Archive for July, 2012

Last week was a very busy week for everyone here. Himself did double duty teaching his summer school course and a rocket course for the academic camp on campus. Eldest was a counselor-in-training again for the same camp and helped teach his dad’s class and youngest went on a road trip with a few friends which included calling his mom from Powell’s Books in Portland (totally unfair!). It also meant I looked up books for him (we only use cell phones to call or text). He settled on The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet.

On the reading front, Himself is reading Catch-22 although he hasn’t had much reading time and is super-stoked to have found his favorite short story on the internet (Arthur C. Clarke’s Rescue Party). I finished Claire de Lune and have started Sugarhouse. I need to finish up The Leftovers by next Monday for book group but I am putting it off till the last minute.

A note about how I put together these posts: I read several book blogs during the week and note which books sound interesting to me. On Sunday’s I reread the posts and come up with my list. This week was especially difficult as I have fifteen books on the list and that is only through Thursday (I still haven’t caught up on my reading from being gone for three days. It is going to be hard to narrow things down.

So here is what caught my interest this week:

The first book I found a few hours too late. I went to one of my book groups on Wednesday and was asked for recommendations. Nothing I came up with seem to suit the participants. Then I came home and read Diane’s (Bibliophile by the Sea) review of The Healing by Jonathan Odell. It fits all the criteria of my book group. They tend to favor historical fiction, it is readily available in our libraries, it has gotten good reviews, and it is about strong women over-coming odds against them. The novel is about three generations of women, “healers”, and spans from the mid-1800’s with its slavery to 1933.  This book sounds so good, I may have to send off an email and suggest it that way.

I love the Triple Choice posts at Kimbo’s Reading Matters.  This week the post is written by Canadian author Lauren B. Davis (author of Our Daily Bread which is also on my to-be-read list). Her book choice for “a book that deserves a wider audience” is The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards, an award-winning Canadian author. First I am inclined to take her suggestion because her favorite book is Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Second, this book has echos of Train Dreams in it but as far as I can tell, it seems more accessible to me. Set in the 1950’s it is the story of Meager Fortune who works in the dying lumber industry. The publisher’s note describes it as a “love story of betrayal, envy, and sexual jealousy, which builds to a tragically inevitable climax.” Davis describes the writer’s work and this book as, “His books are deeply morale and compassionate. His prose has echoes and rhythms you rarely see these days…It is also a hard book to put down, a hard book to forget, a hard book (I admit it) not to weep over.”

I have mentioned before how I grew up with poetry so I was delighted to see Stefanie of So Many Books mention My Poets by Maureen McLane. McLane is both a poet and a critic and My Poets is her discussion of those poets who have impacted her: “I am marking here what most marked me…”  This book is part memoir, part criticism and explores what makes a poet and a poem.

Jenny of Shelf Love brings us Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, which is based on the premise that as Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, Byron also wrote a novel. Set in two strands, the first is a series of e-mails between a woman, Smith, who is researching Byron’s daughter Ada, (a scientist) for a feminist website, her partner, and her father who happens to be an expert on Byron. Smith discovers a portion of the cipher Ada used to place the novel in a code and goes searching for the novel. The second strand is the novel itself. Jenny says  “This book is rich and satisfying, and also tremendous fun.” Sounds like a great summer read.

If you are more interested in short stories, Gavin of Page 247 has a brief review of Clark Blaise’s 2011 collection The Meagre Tarmac. Blaise is married to Indian-Born American author Bharati Mukherjee and he has both traveled extensively in India as well as collaborated on projects with his wife. This collection of stories focuses on Indian immigrants and their children. Even though Blaise is not Indian, reviews say he brings a sympathy and depth to tradition and family and the clash of cultures both old and new.

Happy Reading!


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I am recovering from:

  • Three days without the computer
  • 14 hours of Scrapbooking (and the accompanying sore shoulders)
  • 5 hours of sleep
  • A too big breakfast of buttermilk pancakes

So I have given myself permission to post Sunday’s post tomorrow and plan to spend the rest of the day recovering by watching the Olympics while doing the Sunday crossword with youngest, going for a walk with Himself, and reading Sugerhouse which is drop dead funny….See you tomorrow.


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From Clair de Lune by Jetta Carleton:

Spring came early that year, before winter had officially ended. In the streets of that Ozark town the wind blew catkins along the sidewalk, and maple wings and the dark seed clusters of elm trees half as old as the town. People walked out in the dusk, sniffing the weather, paused to chat under streetlamps, or strolled home slowly from some casual errand, stopping to buy in ice cream in paper cartons, reluctantly going inside. Doors were left unlocked.

Their lessons done, children played hide-and-seek in the dark angles of house and yard until they were called to bed. On Center Street the two motion-pictures house were dark by eleven. By eleven thirty the local buses had returned to the barn and the lights were out in store windows. Only the bus-station cafe, where the lone attendant was dozing at the counter, awaiting the arrival of the last run south from Kansas City, was open. Except for a few passing cars, the streets were deserted. Stillness settled over the town, over the bus barn, and the railroad tracks, the schoolyards and the eighteen churches. The great houses rose tall and secret along dark streets. And except for certain nights when the moon was high, the expansive, hospitable park lay silent.

If facts are required, the great houses would be scattered and fewer, not all together on one grand avenue. The park on the west would not be so spacious, the town not arranged in quite this way. But it is remembered this way. A street and a house from another town may have moved in, a different park slid southward to become this park. Memory fits everything into place. And memory is truth enough. (pgs. 2-3)

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Library Loot

Photo Credit

I haven’t been placing many books on hold this summer due to travel and other encumbrances so I have been making do with the new book shelves at both my local branch and the main branch of the library. So far I have manged to pick up one or maybe two books but the picking has been slim especially at the main branch which generally has a lot more new books.

Yesterday I struck gold – I almost didn’t go into the main branch as the large parking lot was stuffed as was the street parking which is a good thing – it means lots of people are using the library. However someone pulled out at the end of the lot so I pulled in and ended up with five new books and leaving at least five more that I would love to read still on the shelves.

All of this is a good thing as I am still having trouble getting into The Leftovers and when I do, it just isn’t holding my interest. This will give me something to read in between Leftover moments.

So what did I get?

Clair de Lune by Jetta Carleton: I have heard many bloggers rave about The Moonflower Vine but I had not heard of a second novel by Carleton. It turns out that this manuscript was “lost” for a while after her death and  some sleuthing done by her family, a copy of the manuscript was found in the possession of one of Carleton’s friends. The manuscript was polished by Ann Patty and published in 2012. Clair de Lune is the story of Allan Liles, a new young teacher at a Missouri Junior College. Lonely at first, she later strikes up a friendship with two of her students. I have just started the book and I am definitely enjoying it so far – it will be featured on tomorrow’s Words for Wednesday.

Sugarhouse by Matthew Batt: My mom and I first heard about this book through the New York Times. Sugarhouse is a neighborhood in Salt Lake City. My father used to live in Sugarhouse and I remember driving there to visit relatives when I was a small child. It is a charming area that is currently seeing a lot of revitalization. Matthew Batt and his wife are in the midst of a “quarter-life crisis” and in the middle of all that, they decide to renovate a former crack house in Sugarhouse. This is said to be a charming and funny memoir.

Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore: Moore is an acclaimed short story author and she is also the author of The Gate at the Top of the Stairs published in 2009 (it was also a finalist for The Orange Prize). I have read a few of Moore’s stories in The New Yorker and thought it would be nice to get a better feel for her as an author. I have heard mixed reviews of her work. Have you read anything by Moore? If so what were your impressions?

Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti: This short novel, translated from the original Italian by Kylee Doust, is the story of fourteen year old Lorenzo. He is a strange misfit and the worry of his wealthy appearance conscious parents. He convinces them that he has been invited to go skiing when he is really planning on hiding out in the basement. Once there, his half-sister Olivia, who has secrets of her own, finds him. They become locked together in a battle of wills as the two struggle with family secrets, alienation, and the need for acceptance.  I hear they have made a film out of this that appeared at the Cannes Film Festival.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: This novel was short-listed for four major prizes including The Booker Prize and The Giller Prize. Hieronymus Falk is a jazz-playing trumpet genius, German, and half-black. This is not a good combination in 1939 Berlin or German-occupied Paris. Falk disappears from a Paris cafe and never heard from again. Fifty years later, two musicians, Sid and Chip, who played with Falk participate in a documentary about his life. Sid is the only witness to the disappearance and questions arise about his role.

What didn’t I pick up? The Land of Decoration, The Prisoner of Heaven, In One Person, and The Good American among others. It was hard to choose but I felt I had to limit myself to five. Now I just have to get them all read in two weeks along with The Leftovers.

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Happy Sunday everyone. We are still having hot weather but at least it hasn’t been ridiculous. Eldest went off to be a counselor-in-training at his annual summer camp. This year he will have to help teach Himself’s class on rockets due to some summer school overlap. Since the boys have been flying and building rockets forever this shouldn’t be a problem. Last year Himself had the kids build regular rockets out of tubes – this year they will be made with paper mache balloons (needless to say we have said balloons all over the house). Youngest has gone off on a road trip with friends taking a biography of Theodore Roosevelt with him. He is taking a break from Richard Nixon because “there is only so much Nixon I can take.” I have managed to read two books this week, How It All Began by Penelope Lively and The Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois. I also managed to make a sizable dent into the third volume of The Cazalet Chronicles and I can actually say I am getting tired of the family so I think I will take a break before going on to the fourth and final book. I started reading The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta for book group and I am finding it slow going so far. Hopefully it will pick up soon or it is going to be a slog for me.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Historical novels generally make for good summer reads with long and involved plots that take you away from hot weather or children home from school. One that caught my notice was The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones (reviewed by Jackie of Farm Lane Books) which is set in 16th century Granada, Spain just after the expulsion of the Moors. Unfortunately this book is not yet available in the US but Falcones’ first novel, The Cathedral of the Sea is available and some may find it somewhat similar to Ken Folletts’ The Pillars of the Earth as the main character is a stone worker for the building of the great cathedral of Barcelona in the 14th century. However, the Inquisition and its turmoil play a big part in the novel as well. Falcones’ debut novel won several prizes in Europe.

The second historical novel that caught my interest is set in 16th century Persia or the country we know as Iran. In Equal to the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani, Pari Khan Khanoom is a Safavi princess, the daughter of the Shah and trained by her father to be a powerful force in the court. When he dies, her position at court becomes precarious and she must manipulate and connive her way into safety. The story is told through the eyes of her servant, Javaher, a eunuch with an agenda of his own. Swapna, of S. Krishna’s Books that while the history in the story takes a front seat to some of the character development, if you like historical novels about strong women in difficult circumstances, then this may be the book for you.

Perhaps you are in the mood for a good laugh, then the 1930 novel His Monkey Wife (Or, Married to a Chimp) by John Collier may be for you. Reviewed by Stuck in a Book, the book is about Alfred Fatigay, an English schoolmaster in the Congo. Fatigay decides to return to London taking his pet chimpanzee Emily as a gift to his finance. Unbeknownst to Fatigay, Emily has become literate and civilized and is in love with him. She feels the finance does not have his best interests at heart and tries to save him from her clutches. With a plot that sounds completely improbable, the book also sounds completely wonderful with a well-mannered, bibliophile chimpanzee running around London. Stuck in a Book writes:

Collier really is quite an impressive prose stylist, finding that middle ground between modernist experimental and simple storytelling.  There are loads of literary references throughout, from Virginia Woolf to George Moore: Collier clearly respects his audience’s intelligence

Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat has reminded me of a book I have been wanting to read when she reviews its sequel Tuesday’s Gone which is now out in England. Blue Monday is the first in a series by Nicci French (a husband/wife writing duo) with reclusive and intense psychotherapist Freida Klein at the center. In Blue Monday she discovers that the fantasies one of her patients is having may be tied to the real life abduction of a child. Drawn into the investigation, Frieda has to balance her duty to her client as well as her duty to the child. In the sequel Freida is once again involved in an investigation when the police ask for her help with an person who has an unusual psychiatric disorder and a dead man in her living room.

Happy Reading!

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How It All Began

If Charlotte was at home, her day would have been filled…None of that now, except the reading. She has a stack of books from home with her, and has commissioned Rose to get a new paperback she wants. So the most important thing is still available, though somehow reading was more savored when kept for those special periods in the day. When you can do it any old time it is less cherished. And her concentration is all askew: the medications, the nagging hip.

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as for her – then, discovering that frequently they are not she has read to find out what is that other people experience that she is missing…

…Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations, and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without. (pgs. 34-35)

How it All Began is Penelope Lively’s 20th work of fiction for adults – she also has a sizable number of children’s fiction in her body of work. Three of her previous books have been short listed for The Booker Prize which she won in 1987 for Moon Tiger. I have a few of her books and really enjoy her as a writer. Her latest novel is Lively’s take on the Butterfly Effect, if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, does that lead to a storm in the Northern Hemisphere? How does the consequences of a simple action effect, not only the person involved in the action, but others around him or her as well? The ripple effect of a single action, seemingly inconsequential, which leads to major changes in the lives of seven people.

Charlotte is an elderly widow, a former English teacher who now volunteers with illiterate adults.  At the beginning she is accosted by a petty thief and breaks her hip landing in the hospital and then in the home of her daughter Rose and her husband Gerry. From this event, the ripples lead out: a marriage is threatened by a text message read by the wrong person; an elderly historian tries to capture lost prominence with  hair-brained TV scheme; an struggling interior decorator finds a dream client in the midst of  the recession; and a new immigrant reinvents his life.

For all the randomness stressed in the book, Lively is also taking about the past, its effect on us as people, and how we change as we travel through our present into the future, or more precisely, how the person we were in the past no longer matches the person we are now because not only have we changed, but new circumstances require new interpretations. Having Henry  (the historian specializing in the 18th century) as a character highlights this for as Henry muses on the past and his profession, the words can be interpreted more broadly: “History is a slippery business; the past is not a constant but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion.” And this is reinforced by Charlotte’s thoughts on books and reading – how our experience in reading an author or a book changes with our own circumstances, “Charlotte was quarreling with Henry James. That is to say, she was find James’s sentence constructions a bit too much, on a warm afternoon in the garden. Get to the point, man – stop piling on another phrase, another qualification, another flourish. Yes I know it is unique, admired, an intriguing labyrinthine process, but today I am not receptive.”  (pg. 168)

Each character inhabiting a ripple, is well drawn out with their personality; their motivations, are well spelled out, sometimes too well as there is a small amount of repetition in the book. My biggest complaint is that the randomness (outside of the mugging) didn’t seem all that random. The characters are all connected in fairly solid ways. Perhaps not connected to everyone in the story, but at least connected to one other person. But in the big scheme of things, this proved a minor detail. It has struck me that perhaps Lively is saying that we are all connected in our randomness so perhaps my quibbling about degrees of connection/separation was a distraction I should have pushed to the side sooner than I did.

Lively is the master of painting personality writing such sentences as, “Gerry was fifty-four, and seems to have been that since he was twenty-seven, when he and Rose were married. He was on of those young who are not, in whom you spot already the older self, peering out, waiting to take over. (pg. 33) The characters that are not necessarily pleasant people are still shown with sympathy and understanding and the characters we find ourselves rooting for also have a veneer of complexity.  I found myself rooting for Marion, the interior decorator, and rolling my eyes at the immaturity of her lover who doesn’t want a divorce from his wife. I liked Gerry, the silent husband of Rose. Even Henry, in all his egotism and pomposity was funny to read about and you felt sorry for his unfortunate fading into the woodwork of historic thought as new theories and younger historians take his place.

I felt like you could tell what is important to Lively these days – growing old, the place that reading and books hold in our lives, the ambiguity of life – our need for an ending even if that ending is open to interpretation. Charlotte’s musing on aging had a ring of truth to it – my mother is the same age as the character and her remarks on growing old are not identical to Charlotte’s, they do have the same tone. The passages on reading will sound similar to any reader as they are universal in concept. And how can you not like an author that writes passages like this:

The present is less inviting, as material for reflection. The present is a matter of nagging concerns, of hour-to-hour negotiations. Should she or should she not take a painkiller? Check again that date for the next clinic appointment. Will Rose be cross if she suggests doing something useful, such as a bit of ironing? When will she be able to go home? And then, like sudden bursts of sunlight, there arrive, as ever, those glad moments: the sliver sliver of a new moon against the evening sky, lilac – snuffed as she shuffles to the gate, the sound of the girl next door practicing the piano. (pg. 127)

Penelope Lively once again brings universal concepts to the forefront by describing the everyday lives of ordinary people. While she writes with a light hand, you will find yourself thinking about passages long after you have turned the page. And if you haven’t read her, I urge you to start.

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We finally have been given a break from the heat (which compared to what some of you have gone through doesn’t really count as all that bad) by a series of thunderstorms. We have had flash flooding on the freeway and some streets and everyone was woken up early by a loud boom and the house shaking followed by the gully washer of all gully washers. Needless to say, the dog is unhappy and the cat is complaining (which would happen irregardless of the weather).  I have been a touch under the weather so have not been reading much other than Penelope Lively’s How it All Began. I have started the third Cazalet Chronicle, Confusion, but have only been dipping in and out of it. Himself is almost done with his rereading of Stranger in a Strange Land, eldest is ensconced in the first book of The Game of Thrones series and youngest is still wading through his Nixon biography, Arrogance of Power although he took a brief break to read The New Yorker political issue sent to him by his grandma.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

It is Read Canadian month on many blogs so there has been a wonderful number of Canadian books reviewed, listed, and discussed – many authors that I have not heard of including Quebec author Monique Proulx whose novel Wildlives is reviewed by Melwyk of The Indextrious Reader. The book follows a small group of people who are living around Goose Lake near a small town in the Laurentians. What caught my eye was how  Melwyk spoke about the setting created by the author. I have a fondness for books where the setting is like a character from Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest (which deserves far more notice) to the works of Mary Lawson (Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge). I read an excerpt from the novel at the publisher’s website (Douglas & McIntyre) and truly the setting is the star as evidenced from the following quote:

The next morning she was on the dock, sprinkling herself with cool water, when the sun surprised her. It was June 10, and the June sun was a flaming arrow, and the forest had caught fire, along with the lake and every living thing around. In the light of the blaze it was impossible not to see. She saw yellow-tailed butterflies, symphonic birds, coupling fireflies, hovering dragonflies; she saw fresh spruce buds gleaming like jeweled rings, and so many colors, so much rustling in every direction, an orgy of triumphant lives. In the light of the blaze it was impossible to ignore that this bush-choked, elemental place was in fact a paradise, a sacred garden to which she had been mercifully granted the key. Moved by the sun, she stretched out on the dock on that June 10 and saw all that there was to see. She saw the track that, each morning, the moose followed to the shore to drink; the chanterelles and the boletuses mushrooming up through the moss, she saw the red rowboat that, each spring, they would surely patch up once more as if it were a part of themselves that leaked but stayed afloat, she saw all the cracks she might slip through to understand the world. She saw the old woman she would be one day, hopping light-footed from one slippery rock to another, surrounded by black flies that did not touch her.

Danielle of A Work in Progress mentioned that she had finished Hetty Dorval by Edith Wilson saying that it was “an outstanding read” and that she would be purchasing a copy since the library copy needed to be returned. I have never heard of Edith Wilson before and I found out that she is considered one of Canada’s foremost writers and an award for the best work of fiction by a British Colombian author was established in her name. Hetty Dorval was her second novel (but the first to be published in 1947) and is set in British Colombia. Mrs. Dorval has recently moved to the city and has a mysterious past and possibly immoral character. She befriends young Francis who learns about her mentor through different encounters over the years. I will have to get this through inter-library loan but it sounds worth the effort.

Often times I am iffy on a book – not sure if I will read it or it I will pass – often after reading several reviews I still haven’t made up my mind. And then you read just the right review or in this case, an interview. One of the books getting a lot of buzz out there on the different blogs is A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson. It is a book I was on the fence about until I read Cornflower Books’ amazing interview with the author. The novel is set in two different times and two different narratives: 1923 with Eva, her sister, and a third missionary on a mission trip to the northwest corner of China. Eva isn’t a true believer but she wanted to leave her small English town and has a contract to write a travel guide to the area. What follows are cultural clashes, deceptions, death, and at the center a baby. The second narrative takes place in present day London when Freida, a free-lance researcher who takes in a homeless man who has fled his home country of Yemen. She also finds out that she has inherited an estate from a dead woman she has never heard of. Eventually the author ties in two narratives together. I am thinking of making this my pick for book group. If you have read it, would it make for a good discussion?

I grew up in a Nancy Mitford family. Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love were always lying around the house and I read those original paperback’s of my mother (that have since so deteriorated she was forced to by a new edition). I have read her copies of Mitford letters, Mitford biographies, and works by other members of the Mitford family. So it was with some pleasure that I read about The Bolter by Francis Osbourne in a review by Mary of Seeing the World Through Books. The Bolter is the story of Osbourne’s great-grandmother, Idina Sackville (cousin of Vita Sackville-West). Idina was famous for her many marriages, her many liaisons and sexual to-dos, and for doing what she wanted when she wanted including suing one of her many husband’s for divorce and succeeding so that he could not longer have use of her money. Idina ended up in Kenya as part of the Happy Valley Set a group of well-to-do ex-patriots who seemed to drink, do drugs, and sleep with each other. Idina is said to be the inspiration for Mitford’s character “the Bolter” and, while not condoning all of her choices, Idina sounds like a independent woman in a world that does not value that trait in women. This sounds absolutely fascinating.

Finally, I have spent the last few weeks cleaning up my eating habits and moving more in order to lose a few pounds and get healthier. All in a household where I have to feed three adult men who need lots of filling food and leftovers for lunches not to mention ice cream. My journey has not been helped by Cokes being opened (himself says I can hear a can of Coke being opened in my dead sleep – I love the stuff), or there are boxes of Sugar Pops in the cupboard (eldest decided he needed to buy them and they were my breakfast of choice in college), or that youngest brought home three cans of Pringles so that he could make a tennis ball mortar (oh those days of summer). I have solved the ice cream issue by buying kinds I don’t like and I work around the filling food by watching my portions or having a salad on my own. But I can feel (and the family can attest to) a large martyr complex growing especially on days when everyone is home and I don’t feel well. So I think I need to get the book reviewed on JoAnn’s Blog Lakeside MusingDrop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs. Jacobs had a bad bout of pneumonia and, at the urging of his wife, decided to become healthier. His aim was not to just lose a few pounds or run a 5k; his aim was to reach maximum healthiness which meant he explored a variety of diet plans, training regimes, and consulted with a very large number of experts. JoAnn’s daughter Carrie wrote in her review:

Overall, Drop Dead Healthy was an easy and entertaining read, great for a fitness and healthy living fiend (like me!).  Not only did Jacobs employ a conversational tone, which helped him relay information in a lighthearted away, but he also let his voice and personality take center stage—there were several lines that had me laughing aloud!

Sounds just like what I need for a budding”woe is me” complex.

Happy reading!

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On Thursday the twenty-fourth of April 1975, death came during office hours, and oddly enough in both female and male form. Which is not to say the men weren’t still in the majority. Death was attractively and neatly dressed, and to start with behaved both courteously and urbanely. Not was it by chance that the ambassador was at his place of employment, which was otherwise far from always the case. On the contrary, this was the result of careful planning, and key to the whole affair. (pg 3)

In their homeland they were notorious. Their likenesses and descriptions were on thousands of wanted posters all across West Germany. Their faces were also to be found in airports, train and bus stations, banks, post offices, and basically any public area where there were was vacant wall space was available. Their images were even on file at the embassy in Stockholm, in a folder in a desk drawer in the reception area, however useful that might be. But when they actually showed up no one recognized them, and the names by which a few of them introduced themselves were different from their own. (pg. 4)

Swedish criminologist and author Lief GW Persson starts his novel Another Time, Another Life, with the 1975 siege at the German Embassy in Stockholm. Six members of the Red Army held a dozen plus embassy employees hostage hoping to exchange them for members of their cause in prison in West Germany. They wired the building with dynamite, killed two hostages, and then accidentally blew the building up. This real case serves as the basis for the book along with a fictional crime, the unsolved murder of a government employee in 1989. At first, the only thing tying these two cases together is the involvement in both of a policeman named Bo Jarnbring. What does a terrorist attack and the stabbing death of a civil servant – crimes taking place 14 years apart – have to do with each other besides a single policeman?

In the year 2000, a government audit is planned for SEPO (The Swedish Security Service). The director of the Security Police, Lars Martin Johansson, finds a discrepancy in one of the files and directs a team to look into the matter to tie up any loose ends. The file concerns the aftermath of the embassy siege and contains much more information then was available to the police at the time of the original investigation. This in turn leads to the 1989 case and the team finds itself re-investigating the murder.

This is a long novel (in three basic acts: 1975, 1989, and 2000), focused more on investigation details rather than action and I found myself wanting to know what happened in each of the acts. The author is obviously (to my eyes) knowledgeable about Swedish politics and the bureaucratic wrangling between different agencies, departments, and  security personnel – something we are familiar with in this country as well. I got a little lost in the complex byplay between agencies  but when the author took a brief detour to talk about the fall of East Germany and the problems with the files of STASI (East Germany’s Secret Police), I found it easy to follow and informative. I also had difficulty keeping the different characters straight at first but as I got further into the novel it became more clear. And I did have some minor difficulties with the writing which seems jerky at times and repetitive at others, however I was unsure if this was due to the author’s style or an issue of translation.

Persson doesn’t hold back any punches when it comes to creating his police characters some of who are very unpleasant people. Many of the police characters do not have much use for their fellow officers and there is much talk of bungling incompetence. There was some slight repetition on this point that I found a little irksome and I wondered if there were any competent policemen in Sweden at all. However, the female detectives portrayed in the book – one of which appears in two segments of the book more than made up for the bunglers. I wish the author had expanded the roles of these women who were inventive and smart.

One of my biggest complaints of the novel is I had a hard time differentiating who the protagonist was. I was told by the book jacket that it was Lars Martin Johansson who was Bo’s partner (and best friend) in 1975 and his boss in 2000. However, he plays such a minor role until the last section and even there many of the breaks come from the team rather than Lars. I have since found out that the novel is second of a planned trilogy and it may be that Lars plays a more prominent role in the first book, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End. If you are interested in reading Another Time, Another Life I would recommend you start with the first in the trilogy. While Another Life, Another Time does stand alone by itself, some of the confusing details might be better explained by reading the books in order.

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Words For Wednesday

From How It All Began by Penelope Lively:

Old age is not for wimps. Broken hip is definitely not for wimps. We are crutch-mobile now. Up and down the ward. Ouch. Sessions with delightful six-foot new Zealand physiotherapist. Seriously ouch.

Of course before the hip there was the knee, and the back, but that was mere degeneration, not malign external interference. The knee. The back. And the cataracts. And those twinges in the left shoulder and the varicose veins and the phlebitis and having to get up at least once every night to pee and the fits of irritation at people who leave inaudible messages on the answerphone. Time was, long ago, pain occasionally struck – toothache, ear infection, cricked neck – and one made a great fuss, affronted. For years now, pain had been a constant companion, cozily there in bed with one in the morning, keeping pace all day, coyly retreating perhaps for a while only to come romping back: here I am, remember me? Ah, old age. The twilight years – that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot – roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn’t know about. We all avert our eyes, and then- wham! you’re in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and her come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding. (pg. 7)

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On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years – faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed may times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or a father t the sea, or a fiance, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.

On the boat the first thing we did – before deciding who we liked and didn’t like, before telling each other which one of the islands we were from, and why we were leaving, before even bothering to learn each other’s names – was comparing photographs of our husbands. They were handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished. Their chins were strong. Their posture, good. Their noses were straight and high. They looked like our brothers and fathers back home, only better dressed, in grey, frock coats and fine Western three-piece suits. Some of them were standing on sidewalks in front of wooden A-frame houses with white picket fences and neatly mowed lawns, and some were leaning in driveways against Model T Fords. Some were sitting in studios on stiff high-backed chairs with their hands neatly folded and staring straight into the camera, as though they were ready to take on the world. All of them promised to be there, waiting for us, in San Francisco, when we sailed into port.

On the boat, we often wondered : Would we like them? Would we love them? Would we recognize them from their pictures when we first saw them on the dock?

I did not have high expectations for Julie Otsuka’s second novel The Buddha in the Attic. I had not read her first book The Emperor is Divine and I had this impression in the back of my mind that she was sort of a fluff writer. It all goes to show why I need to belong to book groups because I most likely would not have picked up The Buddha in the Attic to read if it wasn’t assigned for this past month’s meeting. And I would never have know I was completely wrong about Otsuka.

A slim novella of 129 pages, this work follows a group of picture brides from Japan from their first step onto the boat, their arrival in San Fransisco, their everyday lives as workers, the establishment of families, through their disappearance from the west coast after the start of WWII. However, this is not the story of a single individual, rather it is the story of a generation, the Issei women, the first generation of Japanese to immigrate, a multitude of different voices each reciting bits of their individual story, weaving into a cohesive whole. I liked stumbling across a voice I remember from an earlier chapter. I also liked just jumping in and going with the flow of words sweeping from story to story so that the totality gives the reader a complex understanding of what these women went through.

This is not a typical novel, there is no plot as we are generally used to. There are so many different voices that you could not name a specific character. Otsuka gives these women an anonymity while at the same time, shinning a light on them. This seems to me to be a very difficult feat for an author to achieve, let alone achieve well. And to top this off, the novel can be viewed on multiple levels: the specific story of the Issei; a universal tale of assimilation into a new land and culture; and as the story of women everywhere.

When reading the novel, the image that kept coming to my mind was the Greek Chorus in a classical Greek play. The book is actually one of the best uses of this technique I have seen outside of the classics, though, to be honest, I am hard pressed to come up with another example in modern literature outside of Musical Theater. I felt that Otsuka must have a classical background. While she is well educated, to my surprise, she was educated  as a painter and her first attempt at a graduate degree was an MFA in painting. She refers to herself as a “failed painter” because she had a breakdown in graduate school and froze. Otsuka made one more attempt to paint while in a non-degree program in New York City but eventually switched to writing and earning her MFA in writing from Columbia.

I am always intrigued by authors who come from different genres such as poets who write novels. So a painter turned novelist made me want to see what her paintings were like. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find anything. I did find an interview Otsuko did for Goldsea Asian American and found that she is very interested in “the act of looking” saying, “For me painting wasn’t terribly reflective. I was not terribly interested in content. I was really into the act of looking.” The interviewer asks her about her “imagery” and “flow of words” and how she seems “to be painting pictures, one after the other” and Otsuko realizes how visual her writing is. While Cezanne is one of Otsuko’s favorite painters, I see her work as more of a work of Pointillism, where a series of dots of pure color are placed on the canvas in a pattern which forms an image. The different sentences, or dots, in The Buddha in the Attic form that complete image – the dots vary in voice, in emotion, and  in poignancy (and there are some extremely poignant moments in this work) and in the end the reader has a complete picture.

This is a book that I can highly recommend.

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