Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner – Book

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is a sort of a “cover” of the classic book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This time there are only two girls in the Kaufman family who live in a little “Dick and Jane” house on Alhambra Street. They are named Jo (Josette) and Beth (Bethie) – the mom is Sarah and the dad is Ken.

My initial negative reactions to Mrs. Everything were decidedly generational. In Alcott’s book Jo and Beth didn’t have sex. Jo had ambitions that were not considered feminine, and she was aware that she would find it difficult to fulfill those ambitions, but she did not seem to struggle with her sexual identity, hardly an acceptable topic when Alcott wrote her novel.

However I got over myself. After all I am a child of the sixties. I did not find Bethie’s “rebirth” odd. I heard more than a few primal screams in my time. What bothered me more was the stereotypical presentation of the two sisters differing prepubescent personalities. Not every girl who likes sports and doesn’t care to play with dolls or wear dresses is a lesbian or has a sexual identity anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. The only saving grace for the lack of research into the subject can be found in the fact that the characters were intended to parallel the character differences between Alcott’s Jo and Beth.

Modern Jo knew that she was attracted to girls when she was in high school and she had quite a long relationship with her best friend. Her heart was broken for the first time when her first love got married to her high school sweetheart, a boy. Jo could never have pleased her mother by being as feminine as her mother wished her to be, and once her mother learned of Jo’s true sexual orientation, Sarah’s constant disapproval insured that Jo would be happy to leave for college.

Bethie (Beth) was every bit as feminine as her mother would wish her to be. She got lots of positive reinforcement. However, the lives these sisters actually lived most likely will not match the trajectory you think they are on.  They were born in a decade of change. Trite but true, life happens.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is about identity and reality, bravery and duty, social pressure, love, and broken hearts. It did not push the button in me that said “eureka, this is a great book”, but perhaps the way readers experience the quality of this book will turn out to be generational.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Chicago Tribune

Look for me on nbrissonbookblog.com and Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Normal People by Sally Rooney – Book

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Two people, two Irish people, one male, one female, one from a wealthy family, one from a working class family, child of an unmarried mom are the focus of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. Marianne’s and Connell’s worlds would not naturally connect, but in this case Connell’s mom cleans the house that Marianne’s family lives in. Connell’s mother is supportive and loving, doing all she can to provide for her son and to let him feel that he can talk to her and rely on her. Marianne’s father was abusive towards his daughter and his wife. Even with her father gone, Marianne’s family provides no haven of security. Her brother continues the abusive pattern of the father through a campaign of constant criticism and actual bullying which the mother refuses to intervene in. The absence of loving parents leaves Marianne alone to contend with her brother, although it is obvious she has no strategies to help her succeed against him.

Connell is a success in high school, despite his absent father. He is a football player and he’s an excellent student. Marianne uses awkwardness to keep everyone at bay in high school because she has no faith in her appearance or in her social skills. She does not try to look attractive or to make friends, but her isolation adds to her lack of self-esteem. She and Connell begin a secret and, at first, sexual relationship, but as they also talk to and confide in each other the relationship deepens and they begin to become more than friends but not an actual couple.

Connell’s academic skills and his relationship with Marianne give him the confidence to imagine escaping his working class roots and he goes off to the same upper class Trinity University that Marianne will attend, instead of going to Galway where his accent would not set him apart, instantly telling his schoolmates his background. He is a sort of fish out of water at Trinity, however.

Marianne is in her element at Trinity and she begins to fit in. The abuse she was subjected to in her family still has her choosing partnerships where she submits to cruel men. In fact as Marianne seeks out men who will treat her badly, she physically becomes thinner and thinner, frailer and frailer. (I did not like the idea that as she became more invisible, almost disappearing, she also, according to the author, became more and more beautiful. This equation which says the thinner you get the more beautiful you become is not necessarily either true or healthy.)

Connell and Marianne come together and part. They try to have relationships with other people but their unfinished business with each other keeps bringing them back into each other’s orbit, while their personality challenges keep driving them apart. It is a dance that is less about love and more about therapy. Can people repair childhood damages in each other? Can they do this without forming a lifelong commitment to each other? Maybe. Is this a bit frustrating to a reader who always wants characters this addicted to each other to find a happy ending? Of course.

Since this is a character-driven novel, do the characters ring true? Almost. They are just a bit too two dimensional for us to really care about them. This is not Anna Karenina. But of course modern Ireland, once quite as tragic as a Russia in transition, now has problems similar to those of any modern nation. These characters could come alive in a movie, but they are not quite that absorbing in Rooney’s book, Normal People. I did enjoy the rare occasions when Connell’s “Sligo” dialect was reflected in the text and I wished that we heard it more often. It is probably impossible to write a perfect book and although some authors come close it is always possible to find flaws, so despite my complaints this was still a novel that I enjoyed reading from cover to cover.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – NPR

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone – Book

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone – Book

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone follows Kate Moore and her husband Dexter from a stay in Luxembourg in his first novel The Expats, where things started out calmly and went pretty badly off the rails. Kate works for the US government in intelligence but, of course, it’s a secret. Dexter got lured into a scheme to hack a fortune in dirty money and his law-abiding wife finds out. She finds a way to keep Dexter out of prison but at the end of Chris Pavone’s first book, The Expats, the Moore’s marriage is a bit stormy – a very quiet storm because they are barely speaking.

After Luxembourg they travel around Europe for a while with their two children and then they settle in Paris minus the other expat couple they befriended in Luxembourg, a couple Kate hopes is out of their lives forever. Kate’s two children are now school age and she wishes she could enjoy being a full time mom, but life with the agency is just too exciting. What else would she do all day while her children are in school? And now she has been given her own little agency office to run in Paris.

Dexter works at home. He has decided to become a day trader. But it turns out that everyone, except Kate who is busy with her motherhood guilt, has revenge on their minds, and it all leads to one spectacularly messy day in Paris. If this day didn’t involve the deaths of two single fathers, a terrorist attack that immerses Paris in chaos, and threatens to nuke the Louvre it would most resemble one of those French hotel comedy/murder mysteries where everyone is sneaking in and out of everyone else’s room, sometimes with hanky-panky on their minds, and luggage is getting mixed up while people wander around in extravagant outfits and identities get confused. Perhaps to update the genre a bit this is a sort of thriller version of that Barbara Streisand movie “What’s Up Doc?”. Sadly the actual events in Paris seem a bit inappropriate to what is basically a romp, but such are the paradoxes here in the 21 st century and after all it is a thriller/romp.

The author’s chapters focus in turn on the characters, each telling his/her part of the story in small glimpses. You know that the facts will eventually give you the whole picture. You start to see or think you see through this plot – the author has left too many clues, the affair is too easy to unravel, but don’t become overconfident. There are plenty of surprises.

The Paris Diversion is not at all like a true thriller, but it is a true diversion that uses realities that have become far too normal to us. Throughout this whole crazy day the adults are having, the Moore children are safe in a good French school behind a high wall and at the end of the day will suspect nothing. How bad can things get in the space of someone’s slightly elongated school day? You won’t believe it.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search. – Parnassus Musing

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – Book

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Sometimes fiction based on a true story is a difficult beast for an author to tangle with. It can be a struggle to make the elements of fiction (plot, setting, characters) hold the spark that turns a story into literature. The Tattooist of Auschwitzbasically retells a true story told to the author Heather Morris by the man who we know as Lale Sokolov. The author, as a beginner tells the story well, but, for me the story lacks the depth and poignancy that might have come from the pen of someone more experienced in ways to use prose to embellish and flesh out the facts. However, perhaps the unadorned story is more useful for historical purposes.

This novel deals with the prisoners in the concentration camps who did jobs that put them in closer touch with German officers, tasks that carried perks like more food, better quarters, access to favors as long as the prisoner groveled properly when required. Although these prisoners often had no choice about taking on these “lighter” duties, they were seen by other prisoners as collaborators and their few rewards understandably were resented.

Lale, our tattooist was a young man on his way up. He worked in a department store until all the Jews were fired. He was and is a great admirer of women, although he doesn’t seem overbearing about it. He seems to possess some personal charm. When told to report to the train for transport he puts on a suit and tie. His mother makes him pack some books, which won’t matter because he will never see any of his personal items ever again. Not long after he arrives in the concentration camp he becomes assistant to the current tattooist and soon takes the lead tattooist’s place. In the camps people often just disappear, never for a good reason. Lale, as the tattooist, gets extra food and a room of his own. He does not have to labor with a shovel from sun up to sun down. He makes sure to pass some of his extra food along to his old bunkmates.

Once he sees Gita in the nearby women’s camp he falls in love and she returns his affection. Gita works in an office keeping records and lives in a barracks with girls who have named the building where they work Canada because that sounds like a safe place. They sort through and categorize the possessions the Germans take from prisoners. Lale eventually finds a way to take some of the jewelry slipped to him by Gita’s friends and exchange it for food, mainly sausages and chocolate, which he shares to supplement the starvation fare in the camp. The love that grows between Lale and Gita fuels their will to survive.

Every day he steadily tattooes numbers on the arms of more prisoners at Auschwitz and Birkenau, a flood of dispossessed people doomed by one man’s madness. Lale describes the building of the furnaces and the human ashes that drift down over all and have to be ignored for reasons of sanity and survival. But emotional content is missing and it just seems a bit superficial given the horrific circumstances and the daily dread – more news report than work of fiction. Maybe the way Lale survives is exactly is how some people survive by convincing themselves that they are able to use those who have imprisoned them. When so many were shot on the spot for the slightest infraction Lale’s good fortunes seem unlikely. The story could be true but it could be what one man told himself to get by.

The Tattoist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris does bring up the often examined issue of whether people like Lale were collaborators or just survivors. If it is true, this represents a rare alternative view inside the concentration camps. I don’t recall reading another book about collaborators within the camps, although there are many books about collaborators in occupied territories and much speculation about what makes someone a collaborator and even about degrees of collaboration. Although I am not enamored of the art of the book it raises interesting issues and takes us back to that question of what we would have been capable of in similar circumstances. So many brave survivors came out of the camps that I’m not sure Lale’s story seems similarly heroic, but perhaps it should.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – American Jewish University

The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates – Book

When I post on Linkedin.com I often see posts from Bill Gates. Lately it seemed that he kept trying to get me (yes me personally ha-ha) to read The Moment of Lift, a recently published book by his wife Melinda Gates. Sometimes I leave billionaires out of my personal pursuits because their lives are so distant from mine that they don’t really feel like real people. It is exclusionary but I always figure they don’t really mind because it doesn’t impact their lives in any negative way and I am not real to them either. But prejudice in any form is probably not good for the soul and billionaires who are also philanthropists, trying to make life better in some way for all us on this tiny planet at the edge of this universe deserve some attention, even if it is just to see whether or not they are just making huge cosmic errors out of misguided arrogance. Now I am being arrogant. Anyway I read Mrs. Gates’ book and it really did give me a moment of lift, in fact more than one moment. When people use their huge fortunes to make a difference for people at the bottom of the economic heap it makes the inequalities of our current economy seem less obscene. And their experiences can teach us about realities in places we can’t afford to go.

I was deep into Chapter 3 of Gates’ book when Alabama decided to make abortion illegal in that state except in rare cases for the health of the mother. Melinda Gates was talking about the effect of women’s lack of control over their reproductive health and what a profound effect that has on the success of an entire family and even the village in which the family lives. If a women gets pregnant many times with little space in between it means she can’t pay proper attention to each child so the children often do not thrive. Infant mortality rates are really high in such cultures and the family is not able to progress, to send the children to school, to grow more crops or work harder to save money and the family does not thrive either. Generation after generation this is a reality that keeps families poor.

Gates was working in Africa and Asia, in countries where these patterns are very noticeable and small efforts can make a big difference. She began with finding ways to provide free vaccines to children. But she found that the mothers were begging to get regular access to contraceptives so they did not wear themselves out having baby after baby. Access to contraceptives is not something you might think would have such profound positive outcomes wherever it is available, but evidence shows us that it does.

So I cheated a bit and made use of Melinda’s new book to try to drum up readers for my recent blog post “Alabama and Melinda Gates” because I wanted to shine a light on what is happening with Roe v Wade.

https://www.thearmchairobserver.com/alabama-and-melinda-gates/

Melinda Gates is a very spiritual person. She is a devout Catholic who completed her college degrees at a Catholic college. But she is not a missionary. If she was about the business of spreading Catholicism she might not be so open to listening to women in the African and Asian places she visits, she might care more about fulfilling her own needs than the needs of the people she meets. However she has learned to let socially active people she meets at conferences and in her travels, people who know where to look in Africa and India to enlist the Foundation’s help for programs that already exist. These people become her mentors and they take her with them to meet the village people and see programs that are successfully allowing poor people around the world to have a future that is not simply a repeat of the lives people in that area have lived for generations, lives that can’t plan ahead, lives that can only get through each day and sometimes not even that.

There is no sense in talking about this as a work of literature. It is not intended to be considered in that way. But the book made me aware that not all billionaires are selfish people sailing around on yachts, drinking and dining at swanky restaurants, or building survival dwellings in isolated places. It gave me a lift to learn about the intimate problems of women on other continents (although we certainly have some of these problems on our own continent) and to hear about programs that were trying to lighten women’s loads and free them up to enjoy feeling that they could make personal contributions to their families and their culture, that life did not have to be drudgery and heartache or full of repetitive and difficult tasks that wear down the spirit.

So you might find that you also get to experience some of The Moments of Lift that Melinda Gates offers in her book if you spend a few days immersed in the life of the wife of a billionaire. One more point – just because this book is mostly about the things women face does not mean that men should not read Gates’ book. Perhaps they need to hear about these issues even more that women do. Many women’s lives are still under the control of men, and men’s lives also change for the better when women become partners rather than property.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Goodreads

 

 

Anathem by Neal Stephenson – Book

Although I have enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s books in the past I had a little trouble finding the best way to read Anathem. First of all, it uses the word “maths” a lot, and math is not my strong suit, although in the end no deep knowledge of math was required. Since Stephenson is building a world, the planet Arbre, the learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning. The characters have names that are almost familiar, but just a bit off. Main characters are Erasmus, Lio, Arsibalt, Jesry, Tulia, Ala, Orolo, (and many, many others).

So first I tried Audible, but I learned that listening to books puts me to sleep, which tends to destroy the continuity. I bought the paperback so I could read along but the print was just too small. Finally I reserved a hardcover copy from the library and that had another disadvantage. Once I started reading the hardcover edition I could not put this book down.

The book’s title, Anathem– a mash-up of anthem and anathema –  is a perfect example of the way Stephenson plays with our reality to make his invented world seem close enough to what we know in our own world that we can catch on to life in the Concent of Saunt Edhar fairly quickly. By the time we get to sample what is going outside the walls of the concent we are easily able to adjust.

Our characters are on the same clock-winding team. Since the Third Sack praxis (technology) is outlawed in the concent so mechanics are handled in old school ways. This giant clock at the center of concent life is connected to the observatory on the roof and must be wound with ceremony every day. Bells and weights all play important roles in the clock ceremony and in the community. The similarity to a combined monastery and convent helps us realize that our minds already have a schema for this world.

We spend a long time getting acquainted with the world of the concent and the maths that are scattered around the planet. We learn that these communities are not about religion though; they are about philosophy, geometry, history, astronomy, and physics. We also learn that the concents are surrounded by secular cultures lead by the Sæculua and that the concents open their gates at intervals and these separate populations visit each other. Erasmus, first among main characters has a cousin, Cord, who lives in town.

Just as we get familiar with these two adjacent cultures we learn through Raz’s “Fraa” (concent brother) – Orolo that something is going on with the Sun, something the members of the maths are not supposed to know about. But Erasmus is young and worried when Orolo is expelled from the Concent and he takes an enormous risk to find out what’s going on.

Worlds within worlds is a theme in Anathem. The concents share a design and ceremonies and titles. They all wear the bolt and chord and carry the sphere. Outside the concents where the people known as slines live differences vary by geography.

Eramus and his clock-winder group, in response to the emergency connected to what is going on with the Sun, get sent out of their concent to another, much larger concent for a Convox (a working conference). This does not go smoothly for Eramus who gets sent on a side mission by a Thousander prior to arriving at the Convox.

Eventually we see that Stephenson is headed to sucking us into a theory that says that there is more than one cosmos – there are cosmi. We also see that he is a unifier rather than a divider. Tag along with our heroes and see where this takes you and learn a whole new vocabulary along the way. (If you know your Latin roots you’ll have few difficulties.)

Neal Stephenson can transport me into one of his elaborate creations anytime and Anathem was no exception. The only problem is that landing back in my own reality requires an airlock (metaphorically of course).

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell – Book

Each section of The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell begins with the voice of a mosquito, or a swarm of mosquitoes- a fitting device for a tale of Africa.

“Zt. Zzt. (lots of Z’z) and a zo’ona And so. A dead white man grows bearded and lost in the blinding heart of Africa.”(Livingstone, I presume) “With his rooting and roving, his stops and starts, he becomes our father, unwitting, our inadvertentpater muzungu. This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.”

 Colonialism, imperialism are words that inspire different emotions depending on whether you are the colonizer or the colonized. But whenever the European colonizers interfered in the natural development of the many places they felt would benefit from “civilization” (and supply untold riches to their imperial overloads) they diverted what might have been the history of an indigenous people into a new channel that forever combined native history with that of their colonizer. In this case, since we are in Africa, we have the further marker of skin color, which was often the case in colonization, as white Europeans (and later Americans) believed the white race far superior to any nation made up of folks with darker skin.

Namwali Serpell begins her tale of Zambia at a falls, mistakenly thought to be at the source of the Nile. They named the falls Victoria after the long-lived English queen. We hear the story of the first colonizers to arrive near the falls where the Brits who follow Livingstone to Africa set up their earliest town and drifted over Africa, and returned to settle near the Falls. Percy Clark was one of these early settlers. The Gavuzzi family owned and operated the Victoria Falls Hotel for a while.

Colonizers eventually decided they would build a dam at the falls, a dam which will flood the lands of the Tonga people. These people have their entire history and culture tied to this land and would like to stay and drown on their land when it floods. The colonizers will not allow this. They disperse the Tonga people and raise a revolutionary spirit in them which never dies out. Each section of The Old Drift is written almost as a short stories. These short stories drift forward in time, but the stories always connect. The book ends back at the falls where it began, but despite a kind of belated divine justice, Zambia lives on.

Serpell’s characters are colorful, plentiful, full of human failings and quite loveable (for the most part). The European Giuseppe Corsale who returns to Europe to party in a gone-to-seed salon meets a child born with hair over her entire body that engulfs her and grows and grows. Sibilla, who captivates both Giuseppe and his brother Federico, learns that she has her own Zambian connection. Her father and grandfather are the same Gavuzzis who ran the Victoria Falls Hotel. Federico kills his brother, takes over his identity, marries Sibilla and takes her to Africa. His position at the dam construction makes his family a wealthy family in Zambia.

Ronald, an African man, goes to England to study, and falls for the blind ex-tennis star, Agnes, daughter of the rich family who gives him a place to stay. He marries Agnes and takes her to Zambia. They also, through Ronald’s position as an engineer, become a wealthy Zambian family, of mixed race – a thing that probably never would have happened if Agnes could see. The children of these two families involve themselves in the life of their new nation (they know no other) with, as the author tells us, many errors made.

A revolutionary spirt buzzes through the entire story as do those mosquitoes, and the urge to freedom drifts through generations of Zambians. Ba Nkoloso gathers in Matha’s mother and Matha is practically pickled in revolutionary chants, speeches, and writings. Matha dresses like a boy to attend school. She takes part in the Afronaut program of her mentor which aspires to beat the Americans to the moon. Then she enters puberty and her fellow Afronaut, Godfrey, now with ambitions to be a rock star, impregnates her and sends her spinning off track for almost an entire generation. Her daughter Sylvia, beautiful and adventurous, takes the family back into their connections to the colonizers. The thrum of freedom is almost louder than the swarms of mosquitoes. So many great characters in this novel.

Freedom becomes less and less likely as Zambia becomes entangled in European and American capitalism and eventually computer technology through the “Digit-All bead” which turns hands into a computer interface. Addictive and enslaving, especially once government learns how to connect all to the cloud or the “swarm”. Those pesky mosquitoes are both inspirational and deadly.

The AIDS epidemic hits Zambia, the symbolic offspring of Ba Nkoloso, that original Zambian revolutionary and the children of Europeans alike. Are Zambians being used to test new AIDS drugs – are they the new lab rats? It becomes easy to understand the yearning for freedom. These young Zambians of the near future, create microdrones that connect and swarm, that drift wherever you direct them, called Mosketoze. They are used to convene a political rally and they bring about the ending that I cannot tell you about.

Although even to comment on this excellent novel, turns me into something of a colonizer, I will, as my ancestor’s did, drift into this Zambian space and bequeath TheOld Driftby Namwali Serpell to all adventurous readers everywhere.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami – Book

 

“Beware the double metaphors”, our artist, our main character, our guy in an early mid-life crisis is told by the Commendatore. Haruki Murakami bends our brains in fiction once again and his readers, and I, enjoy every minute.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami does something several books have done recently. It begins at the end and then fills us in. Of course by the time I immerse myself in this story I forget that it is all a flashback. The end of the story we get in the beginning is hardly definitive. But we do meet the artist, acting like a true artist in that little scene.

In present time (in the novel) he is feeling that his life has robbed him of the excitement and ambitions he once had as an artist. He, in a way, blames his wife. He rationalizes that he has had to be practical since he is a family man. He earns his living painting portraits and as his wife works away from home and he is often working at home, he does most of the housework. He feels he has “sold out” by painting portraits, which he considers a lesser form of art. He is feeling dead inside. Just when he is most dissatisfied with life and his art his wife asks for a divorce, says she is sleeping with another man and will not sleep with two men at once.

Yuzu’s husband (the artist) grabs a few clothes (very few) and begins a long journey in his car along the northern coast of Japan. Until he begins naming roads he could be living anywhere. He could be any modern man in any modern nation. He ends his journey months later when he has a very strange and concerning sexual encounter with a young woman and meets the possibly evil man in the white Subaru Forester.

His old college friend and fellow student Masahiko offers him the small mountain house where his father, the famous artist Tomahiko Amada, who is now in a nursing home with dementia, had his studio. Masahiko cannot care for the home as he works and lives in Tokyo.

Up to now. I must say, our artist (unnamed) seems more like an engineer. He has a very pragmatic approach to his wife’s confessions and his road trip. But Haruki Murakami paints his portrait with words. Our guy cannot have a boring identity crisis or get to know himself without going through an ordeal.

From the time he enters that mountain home his inner journey begins and it is a doozy. Temple bells ring in the dead of night with no temple nearby, a deep and magical pit is uncovered with meticulous and unusual stonework walls. There is a secret painting Tomahiko Amada has hidden in the attic with the pretty little owl, there is a collection of opera and classical music on vinyl, and there is a millionaire neighbor with a purring silver Jaguar (car) and many secrets. Then there is the young girl, Mariye, he meets in his children’s art class (about the same age as his beloved sister, Komi, who died as a young teen) and the older, married woman from his adult art class who we get to observe, along with the Commendatore, having satisfying illicit sexual relations with her teacher. Who is the Commendatore and how does he get killed? That I cannot tell you.

There is no blatant spirituality and our artist seems far too self-absorbed and modern to accommodate a deeply religious life, but, even so, in this novel the symbolism (the temple bell, the little shrine, the pit) and a certain sparseness in the prose give a religious tone to the artist’s inward journey. Whether it strikes you as spiritual or not, you can at least enjoy the novel as one great big entertaining Haruki Murakami double metaphor.

 

 

Milkman by Anna Burns – Book

Milkman by Anna Burns follows none of the rules for storytelling or literary fiction that we are used to. The novel seems to be written as one long sentence (of course it isn’t really). I enjoy reading authors who try something new, especially if they do it well. Anna Burns does it well enough.

Middle sister comes of age in a divided culture, almost a tabloid culture. It is a paranoid, male-dominated place in a perpetual state of war (although most of the fighting happens elsewhere) with the “over the border”, “across the waters” people. Readers identify this unnamed country as Northern Ireland because Middle sister speaks of the on-going hostilities as ‘the troubles’. Men are either renouncers, soldiers, paramilitaries or police. Terrorist bombs from unidentified groups occasionally plague the residents and acts of personal terror up to and including death happen frequently enough to keep people on edge. Toxic masculinity is the expected male behavior. Of course, not all men conform but those who don’t are not allowed much peace by those who enforce the convoluted code these folks live with.

Middle sister is also maybe-girlfriend to her car loving mechanic, maybe-boyfriend, who seems nice and who says he would like to not be a ‘maybe’ anymore. Middle sister has her own reasons for wanting to remain a ‘maybe’ for now. Middle sister does things that make her stand out in a culture where women especially are not supposed to stand out. She reads books while walking (nothing newer than the 19th century). Now that she is of marriageable age her behavior is considered deliberately provocative. She is not being properly observant of possible dangers. She is too self-absorbed. She attracts the attention of the creepy, middle-aged Milkman (who is not the real Milkman).

Around her in her single state swings the true chaos of this time and this place. Young people go to bars to drink and mingle – not to dance it seems. Some bars cater to only one group for example, the paramilitary, others attract a more mixed group –  a more dangerous situation with violent fights and explosions more likely. Once Milkman shows an interest in Middle sister other men in the bar scene back off and certain women begin to offer her tips about what to wear and how to act.

Her relationship with maybe-boyfriend continues as he is not part of the mainstream toxic male culture. Middle sister is seriously weirded out by Milkman. She no longer walks and reads. She now runs with Third brother-in-law rather than alone. She knows better than to get in Milkman’s cars or his van. Because of Milkman’s attentions Middle sister becomes an object of gossip because rumor has it that she is having an affair with this Milkman. Until her recent difficulties she did not see herself as belonging or identifying with these grown up mothers (including her own) and widows (lots of widows). As her fate gets more precarious she begins to learn of the subtle power these women have.

Maybe-boyfriend, the car guy, wins ownership of a ‘Blown Bentley’ engine from over the water. Gossips claim that he got to keep the bit with the flag (not the right flag), but he didn’t. Eventually Milkman uses this gossip to threaten maybe-boyfriend whenever he runs into Middle sister – not often if she can help it. He talks about “car bombs”. He’s a real subtle guy.

Some may find this book difficult to read, although words, at first, tend to be short and simple. The breakneck pace lacks pauses or temporary stops, and the vague war between basically unidentified enemies, all the jargon of a carefully controlled society, gets repetitive and makes us long for some specificity. But Middle sister makes the perfect protagonist because, although she knows the rules, she doesn’t always follow them. She is bright, and cautiously adventurous. On occasion her internal dialogue breaks away from the monosyllabic argot and reveals some pretty sophisticated language skills. Of course she was a girl who read books while walking.

Creating a world, or even turning a real world place into something more generic, is not always easy if it is to be a believable world that readers want to occupy for a time. For me the world of Middle sister in Milkmanby Anna Burns was well done. But see what you think about that ending.

You can also find me at:

https://nbrissonbookblog.com/

Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Tremr.com as brissioni

All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy – Book

Although All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy is narrated, as it begins, by Myshkin, a young boy, and is also narrated by this boy grown to be an old man in his sixties, this is actually a book that has its roots in a true story of a German artist who travelled in Asia between the Great War (WW I to us) and World War II. Walter Spies was a creative person (and probably a wealthy person) who was so unique and charming that he was considered accomplished and interesting wherever he went, although he was also perceived as somewhat out-of-place, a curiosity. He travelled extensively in India (the author imagines) but he fell in love with Bali and made that his home base in Asia for many years.

Anuradha Roy wrote two stories in one because she admired Mr. Spies and wanted to bring him to life. So she begins her tale not with Spies but with that young narrator in India, a young boy with a mother who was given a nontraditional upbringing by her doting father, a woman born with a passion for an authentic life and a talent for painting and drawing. She was a woman, Gayatri, married to a professor and political activist, who felt held back, held down, imprisoned by her conventional life and loveless marriage. Her husband tried to give her a modicum of freedom but they did not perceive life in the same way. Women of that time, of course, were expected to marry and raise families and did not go traipsing off looking for their bliss.

But Gayatri did run off and left her husband and her young son. She meant to take her son with her but he got delayed at school that day and she had to leave him behind. She is happy in her new life but abandoning her child put a shadow of grief on her happiness. She ran off with a man, Walter Spies, but not to be his lover, rather to be free and live an artist’s life in the way that Walter and his friend Beryl de Zoete were living theirs. Beryl travelled in Asia studying dance and movement.

In this way Anuradha Roy is able to talk about the way women’s lives are curtailed by cultural expectations and public censure. She is also able to tell us about an artist she admired, whose freedom was likewise eventually curtailed, but not by the Asians he lived among, rather the Europeans he had fled.

Gayatri’s boy grows up and becomes, to his father’s dismay, a horticulturist, but he always remains the boy who lost his mother. Years later, as an adult he read the letters his mother wrote to her closest female friend from her life in India. We find that life can destroy our dreams in more than one way.

“As an old man, trying to understand my past, I am making myself read of others like her, I am trying to view my mother somewhat impersonally, as a rebel who might be admired by some, an artist with a vocation so intense she chose it over family and home.”

“But then his father left too to go off on his journey to the center of his self.” Interesting that in India, as in other places, if you are rich enough, both parents can leave but servants and relatives keep the details of the child’s life stable, even at the sacrifice of the child’s heart. Fortunately for Myshkin the grandfather in this story is a kindly and solicitous soul who stands in for the father.

In this way All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy weaves the familiar daily routines of Indian life with the more foreign whims of European artists escaping from the daily routines of their own lives into a believable whole, a novel that explores the tension between art and cultural mores and rules. I just found myself wishing that both parts of the story were based on true events. However I remind myself that the author is an Indian woman and there may be kernels of truth in that fictional family’s portrayal. In the end I have always been happy so far when immersed in a story of India.

Photo Credit: Nancy Brisson