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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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When I was visiting family last week I was in danger of running out of reading material on my iPad (Quick aside: traveling is usually the only time I choose e-reading, and from my informal survey of fellow passengers, that’s pretty common. As I have frequently discussed over at Nocturnal Librarian, the book was not a technology that needed improvement, and e-books are kinda meh to many, many people). I checked for something else to download and found that Overdrive had it’s Big Library Read going on.  So I downloaded their selection, Flat Broke With Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha.

I am not always a memoir fan — I read bad news in the news, so I am not really interested in bad news in my books, too. This one has plenty, from McGaha’s youthful abusive (and thankfully, brief) marriage to the foreclosure that is the main catalyst for the story. But I finished it, and I found it readable and interesting.

It’s always good when a book challenges assumptions. I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the basics of the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis. And I feel for people who lost their homes, especially those preyed upon by the kinds of mortgage brokers and banks depicted in The Big Short. But I found myself feeling a little sheepish as I read about McGaha’s accountant husband, David, to paying taxes for a few years and getting them so far in debt they had to foreclose and work out payments for state and federal tax. I was shaking my head, thinking, “How could an accountant let that happen?” But McGaha writes honestly about how he intended to make everything work, they never expected their troubles to compound, and she trusted him to manage it all so didn’t pay attention.

In fact, her story, one of raising her kids, working part time, and trusting her spouse with the money hit a little close to home. I could definitely get where she was coming from. I could see how it could happen — good people, scrambling to make all the ends meet, stuck in a house that they bought from friends that had a number of major things wrong with it, trusting all the way around.

So, when they lost their house, they end up living in a cabin in the woods near a waterfall, not fall from Asheville, which I visited with my mom a couple of years ago. McGaha describes the woods and the falls, the cabin (pretty rustic for a house), the awful creepy things (snakes, spiders) and the wonderful animals they raise. Yes, goats. Also chickens and dogs and a cat, all in vivid detail. Again some of it will raise your eyebrows, but McGaha is so forthright about their situation, readers end up feeling for her.

My favorite sections were when she was more introspective about how she handled her radically new life emotionally, how she grieved her grandparents, especially her grandmother, and what she felt about her career, the land, and her family history. More of that would have been enjoyable. There are a number of recipes at the ends of chapters, but I felt like maybe an editor suggested those? Maybe not. They seemed a little forced into the narrative, and that’s a trend from a few years ago (tacking recipes onto chapters in memoirs) that seemed to me like publishers grasping at how to compete with blogs or something.

I learned a great deal about goat farming, and humanity, and expanded my view of the world. Not a bad “spare” read while traveling.

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I admit I downloaded What Is Yours Is Not Yours thinking it was by the same author who wrote A Tale for the Time Being – and in fairness, their names are similar. Ruth Ozeki wrote the latter. Helen Oyeyemi wrote the former, and it was a happy mistake on my part because her work is new to me. The last day of my South Carolina trip was rainy and this collection of trippy, braided short stories (linked seems too light a term for the way the characters and themes are entwined) was a lovely diversion.

Keys and books appear throughout the book, and some of the characters appear again years after we first meet them. Some settings are fairy tale-like, others seem to be set in the regular world, others in some sort of strange in-between. There are a lot of people who might fit into an ordinary world doing their best in the stranger ones – in “Books and Roses” and “Is Your Blood as Red As This” there are both ghosts and people, and in the latter there is a section told by a wooden puppet of sorts (the setting is a puppetry school).

Despite all the otherworldliness, much of what Oyeyemi writes about is very familiar – a young man whose family wants him to work at their hotel, a young woman wondering who her biological parents are, a college student annoyed by a male club who plots a prank (they swap out books written by men for books by women – my kind of prank) with her own female only group. And many stories about love and longing; two that really got me are “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” about teen siblings whose pop singer crush beats a woman, disillusioned by the response of other fans as well as the star, and “Presence,” about a married couple of former foster kids who are now psychologists.

Perhaps these recognizable human feelings are why even though the stories are so much like a dream – they make sense when you’re in them but are hard to explain when you wake up – the book is still not hard to follow. A good rainy afternoon book, and I’m curious to read more of Oyeyemi’s work.

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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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My book club chose Wonder for our next discussion, and I thought Easter afternoon and evening was a good time to relax with a book. It’s written for kids, so I finished it in two short sittings. It’s meant to be “feel-good” and I guess it is, to a point. I get that for kids it’s meant to illustrate the importance of caring about who people are and not what they look like. And its a well told story.

The hero is August, a boy with multiple genetic health issues that cause him to have a deformed face. When the book opens, his parents have let him know he’s going to school – due to his many surgeries and complex medical care, he has homeschooled thus far. He’ll enter middle school in fifth grade. His sister is starting high school.

The book follows August’s travails as he tries to feel normal, and his sister’s as she tries to adjust to changing dynamics with childhood friends and as she enjoys not being the girl with the deformed brother, since no one in her new school knows about August. There are some chapters from the siblings’ friends’ points of view, too.

The parents are sweet, the teachers are benign, kind friends are very kind, the nasty kids are mean without being too awful and their parents are mean too. And rich – the book definitely makes the “average” working people seem nicer than entitled people, which feels likely enough in the story but really is just another stereotype. I don’t see how teaching kids that middle class people are kind and rich people are mean is helpful.

I kept trying to consider what a kid would think as they read Wonder. There is plenty to like – everyone has probably felt some of the discomforts August feels in terms of friendships and school social pecking order. But is that the message? See, this seriously medically challenged kid is just like you? Because he’s not. He loses enough hearing to need hearing aids during the book – and he’s only ten. Left unsaid is the long road ahead, health wise. Or maybe this condition causes early death?

Right, that’s not subject matter for a kids’ book. I get that. The story dances around how much August’s sister struggles with being the well kid in the family. And how people who don’t know August are potentially a danger to him. Those topics are at least introduced, and in that way the book is nuanced enough to appeal to older kids and happy enough to share with younger ones. Theres a subplot about the family dog that seemed like it was inserted just to add an additional emotional mini arc in the story.

To me this book seems to have left out many things that felt like they were just on the edge of the story. The financial and emotional strain such a medical condition would cause anyone in America, where our health system is expensive and labyrinthine. The strain on a marriage and friendships having a seriously medically challenged child may cause. The fact that its really unlikely such a school with a kind principal and close community would be right in someone’s neighborhood. Again, not children’s book material, but where my mind went.

Five years on the bestseller list, though – and lots of schools incorporate it into their curriculum. I suppose even a fairly oversimplified lesson about kindness is better than none. Just know that it may not feel as feel-good as advertised if you’re apt to think about how August and his family would get along in a less open-minded place with fewer doctors than New York. Which is what I thought about.

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This follow up to Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heartis every bit as compelling. Boyle is a master at telling stories about his work at Homeboy Industries, and then summarizing in a sentence or two the beauty and mystery of love at the heart of that work. That people who have lived through such hell have create home for each other every day at Homeboy Industries is inspiring and humbling. What’s the problem with Congress, for example, if former enemies can not only work together but care for one another?

Boyle has a knack for the summarizing sentence, the nugget that gets at the heart of what he’s been telling through anecdotes about the men and women who are his Homeboy family. After a story about running into a homie at Target and chatting about his life now, Boyle writes, “The goal is not perfection but a wholeness anchored in grateful living.”

If it’s a knottier subject — like the ego — it may take more than one sentence but Boyle is still incredibly lucid. He talks about a speaking engagement where he was “swamped” by fans after, but one woman waited to tell him, “I have nothing but hate for you and your organization” because her “son was killed by a gang member.” Boyle writes about feeling “stunned,” and wishes he could have heard the woman’s story in more detail, for her own benefit, so that she could be heard. He goes on to say “Nonetheless, it returned me to my true home, anchored and grounded far from any adulation. . . and though the sting was sharp, I knew not to take it personally. . . . One can choose to let suffering be the elevator to a heightened place of humble loving. . . . the opposite of clinging is not letting go but cherishing. This is the goal of the practice of humility. That having a ‘light grasp’ on life prepares the way for cherishing what is right in front of us.” Wow.

Barking to the Choir: the Power of Radical Kinship isn’t just a feel-good book about incredible work with people who society casts as “bad guys.” Boyle answers his detractors more directly in this book, and also speaks truth about police brutality (although towards the end he also calls out a thoughtful officer who appears to have found his own way to do Boyle-style compassionate work on the job). But mainly what’s a little tough about this book is that Boyle’s entire attitude of abundance and well being coming from unwavering hospitality, boundless love, and “radical kinship” — of the ubuntu style, there is no I without you — is so counter to what we are seeing all around us right now.

Which makes me hope that we are simply not keeping our eyes — the eyes of our hearts, not just the eyes of our faces — open enough. That we have to seek those stories, (Good News Network is on of my sources) that counter the dominant narrative of separateness and other. Boyle says it better: “If we could simply drop the burden of our own judgments, we could see with clarity and then compassion would be possible.” See, then love. Boyle wants us to know it’s that simple.

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I got Believe Me for the Computer Scientist for Christmas, but he’s been working his way through the Smiley books so hasn’t gotten to it yet and I wanted something more uplifting than the tough fiction I’ve read lately. We really admire Eddie Izzard around here — last summer we sat in the front row at his show in Concord (I still can’t believe he came to Concord) and it was amazing. His humor is so intelligent and watching it happen up close was incredible. I hadn’t heard about the memoir, I admit, until Bill Gates posted about the top five books he read last year. I think generally Eddie Izzard isn’t as well known in the U.S. as he should be.

It took me longer to read than I expected because it’s written in similar style to the way Izzard does his comedy — a lot of thoughts coming at you and you just kind of have to hang on until they all come together. it was fun to learn more about his life and definitely the sheer determination he has had to accomplish what he wants in life is inspiring. It’s not a funny book — it’s not meant to be — and it was pretty heavy at times, as there has been some tough stuff in Izzard’s life. His idea that people are all pretty much the same everywhere and his faith in humanity are nice, although reading these thoughts with the world as it is felt a little disjointed. But it’s a good read and I enjoyed it.

 

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