The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a story told in three parts about a synagogue in Cairo and the Muslim family bound to protect it. The first storyline is that of the first young man in the family who became bound to protect the synagogue; the second is in current times – his descendant is the son of a Muslim man and a Jewish woman and is studying literature at Berkeley when he gets a package from his just-deceased father that he feels compelled to investigate; the third is a story of two sisters from Victorian England who are interested in Egyptian history and have come to the synagogue to study/rescue its documents.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the book, to be quite honest. It read like three interspersed short stories and they didn’t add meaning to each other. They were all fine – they’re not actively bad and the book was an enjoyable read – but there wasn’t a greater meaning to the three of them together.

The point the book is trying to make, if there is a point at all, is that the work must go on. You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. In the book, it refers to the documents from the synagogue, in your life it could apply to your to-do list or keeping the house or any of a number of things. All you need to do is to keep it going. Whatever it is.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society – I feel like if you want to have read this book, you’ve already read this book? It was made into a lovely little movie from Netflix a couple of years ago; the movie necessarily reduces the number of characters and gives the main character, Juliet, a more solid romance with the American, Mark, whose job changes from publisher (in the book) to army officer (in the movie).

But both the movie and the book capture a post-WWII time of getting your life back together, wrapped, of course, in romance because that’s how stories are told. It explores what the new normal looks like once the Germans are gone, once you’ve accepted that there are people you love who aren’t coming back, once your life feels less precarious. And that’s relevant: there is light at the end of the tunnel from this pandemic, and who knows what that means for how our lives have changed. There are people we love who have gone, governments have mismanaged things, and who knows what safe even means.

We are changed. How do we make it through to find our new normal? The answer in the book is time, being gentle with yourself, remembering who you are, figuring out what you want now, instead of what you wanted before the calamity.

You can read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society just for the romance and friendship and it’s still a good story. But you can also use it, if you like, to remind yourself that coming out of the pandemic means that things are going to change.

Reynard the Fox

Reynard the Fox is a retelling of the Medieval tales about the wily fox and his adventures in Flanders. They are short stories arranged into a longer narrative – so if your pandemic brain can’t deal with a lot of text, these can be good. They’re short enough that you can read one or two before falling asleep at night, if that’s your thing.

The stories themselves are anthropomorphized animals arranged like a local lord and his court, with various characters trying to get into power or keep their power; all of it compromised by the fact that some animals need to eat others as a regular part of their diet. Imagine office politics, but with appetites and murder (though, can it be called murder if it’s a fox eating a hen to survive?). It’s enough to turn you into a vegetarian.

That might make you suspect: these stories are not for young kids. It’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Cinderella’s sisters cutting off parts of their feet so they fit into the glass slipper. Teenagers might enjoy the stories, but don’t get this thinking you can read it to your five year old.

I enjoyed it, and would recommend to anyone who likes an adventure story.

Real Life

Real Life is a Booker-nominated novel about a Black man working towards his PhD at the University of Wisconsin – my alma mater, and a place that doesn’t want to be racist but is. The action mostly takes place over one summer weekend, with all sorts of relationship cracks and repairs happening. Because it’s about racism, yes, but it’s also about how people are with each other. How they become friends and/or lovers. How they un-become friends and/or lovers.

I enjoyed Real Life (contrasted in the book with academic life, which, if you have ever gotten a masters or a PhD, you know how isolating it can be from the wider world), and not just because I got to remember the place I grew up. The relationships felt real and lived in, and the depiction of how isolating academic life can be was spot on.

Recommended.

Practical Magic

So, Practical Magic. If you’re familiar with the story, it’s probably because you’ve seen the movie once upon a time. The movie is good – I like it. Very female-centric and all about women solving their own problems. Men are either plot devices or the reward at the end, which is a nice change from the patriarchy. But I’d never read the book before now.

The book is significantly different: after her husband dies, Sally moves to Long Island, and that’s actually where the action takes place, not the old family house in Massachusetts. It’s mainly in Sally’s ranch house in a nameless NYC suburb. The aunts don’t have to go away because they’re by and large not there to begin with (but I can totally understand wanting to use Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as much as you can). And there are way more dudes in the novel, though they are still mostly either plot devices or the reward at the end. There is more romance in the book, but it is somehow less the focus of the story. The focus of the story is competent women and girls solving the problem of this creepy, abusive guy who needs to stop haunting them and their neighborhood.

I enjoyed it. Look for a review of the prequel, The Rules of Magic, about the aunts when they were young later this week. I will probably get the pre-prequel, Magic Lessons, once my to-read pile calms down a bit. If you liked A Discovery of Witches, I suspect you would also like Practical Magic.

Prodigal Summer

There was a Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter a few weeks back that talked about the curse of the B+ show. It was good, fine, enjoyable even, but it was hard to write about or review. (The show, specifically, was Away on Netflix.) Why? Because there wasn’t enough to bite into; and there’s not for a B+ show, because it is good and it is enjoyable but you don’t want to rave about it, but there’s also not much to nitpick about.

There was a lot to like about Prodigal Summer: the cranky old man neighbor, the goat-breeding subplot, that one line about meditative lawn mowing that did really hit home*, and the way that everyone grew a little closer throughout the book and became more of a community. But it was a B+ book; it was fine without being remarkable.

* Why? After my father’s mother died and he and my mom needed to clear out his childhood home, the two of them would drive 4 hours on a Friday night, and then my mom would get up to tackle the house while my dad would mow the acre lawn. Only then would he join her in dealing with all of the stuff. They would drive 4 hours home on Sunday, and they did this every weekend for months. The lawn mowing drove my mom nuts – after all, they were cleaning out *his* family’s house. But maybe he needed the mowing to mourn his mother and the soon-to-come loss of the house he’d grown up in.

Jack

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels are a damn delight to read. They’re quiet and smart and thoughtful about people and relationships and how to be good to one another and faith. I’m less interested in faith than in anything else in that list, but she makes faith about how to be good to other people, and I’m very interested in that.

If you’ve read the prior novels (and I wish I’d re-read them before starting this one), you know that Jack is the screw-up who tests everyone’s ability to be good to each other. He’s the son of a priest who’s an atheist and a troublemaker. Before leaving town, he gets a girl pregnant. Yes, he runs off on her, and she eventually leaves their small Iowa town for Chicago. In Jack, this is all history, and he’s had a stint in jail to boot.

Now, he is in St Louis and aware that he is a malevolent force in the world. All he wants is to be harmless; it’s the goal he’s working towards. Alas, he has the unfortunate luck to fall in love with a Black woman, Della, and this is the 1950s. This is the opposite of harmless, and he knows it. So does she. They try to stay apart and sometimes it works better than others. But they are in love, and it’s a mature, understanding sort, these are not crazy kids making bad life choices.

Robinson has enormous sympathy for Jack and Della, and her kindness and love show in every word in Jack. I was eagerly awaiting this book, and it did not disappoint.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

All Addie LaRue wants is to see the world. But she was born in a small town in 17th century France, where her only option is to become a housewife and have children and never leave the town she grew up in. So she makes a deal with… not quite the devil, but definitely a spirit of the night – she gets to live forever, doesn’t have to get married, but the catch is that no one remembers her. There are logistics to work out – how do you rent a room if the person you’re renting the room from forgets you the minute you leave their sight? But once she gets those under control, she has an amazing time exploring the wider world and learning and experiencing everything possible.

Fast-forward to 2014 in New York City, where Addie is at a bookstore, and someone remembers her.

I have been excited about this book for what feels like years – from the time VE Schwab announced she was working on it on her social media, to being envious of all the people who got advanced reader copies, to finally preordering it, and then actually holding it in my hands and getting to read it. And handing it over to my teenager the minute I was done with it so she could read it too.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue wasn’t perfect – I’m not convinced that one of the more important characters was developed enough, Henry’s (the person who remembers her) relationship with his family felt very one-note. But the characterization of Addie as being a person who lets most creature comforts go, as long as she has art to consume – that hit home. And the reveal of the framing of the book at the end? Masterfully done.

Look, I loved The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and I think you might too.

The Awakening

The Awakening is heralded as an early feminist book, as it shows a woman who is clearly in a not-great marriage decide to just be herself. She realizes that she’s a pretty good artist, and so she paints, eventually earning enough money to live on. She has some flings. Her husband goes on a long trip and her mother-in-law takes the kids so they can spend some time in the country. She moves out of their house. She keeps her own friends, not just the business contacts of her husband. Her husband, of course, has no idea what to do about any of this.

But I think it’s also a book about mental illness. Was she driven to mental illness by the repressive structure of her life? Her mood swings are written about in the book in such a way that you realize: oh this is a depressive mood, and here is when she’s manic. And like I said: an overly repressive life can destroy your mental health. When her husband is scheduled to come back, when the ordinary structure is going to overwhelm her again, well, she doesn’t handle it well.

Would I recommend The Awakening? Sure, to someone who’s interested in feminism or early feminist texts. It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper in that way. They’re both, incidentally, very short, novellas really. They would make a good one-two punch.

Weather by Jenny Offill

There is not much plot in Weather, by Jenny Offill, and that is to its credit. Plot would get in the way of the point, which is the day-to-day life of a librarian and mother of a small child in New York City who is increasingly worried about climate change. This book is full of hilarity, to wit (about a problem patron): “But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password to his own email?” Reader, I laughed out loud.

Her brother is an addict who gets sober, finds someone to fall in love with, gets married, has a baby, freaks out, relapses, and gets a divorce. Towards the end of the book, she may or may not have an affair, her prepper tendencies get stronger. Her son gets a couple of years older, the dog needs to be walked. Somehow, this all results in us asking the question: how do we care for each other and how do we care for the world?

The language is lovely and wonderful, and if you told me that the author was a poet I’d believe you.

I’m also going to say that this is kind of a book about the end of the world, given that climate change features in it. Given that, is it a good book to read during the time of corona? I think it is.

Weather: highly recommended