“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.

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.

 

Recalled To Life – Spirits Rising!

So, one can take a mid-winter break, thinking it would mean time to plan some artists’ books, and time definitely for dostadning. And then life can intervene. Everyone else recovered from the Christmas cold in good order, I morphed into pneumonia again.

It was a long blur of a month, much time with Frances (she does love a body with fever), staring at the Strait sullen with rain or whipped into whitecaps by a northwest wind that fretted the firs – and feeling awful.

The kindness of family and friends sustained me – and books. Books from Christmas, books miraculously downloaded onto my Kindle at 2 a.m., used books ordered and delivered – always attempting to stay ahead of any emptiness in the book pile. One book segued into another – many fine, challenging, beautiful, absorbing books.

I am so grateful to be tentatively recalled to life, not taking it for granted for sure (having screwed up last week into a relapse), but wanting very much to rejoin the world. I hope to write here about my January reading and to make February a month of books (and spring flowers from the archive).

Thank you for coming back to read here. I hope you’ll like some of these books. Here’s to February!