Friday, April 27, 2012

A Suggestion from Maureen

NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan was describing a scene in her local bookstore where she overheard a conversation between two women who were looking for “a new British novelist”. She didn't interrupt, despite having a good suggestion, namely author Peter Cameron, an American who spent part of his childhood in England. (Maureen, if you're ever next to me in a bookstore, go ahead and jump in.)

Cameron's latest novel is set in 1950's England, but if not for the presence of electricity and automobiles it could have been a century earlier. Coral Glynn, a young private duty nurse who is "rather pretty ... in a plain way." comes to a country house to care for the dying mother of middle-aged, war-damaged Major Clement Hart. Are you thinking Jane Eyre? When the mother dies, what seems inevitable happens, except it doesn't quite. What the characters do next seems predictable, except it isn't exactly. And how things finally turn out seems unexpected, or was I just not paying attention? And although there is no crazy wife in the attic, there is an oddly Gothic scene that spins the plot around.

At various times I was ready to grab both Clement and Coral by the shoulders and shake some sense into them, but these are not people who would have responded well to my intervention. Each is damaged and repressed, and both are capable of impulsive and sometimes inexplicable behavior.

If you're a fan of “Jane Eyre”, or even “Rebecca”, I think you'll enjoy the resonances even though the plot twists in a different direction, and I'd definitely recommend this as a plane ride or beach read.

Friday, April 20, 2012

When In Doubt

When in doubt, try Irish. That's my general rule when I'm looking for something to read. I'm a sucker for Irish authors. I can hear the accent as I read the words. I love the names of the locales – Enniskerry, Youghal, Clonskeagh – and I like to roll the characters names around in my mouth – Aileen, Fiona, Fiachra.

In Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz the Irish voice belongs to married woman Gina Moynihan as she narrates her affair with Séan—himself married and a father. Gina isn't exactly an unreliable narrator, but she certainly doesn't attempt to be a sympathetic one. The affair begins in the midst of the Celtic Tiger economy of the early 2000's, when acquisitiveness of all kinds was the norm among Dublin's smart, affluent set, and Gina almost seems to regard her affair as a more exciting alternative to buying a vacation home.

But the novel shifts backward and forward in time, so between the passages where Gina describes the thrill and danger of the early days of the affair are passages where she reflects more soberly on its long term effects. Much like the Irish economy, the relationship loses some of its luster, and collateral damage becomes clear. Their marriages ended, Gina and Séan live in a house that they cannot sell, and Gina reluctantly faces the effects of their actions on Séan's daughter.

I admire Enright's courage in presenting a character who does not ask for the reader's sympathy. Gina is sharp and funny, sometimes self-delusional and sometimes bracingly honest, Irish to the bone but with elements of Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina transposed to the new millennium. 

Editor's note:  Time to spruce up the website.  Slight refresh to the format, but our devotion to books and reading remains steadfast.

Monday, April 9, 2012

What is it that history teaches us?

Does it help us hear the cries of the past? "The Warmth of Other Suns" is a beautifully written, stunningly researched account of the migration of 6 million black Americans from the south to northern and western cities between 1915-1970. They fled Jim Crow laws, lynchings, violence and exploitation and streamed into major cities, emptying the south of its agricultural labor.

This history comes alive through the stories of three individuals: Mississippi sharecropper Ida Mae Gladney, who left for Chicago in 1937, educated activist George Starling, who fled Florida for Harlem in 1945, and surgeon Robert Foster, who abandoned Louisiana for better opportunity in Los Angeles in 1953. All were driven from their birthplaces by institutionalized racism, crushing humiliations, and the determination to find something better.

Author Isabel Wilkerson, herself a child of southern migrants, follows her subjects on their journeys. They struggled in new communities where they could now vote and sit anywhere on a bus but faced invisible, unwritten barriers. Still, nearly all would say that opportunities were greater and life was better. They cooked southern food and practiced their southern faith. They worked long hours, had small families, and stayed married. Yet somehow the ghettos into which they were crowded became dangerous places for their children.

This story is absolutely engrossing. Wilkerson gives us the details which bring it vividly and compellingly to life.