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Posts Tagged ‘social commentary’

I was at a coffee shop/used bookstore yesterday, picked up Graham Swift‘s Last Orders from a sale cart, and thought it sounded like a good read, sort of a male version of the kind of English social novel I like. When I got home and looked through it more closely I realized I’ve read it before, although a quick search of bookconscious seems to indicate I read it before I started the blog, so prior to 2007. I decided I’d read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Re-reading is something I don’t do often, but have intended to do from time to time. Like during a week when I have a lot of time to read.

Last Orders is about a butcher, Jack Dodds, and the men (and a few women) in his life, in Bermondsey, London. Although not the hip, White Cube Bermondsey of today; it never says exactly, but I think the book is set in the late 80’s, because four of the men, including Jack, are WWII veterans. When the book opens, Jack’s friends and Vince, the man he raised as his son after his family was killed by a bomb, are gathered in their pub, preparing to carrying out Jack’s final wish: that they spread his ashes in the sea at Margate.

The main arc of the story takes place all on that day, with different sections looking back on the men’s lives at different ages. We hear about their wives and daughters, and Jack’s widow, Amy, and Vince’s wife, Mandy, tell bits of their own stories, but most of the book is about and from the perspective of the men. It’s one of those books where most of what’s important to the character’s lives happened earlier, but the events of the book are a kind of climax, emotionally, in their lives.

It’s a lovely book, about long friendship, love, disappointment, unfulfilled dreams, finding what you’re good at, living your life as best you can. There aren’t a lot of novels that go into the emotional lives of men, I think, or else I don’t usually read those. Here’s a bit from a scene when Jack’s in the hospital, and he’s asked to see Vince, who has been thinking that even unwell there is something about the way Jack looks, “. . . it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.” As they sit there together, Vince goes on thinking:

“He looks right into my face like he’s looking for a little light too, like he’s looking for his own face in mine, and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow, like I’m empty, that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones, his way of holding his jaw and looking straight at you without so much as a bleeding blink. . . .  It’s like I’m not real, I ain’t ever been real. But Jack’s real, he’s realler than every. Though he ain’t going to be real much longer.”

So, I re-read, no regrets — although I have loads of books I haven’t read yet, I’m really glad I re-visited this one. Chime in and let me know: do you re-read? How often? How do you decide what gets a second read or more? I’ve heard of some people re-reading a particular favorite annually. The Computer Scientist used to read The Stand every time he was sick. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

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I picked up The Enchanted April from a library book sale shop in South Carolina. I knew it would be a fun read and it was. I’d never even heard of Elizabeth von Arnim (I had missed the reference in Downton Abbey). But I’ve read other New York Review of Books Classics titles, like Lolly Willowes and loved them, so I knew it was a good bet.

Now I want to track down other books by von Arnim. I loved The Enchanted April. It’s a simple story, but full of the trenchant observations about people and society that make many British novels so endearing. Von Arnim reminds me, in all the best ways, of Jane Austen, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Lively, Muriel Spark, and Jane Gardam: authors whose close (sometimes sharp) observations and skilled dialogue make the domestic situations they bring to life so vivid, so gently funny, and so easy to slip into, even if you’ve never been in the same situations.

In this novel, everything starts with the absolutely wonderful Lotty Wilkins. Mrs. Wilkins lives a desperately quiet existence in Hampstead, wife of Mellersh Wilkins, a “family solicitor” whose main interest in her is taking her to church, for the purpose of meeting old ladies in need of solicitors. The marriage is dreary, and Mrs. Wilkins’ life is dreary, and one very dreary, rainy day, she notices two things at her women’s club in London: an ad for a monthlong stay in April in a medieval Italian castle addressed: “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” and a Hampstead resident she recognizes from church, a Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot. In a sudden burst of bravery, Lotty approaches Rose and before long, they are planning to rent the castle.

But being women of modest means — Lotty will be spending a fair bit of her “nest egg” saved from being thrifty with a clothing allowance — they determine that the most sensible thing would be to place their own ad, soliciting two more ladies to join their party. And that is how Lady Caroline Dester, a socialite tired of people admiring her, and Mrs. Fisher, a window in her sixties who is very proper and very cranky, end up sharing San Salvatore with Lotty and Rose for a month. Lotty has the sense that a holiday will help them be happy, something she perceives they need because “You wouldn’t believe, how terribly good Rose and I have been for years without stopping, and how much we now need a perfect rest.”

The imperious Mrs. Fisher and the aloof and conceited Lady Caroline are no match for Lotty’s infectious ideas. When Rose is thinking of her author husband, who has been estranged, although amiably, from her for some time, Lotty tells her, “You mustn’t long in heaven . . . . You’re supposed to be quite complete there. And it is heaven, isn’t it, Rose? See how everything has been let in together — the dandelions and the irises, the vulgar and the superior, me and Mrs. Fisher — all welcome, all mixed up anyhow, and all so visibly happy and enjoying ourselves.” When rose protests that Mrs. Fisher isn’t happy, Lotty predicts she will be — that even Mrs. Fisher can’t resist being happy in such a place.

You won’t be able to resist this happy little novel either, which had me laughing out loud in places. Von Arnim entertains, but she also slips in some social criticism, including a little feminism. A perfect read for a rainy afternoon, or a sunny day with wisteria — or whatever is blooming near you — in sight.

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It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post and I’m still thinking about Sing, Unburied, Sing. In between I read a book for Kirkus. Along the way I was reading a little bit of The Power, by Naomi Alderman, before bed, but not much — I’ve been pouring it on in terms of coursework for my science communication and public engagement program, we went to see the former Teen the Elder, now a postulant for holy orders in the Episcopal Church, at Yale Divinity School, and last weekend the Computer Scientist and I caught some exhibits at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and MFA, so I’ve been busy.

But last night the university where I work called a snow day for today earlier than usual — by 9pm, after letting us go home at 3 in heavily falling snow — so I stayed up late and finished The Power. It definitely deserved a longer reading and I enjoyed finishing it. I’ve been sitting with how I felt about it all day, and I’m still not entirely sure. First let’s get out of the way that I think it’s well written and compelling — deserving of the accolades (it won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize, was named by NYT as one of the ten best books of 2017, and was on President’ Obama’s favorite reads of 2017 list, among others).

Second, I should apologize in advance to my bookclub, because we were trying to pick a more uplifting read, and somehow this came up in my research as that, and it’s not. Yes, it imagines what the world would be like if run by women. But the results are pretty chaotic much of the time, and pretty ugly some of the time, because it turns out it’s not being male that makes people with power assholes, it’s power. That’s my greatly simplified summary of this novel.

Still, it’s an incredibly relevant thought experiment, and I found three of the main characters, Mother Eve/Allie, Roxy, and Tunde, equally fascinating in their way. The structure of the novel is also very intriguing and made the ending rather breathtaking, to me. The opening and closing pages of the book are correspondence between a male novelist and a woman he asks to read his draft of The Power, which he refers to as a historical novel. All we really know about these people is that they live thousands of years after the events of his novel.

So why do I have mixed feelings if I was blown away? Maybe the premise of the book, which seems to be that there will always be a gendered power imbalance even if it doesn’t look like our norms, is more than is easily digested with all that is currently going on in the world? Maybe it’s a truth I find too troubling to embrace? Maybe I just need more time?

I’m realizing I’ve given you very little to go on in this review — it’s speculative fiction, set in times that seem very similar to our own, and imagines that women have something called “the power” which is physiological, cause unknown, girls are born with it and can help older women realize they have it and wake it up, and is kind of like electricity. The realization that this is happening causes massive changes around the world, and the book centers on how it changes religion, political influence and military power, and social dynamics. I look forward to the book club discussion, which always brings me more insight into any book.

Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to ask my blog readers — what is a book your book club really enjoyed reading and discussing recently? If it’s got a hopeful or uplifting theme, all the better, but anything that led to a great discussion is welcome. Leave a comment and let me know!

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I often find books to read when I am in the book stacks at work for some other reason — weeding, shelf-reading, or putting a display together. Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is, by Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, is one example; I was looking for books for an Advent display and saw it calling out to me.

The introduction explains, “One of the oldest anthems of the church, alleluia means simply, ‘All hail to the One who is.'” Each chapter examines something to say alleluia for. Some, such as faith, or life, or peace, seem obviously alleluia-worthy. Others are not things that seem at first like they would elicit the word that is “the acme of human joy,” such as doubt, conflict, suffering, or death. But these two erudite and pastoral people manage to make clear and relatable the ways we could, and possibly even should, say alleluia in nearly every situation.

My favorite chapter is on Exodus, in which Rowan Williams describes the Ten Commandments as a guide for creating a “mature human society.” Williams has a way of taking things you may have heard about since you were a child and shedding new light on them that never fails to open my eyes and heart to something new. Even if you’re not particularly religious, you’ve probably heard about the ten commandments. Williams says of them:

“Understandably, they begin by making us think about our relation with God. Don’t let anything get between you and the living God; don’t try to substitute for the living God the object and images you think you can comfortably cope with or control; don’t try to use God for your own purposes, as if he had given you magic words to manipulate the world. Be sure that the each week you spend time with God that is free from the pressures of business, problem- solving, or acquisition. And then we are told to turn to our fellow humans. What is due to those who gave us life? Be grateful and let it show. What is due to others who seek the same liberty as ourselves? Never imagine that anyone is indispensable. Keep the promises you have made and honor the promises of others in the world of human relations. Remember that the security you seek is what all want, and don’t set out to invade. Don’t imagine that what makes someone else secure and happy is exactly what you need to make you secure and happy if only you could get it from them.”

He goes on to say that “This is what responsibility amounts to. It is a deep concern not to lose sight of the radical otherness of God and an equally deep concern that we should both recognise what everyone desires and see the need for respect towards each other as each discovers this in diverse ways.”

I don’t know about you, but for me that is a fresh way of considering things. We lived in the deep South for a few years, and at the time there was a lot of discussion about the public display of the ten commandments and never did I hear anyone arguing that we needed them to be reminded of our “deep concern” and “respect” for one another, or our responsibility to “never imagine that anyone is indispensable.” This all seems brilliantly, bracingly clear to me. The whole book is full of this kind of illuminating, but very accessible, thinking.

In a chapter on faith, Chittister writes, “Faith is belief that God is leading us to become in tune with the universe, however different we see ourselves to be.”  And, if that isn’t enough to ponder, “Faith is trust in the unknown goodness of life without demand for certainty in the science of it.”  Clear and you knew it, but new, right? More challenging, but for me, very beautiful and true, is this: “Faith is confidence in the darkness, for the willingness to trust the deep-down humanity of others as well as in our own may be the deepest act of faith we can possibly devise.” If that seems impossible, I think what Chittister is saying is that we’re created in the image of God, who is love, and if we accept that as our humanity, we can see that in others too, even when we’re in some kind of darkness. This is not only Christian theology, either. Namaste means recognizing god in ourselves, seeing the god in others.

Anyway, thinking about this stuff deserves time and space, so this is a book probably better suited to slow digestion — maybe a chapter every Sunday afternoon, for example — but I read it  over the last week. I highly recommend it.

The Computer Scientist and I are celebrating 28 years of marriage next week, so got away for a couple of days to a lovely spot in Maine. It was cold, windy, and snowy, the perfect weather for reading a book straight through. I read Ali Smith’s Autumn this way. I chose it because my elder son encouraged me to give year-end “best book” lists a try after I scoffed that I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should read. I decided he was right, I was being judgmental. Autumn is on many such lists.

I don’t think I’ve read Smith before. I thoroughly enjoyed Autumn and I think I will seek out her other books. Autumn is about a young woman, Elisabeth, who was profoundly influenced by her next door neighbor, Daniel, as a child. He was older than other adults she knew then, although she insists not old, and is now 101, and “asleep” in a care home. Elisabeth hasn’t seen Daniel for 10 years and is moved to visit him regularly as she remembers the time they spent together. She believes he is not comatose and can hear her, and she reads books to him. Literature is something they shared — he always greeted her by asking, “What you reading?”

The novel switches points of view between Daniel’s dreams, memories, and impressions in his unconscious mind (very much like in Tinkers), and Elisabeth’s thoughts and experiences. She is feeling unmoored after the Brexit vote and goes to stay with her mother. It’s while she’s there she realizes Daniel is in the home, and as she processes what it means to be herself in the new world Britain is facing, she revisits her memories of Daniel and how he opened her eyes to what became a new world for her then, especially by introducing her to art.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that readers learn of how very much Daniel impacted the trajectory of Elisabeth’s life, and how she comes to reconcile what wasn’t a great relationship with her mother. It’s a very funny and also not-so-funny social commentary as well. The sections about Elisabeth trying to get her passport renewed and trying to make an appointment at a health clinic will make you nod and  maybe chuckle. There’s a hilarious and also chilling thread about a fenced off place — possibly an immigrant detainee center — going up near her mother’s village and how she and her mother each in their own way come to interact with the people behind the fences that go up. And a very touching outcome to her mother appearing on a reality TV show about people spotting treasures in junk shops.

All in all Autumn is a lovely, moving, thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Is it one of the best I read this year? There are enough of those lists in the world. But I will tell you it’s a good read.

 

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I received two Penguin reprints of Vita Sackville-West‘s novels for my birthday a couple of months ago, and read The Edwardians last week. It’s kind of a literary Downton Abbey but far sharper and funnier. That Sackville-West belonged to the strata of society she was sending up makes it even more admirable, to me. Her characters are delicious, and the story of Sebastian, a young Duke whose mother Lucy is among the “fast” set, favorites of the king, and who loves his estate, Chevron, and runs it well, is tender and also searingly critical. His sister, Viola is considered “cold,” and treated with suspicion by her mother’s friends because she is always quietly observing. It turns out she is in the end brighter and more observant than any of them.

Early in the novel, Sebastian and Viola meet a man their mother is considering as a potential lover, an explorer named Leonard Anquetil. Lucy invites Anquetil to a house party at Chevron to amuse her friends with this man who survived in a “snow hut” on a polar expedition. Anquetil ends up spending time with Sebastian and Viola, talking with them, and having a profound effect on their young minds, allowing them both to see (although I would argue Viola probably already does) the vacuousness of their society and the potential for them each to make their own way in the world.

The joy of this book is that Sackville-West makes it far more complicated than that, even as some circumstances of the book fall together as neatly as they might in a fable or fairy tale. Sebastian goes through a series of affairs, testing the strength of his sense of duty and propriety, and Viola manages to become her own person, against the odds for a woman of her position. I do wish the book allowed readers into Viola’s world — we only hear of her through Sebastian, or other characters.

This was a very enjoyable, intelligent read that combines the escapist pleasure of a “Masterpiece” style story (plenty of balls and Worth gowns and weekends in the country) with the bright insights and cultural commentary of an author who was no stranger to challenging convention while still embracing the lifestyle privilege afforded her. And the ending is pleasantly speculative: will Sebastian become a socialist? Will he accept Aquentil’s offer? What about the woman he’s about to propose to? What is Viola up to? How will Lucy react to her children’s latest outrageously independent choices? What about WWI, which readers know is looming (the novel ends on Coronation Day for King George and Queen Mary, in 1911)? A good read.

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We had two snow days and a late start this week, plus as I mentioned in my last post, I’m really getting into my book bingo card. So I read three books!

I had three squares I wanted to fill. The first was “A book from the Books & Brew book lists.” I chose The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It’s a debut novel that got a lot of buzz last summer, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of four grown siblings in New York, the Plumbs, who’ve all been counting on “the Nest” — an inheritance fund their father, who made his fortune in absorbent materials found in feminine hygiene products, diapers, and meat tray liners, set up to distribute to each of them on the youngest sibling’s 40th birthday. Leo, the eldest, is the family ne’er do well, who made a bundle selling a gossip website and has been in trouble ever since. When the book opens he gets into a drug-addled crash, injuring a nineteen year old catering waitress. His mother taps into the Nest to settle his affairs, and the rest of the book is about how the other siblings await Leo’s reparations — Bea, a writer who has been stuck on a dead-end book for years; Jack, an antique store owner who didn’t tell his husband he took out a second mortgage on their summer place; and Melody, who can’t afford the perfect suburban life she is trying to give her teenaged twins.

As the novel unfolds, readers learn about the sibings’ lives and their families, but Sweeney also works in details about contemporary American life – 9/11, the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, SAT tutoring, gay marriage, the gentrification of Brooklyn . . . . Yes, it’s a book about New York, and that’s both a pleasure and an annoyance, in that it’s fun to vicariously enjoy the city, and it’s aggravating to read about privileged people feeling badly that they can’t keep their summer home or they can’t get away with not filling out financial aid forms or they can’t quite become an “it” novelist while living pretty much free in a dead lover’s apartment and having a job where they’re allowed to work on said novel. A few times I wanted to yell, “Hey, there are real problems in the world.” Still, it seemed possible that was part of the point, and also, it wasn’t enough of a detraction to keep from enjoying the story, which is Austen-like in it’s social commentary and it’s contemporary “novel of manners” sensibility.

Will Leo make good? Will Melody ever figure out what her daughters really want? Will Jack push his patient husband too far? Will Bea notice that her long suffering boss not only admires, but loves her? Just as there’s fun in reading about Jane Austen’s well-to-do characters, I didn’t ever completely lose patience with the Plumbs. My brief quibbles: a few minor characters play relatively important roles but we hardly get to know them. And the final pages skip ahead a year, and at one point even tell us what’s going to happen further in the future, a device I’ve never enjoyed.

The next square I wanted to vanquish was “A book of short stories.” I’d had my eye on Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith for some time, ever since reading that in the time it took her to write and edit the book, 1,000 British libraries closed. Smith wrote the book in part to draw attention to the importance of libraries, and she alternates short stories, all of which deal in some way with words or books, and brief commentaries on libraries by Smith and many of her writer friends. Public Library, Smith says, “. . .  celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced,  and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.” I read it in one sitting, and enjoyed both the fiction and the tributes. It’s one of those books that caused me to look things up and wonder things (How many libraries have closed in the UK? (depends where you look and how you define closed) Why haven’t I ever read anything by Katherine Mansfield? Why haven’t I heard of Olive Fraser?) This was the perfect read on a day when the snow was falling hard and I could sit and muse on the meaning of libraries in my own life. If you like short fiction, the stories are a delight.

Finally, I needed to fill the square “A book about weather or the environment,” so I read The Hidden Life of Trees by forester and conservationist Peter Wohlleben. This is one of those books that compels the reader to lift her head, exclaim, “Wow, listen to this,” and read fascinating tidbits to her family members, whether they want to hear them or not, and whether the only family members in the room at the time are feline or not. (Examples “There is a fungus in Oregon that is 2,400 years old and weighs 660 tons!” and  “There is a spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old!!” “There’s a quaking aspen in Utah that has more than 40,000 trunks and is thousands of years old!” “Trees scream!”) I couldn’t get over what I was reading and I will, as many other reviewers have stated, never look at trees the same way. Wohlleben explains the life of trees and their incredible abilities to deter pests and adapt to changes in climate, cooperate with each other and with beneficial partner species, raise their young, communicate, and learn from their environment. As the author says of trees, “I will never stop learning from them, but even what I have learned so far under their leafy canopy exceeds anything I could ever have dreamed of.” I learned so much from this book, not only about trees, but also about the human capacity to understand the world, and hopefully, to preserve it.

And now, on to the square “A book whose title begins with ‘W.'”

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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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