Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘truth’

Over the past few weeks things have been chaotic in the world and in my family. I read another Sophie KinsellaMy Not So Perfect Life, about a young woman, Katie, trying to break into marketing who has a boss, Demeter, she both envies and finds overbearing and inconsiderate. it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, just what I needed in the midst of my chaos. As the story unfolds Katie figures out that she isn’t the only one spinning her social media life, and that Demeter isn’t as witchy as she once thought. As she’s figuring this out, Katie is also helping her father and stepmother open a glamping concern on the farm where she grew up in Somerset. The book left me a) wanting to go to London, b) wanting to go glamping and c) feeling ever so slightly at peace as I went to sleep, although only ever so slightly. I find Kinsella’s writing to be a pleasure, and her books tend to offer some social commentary that is interesting to contemplate as you’re enjoying the storytelling.

When I finished that I was fishing around for something else to download from my library that same night — I don’t care to try sleeping without disappearing into a book first these days — and I came across a book that caught my eye when it came out last year We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun. It’s a book about the Amy Biehl murder in a Cape Town township in August, 1993 (the same year my son was born). Biehl was my age, born in 1967. She was on a Fullbright scholarship studying in Cape Town (where my son has spent time) when she died at the hands of a mob, and her story made international headlines because while the killing was racially and politically motivated, Biehl was actually an ANC supporter and was studying the rights of women, especially black women.

Van der Leun’s book is not really about the murder, or at least not only. It’s primarily about the legacy, both in terms of how Biehl’s family, who had never been to Africa, became involved in Cape Town, founding a foundation in their daughter’s name and getting to know South African luminaries as well as their Biehl’s killers, and about the way the murder impacted those who were there, innocent bystander or violent mob member, and their families as well. In particular van der Leun examines the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, known around the world as a bright example of hope, peace, and nonviolent resolution to centuries of oppression, violence, and racism. I’ve never read such a measured discussion of the TRC. Van der Leun openly admires the ideal, but points out the many flaws in the process itself. For example, the wrongly convicted could not apply for pardon without claiming guilt , which meant innocent people (possibly some of Biehl’s convicted killers among them) had to admit to things they didn’t do to get out of prison. Truth seemed to be missing, to van der Luen, and reconciliation seemed a little discordant.

What I admired most is that van der Luen spent years getting to know all the people she writes about, Easy, one of the convicted killers whose reconciliation with Biehl’s parents made him a celebrity, Mzi, a Buddhist who was a militant member of the PAC, who helps her track down some of the other men implicated in the attack on Biehl, and many of their friends and family members. Van der Leun spends hours, day after day, in Gugulethu, the township where Biehl died and where most of the people involved still live. She gets to know many former gang and PAC members and talks to them about their lives pre and post apartheid and the violence they perpetrated. It’s a side of the struggle we outside of Africa often don’t hear about — we hold up the peacemakers, Mandela and Tutu, but we don’t think much about the violence that was a daily part of life. Nor do most of us think about the racism that is so steeped in South African culture that it remains an open part of life for many of the people van der Leun knows, black and white, rich and poor. No, thinking about racism in South Africa might lead to thinking about racism here in America, and no one wants that. (sarcasm) Truly, it’s human nature to avoid what’s hard and flock to the story we can feel good about.

We Are Not Such Things is, like all my favorite books, about being human. It’s about longing for identity and place, family and community, about the falsity of freedom if you’re poor or marginalized, and the myriad ways people hurt each other. It’s about hope, but it’s mainly about reality, which is, if not hopeless is somewhat less than hopeful most days, for most people. South Africa today certainly embodies that. There is a beauty in the broken world she describes, but not the voyeuristic outsider view of someone who just visited it to write about it. Van der Leun moved to South Africa to be with her fiancee, who grew up there. She openly writes about her discomfort living in the privileged white Cape Town and being more at home in Gugulethu, being an English speaker struggling with Xhosa, being a woman who fits in more with former gangster men than with their wives and sisters. Above all We Are Not Such Things is about the very human condition of discomfort, which is very familiar to me right now. Perhaps that is why I spent two weeks slowly reading it, and why I find myself still thinking about it now.

Read Full Post »

I’m not sure what to say about this book that will do it justice — it’s a good read, a novel that both tells a story and speaks truth, and it made me feel my white privilege acutely. Adichie manages to be both humorous and heartbreaking, and she takes readers into communities and cultures many of us don’t know. It you’ve read booksconscious for long, you know that for me, that’s pretty much the total package — good writing, truth, transport, compelling narrative. Oh, and characters who are alive.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and her childhood sweetheart Obinze. They come of age in Nigeria under military rule and both get fed up with the university strikes and decide to leave. Ifemelu follows her Aunty Uju to America, where she finds things are not what she expected. Obinze, denied an American visa, ends up trying his luck in England, where he has a cousin. I don’t want to give away details of what happens to each of them, but readers follow their struggles and successes until, full circle, the story returns to Nigeria.

Part of the story is that Ifemelu writes a blog about racism; in America she experiences being black for the first time (late in the book she tells a white American “I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black). The blog posts in the novel are particularly relevant, painful reading now.  She also writes in a refreshing way about the immigrant experience. I know refugees in my community, and I know how shocking it has been for them to come here and experience the reality of America as compared the image they held while waiting to come here. I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that some people, not refugees but other immigrants, don’t find what they are seeking and return to their countries. That’s not the story we’re told about the American Dream. I appreciated the view that America isn’t the end of people’s stories in this book.

Adiche, describing Ifemelu’s discovery of Obinze’s favorite books in her local library in Philadelphia, writes, “how could a string of words make a person ache for a place he did not know?” Of course, I recognized that feeling. If you do too, you will find that familiar, pleasant ache in Americanah. The thing is you might also ache for a place you do know — America. But right now, I can’t think of a better way to do that than to read fiction.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

I just finished Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer. The structure felt cumbersome and I found the characters a little unbelievable, but it’s a debut and the writing isn’t bad, so I suspended disbelief. It’s the story of an eighth-grader named Lorca whose chef mother is too much of an emotional disaster herself to deal with her. Lorca has a psychological condition that causes her to cut or burn or otherwise hurt herself. When the book opens she’s been suspended after getting caught cutting herself at school. That in itself seemed wrong (although I have no idea how accurate).

Her mother’s not-so-kind response includes threatening to send her to boarding school. Lorca overhears her mother and aunt talking and decides that she will get back in her mother’s good graces by learning to make a complicated Iraqi fish dish called masgouf that her mother remembers eating in a restaurant. An older boy, Blot, who works in a nearby bookstore, and who Lorca has a crush on, ends up helping.

They track down Victoria, who owned the now-closed restaurant. She’s a recent widow, and she and Lorca each begin to believe, without telling each other, that she might be Lorca’s grandmother (her mother’s adopted and as far as Lorca knows, never found her birth mother). As this poor child tries to please her unsympathetic mess of a mother, we hear about Victoria’s also (to me) unbelievable past. Part of which includes learning something she never knew about her husband.

What made me finish the book, which I would probably have put down otherwise, was that I got to thinking about the way people know or think they know about each other. And I wanted, despite despising a key character and finding some of the book’s architecture unwieldy, to find out whether anything Lorca and Blot and Victoria thought they knew would help them. Some books I’ve been reading for my next column — one about WWI dough boys interviewed in very great old age, another a novel about a very small town in Maine, another a brilliant debut novel about a Taiwanese immigrant — also hinge on this very human problem.

We are always so sure we know what we know. Especially about each other. Just turn on the news and you’ll hear this play out again and again. In the case of the Boston bombers. Or in my town, of a boy who was arrested, then cleared of a felony charge which turned out to be based on false witness. Or of three people, one of whom is the victim’s mother (I guess I have to cut Jessica Soffer some slack) accused of torturing an eighteen year old boy. In the case of atrocities and conflicts around the world and our perceived interest or potential role in them, people who claim to know argue endlessly in the public sphere, often as people unknown to us as anything other than faces in the news are irrevocably impacted. (All good reasons to consume less news, as I mused last week). True or untrue, full story or sketch, what we know is often just a fraction of what we could. 

So what DO we know? For me, books are a way to explore this question, to look at human frailty in the context of universal stories rendered specific by authors who lead us on the search for what an Episcopal priest I know calls “Big T Truths.” Books allow some distance — fictional detachment in the case of novels and poems, reflective analysis in the case of history, memoir, and narrative prose — through which we can try to reach what is known and unknown. Which is one reason I read. Books are a far more comfortable home for ambiguity than news.

Read Full Post »

In between following campaign hooey, congressional shenanigans, stock market dives, and the intricate schedules of the four members of the bookconscious household, I took comfort in fiction and poetry this month. I suppose much of what passes for news is at least semi-fictional these days as well, although pundits refer to that kind of fiction as “spin,” but when the current events fiction gets to be too much, there’s nothing like losing yourself in a good book for a little while.

I also find that lengthy nonfiction doesn’t lend itself to reading in brief snatches of time — when I’m waiting for my daughter to get out of art class, for example, or I’ve arrived at my son’s soccer game a little early. A chapter of a novel or a poem is a pleasant diversion when I find myself waiting. I admit I am the kind of person who finds it hard to sit and do nothing if I have a spare ten or fifteen minutes, and I almost always leave the house with a book, a poetry journal, and an issue of one of the magazines I read regularly (The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, Science News, or Cooking Light).

In a summer post I mentioned taking Jon Kabat Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are with me on vacation. I’m still reading it, bit by bit, and I sometime actually just sit and try to be mindful when I am waiting. But I admit, I still bring reading wherever I go — wherever I am, there I read.

Last spring, I attended the NH Writers’ Project Writers’ Day, and one of the sessions I took was called “Zen and the Writing Marathon,” given by Katherine Towler. I enjoyed her practical, mindful advice, and made a note to read her novels. This month I read the first two in her trilogy (the third won’t be out until 2009), Snow Island and Evening Ferry. It was interesting to read these books after hearing the author talk about writing them.

Snow Island is set in the 1940’s, and the events of the book lead up to America’s entry into the war. At the end of the novel, we know the post-war fate of a couple of characters. The book centers around a young woman, one of three kids about to graduate from her tiny island school, Alice. Besides trying to find her way as she reaches adulthood, Alice is running the store her widowed mother can’t handle alone, offering new ideas like delivery and fresh produce to her customers.

While Alice is the central character, we get to know the other year round island families and my favorite thing about Towler’s writing is that every character, no matter how minor, is visible to me as I read. Same goes for the settings — both the island and the mainland town that is so nearby but in many ways almost foreign to the islanders are easy for me to see. I don’t want to give away the plot of the book, so I won’t go into much detail, but if you like historical fiction or coming of age stories, Snow Island is simple but beautiful, true without being overbearing in its “truthiness,” and satisfying but not in any way sappy.

I went back to the library for Evening Ferry even before I finished Snow Island. I remember as a child checking out a stack of books by the same author, like the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories, or a series like Madeleine L’Engle‘s Time Quartet, and enjoying the feeling that even as I savored one book, the other was right there waiting for me. When my own kids were little, I remember finishing one Narnia book and hurrying to the library for the next, checking out two at a time so we would be able to keep reading.

As a grown up, I went through a long dry spell of not reading much (believe it or not!) and when I returned to books, I read the John LeCarre Smiley novels all in a row, complements of my Grandmother. Not too long after, I decided to read the entire A Dance to the Music of Time series by Anthony Powell — twelve novels — checking out 2-4 volumes at a time so I wouldn’t ever find myself at the end of one without the next one on my nightstand. Somehow knowing the story won’t end without my being able to pick up the next thread is very satisfying, and was one of the worst things about falling in love with the Harry Potter books as J.K. Rowling was still writing them; the kids and I would feel mournful knowing we had a couple of years to wait and see how the problem at the end of each volume would resolve itself in the next!

Thankfully, Snow Island and Evening Ferry don’t end in cliffhangers, and the emotional resolution of each novel is tidy enough to allow the reader some closure without being pat or forced. So I can wait patiently until the third book is published. One reason I enjoyed Evening Ferry so much was that is didn’t follow a neat “sequel” pattern. Towler revisits Snow Island and brings back some of the characters from the first novel, but Alice is a minor character this time, and the main character is of another generation.

Evening Ferry is also set against the backdrop of war, this time Vietnam. Towler’s focus, however, is Rachel’s struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with the turmoil of her own life, as a divorced woman returning to the island to care for her injured father. It’s a book about relationships, religion, and growing up, as well as a historical novel, but while Snow Island dealt with the transition from youth to adulthood, Evening Ferry describes the awkward growing up adults do when they reverse caregiving roles with their parents.

Towler also nails the uncomfortable process of looking back at childhood through adult eyes. As a novelist looks through her character’s eyes, so Rachel looks through her mother’s eyes as she reads her journals, and later looks through her father’s eyes as she begins to order her own memories and her mother’s. Towler doesn’t let any of the characters off the hook — she bares all of their flaws. But they are characters easy to like and empathize with, and I look forward to finding out about another generation of Snow islanders in her next book.

For my birthday in late September, Steve and the kids gave me a new book I was looking forward to: the latest collection by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, called Ballistics. I enjoyed it very much and shared one of my favorites, called “Hippos on Holiday,” with my brother and sister-in-law, whose online home is dozinghippo. “Ornithography,” which speculates on the messages in birds’ prints on the snow, is another I really liked. Several poems in this collection are about writing and language, and no one makes a wry observation as poetically as Collins does. In my poembound blog, I wrote about workshops with teenagers, and found that Collins is one poet every kid responds to — he just gets life so perfectly, and tells it truthfully in a way that hits you as both timelessly wise and entirely new.

Collins and Donald Hall, who has a new memoir out, were on the Diane Rehm show recently. I heard Hall read from his new book at Gibson’s in Concord a couple of weeks ago. I last saw Hall at the Poets Three reading last fall, and he told the audience about a difficult period he’d only recently emerged from, during which he could not write poems. He seemed tired then, and to hear him read this time, in fine spirits and as eloquent as I remembered from earlier readings, was a delight.

Isn’t that one of the reasons we read: to be delighted? Chaim Potok is a writer whose work rings with delight — no matter the struggle of his characters, they are vividly alive, and you know that the author who brought them to life took pleasure in knowing them. I read The Chosen last year, and recently read Old Men at Midnight, a book of three novellas, linked by a common character. Each of the three stories could stand alone, but together they build powerfully, each piece adding another layer of observation, until the reader sees that Potok’s book is as much about story as a primal human experience as it is about particular human characters in places and historical moments.

A book that is centered on people living with the challenges of our time, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, caught my eye at my public library a few weeks ago. Father Michael’s Lottery wasn’t a great novel; the midsection dragged along enough that I actually skipped a few chapters. But I didn’t put it aside, because I was fascinated by the main character, a doctor named Morgan who is a Hawkeye type renegade, putting patients before administrative rules or cost benefit analysis. You wouldn’t think a novel about such a depressing real life topic could be funny, but this one is, which added to its charm.

Author Johan Steyn is a doctor in Botswana, and his descriptions put me there in the hallways with his doctors, or in the bush with Morgan as he tries to let his anger at what his patients are suffering go. This vivid detail is one of the book’s best assets, as well as the humanity and warmth of the characters. The reader has a sense of where the story is headed, but I was surprised nonetheless by some of the details and without giving much away, I hope that since Steyn wrote the book some of the figures he had in mind have changed, especially the cost of anti-retroviral treatment. Steyn could have headed for a clear cut happy ending, but instead lets the book close on a hopeful but not overly tidy note, which seemed far more effective than if he’d wrapped up such a serious topic with complete closure.

Speaking of closure, I am slogging my way through American Bloomsbury. I would have put it down by now, except I really like Gibson’s book club and it’s the next selection we’re discussing. I enjoy the subject matter — the community of writers and thinkers living in Concord, MA in the mid 1800’s. In fact, the kids and I learned about Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott last spring and still intend to visit Concord to see where these amazing Americans lived and worked. So, why am I finding it hard to finish this book?

It dawned on me last night, as I forced my way through another of the short chapters between the end of the final presidential debate and the beginning of The Daily Show. American Bloomsbury is just like the infuriating campaign news coverage. Plenty of sound bites, plenty of speculative punditry, little bits of facts spun into a picture that looks complete if you don’t look too closely and see where it’s unraveling.

Author Susan Cheever tells readers right up front she is going to revisit events over and over because she wants to tell us about them from different people’s perspectives, but the effect is that you feel the book is never moving forward. A combination of the choppy style and overt projections of the author’s views or experiences on the historical narrative, marked by Cheever’s gossipy questions, add to the disjointed feeling. The final straw was reading that Plymouth, NH, is at the “head” of Squam Lake, when in fact it’s not on the lake at all. When a book contains such a silly error, it’s hard not to wonder what other facts went unchecked.

If I want unchecked facts, I can just tune in for three more weeks to campaign hooey. But in the interest of sleeping well, I think instead I’ll keep reading books.

Read Full Post »