The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos

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Like Bread and Wine, this book was one that Dorothy Day reread frequently. It is a fictional diary of a young, unnamed priest assigned to his first parish: an isolated, rural village in 1930s France. As it opens, he stops on his rounds and looks out at the “miserable little houses huddled together under the desolate, ugly November sky” and is overwhelmed by his own inadequacy.

We can all of us manage to peel potatoes and feed pigs, provided we are given the orders to do so. But it is less easy to edify a whole parish with acts of obedience, than a mere community of monks. More especially since the parish would always be unaware of them, and the parish would never understand. [author’s emphasis]

This is, in fact, what happens to him. Mocked by the children, the target of gossip by the adults, he struggles with self-doubt and despair. He suffers from stomach pains that make it impossible to eat anything but bread dipped in wine, leading the village to think that he is a drunk. They take advantage of his unworldliness to cheat him and play pranks on him. From a peasant background, he feels awkward dealing with the inhabitants of the Château. He does find a few friends to confide in, particularly an older priest, the Curé de Torcy, but continues to feel like a failure. Even at the end of the book he calls himself “a very commonplace, very ordinary man.”

There are pros and cons to writing a novel in the form of a diary. Its main advantage is the reader’s intense immersion into the protagonist’s thoughts. However, this can become a liability if the protagonist does not hold our interest. I struggled with this novel for the first half of the book, bored by his endless complaints, his timidity, and the monotonous routine of his life.

What redeems the book is the second half, where we—or I at least—begin to understand that this is the story of a spiritual journey. He himself believes that he is becoming more and more incompetent; he cannot even pray anymore. Yet we see that he is actually beginning to have an effect on those around him.

Another problem with diaries is that we only told about events from the protagonist’s point of view and only what he chooses to share with his diary. Bernanos avoids this problem by having his priest copy down long speeches from other characters. While this could open the novel up to the dreaded “nothing is happening” accusation, in fact these voices are so individual and so forceful that I looked forward to these passages.

They are mainly extended conversations on the nature of God and other spiritual questions. While such questions are of little interest to me at this point in my life, I can see how they would be treasured by Dorothy Day, who converted to Catholicism in 1927. Also, in her Houses of Hospitality, I’m sure she sometimes had to deal with people as difficult as those in our priest’s parish. I expect she found strength in his humility and patience, and comfort in his experience of grace.

Have you read a book that has given you strength or comfort?

Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

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I’ve been reading books by my great hero, Dorothy Day. Throughout her life she worked for peace and social justice. She truly lived by her ideals. With Peter Maurin, she started the Catholic Worker movement which, among other great works, has resulted in the founding of Houses of Hospitality across the U.S., which provide free housing for those in need. As Thomas Merton said in a letter to Alfonso Cortés, “the humble, the poor, and especially the disinherited are the ones who before all else deserve our attention and our compassion.”

I’m also reading books that influenced her, such as this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled. Ignazio Silone is a pseudonym adopted by Secundo Tranquilli because of threats by Mussolini’s government against his family.

The main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. At the beginning of the story, Spina sneaks into Italy after thirteen years of exile. Although he is in ill health, he is determined to organise the peasants to rise against the fascists.

In Rome, he finds his former comrades in disarray. Two friends smuggle him into the countryside dressed as a priest. This disguise causes him much inner turmoil, since he faults the church for supporting the fascists and for not doing more to help the poor. It also causes him outer turmoil because the small village where he’s been sent has not had a priest for some time and the residents want him to hear confessions, confer blessings, and perform other holy duties.

The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation. He muses on his childhood “infatuation with the absolute, the . . . rejection of the compromises and pretenses of ordinary life, even the . . . readiness for self-sacrifice.” Later, still in disguise, a chemist in the village expresses compassion for Spina saying that “‘His revolt is illusory . . .’”

And Spina is becoming disillusioned. The same chemist knew Spina’s father when they were students and remembers him saying later, when life had changed him, “ ‘The poetry has finished and the prose has begun.’” For Spina, it is his failure to interest the peasants in politics. The conversations fascinated me with their insight into what it does to a person to toil endlessly on the land and still not make enough to feed your children. Spina tries to make them think “of the use to be made of our lives.”

How is one to live? That is the question I see threaded through all of these books I’ve been reading: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Georges Bernanos, Silone. I’m interested in alternatives to resignation when our youthful ideals meet the inevitable limitations of our society, our fellows, and ourselves.

How do we resist facism? Do we continue to give of ourselves? How much? It is said of one character that she “‘did not follow rules, but her heart.’” This idea gives me hope.

What book have you read that has influenced how you live your life?

The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories, by Ian Rankin

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Two weeks I was thrilled to hear Ian Rankin speak at my local indie bookstore. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since the early 1990s when I picked up one of his books at a store in Toronto. I’d seen high praise for his work on DorothyL, a listserv for mystery enthusiasts, but his books were not available where I lived and online bookstores were only just getting started.

Rankin’s books feature John Rebus, following him from his early days as a detective sergeant in Edinburgh as he moves up through the ranks. In the last few years, Rankin has started another series with Inspector Malcolm Fox, but this volume of short stories is all about Rebus.

It’s surprising to me that short story collections are not more popular, especially now when there are so many entertainment options and our attention spans are said to be shrinking. One reason that I sometimes resist short stories is that I find the beginning of a story requires the most concentration. With a novel, the payoff for that investment is much larger than with a short story. However, here the familiar characters and setting make the stories easy to move into.

Putting a story collection together can be tricky. When you put stories written independently next to each other, sometimes unwanted resonances or repetitions might emerge. Not here. The stories are chronological—one of the joys of the Rebus series is that Rankin has the character age in real time—and vary in interesting ways. For example, while all of the stories are in third person, some of them are from the point of view of characters other than Rebus.

We first meet him in his fifties, living alone since his wife left taking their daughter with her. Rebus doesn’t have much of a life outside of the job: just a few friends from work, a broad knowledge of the pubs in Edinburgh, and a love of music. He’s known for going his own way—a trait not valued in a bureaucratic organisation like the police—but also for solving the thorniest crimes. He carries emotional scars from his past, wounds that are chinks in his armor. And, like the best detectives, he has a strong moral code that is constantly being tested.

What I love most in Rankin’s novels are the complex puzzles. The name Rebus itself means a puzzle. In every story, there are multiple strands, later understood to be thematically related, that come together at the end. To my surprise, the stories here are also quite complex despite the smaller playing field.

I also love the huge role played by Edinburgh in Rankin’s work. I feel like I know the city even though I’ve never been there. We endure its weather, spend time in Rebus’s favorite pub, the Oxford Bar, and visit the tourist spots like the Royal Mile and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. We find ourselves in less savoury parts of town and even explore secret places, like the city below the city. As we follow Rebus in his chase for clues, we start to understand the differences between Edinburgh and other places, such as Glasgow or Fife.

There was standing room only at my local indie bookstore when Ian Rankin spoke. I’m delighted that so many readers have discovered this fabulous author and that he is continuing to give us stories that challenge our minds, enlarge our world, and ask us to look again at our own moral code.

What mystery writers have made your list of favorite authors?

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

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You’ve probably heard about Yanagihara’s novel. It’s won prestigious awards, been the finalist for others, and garnered mostly rave reviews. You’ve probably heard that it’s about four men, close friends, just out of college and ready to take on the world, starting with New York City in the 1990s.

It’s not. It starts out that way, but quickly focuses on one of the men, the mysterious Jude. While Jude works as a lawyer, Willem, his roommate in both college and their new ratty apartment, wants to make it as an actor. Jean-Batiste, known as JB, is an artist, while Malcolm has started on his architect career.

Only Malcolm comes from a wealthy family, but all quickly become successful, in the sense of being fabulously wealthy and/or famous. That, combined with their not having children, or in some cases spouses, put them for me in the realm of television soap opera. Yes, of course, such lives exist, but that all four should have such over-the-top success strained my credulity.

Of course, there’s plenty of unhappiness to go around. Let no one tell you this is an easy book to read. I often had to put it down and go off and read something else. Despite the glitter and the sustaining friendships, I found the misery so profound that I had to get away.

While three of the friends have their troubles with lovers or drugs, it is Jude whose suffering dominates the book. We learn early on that there is some trauma in his past that has left him with a serious limp and so much pain that he cuts himself regularly. It is the mystery of Jude’s past that keeps us reading. Yanagihara drops bits of information like breadcrumbs leading us ever deeper into the story.

The scenes of Jude cutting his own flesh are almost intolerable. While most of the book is written in an immersive point of view (POV), in those scenes Yanagihara draws back a little, pulling out of the deep dive into Jude’s emotions and instead simply shows his actions leading up to the moment. Then she allows Jude to describe what he is doing with almost clinical detachment.

Immersive POV has become popular in today’s fiction. Whether using first person (“I”) or third person (“he, she”), the author can modulate how deeply to go into the character’s thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. In a blog post, Donald Maass describes the importance of using immersion a tool in service of the story, as well as the danger of overusing it. He cautions: “Overloading the reader with a POV character’s mental and emotional state takes not only page time, but room in the reader’s imagination. Readers need space. Force feed them everything there is to experience about a character and readers may, paradoxically, experience little.”

By modulating this distance, Yanagihara keeps the reader from being completely overwhelmed. For example, compare these three passages, all from Jude’s POV:

A year ago, he had begun working on a defense for a gigantic pharmaceutical company called Malgrave and Baskett whose board of directors was being sued by a group of the shareholders for malfeasance, incompetence, and neglect of their fiduciary duties.

There were two ways of forgetting. For many years, he had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of day, e would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn’t want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly.

He felt a pull of regret after talking to both of them, but he was determined. He was no good for them, anyway; he was only an extravagant collection of problems, nothing more. Unless he stopped himself, he would consume them with his needs. He would take and take and take from them until he had chewed away their every bit of flesh . . .

You can see how these passages progressively go deeper into Jude’s emotions. It’s up to the author to find the right balance for the story.

Another tool Yanagihara uses is changing the verb tense. At certain points in the story while we are in Jude’s POV (with one exception when we are in Willem’s), she shifts into using the present tense, providing a sense of immediacy and upping the tension. Then she falls back into past tense, either with a flashback or by starting a new section. She also moves occasionally into first person POV, always using the same character as narrator, one whose identity only gradually becomes apparent. This, too, changes the emotional intensity.

While I can appreciate how Yanagihara carefully modulates the verb tense changes, POV, and the degree of immersion, I still felt overwhelmed emotionally, if not intellectually. As a writer, I learned from reading this book that a good reason to pull back from immersion is if your story is so disturbing that the reader needs a bit more distance.

I found it a challenging book to read, partly because of the emotional overload and partly because of its length (814 pages in my paperback). Still, I learned a lot about using immersive POV, first versus third person POV, and verb tense changes effectively.

Have you read a novel where you felt immersed in the protagonist’s thoughts, experiences, and emotions? Did you feel there was too little immersion, too much, or just the right amount?

The Grandmothers, by Doris Lessing

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My friend Jill recommended this collection of four short novels. This book was new to me, though I’ve read a number of Lessing’s books, including a reread of The Golden Notebook and Lessing’s autobiography. In these stories, as in much of her work, Lessing examines unusual relationships with a piercing honesty and deep understanding of human nature.

You won’t find a typical boy-meets-girl story here. It’s one of the things I love about her work. I’ve always objected to the idea—less prevalent these days but not gone entirely—that a woman’s only story is about love and marriage. How many movie versions of books have you seen that have been Hollywood-ized by the addition of a love interest? Even nonfiction gets distorted this way. I’m thinking of Under the Tuscan Sun, though I heard recently that there were attempts to add a love affair to the recent film about mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

By going at relationships from an odd angle, Lessing brings a freshness to weary tropes and produces startling insights.

At first I thought Jill was recommending the book because of the title story, since we’d just been talking about grandparenting. Lessing’s grandmothers are two longtime close friends who live across the road from each other in a small, southern, seaside town far from England. The story follows Roz and Lily as their marriages founder, their sons Tom and Ian, and eventually the women their sons marry and their daughters. I don’t want to give away too much, but their is a quirk in this seemingly normal setup that will make you think about family interactions and what we mean to each other in ways you never have before.

The second novel, “Victoria and the Staveneys”, looks at a mother and daughter and the child’s father. It’s about dreams and talismans and the pressures of society. Each character, even the secondary characters, is so fully realized that you will find yourself inhabiting lives you never imagined.

The final novel shows us quiet Jimmy Reid from his youth, as he introduced by his outgoing friend Donald to a socialist summer school where Jimmy is “dazzled by this largesse of new ideas, faces, friends.” It follows him through World War II and beyond, but this is not a story about battles and bloodshed. It is about one person with a goal, a fantasy perhaps, and how he pursues it. I have rarely read a story so emotionally vibrant. The places and people, the events and motivations, if not what I expected, still ring so true.

As it turns out, Jill encouraged me to read the book because of the third novel, “The Reason for It”, an extraordinarily prescient look at the last days of an imagined culture. It is narrated by the last of the Twelve, appointed as Guardians of the people by Destra, a ruler already old when our narrator was born. Following the reign of her husband, a cruel tyrant, Destra initiated an age of peace and prosperity, an age of stories and songs. Destra selected twelve children to be educated in her house along with her adopted son DeRod, with the understanding that at some point they would elect among themselves a ruler and the remaining twelve would become a council.

Although it was not required, when they were fifteen, they elected DeRod as the ruler. Since then their culture has gradually dissolved.

I would like to have the time to write down the wealth of tales and stories that seem to have been lost. How could they have been lost? I have lived now for nearly a hundred years. For at least half that time the tales and songs were on everybody’s lips. And yet now only old people—my son can be described as old—remember them.

Without memories of the past, what is left is entertainment, insolence and casual violence. Festivals of songs and stories have been replaced by military festivals of army exercises and fighting. DeRod has become obsessed with a new building project, excavating an ancient city.

As in the other stories, Lessing brings these people and their culture to life. With none of his companions to turn to, the narrator sets out to understand what has happened and what, if anything, he can do about it. The first step must be to delve into DeRod’s behavior and choices and see this man clearly for the first time.

To me, the great joy and gift of reading is to inhabit other lives and experience other worlds. Lessing’s stories challenged me and changed me in subtle ways.

What fiction have you read that seems to shed light on our own time?

Best books I read in 2016

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2016. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought. Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

2. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime. This book changed my view of the natural world.

3. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

4. Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

This collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence. Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. Other essays take us further afield. Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

5. The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning.

6. Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

7. The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison. Through a “chorus of voices”, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

8. Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

I love these stories. Actually Carter calls them tales, saying they draw on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. While these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation.

9. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home: a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent. I love Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises.

10. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

As this story opens, fifteen-year-old June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What were the best books you read last year?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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This 1855 novel has much to say about our own times. It is the story of eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who moves with her parents from a rural hamlet in the south of England to the fictional Milton in the industrial north. There is a bit of misdirection at the beginning of the story, which starts in London where Margaret has been living with her aunt, uncle and cousin Eliza for half of her lifetime.

The story then moves to Margaret’s beloved Helstone, where she has returned to live with her parents after Eliza’s wedding. She says Helstone is “‘only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.’” While there, she awkwardly receives a proposal from the brother of Eliza’s new husband.

So far it seems like a romance, a novel of manners. But then Margaret’s father suffers a crisis of conscience, gives up the church, and moves the family north where he will become a private tutor.

Similar to the U.S., with its tensions between red and blue states, coasts and midlands, the U.K. has traditionally been divided between the industrial north and the agricultural south. These tensions drive the story. Set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Gaskell uses Margaret’s mistakes and misunderstandings to explore issues related to the first-generation cotton mills and those who own or work in them.

When the Hales first arrive in Milton, they detest the noise and hurry and dirt. Margaret takes a dislike to her first acquaintance, John Thornton, brusque owner of Marlborough Mill and her father’s first pupil. She looks down on him as a tradesman, “sagacious, and strong” but “not quite a gentleman”. She criticises him, too, for not caring for his workers outside of work hours, saying he should be giving them moral instruction and making sure they have enough food and a decent place to live. But that is not how things are done in the north, where workers are free to make their own choices once they leave work.

Margaret quickly befriends a young woman, Bessy Higgins, whose father John works in another mill. Horrified by their poverty and Bessy’s “cotton consumption”, a disease caused by the air quality in the mills, Margaret invites herself to their home to bring a basket of food, as she used to do in the south for her father’s poorer parishioners. To her surprise, the Higginses are offended. As she learns to respect their independence, they become friends.

Margaret’s mistakes and missteps in what to her is an entirely new culture mirror our own easy assumptions from the beginning of the story: that a London wedding and an awkward proposal in a pastoral rose garden signalled a familiar story of romance. Gaskell’s clever misdirection resulted in my feeling great sympathy for Margaret as she struggles to to look past her preconceptions and recognise what is really there.

Margaret’s coming-of-age story alone is sturdy enough to carry the reader’s attention, but what I found intriguing were the even-handed discussions about the rights and responsibilities of “masters” and “men”. These organically arise in the story as Margaret’s reactions, conversations between her father and Thornton, Thornton and his fellow mill owners, and—most interestingly—between Thornton and Higgins, whom Margaret brings together.

Thornton complains that workers don’t understand the market forces that prevent him from raising their wage, while the workers believe he is just living in luxury while they suffer.

As Thornton and Higgins begin a strange sort of friendship, their mistrust and misunderstanding of each other fade and their respect grows. Thornton has already installed a wheel to draw out the cotton fluff that fills the air and destroys lungs, over the objections of some workers who believe all the fluff they swallow inadvertently helps prevent hunger. Thornton works with Higgins to provide a hot midday meal for the workers, so they at least get one good meal a day.

As workers, our concerns today are less about food and more about health care and other benefits, but the same mitigation holds true. In companies where owners and workers communicate, such as the one where I was lucky enough to work, benefits and the occasional necessary belt-tightening are out in the open.

The novel takes place during a time of great social upheaval. Industrialisation was changing the job market—Margaret’s mother can’t find a maid willing to work for a Helstone wage when young women could be earning more in a factory—at the same time that railroads were revolutionising movement. And everything was speeding up.

We are at a similar crossroads. Globalisation and automation are changing the face of work. Without unions—whose pros and cons are explored here too—workers are at the mercy of the bosses. With so many companies being publicly traded rather than owned by one person or one family, there is no Thornton to appeal to. Income inequality is even worse than during Gaskell’s time. And, yes, things seem to be speeding up even more.

One way to gain a more balanced view of the issues which divide us today is to look at how they played out in the past. This novel, sweetened as it is by Margaret’s story, is an excellent start.

Have you read a novel that’s helped you understand one of today’s issues?

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

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This 2013 debut novel came highly recommended. I approached it cautiously, prepared to be disappointed, only to be thoroughly charmed by the voice of the narrator, fifteen-year-old June. One of the blurbs compared her to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I thought immediately of Cassandra in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Both young women are imaginative and well-read. Both have beloved older sisters who seem to be moving away from them. Both are set apart from their peers, Cassandra by her peculiar family and living situation, June by a special friendship.

The voice alone would have carried me through the novel, but the story is gripping as well. As it opens, June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. It is the late 1980s, when AIDS was still new enough that, unsure of how it was transmitted, people feared and shunned the infected.

For June, who hardly saw her accountant parents during tax season and was ignored or tortured by her older sister, Finn was the one person with whom she could be herself. He took her to the Cloisters and Renaissance festivals and museums. He shared her fascination with the Middle Ages. She would often walk into the woods to pretend she lives in another time altogether. His death has left her bereft.

The story moves easily between memories of times with Finn and the present of the story: tax season, with the girls left alone to care for themselves. Popular Greta, who is two years older, is in her last year of high school, having been moved up a grade. She is starring in play at school and struggling with her own demons.

June is stunned by the loss of her confidante, struggling with the idea of death and, later, with the impossible task Finn has left for her.

There is so much I love about this story: June’s imaginative life that reminds me so much of my own at that age, the relationship between the sisters, the absent Finn and his care for his niece, the mounting suspense as events close in around June. I especially love the use of symbols.

I’ve always appreciated the use of symbols, particularly when they mean something a little different each time they reappear. The best at using symbols is Paul Scott, author of The Jewel in the Crown and other novels. In an essay, “Imagination in the Novel”, he describes how he came up with the central symbol of one of my favorite novels, his Birds of Paradise. His idea for the novel began with an image of a woman appearing in a doorway. The idea of her wearing “fine feathers” leads him to his symbol.

Sometimes this thing that glitters appears, sometimes it doesn’t. The thing that glitters is often a symbol. If the symbol can be justified, it is best to use it for all it is worth, to be honest about it, to say: “This is my symbol and this is what it means.” . . .

It was the idea of birds of paradise that glittered, and they became my symbol because, upon investigation, they not only stirred me with the idea of their beauty, but yielded information pertinent to the idea of the woman in the doorway and to the general climate of something having come to an end. Research brought knowledge.

Later he adds a third factor: “an experience of the oddity of life. The imagination, the knowing, and the experience finally cohere into a pattern.”

In Brunt’s novel we have various symbols: the woods where anything can happen, June’s medieval boots given her by Finn. The main symbol, though, is the wolves. June hears a pack of them in the woods—they are part of her secret world, and it’s significant when and with whom she’s willing to share them. And then wolves begin to emerge in unlikely places. At one point she says they are “hungry and selfish.”

This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What are you reading that has moved you deeply?

The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger

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Another novel based on the lives of real people, The Mistress of Nothing is the story of Sally Naldrett, lady’s maid to Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon.

In August of 1862, thirty-year-old Sally sets sail for Egypt with her mistress, where it is hoped that the warm dry climate will ease Lady Duff Gordon’s tuberculosis. While Sally is thrilled at the prospect, having thoroughly enjoyed their previous stay in South Africa, she knows that behind Lady Duff Gordon’s brave front, her mistress is miserable.

Author of several books, translator of others, Lady Duff Gordon enjoys the scintillating company of friends such as George Meredith and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As Sally can see, the only thing worse than leaving behind her intellectual life is the separation from her husband and children, the youngest of whom is only three. In addition to the physical suffering she endures from her advanced tuberculosis, Lady Duff Gordon resents and tries hard to hide her physical decline.

As lady’s maid, Sally tends to her mistress’s illness as well as to her clothing. When Sally declines a last-minute proposal, she declares that she is devoting her life to caring for Lady Duff Gordon.

Sally’s descriptions of Egypt are entrancing, from the crowded streets of Cairo to the time spent traveling on the Nile in their dahabieh to setting up housekeeping in Luxor. They are accompanied by a dragoman hired in Cairo, Omar Abu Halaweh. The three fall into an easy rhythm of life in Luxor, enhanced by various townspeople.

Battered by the heat, the two women shed their English clothes for loose-flowing Egyptian costumes. Both study Arabic and Islam with Omar, and the three begin to have their meals together, sitting on cushions on the floor per local custom. But differences remain. Lady Duff Gordon adopts the clothing of Egyptian men while Sally hesitates and finally choses women’s robes. Sally practices her Arabic in the marketplace while her mistress uses hers in entertaining local notables.

The English class structure is not abandoned as easily as the stiff stays that the women toss away. Sally soon finds that their free and easy their life in Luxor is an illusion. The structures of Egyptian society and politics also close in on the small household.

I raced through this novel, fascinated by the characters, entranced by the descriptions of floating on the Nile and viewing Luxor by moonlight. Most of all, I was caught up in Sally’s story, afraid of how it might turn out, shocked by some of the privileges claimed by English aristocracy that even I, with all my reading, was not aware of. If you want a good read that will also make you think about class and race and religion in new ways, this is a book for you.

In this book, the actual people involved are from the past, which makes me wonder if that is better or worse. We may be able to discover more about them now that they are gone. At the same time, they are not around to defend themselves. Pullinger has done a lot of research and I am pretty confident that the events are accurate. However, she has had to imagine the emotions and motivations of Sally, Omar and their mistress.

It is clear from her comments in the interview at the end that Pullinger has tried to follow the same advice I give in my memoir-writing classes: treat the people in your story with respect. Genuinely try to understand why they thought they were doing the right thing. Remember that each of them thinks he or she is the hero of the story.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

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It seems a good moment to be reminded of those who retain their integrity even in the worst of times. Like Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, this novel is based on a true story of courage and honor during the siege of Sarajevo.

Galloway’s novel is based on the actions of Vedran Smailović, a former cellist in the Sarajevo String Quartet, who during the siege played among the ruins, especially the Albinoni piece, and at funerals, even though funerals were often targeted by snipers. Unsurprisingly, Smailović was furious that his life and story had been co-opted by someone else without his permission, calling it an invasion of his privacy. He also said,

“I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day.

“They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at 10 in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine.

“I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello.”

Galloway, on his part, defends his actions by saying in the same article that Smailović’s actions had been “an extremely public act” and that a writer need not get permission from his sources of inspiration. Apparently they have since begun to move towards reconciliation, but I still am concerned about defining the grey area between a private person and a public figure.

In Galloway’s story, on 27 May 1992 an unnamed cellist sees a mortar bomb explode in the square outside his room, killing 22 people who had been standing in line for bread. He decides to put on his formal clothes, go out to the spot where the bomb exploded at 4:00 pm and play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, a piece composed around a fragment found after the bombing of the Dresden Music Library in 1942. He will do this every day for 22 days, if he survives that long.

The rest of the story revolves around three fictional characters, ordinary citizens whose lives have been derailed and distorted by the war. Arrow is a young woman who reluctantly became a sniper for the city’s defenders because of her previous experience on her university target-shooting team. To separate herself from that person who would never have used a rifle to kill, she has taken a different name. Yet she still struggles to align her actions with the remnants of her belief system. “The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what there were . . . You could hate a person for what they did.” What could be more timely?

Dragan was able to send his wife and son out of the city before the siege and now lives with his sister and her family. He is trying to get to the bakery where he works, even though it is his day off, to eat in the employee cafeteria—one less burden for his sister. Dragan imagines Sarajevo as it was before the war, the parks, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Olympic venues from 1984. He is delayed by the people he encounters and the terrifying hesitation at street corners. Crossing a street means exposing yourself, and Dragan falls into magical thinking about what might save him. This is a choice I see people resisting today: to hide in memory or indulge in magical thinking. Only by facing reality can we address it.

Another person out on the streets is Keenan who must travel across the city to get water for his family and for his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Ristovski, even though he is almost paralysed by the thought of venturing out into the sights of the snipers in the hills. As he makes agonising decisions about which bridges to cross and whether to abandon Mrs. Ristovski’s cumbersome bottles, he becomes aware of tankers of water servicing the rich, those who are making money off the beleaguered residents. Keenan must find a way to live with his fear of death and decide whether it is worth going on.

Nothing is more relevant to today’s fears than this chilling reminder from late in the book. Although Galloway is referring to Sarajevo, he could be talking about any of several nations in the throes of change today.

. . . civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible.

What novel have you read recently that has given you new insight about current events?