto later learns is also Lord Sigismund, younger son of an aristocrat.

Otto has very definite ideas about women and the English, none of which are favorable. He believes Germany to be superior in every way, and looks forward to a time in the near future when he believes Germany will conquer England. Von Arnim was clearly writing with the impending World War on her mind. And with Otto, she satirizes German alpha masculinity as Otto appears more and more ridiculous throughout the book. Edelgard enjoys the holiday and comes into her own, even shortening her very proper skirts. By the end readers may wonder why she stays with him, when he is such a disagreeable, bullying, sanctimonious, self-absorbed man, but perhaps von Arnim knew what that was like.

At any rate, while the book is funny, it was less funny to read this past week as a similarly self-absorbed, misogynist alpha male blundered around Europe in America’s name. I enjoyed it, but my sense of humor is low at the moment. Still von Antrim is wickedly observant and I found her comparison of Anglican and Lutheran practices at the time interesting. Otto tells an Anglican priest “And Lutherans . . . do not pray. At least not audibly, and certainly never in duets.” I chuckled at that.

A good read, although maybe one not perfectly matched to my present mood.  I’m glad Peg thought of me though, and shared it.

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My church is offering a 19th century British literature book club. The first choice is Adam Bede and I figured I’d give it a try — summer is a good time to take on a thick classic. I didn’t realize this was George Eliot‘s first novel. I’ve read both Middlemarch and Silas Marner each a couple of times.

Eliot really dives into the time and place of her her novels — when Adam Bede opens, she tells us, “With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” And then with a great deal of evocative detail, she describes to us exactly what the room looked, smelled, and felt like, who was in it (including our hero, Adam Bede, and his brother, Seth) and what they were doing and saying.  “A scent of pinewood from a tent-like pile of planks outside the open door mingled with the scent of the elder-bushes which were spreading their summer snow close to the window opposite; the slanting sunbeams shone through the transparent shavings that flew before the steady plane, and lit up the fine grain of the oak paneling . . . . ” And so on.

Throughout the novel this level of detail enriches the story and takes modern readers into Hayslope and its environs. Adding to the clear view of Adam Bede’s world are the  asides from the narrator filling in views on the Methodist church, realism in Dutch paintings, the annual harvest dinner at Hall Farm and the society found there, the loss of leisure as best exemplified in “a sunny walk through the fields from ‘afternoon church,” lost in a world where “Even idleness is eager.” Eliot’s dialogue, from the local gentry Arthur’s “. . . dip my cravat in and souse it on my head” to Adam’s mother Lisbeth’s patios, “An what wut do when thy mother’s gone, an’ nobody to take care on thee as thee gett’st a bit of victual comfortable i’ the mornin’?” Gorgeous. Hard to read, though, which is why it took longer than a contemporary book.

The story itself is a dramatic one, based partially on real people in George Eliot’s life and a story her aunt told her. Adam loves Hetty, a silly young woman living with aunt and uncle, the Poysers, at Hall Farm and helping in the dairy. Hetty and Arthur fall in love, even though Arthur can never marry down. Adam demands Arthur quit toying with her, and believes Hetty will recover and might eventually love him. A dramatic twist to the story, a tragedy, and time lead Arthur eventually to care for Dinah, a young Methodist preacher, also related to the Poysers, who is as smart and kind as Hetty is selfish and shallow. But, Seth also loves Dinah, and Dinah only wants to care for the poor and the godless. I won’t give away how it all works out, but it’s a satisfying tale, with a great variety of characters.

While none of the women ends up defying convention quite as much as their author, several of them have their say, which I enjoyed. There’s a scene where Mrs. Poyser tells off Arthur’s grandfather, the Squire, who is her landlord on the estate, and then tells her husband (who Eliot describes as “a little alarmed and uneasy, but not without some triumphant amusement at his wife’s outbreak”) ” . . . I’ve had my say out, and I shall be th’ easier for ‘t all my life. There’s no pleasure i’ living, if you’re to be corked up for ever, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel. I shan’t repent saying what I think, if I live to be as old as th’ old Squire. . . . ” Between Hetty’s ignorance of what is happening to her and Mrs. Poyser’s tart truth, Eliot seems to sum up the polar extremes of women’s positions in nineteenth century society.

I also love Mr. Irwine, the local rector, and Eliot’s description of how he’d been the subject of some criticism for being a little too comfortable to be a good clergyman. She allows that he has no “theological enthusiasm” and “felt no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners” but “He was one one of those men, and they are not the commonest, of whom we can know the best only by following him away from the market-place, the platform, and the pulpit, entering with them into their own homes, hearing the voice with which they speak to the young and aged about their own hearthstone, and witnessing their thoughtful care for the everyday wants of everyday companions, who take all their kindness as a matter of course . . . .” That’s an apt description as we see Mr. Irwine care for both Adam and Arthur, Hetty, and his own elderly mother and ailing sister.

Adam Bede is a wonderful read, and I’m looking forward to discussing it next week.

 

 

 

 

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Lauren Groff is coming to my local bookstore tomorrow, so yesterday at work I decided to check out Fates and Furies, which we happened to have. I read Arcadia several years ago and had always meant to read more of her work. I’d heard this book was about a marriage, so I think I was expecting something a little more down to earth. This is no novel about a mundane marriage. The people in this book are quite beyond anyone you know. And the telling is, too.

Which isn’t usually my thing, I realized as I read it today. It’s not that I dislike reading about the unusual — in this case, Lotto, heir to a fortune, disowned by his unhinged mother for marrying Mathilde, who Lotto believes to be the purest most virtuous person he knows. Lotto, it turns out, is the genius his mother always thought he’d be, and becomes a famous playwright. Mathilde, it turns out, has a number of unsavory secrets. But ordinarily I’m not very interested in stories about wealth and fame and privilege, even with a dash of tragedy thrown in.

And yet, I spent my holiday reading this book to the end, and couldn’t stop. Not only because I wondered what craziness would come next, but because Groff is just the kind of writer who compels the reader onward. Her writing is also intriguing. Sentences like “The sun shifted to reclining. It was eight at night.” And, “Hot milk of a world, with its skin of morning fog in the window.”And, “For a long time afterward, Mathilde was clammy on the inside. A grayish clay, crumbling on its surface.” Somehow these interesting ways of describing things didn’t slow me down, they made me curious to see where they were leading.

So, a good read, full of too many twists to reveal, with characters I enjoyed very much. The good and the bad aren’t caricatured, even when they could have been; you’ll probably find something to admire and loathe in most of the characters. The little details — Lotto’s sister Rachel and her wife have matching turnip tattoos, for example — give them three dimensions, warm breath. And the perspective, one part of the book showing the marriage as Lotto sees it, one part showing it as Mathilde does, is intriguing.

I’ve had it on good authority (several people in my book club!) that The Monsters of Templeton is fantastic, and I still remember listening to Richard Russo, who was in town for an author event, say that one of the best things he’d read was Delicate Edible Birds. It’s nice when you enjoy an author’s work to know there is still more to read.

Back to the 19th century and Adam Bede!

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This was another of the books I bought with my job leaving gift card. Bookconscious regulars will know I read another of Russell Hoban’s novels, Linger Awhile, not too long ago. I’d had Turtle Diary in mind for a while. Incidentally, this is another New York Review of Books classics title.

This short novel is about two Londoners in their 40s, William G. and Neaera H., and is set in the 1970s. William is a divorced former advertising executive who works in a bookstore and rents a room in a house, thinking to himself, as he cleans up after the other male tenant before he can use the shared bath and kitchen, “I’d had a whole life, a house and a family!” Neaera H. is a children’s book author and illustrator, successful by most measures, but lonely, and stuck, not just with writer’t block, but life block.

Their lives intersect because they both have an interest in the sea turtles at London Zoo. Unknown to each other at first, they each think the turtles deserve to be freed into the ocean, and each talk to George, the keeper in the aquarium area of the zoo. Through George they realize they are both thinking the same thing, and are drawn together. As William notes, “Funny, two minds full of turtle thoughts.” How can they not join forces? The story is told in alternating chapters from William’s or Neaera’s point of view, and sometimes their thoughts are worded nearly identically.

Besides this central story, Hoban writes beautifully of the pain of being lonely, unhappy, stuck, perhaps a little more sensitive to things than others. Both William and Neaera are close observers, who notice more than other  people do in the world — the letters and numbers on a manhole in his neighborhood (K257) is to William the number of Mozart’s Credo Mass in C. Neaera notices, as she passes a train, “the sky successively framed by each window as the carriages passed.Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.”

Or do they notice more? William, towards the end of the story realizes he’s been too much in his own head, “I’d always assumed that I was the central character in my own story but now it occurred to me that I might in fact be only a minor character in some else’s.” And that, to me is what Turtle Diary is about: getting out of ourselves and into the world enough to see, as both of them think in almost identical words: “I didn’t mind being alive at the moment. After all who knew what might happen?”

Getting through the dark times, the shark in the waters times as Neaera imagines them, requires getting out of our  heads. The way forward, Hoban seems to say, is to step away from our private way of tending the thoughts that keep our minds buzzing. I don’t know if he was interested in meditation — there is a scene where William goes with his coworker Harriet, to an “Original Therapy” demonstration with an American woman in a bikini holding eager volunteers in wrestling scissors holds until they experience the “primordial soup” or their own rebirth, that seems to be Hoban laughing a bit at the New Agey. But mindfulness is all about not allowing distracting thoughts to preoccupy you so much that you miss what’s right here now, in this moment.

William and Neaera get there, in their ways, in Turtle Diary without calling it mindfulness. It’s a lovely, wise book full of literary and musical references and myriad little details about London, and the Cornish fishing village of Polperro. It was the perfect read on my last day of vacation, sitting in a comfy chair looking out at the sea, not thinking of what lurks within, but just noticing the sun and the birds and the way the wind leaves itself behind on the sand.

 

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I was at a coffee shop/used bookstore yesterday, picked up Graham Swift‘s Last Orders from a sale cart, and thought it sounded like a good read, sort of a male version of the kind of English social novel I like. When I got home and looked through it more closely I realized I’ve read it before, although a quick search of bookconscious seems to indicate I read it before I started the blog, so prior to 2007. I decided I’d read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Re-reading is something I don’t do often, but have intended to do from time to time. Like during a week when I have a lot of time to read.

Last Orders is about a butcher, Jack Dodds, and the men (and a few women) in his life, in Bermondsey, London. Although not the hip, White Cube Bermondsey of today; it never says exactly, but I think the book is set in the late 80’s, because four of the men, including Jack, are WWII veterans. When the book opens, Jack’s friends and Vince, the man he raised as his son after his family was killed by a bomb, are gathered in their pub, preparing to carrying out Jack’s final wish: that they spread his ashes in the sea at Margate.

The main arc of the story takes place all on that day, with different sections looking back on the men’s lives at different ages. We hear about their wives and daughters, and Jack’s widow, Amy, and Vince’s wife, Mandy, tell bits of their own stories, but most of the book is about and from the perspective of the men. It’s one of those books where most of what’s important to the character’s lives happened earlier, but the events of the book are a kind of climax, emotionally, in their lives.

It’s a lovely book, about long friendship, love, disappointment, unfulfilled dreams, finding what you’re good at, living your life as best you can. There aren’t a lot of novels that go into the emotional lives of men, I think, or else I don’t usually read those. Here’s a bit from a scene when Jack’s in the hospital, and he’s asked to see Vince, who has been thinking that even unwell there is something about the way Jack looks, “. . . it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.” As they sit there together, Vince goes on thinking:

“He looks right into my face like he’s looking for a little light too, like he’s looking for his own face in mine, and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow, like I’m empty, that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones, his way of holding his jaw and looking straight at you without so much as a bleeding blink. . . .  It’s like I’m not real, I ain’t ever been real. But Jack’s real, he’s realler than every. Though he ain’t going to be real much longer.”

So, I re-read, no regrets — although I have loads of books I haven’t read yet, I’m really glad I re-visited this one. Chime in and let me know: do you re-read? How often? How do you decide what gets a second read or more? I’ve heard of some people re-reading a particular favorite annually. The Computer Scientist used to read The Stand every time he was sick. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

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