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Posts Tagged ‘social commentary’

This is the last of the seven books I downloaded so that I wouldn’t have to take any physical books with me on vacation. Unless you don’t follow book news at all you probably know that Bernardine Evaristo was co-winner, with Margaret Atwood, of the Booker prize this year. As with “best of the year” lists I have a love-hate relationship with literary prizes. Sometimes I just don’t get the winner at all. Sometimes I think the whole system is rigged and under-appreciated books are further under-appreciated when prizes pass them over, all because of the limited number of giant, wealthy media companies who dominate publishing.

Sometimes I just think the whole idea of picking “winners” is silly. That said, some readers I respect liked Girl, Woman, Other and the reviews I read made it sound appealing. Plus, one of my reading goals is to read work by diverse authors, so, conflicted feelings about literary prizes aside, I wanted to read this.

I’m not always a fan of the multiple viewpoint narrative. Girl Woman, Other features twelve different main characters, and spans several decades. So, I had some difficulty because in eBook format, there is no easy way to flip back to previous chapters about a character, which for me is helpful when a book changes viewpoint several times.  And that is one of the reasons I prefer print books — they are not a technology that needed to be improved upon (paraphrasing Robert Darnton in The Case for Books) and for this reader, work better! Anyway, I think I would have been able to manage the changing perspectives more easily — key when you read in snatches of time during breaks at work, before bed, etc. rather than sitting down to read for a long time — if I’d had the book in print.

Still, Girl, Woman, Other is excellent, and any issue with the multiple viewpoints was my own. The narrative brings these women’s very different stories and lives together, showing how, when, and why they intersect, and where they diverge. The connections grow as you read, so that eventually you get how they all relate to each other. Evaristo writes with warmth and humor and where she examines social issues she is both smart and compassionate. Even though this is fiction, I feel like I learned a good bit about modern British social history, or dusted off what I may have learned in college in some cases, and I appreciated that Evaristo wasn’t afraid to examine feminism’s evolution and divisions.

My favorite characters had slightly less air time than the others (or so it seemed to me): Dominique, because by the end of the book she is feeling a little irrelevant but still wants to keep learning (I can identify), Morgan, because she genuinely cares about her gran and because she is almost an accidental influencer but is trying to use that power well, and Hattie, because she just kicks ass and anyone who sees contemporary Christmas as “Greedymas” and embraces her nonbinary trans grandchild even though she admits she cannot fully wrap her 93 year old mind around “they” is my kind of lady.

The writing is lovely, and there are so many beautiful musings on parenthood — and how painful it is to love children — that killed me. Also so many gorgeous conversations.  And thoughts, like this one: “Bibi replied that dreaming wasn’t naive but essential for survival, dreaming was the equivalent of hoping on a large scale . . . .” Which is helpful, just now in this world. Also, the ending of this book, which brings a few of the characters together in a way I didn’t really anticipate but when it happened made complete sense, absolutely slayed me. I love a book that makes me laugh AND cry, teaches me to be a better human, and enlarges my world.

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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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A few year’s ago I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. When I saw Sourdough at a used bookstore in New Haven a few weeks ago, on the $1 cart, no less, I thought it looked like fun. I’m about to study research methods for a solid week so my brain needed something fun. Sourdough was as predicted.

To be clear, fun does not mean lightweight. This is an enjoyable, fast paced read but it examines some big questions: does technology have a place in the way we produce food and nourish ourselves? Is organic, farm to table food part of the solution or part of the problem? What about technology? How do we determine the value of work? What makes a good life?

Lois Clary, Sloan’s heroine, is a brilliant programmer who lands a coveted job at a tech startup in San Francisco. She moves there knowing no one and works such long hours she doesn’t even have time to cook. But she finds a Lois club like the one she and her grandmother belonged to (just what is sounds like, women named Lois), and she grows fond of the two brothers who run a small take out operation illegally from their apartment making a strange, spicy soup and bread. She learns to enjoy their strange music and food, and then they leave for Europe, gifting her with a crock of sourdough starter.

Lois stays in touch with one of the brothers via email. She tells him about learning to bake bread, he tells her the history if his people (a fictional group called the Magz), his family, and his dream of opening a restaurant. She works and bakes, and then she gets a chance to participate in a strange underground market in an old missile storage bunker. She meets a whole community of people doing unusual and interesting things with food. She gets into the market because her bread is weird and because she programs robotic arms.

The rest of the novel is the story of how her view of work, baking, and life evolve as she becomes more committed to the market and its mysterious but anonymous founder, and more convinced that she can solve the puzzle of her life the way she solves the puzzle of teaching a robotic arm to crack an egg — “not by adding code, but by taking it away.” She creates a technical “blink” in which her robot “was no longer second-guessing its second guesses a thousand times a second.” She calls her code Confidence. And this work, along with her bread-baking and her new friends, convinces her to live more boldly herself.

A lovely, fun, and thoughtful book. If you like Marie Semple, you’ll enjoy Robin Sloan.

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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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