This book was recommended to me by a coworker as “a perfect story of a marriage”. I read it in one sitting and went through an emotional wringer while riding an emotional roller coaster while seriously needing a glass of wine and therapy. Trigger warning: if you have ever been disappointed, betrayed, disillusioned or in any way wronged by a lover/spouse and gone through the painful process of recovery from that trauma, this book is going to bring it all back in exquisitely excruciating detail. But you should probably read it anyway. It’s that good.
Go to the bookstore or library right now and pick up this book. Don’t listen to the audio like I did, the pictures are the best part. As an audio, it’s too much like listening to someone read lists, or a timeline. So get the book and admire the artistic genius. After reading this and Sonya Sotomayor’s biographies, I am going to need to read every single biography that exists of Supreme Court justices. They are apparently all fascinating people (half the fun of this book is the exploration of the friendship between RBG and Antonin Scalia). Or maybe I will just start reading dissents – from the ones featured in this book and the one I read online the other day, each one could teach me more about law than I ever thought possible.
Seriously, if you consider yourself a feminist you have to read this. RBG has spent her life taking on cases of sex discrimination – against both men and women – hoping to establish the precedent that discrimination on the basis of sex is always wrong. She figures once that is accepted as a given that white men shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their gender, it will follow that discrimination against women is also wrong – and by extension, that discrimination on the basis of race is also wrong. She’s playing the long game, and I personally hope she lives forever, or at least long enough to see her dream realized.
I found out about this book by proofreading one of my library’s booklists. I can’t even remember which one, because I waited forever on hold and now the details are fuzzy. This happens to me a lot – I request something, and then when it comes I think “why did I request this?” but I usually read/listen to it anyway. It was probably on the “Historical Fiction” list.
The book is about anthropologists studying the tribes along the Sepik River in New Guinea in the 1930s. It is loosely based on the real life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, but I didn’t know much about Mead so I had no idea how the love triangle thing was going to work out (and as I found out later, King didn’t actually follow their story, so even if you know how Mead’s story ends, that won’t spoil it). Here’s the scoop: Andrew Bankson (based on the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson) has been studying the Kiona tribe for several years. Depressed after the deaths of both of his brothers, he has lost sight of the purpose of his studies and attempts suicide, which members of his tribe avert. While recovering, he meets Nell Stone (Mead), an American anthropologist who has just written a controversial book about the sex lives of the last tribe she studied, and her Australian husband Fen (Reo Fortune). The couple seems worn and exhausted by their recent experiences with the violent Mumbanyo tribe, and they talk about going to Australia. Lonely Bankson becomes determined to keep them there and talks them into studying the Tam tribe, a few miles up the river from the Kiona, so that he can have them nearby.
A strange relationship develops. Bankson waits a few weeks, then travels to visit the couple. Only a few minutes after he arrives, he falls seriously ill, and Fen and Nell take turns nursing him back to health. It is unclear at this point which of our love triangle is attracted to whom – it’s almost as if Nell and Fen both have become infatuated with Bankson, while Bankson has eyes only for Nell. As Bankson recovers, all three of them delight in working together and appreciating each other’s intellect, and together they come up with “the grid” – a method of arranging groups of people according to their character, which Bankson later publishes in a paper under all three of their names. But there is trouble in Paradise – Nell is obsessed with the seemingly female-dominated culture of the Tam, and as she writes her ideas furiously, is once again threatening to overshadow Fen, who is already jealous of her status as a published author. As Fen’s jealousy simmers, he becomes obsessed with going back to the Mumbanyo to retrieve an artifact that he thinks will make his career – even though it is a sacred object to the tribe. Meanwhile Bankson, his love of anthropology rekindled by Nell’s example, falls so deeply in love with her that he neglects his work with the Kiona to spend most of his time with the Tam. Tension builds until Fen makes a rash decision, which leads to Nell and Bankson making rash decisions, and so many unfortunate events follow that I can’t tell you anything more or I’ll ruin it.
Just read it. If you like love triangles, or stories about people who become immersed in or obsessed with their work, or historical fiction, or anthropology in general, you might enjoy it. I myself was shocked by how colonial these anthropologists seemed – they just parked themselves in the middle of a tribe, and rather than trying to blend in unobtrusively, they seem to have no concerns at all about corrupting their data by influencing the tribes they hope to study. (The Star Trek fan in me was scandalized by their blatant violations of the Prime Directive.) If you are looking for facts about Margaret Mead’s life, however, you might look elsewhere. Some reviewers on Amazon complain about the license King took with the events, and of her factual mistakes (for example, she mentions monkeys in a region where no monkeys are found), but I tend to go with the author’s explanation of the book: “While I have borrowed from the lives and writings of these three, I have told a very different story.” In other words, there’s a reason it’s a novel, people, and not a biography. If you want biography, there is plenty of source material on these three. Speaking of which, I just got Margaret Mead’s autobiography, so I have some reading to do…
I just looked this book up in our library catalog to find a picture of the cover and saw that its genre link was “humorous stories”. I wonder if the cataloger read the same book I did? This book is many things – sweet, sad, nostalgic, heartbreaking are all words that instantly come to mind – but humorous is NOT a word that I’d throw in, no matter how long I thought of words to describe it. There is humor in there, certainly, but it’s the dry, understated stiff-upper-lipped British kind. Anyway. Harold is an old man with many regrets. He and his wife Maureen barely communicate at all, and he feels as if he cannot exist without annoying her. He receives a goodbye letter from Queenie, a woman he used to work with years ago who is dying in hospice. He decides to send her a letter back, but as he is walking to mail the letter, he decides on the spur of the moment that he needs to go to see her in person. On foot. So despite the fact that he’s wearing a light jacket and boat shoes, and that it’s 600 miles, he does.
As he walks, he thinks. And as he thinks, we learn how Harold got to this point in his life, and the events that shaped his marriage into the prison it has become. We learn who Queenie was and why she was important to Harold. We learn about Harold and Maureen’s son. And as he meets person after person outside of his normal circle, Harold learns more about himself and somehow manages to put his life into perspective. After a lifetime of keeping to himself, he learns to ask for help, and how to give it to others. And as she sits home alone, Maureen thinks and learns as well, developing a friendship with her widower neighbor and rediscovering an old hobby. And that’s the joy of this story, that this older couple with so many hurts saved up over the years can finally realize that all of the things they have been blaming one another for are either their own damn fault or nobody’s fault at all, and it makes no difference which.
I won’t spoil the reveals for you, but many of them triggered a few tears. But despite the fact that the book made me sad, I liked it anyway. It reminds me of Kaye Gibbons’ books (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) that way. A good hurt.
Now that I think about it, there are some humorous parts in the book, such as when Harold’s pilgrimage becomes “news” and he gains a following sort of like Forrest Gump does. So many people show up to walk with him that he dreams of sneaking away in the night, but how he does finally lose them is pretty funny, looking back at it.
I started devouring this book the second it came in for me, but didn’t get far the first night. Then I got on a plane at an ungodly early hour last weekend, and I read from chapter 3 to the end before I reached the east coast. It’s that good. Among all of the other things it does, this book asks the question: is it possible that forgetting your past is not only not a bad thing, but sometimes one of the better things that could happen to people?
Our protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, are an elderly married couple who live in post-Roman Britain. Everyone in their town suffers from what they have come to call “the mist” – no one can remember many details of their lives, or recent events, or hold any one thought for long. Axl and Beatrice decide to go visit their son, even though they have never been to his village, and can barely remember what he looks like or why he left them in the first place. (They vaguely remember that they once had a reason not to visit, and that they disagreed about it, but can’t remember what the reason was or which of them refused to go.) They get as far as a neighboring village before they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior and an orphan he is protecting, and they wind up joining in on a quest to slay a dragon who may or may not be responsible for the forgetfulness that plagues their land. They meet a knight – Sir Gawain of Arthurian legend – whose mission is supposedly to slay the dragon, but….it’s complicated. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it comes down to the party deciding – are the people better or worse off because they have forgotten their pasts? Should they slay the dragon and restore everyone’s memories, or try to keep her alive to keep the past at bay? There are compelling arguments made for both sides.
There are so many layers to this story that I can’t do them justice. I started the book because I enjoyed Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, but this book really isn’t like either of those. (It’s as if Ishiguro has a different personality with a different writing style for every one of his books.) If you like dreamy, symbolic fairy tales and/or have philosophical questions about war, life, memory, forgiveness, love and/or marriage, you might like it. Try it!