To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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One of my favorite books this year is Eowyn Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World.  It is a fictionalized account of the first expedition to explore Wolverine River in the newly-acquired Alaska Territory, led in the novel by Colonel Allen Forrester.  Forrester records his exciting, harrowing, and even inexplicable experiences in his journal as letters to his wife, Sophie, who remains at the Vancouver Barracks, and who write letters and records her own experiences at the barracks as she bucks against the social expectations of the other soldiers’ wives by taking up photography and indulging her love of birding. Meanwhile, Sophie and Allen’s writings are punctuated by the scientific recordings and moral ravings of an unidentified voice (though it is easy to figure out who as the story goes on), as well as the context-setting and friendship-forming correspondence between Walter Forester, Allen’s elderly great-nephew, and Joshua Sloan, the young curator of the local museum in the Wolverine Valley, to whom Walter wants to donate the Forrester’s papers.

Ivey’s second novel, like her first, The Snow Child, deals beautifully with the history of exploration in Alaska and the interweaving of native and settler cultures.  Ivey’s protagonists are always a little bit on the fringe of their societies, marching to the beat of their own drums, and this otherness makes Sophie, in particular, a truly compelling heroine, for heroine she is, despite holding down the fort in Allen’s absence.  Sophie’s sections were the ones I looked forward to the most.  Here is a woman, out of place in her East Coast home and equally othered in her new home in Vancouver: intellectually curious and a bit of a social odd duck but who found love and care with an equally intellectual yet unconventional man, the army hero who is more invested in people than accolades.  Allen is what allows Sophie to enter into the replacement society of the Vancouver Barrack, a society that playacts the “refined parties” and social structures back East.  But when he’s gone, it is Sophie who handles the gossiping women who pass judgement on her every act; Sophie who deals with a difficult and, at times, terrifying pregnancy; Sophie who bucks convention to learn the art of photography; Sophie who manages the accounts carefully and precisely; Sophie who builds a darkroom in their home; and Sophie who creates an entire life for herself while leaving just enough space for Allen to fit into when he comes home.  Sophie is at once historical and familiar, and she does not shy away either her societal othering of the barrack’s women or her self-recognized othering of her own intellectual and artistic pursuits.  We can all aspire to be Sophie: the person who not just survives but rises above, claims her agency, and finds purpose and joy in the face of challenges big and small.

I did love Allen’s sections, too, for that’s where the mystery and danger and adventure were.  Ivey does a marvelous job interweaving the folklore of the native peoples of the area into the story, exploring the intersection of myth and reality and the questioning Allen and his men engage in based on their line-blurring experiences.  Seeing is believing but what if you don’t know how to believe what you see?  Allen’s experiences with othering end up being drastically different from Sophie’s.  Like her, Allen is othered by his experiences and the people that he meets, but it is clearly a new experience for him, the one used to being in control and in command, not only of those around him but his environment as well.  His journey through the Wolverine emphasizes his and his team’s position as both cultural and environmental outsiders: they are new to the country, its mysteries, and its dangers, as well as to the people who live there.  Modes of survival, rules of social interaction, and the blurred lines between fantasy and reality are all at odds with Allen’s entire life experience, and he and his team are at the mercy of nature’s brutal fickleness, the generosity of people who have no reason to treat them kindly, and the mysterious forces at work around them.  Through it all, Sophie is Allen’s constant, keeping him anchored through the increasingly inexplicable events of his journey.  The two on the fringes of their worlds find safe harbor with each other.

Honestly, this is a gorgeous book.  Perhaps it a bit of a tough sell–a novel about the exploration of the Alaska Territory might be dry, boring, or even gruesome to some, invoking images of last year’s Oscar winner, The Revenant.  However, as with all good stories, it is the characters who stick out, who make the tale.  In this review, I hardly touch on Walter and Josh’s burgeoning friendship, but it, too, is one where those who are different find comfort in each other and teach each other in the process.  I feel like I’d been on a reading spree of books that I liked just fine, but To the Bright Edge of the World started me on a sequence of books I loved.  So do yourself a favor and check it out.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is an author I’ve often thought I should read but never got around to doing so.  So when a friend from work told me that Lahiri’s short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was one of her favorite books and she’d lend it to me, I immediately took her up on the offer, and I’m so glad I did.

Set primarily in Boston and India, Interpreter of Maladies tells 9 stories of the Indian and Indian-American experience, but honestly, they should be considered stories of the human experience: how love, loss, and dreams tear us apart and bind us together over generations.  A young couple deals with the tragic stillbirth of their baby.  A young boy learns of the confines and beauties of his neighbor’s world due to her fear of driving.  Other couples navigate the uncertain waters of new marriages, arranged and unarranged. An interpreter guides an uninterested American family through their history in India.  A young woman finds herself after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her status as her married boyfriend’s mistress.  A neighborhood in Boston deals with nightly blackouts. The emotions and dreams and experiences are familiar even when the specific situations may not be, and Lahiri’s characters feel like our friends and family and even ourselves.

Honestly, after each story I felt sad.  Not a loud, vocal sadness but a quiet, heavy sadness that sat in my chest.  Sadness for the small injustices of daily life, sadness for the momentary regrets and frustrations, sadness for those characters who felt such sadness themselves.  But then came the last story, and it was such an uplifting story of hope that it made me appreciate and even savor the emotional journey Lahiri had just taken me on.  Lahiri does not deal in explosives but rather in simple realities of the every day, and as I finished the last story feeling such satisfaction with my reading experience, I realized how deft a writer Lahiri is.  She is an author who has mastered both the art and the craft of writing, and she has done so in the most subtle yet effective ways.  Despite her subtlety, though, she wrote some of the most gorgeous prose I have ever read in these stories.  Sentences that would just knock me over and leave me breathless with their simple beauty. I don’t ever really remember ever being quite so bowled over by language before.  I wish that I had written some of her language down to share with you, but I didn’t and I returned my friend’s book long ago upon finishing it.  So I leave it to you to go read it and see for yourself.

Interpreter of Maladies is one of those books that sticks with you long after you finish, one of the reasons it’s taken me a while to write this post, actually.  After finishing it, you just want to ruminate on it for a while.  But don’t mistake that for a reluctance to recommend.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I am so grateful that I finally read some of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work.  She is a true master of the written word, and it was a privilege to spend some time with her writing.  I’m looking forward to reading more, and I encourage you to do so as well.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 by Jack Thorne & John Tiffany.

It was with mixed emotions that I awaited my pre-ordered copy of Jack Thorne and John Tiffany’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2, the script of the play based on a story by J.K. Rowling.  On the one hand, more Harry Potter in book form!  On the other hand, it’s not actually written by J.K. Rowling–how would these…interlopers…handle my beloved world and characters?  The only way to find out would be by reading.

Harry Potter and the Curse Child Parts 1 & 2, currently playing to rave reviews in London, picks up where The Deathly Hallows leaves off: at King’s Cross Station as Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and Draco and his wife all see their children off to Hogwarts.  Harry’s second son, Albus, is nervous about everything and immediately strikes up a friendship with Scorpius Malfoy, and both end up being sorted into Slytherin.  Over the next few years, Albus deals with being in Slytherin, the pressure of being Harry Potter’s son, and their fraying relationship, while Scorpius grieves the death of his mother, combats rumors that he is actually Voldemort’s son, and generally struggles being a Hufflepuff trapped in a Slytherin family (at least, that’s my theory).  One break, Amos Diggory shows up at the Potter household demanding that Harry use a recently confiscated time-turner to go back in time and bring back his son, Cedric (who died instead of Harry in the Goblet of Fire, natch).  Harry refuses, and Albus convinces Scorpius to help him steal the time-turner and do what Harry will not with the help of Amos’ cheerful nurse, Delphi.  Hijinks and real danger ensue, including a break-in at the Ministry of Magic, where Hermione is now Minister of Magic and Harry is head of the Aurors; the adults chasing the teenagers through time; and mistakes made that drastically change the present and future for the worse.

Sounds cool, huh?  And I bet Rowling’s story is great!  And I wish that she had just written another book.  You see, the play is…just awful.  Like truly terrible.  Like my heart just continuously sank further and further until by the end of the play, it was in my toes, broken into pieces.  Ok, maybe not that bad, but it’s not good.  I’d put it about at the level of mediocre fan fiction.  There are so many things that I could point to, but I will highlight just a few.

  1. The play’s authors do not understand Rowling’s characters and how to write them.  Albus and Scorpius should be about 14 or 15 for most of the play, and yet they read like 8 year olds.  It is very difficult to buy them as characters in Rowling’s world let alone as complete, nuanced teenagers.  And then there are the adults.  Harry, Hermione, and Ginny are all fine, if a little generic, but Ron.  Poor Ron.  He doesn’t deserve this.  Thorne and Tiffany turn Ron into a joking buffoon.  Say what you will about Ron: he may not have Hermione’s book smarts or Harry’s finesse, but Ron has magic street smarts, heart, and humanity, and he is no buffoon.  My dearest hope is that the actors who play him have a better understanding than the playwrights did.
  2. Several scenes in the play come directly from the novels, yet the playwrights feel the need to invent dialogue that is not in the novels.  Well, the scenes are from a different perspective, so that’s expected, right?  What I’m talking about is dialogue that takes place in both the play and the novels.  Case in point: Ludo Bagman’s Tri-Wizard Tournament commentary is pretty clear in most of Goblet of Fire.  There is no need to change any of that dialogue, but the playwrights do, taking Bagman from a full-formed character to a cartoon.  It does not add anything and, in fact, detracts from what already existed.  J.K. Rowling signed off on this play; I’m sure she would have been fine with them using her words.
  3. The big “twist” is telegraphed from early in the play.  There is virtually no surprise when you find out what it is because anyone with a pulse could have guessed it from shortly into the first act.  That’s just sloppy structure.

Overall, the playwrights miss the heart of the world of Harry Potter.  Characters are thin caricatures of themselves from the novels, and it feels like Thorne and Tiffany are mimicking Rowling without actually understanding what made her, her characters, and her world great.  I have been hearing, from professional reviewers and friends who have seen it, that the play is spectacular.  And I can see that.  If you have the right people in the roles, the right production design (absolutely crucial based on the quality of the script), and the right director, this play could be the Wizarding World come to life for a few hours.  But that in itself is a problem.  For a play to be truly good, it should stand on its own merits as literature.  Think Angels in America, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Macbeth, etc.  You get the point.  Unfortunately this play does not.  It just falls so sadly short.  So if you are a Harry Potter completist, read the play.  If you are a completist with the ability to fly to London, see the play instead.  If you have a more casual relationship with Harry Potter, don’t bother.  You can Wikipedia the plot, if you really want to know.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

I hit a bit of a lull in my reading this summer.  I usually have my reading selections planned several books in advance, and suddenly I found myself at the end of my stack with no idea where to go next and a kind of bored restlessness about choosing one.  Choose one, though, I did, with the recommendations of a few friends.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is a book that my mom’s book club had read a few years ago and that I’d seen many times on her bookshelf but never picked up.  Another friend recommended it one day when I was on my way to the used bookshop, and after finding a copy there, I decided to give it a go.

The Language of Flowers tells the story of Victoria Jones, a prickly and mistrustful young woman who ages out of the foster-care system in San Francisco and find herself having to figure out how to build a life for herself.  She relies on her knowledge of the Victorian language of flowers, where flowers communicate specific meanings to their recipients, to land a job at a florist shop, where she wows customers with her special bouquets and forms human connections that would be difficult for her without the shield of floral communication.  In alternating chapters, Victoria remembers the closest she came to having a family with her foster mother, Elizabeth, when she was 10; how Elizabeth taught her to communicate with flowers; and the disaster that prevented them from forming a permanent home.  By the end, past and present collide as Victoria has to decide what she ultimately wants from life: independence or a family.

This book was an interesting read for me.  I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it.  Victoria’s (justified) negative attitude was rather consuming, and I found myself taking on a similar bad mood every time I picked up the book.  Additionally, I felt like the story wasn’t the right size.  To me it felt like there either needed to be more or less, particularly at the end, which felt very neat and pat and wrapped up with a bow.  Maybe I wanted more there?  More conversation, more acknowledgement of the past, more something?  After every horrible thing that had been done, said, laid out, was it really that easy?  Not that Victoria has had an easy life, but I think because of her hardships, it just felt insubstantial in the end.

That being said, it is an incredibly fast and engrossing read.  Historically, I have prided myself on never missing my train transfer on the way home.  If I did, I would add an additional hour to my commute home due to the train going express to the north suburbs after that stop.  The first time in my life I missed that transfer was while reading this novel and being so caught up in it that I didn’t realize I had missed the transfer until 10 minutes into the ride to the suburbs.  So that’s something.

Again, I’m not sure I enjoyed this book. I know people who very much did, who loved it for its unique story, vivid characters, and use of the language of flowers as a framing device.  I am not one of them, but I appreciated how it makes you think: about hopes and dreams, missed goals, the fragility and strength of relationships, how we can both be our own best friend and worst enemy, and ultimately about how life can surprise us in the best ways, if we will let it.  So I say, yes, read The Language of Flowers.  I have no idea how much you will enjoy it.  But I can say it will be a worthwhile read.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

Earlier this summer, my friend, Charlotte, mentioned that her copy of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu had recently come up at the library.  “The bad-ass what?” I asked, both slightly shocked and amused by the title of this mystery book.  She proceeded to describe journalist Joshua Hammer’s account of the massive plan to save Mali’s most precious historical manuscripts from the destructive forces of Al-Qaeda from the early 2000’s to just a few years ago.  I was immediately hooked by her description and knew I had to read it.

In The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, Hammer tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, a young man hired by Timbuktu’s government to carry on the work of his father, traveling the length and breadth of the Sahara unearthing thousands of ancient and historic Islamic texts for preservation.  These texts ran the gamut from tiny, hand-bound and hand-decorated Qurans to secular texts describing the importance of music, art, and culture to early Islamic society.  There was even a sex guide.  When Haidara began his quest in the 1980’s, it was a leisurely race against time and the elements to preserve documents that had been hidden in local centers of learning and family homes, cellars, and trunks for years.  Hammer also traces the rise of Al-Qaeda in Northern Africa, and with 9/11 and the increasing occupation of the Sahara by Al-Qaeda’s forces in the 2000’s, the race became one against the destructive forces of humanity, oppression, and fear.  As a result, Haidara began a massive undertaking to evacuate hundreds of thousands of documents promoting a history and understanding of Islam antithetical to the extremist’s beliefs out of Timbuktu to Bamako, Mali’s capital, right under the noses of the Al-Qaeda soldiers and their leaders.

The book both benefits and suffers from Hammer’s experience as a journalist.  Hammer took multiple trips and spent significant time to report on the region and then again to research and write this story.  As such, it benefits from his thorough research and skill in drawing out the unexpected from his interviews with tens of people involved in Haidara’s plan.  Hammer is able to explain fully and accessibly the hugely complicated politics of a volatile region and the effects these events and horrors had on the people who lived there through the humanity and gumption of one person.  Additionally,  Hammer does not shy away from the atrocities committed by leaders of Al-Qaeda in North Africa.  It makes for some truly difficult and even sickening reading, but it provides key context, without which we cannot appreciate the monumental nature of the risks taken by Haidara and his friends and family.  The fact that Hammer knows Haidara and so many involved adds a vital personal touch.  Because keep in mind: this is not an adventure novel, despite the title.  This is a real story about real people, what they really experienced, and what they really did despite incredible danger.

That being said, there are some journalistic structural choices that cause the book to suffer somewhat.  Hammer jumps from topic to topic and back again without much signal to the reader, which would make sense in a multi-article report or even a long-form article such as would be found in National Geographic.  However, in such formats, there are usually visual cues (a page-break, a small icon to indicate the end of a section, etc.) which Hammer (or his editor) choose to eschew in this book-length format, creating some muddiness around who Hammer is talking about at a given time.  Several times I found myself going back a few paragraphs to see where the transition might have been so I could be clear about which key character we were learning about at that moment.  Additionally, multiple times throughout the book, Hammer repeated the exact same phrase or sentence only a page apart.  While this can be done for effect, it often seemed more like he had forgotten he had just used the phrase in question.  To me, that smacks of sloppy editing, but if it was deliberate, it needed to be more so.  Overall, though, these are small quibbles regarding a writing style that can become a bit loose when extended to book length.  (Please know that I think it is probably just as challenging for a novelist or non-fiction book writer to learn how to write journalism effectively as well.)

Overall, I think this is an incredible story of a man who risked all to save his country and religion’s history in the face of immediate danger, which was reported with integrity, humility, and openness.  I also think it is a very valuable entry for beginning to understand not just the complexities of our world as a whole but particularly the rise of religious extremism both at home and abroad.  We, as individuals and as a country, could do well to educate ourselves about others’ experiences, beliefs, and lives before making blanket judgments, and The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a perfect place to start.

 

I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira

Up next on Mom’s book club list was Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You.  This should be right up my alley: a well-researched, thoughtfully written historical novel about art and artists (particularly French Impressionists–one of my favorite genres!).  And in many ways, it is, but ultimately I felt underwhelmed by Oliveira’s story of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas’ “relationship.”

I Always Loved You tells the story of Mary Cassatt, American painter who made her way to Paris and determinedly carved out a career as a member of the Impressionists, an artistic and social group that included at various points Monet, Pissarro, Manet, Berthe Morisot, Renoir, Cezanne, Caillebotte, and, of course, Edgar Degas.  The story begins around Mary’s rejection by the Salon and introduction to Degas, who takes an artistic interest in her.  Over the years, they develop a will-they-won’t-they relationship that never fully manifests as an actual romantic relationship, despite coming close many times.  As Mary’s style evolves and Degas’ eyesight worsens over the years, they deal with the ups-and-downs of being an artist in Belle Epoque Paris (and working with each other) and the pressures of Mary’s parents and beloved sister who have come to live with her from Pittsburgh to provide a guiding eye to her art and money.

So it was nice.  I mean, it was very nice, but I just didn’t really feel like a lot was going on in any way that made the novel stand out from the crowd.  Mary Cassatt was known for painting female relationships: mother-daughter, sisters, friends, etc., and Oliveira does a good job of portraying the relationship between Mary, her mother, her sister, and her best friend who inspired these themes in her work.  I particularly appreciated the complexities of Mary’s relationship with her mother, through which Oliveira highlighted both the parent-child and friendship elements of an adult daughter and her mother.  Honestly, I found Mary’s relationship with her family, especially her father, the most compelling part of the book.  Mary and her father operate in different worlds (art and business), and it’s really lovely to see them negotiate learning about the other’s goals and interests, despite the pitfalls that arise.

Mary’s relationship with Edgar Degas, on the other hand, was alternately dull and frustrating, which, if it was anything close to the way it was depicted in this novel in real life, must have been incredibly frustrating, both personally and professionally.  Degas does not come off terribly well here-self-centered, a perfectionist, mercurial, and ultimately dismissive of others’ feelings.  However, his passion for and dogged commitment to his art make it easy to understand why people were drawn to him.  I just wish there had been…more?  More about his art, more about his history, more about his interpersonal relationships?  I don’t know.  I just feel like the novel covered a very long period of time at a relatively surface level.

I’ve had a very hard time writing this review because I just don’t really have strong feelings one way or another about this novel.  It’s fine.  It’s nice.  It’s lovely, even.  It’s a very easy read where honestly not much happens.  And not all novels have to be exciting and eventful, but this one just felt a little lacking.  What it did do is give me a little more insight into Mary Cassatt, who I actually knew very little about, and caused me to want to learn more about her.  So if you want a nice, light read about interesting artists, I Always Loved You is a good bet.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben McIntyre

Another great selection from my mom’s book club this past year was Ben McIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.  Full disclosure: I really like spy stuff.  It took me a while to get into James Bond, but I am particularly fond of Daniel Craig’s portrayal.  I love CIA analysts thrust into the field from Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October (the best one, obvi) to Tony Mendez in Argo.  And The Night Manager is probably my favorite TV show of 2016 thus far.  Despite all of this, I’ve never really read much spy-based fiction or non-fiction (except for The Pink Carnation series, which, while delightful, we can all agree doesn’t really fall into the same category).  So I was really excited to pick up McIntyre’s account of British double-agent, Kim Philby.

McIntyre chooses as his lens Philby’s relationship with best friend and fellow spy, Nicholas Elliott.  Both had difficult relationships with their distant fathers, went to the same schools and university, joined the same clubs, and were recruited by MI-6 at the same time.  And yet only one became a double-agent for the Russians from WWII through the Cold War.  So the question becomes, how do two men with such strikingly similar experiences end up with such drastically political and social views?

Of course, McIntyre explores that in depth, along with Philby’s activities both within and without the British government, the massive effect he had on multiple espionage efforts, and his quick rise through the ranks at MI-6.  But most importantly, he explored Philby’s relationship with Elliott.  Despite the fact that may of  Philby’s actions on behalf of the Russian government had direct consequences for Elliott, Philby seemed to genuinely consider Elliott a friend, which makes “The Great Betrayal” even more compelling.  It was a betrayal of queen and country, but it was also a betrayal of decades of close friendship.  Elliott’s entire professional and even personal world were turned upside-down upon the discovery of Philby’s extracurricular activities.  This was someone with whom he had grown up, vacationed, and trusted professionally and personally with his life essentially.  As such, the scene where Elliott confronts Philby is both tense and heartbreaking, years of friendship being shattered in the process.

McIntyre is an incredibly compelling writer, and the non-fiction account reads as thrillingly as any John Le Carre novel (or so I assume–Le Carre wrote the Afterword, so he probably agrees with my assessment.  Also, my dad has specifically requested that I mention Le Carre’s novel, Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, which he pointed out is the novel that most closely resembles Philby’s story and is the greatest spy novel he’s ever read).  However, by framing it within the context of Philby and Elliott’s relationship, McIntyre really pounds home not just the political and security costs of Philby’s allegiance but the personal costs as well.  Philby is not just a caricature of a Russian spy but a man with complex emotions and beliefs who ultimately makes a decision to hurt those he personally cares for (along with thousands he has never met) in order to uphold his ideals and beliefs.  Elliott humanizes the monster.  It creates a much more nuanced understanding of a much more complicated period of history than most people realize (though I suspect most readers will still abhor Philby for what he did).

Besides all that, it is a cracking good story, and McIntyre’s research is exhaustive, utilizing many previously unavailable official documents.  Plus, many of the European, North African, and Middle Eastern locals are portrayed just as glamorously as they seem in movies of the era.  (Because what’s a good spy story without gorgeous, exotic locations?)  I really enjoyed this book, and I appreciate McIntyre maintaining the intrigue and glamour of the “spy genre” while maintaining academic integrity and revealing the, at times, truly heart-wrenching story behind the most effective double-agent in British history and his best friend.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

In May, I decided to catch up on some of the books my mom’s book club read this year.  I really admire this group of intelligent, accomplished women with the most wonderful diversity of interests, and I can always count on a selection of books that will engage, enthrall, and even challenge me.  On this past year’s docket was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.  Never having read anything by Ishiguro, I was excited to delve into his post-Arthurian allegory of love, memory, and loss.

The Buried Giant tells the story of Axl and Beatrice, an elderly Briton couple in Britain after the Romans have left and Arthur has died.  A mist of forgetfulness has settled over the land, now living in an uneasy peace.  At Beatrice’s insistence, Beatrice and Axl set forth on a journey to find their son whom they have not seen in years, though they don’t remember why.  Along the way, they encounter a Saxon knight, a mysterious boy, and an old knight with conflicting motivations on a quest .  Everyone has a secret, everyone bears the burden of their past, everyone finds comfort in memories that are not fully there.

Ishiguro’s Britain is a stark, beautiful, dreamy world full of unknown motivations and contradictory emotions.  The language is spare, simple, and straightforward, reading somewhat like a YA novel.  For me, it reminded me more of the syntax of the Arthurian legends we read in school.  Axl and Beatrice, too, are simple and straight-forward, an old man devoted to his wife (whom he calls “Princess”) and an old woman pining for her child.  Their single-minded focus on finding their son is their anchor (and the reader’s as well) in a world where dragons, evil spirits, and mysterious figures still exist.  But the simplicity of the text and the characters belies the complexity of human emotion on display.  Though they cannot remember much of anything due to the mist, Axl and Beatrice’s grief, fear, sorrow, and love are all very real.  As they come closer to achieving both their own personal quest and those quests of their unexpected companions, the mist lifts some, and they each encounter flashes of the memories that have been hidden for so long.  Beatrice’s pulling away from Axl and Axl’s horror and remorse upon discovering hurts against each other in the past are beautifully written, delving deep into the core of marriage and partnership.

My one quibble was the few chapters written from the old knight’s point of view.  He was such a specific character that the drastically different tone of his sections pulled me out of the story.  Additionally, his almost hysterical stream-of-conscious style was hard to follow at times, and though while those sections had purpose within the context of the tale as a whole, it took a while to find it.

Overall, this is a story about the power of love and the burden of memory and age.  As humans, we fight so much to repress the experiences and memories that bring us pain and uplift the ones that bring us comfort and joy.  As we age, though, a fear of death often can bring about a desire to remember and account for our life.  The questions Ishiguro deals with–how do we account for truth and emotion in memory? At the end of life, what is most important, the past or present? Is it worth disrupting relationships, no matter how strong, with a desire for memory (or worse truth)?–are all questions that each one of us will deal with in some form.  No matter how you answer these questions, Ishiguro wraps them for us in a subtly striking portrayal of real, messy, deep love.  I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like The Buried Giant, and though I didn’t love it, it is one that has stuck with me months after I finished it.

Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding

So at the beginning of this year, my book club chose several dense, emotionally wrenching classics to read in a row and decided after the second one that maybe we needed to take a break and read something light and fun, preferably with a film adaptation included.  As a not-so-serious suggestion, I threw out Bridget Jones’ Diary, and so began the great book club over-correction of 2016.  Perhaps that’s a little dramatic, but oh well.

I first read Bridget Jones’ Diary in high school, along with its sequel.  It tells the story of Bridget, a 30-something in London who whines and complains about her job, her lack of love life, her friends, her parents, her weight, anything that catches her fancy.  While I enjoyed the second one, I remembered not really liking the first one but couldn’t remember why.  Now I do.

  1. Bridget is horrible.  I mean, I get that she is 30-ish, single, in a dead-end job, and her life hasn’t gone the way she’d hoped, but it would be a lot easier to connect with her if she wasn’t just such a whiny, entitled, dismal person who insisted on making the same bad choices again and again.
  2. Her mother is awful and takes no accountability for anything, which is probably why Bridget, who is marginally better than her mother, takes so little accountability in her life.
  3. Neither guy option is particularly great.  Daniel Clever is a louse and a cad.  Mark Darcy is rude.  Yes, he is OBVIOUSLY a riff on Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (specifically the as-played-by Colin Firth Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries), but he is written inconsistently, and the big revelation of their negative relationship being a series of silly misunderstandings feels contrived.
  4. All of the supporting characters are flat caricatures of stock sidekicks, frenemies, and mean girls.  Not very interesting nor very appealing.  Why hang out with so many people you don’t like, Bridge?
  5. And finally, there is the weight issue.  I won’t harp on this too much, but imagine being a relatively self-conscious 16-year-old girl reading about an unhappy 30-something who obsessively tracks her weight and berates herself for being “obese”, “disgusting”, and “gross” and seeing that said 30-something’s weight range matches her own.  Doesn’t feel great as a 16-year-old or a 29-year-old.

To be fair, this book was not written for teenagers.  But it hasn’t particularly aged well either.  Maybe it’s because I feel like I have my life together way more than Bridget does (thus putting me into the “smug marrieds” category, perhaps). Maybe it’s because my friends who are ostensibly in Bridget’s situation (single/dating with a solid to good job and a circle of good friends) seem to be happy living their lives the way they want to.  I’m sure everyone has their Bridget moments; I definitely do.  But to live your entire life as a Bridget moment must be exhausting.  It’s certainly exhausting to read.

Yes, Bridget Jones is the ultimate chick lit, but chick lit is supposed to be fun.  For me, Bridget, at least in written form, was never really fun.  (I do like the movies—all of this stuff seems mitigated in them somehow.) So sorry, Bridge.  You were not the palate cleanser I, at least, needed.  I think I’ll chuck you and move on to a character who has it together.

The Girl who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente

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At long last, Catherynne M. Valente has reached the conclusion of her Fairyland series, and with it, September’s adventures.  The Girl who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home picks up pretty much where The Boy who Lost Fairyland left off, September standing at the front of a room in Pandemonium’s castle, inadvertently having become Queen of Fairyland and trying to figure out what to do while all the previous rulers yell at her.  Ultimately, it is decided that all of those previous rulers, including September, must race, and the winner will become the next ruler of Fairyland.  This race is no ordinary race, of course, containing a fruit-basket turnover of transportation options, duels-by-proxy, riddles, underwater adventures, new friends and new lands, and the horrible loss of memory.  In the meantime, September has 3 days to rule and race, aided by her trusty friends, A-through-L and Saturday, and her new friends, Hawthorn, Tamburlaine, Blunderbuss, and Scratch.  This time, though, September’s parents and aunt have stumbled into Fairyland as well, in search of their missing daughter and niece.

I’ve already written about Valente’s delightful, sophisticated, and subversive approach to both the fairy tale and young adult novel, so I suspect that this post will be rather short.  The main thing I want to note is that despite a stumble with the third book and a break from September’s adventures with the aforementioned fourth, Valente has recaptured all that is lovely, charming, and creative about her world in this last book.  It was so nice to spend some more time with September, Saturday, and A-through-L again, and Valente blended the foursome from The Boy who Lost Fairyland perfectly into the world at large.  I did realized that I have become completely lost in terms of September’s personal timeline (I seem to remember she started the series quite young–maybe 12 or so?–and in this one she seems to be closer to 17 or 18), but despite that, there was no major misstep on Valente’s authorial part.

I particularly loved the arrival of September’s aunt (who, like September, had explored and even ruled Fairyland for a time) and her parents.  I think so often we think we are so alone in our wishes and dreams, and this showed that’s not really true.  I just really liked the continuity between September and Aunt Margaret, who shares the experience of Fairyland, and September and her mother, who’s work during the war inspired September’s independence and ruling title: The Engineer. In a series about fantasy and adventure, her family’s appearances provided a nice grounding and blending of fantasy and reality that felt really good.

Overall, I was really happy with the series as a whole and with this final book.  I can’t tell you how the race turns out, of course, but I can tell you that I finished the book with a strong sense of satisfaction, a twinge of sadness, and a tingle of anticipation for the next adventure, whether or not we get a chance to ride along.  And September remains an excellent role model for readers of any gender and age.  As I said in my first review of the series, this is a wonderful YA series but don’t let that chase you away if you are an adult reader.  It is definitely worth your time.