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First I should say that I’ve done an unintentional experiment in reading Ondaatje‘s two novels, The Cat’s Table and then Warlight. I had  just finished The English Patient and was planning to check out Warlight in print from my library when I read Alex Preston’s review in the Guardian suggesting that the two narrators, Michael/Mynah in The Cat’s Table and Nathaniel in Warlight have a similar “voice and quality of perception.” I decided to read The Cat’s Table first, and found it was available to borrow as an eBook from my public library. It took me eleven days to finish the eBook and only two to read Warlight in print, even though Warlight is 304 pages to The Cat’s Table‘s 288. So the next time someone asks me why I prefer print I can say honestly, it’s much easier to read!

Anyway, these are beautiful books. The Cat’s Table is about an eleven year old boy traveling by ship from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England to meet his mother in the early 1950s. Flavia Prins, a friend of his family, travels first class and acts as a sort of guardian to him, and his cousin, Emily, is also on board. But Mynah, as he is known, spends his time at the “cat’s table,” far from the important passengers, and below decks, in the mysterious places where one passenger tends an exotic garden, others tend dogs and pigeons bound for England, and a mysterious prisoner is kept in chains. Mynah befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin.

Together these friends learn from the adults around them over the three week journey. There is a rich man dying of rabies on board, an incognito police detective sent to watch over the prisoner, a deaf girl who becomes Emily’s friend, and the people at the cat’s table, all providing the three boys fodder for speculation and intrigue as they roam the ship, hiding in life boats, eavesdropping, and watching the adults, unseen. At the heart of the story is a mystery, but The Cat’s Table doesn’t unfold in a traditional way towards a solution.

Instead it is the remembrances of a man reflecting on a boyhood journey, with all the uncertainty and unreliability of memory. A few things are sure: Michael/Mynah is changed by the journey, he learns that “Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves,” while others, seemingly of lesser status or on the fringes, make everything happen. And he learns that as his cousin Emily tells him decades later, “I don’t think you can love me into safety.” We must all make our way, Ondaatje seems to say, and love or friendship is not enough to protect anyone from the vagaries of life.

From this meditative, mysterious book I dove into Warlight, which I liked even better (but was it because I could read it more easily in print?). While the characters in The Cat’s Table ranged from exotic and intriguing to ridiculous, Warlight is a hero’s tale, seen again through the lens of remembered childhood. It’s the story of Nathaniel, who tells us in the novel’s opening line, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” From that surprising start, Nathaniel tells the story of postwar London and the shadowy world he and his sister Rachel find themselves in after their parents allegedly leave for his father’s job in Singapore. And of the long reach of wartime secrecy deep into the decades that follow.

The Moth and the Darter, the two men who watch over them inept, non-parental choices, who have what Nathaniel sees as “grudging, uninterested concern,” for them, but also all kinds of strange talents and knowledge. The Darter, for example, realizes Rachel is epileptic and inducts Nathaniel into his business, smuggling greyhounds. He is also unperturbed when Nathaniel presents him as his father to a girl Nathaniel has been seeing.

The Moth on the other hand has an even more opaque life. He tells the children about Mahler’s notation “schwer” in his scores — “Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

Understandably, this is a difficult thing for young teens to process, especially given their parents’ absence. Their unease is compounded by the people who come to see the Moth and the Darter, a strange and haphazard crew including a beekeeper, an ethnographer, and an angry Russian woman. Nathaniel explains, “And our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls, who, having at one time legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.” Rachel withdraws from this chaos, drawn into the theater. Nathaniel is immersed, and as the book unfolds we learn that like his mother before him, it becomes his life.

The story of the adult Nathaniel piecing together the story of his mother’s war work, her friends and colleagues, and the way they are linked to both is past and his present is, like Mynah’s story, a bit rambling and indistinct, as memories often are. But beautiful, and steeped in the detailed and lyrical language that are Ondaatje’s hallmark. His description of squeaky floorboards in Nathaniel’s grandparents’ Suffolk home, where he and his mother went to live, as “the nightingale alarm” because of the resemblance to the birds’ cries, for example. And a beautiful and heartbreaking scene where the adult Nathaniel returns to the village near that home to buy his own house, and talks to the owner, Mrs. Malakite, who cannot remember him. “Still it was clear watching and listening to her that the details about the care of her garden and the three beehives and the heating of the angular greenhouse would be the last things forgotten.”

I’ve enjoyed my foray into Ondaatje’s books and plan to read more of his work. In print, preferably!

 

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My church is offering a 19th century British literature book club. The first choice is Adam Bede and I figured I’d give it a try — summer is a good time to take on a thick classic. I didn’t realize this was George Eliot‘s first novel. I’ve read both Middlemarch and Silas Marner each a couple of times.

Eliot really dives into the time and place of her her novels — when Adam Bede opens, she tells us, “With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” And then with a great deal of evocative detail, she describes to us exactly what the room looked, smelled, and felt like, who was in it (including our hero, Adam Bede, and his brother, Seth) and what they were doing and saying.  “A scent of pinewood from a tent-like pile of planks outside the open door mingled with the scent of the elder-bushes which were spreading their summer snow close to the window opposite; the slanting sunbeams shone through the transparent shavings that flew before the steady plane, and lit up the fine grain of the oak paneling . . . . ” And so on.

Throughout the novel this level of detail enriches the story and takes modern readers into Hayslope and its environs. Adding to the clear view of Adam Bede’s world are the  asides from the narrator filling in views on the Methodist church, realism in Dutch paintings, the annual harvest dinner at Hall Farm and the society found there, the loss of leisure as best exemplified in “a sunny walk through the fields from ‘afternoon church,” lost in a world where “Even idleness is eager.” Eliot’s dialogue, from the local gentry Arthur’s “. . . dip my cravat in and souse it on my head” to Adam’s mother Lisbeth’s patios, “An what wut do when thy mother’s gone, an’ nobody to take care on thee as thee gett’st a bit of victual comfortable i’ the mornin’?” Gorgeous. Hard to read, though, which is why it took longer than a contemporary book.

The story itself is a dramatic one, based partially on real people in George Eliot’s life and a story her aunt told her. Adam loves Hetty, a silly young woman living with aunt and uncle, the Poysers, at Hall Farm and helping in the dairy. Hetty and Arthur fall in love, even though Arthur can never marry down. Adam demands Arthur quit toying with her, and believes Hetty will recover and might eventually love him. A dramatic twist to the story, a tragedy, and time lead Arthur eventually to care for Dinah, a young Methodist preacher, also related to the Poysers, who is as smart and kind as Hetty is selfish and shallow. But, Seth also loves Dinah, and Dinah only wants to care for the poor and the godless. I won’t give away how it all works out, but it’s a satisfying tale, with a great variety of characters.

While none of the women ends up defying convention quite as much as their author, several of them have their say, which I enjoyed. There’s a scene where Mrs. Poyser tells off Arthur’s grandfather, the Squire, who is her landlord on the estate, and then tells her husband (who Eliot describes as “a little alarmed and uneasy, but not without some triumphant amusement at his wife’s outbreak”) ” . . . I’ve had my say out, and I shall be th’ easier for ‘t all my life. There’s no pleasure i’ living, if you’re to be corked up for ever, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel. I shan’t repent saying what I think, if I live to be as old as th’ old Squire. . . . ” Between Hetty’s ignorance of what is happening to her and Mrs. Poyser’s tart truth, Eliot seems to sum up the polar extremes of women’s positions in nineteenth century society.

I also love Mr. Irwine, the local rector, and Eliot’s description of how he’d been the subject of some criticism for being a little too comfortable to be a good clergyman. She allows that he has no “theological enthusiasm” and “felt no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners” but “He was one one of those men, and they are not the commonest, of whom we can know the best only by following him away from the market-place, the platform, and the pulpit, entering with them into their own homes, hearing the voice with which they speak to the young and aged about their own hearthstone, and witnessing their thoughtful care for the everyday wants of everyday companions, who take all their kindness as a matter of course . . . .” That’s an apt description as we see Mr. Irwine care for both Adam and Arthur, Hetty, and his own elderly mother and ailing sister.

Adam Bede is a wonderful read, and I’m looking forward to discussing it next week.

 

 

 

 

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The Scapegoat is one of the purchases I made with my job leaving gift card. My book club ended up choosing it for our next read, and I am so glad, because I for one really enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Du Maurier except Rebecca, which my grandmother gave me one summer when I was visiting her and I remember loving. I wish she was still with us so I could ask her if she’s read The Scapegoat.

The story is simple, and I realized many other authors have used this situation, including recently, Antoine Laurain in The PortraitUnlike in that novel, where the protagonist finds his exact image in a painting, in The Scapegoat an English professor of French history who is nearing the end of a holiday in France in the 1950s meets a man who could be his exact double in a bar. The first man, John, is having something of an existential crisis, leads a very solitary life, and is on his way to a monastery where he hopes to figure out what to do with his life. His French opposite, Jean, a Count with many responsibilities and a tangled family and personal life, wants to escape all that.

Unlike in The Portrait, where I didn’t really care for the man who went to live another man’s life, this time I felt great empathy for John. First of all, he doesn’t choose — Jean foists the switch on him. Secondly, John very quickly develops true feeling for Jean’s damaged and dysfunctional family and in his own way tries to be kind and helpful, despite the extremity of his own situation. It’s not that he doesn’t cause any harm, but that he is trying not to, that endeared him to me.

The book’s surprising (to me, anyway) ending left me wondering what in the world would happen to Jean’s family, especially his young daughter. And to John. Du Maurier’s writing is just the kind my grandmother loved — every word serves the book, powerfully. The descriptions of John’s discomfort as he fumbles his way through another man’s life, and the observations he makes, are packed with insight. Consider this passage, as he talks with “his” mother, and she takes his hands in hers: “Her hands neither gave confidence nor sapped it: they turned the assurance I had to a different plane. The faith she had in her son was so intense that even if she did not know his secrets, or share more than a small part of his life, it was as though he remained with her, bound and sightless as he had been before birth, and she would never loose him.”

There is so much to discuss in this book: the nature of being a human in relationship with others; the choices the characters make; the way WWII impacted every person, whether they fought or not, in France; the way our concerns with meaning and purpose in life are bound up with the people we are connected with; the fact that some people carry with them a strong desire to do what’s right for others and others, only a strong desire to do what’s right for themselves.

I’m grateful that Simon of The Readers and Savidge Reads is a Du Maurier fan and brought her back into my reading life! I intend to hunt down more of her work.

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I read Ali Smith’s first  book in her planned “season” quartet, Autumn, last December, and loved it. Like that novel, Winter is set soon after the Brexit vote and is the story of two generations — one struggling with the implications of adulthood in the Brexit/Trump presidency world, and one that came before. Smith has plenty to critique about now, but doesn’t idealize the past, either. And as in Autumn, the world we live in plays a huge role, with art and nature both serving to bring people together and feed our souls, and sociopolitical issues hanging over the characters’ heads — in Winter, sometimes literally in the artistic hallucinations two of the characters experience.

Winter’s protagonists are mostly difficult folks; Art, whose life and work is steeped in the alternate reality of the Internet; his aging mother, Sophia, who lives in a house she owns in part out of spite, and that she’s letting go; Iris, Sophia’s elder sister who in Sophia’s eyes has always selfishly, foolishly, follower her ideals, ignoring her family in the process; and Lux, a student from Croatia whose funds have run out, who Art hires to pretend to be his girlfriend Charlotte because Charlotte has left him just before Christmas. Lux is the most likable, not only because her fate is at the mercy of populist nationalism and contemporary capitalism, both greedy “I’ve got mine” movements, but also because she manages to get Sophia and Iris to really talk with each other, she gets Sophia to eat, and she helps Art see the actual world he’s been oblivious to (or hiding from?) with his online work.

As in Autumn, Smith manages to shine a light on much of what is absurd about contemporary society: Art works for a bot, and writes a blog called “Art in Nature” that is mostly made up; the library is now “The Ideas Store” and is mainly a small public space (in an otherwise privatized building of luxury flats) where people wait to use computers; when Art’s awareness is awakened he is horrified to hear about people paying to fund boats that stop other boats from rescuing refugees at sea; the Grenfell Tower disaster happening in one of the wealthiest cities in the world; Trump’s actual speech to the Boyscouts in summer 2017. But she also allows for past absurdities that were different because they were less selfish — like women who chained themselves to a missile site in Britain, art that playfully exposes human foibles, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Barbara Hepworth.

In other words, this is a very political book but it is still fun, and somehow Smith doesn’t even leave readers feeling too pessimistic. Even as Smith draws attention to history’s ill effects (She alludes to the long lasting impacts of WWI & WWII on the British psyche, as well as the Cold War), she shows people surviving, adapting. If self-absorbed Art and his dysfunctional mother and sister can get along, so can we. If people like Lux still believe in the benefits of beauty when so much is taken from them, well, shouldn’t we?

Art, looking for Lux ,when he can’t find her actual person, in the things they learned about each other by spending Christmas at his mother’s, visits the British Library asking about a Shakespearean manuscript with the residue of a flower pressed in it. He tells the librarian that Cymbeline is “about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” Winter too seems to be about those very things.

There is so much more to enjoy, including the love story that resulted in Art, and the writing style — similar to Autumn, but not exactly the same– that infuses the book with a dreamy quality, and also a sort of art film sense of scenes more thematically than narratively linked. Despite the unconventional narrative and chronology, I was never lost.  I find myself wanting to discuss this book with someone, so if you’re in a book club, this may be a good choice for you.

Summer may be approaching, but trust me, you should treat yourself to Winter. My only regret is that I didn’t get to read it in one go like I did Autumn. 

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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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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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A friend whose reading tastes I trust went out of her way earlier this fall to tell me she had a book recommendation for me: The River Why. I had not heard of the book nor its author, David James Duncan, but now that I’ve read it I’m filled with the usual sense I have after “discovering” an author whose writing I admire: regret that it’s taken me this long to find their work and anticipation as I consider reading everything else they’ve written.

It’s hard to say what this novel is about. I was trying to explain it to coworkers when I was less than halfway through and said it was a character driven coming of age novel that is also about fishing, but not really just about fishing but about becoming so adept at something that it becomes not a pastime but a part of your being. Now that I’ve finished I’d add that it’s about being a son, a brother, and a friend. It’s about yearning for solitude but needing community. It’s about getting so focused on something — in the protagonist, Gus’s case, water and fish — that you miss the bigger picture until someone wiser — Gus’s brother, Bill Bob — reveals what’s been right in front of you all along. It’s about realizing there is something yearning in you for something that yearns back towards you, and figuring out those are your soul and what Gus comes to think of as “the Friend.” And it’s about love.

Gus is the child of a snobbish fly fishing legend and and a down to earth bait fisher and as he gets older he grows impatient with both. After a meltdown that results in the destruction of a treasured family trophy, Gus moves out of the family home in Portland, Oregon, renting a cabin to go and live out his dream of fishing more hours than he sleeps. It doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s been deluded by his own ambitions and that the life he thought he wanted to lead isn’t what he really wants. He hikes with his much younger brother Bill Bob, who shows him that the Tamanawis river near his home is shaped like the word “Why” when viewed from above. Then he encounters two very different mysterious strangers (that’s all I’ll say, so as not to reveal too much) one of whom leads him to meet Titus, a friend who initiates him into a world of ideas. He also meets neighbors, and as he examines his own way of being he learns from theirs.

I’m not really doing the book justice. It’s strange — especially if you have no idea, as I didn’t, about fishing.  It’s mysterious and funny, full of wonders like a garbage swilling fish, a singing mouse, and dog who likes rocking in his master’s chair and drinking teat. There are touches of native American, Eastern, and Western mythology, philosophy and religion, bits of poetry, and copious quotations from The Compleat Angler, a fishing tome from the 1600s. It’s about growing up and growing into yourself and yes, it’s about finding God. If you are looking for some substance and wisdom in your fiction, The River Why is for you.

 

 

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