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Sir Nicholas Winton

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In honor of Sir Nicholas Winton and his quiet heorism. May his memory be eternal. It was only after Nicholas Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in 1988 that he spoke of his all-but-forgotten work rescuing 669 children who were destined for Nazi concentration camps and extermination. “I didn’t really really keep it secret,” he once said. “I just didn’t talk about it.” Now I want to read all about it in this book.

“Who’s John Galt?” – Atlas Shrugged Read-Along

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I kick off second half of 2015 with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, reading in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter. Here are the mechanics:

Runs from July 1-Aug 15, 2015
Use #AtlasRAL to talk about it on Twitter.
Tina hopes to write an update post on my blog after each part (I, II, III) just to see how we are doing.

Schedule:
Part I by July 15 (approx 300 pages)
Part II by July 31 (approx 320 pages)
Part III by August 15 (approx 450 pages)

First published in 1957, it’s a huge book with a tremendous scope. It is a dramatization of her unique vision of existence and of man’s highest potential. It explores the pursuit of profit and success against individualism. It probes the relation between faith and reason. Is self-esteem possible or are we consigned to a life of self-doubt and guilt?

I started this morning and I’m riveted at it already, despite the daunting size. The famous opening line “Who is John Galt?” is a mystery. Nobody knows where the expression comes from. The mystery of the plot certainly hinges on this bizarre question. Thank you Tina for calling the shot to read this one!

[754] We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas

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” I want you to remember there is more to live for than mere achievement. It is worth something to be a good man. It cannot be worth nothing to do the right thing. ” (Part VI, Ch.8, 594)

A quotation from King Lear prefaces this novel and gives its title, setting the tone right from the beginning. It foreshadows how one’s mind will be stripped naked, identity crumbled, and language blown out of him, leaving behind only the memory of the last words. It’s no secret that this long debut, taken ten years to write, deals with a suffering mind. Spanning six decades from early 1940s, We Are Not Ourselves follows the history of a family, from the impoverished childhood of Eileen Tumulty in an Irish-American household in New York, through her marriage to Edmund Leary and the birth of their son, Connell.

There was something romantic about that, but living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies. What had been charmingly independent became fussy and self-defeating. (Part I, Ch.9, 70)

Scarred by alcoholism of her family in childhood years, Eileen is determined to break away from the turbulent upbringing and lives a life of prestige. She keeps her emotions at bay. Deep inside of her is a sensuousness that she safeguards at all times. his protectiveness makes it difficult for anyone to feel for her. She justifies her existence to herself through tireless work as a nurse, and the equally relentless pursuit of a better life for her family. In a way, she is a character-in-the-make, slowly being refined and polished in the face of tough times. She is angry and frustrated at her husband’s frugality, and, although she wants to show her son affection, it never occurs to her to try to be Connell’s friend. Sometimes her lack of warmth can be appalling. Her great trial will reveal the strength of her uncompromising nature and her capacity for love.

It hadn’t happened for a reason, but they would find something to glean from it anyway. There didn’t have to be a divine plan for there to be meaning in life. People’s lives will be better because of his illness. (Part IV, Ch.57, 382)

Ed Leary is a scientist whose ambition has never been for fancier titles and fatter paychecks—he’s for something unquantifiable and philosophical which, after his passing, becomes a legacy for his son. A sentimental education from a father who seems dorky. While the book’s prime focus is Eileen, the moral lesson is from Ed Leary and his illness. Thomas’s treatment of Leary’s Alzheimer’s is extraordinary. It seems to come upon the reader with the slow realization as it comes upon his wife and son. The novel’s account of the illness and its terrible progress through a life, wrecking a brilliant mind, is unsparing, but never cold. The illness renders Eileen’s awakening to her senses and values in life. The luxury, perfect home she always lusts after is at best only second to her husband’s heart. Thomas creates an intimacy with Ed’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving.

We Are Not Ourselves maintains a ponderous pace with very lyrical prose. While the narrative can be slightly sluggish at times, it is rich in detail and scrutiny. It’s one of the most nuanced portrait of a contemporary family in the face of challenges that can befall us.

620 pp. Simon & Schuster. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Hilary Mantel

The New Yorker reposts an article from 2012 on Hilary Mantel’s imagination and historical fiction. It’s worth a read especially for those who are daunted by the sheer size of her historical fiction.

The article tries to dissects some of the reasons why historical fiction is not treated as seriously a genre. It borders between fiction and nonfiction. Because historical fiction is bound by history, facts, and real characters, wanton invention when facts are to be found, or, worse, contradiction of well-known facts, is a horror. This therefore limits the writer’s authority. But Mantel seems to pull it off brilliantly, in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. While she cannot know her characters completely, she conjures up reasonable, plausible details leading to well-known historical events. The article also explores why Mantel doesn’t care for royalty and aristocrats—and exactly why she would shine the limelight on Cromwell.

Lazy Sunday Reads

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It’s Sunday, a week before the long 4th-of-July weekend. I have to regroup and finish current readings in time for the Atlas Shrugged read-along scheduled to begin on Wednesday 1st of July. I’ll schlep the door stopper with me to Arizona for the long weekend. It would be fun to sit in the pool and chill out with the book.

I’m about halfway through We Are Not Ourselves and am feeling slightly stuck. It’s not a plot-driven but an intimate scrutiny of a family in which husband and wife are not on the same footing in their aspiration to the stakes of American Dream. The writing is superb but my mind can be less patient than what the author is revealing on his pace. So when I feel stuck, I put it down and read a tale from Grimm’s Fairy Tales! The kitty also reminds me to take a break too! He would sit on the book and demand pampering!

[753] Someone – Alice McDermott

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” In the darkness, I felt him sink himself a bit farther into the bed, as was his routine. I felt myself, my heart, sinking as well. My brother had been the golden child reciting poetry I couldn’t understand, the thin seminarian emerging from the shadow of the tall trees . . . silent communion with the words he found in his books. Incomprehensible, yet, but in the same way that much that was holy was incomprehensible to me, little pagan. ” (226)

We’re all transients of this world, vulnerable to disappointment, sadness, sickness, loneliness. Someone is that quiet novel that shines on this seemingly cruel fact, but with much tenderness. It’s told in very plain language, depicting someone’s mundane, ordinary life—more than an everyman like you and I. Anybody. Zigzagging back and forth in time, McDermott gives us vignettes and scenes of Marie’s life.

The novel opens in an Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn between the world wars. Time and place are delivered rather subtly, through familiar references. The 7-year-old Marie is seen “keeping vigil” on the stoop outside her house, taking in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood, waiting for her father to come home from work. She is perceptive and observant, but rather comical. She notices the fragile and clumsy Pegeen, young daughter of a Syrian neighbor, who later falls down a rung of staircase to her death.

The ordinary, rushing world going on, closing up over happiness as readily as it moved to heal sorrow. (173)

The narrative unfolds slowly, through small moments of intimacy and vividness. Marie’s mother is a headstrong woman who forces her to learn how to cook. Her father is an alcoholic who sneaks a drink during his evening stroll. Her brother, always buried in books, becomes ordained but quits priesthood shortly. Her best friend is Gertrude Hanson, whose mother dies while giving birth to her fifth child. Marie’s adolescence is uneventful, but her morose and stubborn resistance brings her mother to a standstill. She suffers a devastating betrayal by an opportunistic suitor. She becomes an assistant to the funeral parlor director. She becomes familiar with the mundane lives of people who are waked at the funeral home. She endures her father’s appalling death. She has gone to hell and back in childbirth years later.

Someone irradiates that rawness and immediacy of life, showing reader what it is to be alive, in this place and at this time. One of the strengths of this book lies in the sense of tenderness and intimacy, of empathy for the human condition. It deftly captures the nonchalance of time, and people’s resiliency.

232 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Writers Nobody Knows (Let Alone Reads)

Both of my favorite local indies, Green Apple Books and City Lights, shared a list of ten great writers nobody reads. Honestly, reading is an old sport, and it takes much longer time to finish a book than to watch a movie or to listen to an album. Reading takes concentration and effort. A lot of books have gone unnoticed, unfashioned, forgotten, neglected, and out-moded.

Ten new names for me, many more opportunities: Marcel Schwob , dying young, is a writer whose influence far exceeds his readership. Mary Butts has a penchant for scandal. Marguerite Young takes so long to finish a novel that she is forgotten. Joao Guimaraes Rosa is the Brazilian James Joyce. Julien Gracq is geographer teacher-cum-writer. Jane Bowles can be classified as a very quirky and strange writer. Augusto Monterroso is the author of one of the world’s shortest stories. Rosemary Tonks retreated from the literary scene and preferred nobody to read her work after the publication of two collections of poetry. Fran Ross is a writer who was way ahead of her time. Driss ben Hamed Charhadi is an illiterate shepherd and petty drug trafficker in Tangier!

I have also come across hundreds of writers forgotten by history or ignored altogether. Some undoubtedly deserve their fate; others, immensely talented writers, would nearly break my heart. This list couldn’t have come to me at a better time as I’m thinking about my summer reads. I’m never a fan of fluffy beach reads so this list gives me a good reason to browse the dusty shelves of used bookstore and seek out these forgotten authors.

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