Archive for December, 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. It has been an interesting couple of weeks. I hit the road last Saturday, picking up my mom on the way, and headed to California to meet the newest member of the family, little 3 1/4 lb. Maiya Rose. We were able to clean the house and do some of the last minute shopping necessary for babies while her parents stayed at the hospital. Although the baby came early, the doctors are amazed at her progress and there is strong hope that she will be able to go home tomorrow.

Meanwhile, himself and the two boys were getting ready for Christmas as I left in mid-cooking, shopping, and decorating. Luckily everyone stepped up (youngest even made lemon bread) and all was ready when I returned home late on the 23rd. A merry Christmas was had, everyone received books, and the best present was watching the 16 pound elderly cat act like a kitten with the ribbons.

Here is what caught my interest these past two weeks:

Eva from A Striped Armchair always seems to find the perfect books in her library. She introduced me to a Russian author I was not familiar with, Nina Berberova and got me excited enough to look for Cape of Storms. It may be hard to find (I have to put it on my inter-library loan list) but it definitely sounds worth the trouble.  The novel is about three half sisters, Russian emigres in Paris in the 1930’s, each wrestling with life and how to live it in very uncertain times. Eva, in her review, writes:

All of this is to say, Cape of Storms is a smart, touching novel that manages to look at timeless themes while also capturing a very specific time and place. It’s a bit historical; Berberova wrote it post-WWII but it’s set in the 1930s, which also contributes to the bittersweet feel. I loved it, and I imagine anyone who enjoys early twentieth century literature in general, with its interior focus, will also love it

I have a fondness for quiet novels, and Danielle of A Work in Progress writes a beautiful review of Icelandic author Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s novel, The Greenhouse:

a thoughtful, introspective story about a young man dealing with several life-altering events.  It’s a quiet sort of story where not a lot really happens, but it turned out to be perfect reading during a season of hustle and bustle.  It makes the reader slow down and contemplate not so much the greater outside world but more so the closed inner world of the human heart.

Lobbi, a young man spends much of his time in the family greenhouse working alongside his mother. It is also the place where he conceived his daughter. After the death of his mother, he travels to an unnamed European country to restore the gardens of a remote monastery leaving behind his elderly father, autistic brother, and his daughter.  As Lobbi works in the garden and to assimilate in the small village, the mother of his child asks him to care for her for a while.  This seems to be an introspective novel about finding one’s place in a number of ways.

Wendy of Caribou’s Mom makes a brief mention of Lloyd Jones’s new novel Hand Me Down World. Jones is the author of Mr. Pip which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Book in South East Asia and was also short-listed for the 2007 Booker Prize. In Hand Me Down World, a young African mother leaves her job in Tunisia, crosses illegally into Europe seeking her infant son who has been given a new home. The first part of the novel is told from multiple viewpoints of people who encounter the young woman on her journey. The second half is told in Ines’s voice and gives a different perspective of her journey.

Finally, A few book lists:

If you like WWI novels, A Work in Progress has a really nice list complete with descriptions. If you scroll through the comments, you will find even more to choose from.

Stephani from So Many Books as compiled (with the help of her readers) an excellent list of non-fiction on Science and all written by women.


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Not At Home

Good Morning – I am not at home. On Saturday my sister’s water broke and she delivered her baby girl (as yet unnamed) at 4:00 in the afternoon five weeks early. At 1:00 I was on the road, spent the night in Salem and my mom and I were on the road early yesterday finally getting to see the two at 5:00 in the afternoon. Baby is 3 1/4 pounds and doing well. Mom is doing well as well. We don’t know how long everyone will be in the hospital or how long I will be down here so posts will continue when I am able to.

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Sunday Caught My Interest

The family head cold finally decided to invade my body so I have spent the past two days curled up on the couch with either the cat or Lucy. Himself and eldest battled the cold last week and it was short-lived for them so I am hopeful. The weather has been very cold with an inversion settling over the valley so it is very grey. People are wishing for snow to help break thinks up so send your snow thoughts this way. Youngest has finals this week and will first go to his grandparents before being picked up by his friend. They plan on road-tripping their way home visiting  friends from their annual summer camp. Next week is all about decorating and baking.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Eva from A Striped Armchair writes about Touch by Canadian author Alexi Zentner which was long-listed for this year’s Giller Prizel. Eva also links to a review by Reading Matters which is also worth reading. This book, with its strong sense of place, reminds me of Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson both of which are also set in rural Canada. Touch is about an Anglican priest who moves to his small hometown to take over his step-father’s church in the 1940’s. His mother is dying and he begins to sort through his memories to write her eulogy. Traveling back and forth in time and outlining the real dangers faced by the townspeople (animals, logging, weather, etc.) and the mythological dangers as well that also exist in the surrounding forest. Kim of Reading Matters says of the book:

In part, Touch is about loss — loss of family, loss of property, loss of life — but mostly it is about how we separate myth from reality, fact from fiction, experience from logic, and faith from doubt. How do we unravel the stories from the past in order to understand the stories we are writing for the future?

Marghanita Laski was a British journalist and writer. Recently I read her novel Little Boy Lost about a British solider and poet who is searching for his lost son in a ravished France after WWII. The best parts of the book are of the protagonist dealing with a France he barely knows rather than the country he lived and traveled in before the war. Rachel from the Book Snob reviews another Laski novel, The Village, which is set in a rapidly suburanizing village in England. The Village highlights the changes the occurred in England after the War, changes in relationships, economics, and socially. Those who found themselves friends during the war because of homeland duties are now on shakier ground. Those who were well to do are struggling financially and vice-versa. This one may be hard to find but the novel definitely sounds worth digging for.

I am a big fan of Michael Ondaatje and I am greatly looking forward to reading his latest novel The Cat’s table and reading Gavin’s review at Page247 only reinforces my desire. Ondaatje’s novel is narrated by Michael reflecting back on a journey he took in the 1950’s when he was put on board a ship in Colombo bound from England. Consigned to the Cat’s Table – the very bottom of the social hierarchy on board the ship, Michael and his friends explore the ship and converse with the passengers.  The brief quotes that Gavin includes in her review show the amazing spareness Ondaatje writes with especially with passages such as these two:

I am someone who has a cold heart.  If  I am beside a great grief I throw barriers up so the loss can not go too deep or too far.  There is a wall instantly in place, and it will not fall.  Proust has this line: “We think we no longer love our dead, but…suddenly we catch sight again of an old glove and burst into tears.”  I don’t know what it was.  There was no glove…From page 141.

Every immigrant family, it seems, has someone who does not belong in the new country they have come to.  It feels like permanent exile to that one brother or wife who cannot stand a silent fate in Boston or London or Melbourne.  I’ve met many who remain haunted by the persistent ghost of an earlier place…From page 139.

Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes had a posting with some recommendations for Christmas reading which led me to his review of Ghosts by Cesar Aira, an Argentinian writer who specializes in Novellas. His work has appeared  in the New Yorker. Set in the afternoon and evening of one day (December 32st), the short work is about the Vinas family, migrants who are squatting in a high-rise condominium under construction. Raul, the father is the night watchman for the building. He lives with his wife, four small children, and the wife’s teen-age daughter. The building also serves as the home of several ghosts, naked men that float around through the air. This seems to be a novella about the in-betweeness of time and space, including the space between what is real and not real. While mystical, Aira manages to make it all seamlessly fit.

Aths of Reading on a Rainy Day introduces me to The Secret of Lies, a debut novel by Barbara Forte Abate. One reason this novel intrigues me is that there have been times in my life where I have to just leave my life behind and hop in the car and just drive to anywhere. This is what Forte’s character, Stevie Burke does. Abandoning her husband and her home, Stevie flees and sitting in a dingy hotel room she remembers two years of her past between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. I am a big believer that sooner or later you have to face your demons and now I want to find out just exactly what Stevie had to face.

Happy reading.

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The Twin

Ada is sitting in my old spot. That’s were she always sits when she’s here, so she can see her husband’s farm through the side window and feel like she is keeping an eye on things, even though the farm is more than five hundred yards away. I’m sitting in Mother’s place. The hooded crow has been perching on the same branch in the ash for more than a week now. Saint Nicholas came – but not to our house – and went. It’s a Saturday, the sun is shinning and there is no wind. A clear December morning with everything very bare and sharp. A day to feel homesick. Not for home because that’s where I am, but for the days that were just like this, only long ago. Homesick isn’t the right word, perhaps I should say wistful. Ada wouldn’t understand. Not coming from here, she doesn’t remember days long ago that were just like this, here. (pg. 42)

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer) starts with Helmer, a middle-aged Dutch farmer,  moving his elderly and ailing father to the upstairs of the farmhouse and himself downstairs into his parent’s bedroom. Along the way he cleans, paints, tears up the carpet scouring away the existence of the old inhabitants. Already the reader feels the tension between the two men – the push and pull of old wounds and resentments. Helmer is approached by his twin’s former finance about taking in her troubled teenager. The teenager comes but this is not a novel about finding redemption through the young, rather it is about coming to terms with who you are, where you are. It is very much about the internal rather than the external. The novel takes place  on an isolated Dutch farm perched near a canal and there are very few characters – indeed little action. It is a book about a man coming to terms with the end of his life, the next twenty years of his life but the end nevertheless, coping with the loss of the last remaining member of his family – his last real human tie to his life for the past fifty years.

Bakker sets the novel in the present (2005) but also has Helmer reminiscing about the past. Helmer is the title character, a twin separated from his twin brother, Henk at first by a relationship his brother has with a girl and then by death when the twins are in their early twenties. At the death of his brother, Helmar must put aside his own dreams of schooling and join his father to work on the farm never quite replacing his  brother. It is hard to review The Twin because it is such a contemplative work. The writing is beautiful, evocative of both landscape and mood.  Bakker is able to show the tensions within a person as they struggle to separate from land, family, and relationships while also dealing with the question of the isolation in such separation. If you like books with lots of action, this isn’t the book for you. If you like books with introspection, contemplation about life, and beautiful descriptions of time passing, then this is the book for you. Bakker relies on the small daily occurrences of life on a farm, the subtle transitions of the seasons, the quiet changes of the weather to do some of the heavy lifting rather than loading the work with a heavy plot.

The Twin won the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award  beating such novels as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Home. And it is easy to see why with passages such as this – one of many showcasing the isolation humans sometimes endure:

It’s ten thirty  in the morning. Raining from low clouds. As usual, the weathermen had it wrong. The kitchen light is on. The crooked ash gleams. The hooded crow is hunched over its branch. Now and then it ruffles its feathers without spreading its wings, which makes it look like a sparrow bathing in a puddle in the yard. A giant sparrow. I wait. The newspaper is laying on the table in front of me, but I can’t read. I sit and swear out the window. The clock buzzes; it’s quiet upstairs, there are a few mouthfuls of cold coffee left in my mug. It’s not the only quiet upstairs, it’s quiet everywhere, the rain taps softly on the window ledge, the road is wet and empty. I am alone, with no one to cuddle with. (pg. 150)

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Sunday Caught My Interest

I am back after two weeks in Oregon and a week here of catching up on home stuff and Christmas shopping. I had a wonderful time first visiting with my brother Dave, and then my other brother came in for a two week stay (he can work anywhere – lucky dog) and then a burst of frenzied activity for Thanksgiving. Shortly after I arrived in Oregon, Ralph the laptop was officially declared dead by my other brother and I had to make do with my mom’s apple laptop. I did learn a few more tricks (copy and paste) but without my bookmarks I felt lost so it turned out to be a relatively technological free vacation for me. Then all the freshman in college came (my niece, youngest, and two of his friends) and between them and other brother the air was zapping. Other brother programed my dad’s Ipad for him and that thing is pretty amazing. The youngsters were not all clued to their phones – they giggled a lot, ate vast quantities, played board games and pool, and had great discussions about life. Good reads, good food, good company – all the hallmarks of a wonderful holiday.

So here is what caught my interest this week:

One of my first memories is a few days after JFK died in November 1963 and the reason the memory stuck with me is because of how silent the world was. I remember being in my front yard in a normally loud and busy neighborhood and there was no noise what so ever. So when I read about Stephen King’s new book 11/22/63 at Bibliophile by the Sea, it took me immediately back to that day. And King plays on the “what if” games we tend to play in our heads – what if JFK hadn’t died, what if someone had gone back and changed history. King is someone I see as an either/or writer in that I love some of his stuff and really dislike others so I really hope this one of his good ones.

Bibliophile by the Sea also mentions a book I have never heard of – Lions at Lamb House by Edwin M. Yoder, originally published in 2007. Yoder has William James worried about his brother Henry so he invites Freud to spend so time at Henry’s estate evaluation the famous novelist. Throw in William’s Nephew Horace who falls in love with a local clergyman’s daughter and it seems you have a novel exploring literature, manners, and morality.  I grew up surrounded by literary families (most notably the Mitfords, the Sitwells, and the Jameses) and while my mother wasn’t a Freudian, she was a follower of Carl Jung so this novel looks like a pleasing blend of the two disciplines.

This winter Himself is teaching the Department’s History of Technology course and it is one of the few course he teaches that I have been interested in (somehow Thermodynamics and Numbers Theory do not interest this English major). Devourer of Books reviews what sounds like a fascinating book and surely a must buy for someone for Christmas. It is A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum. The objects range over 2 million years and span the globe with each one illustrating a turning point in Human history.

Tom of A Common Reader recommends After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (originally published in Germany in 1937). This novel reflects the author’s own experiences in the last days of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi era. Having just finished In the Garden of the Beasts which also describes these days from the perspective of the American Ambassador to Germany and his daughter, After Midnight seems like a suitable follow-up. It is a slim novel (160 pages) and details the story of Sanna Moder, a young, apolitical, “ditzy” blonde in love with her cousin and struggling to navigate a very difficult time when everything seems turned upside down.  I read the opening pages on Amazon and will be looking for this one.

A book about “family, obsession, memory, and the urge to create” sounds right up my alley – in fact the review on Page247 as well as on Amazon have really gotten me excited about Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. Add to the mix that it is an introspective book rather than plot driven and I am a goner. The quotes Gavin includes in her reviews are wonderful and a description of sibling relationships from the book, “there are no first impressions, no seductions, no getting to know each other,” seems spot on.  This is the story of a brother and sister. Nik was very creative and musical when he suddenly stopped and became a bar-tending drifter. His sister Denise has a quiet life, supportive of her brother but when her mother becomes ill with dementia and Nik seems to be sliding back into a depression, Denise takes a look back at their life as a family and their relationships with each other.

Stefan Zweig was a Jewish writer who fled Austria in 1934. I read his novel The Post Office Girl and thought it was very well done. Caroline from A Work in Progress introduces me to another Zweig novel, Journey into the Past which has been reissued by The New York Review of Books. The novel was published originally posthumously after the author committed suicide in 1942. It is a short novel that tells the story of a poor, modest secretary to a wealthy man. The secretary eventually falls in love with his employer’s wife, leaves her for a what was to be a two-year separation while he is on assignment for his employer. Unfortunately WWII intervenes and it some time before the secretary can return to Europe.I found Zweig to be a master of tight construction as well as very good at getting into the emotions and feelings of his characters. I look forwarding to reading a second one by this author.

Finally, thanks to bookcouscious, here is a must have for those who like Holiday Books for children – The Carpenter’s Gift by David Rubel. It is a tale of giving, the fictionalized tale of the origin of the Rock, and the importance of the charity Habitat for Humanity and sounds absolutely wonderful. As a side note, there was a lovely article in our paper this morning about how Habitat for Humanity is adapting to the downturn in home construction by helping struggling families making  much-needed repairs to their existing homes.

Happy reading!

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