24 April 2017

Library Limelights 130

Zaidie Smith. Swing Time. Toronto: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada, 2016.
Not a crime book, but some mystery after all. Under the impression this bestseller was about dancers' lives, I eagerly delved. No, it's about the closeness of two little girls in a London council estate and how their friendship plays out in their adult years. Two little brown girls, as the author and cover blurb like to emphasize. Contrasting domestic situations seem to sow the seeds for future differences. Tracey achieves some of her theatre dreams but soon subsides into the welfare trap of her childhood. The unnamed friend lucks into the busy job of personal assistant to the self-absorbed rock star Aimee, a job requiring 24/7 attention. Aimee becomes her closest friend, ... her only friend.

When Aimee decides to gift a school to an impoverished village in West Africa (Togo?), it's the friend who spends considerable time there with a team to stick-handle logistics. Thinking of her roots, her mother's roots, is not far behind. Ironically, Aimee rarely appears there, never developing a rapport with the people nor an understanding of the country's political corruption. Aimee's next decision to adopt a baby from a distance climactically changes many lives around her. The novel is rich in reflecting mother-daughter themes as well as the reality of the third world ... many characters, all fresh from Smith's flowing mind. But I find Tracey's ultimate portrayal confusing.

One-liners:
She was so painfully grateful for the way he talked to her like a father, although sometimes he went too far in this direction, not understanding that what came after borrowing a father for a few minutes was the pain of having to give him back. (51)
At eighteen she was already expert at the older woman's art of fermenting rage, conserving it, for later use. (263)
Her greatest thing in life was to see a conflict resolved, any conflict, and so my mother was a great resource for her: everywhere she went she made conflict, which Miriam then had to resolve. (156)

Sticks and stones:
When we reached the road that ran between our estate and Tracey's my mother let go of Tracey's hand and delivered a brief but devastating lecture on the history of racial epithets. I hung my head and wept in the street. Tracey was unmoved. She lifted her chin and her little piggy nose, waited till it was over, then looked my mother straight in her eyes."It's just a word," she said. (82)

Mum the MP:
Our food arrived, my mother had ordered for me. Miriam set about squirreling hers away―she reminded me of a small mammal who expects to hibernate soon―but my mother let her knife and fork rest where they were and instead reached down to the empty chair beside her to bring up a copy of the Evening Standard, already open to a large picture of Aimee, on stage, juxtaposed with a stock photo of some destitute African children, from where exactly I couldn't tell. I hadn't seen the piece and it was held too far from me to read the text but I guessed the source: a recent press release, announcing Aimee's commitment to "global poverty reduction." My mother tapped a finger on Aimee's abdomen."Is she serious about it?"I considered the question. "She's very passionate about it."My mother frowned and picked up her cutlery."'Poverty reduction.' Well, fine, but what's the policy, specifically?""She's not a politician, Mum. She doesn't have policies. She has a foundation." (152)

Government-mandated English lessons:
I asked Hawa to sit where I sat, on a broken stool, so I could stand up before the class and ask them to write in their books: The pot is on the fire. They looked up at the empty board, and then expectantly at Hawa, awaiting the translation. I wouldn't let her speak. Two long minutes followed, as children stared blankly at their half-ruined exercise books, re-covered many times over in old wrapping paper. Then I went around the room collecting the books to show to Hawa. Some part of me enjoyed doing this. Three girls in forty had written the sentence correctly in English. The rest had one word or two, almost all of the boys had no written letters at all, just vague markings reminiscent of English vowels and consonants, the shadows of letters but not letters themselves. (225-6)

Denise Mina. The Field of Blood. UK: Charmwood/Bantam Press (large print edition), 2005.
A fan of Mina's Detective Alex Morrow series, I found this by accident. Girl working on the lowest rung of a Glasgow newspaper yearns to be a reporter. Love this naive but saucy Paddy Meehan!Overweight and self-conscious in a misogynistic workplace, Paddy nevertheless asserts her initiative to investigate a murder blamed on two young boys. Creepy danger hovers when she half-inadvertently breaks open the erroneous police conclusion of the case. Even worse, to her mind, is the ritual shunning by her hidebound Catholic family for a transgression she didn't even commit. As her job creds improve, her relationship with fiancé Sean deteriorates.

Interwoven is the true story of another Paddy Meehan ― a lowlife minor criminal falsely convicted of murder ― eventually released from prison by a royal pardon when planted police evidence was uncovered. Our Paddy sees an ambivalent life lesson there, as well as learning from her jaded colleagues. Aside from an awkward introduction by the main victim, Mina writes brilliantly and empathetically about the gritty life of Glasgow's working poor and their tensions. There's more ... two additional books follow Paddy's career. I'm hooked.

One-liners:
He sat dumbly with his jacket off, staring at a typewriter as if it had just insulted him. (86)
Soup was a watery precursor to a meal, a poor man's filter to stop the children eating all the potatoes. (283)
Pete's reckless excitement had spread and multiplied ― emotional loaves and fishes ― and the atmosphere in the Press Bar felt less like a damp Tuesday in February and more like a lonely sailor's millennial hogmanay shore leave. (462)

A difference:
"I might be ambitious but I'm not ruthless. That's a different thing.""Oh, now you are ambitious?""I'm not ruthless." Paddy petulantly kicked snow off the step "I've never done anything for you to say that about me."They stood on the step looking out, each silently continuing the argument."Why can't you be content to rub along like the rest of us?" He sounded so reasonable."I'm just interested in my job. Is that wrong?"She understood why it made him angry: Sean wanted them to stay in the same place near the same people for the rest of their lives, and her ambitions threatened that. Sometimes she wondered if he was going out with her, a dumpy girl half as attractive as himself, because he could count on her to be grateful and stay. (102)

Comfort ebbs away:
As the train pulled away from the platform she imagined herself, wearing smart clothes and a miraculous half foot taller, swaggering into glamorous rooms with a pan-scope stretched body, asking pertinent questions and writing important articles. All the fantasies felt hollow this evening. She had an ominous sense that a shadow had marked her, that everything was fated to go wrong from here on in. Luck could curdle, she knew. The train pulled out of the dark station, dragging her homeward, delivering her to her people. (149)

A veteran colleague:
It startled Paddy because she didn't know what it was: the skin near his eyes and mouth folded over and a bizarre noise gargled up from his throat. McVie was laughing, but his face wasn't used to it. "Can the police get it wrong?" he repeated, making the noise again. "Your name's Paddy Meehan, for fucksake.""I know it happened then, but could it still happen now?"McVie stopped doing the scary thing with his face and let it retract back to suicidal. "Most of them wouldn't fit a kid up. Although ..." His eyes dropped to the side and he looked skeptical. "Most of them wouldn't. If they were convinced they're really guilty but it's hard to prove, they might plant evidence. They see a lot of villains walk; you can kind of understand it." (204)

Robert Harris. Conclave. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2016.
A very popular bestseller and more than you ever expected to know about the inner mechanisms of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican. Harris' previous works have been stunning (Fatherland, Archangel, An Officer and a Spy, et al); this one meets and even exceeds his own bar. It's all about the election of a new Pope. If you think that sounds dull, you are mistaken. There's rarely a dull moment in this gripping novel. Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli is in charge of election procedures in the Sistine Chapel, managing the sequestration of the College of Cardinals, well over one hundred from around the world. Some represent liberal, progressive views; others want a return to conservative, traditional policies. The behaviour of the recently deceased Pope had raised some concern among his intimates.

Several frontrunners have been acknowledged among the cardinals from the beginning, most of them important office-holders ― Tedesco (Venice), Adeyemi (Nigeria), Bellini (Milan), Tremblay (French Canada). While all pious men, they and/or their supporters could give ambitious secular politicians a run for their money. Lomeli lives for moments when the Holy Spirit infuses unity among them. But random surprises await the gathering, each surprise affecting the voting outcome. Harris removes mystery from the arcane election process that culminates in puffs of white smoke from a stove in the Chapel to signal to the world "Habemus papam" (we have a Pope). On the other hand, he creates unbearable suspense leading to those election results. Reading Conclave is like taking a master class in constructing a novel ... and sublime entertainment.

One-liners:
And, as with sleep, the more one desired meaningful prayer, the more elusive it became. (5)
We are an Ark, he thought, surrounded by a rising flood of discord. (34)
If he wins, Lomeli promised himself as soon as the Canadian had passed, I shall be gone from Rome the very next day. (43)
"Celibacy has always been culturally alien in Africa – you know that." (163)

Two-liner:
"We are mortal men. We serve an ideal; we cannot always be ideal." (185)

Discretion rules:
It was also agreed that the Pope's body should be embalmed. Lomeli said, "But we must ensure it is done properly." He had never forgotten filing past Pope Paul VI's body in St Peter's in 1978: in the August heat, the face had turned greyish-green, the jaw had sagged, and there was a definite whiff of corruption. Yet even that ghoulish embarrassment wasn't as bad as the occasion twenty years previously, when Pope Pius XII's body had fermented in its coffin and exploded like a firecracker outside the church of St John Lateran. "And another thing," he added. "We must make sure no one takes any photographs of the body." (18)

The cranky reactionary:
"I bet you never expected to see me again!"He was the oldest member of the Conclave: another month and he would have reached eighty, the statutory age limit for voting. He also had Parkinson's disease, and there had been doubt until the very last minute whether he would be pronounced fit enough to travel. Well, thought Lomeli grimly, he had made it, and there was nothing that could be done about it."On the contrary, Your Eminence, we wouldn't have dared hold a Conclave without you."Krasinski squinted at the Casa Santa Marta. "So then! Where have you put me?""I've arranged for you to have a suite on the ground floor.""A suite! That's decent of you, Dean. I thought the rooms were distributed by lot?"Lomeli leaned in. "I fixed the ballot," he whispered."Ha!" Krasinski struck one of his sticks against the cobbles. "I wouldn't put it past you Italians to fix the others too!"He hobbled away. His companions hung back, embarrassed, as if they had been obliged to bring to a family wedding an elderly relative for whose behaviour they could not vouch. Santos shrugged. "Same old Paul, I'm afraid."(36-7)

Private doubts:
"You want me to vote for a man you regard as ambitious?" Benitez looked at Lomeli – a long, hard, appraising look that made him feel quite uncomfortable – and then, without speaking further, began putting on his shoes.Lomeli shifted in his seat. He didn't care for this lengthening silence. Eventually he said, "I am assuming, of course, because of your obviously close relationship with the Holy Father, that you don't want to see Cardinal Tedesco as Pope. But perhaps I'm wrong – perhaps you believe in the same things he does?"Benitez finished tying his shoelaces and placed his feet on the floor. He looked up again."I believe in God, Your Eminence. And in God alone. Which is why I don't share your alarm at the idea of a long Conclave – or even a schism, come to that. Who knows? Perhaps that is what God wants. It would explain why our Conclave is proving to be such a conundrum that even you can't solve it.""A schism would go against everything I have believed in and worked for throughout my entire life.""Which is what?""The divine gift of the single Universal Church."(190-1)

Heated tempers rising:
"Oh no!" He shook his head. "No, no, no!" He started waving his fat, short-fingered hands again, smiling desperately in his alarm. "Now, you see, this is exactly what I warned you against, gentlemen! God has been forgotten in the heat of the moment and we are reacting to the pressure of events as if we represented nothing more sacred than a political convention. The Holy Spirit is not biddable, to be summoned at will, like a waiter! Brothers, I beg you, remember that we swear an oath to God to elect the one we believe is best fitted to be Pope, not the one we can most easily push out on to the balcony of St Peter's this afternoon to calm the crowd!" (262)

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