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Archive for July, 2012

In a typical move for in Inland Northwest, we have gone from coolish at the beginning of the week to 98 degrees at the end. At least the Fourth of July was pleasant, in the 70’s, which is perfect for watching a small town parade and eating BBQ with friends. We were fortunate enough to go out on the lake to watch the firework show which made the echos of the hills seem even louder. Youngest was on a beach somewhere watching the same show with his friends and eldest meandered downtown with his friends for the show there. I have been getting back into the swing of life here at home after three weeks away. The cat took five days to forgive me – and then I think he only did so because youngest had betrayed him by bringing a murderer (aka a friend) into the house.

I had time to look at the books I was in the middle of reading and decided to send two of them back unfinished: Turn of Mind by Laplante and How to Paint a Dead Man by Hall. Both got excellent reviews however they were not catching my interest, especially with a long break. I do feel a little guilty about not persevering but there are too many books on my list…I did finish the second volume of The Cazalet Chronicles, am about halfway through The Buddha in the Attic for my book group on Monday. I am also reading a Swedish thriller (Another Time, Another Life by Persson) and while I am enjoying the plot, I am having a little problem with the writing or the translation but since I want to know what happens I am carrying forth.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

One of the fascinating characters in the Cazalet Chronicles is the spinster daughter Rachel who spends her time doing for others. Rachel is fortunate that her parents are well-to-do in contrast with the family teacher Miss Milliment who has to struggle with poverty and the question of what will she do when she is of no use to anyone. Book Snob reviews a book first published in 1927 which explores this theme in greater detail, The Islanders by Helen Hull. Set in American midwest starting in 1850, the novel is the story of Ellen Darcy, who in a set of circumstances finds herself taking care of her mother, her younger brother, and the family farm while her father, older brother, and her finance take off for riches in the west.  From the farm, to elderly parents, to nieces and nephews, from independence to dependence, Ellen muses about women and their role in society as islands as men come and go. This might be hard to find but definitely sounds worth the search.

Caroline, of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, brings Masuji Ibuse’s novel of Hiroshima, Black Rain, to my attention. This novel is based on real-life interviews and diaries and concerns a young woman (Yasuko) who was caught in the “black rain” that fell after the bombing of the city. Her uncle is trying to arrange a marriage for her but potential suitors have concerns about the future of effects of the rain on Yasuko. Said to be one of the important works on Hiroshima, this novel is not about the global and political  implications of the bombing – rather, it is centered on the personal and intimate effects on individuals. This may be out of print in America but it is available on Kindle and I am sure it is available to many through an inter-library loan.

Surely I am not the only one who had a mother who kept a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems by her beside? A Charismatic, handsome, and fascinating man, the poet was also deeply conflicted about his sexuality and insecure about his poetry. Sophia, from Page Plucker, briefly mentions Jill Dawson’s novel about Rupert – The Great Lover, and from the sound of it, I must put this on the list. A mix of fact and fiction, the novel is centered around Rupert’s time as a young man struggling with his bisexuality in 1909. Narrated by fictional Nell, a servant of the household in which Rupert comes to live. She becomes involved with him and tells his story and his search for love and self-acceptance.

Iris from Iris on Books shows me The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder. What caught my interest is the author who I know because of his novel, Sophie’s World. When youngest was in elementary school he started asking me a lot of questions about philosophy so I took myself down to Auntie’s Books and in a bookish moment of serendipity, got just the right clerk who led me to Gaarder’s novel. It is a stretch read for a 5th grader, but youngest loved it. I didn’t know the author had written other novels which have been translated from the original Norwegian. Gaarder is very interested in philosophical ideas and conveys many concepts into his works. The Orange Girl is about Georg who receives a letter from his long dead father telling him about the Orange Girl. Georg writes his reaction to the letter and his subsequent thoughts in a notebook and the novel features the play between the two. Iris also mentions another book by Gaarder which she likes better called Through a Glass, Darkly which is a series of conversations, about the meaning of life, between a terminally ill girl and an angel which steps through her window. If you are interested in the great questions of life, I would definitely recommend Sophie’s World and I am going to keep my eye out for the other novels to see if they match up.

Finally, Kimbofo of Reading Matters has a wonderful list (with descriptions) of Australian literature published this year. Two of these (The Street Sweeper by Perlman and The Chemistry of Tears by Carey) are already on my list to read. But after going through the others I have to add Bereft by Chris Womersley called by some, a literary thriller, and others as “quiet and understated”, the novel is about Quinn who returns to his small town to live in solitary in the hills surrounding the town where he meets a young woman who also lives alone. Quinn was accused of raping and murdering his sister and he is unsure if he should return without proof of his innocence. The novel is set in the time of the Spanish Flu epidemic which heightens the tension.

Happy Reading.

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The Cazalets were a kissing family. As the first lot (Edward and Villy) arrived, they kissed the Duchy and Rachel (the children kissed the Duchy and hugged Aunt  Rachel); when the second lot (Sybil and Hugh) arrived they did the same, and then the brothers and sisters-in-law kissed each other, “How are you, darling?”; when Rupert and Zoe arrived, he kissed everyone, and Zoe imprinted her brothers-in-law’s faces with her light, scarlet lipstick and lent a creamy cheek to her sister-in-law’s mouths. The Duchy sat in an upright deck-chair on the front lawn under the monkey puzzle boiling the silver kettle for strong Indian tea. As each one kidded her she made her silent lightening review of their health: Villy looked rather thin, Edward looked in the pink as he always seemed to; Louise was growing too fast, Teddy was reaching the awkward age; Sybil looked done up, and Hugh looked as though he was recovering from one of his heads; Polly was becoming a pretty child so nothing must ever be said about her appearance; Simon looked too pale – some sea air would do him good; Rupert looked positively haggard and needed feeding up; and Zoe – but here her thoughts failed her. Incurably honest, she admitted to herself that she did not – like – Zoe and could not get past her appearance which, she felt, was a trifle showy, a little like an actress. The Duchy did not have anything against actresses in general, it was simply that one did not expect to have one in the family. (The Light Years, pg. 89-90)

Someone had turned off the wireless and in spite of the room being full of people, there was a complete silence – in which Polly could feel, and almost hear, her own heart thudding. As long as nobody spoke, and no one moved, it was still the very end of peace…

The Brig, her grandfather, did move. She watched while – still in silence – he got slowly to his feet, stood for a moment, one hand trembling on the back of his chair as he passed the other slowly across his filmy eyes. Then he went across the room, and, one by one, kissed his two elder sons, Polly’s father Hugh and Uncle Edward. She waited for him to kiss Uncle Rupe, but he did not. She had never seen him kiss another man before, but it seemed more of an apology and a salute. It’s for what they went through last time there was a war, and because it was for nothing, she thought.

Polly saw everything. She saw Uncle Edward catch her father’s eye, and then wink, and her father’s face contract as he remembered something he could hardly bear to remember. She saw her Grandmother, the Duchy, sitting bolt upright staring at Uncle Rupert with a kind of bleak anger. She’s not angry with him, she’s afraid he will have to be in it. She’s so old-fashioned she thinks it’s simply men who have to fight and die; she doesn’t understand. Polly understood everything. (Marking Time, pg. 5)

I grew up in a reading household with books everywhere. I listened as my parents discussed books, went to the library to get books for everybody, and watched adaptations on PBS. One of the shows we watched was The Forsythe Saga and I remember thinking that Soames was creepy and that Irene was so sad, and that Fleur was one of the prettiest names I had ever heard. My mom had all the volumes of Galsworthy’s family saga on the shelf and the saga was on of the first books I bought for myself in college because, for me, the saga was a symbol of what should be on the shelves of a well read person. I have reread parts of the saga several times and I trace my love of a really good, detailed family saga to those evenings watching a flickering TV set with my family.

After seeing a mention of a family saga on a book blog, I went to the library and took out The Light Years: Volume One of the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard started reading and fell in love. There is something about a family saga that just gets to me – perhaps it is the minutia of description or the character driven writing, or the complexity of family relationships – whatever it is Howard provides it in spades. I read right through the book (all 434 pages) and went back to the library for the second volume – Marking Time: Volume Two of the Cazalet Chronicles. This time my reading was interrupted by my trip to my mom’s but one of the first things I did when I got back home was to dive back into the Cazalet’s lives. I am kicking myself that I have not run back to the library to get the 3rd and 4th volumes.

We first meet the Cazalet family in 1937. William, a.k.a. The Brig, is the family patriarch, married to Kitty (a.k.a. The Duchy) and the head of the family firm which deals in hardwoods. They have three sons (Hugh, Edward, and Rupurt) who in turn have wives (Sybil, Villy, and Zoe – Rupert’s young and frivolous second wife). There is also a sister, Rachel, who unmarried and lives with her parents. Add in assorted servants, tutors, in-laws, lovers, and friends and you have a complex set of characters. It can be hard to keep track at first but Howard includes two family trees to help sort out who is who as well as the ages of all the cousins.

The Cazalet family spends their summers living at The Home Place, Brig and The Duchy’s home in the Sussex countryside and Volume One takes place during two summers, 1937 and 1938 ending with Chamberlain’s Peace with Honor Speech. We spent much of Volume One learning about the family and their dynamics. Edward loves his wife but also loves to have affairs. Hugh and Sybil are deeply in love and try to make the other person happy by negating their own feelings which leads to unhappiness. Rupert’s new wife is despised by his children and well as the extended family. Rachel spends her life doing for her family and others much to the dismay of her dear friend Syd who would like a more romantic relationship with Rachel. The children swarm around, divided in age between younger and older, with tennis games, trips to the beach, bike rides etc. and their relationships change with the passage of time, new introductions of other children, and in conjunction with what happens with their families. And looming over all this is the growing tension between Germany and its European neighbors.

Volume Two starts one year after Chamberlain’s speech and with the clear knowledge that England will be going to war once again. Howard shifts perspective slightly in this volume by concentrating on the three eldest girls of the third generation – Louise, Polly, and Clary. Louise has left home for a domestic science course having been previously tutored at home with the other girls by Miss Milliment who had tutored Villy and her sister when they were young. Her world has greatly expanded first by a friend from school and later by her adventures in acting. Louise also has to deal with a problematic relationship with her father. Polly is trying to be as good as possible while desperately worried about her mother’s illness and her father’s overworking at the family firm. Clary is dealing with her father at war, her step-mother having a baby, and wanting to be a writer. The family houses in London are mostly closed due to the blitz and for the most part the family has retreated to Home Place in Sussex. The house becomes more and more crowded because, as Miss Milliment states, “The Cazalet’s collect people”.

While the world moves on and things happen to each other in global and personal ways, this saga is very much character driven. Howard excels at giving the reader a lot of detailed description of surroundings and activities (some readers may find it too detailed) as well as deeply drawn portraits of each character’s personality. Each character has their own distinct voice from the members of the families, down to the servants and retainers. My favorite character is Miss Milliment who seems to be an expert teacher well aware of her student’s needs while struggling with abject poverty and a fear of what will happen to her as she ages.

Aside from the war, unpleasant things do happen in the books. There are two unwanted sexual encounters that, while not explicit, do draw an unpleasant and tense picture. Villy is extremely unhappy and quite snippy to her daughter Louise and some of her remarks made me squirm. Edward is a cad – a good nature, jolly fellow cad but he does love his family in his own way and when push comes to shove is there for his brothers. While he was the easiest brother to dislike and I do not condone some of his actions, the author also shows his good side.  Sybil’s declining health is also hard to read about as she and her husband try to convince each other that all is well, leaving Polly to the side worried and upset about both of them.

Howard is also excellent at letting the reader inside the head of her characters as we see their thoughts and worries, and particularly with the fantasies or conversations they hold in their heads. For example, in the second volume, Villy convinces herself that a conversation between her and a music conductor was more than it was and then idles away in thought about future interactions they will have with each other. These asides or reveries really add depth to the story which is about outward versus inward appearances – what we may desire inside isn’t possible due to constraints of the time, roles people play, or the difficulty of the war. With changing times, come changing roles but the cultural system of the family changes slowly. The second volume, with its focus on the three teenage cousins, particularity highlights coming of age in such a turbulent time as each girl struggles to find her place in the world. I expect that the last two volumes will further explore this theme.

All in all these two volumes were very satisfying reads long enough for a good wallow and interesting enough to keep your interest. I am now very invested in this family and want to know what happens to each one as the war progresses. I will definitely read the rest of the saga and will be looking to include these on my own bookshelves soon. Every once in a while I need to totally lose myself in the intricacies of another family and like The Forsythe Saga, The Cazalet Chronicles are worth revisiting over time.

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For eight years I dreamed of fire. Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned. The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose. Even so, the moment my mattress started to burn, I bolted awake. The sharp chemical smell was nothing like the hazy syrup of my dreams; the two were as different as Carolina and Indian jasmine, separation and attachment. They could not be confused.

Standing in the middle of the room, I located the source of the fire. A neat row of wooden matches lined the foot of the bed. They ignited, one after the next, a glowing picket fence across the piped edging. Watching them light, I felt a terror unequal to the size of the flickering flames, and for a paralyzing moment I was ten years old again, desperate and hopeful in a way I had never been before and would never be again.

It was my eighteenth birthday. (pg. 3)

Victoria is eighteen years old and, as an orphan in the foster system, she is about to be thrust out into the world. Her social worker is coming to her group home to take her a transition home where she will have a few months to gain her feet. The other members of the home are giving her a little going away present giving the reader a hint to Victoria’s difficult temperament as well as the harsh reality of her living environment. This is the start of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers which alternates chapters between Victoria’s time when she left the group home and when she was ten years old living with Elizabeth. Victoria had been in many foster situations which had not worked out and was on her last change with Elizabeth, a grape grower and the woman who taught her the language of flowers, each flower having a different meaning or symbolizing a specific emotion or trait..

This novel was on my to be read list as soon as I found out the premise. Victoria has been taught the language of flowers and this, along with an uncanny ability with plants, is the only real knowledge she has. She is somewhat obsessed with growing things even to the point of planting a small, out of the way bit underbrush on a San Francisco street corner. One of my favorite passages of Jo’s Boys (Louisa May Alcott’s sequel to Little Men) is when one of the characters uses flowers to ask a young woman about her feelings for him. It is such a romantic passage and I always wanted to more about this language and how people can use flowers to convey a certain message. Fortunately, Diffenbaugh includes a dictionary of flowers in the back of the book.

The novel follows Victoria from homelessness, to a job working for a florist, to a relationship with a flower grower, and beyond. We also learn how Victoria gained her affinity for flowers and learned their language which derives from Victorian England. The switches back and forth led to my biggest issue with the book. The voice of the ten year old child sounds far more mature than is possible. While I understand that a child abandoned at birth and raised in the system may have a certain level of maturity due to her circumstances but the voice came across to me as an adult. So I was confused if these chapters were supposed to be reminiscences by a grown-up Victoria or if they were suppose to come across in real time.

Victoria is difficult to like – she is rebellious, prickly, and very slow to accept help. It was pretty obvious to me that she suffered from attachment disorder so that knowledge helps me to place her behavior in that light and gave me some understanding. I did have to keep remembering that the novel does not take place in the immediate present – My impression was the late 1970’s. I recently went back and tried to find some marker that would give a definite date and was unable to do so. It was a different time and what we know now about attachment disorder is far more than we knew then. That would perhaps explain the lack of counseling, the underground economy, even the way Victoria runs her business. It doesn’t help the reader that the author doesn’t mention the disorder in the novel at all (it is mentioned in the acknowledgements in the back of the book).

Another issue of the book is how the pathway out of attachment disorder is simplified in the novel. The author does show Victoria’s search for the ability to make and maintain an intense emotional connection is not an easy one but the process seemed almost glossed over, something to be inferred rather than told. Attachment disorder is very complex and to get to the other side is an often long and winding path with much back and forth. I really wish I had been able to attend my book group’s discussion of the novel. One of the members has a lot of experience with these issues and I would like to know her opinion of the book. I do think it is a good book to discuss in a group.

Aside from taking a look at what happens to children after they leave foster care (a cause the author is very involved in), it is also about motherhood. Are we mothers because of birth or because of love or even a combination? What does motherhood mean to a child that has been abandoned? Is connection possible when you have never had one, when the first and most basic connection a human being has is severed? This is what the novel does well, from the epigraph, “Moss is selected to be the emblem of motherhood, because like that love, it glads the heart when the winter of adversity overtakes us, and when summer friends have deserted us. (Henrietta Dumont, The Floral Offering)”, to the relationships between other people that Victoria encounters in the novel. How deep to roots need to be for there to be a bond between two people?

However, this will not be one of my favorite books of this year. It rubbed me the wrong way while I was reading it. I didn’t have difficulty with Victoria’s behavior, rather my difficulties are with the author’s writing. I had a difficult time getting beyond the voice issues and the simplification of complex issues. It is a quick read and if you are interested in reading about motherhood or what happens to foster children when they are emancipated, the book may be worth your time. If you are interested in the Language of flowers you will learn a lot in this book. And because a number of other readers liked more than I did, here are two reviews with a different opinion from mine:

Ti from Book Chatter

and

Vishy’s Blog

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My mom and I got up at the crack of dawn and drove through the rain to deliver me to the Portland airport so I am back home again with an added week away from what was planned. My mother’s sister passed away so we flew to Utah for the funeral. My brother was able to fly in from the east coast and my sweet cousin Ali put us up (Hi Ali!). It was wonderful to see all the family and celebrate one of the sweetest woman I have ever encountered. We did sneak away to go to Salt Lake with a trip to the King’s English Book Store. My mother never made it to the fiction, sitting down in the literary essay/criticism section and finding all she needed there. I hope to do a post on the new titles she and I acquired during my three week visit.

Himself has looked at Lucy and there have been good “ohs” and bad “ohs” coming from the office – he keeps telling me to be patient which is definitely not my strong suit. I am very concerned about my bookmarks as I have detailed lists of what is coming out in bookmark form as well as all my recipes I have tried or want to try. I am very grateful I transitioned to goggle reader so at least I know I can keep in touch with my favorite bloggers. So youngest has let me borrow his computer (after complaining there was no leftovers to eat in the house) so here we go.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Canadian Blogger The Indextrious Reader introduced me to a debut novel, Dance Gladys, Dance by Cassie Stocks and describes it as “great fun to read… but ends up being so much more”. Twenty-seven year old Frieda has reached the end of the road in more ways than one facing the reality of  failed relationships and seemingly no hope for a career as an artist – a real job is her next step. She eventually ends up renting a room in a house inhabited by a ghost named Gladys who has know first hand the frustrations of a failed career as a dancer. Gladys tells her story to Frieda in hopes that Frieda, unlike Gladys, will change her life. A book about women, the multiple ways they express their creativity, and what encourages or facilitates and what holds back that urge to enrich the world.

The Rivonia trial took place in South Africa in the early 1960’s and was the African government’s attempt to shut down the African National Congress and their anti-apartheid activities. One of those tried was Rusty Bernstein who, after months of harsh treatment and incarceration, was acquitted. When he left the courtroom he was arrested again and released on bail. The government also attempted to arrest his wife, Hilda, but she was able to go into hiding. The Bernsteins fled the country on foot leaving their children behind. They settled in England and their children joined them later. Hilda detailed these events in a memoir, The World That Was Ours reviewed by Heavenali. Sometimes I need reminded that in hard times it is possible to stand up for what is right. This book sounds like just the right reminder.

I recently reviewed Train Dreams by Denis Johnson which, in short, is about a man caught in a world of changing eras who suffers with the death of his wife. Leeswammes reviews Nightfall, by Stephen Leather which seems to be about a Scottish shipbuilder caught between changing eras and loses the love of his life. Since I liked the concept of Train Dreams, I may have to try  Nightfall. A willing social outcast, unable to reengage with life, this novel details Peter’s thoughts as the reader wonders if he will move from his alienation with the world and reclaim a stake in his own life.

In June, many bloggers participated in Dutch Literature Month, reviewing many books by Dutch authors including Dove Grey Reader’s review of Julia by Otto de Kat. Julia is a slim novel that looks at the decision that  one man made when he was young and how it effected him. In 1981, Dutch industrialist Chris Dudok commits suicide. He doesn’t leave any note per se but on his desk is a newspaper clipping reporting on the bombing of the north German town of Lubeck in 1941 with the highlighted name of Julia Bender. Chris spent a year in Lubeck falling in love with Julia. Julia urges Chris to go back home saying that his staying will endanger her anti-Nazi activities. The book outlines Chris’s thoughts and reminiscences the evening before and the morning of his death.

Finally, two book lists crossed my path this week. The first is five works from Spanish Literature brought to us by Lizzy’s Literary Life and nine books about Paris (three each from the classics, 20th century classics, and history brought to us by Feur Fisher.

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