Swing Time by Zadie Smith

9781594203985_p0_v4_s192x300 Although Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two London friends – girls from the hood who grow up together, one with talent, the other with ambition – Guardian reviewer Taiye Selasi  clearly identified Smith’s theme but it’s taking me awhile to digest it:

“Our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs. That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”

Tracey, with an absent father and an angry mother, is the talented dancer and rebel. “She wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs.” The unnamed narrator is the good girl, who goes to college and eventually gets a job with Aimee, the celebrity stereotype.

I am still reading – about halfway through.  Smith uses the current popular writing style of alternating chapters from present to past, with the foundation of the girls’ lives offering rationale for their decisions later in life. I am finding the past more palatable and I like to linger over the stories of the best friends’ younger selves.  The chapters detailing Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country have been wearing.

This is probably a book I should have consumed in one swallow, but the holidays with time-consuming rituals distracted me.  The initial references to Fred Astaire movies and dance routines (hence the title) were also appropriate for the swinging back and forth in the girls’ lives but can make following the story difficult, and the narrator’s angst a little too heavy.

To help get me on track, I found the New York Times review by Holly Bass

Zadie’s Smith New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame, and Friendship

On the other hand, maybe I’ve read enough…

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A Library in a Phone Booth, Gipsy House, and Curious George

My good friend sends me clippings from civilization (Maryland and Massachusetts) with stories about authors and books – she knows my proclivities well.  Recently, she informed me of the seventy-fifth  anniversary of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for makewayforducklingsbookcover   Ducklings, reminding me of the Public Garden in Boston where children clamber over the duck family.

200px-curiousgeorgefirstCurious George is also celebrating his seventy-fifth anniversary, and Alison Lobron of the Boston Globe bemoans his descent from scary to safer adventures over the years in Incurious George Finds a Safe Space.  When the original authors, H.A. and Margaret Rey, wrote , the stories were scary – about the little monkey breaking his leg when chased by grown-ups or being “snatched from his home in the African jungle.” In the late twentieth century, George’s publishers turned him into “a good little monkey” with shorter adventures.

My pile of clippings also includes a few places I’d like to visit.

A Library in a Phone Booth

1200x-1Although some of us wish cell-phone booths would become popular (Cell-Phone Booths? They’re For Real), the old fashioned phone booth is hard to find today – unless you are looking for a small  library or a coffee shop. In her article for Bloomberg, Lisa Fleisher describes the trend to turn old British red telephone boxes into lending libraries in Phone Booths Find Their Second Callingand includes a picture of an ardent borrower at the children’s collection.

Roald Dahl’s House 

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Writing Hut

Elizabeth Warkentin described Dahl’s Gipsy House in Great Missenden, England in A Phizz-Whizzing Visit to Roald Dahl’s House.  With its bespoke writing hut, birdhouse with window ledges lined with “dream Jars” (from the BFG), and lush gardens, Dahl’s country home from 1952 until his death in 1990 welcomes readers.  The town has the Roald Dahl Museum with interactive exhibits and snacks for the hungry – Bogtrotter cake with smarties and marshmallows.

My good friend also sends clippings with background on  authors of recent books – Amor Towles (A Gentleman in Moscow); J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) – but more of those later.  My clipping file runneth over…

 

 

Summer Thrills

A Ghost at the Door – cousin to The House of Cards

9781471111549_p0_v3_s192x300   Having become a fan of the Netflix series House of Cards, changed from the British version to the American political system, I was delighted to discover its creator, Michael Dobbs, is the author of mystery thrillers.  When I met Harry Jones, former Special Forces operative and Member of Parliament, in Dobbs’ sixth book in the series, he had has recently lost his millions in an accounting mistake and is looking for clues about his father’s death.

Our hero travels from London to Bermuda, through the cloisters of Christ Church College and into the Lake District with exciting twists to the plot. Although I had not read the first five, I relished submerging in the world of intrigue and politics in Dobbs’s sixth book – A Ghost at the Door.

Two More Spy/Thrillers I Am Looking Forward to Reading:

images    The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr

” Bernie Gunther, former Berlin homicide detective and unwilling SS officer,  is living on the French Riviera in 1956.  A local writer needs someone to fill the fourth seat in a bridge game that is the usual evening diversion at the Villa Mauresque. Not just any writer: W. Somerset Maugham. And it turns out it is not just a bridge partner that he needs; it’s some professional advice. Maugham is being blackmailed.  Maugham once worked for the British secret service, and the people now blackmailing him are spies.” Penguin Random House

9781250077349_p0_v3_s192x300 Into Oblivion: An Icelandic Thriller by Arnaldur Indridason

“Many years before, a schoolgirl went missing, and the world has forgotten her. But Erlendur has not. Erlendur is a newly promoted detective, and he is contending with a battered dead body, a rogue CIA operative, and America’s troublesome presence in Iceland. In his spare time he investigates a cold case. He is only starting out, but he is already deeply involved in his work.”   Macmillan

This Must Be the Place

9780385349420_p0_v2_s192x300   Where would you go if you wanted to disappear from the world?  If you are Maggie O’Farrell, of course you would go to Ireland.  In her new book – This Must Be the Place – O’Farrell creates a complicated saga of lives constantly being reinvented, and the turmoil of relationships.

Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor, drives the action, across different wives, countries, children, and time zones.  As the story opens, Daniel is trying to recover from a bitter divorce which has kept him from seeing his two young children, Niall and Phoebe.  On a trip to Ireland to scatter his grandfather’s ashes, he serendipitously meets Claudette, a famous movie star in hiding with her young son, Ari.  Eventually, they marry and happily stay in hiding together in a remote area of Ireland for ten years – until, the next crisis in Daniel’s life.

If the plot seems formulaic, do not be deceived.  O’Farrell expertly weaves characters and motivations together, while keeping the reader off balance with the jumping of time zones and the introductions of new characters.  She cleverly draws the reader into what would seem to be an ordinary existence, then clobbers all expectations with revelations of the past in each character’s life.

The story is complicated but rewarding.  In This Must Be the Place, O’Farrell offers the possibilities of love offering understanding and relief from our own worst selves.

I need to read the book again, but knowing what happens will not spoil the anticipation of watching the interaction of all the characters, and, this time, I plan to revel in O’Farrell’s vivid descriptions of place and time.

Related Reviews:

The Quality of Silence

9781101903674_p0_v4_s192x300Rosamund Lupton’s newest suspense thriller – The Quality of Silence – had my undivided attention throughout the day.  Following a mother and her deaf daughter as they drove a ten ton rig in a fast-paced chase through the Arctic cold, I could not put the book down until I finished.  What a ride.

The story focuses on Ruby, a clever ten year old who was born deaf, and her mother, Yasmin, a beautiful astrophysicist, as they search for Matt, father and husband presumed to be dead in a lethal explosion at an Eskimo village.  Not willing to believe he is dead, the mother and daughter hitch a ride along the Dalton Highway in Alaska to the Arctic Circle to find him.  When the driver of the truck has a stroke, Yasmin takes the wheel to drive into a snowstorm and across narrow frozen rivers.  Afraid to leave Ruby to try to communicate with strangers, she takes her along, but when they realize they are being followed, the tension escalates.

Villains come from obvious as well as insidious sources.  Lupton uses the effects of fracking on the environment as the major villain in the story, with  sharp observations about its effects on the ecosystem, and the dire consequences for the environment in the future.  As a ten year old deaf child, Ruby feels excluded from friends at her mainstreamed school as she deals with silent bullies.  And, Yasmin worries that her wildlife documentary-maker husband, Matt, who has been working for months in the Arctic night, has betrayed her with an Inupiaq woman; his last email – “I kissed her because I missed you.”

Lupton cleverly uses Ruby’s young voice as a distraction from the terror, and grounds the story in the family dynamics.  Ruby’s optimism was often a welcome distraction from the nail-biting drama.

All ends well with the bad guys getting their due, thanks to Ruby and her tech savvy.  Once again, Lupton delivers  a satisfying and compelling tale.  All of Lupton’s books offer a thrilling ride, but this one was chilling.

I look forward to the next one.

Reviews of Other Lupton books: