We’ve been thinking a lot lately about life stages and who we become based on the roles we assume over the years: student, traveler, immigrant, refugee, employee, employer, single person, partner, mother, wife, mom of teens (an entirely different mom), person out of work, person searching for work, friend, friend to someone who is sick. You get the picture.
And, as always, we turned to literature for deeper understanding.
In doing so, we found a cluster of books that center around the theme of reinventing oneself as a result of living in a certain place, mostly focused on the immigrant experience. Our selections include two pieces of fiction: How to Become An American Housewife and Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, as well as a book of interviews turned essays, Londoners, by Craig Taylor.
Read on to discover the connections. Pick up actual copies of the books to learn what it feels like to become someone new.
Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons (2010). This is a fantastic novel. The story starts out in 1953 with German immigrant Jack Rosenblum deciding to leave behind the successful life he has created in London to build a world-class golf course in the countryside. Except for the fact that he’s never played golf, knows nothing about life in the country, and hasn’t told his wife of his plans, it sounds like a good idea. Jack desperately wants to become a proper Englishman – he’s been trying to figure it out ever since moving to England before World War II – and this seems just the way. I loved Solomon’s prose, her inclusion of food and recipes in the novel, and her gentle, insightful writing style that doesn’t shy away from addressing serious topics such as antisemitism, prejudice, and grief. There is also the very funny “List of Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman” that Jack has been compiling since immigrating. Will he ever complete it or will he fit in by being himself? This book was an international bestseller after being published in 2010. It’s another one of those How did I miss this? titles. Fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand , this book is for you!~ Lisa Cadow
How to Become An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (2011). Funnily enough, this book is also organized around a list of instructions, these ones in a book explaining to Japanese war brides how to assimilate, to cook spaghetti and meat balls, and to be a good housewife in 1950’s America. Main character Shoko turns to this book for guidance when she moves to California as the bride of an American soldier and starts her life over. The story begins with an older, very sick Shoko remembering her life and aching for her American-born daughter to understand more about her history. I really enjoyed this take on the immigrant experience (actually written by the daughter of a Japanese woman) and was transported to some unexpected places: to what it meant to be a Japanese “untouchable,” what it was like to live through a nuclear holocaust, and to grow up during wartime in a struggling, Asian nation with very different customs. And, it’s always interesting to see one’s own culture mirrored back through new, foreign eyes. It is about mothers and daughters, lost love, family feuds, and leaving everything behind to sail into the unknown and start over. ~ Lisa Cadow
Londoners: the Days and Nights of London Now – as told by those who love it hate it live it left it and long for it by Craig Taylor (2012). OK, as someone who truly LOVES London, I admit the first set of interviews collected by Mr. Taylor really depressed me. Most of those interviewed spoke about why they left London, or how awful London is for those who live there, or why you should never live there. However, I then rethought my own life as a dweller in many big US cities, and remembered how hard city life often is and I understood. So, I chose to keep reading and was amply rewarded when I arrived at the next section in this collection. These interviewees include a woman writing about being chosen as the voice of the London Underground – the one who says “mind the gap” and announces train delays and other important bits of information, and a cab driver speaking about “The Knowledge” – a test Cabbies must pass before receiving their license. Subsequent sections include a hackney driver, a city planner, a dominatrix, a rapper, the lost property manager for London’s transport system, a hedge fund manager, homeless folks, a member of the Queen’s Guard to name a few. Get this book and read it in one sitting if you can. Alternatively, parcel out the views of London living piece by piece and savor each perspective. You will learn a lot about Londoners – and about living. ~ Lisa Christie