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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

I was perusing end of the year “best books” lists to see what I might have missed over the past year, and noticed From the Shadows, written by Juan José Millás and translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn. I am still somewhat skeptical of these lists but have learned to read several of them, to get a better idea of the breadth of well reviewed books over the year, and this book came up a couple of times and caught my eye because a) like many Americans, I’ve never read Juan José Millás, whose work hasn’t been widely available here even though he has won many awards in Spain and b) I really admire Bellevue Literary Press, which published this book.

This was one of the library books I downloaded to read on our trip to Utah, but I didn’t read it until we got back. It’s a wild story, but it’s also a novel about existence, really. Damián, the main character, has been laid off from his maintenance job and is passing time imagining himself being interviewed on a popular TV show about his strange and inappropriate relationship with his adopted Chinese sister. He wanders into a market and ends up shoplifting a tie bar with his imaginary television interviewer’s initials on it.  To escape the security guard coming after him, he hides in an old wardrobe. Next thing he knows he’s being transported, inside the wardrobe, to a house in the suburbs of Madrid.

Damián has no choice but to remain hidden — movers place the wardrobe against a built- in closet, and he escapes into that space. From there, he can hear what goes on in the house. Eventually, once he’s comfortable with the routines of the family, he ventures out of the wardrobe when they are out, and begins cleaning up the house, cooking, doing laundry, etc. He becomes a real life media celebrity, albeit an invisible, anonymous one, when he posts on a paranormal enthusiasts’ website as the Ghost Butler and radio shows pick up the story.

So far, funny, if a little sick and sad. Damián, however, is transformed by his secret and invisible life. He begins to wonder if he is really there. And as he becomes less physically present in the world, his mind changes too:

“While he was now struggling to evoke certain mental images, his senses had become preposterously sharp. He could hear a phone ringing in a neighboring home, and pick out airborne smells, and thereby travel the length and breadth of the house with his eyes closed. For his whole being to have been honed to such a degree brought about a sensation of quiet euphoria, and of safety, which, in turn cleared a space for him in the universe, one he’d never had before.”

The story has some twists and turns I don’t want to reveal, which make for some page turning moments, especially towards the end. And yet, From the Shadows examines, as I said, some of the fundamental issues of being human in this world today, and takes a hard look at the societal scourges of selfishness and loneliness. Millás also touches on outsourcing, family dynamics, privacy, media fragmentation, and social status. And the lasting effects of childhood experiences.

I’d even say From the Shadows explores the ethics of love — in part by providing models of self-serving that are the opposite of what love should entail. The choices Damián makes as a ghost are not cut and dried good or bad, however, and his sacrifices aren’t always pure, which would make this a good book club selection; there is much to mull over and discuss. The ending was both surprising and exactly what it should be.

A short, interesting, entertaining read.

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The Computer Scientist and I just went on a vacation to Zion National Park and on planes and buses and in the evenings when we were not hiking I read five books. This is my idea of a quality vacation — lots of reading time and lots of time outdoors in the sunshine with my favorite hiking (and life) partner.

What did I read. Well, I did something that for me is not ideal, but made sense given our desire to travel light and carry our bags: I downloaded seven library books. I read:

Spring by Ali Smith — possibly my favorite of the seasons quartet so far. What a book! It manages to be completely about right now, and completely about every time we’ve ever failed each other as human beings. And the language! Listen to this: “The air lifts. It’s the scent of commencement, initiation, threshold. The air lets you know quite ceremonially that something has changed.” Is that spring in two sentences, or what? The story is both heart wrenchingly realistic, in describing the beautiful and wrenching story of a longtime friendship and creative partnership that ends when one of the partners dies and the way working in an internment center changes people, and eerily mythical, in describing the improbable, hopeful story of a little girl who manages to very nearly pull off a miracle through sheer force of will, magnetism, and perhaps, a touch of the supernatural. And the ending just breaks, breaks, breaks your heart. An incredible read.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman — I’d heard so much about this, and was happy to finally read it. Eleanor, too, will both make you smile (maybe even laugh) and break your heart. I was prepared to think the story a bit hokey — a kind coworker turns around the life of an eccentric loner? But it turns out Eleanor is not just some eccentric, but a person much like people you may actually know and work with. And the kind coworker is also a whole person, with faults and quirks even if he has a heart and isn’t afraid to show it. Same for the supporting characters, who are marvelously three dimensional, even the ones with bit parts. A lovely book which will make you remember that every person has a story you may not know, and all of us need a genuine person or two in our lives. And that we all have the capacity to be that genuine person to someone. Although perhaps my favorite part of Eleanor’s transformation is when her friend brings her an abandoned and mistreated cat who immediately makes known her strong views, and Eleanor thinks, “A woman who knew her own mind and scorned the conventions of polite society. We were going to get along just fine.”

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo — I don’t seek out heartbreak in my reading, I swear. But again, what a story. Set in Nigeria, this is the story of a couple who are living with infertility in a culture that values having many children, and that expects a man whose wife does not bear him a son, or at least a daughter, to take a second wife. Yejide is college educated and tells her husband, Akin, before they are even married that she will not be part of a polygamous family. He agrees. But the pressure from family mounts as time passes and she does not get pregnant. Adebayo explores what might happen when a man is faced with trying to please his family and the woman he loves. But when they finally do become parents, it is Yejide’s turn to find herself challenged by the fierce desire to protect both her children and her own heart. I did not see the ending coming, although in retrospect, I should have.  A passage that has stayed with me: “The reasons why we do the things we do will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we were to the world when we are gone.”

Mitz by Sigrid Nunez — This is a novelization of a true slice of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s life in the late 1930s. Friends of theirs had an ailing marmoset, who had been in a junk shop window when the man saw her and bought her to remove her from the indignity of that existence. When the Woolfs met the poor marmoset, Mitz, she took to Leonard immediately. Shortly after, the Woolfs took Mitz in while her family traveled and Leonard nursed her back to health (he apparently visited the London zoo for advice on marmoset care). Nunez used letters, diaries, and biographies to sketch the few years of Mitz’s life in the Woolf home, and manages to also give us a peek at one of the most famous and fruitful of literary marriages. I knew little about Leonard Woolf and only the main details of Virginia Woolf’s life and death. I didn’t realize how much the Woolfs relied on each other and how many tragedies they had survived (like so many people of their times). I don’t usually go for fictional accounts of real people but I couldn’t resist the idea of a marmoset’s witness to literary history. It was entertaining, and left me interested in reading more of Nunez’s acclaimed work.

No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts — Author Powell Watts says of this novel, “Imagine The Great Gatsby set in rural North Carolina, nine decades later, with desperate black people.” She doesn’t follow Gatsby exactly, but instead imagines her Jay (JJ) returning home a well off and successful man, to build a beautiful home high above the town he came to as a traumatized teen, and where he hopes to reconnect with Ava, who he has thought of all the years he traveled and worked elsewhere. Ava is not married to a rich man but to Henry, a factory worker. While Ava and Henry are making it in the precarious middle class, they are dealing with infertility, and they are barely separated from the poverty that their parents and grandparents struggled against. Sylvia, Ava’s mother, is a strong figure central to all of the storylines — of her and her daughter’s marriages, of the extended family, of the town in North Carolina where they live, of our times. She is a practical woman, and dispenses what she believes is sensible advice. But Powell Watts notes, “You get old, but the dreams remain spry and vigorous. Swat them and they come back like gnats, like plague. You can’t kill them, they can’t die.” Sylvia, it turns out, dreams as much as any of the young people about what could be, even as she declares they should live in reality.  A book that exposes the fragility of being human, but also shines a light on a number of hard truths about race, poverty, privilege in America.

All five are good reads, well written, thought provoking, the kind of books that work their way into your thoughts days later.

 

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A couple of years ago I spied The Comforters at a coffee and book shop in Maine and remembered how much I liked A Far Cry from KensingtonWhen I was looking for a quick read for the holiday season, I saw it on my shelf and decided to give this book, Muriel Spark‘s debut novel, a read. It was just the thing for this busy time, short and satisfying.

It was interesting to read so recently after The Life You Save May Be Your Own because Spark was a Catholic convert and Catholicism features heavily in The Comforters. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer working on book about the novel form. She’s a recent convert and has decided to put her relationship with Laurence, a BBC football commentator and heir to a canned fig company, on hold until he returns to the faith, although they remain friends.

When the novel opens, Laurence writes to Caroline from his grandmother Louisa’s home to tell her he thinks Louisa is in a gang. Caroline is on a retreat and is driven away by the odious Mrs. Hogg, a former servant for Laurence’s family and a very nosy and unpleasant woman. Mrs. Hogg decides to read the letter, rather than just forwarding it on to Caroline. In the mean time, Laurence and Caroline try to get to the bottom of what Louisa is up to, and Caroline is visited by a ghostly narrator whose typewriter only she can hear.

Caroline, crazily enough, feels sure this means they are all in a novel. She comes to view herself as superfluous to the plot — the mystery surrounding Louisa, Mrs. Hogg, Mrs. Hogg’s estranged husband Mr. Hogarth, and their crippled son, Andrew, as well as a friend of Caroline’s and Laurences, known as the Baron, Laurence’s mother Helena, and his Uncle Ernest, who, in good English novel fashion, happens to be in business with Caroline’s college friend Eleanor, who has been involved romantically with both the Baron and Mr. Hogarth. But in the end it turns out, Caroline is really key to the whole story.

Confused? I was from time to time, but it all became clearer as I took more time to read — it’s not a book you can pick up for a few pages a night before bed, unless you want to spend time backtracking to figure out who is doing what and how they know each other again. However, once I gave it proper attention, The Comforters was hilarious in a dry, and pretty dark way — there is a crime at the center of the story, plus some injuries, a death, and at least one of the characters may or may not be involved in diabolism (I had to look it up, too — devil worship). The supernatural aspect worked for me because it seems like a nod to the creative process — why wouldn’t writers possibly be visited by voices, and aren’t they, even if most of the time they don’t literally hear them out loud?

A delightful read, a little wacky and fun but also a novel that talks addresses women’s roles in society, creativity, religious practices, morality, and relationships. A book club could have fun with this one.

 

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I’ve only read one other book by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, but ever since reading that a couple of years ago, I’ve kept my eyes out for his other books. I bought The Remains of the Day at a used bookstore. I’ve never seen the film, nor had I read the book before. It’s pouring buckets today so I thought it might be a good day to read a book set in the English countryside.

The Remains of the Day is about a quintessential English butler, Stevens, who prides himself on having learned from his father before him how to embody the dignity derived from “a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” When the book opens, Stevens remains at Darlington Hall in the early 1950s, although this great house has been sold to an American who has cut back on the staff and does not live there full time. Stevens is concerned with some recent errors he himself has made while working under these conditions and is considering how best to appeal for more staff when a letter arrives from Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Benn, formerly Miss Kenton.

When his American boss suggests he take a break and even offers his car, Stevens sees an opportunity to visit Mrs. Benn and see whether he can persuade her to come back to Darlington Hall. The novel is taken up with Stevens’ reminiscing, as he travels, about their work together in the house’s heyday. As he muses, Stevens posits that to be a great butler, as he strove to be, meant “to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted.”

And he recalls the way his former employer’s reputation suffered because he truly believed that the Germans suffered after the treaty of Versailles and that the honorable way to treat a former enemy was not to saddle that enemy with reparations, but to leave the past in the past and “offer generosity and friendship to a defeated foe” as Lord Darlington’s godson Mr. Cardinal puts it. As Stevens recalls the events of the 1930’s and the men who came to consult with Lord Darlington and each other before WWII, it’s clear he is ruminating on Mr. Cardinal’s belief that, “Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts.”

Ishiguro’s beautiful and subtle writing never spells out the final position Stevens takes on whether Lord Darlington was wise or foolish, although he seems to trust that his former boss was sincere. That’s one of the things I love about Ishiguro, is that he respects the reader’s ability to connect their own dots. Among which, in this book, is whether Stevens has any regrets and what his visit to Mrs. Benn revealed to each of them abut their choices in life. Would the world have turned out differently had Lord Darlington and men like him had not had so much influence? Would war have been averted if left to “the professionals” rather than gentlemen? Why did Mrs. Benn leave Darlington Hall? Did Stevens realize it at the time, or does he only come to see it during this visit? This would be a wonderful book club read.

A lovely read on a gloomy afternoon.

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I am certain we had the boxed set of Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery at some point but they seem to have disappeared. But I just re-read the original Anne book, written in 1908, for my book club. I never read these books as a child, but did read the whole series aloud to my own kids. I remembered them as sweet, somewhat romanticized stories of an idyllic childhood on Prince Edward Island.

Re-reading Anne of Green Gables now, I noticed how much Montgomery comments on society, politics, morality, gender roles, etc. In the opening pages, it’s clear that Anne’s coming into Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert’s lives is accidental, and problematic because she’s a girl. That much I remembered. But I didn’t recall how diligently — and somewhat humorlessly — Marilla works to ensure Anne becomes hardworking, considerate, well educated, faithful, and humble not only because she believes she knows more about “bringing up a child” than Matthew does, but also because she’s afraid.

Marilla’s world is one in which a woman is not independent unless a man has made her so — a father, husband, or brother, for example, who provides either a home or an inheritance. When Anne has been selected for the “Queen’s class” to study for entrance exams for further education in town, Marilla notes, “I believe in a girl being fitted to earn her own living whether she ever has to or not.” Marilla knows that she herself doesn’t have that freedom. She’s afraid to leave Anne unprepared.

From the start of the book it’s clear that idyllic as their little town is, Anne and the Cuthberts are also not free of their neighbor’s opinions — Mrs. Lynde, Mrs. Barry and old Miss Barry, among others, weigh in on Anne’s behavior, personality, and looks. They live in a society where people adhere to expectations, and Anne is forever butting up against that set of strictures. And yet as far as I can tell, Anne’s only real “fault” seems to be a naturally optimistic and cheerful outlook and a tendency to let her imagination distract her.  And it becomes clear that these are qualities the adults in her world value, even if they think her “queer” or “odd.” Even Marilla, whose instinct is caution, comes to admire Anne’s spirit.

Montgomery was writing at a time when the world seemed scary. There had been  financial panic in 1907. Political changes, class and labor unrest, and signs that longstanding social and cultural structures and institutions were not necessarily as reliable nor benevolent as once thought made people uncertain and worried about the future. Perhaps because I reread the book in a time when people are afraid of similar things — economic concerns, social structures that have let society down, distrust of institutions and systems in education, labor, and government —  I seemed to notice fear and uncertainty rippling beneath the gentle story of a girl being brought up right in a small town in a beautiful place. I suspect anyone as imaginative and cheerful as Anne would be considered more than a little odd today.

Have you reread something from your or your children’s childhood and seen it in a new light? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

 

 

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Honestly I picked up The Great Believers because in the same week, a friend from college posted about what an amazing book it is and Rebecca Makkai was bullied and threatened over a tweet. These quite disparate bits of information made their way to me via social media and both reminded me that I’d been meaning to read Makkai’s third novel. Trolls are going to troll, but I could read this book as a tiny act of solidarity with its author.

My friend is right. This is a beautiful book. I’d avoided reading it when it first came out because I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to read about young people dying. But it turns out, that while that is a central piece of the story, I needn’t have feared. The Great Believers is not really about dying, but rather about how we live when the world falls apart.

The story follows Yale, a young man living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, and Fiona, the younger sister of one of Yale’s good friends, Nico. Nico is among the first of Yale’s immediate circle of friends to die of AIDS. The Great Believers alternates between the 1980s and early 90s, when Fiona cared for a series of Nico’s friends as they became infected and died, and 2015, when she travels to Paris to find her daughter Claire, who has been out of touch for a few years and is now a mother herself.

Two threads tie the main characters’ stories together — how we live in a time of catastrophe and what those who live must contend with afterwards, and how art both tells the story of the people it portrays and protects their secrets. It’s also the story of the shame and fear that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s as people got AIDS, and the judgement and bigotry society perpetrated on them. I remember the irrational fears about AIDS, and the open homophobia. Makkai writes about these things as an organic part of her characters’ lives, never over or under dramatizing.

That’s one of the remarkable things about this book. Even though she’s writing about life and death, about tremendously painful things — even plumbing what one character calls “the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love” — every word fits. Makkai does not include a single scene, a single character, a single thought, that doesn’t need to be in this novel. She evokes places, times, feelings, without any fanfare and without drawing attention away from the story. I recently read a book I strongly disliked because it felt like the author’s every move was visible and that the book was a series of artistic stunts meant to display her prowess.

Makkai, by contrast, just tells a damn good story, very well. In a way that makes you want to stay home from work, turn off your phone, and keep reading (didn’t, but I sat at my desk wishing I’d done so). I was thoroughly invested in what was happening and even when it was clear what might happen next, the story flowed so seamlessly and the characters gave me so much to think about that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not going to try to describe the story — it’s complicated and you should just read it.

I’m honestly a little wary of books that win a bunch of awards or show up on “best books” lists, but this one is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. The Great Believers is a very good read, one that tells hard truths and exposes serious flaws in the world while also reminding readers of the best aspects of humanity, and the “miracle” of being alive with the people we love. If you’re looking for a good read, something to get lost in and talk about, something that you’ll be glad to have humming along in your heart after you put it down, read this book.

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In the foreword to A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr notes, “During any prolonged activity, one tends to forget original intentions. But I believe that, when making a start on A Month in the Country, my idea was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” So when I finished Carr’s novel last weekend I decided to read Hardy’s next.

While Carr places his story in a village where tradition and social propriety are important and where the local vicar seems to wonder about whether he’d be better off with another assignment, his story is a melancholy look back at a summer when two war veterans, still processing their recent experiences, come to live and work in a village. They each harbor wounds from their personal lives, too, and the book turned out to be less a rural idyll than an examination of a changing society, seasoned with the tension of two young men whose futures are uncertain, and the temptation each feels in attractions that are forbidden to them (Birkin is briefly but dangerously drawn to the vicar’s young wife and Moon is homosexual at a time when that could land him in jail).

Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree is truly a rural idyll — one of his “Wessex” novels. It’s a much gentler story, of a young man in a village, Dick Dewy, who is in love with the school mistress, Fancy Day. Dick is from a large family and follows his father into tranter work (transportation or peddling from a horse carriage), and also sings in the “quire” with him and other village men, accompanied by various stringed instruments. Fancy comes from a slightly better family and is educated, so their relationship is endangered by her father’s aspirations for a better match and a couple of rival suitors.

The details of the social fabric of Hardy’s fictional village are vivid, and the characters are interesting. He covers some of the same ground as Jane Austen and George Eliot in this novel, with domestic and social drama at the center. Hardy takes on including people who are somewhat outside the norms in his story,  including Fancy’s step mother who seems to be what we’d identify as obsessive compulsive today and Leaf, a developmentally disabled man. But he treads some of the same topics, showing Fancy caught up in keeping a secret from Dick and also for a little while, appearing undecided about whether or not she loves him.

The book is written in colloquial language that slowed me down a bit. I enjoyed the side plot about whether to have organ or strings and voices accompany the congregation’s hymn singing. It was entertaining, and interesting to read and to contrast with A Month in the Country.

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