On this grey, chilly morning, I have been rushing through all the cooking and baking I needed to do so I could get to my computer and write about the awesome books I’ve read and listened to over the past week. I was in such a hurry, I forgot to add sugar to the thermos as I was steeping my chai tea – it’s still good, but not quite a sweet as I’m used to. Ah well, the delicious gingerbread biscotti I had with it made up for the lack of sugar.
In my last post, I didn’t t know what to read next and promised to surprise you in this post. Well, it was certainly a surprise to me, too, when I picked up and started reading The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman, a book that some of my committee members have reviewed, not always very favourably. I was not going to read it based on some of their comments, but one member really liked it so I started reading it and was immediately hooked. This novel follows the main character as she tries to make sense of her past in order to move on with her life. Tooly Zylberberg is a thirty-something woman who owns World’s End, a failing secondhand bookstore in Wales. When she gets news from an old boyfriend, Duncan, that her father is ill, she returns to New York to care for him, an event that motivates her to revisit her past. It is not her father who is ill, but Humphrey, an elderly Russian man who was instrumental in caring for and raising Tooly during her preteen and young adult years. As we find out, Tooly was “not exactly kidnapped” when she was ten, taken from her father, and brought to live, ostensibly, with her mother, but in reality, Humphrey and the elusive Venn, a man who helped to shape Tooly’s character, teaching her to let go of any attachments to others and look for ways to take advantage of and gain from them. Tooly’s relationship with Humphrey consisted of his attempts to educate her to be a great intellect by reading science, history and philosophy. The chapters visit different periods in Tooly’s life: 1988, when she is just ten years old and living with her father Paul, a technology expert working for the US government, seeking long-term foreign postings, at this time posted in Bangkok; 1999, when Tooly is a young woman living with Humphrey in New York, a time when she meets Duncan, a law student, and his roommates, and infiltrates their lives, pretending to herself that she is part of this normal student life; and 2011, when she is a wanderer who has purchased an unprofitable secondhand bookstore in a small Welsh village where she can hide from reality, her only real contact being her lone employee, Fogg. The structure the author uses of dropping the reader into seemingly random periods with each new chapter makes this novel somewhat challenging to follow, but it is well worth the effort to keep track of the storyline, as Tooly’s past begins to be revealed to her and the reader simultaneously. I was just reading a review of this book in which the reviewer describes it as “haunting and melancholy”. I would agree with this, but when I reached the last page of the novel, the first thing that came to mind was that this was one of the most delightful novels I’ve read in a long time. All of the characters were flawed, but they were endearing, too: Tooly, the lost orphan, a woman who is searching for her own identity in a sea of hidden memories and half-truths, Humphrey, the doting Russian caretaker, Duncan, the unhappy lawyer and former boyfriend, and Fogg, the dedicated employee, to name a few. Venn was not endearing, but he was, in the novel as in Tooly’s life, such an infrequent presence that I could not hold too much of a grudge towards him; Sarah, on the other hand, was most irritating, and frustrating, and selfish, but again, she wasn’t in it enough to mar my overall reading experience. I would highly recommend this novel to just about anyone who enjoys a novel of self-discovery. The writing was superb, the story interesting, and the characters, well, endearing. I dare anyone who reads this book to not develop warm, fuzzy feelings towards Tooly, Humphrey, Fogg, and maybe even Duncan.
On a totally different note, I just finished listening to an audiobook that was AWESOME! Since I enjoyed Our Kind of Traitor so much, I thought I would take a chance with another John LeCarré novel in the hopes that I could understand the story. I downloaded Mission Song from the library, and, not knowing anything about the story in advance, jumped right into the listening experience. As I began listening, I commented to my husband that the narrator sounded a lot like Danny, from the BBC series, “MI-5”. When I checked online, I discovered that it was, in fact, David Oyelowo who narrated this audiobook, and he did an absolutely wonderful job of it. I’ll admit that, with his lilting British/African-accented voice, he could be reading the phonebook and I’d keep listening. Thankfully, this was better than the phonebook. This novel tells the story of Bruno Salvador, an East Congolese orphan and love child of an Irish Catholic missionary and a beautiful Congolese woman, both deceased. As an adult, he is in London, working as an interpreter, making a career of his gift for understanding even the most obscure African dialects. Trapped in an unsatisfying marriage with Penelope, an up-and-coming newspaper reporting star, he enters into a relationship with Hannah, a Congolese nurse who has captured his heart. At a dinner party celebrating Penelope’s promotion, Bruno is whisked away on a special assignment to interpret for the British government as he witnesses the negotiations over a contract involving the Congolese warlords and the “Syndicate”, their Western backers. He is instructed, if asked, to say that he can interpret only French, English and Swahili, keeping all his other languages “below the waterline”. He inadvertently listens in on one of the key Congolese delegates being tortured by his employers, forcing him to sign off on the contract, which would give the Syndicate the opportunity to plunder the coltan and other minerals in Kivu, a small Congolese village, providing all the wealth to the West and offering nothing to the villagers or the Congolese people. The rest of the novel follows Bruno as he tries to foil the planned attack, set to take place in just two weeks. Working with Hannah, and attempting to evade detection from British “enforcers”. Bruno must think fast to get this information into the right hands while also protecting Hannah’s safety. Although the pace at the beginning is rather slow, the novel picks up speed until the knuckle-biting conclusion that is emotionally bittersweet, politically damning, yet ultimately hopeful. I definitely recommend this novel, and Oyelowo does a brilliant job of bringing to life each character, even those Irish and Scottish voices that pepper the novel. If there was an award for audiobook narration, he would definitely have my vote.
That’s all for today. Enjoy what’s left of the weekend!Bye for now…