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Archive for October, 2012

Sunday Caught My

Home again and it is definitely nippier here in the Hinterland – a shock to my system.  Took a few days to get life back in order here – Himself and Oldest keep things running but some of the little details get missed. Yesterday Himself and I traveled to the regional cross-country race and watched the boys team come in first so next week it is off to the state competition. It is great seeing years of work come together. We also had a late lunch/early dinner at a really neat brew pub set in an old A&W building before heading home with beautiful Fall variegated gray skies to look at on the way home.

I finished Rules of Civility for book group Wednesday and had a much more in-depth discussion than I anticipated. I also finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home before it had to be returned. I liked parts of it but some aspects need to percolate in my mind a bit.  This may be a good book group book – some discussion may help me figure out just how I feel about it.  I hoped to finish The Gift of Rain this week but I have a date to see Cloud Atlas and feel the need to read it before seeing the movie.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Mary, from Seeing the World Through Books, reviews a novel set in Peru and written by Peruvian-born author Marie Arana. Arana moved to the United States when she was 9 and is also the author of a memoir, American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood. Cellophane is her first novel and is the story about Don Victor Sobrevilla who fulfills a dream by establishing a paper factory deep in the jungles of Peru. In the 1950’s Don Victor discovers the formula for cellophane and unwittingly unleashes a “plague of truth”. This novel is a little hard to describe in a short blurb so I highly recommend reading Mary’s review for a large sense of what sounds like a great read.

Memoirs about grieving seem to be lurking around every corner so it can be hard for one to catch my interest. Than Savidge Reads reviews Justine Picardie’s non-fiction work, If the Spirit Moves You, detailing the year after she lost her younger sister to breast cancer. Picardie desperately seeks something to fill the void first exploring the world of mediums and then committing to looking toward the living while accepting her internal dialogue with her sister.

Finally, JoAnn from Lakeside Musing has a wonderful list of her top ten reads to get in the mood of Halloween.

Happy reading and for those of you in the path of the storm stay warm and stay safe.

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Sunday Caught My Interest

I had a lovely week with my mom and dad (and my brother too – although he went home on Tuesday). Lots of laughter and card games and good food. My mom and I love to go out to lunch together. I got about halfway thorough The Gift of Rain. It is a slow read but I am enjoying it. The author has stories within stories and I am anxious to see how they all come together. I also got caught up on New York Times Book Reviews which my mom saves for me. There were some terrific reviews with wonderful writing and of course more books to read. My mom was reading My Name is Asher Lev for her book group and she would read the most wonderful passages out loud. Too much good writing out there…

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Winston’s Dad’s Blog (one of the best discussing translated and Asian literature) writes a nice review of Eng’s second novel The Garden of the Evening Mist. In his review he mentions a book by Romesh Gunesekera called Reef (short-listed for The Booker Prize). Set in Sri Lonka, the narrator is a young man who works in the compound of a scientist, politician, and philanthropist. The island is full of political and social strife. I think I need to find this one.

Stuck in a Book reviews a charming tale of a man, near retirement, who has an emotional affair with a donkey in Conelius Medvei’s short novel Caroline: A Mystery – Caroline being the donkey. The story is told by the man’s son depicting the first meeting, Caroline coming to live with the family, and eventually going to work with the man. This all sounds a little strange but the reviews I have seen love it and Stuck in a Book writes, “It’s short (around 150pp) and definitely a page-turner – but with lingering thoughtfulness, rather than the rush-through-discard-immediately feel of some fast-paced books.”

A few years ago a friend and I went to  to see the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly which is a dramatic memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a journalist who suffered from locked-in syndrome after a massive stroke. The movie is based on a book of the same name which was entirely written and edited in Bauby’s head after his stroke and dictated letter by letter through a technique called Partner-Assisted Scanning. Sophia of Page Plucker has reminded me of the book the movie is based on and I need to move it further up my to-be-read list. Contrary to what you may think, this is not a book full of despair, although there are moments on deep anguish. Instead it ranges from his life before and the people who populate it to taking pleasure in the presence of his children or a feeling of sunshine on his face.

Jackie from Farm Lane Books posted a link to the 2013 longlist for the DSC South Asian Literary Prize. While there are several novels worth looking at, the one that caught my attention is Leela’s Book by Alice Albinia. Leela is returning to India after 25 years with her husband to celebrate the marriage of her nephew to his niece. In the midst of all this we have family secrets, a  brother-in-law lusting after his dead wife’s sister, and a heinous act. Many of the reviews mention how entertaining this novel is and I must admit I really want to know what happens.

Wendy of Caribou’s Mom is one a bookish retreat in Santa Cruz. One of the books she encountered is Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker. This is the first of a fantasy series about economics, politics, and revenge. Farah Mendlesohn of Strange Horizon Reviews says of the trilogy, “The Engineer Trilogy is a fantasy of epistemology and ontology, an argument about the way we know things and what we know and what it is proper to know” This sounds like a good book for himself and I to read together.

Happy reading!

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Another month another stack…

As usual, several established authors have published new novels. Ruth Rendell has yet another psychological suspense novel, The St. Zita Society. She is the indisputable queen in this area, in my opinion. Debra Dean, the author of The Madonnas of Leningrad, returns to St. Petersburg in her second novel The Mirrored World. This novel is set in the Royal court of the 18th century. Louise Penny returns to her mystery series staring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache in The Beautiful Mystery and Benjamin Black returns to his series with Detective Inspector Hackett and his sometime partner Dr. Quirke with Vengeance. Finally Martin Amis has a new book, Lionel Asbo: State of England and Jonathon Tropper (author of This is Where I leave You) has a new novel, One Last Thing Before I Go.

Some interesting non-fiction books were published this month. If you are interested in politics, Arun Chaudhary has written The First Cameraman which covers President Obama from the campaign through the first 2 1/2 years of the presidency. D.T. Max has written a biography of Youngest’s favorite author: Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition follows New York Times journalist Doreen Carvajal as she looks into her family history and religious roots. Author Reyna Grande writes of her life as an undocumented immigrant at the age of nine and her subsequent life in America in her memoir The Distance Between Us. And George Myerson has written an interesting sounding book called A Private History of Happiness: Ninety-nine Moments of Joy from Around the World. He uses ninety-nine passages from a wide variety of people- Marcus Aurelius to Louisa May Alcott and explores the passage with a brief commentary.

Three books have gotten quite a bit of buzz in the reading world. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is set close to the hinterland in the orchard country of Washington at the turn of the century. A reclusive orchardist encounters two teenage girls later followed by men with guns. In The Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is the story of a young girl trying to survive during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I expect both of these novels to be read in lots of book groups. One other novel got rave reviews from English bloggers and has been finally published in the United States. Diving Belles: And Other Stories by Lucy Wood is a collection of tales that mine the legends and stories of Cornwall. The Guardian writes, “Wood’s finely wrought collection has touches of a benign Angela Carter and recalls the playful yet political transmogrifications of Atwood and Byatt … Dreamily nuanced.”

Two Books in Depth:

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison: In an essay at Amazon.com, Evison writes of the pain of losing his sixteen-year old sister in a freak accident and how it exploded his family apart. He writes:

There are holes in our lives that can never be filled–not really, not ever. And yet, we have no choice but to try to fill them. We must drive on in the face of debilitating loss, crippling guilt, overwhelming hopelessness. Because to give up is to be dead. I’ve lived with this idea since I was five years old.

It is this feeling that propels his novel. Benjamin Benjamin is a man who has lost almost everything. After taking a night course he becomes the caretaker of nineteen year old wheelchair-bound Trev who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The two eventually take a road trip from Washington to Salt Lake City picking up various people along the way. I love road trip novels and I like the premiss of trying to fill a hole in one’s heart. I highly recommend reading the essay – it alone was enough to make me want to read the book. Diane from a Bibliophile by the Sea writes:

This novel is worth reading, in my opinion. Sometimes I find reading about emotionally damaged characters to be extremely difficult, but when humor is infused which was the case with this novel, the experience can be ultimately uplifting.

We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen: In this contemporary novel, the Rovaniemis and their nine children live in the mid-west and belong to an extremely conservative church. The story is told in alternating chapters by the parents and the children. The novel explores the more traditional ground of a family novel, birth order, sibling rivalry, parental expectations, etc, while looking in depth at the role of faith for each member of the family and with their relationships with each other. While I did not grow up in a restrictive church, my extended family comes from a very faith-oriented background and I have seen first hand what individuals go through struggling to stay on the church’s terms, their own terms, or to leave all-together. The Boston Globe calls it “(a) spare, quietly devastating debut novel” and Megan of Leafing Through Life has a wonderful in-depth review:

We Sinners is a quiet but powerful book that explores the vagaries of a commanding faith from inside and out.  Pylvainen’s prose is stark but illuminating, shining a light on a topic that rarely gets so much balanced attention.  While Pylvainen briefly explores each of the family’s members to great effect, the focus always remains on the fundamentalism that both unites and divides and how the choice to stay or to go always leaves someone standing on the other side of the glass wondering if they failed to choose the better way.

We Sinners sounds like an impressive book and one worthy of more notice than it has received so far.

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The Age of Miracles

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath the skin.

We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length know to every human being. (pg. 3)

My mother was filling a copper can with water for the two white milky orchids that lived in the kitchen window. Her attention to her plants had increase since the start of the slowing, as if our survival somehow hinged on theirs. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Beauty can be a very reassuring thing. (pg. 87)

If you have a book about a young girl entering sixth grade (and middle school) with tension in her house, tension among her friends, and wondering where she fits with herself, her home, her world you may have expectations about what will happen – lots of angst, lots of wondering, lots of tension, lots of worry – perhaps a first love, perhaps some bad decisions, experiments with clothes or make-up, all the typical parts of a coming-of-age story. If you have a book about a world-wide crisis that includes the potential end of earth as we know it and you have similar expectations – a run on food, a break down of order, the rise of fringe groups. Put these two very different genres together and you have Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles.

It is easy to say that this novel is a mish-mash of formulas. It is easy to say that an author that uses two such different approaches risks diluting her message. And I have read a few reviews that say something similar to either of these two statements. My experience of the book was different. I found it to be a remarkable coming-of-age story.  I also found it to be an intriguing story about what would happen if the world started to spin more slowly. And I found the story of the world slowing enhancing the other story giving an added poignancy to the book.

Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing but it was only afterward that I realized it. My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.  (pg. 92)

Julia is an only child living in a southern California beach town. She lives with her mother, a former actress and now high school drama teacher and her father who is an obstetrician. Julia will soon be turn twelve years old and is navigating the shoals of middle school, the Age of Miracles according to the author. In the midst of all this, she wake up on morning and discovers, along with the rest of the world, that the earth has started slowing and the days have grown by minutes.

Scientists scramble for answers, politicians ask people to continue on and buy, and people make a run for the grocery stores. Some people pack up and leave town and others hunker down. Soon society returns to some sort of normal as the earth continues to slow. The birds have trouble flying, gravity changes, tides change forcing evacuation of coastal areas. The governments decide to stay on clock time while a small minority decides to stay on day time.

And Julia struggles to continue going on in this environment with her mother becoming more dramatic, her father distancing himself from his wife, and her grandfather focused on government conspiracies while obsessing over his many possessions. More of a listener that talker, an observer rather than participant, she finds herself on the outside of the social cliques spending the lunch hour in the library. I know of middle school girls who have done this or, even worse, spend their entire lunch period in the bathroom. Middle school is such a boiler room with shifting loyalties and spurned children. The main strength of this novel is how well the author depicts this time of life:

It was that time of life: Talents were rising to the surface, weaknesses were beginning to show through, we were finding out what kind of people we would be. Some would turn out beautiful, some funny, some shy. Some would be smart, others smarter. The chubby ones would likely always be chubby. The beloved, I sensed, would be beloved for life. And I worried that loneliness might work that ay, too. Maybe loneliness might work that way, too. Maybe loneliness was imprinted in my genes, lying dormant for years but now coming into full bloom.  (pg. 189)

There are many lovely passages in the novel, too many to quote and not give some of the plot away. Walker has a deft way with words. In the following passage she is describing the atmosphere in Julia’s house after an incident. I remember a friend of mine who described the toxicity of breakfast at her house. Her parents did not want to burden the children with their bitter arguments so they fought at night leaving all that tension hanging in the air in the morning:

Later, I tried but mostly failed to sleep the last hour before my alarm clock sounded. Meanwhile, my parents argued through their bedroom door. I could hear not what was said but what was expressed, the anger radiating through the door. (pg. 199)

One of my friends told me after reading this book that it speaks to any woman who was once twelve years old. It brings back that time in a bittersweet way – of changing bodies and dying friendships, of finding footing in an unsettle world and the possibility of first love. I thought this novel was spot on and I greatly enjoyed reading it. Think back to being twelve wondering what your place was with your family, your friends, your world. Struggling for firm ground, in search of who you are with circumstances that change every minute. This is what this book captured for me. The ending was spot on summing up the whole experience of this time of life in just a few, evocative words – for me that is the sign of a novelist who understands the human condition.

In closing, here is a portion of an interview with the author that appears on the novel’s Amazon.com page:

Julia’s voice–the voice of a young woman looking back on her adolescence–came into my head as soon as I had the idea of the slowing. It was the only way I could imagine writing the book. Adolescence is an extraordinary time of life, a period when the simple passage of time results in dramatic consequences, when we grow and change at seemingly impossible speeds. It seemed natural to tell the story of the slowing, which is partly about time, in the context of middle school. It was also a way of concentrating on the fine-grain details of everyday life, which was very important to me. I was interested in exploring the ways in which life carries on, even in the face of profound uncertainty.

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Sunday Caught My Interest

I am sitting at my mother’s kitchen table – I drove down yesterday through wonderful fall light. The gorge was beautiful from beginning to end. Generally the upper gorge is a little bleak looking but the light was shinning just right on the bluffs and the Columbia river was calm and shimmering. My brother came out from the east coast to visit so I thought I would tag along the last part of his visit.

This week I finished The Department of Last Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen and I am so hooked.  I can’t wait to begin the second one in the series. Last Saturday I had picked up two books from the new book shelf: The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey and A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. I had an insane idea that I would be able to finish them before my trip. I did get a third of the way through the Carey but could only dip into the other. I will have to reorder them when I am back. I brought along The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng to read while I am here and so far it has proven to be a good choice.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Stopping by the library is always a dangerous thing even if you are only picking up books on hold. Cat from Tell Me a Story, picked up what sounds like a good debut novel, Beyond the Ties of Blood, by Florencia Mallon. The author is Chilean- American and her novel is about the reign of terror by the Pinochet regime. Nearly twenty years after the death of her lover, her torture, and eventual exile, Eugenia Aldunate returns to Chili to testify in the case of her lover’s death. I don’t read nearly enough fiction about this part of the world and this time in history so this one is going on the list.

Tom from A Common Reader posts about a new travel book called Walking the Hexagon: An Escape Around France on Foot. The author, Terry Cudbird, wanted to explore France utilizing the Grand Randonées (the network of long-distance footpaths that cross the country in all directions)”. Shortly after he retired he set off taking a year to walk around France. Himself and I are planning our December trip to see Youngest and Northern France is one of our main destinations. Even though we are not walking, I would love to read this book to find out more about the areas we will be visiting especially from someone who is seeing the country from the mindful perspective that walking requires.

The BookSnob posted about a book that may be hard to find but worth it – Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton. Simon from Stuck in a Book also raved about the novel.  I found a copy in the University Library system available for inter-library loan. Other copies might be available in used book stores or libraries with strong catalogs.
Simon says the book is “so warm, so funny, so lively and delightful.  It’s a warm blanket of a novel, but never cloying or sentimental.” And the Booksnob writes:

This is the sort of book that is pure pleasure from start to finish, with hordes of wonderfully engaging characters, a slightly bonkers but still totally absorbing plot that is littered with references to Pride and Prejudice and a conversational, conspiratorial tone that draws you in and makes you feel completely involved in the goings on of the world that has been created inside the covers.

Guard Your Daughters is about the Harvey Family: the father is a reclusive author holed up in his home office; the mother is fragile and stays in her bedroom; and then there are the five sisters (the eldest married and living away from home for the first time. The daughters have been raised in the family home in the country with haphazard schooling (again at home). The eldest daughter is coming to see how this may not be in her sister’s best interests. While the reviews all say it is amusing and clever, they also say the novel has depth and deals with control versus independence, parents’ needs versus children’s needs.

Mo Yan, from China, won the Noble Prize in Literature with the committee stating:

Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition.

There are several of his novels available on Amazon and the one that interests me the most is his debut novel Red Sorghum. The novel covers three generations of a Chinese family including the Japanese invasion of China. A word of warning to readers – the novel is non-chronological and is, at times, brutally graphic in describing the violence some characters are subjected to. I found two articles if you are interesting in learning more about this author. The Washington Post describes Yan’s novel they have reviewed (with a link to an article about his winning the prize) and Xinhaunet.com has a news analysis of why Yan won.

Finally, Stuck in a Book has another wonderful list of books about the theater that is worth checking out.

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I was going through some files this morning and came across a poem my mother sent me. She sent it because it is a beautiful poem. But she also sent it because of the title, Delphiniums in a Window Box. A.A. Milne not only wrote wonderful stories for children, he was an accomplished poet as well. Many of his poems are part of my families everyday lexicon including a line from this verse which opens his poem The Dormouse and the Doctor:

There once was a Dormouse who lived in a bed
Of Delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red)
And all the day long he’d a wonderful view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)

This verse gives such a picture of contentment. Delphiniums and geraniums are lovely flowers and are some of my favorites. My mother had delphiniums planted in her garden outside her backdoor. Unfortunately a bush (affectionately known as “The Little Shop of Horrors”) overtook them. But she always has geraniums (red) planted in her front yard. Whenever I see them I think of Milne’s poem.

Delphiniums in a Window Box also paints a lovely picture – an aching longing that infuses each moment of life with an ending that will echo in your head long after you have finished reading. It was written by contemporary poet Dean Young. Young has written several poetry books including his latest Bender: New and Selected Poems. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Poetry Prize and has received both a Stegner Fellowship as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. The poem below appeared in the May 18, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.

Delphiniums in a Window Box

Every sunrise, even strangers’ eyes.
Not necessarily swans, even crows,
even the evening fusillade of bats.
That place where the creek goes underground,
how many weeks before I see you again?
Stacks of books, every page, characters’
rages and poets’ strange contraptions
of syntax and song, every song
even when there isn’t one.
Every thistle, splinter, butterfly
over drainage ditches. Every stray.
Did you see the meteor shower?
Did it feel like something swallowed?
Every question, conversation
even with almost nothing, cricket, cloud,
because of you I’m talking to crickets. clouds.
confiding in a cat. Everyone says,
Come to your senses, and I do, of you.
Every touch, electric, every taste you,
every smell, even burning sugar, every
cry and laugh. Toothpicked samples
at the farmers’ market, every melon,
plum, I come undone, undone.

— Dean Young

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So many good books were published this month. Two of them I have read, Evil Knievel Days by Pauls Toutonghi and Chapman’s Odyssey by Paul Bailey; I would recommend both and I hope to post reviews soon. A third book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, is on the schedule for one of my book groups. I have not read a bad review of this book and I am looking forward to reading it.

Several well known authors published books this month. Irish author Tana French (Faithful Place) once again takes a supporting character and gives him his own story in Broken Harbor. Carlos Ruiz Zafon returns us to Barcelona and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books with The Prisoner of Heaven. I loved The Shadow of the Wind (it is a great travel book) and missed his second (The Angel’s Game) but I don’t see the books as a conventional trilogy so I don’t think it is necessary to read them in a particular order. Thrity Umrigar (The Weight of Heaven) writes about friendship between women in her new novel The World We Found. I found she had a way of getting into her character’s heads so I expect this new novel to be as good as her others.

I have only read one book by Chris Bohjalian (Secrets of Eden) and while I liked it I didn’t feel compelled to read anything else by him. That may have to change with his newly published The Sandcastle Girls. The novel follows a young American girl who travels to Syria in 1915 to help refugees from the Armenian Genocide – a topic that does not receive enough attention.

Highlighted Books

The Violinist’s Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean: My mother and I have often talked about the unmapped parts of the genetic code. We believe, among other unknown genes, there is a “backing-up” gene which we lack (me more so then she). I will do almost anything to avoid having to back the car – I just have no sense of where things are. In fact, my friends will do almost anything to avoid being in a car with me that I have to back up. So I was pleased to see this new non-fiction book that looks into our DNA and genetic code in an accessible and reader-friendly way.  Alyce from At Home with Books writes, “Out of everything I have read about DNA, this book gave me the most in-depth understanding of the science in an accessible manner. Had it all just been about the science I would have given up halfway through, but the author helps the reader to see how innovative these discoveries were for their time, and also how ridiculed some of the scientists were for thinking outside the box.”

I did not read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by Irish author John Boyne but I have heard how powerful it was. In his new novel, The Absolutist, Boyne writes about love and friendship in the trenches of World War I. One soldier survives and one is executed on the battlefield on charges of cowardice. Tristam, the survivor, carries letters back to the other soldier’s family. During the course of the novel we see Tristam at seventeen, disgraced and disowned by his family, his military training, and life in the trenches. One of the words that pops up over and over again in various reviews is “nuanced”. Shelf Awareness describes the book as, “A powerful story about love, hate, courage, guilt and war where nothing is simple and everything might not be as it seems.” And The Boston Bibliophile writes, “The Absolutist is not a happy book and it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s haunting and eloquent and beautiful nonetheless. Boyne asks some tough questions and doesn’t always answer them the way you think he will.’ This book sounds like a difficult read but one that may be well worth the effort.

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