"Let me keep my mind on what matters
Which is mostly standing still
And learning to be astonished"

~ Mary Oliver ~


Linda Grant
The Clothes on Their BacksIn a red brick mansion block off the Marylebone Road, Vivien, a sensitive, bookish girl grows up sealed off from both past and present by her timid refugee parents. Then one morning a glamorous uncle appears, dressed in a mohair suit, with a diamond watch on his wrist and a girl in a leopard-skin hat on his arm. Why is Uncle Sándor so violently unwelcome in her parents’ home?
This is a novel about survival – both banal and heroic – and a young woman who discovers the complications, even betrayals, that inevitably accompany the fierce desire to live.
Set against the backdrop of a London from the 1950s to the present day, The Clothes on Their Backs is a wise and tender novel about the clothes we choose to wear, the personalities we dress ourselves in, and about how they define us all.
When I Lived in Modern Times
It is April 1946. Evelyn Sert, twenty years old, a hairdresser from Soho, sails for Palestine, where Jewish refugees and idealists are gathering from across Europe to start a new life in a brand-new country.
In the glittering, cosmopolitan, Bauhaus city of Tel Aviv, anything seems possible.  Illegally entering the country, Evelyn, adept at disguises, reinvents herself as the bleached-blonde Priscilla Jones. Immersed in a world of passionate idealism, she finds love, and with Johnny, finds herself at the heart of a very dangerous game.
We Had it So Good
In 1968 Stephen Newman arrives in England from California. Sent down from Oxford, he hurriedly marries his English girlfriend Andrea to avoid returning to America and the draft board. Over the next forty years they and their friends build lives of middle-class success until the events of late middle-age and the new century force them to realise that their fortunate generation has always lived in a fool’s paradise.

Sometimes it’s better just to read the book without meeting the author.  Linda Grant, at the Writers’ Festival had a full-bodied and confident presence, replete with red-rinsed hair and carefully posed nyloned legs.  I’m not sure what put me off about her – perhaps it was as simple as not looking as I might have expected.  Somehow, from the two earlier books I’d read, I pictured her as a slim, lithe and rather delicate creature, sensitivity oozing from her pores as it definitely does off the pages of her books.  I wanted her to look like an amalgam of the two young women in those earlier novels, Vivien and Evelyn.   But her largeness and solidity made me feel she was too definite, too strong for one who wrote those earlier works with such deep understanding and care, and right now I’m not interested in reading We Had it So Good.

Strangely, in this new novel, the protagonist, Stephen, was based loosely on a man she’d met in Vancouver some 40 years ago, who ran an eatery called the Alligator.  The friend with whom I went to the festival had brought another friend along, someone who turned out to be the co-founder of the Alligator those many years ago and still a close, lifelong friend of the Alligator man.  It turns out that he now lives in England, in the same area as Linda Grant, and they, too, are friends. 

Grant read two excerpts from this new book.  One near the beginning, in Stephen’s student days, the days of his being part of the “revolution” and counter-culture – drugs and sit-ins. The second reading came from later in the book, when Stephen, with wife and family, had made many compromises, tried returning to America, but settled in England, adjusting to family life and middle class mores.
I also found it strange that Grant did not mention the Jewish connection in her talk or readings, nor was that mentioned during the Q & A following.  The other two books, as this one, have underlying themes based on Jewish life of the present or past, overt or hidden.  In The Clothes on Their Backs, Vivien discovers through meeting her uncle that her family had originated in Hungary, escaping persecution there.  The flamboyant uncle was a definite target with his own showy habits of life and the company he kept with not always accepted entertainers. When I Lived in Modern Times took place mainly in Palestine, 1946, just a couple of years before it officially became the State of Israel.  The book is filled with the politics and animosities of the day – between Arabs and Jews, between the British and the Arabs and between the British and the Jews.  Evelyn, in disguise, falls in love with a soldier who is a member of the underground, who goes on secret death missions against the British occupiers.  I understand that in the new book, there is also a Jewish connection, but this wasn’t made explicit in Grant’s talk.
In the Q & A which followed her readings, people asked her all kinds of advice about the younger generation, comparing how kids think today with the idealism of the 60’s and 70’s, and how we all moved on from “the revolution” and became upstanding citizens, losing the left-wing passion of our youth.  It seemed to me that the audience, filled with baby boomers, set Grant up as some kind of authority, not only on those revolutionary times but on the youth of today.  I found this very strange to begin with, and even moreso because she’s never had children.  But I guess it’s human nature to question the youth of every generation, and the discussion was interesting.

October, 2011

November 6, 2011

Vancouver International Writers' and Readers' Festival, October, 2011
 To the End of the Land    by David Grossman
Just before his release from service in the Israeli army, Ora’s son Ofer is sent back to the front for a major offensive. In a fit of preemptive grief and magical thinking, Ora sets out on an epic hike in the Galilee, so that no bad news can reach her. In her own strange way, she feels that her son will stay alive because she can receive no word of his death.  She is joined by Avram, a former friend and lover with a troubled past, and as they sleep out in the hills, Ora begins to tell Avram the story of Ofer's life. Ofer’s story, as told by Ora, becomes a surprising balm both for her and for Avram, a mother’s powerful meditation on war and family.

Grossman's book tells the background story of present-day Israel, the wars since 1948, and the fear and insecurity experienced by families with children called to the army even though that army has strength well beyond any of its neighbours with whom it does battle.  Ora spews her every thought on the page and to Avrum.  It is rare to read a character who reveals all the vulnerability and craziness that goes on in her mind.  The possibility of her son's death looms heavily over her throughout, and her thinking and dialogue, stripped bare of any convention, just speak with unadulterated honesty, from gut to page.

To the End of the Land is a powerful novel, not for the faint of heart.