Archive for August, 2010

Opening Lines: In the same way that a bucket of water reduces a cooking fire to ashes – a few sputters of shocked disbelief, a hiss of anger, and then a chill all the more penetrating for having so abruptly supplanted intense heat – in just that way, the photograph that she now surveyed extinguished all her excitement.
“Exactly like this?” she asked her guest, trying to keep out any hint of regret or condemnation out of her voice.
“Exactly like that,” came the reply, and the damp chill of disappointment seeped into her heart.

When you read the cover blurb of Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, you learn it is about a woman named Angel who bakes cakes in Kigali Rwanda.  Each chapter is about a different celebration or party and the cake that Angel bakes for that occasions.  When I first started reading I thought it would be similar to The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister a book where each chapter is about a single cooking lesson and the lives of one of the students in the cooking class.  However, I was pleasantly surprised because Baking Cakes goes a little deeper.

The book reminds me of a sorbet I once had many years ago – a watermelon raspberry sorbet – easily the best sorbet I have ever had.  Nothing else as even come close and to this day I cannot figure out how the chef managed it.  Taking a spoonful of sorbet, my mouth first tasted the mild subtle flavor of watermelon and as it lingered the taste altered and deepened into the crisp tang of raspberry.

On the surface Baking Cakes is a book about a lovely woman (Angel) who is a fantastic baker and cake decorator who also happens to be maternal, menopausal, caring, and raising her five grandchildren in an apartment in Kigali.  She bakes cakes for all occasions and takes a special interest in her clientele serving as baker and advice giver, supporter, and all around nice helpful person.  Underneath she is struggling with the deaths of her two children, trying to find her way through menopause and raise five grandchildren and build a business at the same time.

Plus she lives in a country that has recently undergone a “never again” experience of genocide along with multitudes of other problems and issues found in Africa: Aids, boy soldiers, child prostitution, street children, Ebola, and female circumcision.  This may sound like a laundry list giving such dire issues short shrift but, in my opinion, the author uses these issues to enhance her theme of truth, recognition, and reconciliation.

Pius was questioning Welcome on the significance of the distinction between what South Africa called “truth and reconciliation” and what Rwanda called “unity and reconciliation”.  Could truth not make reconciliation impossible? he was asking.  Was unity a possibility in the absence of truth?

The book describes the difficulty of witnessing horrific acts and being unable to do anything, the joy you can find in everyday life, that denial doesn’t work very well and that change and recognition can take time.  Like my watermelon raspberry sorbet, Baking Cakes in Kigali may seem like a mild read, but after you get into it there is a lot to sink your teeth into.


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Going through the internet in search of good reads a little later than usual.  A friend and I ran away to have lunch at Chaps with dessert (chocolate mousse cake)  and take homes from Cake – their new bakery.  Managed to scrounge the last apple fritter for Marty but the teenager looked pitiful enough to convince his dad to share a little.  As for the teenager, he neglected to have his phone on him to tell me what he wanted.  I was nice anyway and brought home a cinnamon raisin bun and an apple cinnamon muffin.  Hopefully turn around is fair play and he will be nice enough to share with his dad.  Made a quick stop to Auntie’s Bookstore where I saw a few books that piqued my interest and had a good browse.

From Aunties:

A Slender Thread by Katherine Davis – First, this book is about sisters which is one of my “hooks” and second, I am intrigued by the loss of language and how to find a new voice.

What I talk about When Running by Haruki Murakami – this one for the teenager.  I am always on the lookout for books on running for the kid, add in the talk about travel and this looks like a winner.

and from the blogs today:

Bibliophile by the Sea finished Room by Emma Donoghue and loved it.  This is the one long listed Booker Prize books that I am eagerly awaiting reading. Lucky for me the county library now has a copy so I am on the hold list.

The Book Bench: The New Yorker tells me that Jim Carrey is set to star in a film adaptation of Mr. Popper’s Penguins.  I remember my mother reading this book to my brother and me – sitting in between us on the green couch we had.  It is a great book.

S. Krishna’s Books has given me a new mystery to try: The Cold Light of Morning by Elizabeth Duncan.

Happy reading

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Gilead Revisited

Last night I was updating my list of completed reads and I could not remember the book I finished Tuesday night.  I thought long and hard, went through my journal where I take reading notes (none there), tried to trigger my memory but I couldn’t come up with the title or even what the book was about.  I do read a lot and this has happened before but I can generally come with something to go from but I was truly stuck.  Unfortunately the book made so little impact on me either positively or negatively that it didn’t register in my mind in any shape or form.  Fortunately I eventually found the library printout from the checkout – the book was Neighborhood Watch by Cammie McGovern.  I generally like mysteries and I like books about secrets but I felt this particular book did not live up to the quote found inside: “All of us carried secrets inside of us, ticking like bombs waiting to detonate.”  It was in one word – forgettable.

Not so Gilead (reviewed below).  Gilead is definitely not forgettable and I found myself thinking about the book quite a bit since I finished it.  Although my reading of the book felt ponderous I could recognize the book was very well written.  As I went through my journal I found I had written down several passages which I reread.  I then picked the book up and leafed through it again reading random passages out loud.  How did I not see the contrast between the author’s descriptions of the drought and its impact both on the towns and to the individuals who lived through it with evocative dazzling descriptions of water.  The narrator frequently talks about baptism as well as scatters other references to water throughout his long letter to his son.

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday.  It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.  You feel the silent and invisible life.  All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.  And that was such a quiet day, rain on the roof, rain against the windows, and everyone grateful, since it seems we never do have quite enough rain. (p. 20)

The Sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine…well but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water. (p. 65)

I had a dream once that Broughton and I were down by the river looking around in the shallows for something or other…and my Grandfather stalked out of the trees in that furious way he had, scooped his hat full of water, and threw it so a sheet of water came sailing towards us…and left us standing there in that glistening river, amazed at ourselves and shinning like Apostles. (p. 203)

I am sure there are other parts of the book I missed as well.  As I said before, this was not the time for me to read this book.  Sometimes that happens, even with really good books.  And unlike Neighborhood Watch, Gilead is a really good book.  It is a book is one that lingers in your mind – you think about phrases; you think about themes; you think about what the author was trying to say.  A good book is one that pops into your thoughts at random times; that paints a picture, like children playing in a sprinkler, that will stay with you.

Lastly – I am thoroughly entranced by Virgina Woolf’s The Waves which I am reading for one of my book groups.

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Gilead: A Novel

Gilead: a Novel by Marilynne Robinson

Jack said, “It is an enviable thing, to be able to receive your identity from your father.” (p.168)

I finally finished Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson –  a  narrative or journal by a very elderly preacher who is writing to his son.  The man, John Amos, believes he will die soon leaving his young wife and his seven year old son.  The book covers John’s family history, his problematic relationship with his godson (also names John Amos), and various thoughts on different spiritual and religious themes.

I loved the way the author crafts words together.  Her writing shines – in fact, it is hard to separate out a quote because the writing is so entwined.

In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence.  Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.  We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity.  But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us. (p. 197)

As you read, you get glimpses of these pictures the author is painting and it helps you move through the ramblings of this old man.  However, the first word that comes to my mind when I finished the book is ponderous.  There was a sense of heaviness despite the sometimes evocative language.  It wasn’t the themes.  I was intrigued by what Robinson had to say about abandonment, especially in relation to fathers and sons.  I liked what she had to say about finding your place in the world, by role (a preacher, a young wife to an elderly man, a son), by physical location, and by your spiritual and religious beliefs.  So if it wasn’t the language or the subject, why the sense of heaviness?  I don’t know.  I felt as if all the shinning strands she was weaving from were cast into the water  and sank.

Perhaps I just read this at the wrong time.  So I am putting it on my reread list.  Rather, on my  listen to list.  I think that, like many sermons, this book would be best listened to.  Then I may be able to better appreciate the author’s cadence and I will be swept up into the narrative.

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The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

First Lines: Listen.  Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining.  Let me tell you a story.

The Hakawati is a tale about Osama al-Kharrat and his return to Beirut after many years in America to celebrate the feast of Eid al-Hada and be with his dying father.  Beirut in 2003 is very different then the Beirut Osama remembers from his childhood having suffered through bombardment, civil war, and other military actions.  Osama finds himself surrounded by his  friends and family along with the gossip, bickering, and stories that have always accompanied the group.

Throughout the book Osama narrates the story of his family from his great-grandparents and his grandfather, a hakawati or storyteller by trade.  Interwoven with this family story are two classic tales from the middle east as well as tales from the Koran and the Bible.  Much like a Matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll, the tales nest within each other leading to an entrancing, complex narrative.

When I first started reading this book, I felt I needed to know where each tale was in regards to the other but once I allowed myself to go with the flow, that didn’t matter.  I learned I had to trust the author to get me back to where I needed to be within each tale.  I learned that the hakawati would tell tales in cafes night after night picking up the story where he left off, spinning for days or even weeks a magical tale. In many respects, the author mimics the Hakawati with each tale breaking off and starting again.

This would be an excellent “stuck in an airport” book because I found myself losing track of time while reading it.  I came to care about Osama and his family as well as being very caught up middle eastern tales.  This book points out the importance stories have in our lives – family stories, stories of births and beginnings, stories of endings, stories of connections.  The novel also asks the question “Where do we come from?”  Is it a place indicated by a home, is it the people around us, the people important to us, or the stories we tell ourselves.  In the novel, Osama feels disconnected from his father and from Beirut but in returning and reconnecting to his family and his stories, Osama finds a connection with his father and ultimately with himself.

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Every Sunday I browse through various book blogs looking for books that catch my interest.  Some I place on hold right away and others get put on the ever growing “Thinking About” list.

Here is today’s list –

The first is Bruised Hibiscus by Elizabeth Nunez (my apologies – I did not notate which blog I originally saw this book on).  Publisher’s Weekly calls it a “Caribbean gothic”  set in Trinidad in 1954 and it is about two women who are mistreated by the men around them.  After a white woman’s body is washed on shore, the women go on a pilgramiage and seek to change their lives.

From A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook The Palisades by Tom Schabarum.  I loved the quote Matthew posted as well as the description of the book.  After college, Nick returns to Big Sur, the place he last saw his mother who he feels abandoned him.  Mother and son are reunited but issues need to be resolved.  This book, told in alternating perspectives, is about love and healing plus what looks like some family secrets.

Boston Bibliophile reviews Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi, a novella about Afghanistan and mentions the author’s delicate prose and careful storytelling.  My library didn’t have this book but they do have a copy of  The Patience Stone also reviewed by Marie.  This is also a novella which takes place in a single room.  A nameless woman takes care of her husband home from a nameless war.  While talking to her comotose husband, she relates her life, her desires, regrets, and her secrets.  Words used to describe this book include “tightly written”, “spare”, and “poetic”.  I can’t wait for my hold to come in.

Finally, Chasing Bawa also mentioned a novella that sounds intriguing to me: Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi.  This book is about a difficult subject matter but Bawa talks about how the author gets into the protagonist’s mind and in the end the book makes us pause and reflect on our own lives.

Happy reading

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