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Posts Tagged ‘social commentary’

If you’ve followed this blog for any time you know I’m a Margaret Drabble fan. At some point in the last year I came across the 1967 paperback edition of her 1963 debut novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. I read it over the past few days. It’s marvelous, and shows that she was already a powerful, insightful, beautiful, feminist writer at age twenty-four. It makes me both very glad she became a writer and very irritated with my own twenty-four year old self. I was still pretty silly at that age. And had certainly not come into my own thinking by then.

A Summer Bird-Cage is about two sisters. Louise, the elder of the two, who has been “down from” Oxford for a couple of years, and Sarah, who has just come down and then spent some time in Paris. She gets a letter summoning her home to be a bridesmaid for Louise’s wedding — a surprise, since she had no idea Louise was engaged. The rest of the book is comprised of Sarah’s reflections on that time and the months that followed, and what it’s like to be young, well educated, and female at a time when society’s expectations of women are still pretty limited.

At one point one of Louise’s friends asks Sarah what she’d like to do with her life, and she answers immediately, “Beyond anything I’d like to write a funny book. I’d like to write a book like Kingsley Amis . . . .” But she goes on just a few lines later, after the friend calls her “a little egghead,” arguing the term but owning the sentiment and then protesting, “But if you think that implies that my right place is sitting in some library, you couldn’t be more wrong . . . .” But she immediately misses the library. All this after a page or two earlier she told her sister she couldn’t teach at a college because “You can’t be a sexy don.” Sarah is seriously conflicted, in other words. She and Louise talk about wanting it all — love, freedom, intellectual challenge, satisfying work, etc.

In addition to being a novel of social commentary, it’s also, as all of Drabble’s work seems to be, a gorgeous examination of relationships. There are Louise and Sarah, sisters who haven’t been close but come together as they begin to understand each other as adults in a way they didn’t when they were younger. And there is Sarah and her fiancee, absent the entire book, a fellow scholar who’s studying at Harvard. And Sarah and her close friend Gill, who she tries living with in London after Gill’s marriage of equals turns out to be drudgery and falls apart. And Sarah and her cousins, the boring and unattractive Daphne and her brother, the far more attractive Michael.

Drabble is so insightful about human nature. Take this passage, after Sarah and Gill have had a routine roommates’ quarrel about washing the dishes:

Sarah begins, “But I really wanted to tell you about Louise.” And Gill replies, “So you did . . . . You came in full of Louise, and I shut you up like a clam, and here I’ve been going on about you not telling me things. Isn’t it strange how in this kind of thing everything seems to be its own opposite? You know what I mean?”

Sarah thinks, “Again, I did know what she meant, and the joy of having had so many intelligible things said to me during one morning sustained me for the rest of the day. Odd, that one doesn’t mind being called insensitive, selfish, and so on, provided that one can entirely understand the grounds for the accusation. It should be the other way round; one should not mind only when one knows that one is innocent. But it isn’t like that. Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it.”

Think of that, the next time you get into a spat with your roommate.

A delightful read, short but just lovely. The final page has one of those Drabble specialities, an anecdote one character shares and the other thinks something insightful about. I loved every word.

 

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The Computer Scientist and I went away for a short winter vacation in Maine. Before I left I packed a few books, of course, but we ended up visiting two libraries with ongoing book sales (in Cape Porpoise and Kennebunkport) and I added to my stash. I ended up reading two books I brought with me and one I bought.

First, I have been telling my elder offspring for years that I would read Tolkien. He read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy around age 12 or 13 or so, and pretty much swore off all other fiction because he said nothing else could ever live up to those books. He’s read all four books a few times. I can certainly see why he likes them. I was so wrapped up in the story that I read in the car a bit, which I don’t usually do.

I do wish I hadn’t seen the first part of the movie, because it colored the way I imagined various scenes, but I absolutely enjoyed the story and the writing and can see the many ways Tolkien has influenced other writers. I finished late Thursday evening and couldn’t get to sleep at first, thinking over what I’d read and all the details Tolkien works in. And also that there are absolutely no female characters except some vague references to “wives and children.” Interesting. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit.

On Friday I read Appointment In Samarra by John O’Hara. Other than some short stories, I don’t think I’ve ever read O’Hara. I purchased it at the Five Colleges Book Sale in part because the cover caught my eye — it’s the Penguin Classics paperback — and partly because there were two and my friend bought the other copy. Plus, I thought, here was an Important Author I hadn’t read, so I’d remedy that. I grabbed it to read on the trip because I knew it starts on Christmas.

I told the Computer Scientist I should have known from the title — a reference to a story about a man’s appointment with death, a folktale retold by W. Somerset Maugham — that it wasn’t going to be a cheery holiday read. What I didn’t realize is exactly how sad it is. O’Hara wrote about a fictionalized version of his own small city in Pennsylvania, and this book, set in 1930, captures all the social ills of the time, many of which are really still with us. Objectification of women, prejudice, classism, the power of money and influence, organized crime, addiction, corruption, social pettiness — pretty much everything ugly about society is in Appointment In Samarra. If there is a character to admire it’s Caroline, who is at least somewhat loyal, but even she seems to stubbornly avoid thinking most of the time. I found myself thinking “come on, can’t you do better than that” several times and in reference to several characters.

This novel is sort of like The Great Gatsby set in a smaller town with characters a little less rich. But at least in Gatsby there is an unrequited love that drives the excessive behavior. In Appointment in Samarra, the driving forces seem to just be greed, prejudice, and a need to prove oneself to friends and relatives, and the concomitant fear of falling short. When my reading friend who attended the book sale with me asked if I liked it, I said I was glad I read it; it’s part of the American literary canon, I admire the writing and the risk O’Hara took (he addresses “nice” women’s sexuality very directly, which shocked some reviews). But it’s a really tough story.

Along the same lines, I picked up A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge, another new-to-me Important Author. It’s a tough story too — the main characters are a couple whose marriage is strained by jealousy, financial worry, and snobbishness, and their teenagers, Madge, a young woman desperate to break away and willing to break rules to do so, and Alan, a young man trying to hold things together and at the same time, venture out on his own path as well. Bainbridge is a great observer of human nature and captures both the fears and disappointments of late middle age and the hopes and tangled feelings of youth beautifully. A Quiet Life is also a post-war story; England is still dark and damaged. The novel opens and ends with scenes taking place years after the main part of the novel, and those somewhat soften the dismal view of the family she paints. That seemed, by comparison, a bit hopeful.

A solid few days of reading, and for that, I’m glad! There is nothing like the sound of the sea and the rain and wind when you’re tucked up, cozy, with a glass of wine and a nice stack of books!

 

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As I wrote earlier this month, my church has started a 19th century British fiction book club. Our first book was Adam BedeIn August we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice. 

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least twice before, and have seen an adaptation. But I still throughly enjoyed re-reading it this weekend. I find Austen’s biting wit entertaining, but more than that, I enjoy knowing she was unafraid to assert her views at a time when women were often meant to be, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s younger sisters Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice, more interested in bonnets and balls than in independent thought. Austen approves of sensibility and goodness and doesn’t shy away from showing how silly it is to live a life of vanity and vacuousness. Eliot does this to some extent as well, for example showing Hetty in Adam Bede to be vain and foolish in believing that the young Captain Donnithorne, heir to the local squire, will marry her.

But Austen does it with humor, and allows the brooding but ultimately honorable Mr. Darcy to quietly come to the aid of the Bennet family when Lydia goes astray, while Eliot makes Hetty an object lesson, has her sentenced to death, and shows the good rector, Mr. Irwine, and the man guilty of causing Hetty’s disgrace, Captain Donnithorne, only able to spare her life, but not to rescue her. Hetty has to serve a sentence, Donnithorne goes away to do his own sort of penance. Both stories make for good reading, but I personally have a soft spot for Austen’s wit. In fact, regular readers of bookconscious will know that I often invoke Austen when praising contemporary books that employ witty social criticism as part of the story.

And she just has such a way with words. Take this line, describing the moments after Mr. Bennet has spoken with his cousin, the bumptious clergyman Mr. Collins, who due to entailment will inherit Longbourn, the Bennet’s home. Austen writes, “Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.” In one sentence, we can see understand how Mr. Bennet feels and how he is behaving, down to his expression.

And she doesn’t spare even her heroines or heroes from her sharp pen. Both Elizabeth and Darcy act with pride or prejudice or both, and it is only as the novel progresses that the two of them, independent of but in relation to each other, realize their errors and learn from them. It’s a credit to Austen’s keen observation of human nature that in her books there are often three types of character — those whose folly or unkindness never improves (mainly because they are unaware of their own faults), those who like Elizabeth and Darcy grow, often in order to be better people to those in they care about, and those who like Elizabeth’s older sister Jane are simply good people, able to maintain their equilibrium and to treat others with dignity even when they are silly or mean.

If you look around, we’re much the same today, and that’s the final reason I think Austen’s work holds up and continues to resonate with readers today. The things she observed were often “a universal truth” and still apply to our world even though so many social norms are different. For example, we still “make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn” — you only have to turn on a reality TV show to see that. If you haven’t re-read Austen lately, I recommend you spend a sunny summer Sunday afternoon with her soon!

 

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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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