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Archive for February, 2013

Words for Wednesday

From The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation. They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves. Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks. they had grown into the unseen wall and it was difficult to pry them loose. My father wiped his palm across his forehead and dammed their toughness. I was using a rusted old dandelion fork with a splintered handle; he wielded a long, slim iron fireplace poker that was probably doing more harm than good. As my father prodded away blindly at the places where he sensed roots might have penetrated, he was surely making convenient holes in the mortar for next year’s seedlings.

Whenever I succeeded in working loose a tiny tree, I placed it like a trophy beside me on the narrow sidewalk that surrounded the house. There were ash shoots, elm, maple, box elder, even a good-sized catalpa, which my father placed in an ice cream bucket and watered, thinking that he might find a place to replant it. I thought it was a wonder the treelets had persisted through a North Dakota winter. They’d had water perhaps, but only feeble light and a few crumbs of earth. Yet each seed had managed to sink the hasp of a root deep and a probing tendril outward .

My father stood, stretching his sore back. That’s enough, he said, although he was unusually a perfectionist.

I was unwilling to stop, however, and after he went into the house to phone my mother, who had gone to her office to pick up a file, I continued to pry at the hidden rootlings. He did not come back out and I thought he must have lain down for a nap, as he now did sometimes. You would think I would have stopped, a thirteen-year-old boy with better things to do, but on the contrary. As the afternoon passed and everything on the reservation grew quiet and hushed, it seemed increasingly important to me that each one of these invaders be removed down to the very tip of the root, where all the vital growth was concentrated. And it seemed important as well that I do a meticulous job, as opposed to so many of my shoddily completed chores. Even now, I wonder at the steepness of my focus. I wedged my iron fork close as I could along the length of the twiglike sprout. Each little tree required its own singular strategy. It was almost impossible not to break off the plant before its roots could be drawn from their stubborn  hiding place. (pages 1-2)

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Sunday Caught My Interest

It has been an interesting week here in the Hinterland with blue skies, rain, and snow not to mention birds that think it is spring. I have been reading from Himself’s newest science fiction anthology picking stories here and there and I have also picked up a book of essays called The Collected What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been edited by Roberty Cowley. These historians take a particular point in history and write about what would have happened if things were different, i.e. The Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t issued. Very interesting so far. And I watched my last Oscar movie – Beasts of the Southern Wild – it is definitely a movie that will take some time to process. Eldest is putting on some finishing touches to getting ready for his Oscar party tonight, just need to make a double batch of lasagne. It will be really fun to watch this year, the only year I have seen all the best nominated films.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Several bloggers (Dolce Bellezza and The Boston Bibliophile among them) have reviewed books by Edward St. Aubyn. Never Mind and Bad News are the first of five in St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series which is based on the author’s own life covering such themes as death, alcoholism, addiction, recovery, parenthood, the gamut of dysfunctional life. My mother read this series and raved about it. While the subject may seem depressing, I have heard the writing is excellent.

Since alternative history is well loved in our house, Mary Whipple reminds me once again of one of the pinnacles of that genre, Harry Turtledove’s Ruled Britannia where England does not defeat the Spanish Armada and is now ruled by Spain. Turtledove also has a series of novels about the Confederacy winning the civil war and enduring as a separate nation. His latest series is about an alternative WW II. Ruled Britannia is a stand alone book if you don’t want to invest the time in a long series of books.

Amélie Nothomb seems to becoming popular. Last week I mentioned Savidge Reads review of  The Character of Rain and this week The Boston Bibliophile reviews Life Form, where an obese U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq writing as a fan to Amélie. The novel is narrated by Amélie. Like Hygiene and the Assassin, this novel seems to discuss fact and fiction, the nature and place of authorship, and being fat. But this time, Nothomb adds the issues of war and the damage it can inflict on individuals.

Happy Reading.

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Being December, the number of new books is a lot small but not to worry – January and February will make up for it as my list for those months is still growing. Ruth Rendell is on of the masters of the psychological mystery and her latest, The Child’s Child (written under her pseudonym Barbara Vine) features a novel within a novel. British novelist Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong and Charlotte Grey also has a new novel, A Possible Life, set in five parts spanning centuries and continents. And J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandson Simon Tolkien publishes the third in his mystery series featuring Inspector Trave called Orders from Berlin.

Books in More Detail

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis: This debut novel is getting a lot of buzz in part because it was chosen to be part of Oprah’s Book Club. A sweeping family saga, the novel is centered around Hattie and her offspring starting in 1923 when Hattie is 16 and expecting her first child to the 1980’s covering the great migration by African-American families. Each chapter centers on a different person in Hattie’s family and this leads to some complaints of the novel being disjointed. I do expect it will be on many book club’s reading list because of its focus on the trials and tribulations of Hattie as well as its discussion of how individuals overcome or do not overcome those trials. The novel should spark interesting discussions due to the opposing views of the novel.

The New York Times writes:

Hattie Shepherd, the title character of Ayana Mathis’s piercing debut novel, is at once a tragic heroine with mythic dimensions and an entirely recognizable mother and wife trying to make ends meet. Her story, set in 20th-century Philadelphia, is one of terrible loss and grief and survival, a story of endurance in the face of disappointment, heartbreak and harrowing adversity…

Ms. Mathis has a gift for imbuing her characters’ stories with an epic dimension that recalls Toni Morrison’s writing, and her sense of time and place and family will remind some of Louise Erdrich, but her elastic voice is thoroughly her own — both lyrical and unsparing, meditative and visceral, and capable of giving the reader nearly complete access to her characters’ minds and hearts.

The Telegraph writes:

Ayana Mathis’s debut novel was a bestseller in the United States. It was championed by Oprah Winfrey and compared to Toni Morrison, which might have put you off already. In truth, it bears all the worst characteristics those recommendations call to mind and few of the best…

More often, it is plodding. The sexually confused, trumpet-playing Floyd has invited a young man to his concert: “Lafayette was not in the club. Floyd told himself it wasn’t the boy’s arrival he was waiting for. Still, it was not until Lafayette slipped into the crowd that Floyd lifted the horn to his lips.” These blunt sentences hit the reader over the head. It’s as though Mathis doesn’t trust us to work it out for ourselves. There may be a good writer in Mathis, but she hasn’t got her groove yet.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon: I have been long awaiting this novel based on reviews by British bloggers. Nell Leyshon is both a novelist and a dramatist (for both television and the theater) and this slim novel is her fourth to be published. Set in the English countryside of 1823, the voice of the novel is 15 year old Mary. Mary leaves her family’s rural farm and her bullying, oppressive father to live and work for the Vicar and his sick wife. While at the vicarage, she learns to read and write which both sets her apart from everyone in her world and do little to give her a way out of a world where her needs and wants are never taken into consideration. My brother purchased a copy to read but I have not yet heard of his impressions. However, many of the bloggers I respect have raved about it so it is definitely on my to-read list.

Caribou’s Mom writes:

Leyshon’s writing is powerful, incredibly moving, and filled with a gracethat many authors are not able to find in their prose. This is a penetrating and compelling look into the life of one young girl during a time in history when women were considered property and had no real rights. It is shocking, empathetic and provocative.

Savidge Reads writes:

Every so often you meet a character in fiction that you will remember for the rest of your life…In ‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon, an author I hadn’t come across until this book which is her fourth, with Mary and the story she tells I found one of those exact books and (cliché alert) I simply could not put the book down.

There are certain books that you instantly take to aren’t there. Books which coax you into the heart of their tale and just have you hooked. ‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon is one such book, for me it is one of those books that is pretty much perfect, in fact so much so I would dare any of you to read it and not do it in one reading gulp.

Kim from Reading Matters

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob. The story is so imprinted on my mind it has stayed with me for more than two months now (I read it on the plane to Canada back in April) and is by far the best (and most memorable) thing I have read so far this year.

It’s the type of novel I want to press into everyone’s hands and say, here, read this. If that’s not an endorsement for a fine little novel (it comes in a very compact size), I don’t know what is.

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Sunday Caught My Interest

Blue skies and sunshine today and both the cat and dog are taking advantage. Our dog has a torn ACL (or the doggy equivalent of) and has been barred from chasing squirrels. Since I am leaving to visit my mom soon, we are waiting on the decision about surgery or not which give Himself some time to do some research (he has some experience in bio-mechanics). My friends and I saw Amour on Friday and it was wonderful – sparse and intense with every detail adding meaning – very powerful. And because I was so close to seeing all the best pictures, Eldest took me on a date to see Les Miserables and Argo. Les Mis was good but I was not totally engaged. With Argo I can see why it is winning at the various award shows. Reading was a little slower this week – I read Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia and I am almost done with A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Savidge Reads reminds me of an author I found very intriguing. I first heard of Amélie Nothomb in 2011 in conjunction with her debut novel Hygiene and the Assassin (my review can be found here). The novel was somewhat disquieting and very clever. The book that Savidge Reads mentions is The Character of Rain written in 2002. Nothomb lived in Japan until she was five years old and the novel is based on the Japanese belief that children are gods until their third birthday when they fall from grace and join the rest of humanity. The book  is narrated by a child from the age of 2 1/2 to age 3 and is partly autobiographical and partly metaphysical. The opening line is beautiful, “In the beginning was nothing, and this nothing had neither form not substance -it was nothing other than what it was.”

Winston’s Dad reviews a book by Italian Dacia Maraini stating that she is an author who “always seems to be in the top ten when the odds for the Nobel literature prize are mentioned every year”. Maraini’s wikipedia entry is very interesting and she seems to write poetry and theatrical plays as well as novels. The book reviewed by Winston’s Dad is Train to Budapest written in 2008. The novel is set in 1956 where a journalist is asked to write about the growing divide between eastern and western Europe. She also uses the time to look for her childhood friend who may have died in the death camps. The review includes this line from the book:

The future opens before her like a precious flower touched by the first ray of the sun but still frozen on the branch ,Because spring is not yet here and the sun has deceived her .

I am a sucker for travel writers having been enamored of Richard Halliburton since I was a young girl. Heaven Ali reviews a travel writer I am unfamiliar with – Robert MacFarlane who wrote The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. This seems to be the third of a trilogy but it seems that each book stands on its own. MacFarlane walks the ancient paths of Briton and beyond. Ali writes:

He explores the landscape and its formations, and resurrects old voices and ghosts that went before. His explorations recount pilgrimages and rituals that build to make a history of landscapes. He meets walkers and artists along the way – each of them made in some way by these landscapes they inhabit. Macfarlane has an acute knowledge and understanding of artists and poets and this book is filled with their voices and touched by their influence.

Youngest is now on his spring tour with his program, traveling around Greece and Italy. Among the many things he gets to do is hike Mt. Vesuvius as well as up to the Oracle of Delphi (one of the items on my bucket list) so this book seems to be timely. Any book that combines walking with history and culture seems to end up on my list –  either for me or youngest.

From the blog Bay Area Bites (the KQED public media food blog) I found a new cookbook I want – Home Made Winter by Yvette van Boven and Oof Verschuren.  The chef is Irish born and alternates between Amsterdam and Paris so the recipes do have a European slant to them and it sounds like they do not stint on the butter and cream. The book includes beautiful photos by the chef’s husband as well as drawings and stories. I really want to try the Cardamon, Pear, and White Chocolate cake as well as the welcoming cocktail and the homemade Baileys Irish Creme. If you like heavier fare, do not mind a more complicated recipe and are seeking something different in the grey days of winter – this cookbook seems worth checking out.

Finally, Kim of Reading Matters has a link to an article in England’s Guardian  Newspaper on the 50 most influential books by women. I am not sure what I think of lumping all the Bronte sisters together but I have read 19 out of the 51 (there is a bonus book) but if you count just authors – my numbers go up.

Happy reading!

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Moscow But Dreaming

Photo courtesy of Tsana's Reads and Reviews

Photo courtesy of Tsana’s Reads and Reviews

This is a recurring dream, the kind that lingers, and lately it has become more frequent. And it takes a while to realize that you are not, in fact, standing in front of the brick apartment building, its doorway cavernous and warm, your hands in your pockets, cigarette smoke leaking slowly between your lips and into the frozen air. It takes you a while to even remember that you’ve quit smoking year ago. And yet, here it is, clinging to the collar of your winter coat in a persistent, suffocating cloud, and you can taste it still.

It takes you even longer to remember why you dream about this building on the outskirts of Moscow – that you used to live there, but this is not why; you’re there because of the boy who used to live in the same building but the other entrance. You cannot remember his name or whether you were really friends or just nodded to each other, passing like boats in the lonely concrete sea of the yard, a fringe of consumptive poplars looking nothing like the palms of the tropical isles neither of you were ever likely to see. You know, that there was never any unpleasant physicality between the two of you, even after you learned to throw your body between yourself and whoever was trying to get too close. (You Dream, page 64)

I do not do zombies, werewolves, or vampires – in movies or in books. And I tend to stay away from horror books in general. They all give me bad dreams, something I strive to avoid. So I was somewhat leery about reading Ekaterina Sadia’s collection of short stories Moscow But Dreaming because I had heard they contained some ghost stories (borderline for me) and looking at the table of contents did not make my uneasy go away as one of the stories is titled Zombie Lenin and another called There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed.

But I decided to take a chance which is one of the great things about short story collections – you can read at your leisure in small bursts of time, jump around as the spirit moves you, even stop. So I thought if things got too hairy for me I would skip the story or just stop reading. And then I read the first story and her prose sucked me in and I was completely lost in the world she was building. The story, A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas, is exactly what title says it is with a short description of each lunar sea. But this is Sedia’s world, not the world of reality, and each description becomes a little vignette or mini-story. I was hard pressed to pick a favorite entry as the first entry blew me away but I settled for this one to show you what this author is capable of:

2. The Sea of Rains (Mare Imbrium)

The inhabitants of this sea are used to rain It is a sea in name only, any empty basin long ago abandoned by water. But it rains every day. Sometimes, instead of water, flower petals fall from the sky; sometimes, it rains wooden horses and rubber duckies.

One rain everyone still remembers occurred a few years ago, when words fell from the sky. It did not stem for weeks, and the words filled the empty basin to overflowing. The inhabitants groaned and suffocated under the weight of accumulated regrets, promises, lies, report cards, great literature, pop songs, and shopping lists. They would surely perish unless something was done soon.

The council of the elders decided that they should drain the accumulated words, and in the course of their deliberations they realized that the words falling from the sky slowed down. So they decreed that it was the civic duty of every citizen to use up as many words as possible.

They bought telephones, and started telemarketing campaigns: they complained about their health and spun long tales for their children; they took to poetry.

Within days, the rain stopped; in the next month, the sea ran dry. Today, the inhabitants of this sea are mute, and the basin is empty – unless it rains nightingale songs or tiny blue iridescent fish. (A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas, pages 15-16)

Yes there are ghosts, and a zombie, and sadness, and darkness but the prose kept me reading each and every story and there were no nightmares that followed. Not all the stories are unhappy but there is a feeling of melancholy that pervades the collection. Ekaterina Sedia is a Russian-born fantasy author who has written several novels as well as short-stories. She mixes the realism of Russia with the folklore of that country (as well as others), history with magical realism, building worlds within worlds with exquisite language. She is very interested in the role of heroes both in the stream of real events as well as in fiction itself:

I think most of us are reactive though, ” I tell Veronica. “It take a hero to be able to shape the circumstance rather than follow them. You know how only main characters in books manage to shape their own destiny and the rest just follow? I think it’s the same in human history. (Chapaev and the Coconut Girl, page 133)

Shaping of circumstances in the face of starvation, war, rape, child abuse, etc. is a reoccurring theme throughout the book with many stories serving as a social commentary on both the Russia of the 1980’s and 90’s as well as the world itself. The stories are not filled with light happy moments – instead they picture both despair and desperation, loss of voice and loss of identity but they also ring so true and are written so well that I felt compelled to continue on. And I felt her use of mythology and folklore add the right touch of seasoning – added a layer of depth to the tales so they linger in your head in a good way. Sedia has excellent control over her lyrical prose and I look forward to reading more of her work.

It was very hard to choose a favorite story. I liked The Bank of Burkina Faso because of its twist on those soliciting emails asking for help in accessing funds, emails that we receive in our in-boxes. In the story dogs serve as a central plot device in a very clever way. The previously mentioned There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed highlights the difficulty of foreign adoption, the difficult circumstances in orphanages combined with the iconic image of the monster we fear lives under the bed. It reminded me of Carlos Santana’s wonderful song, Put the Lights On. But I think my favorite story was A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets. The story starts with a sock puppet sitting in a drawer waiting:

I stare at the ceiling from my drawer, feeling empty and happy. If I squint, the crystals of the popcorn relief above me catch moonlight and sparkle, transformed into tiny stars right before my eyes. I have hours until the morning comes and steals my solitude.” (page 201)

The puppet works with severely autistic children and forms a bond with one of the boys. I liked the story because it highlighted a concern I saw in many of Sedia’s stories – the importance of having your own voice and speaking your own truth. Powerful just like Sedia’s work in this book. Now I have to find a copy of The Secret History of Moscow.

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Sunday Caught My Interest

This week I seem to be reading about madness – first with Freud’s Sister (Goce Smilevski), then with Swimming Home (Deborah Levy), and finally with Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut) – each with their own take on the issue of mental illness. Right now my head is feeling a little like a pinball machine so it may take me a while to process the connections and disconnections between the three. I am looking forward to my book group’s discussion of the Vonnegut Monday night. For movies I went to go see  Tarantino’s film Django Unchained. It was quite a stretch for me as I tend to stay away from Tarantino’s films, I am glad I went. Now I have to decide if I am willing to give up my day next Saturday to see 3 of the 4 best movie pictures I haven’t seen.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Since so much of my time lately has been spent watching movies or discussing movies it seems somewhat appropriate that one of the first books that caught my attention this week was Mark Kermode’s The Good, The Bad, and The Multiplex – reviewed by Eve’s Alexandria. The non-fiction book sounds like a marvelous rant about movies, movie theaters, the powers-that-be of movie making, and a general look at the state of the industry today. Many of these subjects my friends and I have discussed after our Friday movie date – everything from why have a blockbuster nominated for best picture, to why isn’t Hitchcock nominated more, to the whisper campaign against Zero Dark Thirty. Putting this one on the to-read list.

I have always thought of heaven as a place where you find out everything you have always wanted to know. And you get to see what happens in the world after you have gone. Bibliosue reviews a book in which this happens – The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow. Molly Marx finds herself in the afterlife with the police and her family wondering if she was murdered, committed suicide, or was it a simple accident. As Molly watches friends and family cope, she relives her past. While the subject of the novel is the death of an individual, the author interjects a lot of fun into it as well. Sounds just right when you want something a little different to read.

The women who surround famous men is, for me, a fascinating topic. Adolfina Freud is little known and yet according to novelist Goce Smilevski, she had a definite role to play in her brother’s work as did Freud’s daughter, Anna. If you are interested in this topic, Jennifer of a Literate Housewife reviews The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff. Sophia Tolstoy, Vera Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezdha Mandelstam, Anna Dostevsky, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn  each have a chapter explaining their role in their husband’s writing and how they promoted and protected their husband’s literary career. This sounds like a good “by the bedstand” book as each chapter stands alone so you can browse through it at your leisure.

Winston’s Dad has once again given my a book to consider with his review of Santiago Gamboa’s Necropolis (translated by Howard Curtis). I am immediately drawn to the book because the unnamed narrator is invited to attend the International Congress of Biography and Memory in Jerusalem. There is an eclectic mixture of attendees – who tell their live stories. The conference serves as a framework, or Necropolis, for these tales of life, love, God, Satan, truth, fiction, and a host of other topics.

For those of you with electronic readers, Heavenali has a review of a Linda Gillard book that I was unaware of – Untying the Knot. I loved Gillard’s House of Silence as well as Emotional Geology. Both books were very different from each other – a strength of Gillard. The knot in this novel is a tangled web of relationships – past, present, and future as a former wife joins together with her newly engaged ex-husband to ensure their daughter’s happiness.

Finally, Danielle of A Work in Progress has another list of thirteen books – with this list focused on women and war. The book that most interests me (Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents by Julia Edwards) may be hard to find,  but there are many on the list that sound just as intriguing.

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From Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski (translated by Christina E Kramer) – a novel written from the voice of Sigmund Freud’s sister, Adolfina.

My mother sensed my vulnerability, and she plunged her hatred into it. Hatred cannot be understood completely, nor its sources known, just as Sarah once said of happiness that it could not be defined – it could only be felt. Perhaps, like sin and happiness, hate also exists only in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes I tried to make sense of my mother’s hatred toward me. Perhaps I was something like a pit into which my mother could throw her darkness. Perhaps, I thought, she hated in me my father, her ancient husband, who was older even than her own father. Perhaps in her hatred toward me she extinguished her longing to have a husband her own age even before that yearning had been ignited. Perhaps her hate was an expression of that distant pain, born of being forced to smother her girlish dreams prematurely, to obey her ancient husband in silence, to live in poverty and give birth and raise children in that poverty. Or perhaps, because of my attachment to my brother, she hated me because she was powerless to hate the one who had separated her golden Siggie from her. He was beginning a different life, building a new world in which we could be only incidental passersby, and had now chosen to be just a guest in our wold. But if my mother had taken a dislike to Martha Bernays, there was nothing she could do to her, since poison directed at my brother’s beloved would never reach her, would remain in my mother, and therefore she had chosen me.

that is how it seemed to me, though perhaps I was mistaken, as I tried to explain to myself the burden of my existence. Already in a child’s first glimmers of consciousness there is a heavy sense of time, a vague premonition that our existence is formed of grains of sand that the wind disperses, and that it is only the sense of ourselves, of our I, that holds us intact, until the last small grain of sand – the last relic of life – is blown away, when our I will also be extinguished, and behind us all that will remain is the wind of time. From time to time, the wind blows so fiercely that it carries away not only the grain of sand but also parts of the I itself, and the I feels powerless – it feels the wind will carry it away along with the sand, that it will be extinguished before all the grains of sand allotted to it for a lifetime have blown away – and then the I seeks  another I, some other I‘s, to accompany it while the wind of time howls around it; it needs these other I’s as support for the survival not of its material substance but of what is most essential to that I.

My mother, be her glance, her word, her gesture, broke off a part of me, a part I would always lack, a part that I would always seek. Throughout my life I felt I was lacking something, the way the Venus de Milo lacks arms. I lacked nothing in my outer appearance but something inside of me, as if the arms of my soul were lacking, and that absence, that lack, that feeling of emptiness, made me helpless. Throughout my life I felt as though someone’s gaze were destroying my existence, and, at the same time, I sought some being who would heal the brokenness of my I.  (pages 98-99)

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