The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list) “You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.”

“I used to feel sorry for you bitches,” Jones said. “But if you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple. Plain and simple.”

Life used to be just that straightforward to me. “You live the life you choose,” I thought.

To some extent, I still think that. I want to believe that we control our lives: work hard, have a home; take care of your body, don’t get sick. But the older I get, the more I realize that point of view is very simplistic.

Rachel Kushner shows us, in The Mars Room, how hard it is to be brought up with a dysfunctional mother in the poorest parts of San Francisco. How a childhood of zero chances can more often than not turn into an adult life with the same.

Her heroine, Romy Hall, has been a stripper in a club called the Mars Room. She leaves her son, Jackson, with her mother and tries to strike a balance between entertaining the men enough that they will pay her, but not so much that they stalk her. As one, in particular, does. Relentlessly following her even to another state when she tries to relocate to get away from him.

The way that she describes her childhood is sorrowful, heartbreaking stuff; it’s a life of sneaking into movie theaters, getting drunk on weeknights, fighting for a place in the world because no one’s going to make one for you.

Life in prison is not any better.

Romy is there with a minimum of two life sentences, along with other achingly drawn characters such as Conan, a transvestite, and Sammy Fernandez, who has a network of friends from being incarcerated several times before. We can see what a hopeless place of despair the women’s prison, Stanville, is. Even though these few form a family of sorts, there is no home for them. No comforts, no promise for the future, no hope.

The only thing that gives Romy the least bit of comfort is that her son has a chance for a good life. It is not too late for him, at least.

What Happened After Peet’s Today

I met some of my dearest colleagues for breakfast today, and after they had to skedaddle for some Problem Solving meeting, I decided I had time to stop at Peet’s Coffee. Because their ad for Vanilla Cardamom lattes worked its magic in my subconscious, and let me tell you: they are magical.

“We steep the cardamom in the milk,” the barista told me. “That’s what makes them so good.”

But that’s not what this post is about.

So then I went to pick up another matte red lipstick, as I’ve discovered Wet and Wild’s Stoplight Red is every bit as good (if not better) than MAC’s Ruby Woo, which, as I once heard described, is much like rubbing a rock over your lips.

But that’s not what this post is about, either.

Inside Wal Mart is one of the nicest men I know. He always smiles. He always says hello. He always has time to talk. He sits in his wheelchair and greets people. Really greets them.

“You must’ve gotten up early today,” I say. It is, after all, only a little bit past breakfast.

“I got here at 6:30!” he says, proudly.

“Well,” I say, “you’ve been blessing a lot of people since then.”

“What church do you go to?” he asks me then.

We discuss church for awhile, and other random things, and then as I turn to go I say what I always say before I say good-bye to people, “God bless you!”

And he says, “Let’s keep spreading His joy, all right?”

Let’s keep spreading His joy.

I was gobsmacked. Here is a man, early to his job at Wal Mart where he sits in a wheelchair because he can’t stand, or even move his arms very easily, and he says, “Let’s keep spreading His joy”?!

I know lots of able-bodied people who have no joy at all. None. Nothing to spread but gloom and a victim mentality.

But, this man? He has a lot to teach me.

He reminds me that joy isn’t dependent on circumstance, but attitude. And I want mine to be just like his.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list)

Calvin Wrobel is a boundary technician for the Air Force in Colorado. His job is to “look for weaknesses in the system, update firewalls, investigate possible security breaches.”

His friend Ted appears on his door on evening, having left Chicago because his girlfriend, Sabrina, is missing. And then a videotape is sent to a news agency depicting her gruesome murder.

How strange it is, to me, to be reading of horrific events in our recent history (from 9-11, to shootings in schools, to the violence we encounter every day on the news) in a comic book form. Yes, I know it’s a graphic novel. I know the subject matter can be serious even when it’s drawn with cartoon characters who have bland expressions. But, the overall effect for me is a little bit like Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

What?

Are the judges just showing they can be advant garde? Or, is this work truly worthy of a literature prize? I feel like the boy in The Emporer’s New Clothes, the only one willing to declare the truth. “He’s naked!” becomes “It’s a cartoon!” for me.

And yet, the more I read, the more I could acknowledge the impact of this graphic novel. I do not think it should receive the Man Booker Prize, especially when compared with the astonishing writing of Donal Ryan and Michael Ondaatje. But, there is no denying that Nick Drnaso takes on contemporary America, the way that social media distorts truth, and the very real pain resulting from rampant murder in an extremely powerful way.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews “Trouble is the beginning of disaster.”

While I have been wasting my time with “thrillers” like The House Swap, and Something In The Water, extraordinary spy novels have been lying in wait for me to pick them up.

Red Sparrow is such a novel. Not since Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, or Trevanian’s Shibumi, have I been so entranced by actions of espionage. Especially since it concerns Russia, a country toward which I have held a certain fascination for most of my life.

“I started out by following orders, trying to develop him, just as he was developing me,” she said, physically shaking. “It was a race to see who would recruit the other first.” She still resisted, she was still hanging on to the lip of the cliff. This was an evasion, not an admission. (P. 315)

Dominika wanted to be a ballet dancer. She was thwarted from fulfilling her dream not because of inability, but because another jealous dancer had Dominka’s foot deliberately crushed, leaving her unable to pursue dance. When her father suddenly dies, her uncle manipulates her into joining the Service, and then sending her to Sparrow School where the students are taught how to involve men and women in “intimately compromising” tactics.

She is sent to Helsinki to pursue Nathaniel Nash, a spy for the CIA, who in turn is told to find what he can from Dominika. In a spider web of deceit and atrocities carried out by the Russian government, the two fall in love, yet Dominika returns to Moscow where she endures unbelievably horrific methods of interrogation as she is suspected of knowing more than she allows.

A myriad of characters play off of each other, from Putin to his marionettes, to members of the CIA and those willing to collude with them, which makes for a fascinating read of espionage under terribly dangerous conditions. The moles and the agents turn and deceive, disclosing facts where they can, but hiding many others in the hopes they will not be discovered.

I found this a breathless read, and already have the next book in the trilogy (Palace of Treason) lying in wait.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje “We order our lives with barely held stories.” (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list)

If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on an hourly basis.  You do not concern yourself with what you must or should remember about them. You are on your own. So it took me a long time to rely on the past, and reconstruct how to interpret it. (p. 169)

Rachel and Nathaniel are left in the care of The Moth, a friend of their parents. They believe their mother and father have gone off to Singapore for a year, but they realize there must be different circumstances when Rachel finds their mother’s trunk in the basement the winter after they left.

The Moth, and his friend The Plimico Darter, make strange caretakers for these siblings. The Moth can disappear for days, yet he reassures them that they are perfectly safe as The Darter has driven by their home to check on them in the night. The Darter has odd girlfriends who come and go, one in particular is seemingly more friendly with Rachel and Nathaniel than she is to him. Why would parents leave their children to these two? Why would the mother leave her trunk behind after packing it so carefully? Where are these parents, exactly?

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Warlight, examines memory. Abandonment. Family ties. It draws me more deeply in with every page I turn, curious as to the whereabouts of the parents and the survival of the children who are left to grow up on their own.

It is not without resentment that they rear themselves, surrounded by strangers who care to some degree or another about their well-being, but certainly can never replace one’s parents. Or, more particularly, one’s mother. Rachel suffers from terrible epileptic seizures, and who is there to help her? Walter, The Moth. She grows so hateful toward her mother that their relationship becomes irreparable.

But, Nathaniel sits with her when he is 18 and she is 40, playing a game of chess, learning about what it was like for his mother when she was in the Service of the British Army during WWII. They both had to learn how to manage when life was schwer, a German word meaning “hard”, although in entirely different ways.

If a wound is great you cannot turn it into something that is spoken, it can barely be written. (p. 275)

Ondaatje’s novel unfolds as a grown-up Nathaniel searches out his mother’s past, uncovering what she has done, whom she has been with, and why she felt she could leave them. It’s a sad book, reflecting on a mother’s life which did not include much love for her children. And while it is potentially powerful, I’m rather disappointed as I close the last page, feeling that there should have been so much more. At least for Nathaniel and Rachel.

 

From A Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Man Booker long list 2018)

Sometimes I think my book review posts ought to consist of nothing more than, “Read this now.” But, how many times do I come across a book which is truly spectacular? Not enough to warrant that kind of statement. So, I write the quotes which have impressed me. I try to give a summary without disclosing too much of the plot. I rarely say how truly special a book is until now.

This book is truly special.

It has been listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018, and if it wins I won’t be a bit surprised. Or, sorry (even though it’s the only book from the long list which I have read so far).

It is a story of three men who have each lost something in their lives. Farouk has had to leave Syria with his wife and daughter, searching for safety for them all. Lampy has had to deal with the loss of Chloe, whom he loves with all his heart even though the feeling is not reciprocated. And, John has to face life without his brother, without the love of his father which he so desperately craves.

These apparently disparate stories are told with such clarity, such sensitivity, such a tenderness, that I savored every word to fully dwell on the story. Each character is so fully realized I feel as if I have met them personally, had them tell me their story in their own words while we sat across from each other. Perhaps best of all, they are intertwined in wholly unexpected ways, bringing them into perfect syncopation with each other.

I loved it. From a Low and Quiet Sea is the best book I’ve read all year.

(Find an excellent review from Booker Talk here.)

“For I myself am my own fever and pain.” Fever and Spear by Javier Marias (Spanish Lit Month 2018)

Jacques Deza is working and living in London when Sir Peter Wheeler invites him to a buffet supper.

“A few friends and acquaintances are coming here for a buffet supper two weeks from Saturday; why don’t you come too, I know how alone you are in London.” (p. 23)

He is alone in London because he is separated from his wife, Luisa, which seems to be a source of sorrow for him even though they could not continue life as a couple. Deza imagines her not answering the phone when he calls because she has a male companion with her, and when she does call him back he cannot be sure that her explanation of being on the phone with her sister is wholly accurate. (Marias does a remarkable job of examining everyday life from every angle, as if he is revealing my own thoughts in the process.)

While at this buffet supper, Deza is introduced to Bertram Tupra who eventually hires him away from his post with BBC Radio to work exclusively for Tupra.

The work got off to a gradual start, by which I mean that once the contract had been agreed, they began giving me or asking me to undertake various tasks, which then increased in number, at a brisk but steady rate, and, after only a month, possibly less, I was a full-time employee, or so it seemed to me. These tasks took various forms, although their essence varied little or not at all, since this consisted in listening and noticing and interpreting and reporting back, in deciphering behaviors, attitudes, characters and scruples, indifferences and beliefs, egotisms, ambitions, loyalties, weaknesses, strengths, truths and contradictions; indecisiveness. What I interpreted were – in just three words – stories, people, lives.” (p. 212)

Is this not, I ask myself, exactly what Marias does as a writer? He interprets stories, people, and lives, exquisitely. He gives me much to think about as I progress through each of his novels. Within Fever and Spear, he touches on youth:

”When you’re young, as you know, you’re in a hurry and always afraid that you’re not living enough, you feel impatient and try to accelerate events, if you can, and so you load yourself up with them, I you stockpile them, the urgency of the young to accumulate scars and to forge a past, it’s so odd that sense of urgency. No one should be troubled by that ear, the old should teach them that, although I don’t know how, no one listens to the old any more.” (p. 99)

On trust:

“We never know when we have entirely won someone’s trust, still less when we have lost it. I mean the trust of someone who would never speak of such things or make protestations of friendship or offer reproaches, or ever use those words – distrust, friendship, enmity, trust – or only as a mocking element in their normal representations and dialogues, as echoes or quotations of speeches and scenes from times past which always seem so ingenuous to us, just as today will seem tomorrow for whoever comes after, and only those who know this can save themselves the quickening pulse and the sharp intake of breath, and so not submit their veins to any unpleasant shocks.” (p. 183)

On grudges:

”…we forget what we say much more than what we hear, what we write much more than what we read, what we send much more than what we receive, that is why we barely count the insults we hand out to others, unlike those dealt out to us, which is why almost everyone harbors some grudge against someone.” (p. 199)

On seeing:

”It’s a very rare gift indeed nowadays, and becoming rarer, the gift of being able to see straight through people, clearly and without qualms, with neither good intentions nor bad, without effort, that is, without any fuss or squeamishness.” (p. 254)

Wheeler tells Deza that they are similar; they can both see people like that, clearly and without qualms, such that seeing was their gift to be placed in the service of others.

Near the end of the novel, a series of cartoons and pictures appear, which warn against speaking too much as your words may by heard by enemy spies. Wheeler tells Deza,

“But I don’t think there was ever a campaign like this one against ‘careless talk’, in which they not only put civilians on guard against possible spies, but recommended silence as the norm: people were prevailed upon not to speak, they were ordered, indeed exhorted, to keep silent. Suddenly people were made to see their own language as an invisible enemy, uncontrollable, unexpected and unpredictable, as the worst, most fearsome of enemies, like a terrible weapon which you, or anyone, could activate, and set off without ever knowing when it might unleash a bullet…” (p. 332)

It is ironic, then, that Wheeler suddenly becomes unable to speak himself as his papers fly away in the wind of a helicoptor which has suddenly appeared, hovering over their conversation. It all seems to reflect the times in Spain when Franco’s dictatorship required people to get around the censorship laws.

As I close the final pages, I am curious as to the identity of the woman who has rung his doorbell in the rain, saying, “Jaime, it’s me.” Who says, “It’s me” without being certain of being let in with no further identification? Deza’s story continues, and I will need to see what it contains in Volume 2 of Your Face Tomorrow. Javier Marias has left me hanging, but not without much to ponder.

(Thanks to Richard and Stu who have sponsored Spanish/Portuguese Lit Month and extended it into August.)

Re-Stick For Up to 5 Minutes (or, in some cases, longer)

Ever since I brought this package home from a day of errands with my father, I’ve been thinking about it. Re-stick(able) glue? What a concept!

How many times have I seen a child carefully cut out something to be glued down and put it in the wrong place? How many times have I done that in my own projects, glued down a piece for a page in my Midori Traveler’s Notebook and decided, with my wonderful spatial reasoning which is always a beat off, that it would look better somewhere else? Worse yet, it’s in the right place, but it’s askew. When I’ve tried to lift it, the page tears leaving a hole in what would have been a lovely effect.

What if there was such a stick for our lives? Whoops, I’ve made a decision that I would like to re-stick, please. I’ve made a comment that ought to be retracted for five minutes so I can readjust what I’d meant to say.

The idea that I’m stuck with what I’ve done has been a deep-seated one. The era in which I grew up was pretty much of the philosophy, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” And that caused me to be very careful, which isn’t all bad. But, what is permanent? Can’t we make a new choice, a new decision, a new conversation to replace a poor one? I think we can. I think that there are more options available to us than perhaps we realize. More chances for a fresh start, a new beginning, a “lifting off” of the old than I once thought.

It’s so refreshing.

August Is (Still) Spanish Lit Month; August is Women In Translation Month

Since I don’t have to prepare a classroom in August for the first time in 35 years, I can focus on literature this month. Since Spanish Lit Month and Women In Translation Month align, I can read for both at the same time. And so, we have the books in my kindle and on my shelf:

Umami by Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes)

From OneWorld Publications:

Using five voices to tell the singular story of life in an inner city mews, Umami is a quietly devastating novel of missed encounters, missed opportunities, missed people, and those who are left behind. Compassionate, surprising, funny and inventive, it deftly unpicks their stories to offer a darkly comic portrait of contemporary Mexico, as whimsical as it is heart-wrenching.

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe)

From Charco Press:

From internationally acclaimed author Margarita García Robayo comes Fish Soup, a unique collection comprising two novellas plus the book of short stories Worse Things (winner of the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize)
Throughout the collection, García Robayo’s signature style blends cynicism and beauty with an undercurrent of dark humour. The prose is at once blunt and poetic as she delves into the lives of her characters, who simultaneously evoke sympathy and revulsion, challenging the reader’s loyalties as they immerse themselves in the unparalleled universe that is Fish Soup.

I am so excited to read these two this month, while hopefully also fitting in Javier Marias’ Fever and Spear.

And you? Do you have plans for Spanish Lit Month? Women in translation?

A Blogging Shift

Life is short. I would rather sing one song, than interpret a thousand. ~Jack London

Two interesting things happened this week, and it’s only Wednesday. One, is that a post about my hair got more attention than my posts about books. The other is that while I was having coffee with a friend I greatly respect and admire, she said, “You should write more about life.”

I often have trouble finding just the right niche. When the group is doing one thing, I most frequently am doing another. Being out of tandem with everyone else is a common experience for me; finding myself rather alone has become so normal that I used to joke at school, “Smith, party of one.” I’m not saying this as pity, in fact, it’s rather a point of pride. When are the masses ever right?

That does, however, leave a question about my purpose here. I started a blog twelve years ago with a name which doesn’t even relate to books because I didn’t really intend to write a book blog. Dolce Bellezza was supposed to refer to “Gentle Beauty” as in “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” (1 Peter 3:4). I was always going to write about life as I know it (faith, teaching, reading, everyday thoughts). And then I met Lesley, and we started to talk about books we’ve read, and before you know it I had veered into a book blog because it was so much fun.

Blogging about books has greatly enriched my life. I have discovered authors that I’d never heard of let, let alone read, even though I consider myself a fairly well read person. I have received such a plethora of books to review that I will never, ever be able to read them all. I have hosted eleven Japanese Literature Challenges, and I have had the utter joy to be a part of the IFFP Shadow Jury, the Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury, and the Booker Shadow Jury. I would trade none of those experiences. Nor do I intend to lay them all down.

But, now that I’m retired I’m wondering if blogging mostly about books suits my purpose. I think I’m more interested in exploring the world outside of the classroom. I think I’m more interested in expanding my blog to something other than the narrow confines of merely reviewing literature, which is only an interest of mine, and never an area of expertise.

In an effort to “sing only about one song, rather than interpret a thousand”, I am planning to blog more about life and less about the thousand books which are lying in wait for me to read. I will still be reading. I will still write about what I’ve read. But, only when I want to. Only when a book has called to me in a loud, clear voice. Other than that, let’s journey onward to broader roads which beckon and call. Let’s explore more thoughts outside of the pages. Are you with me?