November 2007 archive

The Pearl – Book Review

Kino deftly slipped his knife into the edge of the shell. Through the knife he could feel the muscle tighten hard. He worked the blade lever-wise and the closing muscle parted and the shell fell apart. The lip-like flesh writhed up and then subsided. Kino lifted the flesh, and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. it captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence. It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg. It was the greatest pearl in the world. -From The Pearl, page 26-

Kino, his faithful wife Juana, and their young child Coyotito live in a small fishing village in Mexico. Their simple lives are transformed overnight when Kino finds “The Pearl of the World” in the sea one day.

Steinbeck has written a parable about how wealth may erase innocence and bring evil into our lives. With his lyrical and beautiful prose, he brings the story to life. Juana symbolizes wisdom and common sense – she is Kino’s partner and supports his dreams and idealism while being wary of the pearl’s lure. Kino’s brother is the voice of reason and caution – he represents the history of his people, recognizing that they will always be cheated and must not show too much ambition lest everything that is good will be torn from them.  In less than 100 pages, Steinbeck pulls the reader in and makes her care deeply about the characters – we reluctantly turn the pages knowing that only disaster awaits  Kino and his family as the pearl becomes Kino’s soul and desire. The tale is archetypal as it represents ideas common to all people – greed and desire for wealth. Steinbeck uses the idea of music (the song of family, the song of evil, the song of the pearl)  to create a dreamlike story. His attention to detail adds complexity to his character, as when Kino and Juano prepare to go out to sell the pearl.

Kino put on his straw hat and felt it with his hand to see that it was properly placed, not on the back or side of his head, like a rash, unmarried, irresponsible man, and not flat as an elder would wear it, but tilted a little forward to show aggressiveness and seriousness and vigor. There is a great deal to be seen in the tilt of a hat on a man. -From The Pearl, page 49-

The Pearl is felt to be a deeply personal story for Steinbeck who wrote it soon after his overnight success with The Grapes of Wrath. Disillusioned and overwhelmed by the reaction to that novel, Steinbeck turned inward to examine his own motivations. The Pearl also reveals Steinbeck’s understanding of people of poverty, including the underlying discrimination he witnessed against the Mexican people in the 1940s.

The Pearl is another masterpiece by this Nobel Laureate.

Highly recommended.

The Good Earth – Book Review

Moving together in perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into  a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return to earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together – together – producing the fruit of this earth – speechless in their movement together. -From The Good Earth, page 31-

Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth was published in 1931 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  It has been surrounded by controversy (mostly in China where Buck’s work was banned for many years because of the perceived vilification of the Chinese people and their leaders). Having arrived in China as the child of missionaries, Buck grew to love the country. In 1935 she returned to the United States with hope of one day returning to the Orient…but this was never to be. She was denounced by the Chinese government in 1960 as “a proponent of American cultural imperialism.” Later, just nine months before her death, her visa to return to the country of her childhood was denied.  In 1938 she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.  More about Buck’s life and work can be found in this excellent article published by Mike Meyer of the New York Times.

The Good Earth is the saga of Wang Lung, who is a poor farmer dependent on the land for his survival, and his extended family. The novel begins with this complex character as a young man when he marries a slave girl, and then follows him as he grows into a man with a family and wealth beyond his imaginings. Wang Lung is a man with a compassionate heart. I was touched by the love of his children, especially that of his developmentally delayed oldest daughter who he calls “the poor fool.” In one scene, the family is faced with starvation and Wang Lung gives up his own food for his daughter…something that would have been highly unusual at that time in China.

Only a few of the beans did Wang Lung hide in his own hand and these he put into his own mouth and he chewed them into a soft pulp and then putting his lips to the lips of his daughter he pushed into her mouth the food, and watching her small lips move, he felt himself fed. -From The Good Earth, page 85-

Later, as he gains wealth, Wang Lung loses his path – and his inner goodness is challenged.

Wang Lung’s pragmatic wife O-Lan represents the strength of the Chinese women during a time when women were considered to be a man’s possession and slave. Throughout the novel, the idea of the cyclical nature of life is repeated, establishing a natural rhythm for the story.

Buck writes in simple prose which reads more like the oral tradition of story telling than a novel. Her understanding of character is evident throughout – and no character is all good or all evil.

I immediately was captivated by Buck’s story; and even though at times the abuse and mistreatment of women was hard to read, I found I could not put the book down for long.

Buck wrote two sequels to The Good Earth: Sons (1931) and A House Divided (1935). I have put both on my wish list for future reading.

The Good Earth is a book I can highly recommend for its insight into Chinese culture during the early part of the 20th century, and for its high readability.

Keeping it Short – A Beneficiary, by Nadine Gordimer

Caches of old papers are like graves; you shouldn’t open them. -From A Beneficiary, by Nadine Gordimer-

I am a bit embarrassed that I have never read anything by Nadine Gordimer until now. This wonderful short story was published in the New Yorker earlier this year and I read it as part of the 21st Fiction Yahoo Group who are reading one on-line short story each month in addition to their regular schedule of novel reads.

The story opens by introducing the main character, Charlotte (aka Charlie) whose mother, an actress, has just died. While packing up her mother’s belongings, Charlie stumbles upon an old letter which becomes the catalyst for the rest of the story. The ending is immensely satisfying with a bigger message about what it means to be a parent.

Gordimer is an artist with words, painting her characters so lifelike that the reader forgets they are reading fiction. I was completely entranced by this story which I read in less than an hour.

After reading this little gem, I am motivated to pick up other works of this South African Nobel Laureate (Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991). Gordimer has written 14 novels and 11 short story collections.

I rate this one a 5/5 and highly recommend it!

Doctor Zhivago – Book Review

It snowed hard throughout the month
Of February, and almost constantly
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned
-From the poems of Yurii Zhivago-

First published in Italy in 1957, Boris Pasternak’s sweeping epic Doctor Zhivago stirred controversy in his native Russia. Set in Moscow and the Ural Mountains, the novel tells the story of a poet-physician whose life is defined by the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. The novel’s underlying criticism of the Bolshevik party led to it being banned until 1988 in Russia. When Pasternak was chosen for the esteemed Nobel Prize for Literature, his native Russians protested so much that the author declined the honor. Felt to be largely autobiographical, Doctor Zhivago reveals much about its author’s philosophical ideology and personal life.

The novel opens with the suicide of Zhivago’s father just before the Russian Revolution when Zhivago is still a young boy. Pasternak reveals early on that the novel will be about truth and sacrifice; about one man’s beliefs and how he lives with his choices.

I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats – any kind of threat, whether of jail or of retribution after death – then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion tamer in the circus with his whip, not the prophet who sacrificed himself. But don’t you see, this is just the point – what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the powerful attraction of its example. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 42-

As the story develops, the reader is pulled into the life of Zhivago, who matures into a young man, loses his wealth, marries his childhood sweetheart, becomes embroiled in the fast accelerating revolution and finds Lara, his true love.  The overriding theme of the novel is the importance of the individual vs. the rules of the state and the terror inflicted on the masses in the name of a political ideal.

Everything in Yura’s mind was still helter-skelter, but his views, his habits, and his inclinations were all distinctly his own. He was unusually impressionable, and the originality of his vision were remarkable. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 64-

Pasternak writes prose like the poet he was – painting the chaos of the times on wide brush strokes of beautiful description.

Everything was fermenting, growing, rising with the magic yeast of life. The joy of living, like a gentle wind, swept in a broad surge indiscriminately through fields and towns, through walls and fences, through wood and flesh. Not to be overwhelmed by this tidal wave, Yurii Andreievich went out in the square to listen to the speeches. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 141-

Throughout the novel, the idea of fate – of being swept along with the tide of the times – is often repeated. Characters re-emerge in unusual ways, seemingly by coincidence – and yet we are left with the idea that some things cannot be chance and nothing is coincidental. The characters seem to be victims of the Soviet ideology.

“Let’s try to think. Though what is there that we can do? Is it in our power to avert this blow? Isn’t it a matter of fate?” -From Doctor Zhivago, page 409-

Most people think of Doctor Zhivago as a love story. The love between Lara and Yurii spins throughout the novel, and reminds the reader again about the power of the individual even during tumult and upheaval. But, calling Doctor Zhivago merely a love story would be undervaluing its bigger messages. The novel is full of wonderful passages and  beautiful prose; and defines a generation of Russians during a cataclysmic time in history.

Certainly a classic and one which will stand the test of time – Doctor Zhivago is a must read for anyone who strives to better understand the Russian Revolution and who has a love of great literature.

Highly Recommended.

Google Images Meme

Here is  meme that is floating about the blog-o-sphere:

Go to Google Images and search for each question – choose an image and post it.

What is your age on your next birthday?

A place to which you’d like to travel:
Yes, that is Southern Italy!

A favorite object:
Okay, so it is more than one…what can I say?

What is your favorite food?
It used to be this:
Until I developed a life threatening allergy to shellfish. So now it is this:

What is your favorite animal?

What is your favorite color?

Where did you grow up?
No, not in the Concord, New Hampshire capital building…but close!

Where do you live now?

Name of a past pet?
I luckily never owned a grizzly bear…but I once had a dog named Kodiak.

Name of a past love?
He didn’t look exactly like this…he looked more like this:

Screen name?

First Name?
If I had been a boy, my parents would have named me Peter – does that surprise you?

Middle Name?
You figure it out!

Last name?

Do you have a bad habit?

What was your first job?

What was your grandmother’s name?

What was your major in college?
First it was this:
Later I got my degree in physical therapy:


The days are getting shorter and the nights leave behind frost on the ground. About this time every year I feel the pull of my craft projects…the desire to curl up in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a needle; to surround myself with bits of fabric and colored threads; to make tiny stitches and watch a picture develop.

This is one of my current projects:

I started this at least 15 years ago! But, I’m slowly getting it done. It’s counted cross stitch and stitched on tan 18 count Aida.

Lest you think I never complete anything, here are some of my finished projects from years ago:

Pattern is by Barbara Bourgeau-Richards – Counted Cross Stitch stitched on 18 count Aida (finished 1991).

New England Sampler – Counted Cross Stitch stitched on 18 count Aida (finished 1993)

Victorian House – Counted Cross Stitch stitched on 18 count Aida (finished 1990).

I’ve made a lot of counted cross stitch projects, and also done some Hardanger – but, these I’ve given away to various friends and family and unfortunately did not take photos of them!

Toppling TBR Pile

TBR for 2007

‘Tis The Season …

Kailana at The Written Word and Marg at Reading Adventures are hosting a fun event beginning December 1st. The Blog Advent Calendar is a chance for bloggers to share their holiday traditions, stories and recipes with other bloggers. Here is what Kailana and Marg say:

Each day anyone who wants to participate could take turns sharing a little treat with our friends here in blogland. For example it could be something about a holiday tradition, or a recipe, or a picture of a hot guy dressed as Santa, or a favourite Christmas memory, movie, song…anything you like. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas we would like to hear about what your family does during the holiday season, whether it be celebrating Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or anything!

We will create a list of links so that as people express interest we will add them to the list, and then we will post a link directing visitors to the appropriate blog.

I’ve signed up for December 7th. Won’t you join us? Pop over here OR here and leave a comment if you want to play!

The Blackwater Lightship – Book Review

The Blackwater Lightship. I thought it would always be there. -From The Blackwater Lightship, page 192-

Colm Toibin’s novel The Blackwater Lightship was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. Set on the coast of Ireland near Dublin, the novel centers around Declan, a young homosexual man dying of AIDS whose sister, mother and grandmother come together to care for him.  Declan’s sister Helen narrates this tale of heartache, loss, redemption and healing.

Toibin’s simple, luminous prose captures the discomfort and estrangement between the family members. Helen’s voice is at once sad, angry and contemplative as current events bring up memories she has worked hard to forget. After years of estrangement, her brother’s impending death brings them back together and forces them to deal with the past.

She did not know how her grandmother would respond to their arrival. She realised that for the first time in years – ten years, maybe – she was back as a member of this family she had so determinedly tried to leave. For the first time in years they would all be under the same roof, as though nothing had happened. She realised, too, that the unspoken emotions between them in the car, and the sense that they were once more a unit, seemed utterly natural now that there was a crisis, a catalyst. She was back home, where she had hoped she would never be again, and she felt, despite herself, almost relieved. -From The Blackwater Lightship, page 106-

Toibin’s slowly evolving novel looks at the fragility of family relationships and the desire to return “home” when we are most vulnerable. Lighthouses are commonly symbolic as beacons of safety or, in dreams, as beacons of truth – and so it is no surprise that The Blackwater Lightship is about both finding a safe haven and uncovering the truth.

This novel is melancholy and moody, but in the end I felt a sense of satisfaction and hope; the feeling that even in the face of death, healing and redemption are possible.


The Handmaid’s Tale – Book Review

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control. – From The Handmaid’s Tale, page 174-

Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novel – The Handmaid’s Tale – is timeless and relevant. Set in the fictional Republic of Gilead and spanning the Eastern seaboard of the United States after the collapse of the American government, the novel is narrated by Offred…a young Handmaid whose sole purpose in life now is to be the vessel for producing a baby for the upper classes.  Atwood creates a terrifying hierarchy with men being “on top” and women being relegated to a variety of freedom-less classes such as Wives (top ranked married women who are unable to conceive), Daughters (the adopted offspring of wives), Marthas (infertile, single, older women whose skills at domesticity keep them from being shipped off to the Colonies), Econowives (low-ranked married women who must “do it all”), Handmaids (fertile women whose sole function is to provide babies for the upper echelon), Aunts (the only women who have any autonomy and are used to train and monitor the Handmaids), and Jezebels (the prostitutes who are hidden away in hotels and used for men’s pleasure). Atwood uses irony effectively with Biblical references and play on words to craft a compelling story.

The novel questions how much freedom we are willing to give up in the guise of safety. Viewed in respect to our current world and political environment of red alerts, government lies to enact war, terrorism, airline security, phone tapping and the whittling away of individual freedoms…The Handmaid’s tale is a thought-provoking expose on what could happen when we willingly give up our freedoms to supposedly ensure our safety.  Are we on a slippery slope? Atwood also questions our sources of information (ie: the news media).

The anchorman comes on now. His manner is kindly, fatherly; white hair and candid eyes, wise wrinkles around them, like everybody’s ideal grandfather. What he’s telling us, his level smile implies, is for our own good. Everything will be all right soon. I  promise. There will be peace. you must trust. you must go to sleep, like good children. He tells us what we long to believe. He’s very convincing. -From The Handmaid’s Tale, page 83-

Atwood is a genius at creating character. Offred’s voice is pitch perfect, taking the reader step by step through her horrible story. Even Serena Joy, the Commander Fred’s wretched wife, elicits sympathy from the reader. Atwood’s skill with language has never been more spot on then in this novel where she twists words and phrases, showing the reader that all is not as it seems.

But all of that was pertinent only in the night, and had nothing to do with the man you loved, at least in daylight. With that man you wanted it to work, to work out. Working out was also something you did to keep you body in shape, for the man. If you worked out enough, maybe the man would too. Maybe you would be able to work it out together, as if the two of you were a puzzle that could be solved; otherwise, one of you, most likely the man, would go wandering off on a trajectory of his own, taking his addictive body with him and leaving you with bad withdrawal, which you could counteract by exercise. If you didn’t work it out, it was because one of you had the wrong attitude. Everything that went on in your life was thought to be due to some positive or negative power emanating from inside your head. -From The Handmaid’s Tale, pages 226-227-

I was hooked by the story from page one and read it straight through in two days.

The Handmaid’s Tale is on the ALA’s list of 100 most banned books. It was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1986, won the Governor General’s Award in Canada in 1985,  and made the Orange Prize list of 50 Essential Reads. Brilliant, chilling, suspenseful, and masterly written – this novel is a modern classic.

Highly recommended.

To read more about this novel, check out Wikipedia. Also here.

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