George's Grand Tour by Caroline Vermalle. Fun travel-in-France book from the viewpoint of an elderly man defying the young. (Reading Matters).
Helen Macdonald. H is for Hawk.
Emily Bitto's The Strays. Won the Stella Prize.
This short novel about the life of an Irish woman who moves to New York in 1962 will be in my top ten for the year. It begins with the death of Tess's mother when Tess was an 8-year-old; joy goes out of the house and her dour father withdraws his meager love. She finds comfort in her sisters, the dog, and Mike Connolly who works on their farm but even so she has lost the ability to speak.
She looks in [the coach house] and sees Mike Connolly reaching to hang the horse collar up on a hook. When he turns and sees her, he gets a little fright. Then his eyes soften, but he says nothing. A time will come when no one will talk to her at all, or even look at her. She is a disappearing girl.
It is Mike's kind teasing that enables her to speak again.
When she is in her early twenties she trains to be a nurse for two years in a hospital in Dublin and falls into that routine comfortably. She lives a quiet life and avoids social gatherings.
The shyness she feels among others and the terrible need to fit in cause her such anxiety that when the event arrives the prospect of going amoung people renders her immobile, disabled, sometimes physically sick.
She makes her way to New York where her sister Claire lives and she is able to pick up her solitary insulated life again. She and another Irish immigrant move into an apartment on Academy Street in the extreme northern part of Manhattan together where she lives for many years, long after her roommate left. She falls in love with someone she met in the Irish community who is drawn to her, but has higher expectations for a mate. Their one intimacy leaves her pregnant and she doesn't see him again. Her son Theo brings her joy, but of course he grows up and once again she has her solitary life.
Throughout the book one wonders, along with Tess herself, the effect of the death of her mother on her unhappy life and the lives of her siblings. When she thought about a life in Ireland, she thought of
the restraint, the stasis. She could never have kept Theo. It seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited. Here, life could be lived at a higher, truer pitch. Though her own was a timid life, there was, since Theo's birth, a yearning towards motion and spirit and vitality.
For most of this book, I felt the absence of the dramatically changing times in New York during the 1960s and 1970s. But the author captured 9/11 in a heart-stopping way:
She felt a strange surreal calm sitting in front of the TV all evening. Over and over she watched two planes with glinting wings fly into skyscrapers, from a sky so blue it did not look real. Then the skyscrapers buckling, collapsing, folding under. People on the streets, their hands on their mouths, looking up in disbelief. People fleeing, enveloped in ash, as rivers of smoke pursued them through the streets. Everyone running, the cameras running, crowds crossing bridges, getting off the island.
I have failed to capture why this book made such an unpromising life so real and important, but Tess did become that for me.
Mary Costello, Academy Street, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, 160 pages (I read the kindle version). It's not available in the libraries here yet, but is available through Amazon.
According to Amazon, Bill Gifford has written for magazines such as Outside and Bicycling, as well as a stint writing for the Washington City Paper, a weekly alternative newspaper. This personal and thorough look at the science of and non-scientific practice of prolonging life written by a competent writer is a pleasure. Though the information is as overwhelming as water through a firehouse, still, it was fun to listen to and useful as far as I can remember what he said.
The entertainment value was high in some chapters like the one about the determination of Suzanne Somers to take whatever drugs necessary to remain youthful well beyond her years. He remembers his fantasies about her when he was a teenager watching Three's Company and says that she looks pretty amazing now at 68. Among the countless pills she takes, the hormone replacement pills, though different from the one found to have caused breast cancer, are not considered safe. And there are the growth hormones, outlawed for athletes.
Several of the characters he wrote about reminded me of the fictional character in Richard Powers' book Generosity, a geneticist who was sure the disease of aging was about to be eliminated. Aubrey de Gray, a British computer scientist has identified types of aging damage that he believes could be addressed. The scientific community has not been persuaded, though no one has been able to disprove his theories.
He notes that with the high use of statin drugs which lower LDL, the rate of death from cardiovascular disease has been cut in half since 1960. Statin drugs help those who have the disease, but don't work as primary prevention. One researcher says there is not an overall decline in mortality and he concludes the statins kill in other ways. A study of 136,000 people who had a major coronary event showed half had low LDL; other risk factors for heart disease (high blood pressure, weight, diabetes) are implicated. I recount his description of this in hopes of coming to a greater understanding of the change in dietary recommendations which state that cholesterol in food does not increase the cholesterol in the blood. Other recommendations refer to weight management, low fat food, avoiding saturated fats, and the like.
So, what causes high LDL? What other causes of death increased that made up for lowered cardiovascular disease deaths? Was it really statins that reduced the death rate from cardiovascular disease?
He gives a short review of a few "things that might work," including resveratrol (don't bother), alcohol (moderate drinkers live longer than those who drink nothing and red wine is your friend), coffee (turns out that the link to cancer was from studies where coffee drinkers were smoking at the same time; a large study reported in NEJM showed that coffee drinkers had lower mortality risk than abstainers, the more coffee, the better), kercumin found in turmeric (another don't bother), metformin, a drug taken by diabetics (one of the most promising--and mysterious--anti-aging drugs out there), Vitamin D (in addition to taking supplements, get some sun a few times a week) and aspirin or ibuprofen (in addition to established heart attack prevention, aspirin is an anti-inflammatory and inflammation is a part of aging and disease.
Bill Gifford, Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying), Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 384 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa library and from Amazon, soon to be available in the public library.
I have enjoyed this Australian writer in the past (Five Bells); both books were recommended by Reading Matters. Her review of this one mentioned specifically the joy of beautiful sentences and I found I was bowled over time and again by the language. Sometimes that can overshadow or barely make up for an absent plot, but in this case it was an integral part of a wonderful whole.
We know from the outset that Lucy will die young:
In bed the man beside her turned over, half-awake. His dark humped shape set the mosquito net aquiver.
"Lucy?" he enquired again.
He sounded almost loving.
She will remember this utterance of her name when she meets her own death -- in a few years' time, at the age of twenty-two.
Lucy's short life is filled with dreadful events and wonderful loving people; one might even say, "the best of times and the worst of times" as she lived in London just as Dickens' serial Great Expectations was coming out. She and her brother became orphans after their mother died during childbirth and their father shortly after of heartbreak. Their father had written to their lovable, ne'er-do-well uncle in India asking him to take charge of the children.
Uncle Neville took them from Australia to London where they were in school until he once again ran out of money and the young teenagers went to work. For a time Lucy worked with older women making photographic paper, an auspicious place to work as eventually she became a photographer. Thomas worked at Mr. Martin Child's Magic Lantern Establishment, thus beginning his career in the projection of images.
So many of the lovely sentences in this book create wonderful images; Lucy's thoughts often centered on images and many of the stories of her family's lives were punctuated by a dramatic image. Their father had grown up in China as his parents were missionaries. One day when he was young, he and his mother were in an ox cart on a lonely stretch of road when a thunderstorm arose. He realized the danger and dragged his mother into a field. They were struck by lightning and when they regained consciousness, his mother's skirt was smoldering and her paper umbrella had been burned. He had always wanted to relate this image to others:
That she [his mother] had risen from fiery death, brushed herself down, adjusted her bonnet, tidied up, and then taken and held aloft a burnt-out umbrella. And Arthur had looked up and seen encircling his mother's head a radial structure of sticks, a Florentine halo, through which, in dazzling mauve, shone spokes of storm-swept sky.
They fared better than the ox who died on the roadway.
In her short life Lucy found herself in unfortunate circumstances more than once and it is her unique approach to life that changes conditions. When she began working in the albumen factory making photographic paper, the women were unkind to her. This changed after the day that, inspired by Pip, she stood up to a violent husband who came to berate his wife. He hit Lucy and ever afterwards, the women were friendly and helpful to her. She was sent to India to marry a friend of her uncle's; he found her "rank-breaking" acts deplorable and noted to himself that Australians had no sense of decorum. She was undeterred and taught one servant to play chess and braided another's hair and eventually was loved by all.
While in India Lucy was taught the basics of photography and quickly developed her own sense of it:
Under the nocturnal shadow of the velvet drape, through the frame, and the lens, and the aperture, and the glass, that together directed her vision into this specialized seeing, Lucy discovered the machine that is a gift-boxed tribute to the eye. She looked as she never had, imagining a picture frame or a box that isolated the continuous and unceasing flux of things into clear aesthetic units, into achieved moments of observation. Where Victor [her teacher] sedated and mortified all that he saw -- his box, thought Lucy, functioned as a seeing-eye coffin -- she imagined a mobile apparatus, one that travelled everywhere with her and that discerned the capability of all things, all ordinary things, to be seen singly and remarkably.
Yes, ideally, photographs isolate the continuous flux of things into clear aesthetic units, moments of observation.
Gail Jones, Sixty Lights, The Harvill Press, 2004, 249 pages. Available at the UVa library and through Amazon.
This book is Claire Fuller's first; she is British and I learned of her through her twitter feed (can't remember how I began following it). It will be available as a print book in the US on March 17, but I bought the kindle book last week so I could read it while traveling to Iowa. And what a great way to endure travel by air it was.
It is the gripping story of an 8-year-old girl taken by her survivalist father from London to the wilds of Germany while her mother is away performing as a renown concert pianist. The chapters telling of the 9 years of living a completely isolated existence are interspersed with chapters dated 1985 when she has been reunited with her mother. Her father told her they were the only two people still alive; that the rest of the world had been destroyed. The starvation diet, lack of basic sanitation, and isolation wrecked her growing body and mind, so that she looks 3 years younger than her 17 years and cannot reliable tell what happened to her.
While it is clear from the beginning that her father is monstrous, they do have their moments. Just after her mother left, the two of the began living in a tent in the yard (or as they say, garden) which backs onto a graveyard. From a tree overlooking the cemetery, they looked down on it.
The cemetery was closed to the public--lack of council funds had locked its gates the year before. We were alone with the foxes and the owls; no visitors or mourners came, so we invented them. We pointed out a tourist in a Hawaiian shirt with his loud wife.
"Oh gee," said my father in an American falsetto, "look at that angel, isn't she just the cutest thing!"
Once, we swung our legs above an imaginary burial.
"Shh, the widow's coming," whispered my father. "She's blowing her nose on a lace handkerchief. How tragic to have lost her husband so young."
"But just behind her are the evil twins," I joined in, "wearing identical black dresses."
"And there's the despicable nephew--the one with egg in his mustache. All he wants is his uncle's money." My father rubbed his hands together.
"The widow's throwing a flower onto the coffin."
"A forget-me-not," my father added. "The uncle is creeping up behind her--watch out! She's going to fall into the grave!" He grabbed me around the waist and pretended to tip me off the branch. I squealed, my voice ringing amonst the stone mausoleums and tombs surrounding us.
This is one of the few light-hearted moments in an intense and riveting book. There's something I love about stories of survival when catching a squirrel to eat means it a good day. Interspersing the chapters about Peggy in 1985 (called Punzel for Rapunzel by her father) shows her gradually beginning to understand what happened, though at the end it becomes clear that her horrific experience has made her unable to know the full truth. I appreciate having enough clues throughout so that the final revelation is believable.
Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days, Tin House Books, 382 pages (I read the kindle version).
Reading Matters was very enthusiastic about this book and I found that I wholeheartedly agree. The narrator is an elderly woman writing in 1933 about events that occurred in 1888-90, beginning with the International Exhibition in Glasgow.
In the preface of this novel Harriet Baxter tells us that she wants to write a book about Ned Gilllespie, described as her dear friend and soul mate. He was a great artist, she says, though he destroyed all but a few of his works and died at 36. The reason that so many years passed before she undertook this task was that she needed to gain distance from
a sequence of profoundly affecting events, not least of which was that Ned, in addition to wiping out his artistic legacy, also took his own life. By that time, I was thousands of miles away, and powerless to help him. Confident of a reconciliation, I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unravelling, not only of our relationship (what with that silly white-slavery business and the trial) but also of his entire fate. However, let us not get ahead of ourselves. I will come to all that in due course.
So you can see from the outset that Harriet Baxter is writing to present herself in a certain light and to dismiss all those whose view of her is different from her own. The picture we get of Harriet is that she is a very proper woman, extremely helpful to everyone she encounters, and has the best intentions in trying to promote the artistic career of Ned Gillespie. By the end of the book, a very different picture has emerged, and her denials are harder to believe. It becomes apparent that many of the events that Harriet recounts actually were engineered by her.
On a much smaller scale, she tells in interspersed chapters about her life in 1933 as she is writing her book. She has an assistant who lives in her house; her connection with the assistant deteriorates dramatically as we learn more about Harriet as others see her.
Jane Harris, Gillespie and I, HarperCollins, 2012, 504 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.
It was Tony's mention of listening to Travels with My Aunt (made into a movie with Maggie Smith) that encouraged me to listen to Our Man in Havana. I had seen the movie with Alec Guinness years ago, but remember only his white suit and being confused. Of course I know and love some of his other works through movies, The End of the Affair and the wonderful The Third Man.
The protagonist is a poor schlub named Wormold who sells vacuum cleaners in Havana. His wife had left years before and he is unable to say no to his teenage daughter Milly. For no clear reason he is approached by a British agent named Hawthorne to be a spy for the British; Milly's desire for a horse and other expenses makes him willing to give this a try. He creates fake agents and sends in their fictitious reports, including some diagrams purporting to be weaponry that are actually vacuum cleaner nozzle diagrams. Occasionally we hear from the higher authorities in London who are pleased with Wormold's reports and for their own bureaucratic infighting reasons find it inconvenient to check with others to determine authenticity.
As some begin to doubt Wormold's reports, a man with the same name as one of his "agents" dies in an accident and his credibility rises. He is very confused by this turn of events, but by this time he has been sent an assistant (Beatrice) and someone to send and receive messages. A big moment comes when he is warned that he is to be poisoned at the annual businessman's luncheon. Against his friends' advice, he attends anyway and manages to avoid being poisoned, though a dog dies who lapped up whiskey meant for him.
Once you are accustomed to the disdain for, well, for just about everybody, it's a fun and clever book. He was an amazing writer.
Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana, Viking Press, 1958, 247 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.
It was Michael Dirda's review in The Washington Post that drew me to this book; he said the book quickly has you in thrall. That at the end "you find yourself emotionally sucked dry, as much stunned as exhilarated by the power of art." It's true, I was in thrall, read faster and faster as it went along, and was stunned and overwhelmed by the end.
Sarah Waters is, according to Wikipedia, a Welsh novelist, best known for novels set in Victorian society, featuring lesbian protagonists. This one is set in 1922 and Frances Wray is the lesbian protagonist. She and her mother are struggling to maintain their large house in the fine area of Champion Hill and find the answer in taking in lodgers, or as a polite family friend called them, "paying guests." The combination of a father given to bad investments and the death of her two brothers in the war has left the two in grief and straightened circumstances.
They work to maintain the facade of their former life and Frances gives up a life in the city with her former love Christina to take care of her mother whose work is limited to church and charity work outside the home. Frances does heavy housework when she is out to protect her mother from the indignity of seeing her daughter scrubbing the floor on her knees.
Another aspect of the sad times they live in is the devastation of survivors of the war. At a family friend's house, another guest, Mr. Crowther, tells Frances about his war and post-war experience:
It was real, stinking hell. But the queer thing is, I sometimes find myself missing those days….Back here, now it's all over--well, there isn't a great deal for one. Lots of one's friends dead, and so on. And there are no paid posts for men like me….Other fellows I know are drifting about, getting into this, getting into that. None of us has any sticking power. I feel half in a daze, myself. Ceylon, South Africa--I'll never get there. Or if I do, I'll wear my days away just as I wear them away here.
All of this is the backdrop to the main story of course. Very slowly, inch by inch, Frances becomes friends, then lovers with the wife of the "clerk class" couple who are the paying guests. (And I can't think when I've read a book with more specific sexual activity description than this one.) Mrs. Barber then becomes Lilian and eventually the two want to escape Mr. Barber and Frances' mother to live on their own in the city. Lilian turns up pregnant and convinces Frances to help her when she takes pills that will cause her to abort. When Leonard comes home early and finds what's going on and Frances tells him they are lovers, he attacks Frances and Lilian kills him. They drag him outside the house and cover the evidence as well as they can and await discovery. The story does not end here and there is much ground yet to cover that I have not revealed.
Have you ever dreamed that you were an accomplice to murder and had to hide a body? I have had that dream several times and so this was a nightmare of a book for me. But I was in thrall and finished it with relief. Sarah Waters does capture you and won't let you go until the end.
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests, Riverhead Books, 2014, 576 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon. There are 78 holds on it at the public library.
This is another one I chose because it's on the NYT list of 10 best books of 2014 (the other was All the Light We Cannot See). It is inspired by events in the life of Margaret Mead and takes place in 1933 in New Guinea where she and her husband worked briefly with Gregory Bateson who became her third husband.
In the novel Nell and her husband Fen have just fled a malevolent tribe who threatened Nell when they encounter Andrew Bankson who has worked on his own so long he is overjoyed to see them. He narrates the story of their intense time together. He and Nell are immediately drawn to each other and spend much of the first night together talking. He settles them with the Tam tribe seven hours from his own work and leaves them on their own for weeks. Nell's success with her work in that time is remarkable while Fen crashes about, making no notes on whatever it is he does.
When Bankson does arrive for a visit, it is clear that Fen is jealous Nell's success and alert to the interest between Nell and Bankson. The three do have their productive and exciting times of work together. But Fen eventually secretly undertakes a plan that results in a death of a tribe member and necessitates their fleeing the area. At this point the story takes a turn that varies from Margaret Mead's life dramatically.
The limitations of anthropology were a part of this story; the title comes from a passage in the book quoted in the NYT review when Nell says the moment comes about two months into the field research when the tribe's culture suddenly makes sense:
It's a delusion -- you've only been there eight weeks -- and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria.
After reading the book, I read the Wikipedia entry for Margaret Mead. What an amazing woman she was. She studied with Ruth Benedict and likely had a sexual connection with her. She was married three times, the last marriage was with Gregory Bateson (on whom the Bankson character was based). The pediatrician for their daughter, the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, was Benjamin Spock who adopted some of the approaches for childrearing based on her field observations. Mead's sister Elizabeth married William Steig, best known in the Self household for his children's book The Amazing Bone.
The book was almost entirely narrated by the Bankson character, Simon Vance, a good narrator. A small portion was in Nell's voice or about Nell and was narrated by Xe Sands, whose voice I found unpleasant and sometimes hard to understand.
Lily King, Euphoria, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014, 261 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and through Amazon.
Having read Tony's blogpost about this book, I figured I would enjoy it, but it turns out that It was mesmerizing from the outset and I could hardly put it down. It drew me along in a way that few books have. So, what is it about this book?
We learn the story of an artistic couple, Owen, the writer and Gus, the painter told by Gus. Owen has published five books that are well regarded but only purchased by a precious few and while Gus is respected as a painter, she has made a living largely by teaching private lessons. They receive a bequest from a relative that enables them to move out of the city to live in an old farmhouse with no close neighbors. They are recovering from the pain of an affair that Gus had which nearly ended their marriage and caused Owen much pain. He goes to his writing space in the barn each day and struggles with his inability to begin a new project while Gus works with enthusiasm on a series of paintings. After three years of solitude, a woman moves into a house nearby that had been vacant. Gus and the woman becomes close friends. The woman's grown daughter Nora comes to visit and Owen's struggle to write in the barn ends. Complications ensue.
The narrative is an intense dramatic story, while it also describes ordinary details that make a clear picture of these lives and at the same time manages to focus on Gus' creative life so that you are invited into that intimate space. The author explores the connections between the characters beautifully: the married couple, the friendship between the two women that develops over the course of the book, Gus and her student whose life she turned around, and Gus and her father whose dementia worsens.
I like the general observations the author throws in:
One of the unanticipated impacts of our life in the country was that time had taken on a different feel. As Philadelphians, we had been teachers, shoppers, socializers, therapy attenders, bus catchers. And all of these things require an awareness of the clock and of the calendar. You have to know it's Monday and you have to know it's noon, if you are going to get to your Monday 1 p.m. appointment. But even after only a month or two in the farmhouse, we started shedding that awareness. It was so rare for it to matter much whether it was Tuesday or Sunday.
Retired folks might recognize this phenomenon.
Robin Black, Life Drawing, Random House, 2014, 240 pages. Available from the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.