Friday, June 24, 2016

The Summer Before the War

My mom has always bought me books as gifts. In fact, I have children’s books bearing her inscription dating back from my first Easter. My aunts, too, introduced me to classics with gifts of A Wrinkle in Time, and when I was older, The Mists of Avalon. Members of my dad’s family, too, are avid readers though books were never exchanged at Christmas. However, one Christmas, my cousin surprised me with volume one of the collected works of Jane Austen.  I was smitten from page one.
Another British writer has caught my fancy lately with her Austen-like characters and plots of unrequited love. Lucky for us, Helen Simonson (of the beloved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) has released her second novel, The Summer Before the War.  

Beatrice Nash, recently orphaned, has been hired to teach Latin at the local grammar school. Although she is not as plain as her benefactor Agatha Kent had hoped, she is taken under her wing and introduced to the town’s notable residents. As a “spinster,” she must suffer the indignation of reporting her expenditures to her trustees and defend her aspirations to be a published author to naysayers.  Beatrice declares her intentions to remain single, but when she becomes close to Agatha’s nephew Hugh, she begins to have second thoughts.  

Meanwhile, Agatha tries to maintain diplomacy as various heads of women’s committees in town compete in fundraising efforts to support British troops who have just been called to war.  Soon the arrival of a group of Belgian refugees, food shortages, and death notices in the paper make the war all too real. Agatha continues to falter when both her nephews decide to enlist.

Simonson examines the early days of war as it affects two generations. She also adds a contemporary twist in examining issues of women’s rights, artistic expression, and repressed sexuality. Her characters will stay with you long after the book has ended whether it’s the young Gypsy boy who carries his tattered copy of the Aeneid into battle or the Belgian refugee who has seen unspeakable horrors.

This is a book I will enjoy giving this year. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

"Let that which had been written all be rewritten"

The challenge this week? Read the first book in a series by a person of color. Using the handy list compiled by the NYPL, I decided on The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

Years after computers are relegated to desert caves, a nomad discovers an audio recording of a memory extract entitled The Book of Phoenix.

Phoenix narrates her life story which began as a genetic experiment. It’s only after she escapes Tower 7 that she realizes the extent to which she was manipulated. Magically, she sprouts wings and travels to Africa to return a seed given to her by the great tree that served as the “Backbone” of her home tower.  

However, her presence in the African village is soon detected and she is captured and taken to another tower back in the States. Here she is reunited with the speciMen who helped her escape, Mmuo and her close friend Saeed.

With the help of Mmuo and Saeed, she discovers that an inordinate number of the speciMen are African or of African descent. Dying and rising multiple times, she makes it her life mission to destroy the towers the Big Eyes have created. Through the violence and destruction, she discovers, “Human beings make terrible gods.”

Okorafor explores the parallels between the new world’s enslavement of the genetic experiments to the slave trade of America’s beginnings.  In addition to exploring the issue of race relations, her story also takes in to account the devastation of global warming. Phoenix is troubled by not only the treatment of her fellow man, but perplexed by the outdated social mores she encounters: “It was 80 degrees outside, balmy December weather. I still couldn’t understand why men in this day and age had to wear this outdated attire (a suit) to look professional and respectable. These clothes were from cold times, before the climate had changed. Why couldn’t the United States incorporate the world’s fashions as the English language incorporated so many of the world’s words? It was plain meshugana.”

We know through her legacy that Phoenix can only succeed through another fiery self-sacrifice. We also learn, in the end, how the nomad takes her story and puts pen to paper to disseminate this fantastical tale. However, the book’s epilogue provides an intriguing monologue by a new character, Sola, that makes us question the veracity of all we have heard.

And of course check out the next book in the series, Who Fears Death.

Friday, June 10, 2016

“Pudding wrestling with kangaroos”

The Northwest weather is conducive to naps. I’ve probably taken a few too many naps in the past few months to be considered healthy. But now that the sun is shining more, I seem to be a little more productive. Also back on track this week is my reading challenge. Funnily (surprising not ha, ha) enough this week’s challenge was to “read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.”

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson is a collection of essays on how she deals with her anxiety by hiding under desks, stays in bed as needed due to her depression, but mostly tries to live her life by finding ways to be “furiously happy.”  From a hashtag she created for her blog to this collection of essays, this phrase “furiously happy” refers to seeking out wacky adventures while one can in order to look back on those moments when one can’t.  

Mental illness not only affects her as an individual, but friends and family members as well. Lawson writes how she constantly debates her mental stability with her mother who insists she’s normal.  She comments she loves these conversations with her mother “because she gives me perspective. It’s also why she hates having these conversations with me. Because I give her details.”

Details which may include the side effects of the antipsychotics she’s taken, taxidermied giraffes, coffins filled with scabie glitter to thwart grave robbers, cannonballing possums, and stunning uteruses (uteri?).

She also exasperates her husband Victor with Rory-the-dead-raccoon. Rory tends to pop up in the background of Victor’s conference calls or can be seen riding cats at midnight. As Lawson states, “Other women might show their adoration with baked goods or hand-knitted slippers, but mine is channeled through animal corpses.”

One of the most enlightening parts of the book is the spoon theory. She uses spoons to explain the limits of people living with chronic illness. For instance, each task one must accomplish in a day is represented by a spoon. Healthy people have an unlimited amount of spoons, but those living with chronic pain or an autoimmune disease may only have, say, six. So if someone chooses to use a spoon to pick up the dry cleaning, he or she won’t have a spoon left to clean the house. Or as Lawson tells it, she may have even fewer spoons the next day after she tries to explain to her husband how she ran out of spoons, gets frustrated when he misunderstands, and has the argument in her head instead because, yes, she has no more spoons for defending herself.

When she is running low on spoons and cannot get out of bed, living a furiously happy life means Lawson can still go to “a storeroom in the back of [her] mind filled with moments of tightrope walking, snorkeling in long-forgotten caves, and running barefoot through cemeteries with a red ball gown trailing behind.”

That image alone is worth staying awake for.