March 2007 archive

Travels With Charley In Search Of America – Book Review

I have never passed an unshaded window without looking in, have never closed my ears to a conversation that was none of my business. I can justify or even dignify this by protesting that in my trade I must know about people, but I suspect that I am simply curious.

 -From Travels With Charley In Search Of America, page 90-

John Steinbeck is best known for his fiction. So I was surprised when I learned that he had written several nonfiction books, including Travels With Charley In Search of America – a bittersweett and philosophical travel memoir. In 1960 Steinbeck felt he had lost touch with his country, and this feeling (along with what might have been a late mid-life crisis) prompted him to make a journey from New York to California and back again. He chose to take no companion with him except for his aging standard poodle, Charley. They journeyed in a truck named Rocinante
which Steinbeck outfitted with a camper shell and all the supplies he would need. Steinbeck’s plan was to avoid the major highways, instead following the wavy backroads of America where he could see the country and meet the people.

This book is a delight on many levels. Steinbeck’s wonderful descriptions of Charley made me laugh out loud at times.

Actually his hame is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris and trained in France, and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Otherwise he has to translate, and that slows him down. -From Travels With Charley In Search Of America, page 7-

In establishing contact with strange people, Charley is my ambassador. I release him, and he drifts toward the objective, or rather to whatever the objective may be preparing for dinner. I retrieve him so that he will not be a nuisance to my neighbors – et voila! A child can do the same thing, but a dog is better. -From Travels With Charley In Search Of America, page 51-

Steinbeck is amazingly prophetic in this slim book. He expounds upon the environment (‘…I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness.’ – page 22-), entertainment (‘…what of the emotional life of the nation? Do they find their emotional fare so bland that it must be spiced with sex and sadism through the medium of the paperback?’ -page 109-), migrant workers (‘I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat.’ -page50-), and racism (‘And I know that the solution when it arrives will not be easy or simple.’ -page 207-).

In true Steinbeck style, he recreates the natural world using beautiful and simple language, and then weaves the heart of the people into the setting in which they live.

This book made me want to read more of Steinbeck’s nonfiction, including a book of nearly 1000 pages of his letters to family and friends over his lifetime (Steinbeck: A Life in Letter, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten and published in 1975).

Travels With Charley In Search Of America is a must read and highly recommended.

Black Swan Green – Book Review

The world’s a headmaster who works on your faults. I don’t mean in a mystical or a Jesus way. More how you’ll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step! Everything that’s wrong with us, if we’re too selfish or too Yessir, nosir, Three bags full sir or too anything, that’s a hidden step. -From Black Swan Green, page 291-

Thirteen year old Jason Taylor narrates a year of his life in this original coming-of-age story set in a sleepy English Village in 1982. A sensitive, imaginative youth who struggles with a persistant stammer (referred to as ‘Hangman’), Jason captures the essence of adolescence with all of its pain, humor and budding sexuality. Mitchell’s brilliant writing plunges the reader back in time to the adventures of youth…such as the joy of spending a Saturday exploring forgotten paths through the woods and playing in abandoned barns.

In 1982, Britain found itself embroiled in the Falklands War, and Mitchell weaves this through the novel, using it as a backdrop to the undercurrents of domestic unrest within Jason’s home.

A Pyrrhic victory is one where you win, but the cost of winning is so high that it would’ve been better if you’d never bothered with the war in the first place. Useful word, isn’t it?
 -From Black Swan Green, page 115-

Mitchell’s novel pulls the reader into its pages with remarkable characterizations and spot on dialogue (although to be honest, as a non-Brit reader, the dialect took a bit of getting used to). Even the character’s names are unique, such as Squelch Hill, Gilbert Swinyard, Pete Redmarley, Miss de Roo and Mr. Inkberrow. Dawn Madden, tough-as-nails and sexy, and her power hungry boyfriend who embody the cruelty that lurks in all childhoods; and the magnificent Eva Van Outryve de Crommelynck are just a few of the many characters who materialize in living, breathing form. When Madam Crommelynck meets Jason for the first time and discovers his age, she says:

“Ackkk, a wonderful, miserable age. not a boy, not a teenager. Impatience but timidity too. Emotional incontinence.” -From Black Swan Green, page 144-

I fell in love with Jason Taylor – perhaps because he writes poetry while still trying to keep up with the town bullies, or maybe because of his wry humor, or possibly due to his fine vision of what is important in life. At any rate, this is a kid that snatches the reader’s heart and hangs onto it until the end.

At once both searingly honest and outrageously funny, Black Swan Green is a must read.

Highly Recommended.

Favorite Passages

Down the hollow, round the bend, I came across a thatched cottage made of sooty bricks and crooked timber. Martins were busy under its eaves. PRIVATE said a sign hung on the slatted gate, where the name should go. newborn flowers in the garden were licorice allsorts blue, pink, and yellow. Maybe I heard scissors. maybe I heard a poem, seeping from its cracks. So I stood and listened, just for a minute, like a hungry robin listening for worms. -From Black Swan Green, page 70-

A bolt slid like a rifle and an old man opened up. His skin was blotched as a dying banana. He wore a collarless shirt and braces. “Good Afternoon?” -From Black Swan Green, page 142-

I dip my fountain pen into a pot of ink, and a Wessex helicopter crashes into a glacier on South Georgia. I line up my protractor on an angle in my Maths book and a Sidewinder missile locks onto a Mirage III. I draw a circle with my compass and a Welsh Guard stands up in a patch of burning gorse and gets a bullet through his eye. How can the world just go on, as if none of this is happening? -From Black Swan Green, page 106-

To find more reviews or have a discussion about this book, visit The NYT Most Notable Blog.

The Translator – Book Review

‘It’s a lonely thing,’ he said, ‘you can’t avoid it.’
‘The spiritual path. Everyone is on his own in this.’
-From The Translator, page 202-

Sammar, a Sudanese widow who has left her child in the care of her aunt and moved to Scotland to become an Arabic translator, narrates this poetic novel of love and faith.

I have read some critical reviews of this book which condemn it as “only a love story.” The Translator is, in fact, a love story – but it is also much more. Aboulela is a controlled, meditative writer who weaves a deeper meaning into her novel. The gapping maw between cultures and religions are exposed in this simple story with a subtleness I appreciated. The author explores grief, and moving on, and clinging to one’s faith – all anchored in an exquisite atmosphere of place.

Aboulela has a finely tuned sense of what it means to love. In one scene, Sammar is cooking soup for Rae, a man who Sammar loves and who has been ill. In this uncomplicated act, Aboulela reveals something about Sammar’s character which anyone who has loved another can relate to.

She made soup for him. She cut up courgettes, celery and onion. Her feelings were in the soup. The froth that rose to the surface of the water when she boiled the chicken, the softened, shapeless tomatoes. Pasta shaped into the smallest stars. Spice that she had to search for, the name unknown in English, not in any of the Arabic-English dictionaries that she had. -From The Translator, page 97-

The Translator transports the reader to another culture, offering glimpses into what it means to have faith and how difficult it is to abide by one’s beliefs. It is not a complicated novel; but it left me contemplating the larger issues of life.


To read more reviews or discussions on this book, please visit The NYT Most Notable Book Blog.

A Thinking Blogger – Who Me????

Nancy over at Bookfoolery and Babble has  nominated me for The Thinking Blogger award! I think I blushed from the tips of my toes to the top of my head last night when I found out – I’m excited and honored and am very happy to “pass on the joy” to five bloggers who make me think!

Here are the “rules” …

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

What I discovered this morning, as I explored all my favorite blogs, was it is nearly impossible for me to narrow this down to only five. Some were easy to eliminate because they have been nominated before by other bloggers. But, even still, I found myself with a legal pad filled with the names of blogs I love. I wish I could nominate them all. (For example, my friends over at the NYT Most Notable Blog all have wonderful, thinking sites – and I love discussing books with them).

So after hemming and hawing, and worrying I might hurt someone’s feelings if I didn’t choose them, I finally whittled my list down to five (drum roll, please!!!):

1.  Ariel at Sycorax Pine (aka: Por of Tour) is the brainchild of the NYT Most Notable Blog – a place to discuss books from the challenge I started over here. Her main site is filled with thoughtful essays, book reviews and observations of life.

2.  A Reader’ Journal, crafted by Booklogged, is the place to go if you love a good challenge. Her zest for reading and ability to bring the book bloggers out in force is unmatched by anyone else in the blogosphere!

3.  Evaberry’s blog is simply beautiful. She’s an artist with a camera. Her photos always make me smile. I especially like how they all tell a story of some sort (check out these).

4.  Logophilia is a new blog I’ve just discovered. This writer and reader from  Switzerland definitely makes me think. Anyone with a 10 year reading plan that includes Plato, Aristotle and Shakespeare (among other heavy hitters) deserves a Thinking Blogger Award!

5.  I find myself living vicariously through the words of The Traveller over at Around the World in 100 Books. Her blog has expanded my horizons, made me dream of foreign lands and added to my ever growing pile of books to-be-read.

So there it is – the five blogs that make me think. Thanks again, Nancy, for nominating me for this award!

Booking Through Thursday – Short Stories or Novels?

Laura and Deb over at Booking Through Thursday, have come up with a couple of great questions this week.

1.  Short Stories? Or full-length novels?

I tend to enjoy the full length novel over a short story; but I read them both. A good short story is like a fast run down a ski slope – the scenery flashing by, the wind in your hair, the exhilaration of the quick journey and then finally arriving at the base, ready to go again. Reading a novel is more like cross country skiing – the pace is slower, you notice the snow laden trees, the tiny animal tracks zig zagging across your path, the smell of the cold air, the gentle caress of the breeze. You might stop, take a break, eat some lunch, then continue on again to appreciate your surroundings. The journey might take you hours instead of minutes. At the end, you might be a little tired, but you feel satisfied. I like the time it takes for a novelist to fully develop the story, weaving the lives of the characters through the plot, holding back some information so you might feel surprised at the end.

2.  And, what’s your favorite source for short stories? (You know, if you read them.)

I read The Piker Press every week for my short story fix. I also occasionally pick up a literary magazine, like Glimmer Train. And of course, if I see that one of my favorite novelists has a short story collection out, I can’t resist buying it.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Book Review

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” – From To Kill A Mockingbird, page 103 –

What can I say about To Kill A Mockingbird that hasn’t already been said a million times? Harper Lee’s beautiful novel set in the sleepy county of Macomb, Alabama in the 1930s defines the adage ‘still waters run deep.’  Scout Finch, a vibrant, curious tomboy narrates the story  which spans a period of nearly three years beginning when she is six years old. The cast of characters is vast and enjoyable. From Atticus Finch (Scout’s father who is a man of decency and honesty), to Jem Fitch (Scout’s brother, striving to follow his father’s example), to Dill (Jem and Scout’s summertime companion who embodies a sense of adventure and mischief), to Tom Robinson (the black man falsely accused of rape), to Miss Maudie (Scout’s next door neighbor with a heart of gold and the best cake in the country), and finally to Boo Radley (the mysterious next door neighbor who hasn’t been seen in twenty-five years), Lee weaves a tale that latches onto the reader and never lets go.

Lee doesn’t restrict herself to merely telling a story. She includes astounding insight into the roots of racism and the idea that one man’s courage to stand up against inequality may be all that’s needed to begin to shatter the beliefs that sustain hatred.

Perhaps what is so inviting about this novel is that its narrator is only a child. Scout Finch brings to the book an innocence and perception which only children share. Her reflections, void of the internal restraints that inhibit adults, bring a truthfulness to the novel that resonates with the reader.

This is a book I will read again…and again. It is a timeless classic, beautifully written and one I highly recommend.

Favorite Passages

About Courage:  I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. – From To Kill A Mockingbird, page 128 –

About The Love of Reading: Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing. -From To Kill A Mockingbird, page 20-

About Racism: If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? -From To Kill A Mockingbird, page 259-

Spring Reading Thing 2007 Challenge

March 21st through June 21st, 2007

**MAY 29, 2007 – I’ve COMPLETED this challenge – and with almost a month to spare! I love that this challenge got me to read some books I’ve been wanting to read for some time. Thank you to Katrina for hosting it!

Uh oh, another challenge I just can’t say no to! Katrina over at Callapidder Days has come up with The Spring Reading Thing 2007 Challenge. Here’s what she says:

Have you fallen behind on your To-Be-Read list? Do you have five books that you’ve started but haven’t finished? Have you been meaning to get around to that great book your friend recommended but just haven’t done it yet? Do you love to read and to find out what everyone else is reading? Then this challenge is for you!

It’s all about setting goals and sharing them; little to no pressure; gives me a chance to knock some of my books off the TBR pile. Katrina’s sweetened the pot by offering a $10 gift certificate to for one lucky winner, and some random book giveaways too (now what legitimate bookaholic can walk away from that??!?!). Besides all of those incentives, the button is adorable and I wanted to display it on my blog!

I’ve chosen five (2 of which overlap another challenge):

1. Travels With Charley in Search of America, by John Steinbeck (FINISHED 3/29/2007. Read my review here.)
2. The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg (FINISHED 5/14/2007. Read my review here.)
3. The Year of Pleasures, by Elizabeth Berg (FINISHED 4/9/2007. Read my review here.)
4. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy -overlaps with NYT Most Notable Challenge  (FINISHED 5/17/2007. Read my review here.)
5. Old Filth, by Jane Gardam – overlaps with NYT Most Notable Challenge and Reading Across Borders Challenge (FINISHED 5/29/2007. Read my review here.)

The Inheritance of Loss – Book Review

Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 3 –

Kiran Desai has written a novel of depth and complexity, filled with multiple characters and beautiful, lyrical prose which explores such themes as colonialism, illegal immigration and political strife.  I will admit to being somewhat overwhelmed at times due to my ignorance of Indian history, class systems and politics. In fact, this book forced me to do something I seldom do – research the history of the time and geography of the area. What I discovered is a country which is vast in its scope and complicated in its history. For those readers with extensive knowledge about this region, Desai’s book will resonate. For those like myself who do not have that knowledge base, this novel will lose some of its power, but is worth reading anyway.

Desai artfully weaves together the stories of several characters, moving from the present day (1980s) to their past histories without a glitch. She examines life in the town of Kalimpong, a hill town nestled in the lower Himalaya of West Bengal, where cultures collide. Kalimpong has a rich history and was the site of violent riots between the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the West Bengal government between 1986 and 1988. Desai’s novel drops its characters into the midst of this chaos and allows the reader to gain a better understanding of the vast cultural rifts between the people.

The novel centers around a retired Judge, his granddaughter Sai, the cook, the cook’s son Biju and Gyan who is Sai’s tutor. All these characters are flawed and seeking fulfillment, and all experience loss as the tale unravels. The Judge, a surly and unhappy man, has little love in his heart for anyone except his dog, Mutt. He is filled with hatred for other Indians, wishing instead he had been born English. Biju also experiences this ambivalence for his own people which seems spawned by his experience of rejection and racism as an illegal immigrant living in America.

The habit of hate had accompanied Biju and he found that he possessed an awe of white people, who arguably had done India great harm, and a lack of generosity regarding almost everyone else, who had never done a single harmful thing to India. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 86 –

Biju’s father (the cook) has sent his only son to America to seek a better life. The cook hopes for contentment and dignity which he believes will come with Biju’s success.

He imagined sofa TV bank account. Eventually Biju would make enough and the cook would retire. He would receive a daughter-in-law to serve him food, crick-crack his toes, grandchildren to swat like flies. Time might have died in the house that sat on the mountain ledge, its lines grown indistinct with moss, its roof loaded with ferns, but with each letter, the cook trundled toward a future.
– From The Inheritance of Loss, page 20 –

Sai, having come to live with her grandfather after her parents die, imagines a life of love.

Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 3 –

Finally, Gyan who tutors Sai longs to be part of the political changes. A Nepali who feels torn between his attraction toward Sai and his cultural roots, Gyan is perhaps the saddest character in the book.

He wasn’t a bad person. He didn’t want to fight. The trouble was that he’d tried to be part of the larger questions, tried to become part of politics and history. Happiness had a smaller location, though this wasn’t something to flaunt, of course; very few would stand up and announce, “Actually I’m a coward,” but his timidity might be disguised, well, in a perfectly ordinary existence situated between meek contours. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 299 –

As The Inheritance of Loss unfolded, I was struck by the depth of the prose. Desai reveals the rigid adherence to the class system in simple ways, such as when a maid tells her employer the story of falling in love with a Rai although she herself is a Sherpa.

Before one knew it one could slide into areas of the heart that should be referred to only between social equals. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 75 –

Desai uncovers the pain of being an illegal immigrant by allowing the reader to see through Biju’s eyes as he struggles to find work, sleeps in a basement with rats nibbling on his hair, and longs to return to his homeland.

The issues of colonialism and globalization are constant themes in the novel. It speaks to Desai’s gift as a writer that she tackles these immense issues with ease using eloquent prose.

Tenzing was certainly the first, or else he was made to wait with the bags so Hilary could take the first step on behalf of that colonial enterprise of sticking your flag on what was not yours.
– From The Inheritance of Loss, page 171 –

This Sai had learned. This underneath, and on top a flat creed: cake was better than laddoos, fork spoon knife better than hands, sipping the blood of Christ and consuming a wafer of his body was more civilized than garlanding a phallic symbol with marigolds. English was better than Hindi.
– From The Inheritance of Loss, page 33 –

I found myself falling into the rhythm of this novel, absorbing the flavors and sights of a foreign land and striving to understand its people. There are so many facets to The Inheritance of Loss, it is hard to categorize it.  I believe Desai has written a novel which fully encompasses the Indian experience. I was touched by how the characters sought out their dreams and futures by looking outside their culture, religion and country when perhaps the answers lay closer to home. Desai touches on this as well at the end of the book when Biju, who is now far less innocent, contemplates the steady stream of immigration from India to America.

This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 342 –

Kiran Desai has written an exquisite novel which is deserving of the Booker Award and its place on the New York Times Most Notable Fiction list. This is a novel to be savored for its stunning prose, complex characters and finely captured sense of place.


To read more reviews or discussions on this book, please visit The NYT Most Notable Book Blog.

Creative Non Fiction Piece Published at Piker Press

The Piker Press has published one of my creative nonfiction stories on the front page today!  It was written several years ago and is about the first search that Caribou and I went on together. I hope you’ll come on over and check it out sometime this week. Next week it moves to my author page on the site.

The Double Bind – Book Review

I really wanted to love this book because Chris Bohjalian is a favorite author of mine. I am drawn to psychological thrillers, so I thought this book would sweep me away. But it didn’t.  I found it rather contrived and unbelievable. And, without giving away the ending, I was left rather confused about the point of view of the book once the twist was revealed. There seemed to be so many plot holes and coincidences, and ultimately I wasn’t sure what was truth and what was not.

Bohjalian begins the novel with lots of back story. I found myself having to re-read sections to try to keep all the characters and events straight in my mind.  I think Bohjalian probably could have shaved a third the back story off and had a more manageable story.

Laurel, the main character, and her friend Talia are two likeable characters. Their friendship makes sense; the reader finds herself wanting to know more about these two young women.  Bohjalian’s  handling of the men in the book, however, left me cold. Whit, the guy who I believe the reader is meant to like, comes across as sexually immature and patronizing. Laurel’s boyfriend – David – simply annoyed me…perhaps he was supposed to annoy me.

Whenever he dated women even close to his age, he felt on the first date that he was being scrutinized as a marriage prospect; if he passed – which invariably he would because he was breathing and employed – by the second or the third the subject of children would arise.
– From The Double Bind, page 163-164 –

It was this attitude – condescending and chauvinistic – that got under my skin.

Bohjalian has written a book about mental illness, and fantasy versus reality. He interjects a socially sensitive subject like homelessness and victimization and leaves the reader feeling manipulated rather than entertained.

I can’t recommend this one.

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