“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
When she read my review of As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths, Liz Dexter suggested Wendy Perriam’s books as readalikes and very kindly sent me one to try: The Stillness The Dancing – a title whose lack of punctuation confused me until I discovered that it’s taken from a line of T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”: “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” It took me nearly a year and a half to get around to it, but I’ve finally read my first Perriam (fairly autobiographical, it seems) and found it very striking and worthwhile.
The comparison with the Griffiths turned out to be apt: both are hefty, religion-saturated novels dwelling on themes of purpose, mysticism, asceticism, and the connection between the mind and body, especially when it comes to sex. Perriam’s protagonist is Morna Gordon, a 41-year-old translator. The end of her marriage was nearly as disorienting for her as the loss of her Catholic faith. Occasional chapters spotlight the perspective of the other women in this family line: Morna’s mother, Bea, who’s been a widow for as long as Morna has been alive and finally finds a vocation at an age when most people are retiring; and Morna’s daughter Chris, who’s tasting freedom before starting uni and settling down with her diver boyfriend, Martin.
When Morna accompanies Bea on a week-long religious retreat in the countryside, she meets David Anthony, a younger man she initially assumes is a priest. Here to deliver a lecture on miracles, he’s a shy scholar researching a seventh-century Celtic saint, Abban, who led an austere life on a remote Scottish island. Morna is instantly captivated by David’s intellectual passion, and in lieu of flirting offers to help him with his medieval translations. Still bruised by her divorce, she longs to make a move yet doesn’t want to scare David off. After 14 years of Neil telling her she was frigid, she’s startled to find herself in the role of sexual temptress.
Staid suburban England is contrasted with two very different locales: Saint Abban’s island and the outskirts of Los Angeles, where Morna and Chris travel for a few weeks in January so Chris can spend time with her father and meet his new family: (younger) wife Bunny and Chris’s four-year-old half-brother, Dean. California is “another world completely,” a fever dream of consumerism and excess, and Morna does things that are completely outside her comfort zone, like spending hours submerged in a sensory deprivation tank and breaking down in tears in the middle of Bunny’s women’s consciousness-raising circle.
The differences between England and California are exaggerated for comic effect in a way that reminded me of David Lodge’s Changing Places – but if for Chris it’s all about hedonistic self-expression, for Morna America is more of an existential threat, and she rushes back to be with David. There are several such pivotal moments when Morna flees one existence for another, often accompanied by a time of brain fog: alcohol, sleeping pills or grief disrupt her normal thought processes, as reflected in choppy, repetitive sentences.
I bristled slightly at the melodramatic nature of the final 60 pages, unsure to what extent the ending should be seen as altering the book’s overall message: Morna is denied a full transformation, but it seems she’s still on the spiritual path towards detachment from material things. Though still a lapsed Catholic, she finds some fresh meaning in the Church’s history and rituals. As her mother and daughter both embark on their new lives, her ongoing task is to figure out who she is apart from the connections that have defined her for so many years.
My favorite parts of the novel, not surprisingly, were Morna’s internal monologue – and her conversations with David – about faith and doubt. Perhaps I wasn’t wholeheartedly convinced that all the separately enjoyable components fit together, or that all the strands were fully followed through, but it’s an exuberant as well as a meditative work and I will certainly seek out more from Perriam.
Some favorite lines:
(Morna thinks) “If one had been exhorted all one’s girlhood to live for God alone, then how could one have purpose if He vanished?”
David: “I know our society shies away from any type of self-denial, regards it as neurotic or obsessional, but I disagree with that. Anything worth having is worth suffering for.”
Morna: “Are you still a Catholic? I know you said you believed in God, but that’s not the same, is it?” / David: “I’m still redefining all my terms. That can take a lifetime.”
Author note: Wendy Perriam’s name was completely new to me, though this was her 11th novel. Now in her 70s, she is still publishing fiction, with a crime novel released in 2017.
Page count: 536
Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge was the highlight of my 20 Books of Summer last year. I was thus delighted to hear that her second novel, The Flight Portfolio, nearly a decade in the making, was coming out this year, and even more thrilled to receive the review copy I requested while staying at my mother’s in America.
The Invisible Bridge was the saga of a Hungarian Jewish family’s experiences in the Second World War; while The Flight Portfolio again charts the rise of Nazism and a growing awareness of Jewish extermination, it’s a very different though equally affecting narrative. Its protagonist is a historical figure, Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated journalist who founded the Emergency Rescue Committee to help at-risk artists and writers escape to the United States from France, and many of the supporting characters are also drawn from real life.
In 1940, when Varian is 32, he travels to Marseille to coordinate the ERC’s operations on the ground. Every day his office interviews 60 refugees and chooses 10 to recommend to the command center in New York City. Varian and his staff arrange bribes, fake passports, and exit visas to get Jewish artists out of the country via the Pyrenees or various sea routes. Their famous clients include Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, André Gide and members of Thomas Mann’s family, all of whom make cameo appearances.Police raids and deportation are constant threats, but there is still joy – and absurdity – to be found in daily life, especially thanks to Breton and the other Surrealists who soon share Varian’s new headquarters at Villa Air-Bel (which you can tour virtually here). They host dinner parties – one in the nude – based around games and spectacles, even when wartime food shortages mean there’s little besides foraged snails or the goldfish from the pond to eat.
Like The Invisible Bridge, The Flight Portfolio is a love story, if not in the way you might expect. Soon after he arrives in Marseille, Varian is contacted by a Harvard friend – and ex-lover – he hasn’t heard from in 12 years, Elliott Grant. Grant begs Varian to help him find his Columbia University teaching colleague’s son and get him out of Europe. Even though Varian doesn’t understand why Grant is so invested in Tobias Katznelson, he absorbs the sense of urgency. As Varian and Grant renew their clandestine affair, Tobias’s case becomes a kind of microcosm of the ERC’s work. Amid layers of deception, it stands as a symbol of the value of one human life. Varian gradually comes to accept that he can’t save everyone, but maybe if he can save Tobias he’ll win Grant back.
Nearly eighty years on, this plot strand still feels perfectly timely. Varian is married to Eileen and has been passing for straight, yet he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a homosexual hiding behind marriage to a woman. In fact, the novel makes it plain that Varian was bisexual; he truly loved Eileen, but Grant was the love of his life. Can he face the truth and find courage to live as he truly is? The same goes for Grant, who has an additional secret. Orringer’s Author’s Note, at the end of the book, explains how much of this is historical and how much is made up, and what happened next for Varian. I’ll let you discover it for yourself.The Flight Portfolio didn’t sweep me away quite as fully as The Invisible Bridge did, perhaps because the litany of refugee cases and setbacks over the course of the novel’s one-year chronology verges on overwhelming. I also had only a vague impression of most of Varian’s colleagues, and there are a few too many Mantel-esque “he, Varian”-type constructions to clarify which male character is acting.
On the whole, though, this is historical fiction at its best. It conveys how places smell and sound with such rich detail. The sorts of descriptive passages one skims over in other books are so gorgeous and evocative here that they warrant reading two or even three times. The story of an accidental hero torn between impossible choices is utterly compelling. I’m convinced, if I wasn’t already, that Julie Orringer is among our finest living writers, and this is my top novel of 2019 so far.
Two favorite passages:
“If we could pin down the moments when our lives bifurcate into before and after—if we could pause the progression of millisecond, catch ourselves at the point before we slip over the precipice—if we could choose to remain suspended in time-amber, our lives intact, our hearts unbroken, our foreheads unlined, our nights full of undisturbed sleep—would we slip, or would we choose the amber?”
“Evening was falling, descending along the Val d’Huveaune like a shadow cloak, like a tissue-thin eyelid hazed with veins. Varian stood at the open window, dressing for dinner; Grant, at the harpsichord downstairs, conjured a Handel suite for the arriving guests. … From outside came the scent of sage and wet earth; a rainstorm had tamped down the afternoon’s dust, and the mistral blew across the valley. A nightingale lit in the medlar tree beneath the window and launched into variegated song. It occurred to Varian that the combination of voices below … made a music soon to be lost forever.”
Page count: 562
With thanks to Knopf for the free copy for review.
Next month: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Annabel and I did a buddy read of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; at 636 pages, it worked out to roughly 21 pages a day for the whole month of May. As I went along I summarized each day’s reading on Twitter, so to make things super-easy for myself, especially while I’m away in the States, I’ve put this post together as a collection of tweets.
There’s a lot of plot summary here, and perhaps some spoilers, so if you plan to read the novel you might not want to read too closely. I’ve set out my more general reactions in bold.
6:12 am – 1 May 2019
Kavalier & Clay, #1: Oct. 1939. Teen cousins Sam (American) and Josef (Czech) meet up in Brooklyn. Both dream of fame and fortune, Josef through drawing; Sam through any old scheme. Lots of ref’s to illusionists. Great adjectives and metaphors. Reminds me of The Invisible Bridge.
(Coincidentally, while I was at the Wellcome Collection yesterday I browsed their current exhibit on magic and illusions and there was a vintage Houdini poster advertising one of his famous escapes.)
K&C, #2: Flashback to Josef’s illusionist training under Bernard Kornblum c. 1935. Goaded by his little brother, Thomas, Josef practiced a Houdini-style underwater escape after jumping off a bridge tied up in a laundry bag. Disaster nearly ensued. Madcap and sobering all at once.
K&C, #3: Josef escapes Prague in a coffin housing a golem [animated humanoid figure made of clay]. He has a premonition of the horror to come for the Jews. Close shaves, but he makes it to Brooklyn — as we already know. Looking forward to getting back to NYC and Sam in Part II.
K&C, #4: Brief history of comics in America. Superman was a watershed in 1938. Sam pitches an idea to half-dressed boss Sheldon Anapol and shows Joe’s quick sketch of a golem-like hero. Though skeptical, he decides to give them the weekend to come up with a complete 12-page comic.
K&C, #5: Sam enlists the Glovsky brothers to work for him. We get the story of his late father, a vaudeville strong man named ‘The Mighty Molecule’. Joe breaks into locked premises with a flourish, inspiring The Escapist. Over 1/6 through! Hankering for a proper female character.
K&C, #6: Well, we got a female, Rosa Luxembourg Saks, but so far she hasn’t said a word and is only an object of the male gaze. J draws her nude for $3. My interest waned in Ch. 8 as S and J develop a backstory for The Escapist. He is to free the oppressed with his Golden Key.
K&C, #7: With 5 helpers, S&J pull all-nighters to piece together a 1st issue of Masked Men with mult. 12-pp stories. J draws the Escapist punching Hitler for the cover. Anapol makes them a good offer but wants a new cover. It’s a deal breaker; S&J walk out. Great period dialogue.
K&C, #8: Part III, Oct. 1940. Empire Comics is a phenomenon. Anapol is now so rich he bought a house in FL. Joe toils away at his violent, audacious scenes and pesters the German consulate re: his family. After some bad news, he decides to move to Montreal so he can join the RAF.
K&C, #9: Joe has 2nd thoughts re: RAF. He now seems to cross paths with every pugilistic German in the city. He stumbles on the offices of the “Aryan-American League,” breaks in and learns that he has in Carl Ebling a fan in spite of himself. Sure I’ve heard that name before…
K&C, #10: Joe is so confident a ‘bomb’ on 25th fl. of Empire State Bldg is a bluff by his nemesis, Ebling, that he chains himself to his desk to keep working. S&J realize how foolish it was to sell rights to the Escapist: they won’t make a penny on the upcoming radio adaptation.
K&C, #11: S&J attend a party at which Salvador Dali is in a breathing apparatus. Rosa reappears, saying the F word. She’s empathetic re: J’s family. J plays the hero and saves Dali when he runs out of oxygen. Rosa invites him up to see her paintings (not a euphemism — I think!).
K&C, #12 (catch-up): Rosa paints still lifes and has a room full of moths, a sort of family plague. She sets Joe’s dislocated finger and, via her work for the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, may be able to help him save his brother. They share a kiss before Sam interrupts them.
K&C, #13: Rosa’s boss agrees to help Joe if he pays 3x the regular fare for Thomas … and is the magician for his son’s bar mitzvah. Joe’s new idea for a sexy female superhero is inspired by a Luna moth. He and Sam try to bargain for a greater share of the rights to their work.
K&C, #14-15 (somehow got ahead!): 1941. S&J so rich they don’t know what to do with the $. Sharing apt. with Rosa, who keeps trying to find S a girlfriend. J is performing magic at parties; S is writing a novel, takes a radio actor auditioning for Escapist home to Shabbos dinner.
Some general thoughts at the halfway point, while I’m ahead: delighted to have a solid female character in Rosa, and more interiority with Sam in Part IV. (There are also intriguing hints about his sexuality.) Chabon is an exuberant writer; the novel could definitely be shorter.
K&C, #16: Joe is carrying around an unopened letter from his mother. At one of his bar mitzvah magician gigs, Ebling attacks him with an explosive and both incur minor injuries. The letter mysteriously disappears…
K&C, #17: Sam is a volunteer plane spotter for the war effort, giving him a vantage point high above NYC. Actor Tracy Bacon surprises him by joining him up there at 1 a.m. one day. Literal sparks fly.
K&C, #18: Sam meets Orson Welles, whose “Citizen Kane” is a huge influence on the lads’ work — they want to write for adults more than kids now. Tracy accompanies Sam to his favorite place in NYC: the site of the former World’s Fair. (Traveling tomorrow but will catch up soon.)
Sigh. I hugely lost momentum after we arrived in the States on Sunday. I’ve caught up, but (confession time) have had to do a lot of skimming. I find the dialogue a lot more engaging than the expository prose, unfortunately.
K&C #19-25: Awful news about the ship bearing Joe’s brother. Both Joe and Rosa decide to take drastic action. Carl Ebling is imprisoned for 12 years for the bar mitzvah bombing. J is stationed near the Antarctic as a radioman. JUMP to 1954, with S raising a 12yo kid named Tommy.
K&C, #26: We realize Sam and Rosa have formed an unusual family with her child Tommy, who’s learning magic tricks from Joe, who makes a failed jump…
K&C wrap-up: Joe’s living in the Empire State Building, writing a novel about a golem. Anapol kills off the Escapist. In ’54, Sam appears at a televised hearing about whether comic books create delinquents. He decides to start over in CA, leaving Joe, Rosa and Tommy a family of 3
K&C wrap-up (cont.): I did occasional skimming starting at ~p. 120 and mostly skimmed from p. 400 onwards, so I’ve marked the whole thing as ‘skimmed’ rather than ‘read’. Slightly disappointed with myself for lacking staying power, but I do think the book overlong.
The action should have been condensed, rather than sprawling over 15 years. I often lost patience with the expository prose and wanted more scenes and dialogue. It took too long for Rosa to appear, and too long to get initiated into Sam’s private life.
However, Chabon does have some wonderful turns of phrase. Here’s a few faves. “The view out the windows was pure cloud bank, a gray woolen sock pulled down over the top of the building.”
“Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dust on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom.”
“Sammy felt that he was standing on the border of something wonderful, a land where wild cataracts of money and the racing river of his own imagination would, at last, lift his makeshift little raft and carry it out to the boundless freedom of the open sea.”
My favorite passage of all: “Dinner was a fur muff, a dozen clothespins, and some old dish towels boiled up with carrots. The fact that the meal was served with a bottle of prepared horseradish enabled Sammy to conclude that it was intended to pass for braised short ribs of beef”
I also discovered that Chabon coined a word in the novel: “aetataureate,” meaning related to a golden age. It’s a good indication of the overall tone.
The other doorstopper I finished reading this month was Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge. I had heard about this Unbound release before, but my interest was redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the RSL Ondaatje Prize. Although I was initially intimidated by the heft of the 600+-page hardback that came through my door for review, I found that I could easily settle into the rhythm and – provided I had no distractions – read 40 or 50 pages of it at a sitting.
As an elderly woman in Gloucestershire in the 1880s, Mary Ann Sate looks back at the events of the 1820s and 1830s, a time of social turmoil and upheaval in the family for whom she worked as a servant. Writing is a compulsion and a form of confession for her. The book has no punctuation, not even apostrophes, and biblical allusions, spelling errors, archaisms and local pronunciation (such as “winder” for window and “zummer” for summer) make it feel absolutely true to the time period and to the narrator’s semi-literate status.
There are no rhymes in this free verse epic, but occasionally Mary Ann comes out with some alliteration, perhaps incidental, or particularly poetic lines (“The road ahead unravel / Like a spool of canary thread / Taking me always away”) that testify to her gifts for storytelling and language, even though she made her living by manual labor for some seven decades.
The manner of the telling makes this a unique work of historical fiction, slightly challenging but very worthwhile. I would particularly recommend it to fans of Jane Harris’s The Observations.
Next month’s plan: The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam, passed on to me by Liz Dexter.
April was something of a lackluster case for my two monthly challenges: two slightly disappointing books were partially read (and partially skimmed), and two more that promise to be more enjoyable were not finished in time to review in full.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)
When Hazel Motes, newly released from the Army, arrives back in Tennessee, his priorities are to get a car and to get laid. In contrast to his preacher grandfather, “a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger,” he founds “The Church Without Christ.” Heaven, hell and sin are meaningless concepts for Haze; “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything,” he declares. But his vociferousness belies his professed indifference. He’s particularly invested in exposing Asa Hawkes, a preacher who vowed to blind himself, but things get complicated when Haze is seduced by Hawkes’s 15-year-old illegitimate daughter, Sabbath – and when his groupie, eighteen-year-old Enoch Emery, steals a shrunken head from the local museum and decides it’s just the new Jesus this anti-religion needs. O’Connor is known for her very violent and very Catholic vision of life. In a preface she refers to this, her debut, as a comic novel, but I found it bizarre and unpleasant and only skimmed the final two-thirds after reading the first 55 pages.
In progress: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959) – I love to read ‘on location’ when I can, so this was a perfect book to start during a weekend when I visited Stroud, Gloucestershire for the first time.* Lee was born in Stroud and grew up there and in the neighboring village of Slad. I’m on page 65 and it’s been a wonderfully evocative look at a country childhood. The voice reminds me slightly of Gerald Durrell’s in his autobiographical trilogy.
*We spent one night in Stroud on our way home from a short holiday in Devon so that I could see The Bookshop Band and member Beth Porter’s other band, Marshes (formerly Beth Porter and The Availables) live at the Prince Albert pub. It was a terrific night of new songs and old favorites. I also got to pick up my copy of the new Marshes album, When the Lights Are Bright, which I supported via an Indiegogo campaign, directly from Beth.
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas (2017)
Joan Ashby’s short story collection won a National Book Award when she was 21 and was a bestseller for a year; her second book, a linked story collection, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In contravention of her childhood promise to devote herself to her art, she marries Martin Manning, an eye surgeon, and is soon a mother of two stuck in the Virginia suburbs. Two weeks before Daniel’s birth, she trashes a complete novel. Apart from a series of “Rare Babies” stories that never circulate outside the family, she doesn’t return to writing until both boys are in full-time schooling. When younger son Eric quits school at 13 to start a computer programming business, she shoves an entire novel in a box in the garage and forgets about it.
Queasy feelings of regret over birthing parasitic children – Daniel turns out to be a fellow writer (of sorts) whose decisions sap Joan’s strength – fuel the strong Part I, which reminded me somewhat of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in that the protagonist is trying, and mostly failing, to reconcile the different parts of her identity. However, this debut novel is indulgently long, and I lost interest by Part III, in which Joan travels to Dharamshala, India to reassess her relationships and career. I skimmed most of the last 200 pages, and also skipped pretty much all of the multi-page excerpts from Joan’s fiction. At a certain point it became hard to sympathize with Joan’s decisions, and the narration grew overblown (“arc of tragedy,” “tortured irony,” etc.) [Read instead: Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin]
Page count: 523
In progress: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, a 613-page historical novel in verse narrated by a semi-literate servant from Stroud, then a cloth mill town. I’d already committed to read it for a Nudge/New Books magazine review, having had my interest redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize, but it was another perfect choice for a weekend that involved a visit to that part of Gloucestershire. Once you’re in the zone, and so long as you can guarantee no distractions, this is actually a pretty quick read. I easily got through the first 75 pages in a couple of days.
Next month’s plan: As a doorstopper Annabel and I are going to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (636 pages, or roughly 20 pages a day for the whole month of May). Join us if you like! I’m undecided about a classic, but might choose between George Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Emile Zola.
I’m squeaking in here on the 31st with the doorstopper I’ve been reading all month. I started Cutting for Stone in an odd situation on the 1st: We’d attempted to go to France that morning but were foiled by a fatal engine failure en route to the ferry terminal, so were riding in the cab of a recovery vehicle that was taking us and our car home. My poor husband sat beside the driver, trying to make laddish small talk about cars, while I wedged myself by the window and got lost in the early pages of Indian-American doctor Abraham Verghese’s saga of twins Marion and Shiva, born of an unlikely union between an Indian nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and an English surgeon, Thomas Stone, at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa in 1954.
What with the flashbacks and the traumatic labor, it takes narrator Marion over 100 pages to get born. That might seem like a Tristram Shandy degree of circumlocution, but there was nary a moment when my interest flagged during this book’s 50-year journey with a medical family starting in a country I knew nothing about. I was reminded of Midnight’s Children, in that the twin brothers are born loosely conjoined at the head and ever after have a somewhat mystical connection, understanding each other’s thoughts even when they’re continents apart.
When Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies in childbirth and Stone absconds, the twins are raised by the hospital’s blunt obstetrician, Hema, and her husband, a surgeon named Ghosh. Both brothers follow their adoptive parents into medicine and gain knowledge of genitourinary matters. We observe a vasectomy, a breech birth, a C-section, and the aftermath of female genital mutilation. While Marion relocates to an inner-city New York hospital, Shiva stays in Ethiopia and becomes a world expert on vaginal fistulas. The novel I kept thinking about was The Cider House Rules, which is primarily about orphans and obstetrics, and I was smugly confirmed by finding Verghese’s thanks to his friend John Irving in the acknowledgments.
Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background, with Verghese giving a bystander’s view of the military coup against the Emperor and the rise of the Eritrean liberation movement. Like Marion, the author is an Indian doctor who came of age in Ethiopia, a country he describes as a “juxtaposition of culture and brutality, this molding of the new out of the crucible of primeval mud.” Marion’s experiences in New York City and Boston then add on the immigrant’s perspective on life in the West in the 1980s onwards.
Naomi of Consumed by Ink predicted long ago that I’d love this, and she was right. Of course I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures, such as an early live-donor liver transplant (this was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2009), but that wasn’t all that made Cutting for Stone such a winner for me. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories in which coincidences abound (“The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not”), minor characters have heroic roles to play, and humor and tragedy balance each other out, if ever so narrowly. (Besides Irving, think of books like The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.) What I’m saying, as I strive to finish this inadequate review in the last hour of the last day of the month, is that this was just my sort of thing, and I hope I’ve convinced you that it might be yours, too.
Hema: “The Hippocratic oath is if you are sitting in London and drinking tea. No such oaths here in the jungle. I know my obligations.”
“Doubt is a first cousin to faith”
“A childhood at Missing imparted lessons about resilience, about fortitude, and about the fragility of life. I knew better than most children how little separate the world of health from that of disease, living flesh from the icy touch of the dead, the solid ground from treacherous bog.”
Page count: 667
Next month: Since Easter falls in April and I’ve been wanting to read it for ages anyway, I’ve picked out The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas to start tomorrow.
Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, East of Eden is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)
Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.
Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.
This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)
At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.
Page count: 602
A few favorite passages:
“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”
“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.
When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins
With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder
Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]
Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”
My luck ran out just east of Eden
Oh, I proved you right
I’m a danger […]
I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure
The Whole World Over by Julia Glass (2006)
When I plucked this from the sidewalk clearance area of my favorite U.S. bookstore, all I knew about it was that it featured a chef and was set in New York City and New Mexico. Those facts were enough to get me interested, and my first taste of Julia Glass’s fiction did not disappoint. I started reading it in the States at the very end of December and finished it in the middle of this month, gobbling up the last 250 pages or so all in one weekend.
Charlotte “Greenie” Duquette is happy enough with her life: a successful bakery in Greenwich Village, her psychiatrist husband Alan, and their young son George. But one February 29th – that anomalous day when anything might happen – she gets a call from the office of the governor of New Mexico, who tasted her famous coconut cake (sandwiched with lemon curd and glazed in brown sugar) at her friend Walter’s tavern and wants her to audition for a job as his personal chef at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. It’s just the right offer to shake up her stagnating career and marriage.
One thing you can count on from a doorstopper, from Dickens onward, is that most of the many characters will be connected (“a collection of invisibly layered lives” is how Glass puts it). So: Walter’s lover is one of Alan’s patients; Fenno, the owner of a local bookstore, befriends both Alan and Saga, a possibly homeless young woman with brain damage who volunteers in animal rescue – along with Walter’s dog-walker, who’s dating his nephew; and so on. The title refers to how migrating birds circumnavigate the globe but always find their way home, and the same is true of these characters: no matter how far they stray – even as Greenie and Alan separately reopen past romances – the City always pulls them back.
My only real complaint about the novel is that it’s almost overstuffed: with great characters and their backstories, enticing subplots, and elements that seemed custom-made to appeal to me – baking, a restaurant, brain injury, the relatively recent history of the AIDS crisis, a secondhand bookstore, rescue dogs and cats, and much more. I especially loved the descriptions of multi-course meals and baking projects. Glass spins warm, effortless prose reminiscent of what I’ve read by Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst. I will certainly read her first, best-known book, Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. I was also delighted to recall that I have her latest on my Kindle: A House Among the Trees, based on the life of Maurice Sendak.
All told, this was quite the bargain entertainment at 95 cents! Two small warnings: 1) if you haven’t read Three Junes, try not to learn too much about it – Glass likes to use recurring characters, and even a brief blurb (like what’s on the final page of my paperback; luckily, I didn’t come across it until the end) includes a spoiler about one character. 2) Glass is deliberately coy about when her book is set, and it’s important to not know for as long as possible. So don’t glance at the Library of Congress catalog record, which gives it away.
Page count: 560
I started Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) with the best intentions of keeping up with Annabel’s buddy read. The first 50–100 pages really flew by and drew me into the mystery of a medieval abbey where monks keep getting murdered in hideous ways. I loved the Sherlockian shrewdness and tenacity of Brother William; the dutiful recording of his sidekick, narrator Adso of Melk; and the intertextual references to Borges’s idea of a library as a labyrinth. But at some point the historical and theological asides and the untranslated snippets of other languages (mostly Latin) began to defeat me, and I ended up just skimming most of the book. I’d recommend this if you liked Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, or if you fancy an astronomically more intelligent version of The Da Vinci Code.
A favorite passage: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means”
Today is President’s Day in the States, which was instituted to jointly celebrate the February birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and is more about feting historical presidents than the current one (thank goodness). I’ve recently read four books that shed light on some American presidents: a brand-new novel, two memoirs, and a zany travel book.
White Houses by Amy Bloom (2018)
April 1945: Franklin D. Roosevelt is dead. His widow Eleanor goes to New York City to spend a long weekend with her lover, former White House reporter Lorena Hickok. Lorena, our feisty narrator, recalls her abusive upbringing in South Dakota, her early days as a reporter, and the flirtation that arose when she interviewed Eleanor about her governor husband’s presidential campaign. The open secret of FDR’s affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, is contrasted with Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship – and with the situation of Eleanor’s cousin Parker Fiske, a closeted homosexual. Lorena’s voice is enjoyable, but I felt I gained no particular insight into Eleanor or Franklin Roosevelt. Bloom aims to reconcile Eleanor’s frumpy image with her passionate secret self, but for me that never fully happened. The most interesting scenes are from Lorena’s time working for a circus freak show on her way to Chicago (presumably completely made up). While Bloom had access to letters that passed between Lorena and Eleanor, she emphasizes that this is a work of fiction.
[Neat little connection: As First Lady, Hillary Clinton felt a kinship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and visited her portrait in the Oval Office to have imaginary chats and buck up her courage. These are described in a chapter of Living History entitled “Conversations with Eleanor.”]
Living History: Memoirs by Hillary Rodham Clinton (2003)
I may be showing my political colors with this choice. However, in my defense, I have also read memoirs by Laura Bush and Sarah Palin, both of which, like this, are rumored to have been ghostwritten. (In her acknowledgments Clinton mentions Lissa Muscatine as “Responsible for many of the words in my speeches as First Lady and in this book”.) The first few chapters, about Clinton’s early years and college days, are rather plodding, but once she meets Bill at Yale Law School in 1971 things pick up, and I found the whole informative and diverting. I hadn’t realized that Clinton was an accomplished lawyer in her own right, focusing on women’s and children’s rights and family law. She was also a researcher on the Nixon impeachment case – an experience that, ironically, came in handy three decades later.
Clinton is honest and self-deprecating about her image issues. She was a whole new breed of First Lady, chairing the committee for Bill’s health care bill and making state visits. Her Beijing speech is still a touchstone for international feminism. Inevitably, a good chunk of the book is devoted to the investigations that plagued the Clinton administration. The eight years of Bill’s presidency are very much the focus; the book ends with them saying a final farewell to the White House. By this point, though, Clinton had been elected a New York senator, so she left for a new mission. I picked up a secondhand copy of Hard Choices the other week and look forward to learning more about her time as a senator and then Secretary of State.
[Neat little connection: Roland Mesnier and his sweet creations get two mentions in Living History: the giant carrot cake he made for Chelsea’s sixteenth birthday; and the book-shaped cake for her graduation.]
All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, A Memoir by Roland Mesnier with Christian Malard [trans. from French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie] (2007)
Roland Mesnier was the White House pastry chef for 25 years. After training in France and Germany, he worked at the Savoy in London and then as head pastry chef at the Princess Hotel, Bermuda – all by age 20. His specialty was intricate sugar sculptures, for which he won international competitions. He also worked in Paris and Virginia before hearing that Rosalynn Carter was looking for a White House pastry chef. Fast-tracked to U.S. citizenship, he made elaborate desserts for presidential family occasions and state dinners. The latter were always based on research into a particular country’s culture, products, taste and traditions. These impressive constructions included molded sorbets, petits fours and marzipan figures, and were often feats of logistics and timing. The memoir is undoubtedly more interesting for what it tells about the First Families (Nancy Reagan was a hard taskmistress; Barbara Bush was his personal #1) than for its author’s life. An appendix includes 15 fairly simple (i.e., replicable at home!) recipes from his 2004 cookbook Dessert University, such as pecan bourbon pie and baked apple soufflé.
(I must also marvel at the journey that this particular book has been on. It is signed by the English translator and inscribed to her mother: “Mum, with all love, Louise – 8 May 2007”. This hardback copy somehow made it all the way to the £1 bargain shelves outside the upper level of the castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, where my husband snatched it up last spring.)
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (2005)
U.S. history has never been so much fun! There’s nothing Sarah Vowell loves more than a presidential plaque, monument, home or grave, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Over half of this book is about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination; the rest goes to those of James Garfield and William McKinley (attempts on T. Roosevelt and Reagan get a brief mention, but she pretty much avoids JFK – presumably because that would fill a book of its own). If all you remember about these last two assassins is that one was a disgruntled civil servant and the other was an anarchist with a funny name, let Vowell enlighten you with her mixture of travel and trivia. She follows John Wilkes Booth’s escape route from the nation’s capital, traces Charles Guiteau back to upstate New York’s Oneida community, and sympathizes with Leon Czolgosz’s hard early life. The book came out in 2005, and what with Vowell’s outrage over the Dubya administration, it does feel a little dated. But if the rest of her books are this nerdy-cool, I’ll be reading them all.