My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

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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?

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

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Lissa Evans’s fourth novel is set in and around London during the Blitz in WWII. The characters are ordinary people, not homefront heroes like midwives or wardens or detectives. Well, I say ordinary, but like the best fiction, Crooked Heart shows us how extraordinary each life may be.

In the remarkable prologue, we are introduced to orphaned 10-year-old Noel who lives with his godmother in Hampstead. Mattie, a suffragette in her younger days, has retained her free-thinking ways, treating Noel to an eccentric and wonderful education. However, she is beginning to suffer from dementia. As she struggles to remember words and where she put things, the wordplay and accommodations between Mattie and Noel are wonderful to behold.

I’m generally not fond of prologues, but I loved this one. In fact, I thought it the best part of the book.

All good things come to an end, including Mattie, and ostensibly under the care of her cousins, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans. Unprepossessing and limping from a bout with polio, Noel is the last child to find a home. Finally, Vera Sedge snatches him up for the sake of the stipend and extra rations she’ll receive.

Vera, known as Vee, is a widow who barely makes ends meet by sewing notions for hats and engaging in various small money-making schemes. She has little affection to spare for Noel since she is absorbed in waiting on her no-good grown son and elderly mother who spends her time writing letters to Churchill.

Noel, however, is quite brilliant and, thanks to Mattie, creative at coming up with unusual solutions to problems. He and Vee become partners in petty crime.

Much of the joy in this book is seeing how their relationship develops. The description of wartime London, where the two conduct their activities, is brilliant. More than what it’s like to take refuge from the bombs in a shelter or the unsettling disappearance of buildings, we learn about the plethora of minor crime going on while ordinary mores seem to be suspended. I also enjoyed the glimpses of regular life continuing during the Blitz, how people adjust to the new normal.

Much of the story is light-hearted, but it has its dark side—and I’m not just talking about bombs. The reader cannot help but share Vee’s ongoing panic about how to make ends meet and the extremes she’s willing to go to in order to pay the rent—just like today when so many are struggling to survive.

How can you not consider stealing a loaf of bread if your children are hungry? And I’m not just talking about the Blitz or Jean Valjean. People are starving today, even in the richest country in the world. People—especially single mothers—are unable to pay the rent and are thrown onto the street.

I’m sure there are those who would describe this novel as charming or heart-warming. Perhaps it is my own background that makes me so aware of the shadow of desperate poverty that haunts the comic shenanigans of Vee and Noel. As in drawing, thought, the shading adds depth and power to this story.

Have you read a novel that is by turns funny and sad, light-hearted and dark?

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

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Newly widowed Nora doesn’t want to answer her door. In the Irish town of Wexford in the middle of the 20th century, it is customary for people to stop by the home of someone in mourning in the evening. Without phones there’s no way to call first to see if they are welcome, so they just come and knock on the door.

Despite her yearning to be alone, Nora always opens the door. To a neighbor who commiserates with her, she says, “‘They mean well. People mean well.’”

Bound by convention, missing her husband’s steady presence, Nora must begin making her own choices. As the sole support for her four children, she is first confronted with financial decisions. Later she has to contend with emotional issues as her two young sons come to terms with their own grief. Their two older sisters are away at school.

Nora is a fascinating character. She does not seem to be close to anyone, now that Maurice is gone. Though she says at one point that she never loved her mother, she’d expected at some point they would find a place to meet. However, it hadn’t happened before her mother has passed away. Nora is not interested in being with her two sisters and aunt, though she and they make the customary visits.

She is not even close to her children, thinking at one point “that she had never before put a single thought into whether they were happy or not, or tried to guess what they were thinking.”

She seems to hold herself at the same distance. Practical, focused on the everyday things that must be done, she barely touches the fringes of introspection. The reader, too, is held at a slight distance from her. Tóibín uses a close third person point of view, telling the story through Nora’s eyes, but her lack of self-analysis leaves us as much in the dark as she is. We hear her think one thing and then see her do the opposite, and have to assume that she is giving in to convention again or to what another person wants her to do.

When we discussed this novel in my book club, one person pointed out that much of the drama in this quiet book came from the space between Nora’s thoughts and her actions. Whether you call it drama or conflict or tension, I think that this analysis is accurate.

I called it a quiet book, though things large and small happen, and there are plenty of emotional upheavals. Another book club member praised the way political events of the time were woven into the story, giving it additional depth and universality.

In the end, though, what we all liked about this book was the close look at an ordinary life, one of the reasons we like Anne Tyler’s novels as well. A master storyteller like Tóibín can make us care about a single, ordinary individual. He can find the value in that life and as a result help us understand more about ourselves and our own lives.

In the first chapter, a neighbor Mrs. Lacey mentions her daughter. Ellis Lacey is the young woman whose story is told in Tóibín’s best-seller Brooklyn, recently made into a film. What did you think of that story? How do you think it compares with this one?

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor

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Elizabeth Taylor was a well-known and much-loved British author, publishing thirteen novels and short stories in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. She has been praised by writers such as Kingsley Amis and Hilary Mantel; Anne Tyler compared her to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, and Elizabeth Bowen. However, since her death in 1975, her fame has faded; somehow women, especially those who write about society and the family are less likely to make it into the literary canon. The Telegraph calls her “one of the forgotten geniuses of the [short story] form.”

I came across her name and this title on one of those lists of best books. Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont on a dreary January day, comforting herself with the words “If it’s not nice, I needn’t stay.” Recently widowed, she is coming from a visit with her golf-mad daughter and her family in Scotland. Once in her room “she thought that prisoners must feel as she did now, the first time they are left alone in their cell, first turning to the window, then facing about to stare at the closed door: after that, counting the paces from wall to wall.” But she thinks this “briskly”. After all:

She had always know how to behave. Even as a bride, in strange, alarming conditions in Burma, she had been magnificently calm–when (for instance) she was rowed across floods to her new home; unruffled, finding it more that damp, with a snake wound round the bannister to greet her. She had straightened her back and given herself a goo talking-to, as she had this afternoon on the train.

I love this kind of everyday courage. It is so rarely celebrated. It stands her in good stead as she adjusts to the routines of the somewhat seedy hotel, where long-term residents mingle with “birds of passage”. The residents are a marvelously eccentric bunch, their world narrowed to the hotel and its inhabitants, the predictable dinner menu a source of endless speculation. Mr. Osmond tells racy stories and frowns on Mrs. Burton’s nightly drinks–they cost extra–as does Mrs. Arbuthnot, a rather stern woman crippled with arthritis, but also the person who first spoke to Mrs. Palfrey, including her in the group, a kindness Mrs. Palfrey never forgets.

Before she realises that visitors are a major topic of conversation, Mrs. Palfrey mentions that her nephew Desmond lives in London. When he doesn’t show up, Mrs. Arbuthnot and the others commiserate with her, something she cannot bear. When she encounters a young writer on one of her walks, Ludo, and repays his kindness by inviting him to dinner at the Claremont, she decides to pretend that he is Desmond.

The webs become ever more tangled, but–as with Anne Tyler–Elizabeth Taylor treats her characters with respect. She may invite us to laugh at them sometimes, but never loses sight of their essential goodness and the courage it takes to face a lonely and penurious old age. I found this novel satisfying and unexpectedly moving. I see that it was made into a film in 2005 and hope that I can find a copy.

What other once-famous writers can you recommend?