Archive for January, 2011

The Summer Book

If only she were a little bigger, Grandmother thought. Preferably a good deal bigger, so I could tell her I understand how awful it is. Here you come, headlong, into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own, and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them more compact and self-assured. An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure, and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if they world ended at the horizon. Grandmother thought about the potatoes, and Berenice. She gazed out over the lee shore to the waves that swept around the island on both sides and then rejoined and moved on toward the mainland – a long blue landscape of vanishing waves that left only a small wedge of quiet water behind them. A fishing boat with a big white mustache was sailing across the bay. (pgs. 26-27)

The Summer Book is by Swedish author Tove Jansson who is better known for The Moomin books for children. I hesitate to call The Summer Book a novel, nor is it a book of short stories. Instead it is a series of descriptions or vignettes of a summer on a Swedish island, the summer of nine year old Sophia, her elderly Grandmother, and to a smaller extent, Sophia’s Papa. The book is centered on the relationship between Sophia and her Grandmother as they each navigate an enormous change in their circumstances – Sophia is learning to negotiate life without her mother who has died and Grandmother is facing life as an elderly woman unable to do the things she used to do.

The language is so evocative of summer, being so comfortable with “outside” that it becomes a very part of you. While reading I remembered summers of my own – wandering the neighborhood with my friends, playing in the park, sitting in a tree lazily watching life go by. You feel you are on the island experiencing the same summer as Sophia and Grandmother.

Sophia asked her grandmother what Heaven looked like, and Grandmother said it might be like the pasture they were just then walking by on their way to the village. They stopped to look. It was very hot, the road was white and cracked, and all the plants along the ditch had dust on their leaves. They walked into the pasture and sat down in the grass, which was tall and not a bit dusty. It was full of bluebells and cat’s-foot and buttercups…Some kind of farm machinery was running steadily and peacefully in the distance. If you turned it off – which was easy to do – and listened only to the insects, you could hear thousands of millions of them, and they filled the whole world with rising and falling waves of ecstasy and summers.

In reading this book, I can see why Jansson is successful as a writer for children. She has an understanding of children that is rare – she treats Sophia as a real person, not just some precocious young thing and this shows in the deep relationship Jansson describes between Sophia and Grandmother. While the death of Sophia’s mother is only briefly mentioned, it runs as an undercurrent throughout the book and Grandmother respects her loss and doesn’t baby Sophia – rather she gives Sophia choices. She is loving without being smothering and without losing her own uniqueness as she deals with her loss of mobility and memory. Grandmother also has her cranky moments which help round out the picture of Grandmother as a real person. Jansson based the book on her own mother and her niece and the reader has a strong sense of the two as actual people.

The Summer Book has little plot – Sophia and Grandmother build miniature cities, go for walks, sail to other islands – simple summer activities. The beauty of the book is in how true the relationship between Sophia and Grandmother reads and the language which leads the reader to reflect not only on their own summers but their own grandmothers as well. My own grandmother was an amazing woman – feisty, opinionated, a cheater at scrabble. She supported her family by writing – not an easy feat for a woman of her era and had a tremendous crush on JR Ewing of the TV show Dallas because “he lies so well.” She loved that I was a reader letting me have access to her amazing collection of books, giving me books, and even letting me go with her to her PEN meetings when we visited her.

I really enjoyed The Summer Book and an added bonus is all the memories it brings up in the reader.


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Sunday Caught My Interest

Happy Sunday – himself is down in the basement on a bike ride, youngest is outside on a bike ride and the cat is, of course, right under my nose.  This morning my mom asked me if the Julia Child craze was over – you have to understand, my family watched Julia Child’s Kitchen before it was popular to watch. In fact we had the neighbors over for dinner one Thursday night and they watched the PBS show with us. I can still see the black and white version of Julia merrily cooking away – she made cooking such fun and my mother cooked her way through Joy of Cooking when I was a small girl (and it never occurred to her to talk about it.) I remembered seeing a recent book about Julia on one of the blog hops I was doing (which I can’t find now) so went looking on Amazon – As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis deVoto edited by Joan Reardon. Avis deVoto was Julia’s friend and unofficial literary agent. She was critical to the publishing of the Joy of Cooking and corresponded with Julia throughout all the changes in culture, politics, and food that were happening at the time. Bon Appetit.

Lots of good reading and book finds this week so here is what Caught My Interest:

I have near read anything by Nick Hornby but when I read Melody’s review of Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree (what a mouthful), I though it might just add him to my reading list. This work is non-fiction and contains a series of essays about Hornby’s reading life, the books he buys, what he has read, what he wants to read, etc. I am almost finished with Bound to Last: 30 Writers on their Most Cherished Book and really enjoying it – luckily for me, the library has a copy of Spree and it is on order.

Sometimes I catch a showing of Hoarders on TV- and I watch in fascination, in part because my late mother-in-law had hoarding tendencies and my experience in cleaning my father’s apartment when we moved him into assisted living was – painful (and he isn’t a hoarder per se). So when Alyce of At Home With Books reviewed Dirty Secret by Jessie Scholl I was interested. Jessie is the daughter of a hoarder who goes back home to help her mother when she is ill with cancer and at the same time, they must deal with the hoard. I think it is easy to dismiss hoarders as being selfish and lazy but hoarding is such a complex psychological issue that there are no easy answers. It is nice to see books like Dirty Secret come out to show this complexity in for more depth than a 60 minute television show.

Frances of Nonsuch Books introduced me to a debut novel by Tatjana Soli called The Lotus Eaters. In this case, the lotus eaters are the journalists and photographers covering the Vietnam War, particularly female photojournalist Helen Adams. In a backdrop of violence, death, and destruction, the journalists try to do their jobs while coveting some psychological distance between what they see and what they capture with their lenses and words. The reviews I have read of this book speak of its simple power to describe grand themes such as addiction to violence and the search for love and at the same time, speak of the effect of these issues on individuals. I think I will watch for this one at my library,

A first A Geography of Secrets by Frederick Reuss would seem like a simple  spy thriller but after reading Nicole’s review at Linus’s Blanket the book seems to be a more complex investigation of secrets and shadows and their effect on people who cannot share their burdens with the people around them. I was so interested I looked up the author’s back list and have a few more of his works in mind to read.

Speaking of secrets, family secrets is a favorite subject of mine so when I found Juxtabook’s review of Blackmoor by Edward Hogan I immediately ordered it from the library.  Set in dilapidated village in Derbyshire, Blackmoor has two threads, the first is about a villager and his albino wife who is viewed with great suspicion by the villagers. The second strand takes place ten years later in the present and concern’s Beth’s son. Vincent, the son, has a need to know about his mother and it seem his father has a need to keep things buried.

Two mysteries caught my interest – the first from Tom of A Common Reader A Quiet Flame is the latest Bernie Gunther mystery by Phillip Kerr. This novel is set in the 1950’s with Bernie emigrating to Argentina to escape the devastation in Germany as well as his past as a detective during the war. I was so intrigued, I ordered one of the first in the series from my library. I might not get to read them all (I am unsure how many are translated) but want to work my way up to reading A Quiet Flame. Bernie sounds like a complex character and when you combine that with a well-written plot, you have a good mystery.

I thank Kimbofo of Reading Matters for the second mystery also takes place in the 1950’s but this time is set in South Africa which allows its author to explore Apartheid with its violence and cruelty. A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn is about a white South African policeman who goes to a rural town to investigate the murder of a white man.  The novel is about more than the simple crime, it becomes a struggle for the truth against political expediency. It is also described as a well written literary mystery.

My mid-century spree continues – Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius is described beautifully by Max at Pechorin’s Journal. In fact he states he read it twice, both times straight through and if he had read it in 2010, it would have made his top of the year list. Portrait is a novella, set in Italy in 1943. A young German woman lives in Rome with her solider husband. She is on her way to a concert when she begins to think of the dangers her husband is in and then tries to not think. Set in a single afternoon, Portrait seems to be just that, an exploration of one of the everyday people caught up in a war and a totalitarian regime.  Nicholas Lezard, of The Guardian, states, “The book’s last paragraph, overtly expressing nothing more than the young woman’s intention to write a letter, is one of the most moving conclusions I’ve ever read.”

Finally, Matthew of A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook talks movingly about one of the books he loves and wonders why it isn’t more widely known. Shadow Without a Name by Ignacia Padilla, a Mexican author, is a complex work with four separate narrators each talking about identity, trading identities, questioning who we are. Moving from 1918 just before WWI and 1957 in Buenos Aires, and featuring stories within stories, the reader is challenged to try and understand just who is talking. The author leaves clues scattered about and it is up to the reader to come to their own conclusions. I can get this one on Inter-Library loan and I can’t wait.

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The Wrong Blood

It was the month of May, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out although nobody would know this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway. And so it was the month of May, or the month of June, in wedding season. The midday sunlight exaggerated the radiance of the meadows on the banks of the Bidasoa River. The mountains retained their thick semidarkness, and the waters of the river were subsiding to their lowest level.  (p.3)

The Wrong Blood starts with a seemingly innocuous and bizarre incident – a wealthy businessman on his way to a wedding, suffers a stroke in the bathroom of a rustic wayside inn. It is just days before the Spanish Civil War breaks out, a war that wrecks havoc on the lives of two women – the bride, Isabel and the step-daughter of the innkeeper, Maria. Manuel de Lope has written a novel about the past encroaching on the present – haunting events and decisions with all their ramifications subtly impacting the characters today. The past concerns the bride, marrying an army officer, and the innkeeper’s daughter left to fend for herself when the war breaks out, a war which has a violent and profound effect on the two women – an effect that lasts for years. They are eventually brought together by the businessman at the Isabel’s villa overlooking the sea.

In the present, in that lonely villa perched on the hillside on the Spanish Coast close to the border of France; Isabel has been dead for some years and Maria is now the proud owner of the property. Isabel’s grandson comes to visit in order to study for a law exam and he meets the elderly doctor who lives next door – the past is ever present in the doctor’s mind – a past he goes over and over reflecting at what was. And as de Lope writes, “There could be no greater misfortune, no greater solitude, than memory.” (pg. 32)

De Lope is an expert at creating an atmosphere describing the villa on the fog shrouded coast, the resort town just across the border, and the specific details of critical events in the novel:

It was the middle of February. Rain fell in powerful gusts. The sky showed black, the color of stormy nights, but in this case an unmitigated, thick blackness that not even lightening flashes could tear. India ink had been spilled on the universe. Humans had been shut up in a box of rain, in a contraption invented by God to test his creatures’ patience, and their fear. It was one of those black nights that are recorded only in the Bible and the sacred books, precisely the kind of black night that only unlucky women choose for giving birth. (p. 189)

With a spiraling writing style, de Lope circles around the memories of his characters to the point where time becomes fluid. At first I found this slightly repetitive style of writing difficult to get into – it reminded me of the little amount of Proust I have read. However after a while, the flow becomes a rhythm that pulls you further into the story and as we go along, de Lope ties all these memories together into a satisfying conclusion. Not necessarily a neat and tidy conclusion but a real one reflective of the nature of the novel. All in all an excellent book

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Words For Wednesday

From The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope

This novel is about two women who have been deeply effected by the Spanish Civil War and the consequences of their actions years later. Quietly lyrical, Lope’s language pattern, for me, was slightly reminiscent of Proust (at least the little bit of Proust I have actually read).

Night had fallen, and the light, limpid air still permeated by the heat of the day, breathed peace and premonitions. It was said that the troops who had requisitioned the contents of the warehouse were going to distribute the wine later that night, and every unit had to send its quartermaster to fetch it. The lighting of fires was forbidden so as not to give the position away. Thus did matters stand that fateful night, full of portents, covered with stars, fantastic in its beauty, and indifferent to the destinies of men, its face turned toward the profound panorama of the universe; and at the same time, it was an intimate night that recalled to the heart of  every man the memory of other summer nights, when he lingered outside the door of a tavern or stood at the entrance to a smithy or took his leave in darkness after a picnic and an extended excursion in the woods, scenes like illustrations from the same calendar, because all men retained similar memories of their land and their condition. (pgs. 95-96)

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Sunday Caught My Interest

A little snow, a little black ice, some sunshine, some rain, some more black ice – it is winter in the Hinterland and I have been on a reading streak this week helped by Himself who has been doing the dishes (something he would rather not do).  Watched Winter’s Bone yesterday with a friend and was blown away – cried for almost the whole movie but at least I was sitting on my friend’s couch with a full box of Kleenex instead of being in a movie theater.

So I sit down to blog hop after a wonderful Sunday morning conversation with my mom and the first book I lay my eyes on is from Diane aka Bibliophile By the Sea called How to Read the Air. This novel by Ethiopian author  Dinaw Mengestu reflects the travels of a young Ethiopian- American exploring his parents journey from Africa to America while fleeing his own failed marriage. His parents had a very problematic relationship which would fill the air around the family. First of all I love the title. My mom and I were talking about how young children pick up the atmosphere in a troubled home. I had a friend in high school who could not eat eggs. Her parents would put her to bed, fight all night, and then her mom would cook her breakfast in the morning with the tension flooding the house like a bad hangover. And this week I finished Cutting for Stone which is also about Ethiopia. So this book is going on the list.

Jen of Devourer of Books had a great reading week and she reviews two books that seem to be high on the reading blogasphere’s radar screen: You Know When The Men are Gone, a short story collection by Siobhan Fallon and Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton. Under the Mercy Trees is a debut novel set in a small mountain town of North Carolina. Middle aged, gay Martin returns home after his brother disappears. Over the course of the book, we learn the family’s history, its secrets and reflect on the effect of the past on the present. It sounds like a great book group read.  Fallon’s collection is a series of eight stories set in Fort Hood Texas and concerns the effect of being in the army and being deployed has on families. Jen’s review raves about the book and reading the quote she includes I can see why and here it is to whet your appetite:

You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.

S. Krishna also had a busy week: Here is her review of The Weird Sisters which I mentioned last week. I haven’t read a bad review yet of this book – I just need the ten people in the hold line ahead of me to read it fast. Here she reviews Trust by Kate Veitch, a novel about a woman beginning to question her role in her own life and what happens when your foundations, built on trust, begin to crumble. Swapna calls it “an amazing character study and it sounds like it might be a great book to discuss. The last book on her blog that caught my eye is Fasting Feasting by Anita Desai. Swapna is an expert on South Asian Literature and hosts the South Asian Literature Database (which may be found through her blog) so I respect her opinion in this area. Fasting, Feasting is about a family with a girl and a boy – the girl must sacrifice all for the boy. Swapna describes the novel as contemplative and character driven.

Matthew from A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook was discussing Great House and mentioned a book I have not heard of, a book he regards more highly than Great House so I popped over to his review of Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden. Matt writes, “Molly Fox’s Birthday is a meditation on friendship and fluidity of self, because we are at each moment of our lives the persons we were and shall become”. My library site describes it as evoking “he experience of a turning point in one woman’s life–a moment when everything before and after is transformed, and life changes directions in a single day.” I love the idea of Roads not Traveled so I have place this book on hold and hopefully it will come in soon.

Roz from A Reader’s Place has collected a nice list of memoirs about mothers. The only one of the list I have read is The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother by James McBride. It was very good and if the others are of the same quality they are definitely worth checking out if you like memoirs.

I generally prefer to read a book before seeing the movie and in a lot of cases, I like the book far better with Revolutionary Road being a prime example. After seeing Winter’s Bone, I do want to read the inspiration Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrel. If you are like me and want to read the book before you see the movie, Buzzsugar has a list of 15 books that will be released soon.

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The Report: A Novel

The tragedy does not remain the story. As with any other public property, it is transformed by use. What you want is a loved one, child, friend, to be found, safe, alive. That’s not possible now. A few days earlier you have accepted an apology from the government, or an explanation of what happened, or a promise that it would never happen again. But none of these things came about, and now you want someone humiliated, forced to resign. You want someone to admit responsibility, someone to hold accountable. Desperate for these things, grief hot in your blood, you stand on a cold curb in front of town hall, chanting with the others who are there everyday, “The light, the light,” because to the crowd, the light is at the heart of the matter, the accident, the disaster, the catastrophe, what ever today’s papers are calling it. The event that ended the lives they had and gave them new ones, they never wanted and never will. All their misery, all their unmitigated despair at what their lives have become, reduced to two words. (p. 73)

On a March evening, London 1943, the air raid warning signal went off and people began moving toward shelter. In Bethnal Green, a poor section of town, the people went to the tube station which had been fashioned into a large shelter featuring a commissary, bunks that could be reserved, first aid stations etc. – a shelter large enough for six thousand men, women, and children. On that evening, something went wrong at the one narrow entrance to the shelter and 173 people lost their lives. Ironically not a single bomb fell in London that night.

The Report: A Novel by Jessica Francis Kane is about that aftermath of that disaster. The people demanded answers so the government commissioned a report of the incident. The inquiry was led by a local magistrate who, in a very short amount of time, held hearings and wrote a report. While the hearings for the report are at the center of the book, this novel also goes into the nature of the crowd, the fine lines between responsibility and blame, and what happens to both individuals and a community in the aftermath of a disaster. How do you recover, how do you make amends? How do you “make sense of a pointless tragedy?” What is the difference, if any, between and an accident and a mistake? These are just some of the questions Kane wrestles with in this slim novel.

Kane also uses the novel to pay tribute to the people of Bethnal Green, poor and struggling under bombardment, death, rationing, economically and psychologically stressed, Kane treats these people with dignity and grace. In an easy to read, captivating manner (although it seems strange to use that word when discussing the deaths of so many people), Kane outlines the scope of the disaster using almost insubstantial details and compelling portraits which adds such a layer of humanity to an epic event, as Laurie, the magistrate, struggles with the writing of the report. Skipping back and forth from 1943 and 1973 where a young filmmaker (with his own ties to the event) interviews Laurie, Kane capably brings the reader into the heart of wartime London while giving the kind of perspective only time and remembrance can bring.

In real life, the Government suppressed the report for several years and the event is fairly unknown. A plaque is in place at the tube station and a group is currently raising funds for a more substantial memorial. On March 3rd, 1943, one hundred and seventy three people died, orphans were left behind, families were torn apart – with Kane’s well crafted words – may they be never forgotten.

As an added bonus, Largehearted Boy has an interview with the author about a playlist that relates in some way the work she has written here.

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Maria hardly registered what was happening during the funeral. She sat numbly in the front pew, holding Baldvin’s hand, barely conscious of her surroundings or the service. The vicar’s address the presence of the mourners and the singing of the little church choir all blurred into a single refrain of grief…She remembered the autumn colours in the cemetery and the frozen puddles on the gravel path leading to the grave, the crackling sound as the thin film of ice broke under the feet of the pall-bearers. She remembered the chilly breeze and making the sign of the cross over her mother’s coffin…Maria’s mind did not return to the lake until all was quiet again and she was left alone with her thoughts, late that night. It did not occur to her until then, when all was over and she was thinking back over that grueling day, that no one from her father’s family had turned up to the funeral. (pgs. 1-2)

Hypothermia is the latest mystery by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason. I read about this book on Kimbo’s Reading Matters Blog. Normally I would try to start at the beginning of a mystery series but after reading Kimbo’s review and seeing my library had just gotten Hypothermia in, I went right out and picked it up.

After reading The Tricking of Freya I have been intrigued by Iceland with its landscape and history. Landscape seems to play such an important role in Icelandic life and it has a subtle presence throughout Hypothermia. Some of the action takes place at Thingvellir National Park and a simple google search will show you just how spectacularly beautiful the setting really is.

Inspector Erlendur, a Reykjavik police detective becomes peripherally involved in the investigation of a suicide. After notifying the husband of the death of his wife, Erlendur meets with wife’s friend who expresses doubt about the suicide. The detective is interested in cases involving a disappeared person,  (He considers suicide a disappearance) so he starts looking into things trying to understand the victim’s state of mind. At the same time he finds himself remembering two cases involving a missing person, two cases he has never been able to let go of. Add the mix the long ago disappearance of his brother when they were boys and a daughter that wants him to confront the long ago failure of his marriage and you have a complicated mixture of threads to follow.

This all must seem like a lot for an author and his fictional detective to juggle but it seems to happen so effortlessly. The book has a subdued, steady pace which reflects the intrinsic nature of Erlendur. He quietly follows his instincts, acting unofficially throughout the book, looking at the various leads until he can make sense of it all. While I was able to guess certain aspects of the plot, I found myself racing through the pages. In fact, I read this book in one sitting because I wanted to see how the juggler made it all work in the end. This is not a book with a lot of action and yet I found it very satisfying. The author has a terse spare writing style where every word counts. The multiple layers add depth and texture to a fairly simple plot. All in all a mystery writer to consider adding to your list of favorites.

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