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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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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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The former “Teen the Younger”* gave me Queen of the Underworld for Christmas. I’d heard of but not read Gail Godwin. I seem to say that a good deal lately, don’t I? When this novel opens, Emma Gant is freshly graduated from University of North Carolina and is off on a train to her first job, as a reporter for the Miami Star. Her mother’s college friend, who Emma calls “Aunt Tess,” lives there, and helps Emma get settled into a hotel near the Star‘s offices, run by and full of Cuban exiles who have escaped Castro’s revolution. Her only other friend in Miami is actually her lover, the much older Paul Nightingale, who hired her as a waitress at his North Carolina inn the previous summer.

That backdrop sets the scene for Emma’s flowering life. Godwin infuses her heroine with the verve and hunger of an ambitious young writer hoping to make her mark, and fills her life with incredibly colorful characters — Paul and Tess both have interesting and complicated lives, and so do the many Cubans and fellow journalists Emma meets in her first ten days in Florida. And she meets the infamous titular character, a country girl from Georgia who was duped and set up as a madam by a young mobster.

Now known as Mrs. Brown, this former madam becomes Emma’s creative outlet, the story she can’t write for the paper but dreams of writing anyway. The setting of the novel is brief — covering under two months of Emma’s life — but gives us a view into her hopes for a novel, her visions of a future for herself, and the world in south Florida in 1959. It was a good read, interesting, educational (for me — I didn’t know much about the time and place, or the beginning of Castro’s rule), with a compelling heroine and no pat ending. In the afterword Godwin describes it as an “apprentice novel” and talks about other such works, and that essay alone is worth reading. The novel was a good escape into another uncertain and challenging time from our own. What a delight to receive a present like this!

*Longtime bookconscious readers know that for several years, I used to write about what my offspring, who I eventually called Teen the Elder and Teen the Younger in this space, and my spouse, The Computer Scientist, read as well as my own reading.

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Librarians read lots of reviews, so I’d heard about Jon McGregor. But it wasn’t until a friend in my book group recommended Reservoir 13 that I finally got around to reading his work. I order fiction for my library so I knew the book, but I didn’t think I’d want to read it because it was about a missing teen. Only it’s not, as my friend noted when she raved about it. It’s really about the people who live in an English village where a teen goes missing.

McGregor’s prose is meticulous — he doesn’t talk about bugs and birds and plants, but springtails (which I learned, when I looked them up, are technically “hexapods,” not bugs), fieldfares, and teasels. He notes the passing of seasons by things like when it’s lambing time, when the badgers mate, and when fox cubs leave their dens. And also in human terms like when it’s time for the well-dressing, when the allotments are planted or harvested and what grows when in them, and when it’s time for the annual cricket match against a neighboring village or the village pantomime.  All this detailed observation adds to the rich pattern of the writing.

And that writing is melodious, almost musical, with certain refrains repeating again and again through the passing years of the novel. For example, this description of the girl: “Her name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer.” And phrases, like, “At midnight when the year turned . . . .” And “Cathy knocked on Mr. Wilson’s door and asked whether Nelson needed a walk . . . .”

This repetition, along with the turning of the seasons and the years, creates a sense of the ebb and flow of village life. Challenges and joys come and go, but things go on, the people who remain manage, look after each other, keep things running. Characters rise and fall — the focus isn’t on one or two people with minor supporting characters but instead on bits of many villagers’ lives. Some remain throughout the book, some move on, or fade into the background.

If you like a strong narrative, clear answers, or a lot of action, this book won’t be for you, but if you want a meditative, thoughtful read about the basic decency and humanity of people with all their faults and foibles, and the way people survive the few among them who lack that basic decency, this is a beautiful read.

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When the Nobel prize in literature was announced this year I thought to myself, “there’s an author I always intended to read.” For no good reason, I started with Never Let Me Go rather than Ishiguro’s most recent novel. It’s a lovely book, full of the emotional force Ishiguro’s writing is known for, and like all really good fiction, it’s about being human. which is ironic, since Never Let Me Go is about people who aren’t considered fully human.

The three main characters, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, grew up together at a boarding school in England called Hailsham. As the novel opens, Kathy, now an adult, is reminiscing about their childhood, the “guardians” who ran the school, and the experiences they had after leaving Hailsham to begin their adult lives. Kathy works as a carer, and ends up caring for both Ruth and Tommy. Slowly readers begin to understand who and what the three characters are, why there is no mention of their families, and what their purpose in life is.

I know I’m being vague but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprising truth for you if you haven’t read it. Suffice to say that Ishiguro writes of a time and place that could be in the past or the present or the future, of people who live in England but could be living anywhere, with the same concerns and interests of people everywhere. This is not accidental, as he has stated, “I am a writer who wishes to write international novels. What is an ‘international’ novel? I believe it to be one, quite simply, that contains a vision of life that is of importance to people of varied backgrounds around the world.”

It’s this universality that I found most interesting as I read what could be considered a dystopian novel. There is nothing strange about this world Ishiguro creates — it is all too familiar. The emotions his characters feel are things we’ve felt too. And yet Never Let Me Go deals with a society that has decided collectively to use certain people for the benefit of others in a chilling and inhumane way.

Which makes it sound like horror or science fiction, which it isn’t. Just as it is unreal and yet ordinary and recognizable, it is scary without being creepy. Evocative, yes, maudlin, no. Hard to describe? Yes. A very good read, thoughtful and thought provoking. It made me want to discuss it with someone.

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One of the joys of cataloging is that I see books as they come in that I might not otherwise notice. Sargent’s Women by Donna Lucey was on one of my carts in the late fall and I was excited to read it. One of my favorite places is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and one of the four women Lucey writes about in this book is Gardner. I started reading Sargent’s Women after visiting the museum last weekend and hearing a docent talk about some of Sargent’s work, including his famous portrait of Gardner.

The three other Sargent portraits Lucey writes about are of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Chanler Chapman, and Sally Fairchild, although that chapter is primarily about Sally’s unconventional sister, Lucia Fairchild Fuller. Each woman’s story is interesting in its way. Fuller seemed the most compelling to me, not only because she came to live in New Hampshire near Cornish, where an arts colony thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also because she overcame illness and adversity to support her family with her own art (she became a renowned miniaturist ).

If there’s a common thread between these women it’s their status — all were wealthy, although Fuller fell on hard times because her husband was an entitled jerk and neither he nor his family cared to support Fuller and their children. All four women moved in rarified circles, where Sargent worked. Gardner was the only one who really did what she wanted in life, and enjoyed the support of those closest to her for the most part. These families seemed to all be pretty awful to each other, too, and it’s not just a matter of men ruling over women’s lives, although they did that plenty. There were mothers, sisters, and aunts interfering as well.

The four women are interesting to read about, in their way. I would have liked to know more about Sargent himself, although that’s not the point of this book. Sargent’s Women is interesting, and you could dip into a chapter, set it aside, and come back later to read about another woman and her portrait. It’s always intriguing to look at the lives of women mostly forgotten to history, even very privileged women, and to understand a little about the context in which an artist painted. This book, like the paintings of these women, gives us a glimpse into a world most of us can’t imagine.

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