Books – Familiar and Not

In “The Perfect Nanny,” Leila Slimani crafts a thriller, a horror movie plot from the everyday world of working parents and children’s caretakers. To be judgmental about Slimani’s characters, you’d have to be pretty perfect yourself, having never done anything regretful, having never been seduced by an opportunity and slipped into some possibility that initially feels comfortable and provides so much, but proves inescapable and dangerous.

The first page reveals the horror toward which the book heads, but that doesn’t stop anxious, frantic reading to find out why. Reader’s knowledge makes you long to shout out in the middle, please stop this, but Slimani’s fine writing ensnared me.

Parisian parents, Paul and Myriam, have two young children, Adam and Mila. Myriam, a lawyer with much unrealized promise, stayed home to care for Mila, and 18 months later, Adam. It’s hard. Eventually, “Myriam became gloomy. She began to hate going to the park. The winter days seemed endless. Mila’s tantrums drove her mad, Adam’s first burblings left her indifferent. With each passing day, she felt more and more desperate to go out for a walk on her own. Sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street. They’re eating me alive, she would think.”

Her abandoned career offers escape – hence the nanny search and miraculous discovery of Louise. Soon, “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place. Louise arouses and fulfills the fantasies of an idyllic family life that Myriam guiltily nurses. She teaches Mila to tidy up behind herself and her parents watch dumbstruck as the little girl hangs her coat on the peg.”

Louise grows ever more “invisible and indispensable.“ “It’s never clearly stated – they don’t talk about it – but Louise patiently builds her nest in the middle of the apartment.”

And Slimani patiently builds our awareness of these lives – the world of engaging work – the law, the hip-hop music scene – colliding with the unstable world of the nanny and the claustrophobic world of small children. “Parks, on winter afternoons. The drizzle scatters dead leaves. The icy gravel sticks to the children’s knees.”

I keep asking myself if I’m glad I read this book. Yes, because it is so fine as a novel and as a recording of a cultural moment, but I don’t like to think about it.

Because I read that Slimani was reading it, and maybe looking for an antidote to her book, I read Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers: A Novel.”

The book is about all sorts of mothers, devoted mothers, mothers who disappear, mothers who terminate the possibility, but the title refers to a sort of Greek chorus of church ladies at the Upper Room Chapel, “prayer warriors,” who address the reader directly at the beginning of most chapters. They pray for what needs prayer, make blankets and socks for comfort, and they gossip. In the very beginning they reveal the secret at the heart of this novel and their regret: “All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around in our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season. But we didn’t.”

In her senior year of high school, 17-year old Nadia Turner, a smart and beautiful black girl, loses her mother to suicide. She gets involved with the pastor’s son Luke, a handsome football player, career ended by a bad tackle, “Bones, like anything else, strong until they weren’t.” Providing the third point in a triangle is Aubrey Evans, motherless by abandonment and willingly embraced by the engulfing church community. Connections between the points shift by choices made.

This book offers pronouncements about motherhood: “She was not a mother but she had a mother’s gift of rushing to the worst possible outcomes.” “A mother would move toward a crying child, not away. Her mother would’ve held her and absorbed her tears into her own body.” “A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern. But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.”

The Southern California setting helps this seem a warmer book – ocean beaches, sunshine, wildfire season, and Camp Pendleton boys – it couldn’t be further from the winter-dark Paris neighborhood of “The Perfect Nanny.” But both books pose questions facing women – and men.

We watch the characters live with their choices and wonder about our own.

Books: Deeply Moving, Gorgeously Written

Both the books I write about here, with unusual structures and fine language, are also absolute page-turners.

When my friend Bill Stewart, of Vamp and Tramp Booksellers, recommended Maylis de Kerangal’s “The Heart,” his note was brief “…poetic, about a heart transplant.” I read it all through one fever-filled 24 hours as it clutched my heart.

Translated from the French, “The Heart” is set in northwestern France during the 24 hours after a 20-year old boy, returning from surfing at dawn, dies in an automobile accident, and his heart is given to a woman awaiting a transplant.

The first sentence begins “The thing about Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event, the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived – the black box of a twenty-year-old body – the thing is that nobody really knows it…” and ends a page and a half later with “…a cell-phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar signal translated into luminescent digits on the touch screen – 05:50 – and suddenly everything raced out of control.”

In that kind of prose, saturated with the specific, each participant becomes tangible: the young surfer Simon, the first responders, the ICU team, Simon’s mother, the doctor from the Coordinating Committee for Organ and Tissue Removal, Simon’s father, Simon’s girlfriend, the coordinator for the Allocations of Transplants, the transplant surgeons, and – the recipient. Because of the accumulation of rushing sentences filled with intimate detail, you inhabit each person’s role as they negotiate the territory between life and death and life.

Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire: A Novel” also takes a usually distant event but familiar news story – a British jihadi, a political reaction – and renders it painfully personal. Shamsie’s sentences are more straightforward, but she structures her novel relentlessly toward the inexorable (or is it?) ending.

Shamsie sprinkles text messages, immigration interrogations, Skype conversations, news broadcasts, and hashtag lists into separate sections for each of the five main characters in her story of a British Muslim family – Isma, the older sister who has cared for her 19-year old twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, since they were orphaned at 12 – and a British Muslim politician Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn.

Family love and loyalties tangle tragically as a love affair doesn’t happen, a love affair with fantasies of marriage does, a longing for a lost father leads to an experiment with jihad, and in an attempted reversal, political reality intervenes.

When Aneeka loses her twin, she is singular for the first time ever, and the description of her grief piles up for paragraphs, “…grief saw nothing but itself, grief saw every speck of pain in the world; grief spread its wings like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine; grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, wanted to forget; grief raged, grief whimpered….”

There is grief aplenty in this unforgettable book.

Books: Take Rooms In Your Heart

After the death of Ursula K. Le Guin, the Wordsmith sent an article by Karen Joy Fowler (Ten Things I Learned From Ursula K. Le Guin). Looking back on all this reading, I find myself thinking about one of Le Guin’s lessons: “There is no reason a book of ideas can’t also be deeply moving, gorgeously written, and inhabited by people who take rooms in your heart and never move out.”

Philip Pullman’s Lyra is truly one of those characters. Our young friend brought me the U.K. edition of the first book in Pullman’s new series, titled “La Belle Sauvage.” (It’s a dazzling physical book – printed watercolor blue waves for endpapers, embossed golden “Dust” glittering the book cloth, and a spine so fat it holds a long quote from the book.)

La Belle Sauvage is also the name of Malcolm Polstead’s canoe, a canoe that carries him, his daemon, and the baby(!) Lyra on a journey along a flooded River Thames. This book is the first of a planned trilogy (“The Book of Dust”) set in a parallel time when Lyra, the unforgettable heroine of Pullman’s singular trilogy (“His Dark Materials”) is but a wee babe.

It’s all here in the new book – a shadowy reflection of our own scary times, enchanting daemons, strange devices for manipulating time and space, big adventures, and spies. If you read and loved the earlier trilogy – welcome back – and if you haven’t, well, there’s a lucky project for the new year!

From the Trail Boss I found a tiny volume in my stocking, “How to Walk” by Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is wise, comforting, and instructive in the best way: “Walking is a wonderful way to calm down when we are upset. When we walk, if we focus all our awareness on walking, we are stopping the thinking, storytelling, blaming and judging that goes on in our heads and takes us away from the present moment.”

Walking meditation, mindfulness aide – perfectly illustrated by the sumi ink drawings of Jason DeAntonio – Hanh’s voice stays with me (“yes yes yes, thanks thanks thanks”) as I walk back to health.

And, when it first came out, I read Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” – characters so despicable they’ll never occupy my heart. And I fervently wish they didn’t occupy the White House.