Sunday 28 May 2017

Tea and books on a sunny Sunday morning...

The birds are really singing up a storm this morning - they must be thankful it’s not raining (and so am I!)  Alas, these conditions won’t last, according to this week’s forecast.  But on the bright side, I always say that rainy weather is really just another opportunity to read.

I read a short novel last week, Greg Baxter’s The Apartment.  I don’t know where I heard about this book, but I originally downloaded it as an audiobook. When I started listening to it, I was not enjoying it, so I deleted it.  Then I read a New York Times book review and they positively raved about it, so I decided it might work better for me as a print experience… and it did.  An unnamed forty-one-year-old American man has moved to an unnamed European city and needs to find an apartment.  Over the course of a single day, in which he enlists the help of his friend, twenty-five-year-old Saskia, they traverse the city by public transit, visiting shops and cafes and Christmas Markets, as well as undertaking the ordeal of searching for an apartment during a heavy snowfall.  We don’t know where the man is from, but we know it is a desert town, and then a desert city, and we don’t know exactly why the man is in this cold, snowy city on a different continent, surrounded by a different culture and different language, but we begin to piece together, bit by agonizingly detailed bit, that he is trying to escape something; what that something is, we must patiently follow his inner dialogue to uncover.  We learn that he was in the Navy and was posted in Iraq, that he has been living in a small, unassuming hotel for the past six weeks, and that he recently purchased the most expensive boots he could find, aqua combat boots, an indulgence for which he is clearly grateful.  We learn about his experiences in Iraq, both times he went over there, and eventually get a sense of the reasons behind his disappearance from his former life and his wish to remain anonymous in his new one.  Throughout the book, we learn about the various people he’s encountered over the past six weeks, fellow Americans and native Europeans, his reluctance to engage with them, his ultimate inability to avoid social contact completely, and the life lessons they impart which he uses to move forward on his journey.  He is a ghost, floating through life, "in this world but not of it"… until he discovers that there is truth in the old adage, “wherever you go, there you are”.  This short novel, Baxter’s first work of fiction, is written as one long internal monologue, at times a reminiscence of past experiences, at others a social or political commentary, but ultimately a meditation on one man’s role in his own life.  It was too meandering and thoughtful for me to enjoy as an audiobook, as I enjoy faster-paced books in that format.  But a print book I can read at my own pace, contemplating some parts more deeply than others, and really getting the opportunity to look at the whole, rather than just the parts (if that makes any sense).  It reminded me a bit of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (but way shorter and more engaging!), and I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys character-driven personal narratives.

And I received an advanced reading copy of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Burning Girl, in the mail.  I read another of her novels, The Woman Upstairs, some time ago and really enjoyed it, so receiving this was certainly a treat.  And reading it has also been a treat!  This YA crossover novel, due out in August, is a coming-of-age story of two girls, best friends Julia and Cassie.  From the very first page, we learn that Cassie and her family have been gone a long time, and we spend the rest of the book figuring out what happened to lead up to this.  Spanning the two years from the summer before grade seven to the middle of grade nine, readers are offered insight into the changes that we know are inevitable.  After all, the girls are from different backgrounds and different domestic situations, and in a small town, perhaps even more than in a big city, these differences matter, particularly as they enter their teen years.  Sturdy, dark-haired Julia has a happy, traditional home life in the “good” part of town, with a dentist father, a feminist mother, and a cat named Xena.  Pale, waiflike Cassie, on the other hand, lives with her mother Bev on a dead-end sideroad off the highway, with no father in sight, and whose cat, Electra, disappeared after just one year.  Bev is a nurse who works in hospice care, and Cassie and she are very close, or were, until the year that everything began to fall apart.  This quietly compelling novel is so real, the experiences and emotions so authentic, that these girls could be any girls, these experiences echoing any woman’s experiences growing up and drifting away from a childhood friend.  I say “quietly compelling” because nothing dramatic has happened, yet the subtle shifts in the relationship are unmistakable, and while reading this, I want to talk to each girl, to reassure them that this, too, will pass, and that it’s best to hang on to that golden friendship, a special relationship that, once lost, can never be reclaimed.  In style, it reminded me of Riel Nason's book The Town that Drowned, or Laurie Halse Anderson's classic YA novel Speak, and the writing style reminded me of Lionel Shriver. I can’t wait to finish it!  

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunshine while it lasts!

Bye for now…

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