The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson

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Here is the thing with journalism-based long-form non-fiction.  Sometimes it’s really, really good.  And sometimes, the journalistic style doesn’t work for book length non-fiction.  Journalists undeniably have a nose for a good story and a great hook (see The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), but often, when you are creating a book off of previous short-form reporting, it can be difficult to expand a series of articles into an effective, coherent book.  Some journalists do it successfully.  However, I’ve also found that there tend to be commonalities between less-successful attempts.  First, the pace can be draggy, awkward, and inconsistent.  Second, ideas or points are often repeated unnecessarily, sometimes word-for-word, in close proximity within the text.  Like next page close.  Third, there are often so many players, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.  And fourth, there is an eye-catching title that sometimes overplays the cool-factor of the actual book.  Fortunately, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century is not one of those less-successful attempts.

Johnson’s book starts with the story of natural scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who traveled the world identifying and collecting primarily bird species and who independently discovered the theory of evolution during his time in Indonesia at the same time Darwin was formulating the same theory in the Galapagos.  (Fun-ish Fact: Wallace eagerly wrote to his hero, sharing his exciting new theory and hoping for feedback.  Darwin, who’d not previously felt much urgency to publish his writings on evolution, said, “Well, better publish first!” and basically scooped Wallace, which is why we are all more familiar with Darwin than Wallace now.  Bad form, Darwin.  Bad form.)  But all of this is set up to Edwin Rist: musical savant, fly-fishing tie genius, and orchestrator of the largest natural history museum heist in history.  Johnson exhaustively details his investigation into the decimation and destruction of the Tring Museum’s priceless collection of endangered and extinct bird specimens, many of whom were collected by Wallace himself, perpetrated by Rist for the sole purpose of selling exotic feathers to fly-tiers to fund his purchase of a gold flute for grad school.  Sound convoluted?  It is.

And I loved it!  Just loved it!  I love niche histories or accounts about weird things (see my review on the history of cod), and this one is particularly exciting to read.  Johnson is equally at home with both the historical pieces and the investigative journalism, and he has a knack for bringing history to life.  Johnson does not fall into the usual traps of journalists trying to write long-form non-fiction.  The book is a bit repetitive in a few places, but he has a strong sense of pacing, varying section and chapter lengths while maintaining the over-arching narrative.  He has a strong sense of story for a narrative that takes place over centuries, and he is smart about which moments need elaboration and which just need to be mentioned for context or clarification.  Additionally, there were a lot of players, but Johnson did a great job introducing them initially, planting key identifiers and descriptions, and then reminding the reader who someone is without re-hashing their entire biography.

Now, to be clear, this is not an unbiased account.  From the beginning, Johnson is clear about how he pursued this for personal reasons more than altruism.  (Johnson was the founder of a non-profit that rescued and provided transition support to Afghans who had served as translators for the US Army but who had not been evacuated by our military and who were now in danger from the Taliban due to their support of US forces.  He began this book as a way to work through burnout from his previous work.)  He does his best to present Rist, his history, and his motivations as fairly as possible.  He also does his research and gives us a thorough understanding of all of these worlds the narrative wanders through, especially fly tying.  (To be clear–fly tying is separate from fly fishing, and this distinction is both extremely important and thoroughly examined.) However, Johnson lands firmly on the side of the museum and science, lets you know that, and never really wavers from that perspective.  And it is his intense emotions and enthusiasm that make this so fun and so shocking to read.  Maybe it’s Johnson’s own inability to understand the destruction of wildlife for a seemingly frivolous and greed-based pursuit (fly-tying not fly-fishing), maybe it was my own inability, but I don’t get it and agree with him wholeheartedly.  But I also appreciate that he reveals and comments on the fly tying industry without every vilifying the individuals in it.  He maintains his compassion for the people involved even while expressing confusion and disbelief at the situations.

I will say, as a musician, this story irritated me, but not because of Johnson’s writing.  No one needs a gold flute, and no one certainly needs to destroy irreplaceable records of our natural history to get one.  Check yourself, Rist.

I love it.  I think you should read it.  It certainly will be one of the most entertaining non-fiction reads of your year.

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Autumn: A Novel by Ali Smith

Sometimes you come across a book on the end of year “best book” lists that captures your attention, though you don’t know why.  And when you read that book, you are entranced by it but you still can’t describe it.  It’s ephemeral, staying just out of reach of you fully grasping hold of it.  For me, that book is Autumn by Ali Smith.

It tells of the relationship between 101 year old Daniel Gluck and 30-something Elisabeth Demand, who lived next door as a child and benefited from his kindness and attention.  Now, on the eve of and just following the Brexit referendum, Daniel is not comatose but sleeping heavily in a nursing home.  Elisabeth visits almost daily and reads him classics, myths, all his favorites, all the while managing through the every day demands of her own life.  Interspersed with the linear narrative are Daniel’s surrealist dreams, like movies from the mind of Dali; Elisabeth’s memories of their adventures when she was a child; and scenes featuring Pauline Boty, an artist with whom Daniel fell in love as a young man.

Smith plays with the physical form of her text, adjusting margin width, using right alignment, creating waterfalls of text, and writing lists, lists, lists of lists of lists.  The whole thing is beautiful, quiet, and meditative.  Emotions are vivid yet composed, even when Elisabeth gets fed up with the unnecessary bureaucracy of the post office.  She is all of us in that moment, a necessary and thoughtful grounding of character in the midst of everything flowing through time.

Autumn is the first book in a planned seasonal quartet (and I like the musical feeling the author’s use of the word “quartet” conjures), and I thought it such an interesting place to start.  It feels like we’re starting near the end; for Daniel, it feels like that must certainly be the case.  For the UK as it has been for many years, it is a clear end.  For Elisabeth, though, the season and narrative feel more like a pause.  For her flighty, inconsistent mother, perhaps it’s more of a new beginning.  It’s such a unique place to start a seasonal exploration of life, and I’m intrigued to see how the rest of the series unfolds.

Overall, I found the book to be hopeful, light, and buoyant but not at all fizzy.  And all these months later, I still can’t quite catch it.  I like it.  I can’t describe it.  And I definitely recommend it.

How to Fall in Love with a Man Who Lives in a Bush by Emmy Abrahamson

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This book was terrible.

I feel really bad saying that because it was recommended to me by a student who really loved it and wanted me to borrow her copy.  And to be fair, I maybe thought it was a non-fiction bit of travel writing about Vienna, and I was jonesing for a good bit of travel writing and ended up bitterly disappointed it was a novel…even if it was a novelization of a true story.

Based on the author’s actual experience, Emmy Abrahamson’s How to Fall in Love with a Man who Lives in a Bush tells the story of Julia, a Swedish expat who followed a guy to Vienna, broke up with him and ended up teaching English to professionals, and, feeling dissatisfied with her life, takes up with Ben, a happy-go-lucky homeless 20-something living under a bush in the park across the street from her office.

Sounds ok, I guess.  (I guess?)  But it wasn’t.

So first, Julia is the most basic, shallow, rom-com character.  She’s not unlikable, nor is she particularly likable.  Fortunately she was at least more relatable than the other characters, necessary for a protagonist who must necessarily serve as audience proxy per the genre’s structures.  However, Julia was randomly and oddly graphic in her language and descriptions at times.  It honestly seemed out of character, though it is hard to tell what is in or out of character when there is so little character to go on in the first place.

Ben, on the other hand, is supposed to be an adult but is written and therefore behaves like a child.  He is immature, socially unaware, aggressive, and close-minded; mistakes voicing opinions loudly and confidently for intelligence; and even becomes borderline verbally abusive at times.  He references challenges in his past and what could be very serious problems in his present, but the novel doesn’t explore the consequences of his actions and situations, so it’s hard to take those parts seriously.  Ben is supposed to bring spontaneity and joy to Julia’s life, but he turns all of her real concerns for him into character flaws about her.  She is not a better or measurably happier person when she is with him, even though she thinks she is.

This is the worst kind of romantic comedy.  Glossy, superficial, free of consequences, unrealistic.  It drops just enough references to real life challenges to seem grounded and justifies (even celebrates) inappropriate and toxic behaviors.  And the ending made me furious.

***Spoiler Alert***

As in all rom-coms, our lovers break up for a while over a misunderstanding.  And she almost doesn’t go back to him.  She has extremely good reasons for not going back to him, and I really thought this book was going to flip the script and allow Julia to move forward with her life.  But then in the end, she decides she can’t live without him and goes back to him.  Bullshit.  Pure bullshit.

And here’s the thing–this is based on the author’s actual courtship with her actual husband!!  So first, if I were her husband and this were not an accurate portrayal me (and I sure hope it’s not), I would be really pissed off at how I came off in the book.  And second, if this is an accurate portrayal of them and their relationship, I am very concerned for the author, their children, and those close friends and family in their lives.

Disclaimer:  This is a translation, and so it could be argued that it’s hard to tell if the the book was actually this bad or if a lot of the nuances were lost in translation.  For example, Julia highlights several English lessons throughout the book, and some of the “rules” that she harped on are things that I, as a native English speaker, have never heard of or know to not be true the way she explained them  .  So that makes me wonder if I’m being harsh about the quality of the initial book, and also makes me wonder about both the author and translator’s levels of comfort with English, the accuracy of the translation, and how well the translation serves the author’s story.

Still, don’t waste your time with this.  The only good thing about it is that I was able to check off the “read a book in translation” item on my 2018 reading challenge list.  And honestly, I’m kind of irritated about that because I have several other books in translation on my shelf that I would rather have used.

So to sum up: skip it.

Circe by Madeline Miller

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I have inadvertently read several books inspired by Greek mythology this year, but as I love mythology in general, I certainly don’t mind.  I remember hearing great things about Madeline Miller’s debut, Song of Achilles, but never read it, so when her next novel, Circe, popped up in the Book of the Month Club, earlier this year, I was eager to check it out.

Circe, obviously, is the story of Circe, a daughter of Helios.  We all know her as the witch who turns men into pigs, a mere episode in Odysseus’ epic journey home to Ithaca.  This book takes that episode and expands it into a full exploration of this lesser-known mythological character’s life.  It imagines her childhood and a life-changing meeting with Prometheus; her intense first love, Glaucos, and his betrayal; and her creation of the monster Scylla and resulting exile to Aiaia.  From there it explores her relationship with “great” men and gods, from Hermes and Odysseus to Daedelus and her role in the birth of the Minotaur.  As with most of the literature featuring him, though, Odysseus and his shadow take over in the latter part of the book, as Circe has to manage the long-reaching effects of his time on her island on her, Penelope, and their sons.

I really loved this book.  It beautifully gives voice to a character in mythology who so often is reduced to her label of “witch” and her actions’ impact on the men who encounter her, and it does so in gorgeous, swimming, flowing prose.  Circe may be born of the sun god, but she is a creature of the earth and sea and sky, and the text helps the reader feel that very intently.  The story is delicate and tasteful; nothing is too graphic, though Miller doesn’t necessarily shy away from harsh or negative things.  She just presents events through Circe’s distinct lens of being a woman in ancient times.  It is a distinctly feminist take on a fascinating character so often portrayed through the male gaze, something that we are starting to see more and more of in literature based in myths, and I appreciate very much the flipping of the perspective to tell a more nuanced, complete story.

The story meandered through time like the immortal Circe is, yet she lives very mortal experiences and emotions, which added to the liquid feel of the text.  However, the story does sag in a few places, and it begins to feel long.  Maybe that’s on purpose–we feel the weight of the story’s length the way Circe feels the weight of time?  Eh, more likely it just needed a little tightening in the last quarter.  But honestly, that was my only criticism.

Circe was not a book that knocked my socks off in a big way, but it was a quiet, shimmering book that gets under your skin.  I actively recommended to several people while I was reading it, which is not something I often do.  I was very impressed with the novel and the author, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Miller’s work.

The Book of Dust, Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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When I was growing up, I loved Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.  Set in a parallel universe Oxford where humans have animal familiars called daemons but magic and fantasy are still foreign, the series traces the adventures of Lyra, a young girl tasked with saving the world from the machinations of the evil Mrs. Coulter.  It was the ultimate girl power story and nudged me in the direction of becoming a full-fledged Anglophile.  I just loved it.  So you can imagine my excitement when I saw the first publicity adds for the first book in Pullman’s new prequel trilogy, The Book of Dust, Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage, in Oxford last summer.  I finally got to read it this past March, and it was well-worth the wait.

La Belle Sauvage tells the story of Malcolm, his daemon Asta, and his little boat, the titular La Belle Sauvage.  Malcolm’s parents run The Trout, an inn on the banks of the Themes in Oxford (and I’ve eaten at its restaurant!), and all of Oxford comes through the doors.  Malcolm notices and hears a lot but is noticed little himself, an advantage when he comes across a mysterious message about something called Dust.  His adventures start when the kind spy for whom the message was intended finds him and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open.  Suddenly all the world is looking for a little baby girl being hidden in the nunnery nearby.  With a storm coming, threatening to flood the whole county, and the baby’s life in increasing danger, Malcolm embarks on an Odyssean journey in his boat with the baby (who will grow up to be Lyra of the original series) and the nunnery’s maid, Alice, their goal to reunite her with her father, the mysterious Lord Asriel, and survive the evil agents hunting them.

I loved this book.  Loved it, loved it, loved it!  It was exactly what I needed after a disappointing previous book, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.  Pullman is a master of creating whole worlds out of simplicity and structure.  His language is gorgeous and evocative, and reading his stories is like jumping into the world of a painting.  In fact, the way I realized that the novel’s The Trout is a real place that I have been was that his descriptions were so specific and accurate that I kept thinking, “This place sounds so familiar…” until I finally looked up the pub where we’d had dinner in Oxford and realized it was the one and the same.  His masterful exploration of a truly vile character through descriptions of his hyena daemon were visceral and revolting, and the animal and man’s matching hoarse laughter stuck with me for days after finishing.  And I think his world-building skills are close to Tolkien and Lewis, honestly.

Additionally, Pullman is a smart writer.  Everything has a specific purpose; nothing, no description, no structural choice, is superfluous.  Though well-known for his distrust of organized religion, he is well-grounded in the literature and histories of religion and mythology, much of which he uses to underpin his narrative.  It’s a little like the Bible–a great flood comes and wipes out much of Oxford, setting the major events of the story in motion.  It’s a little like The Odyssey–Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra experience a series of islands in the massive river, each one increasingly mystical and dreamlike, and many directly referencing stops along Odysseus’s journey.  A stop at a faerie’s home mimics time on Circe’s island; a great house full of party-goers brings to mind the lotus-eaters; and the river god’s direct help reflects Athena’s support of Odysseus.  All in all, La Belle Sauvage is Malcolm’s hero’s journey, setting him up for even more in the next two books.

All I wanted to do was read this book, and I got to do so on the perfect weekend.  It was cold, rainy, and gross, and I spent the whole weekend wrapped up in both a blanket and the story while drinking tea.  I was only disappointed at how the spy disappeared from the narrative, and I hope she returns in the next book.  Technically this can be considered young adult, but it doesn’t read like a young adult novel.  It just reads like a wonderful story.  I can’t wait for the next one, and I may go back and binge read the original series just to tide me over.  I highly recommend La Belle Sauvage, and I honestly think it is just as good an entry point into the world of Lyra as the original series is.

 

Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen

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We live in an increasingly global world that gets smaller by the day.  And with that, power and positions  are shifting…I could say faster than ever before, but the reality is that they have always shifted.  America’s place in the world is shifting as well, and it will be increasingly important that we can look at and understand our history and our future in this world from a more global lens rather than such an America-centric lens as many do now.  To help expand our views, though, it’s important to understand how our attitudes, actions, and decisions are seen by the rest of the world historically and currently, and Suzy Hansen, in Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, strives to do just that.

Hansen is a journalist living in Istanbul who grew up in a small, conservative town on the Jersey Shore.  She pushed against her bubble and attended Penn, followed by a move to New York and then finally to Istanbul, where she has lived for the past 7 years.  Her experiences there has caused her image of America to shatter, and this book is part of her picking up the pieces to reconstruct them in a more accurate image of both herself, as a young, white, financially stable American woman, and the United States and their places in the world.  It is part memoir, part travel narrative, part literary analysis, and part socio-political ethnography, and her focus is on exploring how Americans have viewed the world from a purely American lens and the effects of that on history, politics, and international relations.

Hansen looks particularly at definitions of race and culture in opposition: for example, American whiteness defined specifically in opposition to non-whiteness (particularly blackness), American Christianity defined in opposition to non-Christianity, etc..  These concepts are not new (see Ta Nehisi Coates’ excellent article on the subject in relation to the presidency), but her framing of these oppositional definitions within the context of US-Turkish relations creates a fresh perspective for exploring them.  Turkey as a country is so aware of the US presence in its own history, and yet most Americans know very little about Turkey, let alone our role in its evolution as a country.  It is this attitude of “You (the world) are not me (America)” and the subsequent disregard and humiliation of others that Hansen argues is a major part of the rest of the world’s distaste for the US and its policies.

Hansen’s book, as I mentioned, is a jumble of literary and historical analysis intersperse with her own experiences relearning and re-framing her identity as an American within the broader world.  She assesses authors from Orhan Pamuk to James Baldwin and brings in plenty of primary and secondary sources to support her arguments.  And on the whole, I agree with a lot of her main points.  She is aligned with Rick Steve’s philosophy of travel–that we travel to learn about and from others so that when we home, we shine a light on what needs to be improved nationally, locally, and personally and then work to improve our home.  However, I felt a lot of her analysis was surprisingly and incredibly dense.  She talks for pages without really saying anything, and she hammers home a few main points and her rationale a bit relentlessly and, in some cases, unnecessarily.

I felt the book is much stronger in the memoir passages when she’s focusing on her own experiences and journey of reevaluation.  Her prose is both more economical and more evocative, and her points are much more purposeful and impactful.  Obviously, an effective argument is not built on personal experience alone; analysis is definitely important.  However, storytelling is one of the oldest creations of humanity.  It has been used for millennia to teach, share knowledge, and pass on news and information, not just entertain, and we are wired to respond to and remember story and experience.  As such, the parts of this book I remember the most are Hansen’s conversations and encounters throughout Turkey.  I wish there had been more, particularly around Hansen’s own experience growing up, as I think a little more context about her own background would underscore both the depth and importance of her own transformation even more.  Additionally, I felt like that the book itself was reading like she now has all of this figured out, and the warning against such an America-centric view of the world doesn’t apply to her specifically anymore.  Full-disclosure:  I did not finish the book, so some of these concerns could have been negated if I’d gotten further.  However, it strikes me that this kind of perspective shift requires constant attention and intention rather that being something that we complete, if that makes sense.

I think this is a book with a lot of important ideas and suggestions that we as a country would benefit from exploring and discussing.  I like the core of the content.  But honestly, I just got tired of slogging through it.  I had high hopes for it and was really excited about it, but I just did not find it to be coruscating the way many critics did.  However, enough people disagree with me that it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, so I would encourage you to give it a shot.  This is one where I expect opinions will vary tremendously, generating a lot of vital conversation, and it’s more important to read than not.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues by Nova Jacobs

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I am always on the lookout for a good new mystery, and honestly I’ve been disappointed for a while now.  Most of my favorite series are still reliable, but I’ve not been super excited when I venture outside of them.  Maybe I’m a creature of habit and comfort.  Maybe not.  However, there is one new mystery that I’ve read so far this year that gives me hope for the genre.

Nova Jacob’s debut novel, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues, tells the story of legendary mathematician Severy’s death and the hunt for his last equation that has unbelievable and dangerous applications.  He has entrusted this task to his adopted granddaughter, Hazel, just as her Seattle bookshop is failing and her boyfriend breaks up with her.  With nothing to lose, Hazel heads to Los Angeles for the funeral and to race against time and other agents searching for the elusive equation.

The story is told from 3 perspectives: Hazel; her brother Gregory, an LA cop; and Isaac’s son, Phillip, a successful mathematician in his own right.  Overall, this structure led to great character development, particularly for the lead characters, and super clear motivations–I knew exactly why everyone did what they did.  Overall, I liked Hazel’s sections the best.  I related to her the most, and she had a depth and a joy for life that shone through even in her most frustrated or overwhelmed moments.  Phillip and Gregory’s sections often felt like two different books because Isaac required all 3 to avoid communicating with others about their search at any cost.  Additionally, Phillip and Gregory were both increasingly isolated mentally throughout the book.  This led to Hazel’s sections anchoring both the mystery and the larger story.  All three perspectives were interesting and engaging, though not always feeling a part of the same story.

As a mystery, it was extremely well-paced and well-plotted.  I saw a few things coming, but it felt like you were supposed in those moments.  Additionally, I figured out the key right before it was revealed, and I really appreciated both the clues and smaller revelations that were cleverly interspersed throughout the story as well as the genuine unexpectedness of the solution.  I also appreciated how the book had a distinct LA noir feel without glossing over some of the real issues the characters were dealing with the way traditional noir sometimes does.  In fact, the story dealt with some really hard topics, such as child abuse, mental illness, suicide, adultery, and death with grace and empathy but without letting them take over the tone of the book.

As I mentioned, the main character development was strong, but several of the non-focus characters felt a little (or a lot) more ephemeral.  I couldn’t remember who Lily and Jane were for the longest time, and just after finishing the book, I cannot for the life of me tell you Jane’s sister’s name.  And if you have no idea who I’m talking about…I’m sorry, I can’t help.  Additionally, I wasn’t crazy about the ending.  I feel like a character received an automatic acceptance and forgiveness that I did not feel was deserved nor earned, and honestly, it bothered me a lot.

 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

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Somehow, SOMEHOW I missed a review.  That’s never happened!  I may get behind (ok, way behind), but this time I’m not just behind, I’ve completely skipped a book.  Didn’t get it written down in my notes document or anything.  SO!  I’m pausing in my great catch-up project to rectify that because certainly Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos deserves a review.

I love novels about art, particularly women in art.  Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemesia were two of my favorites growing up, and since then if you hand me a book with a strong female protagonist and a plot revolving around art, I will read it.  So obviously, I was intrigued by Smith’s debut, and it did not disappoint.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos tells the story of the last known work of the titular character, a fictional female Dutch painter, at 3 points in time: in 1631 as Sara becomes the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke as a master painter, having found her voice as an artist after a devastating loss; 1950’s New York when Ellie, an Australian grad student and art restorer, agrees to create a forgery of Sara’s masterpiece, At the Edge of a Wood, and enters into an odd cat-and-mouse relationship with the current owner, unbeknownst to her; and in 2000’s Sydney, where Ellie, now a world-renowned art historian and curator, discovers that both Sara’s original painting and her own forgery are en-route to her museum for her upcoming exhibit on female Dutch painters.  The story jumps about in time highlighting the moral quandaries each major character faces in response to the painting itself.

I’ll be honest that I don’t remember a lot about the writing style or structure or anything like that at this point.  I read the book almost a year ago, and the specifics are fuzzy–this is why I try to write down notes after finishing each book.  But what I remember are vivid images and moments from the book, feelings of incredibly distinct characters and places and times.  Sara lives in a world of noise and chaos, where art is a trade, where people live outside as much as in, where life in 1630’s Amsterdam is bustling and vibrant and hard.  The 1950’s Manhattan where the owner at the time lives lives is dark woods and shiny finishes, cocktails and tinkling glasses, muted sounds and muted emotions, that warm light emanating from one lamp at night, everything perfectly in its place, nothing too much or too felt.  Sydney of the current day is all breathtaking vistas kept at bay behind carefully crafted picture windows, all cool tones–blues, grays, and whites, a gentle and quiet sophistication based on training and taste rather than money, again everything in its place but everything felt intently.

Smith creates these separate worlds and their inhabitants beautifully.  You feel with Sara as she desperately tries to survive in a world where women are not valued beyond the home.  Her frustrations and helplessness and fierce determination to succeed are all things we have felt.  The wealthy businessman of the 1950’s could be creepy but instead Smith paints him as sympathetic.  His choices, though odd, are understandable and never malicious.  Ellie really comes into her own in the modern segments, and the tension between her burning anxiety and vibrancy held barely in check under her carefully composed exterior is compelling.  Any one of the sections could be a novel on it’s own, but each feels right in the amount of time we spend in it.  Ultimately, I kind of remember the novel as a painting itself, even if it wasn’t written that way.

I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure I had more specific things to say when I actually remembered the details, but this book stands up well to my memory.  I hadn’t thought about it in months and then when I did, the images and moments came flashing back, almost as vividly as when I’d read them.  I think The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a beautiful story about human needs and loves and what we’ll do for opportunity, and I’d definitely encourage you to check it out.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

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This year for the first time, I printed off a reading challenge to help push my reading in new directions.  While I’m not following it slavishly, I do get excited when I read something that checks a box or more on the list.  One of the suggestions was to read a graphic memoir written and illustrated by the same person, and Thi Bui’s haunting, beautiful The Best We Could Do fit the bill perfectly.

Thi’s graphic novel tells the story of her family’s history, from her parents’ very different upbringings and paths to each other to her family’s escape from Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon when Thi was small.  Their stories are filtered through Thi’s own lens as an adult American, and through the book she struggles to reconcile her own Americanness with her parents’ successes and struggles as immigrants and parents, especially in light of her own new motherhood.

I read this book in a single sitting and I thought a lot about it after I finished, but now, even months later, I still don’t really know how to talk about it.  It’s beautiful, open, honest, sad, happy, every emotion you can think of.  The warm oranges, yellows, and blues that dominate Thi’s evocative illustrations serve as a connecting thread between these very different periods in her and her parents lives, and you can tell the novel was a very personal project for her.  Not just because it’s her memoir but because of why she wrote it and what she works through in the creation of it.  The book  is a way for her to understand her past, present, and future and to process her love for and resentment of her parents’ decidedly non-American attitudes.  There is a moment that beautifully encapsulates this when she shares her hurt and frustration but also understanding when her mother would tell Thi’s white husband all about their family history, even in front of her, but refuse to talk about it with Thi herself for a long time.  Thi talks about how writing the novel was a decade long process of catharsis, and not only she but we are better for it.

Like Exit West, The Best We Could Do is a story of movement, loss, and love, but it’s not just an immigration story.  It asks the question, what happens as life re-balances and starts anew?  And it again reminds us that despite different experiences, people are people.  Even if you think that you’re not one for graphic novels, I highly encourage you to check this one out.

 

 

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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After a quick mystery break, checking out the latest in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series (always fun, as is the latest installment Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed) and re-visiting an old favorite, (Louise Penny’s Still Life–everyone should read this series), I launched back into my new fiction for 2018 with Mohsin Hamid’s glorious, sparkling Exit West.

Exit West tell the love story of Saeed and Nadia, two young people in an unnamed Middle Eastern city on the brink of civil war who meet in college and form a tentative then unbreakable bond as their love grows amid violence and uncertainty.  Saeed is gentle, intellectual, emotional, and devoted to his family, while Nadia is fierce, independent, and a bit remote, but they find love and understanding in each other.  As the violence moves closer and the danger increases, doors begin appearing in different parts of the city and, as we later learn, around the world, a smattering of magic in an all-too-real situation.  The doors offer an escape for residents and innocent victims of the strife.  Nadia and Saeed ultimately embark on a journey through the doors that will test their relationship, understanding of self, and their place in an ever-changing world.

Exit West is an absolutely gorgeous book.  The paragraphs are filled with long, tumbling sentences, and it is like reading a dream.  Hamid luxuriates in language, but his writing is never languid or meandering.  Everything is focused and purposeful in his descriptions.  Additionally, he creates a fascinating reader relationship with his main characters, at once both immediate & intimate yet removed.  We know their inner thoughts and emotions without needing very much dialogue, and we feel their increasing separation through the creeping silences.  It’s almost like we are hovering over the action at times, yet it also feels like a very real relationship.

Through this lens, Hamid deals with major issues we experience in the world today: nativism and racism, the fear of refugees and the fears of refugees, the sense of helplessness in the face of change we can’t control.  Saeed and Nadia’s city could easily be Aleppo, the conflict the war launched by Syria’s government on its citizens.  The conflicts they experience in London are the same conflicts that play out weekly across the world as mass migration is forced upon people.  Saeed and Nadia’s story is interspersed with vignettes, moments with other people around the world and their relationship or experience with a door.  At first I was confused–what is the purpose of these moments?  And then I realized that they highlight the fact that we are all migrants through time and space, while Saeed and Nadia’s story represents that experience through the specific perspective of those who are forced to move.

The one thing I’m not really sure of was the ending, which kind of tapered off.  In a way in makes sense, especially if you read the book, but I still don’t really know how I feel about that ending as an ending to a book.  But perhaps it mirrors how sometimes things just taper off in real life, too.  Either way, overall it was exciting to read something that felt both so new and so familiar.

Exit West is a story of time and a story of our times.  It is a story of human adaptation and resilience, both global and individual.  It is a love story created in extremis and petered out in normalcy.  It is a story that helps us find the commonalities in human experience and look at things from another perspective.  It is luminous and coruscating (a new word that I’ve recently learned and describes this book perfectly).  It is a book we should all read, and I can’t wait to read more of Hamid’s work.