At a Loss for Words: A Book Review

Lost for WordsYou know that feeling when you have a bug bite that has scabbed over and you pick at it and pick at it and make it bleed even though it is hurting and you know that you are making it hurt? That’s sort of the feeling I had while reading Stephanie Butland’s novel The Lost for Words Bookshop (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). I knew what I was reading was making me hurt but I kept reading and kept reading and kept reading, picking and bleeding along the way. In a good way. Really.

To be honest, I picked up this book off of the librarian’s choice shelf because of the cover, a bay window with a window seat and a bright red awning, and of course, the word bookshop was in the title. Right away, virtually from the first page, I was thinking about the voice of the protagonist, how it was edgy and young and “millennial” in nature. Curious about the author, about the person who created Loveday Cardew, I turned to the back flap of the book jacket…but no photo of the author there. Her short bio gave me no clue as to age so I googled her. I was shocked to see that she was not in fact a millennial, not someone who could be a contemporary of LJ, yet she had captured the essence of today’s 25-year-old, struggling with being an adult in a world that had been awfully cruel to her.

13093000I haven’t felt this way about discovering an author’s identity to be so different from the voice of her protagonist since the summer of 2012 when I read The Newlyweds (Knopf, 2012). I was so convinced (but oh so wrong) that author Nell Freudenberger had written the book under a pseudonym or under her married name as a woman, who like her protagonist Amina, had immigrated to America from Bangladesh. Fundamentally I understand that writers create worlds and imagine characters that they bring to the printed page with their literary talents, but I am not often left speechless by it being done in such a convincing way.

I read a lot of mysteries, and I watch a lot of British dramas, but I always do so with one eye closed. I don’t really want to figure out what is going on too early, unlike my husband who usually has sussed it all up and become bored with it by the first commercial break. This book, though, this book was different. As the pages flipped by, and the alternating time frames (1999, 2013, and 2016) moved me about, I was trying to figure out what was going on. I even remarked to my younger daughter in a phone conversation, “something happened to this girl, something bad, she’s holding it back but it’s coming out I can tell, maybe she was raped”. (Note: not a spoiler, just what I had imagined that could be in her history.)

Coast_path_near_Whitby,_North_Yorkshire_(22937616433)I loved this book for many reasons. I loved that it grabbed my interest right away and never let me go, even when I was feeling pained by reading it. I loved the talk of books by people who loved books, who put such value in books. As a literature teacher and lifelong avid reader, that made me very happy. I loved how Butland unfolded the story of Loveday layer by layer, like peeling an onion or tearing away the rind of an orange slowly in one long, continuous, curling strip. I loved that there wasn’t an overload of characters for me to carry along in the story, just enough to make the story work, sort of like the number of words in a good poem, just enough to make it work. I loved that it was set in York, England, with constant talk of the sea, of Cornwall, of Devon, places I haven’t been to but long to see. I loved Butland’s use of imagery to paint a tapestry of scenes in my head, “The water was the blue of inkstained fingertips.” I loved LJ’s vulnerability and the way Butland colored her in, with an armor of tattoos and a mask of contempt for all that makes “normal” people happy and content. I loved how even in her state of absolute fear and confusion, Loveday still tried to excuse Rob because of his mental illness. I loved how Nathan thought he was broken, until he met someone he loved who was more broken than he could ever imagine. I loved how Butland left me speechless and sobbing at the end, how it made me miss my mom even more than I do every single day. But, one of the things I really loved about this book is that I stumbled upon a new author to obsess over.

 

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Travel for Beginners

soy sauceI know almost nothing about soy sauce. I know I like to dip my sushi rolls into it and I know that the colored tops of the soy sauce bottles on the tables in Asian restaurants denote whether the soy sauce is regular (red) or low sodium (green). I know it is one of the two ingredients in the teriyaki sauce I make to go on Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken, a recipe I begged off of the wife of my husband’s boss after a dinner party at their house. I also know almost nothing about Singapore, like for instance, what languages the people speak there.

All that changed this week, however, and I didn’t even have to leave my house. I traveled to Singapore and learned about the ancient art of making soy sauce by reading Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners. I am itching to go to an Asian market and buy a bottle of really expensive, artisanal soy sauce and have a tasting of it on little rice crackers. I am also intrigued with the idea of tasting a splash of it in a glass of ice-cold Sprite.

I really enjoyed reading Chen’s story of a young woman from Singapore who has made a life for herself in America, only to have it come crashing down around her when her American husband leaves her for a much younger but also Asian woman. She escapes the trauma of her life by returning home, flying back to the nest to the home, and business, of her parents. She reluctantly goes to work at her family’s artisanal soy sauce factory with her father, not kicking and screaming per se because the energy that would involve is not something she can muster, but with a melancholy resignation that it is better than staying home to watch her mother drink herself to death. Running on a track of constant avoidance, first of her parents and their provincial life, then of her first career, then of her husband, then of her family’s business, and finally of her very image of herself, she comes full circle and discovers who and what she truly is, the keeper of the legacy of her grandfather’s life’s work. I learned so much from Chen’s book.

A few years ago, a similar thing happened when I stumbled upon The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. This book also took me to a new and exciting world where I had little knowledge or background. Geography is not my strong suit so I can honestly say I did not even know where to find Bangladesh on a map. In reading The Newlyweds, I was transported into a world of internet dating, arranged marriage, and immigration. Although it was not her first novel, Freudenberger was new to me, and after finishing it I immediately Googled her to find out her life story. I was shocked that she was American, born and raised in New York City, and while she had taught English in Thailand, she was no more Bangladeshi than I. How had she managed to get inside the head of Amina so completely and how did she transfer to paper the complex character profile of an immigrant in an arranged marriage? As a burgeoning writer, this fascinates me, and it makes me jealous.

a week in winterImagining village life in an Irish town is not as challenging as the exotic allure of Asia, particularly because I have an affinity for British literature, films, and television. Yet, Maeve Binchy’s novels sweep you away with such force that you feel as though you could walk out of your own door and pop down to the village for a pint at the local pub. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Binchy’s books, but it is her last one, A Week in Winter, finished just before her death, that perfectly blended her talent of rich development of quirky characters with the authentic imagery of her setting. A Week in Winter tells the story of an inn set high on the cliffs of Stoneybridge, a fictional town on the west coast of Ireland. I would eat ramen noodles for a year to save enough money to travel to Ireland to spend a few weeks at Stone House.

Halfway through the book, Binchy takes her readers on a cliff walk with two of her characters, Winnie and Lillian, and the imagery in that part of the story is particularly powerful:

“And at first, it was exhilarating. The spray was salty and the rocks large, dark, and menacing. The cries of the wild birds and the pounding of the sea made talking impossible. They strode on together, pausing to look out over the Atlantic and to realize that the next land was three thousand miles away in the United States.”

a moveable feastPaula McLain also has the power to jerk me away from my suburban 21st century life. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Paris several times but her book The Paris Wife not only takes you to 1920s Paris but also inside the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Drawing upon Hemingway’s own telling of his first marriage and life as a young, struggling writer in his nonfiction A Moveable Feast, she retells and embellishes the story from Richardson’s perspective. Hemingway’s angst over his writing and his constant search for approval of his work combined with Richardson’s loneliness and insecurity as a young bride is palatable and poignant.

McLain then jumps continents but remains in the 1920s to take us on safari, on a journey to colonial Africa, and into the life of Beryl Markham in her masterpiece Circling the Sun. My travels have taken me around Europe but never to Asia or Africa. While I have always wanted to visit parts of Asia, I had no desire to experience Africa, until, that is, I read Circling the Sun. McLain’s words describing Kenya paint a vivid picture, albeit a picture that cannot be recreated in today’s world, a picture I now long to see for myself. She is a master storyteller, and her ability to not only bring back to life both Hadley Richardson and Beryl Markham, but to make the reader truly care about them, is astounding.

states visitedMy first vacation was a 45-minute plane ride to Monroe, Louisiana, the opposite side of my home state, for my cousin’s college graduation. I was in the 8th grade and before that I had only traveled by car, to New Orleans (60 miles away) or Baton Rouge (120 miles away). Two years later I flew to Memphis to visit my friend who was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Up until the year between my junior and senior years of high school, I had not been anywhere else. Before that high school trip to countries visitedEurope, my only real travel was between the pages of a book, where my passport was always at the ready and well-used. Being an avid reader during my childhood and adolescence broadened my very narrow view of the world and introduced me to people, places, and possibilities I could not imagine for myself. Even today, after having traveled to 18 countries and 30 states, I still read for these very same reasons.

book with flowersDo yourself a favor; take a trip. You don’t need to pack much; you only need some time and a comfy chair. Escape to another world, meet some new people, learn about a new culture, taste some new foods, learn some new words. Read a good book.