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.

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.