Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid


How could I resist this book? I have long been a Jane Austen fan. Northanger Abbey may be my least favorite of her works, but it is still an enjoyable display of Austin’s satirical wit. I admit, though, that I’ve gotten a little tired of modern adaptations of Austen’s novels. I’m not a purist, but there are many books in my to-be-read pile, and I had been feeling that enough was enough.

What intrigued me here was Val McDermid’s name. I’m also a big fan of her crime novels: meticulously plotted, believable characters, satisfyingly dark and twisty, her mysteries set me puzzling through the clues while thoroughly immersed in the human dramas. Already pondering how Austen’s story could be updated to the modern day, I was further intrigued by the addition of this fabulously dark crime writer to the mix.

In Austen’s story, naïve Catherine Moreland goes with family friends to Bath to get her feet wet in the social season there. She is led astray by her worldly new friend Isabella Thorpe who introduces her to Gothic novels. They quickly become an addiction for Catherine. Isabella’s brother John, believing Catherine to be an heiress, makes a big play for her. At the same time, Catherine has met and become attracted to quiet clergyman Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Thus, she finds herself pulled between the two families while coming to see the world through a Gothic lens.

Austen’s send-up of the then-new craze for Gothic novels is fun and witty, though a bit weak on plot and—at least for me—sufficiently complex characters. I could never quite believe the way Catherine is forgiven at the end of the book.

So I was curious to see how McDermid would translate this story into the modern day. There’s still plenty of naïveté to go around, even today with our sophisticated teens, and young women are still looking for the right man, even if not for the practical reasons common in Austin’s day. No problem there, but what about the rest?

McDermid cleverly sets her story in Edinburgh during Festival time, certainly as much of a social crush as Bath in Austen’s time. Her Cat Moreland is introduced to novels such as Twilight by her new friend Bella Thorpe, and Cat’s romantic fantasies begin to include sexy vampires along with the serious lawyer Henry Tilney. Communication is by text and Facebook rather than letters, though in the four years since this book was published, endlessly posting selfies to FaceBook seems to have waned among the young.

While these equivalencies are fun to enumerate, what’s amazing is the seamless way they are integrated into a story that closely follows the original, while standing just fine on its own. There’s plenty of satirical wit and lots of in-jokes too.

It’s a tour-de-force. Though I started out reading analytically, I quickly became absorbed in the story itself. I found the twists and turns quite satisfying, sufficiently different from Austen’s, while still appropriate for today, to delight me with their ingenuity.

Why would McDermid, a successful crime writer, take on such a project? Most of the writers I know like to challenge themselves. Perhaps they try a different genre or a different technique. They are constantly trying to improve their skills, no matter how successful they already are. Too, I believe that it is the project that terrifies you, the one you aren’t sure you’re up to but believe in your bones that you must write that becomes the most successful. The passion that you bring to it and the way you must dig deeply to rise to the challenge make it your best work.

Kudos to McDermid for a job well done!

Have you read an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel that you thought was particularly successful?

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier


Mary Anning lived for her whole short life in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England. Born into a working-class family—her father was a cabinet-maker—Mary started while still a small child helping with the family’s sideline of gathering fossils from the cliffs that stretched along the shore. These were sold to tourists for much-needed income.

As a child, Mary’s claim to local fame was that she had been struck by lightning while only a little over a year old and survived, unlike the woman holding her or the two other children nearby. Chevalier imaginatively uses this incident as a source of much that is different about Mary, such as her remarkable eye for spotting fossils.

Chevalier’s novel is historical fiction, but Anning was a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century. So was Elizabeth Philpot, a lady of limited means who moved with her sisters to Lyme Regis. While looking for the pretty stones she did not yet realise were fossils, Elizabeth became friends with young Mary even though she was 20 years older.

The story is really about their friendship, a peculiar one not only because of the difference in their ages and circumstances, but because of their shared rejection of the customs of the day. Climbing around on the cliffs digging out fossils and reading scientific treatises about them were not approved activities for women of any class. Mary taught Elizabeth how to recognize fossils in the shale and limestone of the cliffs, while Elizabeth taught her how to read and write and also shared with her the scientific papers that she found.

Gathering fossils was dangerous work because the cliffs were unstable. As the ground crumbled during storms, new fossils were exposed, but the two women were always in danger of being buried by a landslide. It was also dangerous because at the time the very existence of fossils was disputed because they repudiated the prevalent literal understanding of the Bible by suggesting not only that the earth might not have been created in a handful of days, but also that God may have allowed some of his creatures to die out. At that time it was believed that God watched over his creatures and could not have made a mistake or allowed any of them to become extinct.

Completely self-taught, Anning became a significant figure in the history of science. We follow her footsteps as she discovers an ichthyosaur skeleton—she was the first to suggest that it was not a crocodile, but something that must have lived long ago—as well as two complete plesiosaur skeletons and a pterosaur skeleton. She and Elizabeth also find important fish fossils. Elizabeth’s significant contributions later led her nephew to build a museum originally named after who her that later became the Lyme Regis Museum. Part of her collection is in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Amateur fossil hunters and prominent geologists of the day not only consulted Anning, and but also asked her to lead them on fossil hunting expeditions on the cliffs. Some of the men whom she helped took credit for her, finds but towards the end of her life this misrepresentation was corrected and her accomplishments began to be recognized.

While I’m delighted to have these two foremothers’ stories brought out of obscurity and introduced to a popular audience, I do have some qualms about historical fiction in general. Because so little is known about the details of their lives, there is ample room for a novelist’s imagination.

However, when we are talking about two women who actually lived, I have reservations about taking the liberty of adding to their stories. We can guess at their likely motivations, but the author herself admits that she made up some events that I believe the women would not thank her for. Of course, after we’re dead and have no one to speak for us, we have no control over our own stories. At least Anning has not been featured in a commercial dancing with a vacuum cleaner like Fred Astaire.

Still, Chevalier has done a great deal of research and written an engaging book. She has also done a great service in bringing out the inspiring story of these two women.

Have you recently learned about an area of women’s history that was new to you, perhaps through a book or a film?

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders


This surprising bestseller is set in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie has been temporarily interred. A favorite in the household, 11-year-old Willie contracted typhoid fever and died the very night of a huge ball at the White House.

Saunders was intrigued and moved by accounts that Lincoln in his grief had actually visited the crypt in order to hold the boy’s body.

Bardo refers to an intermediate state between death and reincarnation. All the characters, besides Lincoln and the cemetery’s keeper, are those souls who have not moved on but remain in the cemetery. They do not understand that they are dead; they believe they are “sick”, that their coffins are “sick–boxes”, and that they will at some point return to their interrupted lives. They are shocked and saddened when joined by Willie, not only because he is a remarkable child, but because children usually move on right away.

I didn’t want to read this book. I had read a few reviews of it, so I knew a bit about it and didn’t think that it was a book that I would enjoy. Then my book club chose it.

There were two reasons why I didn’t think I would enjoy it. For one, I don’t like to read stories about the death of children.

Also, I understood that it was experimental fiction. Its format consists of brief quotes followed by the name of the speaker, almost like an inverted screenplay.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy experimental fiction, but I rarely find it as enjoyable as more traditional narratives. Of course, there are exceptions. I was delighted by A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I knew that Saunders’s book is narrated by the dead, like Spoon River Anthology. I have always enjoyed these poems by Edgar Lee Masters; in fact, one of my favorite quotes comes from his Lucinda Matlock. She says, “It takes life to love life.”

Here, I feared that the cacophony of voices would be overwhelming. In fact, though, they flow together very well. The three main narrating souls have distinct voices in the beginning of the book, but soon their voices become quite similar. I assume this was a deliberate choice by the author to make the story read better and not feel jerky.

Other chapters are a collection of excerpts from historical sources, some real and some imaginary, which give us the facts about the ball at the White House, Willie’s death, and the war. Amusingly, many of these accounts conflict with each other. They also reveal a contemporaneous understanding of what was going on in Lincoln’s mind. The year is 1862. The Civil War has been going on for one year, and the casualties are mounting.

While there are a couple of intensely moving moments in this book, I found reading it more of a cerebral exercise. I appreciate the form that Saunders found in which to tell his story and how well he executed it. I also appreciate the subtle and surprisingly powerful ending.

Still, I was surprised that it became such a big bestseller. True, Saunders was already a popular author. And there is a good bit of humor as well as those few profound scenes. It is also surprisingly easy to read, though I wonder how confused I’d have been at the start had I not read those reviews first. If I expected a bit more substance in the novel, then that is my failing rather than the author’s.

Have you read any experimental fiction that you thought was especially successful?

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger


I’ve long been a fan of Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mysteries. Like many such series today, they are graceful and profound enough to qualify as literary fiction. This stand-alone novel, too, while a mystery, is so much more than that.

Frank Drum tells us about the summer of 1961 when he was 16. A bit of a scamp, he is in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, when we move from innocence to a more complicated knowledge.

He’s often thrown together with his younger brother Jake, partly because he feels he must protect Jake who has a stammer. They are also somewhat isolated from other youngster their age because their father is the Methodist minister in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota, and they both firmly believe in their father’s religion. Their older sister Ariel is a musical prodigy headed to Juilliard the following year.

As the summer begins, Frank and his family are struggling to come to terms with a death that has been ruled an accident but may be something more terrifying. Frank and Jake, exploring the sand flats where they are forbidden to go, encounter a squatter and notice he has a key piece of evidence in that death. Thus we are unsettled right from the beginning, aware of peril, but unsure whom to trust.

Although told from the distance of forty years, we get a strong sense of what it’s like to be 13. Frank pushes his boundaries, struggles with bullies, and fears the tensions within his family. His mother, once a promising musician herself, is a native of New Bremen who thought she was escaping by marrying a lawyer-to-be, only to be thrust back into her stifling hometown as a preacher’s wife. Adding to her discontent is her rejection of any kind of religion.

With the summer’s events, Frank must also grapple with issues of prejudice and race. He must find his own way through the religious quagmire of bad things happening to good people. And, like many teens, he must suffer those moments of recognising you’ve made a terrible mistake and those when you must make a difficult choice.

Part of the pleasure of reading this story is the delicate balance between these coming-of-age struggles and the dangerous tensions that bubble up as more deaths ensue. Another part is the subtle way the past threads through these events, exposing unexpected strains and traumas. These stories from before the story add depth and resonance.

Yet another remarkable aspect is the way not only the characters change over the course of the story, but also the way relationships between the characters transform.

Most of all, for me, after several novels in the last few years with vague or disappointing endings, the conclusion here is deeply satisfying. All the pieces come together. We have gone on a journey with these people, a journey that has left me with a full heart.

What novel have you read recently that engaged you emotionally from start to finish?

My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout


My library puts a slip of paper in books where people who’ve checked out the book can rate it. When I took out this book, I saw that three gave it top marks and one hated it. Me, I loved it.

Obviously, this quiet story is not for everyone. Lucy herself is the narrator, telling us about a time in the 1980s when she was in the hospital for nine weeks and her mother came to stay with her for five days. From the start we wonder what is wrong with her that she must be in the hospital for so long and why this is the first time Lucy has seen her mother in years, since Lucy and William’s marriage in fact.

Over the course of the five days, Lucy’s mother relates gossip from home, mostly of marriages that did not end well. Lucy’s thoughts wander over the years, touching on her brutal childhood when the family’s poverty was so great that they lived in an unheated garage with no running water and she was locked in her father’s truck while her parents were at work. She tells us about her life in New York City with her husband and daughters, though not—she insists—about her marriage.

It’s Lucy’s voice that made me fall in love with this book. Like her mother, whose voice Lucy describes as “shy, but urgent”, Lucy tells us of these things calmly, leaving us to infer the desperation underneath. Telling details—a memory of her father’s hand on the back of her head, hiding a magazine from the doctor for fear it makes her seem “trashy”, her near-envy of people with AIDS because they seem part of a community—reveal what lies beneath her surface calm.

Even the title reflects Lucy’s calm, matter-of-fact tone.

Lucy tells us how happy she is to see her mother and reassures us that she loves her mother, but the two of them shy away from anything too personal. Their relationship is at the core of the book. As in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Lucy’s love for her mother and apparent lack of self-pity make the book glow. She recognises that their love for each is an “imperfect love”, as Sarah Payne says. Payne is an author who, in occasional encounters, gives Lucy advice on writing that become life lessons.

In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. There is so much that Lucy does not say. Sarah Payne, too, is criticised as a writer who shies away from telling everything, from digging too deeply.

The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is. The seeming randomness actually follows traditional narrative structure.

Also, things are mentioned without explanation, such as Lucy’s fear of snakes or her friend telling her to be ruthless. Then, later, we learn a bit more, and then perhaps another bit. We are never told everything, but we are told enough. As one person in my book club said, every single thing in this book has to be there.

Recently, I was thinking that I had lived in my most recent home for 17 years—which seemed like no time at all—when I was surprised to realise that 17 years was the length of my childhood. When I left for college at 17, I shook off my family and began to create my life, just as Lucy did when she married and left home. Yet those few childhood years exert a power as great as that of all the decades that followed.

In the end, though, what I treasure most in this story is the perception that it’s not so much a matter of forgiving parents, but rather a recognition that the love is there, an imperfect love, but love nonetheless.

Have you read a quiet book that turned out to be unexpectedly powerful?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 2


Last week I examined some of the techniques Rukeyser used to write so powerfully about social concerns by looking at a single poem. This week I want to look at some additional aspects of her craft. In doing so, I’m indebted to the participants in my Poetry Discussion Group for their insights.

Born a few months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Rukeyser’s life was clouded by the wars of the twentieth century. She was in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and traveled to Hanoi in opposition to the Vietnam war near the end of her life. In “Poem”, she writes:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

This opening is remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is the ambivalent tone of the first line. Is she being melodramatic, self-pitying, or merely stating a fact? Our curiosity is aroused—or mine was, at least. The next few lines, with their wryly humorous, matter-of-fact description of her morning, confirm the latter.

The other rather remarkable aspect is how contemporary these details seem. “More or less insane” is a good description of how I feel ingesting the news these days. And “devices”? Of course, she couldn’t know what that term would come to mean fifty years after the poem was published, but it is an inspired choice.

At this point in the poem, having made us chuckle and pay attention, Rukeyser changes the focus. Using two lines as a transition, she creates a hinge in the poem. We leave the news, the friends, the morning behind and plunge into why she is writing poetry and what poetry can do to heal our horribly damaged world.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

Then she ends by repeating—with a slight variation—the first line. No longer ambivalent, it now is filled with emotion which overflows in our own hearts.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

We see these techniques—repetition, hinges, humor—in many of her poems. We also see her use of imagery. In some poems she throws out images with seemingly reckless abandon, with a cascade of images that in a literal sense seem unrelated, yet placed with precision yield a thrilling experience. In an interview, she said she needed “a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water.”

Her poem “Reading Time: 1 Minute 26 Seconds” is an example of this cascade of images, as well as the use of repetition and vowel sounds to drive the emotional content of the poem. If you actually read it aloud—rapidly, in order to match the designated reading time—the power will come through even more intensely.

The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son’s head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet’s shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

Rukeyser’s work is so rich I could devote many more weeks to talking about aspects of her craft, such as her use of colons and tabs. I mentioned last week her interest in science and the intersection of science with poetry. I especially like the use she makes of James Clerk Matthews’s discussion of the mathematical concept of “singular points” as a “moment of great height, of infinite depth.”

In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in the poems we’ve looked at this week and last. She also speaks of different sorts of unity: unity of imagination, of images, and so on. She embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

Do you have a favorite poem by Muriel Rukeyser?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 1


Rukeyser has been one of my favorite poets since I first stumbled across her work while in my early 20s. I was drawn to her initially by her commitment to social justice. She spoke out against poverty and racism in poems that didn’t need to preach. Instead, they make you yourself feel what it is like to suffer such injustice.

While still a young woman, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where scores of people were dying of a new disease: silicosis. It caused by breathing the silicate dust that coated the town, while the mine’s owners refused to admit the connection or provide any protection. They simply fired anyone who was too ill to work.

When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come, let’s go back,
when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let’s go back,
telling us hurry, hurry, into the falling rocks and muck.

That poem, “George Robinson: Blues”, is a good example of how Rukeyser worked her magic. It is a persona poem, in the voice of George Robinson (his real name was Robison). It starts off gently:

Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand
around on the sidewalks if we’re black or brown.
Vanetta’s over the trestle, and that’s our town.

Then it begins to turn:

The hill makes breathing slow, slow breathing after you row the river,
and the graveyard’s on the hill, cold in the springtime blow,
the graveyard’s up on high, and the town is down below.

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house,
thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,
died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

We are taken deeper into the anguish, anger buried under the simple facts. Finally Robinson’s voice comes back to a hopeless stoicism and wry humor.

Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,
it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled
that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

Deeply interested in science, Rukeyser believed that poetry is “an exchange of energy, a system of relationships.” Energy is exchanged between poet and reader. Connections are made between images, images and words, but most of all between the poet and the reader. The poem asks the reader to feel something. In her extraordinary book The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser says, “One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment.”

To be continued next week when we’ll look more closely at some elements of Rukeyser’s craft.

What poems of social commentary stand out for you?

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro


In post-Authurian Britain, an elderly couple set off to visit their son. Axl and Beatrice can’t remember when they last saw him or why they haven’t seen him in so long, although they do believe they can find the way to his village. Like everyone else around them, a mixture of Britons and Saxons, the devoted couple have been afflicted by what they call the Mist, which erases memory. On their journey they encounter many others, some of whom travel on with them.

I read this novel a few years ago, but didn’t write about it then. I didn’t quite have a handle on what I wanted to say about it. Ishiguro has long been one of my favorite authors, and I’ve been steeped in Authurian tales since childhood, so I expected to love this book.

Instead, I found it confusing and somewhat tedious. My interest picked up as I went along, though, and the end left me deeply fascinated by the ideas and experiments woven through the story. A recent book club discussion helped my crystallise further what so intrigued me.

The challenge Ishiguro faced was how to present fully developed characters when they have no memory of their past. Equally, how do you create a narrative structure when supposedly no one remembers anything from one moment to the next?

Most of the people in the book club, like me, found the book confusing and boring. Some didn’t finish it; others skimmed or skipped to the ending. One complaint was that the characters seemed two-dimensional and therefore impossible to relate to. Another was that there was a lot of repetition, especially in dialogue.

These concerns indicate that the author did not meet the challenges described above, essentially the challenge to create an engaging story. Perhaps that was not important to him; perhaps creating a vehicle for the ideas took precedence.

And the ideas are fascinating. We ended up having a long and lively discussion about them. To say more I’ll have to give away the ending, so skip this section if you don’t want the end spoiled.


At the end we discover that the mist is created by the breath of the dragon Querig, thanks to a spell by Merlin. King Arthur himself tasked Merlin to do so, to erase memory so that the Britons and Saxons could live together in peace despite the terrible battles and massacres during their long war. Only by forgetting these traumas, Arthur believed, could the cycle of revenge be broken. Killing Querig would restore people’s memory but restart resentment and hostility; they would once again be caught up in war after war.

It was this idea that so engaged us. We discussed the relevance to today’s wars, the back and forth of wars in the Balkans and the Middle East. We shared our small knowledge of the efficacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. One person had actually lived there for four months, so had some first-hand experience. My takeaway was that the commission succeeded in averting a civil war, but was by no means a perfect solution for living side by side with your former enemy.

How can you do that? I’ve wondered often about Rwanda, Sarajevo, and so many other homes of recent trauma. I’ve thought about the effects of horrors from before I was born, such as the Holocaust, slavery, the decimation of indigenous peoples. I’ve thought about ongoing injustices, such as the treatment of Native Americans, the new Jim Crow treatment of blacks in the U.S., the unjust wars started by the U.S., the flood of refugees, the war on poor people in the U.S. How do you live together, how do you find a way forward when you hold these long memories of injustice and suffering?

We know too much now about the longterm effects of trauma to believe there can ever be sufficient reparations to compensate for the damage inflicted, though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

If I ever thought impatiently that people should just forgive and forget, I learned how impossible that was for me a few years ago. Meeting a man named Campbell, I mentioned that I come from a long line of MacDonalds. He understood the reference to the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe when a troop of Campbells, claiming hospitality from the Glencoe MacDonalds, rose up in the night, killing men, burning homes, and forcing women and children into the winter night where they died of exposure.

Provoked by this modern-day Campbell’s derogatory criticism of my ancestors, I found myself surprisingly roused. The two of us spent quite a while discussing this long-ago event, not so much with hostility as with a rueful recognition that it was ridiculous for us to care so much.

Recounting this episode at the book club, I said that forgetting may not be an option and that perhaps these memories of trauma serve a purpose. Challenged to explain what purpose being suspicious of Campbells might serve today, I could only respond that I thought humans’ ability to remember suffering must be a trait preserved from our earliest history, just as an animal’s ability to remember that a plant made them sick or killed one of their group saved them.

Later, though, I thought of an article I read recently about Christy Brzonkala who was raped by two football players at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1994. Her case was taken to the Supreme Court as a test of the Violence Against Women Act where the majority ruling went against her. Her senior quote in her high school yearbook was “I will trust you until you do something to make me not trust you.”

She said she’d never learned about rape in high school. It reminded me of a remark a friend of mine, herself a product of an all-girls Catholic school, made that so many of the young women raped or murdered by boyfriends were from all-girls Catholic schools and never taught to be wary.

I thought: yes. Glencoe taught me to be wary. Glencoe taught me not to trust blindly. So, yes, that ancestral memory did serve a purpose for me.

I don’t go around carrying a sword to swing at any Campbell I meet. But I also don’t expect there are any simple solutions to the problem of living peacefully with former enemies. Expecting people to forgive and forget is not reasonable. As one person in the book club said, I do not forget; I do not forgive; but I can set it to one side. At the moment that is the best way forward that I can see.


Despite our struggles with the story, we all found much to consider in Ishiguro’s examination of memory and whether forgetfulness is a blessing or a curse.

Have you read a novel about memory or forgetting? What did you think of it?

Open City, by Teju Cole

open city

Julius, a medical student from Nigeria in New York City on a psychiatry fellowship, starts walking around the city in his free time. Sometimes he has a particular destination, but more often he just sets off aimlessly. On his walks he sometimes notices other people or has brief encounters with strangers. Sometimes he visits a former professor, now old and in poor health. Mostly, though, he lets his thoughts wander, ranging over his past and future and that of the city.

There is a long tradition of mostly nonfictional accounts of walking journeys. Here, we are entirely in Julius’s mind and constrained by what he chooses to reveal. Remembered scenes are recounted through his filter. In a novel like this, without other characters—the few who appear more than once are only sketched in—or a traditional narrative with dramatised scenes, what holds a reader’s attention is the quality of those thoughts.

Julius is in his early 30s, so his thoughts have an existential tilt. Within the mosaic of the city’s streets and his life there, both of them shadowed by the events in their pasts, he thinks about death, how he has gotten to this place, and what “this place” is. He questions his choice of profession and even if psychiatry can actually help people.

He appears to be an extreme introvert. At the start of the novel he has more or less broken up with his girlfriend of a few months; they have drifted apart since she moved cross-country. He has one, unnamed friend—referred to only as “my friend”—who moves away by the end of the novel. He enjoys his new activity of occasionally visiting with his former professor, but the professor dies. He encounters a woman from home who remembers him, but he seems not to remember her. Meanwhile, he walks alone.

I was intrigued by the form of this novel and surprised that it held my attention as much as it did. Julius is an unreliable narrator, but we only have his words and perceptions to go on, so that added a level of interest. I was curious to see how Cole would bring structure to the seemingly random string of events. The structure he worked in was subtle but sound.

Also I have long been enthralled with the way the past colors the present, especially in terms of places. I loved W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and knew that Cole counted Sebald as one of his big influences. However, I would have enjoyed the book more if I lived in New York City. Cole takes it for granted that we know all these places—streets, neighborhoods, buildings—and for the most part doesn’t bother describing them. Since the city is the main character, this lack left a huge emptiness in the center of the book.

The other lack I felt as I finished the book was the sense of an ending. Nothing was resolved; the questions that were raised throughout the book were not answered; Julius seemed to have achieved no insight into his own heart or integration of his divided self.

Cole’s voice, filtered through Julius, stays with me, despite some of the flaws in this novel. I will certainly read more of his work.

What account—fiction or nonfiction—of a walking journey have you read? What did you think of it?

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor


These days I’m on the lookout for positive stories. I can only bear an hour or two of news early in the day, leaving me time to bury my dismay and disgust with normal daily activities before darkness comes.

I came to this memoir by the Supreme Court justice—the first Hispanic and only the third woman—with some hesitation. I knew it would be a story of success, but feared it would might be saccharine and superficial.

I needn’t have worried. Sotomayor is an excellent writer. Her prose is clear and flows well, developing scenes and narrative that a reader can easily follow. I think this skill must have been honed in her written arguments, where logic and emotion must both be consistently deployed.

It can be hard to find the right tone in a memoir. You have to describe your successes in a way that doesn’t come across as bragging, not even a “humble brag”. You have to talk about the obstacles in your way without whining or succumbing to a woe-is-me mentality. You have to be open about your failures.

Sotomayor starts by describing a scene soon after her diabetes diagnosis when both of her parents argue about giving her the insulin injection she needs. Burdened by their sadness, seven-year-old Sonia decides to learn to prepare the injection and give it to herself. The scene is a good introduction, not only to the challenges facing her—illness, financial hardship, cultural difference—but also to what she calls “the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.”

I understand. I often say that I am lucky to have been born with the happy gene. I’m less good at perseverance, but Sotomayor shows in situation after situation how extra effort can compensate for other gifts.

What keeps this memoir of her successful rise in the legal world is two-fold. For one thing, there are plenty of stories of failures mixed in with the successes, misery among the happy times. The other is the credit she repeatedly gives to others who have helped her along the way. On the first page of the first chapter, right after her remark about optimism and perseverance, she says:

At the same time, I would never claim to be self-made—quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.

It is this generous spirit, shown also towards her parents where her love for them shines through even when she describes their failures, that makes me want to cheer her on and give her more credit than she gives herself.

Another challenge of writing a memoir is deciding what time frame to choose. I think she made a wise choice to start with her independent approach to her diabetes and end with her first becoming a judge. Since becoming a judge was her dream from the beginning, it ties up the story neatly.

If you’re feeling low, I recommend this book. As she says in the preface, “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” Although our circumstances are dissimilar and our ideas of what makes an ending happy differ, her story lifted my own spirits.

What book have you read that brightened your day?