22 Britannia Road

It’s hard to imagine simply losing your spouse and child, but that’s what happened to Janusz, a Polish soldier in World War II.  Now, six years later, he is living in London and has located Silvana and seven-year-old Aurek, who lived out the war in the forests of Poland. That’s the premise for Amanda Hodgkinson’s strong debut novel, 22 Britannia Road.

The confusion of war meant that Janusz was not long with his unit and Silvana couldn’t remain in their apartment. After the war, there must have been many people in this kind of predicament – married, no longer in their country, and unsure of whether their families were alive or dead. The premise itself is fascinating – Hodgkinson conveys the real feeling of “families torn apart” – but the way it plays out is what makes this novel so compelling.

Written in third person and alternating between the characters, 22 Britannia Road shows everyone to be fallible, yet makes each character sympathetic in his or her own way. Tragedy comes not from a single person’s fault, but rather from a set of people, bumping up against one another in difficult circumstances, each making completely understandable mistakes.

In a text with such pared-down, direct prose, readers nonetheless get a full sense of the characters in all their human complexity. My favorite relationship is Aurek and Janusz as they try to build a father-son relationship here in this strange new land. Aurek hasn’t even been in civilization for most of his life, and now he has to go to school and relate to this guy Silvana tells him is his father. Hodgkinson handles their relationship with just the right touch, avoiding sentimentality or heavy-handedness. As in the rest of the book, she sketches in the outlines and shadows, and somehow we see all the colors.

The plot resolves in a satisfying yet far from pat way. I really liked this one, and I walked away with the sense that this is how a novel ought to be written.

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Whimsy & Soda

P.G. Wodehouse’s writing is, in a way, a parody in itself. All that “What ho, Jeeves?” and “Very good, sir.” Wodehouse carefully controls his characters and language; the humor comes from us outside watching Bertie Wooster, a man who never really knows the joke is on him. Wodehouse’s humor never spills over the edge, it’s never campy.

So, how do you parody a parody ? How do you pay tribute to (and gently poke fun at) Wodehouse without taking it too far? The same way you brush an alligator’s teeth.

Very, very carefully.

Matthew David Brozik’s new e-book, Whimsy & Soda, does just that. Brozik gingerly plucks up Wodehouse’s characters and pops them down into new, kind of surreal situations. What would happen if Wooster turned into a budgerigar overnight? How would Jeeves handle it? And that’s just the first story. Wait till you get to Bruce Wayne.

What makes Whimsy & Soda such a fantastic parody is that Brozik manages to stay completely true to the characters, no matter how bizarre the situation. He has a perfect handle on their voices and personalities that can only possibly come from a devotion to Wodehouse. The situations he comes up with for the characters can only come from a brilliant and probably somewhat disturbed mind.

Brozik’s humor is as tightly controlled as Wodehouse’s. He, too, never slips over the edge and never breaks from Wodehouse’s voice, except in the one twist of the situation he sticks the characters into.

It’s a great book for a Wodehouse fan. I had actually never read Wodehouse before this, but since I’m rapidly becoming a Brozik fan and I love a good parody, I invested the time in a Wodehouse book before coming to Whimsy & Soda. It was time well spent, because a good parody is hard to find.

Cutting for Stone

Did you ever go on a road trip with an eight year old and an eleven year old during which the older sibling decides a trip from Pennsylvania to South Carolina is the perfect time to teach her little brother the lyrics to “This is the Song That Never Ends”?

That’s kind of what reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone feels like.

I don’t mind 670 page books.  I did write a chapter of my dissertation on Henry James, after all, and another on Sister Carrie.  I’ve read Ulysses like the rest of you.  I’ve even read The Making of Americans, a thousand pages of Gertrude Stein, which is what I imagine dropping acid feels like.  No, I’m OK with really long books. 

And I’m OK plot-driven books. I’m no snob; it can be all about the plot and the characters.  I don’t need fancy themes and artistic motifs.  What I’m not so good with are 670 plot-driven pages in which I never really care all that much about the characters.  That would be Cutting for Stone

It’s not that the plot wasn’t interesting; it’s just that the plot didn’t deserve 670 pages.  A strong writer could have accomplished a lot more with the plot in, say, 283 pages, and maybe made me give a crap about the characters in the process.

With the kids and work and strawberry season, I only get 20 or so minutes a night for book reading, so it took me over a month to get through this book.  That’s over a month of reading time I’ll never get back.

On the bright side, I borrowed it from a friend I’m seeing tomorrow, so as of tomorrow, it’ll be out of my life once and for all.

The Tin Ticket

            I’ve been meaning to review The Tin Ticket, by Deborah J. Swiss, for quite some time.  Let me start by saying it’s a fascinating story about women convicted of petty crime in England in the 1830s who were then exiled to Tasmania.  The British government was trying to supply women to its colony, so they stepped up sentencing exile for women who committed small crimes.

            Like I said, it’s a really interesting story and Swiss did a great job on her research.  Unfortunately, she seems to think she needs to dumb it down or dress it up or something, because the book is completely overwritten.  For just one example, she spends a lot of time telling us how things smelled in the prison or on the boat or whatever.  Now, here’s my thing: either tell me that Agnes McMillan wrote in her journal or Janet Houston told a grandchild that it smelled that way, or don’t put it in at all.  The way it stands, I’m pretty sure you’re imagining how it smelled, as there’s not any citation for that assertion.

            In other words, I don’t need my facts prettied up with a contemporary author’s imagination unless I’m reading historical fiction, in which case it’s fine to refer to a character time and again as a “grey-eyed girl.” 

            I stuck the book out till the end because I really admired the research and found the story interesting, despite the intrusion of such a heavy authorial presence.  But she really could have used a better editor.

Hotel World

I hate doing the wash when J travels. 

Tonight, he’s in Barcelona, but as I sort the clean laundry, I find his socks, the t-shirt he wore on Monday, and a pair of his shorts.  He’s on another continent, but the remnants of his weekend lie strewn across our bed.

I’m fascinated by what is left behind as people move about.  Moving into a house, I find a full lint filter in the dryer – fibers from the clothing someone I’ve never met wore last week.  It’s surprisingly intimate. 

In one sense, I’m walking evidence that people can exit out of their lives, leaving little behind. I relocate, and few even remember me by the next full moon.  However, I leave small pieces of myself everywhere I’ve been.  Nail clippings, grocery lists in the library books, a neighbor who could never recall my name but five years from now will suddenly think of me while peeling garlic.

Hotel World, by Ali Smith, is about the remnants a person leaves in her wake.  A girl plummets to her death in a hotel.  What’s left?  Her soul?  Sort of.  Her body?  Also sort of.  But there are others she’s bumped against who are left with the bits of her that she rubbed off onto them.  Throughout most of the book, the reminders she left are subtle, but for those who were closer to her, they are jarring.

The book is, in my view, too aware of itself as a novel.  I get tired of intentionally sophisticated writing sometimes.  Perhaps I should say intensely stylized.  However, the read is worth it for Smith’s sharp portrayal of the bits we leave behind.

It gave me something to think about while I sort the wash.

To a Mountain in Tibet

            “Perhaps, as some say, the Tibetans’ is a death-haunted culture,” writes Colin Thubron (150).  It is fitting, then, that he has chosen to hike to Mt. Kailas, a mountain that is a site of pilgrimage to both Buddhists and Hindus, to mark the death of the last of his family.  His journey, chronicled in To a Mountain in Tibet, is itself haunted by death, although the degree to which he is thinking about death does not become clear to the reader for much of the book.

            Thubron meets many people as he hikes through Nepal towards Tibet, among them a monk who is certain of reincarnation.  This certainty disarms the Westerner: “He is focused on spiritual continuance while I am overborne by individual death” (45).  He knows he has come on this trip in order to make sense of his own personal sadness, but he cannot let go of his culturally-borne focus on individual life.

            Throughout the book, Thubron works to reconcile the holiness of what he encounters with his own rootedness in the physical world.  He describes a temple he encounters and the monks who care for it: “I am not seeing the shrine as they are, I know.  For them this derelict barn is a place of redemption, cleansed by its crossfire of gazing Buddhas” (65).  He is aware of and reflective upon the fact that, although he is making an important emotional journey, he remains a spiritual tourist.

            This is a personal pilgrimage, not a spiritual or a cultural one as it is for others who journey to Kailas.  Thubron is experiencing this trip as an individual, not a member of a culture, and nothing makes that more clear than the day he walks alone around a holy lake.  Although he says, “I walk like a pilgrim clockwise along the shore,” he is not a pilgrim.  He describes the feeling of being completely alone in this setting brilliantly, so it seems he is a Thoreau alone with nature.  Then, he does encounter signs of others being here, and it is all the more striking.  “At my feet slabs of stone have been prised upright and etched with prayers.  What monks or pilgrims did this is impossible to know” (120-1).  He knows through every step of his journey that, while he is going to the same places others come for spiritual reasons, he is having a completely different experience.  Running throughout is the understanding that when we step outside of our comfort zones, we may learn from others but we’ll never be able to see as they do.

            This self-awareness is striking also in the moments he calls attention to himself as a writer, which he does sparingly.  Just a few times, he makes reference to taking notes, thus undercutting his use of present tense.  “I stop to write these notes,” he acknowledges.  “Now, as I try to read it, I see only words blurring like cuneiform into the damp from sleet or streaming nostrils.  A pilgrim beside me cries out something, but whatever meaning I understood has faded illegibly from the page” (208).  The tense shift in the word understood jolts into the current writing for just a moment.  His notes are formed in the present and then reflected upon in tranquility, as the poet suggested, but he is aware of the loss of immediacy. 

            As he approaches the mountain, Thubron’s well-researched dips into history take on a more immediate meaning.  He is crossing into Tibet, a place where Tibetans themselves often cannot go because of the Chinese who control the border, the land, and the sacred mountain.  The Chinese police are also mired in the logistics of life, scanning the valley they patrol with walkie-talkies while all around them the faithful are circuiting the mountain that is so holy to them.  Thubron may appreciate the spirituality of the pilgrims and he may be making the same journey they are, but he calls into question his own place as he delves into the logistics, how many circuits equal how much redemption: “These mathematics weigh the mountain’s magic against the pilgrim’s spirit” (158).  Is he coming closer to being like the pilgrims as he makes his journey, or is he more like the police with the walkie-talkies?  He seems to be asking himself this question time and again.

            Thubron repeats certain words, which at first I thought was a sort of lazy tic.  However, the words are strong and meaningful to the story.  “Derelict” and “delicate” come up time and again in different forms to describe people, places, and situations.  When he uses “indelicacy,” it is outlined against his former repetition of “delicate,” rendering it stronger.  I couldn’t quite figure out why the word “girlish” repeats several times.  I leave that for greater minds than mine.

Near the end, Thubron comes upon a hermitage where pilgrims bow and pray.  “I watch from the dark in fascinated estrangement,” Thubron writes, now seemingly at peace with his place as an outsider using someone else’s religious pilgrimage for his own personal reasons. 

Only near the end does he begin to hint of the danger of the mountain.  People die up there, it turns out.  Although the journey has been about mourning his family, the reader doesn’t really understand the significance until he explains that his sister died on a mountain (189).  Although he explains history beautifully and makes detailed observations and writes with crystalline accuracy (getting always just the right word), in the end this is for him not an intellectual exercise.  He is mourning the loss of his family and the sister who died young.

“Little of this touches the pilgrims overtaking me.  Their world is close at hand, more sensory” (193), he writes near the end.  Thubron is an intellectual, the only writer I’ve read in some time who sent me scrambling for a dictionary (rumbustious, in case you were wondering). He is also deeply sensitive, and he makes it clear that he knows a life of the mind and reflection comes at the loss of something more immediate, more sensory, and more basic. 

To a Mountain in Tibet, like the mountain itself, is not easy.  Yet it’s a privilege to join him for this painstaking self-reflection, stunning description, and incredible honesty.

Web of Angels

When a pregnant teenager named Heather shoots herself, the women of Seaton Grove come out in droves to make food for the girl’s family.  “They’d come with food and cards, and were dressed in dark clothing as if to make amends for their relief that the tragedy wasn’t theirs, for enjoying this unexpected night out, for being nosy, for feeling superior” (37), writes Lilian Nattel in Web of Angels, perfectly capturing the scene.

While several of the women are connected to the family – it’s a small town after all – one of them, Sharon Lewis, has a special interest.  Her teenaged son is dating Cathy, Heather’s younger sister.  Something doesn’t sit right with Sharon.  Maybe it’s that Debra, Heather’s physician mother, gave her dead daughter an emergency c-section with a kitchen knife in order to save the unborn child.  Maybe it’s that Cathy doesn’t dress properly for the temperature.  Or maybe it’s just that Sharon sees something of herself – or her selves – in Cathy.

Sharon has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which used to be known as Multiple Personality.  Nattel clearly did thorough research, and the notes at the end indicate she has friends who are “multiple.”  That deep knowledge pays off in the scenes of inside, where the Overseer and the Housekeeper preside over a complex of rooms and personalities.  The switches between the personalities are written like someone who really understands what it feels like.

DID is a somewhat controversial diagnosis, and I’m not here to take one or another side on it, because what Nattel does with the material goes beyond the medical.  Web of Angels raises important questions: what is it like for survivors of childhood trauma to raise children? What is our responsibility as adults to delve into the life of another family that just feels wrong? How are people fractured by the wounds they receive in childhood?  How do they go on, anyway?

Dan, Sharon’s husband, at first seems somewhat improbable. Dan has had to confront the truth about his wife’s disorder, but he has learned to love her in all her forms.  Dan’s acceptance of his wife’s many facets speaks to how we could all learn to accept the different aspects of those we love.  Whether anyone could really accept his wife having many distinct personalities is beside the point, as I see Dan as a foil to the way we like to throw away anyone who isn’t perfect or exactly what we want her to be.

My favorite scene in the book is when Lyssa (one of the personalities) tells Cathy the truth about her own childhood abuse.  “You don’t think she’s gross?” Cathy asks Dan after Lyssa has given details of what happened.

“’Why would I think that?’ Dan asked, insulted.

‘Because it’s disgusting.’

‘It—and the adults who liked it.  Not the kids.  Not my wife.’”

I loved this scene, because every time I speak at a high school about my own childhood abuse, I tell them this: “I am not damaged goods.  And people this happened to are not damaged goods.”

So that the book doesn’t weigh its readers down beyond hope, Nattel has provided comic relief in Dan’s parents.  Jake, who is slipping into dementia, has moments of clarity.  When he’s explaining why he never hid his Jewish identity, despite prejudice, he turns to Ingrid, a lesbian friend of Sharon’s.  “Like you, bubbeleh.  You want to be in a cupboard?” he asks, getting the phrase almost right.

I got an advance copy of Web of Angels because I loved Nattel’s The Singing Fire, so she put me on the list of reviewers.  The book comes out March 3, which means the rest of you have to wait a few weeks.