Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Book Report: An Epic Report

I've been on a reading kick since finishing the book, so here's another Book Report!

I was a little surprised to see a book by Penelope Lively on the "new fiction" shelf in my library because I remembered reading young adult books by her when I was a kid. In my sixth grade English classroom, the teacher kept a shelf of books we could check out, since we had to read a certain number of books a month and give short summaries of them privately to the teacher (that's where I learned to write a succinct book blurb). Among those books were a couple by Penelope Lively, who seemed to specialize in writing about spooky stuff (that, now that I know more about the topic, was based on English folklore) happening in English villages. I had no idea she wrote adult novels or that she was still writing, but apparently I've been living in a cave because she's had quite the distinguished career as a literary novelist, including some prestigious awards.

Her latest novel, Consequences, follows the chain of events set off by a young man and young woman meeting in a London park in the 1930s. The book tracks their lives, then their daughter and how she's affected by events, then her daughter, reaching to the present day as the granddaughter of the original couple comes full circle when she gains new insight into her grandparents. Along the way, the book gives us a view of life in England and how it changed from the 30s to the present. That may sound like one of those doorstop epic sagas, but it wasn't that thick and it was a quick read. I read it in one evening, and I found it quite interesting.

There was something I found curious about the book, though. The main characters in the book all shared the same religious beliefs (or lack thereof), which makes sense, considering that they all either moved in the same social/intellectual circles or were part of the same family. But it also seemed like every single other person they met also turned out to have the same beliefs. Even odder, the main characters learned this about all the other people they met by asking them what they believed, often very soon after meeting them. I wouldn't have thought that staunch atheists would be prone to going around asking people what they believed, since one of their complaints about religious people is how they keep bringing their religion up, but these characters were worse than the kind of evangelicals whose first question whenever they meet someone new is if they're saved. And, in spite of the fact that these characters never meet anyone who doesn't believe exactly the way they do, they always act surprised when they find out that someone believes the same way, and they maintain this "I know I'm out of the mainstream" attitude about it. It's not the fact of the atheism that struck me, just the odd ubiquity of it. I'd have probably had the same reaction if every character the main characters met mirrored their beliefs in any other religion, political leaning, taste in music, favorite author, favorite poet, etc. Imagine a book in which all the main characters liked the same kind of music, and then every random stranger they ran into -- even in some cases in other countries -- turned out to like the exact same kind of music, and nobody ever had a different opinion or liked something else or in any way challenged the main characters' tastes. When an author keeps having characters bring up something and when the characters are never challenged in what they believe, you tend to think that this is the author's personal soapbox.

However, this all comes in a book that's essentially about the intricate patterns of life that often look like part of some greater plan. After all, it's about people and situations that seemed meant to be but which wouldn't have existed if two people who were from very different worlds and who moved in very different circles hadn't been at the right place and the right time to find each other. Although there's a fair amount of tragedy, these characters seem to lead charmed lives, in which the thing they need is right there for them right exactly at the time they need it. A few examples: a woman who's just completed a secretarial course and who is in desperate need of a job just happens to get a letter from an old friend, complaining about his secretary retiring. A poet who never attends literary events just happens to decide to attend one, where it turns out he's the perfect person for the woman running the event, who almost didn't invite him. A woman who needs a job just happens to be in an art gallery when the manager falls and hits his head, and her ability to manage the crisis earns her a job helping run the gallery, even though she has no experience. You get the idea. The characters all use their tragedies as proof to themselves of the lack of a God, but they never seem to question or consider all these semi-miraculous good things that happen to them. All that makes me wonder if there's a kind of subtle irony at play here, if we're meant to see characters who remain stubbornly oblivious to the miracles in their own lives. I kind of hope that's the case because otherwise it comes across as clunky plotting and soap boxing. I just bought one of her previous books, so I'll have to read more of her work to get a better sense of where she's coming from in this. I would also love to find copies of her YA books that I read, but they don't even show up as available used at Amazon. The ones in my classroom were from British publishers, and I'm not sure they were ever published in the States, so that may be a thing to troll Oxfam stores for next time I'm in England.

Then I read the latest "missing" book by Irene Nemirovsky, Fire in the Blood. You may recall me raving about her previous book, Suite Francaise, last year. The backstory on these is that Nemirovsky was a successful novelist in France before World War II and because she was a Russian Jew by birth, she and her family went to live in the French countryside during the occupation. While there, she wrote -- handwriting books in tiny writing to conserve paper. Then she was arrested and died in Auschwitz. Rather recently, her daughter went to transcribe the pages that had been tucked into her suitcase when her mother was arrested and she and her sister were sent into hiding. She thought they were a journal, but they turned out to be a manuscript for an uncompleted epic about the war. It turned out that wasn't the only book she'd written during that time when some researchers unearthed pages she'd sent to friends for safekeeping just before she was arrested. The result is this new book, and it's unclear if it's meant to be complete or if it, too, wasn't entirely finished. It certainly has something that feels like it could be right as an ending, or it could have gone on. This book tells the story of life in a French farming community before the war and the consequences of the "fire in the blood," the passion that seems to strike young people, generation after generation. The older people act like they don't understand the way young people are acting, but one old man remembers that they were just the same in their youth.

I really love her writing style, and she had such a deft touch with characterization. She had a way of using just a few perfectly chosen words that manage to give you a vivid picture of exactly who a person is. I wish they'd reissue some of her published novels because I'd like to see something she had a chance to truly complete, revise and edit.

But it wasn't all serious stuff in the past week or so. I also read Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, which was published as a children's book (young adult), but I honestly couldn't tell a difference in his writing from his "adult" Discworld books. I just loved this one, and am probably too similar for comfort to the girl in the book who was locked out of her room for punishment because her room was where her books were, and who often criticized real life for not having a very engaging narrative structure. I found this in the teen section of the library and will likely buy a keeper copy because it's a good "happy" book to read when I need to smile.

I did go out last night to see the Battlestar Galactica screening, and it even counted as a social occasion because I chatted with people in line and sitting by me in the theater. Afterward, I went to Borders, where I signed the copies of my books they had in stock. At one point, one of the staff called something "shiny," and one of the other customers nearby and I both turned to look. That started a whole Firefly geek-out thing among us, and we then talked about books and writing for a while. I love those little random points of convergence when you realize you've got something in common with random strangers. (But, unlike the book in my little rant above, not everyone I randomly run into would have the slightest idea of the significance of saying "shiny," and I would be highly suspicious of a book in which everyone the main character met was a huge Firefly fan.)

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