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This book was my book swap prize when our book club met in December. It’s thick — I’d argue unnecessarily so — so I didn’t get to it right away because I was on a Margaret Drabble tear (I still have a couple of hers in reserve for the next time I get such a craving).

I digress. This book is the story of a wealthy young couple in Czechoslovakia in the 30s who have a famous modernist architect build them a home. This much, according to Simon Mawer’s note prior to the first chapter, is based in reality. The house is a wonder, and has this amazing room with glass walls and an onyx dividing wall that creates an interesting effect at sunset. The book is primarily the story of this couple, Liesel and Viktor, Liesel’s best friend Hana, and Viktor’s lover Kata. There are some other characters introduced (they enter fast and furious in that last 7/8 of the book) as well, because when the Nazi invasion in nigh, Viktor and Liesel flee with their children and Kata and her daughter. You’ll have to read the book to figure out why they leave together. The other characters come into the story because of the house, which goes through several stages of use during and after WWII.

Despite the book’s girth, I couldn’t really tell you what makes Viktor or Liesel tick. Hana, a little more so, but only because we actually see a little more of her at the end of the book. Maybe because I didn’t feel terribly invested in the characters, I didn’t love this book. I thought the first 7/8 moved too slowly, and the last 1/8 tore along too quickly, and some really interesting bits were alluded to but not developed. I get that the reason for this is the centrality of the house to the premise of the novel.

I was especially irritated by a ridiculous coincidence at the end of the book, but that may be because I just finished reviewing a horrible book for Kirkus that was one long string of coincidences. Probably without that context, I wouldn’t have been as annoyed by this one. A coworker saw me reading The Glass Room and pointed out it’s a movie now, opening in March. The synopsis posted on that page, which pretty much gives away the entire plot, doesn’t match the book, if you’re curious.

An ok read, mostly because of the interesting setting. Yes, I know many critics raved and it was shortlisted for the Booker. Sorry, Kathy.

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Two readers recommended Oyinkan Braithwaite‘s My Sister the Serial Killer to me: a colleague at work and someone in my book club (we decided to read it for this month), both of whom read all the time. My colleague at work said it is still making her think, a month after she read it. I suspect that is what’s going to happen to me.

The premise is exactly as it sounds — it’s about two sisters, Ayoola, beautiful, clueless and petulant, with a string of three dead boyfriends, and Korede, plain, smart and efficient, recently promoted to head nurse at the hospital where she works. They live with their widowed mother in the enormous house their father built, which is steeped in not so happy childhood memories. From a young age, Korede has been told, repeatedly, that it’s her job to protect Ayoola, to keep her safely out of trouble.

And so, each time there is a situation where no one but Korede can help her, Ayoola turns to her older sister, who can never say no. Or can she? Two men in her life inspire Korede to try: a patient who comes out of a coma and begins to remember all the things Korede said to him while he was unconscious for weeks in the hospital, and Tade, a doctor she works with. I don’t want to give away details, but this central dilemma of the book — whether and how Korede should help Ayoola — provides the tension.

It’s a book about these characters in Nigeria, but it’s also a book about patriarchy and the way both men and women perpetuate it, family ties, the pain of being different in a society that prefers norms you don’t fit into, and the long term implications of childhood trauma. I think you could make a film of My Sister the Serial Killer and set it anywhere and it would still work.

As my friend at work said, it made me laugh, it scared me (not in a horror movie way, but in a “oh no, don’t do that!” kind of way), and it made me think. I’m looking forward to talking this one over with my book club!

 

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This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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In my last post I wrote about The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, and over the last week I finished the trilogy, reading A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory. These books are the continuing story of Liz Headland, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, friends since their late teens when they arrived at Cambridge, in their fifties by the end of The Gates of Ivory.

A Natural Curiosity also focuses on a few other characters who are introduced in The Radiant Way but don’t play a large part in the first book. For example, Shirley, Liz’s sister, and others who live in in Northam, where Alix has moved. Drabble also discusses one of her signature topics in this book — marriages, and how they work or don’t. We watch Shirley and her husband Clive as his business implodes and Esther, faced with a proposal after being single and mainly living alone her entire adult life. We see a middle aged lawyer in Northam whose wife starts a torrid affair, trying to carry on. And her girlhood friend, who is married to a famous archeologist, who are happily married even though they don’t seem to be at all suited. And Liz, seeming to grow closer to her ex-husband, Charles, who left her so dramatically in The Radiant Way but has come home from Washington and is in the process of a divorce.

There’s also a fair bit of politics in these books, which is one of the critiques of them that I’ve seen in reviews. Personally, I don’t mind. I also empathize with the characters, who find that their views shift a bit as they mature, but who are also disappointed, even disillusioned to see the world as it’s evolving. Unlike Liz and her friends I was never an apologist for communism, and as a young person I didn’t really have well thought out views. I parroted the views I’d heard as a child from adults, and it wasn’t until I had children that I began to think for myself about what I valued, and to try to understand what various political views meant practically in the world and whether any politicians or parties actually represented my views.

Drabble’s characters are surer from the start, and a few really live their views in accordance with their views — like Alix and her husband Brian, and Brian’s best friend Stephen Cox. In the second book, Alix is trying to help Paul, the serial killer, now jailed near her home in the north, who lived above Esther’s flat and killed one of Alix’s students in The Radiant Way. And almost the entire third book is about Stephen Cox trying to get to Khmer Rouge territory (which in the early 80s were officially out of power and not in charge in the cities, but still controlled parts of the Cambodian countryside).

Cox is a Booker winning novelist and we watched him grow closer to Liz in the second book. In fact it is at dinner with her that he says he’s going to go and see what happened, and why the communist ideal didn’t work in Kampuchea, and write a play about Pol Pot. Liz is a little alarmed, but doesn’t stop him. In the beginning of the third book she receives a package containing some finger bones and packet of fragmented writing — notes, sketches, journals. The novel bounces between scenes of Stephen making his way to Cambodia and meeting various people along the way (including the wonderful Thai business woman Mrs. Porntip), and Liz and others back in England.

She and Stephen’s other friends decide they have to determine what happened to him. Drabble introduces a character who narrates bits of The Gates of Ivoryat times addressing the reader directly, Hattie Osborne. She is Stephen’s agent and a former actress, and the night before he leaves they attend a friend’s 70th birthday dinner and a party and in the wee hours he suggests she stay in his apartment while he’s away. Hattie, it turns out, was also at the party at the very beginning of The Radiant Way, and is additionally an acquaintance of Polly Piper, Alix’s former boss.

It’s this social network — the myriad ways Drabble’s characters’ lives interweave — that made me think last night as I finished The Gates of Ivory that these books would make great television. I can see them adapted for a multi-season drama. These books together tell not only the story of three women and their friends and relations, but also of England, through the post-war years, the Thatcher years, the massive social, economic, and political changes. of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and the art, theater, music, and media that Liz and Alix and Esther and their friends enjoy. In this way, Drabble’s books are like Jane Austen’s, social in more than one way — they examine the lives of particular families but also the life of a society, with all the layers that entails.

 

 

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I started The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble in Maine last Saturday, and then came back to the last minute cleaning, cooking, etc. and the Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities, and went back to work on Boxing Day, so it took me several days to finish. This is actually part of a trilogy about the same group of characters, centered around three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. When the book opens, one of them, Liz Headleand, a London psychiatrist, is preparing to host a huge New Year’s bash on the last day of 1979. It ends in June 1985, on her friend Esther Breuer’s fiftieth birthday. Which they spend together, along with their third university friend, Alix Bowen.

In the nearly 400 pages between, Drabble spins the story of these women’s adult lives, occasionally dipping into their childhoods, describing the society they live in (mainly well educated but not posh London, and the north of England, where Alix and Liz are from), the disciplines they devote themselves to (psychiatric medicine for Liz, art history and especially the Italian Renaissance painter Crivelli for Esther, literature and teaching it to under-served people, like women prisoners, for Alix), the men they love, and the children they bear.

As I’ve written here before, I love the way Drabble writes about people as they relate to each other — friends, relatives, lovers — and the way those relationships knit together create society. She works into the story politics and culture, literature and art, anthropology and history and myth, but always returns to the relationships. And these not only populate society but also Drabble’s fictional world. Kate Armstrong, the main character of The Middle Ground appears on the edges of The Radiant Way, for example. As in other Drabble books the women here are serious, thinking people no matter how they spend their days, and she captures the way they manage their own needs, goals, ambitions, work with the care of others in a way that really resonates with me.

I’ve read some criticism of Drabble — she gets too caught up in description and explanation, she injects too much (read too liberal) political commentary into her fiction, she writes about privileged people, her novels are uninteresting for all of the above reasons. But I love her lens, I love vicariously living in her England for a few days, and I love her writing, and I’ve started the second book in the trilogy, A Natural Curiosity.

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The Computer Scientist and I went away for a short winter vacation in Maine. Before I left I packed a few books, of course, but we ended up visiting two libraries with ongoing book sales (in Cape Porpoise and Kennebunkport) and I added to my stash. I ended up reading two books I brought with me and one I bought.

First, I have been telling my elder offspring for years that I would read Tolkien. He read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy around age 12 or 13 or so, and pretty much swore off all other fiction because he said nothing else could ever live up to those books. He’s read all four books a few times. I can certainly see why he likes them. I was so wrapped up in the story that I read in the car a bit, which I don’t usually do.

I do wish I hadn’t seen the first part of the movie, because it colored the way I imagined various scenes, but I absolutely enjoyed the story and the writing and can see the many ways Tolkien has influenced other writers. I finished late Thursday evening and couldn’t get to sleep at first, thinking over what I’d read and all the details Tolkien works in. And also that there are absolutely no female characters except some vague references to “wives and children.” Interesting. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit.

On Friday I read Appointment In Samarra by John O’Hara. Other than some short stories, I don’t think I’ve ever read O’Hara. I purchased it at the Five Colleges Book Sale in part because the cover caught my eye — it’s the Penguin Classics paperback — and partly because there were two and my friend bought the other copy. Plus, I thought, here was an Important Author I hadn’t read, so I’d remedy that. I grabbed it to read on the trip because I knew it starts on Christmas.

I told the Computer Scientist I should have known from the title — a reference to a story about a man’s appointment with death, a folktale retold by W. Somerset Maugham — that it wasn’t going to be a cheery holiday read. What I didn’t realize is exactly how sad it is. O’Hara wrote about a fictionalized version of his own small city in Pennsylvania, and this book, set in 1930, captures all the social ills of the time, many of which are really still with us. Objectification of women, prejudice, classism, the power of money and influence, organized crime, addiction, corruption, social pettiness — pretty much everything ugly about society is in Appointment In Samarra. If there is a character to admire it’s Caroline, who is at least somewhat loyal, but even she seems to stubbornly avoid thinking most of the time. I found myself thinking “come on, can’t you do better than that” several times and in reference to several characters.

This novel is sort of like The Great Gatsby set in a smaller town with characters a little less rich. But at least in Gatsby there is an unrequited love that drives the excessive behavior. In Appointment in Samarra, the driving forces seem to just be greed, prejudice, and a need to prove oneself to friends and relatives, and the concomitant fear of falling short. When my reading friend who attended the book sale with me asked if I liked it, I said I was glad I read it; it’s part of the American literary canon, I admire the writing and the risk O’Hara took (he addresses “nice” women’s sexuality very directly, which shocked some reviews). But it’s a really tough story.

Along the same lines, I picked up A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge, another new-to-me Important Author. It’s a tough story too — the main characters are a couple whose marriage is strained by jealousy, financial worry, and snobbishness, and their teenagers, Madge, a young woman desperate to break away and willing to break rules to do so, and Alan, a young man trying to hold things together and at the same time, venture out on his own path as well. Bainbridge is a great observer of human nature and captures both the fears and disappointments of late middle age and the hopes and tangled feelings of youth beautifully. A Quiet Life is also a post-war story; England is still dark and damaged. The novel opens and ends with scenes taking place years after the main part of the novel, and those somewhat soften the dismal view of the family she paints. That seemed, by comparison, a bit hopeful.

A solid few days of reading, and for that, I’m glad! There is nothing like the sound of the sea and the rain and wind when you’re tucked up, cozy, with a glass of wine and a nice stack of books!

 

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Norah Lofts was not an author I knew of when I picked up How Far to Bethlehem at the Five Colleges Book Sale last spring. Last week, after finishing a book for Kirkus and turning in my final paper before the winter break, I decided it would make a good Advent read. And it did.

I have since learned that Lofts was known for the detail in her historical novels and that was one thing I enjoyed about How Far to Bethlehem. It’s the story of all the people converging on the nativity — Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, one of the shepherds, even the innkeeper. Lofts imagines a backstory for the lesser known characters and fills out the lives of those you may be more familiar with. She imagines the wise men as an astronomer from Korea (Melchior), a Mongolian military leader (Gaspar) and a learned eunuch slave from Africa (Balthazar). The innkeeper she imagines to be a former sailor. The shepherd, a grieving father whose son fell in with Jewish rebels and ended up crucified.

The way Mary and Joseph each receive the news of their holy son’s impending birth is beautifully written, as is the miracle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and Mary’s visit to her cousin. Anne, Mary’s mother, also comes alive for Lofts, worried about Mary and convinced her son in law is a fool for taking her on a donkey to Bethlehem. But the really interesting parts for me were the stories of Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar and the way their lives come together on the quest to follow the star and find the child.

When my kids were kids, I used to read Jostein Gaarder’s  The Christmas Mystery to them every advent, one part a day until Christmas. How Far to Bethlehem reminded me a little of that book. It’s a good little advent read.

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