Archive for March, 2011

“Look here, look at these hills,” Khan indicated the boulder fields that marched up from the dirt streets of Baharak like irregularly spaced headstones, arrayed like a vast army of the dead as they climbed toward the deepening sunset. “There has been far too much dying in these hills,” Sadhar Khan said, somberly. “Every rock, every boulder that you see before you is one of my mujahadeen, shahids, martyrs, who sacrificed their lives fighting the Russians and the Taliban. Now we must make their sacrifice worthwhile,” Khan said, turning to face Mortensen. “We must turn these stones into schools.” (Three Cups of Tea, pg. 330)

Monday night I had the honor of listening to Greg Mortensen speak at Gonzaga University. Mortensen is the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones for Schools, both of which outline the work he does with the non-profit charity The Central Asia Institute which builds and supports schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The statistics and facts Mortensen recites in his talk are staggering:

  • 120 million children do not attend school. 78 million of those are female.
  • The dream budget of the Afghan Minister of Education for the 24 universities in Afghanistan would be 240 million dollars which is most likely the lower end of a single mid-sized college in the United States.
  • Educating girls reduces the infant mortality rate, reduces population expositions, and increases the literacy rate of elders as the children teach the adults around them to read.
  • One-third of the boys educated return to their community and two-thirds of the girls return.
  • In the last 3 ½ years, the Taliban has shut down 3000 schools – two thirds to three fourths of those schools educated girls.

One of the most significant things the CAI organization has found out is that education is one of the most important tools for combating terrorism. Women who are educated do not want their children to strap on bombs and commit suicide.

The stories we heard were amazing – communities banding together to educate their children. CIA provides building materials and expertise; the community must provide the land and labor so there is intense buy-in beyond the desire to educate. Mortensen told of people giving to their communities in Central Asia and around the world. His point is to make a difference where you are – to contribute where ever you can in what ever way you can because that is the way we build a different model – a model where people’s needs are met, children are educated and peace is a way of life for everyone.

Mortensen ended by talking of the power of literacy – the power in being able to write your name – if being able to physically see that you have an identity. He spoke of the power of listening to our elders – hearing the wisdom they bring to the world, the stories they tell of survival, of happiness. And he spoke of the power of teaching someone to read – the joy a child has in reading a newspaper to their parent, the excitement of having the means to continue to learn, the exhilaration of being able to give back to your community – a good message for Wednesday or any other day.


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A History of History

And though the calendar appeared to be continuing its slow plod whenever she checked it, Margaret was dogged by a particular sensation. She felt that somehow, somewhere along the way when she had not been paying careful attention (and how could she have been so heedless?). Time had come to an end. Now it was only a matter of a short interval before the world faded out entirely. Sometimes she was even gripped by a strange suspicion, unlikely as it seemed, that every last thing was already gone. All that now met her ears and eyes was a vestigial flare or after impression, like the shape of the sun burnt on the retina.

So in that case, the logical (and yet also illogical) conclusion was this: the more she looked, the less there was left to see. To observe was to eat. She had to ration.

This was difficult, as everything burned terribly brightly. The Berlin street came shining to her, whore for attention that is was, offering up this face, that reference, and it was all a magic lantern show, cheap and profligate. She began to feel, in a hallucinatory kind of way, that brightness and time were competing siblings, tugging resentfully at each other’s realms. Brightness was winning. The brighter the city burned, the more time as a linear ray exhausted its last dregs and died. And conversely, the more time narrowed and dropped off for reasons of its own, the brighter everything became.

It all filled Margaret with dread. She tried to control the terror of the conquering brightness. First with the tours in the morning, in this period of convalescence, the twinkling past was an opiate. But afterward, in the afternoons, the dread returned and she was forced to distract herself. (pg. 9)

In Ida Hattemer-Higgen’s debut novel, a young lady awakes in a forest outside of Berlin. She is dirty, covered in leaves, and has no memory of the past few months. Margaret Taub returns to her Berlin apartment and begins to display some alarming symptoms – “With no one did she mention how the city’s past was dancing before her eyes, not any of her more alarming symptoms, which had to pop up, one after the other.” (pg. 8). Although Margaret feels unsettled, she continues to work at her job leading historical walking tours of the city concentrating on the Nazi era.

Two years later, Margaret receives a letter telling her she has an appointment with a gynecologist who seems to know her, although the Doctor calls her by a different name – Margaret Taubner. The Doctor says she will help Margaret recover her memories of what happened showing her a short film clip. After the visit, Margaret’s symptoms deepen and expand. For example, the cities buildings have all turned into flesh and she sees a menacing bird woman following her. Margaret becomes fascinated with Magda Gobbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister, trying to understand Maida’s actions during the closing days of the war. Margaret descends further into madness, abandons her research into trying to understand Magda and becomes obsessed with a Jewish couple who were faced with deportation as well as an old man who was a guard at Hitler’s bunker. In Margaret’s journey to recover her memory we learn about her parents and her sexual relationship with an old friend of her father’s.  All of this is punctuated with Margaret’s surreal thoughts and the images she sees on her quest for answers.

This is a book about searching – searching history, searching for reasons, for meaning, for truth, for memory, for innocence, a search that takes place on an individual level and yet reflects onto the bigger picture of Germany and the aftermath of WWII.  How do you deal with the memories of bad experiences? Is it better to not reflect and to only look forward? What is the value in looking back?

I was wrong to remember. To remember is wrong. Memories – true or not, enactments of any kind, attempts at experience inside the head, play acting with neurons hidden behind the bones of the skull, are he enemy of life. (pg. 183)

I found this book difficult to read which, I think, was due to the madness eddying around Margaret. I had a period in my life where I suffered from a deep depression so this hit a little close to home. I tried everything while reading to keep some sort of foundation under me – time outlines, extensive notes because I couldn’t let myself let myself go and just flow with Margaret’s thought process and experiences.

Even though the novel was written in English, there were times I felt I was reading a work that had been translated. The author speaks several languages and it may have been her intent in order to add to the “stranger in a strange land” feeling. The book is full of images, symbols, stories that my reading seemed over burdened. I found some of the metaphors convoluted that I got lost. Other times there were so many images swirling around it became hard to understand what the author was trying to emphasize. Again, that may have been Hattemer-Higgins intent in order to mimic the surreal disarray that surrounds someone in such an unsettled mental state; even so, I found it very disquieting.

Would I recommend this book – yes, cautiously. While I did have a difficult time reading it, it is a book that has grown on me after I finished it. The things that bothered me while I was reading seem to be an intrinsic part of the atmosphere the author wish to create, however the atmosphere remained unsettling. I think the author has something to say and, for the most part, she says it well. You just need to know the ride may be a little bumpy.

What is amazing is that going over my notes I came across two quotes that summed up my reading experience:

Margaret tried to calm herself. It was the burden of secrets that was making her crazy, she thought. To have all the pictures playing in her head, but trying to follow one single string of speech – it would drive anyone mad. (pg. 112)

Theoretically at least, she would have liked to give a realistic picture and leave it at that. But there was a problem: there was no realistic picture to return to. No one knew how it really had been. No one could ever know. Even the survivors who had lived to tell the tale did not entirely know how it had been; the experience was too large for that. There are magnitudes of suffering that cannot be held in the mind. So there was a camp, and there was a “tour”, and one was bigger than the other and would always be bigger. (Margaret’s thoughts while giving a concentration camp tour – pg. 107)

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Although we have crocus coming up in the yard, it seems like a typical hinterland spring – slow in coming with intermittent damp and cold. Youngest went on a road trip with his friends to a concert last night. Luckily they all stayed awake and talked on the way home so he wasn’t driving late at night with no one to keep him awake. Eldest is moving from dreaming of climbing to actually climbing as Bellingham starts to dry out and Himself is gearing up for another trimester of teaching. As for me – reading was mixed this week. One book was a struggle and not worth it, another was a struggle and worth it but that is the way it goes. Looking forward to reading Strange Room this week and Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead courtesy of  Gavin from Page 247. Thank you so much for the book!

Lots of books caught my interest this week including the first two which touch upon areas that are very much in the news today:

John of Bookfox reminds us of the Huraki Murakami’s short story collection After The Quake, a story collection he wrote after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Murakami explores the aftermath of the earthquake and the effect of such a global incident on an individual’s life – all the while treating his characters with respect and dignity. The New Yorker reprinted Murakami’s story in their March 28th issue if you want a small taste of his work.

Dovegrey Reader and Tom of a Common Reader review Hisham Matar’s new book The Anatomy of a Disappearance. Matar is a Libyan (who currently lives in London) and when he was a child, his father, a political dissident disappeared. One review called this book “flawless” and dovegrey says, “I feel I have read something incredibly worthwhile.” The first line alone makes me want to read it, “There were times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.” Unfortuantely this book will not be available in the United States until late in August 2011. However, we can read his debut novel which was short-listed for the 2006 Booker Prize, In The Country of Men. This novel looks at Libyan strongman Khadafy’s 1969 September revolution and its effect on families and, particularly, their children. Narrated by a now adult Suleiman, he reflects back at the events which took place when he was nine.

Kimbofo of Reading Matters reviews Australian writer Tim Winton and his novel, The Riders, short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1995. The novel takes place in the 1980’s before cell phones, internet, and the instant communications we are used to. Scully is in Ireland preparing a dilapidated cottage for his wife and child. When he goes to the airport to pick them up, Billie, his daughter is alone and unable to tell him what happened to her mother. Scully becomes obsessed with finding answers as he and Billie go on a great hunt throughout Europe trying to find his wife. I read the first few pages on Amazon and was hooked. My library has a good collection of Winton, unfortunately not this one so it has to go on my inter-library loan list which is getting quite long.

I loved The Glass House by Simon Mawer (short-listed for the 209 Booker Prize and should be winner in some opinions), so when Kevin from Canada writes in his review of Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, that, like the Glass House, this novel is about a summer house on a piece of property outside Berlin and what happens to that house over the century, I was immediately hooked.  It also appears that Visitation is on many of the long-list for prizes for translated fiction. Kevin goes on to write:

The strength of Visitation is the way that Erpenbeck continually builds a tension between the slowly evolving (the lake and cottage) and the momentous, life-threatening changes in the human world surrounding them — both have their impact on the characters of the story. The introspective way that the characters of the novel experience those two aspects of change, rather than the drama and upheaval that produce them, is the beauty of the novel.

The Boston Bibliophile has a series of posts on the Europa Editions Publishing House (see March 21st through March 24th) – I have read one of their books – The Elegance of the Hedgehog – and I was intrigued by a book briefly mentioned so I went and looked it up. The Companion by Lorcan Roche is about a Irish film school dropout floundering in NYC when he answers an ad to be the companion of Ed who has Muscular Dystrophy and is in a wheel chair. From the Book List review, “The struggle to connect past with present, and the parallels of loneliness and regret in the lives of the Irishman and his young employer are some of the more compelling components of this masterfully written exploration of growing up and moving on.” Our library doesn’t have a copy so I will watch the book stores for this one.

Himself and I are going to get an e-reader and Youngest thinks that means we have sold our souls. (He is the only 18 year old I know who doesn’t have a facebook account and doesn’t want one). We gave this careful thought but the ease of an e-reader for travel, bus reading, and in-bed reading has won us over.  In the midst of all this discussion and research about e-readers, Stefanie of So Many Books reviews The late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee. The discussion Stephanie includes in her review is very interesting and it is different that what I normally see out in the world because these are authors writing about what is ultimately their livelihood. Books have come a long way since pen and paper and I think we will adapt to this new version of a “book”; however it certainly will be an interesting ride.

The second book this week to go on my ILL list is Fatelessness by Imre Keertesz, a Hungarian writer and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for “for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history”. I found this book by reading The Second Pass, whose blogger had just received a copy of Fiasco, a companion work to Fatelessness – so I decided to start with what seemed to be the beginning. Fatelessness is a semi-autobiographical story of a young boy interned in a concentration camp. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “superb, haunting novel”. While the subject matter is grim, I love reading books about the human spirit overcoming circumstances.

Happy Reading.

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Was that where it all started? Before Jake was even born, with the loss of the other babies? So that when Jake finally arrived, the outcome of all that pain and fear and grief, he would be so precious to his mother that she could hardly bear it? She carried him around with her all day, holding him tightly, fending off death with the crook of her arm. She loved the new baby – oh, Arthur knew that! – but her love seemed to consist of agonized anxiety. Arthur would see her looking at Jake with an expression of almost despair, as if she expected him to vanish at any moment, torn from her arms by some dark force. (pg. 27)

The day Jake took his first step, Arthur was formally recruited to battle against the forces of fate. From now on, and Arthur knew this was a long-term assignment, his first and foremost job in life was to protect his little brother. In fact, he didn’t even need recruiting. He already knew that his mother’s happiness depended on Jake’s well-being. Adoring her and needing her as Arthur did, what choice did he have? (pg. 28)

The Other Side of the Bridge is Mary Lawson’s second novel. Like her first, Crow Lake, it is set in a rural farming community in northern Ontario and once more, Lawson is able to evoke the beauty of the land and the heart of the people who live there.  When I read Crow Lake, I wondered if she was going to write a novel about sibling rivalry and she delivers in The Other Side of the Bridge writing about the complexity of relationships and the consequences of actions.

Spanning several decades, the novel outlines the relationship between two brothers: Arthur, older by several years, is a person of few words and a deep love for the work his farmer father does; Jake, the younger, is talkative, charming, and manipulative. Jake has the doting love of a mother who can see nothing negative in her youngest son’s character and he seeks the approval of his father who has little in common with him. Arthur knows he comes in second with his mother and is very close to his father.

Another prominent character in the novel is Ian, a young teen and the son of the community’s doctor. Ian’s mother cannot stand living so remotely and leaves the family behind when Ian is young teenager, a betrayal that Ian feels deeply. Shortly after that Ian begins to work on Arthur’s farm, at first drawn there by his infatuation with Arthur’s wife and then appreciating the work he and Arthur do on the farm.

It was a relief when Saturday came. There was a simplicity about his work on the farm that seemed to be the perfect antidote to everything else. He envied Arthur the smooth pattern of his days. Sure he had worries, but in many ways there just couldn’t be a more perfect life than plodding up and down a field all day, under a pure uncomplicated sky. (pg. 137)

Arthur is a silent man, unable to find the words to express himself and yet Lawson clearly shows his character, his quality as a person. He quietly does his best for his family, his farm, and his community. I found it amazing how Lawson was able to give the reader such a good sense of a man of so few words. She also does an excellent job of depicting Ian as a young man trying to reconcile himself to his abandonment and also to find his place in the world.

Expectations play a large role in this novel – the expectations parents have for children, and children have for parents. Not fulfilling those expectations or taking action in a way that betrays them leads to the consequences which impact the characters and leads them to wonder, how you live from that point on. Both Arthur and Ian are is such a predicament at different points of the novel and ultimately grow from their experiences. I liked how Lawson took such overt acts and then subtly showed the impact. She shows that once something is done you cannot go and undo it, but you can grow and be the best person you can be.

In the end this is a quiet, subtle novel rich in the beauty of the landscape of both rural northern Ontario and the interior of her characters.  Exploring how young men learn how to be, finding a place that fits them is one of the strong points in The Other Side of the Bridge. Add Lawson’s beautiful writing and you have a moving reading experience. I hope that she is working on another novel as I have really enjoyed her first two.

I will end with a quote, which for me, sums up the book. Here Ian and his best friend Pete are on a hillside above the lake, just being:

The sun on the surface of the water was so bright that he had to shield his eyes to look at it. In the distance the shoreline looked like lace, hundreds of bays and rivers and inlets running off from the vast pool of the lake itself and disappearing into the wilderness…They sat in silence, or almost silence, if you listened closely you could just hear a faint thumping from thousands of wings. Beyond the dragonflies the sun was sinking slowly, casting its rays across the lake and on either side, everything, as far as the eye could see, was slowly dissolving into the haze. (pg. 186 & pg. 189).

Throughout her novel, Lawson is telling the reader to listen to the silence and what you hear will astound you.

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The park smelled of grease and melon, a picnic air. Free of his mother’s grasp, he was drawn to a stream where a pale red fish whipped itself in circles around a beer bottle. He was drawn to a tangle of barbed wire. He found a yo-yo without its string. He found an unopened can of RC Cola. The place was full of traps, bitty snares, harmless and perfect mysteries, a pile of athletic socks here, a trumpet case there, more and more yellow flowers the deeper in you went, orange newts. But it wasn’t nature that interested him, it was how ruined nature was, how full of metal and glass, and plastic, and he understood that, in some essential way nature really was best when it was spoiled, you could know it better like this, could see it for what it was, though you weren’t allowed to say so or you were a litterer and unlawful. He didn’t want to litter; he just enjoyed the effect. When did he realize he had lost sight of his mother? It dawned on him slowly. He let himself pretend it wasn’t true. He turned in a few circles. He called for her. He retraced his steps, then surged forward on the path. But she was nowhere. (pg. 57)

Sarah Braunstein, in her highly anticipated debut novel The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, is concerned about “the essential way” that childhood can be spoiled. And in this convoluted narrative she outlines the many ways children can be missing: abducted, orphaned, abused, ignored, abandoned. etc. Using multiple storylines, a laundry list of characters, and switching back and forth in time, Braunstein speaks of the desire to reinvent, to disappear, of feeling trapped by age and/or circumstances. At one point, Paul reads of an African tribal custom of renaming young men and he desperately wants a new name. On the following page the author writes of Paul:

Most of the time he felt trapped by his childhood. It was like watching TV, a decent show, and then a commercial comes on and last too long, an advertisement for oldies but goodies, song titles scrolling endlessly across the screen, when all he wanted was to discover the fate of the bank robber or the bound-and-gagged girl. He hated commercials but loved television. The girl always got untied, she was always okay, and if she wasn’t it was because she was the wrong kind of girl to begin with. (pg. 19)

The novel is in six parts, with each part beginning with the story of Leonora, a young girl abducted in New York City on her way home after school. We also follow Paul, the neglected child of a single mother desperate for love and someone to help raise her son. There are other stories that interweave with these two stories and different characters (a runaway teen, an orphaned boy being raised by his aunt and uncle, a single father who likes to peek in windows) moving in and out of the narrative. Some characters are followed all the way through, others make a brief appearance. The time switches are not clearly delineated which added to the difficulty I had in keeping things all straight.

Aside from crossed paths and, in some cases, longer interactions between characters, the stories are tied together with themes – the unpleasantness children can experience on many different levels:

What had happened in this house? Just the same mundane horror that happened everywhere. It was an ordinary house. But of course there was no house that wasn’t its own chamber of horrors, that didn’t somewhere, have a hidden door, a hidden mouth. (pg. 267)

Granted, that is a character’s point of view but that also seemed to be the only point of view.  While some of the writing was good, I found it to be uneven. And in the end, the author made some choices that, for me, did not add anything at all to the novel.  At one point a character talks about his “crime not of passion but of passivity, of indifference, of failing to see people.” (pg. 337). Braunsten is talking of our failure to see children, to recognize their needs, to even recognize our own. Unfortunately she didn’t show me anything different and I found myself mired in a gloomy, convoluted reading experience that I did not enjoy. With that said, I would be willing to look at something else this author writes – I think she has potential.

Other readers have had a different experience – so for a more positive viewpoint of the novel,  please click on any of the links below:








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Book group is at my house tonight and we are discussing Hiroshima in the Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, a memoir that, in simple terms, describes the time she spent in Japan in 2001 interviewing the Hibakusha (the survivors of the nuclear bomb). Beautifully written, the book goes far beyond simple exploring identity, definitions, exceptions, and how we tell our story. What turned out to be a six month research trip became a life changing experience for the author. I am still trying to figure out my feelings regarding the book and I hope the discussion tonight gives me some insight.

I came to Japan to ask questions, but the linger I stay, the more inappropriate that feels. It’s not that my friends don’t want to answer, it’s more that it’s never occurred to them to break an idea or an object down. When I try to analyze, it brings the moment to a halt and I am left with nothing, no explanation, and no experience either. It is a bizarre world where questions obscure the answers, where they stymie forward motion rather than opening up a path but that’s the world where I’ve found myself. An “ichigo ichi e” world, as one of Ami’s friends thrid to explain to me. One time, one change. Or, it is what it is and might be important. I must accept the moment I’m living in, embrace it entirely. Then let it go so there’s room for the next moment. Living in this way, the meaning of everything will become clear.

Or it won’t. (pg. 119)

With his first words, I realize he has let go of the anger he was famous for, And now in his outpouring, there is no space between him and his story. No wall to protect him from his anguish, only terrible healing. How we tell our stories makes all the difference. They are where we store our tears, where the eventual healing lies. If “we” are talking, then we are safe in our group perspectives; we do not have to own our experience alone, not do we have to feel it. What September 11th gave the Hibakusha, and what they gave in return to me, is a way to re-enter memory. As scary and painful as it is to claim our pronouns, “we” cannot inhabit our own lives until “I” begins to speak. (pg. 235)

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Yesterday was the first track meet of the season and of course it was snowing in the morning. Fortunately the precipitation stopped, the temperature went up and there was no wind – coupled with a kid that ran well and a team that won- it all made  for a good day. I am reading The History of History by Ida Hattermer-Higgins and struggling, mostly with subject matter as the writing is decent. Himself takes breaks from grading and gardening by reading from his collection of the best Science-Fiction stories of the year. Youngest, to my surprise, is reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. A friend of his read it last year and gave it to him. He says that it is hard reading due to its density and convoluted sentence structure (“meandering” is the word youngest used) but really good. My mom finished Just Kids by Patti Smith the other night and called to rave about it so I will have to read it the next time I am at her house. And I am sure eldest is reading something – probably fantasy or science fiction of some sort as he always has at least one book going.

And because we always need more books to add to our “To Read” lists, here is what caught my interest this week:

I am always on the lookout for  travel books because it a great genre to leave lying around for youngest to pick up and read and Swapna Krishna reviews Radio Shangri La: What I learned in Bhutan the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli who went to the Kingdom to set up a radio station. Bhutan is torn between maintaining its culture and the stress of modernization and visitors. Swapna says that Napoli really explores this “quandary” well.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb has long been hovering on my radar and it was finally published March 17th. Set in present day Hanoi, the novel explores the aftermath of war as a young Vietnamese-American travels to the country to find out about her dissident father who stayed behind when the woman and her mother fled. Athira of Reading on a Rainy Day recommends the novel but does caution that it is a slow starter.

Many of my ancestors traveled across the United States to settle in the west and I have always been in awe of their accomplishments. I have always said that I would be willing to under go a similar type of journey if there was an extension cord long enough for my electric blanket and I didn’t have to eat beans. I don’t think I would hack it as a pioneer woman. Rachel of Book Snob writes of a book I have never heard of but would love to read: Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel published in 2004. Schlissel focuses on the journey these women went on to become pioneers using information gleaned from the writings of 103 women. She quotes extensively from her sources so the reader gets a true sense of the difficulties and the hardship of such a trek. The book also shows the bravery and resilience of women, many of whom did not want to leave their homes, but who made do with what they had – something women still do today.

One reason I love book blogs is because I get to hear about books that have never crossed my path before. The other reason is because many book blogers write so well and dovegreyreader from England is one of the best. In several posts dovegreyreader explores New Zealand author Janet Frame (here, here, and here) reviewing Moma Minim and the Smell of the Sun, Frame’s children’s book that Dove states is deserving of a wider audience. I love what dove writes:

It’s a book about discovery and bravery in adversity, about fear and courage, about making your face fit where it may not usually do so, about the expectations of others, about being uncomfortable in new surroundings, about pretending to be something you are not and then about being true to yourself, about the constant search for something unknowable, dreaming and imagining, about close shaves, challenges, disappointments and happy moments, staying and leaving, celebrations and family, love, loyalty and friendship…It’s also a book about home… and home is something I have been thinking about a great deal this week too in the context of Japan, the destruction of all those homes and a tragedy that sometimes feels overwhelming and leaves me feeling a little helpless…

Frame has been compared to Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Jean Rhys and seems to have had a difficult but fascinating life. Frame suffered from what seems to be undiagnosed depression and at one time was thought to have schizophrenia. In fact she was due to have a lobotomy which was stopped after her first book won a major prize. After reading about her I want to read Owls Do Cry (her first novel) as well as her last one, Towards Another Summer but I think I am going to start with her autobiography – Janet Frame: An Autobiography and I have ordered it from the library.

From NPR comes a review of a memoir: An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorjan. When Adorjan was twenty, her grandparents, survivors of the concentration camps, committed suicide together. The author, in looking back at this act, explores identity – both national and religious, insecurity, and love. NPR includes an excerpt and after reading it, I will be keeping an eye out for this book.

Happy Reading!

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Book Bites February

Paris Noir: Edited by Aurelien Masson

I am becoming addicted to the Noir mystery stories from Akashic Books. The first one I read was Istanbul Noir and I currently have Boston Noir by my bed. Each story is set in a different part of the city so you really get a sense of the city. In the case of Paris Noir, it is a Paris beyond the museums and tourists centers. In the Istanbul book, I got a good sense of the history of the city and the effect of geography, ethnicity, and religion on its inhabitants. In the Paris book, it was different – I got a taste of the clash between the old city and the current trend of yuppiefication. There were stories of immigrants and there was an undercurrent of WWII but the main theme was economic displacement. Not every story was great but the book as a whole made good bedtime reading.

The Pale Criminal by Phillip Kerr

The Pale Criminal is the second of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. Gunther is a private detective working in Berlin in the Nazi era. If you like hard boiled detective novels ala Raymond Chandler, then Kerr’s series might be for you. I like the unique aspect of the time and place the mysteries are set – it adds a twist. So you have bodies, police, guns, babes and the Nazi Party hierarchy all in the same book.  I’m not sure if I will try to read the series in order and might skip ahead to the one set after the war in Bolivia and Germany but it was a good way to while away an afternoon. I gave the first three books to my dad for his birthday and he was steadily reading through them. His only complaint so far is the author does not know very much about guns as he found many of Kerr’s descriptions of weapons to be inaccurate.

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Words For Wednesday

Earlier this month I reviewed Mary Lawson’s first book, Crow Lake. I also read her second novel The Other Side of the Bridge. This book also takes place in northern Ontario in a remote farming community and once again celebrates both the people and the landscape of the area. Lawson writes about the rivalry between two brothers and its influence on those around them. But the star of this novel is a silent man, Arthur, simple in his tastes and needs, a man who only wants to farm the land his father and grandfather farmed, and it is interesting to see how Lawson is able to show the quality of a character who says very little. Here is a small taste.

All of them were younger than Arthur. They would nod at him when he came in to take his seat; he was a fixture, like one of the desks. The teacher would start talking and Arthur’s brain would shut down automatically – there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. He would stare out the windows at the road and at the fields behind it, and the dark, silent trees behind the fields, and his brain would just sit there like a lump of cold pudding. Once, in the middle of a history lesson – it was Canadian history, which turned out incredibly, considering how little of it there was, to be more boring that the history of any other country on earth – a timber wolf slid out of the shadows, head low, body crouched, yellow eyes fixed on the school. No one else noticed it. The teacher’s voice droned on. Arthur watched the wolf. The silver-gray of its coat against the silver-gray of the birches behind it. The stillness, as if time itself had paused for a moment. The pale watchful eyes. You could see how it belonged where it was, how much it was meant to be in that landscape. You could imagine that it and the shadowed trees behind it were waiting for humans to move on, or do out, so they could reclaim the land. “Watch out for traplines,” Arthur thought, though his father wouldn’t be please to see it so close to the farms. As if it heard him, the wolf turned and melted back into the woods. (pg. 65)

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The Weird Sisters

The words that might come to mind to describe our father’s work are insufficient to convey to you what it is like to live with someone with such a singular preoccupation. Enthusiast, expert, obsessed – these words all thud hallow when faced with the sandstorm of Shakespeare in which we were raised. Sonnets were our nursery rhymes. The three of us were given advice and instruction in couplets; we were more likely to refer to a hated playmate as a “fat-kidneyed rascal” than a jerk…The first letter was from Rose: precise pen on thick vellum. From Romeo and Juliet, Cordy knew it at once. We met, we woo’d and make exchange of vow, I’ll tell thee as we pass; but this I pray, That thou consent to marry us to-day.

And now you will understand this was our oldest sister’s way of telling use that she was getting married.

The second was from our father. He communicates almost exclusively through pages copied from The Riverside Shakespeare. The pages are so heavily annotated with decades of thoughts, of interpretations, that we could barely make out the lines of text he highlights. But it matters not; we have nee nursed and nurtured on the plays, and the slightest reminder brings the language back.

Come, let us go; and pray to all the gods/for our beloved mother in her pains. And this is how Cordy knew our mother had cancer. This is how she knew we had to come home. (pgs. 2-3)

Eleanor Brown, in her debut novel The Weird Sisters, has created a story about three sisters who come home to the small, Midwestern college town to help their mother through her treatment of breast cancer. In addition, each sister has their own reasons for coming home, “We came home because we were failures. We wouldn’t admit that, of course, not at first, not to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone else.” (pg. 1) Each sister is different, Rose the eldest, the caretaker, Bean the middle sister always seeking attention, and Cordy the youngest, of whom little is expected and much forgiven.

Rose was always first, Bean never first, Cordy always last. And if we don’t accept it, don’t see, like Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters did, that we cannot fight our family and cannot fight our fates, well, whose failing is that but our own? Our destiny is in the way we were born, in the way we were raised, in the sum of the three of us. (pg. 25)

The sisters’ father is preoccupied by Shakespeare – naming the daughters after specific characters and communicating in quotes. Their mother comes across as a little vague, not stupid but someone with “her mind was so often far from us.” (pg. 179) However, it is evident that the parents love their girls and want the best for them. The sisters are dealing more with their own demons and with the pressure of birth order than with parent/child issues.

My main issue with this novel is the formulaic nature of it. We do have the girl(s) who need to find themselves coupled with a life-threatening situation all married to a “going home” theme, so in some respects The Weird Sisters is like many other “chick lit” books out there. However, this one does have some novel features: the Shakespeare element and the voice – first person plural. The voice didn’t bother me – it brought me back to the original Macbeth as I believe his Weird Sisters also spoke in a plural voice. I also liked the Shakespeare quotes. I thought they flowed with the story and added that unique touch to the story. I don’t think you need to know Shakespeare in order to enjoy the book. Brown also does a really good job examining the dynamics of three sisters. Some readers may find the sisters’ personalities a little like a cliché but I enjoyed the well-defined personalities of each sister and the interplay between them.  Another interesting aspect of the novel was the love of reading that this family shows. They are always reading and carry a book with them wherever they go just in case it is needed.

All in all, this was a fun read. It was a lot lighter in tone then I expected but the author kept my interest and I wanted to see how the girls found themselves and sorted out their lives. The plot and resolution may be a little pat but every once in a while I find a need a read like this and The Weird Sister satisfied that need.

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