Winter

41qcSMwuA5L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_  After experiencing Hawaii’s near-miss apocalypse with the mistaken incoming ballistic missile  warning, the beginning of Ali Smith’s Winter was not as disconcerting as it might have been – her story starts with a floating head. Stranger things have happened. When the line on page 51 stared back with “…are we at the mercy of technology or is technology at the mercy of us?” – the fake alarm prompting phone alerts seemed timely.

Smith’s Winter is not easy to read.  The author has created a mess of madness, with strains of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare weaving through current politics and the state of the world – but perhaps the point is that the world is a mad mess.  References to the British Brexit and the American President Trump’s immigration policies somehow connect to Sophia and her family at Christmas in Cornwall.

The characters include: Sophia, an older woman living alone – except for the floating head who intermittently changes from the innocence of a child to an old man with greens growing out of its ears to a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth; her son Arthur who seems to be looking for the one opportunity to make his mark through his writing (on a blog) while he fastidiously works at a company responsible for identifying copyright infringement; Lux, Arthur’s Croatian substitute girlfriend – he picked her up at a bus stop to pose as his girlfriend when Charlotte unceremoniously dumps him before Christmas; and Iris, Sophia’s sister who in her seventies continues to demonstrate against all the ills of the world – and there are plenty to complain about.

They all meet up at Sophia’s many bedroom house in Cornwall (the floating head is already there).  When Arthur and Lux find Sophia sitting in an overheated kitchen, wrapped in coats and mittens, they promptly send her to bed and send for her estranged sister Iris, who arrives with the groceries.  No one really sleeps and each time the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, Sophia relives a past experience through her memories – Scrooge without the ghosts, revealing stormy protests, funerals, and family history.  When Christmas finally arrives, the family dinner is not pleasant.

Smith punctuates this stream of consciousness with asides pointedly critical of the state of the world, as it has become today:

“And now for our entertainment when we want humiliation we’ve got reality TV…and soon instead of reality TV we’ll have the President of the United States…”

“Me, me, me, Iris says,  It’s all your selfish generation can ever talk about…”

When all seems so despondent and coldly brutal – the title is Winter, after all  – Smith redeems the morase with some hope, but it is a long time coming.  Sophia and Iris are the political polar opposites, arguing with each other without convincing the other.  But, after they, the others, and perhaps the author, exhaust themselves with dire assessments of the world’s condition, they tell stories and reveal secrets. Reminiscing about the past seems to focus the present and provide some possibilities for “to-day” that will not all end miserably.

Unlike Autumn, the first in her series, this book never warms up (unless it is to signify the horrors of global warming), and it takes longer to connect to both the characters and their message.  Winter is a difficult book, and the New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner says – “…it’s slower to rake its themes into a coherent pile. My advice: Read it anyway…”  Maybe – or perhaps wait for the Spring thaw in her next book.

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Books Published January 9th

IMG_4208Having just finished Michael Malone’s thick door stopper book, Handling Sin, with its thousands of subplots supporting the circus of fools on a quest with a family full of crazies (redeemed by their unending kernels of humorous wisdom), I want to read another book – shorter and without as many tangents.  January 9th seems to be the publisher’s choice for releasing a few prospects; I found at least a dozen and a few looking promising.  Where should I start?

  • Winter by Ali Smith (the next in the author’s series, but stand alone in its plot).
  • The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (what if you knew when you were going to die?)
  • The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith (following an odyssey from Colonial times to present in Rhode Island).
  • The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor (murderous thriller)
  • Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (British historical fiction)

And timing is everything.  Daniel H. Pink’s  When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing is published today.  This nonfiction book discusses the science of time in making the best schedules,  why you shouldn’t go to the hospital in the afternoon, and ideal times to make life decisions.513KDS9qRjL._AA300_

January has more to come with stories from JoJo Moyes (Still Me), Denis Johnson (Largesse of the Sea Maiden), and Dave Eggers (The Monk of Mokha).

 

Starting the New Year Going Into Town with Roz Chast

After Roz Chast entertained me with her clever graphic novel about her aging parents in “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant,” I couldn’t wait for her next installment of graphic humor, but her Going Into Town, a Love Letter to New York had me thinking I should carry the book with me the next time I visit the city. Not only are the illustrations and text hilarious, the chapter on how to use the subway could be very useful for my directionally clueless nature.

With her signature New Yorker comic strip art and her East Coast conversational style, Chast takes the reader from a basic layout of Manhattan, through “stuff to do…food…apartments” and all the practical basics for living, surviving, accessing Manhattan.  As promised, this is not a guide for tourists (although some might find it helpful) but an insider’s manual – “some maps, some tips…Nothing too overwhelming” created for her daughter, a freshman in college in Manhattan.  

Lately, I’ve been reading historic tomes full of man’s inhumanity to man, and it’s lovely to start the new year with a funny and optimistic view of one of my favorite cities. Might be a good new year’s resolution to read more like this.

First Night, First Lines

th-1First lines in novels can become more famous than the book.  Charles Schultz’s character Snoopy never got past his first line – “It was a dark and stormy night…”  Charles Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” have been incessantly parodied and misquoted.

In honor of First Night (New Year’s Eve), here are a few more first lines from books I’ve read this year.  Can you identify the book?

“It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.”  Click here for the answer.

“At the end of December 2015 winter had not yet reached Brooklyn.”  Click here for Allende.

“Once upon a time, before the whole world changed, it was possible to run away from home, disguise who you were, and fit into polite society.”  Click here for a little magic.

“History has failed us, but no matter.”  Click here for my nominee of best book of the year.

“I’ve finished the bloody book.”  Click here for the title.

“My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not as well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.”  Click here for the answer.

“The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour- and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock – and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New York – until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck,, that the small mound of the city waitingg there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno – and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tierces Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hudred foot of water – and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to Pap: – all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning.”  A story of old New York

 

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Miss Burma

Unknown  In the same vein as Pachinko, Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma opens a pandora’s box of history and misery most do not know.  Just as in Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Craig uses a family saga to reveal the horrors endured and the resiliency and courage that helped them survive and thrive, but, in this case, the family is her own.  Based on her mother, a real Miss Burma, and her mother’s parents, a disparate couple of differing languages and culture, Craig imagines the conversations and the motivations of her ancestors, a part of a group of people who still fight to be recognized as human.

Although I am only halfway through the book (this is the slowest I have ever read a book), its impact has triggered my curiosity.  A good friend and fellow reader sent me links and I discovered more as I looked for confirmation of the story, even the existence of this group of indigenous people from Myanmar/Burma.  I discovered about 10,000 Karen who had been forced to immigrate, many to Minnesota in the United States.  A more recent article (November, 2017) used the recent exposure of the treatment of the Rohingya, another minority ethnic group in Myanmar, to reflect back on the similar Karen plight detailed in Craig’s story with “reports of human rights violations, including murder, sexual violence and … the destruction and burning of homes and property…”  A recent executive order by the American President has stopped the immigration of Karen spouses and children of refugees who came within the past two years.

Recognizing the name Aung San in the novel, I was surprised that General Aung San, the father of the current leader of Burma’s independence movement, Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, was written as not the saintly national hero often depicted – as is his daughter – but a ruthless, conniving politician, choosing the expedient path to power.

Craig’s story exposes yet another horror of inhumanity in the world.  Like Pachinko, Miss Burma offers hope through today’s successful generations, and confirms a history that serves not only as a caution but also as reminder to learn and not be forgotten.

The storyline is complicated but well outlined in Emma Larkin’s review for the New York Times, Bringing One of Burma’s Lost Histories to Life.

I continue to read this wordy and sometimes disjointed narrative, learning as I read, and urged on by Larkin’s encouragement:

“If at times the doling out of history lessons feels a tad heavy-handed, with characters occasionally succumbing to soliloquy or unlikely moments of narrative self-awareness, it is ultimately forgivable: The context in which “Miss Burma” is set is not part of a common well of knowledge. By resurrecting voices that are seldom heard on a wider stage, Craig’s novel rescues Benny from his own foretelling of oblivion and brings one of Burma’s many lost histories to vivid life.”

Related Review:  Pachinko

Note:  I finally finished Miss Burma – not at all as engaging as Pachinko.