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Archive for April, 2012

I am in beautiful Oregon marveling at the flowering trees and plants. I am hoping for sunshine while I visit my mom. My niece is visiting for the weekend and with my dad leaving for a long trip, I came down to see everyone as well as pick up youngest from school. So far we have spent a nice leisurely Sunday morning reading papers and books. I am lucky that this visit coincides with both of my mom’s book groups so I am deep into Kim Edwards’ The Lake of Dreams so I can participate in the discussion. I finished two books this week The Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morall which was a good, but emotionally draining read and The Testament of Jessie Lamb which I found somewhat ho-hum.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

It is Muriel Sparks week for many bloggers. I have read three of her novels: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Loitering with Intent, and Memento Mori. I like Sparks’ work – they are sparse yet filled with detail with each word adding to the overall effect. I have wondered which one of her books to read next and I like A Work in Progress’s review of The Girls of Slender Means which is about a group of young women living at a club in London for girls with low economic means. I think Sparks is really good at writing about a groups of people while giving each character distinctiveness. And then Winston’s Dad has to make A Far Cry from Kensington look appealing as well and it is partially set in the publishing industry. Muriel Sparks week was co-hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book. His blog has posts linking to reviews by participants as well as his own, discussion, etc. and if you are interest in Sparks, his blog is great resource.

Shakespeare’s Othello is a wonderful play and Iago, a master manipulator. In Nicole Galland’s Novel, I, Iago reviewed at Devourer of Books, Iago was seen as too honest by Venetian standards. I enjoy books that flesh out characters or give a new spin on one of Shakespeare’s plays. I enjoyed The Dead Father’s Club my Matt Haig (a spin on Hamlet). Galland’s novel looks like it gives the reader both Iago’s background as well as insight into his motivations.

Devourer of Books also reviews Hit Lit by James W. Hall. Hall is a creative writing professor and thriller writer and in this non-fiction work he looks at what makes a book a hit using case studies from novels very familiar to readers. One of the reasons I like to discuss books with other people is because I am fascinated by why people like the books they like. This book seems like it follows in the same vein. It is going on the list.

My Niece is planning on taking an on-line course in the fall on Modern Poetry and I am going to look at the information and consider taking it as well. Then I clink over to Gavin’s Page247 and the book that fills the screen is Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr. Orr’s premise is to “Read poetry as if it were  a foreign country, specifically Belgium.” Gavin goes on to say the book is “written in a conversational tone, light and with a touch of humor.” I have already asked himself to pick it up from the University’s library – hopefully it will be waiting for me when I get home.

Happy Reading!

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We have had a very nice and sunny weekend with yesterday at a track meet and today puttering in the yard. The sun makes a dog’s bones feel good and makes the cat complain because himself has a friend over to work on trees. Himself finished the second of Greg Bear’s Halo Trilogy and was very disappointed to find no news on the publication date of the third. I also finished four books this week and was not particularly pleased with three of them. I did really enjoy Louise Penny’s Still Life. I definitely plan reading her others. I also started Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall at the track meet yesterday and I am liking it so far.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Gavin from Page247 has a brief review of a collection of short stories by Eugie Foster  (an author I have never heard of) called Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice. Foster has won a Nebula Award and her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. This collection sounds particularly good because Foster uses Asian history and folklore as a foundation for the stories. Gavin writes, “An air of delicacy provides a base for tales that are moving, often funny and filled with mystery” and Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “”Whimsy and malice­–yes­–also mystery, a very female sensuality, and wit. An elegant and entertaining book.”

Swapna Krishna has two books on her blog this week that have caught my interest. The first is a memoir, The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber. I really liked Abu-Jaber’s novel Origin and the author’s life story sounds intriguing. Her father is Jordanian and the family spent two years in Jordan when Abu-Jaber was seven. What binds the everyday moments related in this memoir is food – and food based memoirs have a life of their own. I think this one is going on the library list. The second book is an Icelandic mystery by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir called Ashes to Dust. Thirty-five years ago, a town was buried in volcanic ash. Everyone in the village was alive and accounted for, however three bodies and a severed head are found during an excavation of the village. That alone was enough for me to place a hold on the book.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller has been short-listed for The Orange Prize and I have seen several bloggers speak highly of the book including Simon Savidge and Cornflower Books. The novel is the story of Patroclus, Achilles friend who dons Achilles armor during the Trojan War and dies leaving Achilles mad with grief. I loved Ransom by David Malouf which is lyrical tale of Priam’s meeting with Achilles after the death of Patroclus and Priam’s son. Miller, according to Cornflower, is well versed in the classics and the author also has the “ability to present it in such a way that the reader is held in awe and admiration. It’s a book of clean lines, spaciousness, an airy quality which forms a compelling contrast to the strong characters and dramatic events it portrays.” Definitely going to read this one.

Available on Kindle only: One of the nice things about e-readers is that books published in England are sometimes available sooner in the US because of e-books. Such is the case of Little Bones by Janette Jenkins reviewed by Fleur Fisher in her World. This sounds like a great book group choice if the group can all access the novel.  Abandoned by her family in 1899 London, a young girl finds herself the assistant to a doctor who discreetly treats young women with certain problems. The author creates a sympathetic character but does not offer her “an easy way out” of a morally complex tale.

Also on the Kindle only is The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price reviewed by Iris on Books. This novel was originally published in Welsh and is about a family of farmers in an isolated Welsh valley. Rebecca and her brother Robert are left on the farm to manage in a time of shifting culture and growing modernity. Iris writes:

The straightforward narrative is interspersed with more poetic passages, that receive their own chapters. In these passages, the landscape, the tradition way of life, the language, and Rebecca’s personal life all come together, enabling the reader to read Rebecca’s story not just as the story of an individual and her family, but also as the story of the valley, a community, and the push and pull between tradition and modernity

Finally, Matthew from A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook shares The King’s English Bookshop‘s list of 25 easy to read yet hard to put down vacation reads. The King’s English, in Salt Lake City, is one of my favorite independent bookstores – my mom and I go and spend time there whenever we visit Utah. I have read four of the twenty-five and several of the others look interesting. I long ago decided to never again read Elizabeth Berg or Gregory Maguire because I did not enjoy the novels by those authors I have read, but the list is definitely eclectic enough to have something to please every one and is well worth checking out.

Happy Reading!

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She walks down the hall to the bathroom. After checking first for feet under the stall doors, she goes to the mirror. She washes her hands, dirty from the books shes handled all morning. She watches the water flow over her hands and down the drain, then quickly glancing up at her reflection in the mirror. It’s a game she plays with herself. She thinks if she just sees herself from the right angle, when she is not thinking about it, the mirror will show her something that she has never seen before, something other people see. (pg. 65)

When my father-in-law died, one of the things that came home with us was the small wooden box that always sat on the top of his dresser. I never looked into that box until we were back in Ohio for the funeral and when I first opened it I wasn’t sure of what I would find. Inside are a mesh-mash of things, mostly from Bill’s youth – academic medals, boy scout memorabilia, a very old pocket watch, his wedding ring, a handkerchief – almost trinkets, meaningless to many people, but important to him. That is why I brought the box home and put it in the bookshelves in our bedroom. I look at it and see him.

In my mother’s coat closet lives a coat that is ages old. It is a well worn, well used great coat that belonged to her Uncle Frank, the uncle that raised her. I don’t remember my great-uncle as he passed away shortly after I was born but he has always been a very real figure to me through my mother’s stories. Old things, used things have stories. They belonged to people with lives, thoughts, dreams. They had problems and worries, loves, and hates. Sometimes, with things that pass from family member to family member, you know the stories. Other times, with things found in shops, you have to guess at the stories.

This is the premise of Alexis Smith’s debut novel, Glaciers. Isabel collects old things, from vintage clothes to postcards. Her life is filled with other people’s ephemera and flotsam.  She seeks out these things, cherishes them, and looks at them in her apartment, the old dishcloths and kitchen bowls, and wonders about the stories behind the things that were “all new once”.

This short novel takes place in a single say of Isabel’s life as she goes about her day as a librarian who repairs books for the Portland Library. She has a crush on Spoke, the bicycling tech guy at work, and is attending a party with friends that night. Throughout the day, she reflects on her childhood in Alaska, her parents divorce, and the story behind a postcard she has purchased. This is not a novel for those readers who like a plot that moves – this is a novel that focuses on description, a novel that gives the reader glimpses of Isabel, never quite meeting her full on. Like Isabel concocting stories from a brief message on a postcard, the reader is required to fill in the gaps the author leaves in the story.  I imagine that this will leave some readers unsatisfied, but it was a technique that I loved.

Alexis  Smith excels at lyrical descriptions that highlight the simplicity of a moment: “She sits up, throwing her legs over the edge of the bed, and the cat jumps down, underfoot all the way to the kitchen. The early morning sunlight warms a patch of linoleum and she lets her feet bathe in it while the kettle heats on the stove.” (pg. 22) She also excels at what we call in my family as “in your head time”. Isabel spends a lot of her time inside her head. This time is not just daydreaming, but a way for Isabel to process what happens to her and why.

She breathes it in and lets herself think of Spoke. She imagines walking with him, like this, through the city. Telling him how the cold air and leaves and gasoline smell like the first day of school to her.

Its a strange product of infatuation, she thinks, to want to tell someone about mundane things. The awareness of another person suddenly sharpens your senses, so the little little things come into focus and the world seems more beautiful and complicated. (pg. 72)

This slim novel is about old things, and about how everything eventually changes – even the glaciers of Isabel’s native Alaska. But it is also a novel about how our stories let us be seen, how they are used to explain us to ourselves and to others. Sometimes we want to try on another person’s story and sometimes we just want to be more comfortable with our own.

This novel isn’t for everyone but if you are looking for a short, quiet read with beautiful language – take the time to search for Glaciers. And if you start, stick with it to the end. The ending was my favorite part – it brought the novel into perspective for me – I caught a glimpse in the mirror and it was good.

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It was a slow week around here – at least for me as I had a couple of days of being under the weather. My book group did have a fantastic discussion of The Submission by Amy Waldman. It was a favorite for at least two of the members and those who had to unexpectedly miss the meeting want to have a second discussion. Eldest adjusted to a new job and schedule and classwork by being a worn out puppy most nights. Not much reading got done either although Himself was pleased to finish the first book in Greg Bear’s Halo Trilogy while on the bus back and forth to work. The best of the week was seeing more sun than rain.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Note: I have, courtesy of my mom, a guest subscription to the NY Times. Because of their subscription policy of having to pay after a certain number of clicks, I have also included links to other reviews.

The New York Times mentions a few books this week which have peaked my curiosity. The first is a new publication by Tin House Press called No One by French novelist and  philosopher, Gwenaëlle Aubry and translated by Trista Selous. No One is a fictionalized memoir (written in dictionary form) about Aubry’s father, a distinguished lawyer who suffered from Bi-Polar Disorder.  The novel is about identity and mental illness from the viewpoint of the person with the disorder as well as those effected by the high highs and low lows. I have been impressed with other work produced by Tin House Press and this novel seems to be one to watch for as well. Other reviews can be found at Forward Reviews and Book Forum

The other book the Times mentioned was The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta which is set in 1939 Vienna. A series of brutal murders takes place in the area around an apartment building. While containing mystery elements, the novel really explores that borderland between doing what is right and doing what might get you by in a very troublesome time. This one also received good reviews from His Futile Preoccupations  and Seeing the World Through Books.

Diane of Bibliophile by the Sea does a weekly post of the first paragraph of a book she is currently reading. This week featured Blue Monday by Nicci French (a husband/wife writing duo). Set in London and the first of a new series, Blue Monday is about psychotherapist Frieda Klein. She is thrust into the middle of a child abduction case because one of her patients has been having dreams about needing a child with the same description as the abducted boy. I don’t usually read psychological thrillers but the first paragraph really hit me:

1987
“In this city there were many ghosts.  She had to take care She avoided the cracks between the paving stones, skipping and jumping, her feet in their scuffed lace-up shoes landing in  the blank spaces.  She was nimble at the hopscotch by now.  She had done it every day on the way to school and back ever since she could remember, first holding on to her mother’s hand, dragging and jerking her as she leaped from one safe place to the next; then on her own.  Don’t step on the cracks.  Or what?  She was probably too old for such a game now, already nine, and in a few weeks’ time she would be ten, just before the summer holidays began.  She still played it, mostly out of habit but also nervous about what might happen if she stopped.”
This was me as a child. I remember going to the bank with my mom and having to only step on the black squares of the tile floor or something bad would happen. And I always had the notion of how guilty I would feel if my mom actually broke her back just because I stepped on a crack. Not necessarily rational thoughts but there they were nonetheless. So now I want to know more about this little girl. Guess this book will have to go on the list.
Bookworm with a View reviews a novel that came out last month, The Second Time We Met. Written by Leila Cobo, the author is a native of Cali, Colombia, a journalist, and a former concert pianist. Asher Stone is a talented high school athlete who happens to have been adopted from Columbia. After an accident puts his athletic career in question, Asher travels to Columbia in search of his mother. The author plays with the different cultures of the two countries as well as what each character has to gain and lose in the search. The premise also hits home with me. My nephew was adopted from Columbia as well as the son of family friends. I am putting this on my library list.
Happy Reading!

 

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Happy Easter Everyone. We have sunshine and warmer weather, chocolate in the house, happy cat, and a dog enjoying going in and out now that the drippy wet stuff isn’t coming down on her. We have had good news as eldest has received a promotion at work and he is doing well in his college class. Youngest is being spoiled by his grandparents during his four days of Easter break (the advantages of going to a Catholic University).

Here is what caught my interest this week:

I am fond of memoirs, I like books about books, and I like books that look at spirituality for different angles. A new blogger to me, The Indextrious Reader, has one that meets all three of those criteria: Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading by Nancy Malone. Malone is an Ursuline Nun and voracious reader of both fiction and theological work. This looks like a work about the importance of imagination, what we gain by reading, and how reading can impact our lives in both subtle and major ways. Looks like a good one.

Melwyk, The Indextrious Reader also has a beautiful review of A.S. Byatt’s Ragnorok. Just this morning my mom and I were talking about myths and their importance to children. I grew up learning and reading myths and my boys did the same. In fact, youngest was enamored with the Northern myths and stories of the Norse Gods.  I am a big believer that children wrestle with philosophical questions and stories (like the myths and Harry Potter for that matter) that bring these questions into a realm that is easily understood by children are necessary. Not that I am recommending Ragnorok to children as it is said to be a very dense read. The myths also resonate with adults and I think that is what Byatt is getting at in her newest novel.   Melwyk makes me want to read this book so it is a good thing my mom got a copy for her birthday.

Imagine my delight when I read these words for Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman on Caribousmom’s blog: “Not everyone could live with tumbleweeds of dog hair on the steps…” I was raised with Hungarian sheepdogs – one of my Saturday chores was to pick dog hair and pine needles embedded in the living room rug. Since then I have always had dogs that shed. This book of short stories highlights the connections people have with the natural world, both domestic and wild. In one story a grieving woman searches for her dead mother’s parrot who can imitate her mother’s voice. Bergman uses the connections with the natural to explore the connections people have with each other. This debut collection looks worth finding.

Tan Twan En is a Malaysian author whose debut novel The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I have long had The Gift of Rain on my bookshelf to read and now it looks like I should add his second work Garden of the Evening Mists. Both Caribousmom and Chasing Bawa have good things to say about this novel about memory and the impact of war and nationalism on individuals. The story is hard to compress into a few words so I will let the reviews speak for the book:

“What Tan is so good at showing is that there is no country where there is only one perspective. Countries are a mixture of ideologies, cultures and languages. I love books that show this side of life and people and The Garden of the Evening Mists is just that. I was continuously impressed by the spare, beautiful writing. The characters retained enough mystery to keep you wanting to know more. And the story, well, it is heartbreakingly beautiful. (Chasing Bawa)

“Eng’s writing is gorgeous. He demonstrates a deep understanding about how events shape our lives and how the natural world is intricately enmeshed with who we are as humans. He also understands the complexity of people – the multiple layers which make up our lives and the hidden secrets we all carry.” (Caribousmom)

Happy Reading!

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Words for Wednesday

From The Submission by Amy Waldman

But his bitterness was overwhelmed by the magnitude of mourning around him. The city reeled – the air ashy, people ashen, the attack site a suppurating wound you felt even when you couldn’t see it. One night, soon after his return, Mo walked toward the zone of destruction. The moonlight picked out a strange fine dust clinging to leaves and branches; he toe rested on a paper scrap with charred edges. The eternal lights were off in the nearby office towers, as if the city’s annual appetites had been quelled. A quilt of the missing – bright portraits of tuxedoed men and lipsticked women – had been pasted on fences and construction plywood, but the streets were empty,  and for the first time in memory, he heard his own footsteps in New York City.

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Adrienne Rich

Image from Encyclopedia.com (Public Domain)

I have spent the afternoon reading poetry by Adrienne Rich who passed away last week. I still remember the first time I read a poem of hers. In my sophomore year of college I took a course in Feminist Literature. It was taught by a very dynamic professor who vowed to open our eyes to the power of female authors and what she said was true. One of the novels we read was Surfacing by Margaret Atwood which was so raw, and so real that it took my breath away. It is a work I have never read again, even though I am a re-reader.

We also had an anthology that I wish that I had kept. It contained works of female authors ranging from early authors of England, America, and France to the new feminists of the 1970’s. One of those poets was Adrienne Rich, an author The Wall Street Journal called “an American Literary Trailblazer”.

Rich was born in Maryland in 1929 to educated and cultured parents. Her mother was a concert pianist and her father was The Chairman of Pathology at John Hopkins Medical School. Home schooled until the fourth grade, Rich eventually graduated from Radcliffe in 1951 and published her first poetry collection A Change of World.  She married, had three sons, and wrote increasingly personal poetry. She taught, became involved in political issues, wrote, and worked on finding herself and her voice. Voice, language, and encouraging participation in the dialogue was so important to Rich and this is so aptly expressed by D.A. Powell in his column in the Journal:

For me, a young queer man finding his way into the study and practice of writing, the unheard voices of women and other minorities breaking at last through the generations of silence that had hidden them were a clarion. To make oneself visible in one’s art was a political act, and no one better exemplified that courage than Rich. She provided support, and thereby permission, for a slew of writers whose voices might otherwise have fallen silent. She urged young writers to be themselves visible; to astonish the world with the reportage of their lives and histories. Though she gained prominence as a “female poet,” she was, for all, a poet. A poet without category. Herself.

Rich has left us but her words will live on – her comments on poetry and life timeless:

A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill, what and when to burn, or even how to theorize. It reminds you… where and when and how you are living and might live, it is a wick of desire.

Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.

Lying is done with words and also with silence.
And my favorite Rich quote
The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.
This quote speaks the truth, my mother and I often speak of the connections between women, the friendships and sisterhood that binds us together making us stronger when we have to ride the rough tides of life. I am also reminded of a recent lunch I had with some girl friends – friends that span the political spectrum from self-proclaimed Socialist to religious Conservative. And yet, when speaking of women’s issues in the news we found ourselves speaking with one voice.
And there is also Rich’s poetry which will continue to ring forth – startling the college student on a road to discovery and giving a sense of familiarity to a middle-aged woman reading on a couch with an overweight orange cat sleeping in the sun. Rich paints powerful pictures with simple language such as the opening of Power:

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Or these lines from Homage to Winter:

the cotton pants stirring on the line, the
Empty Coke can by the fence
onto the still unflowering
mysterious accacia
and a sudden chill takes the air

Poems that speak to the times we live in, outlining our political reality, a reality we can ignore to our peril or face such as What Kind of Times are These:
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
And the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light-
ghost-ridden crossroads leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all; it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
Or poems that quietly and completely take your breath away:

Livresque

There hangs a space between the man
and his words

like the space around a few snowflakes
just languidly beginning

space
where an oil rig has dissolved in fog

man in self-arrest
between word and act

writing agape, agape
with a silver fountain pen

Adrienne Rich lived to give herself, and others – a voice, a voice that speaks the truth about experience (both personal and shared), a voice that is at times angry, forceful, examining, searching and encouraging. Adrienne Rich may have left us but her voice is still here, She is still speaking. For that, I am grateful.

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