TSS: Small Island, Small World

sunsalon1This has been a strange year so far. Not only have I not had much time to post here, I have not had much time to read. Most days I get only about 20 minutes or so before bed, and that’s only if I can keep my eyes open that long. I did manage to finish a couple of books in the last two weeks, though, so that’s something…but not really given that one of them, Shanghai Girls, I started sometime last December. Ahem. And now I am trying desperately to finish C.J. Box’s Blue Heaven, which I actually started last summer. Anything to squeeze in a few more books before the end of March to at least attempt to meet my goal for the TBR Double Dare. Of course, this pressure is all internal. I’m happy about it actually, because it makes me focus where I should focus: on my own books.

As far as Shanghai Girls and Small Island, I can easily recommend both; however, Shanghai Girls is incredibly sad, and Small Island…well, racism is never an easy subject, ever. Both books actually deal with racism, and it’s ugly in both cases. And interestingly enough, although both books are set around the time of World War II, they both deal with subjects that are lately in the news every night: immigration and racism. It’s a pitiful fact that this is the case. While I realize we have progressed some, sometimes I wonder if the progression is real, or if people have just gotten better at hiding their prejudice. Or perhaps I should say, I wonder if people HAD gotten better at hiding their prejudice, because it seems to suddenly raising its ugly head in ways I could not have imagined a decade ago.

Shanghai Girls deals with the racism Chinese immigrants faced in this country in the mid-Twentieth century. Many Chinese came here looking for opportunities to help their families in China, and after the Japanese invaded China in 1937, many people came here to escape the war, only to find that 12 years later they would be unable to return to China under the Communists–and face suspicion here of being Communist spies. Hailing from Texas, I grew up around Mexicans my whole life. I moved to Georgia over a decade ago. As you might know, Georgia does not share any borders with Mexico. In 2010, someone running for state office promised to “protect our borders.” Protect them from what? Immigrants from Alabama? All those crazy South Carolinians? Perhaps they forgot, as well, that so much of our economy depends on people crossing the border to find a better life. They pick the fruit and vegetables sitting your fridge (or at least they did–Georgia farmers are now regretting their support of conservative candidates who promised to pass strict immigration laws, because they can’t find anyone to pick their crops). But fear is a powerful thing. Make people believe they are under a vast threat and promise you can protect them…like, say, telling the Germans that the Jews wanted to take all of their jobs, so that soon no Germans would be able to find work.

I bring this up because it illustrates a relevant point, both in the two books and in what’s happening in our country right now: people are driven and easily manipulated by fear. By fear of what, I do not know. I hear a lot of blathering about Christians losing their rights and being oppressed, when everywhere there’s evidence of the contrary. The white, Christian man seems to be having a heyday. If not, then how could laws be passed forcing women to have transvaginal ultrasounds? If not, then how could this bumper sticker be proudly displayed on people’s cars? If not, why do people want to build fences along the Mexican border? If not, why are there people who still insist that President Obama is a Muslim? (And so what if he was? What happened to religious freedom? If you’re so threatened by someone else’s religious beliefs, perhaps you should question what makes your own faith so shaky and threatened by the idea of beliefs that are different from yours.) If not, why did a white man in Florida shoot a young black man for walking down the street with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea? (And I promise you, if the shooter had been black or Hispanic, he would have had cuffs slapped on him faster than you can say “hoodie.”)

I tend not to talk politics with people in person, and I generally don’t say anything about it here on the blog either. But I am simply appalled, and I cannot sit still and pretend nothing is happening. I’m not interested in starting arguments or attacking parties (I believe there are racist liberals and progressive conservatives). I’m simply saying, by themselves, both of these books made me cringe. Given the parallels between what happens in these books set in the 1930s and 1940s and what I see on the news today…it made me want to crawl under the bed and not come out.

I’ll simply close with the wise words of Airman Gilbert Joseph, RAF in Small Island, and leave it at that:

‘You know what your trouble is, man?’ he said. ‘Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it give you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. No better, no worse than me–just white.’


Reader’s Journal: The Postmistress

The trouble with trying to talk about a novel weeks after one’s finished the book is that one tends to forget a lot–then again, maybe that says more about the book than anything. Actually, if I were to go just on “feeling” alone, I would have to say I enjoyed The Postmistress, but I didn’t love it. Briefly, The Postmistress is about two women, Iris James and the ironically named Frankie Bard, both of whom are responsible for delivering the news, the former through the mail as the postmaster of Franklin, Massachusetts, and the latter as a news reporter covering the Blitz in London during the first years of World War II.

What brings the two of them together is their inability to deliver the news to one woman in particular, Emma Fitch, who has married the town doctor, Will Fitch. Will, along with the rest of the town, believes his family is cursed because of something that happened to his father. When something goes terribly wrong with one of his patients, he decides that fate has caught up with him, and he decides to join the war effort, unofficially, by traveling to London and caring for the injured.

The novel covers the early years of the war before Pearl Harbor, when most people were concerned about the possibility that the Germans could cross the Atlantic and attack America. There’s a general feeling in the town that America will somehow have to involve itself, that many of the men (well, boys)  in town will have to go to war, but for the most part, throughout the book, the townspeople go about their everyday business. The exception is Harry Vale, Iris’s love interest, who watches for German U-boats to surface.

I’m giving you a very broad summary. To me, the most compelling parts of the book had to do with Frankie Bard and her time in London and then her time traveling across Europe to capture the story of Jewish refugees who have been forced out of Germany by Hitler. The part of the novel that deals with Frankie’s time in London brought to mind another (much better, in my opinion) book, The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters, which also tells the story (backwards) of several people in London and how their lives were affected by the war. In London, Frankie works with Edward R. Murrow, who seems to be there mainly to ground the story in history and add more realism. The rest of the time we see her, she is traveling across Europe, capturing the stories of displaced Jews, and in these sections the novel is gripping.

Had the whole story been Frankie’s, it would have been a terrific book, and it is worth reading for that alone, and  for the terrific job it does of reminding us how important radio and letters were in carrying the news. To be honest, the rest of it was a bit Lifetime television movie for me. I wasn’t drawn in by Iris or Emma, and I thought the ending was melodramatic. (What? You don’t think I am going to tell you how it ends, do you?) Still, Blake writes well, and she does do a good job giving a sense of the tension Americans felt back home, and how they were affected (or not) by what they heard on the radio.

Some passages:

The searchlight shot straight up into the blackness where, singly or in pairs, the German planes flew like shuttlecocks up and back down the river—a relentless rhythm. The incendiaries dropped first, firebombing the darkened city, forcing it alight and ablaze, cutting open a pathway for the others to follow. Those came down screaming, or whistling, the heaviest ones roaring like an express train through a tunnel. Worst of all were the parachute bombs that floated gently, silently down to kill.

One could stand on a corner and see a long row of untouched houses, their white fronts perfectly sharp against the autumn sky—all England in a block—then turn the next corner to find nothing but flat waste and fire, the exhausted faces of women carrying cheap cardboard suitcases and handing their children up into the refugee buses waiting at the square. Each night of the Blitz, the war passed over London like the Old Testament angel, block by block: touching here, turning from there, and Frankie followed, wanting to get it down, wanting to get at the heart of it.

He wrote a letter every day. And he had never yet gotten a letter back. Every afternoon, he turned around and walked back out as quietly as he had come in, with the exhaustion of a man who hurled himself against the wall of each passing day, and would do so again and again, until the wall broke.

Here was a box for each and every family in the town. Letters, bills, newspapers, catalogs, packages might be sent forth from anywhere in the world, shipped and steamed across the water and land, withstanding winds and time, to journey ever forward towards this single, small, and well-marked destination. Here was no Babel. Here, the tangled lines of people’s lives unknotted, and the separate tones of voices set down upon a page were let to breach the distance. Hand over hand the thoughts were passed. And hers was the hand at the end.

A writer, a real writer, in possession of a story headed straight for its rapids, eyes on the water, paddling fast for the middle in order to see as well, as closely as could be. In order to see like that, one had to entertain the fact of brutal, simple cruelty. The Germans were, in fact, gathering the Jews in camps and ghettos and simply letting them die there. If Frankie could tell that story, if she could tell it as well as Murrow was telling the Blitz, she could move the Jews and their plight onto the front pages—she could bring what was being buried now in details, what could be dismissed as random and unintentional, into full narrated sight.

Plans for the TBR Double Dare

Hello! As promised, I’m returning today with my list of prospects for the TBR Double Dare, which runs from January 1 to April 1. I signed up to read eight books, but I listed nine. And please forgive the photo–clearly I am not great with a camera!

From the shelves:

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. I actually had hoped to read this long ago, had even thought about having a read along way back when…

The Rachel Papers, by Martin Amis. If I’m going to read the father’s first book, I might as well read the son’s first book, too, no? I originally asked for this because it was on a list that Marisha Pessl (Special Topics in Calamity Physics, one of my favorite books) created of first novels everyone should read.

The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro. I have no excuse for not reading this book by one of my favorite authors, except that I keep forgetting I even have it on the shelf. No more!

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore. This is from the New York Review of Books series. I received it as a thank you for reviewing The Siege of Krishnapur in 2010. Guess it’s about time to read it.

The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton. Back in 2009 when I started this blog, it seemed like everyone was reading this book, so I asked for a copy as a gift, and like many others, it sat on my shelf untouched. Not this year.

Aiding and Abetting, Muriel Spark. I bought this from Better World Books just because it was ridiculously cheap (it’s a used copy) and because I had never read anything by Muriel Spark. If I read any reviews of it, I cannot remember where…

From the Kindle:

The Postmistress, Sarah Blake. I simply cannot wait to read this. I plan to read it as soon as I finish The Art of Fielding.

Small Island, Andrea Levy. Most of my picks are by British authors, so I thought this one would fit in nicely.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami. I plan to read this in January, mainly for some inspiration. I’m anxious to get back to a regular running routine, so I hope this will help me kick things off.

The terrific thing about this list is that it also applies to my other 2012 challenge, the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. You may have noticed that I chose rather slim volumes to read for the TBR Double Dare (although let’s face it, the NYRB picks are small but most likely quite dense), and that was no accident. I have plenty of big books to read later in the year, but my hope is that I can gain some momentum by reading the shorter books first. Nothing spurs me on like a sense of accomplishment, and frankly I don’t have as much reading time these days as I once did. I plan to make it a point to schedule time for reading during the day so I don’t end up doing what I do now, which is reading in bed and getting too sleepy before I get very far.

Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind about any f these books at any time, and pick up something else from my shelves if something really doesn’t seem to be clicking. But I plan to stick to my own books as much as possible, especially through the first half of the year. Here’s to making a dent in 2012!