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Archive for April, 2011

Oregon reminded us of France, where ingredients are stars. In New York’s kitchens, I saw you could get anything at any time. I also noticed that not much came from close by. While Kimberly and I didn’t necessarily want ours to be a French restaurant, we knew we wanted to sustain what we learned in France about being closer to the sources of food. In Portland, we see not only where the food comes from, but who grows it. Here our food is shaped by connections with people and the ingredients they bring to the restaurant door – mushrooms, potatoes, truffles, chestnuts. A signature reference on our menu to “George’s Gathered Greens” (page 60) doesn’t refer to the chef, but to the farmer, George Weppler. (pg. 2)

I read a lot of cookbooks but seldom include them in my reading statistics nor have I ever reviewed one – but The Paley’s Place Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Pacific Northwest is different. Vitaly Paley is a Russian-born and French trained chef. His wife Kimberly manages their Portland Oregon restaurant and also runs their wine program. My dad has eaten at Paley’s and was so impressed he returned the next night to eat again and purchase their cookbook.

This is much more than a cookbook – interspersed throughout are essays on the providers of the food, the inspiration and genesis of a dish, even Paley’s reflections on the simple french fry. I found these essays to be delightful and they served the purpose of engaging me in the recipes or the food which seems to be Paley’s motivation. He wants diners to know what they are eating, were it came from, how it came to be.

I’m driving  west from Portland toward Vernonia with Lars, whom I refer to as The Mushroom Guy. He is a broker who forages and sells mushrooms and truffles directly to our restaurant. Lars has been foraging for mushrooms in Oregon fo twenty-five years. His expertise is deep and his opinions are strong and in a day of hunting mushrooms with him, I will get lessons in practical geology, forestry, political economy, ecology, history, and mushroom culturing, along with a precious small harvest of morels. (pg. 72)

Paley also encourages you to experiment – to use the recipes as a starting off point, “…trust your senses to help you take a dish to its logical conclusion rather than blindly following the recipe.” (pg. 2). The directions seem clear and easy to follow, and while not every recipe has a photo to go with it, the majority do which I appreciate. I like to see where I am going.  The recipes do range from the simple to the complex, leaning more toward complex but he seems to explain techniques well so when reading a hard recipe I wasn’t too intimidated. In addition, he includes some step-by step photos such how an Aioli looks at three different states or how to make a Chicken Rolade wrapped in caulfat.

Like many restaurant cookbooks, there is a wide gamut of recipes (appetizers to desserts) including a section entitled “Bar and Pantry” which has a recipe for homemade ketchup I am dying to try. There are far too many recipes I want so I think this one will go on the Christmas list. I did copy one recipe – a Summer Green Bean and Grilled Peach Salad (pg. 62). I love the combination and the simplicity of this dish and plan on making it for the potlucks we have with our summer concerts in the park.

I will close with a quote from the end of Chef Paley’s introduction as it sums up what I think about food lately, the quest for consistency, adapting recipes, and the search for the exciting. He also feels about food the way I feel about food – it should be both a joy to make and a joy to eat.

For me cooking is about both soulful searching and rigorous technique. It is influenced by mood and memories, yet it also requires constant repetition and a tireless quest for both perfection and consistency alongside a readiness to adjust on the fly. Cooking is an art whose disciplined performance must retain what I like to call a fresh drop of blood – the ability to be new and exciting and to be inspired every time you do it. May this book inspire you to cook with care and add to your joy in making food. (pg. 3)

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One of the things I wanted to do at my mom’s was read Ransom by Australian writer David Malouf. Ransom is Malouf’s retelling of a section of the Illiad – the killing and desecration of Hector by Achilles and Priam’s attempt to ransom his son’s body.  I was already to start the book the other day when my dad grabbed it up but fortunately for me, he finished it (and really enjoyed it). I have only read a few pages and I can’t wait to share the opening paragraphs with you.

The sea has many voices. The voice this man is listening for is the voice of his mother. He lifts his head, turns his face to the chill air that moves in across the gulf, and tastes its sharp salt on his lip. The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous silver-blue – membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once, for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted. He hunkers down now on the shelving pebbles at its edge, bunches his cloak between his thighs. Chin down, shoulders hunched, attentive.

The gulf can be wild at times, its voices so loud in a man’s head that it is like standing still in the midst of battle. But today in the dawn light it is pondlike. Small waves slither to his sandalled feet, then sluice away with a rattling sound as the smooth stones loosen and go rolling.

The man is a fighter, but when he is not fighting he is a farmer, earth is his element. One day, he knows, he will go back to it. All the grains that were miraculously called together at his birth to make just these hands, these feet, this corded forearm, will separate and go their own ways again. He is a child of the earth. But the whole of his life he has been drawn, in his other nature, to his mother’s element. To what, in all its many forms, as ocean, pool, stream, is shifting and insubstantial. To what accepts, in a moment of stillness, the reflection of a face, a tree in leaf, but holds nothing, and itself cannot be held. (pgs. 3-4)

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Visitation

Someone who builds something is affixing his life to the earth. Embodying the act of staying put is his profession. Creating an interior. Digging deeper and deeper in a place where there is nothing. From outside, the colored glass in the living room windows he’s now walking past looks dull and impenetrable, the light doesn’t take on life until you’re sitting behind the glass, only then does it become visible as light – when it is being used. Durer too peered through colored pane of this sort, seeing only the light of the world and not the world itself, he sat indoors creating his own world. If Durer’s wife wanted to know who was strolling about inthe Nuremberg marketplace, she had to open a little flap to look down at the square. The thicker the walls and the smaller the windows, the less warmth was lost by the inhabitants of a house. Fieldstone, straw, plaster: all local materials. In the crotch marking the transition from the gabled to the side-gabled area of the roof was a small shed dormer. The house was to look as if it had just grown here like a living thing. He’d helped brick the chimney himself. He’d always gotten along well with workers and farmers. But not with this state in which one official never knew what the other was doing. (pg. 28)

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Germany into a literary family. Her father was physicist, philosopher and writer, her mother an Arabic translator and her grandparents were writers. Growing up she would visit her grandparent’s country home – that home served as a starting point for her short novel Visitation (translated by Susan Bernovsky). I became interested in this novel when I saw it reviewed on various blogs and then I saw it was short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It has been compared to Simon Mawer’s The Glass House and there are some points of commonality to the two novels.

Both Visitation and The Glass House have a strong sense of place and the swirl of current events are also present in each. However, The Glass House is a more narrative work with a well defined plot. The scope of the novel is larger with its characters traveling far beyond the bounds of the house. Visitation is a much more interior or introspective novel. In many ways it reminded me of Tinkers, but Visitation is even more focused on the thought process of characters than Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

Visitation is framed by a brief prologue describing the geological history of the lake in the Brandenburg area of Germany. It ends with an even briefer, yet similar portrait. The first chapter is a fable-like description of the owner of the land in the early 19th century. When his daughter goes mad and drowns herself, the farmer decides to divide the land into three parcels and sell them. From this point, Erpenbeck uses the thoughts of a handful of characters to explore changes in power and its impact on individuals. We see the various people associated with the house, owners, sub-tenants, family members as they come and go.

This is not a book with a defined plot and linear movement. Instead, Erpenbeck only names a small number of her characters – strikingly the named characters are the Jewish family. Instead the characters are known by their occupations (the Architect) or their status vis-a-vis the house (the Sub Tenants). Most of the action takes place through the reflection of the character’s thoughts – it is a very introspective novel in that respect. The bulk of the novel takes place in or around the cottage again with a few exceptions.

Only 150 pages, yet Visitation packs quite a punch. It reminded me of listening to a powerful symphony with the opening movement setting the stage; in this case with the foundation of geological history. I remember toward the end reading a passage and feeling like the orchestra had reached a major crescendo – the climax of the music.

Each chapter of the novel is framed with a section about the gardener of the land describing in detail what he does to tame and maintain the garden – one of the reoccurring themes in the symphony Erpenbeck is writing. This is one of the strong points of the novel – as the author goes through looking at life through the eyes of a handful of characters, the reader is always brought back to the land, to home.

The importance of home, the loss of home, the coming and going from home is one of the most dominate themes along with the notion of possession. Scattered throughout are lists of possessions: a key to the house, boxes of valuables, an eiderdown comforter. Sometimes the author includes the worth of the possession as the character thinks about it. What do we carry with us and what can we carry with us? This theme builds throughout the novel, most strongly seen in the section on the Jewish family where a young girl loses everything including her name. This 11 page section of the book includes some of the most poignant writing on the holocaust that I have ever read.

I also enjoyed this passage on possessions and fleeing:

Probably, she thinks , the sentences all get overtaken sooner or later and are spoken by someone or another, somewhere or other, just as everything belongs to everyone among people who are fleeing – factored over the length, the course of both objects and human beings was no doubt no different from the experience of a refugee. In peacetime it was poverty, during the war it was the front that kept pushing people before it like a row of dominoes, people slept in other people’s beds, used other people’s cooking utensils, ate the stores of food that other people had been forced to leave behind. It’s just that the rooms became more crowded the more the bombs fell. Until in the end she arrived here in this garden, and when the gong calls her to supper, she finds it quite plausible to think this was gong was already calling to her back then, when she turned her back on her farm for the last time and set off again with her three grandchildren, carrying an eiderdown and with a patterned kerchief on her head. When you’ve arrived, can you still said to be fleeing? And when you’re fleeing, can you ever arrive?

At some point the gong sounds, calling them all to supper. Then her granddaughter comes back up from sunbathing on the dock, humming quietly to herself just as she had done all her life, even as a little girl. Which means that in the end there are certain things you can take when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music. (pgs. 101-102; 108)

Although I really enjoyed the writing in this book, the reading doesn’t just flow. Erpenbeck’s use of repetition (in my opinion to mimic the repetition of a thought process) can be difficult to follow as is her shifts in time and the nameless characters. She also scatters legal language throughout including a fairly long section towards the end. All this pushed me away from the book as I was reading it, while the language itself was drawing me in. At time I felt like I was one of the characters drawn to the cottage and yet forced to leave. But this is a book that lingers with you. A few days after finishing it I find myself thinking back to certain passages. Reviewing quotes for this review was also worthwhile. Like a great piece of music, Erpenbeck’s writing is echoing in my head long after the last notes died away.

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Happy Easter everyone – yesterday the temperature went over 60 degrees for the first time this year – capping a week that gave us rain, snow, blustery wind and cold temperatures. We had our first track meet with nothing but sunshine, people actually in shorts, and we didn’t have to pack an umbrella or a jacket – Yeah! Youngest still hasn’t made a college decision but hopefully this week he will nail things down. Asking him to decide something in track season (along with AP testing prep) is not easy. It was the week of short books for me reading both Triangle and Last Night at the Lobster and continuing with Visitation and In the Country of Men. With all that was going on last week and feeling a bit under the weather, not much reviewing got done but I hope to make up for it this next week. I am off to Salem for a few days and then may drive up to Seattle for a track meet next weekend before heading home. Ransom is on my reading list while I am at my mom’s. My mother really enjoyed it so I am looking forward to getting my hands on it. Himself is reading In Free Fall at my suggestion and youngest finished 1984 for his Lit class and is still working through Infinite Jest as well as adding Wallace’s Consider the Lobster to his wish list. And I know that eldest is in heaven because Dr. Who has started again.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

I have been hesitant to read Roberto Bolano’s final novel 2666 due to its length (over 900 pages) and I haven’t explored his other work. Francis of Nonsuch Book reviews one of Bolano’s earlier works called Monsieur Pain. At 144 pages, this may be an easier book to start with then 2666. This book seems hard to describe; it is about a mesmerist (the narrator) who is asked to help a man in the hospital. The narrator is then bribed by two mysterious men to not help the man. I like the idea of a mesmerist (my mother has used hypnosis for pain relief) and I like the “noirish” aspects of the novel. Perhaps it is best that I end with Francis’ words about the novel, “It was a joy to read for the playfulness with form and language that I always bring up in connection to Bolano’s work (like a broken record). Poets and assassination and dreamlike existence play out in various forms like the cinematic touches, noir influences, surrealism, political dismissal of the forces shaping the upcoming second world war.”

Aths of Reading on a Rainy Day reviews the just released second novel of Canadian poet Alison Pick called Far To Go. This story takes place in Czechoslovakia in the days prior to WWII and in present day. The Bauer family are secular Jews struggling to  maintain their existence as the antisemitism in their country grows. They have a gentile servant, Marta who is torn between her affection for the family, particularly Pipik, the son and her relationship with an anti-Semitic. Pipik is eventually sent to Scotland on the Kindertransport. This seems to be a book about choices and identity. It also sounds like it might be a good book group book as many reviewers have talked about how hard it was to put down this novel.  Aths, herself, labeled this book a wow saying, “beautiful, poignant and very powerful! ”

Kevin from Canada writes a review about David Bezmozgis’s novel The Free World which outlines the life and travels of Krasnanskys, a family of Jews refugees  imigrating from Latvia in the 1970’s. Bezmozgia, imigrated from Riga at the age of six with his family. He is the author of Natasha and Other Stories and was named one of the New Yorkers “20 under 40” list last summer. The Krasnansky family travels from the Soviet Union to Vienna and then to Italy to await papers. In limbo, they must earn money to survive as well as adjust to their new circumstances. Kevin feels this book is good enough to be on the Giller list as well as the Booker list for this year. Luckily the library has two copies so I will be ordering this one when I get back.

The Boston Bibliophile briefly mentions a book that has caught my interest Alfred and Guinevere, a novel by poet James Schuyler. I have never heard of Schuyler so I went looking and found he was a major American poet of the latter part of the 20th century (he was also Auden’s typist). Alfred and Guinevere was originally published in 1958 and was republished by The New York Review of Books Classics. It tells the story of a brother and sister (ages 7 and 11) who are sent for the summer to their Grandmother’s house in the country for reasons unknown. The children bicker, try to figure out why they are where they are, make and unmake friends, play pranks, and generally behave as a brother and sister would under the circumstance. The story is told h dialogue, letters, and Guinevere’s diary and almost every mention I could find calls the book “charming”. I did find and read Kenneth Koch’s original review in Poetry Magazine (as quoted in the book’s introduction) with Koch stating, “It is not, not at all “poetic prose” – any more than is Jane Austin’s. It is, rather, prose as poetry should be: among other things fresh, surprising, artful, and clear; and with a great deal of its joy and shock arising from language…”

Another brief mention of a book found in Nicole’s (of Linus’s Blanket)  interview with author Alma Katsu led me to  Up from the Blue, a debut novel by Susan Henderson who writes for The Nervous Breakdown, a literary e-zine. Up from the Blue is the story of Tillie who is expecting her first child. When her husband is overseas, Tillie turns to her estranged father for help opening up “the neat closed box that held my past…”. She then finds herself looking back at her childhood as a military brat, to the time when she was eight and her mother disappears. I loved a quote I found from Susan Henderson’s interview with herself, “One level of the novel is about uncovering the mystery of what happened to Tillie’s mother. But another level is a more universal story—capturing that moment in life when your world is turned upside-down. I wanted to really explore the process of grief. I wanted to pit trauma against love, family loyalties against difficult truths to discover which was stronger.” A brief excerpt from the book can be here. This one is definitely going on my list.

In the mood for a novel about a governess, a mansion, a widower – but with a slight twist. The typical storyline serves as the framework for a deeper tale in Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor (the novelist, not the actress) which was originally published in 1946. I read Laura’s review of the novel and I was hooked. Cassandra Dashwood (an evocative name) goes off to the estate to serve as governess for Marion Vanbrugh’s daughter Sophy. Her attempts to do her job and fit in with both servants and family, her relationship with her employer are part of the story but only to serve as a mirror for the deeper plot which centers around Vanbrugh’s cousin Tom – a drunkard who is engaged in an affair with the wife of the owner of the local puband Margaret, Marion’s other cousin as decisive and calm as Tom is not. From what I have read this is a cleverly written novel so I will be looking out for it.

When I was looking up reviews for Palladian I came across this one from Book Group of One. Carol also liked the book and she includes the novel’s first line, “Cassandra, with all her novel-reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions, standing in her bedroom for the last time…” – From what I have read I think this really sets the tone of the book. I also liked what Carol had to say about the role of the manor in the story – it reminded her of the house in Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger. I haven’t seen Carol’s blog before so I switched over to her current page and was pleasantly surprised to see that she is the author of a book that also caught my eye-  Leaving Van Gogh – which was just published last week. Leaving Van Gogh is a look at the last months of Van Gogh’s life as seen through the eyes of his Doctor, Dr. Gachet (who was the subject of a Van Gogh painting). Van Gogh’s brother Theo engages the doctor to look after Vincent and the two men develop a rapport. This meticulously researched novel sounds like an intriguing examination of a great artist and his descent into mental illness. One review called the writing in this novel “beautiful and accessible” and if you need further convincing, other quotes from early readers can be found here.

Enjoy your chocolate (assuming the Easter Bunny visited your house), what sunshine comes your way, and the books you are reading.

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It’s been a busy week in the hinterland – I added a new recipe with shortbread cookies (alternating plain shortbread and chocolate, chocolate chip short bread). Himself is kindly looking at both my gingersnap recipes to see if I can find the perfect one. I finished The Story of Forgetting and can’t wait for the author’s next book. We had a track meet on Thursday (we managed to stay dry but it was cold!) and an all day track meet in the tri-cities yesterday. Himself graded papers on the way down but I was able to start In Free Fall during the long down time of the sprint heats and then finished it on the way home. I was so absorbed that I had no clue of time passing and was surprised at the end to look up and see just how close to home we were. Himself (who minored in physics) was able to discuss some of the questions I had about the physics mentioned in the book during the last thirty minutes of the drive. It reminded me of when we were dating long ago and would drive to Yosemite for the weekend and I realized he could explain the world to me – definitely a keeper. I want him to put aside Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (his current bus book) and read In Free Fall. I think he would enjoy it.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

When I was little we had two Pulis (Hungarian sheepdogs) who were sisters. They each had a distinct personality and reminded me of spinster sisters we occasionally meet in English village novels. Twiggy was a taller, leaner dog, very busy striding around. She obviously was the sister involved with the Girl Guides. Honey was short, plumber and more prone to worry. She was the sister who stayed at home and kept house and worked the church fetes to help raise money. I am fond of novels with two spinster sisters so when I came across Diane’s (Bibliophile By The Sea) review of The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen I knew it would have to go on the list.  Milly and Twiss live in a small Wisconsin town living on the family land and tending to injured birds. They are spinsters and the novel alternates between 1947 when they were teenagers and the present. I really enjoyed reading the author’s thoughts that Diane includes. This sounds like one of those quiet novels that are so good. S Krishna also reviews the book this past week calling it “a character driven novel” and describes how the author vividly paints the town the sisters live in.

Swapna also reviews The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, which has gotten a lot of buzz – so much buzz that I worry if it can live up to everything. But Swapna speaks of a complex novel, while not perfect, has some worthy moments. I appreciate her honest assessment because it helps cut through the hype. I am particularly interested in the novel’s emphasis on storytelling and myth – particularly after reading The Story of Forgetting. I like to explore how individuals and families use stories to frame their existence. The Tiger’s Wife is about a medical doctor who learns of her beloved grandfather’s death and then looks for answers. Most of the reviews speak of the author’s incredible writing so I think I will keep this one on the list.

Kim from reading Matters hosts a weekly posting called Triple Choice Tuesday’s where she interviews readers about their favorite book, a book that changed their world, and a book deserving of wider attention. This week she interviews Anne (Senior Common Room) and Anne’s choice for the latter question is Earth and Heaven by Sue Gee, and English author I have never heard of. I did some checking and now I want to read Earth and Heaven which is about a painter who depends on “the place of his childhood to keep the pulse of his art alive” in the aftermath of the devastation of WWI. I also want to read her novel The Mysteries of Glass set in 1860. A young curate goes to live in a hamlet in the English countryside and he struggles with love and faith with the backdrop of social and industrial change. Gee’s work is described as being very rooted in a place and her writing is said to be beautiful and spare. Her work may be hard to find (I have put her name on my used bookstore list as well as my inter-library loan list) but they definitely sound worth the trouble it may take to find them.

After reading Hygiene and The Assassin, I have been slowly exploring the 2011 Best Translated Fiction Long List adding Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck and To the End of the Land by David Grossman to my reading list.  The short list has come out without Hygiene or the Grossman book but I have ordered Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver from the library. I really enjoyed The Summer Book and this novel takes a darker look at an isolated Swedish village complete with a woman known as the local witch and a reclusive artist.  I have also added A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud based on this review in The Mookse and The Gripes. Trevor often reviews short story collections and this collection, spanning thirty years of work seems exceptional. Trevor writes, “I looked forward to a new story each night, knowing that it would be different from the other stories in the collection and different from anything else I’d read.  Châteaureynaud has immense literary skill and he’s put it to work to both give us pleasure and give us something to think about.”

Caribousmom highlights another book of short stories For Sale By Owner by Kelcey Parker. These stories are set in contemporary suburbia and features all the accouterments of such a life including soccer balls, sticky kisses, missed connections between husbands and wives, and dual sinks in the master bath. Here is a brief quote from one story:

There was the reading place, which had no books, but which had a window and a chaise lounge, on which no one ever sat or read; a sleeping place with the king-sized bed that meant she never had to have contact with her husband when she slept; and an entertainment place: an armoire that contained a television instead of clothes because the clothes were in the his and hers closets, which echoed the his and hers sinks, which all seemed to say that the best thing for a family to do was to carry on with separate lives in separate rooms and separate sinks. – from Maugham’s Head, page 60 –

In my house the soccer balls have been replaced by track spikes, the space in the king sized bed is either taken by a large dog or a 16 pound cat, and in September I will officially have an empty nest. These stories sound well written and very pertinent to my own life so I will be looking for this collection.

Happy Reading.

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Words For Wednesday

From Stephan Merrill Block’s The Story of Forgetting – a wonderful, multi-layered examination of memory, loss, acceptance, and family. Please note this passage comes from the end of the book and some readers may consider some of it spoilers. I understand that may bother some people, I just found it so telling when I came across it that all the other passages I was considering melted away. Block’s second novel, The Storm at the Door will be released this June and it is going on my “must get” list.

I was one too many. It is probably true that things would have been infinitely simpler if I had left when I was still a young man, before Mae and Paul had ever met. But we lived how we had lived, and our family had taken the shape it had taken, our configuration fixed in the triangular, love and pity and indignation bending around the three corners, passing in both directions. What stability we had was forged by the longing and the impossibility and the reciprocity intrinsic to our shape: the incompleteness of Mae’s love for Paul balanced by her love for me, the unrequited love between Mae and myself balanced by our devotion to my brother, Paul’s impossible love for the boy whose shape I had taken balanced by Mae’s insistent silence. We could only be as a triad. Into the endless oeuvre of the sacred number three, whose work spans the from the Holy Trinity through Poseidon’s trident to the three-bean salad, we added ourselves. I may have been the one too many, but perhaps, after all those years, there wasn’t any alternative. Perhaps that is why, only weeks after I left, what remained of my family could no longer remain. Unbound, we collapsed and then shattered. (pg. 235-236)

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I am just a businessman, not a poet. It is the poet who is supposed to see things so clearly and to remember. Perhaps it is only the poets who can die well. Not the rest of us. I drove from my home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to the airport in Houston, Texas, to pick up my wife’s grandfather. And what is it that I experienced on that trip? What is it that struck me as I got off the interstate highway in Beaumont, knowing the quick route to the airport as I do? I was driving through real towns in Texas. One was named China, another Nome. One was Liberty. If I was a man who believed in symbols and omens, I would have smiled at this. I was passing through Liberty to pick up my wife’s grandfather, whose own liberty my wife and I and the man’s nephew in San Francisco had finally won, after many years of trying. He was arriving this very day from the West Coast after living thirteen years under communist rule in our home country of Vietnam. Perhaps a poet would think of those things – about Liberty, Texas, and my wife’s grandfather – a write a memorable poem. Though maybe not. I am ignorant of these matters. Maybe it is only the bird taking flight or the frog jumping into the pond that the poet is interested in. (The Trip Back, pg. 29)

Robert Olen Butler’s short story collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, concerns the juxtaposition  between cultures, between countries (in this case Vietnam and the United States), between the immigrant and the established. Each story is narrated by a different immigrant from Vietnam with the exception of the last – which is a reversal of theme so to speak. The stories are filled with a nostalgia for what was lost – a country, a father, a child, a way of life. There are war stories, ghost stories, love stories, and just plain everyday life stories all infused with a haunting, a lingering much like the scent in the title. There are absences, shadows in these stories – that which is missing is very present – a contradiction that is solved by the quality of Butler’s writing.

The story quoted above is about a man traveling to the Houston airport to pick-up his wife’s grandfather. Along the way he remembers the country he came from, he thinks about the country he now lives in and works as a businessman, he also thinks of his wife’s stories of her grandfather. He and his wife have what seems to be a typical Vietnamese husband and wife relationship; typical, at least for the stories in this collection. The relationship is reserved; the signs of affection are subtle and most often unspoken. When things go awry in the story, how will the husband react? The answer was both surprising and satisfying.

Most of the stories take place in Louisiana, a place that is like Vietnam and different at the same time:

We ended up here in the flat bayou land of Louisiana, where there are rice paddies and where the water and the land are in the most delicate balance with each other, very much like the Mekong Delta, where I grew up. (Crickets, pg. 60)

The father in this story sees the similarities in the landscape and tries to use those to connect with his very American son. In another story, the memory of apples in Vietnam, the uniqueness of eating an American fruit in an East Asian country is contrasted with the readily availability of apples in America – all of which serves as a backdrop for a truly lovely romance.

Although there is the linger backdrop of the war and displacement in these stories, there is also recognition of the reality of life – a seeping recognition that suddenly bursts into your awareness:

Except I had unconsciously noticed things, so when Thuy spoke to me and then, soon after, the two of them walked away from the hotel together on the eve of Ly’s induction into the Army. I realized with a shock that I actually had come to understand slowly all along. Like suddenly noticing that you are old. The little things gather for a long time, but one morning you look in the mirror and you understand them in a flash. (Preparation, pg. 149)

There were a few stories that seemed a little weaker to me. Butler includes one longer story, The American Couple, that didn’t seem as tight as the others. Perhaps if I had read it separately, I would have had a different reaction. All in all I enjoyed reading Butler’s stories and think they are definitely suitable for any reader as well as making a good discussion for a book group who is looking for something other than a novel to read.

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Last day of Spring Break and our few days of sunshine seem to be departing for rain. I loved having the teenagers in and out of the house. A few times the freshman dropped by the house to pick up youngest for a run. It a look into the past for me when eldest was a senior and youngest et. al. were the freshman. Now youngest’s crowd is trying to figure out where they are going to go to college – decisions need to be made. Eldest is trying to avoid the Zombie apocalypse at WWU as it is Humans vs. Zombies over there. I think he is still human but I am sure he has lots of zombies gunning for him. I picked up Diana Morton’s The Distant Hours at the library yesterday and had a good wallow in bed this morning with it and a contented orange furball. And I am almost finished with A Good Scent from A Strange Mountain: Stories by Robert Olen Butler. I have a new stack of library reads so I don’t know what I will pick up next.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Eva from A Striped Armchair is such an eclectic reader and this week she cast her focus on a non-fiction examination of the history of malaria called The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah. Shah, an investigative writer covers the history of the disease , its effect on history and society, efforts to eradicate it, as well as current policies and efforts. Eva writes, “Shah manages to cover a wide variety of aspects related to malaria, from historical to contemporary, from individual to broader picture, from scientific facts to policy analyses. And she does it all with style; the book never loses its readable, fascinating tone.”

A post from Kerry at Hungry Like a Woolf sent me to Kinna Reads who reviews a book by Luis Bernardo Honwana called We Killed Mangy-Dog and Other Mozambican Stories (1964). Kinna writes, “His writing style is sensitive and delicate and each character, whether human or animal, is deeply rendered.  His descriptions are vivid and his prose is poetic.” The quotes she includes in the review are incredible, for example:

The pigeons flight is essentially practical – it sacrifices the grace of a pirouette or the sweep of a curve to the necessity of arriving more quickly.  No one remembers seeing a pigeon intoxicated by the caress of the wind, as often happens to the swallow; no one can affirm that, like the vulture, the pigeon indulges himself in the sensual pleasures of gliding through the dense blue space with his wings unfurled; surely too, no one ever heard of a pigeon spending a whole morning combing his stomach for lice, fluffing out his chest, smoothing his feathers, as the lazy secua goose does.

Kinna is from Ghana, West Africa and I am definitely  bookmarking her blog to follow.

I like mysteries and Jen from Devourer of Books reviews one with an interesting twist. Lisa Lutz (author of the Spellman comedic crime novels) wants to write a book with a collaborator and chooses her ex David Hayward (a poet) so in Heads You Lose we get both the mystery (a body shows up on a northern California marijuana farm run by two siblings) and the increasing snarking back and forth between the two authors. It sounds like a whole lot of fun.

Gavin from Page 247 begins her latest review with, “A short book, just 72 pages, made up of brief pieces that read like prose poems.  It is as if I had up and read bits of paper that were scattered about, and by reading them, learned of the life of a Palestinian girl, the youngest of nine sisters.   Through everyday occurrences that gather weight and substance, in language that is ordinary and yet eerily dreamlike, Shibli tells the story of the tragedy that is modern-day Palestine.  It is beautiful.” Who could resist – Touch, a novella by a young Palestinian author Adania Shibli. I immediately went on a search and this is going on the inter-library loan list.

After reading Hygiene and the Assassin, I have been interested in other books long listed for the International Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – luckily for me Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life reviews Juli Zeh’s Dark Matter which is published in the United States as In Free Fall. This novel seems a little hard to describe – there are two are two friends, Oskar and Sebastian, brilliant physicists who have moments of contention in their relationship both personal and professional. There is a televised debate, a kidnapping, a surprising twist, detectives and both philosophical and metaphysical questions for the reader to ponder. What drew me to order this one was the lines quoted from the epilogue:

As you take off towards the north-east, Freiburg looks less like a city than a carpet of colours flowing into each other.  A shimmering rainbow mass.  No one can say whether he is a part of it or it is a part of him  A mosaic of roofs on which the morning sun lavishes its golden tones.  The quicksilver ribbon of the Dreisam winds its way through.  You can float the bluish air like it’s water. The mountains call the birds home.  The birds report their news.

It went something like this, we say.

One of my favorite Book Group reads was Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels – it solidified my love of poets writing prose simply because Anne Michael’s prose was so beautiful. I did not know she had written a second novel, The Winter Vault. I found a description of it at Curled Up With a Good Book. In The Winter Vault, Michael’s explores the destruction of Warsaw, the flooding around the St. Lawrence and the effects of the flood that takes place when they built the Aswan Dam. Now I am torn – should I read her second novel or experience the pleasure of reading Fugitive Pieces again.

Happy reading!

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When the imminent demise of the great writer Pretextat Tach became public knowledge – he was given two months to live – journalists the world over requested private interviews with the eighty-year old gentleman. To be sure, he enjoyed considerable prestige, nevertheless, it was astonishing to see them flocking to his bedside, these emissaries from dailies as renowned as (we have taken the liberty of translating their names) The Nanking Tattler and The Bangladesh Observer.  Thus two months before his death, Monsieur Tach was given the opportunity to measure the extent of his celebrity. (pg. 9)

Biographers were already hovering. Editors were arming their battalions. There were of course a number of intellectuals who wondered if the man’s prodigious success was not overrated: had Pretextat Tach been truly innovative? Had he not simply been the ingenious heir to overlooked creators? They went on to support their thesis by citing authors where esoteric names, whose works they themselves had not read, a fact which enabled them to speak about them penetratingly. (pgs. 10-11)

In Amelie Nothomb’s novel Hygiene and The Assassin, Nobel Prize winning novelist, Pretextat Tach is dying. Tach has lived in seclusion for years refusing interviews or any other means of publicizing himself or his work. With two months to live, Tach agrees to a series of interviews and his secretary weeds through the requests eliminating foreign journalists, journalists of color (Tach has begun to “express racist views”) and requests from television journalists, women’s magazines, and political magazines.

Each day a new journalist goes into Tach’s apartment for the interview and is disgusted and dismayed by the obese, bigoted, misanthrope. Each day Tach bests the reporters until the last one – Nina, the only woman to interview the author. The last half of the novel details their conversation with quick back and forth sparing. Tach confronts his past and Nina discovers something about herself as well; each of them seeking some sort of meaning. Their conversation is quick, intelligent, a dueling of the minds leaving the reader to wonder just how alike were those minds?

After reading reviews of this book, I was prepared to be completely disgusted about Tach but he really didn’t bother me all that much. He was what he was – a hater of mankind, obese, unpleasant but there was nothing about him that made me want to stop reading. I found him more amusing than disgusting. I did find the novel divided into two distinct parts – Tach’s interviews with the irst four journalists and then Tach’s interview with Nina. In the first part, I think the author made it too easy for Tach – the reporters were no match and it wasn’t as much fun for me as Tach easily outwits and defeats them sending each one packing with their tails between their legs. The interview with Nina is different, she has not only studied is twenty something novels in intimate detail, she has also meticulously, and to his surprise, thoroughly researched his life. At last Tach has met his match and the ensuing conversation is fun to read as each tries to dissect the other verbally.

Along the way, the author manages to poke fun at the pretentiousness of both authors and readers, the interplay between writing and reality, even the study of literature itself:

“I’ve always had a soft spot for dissertation topics, I find them very entertaining. Those sweet students who, to imitate a great man, write idiotic things with hyper-sophisticated titles, when the contents are the very height of banality – like a pretentious restaurant embellishing scrambled eggs with a grandiose description.” (pg. 72)

I enjoyed this book the most when Tach would drop these little nuggets into the conversation – never sure if he, himself, believed in what he was saying. In a way Tach is the ultimate unreliable narrator except he isn’t narrating at all  as Northomb’s book is consists mainly of conversation – with one of the participants thinking he is more educated, better, smarter, etc. than anyone else. The short, debut novel was written almost twenty years ago and is newly translated into English by Alison Anderson who also translated Muriel Barbery” The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  I am not quite sure what the author wants me to think about the end but I was okay with feeling a little unsure.  Even though Tach is an extremely unpleasant person, I am glad I read the book. I wanted to figure Tach out and Nina allowed that to happen.

 

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Plainsong

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. When the sun reached the top of the windmill, for a while he watched what it was doing, that increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform. After a time he put out the cigarette and went upstairs and walked past the closed door behind which she lay in bed in the darkened guest room sleeping or not and when down the hall to the glassy room over the kitchen where the two boys were. (pg. 3)

Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill spun in a red whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped. (pg. 4)

With these words the reader is introduced to a few of the inhabitants of Holt, a small farming town on the high plains in Eastern Colorado in Kent Haruf’s third novel, Plainsong. Plainsong is named after “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.” The author’s first two novels also take place in Holt, although in different times (Where You Once Belonged and The Tie That Binds) and Haruf’s simple language paints a clear picture of the landscape and the characters that inhabit it.

Haruf alternates his chapters, each concentrating on a different character or characters as they interact with each other. Tom is a teacher at the local high school and the father of two boys – a simple man who tries to be a good father, a good teacher, and a good friend. His wife begins the novel hiding in the guest room barely able to function. Victoria is a junior in high school, newly pregnant and tossed out of her house by an angry mom. And then there are the McPheron brother, bachelors living out on the family farm. Nothing earth shattering happens in Plainsong – the novel accurately reflects the music it is named for – the writing is spare, the plot unadorned. Even so, the novel is full of life, its connections, and the simple intertwining of lives that occurs due to proximity and the rhythm of everyday living.

There is a nice symmetry of life in this book – someone dies, a baby is born. The Guthrie boys (Ike and Bobby) connect with an elderly woman; The McPheron brothers, by connecting with a young woman, make a conscious decision to change, a decision which shows the true nature of courage isn’t just daring do but also the willingness to be open and to grow. And throughout the novel, we learn of the town of Holt as the Ike and Bobby do their paper route or Tom drives out into the country and the town and the surrounding area becomes a character in itself:

The bus went on and they crossed into Holt County, the country all flat and sandy again, the stunted stands of threes at the isolated farmhouses, the gravel section roads running exactly north and south like lines drawn in a child’s picture book and the four-strand fences rimming the bar ditches, and the barbed-wire fences and here and there a red mare with a new-foaled coat, and far away on the horizon to the south the low sandhills that looked as blue as plums. The winter wheat was the only real green. (pg. 242)

This was the second time I have read Plainsong (it was last month’s pick for my book group) and is just as good a read as it was the first time. A simple, quiet story about real people just dealing with life – a novel as simple, as full of hope, as descriptive as a true plainsong.

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