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!

Joy

In the early morning this fall, I often read Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy,” and knew I wanted to write about it at the winter solstice.

McCarthy’s book acknowledges the dire environmental straits we find ourselves in – and issues a plea to our emotions – feelings we have had toward nature for all of our history. For McCarthy “We may have left the natural world, but the natural world has not left us.” It seems a slim hope in this political climate, but he hopes by reconnecting with this part of ourselves, we might be more invested in repairing the damage.

In the first part of the book, McCarthy blends his personal story of loss with the earth’s man-made damage, and it’s painful. But then, in rich chapters, he points out the love and joy we can feel for the natural world, describing human interactions with creatures from butterflies and moths to megafauna.

He tells how he’s found “Joy in the Beauty of the Earth” and “Joy in the Calendar,” the latter through experiencing seasons, migrations, and blossomings – including importantly – the miracle of winter solstice. “The moment when the days stop shortening and start getting longer again, celebrated for millennia.” The words he uses – joy, wonder, love, beauty – are the words we associate with all this season’s celebrations.

In a short, early December trip to Downtown Abbey in climate-changed Anchorage (48° with rain-slicked ice underfoot), Baby Brother charmed me anew. He moves lickety-split on all fours around the house, stops to burst out his big smile, or to pull himself upright to explore more. He has many words, and learned to say “Kay-tee” in the most endearing way.

We got a full-size tree for the living room, and a tiny one for Lady Baby’s bedroom. We cut out and decorated cookies shaped like stars, gingerbread people, and hearts, and read “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Lady Baby demonstrated her new skating skills, flying with speed and strength across the ice at the school’s hockey rink. She was making a menorah with her class, and told me about celebrating all the holidays: “the Jesus one, the Santa one, and Winter Solstice.”

Winter solstice is a calculable moment. It occurs this year on Thursday the 21st of December at 2:23 p.m. – a perfect time to pay attention and rejoice, as we turn toward the light!

The Purple Swamp Hen

Courtesy of the party in power, this weekend was brutal – from criminal behavior verified to the Senate majority’s appalling approval of the cruelest, most unfair tax bill imaginable (to date, I don’t suppose they are finished yet). The news is bury-your-head worthy.

I’ve done a fair bit of that in the past few months, not talking about it here, trying to not give in to feeling completely defeated, trying to remember the title of the blog.

And now the season I like best is nigh! In spite of snow falling on WordPress and changing the header to one of holiday comforts, the spirit eludes me. But, for the little people who don’t know what a muck some adults are making of it, I want to try, even if by avoidance, to make the magic of the season of lights happen – and to enjoy.

I felt better this morning when I turned to my notes about Penelope Lively’s 2016 book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.” I love Lively – all her books – and her presence in this troubled world, her wisdom, her staying power. Lively is in her 80s, has endured the arrows of age, but what imagination and facility in one little volume!

In these stories, Lively plays with narration and narrators, with what people say and what they think: the story “A Biography” is written in a series of interviews as though for a biography, “Point of View” retells the theme of the split pea soup story, and in “License To Kill,” where a 20-something accompanies an 80-something (who used to be a spy) to shop for groceries, the alternating thoughts of each reveal kindnesses and surprises. Using a purple swamp hen as narrator (in a time leading up to the eruption, the hen lives in the garden of a villa in Pompeii) allows Lively to call out comparisons between that “benighted age” and our own.

Oh treat yourself to Lively’s book in these uneasy times – or wrap a copy of this beautiful volume, with its purple bookcloth and cover picture of a purple swamp hen, for a favorite person!

George and Martha and Split Pea Soup

Not the presidential couple, George and Martha, but James Marshall’s expressive hippos from his 1970s book about friendship, “Five Stories About Two Great Friends.” The stories are about privacy, disappointment, vanity, and “what friends are for.” George says, friends “always look on the bright side, and they always know how to cheer you up.” Martha responds with a smile, “But they also tell you the truth.”

“Story Number One: Split Pea Soup,” has always been my favorite. It’s about how to tell a really good friend (or relative) that you don’t like something they cook and continually offer to you.

Martha loves to make split pea soup; George can’t stand it. One day, grown desperate but not wanting to hurt Martha’s feelings, George pours a bowlful of soup into his loafers under the table. From the kitchen Martha spies his maneuver, and says, “Why didn’t you tell me that you hate my split pea soup?” Turns out she doesn’t really like it either, just likes to make it. Now that she knows the truth, she’ll make chocolate chip cookies instead.

Such a situation has always been a “George and Martha” moment at our house. And when our younger son recently admitted he didn’t really like pie, as he was eating a piece of pumpkin pie I had made, I thought of George and Martha – and also of split pea soup, which I love. (I don’t know about our son, I think he’d like chocolate chip cookies to replace all the above.)

In this wintry weather Deborah Madison’s split pea soup is easy and so welcome. Deborah covers one and a half cups of split peas with water and sets aside. She sautés a large diced onion and two diced carrots in two tablespoons of olive oil, until the onion gets some color. Then she adds two cloves of chopped garlic and a quarter cup of chopped parsley, along with herbs (a teaspoon of dried marjoram, a teaspoon of chopped fresh or dried rosemary, a teaspoon of paprika) and fresh pepper.

Next she adds the aromatics: two bay leaves, eight parsley branches, six thyme sprigs together with a teaspoon and a half of salt, the drained peas, and two quarts of stock or water (water works just fine). Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for a long time, until the peas are a comforting, mushy, flavorful, warming bowlful. Remove the aromatics, and add more water if needed.

I’ve made this soup a lot lately, not “pots and pots” “all day long” like Martha, but I sent the book to Sweet Baby so she’ll know about a George and Martha moment. Lady Baby already knows.