Sunday, January 8, 2023

Of Islands and Remarkable Women

So here's round two of favorite reading from 2022. Some seemed to pair conceptually even though quite different in content. One story explored the relationship between an island and the people who populate it, another the Covid virus and the lives of the people within a restricted island of safety. One offered a view of the often-untold story of remarkable women in Victorian times, another an all too relevant view of the China-Taiwan history through the experience of two remarkable women. One, of course, was also trapped on an island. I found all of these books remarkable and hope you do too.


Existing on an Island


The Unseen (2020) by Roy Jacobsen is a book I was unlikely to find on my own. Too quiet I would have said about this Norwegian writer recommended by a bookclub friend. And yet, I found this book quite enchanting. It is about an island and the people who live there. Life is not easy there and their character is not etched with words, but with their actions in this challenging environment. And yet they are deeply formed and people of clearly defined character. The island is a character as much as its stoic inhabitants, the weather and the sea are as well. They all exist in relationship to each other; the islanders engage with their surroundings to carve out their existence and find meaning in that effort. The novel itself is composed of carefully chosen words that construct a world that would be foreign to many of us.


I loved Lucy by the Sea (2022) by Elizabeth Strout and read it in one day. It had a simplicity to it that made you feel as if you were having a conversation with a friend. From an island of safety in Maine, Lucy shares a home with her ex-husband as they watch Covid emerge and send its tentacles throughout NY, touching friends and family as its grip tightened. Another theme that played out through the book were former partners maintaining close friendships, forgiving and accepting each other for who they are and continuing to grow in their relationship as they age. And yet a third theme of the relationship between adult children and their parents as it unfolds against the backdrop of Covid. Life is not simple for anyone, but the growing and deepening relationships keep them connected despite the turmoil that surrounds them.


 Remarkable Women


The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and Other Lesser Lives (2020) by Diane Johnson is a reframing of the past through present-day eyes. It was originally written in 1972 and was reissued in 2020 with an introduction by Vivian Gornick.  It looks at those famous male authors who we can find in Wikipedia, one the father of Mary Ellen Peacock and the other the husband. And then it takes a step to the side and dives into the “lesser” life of Mary Ellen, a woman of the Victorian era who was raised to think and express herself freely. Her life had a challenging trajectory, her mother went mad, and Mary Ellen left her well-known husband for an artist, then died young. In the meantime, she left much documentation of her life and her thoughts, all captured in pithy footnotes. It creates a captivating portrait of a thoughtful, engaging and for her time, unconventional woman. 

In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden (2022), Zhuqing Li tells the true story of a family where two sisters found themselves separated between Mao’s China and Nationalist Taiwan during China’s civil war. When what was to be a short visit to a friend resulted in Jun being trapped on an island held by the Nationalist Army, a separation of over thirty years ensued.  The sisters came from a family of wealth, long lineage and Nationalistic ties, a background particularly troubling for those trapped in Mao’s China, who were punished and “re-educated," sent to primitive villages and forced from successful careers. Juan’s sister Hong, a doctor deeply committed to women’s health, met such a fate, ultimately recovering her career, but assiduously avoiding any political connection, even cutting all ties with her sister in Taiwan. The book explores how they each navigated this schism and the environment in which they found themselves.