How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

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For once, I saw the film of this award-winning Young Adult book before reading the book itself. I’d taken an excellent workshop led by Rosoff, so when I saw the film listed, I decided to take a look. Only later did I follow up with reading the book, and was glad I did.

As the story begins, fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit Aunt Penn, sister to Daisy’s mother who died when Daisy was born. The teen loathes her stepmother, who is pregnant, saying, “If she was making even the slightest attempt to address centuries of bad press for stepmother, she scored a Big Fat Zero.”

Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. She’s met by her fourteen-year-old cousin Edmond, who is not only smoking a cigarette but has brought a “falling-apart” jeep in which he will drive her home.

Thus begins her adventures with her charmingly eccentric cousins in an old house in the countryside. Aunt Penn who is important in the government, leaves almost immediately “to give a lecture in Oslo . . . on the Imminent Threat of War.”

Daisy pays little attention to war-talk, since people had been yammering about the possibility for the last five years, though her oldest cousin Osbert can’t get enough of the latest news. She spends her days with Edmond, his twin Isaac, and their little sister Piper, and assorted dogs, goats and other animals. They fish and swim and picnic.

Then comes the invasion.

This is when the film blew me away. Watching it without knowing the story at all, I thought if a war came, it would be like the Land Girls or children being moved to the countryside during the Blitz, as in Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart.

I was wrong. The images of rural England occupied by an enemy force—villages turned into military encampments, cars abandoned on country lanes for lack of petrol—shocked me deeply. And, to my shame, showed me just how superficial my empathy is for other countries trapped by warring armies: Sarajevo, Aleppo, so many others. Not England, I kept thinking.

Shameful, indeed.

I’m glad I went on to read the book. Not only is it more detailed and nuanced—movies must necessarily leave out much of what’s in a book—but Daisy’s voice is so true as she tries to keep her head above water, waters that get deeper and more treacherous as the story goes on. I felt I experienced every minute with her, every shifting emotion. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion found an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

Have you read a book recently that showed you something new about yourself, perhaps something you’re not proud of?

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

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On a July evening in 1962, a young newlywed couple sits down to dinner in their hotel suite on the Dorset coast. Bound by convention, they continue eating a meal they do not want, their attention drawn to the bed in the next room. Edward and Florence, both nervous, reflect on how their love for each other has brought them to this moment.

It may be hard for those born after the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and the availability of the Pill to understand the repression and gamesmanship of the time that came before. What little Florence has heard about sex disgusts her, but she is determined to do her duty. Edward has had only one experience, which did not go well, and has been kept at arm’s length by his beloved throughout their courtship.

McEwan expertly builds the picture of the time period and of these two—one a student of history and the other an apparently gifted violinist—who come from different levels of society. And yet, as I’ve found with other of McEwan’s novels, this story is mostly an intellectual pleasure.

I keep reading his novels because they are so well-constructed and so well-written. Individual sentences sparkle and delight. Yet there is something about McEwan’s novels that leaves me cold and unsatisfied.

Maybe it’s the sense that they are more an exercise than a story. The chessboard is laid out with care, each element with its purpose. The theme here is interesting: what we don’t say or do; society’s constraints versus how we feel. I find moments I recognize—ones I thought no one else knew—like the first thrill, dark and irresistible, of loosing the angry words suppressed in a lifetime of good behavior.

The plot is clear and cogent, from the usual McEwan beginning with a surprising event that changes everyone’s lives. What’s different here is that the book goes back instead of forward from that event. Only at the very end comes a quick summary of the resulting future. It is also different because it’s about what doesn’t happen. No stranger comes in and changes everything.

The characters are also well-constructed. I found Florence a little unrealistic, that she could be so completely frigid sexually and yet such a remarkable and passionate violinist. I wondered if perhaps there was some early trauma. McEwan drops a couple of hints of possible abuse, but—much as I appreciate subtlety and being left to figure things out by myself—it’s too little to make a case. I read an interview later where McEwan said that he left a few clues but didn’t want to make it explicit. I don’t think that is fair to the reader.

In the end, though, I don’t care about what happens to the characters. They seem like puppets being moved around. The story doesn’t engage my emotions. However, McEwan does bring back that time vividly. I found myself thinking of the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass, and how clearly I recall it after all these decades. This book, on the other hand, is fading quickly.

Have you read a novel that you appreciated, even admired, but didn’t enjoy?

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

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McGregor’s latest book is not for everyone. There are no car chases or spies or broken-down police detectives. There isn’t even a traditional protagonist. Reservoir 13 is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life.

In quiet, exquisite prose, McGregor immerses us in this life. Holidays are celebrated, with fireworks at New Year’s and Guy Fawkes Day and a pantomime at Christmas. The agricultural life of the village goes on: haying, getting the cows in for their evening milking, looking for the sheep lost in a snowstorm. Hawthorne blooms; voles burrow under the hedges, fox cubs play outside their den.

Townspeople appear and reappear: a family who get called away from their sheep farm to rebuild bridges knocked out by storms and to do other heavy work around the village, a woman who is barely keeping her head above water caring for her autistic son, a man who visits his aging mother at Christmas and tries to avoid meeting up with his sisters, a woman who helps her elderly neighbor by walking his dog, and many more. In the course of the 13 years we follow children growing into their young adulthood, pairing off, breaking up, finding new loves.

At first I was afraid that I would have trouble following all these different characters, but in fact I had no problem keeping them straight. The author always provided small but necessary clues to remind me of who the person was and their relationship to others.

My only criticism of the book—and it is partially of the author and partly of the publisher—is that it begins with the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl. She and her parents, who are staying in the village over New Year’s, go for a walk and somehow get separated. By starting this way and by the promotional material, it sounds like it’s going to be a mystery, but it is not.

Instead, it is an examination in part—and only in part—of the effect of this event on the life of the town. As you can imagine, while the disappearance dominates the first year, over 13 years it begins to fade to an occasional memory, however much some individuals are changed by it.

The misleading description of the book as being about the girl’s disappearance sets up expectations that detract from the real pleasures to be found here. I almost came to see the disappearance as a clumsy attempt to start with a bang, in media res as we writers are advised to do. Yet nothing else here is clumsy.

I listened to this book. Some stories are better suited for audiobooks than others. I think I would have enjoyed reading it as well, but listening to it provided a sweet, almost trance-like pleasure. I started listening to it on a road trip but it was a little too quiet. However, during peaceful times at home or those sleepless hours in the middle of the night, it was exactly the right thing. I must have listened to it four times over by now. I even go back to chapters out of order now that I know the story. I never tire of it.

I love the rhythm of the year, the description of nature’s cycles, and the cycles of peoples lives: divorces, deaths, first loves. One of McGregor’s techniques to reinforce these cycles is to repeat certain phrases or sentences with slight variations. I love the image of the river that runs through town that turns over itself under the bridge and carries plumes of dirt over the weir. It reminds me of the quote from Heraclitus (as translated in my edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) “You can’t step twice into the same river.” We see the four children we see grow into young adults trying to do just that as their own personal ritual. Another interpretation of Heraclitus’s thought

. . . is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it. On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).

McGregor’s remarkable story embodies this paradox. It is told in both linear and circular time—a remarkable achievement. The mystery here is not so much the disappearance of the girl, but the mystery of time, the center of this paradox of change and constancy.

This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor. it happens rarely, but sometimes I will read the first page of a book and think to myself: OK stop. You need to slow down and take your time and enjoy every second of reading this book. It almost never happens, but it did with this book.

Have you read a book that you just want to read over and over?

The Flight of the Maidens, by Jane Gardam

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Recently I encouraged my new book club to read Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, a book which I enjoyed tremendously. Some people in the book club enjoyed it, but a couple of others said that they were put off by it and skimmed over it to read the ending. They said that because it was the story of a 13-year-old girl, they felt that they had lived through that stage and suffered that angst and did not want to relive it. I was surprised because part of why I loved the story so much was that I identified so strongly with the protagonist. I loved her imagination and could certainly identify with her struggles with her sister.

I expect that those same book club members would not enjoy this novel by Jane Gardam. It is the story of three young women who are a little older at 18. As it begins, they have just learned that not only have they gotten into the excellent universities to which they have applied, but they have received the state grants that will enable them to attend. The story then covers the two months as they prepare to leave home.

This is a remarkable time, this time of disentangling oneself from parents and childhood friends. Even more terrifying and exciting is that in this liminal space you can determine who you want to be, now that you have this great opportunity to present yourself as a different person to the world.

When you go off to school, where no one knows you, you can leave behind the person you’ve been for 18 years. Gardam’s choice of time period adds to the uncertainty: it’s 1946; the Second World War has only been over for a year; and everyone is adjusting to the new nuclear reality and the shocking news from Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.

Hefty has decided that at university she will be called by her full name Hester. She’s eager to escape from her clinging intrusive mother, whom she cannot help but love, just as she loves her father, who was greatly damaged in World War I. Once a promising scholar, he now digs graves and wanders about.

Her brilliant best friend Una has become a bit more distant this year, since Hetty took up with—and became engaged to—a pleasant milquetoast of a man. Una has been spending much of her time with her longtime friend Ray, once the fish boy and now working for the railroad. Una and Ray are mad for cycling but curiously silent with each other. Una’s mother operates a run-down hair salon in their home and has a hap-hazard approach to parenting

The third girl is Leiselotte, a German Jew brought to England in the 1939 kindertransport and placed with a Quaker couple. She has not been notified of her parents’ fate all these seven years. A quiet girl, who spends her free time knitting, she has kept to herself up till now, but is thrown together with Una and Hetty by their awards.

Like my friends I remember only too clearly that time of my life and at first was not sure that I wanted to relive it. However, I have been charmed by many of Jane Gardam’s novels and had great faith that she would intrigue me. I was not disappointed. Gardam fills out the cast with marvelously eccentric English characters and, as always, her prose is acerbic enough to offset any incipient nostalgia for the past.

I was most intrigued by the push-pull between the girls and their families at a time when it was unusual for girls to go off to university. With humor and insight, Gardam navigates these subtle currents of love and independence.

Does the age of the protagonist make a difference when you are choosing what to read next?

White Dog, by Romain Gary

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A friend loaned me this out-of-print book after we’d had a discussion about race in the United States. The story takes place in 1968 and was published two years later in France and the U.S.

A Russian émigré to France, Gary was at that time the French consul general, living in Los Angeles with his wife, actress and civil rights activist Jean Seberg, their son and several pets.

One day their sweet-natured dog brings home a new friend, a German Shepherd who seems not only gentle but extremely intelligent. All goes well until a man arrives to clean the pool—a man who happens to be black—and the dog erupts into a vicious rage.

Gary eventually discovers that this dog whom he loves and who adores him is in fact a white dog, that is, a dog who has been trained and bred to attack black people and only black people. Such dogs were used at the time by law enforcement in the South, and also as protection by whites who feared a violent black uprising—a possibility that was certainly in the air in 1968.

Though he claims to be a cynical man, Gary is seized by a rare moment of hope and resolves to train the dog not to hate anymore. Perhaps he can prove that social behavior can be unlearned, not just by this dog, but by the country itself, which has been seized by paroxysms of rage, rocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the resulting riots.

He takes the dog to a ranch owned by a friend of his who trains animals for the movies. A black keeper there, who is expert at milking venom from snakes, makes retraining the dog his personal mission.

Gary brings a European perspective to the issues of race that were roiling the country in 1968, a time I remember only too well. Mocking non-violent activists, he circles around the idea of violence as a solution. One of his close friends is black Muslim leader calling for war against the whites—the real thing, not a metaphor. At the same time, Gary mocks the liberals—including his wife who’s become involved with funding the Black Panthers—for their posturing and ineffectual swipes at the problem.

He is not ashamed to reveal his proclivity for running away from difficult situations and spends much of the book traveling. At one point he returns to Paris in time to egg on the students rioting in the streets.

I was dismayed to discover that this supposed memoir is in fact something Gary called a fictionalized memoir. To my mind, there is no such thing. Memoirs are nonfiction, so if it is fiction then it is not a memoir.

Deliberately fictionalizing things in what is supposed to be a memoir does a disservice to all memoirs. Their power comes from the fact that they are true. Certainly it is a particular person’s truth—and we all know how different that can be from one person to another—and they have been shaped by what is included and what is left out. Still, they carry the force of personal witness.

My opinion of this book went down when I learned that it was not true. I am not alone in my dismay at the mixing of fiction and memoir. Look at the howl of betrayal over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

Still, it was enlightening to revisit that explosive year, and to compare it to today’s social justice movements.

Have you read a book, seen a film, or attended a lecture that has given you a different perspective on issues around race?