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Archive for September, 2010

Words for Wednesday

In my house language and words were important.  My brother and I were read to and then read by ourselves a great deal.  What we read, what my mother read, was discussed at the dinner table or in the car.  We played with words, making puns, making grocery lists in rebus puzzles, even taking someone else’s words and making them part of our family culture.  Lines such as “Speak, speak, speak to me Thora”, from Nancy Mitford’s pursuit of love would often be stated by someone in the family as would “Rose plot/Fern Grot” from Thomas Edward Brown’s My Garden (with a line missing) whenever the proper occassion arose.  And how could you have a really cold winter’s day without saying “How cold my toes, tiddly pom” (AA Milne).  Or, when you have a friend who is in a great deal of difficulty, how could you not recite from Yeat’s To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Nothing: Be secret and exult,/Because of all things known/That is most difficult.

So in celebration of the beauty of words – here is Mary Oliver’s “At Blackwater Pond”

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
A long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?


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“Rain hisses like swinging snakes and gutters gurgle. Orito watches a vein pulsating in Yayoi’s throat.  The belly craves food, she thinks, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories…the human mind is a loom that weaves disparate threads of belief, memory, and narrative into an entity whose common name is Self, and which sometimes calls itself Perception.” (pg. 244)

In high school I was fortunate to go to an alternative school run by two teachers who loved all things about Japan.  I studied Japanese literature, culture, history, and film.  Reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell really took me back to those days of immersion into a culture so different from our own.  You really get a sense of historical Japan in this meticulously researched novel.  I enjoyed the experience of reading the novel and I can see why it was long listed for this year’s Booker Prize.  I can also imagine why it was not short listed.

A Thousand Autumns is about a young Dutch clerk working for the Dutch East Indies Company and who is posted to the man-made island of Dejima which is just off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan.  Due to the Japanese emphasis on isolation, Dejima serves as the only point of interaction between Japan and the rest of the world.  The year is 1799 and Jacob is charged with auditing the books of the Company.  The novel is in three sections, the first a chronicle of Jacob’s time on the island.  He is a pious, practical man intent on earning enough money to marry his love back home.  His efforts to comb out previous dishonesty are not welcome and he struggles to find footing in the claustrophobic setting in which he is living and working.  The second section is about a young midwife, Orito Aibagawa, who is forcibly secluded in a mysterious shrine high on a mountain top.  Orito, like Jacob, is in a isolated, claustrophobic and dangerous situation.  The third section centers on an English ship’s attempt to take over the island and trade with the Japanese.

This is the first David Mitchell book I have read and I have heard that he plays with narrative structure and time.  However, this novel is told almost entirely in the third person and is a straight forward chronological novel.  In fact, much of the writing is in dialogue which gives you the impression that you have dropped yourself right into the middle of a conversation.  This is good, if you want to hear the conversation but if you don’t, you are stuck there.  At times I felt I was reading/watching a screen play with a character’s interior thoughts projected on a screen much like subtitles.  Most of the time it was easy to follow but occasionally I would get a little lost only to quickly regain my footing.

Much like Orito’s loom, the many threads of this story do come together into a cohesive whole.  At times, in the last half of the book, I found myself going “ahhh” as things became clear.  For example, there are references to autumn throughout the book and much of the important events take place in autumn but I couldn’t figure out what it all meant with the title until later in the narration.  I felt like the author threw different strands of yarn onto the surface of my mind.  There were strands about isolation, translation, honor, the consequences of action or inaction, power, betrayal, and motivation.  There were even smaller strands: the presence of butterflies, a gray cat, dreams. even landscape itself plays a part. At the end I felt like the strands coalesced into a complete work of fiction.

All of this sounds sprawling and complex but at same time the book was also simplistic.  The good were good and the bad were bad and the character’s were, in the most part, the same in the end as they were at the beginning.  Rarely was I surprised by someone’s actions with one exception.  Towards the end of the book, Mitchell puts in a soliloquy by a slave named Weh.  Weh, speaking in the first person, talks of being free within his own mind and this becomes one of the most powerful passages in the novel.

…so I created an island protected by the deep blue sea…Mr. Fisher owns my body, then, but he doesn’t own my mind…But I discovered there are problems with owning your mind.  When I am on my mind island I am as free as any Dutchman…There I don’t snitch, or scrub, or fetch, or carry for masters.

Then I hear, “Are you listening to me idle dog?”

Then I hear, “If you won’t move for me, here’s my whip.”

Each time I return from my mind island, I am recaptured by slavers.

Much of this novel is about the constraints we live under whether it be an isolated island or a prison-monastery, slavery or cultural forces beyond our control, the choices we make or do not make, even the obligations put upon us by our own sense of honor.  Combine these themes with the historical narrative of isolated Japan interacting with the outside and, despite minor issues, you have one very good read.

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Disclaimer here: I was raised by a librarian and an English major.  My father was raised by a writer; my mother was raised by an educator and, from the age of six, she had full access to his library.  I was raised in a house that had “Be all you can be READ” posters next to a poster of Wanda the Painted Lady who was wearing a whole lot of painted pop art designs and nothing else.  I was raised by a lady who had to march up to the front desk of the Kern County Library to tell the outraged librarians that “yes, my brother could check out books by Ian Fleming; Yes, she was aware of what the books contained (James Bond slept with women – gasp!); yes, she was aware it was from the adult section of the library; yes she was well aware of her son’s age (he was fifteen and it was 1973) and yes, her children (including thirteen year old me) could check out anything they wanted to without having to obtain parental permission”.

I was never restricted in what I read.  I don’t even remember my mother expressing any concerns about what I was reading other than my reluctance to read anything by Proust.  Needless to say, I don’t like banning books.  I understand a parent having a say in what their own child reads, although I prefer the parents to read the books along with the children and then have a discussion of what differs from their values.  That’s my preference because that is how reading was handled in my house. I just don’t want some other person deciding that some book is not appropriate for me, or my children, and someday, my grandchildren.

Banned Books Week celebrates the “freedom to access information and express ideas”.  It is a week to reflect on the importance of having open libraries and the power of literature to move us deeply.  It is a week to look at what has happened in terms of challenges to books over the past year.   The usual suspects appear on the list such as The Harry Potter series, Huckleberry Finn (youngest just read this for AP Language Arts and actually liked it – Silas Marner, not so much), Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mocking Bird, etc.  But there were also some surprises on the list.

The dictionary – pardon me – we are trying to ban the dictionary?  Second disclaimer: I remember in 8th grade and convincing my English teacher that I was reading the dictionary for a book report.  I got an A on the assignment. I was raised with an unabridged dictionary and actually asked for one on my wedding registry. I am partial to dictionaries, not only for easy As, but to also to help you discover if your grandmother cheats at scrabble (she did).

A resource from the American Library Association website – Think for Yourself and Let Others Do the Same by Robert P Doyle mentions the attempt to ban the Dictionary:

Merriam-Webster Editorial Staff
Merriam-Webster Collegiate
Dictionary
Merriam-Webster
Pulled from the Menifee, Calif. Union School District (2010) because a parent complained when a child came across the term “oral sex.” Officials said the district is forming a committee to consider
a permanent classroom ban of the dictionary.
Source: Mar. 2010, p. 55.

And Shelia from bookjourney has a number of interesting postings about Banned Book Week and discusses an attempt to ban The Face on the Milk Cartoon in her review:

Why was Caroline B Cooney’s Face on the Milk Carton Banned?  The faintest reference to the idea of sex (a possible first encounter” was all that it took for a challenge to be made to this book.  Subsequent involved a “perceived challenge to authority” that occurred when Janie becomes determined to establish her true parentage .

Does anyone remember this book?  I read it years ago and also saw the Afterschool Special (now I am dating myself).  I recall it to be about a search for identity in more dramatic circumstances than the average teen.  What teen doesn’t question where they came from? Unfortunately, some people think that in itself is threatening and children shouldn’t read such things.

So this week – read a book, any book, whether it is on the list of challenged books or not.  Go to your library, browse and find something that interests you and spend time reading.  Because with reading you can escape, be amused, be illuminated, learn about someone else, and learn about yourself.  And with libraries the whole of human experience is at our fingertips waiting to be explored.

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Catching up between a cross country meet yesterday (absolutely beautiful day for in in Wenatchee) and the Symphony this afternoon.

The LA Times reviews Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Trong author of The Book of Salt: A Novel.  Bitter follows Linda Hammerick who has an unusual sensory disorder.  The themes of the book seem to include learning to live with who you are within and secrets within secrets.  Sounds delicious.

The September list from IndieBound is up with two books that are already on my list: The Gendarme By Mark Mustian which is called “a meditation on memory” by Publisher’s Weekly and for some reason I am fixated on books about memory.   Also on the list is Room by Emma Donoghue which is on order from the library.  They also listed a book I had heard about before Healer by Carol Cassella set in a small Eastern Washington town.

S. Krisna shares longlist for  The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. If you interested in literature from this area of the world, this list is a great starting place.  The only one I have read was Chef by Jaspareet Singh but many of the others look very interesting.

Kevin From Canada is discussing the long list for the Giller Prize (Literary prize for a Canadian author of a novel or short story collection) as well as posting tidbits from the first review of the “shadow jury”.  I really really liked The Disappeared by Kim Echlin which was short listed last year and have the winner The Bishop’s Man on my reading list.  I think I will wait to see what the shadow jury says about this year’s books before I add to my reading list.

Kerry from Hungry Like the Woolf reviews Orion You Came and Took All My Marbles by Kira Henehan describing it as a “absurdly original detective story”.  There seems to be questions of existence, wordplay, and absurd-ism all wrapped up in a delightful, intriguing debut.   My library doesn’t have a copy but this one may go on the Christmas list.

Finally, a book for my friend Carolyn who loves novels about women in other countries: The Calligrapher’s Daughter is reviewed by The Gutenberg Girls.  Set in Korea, the novel covers thirty years of Korean history through the story of Najin Han, a privileged daughter of a gifted calligrapher.

Enjoy your Sunday reading.

PB

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The Other Family

The one good thing about having a mother who reads is when I am at her house, I get to read from her pile.  Earlier this year while visiting, I picked up at book by an author I had never heard of – Joanna Trollope’s Marrying the Mistress.  My first question: was she related to Anthony Trollope and thanks to Wikipedia, the answer is yes – distantly.  Then I wanted to know what the book was about as the blurb sounded intriguing so I started in. I enjoyed reading her novel very much as it was a quick read, and had decent characterizations as well as a good plot. So I looked on-line and found a list of her extensive cannon of work and got the impression she was (for lack of a better term) one of the top “Beach Read” authors of England specializing in the family domestic tale of things gone awry and how individuals coped.

The other day the library told me that one of the books I had requested was in, Joanna Trollope’s latest work: The Other Family. Within the very first pages we learn that Richie Rossiter, a famous pianist, has died leaving his “wife” and their three daughters behind.  Richie has also left behind his first wife, whom he never divorced, and his thirty-eight year old son.  Finally there is what Richie leaves behind in his will. Due to all of this leaving behind, we have two distinct and separate families confronting the past, the present, and the future.

What do you do when you are stuck? Stuck by circumstances, stuck within a society, stuck by grief, or even stuck by other people’s expectations?

…he’d asked her if she ever felt like he did that there might be someone or something out there that could spring him from the trap of his sense of obstructing himself from moving forward. She said, “Oh pet, you know, you always hope and hope it will be someone else who does the trick, but in the end, it comes down to yourself, and the sad fact that some of us can and some of us can’t.” (pg. 159)

It was a good read, not too complicated and easy to follow.  I found the characters not as well formed as in Marrying the Mistress – it seemed that the author was more into how her characters felt in the immediate moment rather than explaining how those feelings came to be.  So it was hard for me to be completely sympathetic and understanding of some of the actions and decisions characters made.  I did find, once again, that Joanna Trollope is great at writing self-absorbed characters.  She must have had someone in her life who was self-absorbed because she can describe this behavior so well.  They can be annoying with their inability to see the other person and yet she doesn’t treat them as caricatures or make them laughable.

All in all, she is an author worth exploring if you like quiet  family and domestic dramas done with a light-handed writing style.  The themes she explores have some heft to them as well as relevancy for our times so I would not call them fluff work by any means, just solid respectable work.   I did like Marrying the Mistress better than The Other Family so my recommendation is to start from there.

Note: I do have one minor complaint: the cover art on my copy of The Other Family had nothing to do with the book.  I see other editions have a more apropos photograph  but felt for the sake of realism I should have my blog image reflect the actual edition I read.

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For a few years now, my Dad has given my Mom the books from the Booker Prize short list.  Last year was the first year that I dived into the books and began to read them and a few weeks ago I finished the fifth book of the six 2009 short-listed books for the Booker Prize.  I have tried to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (the winner last year) but have not been able to get very far.  There is something about the book that doesn’t draw me in – I don’t know if it is the writing style or if it is the subject matter.  Perhaps someday I will actually get beyond page 50 and find enough in it to keep me going.

So here is my brief take on the one’s I did read with my favorite to my least favorite:

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room: The Glass Room is about a house (based on a real house by Miles van der Rohe) built in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930’2 by a newly married industrialist and his wife.  The book is about the house and a culture that moves from the opulence of the 30’s, to the deprivations of the war, and finally to the stark harshness of the communist era.  It is about a marriage and the horrors of war and holocaust.  It is about reconciliation and remembrance, the public and the private and the lines between the two.  All this sounds like a heavy load but Mawer makes it seem almost effortless.  His prose is streamlined and transparent and the novel is wrapped up into a complete package where it all makes sense to the reader.  The Glass House is one of my favorite reads of this year.

JM Coetzee’s Summertime: A “fictionalized memoir”, Summertime is an examination of a novelist, one JM Coetzee.  An unidentified researcher, with access to the novelist’s notebooks, interviews five people who knew the man during a period of his life just prior to writing his first novel.  Throughout the book Coetzee is described as aloof, remote, socially and sexually inept.  It is difficult to get a complete picture of the man as each narrator presents different memories and agendas.  I have never heard of this author before picking up Summertime and, as always with multiple perspectives and voices, I wondered if the author could pull it off.  But once I finished it I was in awe of Coetzee’s talent.  Each voice was so distinct and well done and the language is so evocative, it made the book hard to put down.

AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book: True confession time – I did not like Possession so I have never picked up anything else by this author.  Although The Children’s Book was a long read covering an enormous amount of material, I did enjoy the book.  Perhaps this is due to an upbringing on The Forsyte Saga and Masterpiece Theater which would make a long and involved British family saga more to my liking.  This novel is vast, complex, and enjoyable, talking about art, its place in a person’s life and its effect on the artist’s family.  It is about growing up and not growing up, small betrayals and large betrayals all within the historical, political, and cultural context of six decades.

Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger: The Little Stranger takes place in the English countryside after WWII.  A local doctor becomes involved with the family of the local gentry (a widowed mother and her son and daughter) and their dilapidated estate.  As his involvement increases, so do strange incidents which lead to insanity and death.  A ghost story, Water’s is very good at creating an atmosphere and feeling for dread and darkness.  You can see where she is going in exploring evil and class differences, however I didn’t like any of the characters so at times I found it hard to go on.  I am glad I finished but I think I will wait awhile before reading anything else by this author.

Adam Fould’s The Quickening Maze: I was very excited about this novel after reading many favorable reviews but I must say I was disappointed.  Set in the 1830’s, the novel describes the inhabitants of the High Beech Private Asylum during two years of time including the poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Clare as well as the Director Dr. Matthew Allen and his family.  I was all set to like the book; it was about poetry and identity and the language was highly praised.  Instead, I found myself floundering through not caring about the characters or their struggles. I didn’t even enjoy the writing very much as it seemed overly flowery to me and the narrative somewhat unfocused.  Since so many other people have enjoyed this book, I would urge you to read some other reviews and perhaps you will find it to your liking after all.

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The Hand That First Held Mine

Listen.  The trees in the story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves.  A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know in their restlessness, in their head-tossing importance, that something is about to happen.

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine  is a story about motherhood, memories, connections and most of all, self-definition.  Elina is a Finnish artist living in present-day London with her film editor boyfriend Ted and she has just given birth with the complications of blood loss and emergency surgery.  As a consequence, she doesn’t remember any of it and starts the story very confused.  Struggling with  pain and exhaustion Elina tries to come to terms with her new role and as she does,she slowly regains both her footing and her memory.  Meanwhile Ted starts having flashes of early memories becoming very disconcerted as he can’t make any sense of what is happening and he starts to  lose his place in the world.

Elina and Ted’s story is alternated with one taking place fifty years earlier when twenty-one year old Lexie Sinclair moves to London and gets a job working for an Art Magazine. Lexie is a bright, articulate woman who is also trying to find her voice and place in this new modern world.   Lexie falls in love, suffers a tragedy, and eventually comes to a place where she is happy.  As Lexie moves forward with her life, Ted is working his way backward,  and the two stories eventually collide.

When I first started reading this novel I was having one of those “can’t go to bed yet – must keep reading” experiences.  Until I thought I had figured everything out and then I lost interest slightly.  However, picking up the book a few days later, I found out I was wrong and then I had to keep going.  I thought O’Farrell did a really good job of interweaving the two story lines and I found myself interested in all three main characters (Ted, Elina, and Lexie).  I wanted Elina to get back on her feet and find her new “normal” and I wanted Ted to be able to figure out what his new “normal” was as well.

This novel wants you to explore how people define themselves and what happens when that definition is altered or even shattered in a way.  How does someone rebuild from such an experience? And is there a difference if the event happens to a child or to an adult?  O’Farrell, as a novelist, puts questions such as these to the reader in such a way that the reader is drawn into the story in very much the same way as Ted puts together scenes from the film so it makes sense to the viewer.

I enjoyed this book and have put O’Farrell’s previous novel The Vanishing Act Of Esmie Lennox on my reading list.  I understand she also explores the issues of forgetting and family in that book and I think she is a writer worth keeping on the To Read List.

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