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Russell Banks

I’ve been reading, reading, reading. So many wonderful books. Here’s a few I enjoyed recently.

When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant

Palestine before it was Israel? Yes, please. It’s 1946 and London native Evelyn Sert, 20, is newly orphaned. Her late mother’s beau gives her money to emigrate. “Did he really see me as the future of Jewish humanity? Or was he just getting rid of me?” Evelyn arrives on a tourist visa and settles in Tel Aviv, where she discovers a new world of scents and sun and foods and sex. She fails at field work but thrives at a beauty parlor. Evelyn falls for Johnny, a bad boy on a motorcycle who’s a native of Jerusalem and a spy. This novel read like a memoir. I felt like Evelyn took me by the hand and showed me the beauty and terror of Israel as it was forming.

Foregone, by Russell Banks

Banks writes about American men and women like no other. (My favorites are Continental Drift and The Darling.) His latest is Foregone. It tells the story of Leonard Fife, an American who fled the country during the Vietnam War, for Canada, where he became a celebrated documentarian. A film crew is in his Montreal apartment with the aim of documenting his process. He’s dying: noisily, uncomfortably. Fife doesn’t want to talk about process, he wants to talk about his life. The film crew indulges him, so they (and we) hear Fife’s story, which may or may not be true. He’s drugged. Is he confusing his story with his wife’s? This is a tale of abandonment (country, wives, children) and renewal. Like all Banks’ work, this read is complex but accessible.

Corrigan, by Caroline Blackwood 

Lady Caroline Blackwood is best known for her singular beauty and many marriages, to the painter Lucian Freud (“Girl in Bed” is in the British National Gallery) and to the poet Robert Lowell. Blackwood says it was Lowell who encouraged her novel writing. Corrigan is her last. It tells the story of Mrs. Blunt, a grieving widow who takes in a poor Irishman confined to a wheelchair. Corrigan (and his cause) is the tonic Mrs. Blunt needs to live again. It’s fun to see dainty Mrs. Blunt succeed as a farmer and “picker” of antiques. Corrigan is scam artist. Does she know? Does it matter? 

I started this post just after the Oscars were announced. I saw many films last year (at home). These are the movies that stayed with me. They made me think. 

The Sound of Metal

Shiva Baby 

A Promising Woman

Nomadland

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A shared prize set novelist Jonathan Franzen (“Freedom”) and biographer Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) on the same stage last Sunday. http://www.chicagohumanities.org/ through Nov. 13th. (Thanks for the treat, Deborah.)

Migration figures in both works. In “Freedom,” Patty leaves the East Coast for a kinder, gentler life in the Midwest. In “Warmth…” six million African Americans abandon the Jim Crow South. These wrenching departures — leaving one’s home and family, forever, for the unknown — is the only solution for desperate situations. Patty leaves a household indifferent to her athletic achievements and hostile to her reported date rape. Wilkerson’s subjects leave home to be freed from a caste system that kept them segregated and disenfranchised.

I finished reading Russell Banks’ “Lost Memory of Skin,” the same evening I heard Franzen and Wilkerson discuss migration and freedom.

Which left me thinking: what about those who can’t leave, who are stuck in an intolerable situation, even if it’s of their own creation?

That’s the starting point for Banks’ novel about a convicted sex offender in contemporary Miami. The Kid, as he’s known, wears a monitoring device on his ankle. He can’t live or visit any place within 2,500 feet of an area frequented by children. He’s an adult, but not much older than the teenage girl he arranged to meet, via the Internet, for sex. The Kid lives under a causeway within a tent city peopled by fellow sex offenders. None of them can leave the county — they’re monitored, too — but they can’t live easily within it, either.

After a publicized police raid of the encampment, a Professor from a nearby university persuades the Kid to be part of his study of sex offenders and homelessness.

The Kid is a fully realized character: we learn of his unfortunate past, his hopes and fears for the future, his everyday disappointments. We understand his few relationships. Hooked on porn as a preteen, the Kid is backwards and withdrawn. Even in the camaraderie of an Army platoon, the Kid is alone. Poorly educated, a social misfit: who’s to blame?

The Professor is the first person to point the Kid to a better life. Theirs is an unlikely but endearing relationship.

As the Kid’s confidence grows, the Professor’s life spins out of control, quite spectacularly.

There is comfort in this book’s end: the Kid is in the same place physically but in a better place mentally and emotionally. He accepts that he’ll never understand the Professor’s life, or motives. (Neither will I.) He’s still stuck wearing that ankle monitor for the next nine years.

This was not my favorite Banks’ book — those would be “Continental Drift” and “The Darling’ — but it’s certainly worth the read. A porn-addled sex offender worth rooting for: that’s no small feat.

Banks is one of our greatest living writers.

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Can a book be grieved? It’s not a person, after all, or a beloved pet, or a plant you’ve cared for and coaxed into bloom each spring. It’s a book.

I’ve said before that books are like lovers. Private companions. We take them to bed, tuck them into our bags, panic (as I did) when we misplace a book pages from its conclusion.

picture The object of my grief? Russell Banks “The Darling” (2004). Hannah Musgrave is a 60ish hippie farmer who returns to Africa to find the body of her husband and the fate of their three young sons.

Hello? Why is a counterculture WASP who clings to her Puritan roots sneaking into Liberia in the back of a flatbed, under a tarp?

The answer to that question is the story of the book, and in Banks’ hands it is a deliciously slow, steady, surprising read.

It’s a discomfiting tale. Hannah is variously cold, uncaring, willfully blind, criminal, proud, foolish, naive, mean, generous, racist, sexist. Also, an adulterer, and a thief. Her husband is a high-level functionary in a corrupt African government; it is he who calls her Hannah, darling.

Like the characters in Banks’ “The Book of Jamaica” (1980) and “Continental Drift “(1985), Hannah is the American dreamer who loses herself in a foreign place, with tragic consequences.

As with all Banks’ work, this is a story of place. He weaves Liberia’s fantastic past into the story’s present, where the nation and its decorous capital turn from civility to savagery.

I didn’t especially like Hannah — she trades a false American existence for a hollow wifely life in Africa — but I understood her choices. At its close, I felt like I’d lost a difficult but treasured friend, one whose life was more varied, and more foolish.

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