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.

“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.

“Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje

Everybody is busy with preparations for the Thanksgiving meal or important parts of it, hosting or traveling – and time is short. So I’ll quickly write of one book (and add a couple of the little watercolors).

“Warlight” joins Michael Ondaatje’s, “The English Patient” (way up on my list of favorite books ever), in making me reach for words like magical, murky, puzzling, beautiful, enthralling. The one word title “Warlight,” refers to the ambient light during a wartime blackout:

     We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as  the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were  in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.

but it also describes Ondaatje’s prose and complex story – you don’t see with clear light, but see enough.

The novel begins in 1945 London at the war’s ending. Fourteen-year old Nathaniel and his older sister have been left in the care of an elusive character they call “The Moth,” while their parents leave for the Far East. Or do they? Set in 1959, the second part of the book tells of the attempts by Nathaniel (now grown and working in the Foreign Office) to unravel the mysteries of his mother’s wartime years.

I love to read Ondaatje for his way with words and sometimes puzzling words: “printless foot” and “nightingale floor,” his plots full of unrelated events (perhaps intertwined), and his intriguing characters. The children’s guardian, The Moth, is probably a thief, The Darter smuggles greyhounds on the River Thames, and Marsh Felon, a roof thatcher who broke his hip in a fall, now climbs the roofs of Oxford’s Trinity College by night (and may be connected to Nathaniel’s mother).

But see, I meant to be short and Marsh Felon is only just a part of this fine, totally engaging novel of spies, secrets, and memory.

 

I wish you such a good holiday of giving thanks – celebrating with family, friends, and food in abundance!

The Naming of Things

These days I move furniture around rooms in the new house using a marginally accurate graph paper drawing or a map in my head. The rooms have pragmatic by-purpose names.

By labeling book boxes to indicate destination, I hope to direct the movers to the bookcases on the landing, in the living room, or my workroom (more a space than a room). The upstairs bedroom will be my husband’s study, a guest room, and the television space (known in some circles as an adult lounge). For now I write “upstairs bedroom” on the boxes.

And there are so many boxes of books – my new neighbor came one afternoon, and we filled 19 boxes, a number since doubled. Piled up in stacks, they surround little islands of ever-shrinking comfortable regular life.

In a recent adjustment to my mental map, Granny Trudy’s desk will go on the landing. My father-in-law shipped it to us in Alaska, and it became the place for family business. The slanted, drop down desktop made a good place to write checks, back when we paid bills with paper.

Thinking about that desk being forever Granny Trudy’s desk made me consider how families identify things. We had “Jake’s cabinet” in the house in Anchorage, glass-fronted shelves with drawers below, built long ago by Jake the carpenter. In that house, ownership of bedrooms shifted around so many times that names changed frequently (sometimes rooms are identified by cardinal direction no matter who occupies the south bedroom).

A wicker chair, always Frances’s chair, is now downstairs, substituting for an armchair gone to a clever seamstress to be slipcovered. Inspired by Mrs. Hughes’ advice and the designer Anna Spiro, the newly covered-in-ticking chair might be called after Spiro or maybe Simone for the seamstress!

Traces of the past will remain in the garden nomenclature here – the Buffalito bed, the bride’s garden, the quad garden. Front and back of this house has always been difficult to label – is the front toward the drive or toward the bluff? There is a clear front to the new house, car parked right near the front door.

Some impulse to fill the new house in comforting familiarity operates on me, but it is countered by reminders to enjoy the chance to rearrange – and rename!

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.