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I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer Fleming, one for book club and one for another group discussion. Rather than talk about those books specifically — what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said about Toni Morrison? And why review a mystery that is several books into a series? — I thought I’d muse on reading books other people have chosen.

We do it for years as children, reading what teachers tell us to, or choosing from a prescribed list. I hated it when I volunteered in the children’s room in a public library when my kids were small and a child would come in with a parent who wanted the child to read a book worth certain points; when I was young, my mother would turn us loose at the library to choose whatever we wanted and I can remember a delicious sense of agency and freedom, wandering the rows of shelves, exploring my options. I feel one way to turn a kid off of reading is to be prescriptive about what they have to read.

I’ve worked in different settings where I had to read either ahead of an author visit or in order to facilitate a book club and at one point here at bookconscious I wrote about my husband’s observation that reading wasn’t even fun for me anymore. Reading for work is slightly different. I choose to be a part of various discussion groups now, even though there will be months where I don’t like the selection.

Why? I feel like the act of following through with reading something I wouldn’t necessarily pick myself and/or that isn’t what I like to read, or even, occasionally, that I flat out don’t enjoy is about choosing community and expanding my horizons. Sometimes I still don’t like it even after the discussion, but sometimes I see new things in a book after I hear other’ views. Of course sometimes people don’t like a book I recommended, and so reading their recommendations is partly an acknowledgement that committing to a discussion group or book club is about trusting the process of collaborating on choices, and listening to others’ views.

Happily there are times when I end up reading something I am very glad to have read. Or that I didn’t enjoy but know was good for me to read anyway, and can appreciate for its power or beauty (The Bluest Eye falls into that category). But whether or not I enjoy a particular book, I think that showing up — to read and to discuss — is worth doing, because the experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, both in the text and in the group, is worth my time and makes life richer.

 

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My daughter gave me The Diary of A Bookseller by Shawn Bythell for my birthday. I’d first heard about it in some sort of media report about Wigtown, Scotland and it’s annual book festival. It’s a yearlong diary Bythell kept to share his life as owner of a large used bookstore in a small rural town.

I’ve worked in an indie bookstore and I felt fairly well aware of the threat Amazon has been to booksellers but I was thinking from the perspective of stores that primarily sell new books. I didn’t fully grasp the way Amazon has undermined the value of used books and made it harder and less profitable to run a used bookshop.

I used to fantasize about having a used bookstore and even had a book (which I think I bought at Powell’s) about how to do start and run one, right down to how to build the shelves. I let the book go a few years ago when we were having a big clear out (to make way for more books) and realized then that the business had likely changed so much I’d be better off learning from someone in the trade today.  The Diary of a Bookseller drove that point home for sure.

Some of what Bythell described is recognizable to anyone who has worked retail or in a library — the regulars who are both very familiar and complete strangers, the rude or demanding or opinionated people who feel entitled to provide commentary on the way things are run, the stock, the prices, the staff, etc. Other challenges I hadn’t considered, like the wear and tear on the body of lugging boxes of books, the difficulty of heating a very old building, and the fearful difficulty of clearing a clogged gutter in a downpour to stop it flooding the shop.

I admire Bythell’s desire to be independent, to quietly fight on against giants like Amazon and Waterstones, and to find hope in kind customers and in the beauty of living where one wants, doing something one values. It’s also really interesting to read the quotes from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories at the start of each chapter and realize that as different as the world was in the first half of the 20th century when Orwell worked in a bookshop, many things he wrote about are still true today.

This was an interesting and enjoyable read, and I hope to make it to Wigtown and The Bookshop one day! I also hope the Random Book Club re-opens for membership. In less than a year I’ll be done with my second foray into grad school and free to read whatever I want, so that would be a good gift to myself!

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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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When I read The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair couple of weeks ago, the section on heliotrope included notes Oscar Wilde makes in his play An Ideal Husband about the villainess Mrs. Cheveley when she enters a party at Lord and Lady Chiltern’s house in Grosvenor Square: “She is in heliotrope, with diamonds.” Just as I followed the trail from A Month in the Country to Under the Greenwood Tree, I decided this afternoon to read Wilde’s play and see whether Mrs. Cheveley, who St. Clair’s describes as Wilde’s “deliciously immoral antiheroine” and one of the many “badly behaved characters . . . often described as wearing the color” in literature is as wicked as all that.

And she is. I think I’ve only ever seen one play by Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest. I’d forgotten how funny he is. An Ideal Husband could be about rich politicians today . . . in fact I think it would be fun to see a contemporary setting. Lord and Lady Chiltern are pillars of London society, he a member of Parliament, she his political partner and very involved in worthy causes. They are widely thought of as good people. At a party, Mrs. Cheveley shows up, fresh from Vienna where she’s been living, and promptly blackmails Lord Chiltern. She has evidence of Chiltern selling insider information to a rich Baron when Chiltern was a young man, “well-born but poor.” She wants him to make a speech promoting a project he is set to denounce, which would make her a fortune. She threatens to expose his earlier misdeed if he doesn’t do what she wants.

Chiltern is terrified, not of losing his own position, but of disappointing and possibly even losing his wife. He turns to his dear friend, Lord Goring for advice. Goring is a vain young man whose father thinks he is lazy (his equally silly love interest, Lord Chiltern’s younger sister Mabel, counters this by noting that among other things he “changes his clothes five times a day and dines out every night of the season” and is therefore not “leading an idle life”). But he is a loyal friend, and does his best to help, to great comic effect.

The play moves along at a good pace and covers only one twenty-four hour period, so it was a quick read. Wilde skewers London’s “season” and comments acerbically on marriage, wealth, and greed — Mrs. Cheveley is really a nasty, selfish, mean-spirited person who has apparently despised Lady Chiltern since they were young and has stolen jewelry which she has the audacity to wear. But he is gentle on Chiltern, or so it seems to me. I could see how tempting it was for the young Chiltern to do what he felt necessary to put himself in a position of influence, and how he’d spent his life trying to make up for his ill gotten gains by using his ambition for good.

Wilde also writes fairly bitterly about relationships. At one point Chiltern is addressing his wife, after telling her about how he couldn’t admit his crime to her because she’d built him up into something he was not: “Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses.” That’s a pretty dark view of marriage.

I also appreciated this bit of Goring’s advice: “Well, the English can’t stand a man who is always saying he is in the right, but they are very fond of a man who admits that he has been in the wrong. It is one of the best things in them. However, in your case, Robert, a confession would not do. The money, if you will allow me to say so, is  . . . awkward. Besides, if you did make a clean breast of the whole affair, you would never be able to talk morality again. And in England, a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician.”

That to me is painfully funny — I love the understated ” . . . awkward”  and isn’t it true that politicians love to moralize, especially the ones who’ve done immoral things themselves? This passage seems to me to relate to much of what’s still wrong with politics and public perception of politicians today. An Ideal Husband was a really fun Sunday afternoon read. I’m interested in reading more — we have a a book of Wilde’s complete plays, so the next time I’m between books and casting about for something short and entertaining, I’ll know where to turn.

 

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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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In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

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Don’t worry, I’m still here. I know two weeks is a long time between bookconscious posts. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, for one, and also I spent over a week reading a book I disliked and don’t want to blog about. But I also read The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair which I enjoyed very much, but which took longer to read because it’s a collection of dozens of dense, fascinating brief essays and each requires careful attention. There is nothing to skim here — nor would you want to. St. Clair carefully and skillfully connects each color to the social, cultural, and historical context in which it was created or dominated as a pigment.

I heard about the book from an episode of 99% Invisible, one of my favorite podcasts. I think if you listen to St. Clair talk with Roman Mars you will want the book immediately, as I did. Part of its charm is St. Clair’s voice — she writes authoritatively but personably, so that you feel as if a very smart friend of a friend is talking to you. This keeps what is arguably a very specialized topic — the history of 75 different colors in art, fashion, and decor — from feeling impenetrable for readers who may never have really given it any thought before. Here’s a taste of her writing, in the essay on Heliotrope (a shade of purple):

“While this hue’s fortunes have suffered something of a collapse in the real world, it has a distinguished literary afterlife. Badly behaved characters are often described as wearing the color . . . . The word is pleasurable to say, filling the mouth like a rich, buttery sauce. Added to which, the color itself is intriguing: antiquated, unusual, and just a little bit brassy.”

Honestly, even though I like art and history, if I hadn’t heard this episode, I’m not sure I would have picked up The Secret Lives of Color other than to gawk at it’s lovely cover and the rainbow effect of the colors printed in strips that frame each essay (the book’s design enhances the text perfectly). But I’m very glad I heard about and then sought out the book. It’s an unusual format, just right for the topic, and a terrific read, appropriate for times when life is so hectic that finishing one exquisitely interesting, well-written essay is just what you can manage in the evening.

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