A Long Way From Verona–Jane Gardam

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A librarian recommended this book as part of a column for NPR–books you missed in x year.  The cover is lovely and modern and the story is lovely and historical.  WWII England, actually, with whiffs of the wardrobe and C.S Lewis’s Narnia in the distant background as children leave London for the “countryside” to be safe, only to have their school blown up by an English pilot trying to land and discharging his payload with poor aim.

WWII England is the setting, but this story is really about a young writer, Jessica Vye, whose father was a schoolmaster and then a parson who writes political columns in his study for the New Statesman and, she discovers, is somewhat famous for them.

Jessica feels different from everyone–peers, family, neighbors.  She is not, she notes, popular, but does have one good friend, Florence and some other friends who hang around because of Florence.  She rubs her teachers the wrong way.  She is bright and writes what she knows is a wonderful essay–spends all weekend on it–and eagerly awaits the praise she knows it deserves, only to be berated in front of the class for having spent too much time on it and for not burning it when she thought it was good because anything you think is good is rubbish and should be burned.  Cheery.

An author visits Jessica’s school and she slips him a bit of her writing and asks him to tell her if it is any good, but to say nothing if it is not.  Just before her family moves, she receives a letter telling her she is a writer.  Later she reads a terrible book given to her by a librarian and her heart sinks when she realizes it was written by the visiting author.

She survives a bombing raid in Dunedin Street and realizes the cool handsome boy with whom she was falling in love is still a child.  After days of sleeping following the experience, she writes a poem in one sitting that needs no revision and, again, gives it to a teacher and asks her to decide if it is any good and to submit it to a national poetry contest if it is and to say nothing if it is not.  When she wins, she is stunned, certain it is a mistake and the teacher and the contest judges were rubbish.

Jessica not only feels herself different and separate.  In a few instances, she sees herself floating above her body; she watches herself as an observer.

She finds her mother ridiculous, her little brother too infantile for his age, her father brilliant but too distant and distracted.

Jessica is a fascinating character around whom interesting events happen and in whom interesting interior monologues occur. The prose is haunting.  Jessica’s isolation may resonate with many of us–whether as adults or reflecting back on our adolescence.

Finished 2/19/17

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The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family–Roger Cohen

I did not purposely begin this book at the time that the Trump administration began, but the early events of that administration made reading this book particularly challenging.  In the West, we like to believe that we have moved beyond the ethnic hatred and the moral lassitude that fueled the Holocaust.  Other people now enact genocides.  We know better.

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Cohen is not a historian.  He is a journalist who dives into his family history to better understand his mother’s mental illness, which he and his sister discover as young adults.  His journey takes him to Lithuania, from which his grandparents escaped to South Africa in time to avoid the extermination that met so many of their neighbors.  Cohen’s mother’s mental illness, he finds, runs through her family.  Whether its roots are genetic or environmental, or a combination of both as DNA strained to cope with the trauma of leaving one’s homeland and then survivor guilt and the cognitive dissonance of accepting South African racism in order to avoid being subjected to the type of racism you had fled in the first place, is unclear.

Cohen’s ancestors left Lithuania in the nineteenth century.  Cohen traces their story as well as the stories of those who stayed.  Ongoing trauma haunts Cohen’s memoir–the trauma of ostracism, the trauma of exile, the trauma of survivor’s guilt, the trauma of sacrificing others to save yourselves, and so on.

While the United States was struggling to respond to an immigrant ban that seemed to be crafted to target Muslims without expressly banning Muslims, I struggled to read about the ways in which Lithuanians, Soviets, and Nazis slowly (or not so slowly) defined Jews as others and found avenues to excuse their extermination.  I also struggled to understand what made those who protected Cohen’s ancestors stand up when those around them stood down or helped commit evil.  I struggled further to understand why those brave individuals were rewarded with imprisonment and death.  Where is the “good guy wins in the end?”

There is no win in this tale.  Cohen’s grandparents and many other Jews escaped Lithuania for South Africa only to become complicit in the oppression of those native to South Africa.  When apartheid became official policy, many Jews left, including Cohen’s parents.  His mother, raised in privilege and sunshine, found England a difficult adjustment and the mental illness that plagued her family caught up with her there.  She was institutionalized and received electroshock therapy when Cohen was just three and missed his birthday.  She was institutionalized again following the birth of his sister, with what we might now call post-partum depression.

Cohen traces his family history to trace the losses and explain the suppressed trauma that may have emerged through mental illness. He traces the illness through his family tree, up to his cousins living in Israel and trying to cope with the need for a Jewish state while seeing the hypocrisy of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Cohen also traces his branch of the family’s decision to reject Jewish religious practice, as well as their inability to avoid the consequences of being labeled Jewish, the quiet anti-Semitism of the British that seemed welcome after the violent anti-Semitism of the Continent, and his own relief at finding himself in company with those who don’t quite belong upon moving to New York.  Cohen explores the ways in which his family’s story moved him to pursue journalism and the stories of others who no longer fit in.

Cohen’s experiences have left him with a pessimistic view, a belief that, at the end of the day, most of us will choose our tribe over what is right.  He tries to end on a note of hope, an idea that someday we will find a way to live together peacefully, but the it is an optimism not supported by his narrative.

The Girl from Human Street will stay on my shelf.  Many of its most poignant lines are already posted on my Facebook wall and written on my memory.  I highly recommend Cohen’s memoir, but I do not promise it will be an easy journey.

Finished 2/13/17

The Life of Death and Sophie Stark–Anna North

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The premise is interesting.  The life and death of the main character told through her stories with multiple narrators.  And a film critic.

Sophie is a waif from Iowa who does not know how to connect with people, but she sees them more clearly than others.  The novel begins with the story of Allison, whose story Sophie turns into a film and nearly destroys Allison in the process.  Then her brother, Robbie, who introduced her to film-making and who she leaves behind in Iowa to find fame in New York.  Then Jacob, the musician who becomes her husband and whose pain she makes into her greatest film.  Then Daniel, her first film who comes back to her after he is broken.  Then George, whose film she whisked from under his nose.  Back to Allison.  Then Robbie.  And Sophie’s masterpiece, to bring together those she loved to tell the story of her life and death.

It’s a bit self-absorbed, the tragic life and death of an artist who just can’t fit in, who can’t handle real life, who sacrifices herself for a beautiful death.  This is Anna North’s second novel.  From her author photo, she is very young herself, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a staff editor for the New York Times.

The characters are interesting.  The plot is interesting.  The idea is different from the usual abused woman disappears and the novel spends 200+ pages revealing where she went.  Instead, the title tells us she dies and the novel spends 200+ pages telling us how and why she died.  Do young women survive the novels whose titles they inhabit in the 2010’s?

Finished 1/23/17

Behind Closed Doors–B.A Paris

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My oldest daughter and her friends, all in their early twenties, chose this book for their book club and, after they had discussed it, I inherited it.  I had just finished a string of murder mysteries and needed a break from suspense, so I put it away. This week, needing a quick read, I picked it back up.  I soon wished I had not.

Based on the blurbs at the start of the book, which I read only after I had finished the last page, this is one of those books that was self-published, gained attention from bloggers, and so gained a publishing contract.  It follows themes similar to those of a famous self-published novel that made it big–50 Shades (which I have not read, full disclosure).  The main character, Grace, is a successful fruit buyer for Harrod’s.  She specializes in exotic fruit, so has traveled and is, therefore, somewhat worldly.  Her parents did not want children and certainly did not want her younger sister, Millie, who suffers from Down’s syndrome.  Millie would have been aborted but from Grace’s protests and Grace took over much of the responsibility for raising Millie and, as an adult, has taken on responsibility for her care once she finishes boarding school.  Men have come and gone from Grace’s life, usually leaving after realizing her commitment to care for her special needs sister.  Men until perfect Jack, a handsome and successful lawyer who defends victims of domestic abuse and who adores Millie and agrees to her moving in with them when he proposes to Grace after a short courtship.

I found the first half of the novel very frustrating.  Grace ignores warning signs in a man around the age of 40 who has never been married and is physically gorgeous and economically prosperous.  For instance, she has to insist on sex.  He does not want Millie to be a bridesmaid.  Jack chooses a house for the couple without allowing Grace to see it.  Everything has to be a surprise/secret.

Millie falls and breaks her leg on the way into the ceremony, but Jack insists the ceremony continue without her.  He disappears on the wedding night, becomes rude, and still she plows forward.  No one but Grace is surprised when he turns out to be a controlling abusive asshole.  He does not rape her, in fact is not interested in her sexually.  He does not beat her.  Instead, he emotionally and mentally tortures her.  Part of that torture is the knowledge that he has only married her to have the opportunity to torture her sister, whose fear will be unfiltered.

Jack is a sadistic bastard who deserves what happens to him in the end, and reading about his comeuppance is the only consolation this novel offered me.  For most of the novel, which blessedly I was able to speed read, I marveled at what in our culture has young women wanting to read this type of “romance.”  I remember reading Beatrice Small and thrilling at the moments when the rough hero manhandled the heroine and then turned into the thoughtful lover she knew he could be.  Is this type of novel the evolutionary product of Beatrice Small?  I was parts horrified, parts social scientist observing the way that each scene dished up new levels of control and horror for Grace the way a dominatrix might dole out lashes with a whip or whatever a dominatrix does outside of the confines of Hollywood comedies.

I usually leave copies of the books I have read at a “little library” spot in my neighborhood.  I feel badly enough about this book that I am not sure it is a public good to offer up this book for anything more than paper recycling.

Finished 1/17/17

The Little Red Chairs–Edna O’Brien

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I was so excited to read this novel.  It begins with an announcement of an exhibit of 11, 541 red chairs on the Sarajevo high street to commemorate the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces.  Each chair represented a dead Sarajevan during the last 1425 days of the siege.  Six hundred and forty-three chairs represented children.

The novel then jumps into a quote from Gilgamesh.  A bearded man comes to the small Irish town of Cloonoila, which has been in decline since the creation of a highway that bypassed its shopping district.  Fidelma McBride and her husband rent their closed boutique to a bearded foreigner who comes to town dispensing philosophy and alternative medicine.  His massages and aromatherapy appeal particularly to the women of the village, especially Fidelma, whose miscarriages and longing for a child have become the focus of her unhappiness.  Their affair brings her brief happiness, which is shattered when the stranger, who has made himself part of the fabric of village life, is arrested and revealed to be The Butcher of Bosnia.  From that moment, Fidelma’s dream becomes hell.  After a brutal attack, she flees to England, where she works as a maid, attends support groups for the survivors of war crimes against women, and finally gets the courage to face herself, her future, and the cause of her unhappiness.

I was very unhappy when I closed the cover of this novel.  Other than a few brief pages at the beginning, the novel was a slog through misery and it ended unhappily.  Then I began investigating the actual story of the Butcher of Bosnia.  While he did not hide in Ireland, he did spend years in hiding, he did practice alternative medicine and philosophy, and seems to have been popular with women.  He was a monster, who brought peace and love to people he encountered after engineering the death of all those represented by the red chairs.  Like Fidelma, I found myself adrift, uncertain what to think about how someone so evil could appear so enticing and how someone so hateful could bring anything like love.  The idea that we can’t identify evil is deeply troubling, as is the thought that we might be seduced by it.

Finished 12/16

Today Will Be Different-Maria Semple

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When I heard the list of goals Eleanor created for herself at the start of Semple’s new novel, I knew I had to read it.  I downloaded it from Audible and was hooked.  I walked on the treadmill.  I cooked.  I cleaned.  Just to have an excuse to listen.

Like Semple’s previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this third novel explores the world of a middle-aged woman who has not become the person she thought she would be.  She is not as nice, as put together, as successful in work or her relationships.  Her life seems to be the result of a series of near misses, including her son’s name, Timby, who attends the same school as Bee from Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Eleanor began her adult life as a talented artist on the hit show, Looper Wash. When she realized that her fertility was passing, she stopped working to have Timby.  She now tries to create art in a closet-sized studio in her home, but finds herself easily distracted.

The conceit of the novel is its taking place in one day, but Semple extends the narrative frame through a series of flashbacks, many of which lead back to her sister, with whom she has a troubled relationship.  Running from that failure, it seems, has led her to run from other failures or the chance of other failures, including finishing the book for which she was contracted years previous.

Eleanor is a glass-half-empty person, for which we can forgive her given her childhood in which she lost her mother, had a distant father, created a primary bond with her sister, who then left her life.  Her gray outlook and the gray of Seattle lead her to see everything through a gray wash that is peeled away by the end of the novel.  Semple’s ability to expose her characters flaws makes her novel a bit like cheap therapy, or an afternoon with a girlfriend who’s just enough more dysfunctional to make you feel good about your life while recognizing how good you both really have it.

Finished 12/16

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?–Maria Semple

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I heard Maria Semple on Fresh Air with Terri Gross talking about her newest novel, Today Will Be Different.  I downloaded it on Audible and created reasons to listen until I reached the end.  I loved Semple’s direct but sarcastic voice.  I remember hearing buzz about Where’d You Go, Bernadette when it was first published, but I wasn’t motivated to add it to my wish list until I listened to Today Will Be Different.

Where’d You Go Bernadette was different in format.  It’s told as a dossier of documents interspersed with narrative.  Near the end of the novel Semple reveals that this dossier was assembled by Bernadette’s daughter, which is another narrative trick of the novel, to slowly release information that allows the reader to make sense of this disparate pieces put in front of him or her.

Bernadette is a middle-aged mother of one teenaged-daughter, who is finishing her last year of school in the states before heading to England for boarding school.  Bee, we learn, was born with serious health issues following a series of miscarriages.  Bee’s father is a programming genius who works at Microsoft, which is what brought the family to Seattle, a place Bernadette despises.  The family lives in an old girls’ school that is slowly returning to nature, complete with holes in the roof and moldering floor boards.  Even before she disappears, the reader can tell something is not right with Bernadette.  She spends her days in a travel trailer in their yard, where she writes highly personal emails to her virtual assistant, whom she’s hired against her husband’s wishes.

Bernadette is unhappy.  Her husband is absorbed by his work and disconnected from his family.  Bee is trying to hold the family in balance and has pinned a great deal of hope on a trip to Antarctica, a reward for a great report card, and a cause of serious anxiety for her mother, who seems to suffer from some measure of agoraphobia or social anxiety or both.

Most of us can connect to Bernadette through her fear of failure–in her career, her ability to become a mother, her ability to make friends, and her ability to hold her family together.  Fear and anxiety send Bernadette to her trailer, to disconnect, making her failures more and more likely.  While we may not all have a trailer retreat in the back yard and a virtual assistant to whom we can confide our darkest secrets, many of us can likely identify with Bernadette’s fears and her impulse to flee entanglements in order to protect herself from facing them.

I did not enjoy Semple’s first novel as much as her second, but I’ll take that as a positive sign and look forward to her third.

Finished 1/17