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: 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.

 

“Dostadning” – Death Cleaning

A friend recently hired a professional to help organize her house, not because she was downsizing, but because, as the expert suggested, she needed to “right size.” My friend liked this guidance through finding order in her home, discarding and shredding some things, repositioning others.

So there’s a word for such activity in Sweden – the country of hygge brings us dostadning, a word which combines death and cleaning – not scrubbing the bathtub, but a gradual, before death clearing out of possessions. According to the buzz of articles surrounding artist Margarita Magnasson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How To Free Yourself From a Lifetime of Clutter,” dostadning is a common practice in Sweden.

The book won’t be released until January 2 but this Washington Post article gives the flavor (don’t miss the video of Magnasson encountering her daughter’s storage unit). Magnasson says this is an ongoing endeavor, suggests 65 as an appropriate age to begin, but admits it’s never finished.

Billed as not so rigid as the KonMari approach (you know what she’d do, making quick work of everything with black plastic trash bags), I’m curious about Magnasson’s method of dealing with copious, accumulated “stuff” in a house.

Because Magnasson is an artist I wonder if she addresses the particular muddle created by art-making, the tools and supplies, but also sketchbooks, drawings, unloved paintings that might live under some of our staircases (not naming any names or making any admissions).

Few words are less enthusiastically embraced than death and cleaning, so I do admit that reading this book – even writing about it before publication (!) – might be just another way to avoid actually doing the dostadning!

 

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Armchair Series – Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman often paints chairs, “Comfy Chair” depicts a warm-pink wingback with doilies, and she illustrated the book, “Lucky, Plucky Chairs” by Rolf Fehlbaum, told from the chairs’ point of view. From a Design*Sponge story I learned that Maira Kalman’s New York apartment has white slip-covered armchairs on a black and white rug, in a white room (except for art and treasured collections). Her exuberant paintings come from a tranquil, blank-canvas living space.

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Secrets and the Novels of Tana French

In the last few years TV detective series have often filled our evenings – “The Fall,” The Killing,” “Jack Taylor,” “Happy Valley.” There is something silent about these procedurals – you have to guess what’s going on in the minds of complicated detectives with craggy or beautiful, always expressive faces.

But we get inner narration by observant detectives in Tana French’s “The Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries.” These books are mysteries for sure, but even more they tell of place (Ireland) and the doings of complex characters.

In the first book, “In The Woods,” murder detective, Rob Ryan, investigates a crime that takes place near the woods where, when he was 12, he was traumatized and his two best friends disappeared forever. Memories and secrets from that mystery impinge on the present.

The woods are central, “I remembered, too, the three of us finding a secret garden, somewhere in the heart of the wood. Behind some hidden wall or doorway, it had been. Fruit trees run wild, apple, cherry pear: broken marble fountains, trickles of water still bubbling along tracks green with moss and worn deep into the stone; great ivy-draped statues in every corner feet wild with weeds, arms and heads cracked away and scattered among long grass and Queen Anne’s lace. Gray dawn light, the swish of our feet and dew on our bare legs.”

Characters appear in one book and float into the next (six so far). Cassie Maddox, Rob’s partner, becomes the protagonist of the second book, “The Likeness.” She goes undercover to join a group of students living in an old house – the house nearly a character in the book. Years later Cassie still dreams of it: “The house is always empty. The bedrooms are bare and bright, only my footsteps echoing off the floorboards, circling up through the sun and the dust motes to the high ceilings. Smell of wild hyacinths, drifting through the wide-open windows, and of beeswax polish. Chips of white paint flaking off the window sashes and a tendril of ivy swaying in over the sill. Wood doves, lazy somewhere outside.”

And it’s Ireland – where wind blows “rain-spatter in your face…,” the economic bubble has burst, but the language is still rich. French gives us bucolic rural settings and Dublin’s police headquarters, all modern garish office spaces inside, and then outside: “…old, ornate red brick and marble with battlements and turrets and worn carvings of saints in unexpected places. In winter, on foggy evenings, crossing the cobblestones is like walking through Dickens – hazy old streetlamps throwing odd-angled shadows, bells pealing in the cathedrals nearby, every footstep ricocheting into darkness….”

Coincidences and narratives of friendships that mightn’t ring true for every reader occur in these books, but I’ll accept those improbabilities in exchange for the descriptions and the action. And it’s rare to have books both so literate and so deliciously moreish.

Here is winter reading!

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Reading – Winter or Summer

Once, in a conversation with our English friends, our older son described himself as an Anglophile. I was silently tickled. His love differs from mine – he knows British history. He’s a fine resource, if inclined, to sort out Edwards and Henrys and their places in the whole scheme. And like his dad, he’s read so much about Churchill and the history of World War II that he’s a great back up for my literary approach.

Most times when reading I just succumb to this English prejudice. The wordsmith shares this bent, and has a particular fondness for the period just before the First World War. So for anyone who might share our proclivity, here are a couple of books from this winter.

Helen Simonson doesn’t live in the UK anymore, but she grew up in Rye in Sussex, and she returns there in “The Summer Before the War,” the Edwardian summer before war rumor became reality. At first I had doubts about this book because of the seemingly inconsequential village doings: the activities of a forward thinking aunt, her two nephews, and a new schoolteacher. But the very ordinariness of those summer days and predictable, if limited, lives are exactly what’s shattered by the awful reality of war. By the end of the book I appreciated the structure and cared about the characters.

Louis de Bernières’s “The Dust That Falls From Dreams” is an even larger family saga. It’s a lovely fat book that follows four sisters from one family, and the five brothers who live on either side of their large county house south of London. An inseparable group, the nine are young when the book opens and tight in the way of childhood friends.

And then the war happens and affects them all, whether they go as soldiers or nurses or stay on the home front. And when de Bernières brings them home afterwards, they’re changed, and they return to an altered world. Both the wordsmith and I found ourselves stalling toward the end, not wanting to part from this group of characters and the privilege of reading their lives.

Cross the channel quickly and fast forward to the Second World War and an American author for a third possibility. Mrs. Hughes recommended “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah as a great book for a long airplane trip. And it is. Set mostly in occupied France, with romance and adventurous crossings of the Pyrenees, it’s the story of two sisters and the war’s impact on their lives – a tale of German occupation and French resistance. Sometimes scary and sometimes sad, it’s a very satisfying page-turner.

All these books are so readable, so engaging. So perfect for summer.

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“The Past”

A friend who reads for her day job as an editor, but reads much for pleasure as well, spent a spring-hinting-at-summer afternoon lying on her couch in sunshine reading Tessa Hadley’s new book, “The Past.” That would be a delicious way to read this book, but any way would be good to read this or another of Hadley’s fine books.

“The Past” is about four grown up siblings returning to a family home for one last summer holiday. Hadley’s plots and characters are convincing in their complexities and motivations, but I love Hadley for the precise descriptions of ordinary things she uses to build her novels.

Hadley’s word choices sometimes remain just out of reach in my internal dictionary, so I’m glad I read her latest book on my Kindle. Touching the screen enabled me to instantly define: “hieratic,” (of or concerning priests), “propitiate,” (to win or regain the favor of a god, spirit or person by doing something that pleases them), “louche,” (disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way), and “anodyne,” (not likely to provoke dissent or offense). In a paper book I might have guessed at meanings and kept going – and missed out.

Hadley describes a character reading a book: “She kicked off her shoes and after a while she would slip for warmth into that consoling space between the eiderdown and the top blanket.” “Consoling space” seems just right, not in bed or on the bed, but in a space slightly illicit – and so pleasurable.

And this, when a character tries to get a nasty image out of her mind: “The real evening was brimming and steady around her like a counter-argument to horror, its midges swarming and multiplying in the last nooks of yellow sunshine.”

Just as “nooks of yellow sunshine” comfort, ordinary beauty often provides solace. Here in the old garden: “At least it was an afternoon of balmy warmth, its sunlight diffused because the air was dense with seed floss, transparent-winged midges, pollen; light flickered on the grass, and under the silver birch leaf-shadows shifted, blotting their penny-shapes upon one another.

And the old house itself is a strong presence: “…something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.”

Hadley gets the three sisters and their brother as they reunite, “All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.”

Hadley’s words fill this post about her book – and that’s as it should be – they’re terrific.

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