The Reluctant Reader

When one of my book clubs chose Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist for discussion, I was reluctant to read it.  Lately, I’ve been reluctant to read much, other than bingeing on Jenny Colgan’s Scottish romance stories.  Somehow I had missed this Man Booker finalist, and was surprised by its powerful message.

Using a dramatic monologue, a speech by the main character,  to convey the story of a young Pakistani who parlays his talent and intelligence into a brilliant career but then becomes disenchanted after 911, Hamid creates a long soliloquoy, challenging the reader to examine his or her own underlying bias as the tale develops.   Someone in the group mentioned the movie adaptation with the screenplay by the author.  Watching it confirmed my impression of the author’s rail against the anonymity of war and business in a big box world without individualism, but it also offered some surprises and a different perspective on the characters than I had imagined.

Over ten years ago, major universities (Tulane, Georgetown, Bucknell, SMU, and others) chose the book as the freshman read for incoming students.   Although the book is short in pages, its message is long and timely today, despite its 2007 publication.

Have you read it?  Have you read his latest book, Exit West?

 

Early Spring Fever

Inspired by Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method, I’ve been folding shirts and finding joy in mindless tasks.  The book –  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – caused a decluttering craze when it was first published, but I avoided it.  When short clips appeared on You Tube and Netflix, however, I succumbed and found solace in folding pants and shirts.

When Kondo proclaimed books were not to be kept  but donated or – horrors – thrown away, I immersed myself in my overflowing bookshelves to read a few waiting to be read; I made a dent in the stack – soon to be filled with other books.  None warranted a review, but you might find some distraction in them:

81oX4ShsrZL._AC_UL436_That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron

A rambling historical fiction with Winston’s mother, Jennie, as the heroine.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

When the New York Times featured the 25th Anniversary edition, I found a copy – full of lists and advice.  My “creative soul” couldn’t finish it.

41yKgsnf1fL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

For dog lover’s everywhere, this touching first person account of a woman who almost loses her rent controlled New York City apartment when she adopts the Great Dane of a friend who died, has the dog as the hero who saves her life – of course.

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

One of my book clubs is about to discuss this one – a timely and harrowing story of a woman who was abused in her youth by a politician now climbing the ladder of power and success.  Set in an unnamed South American island nation, the story is topical and disturbing.

MCD-Dont-Throw-AwayAnd now, my library wait list finally delivered a book by one my  favorite authors  – Eleanor Lipman’s Good Riddance.  With a nod to Marie Kondo, Lipman acknowledges  the fear may of us have after shredding and throwing items away – what if you disposed of something you should have kept?  I’ve stopped tidying and starting reading.

 

A Few Books About Women

October had me in and out of stories about women –  all entertaining.  A ghost narrates in the first, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has a cameo role in the second, the real socialites of New York City carry the plot in the third,  and a Greek chorus dominates the one I am currently reading.  Have you read any of them?

TCD-US-200x304   The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Morton can always be relied on for a mix of history, romance, mystery, and a touch of the other worldly.  In The Clockmaker’s Daughter she alternates between a nineteenth century mystery and a modern bride’s dilemma.  As with her other books, this story is an easy read with just enough Gothic tension to keep the reader’s interest.

Plot Summary from the Author’s website:

“In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river…

Told by multiple voices across time, THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss…{with one of the voices, the ghost of} Birdie Bell, the clockmaker’s daughter.”

51czBXfdgkL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

A woman artist hides her identity in the 1920s, pretending she is a man, and Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan houses an art school.

Plot Summary from Barnes and Noble:

“Within Grand Central Terminal,  two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.

In 1928, twenty-five-year-old Clara is teaching at the Grand Central School of Art. A talented illustrator, she has dreams of creating cover art for Vogue, but not even the prestige of the school can override the public’s disdain for a “woman artist.”

Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined and is the center of a fierce lawsuit: demolition or preservation. Virginia, recently divorced, has just accepted a job in the information booth to support herself and her college-age daughter, Ruby. When Virginia stumbles on the abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor hidden under the dust, she is drawn into the battle to save Grand Central and the mystery of Clara Darden, the famed 1920s illustrator who disappeared from history in 1931.”

636540551254787991-Caitlin-Macy-Mrs-HC-cover-image     Mrs. by Caitlin Macy

Following the model of Big Little Lies, Mrs. has a cast of women with disparate personalities and backgrounds coming together as the mothers in a prestigious New York City preschool. Secrets drive the plot, with a big reveal and a death at the end.

Plot Summary by Publisher’s Weekly:

“Gwen Hogan, Philippa Lye, and Minnie Curtis are all married to powerful men and send their children to the prestigious St. Timothy’s preschool. Gwen, married to a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, recently moved to Manhattan and is uncomfortable living in New York City. Philippa, married to the owner of an investment bank, seems both effortlessly stylish and aloof. Minnie, the wife of a wealthy financier, takes an unapologetic pleasure in her financial security that makes the other mothers uncomfortable. The three women bond over school gossip and the difficulties of parenthood, unaware that Gwen’s husband is conducting an insider trading investigation that implicates both Philippa and Minnie’s husbands. “

t_500x300The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

I just started this book – recommended by one of my favorite librarians – and the story and language have already captured my attention.  Have you read it?

Plot Summary from NPR:

“Reimagines “The Iliad” from the perspectives of the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War, as Briseis, conquered queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, becomes caught between the two most powerful Greek leaders.”

 

 

 

Period Piece

x400  With bawdy courtesans and ephemeral mermaids, Imogene Hermes Gowar’s debut novel – The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – draws the reader into life in late eighteenth century London.  Although the story begins so slowly, taking its time to create the setting with a lonely widower merchant whose life begs for relief from his mundane existence, the pace picks up eventually, with rewarding insights and a rollicking plot.

When Mr. Hancock’s ship is traded for a mermaid, the narrative slogs along as he becomes prosperous exhibiting his fossilized find at a local bar, but when Bet Chappell, one of London’s well connected madams, hires his wizened little mermaid to draw customers to her upscale brothel, the honest merchant connects with one of her prize courtesans, Angelica Neal, and his life is never the same.

The chapters initially alternate between Angelica’s riotous life in prostitution and Jonah Hancock’s more subdued merchant arrangements.  Angelica has failed at her freelance attempts of selling herself and her debt threatens to force her to return to Bet’s “nunnery,” when the kind hearted Hancock pays off her debts and marries her. Their marriage is the chance for him to find happiness and for her to be secure.  Angelica jokingly asks Hancock to produce another mermaid just for her when the first is destroyed, and he takes her request seriously, requisitioning another ship to the Hebrides to find a new specimen.

As Hancock continues to invest, his fortune grows.  He speculates in successful real estate and buys an estate for Angelica in Greenwich.  Suddenly, the captain returns with his cargo – a live mermaid, a phosphorescent sea creature who periodically chimes in with italicized murmers between chapters.  Both Anglelica and the mermaid are fish out of water; both having difficulty acclimating to their new environment – Angelica in her respectable mansion and the mermaid hidden in the grotto at the edge of the estate. The captive mermaid seems to have a a mysterious effect on anyone who wanders close to her, producing a threatening and heavy sadness.

Gowars uses a cast of women to make her case for their surviving in the man’s world of the 1750s: crafty Mrs Chappell; persistent Angelica; former prostitute Bel Fortescue; mean-spirited Mrs Frost, and Mr Hancock’s  teenage niece Sukie, who is sent to live with her uncle.  Together, they keep the story moving to a satisfying ending.  And the mermaid?  Perhaps she didn’t really exist but she has powerful impact.

History Lessons

t_500x300 The Removes by Tatjana Soli

Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn is the stuff of legend, and his name lives on in ignominy or heroism, depending on the viewpoint, but Tatjana Soli’s The Removes introduces him as a Civil War hero and follows his battles with the Cheyenne and Sioux, as well as with himself to his court martial, reinstatement after nine months of enforced leave, and finally to his last confrontation.  Despite Custer’s bravado in his fancy attire and long golden hair,  the horror and gore is sometimes too much for him; when he washes and rewashes his hands until they are raw to remove the imaginary blood, it reminded me of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth – “out. out, damned Spot…”   Like Macbeth, this is a tragedy and not easy to experience.

Soli alternates her story between the young soldier Custer who is married to Libbie Bacon, and Annie, a fifteen year old pioneer girl captured by the Cheyenne and forced to live as a slave among them.  As the key women in the novel, Libbie and Annie represent how the West has changed their lives and their perspectives create an important foil to the violence in the lives of the calvary soldiers and the Cheyenne warriors.

The “removes” calculate the number of times Annie’s life changes, from being captured to trades with other tribes, and finally her return to what is left of her family.  The battles both Custer and Annie witness are fierce and the desperation they both feel is palpable.  Ironically, both Custer and Annie feel more at home in the great outdoors than confined to the “prison” of civilized homes.

The narrative has a stitled staccato rhythm, giving the story the frame of a documentary at times.  As Soli explains the western expansion, the greed for gold, the stealing of Native American territory, the senseless slaughter of people and animals, the story is too horrible to imagine but too compelling to look away.  Custer is both the philandering dandy and the dedicated soldier; Annie is the abused captive as well as the clever girl who barters to survive.  In a note at the end of the book, Soli says “the pendulum swings from simplistic descriptions of Indian warfare in the old Hollywood westerns to the opposite but equally false ones in more current books and films. … We honor the past most when we depict it as accurately as possible without contorting it to contemporary mores.”

Their stories may be fictional, but Soli uses them to retell the unsettling history of the wild west, melding empathetic examples of characters with unforgettable historical events.

Unknown   Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

If Doris Kearns Goodwin had been my history teacher in high school, I may have paid better attention.  Since I have not read any of Goodwin’s biographies of the four American Presidents she addresses in her latest examination – Leadership in Turbulent Times – I am looking forward to learning more about the men she identifies as great leaders.  Two are immortalized on Mt. Rushmore – Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.  FDR is also in the mix but I was surprised she included LBJ as one of the four leaders to emulate.  In her prologue she reveals her special relationship to Lyndon Johnson, whom she first met when she was a White House Fellow, and later helped him with his memoirs.  She prefers to focus on his role in Civil Rights rather than the Vietnam War.

Clearly, Kearns is determined to provide government leadership models by looking back, since the present has few to offer.  In her forward she states:

“It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring.  These men set a standard and a bar for all of us.  Just as they learned from one another, so we can learn from them.  And from them gain a better perspective on the discord of our times.”

I have only just started reading but the book promises a good lesson in history.