September 2007 archive

The God of Small Things – Book Review

The God of Loss. The God of Small Things. He left no footprints in sand, no ripples in water, no image in mirrors. -From The God of Small Things, page 250-

Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God Of Small Things, is a dazzling masterpiece of language. Roy constructs the story around one central theme: Things can change in a day. Set in a small town in the state of Kerala, India – the novel shifts back and forth from present day to the past – building to a sudden and terrible end with suspense drenched in original

The novel centers around two twins – Rahel and Estha – and their mother, Ammu. Living with Ammu’s extended family, the twins witness the unfolding of a drama which begins with the arrival of their young cousin from England, Sopie Mol. Relationships are gradually revealed, and the innocence of childhood becomes bared to the realities of adulthood. Although the reader is told the ending, this serves to create tension as Roy spirals backward and forward in time, constructing the pieces while uncovering the truth inch by inch. The reader’s heart will bleed for little Estha with his pointy shoes and Elvis puff, who occupies “very little space in the world.” 

Roy explores the prohibition of love between castes, and the violence of the fledgling Communist movement – both topics which made this novel controversial in India.

The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body, holding her daughter in his arms, glanced up and caught Ammu’s gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Its marks, its scars, its wounds from old wars and the walking-backwards days all fell away.
 -From The God Of Small Things, page 168- 

Despite its difficult subject matter (or maybe because of it), Roy won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997 for this novel. With an artist’s ability to construct scene, Roy immerses the reader in the novel:

She had forgotten just how damp the monsoon air in Ayemenem could be. Swollen cupboards creaked. Locked windows burst open. Books got soft and wavy between their covers. Strange insects appeared like ideas in the evenings and burned themselves on Baby Kochamma’s dim forty-watt bulbs. In the daytime their crisp, incinerated corpses littered the floor and windowsills, and until Kochu Maria swept them away in her plastic dustpan, the air smelled of Something Burning. -From The God of Small Things, page 11-

Highly recommended.

Tagged by a Writer

Bonnie from Words from a Wordsmith tagged me for a Writer’s Meme. I’m supposed to list five strengths I possess as a writer. Here is Bonnie’s answer.

This one is making me think (ouch!).

1. I’m a people-person. I love talking to people and hearing their stories, I love watching how people behave…and I love telling their stories, both “fictionally” and in creative non fiction pieces. Understanding what makes others ‘tick’ is essential to development of good characters. Knowing my character’s motivations, dreams and desires…as well as their weaknesses…helps me develop believable characters and make them come alive on the page for the reader.

2. I’m a little bit crazy. And I mean this in a positive sense! I have been known to have complete conversations with my fictional characters, out loud, while driving to work. I sometimes dream about my stories. Sometimes I forget that a fictional character is not really a living person. When I’m working on a story, I obsess about it until it is finished. For a long time I really thought there must be something wrong with me – then I started meeting other writers and discovered I wasn’t alone!

3. I’m a perfectionist. At first, this trait impeded my ability to write. I would re-write the first paragraph of a story over and over and never make it to the end of the piece. Then I discovered an extraordinary thing called Nanowrimo and my life as a writer was transformed. Nanowrimo taught me to kick the editor off my shoulder during the creative process, and THEN go back once I had a first draft to perfect it. So, now my perfectionism is actually being put to good use. I am ruthless about editing drafts. I can slice and slash and remove excessive verbiage without a blink. And I believe the ability to do this makes for better writing.

4. I’m not afraid of being alone. Writers need time by themselves. I’m no different. Even when I’m not physically writing, I may be thinking about the story I’m going to write. I can’t do this in a room full of people. When I write, I need to be alone, in a quiet place. When I think about writing, I need to be alone – on a walk in the woods, or driving on a country road, or sitting on my porch gazing at the trees.

5. I have a wild imagination; I love telling stories and I love hearing them. When I was a child, I had several imaginary friends. They were little trolls who hung out in my room or lived in the bushes around my house. I created entire lives for them. The trolls have long since disappeared, but my ability to create stories out of nothing has survived. I love crafting a story and telling it to a group of people – stretching it out, keeping people on the edge of their seats, rushing to the finish in a dramatic swoop. Many times while I’m writing, I have no idea where the story is going – I let my characters tell it and I become the “audience.” I love the surprise of learning something about the story that only the characters knew. Stories to me are all about discovery.

I’ve decided to tag a group of writers who I greatly admire. The writers over at The Piker Press are dedicated, funny and extraordinarily talented. They are writers in every sense of the word, and I would love to see what they think makes them writers!

In The Country of Last Things – Book Review

You would think that sooner or later it would all come to an end. Things fall apart and vanish, and nothing new is made. People die, and babies refuse to be born. In all the years I have been here, I can’t remember seeing a single newborn child. And yet, there are always new people to replace the ones who have vanished. -From In the Country of Last Things, page 7-

Anna Blume arrives in an unnamed city to search for her brother – a journalist who has vanished without a trace. The city is one of unspeakable destruction and horror, where dead people lie in the street (either by their own hand, or from hired assassins, or from starvation or violence). Things disappear daily along with memories. To survive, Anna becomes an object scavenger, gathering up things from the past to sell for food and shelter. Who and what can survive in this bleak and desolate city?

Paul Auster’s novel is written from Anna’s point of view – and presented in a letter she writes to someone in her past. For Anna, there is no going back “home.”

In spite of what you would suppose, the facts are not reversible. Just because you are able to get in, that does not mean you will be able to get out. Entrances do  not become exits, and there is nothing to guarantee that the door you walked through a moment ago will still be there when you turn around to look for it again. That is how it works in the city. Every time you think you know the answer to a question, you discover that the question makes no sense.
 – From In The Country of Last Things, page 85-

Unable to go back, and uncertain about going forward, the reader learns how Anna survives and what she finds in a place where everything seems to be lost.

The novel is not particularly hopeful – the characters not only lose the past, but also their faith.

“I don’t believe in God anymore, if that’s what you mean,” I said. “I gave all that up when I was a little girl.”
“It’s difficult not to,” the Rabbi said. “When you consider the evidence, there’s a good reason why so many think as you do.”
“You’re not going to tell me that you believe in God,” I said.
“We talk to him. But whether or not he hears us is another matter.”
-From In the Country of Last Things, page 96-

The novel is well written and I found myself turning the pages seeking the same answers that Anna seeks. Auster offers a glimmer of promise – but, ultimately I finished the book with a feeling of disappointment.

Ashley’s Story


There is a special little girl who has overcome many obstacles and challenges in her short life. Her mom, Trish, posts about her journey on the blog Ashley’s Journal. I have been faithfully reading this blog for many months now. Trish and her husband, Dave, have so much faith in God’s plan for their lives; they aren’t saints – they have their moments of weakness and doubt, as we all do – but they always turn their eyes to the Lord when the going gets tough.

Ashley has had transplants, cancer, chemotherapy and many struggles to survive during the last two years. Trish posted the photo above in August – and I actually CHEERED to see Ashley looking so strong and healthy and happy.

But, this week Ashley is struggling again. She is in the hospital and she is very, very sick. Her family is asking readers to surround their little girl with prayer – and so, I am sharing her story here. Whatever your belief or faith, however you gather strength – I ask that you share that with this little girl who has an inner beauty and spirit that is truly inspiring.

A Prayer for Owen Meany – Book Review

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. -From A Prayer for Owen Meany, page 1-

John Irving has crafted a masterpiece in this novel about a boy small in stature, but large in spirit. It is perhaps his most memorable character yet. I admit to loving all of John Irving’s work. Up until now, Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp ran neck and neck for my favorite Irving novel. But, after reading A Prayer for Owen Meany, this novel has now climbed to the top of the rankings. I loved this book for its depth, and humor, its exploration about the loss of childhood, and ultimately its statement about faith and the belief that nothing happens without a reason.

Irving once again shines in the development of character and pitch perfect dialogue, interwoven with humor that is both subtle and laugh out loud funny.

Taking a seat in my grandmother’s living room was never easy, because many of the available seats were not for sitting in – they were antiques, which my grandmother was preserving, for historical reasons; sitting in them was not good for them. Therefore, although the living room was quite sumptuously arranged with upholstered chairs and couches, very little of this furniture was usable – and so a guest, his or her knees already bending in the act of sitting down, would suddenly snap to attention as my grandmother shouted, “Oh for goodness sake, not thre! You can’t sit there!” And the startled person would attempt to try the next chair or couch, which in my grandmother’s opinion would also collapse or burst into flames at the strain. -From A Prayer for Owen Meany, page 51-

What I remember of skiing with my cousins is long, humiliating, and hurtling alls, followed by my cousins retrieving my ski poles, my mittens, and my hat – from which I became inevitably separated.
“Are you all right?” my eldest cousin, Noah, would ask me. “That looked rather harsh.”
“That looked neat!” my cousin Simon would say; Simon loved to fall – he skied to crash.
“You keep doing that, you’ll make yourself sterile,” said my cousin Hester, to whom every event of our shared childhood was either sexually exhilarating or sexually damaging. -From A Prayer for Owen Meany, page 57-

Narrated by Johnny Wheelwright, a childhood friend of Owen Meany, the story alternates between boyhood memories set in New Hampshire (with little Owen Meany being the centerpiece of those memories) and an adult’s reflections in Toronto. Irving makes strong statements about the Vietnam War, the Iran-Contra debacle, and religion – all reasons why A Prayer for Owen Meany has been banned and censored many times.

Pastor Merrill made religion seem reasonable. And the trick of having faith, he said, was that it was necessary to believe in God without any great or even remotely reassuring evidence that we don’t inhabit a godless universe.  Although he knew all the best – or, at least, the least boring – stories in the Bible, Mr. Merrill was most appealing because he reassured us that doubt was the essence of faith, and not faith’s opposite. -From A Prayer for Owen Meany, page 107-


This novel is large in scope – and seems initially to be made up of isolated memories of childhood. Irving, however, never does anything “by accident,” and the fragments of Johnny Wheelwright’s childhood come together in the end wrapped together in meaning. The message being, of course, that nothing happens by coincidence, and everything in our lives has meaning.

Irving’s novel hits hard. I found myself dreading the ending – which is suggested throughout the novel, but which nevertheless surprises and stuns the reader.

Read this book. You will laugh, and cry and be compelled to look deeper into the meaning of life. Irving does not disappoint.

Highly Recommended.

Promoting the 24 Hour Read-A-Thon Challenge

Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf is hosting a spectacular 24 hour Read-A-Thon.

When: October 20th, 2:00 pm GMT
How Long: 24 hours
More Information and Rules and Sign ups: GO HERE

There are LOTS of ways to get involved, from being a reader, to being a cheerleader to being a promoter. I would love, love, love to be a reader or cheerleader for this amazing project. BUT, I will be traveling from October 13th through October 27th so I know I cannot commit to this. HOWEVER, I am going to promote the heck out of it and hope it is wildly successful so I can participate NEXT YEAR!!!!

The Devil in the White City – Book Review

Its official name was the World’s Columbian Exposition, its official purpose to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, bu under Burnham, its chief builder, it had become something enchanting, known throughout the world as the White City. -From The Devil in the White City, page 4-

And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. he found it to his liking. -From The Devil in the White City, page 12-

Erik Larson has written an evocative and compelling novel about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the first known serial killer to strike on American soil. Told in alternating chapters, Larson reveals the excitement and creativity of man’s imagination in the building of the fair, juxtaposed with the horrific destruction of an evil man’s fantasies. Larson’s ability to create setting and suspense, make The Devil in the White City read more like fiction than non fiction.

Cab drivers cursed and gentled their horses. A lamplighter scuttled along the edges of the crowd igniting the gas jets atop cast-iron poles. Abruptly there was color everywhere: the yellow streetcars and the sudden blues of telegraph boys jolting past with satchels full of joy and gloom; cab drivers lighting the red night-lamps at the backs of their hansoms; a large gilded lion crouching before the hat store across the street. In the high buildings above, gas and electric lights bloomed in the dusk like moonflowers. -From The Devil in the White City, page 17-

I found myself sinking into the story of the fair – relishing the details like the inventors who proposed outrageous ideas to “out Eiffel the Eiffel” and descriptions of the devices and concepts which were new in 1893, but which we now take for granted (moving pictures, the first zipper, an electric kitchen, an automatic dishwasher, boxed pancake mix, and Cracker Jacks to name a few). Set against the backdrop of the labor unions and economic depression, the novel reveals the true spirit of man’s endurance and determination. The 1893 World’s Fair is with us today every time we watch The Wizard of Oz (who’s Emerald City was inspired by the tremendous architecture of the fair), or when we celebrate Columbus Day, or when we stroll down a carnival midway or ride a Ferris Wheel. Larson’s accessible prose puts it all together for the reader without weighing her down with facts.

Larson’s parallel story about H. H. Holmes – the first American serial killer – is just as compelling and provides the dark side to the White City.

I found some great Internet sites of photos and information about the fair here and here and here.

This is a novel I can highly recommend. Rated 4.5/5

Journey With Animals

Recently Kailana posted a new reading challenge (Four Legged Friends Reading Challenge) in memory of her dog, Sandy. The idea appeals to me – but I realize that I just can’t take on another challenge right now.  Despite this,  I did decide to post some memories about pets as requested by Kailana.

This article was first published at The Piker Press during the week of August 15, 2005.

Journey With Animals:  A Memoir in Honor of My Pets
by Wendy Robards
Copyright 2005

In the middle of the fourth decade of my life, I remember the animals who shared the carefree days of grade school, the tumultuous teenage years, the sprint through college, the painful stumble of divorce, and now the satisfying moments of the present. Despite the many moves (including two across the country), the various jobs and multitudes of friends and acquaintances, the animals have been there… a constant presence; an integral part of who I am. They remind me of my journey through the years.

In 1964, when people laughed at leash laws and dogs roamed their neighborhoods at will, my parents brought home my first dog.

Cindy (named for the coal black cinder color of her coat) attached herself to our family and became my constant companion for the next twelve years. Her mixed breed genes graced her with a sense of humor and an undying faithfulness. She followed my sisters and me everywhere we went and waited at our school bus stop each afternoon. I believe the arrival of the milkman proved to be the highlight of her days due to his habit of carrying donut holes for the dogs along his route. Cindy taught me how stubbornly sticking to a course of action and failing to learn from one’s mistakes can be painful. She suffered a broken leg when my oldest sister ran over her on a bicycle. She survived three collisions with cars. Despite her bad luck on the roadway, she only stopped chasing vehicles when the arthritis in her joints prevented her from doing so.

Other animals shared our household in the years of my childhood, including Becky (a three colored “money” cat whose doubled toed paws made her an expert mouser);  
Gilbert and Prunella the guinea pigs who mated incessantly and produced several litters of little pigs; Jock, a blond hamster with a propensity to escape his cage;

and two other cats named Samantha and Simon who came along right about the time I left for college. 

I entered the University of Rhode Island in the fall of 1978, eager to be on my own and away from the protective shield of my parents. I pounced on my new found freedom with great enthusiasm. I loved the cool New England mornings as I hiked through the campus to my classes. All around me swirled conversations of other young adults and the reeling, dizzying sense that I had finally grown up.

I think of college as the rat years. My dorm did not allow pets, but rats were easily concealed. They make excellent companions: bright, affectionate and trainable. Grete was a lab rat: white with red eyes. I met her on the first day of Behavioral Psychology, a tiny baby trembling in my palm. The sole point of the class was to teach the rats in our care to press a lever to get a drink. The professor instructed us to deprive the animals of fluids and food so as to increase their motivation for this task. Grete’s learning curve demonstrated nicely what happens when an animal is *not* deprived of sustenance and therefore lacks the desire to learn anything. My instructor frowned at the  tiny label with Grete’s name which I had pinned to the cage door; he seemed confused by the nesting materials I had supplied for her. Grete ascended from lab rat to pet in the dead of night. Horrified by the college’s policy of gassing all the animals at the end of the semester, I broke into the lab and whisked her away to the safety of my dorm.

After graduating college, I moved to Boston and adopted a cat whom I named Clint Catwood.  I believe Clint’s temperament derived directly from his father, an unknown Boston alley cat who must have been savagely territorial and independent. Silvery gray with olive green eyes, Clint lived his life for no one but himself. He acquired the unusual taste for Brillo pads which he ripped from their boxes and tore to pieces on my kitchen floor. He hated children and dogs equally. He let me know right away that walking on a leash through the city streets was not going to happen. I can still picture him falling like a stone onto his side after I fastened a little harness to his torso. Clint traveled from Boston to New Hampshire to Maine to California, back to Maine, and again to California as I moved about the countryside. He spent most of these road trips sprawled across the dashboard where he soaked up the sun and watched the world pass by.

During those years when it seemed I had no roots to hold me in one place for long, I owned three dogs (all of whom Clint despised). Natasha, a smallish German Shepherd, had a knack for destroying carpets, door frames and shoes. She taught me the fine points of dog training and the value of a good crate.

When she died at the age of three after being hit by a car, I acquired my second German Shepherd. Kodiak, a huge dog with over sized ears and paws, won me over with his kind and gentle heart.

He liked nothing better than to lay his head in my lap or sprawl across my feet on cold mornings. His single fault was an irrational fear of the wind whistling around the eaves. He is the only dog I know who has successfully launched himself out a second story window and survived with nary a scrape. When I moved to California (for the last time), I adopted a seven year old Elkhound/German Shepherd mix named Sussi who became Kodiak’s security blanket and best friend, and whom I fondly referred to as the “Pack Cohesion Coordinator” because of her skill at keeping track of the entire family.

Although I loved my dogs without bias, it is always Clint I think about when I remember those wandering years…a huge cat with a personality to match; a tough guy who rolled with the changes in my life. His death, at age fifteen from bone cancer, signified a bigger transition for me: the dissolution of a seventeen year marriage.

Divorce is like a kick in the stomach after a huge meal. The end of my marriage coincided with the loss of all three of my pets: first Clint, then Sussi, and finally my gentle giant, Kodiak. Like a drowning person, there were times I thought I would never surface to get that much needed gulp of oxygen. Once again, however, an animal came to my rescue.

As my first marriage ground to a halt, I immersed myself in a life long dream of training a search and rescue dog. I began to look for a puppy with high drive. Drive in a dog is equivalent to a Type A personality in a human.  Nothing deters a motivated dog from its goal.  Specifically, they are ball crazy, and possess intensity and initiative to “get the job done.” They strive to complete the game and get the reward. I looked at a lot of puppies over the course of several months before finding Caribou, the runt in a litter of three and the only female.  The moment I saw her I knew I had found my canine partner.

Her bright eyes never left my face.  She charged after the squeak toy I threw, pounced on it, killed it with a quick shake of her head, and returned it to me without hesitation.  She was a big dog in a puppy’s body with no lack of confidence. Little did I know, Caribou would not only become my first certified search and rescue dog, but she would introduce me to a wonderful, gentle and amazing man…by falling in love with his dog, Argus. On that bright, autumn day in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, in the year I celebrated my fortieth birthday, two dogs play bowed, danced, tugged a stick, and romped through the woods.

“Who owns this dog?” I asked.

“Me,” Kip said.

We married two years later.

My life has a comforting rhythm to it these days. The dogs wake me at dawn for breakfast, then settle in for their mid morning naps as I write. Outside the red tail hawk soars above the pines and the air smells like cedar and sunshine as it drifts through the open windows. My hand floats down to scratch Argus on the ear; I glance at Caribou, her paws twitching in a dream; and I feel blessed by the animals who have shared their lives with me, who have taught me about joy, patience, independence, and loyalty; who I am certain have given me far more than I have ever given them.

**Addendum: Since this article was written, Kip and I have added two cats to our family: Maia and Gizmo.

The Echo Maker – Book Review

All the humans revered Crane, the great orator. Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles. The Aztecs called themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans  was named the Cranes – Ajijak or Businassee – the Echo Makers. The Cranes were leaders, voices that called all people together. Crow and Cheyenne carved cranes’ leg bones into hollow flutes, echoing the echo maker. -From The Echo Maker, page 181-

Richard Power’s novel – The Echo Maker – is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the National Book Award. Beneath a simple story lies complex questions about self and memory. How does memory define who we are? Is our sense of self and the larger world just a series of synapses and neurons firing or is it something bigger?

The novel begins with a horrific car accident along the Platte River during the annual crane migration. Mark Schulter survives the crash, but is left with a rare and devastating brain injury called Capgras Syndrome. Believing his sister, Karin, is really an imposter who is pretending to be his sister, Mark’s recovery from his injuries takes the reader along a winding path of self-discovery, misidentification, conspiracies, and the complex and sometimes fragile nature of relationships. Powers constructs the novel around four major characters: Mark Schulter, his sister Karin, a renowned scientist named Gerald Weber, and Barbara Gillespie – a nursing home aide who is surrounded by mystery. It is not only Mark who struggles with his identity. Karin, a woman who has tried unsuccessfully to shed her past, finds herself searching to re-define it.

When Mark was himself again, she would restart them both. She’d get him on his feet, listen to him, help him find what he need to be. And this time she’d take him away with her, someplace reasonable. -From The Echo Maker, page 26-

Making herself over, personality du jour. Imagination, even memory, all too ready to accommodate her, whoever her is. Anything for a scratch behind the ears. Scratch from anyone. She is nothing. No one. Worse than no one. Blank at the core. She must change her life. From the mess of her fouled nest, salvage something. Anything. -From The Echo Maker, page 407-

Gerald Weber is shocked to discover that perhaps he is only defined by the way others perceive him – that perhaps his life’s work is no more than a critics review: He’d let his critics convince him. Something had eroded, the core pleasure in his accomplishment. – From The Echo Maker, page 315-

This novel is meant to be read slowly – it is a thoughtful novel, and one that is challenging on an intellectual level. Powers deftly constructs a story which questions the very core of who we are and how self is defined – a fascinating treatise about what makes us human. The backdrop of Nebraska and its incredible crane migration – an astounding feat of migratory memory and ritual – is a fitting symbol of the novel’s thematic content.  With a surprising twist at the end, the novel is ultimately a satisfying read.


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