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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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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My coworker recommended Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard and I also read some compelling reviews when I ordered it for the library, so I checked it out. I admit that I thought it was going to be painful to read, like Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (which I loved). But while Emily Bernard does not shy away from painful things, and knows pain well — the opening of Black Is the Body is about the longterm scarring and pain she lives with from being stabbed — but this book is not painful to read.

It is, however, thought provoking, and beautiful, and wise, and Bernard is smart and witty and I could go on reading her writing for days. I identify with her love of reading, her admiration for Vermont, her love for her family, her experience of living somewhere that is home but isn’t. Obviously my experience is only tangentially like hers, but still, I feel  I’d like to talk with her about the ways our experiences are alike and not alike, and that is the feeling I want to have when I am done reading a book of personal essays.

I admire the way she doesn’t just write about good things but describes awkward or difficult or unpleasant ones as well. And the way she doesn’t just love Burlington and Vermont without acknowledging their faults. And the way she takes a hard look at many things that as a society we like to feel good about. Like this:

“Dr. King’s noble dream has degenerated into a cliche, a catchphrase, like ‘diversity,’ a way out of — as opposed to a way into — complex and textured conversations about race. At best, what the civil rights movement appears to have produced is a generation that is keen to look beyond race, but finds on the other side not freedom but a riddle.”

She writes so beautifully about her marriage, as in this passage about going to the airport after her mother died: “We held hands and drove in silence, both of us staring at the road ahead. This is marriage, I thought, or at least my marriage. It is not the stories of forbidden desire that thrilled me as a girl, or even magical rides through clouds and on dark waters. It is John’s right hand in mine, and his left one sure and steady on the wheel.”

And about her and her husband’s decision to adopt her daughters: “Adopting my daughters is the most self-centered thing I have ever done. It is the one decision I have made in my life that represents who I truly am, the only choice that aligns most squarely with my deepest and most fundamental belief about life on Earth: that we are here to see one another through this journey.”

Emily Bernard is a terrific writer, and this is a good read. Reading her essays, you can tell she is a scholar, but her writing is not only smart and deeply informed by her work, but also richly humane. Like I said, you’ll wish you could meet her and talk with her, or take a class from her, or both.

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Lauren Groff is coming to my local bookstore tomorrow, so yesterday at work I decided to check out Fates and Furies, which we happened to have. I read Arcadia several years ago and had always meant to read more of her work. I’d heard this book was about a marriage, so I think I was expecting something a little more down to earth. This is no novel about a mundane marriage. The people in this book are quite beyond anyone you know. And the telling is, too.

Which isn’t usually my thing, I realized as I read it today. It’s not that I dislike reading about the unusual — in this case, Lotto, heir to a fortune, disowned by his unhinged mother for marrying Mathilde, who Lotto believes to be the purest most virtuous person he knows. Lotto, it turns out, is the genius his mother always thought he’d be, and becomes a famous playwright. Mathilde, it turns out, has a number of unsavory secrets. But ordinarily I’m not very interested in stories about wealth and fame and privilege, even with a dash of tragedy thrown in.

And yet, I spent my holiday reading this book to the end, and couldn’t stop. Not only because I wondered what craziness would come next, but because Groff is just the kind of writer who compels the reader onward. Her writing is also intriguing. Sentences like “The sun shifted to reclining. It was eight at night.” And, “Hot milk of a world, with its skin of morning fog in the window.”And, “For a long time afterward, Mathilde was clammy on the inside. A grayish clay, crumbling on its surface.” Somehow these interesting ways of describing things didn’t slow me down, they made me curious to see where they were leading.

So, a good read, full of too many twists to reveal, with characters I enjoyed very much. The good and the bad aren’t caricatured, even when they could have been; you’ll probably find something to admire and loathe in most of the characters. The little details — Lotto’s sister Rachel and her wife have matching turnip tattoos, for example — give them three dimensions, warm breath. And the perspective, one part of the book showing the marriage as Lotto sees it, one part showing it as Mathilde does, is intriguing.

I’ve had it on good authority (several people in my book club!) that The Monsters of Templeton is fantastic, and I still remember listening to Richard Russo, who was in town for an author event, say that one of the best things he’d read was Delicate Edible Birds. It’s nice when you enjoy an author’s work to know there is still more to read.

Back to the 19th century and Adam Bede!

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I finished The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago and have been avoiding writing about it. I think the author is passionate about her topic. It’s interesting. There is a whole group of girls who are dressed as boys in order to uphold their families’ honor and provide them with someone who can run errands, escort the girls and women to school and shopping, etc. When Jenny Nordberg found out about these “bacha posh” she was intrigued and began a quest to find and record the stories of current or former bacha posh.

Nordberg makes some very important points about international efforts in Afghanistan. By focusing so much on the rights of girls and women, westerners have fed the notion that gender equality is “against men.” Nordberg posits that by focusing so much on women in a place where many men cannot find work to support their families, NGOs and foreign powers have further entrenched the patriarchy. And that in a society where men literally control every move women make, “Men are the key to infiltrating and subverting patriarchy.”

Sensible, right? The stories are wrenching, but how wonderful that someone told them, right? The issues the books raises about gender roles and gender identity deserve wide attention and are really vital issues in our world. But for some reason, I just did not love this book, and I can’t really explain why. I usually enjoy books about hard topics, or books that challenge accepted wisdom, or examine the status quo in new ways. I think both the subject and the writing in The Underground Girls of Kabul are compelling.

I leave you with this mystery, dear readers. For unexplained reasons, I just didn’t like this perfectly deserving book. It’s different than a full on reading funk, where no book appeals, because I’ve started a couple of other titles since this one and am liking them well enough. Anyone else experience this lately?

 

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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.

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I’ve been writing The Mindful Reader column for The Concord Monitor since April 2012. Thirty-three columns, one a month on the Sunday book page, reviewing dozens of books, all by New Hampshire or northern New England authors, many published by small presses. It’s been a wonderful experience.

People often stop me when I’m out and about to tell me how much they liked a column, or to ask my opinion about some aspect of one of the books I read. They come into the library, where I am the librarian in charge of adult services, and our local indie bookstore, where I was once event coordinator and bookseller, to ask for the books. That’s been a thrill — there is nothing better for a writer than knowing your work not only reached someone, but moved them enough that they wanted to participate in the thing you’ve written about. And the authors I’ve heard from who are so grateful to get a published review, when so much book publicity is focused on a handful of “it” titles — that’s been great too.

This week I received a brief reply to my monthly invoice from the Monitor’s editor, who has been with the paper a few months and had never communicated with me previously. He let me know my column is discontinued and invited me to chat with him about the direction the paper would be taking. I cried — I admit it. But the next day I called him and he called me back and we had that chat.

Here’s what I learned: he told me the paper needs to stop hiring freelancers in order to pay reporters. I was with him so far. I work in a public library, I get budget cuts. And he then went on to say he was hoping to have more reader generated content on the book page, and to ask me if the library has a book club or if I knew of other book clubs whose members might like to review books for the Sunday book page. Which floored me to uncomfortable silence.

When I recovered, I wished him good luck with getting readers to write for him. I noted that I would have liked to have had the chance to thank my readers and say goodbye, because I do have readers, who I hear from regularly. He suggested that if I wanted to keep writing my column for “personal gratification” he’d make space for it, I just couldn’t be paid. Which floored me even further. I explained I was needed at the reference desk and I excused myself.

I’m a librarian — we don’t just rearrange books and check them in and out, we learn how to classify, organize, and access information, how to help readers access it, and yes, how to evaluate the quality of all kinds of information, including books. I’m a professional reviewer — a member of the National Book Critics Circle, who has made contacts in the publishing world with other reviewers, editors, publicists, authors, librarians and booksellers. I’ve reviewed here at bookconscious for eight years, and my reviews have often been quoted in publicity materials and on book jackets, and former Monitor editor Felice Belman checked out my reviews here before offering me the column (for which I am still grateful). And I’m a professional writer — published in a lot of obscure little literary magazines that often only pay in copies, but which have never, ever made me feel I was merely servicing my personal gratification by sending in my work.

Because that’s what writing is. Work. An editor, even at a cash-strapped newspaper, should know this. Each of my columns went through 10-15 drafts. I cut, and honed, and read aloud, and clarified. I also read every word of every book I reviewed, 3-5 a month. And many words of books I didn’t review for one reason or another. And frankly, although I was paid and appreciated that, it was certainly not enough to pay a reporter, even a part time reporter.

Over the last couple of days as I’ve talked to colleagues and friends I’ve learned that so far, none of the other freelancers I know have had their columns cut. I think there is a perception in this Age of Amazon that anyone can write a book review, just as there is a perception that anyone can check books out. Granted I am aware that writers of all kinds are asked to work for free all the time, even for established media companies, especially online. And I would hate to see anyone else lose their columns.

But I’m smarting. Everyone I’ve described the situation to has had the same reaction — it’s in pretty poor taste to fire someone and then ask if they could recommend somebody to do the same work for free. One friend in the publishing world sent me her list of contacts at newspaper book pages around the country, as a way of assuring me I have something to offer, a kindness I really appreciate. Another suggested there might be a way to keep publishing locally. I don’t know what I’m going to do with The Mindful Reader yet. I need time to think about my options.

In the meantime I’ll be here at bookconscious. A co-worker has graciously offered to teach me how to knit an infinity scarf, and I’ve got a stack of books I haven’t had time to read that I want to get to now that I don’t have homework. Teen the Elder is going to be home from college before heading off to South Africa for the spring semester. Teen the Younger and I have some serious baking to do.

But first I’d like to say what I wasn’t given the opportunity to say in print: thank you. Thank you for reading. For stopping me at the Farmers’ Market, in the library, at Gibson’s, in restaurants, on the street, at church, at Red River Theatres, and lots of other places to tell me you’d read my column. Thank you for supporting our region’s many talented authors by reading and buying their books and going to hear them read. Keep doing that, keep reading my reviews — please let your friends know about bookconscious — and keep stopping me to talk. I’m still here.

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If you are a bookconscious regular you know I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk for a few weeks. This week, though, I was wowed. Arcadia by Lauren Groff is a book to stay with you.

First of all it’s beautiful. Groff’s language is so right. There are sentences I read again just for the sheer pleasure.  Take this paragraph from early in the book when Bit Stone, the main character, is still a small boy:

“Time comes to him one morning, stealing in. One moment he is looking at the lion puppet on his hand that he’s flapping about to amuse Eden’s russet potato of a baby, and the next he understands something he never knew to question. He sees it clearly, now, how time is flexible, a rubber band. It can stretch long and be clumped tight, can be knotted and folded over itself, and all the while it is endless, a loop. There will be night and then morning, and then night again. The year will end, another one will begin, will end. An old man dies, a baby is born.”

And to bookend that, here’s a passage from late in the book when Bit is fifty:

“Grief as a low-grade fever. His sadness is a hive at the back of his head: he moves slowly to keep from being stung. Things bunch together, smooth endlessly out.”

Poetic, descriptive, emotive, evocative, lovely.

And the story? It felt completely original to me, which is hard to come by. It follows Bit from the legend of his birth in 1968 in a hippie caravan near Ridley, Wyoming through 2018, when he’s returned to the site of Arcadia, the utopian commune in upstate New York that his parents and their fellow travelers founded, to be with his mother. Groff paints the future as both bleak and hopeful — human recklessness still leads to suffering but so too does human compassion still heal.

Bit is one of the most interesting fictional characters you’ll ever meet, an old soul from birth, fragile but somehow emotionally invincible because of his natural tendency to be mindful, his enormous capacity for compassion and his unadulterated willingness to be vulnerable, to allow life to take him where it will.  Groff does not make him perfect, she does not give him an easy adulthood to make up for the vagaries of his strange childhood, she does not solve all of Bit’s problems. She lets readers peek at his soul, instead.

His family and friends, his loves, his child, are all incredibly finely drawn characters. Not one was hard to picture, not one was ever out of place or extraneous. Not a single subplot cluttered. As my grandmother used to say, everything counts in this book, there are no extra words. Writers should read Arcadia and try not to despair. Readers will find it a wondrous place to spend a few evenings.

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