Between Them – by Richard Ford

Between ThemRichard Ford is one of America’s great writers. He has a way of answering the question “what is the meaning of life?” in the most direct way possible–by writing about living. “Between Them” is two separate memoirs, one of his mother and one of his father, written 30 years apart. In the memoirs, Ford describes the seeming unextraordinary lives of his parents, which at first blush seems to be a self-indulgent exercise but upon further reflection depicts the fairly extraordinary routine of living.

Both of Ford’s parents were born in Arkansas to fairly humble beginnings. His father, Parker Ford, was working in a grocery when he met his soon to be wife, Ford’s mother, Edna. In 1938, Parker became a salesman for the Faultless Company out of Kansas City, selling laundry starch. The job kept him on the road during the week and home only on the week-ends. Parker held the job until his death.

Most of Ford’s commentary about his father is conjecture and supposition. The memoir was written almost 50 years after Parker’s death and it is clear by Ford’s descriptions of his father that a great deal of time had gone by and that Parker was not well known to his son. However, that seems to be part of the point. Ford surmises that his relationship with his father was likely different from other children’s relationships to their fathers and observes that “I grew up understanding that the view from outside any family, mine included, and the experience of being inside would always be different.”

Parker Ford had his first heart attack at the age of 43. He lived 12 more years, dying at the age of 55. “I can recognize now that life is short and has inadequacies, that once again it requires crucial avoidances as well as fillings in to be acceptable. Most everything but love goes away.”

Ford’s mother, Edna, was born to a 14 year old who left Edna’s father and ultimately married a significantly younger man (who might have been close in age to Edna). Edna’s mother sent her to a Catholic boarding school (Edna and her family were not Catholic) out of concern for her being too proximate to the younger husband. For inexplicable reasons, Edna’s mother later took her out of school and advised her to tell people they were sisters. Needless to say, Edna did not have the most conventional upbringing and Parker’s mother was never exactly accepting of her. Edna ultimately died of cancer while in her 70s.

The best part of the book is the Afterword, where Ford explains his view of life, his parents and why he wrote the memoirs. “I have always admired Auden’s poem ‘La Musee des Beaux Arts’ for its acute wisdom that life’s most important moments are often barely noticed by others, if noticed at all…This understanding has been a crucial urge for most of what I’ve written in fifty years…The fact that lives and deaths go unnoticed has specifically inspired this small book about my parents and set its task. Our parents’ lives, even those enfolded in obscurity, offer us our first, strong assurance that human events have consequences.”

The book is very short and a quick read, with pictures of his parents and his younger self interspersed throughout. The memoirs are consistent with Ford’s uncanny ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and expose the richness of everyday life. If you enjoy Richard Ford and are curious about where his amazing perspective originated, you should read this book. Between Them will be released in May of this year and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11251450__Sbetween%20them__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

The Spy – by Paulo Coelho

The SpyMata Hari was executed by firing squad in Paris on October 15, 1917, accused of being a spy, a double agent for Germany and France during World War I. “The Spy” is a fictionalized account of her story. The story is told from two perspectives: first from Mata Hari’s perspective, in the form of a letter written to her lawyer, and second, from her lawyer’s perspective.

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle, in Leeuwarden, Holland. Her parents were well to do, until her father went bankrupt. She was sent off to a boarding school where she was raped by the school principal (as were numerous other of her classmates) and rapidly grew bored, dreaming about marrying up and traveling.

She tells her story from a distinctly feminist and sometimes narcissistic perspective. When the rapist principal was ultimately found out to have molested many of his students over the years, Mata Hari observes that “The principal had already retired, and no one dared confront him. Quite the opposite! Some even envied him for having been the beau of the great diva of the time.”

She met her husband, Rudolph MacLeod, by responding to a newspaper advertisement from a military officer looking for a wife. The ad was posted as a joke by MacLeod’s friends, yet upon meeting her he was smitten and they were married. They were stationed in Indonesia, where they had two children, a daughter and a son. The household had many servants and their son was poisoned by his nanny. MacLeod was abusive and paranoid about the fidelity of his younger and beautiful wife and ultimately she leaves him.

After leaving MacLeod, Zelle changed her name to Mata Hari and became famous as an exotic dancer. She describes her path through life as “opportunistic”, acquiring wealth and position by manipulating men of power and strength.  In her letter to her lawyer, she says that she was never a spy, that she became unwittingly enmeshed in the tug of war between France and Germany only through her opportunistic approach to survival and that the accusations against her were in retribution for being a strong woman and following her dream. “We all know I won’t be killed because of this stupid allegation of espionage, but because I decided to be who I always dreamed. And the price of a dream is always high.”

From the perspective of her lawyer, who was in love with her, she also was not guilty. He concluded that her execution was simply a convenience, to distract from the times and to punish her for being an unconventional woman. “You were not merely a person unjustly accused of espionage, but someone who dared to challenge certain customs. And for that you could not be forgiven.”

The novel is a quick, enjoyable read (a rainy afternoon will do it) and made me want to learn more about Mata Hari. The novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11232061__Sthe%20spy__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

The Schooldays of Jesus – by J.M. Coetzee

The Schooldays of Jesus“What is it that we lack when we lack nothing, when we are sufficient unto ourselves? What is it that we miss when we are not in love?”  “The Schooldays of Jesus”, J. M. Coetzee’s allegorical tale, raises many metaphysical questions.

David is six years old and is newly arrived in fictional Estrella with his parents Inés and Simón. They are fugitives, having violated the law by pulling David out of school due to behavioral issues and fleeing the town of Novilla. Coetzee does not tell us the geographic location of Estrella or Novilla. All we really know about either place is that Spanish is the most commonly spoken language. Simón describes Estrella as: “A city criss-crossed by the paths of immigrants: if they did not all live in hope, if they did not each have their quantum of hopefulness to add to the great sum, where would Estrella be?”

In “The Childhood of Jesus”, the precursor to The Schooldays of Jesus, Simón meets parent-less and nameless David on a boat, names him, arranges for Inés to be David’s mother and they form a family. Throughout The Schooldays of Jesus, Inés and Simón question their own relationship, while David questions whether they are actually a family. David periodically announces that Simón and Inés are not his parents and the novel delves into the nature of family through its various characters and their relationships.

Upon arriving in Estrella, Inés and Simón go to work in an orchard where David spends time with the children of the other workers. The orchard is owned by three unmarried sisters who take a liking to David and offer to pay his tuition to go to the Academy of Dance. Inés and Simón visit the Academy of Dance where they are told that “It is an academy devoted to the training of the soul through music and dance.”  Although wishing for a more traditional education for David, the skeptical Inés and Simón enroll him.

The school is run by the young and beautiful Ana Magdalena Arroyo and her rarely present, musical genius husband, Juan Sebastian Arroyo. The school also takes boarders and a limited number of students live with the Arroyos. The Academy of Dance is situated next to an art museum, where a disheveled and unpleasant gentleman named Dmitri serves as the Principal Attendant. Dmitri also helps out at the Academy and is passionately in love with the beautiful Ana Magdalena.

After enrolling in the Academy David decides he wants to become a boarder and moves in with the Arroyos. He becomes an excellent dancer, but refuses to dance for Simón because “you don’t believe in it.” The ability to transcend the here and now through arts (dance) and the need for a higher level of spirituality, and perhaps morality (described as the soul) to attain that transcendence is a constant thread throughout the book. “It is the soul that brings grace to the dance, the soul that follows the rhythm, each step instinct with the next step and the next.”

Dmitri commits a violent act and lands in jail. Through his trial the novel also raises the issue of what is justice. “…it is the mission of the court to rehabilitate offenders, but how far should the court exert itself to rehabilitate an offender who does not want to be rehabilitated…”

The novel has a nightmarish surreal quality, attained through quirky dialogue, sketchy landscapes and intentionally superficial character development.  Simón, a not quite here and now character, is referred to as he, or him throughout the novel, emphasizing the emptiness and uncertainty he feels, making him inaccessible to the reader. The novel raises many philosophical questions without making any effort to answer them. If you are a Coetzee fan, as I am, this is a must read. If you are not a Coetzee fan, this is probably not the place to start. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11237737__Schildhood%20of%20jesus__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X3?lang=eng&suite=gold

I Married A Communist – by Philip Roth

I Married A CommunistI decided to take a little trip back in time, to a novel published in 1998 by one of my favorite authors, Philip Roth. Maybe I needed a sense of stability in these seeming uncertain times, or maybe I wanted to ensure that I chose a book that would be worth reading. In any event, I knew that virtually anything by Philip Roth (and there is very little by Philip Roth I have not read) would make me think, make me appreciate that as much as things change they stay the same. And boy oh boy did I get my money’s worth (figuratively of course since I took it out from the library) from “I Married A Communist”.

Part of Roth’s American Trilogy, which includes The Human Stain and the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral, I Married A Communist does not disappoint. Part political commentary, part  story of love and vengeance and part mystery, I Married A Communist explores a difficult period of time in American history, focuses on some extreme personalities and emphasizes the importance of introspection.

The story begins in 1998, when the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, runs into his beloved high school English teacher, Murray Ringold, the brother of Nathan’s childhood idol, Ira Ringold, aka Iron Rimm.  Nathan had been Murray’s student 47 years earlier and when Nathan runs into him, Murray is 90 years old and enrolled as a student at a small New England college in a course entitled “Shakespeare at the Millennium”. Nathan and Murray spend the next 6 days recounting the story of Ira Ringold.

Nathan first met Ira in front of Murray’s house in October of 1948. For the next year and a half or so, Ira and Nathan spent a great deal of time together and enjoyed each other’s company, but there were things about Ira that Nathan did not know. After Nathan went off to college in 1950 they had very little contact. Ira was a radio star, performing under the name Iron Rimm. He was a large 6 foot 6 man, and a self-proclaimed Communist with a penchant for violence. While in the military and serving in Iran, Ira met Johnny O’Day, a staunch American Communist who influenced Ira’s political philosophy. While describing Ira’s story to Nathan, Murray muses that “It’s so fickle, isn’t it, who you wind up with, how you wind up?” Unlike Ira, O’Day lived every aspect of his life consistent with his political ideology. Ira and O’Day kept up a correspondence over the years.

When Nathan met Ira, Ira was married to the famous and glamorous actress, Eve Frame. Eve had been married three times before and had a difficult daughter, Sylphid, who, although an adult, lived at home with Eve and Ira and created various problems for an already tumultuous and volatile marriage.  Despite his political convictions, Ira lived in luxury and tolerated Eve’s numerous parties and high society friends, including Bryden Grant, the descendant of Ulysses S Grant and his wife, Katrina Van Tassel. Grant was a gossip columnist with aspirations of becoming a Congressman (which he ultimately accomplished).

Before meeting Eve, Ira, a high school dropout, had worked in a record factory and in a zinc mine in Zinctown. Ira maintained a shack in Zinctown where he retreated when the life of luxury was too much for him.

After discovering one of Ira’s infidelities, and in a rage, Eve turned over Ira’s letters to O’Day to Grant and Van Tassell. They convinced her to write a memoir, entitled I Married A Communist, which resulted in Ira being blacklisted and losing his radio job. Solely by virtue of his familial relationship to Ira, Murray also lost his teaching job. And in 1998, Nathan discovers that as a result of his relationship with Ira, he was denied a Fulbright 25 years earlier. “Of course it should not be too surprising to find out that your life story has included an event, something important, that you have known nothing about…”

The relationship between Ira and Eve, the impact of the memoir and the complexity of devastating impact of no holds barred political ideology and ambition are brilliantly conceived in this WOW novel. There are also some great passages dealing with the relationship between literature and politics (“Politics is the great generalizer…and literature the great particularizer”) and the influence of overwhelming personal relationships and communications (“Occasionally now, looking back, I think of my life as one long speech that I’ve been listening to…Everyone perceiving experience as something not to have but to have so as to talk about it. Why is that?”).

The novel addresses so many interesting aspects of political and daily life as to make the reader realize that today’s tumult is yesterday’s story. This is a challenging and dense read and worth every minute! Reserve it now at Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11012105__Si%20married%20a%20communist__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X4?lang=eng&suite=gold

Judas – by Amos Oz

Judas by Amos Oz“Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved.” This novel’s first two sentences set the tone for the balance of the story, and the error, desire, love and religious question described are all intermingled in its 300 plus pages.

Shmuel Ash is a confused and naive 25 year old student in Jerusalem, when his father’s financial collapse causes him to leave University and set out on his own. He responds to a notice on a bulletin board in the university seeking a companion. “Offered to a single humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history, free accommodation and a modest monthly sum in return for spending five hours per evening with a seventy-year-old invalid, an educated, widely cultured man.” When Shmuel first arrives at the house, he is struck by its solemn state. The house “seemed to Shmuel Ash basement-like, lower than street level, sunk almost to its windows in the heavy earth of the slope.”

Samuel accepts the assignment and agrees not to tell anyone what he does at the house or to provide any information about the inhabitants of the house. He is not permitted to bring any visitors to the house which is not a problem for him as he has no friends. Thus begins Shmuel’s intellectual and somewhat surreal immersion into Israeli history and the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

Shmuel’s ward, Gershom Wald, “was an ugly man, broad, crooked, and hunchbacked.” Wald enjoys philosophical argument and spends many hours on the phone with unknown associates on the other end, deep in discussion. When Wald is not on the phone, Shmuel and Wald engage in intense and sometimes contentious philosophical debates. In this way Shmuel and Wald get to know and appreciate each other and Shmuel learns details about Israel’s history.

Wald’s daughter in law, Atalia, also lives in the dreary house. Shmuel feels an immediate attraction to Atalia, although she is many years older. Both Wald and Atalia have experienced great sorrow that permeates the house, the conversation and the general mood of the novel. Through that sorrow Shmuel ponders many complex religious questions, as well as the direction of his own life. Shmuel stays with Wald and Atalia for about three months.

The book does a good job raising and addressing the many sides of difficult religious and political questions, but offers no answers, perhaps because there are none. This is not a book for everyone but it is a thoughtful assessment of a variety of religious and political issues. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11224811__Sjudas__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Anything Is Possible – by Elizabeth Strout

Anything Is PossibleIn early 2016, Random House released Elizabeth Strout’s lovely novel, “Lucy Barton”. You can read my review of Lucy Barton in this blog. In May of this year, her new novel, “Anything Is Possible” will be released. Anything Is Possible is a set of nine interlocking stories, with the common link being Lucy Barton and her home town of Amgash, Illinois. Although the stories are written in a relatively light style and each is in its own way thought provoking, unfortunately, unlike Lucy Barton, this novel is dark, fatalistic, cynical and dreary.

The novel starts out with a story called “The Sign”. In The Sign we meet an elderly Tommy Guptill, who on the surface appears to be a perfectly happy and satisfied man. Early in his marriage, due to a fire at the farm he inherited from his father, Tommy moves his family to cramped quarters in an undesirable part of town and spends his working life as a janitor at Lucy Barton’s school. As a result of the fire and the move, his family transitions from a life of relative affluence to a life of modesty and simplicity. When we meet Tommy late in his life he muses on the spirituality that overtook him when his life so rapidly changed. He seems to be generally content with his present and past. Yet there is something dark and uncertain lurking beneath that rosy surface.

Tommy has taken it upon himself to periodically look in on Lucy Barton’s brother, Pete, who lives alone in the old Barton family house. In one of his drives to the Barton place, Tommy thinks about his own brother and his stories about World War II and thinks “it seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old–the more he understood that he could not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.” By the end of the story, Tommy is questioning everything he ever believed.

The Sign sets the tone for all of the remaining stories, the themes being: life is hard and requires perseverance, everyone has secrets and no matter how hard you try, you can never know another person, family and marriage are difficult and regret is consuming.

In “The Hit Thumb Theory”, Charlie Macauley, a war veteran, is awaiting his mistress in a hotel room and, like almost all the characters in this book, his mind is racing about the issues that make up life.  “You could buy a snow blower or a nice wool dress for your wife, but beneath it all people were rats scurrying off to find garbage to eat, another rat to hump, making a nest in broken bricks, and soiling it so sourly that one’s contribution to the world was only more excrement.” Ugh, ugh, ugh!

In “Sister”, the last of the nine stories I will subject you to, Lucy Barton comes back home to visit with her sister and brother, whom she has not seen for 17 years. Needless to say the visit is not entirely smooth and the story addresses the complexity of the family relationship. This story is perhaps the only one that has some positive messages about the reliability and forgiveness of family. But even with its relative hopefulness, it exudes a powerful sense of sadness.

If you have been reading my blog you know that I like serious, thought provoking meaning of life novels. And in general I enjoy Elizabeth Strout. But this set of interlocking stories (is it a novel or short stories–I’m not sure) seems determined to plunge you, the reader, into a deep dark place, offering nothing to pull you back out again other than the insatiable need to go on living. I don’t know about you, but I need more than that! If you want to read Anything is Possible when it comes out in May, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11247154__Sanything%20is%20possible__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Top 5 of 2016

2016 is gone in a blur, the blink of an eye, a flurry, fast as lightning– you get the idea. 2016 was full of change, we elected a new president and a new Congress and we had a smooth leadership transition here at Ulmer. And as ever, books, books and more books. Here are my top 5 of 2016:

  1. Moonglow–Michael Chabon. If there was one book in 2016 that stood out, this was it. The novel immerses the reader into a compelling and fascinating story and Chabon writes like no other. “A dreamlike river of children coursing in and out of shadow, pooling on stoops, and out there somewhere a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams.” How does he do that? I have absolutely no idea.
  1. A Gentleman in Moscow–Amor Towles. This novel is a captivating glimpse into Russian history from 1922-1954. Almost the entire story takes place in one hotel and yet you experience so much more. Great story, interesting historical perspective, well developed characters and beautifully written.
  1. Commonwealth–Ann Patchett. Commonwealth is a tale of families, bruised and broken yet always coming together. Patchett hits the trifecta with this one–great writing, great storytelling and great insight–all with a sense of humor and hopefulness.
  1. Swing Time –Zadie Smith. This is a sensibility broadening novel about race, class and culture, taking place in London, New York and Africa. Although slow developing this book is worth your patience.
  1. Underground Railroad–Colson Whitehead. A chilling story about slavery and cruelty, this novel won The National Book Award in 2016, as well as the 2017 American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and is a must read.

2016 was a great year for reading and 2017 is off to a good start. Thanks for following my blog!

The Wonder – by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder“The Wonder” is a complex story about an 11 year old child, Anna, believed to be a spiritual Wonder for her seeming ability to exist without eating. The story takes place in a small town in Ireland in the late 1800s, where a committee is established to effectively authenticate the Wonder. The committee hires two nurses to observe Anna 24 hours a day for two weeks to confirm that the child in fact does not eat.

One of the nurses retained is a nun from a nearby convent, who believes in the possibility of religious miracles and more significantly believes in following instruction. The other nurse, Lib, is from England and studied nursing under Florence Nightingale. Lib is not Catholic, has no religious beliefs and follows only her own instruction. To say she is skeptical of organized religion and the idea that a person, let alone an 11 year old child, could survive without food, may be an understatement, although her skepticism is tested in many ways.

Anna is a charming sensitive child who spends much of her day quoting scripture. People come from near and far to see the Wonder, and when asked how she survives, Anna responds “I live on manna from heaven.” Anna and Lib develop a close relationship throughout the novel.

The novel is complex in that it addresses difficult issues such as religion, gender roles, science, education and poverty. The novel raises questions about the medical profession in terms of its ethics, training and the compassion of its providers. In speaking to another character in the novel, Lib explains the relationship between patient and medical professional as follows: “It seems to come naturally, to care more about the individual than the crowd. ..[t]hat’s why Miss–the lady who trained me…wouldn’t allow us to sit down beside a particular patient and read to him and so on. Said it could lead to attachment.” The novel also raises interesting issues about journalistic integrity and responsibility.

It is impossible to say much more about the story without giving away its many twists and turns. The characters, as well as the themes of the novel, are perspicacious, although the novel suffers from slow development of the story and characters, repetitiveness and the all too neat and convenient ending. I’ve read worse but I’ve definitely read better.

If you want to read this novel by the author of “Room”, you can reserve a copy at the Cuyahoga county public library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11213182__Sthe%20wonder__P0%2C5__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Moonglow – by Michael Chabon

MoonglowMichael Chabon’s wonderful “Moonglow” is a fictionalized memoir of his family history, based on Chabon’s maternal grandfather’s story, portions of which his grandfather shares at the end of his life. We first meet Chabon’s grandfather in 1957, as he is attempting to strangle the president of the company he works for with the frayed end of a telephone cord. As you might expect, that activity lands him in jail for some time. Of course there is a before attempted murder and an after.

In 1941 (before the ineffective strangulation attempt) after obtaining an engineering degree and specializing in hustling pool, grandfather enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers, where “His frugality with words got interpreted variously but to his advantage as manliness, self-possession, imperviousness.” He enlisted one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and shortly after his enlistment he is sent to officer candidate school in Virginia.

Due to the proximity of Washington DC, and his apparent restlessness, grandfather writes up a plan to take over Washington DC and begins, with the assistance of his roommate, to plot the bombing of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. That activity gets him promoted to the Office of Strategic Services, where he is sent to Germany and spends much of the war unsuccessfully hunting Wernher Von Braun, the inventor of the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. Von Braun crops up throughout the book. The novel includes chilling descriptions of the Nazi war machine manufacturing facilities.

Grandfather’s brother, Ray, is an unlikely Rabbi and when grandfather returns to the US after the war, he moves in with Ray. Grandfather accompanies Ray to Ray’s synagogue’s Monte Carlo night and meets Chabon’s grandmother (who was supposed to meet and fall in love with Ray). Grandmother grew up in a convent after the rest of her family was sent to and died at Auschwitz. She ultimately became a displaced person and came to America. Grandfather immediately fell in love with her, despite her deep seated emotional issues. “She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”

Grandmother is in and out of mental institutions and Chabon’s mother at some point is sent to live with Uncle Ray, well after Ray has given up the ill suited rabbi thing. Grandfather goes through a variety of jobs and vocations and somehow is always able to keep things together.

There is a lot going on in this book, all of it fascinating and brilliantly described. The novel moves back and forth through time seamlessly. Chabon is a master writer, his descriptions of time, place and feeling are vivid. When grandmother goes missing on Halloween 1952, grandfather goes searching for her and describes the scene as follows: “A dreamlike river of children coursing in and out of shadow, pooling on stoops, and out there somewhere a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams.” A description like no other.

This novel is a gem. Read it! You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11222971__Smoonglow__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Swing Time – by Zadie Smith

Swing Time“Swing Time” is an incredibly complex book that delves deeply into a variety of topics, including class, politics, race, friendships and relationships, privilege and culture. The story begins in 2008 when the narrator, whose name we are bewilderingly (at least for me) never given, has been ostracized by her famous employer and is hiding in a luxury condominium in London.

Looking back over the 30 plus years of her life that caused her to find herself in seemingly catastrophic isolation, she observes that “A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”  We then learn, from the very beginning, how she ended up identifying herself through the accomplishments and recognition of others and how she is suddenly thrust into a life of her own.

In 1982, at the age of 7 (or maybe 10–this is not clear), our narrator, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a white father, starts taking dance classes. Dance class is where she meets Tracey, the black daughter of an effectively single mother and an intermittently present, but usually absent, father, who turns out to be a dangerous conman. The girls are drawn together by the commonality of race and their love of dance. Tracey is the significantly more talented dancer of the two, which draws our narrator toward her. The narrator’s mother, a beautiful woman, is a student, feminist and aspiring politician, who disapproves of both Tracey and Tracey’s mother. Despite her mother’s disapproval, their friendship grows.

Tracey and our narrator bond over dance, race and their mutual admiration of a musician named Aimee. As time goes by, Tracey and our narrator grow distant although their lives continue to intersect. Tracey goes on with dance and ultimately has children and a life of struggle. Our narrator goes off to college and after a few missteps (during which she briefly reconnects with Tracey), the narrator becomes one of Aimee’s personal assistants, a job she holds for more than a decade.

Aimee is rich and spoiled, privileged and idealistic. She is also charitable and decides to fund a girl’s school in a village in Africa. Our narrator goes back and forth to Africa over a period of years, developing relationships and we learn how good intentions can subtly go awry when an idealistic person of privilege fails to understand the culture of the world which she is attempting to “improve.” Where Aimee sees poverty and deprivation, others see happiness and joy; where she attempts to effect positive change, the results are frequently unanticipated.

Our narrator’s relationship with Aimee is complex, as was her relationship with Tracey. A portion of the book is an exploration of female friendships, which are portrayed as complicated and difficult. At one point the narrator tries to explain to a male date how Tracey is a good friend even though they had not spoken in years. His response: “See in guy world we’d call that an ‘ex-friend’, or better still, a stranger.”

Our narrator’s mother divorces her father, goes through a variety of life changes and she ends up in Parliament. Another aspect of this book is the changing mother child relationship. The narrator and her mother are distant and communicate infrequently, although they generally seem to get along.  Late in her mother’s life our narrator observes that her mother did not ask her much about her life. “Maybe it didn’t even matter to her any more what I did with my life. She didn’t have to take it as a judgment upon her any longer, or on the way she raised me.”

The book goes back and forth in time and the actual time frame is frequently opaque. It is also a difficult and dense read. That said, it is thoughtful and thought provoking, perceptive in its treatment of life events and profound in its descriptions of cultures and differences in perspectives. If you are interested in a book that will get you thinking, broaden your sensibilities and make you consider the world in a different way, this is the book for you. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11222985__Sswing%20time__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

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