London, the Hebrides, and Crawdads – Books

These long three months I’ve been even more grateful for books. I spent most of the early weeks in “London: The Novel” by Edward Rutherford – a birthday present last November that seemed a joke. How would I read 1100 pages following family descendants, from an encampment on the River Thames during pre-history all the way to modern London? Easy.

And I read Peter May’s “Lewis Trilogy,” a reader’s fine suggestion, about a Glasgow detective returning to his home island in the Outer Hebrides – all wild ocean, rugged terrain and rugged people. The narrative alternates from childhood to present, as the mystery needing solving becomes personal. The descriptions bring to life the sky and weather, rocky cliffs, hidden beaches, and smaller inhospitable, isolated islands – and the culture – traditions still strong after hundreds of years, meeting modern sensibilities.

During a few nights in a not-sleeping-very-well period, I devoured Tessa Hadley’s new book, “Late In The Day.” Now I want to revisit it. Of all her books I love, it stands out – contemporary London, interesting people, complicated marriages, and Hadley’s pinpoint prose.

In a Guardian interview, Hadley, said that one of the most satisfying aspects of the book for her is the character of Christine who is sustained by her art when her marriage falls apart. Hadley said: “I was thinking about how I feel about work and its importance, and I was pouring that into writing about her and her painting.” Hadley also speaks of her own late success as a novelist, “after all those years of writing between the school run and doing the laundry,” and her plan to “continue writing about people just getting on with the business of living.”

But – of all these wonderful books – the standout is a recent recommendation from Mrs. Hughes, Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing.” It’s the story of Kya, a six-year old abandoned – first by her mother and eventually by all her family – in the shack where they lived in the North Carolina coastal marshlands.

Never have I rooted so hard for a heroine, wanting her to make it. I relished the totally unfamiliar setting of the marsh, byways of water overhung with Spanish moss, glades of sunshine and tumbledown shelters, herons and gulls. Kya, as she grows up alone, becomes part of the flora and fauna of her marsh home – her desires and longings much the same as the animals and insects around her. Mocked by the other students, she attends school for just one day, but another marsh dweller teaches her to read – and reading saves her, opens her world and makes her a scientist and artist. Steeped in the heat and humidity of her surroundings, the book is suspenseful and romantic and amazing.

Thankful for books!

 

Kinds of Courage

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage. So I noticed when Bill Nighy, a character in the movie made from Penelope Fitzgerald’s book, “The Bookshop,” told the heroine, the young widow Florence: “You possess the trait I admire above all in a person – courage.”

Florence has a courage born of her essential goodness, her tolerant nature, her assumption that others are as kind and accepting, as she is. But the residents of the village where she sets up her new bookshop in an old house are not, and she faces petty-minded meanness meant to defeat her. The movie tries for a little redemption lacking in the book, but this is Penelope Fitzgerald, and the story captures a moment, a place, and particular people.

To me, this movie was perfect, but I am in a distinct minority. A friend thought it wasn’t good, another said the reviews were terrible. (I’d be so curious what you thought if anyone watched, it’s streaming on Amazon.) The cast is stellar – in addition to Nighy, Patricia Clarkson is the softest-spoken evildoer ever, nearly whispering her potent threats. And Emily Mortimer as Florence, wounded by the death of her beloved husband, brims with the courage and enthusiasm of a new venture. Courage calls to mind wonderful words – pluck, mettle, spunk, spirit – those are Florence.

So one can have courage in the face of emotional or physical pain or in the case of Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, as told in her memoir, “The Salt Path” – in the face of both. The Winns are an ordinary couple in their 50s with children in college, living in a house they’ve restored in Wales with rental cottages providing their income. And then, in nearly unimaginable circumstances, through a bad investment and a failed legal case, they find themselves losing the property. Hoping the marshal come to evict them will leave, they huddle in a closet under the stairs, and Raynor’s eyes fall on a book at the top of a box – Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path around Cornwall.

Their next blow comes just days later when Moth receives a terminal diagnosis of corticobasal degeneration. And so, why not, they embark to walk the coastal path (it makes a sort of desperate sense) – a 630-mile trail stretching over headlands rising above the Atlantic, dropping to sandy coves, and repeating – again and again and again. They walk through blistering heat and rain, “shards, thundering against waterproofs,” heavy pounding rain, a drumroll without conclusion,” rain – furious and horizontal,” “sheets of grey falling from cloud to sea, a visible cycle of water.” Campgrounds being out of financial reach, they sleep “rough,” surviving on noodles and rice, and the occasional kindness of strangers.

The book is a meditation on homelessness (they learn to not reveal that fact to people), and fine writing about their experiences and about the natural world – dolphins, sea birds, and seals, cliffs, hedgerows, and weather – in this most beautiful area (Poldark country). I loved this hard-to-put-down memoir of courageous survival and growth.

A Spiral Story and A Book of Good Cheer

At the print shop last week to copy our Christmas card, the woman helping me said, “It’s begun – the holiday rush!” I commented that time seems to go more quickly every year, and she told me that a friend of hers says a life is like a spiral. In youth, at the big outer edge, time goes slowly, in the middle of the coil, years seem of similar duration for a long time, but then, as one slips into the center, the circles are smaller, and hence faster and faster. Maybe this is a commonplace – but was new to me and seems spot on.

So, for this rapidly disappearing year, one last book. On my recent birthday I received the perfect gift book: “Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You” by Lin-Manuel Miranda (the genius behind and star of the musical, “Hamilton”). In short word salutations for each day (originally written for Twitter), Miranda channels Dr. Seuss and his own sweet soul. Page spreads feature a morning greeting on the left and an evening salute on the right, and the book is filled with charming pen illustrations by Jonny Sun. In an introductory poem, Miranda describes how the book came to be:

 

…Then we sat down together and made this;

It’s the book that you hold in your hands.

You can open it at any moment or page

With the hope you find something that lands…

 

I find lots to land and make me smile.

A Happy Solstice to you at the end of the week – the season turns toward the light!

“Snap” and “Station Eleven”

Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel, “Station Eleven,” set 20 years after a pandemic decimates most of the population and infrastructure of the United States, follows a band of survivors as they wander the Great Lakes region by horse and wagon. They stage Shakespeare plays in what’s left of small towns – some hostile, some welcoming. We go back in time to see the creation of a graphic novel (also “Station Eleven”) now treasured by survivors, and meet the characters when their world was intact.

Suspenseful and respectful of both characters and culture, and the need for connection and creativity, St. John said about her book, “There’s something about art I think that can remind us of our humanity. It could remind us of our civilization. So that line became almost the thesis statement of the entire novel.”

In “Snap,” by Belinda Bauer, civilization remains – but a boy’s world ends. I was hooked from the very beginning, when the pregnant mother of Jack, Joy, and baby Merry, leaves them in their broken-down car by the side of a road while she goes to find a phone box. She never comes back, and the family is so devastated, the father gives up and also disappears.

When his mother left the car, she told Jack, 11, that he’s “in charge.” And three years later – when the book takes up with the children again – he truly is. Jack’s turned cat burglar to provide for his sisters, and they pretend to the outside world that the family is intact to avoid Social Services. Jack’s determination to discover what happens to his mother fuels the plot. Insightful about grief and family and leavened with love, the book is also a terrific mystery story.

With both these books, where richly imagined characters form new worlds after the ending of the known, readers reap the rewards.

Reservoir 13 and Solar Bones

The Irish writer Mike McCormak structures his novel, “Solar Bones,” as one long sentence without the familiar little dots (periods for us, full-stops for the British), affording the reader a microsecond of rest. Nor does he use commas or paragraph indents, and he only capitalizes proper and place names, and the all-important “I” of the narrator. But that one book-length sentence doesn’t bring on breathlessness, the story reads the way we think.

Set in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, the book takes place on one day, November 2nd, All Souls Day, when prayers are said for the dead. It begins with the narrator’s uneasy feelings while alone in an empty house, and ranges far through the kind of inner narration, when you are “…caught up in that sort of reverie which has only a tangential connection to what you were thinking of….”

Often McCormak sets apart clusters of words related only in sound and richness:

“ploughs, harrows and scufflers

pounds, shillings and pence”

or,     “man and machine

same as they were.”

McCormak’s language pulled me along to discover the source of that uneasy feeling, revealed by the end when the book comes to a full stop – without a period.

“Reservoir 13,” by Jon McGregor, also contains a richness of words I love – and an unconventional structure. It’s told over a period of years by an unnamed omniscient narrator who knows all about a small village in England. At the book’s beginning, a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca has gone missing, and at first it seems a mystery story, the absence of the young girl is present in each villager’s story.

That missing-person carrot propels the reader through chapters full of long, unbroken-by-paragraph sections where scenes and characters change with a double space. New chapters begin at the new year, “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks in the rain, and thunder in the next valley.” And seasons are traced by the natural world, “The clocks went forward and the evenings opened out.” “In May the reservoirs were low and the river slowly carried a scrim of weed to the weirs.” “In August the weather kept up.”

The narrator conveys the gossipy nature of a little village, sounding like the village itself speaking when describing a newcomer: “He had a sullen look about him. There were tattoos.” Or judging an unfamiliar garden design: “It looked more like an allotment than a front garden and there were some who thought words should be had.”

This tale really works – prolonging the mystery with red herrings, while bringing the whole village, its setting and its people, to life.

Tales of Two Lives Each: Rebecca Mead and Nell Stevens

A certain kind of book these days combines literary history and memoir, and investigates the importance of renowned novels from the past to readers today. Rebecca Mead did this in 2014 with “My Life in Middlemarch,” which intersperses her personal story with biographical details about George Eliot, and provides an enriching look at “Middlemarch.” Mead has read “Middlemarch” countless times over the years, finding treasures anew each time. I’ve read it just twice – and loved reading Mead’s book to help me make even more of it.

Mead, born in England, recently wrote in The New Yorker (“The Return of the Native”) that after decades in this country and becoming a citizen, she would return to the UK – to London. She writes about what America has meant to her since she came here, first as a graduate student, then a journalist, and describes the decision as “wrenching.” Her life reminds me of many English novel heroines, especially the ones who long to write – beginnings in a provincial town, hard-working student, Oxford, The New Yorker – an enviable trajectory fueled by love of books.

I’m a Rebecca Mead fan – always glad to see her byline. This article movingly sums up the last two decades – 9/11, Mead’s adventurous career, marriage and motherhood, the joy of Obama’s election and the despair of the more recent one – and I could feel her apprehensive excitement about the move to London (a friend, when I forwarded the article, said “I wish I also had a British citizenship.”) I’m happy for Mead – she will give her son the experience of a different culture and remove the ocean that’s separated her from her mother for so many years. And I’m eager for her to write about London as a local.

She left me a departing gift – a review of Nell Stevens’s “The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and Friendship Across Time.” It’s a book I might have missed about Elizabeth Gaskell, the 19th C novelist best known simply as Mrs. Gaskell, a favorite of mine.

Stevens’s book combines a time in her own life with that of a little-known part of Gaskell’s life (an unrequited but intense romance). Mead describes the result best: “…a gentle satire on the ways of academia… coupled with a painfully credible account of late-twenties love, freighted with all its unanswerable questions about the future.”

When I was an English major back in the days of text only (the novel itself contained all that needed knowing), to read about an author’s life was somehow illicit. Virginia Woolf wrote that “The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in other professions,” and now I feel a frisson of excitement at peeking into the lives, houses and companions surrounding those women authors who penned such long-lasting books.

And it’s a great pleasure to have tales of those lives told alongside the contemporary lives of two masterful writers!

 

Books: What Are You Reading?

Sometimes a book can confound and enchant at the same time, puzzling, but catching me up with a flurry of images made from words. I closed Ali Smith’s “Autumn: A Novel (Seasonal Quartet)” – the first in a proposed series of post-Brexit novels – in awe. But I’m hard-pressed to explain why I loved it so much.

“Autumn” moves between its two main characters at different times in their lives. Elisabeth and Daniel meet when she is eight, and he is a grown up neighbor of Elisabeth and her mother. The unlikely pair become “lifetime friends,” sharing a love of walking and talking, books and art. Daniel has “arty art” (new to Elisabeth) in his house; Elisabeth becomes a junior lecturer in the history of art at a London university. Always, when they encounter one another, Daniel’s greeting is: “what are you reading?”

Smith’s wordplay is fun. She echoes Dickens when describing the day after the Brexit vote (going on like this for pages): “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”

It’s a novel of politics – Jo Cox and Christine Keeler appear – set in a particular season: “The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.”

We first meet Elisabeth in the midst of a crazy-making attempt at renewing her passport, suffering the painful absurdity of a clerk’s bureaucratic obtuseness: first, the passport photo is too small, then, in the next photo, Elisabeth’s eyes are too small.

We get to enjoy Elisabeth’s mother, furious with the government and the construction of a strange SUV and barbed wire protected enclosure that walls off historically common land near her village. We learn much about the fascinating Pop artist Pauline Boty (new to me so I looked up her paintings so often described in this book: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/22/ali-smith-the-prime-of-pauline-boty).

When Elisabeth reunites with Daniel, she is 32, he is 101 and living in the Maltings Care Providers facility, in an “increased sleep period,” which the caretakers claim is a precursor to death. But on weekly visits, Elisabeth reads to him, and eventually Daniel wakes and asks, “what are you reading?”

Such a good greeting.