Dipping into Proust

51W1RQKCT9L._AC_US218_After laughing at Lisa Brown’s graphic cartoon on How to Read Proust in the Original in the New York Times Book Review, and then receiving a box of Sur la Table’s French Petite Madeleine Mix in the mail, I decided to have a “madeleine moment” reading Lydia Davis’ acclaimed translation of Swann’s Way.  

Proust is not easy to read, and Davis, a MacArthur Fellow, suggests a slow methodical pace in her introduction, letting the long sentences and heady phrases offer connections to one’s own experiences.  I remember reading the famous passage in my fourth year of high school French class, explaining the narrator’s fond recollections of his childhood days as he dips the madeleine in his teacup, but reading the entire book seemed too daunting; reading the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past would be unthinkable.  Better to learn the translations of Proust’s more famous phrases.

From Swann’s Way, the first book in the series, Lydia Davis offers easily understandable phrases to note – and remember:

“To get through their days, nervous natures such as mine have various “speeds” as do automobiles. There are uphill and difficult day which take an eternity to climb, and downhill days which can be quickly descended.”

Reading Proust cannot be rushed or taken in one sitting.  It could take years, if ever, but I like Davis’ easy translation, and the methodical rhythm of the prose –  better digested while eating a madeleine soaked in coffee.

 

The Sleepwalker

9780385542555_p0_v1_s192x300Chris Bohjalian’s The Sleepwalker had me reading until I found out whodunnit.  Unfortunately, I read until I went to bed – and then had trouble going to sleep.  I resisted googling “sleepwalking” – better not to now how factual the references were.

Bohjalian’s sleepwalker is a beautiful architect with an English professor husband and two  girls, one a college senior, the other nine years younger; she suffers from a sleepwalking condition that may have caused her death.  Her history reveals a night when she almost jumped off a bridge and another when she spray-painted the hydrangea in the front yard – remembering neither event.

When Annalee’s sleepwalking seems to be in remission, her husband leaves for an out of town conference, despite the possibility she might walk into the night without him nearby in bed.   The next morning, her daughter discovers her missing, and as the search continues, possible perpetrators emerge until finally the body is found – only to restart the investigation and the story in a different direction.

Throughout the plot, red herrings draw the reader into fake paths, highlighting character flaws and revealing salacious possibilities. Bohajlian builds the suspense with background on each of the suspects – the husband, of course; the detective who shared coffee and her condition; possible unknown lovers.  But I never guessed who really did it and how, despite the killer’s short ramblings of anonymous notes between the chapters. No spoilers here.

A fast-paced thriller with Bohjalian’s trademark surprise ending, The Sleepwalker is a mystery with Gothic tones and Alfred Hitchcock intrigue.

 

My (not so) Perfect Life

9780812998269_p0_v5_s192x300Sophie Kinsella’s books always make me smile and no matter what the heroine endures, I know I am guaranteed a happy ending with the tall handsome – most of the time rich – hero. Her latest book – My (not so) Perfect Life – met my expectations -a frothy romance with a hint of wisdom.

Katie, a country English girl leaves the farm for a career in the big city, but London life is not as easy or glamorous as she envisioned. She lives in a small apartment with a web designer roommate who stores boxes of whey in the living room for a side business. Although she has a degree in design, her job at a marketing firm is confined to low level data input. After she gets fired, she returns to the farm to help her father and step- mother start a glamping business with glamorous yurts and homemade scones.

When her former Cruella-like boss arrives to vacation with her “perfect” family, Katie takes her revenge in a hilarious series of bespoke activities. Of course, the handsome hero arrives later and the action turns into an office politics nightmare.

Katie saves the day, reforms her boss, and, of course, gets the guy. Despite the antics and ridiculous plot twists, the book has a message – no one’s life is as good it may seem. An enjoyable and fast read, My (not so) Perfect Life will have you laughing and reaffirming life as an unending tale of possibilities – Bridget Jones style.

Lincoln in the Bardo

9780812995343_p0_v2_s192x300   Before reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, knowing a little about the Buddhist theory of the afterlife helps.  Saunders, raised a Catholic and now a practicing Buddhist, uses teachings from both in his first novel.  The Bardo, according to Buddhist belief, is the transitional zone after death to whatever’s next, a limbo – an interrupted time in one’s life – before going on to reincarnation, heaven, or hell.  Saunders mixes humor and misery to create his  forceful commentary on grief.

Using the real death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son, Willie, as the focus, Saunders takes the reader into this middle world with a cast of ghosts who have not been able to transition to their next phase.  The story takes place when Lincoln visits the cemetery’s chapel and his son’s tomb, and also, unknowingly, the home of  spirits caught in the halfway world of the bardo.   Depending on how they lived before death, these spirits may remain here for many years, but children usually linger less than an hour. It’s a surprise when young Willie Lincoln does not quickly disappear. He tells the assembled crowd, “I am to wait.”

Willie, the innocent child who should have gone on to the “light,” is delayed by his father’s visit to his tomb on the night of his death.  Historical accounts in newspapers reported that Lincoln, distraught over his son’s sudden death from typhoid, left his grief-stricken wife Mary Todd home in the White House to ride to the Oak Hill Cemetery vault in Georgetown to open the casket and hold his dead son once more.  Saunders sees Willie, now in his ephemeral state, thinking he must stay until his father returns again to take him back home.

At the heart of the story is Lincoln himself, the grieving father, distraught husband, overwhelmed President in the middle of the Civil War.  He is so devastated by the death of his young son, he cannot let go, and Saunders uses this as a vehicle of suspense.  If Willie ignores his invitation to move on,  feeling his father would want him to stay within reach, Willie will lose his moment and be forever encased in a state of misery, literally.  Tendrils are already handcuffing his spirit to the walls of his tomb, but the helpful fellow ghosts keep releasing the bonds.  For Willie to move on, Lincoln must move on.

A host of ghosts hover and give advice, as they recall their own lives and deaths.  Although the topics are morbid, Saunders manages moments of comedy through the two principal speakers, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. They believe themselves to be grievously injured but not dead yet, and they resist the transition to the next  life, hoping to return to the lives they lost. Vollman has a permanently engorged “member” because he died when a beam fell on his head – just as he was about to  consummate his marriage.  It’s so large, he is forced to carry it when floating through the cemetery.   Bevins, who had a change of heart minutes after slitting his wrists, has acquired a heightened appreciation of the world’s beauty, and in the bardo has sprouted numerous pairs of eyes, ears and limbs. They are often joined by an elderly reverend who knows more about the bardo than he’s admitting, having run away from the final “gates” when he saw his options. Unlike the Christian concept of purgatory where a soul remains for a designated time to atone for sins on the eventual path to heaven, the exit from the bardo could result in perdition.

Keeping all the characters straight is not easy – there are over a hundred different voices, ranging from respectable businessmen and gossiping ladies to slaves and drunkards. The novel sometimes reads like a play, with short dialogue taking up pages.  In addition to all the ghosts, some voices are live commentators on politics and the weather as well as eyewitness accounts, often contradictory. On the night of Lincoln’s banquet while Willie lies dying upstairs, no one seems to agree, yet everyone has an opinion.

The story is sometimes full of fragments and takes attention to follow.  NPR calls it a ghostly Our Town.  Characters quickly change, as their stories waft in and out, briefly interrupting, sometimes arguing.  I tried listening to the book on Audible and found the voices entertaining but the constant referential footnotes annoying.  When I switched to reading the ebook, I could see that what I heard as footnotes were actually fictionalized references identifying the speakers.  Reading was preferable for me, but I may go back to listen again, now that I understand the premise.

In an email interview, Saunders referred to his depiction of Lincoln in the novel after his son’s death as a man newly determined, with strengthened resolve to end the war:

“What moved me about Lincoln’s arc during his presidency was the way that the burdens of the office — the floundering war effort, intense public criticism, the mistakes he made that were costing so many lives, the death of his son — beat him down and made him sorrowful, but also, almost causally, seemed to expand the reach of his empathy, so that, by the end, it included soldiers on both sides and the millions of Americans being enslaved by other Americans. It seemed to me that the empathy was somehow a byproduct of the sorrow — a burning-away of his hopes and dreams that resulted in a kind of naked seeing of things as they really were. I came to understand Lincoln as someone so beat down by sadness and loss that he developed a sort of crazy wisdom — as if, in sadness, all of the comforting bromides that normally keep us from the harsher truths were denied him. Empathy might even thrive best in this state, where the easy comforts are denied us…”

Gregory Cowles wondered in his comments for the New York Times if Vice President Biden could have been the next Lincoln, comparing the fathers ‘ sorrow over the death of their sons. Biden opted not to run for president after his son died in 2015 – “a wrenching and understandable decision, of course, but… in Saunders’ novel… private grief made Lincoln a better public servant.”

Saunders makes a strong statement transcending love, loss, and grief, using many of the Buddhist principles to address them,  but he also includes a political note by framing the story around Lincoln, one of America’s most famous presidents.  In his interview Saunders noted: “We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that? How can we keep going and live positive lives under that shadow?”  Saunders would find a solution in kindness, empathy, and some resistance.

A book like no other, Lincoln in the Bardo will leave you reexamining the world around you and the life you lead – difficult but worth the effort.

Related:

  1. Lincoln in the Bardo Pictures An American Saint of Sorrow
  2. The Tibetan Buddhist and Spiritualist Views of After-Death States

The Baileys Prize Announces Its Longlist on International Women’s Day

The Baileys Prize is the annual book award for fiction written by a woman.  Founded in 1996, the Prize was set up “to celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world.”

I am not familiar with most of the books – many have not yet been published in the United States.  I did start Atwood’s Hagseed, but did not finish; it was not as satisfying as Anne Tyler’s rendition of Taming of the Shrew in Vinegar Girl, but I may try again.  Bearskins was another book with a library due date before I could dent its seven hundred pages.  And Do Not Say We Have Nothing has been on my wish list since being shortlisted for the Man Booker.

Of the others nominated, a young girl with a horse appealed to me most – Gailskill’s The Mare, and I may start there.   The Lonely Hearts Hotel sounds appealing too.  Have you read any on the list?

The Longlist:

  • Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Set in Nigeria, “Yejide and Akin have been married since they met and fell in love at university. Though many expected Akin to take several wives, he and Yejide have always agreed: polygamy is not for them. But four years into their marriage…Yejide is still not pregnant. She assumes she still has time–until her family arrives on her doorstep with a young woman they introduce as Akin’s second wife…Yejide knows the only way to save her marriage is to get pregnant. Which, finally, she does–but at a cost far greater than she could have dared to imagine…

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman

Girls rule the world – It’s science fiction, of course.   In a dystopian world where Its women develop the ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers.  “…teenage girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman’s extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed.”

  • Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

In Atwood’s modern version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “the novel centres on a theater director named Felix who is exiled to teaching in a prison after losing his job with Makeshiweg Theatre, and begins to plot his revenge against those who wronged him.”

  • Little Deaths by Emma Flint

“In 1965 working-class Queens, NY, two children go missing and are later found strangled not far from home. The police immediately suspect their mother, Ruth Malone, single and working long hours…”

  • 51gjRDNJ-PL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

“…the story of a Dominican girl, the Anglo woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her.”

  • The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

“An East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law have been ent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent.  They find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman. They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and can be had only by inciting rebellion…”

  • The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

Set between 1994 and 1995, it follows 18-year-old Eily, a boozy ingénue, as she leaves her native Ireland to attend drama school in London. There, caught in whirl of excess and the shadow of IRA terrorism, she is mostly assigned stereotypically Irish bit parts, but finds herself captivated by a much older actor named Stephen, an ex-junkie estranged from his family and young daughter. Initially meeting without names, they embark on a tempestuous relationship that reveals the worst in both while offering Stephen a chance at redemption and Eily a future.”

  • Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

Father and Son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter, are men of the land. Suffolk farmers. Times are hard and they struggle to sustain their property, their livelihood and their heritage in the face of competition from big business. But an even bigger, more brutal fight is brewing: a fight between each other, about the horrible death of Cecelia, beloved wife and mother, in Zambia ten years earlier...

  • The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

“Hellsmouth, an indomitable Thoroughbred with the blood of Triple Crown winners in her veins, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavor of raw obsession: to breed the next superhorse, the next Secretariat. But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled in fear, prejudice, and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and grace of Hellsmouth.”

  • The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

“…tale of two prickly octogenarians: two women, one black and one white, neighbors who discover after 20 years of exchanging digs and insults that they might help each other.”

  • The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

With echoes of The Night Circus, a spellbinding story about two gifted orphans in love with each other since they can remember whose childhood talents allow them to rewrite their future. “

  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

“…takes place over a single year in the 1890s, in an Essex village where — if the rumours are to be believed — a monstrous sea creature skulks in the estuary, blamed for horrors from disembowelled livestock to a man’s corpse washing up on the marsh, his neck snapped…widow Cora Seagrave is patently relieved by the death of her unpleasant husband, a civil servant…accompanied by her socialist companion Martha… she leaves the capital for the wilds of Essex.

  • Barkskins by Annie Proulx

“…tells the story of two immigrants to New France, René Sel and Charles Duquet, and of their descendants. It spans over 300 years and witnesses the deforestation of the New World from the arrival of Europeans into the contemporary era of global warming…“barkskins,” are indentured servants, transported from Paris slums to the wilds of New France in 1693… to clear the land…”

  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley

“Neve is in her mid-thirties, living in London and married to an older man… past battles have left their scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she describes other loves and other debts—her bullying father and her self-involved mother, a musician who played her, and a series of lonely flights from place to place…”


  • 9780393609882_p0_v2_s192x300Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

“...follows a 10-year-old girl and her mother who invite a Chinese refugee into their home…”  On the Man Booker shortlist.

  • The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

“Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem only a distant echo. An only child, he lives alone with Emilie, the mother he adores but who treats him with bitter severity. He begins an intense friendship with a Jewish boy his age, talented and mercurial Anton Zweibel, a budding concert pianist. The novel follows Gustav s family, tracing the roots of his mother s anti-Semitism and its impact on her son and his beloved friend… one who becomes a hotel owner, the other a concert pianist, The Gustav Sonata explores the passionate love of childhood friendship as it is lost, transformed, and regained over a lifetime…”