Monthly Archives: May 2011

Too many books on the go …

Ok. I confess. I am reading too many books simultaneously. It’s totally uncharacteristic. I’m a monogamous kind of reader, usually wholly faithful to one book at a time, allowing only one author to slip between my sheets and perch comfortably at the edge of my bed before sleep and after sleep’s caresses pull me under, to wait, patiently, until the pages are turned again.

How is it that this has happened? And it seems so sudden. I have turned into a book whore! Woe is me …

So, here is my confession … these are the books that I am reading at the moment and enjoying, all, allowing the sweat and tang of each tome to mix with the others:

1.The Kindly Ones: Shameful. I have neglected this book, allowed it to slip to the recesses of my mind, trying to ignore it, hoping that it will finish itself, mindful of its brilliance but somehow incapable of picking it up and blowing the months of dust off its jacket.

2. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Fabulous. I am loving this book, despite my lack of Spanish! I am well into the action and intrigued by the characters and the plot. This is one heck of a coming of age novel!

3. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday: Interesting. Fascinating, actually. As someone with a background in Middle East Studies and an affiliation with the region I am finding this book quite riveting – although, obviously not riveting enough for it to entirely capture my attention!

4. The Tiger’s Wife: Wow. I picked this book up in the Hot Reads Section of my local library. It’s magnificently written and depicts an era in Balkan history about which I know nothing – well, I know nothing about the Balkans except for what I have seen in passing in the media so this book is proving to be most educational! There’s much here to grip the reader and I am looking forward to reviewing this one. Unfortunately, the book needs to be returned by Tuesday (the Hot Reads Rule is 1 week of borrowing time, no renewals) and Monday is my full day at work so I’m going to rushing to finish this one in my spare moments between the descending chaos.

5. Alice Munro: Agggh, there are 5, 5 books, 5 equally fabulous books calling me at the same time. Help!

Need I say more?

What do you do when you have so many books demanding your attention and when there is still a life outside of those books which is equally demanding?

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e e cummings

l(a
le
af
fa
ll
s)
one
l

iness

Alice Munro

How is it that I have never before read Alice Munro? How is it possible that I have missed such awe inspiring brilliance? I am stumped. Baffled. I feel as though I have suddenly discovered all that I am lacking in my appreciation of literature, of texts in general. What else am I missing out on? I shudder to think!

Alice Munro and short stories to boot (you will recall that this is my least favorite genre)!

“When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for a bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.
But maybe it was better that she had gone on, and seen him so strange and wasted. Not a person worth blaming for anything. Not a person. He was like a character in a dream.
She had dreams. In one dream she had run out of the house after finding them, and Lloyd had started to laugh in his old easy way, and then she had heard Sasha laughing behind her and it had dawned on her, wonderfully, that they were all playing a joke.”

In this first story of her collection Too Much Happiness, Munro has carved a fluid, simple and wonderfully vivid and intense narrative without being overwhelming. She has danced around this story in a way that clearly indicates her skill and alacrity. She is subtle with a sense of integrity or perhaps, even, innocence or naïveté?

Clearly, Munro’s ability to manipulate the flow and style of this genre sets her apart from so many other short story writers who have, in the past, so defined this genre for me.

Am I allowed to confess that I possibly enjoy Munro more than Woolf in this genre?

Before I Go To Sleep, S.J. Watson

What Watson has carved here in this debut novel is a suspense-filled thriller with a psychological twist. I was gripped from the first page, the first paragraph, the first image. What a powerful and moving, not to mention chilling, look at how our minds work and the value of our memories in defining who we are – or think we are!

I was thrilled by Watson’s ability to so carefully craft such diverse characters with such intense integrity… in fact, this whole book speaks of textual integrity, of the value of a tightly balanced and contained plot which unfolds with perfect precision.

I won’t say anything more about what happens in this book than this: A woman wakes up in a strange bed with a strange man beside her. She notes his wedding band and is surprised that she drank so much at the party the night before that she has come home with a married man. Beside the bed she sees what she assumes are his wife’s slippers and she groans. She makes her way to the bathroom, all the while chastising herself for her silly actions. There, in the mirror, she meets herself as though for the first time. She is twenty years older than she remembers, lines on a face that doesn’t seem to be her own, a face that she nonetheless knows and recognises. Taped to the mirror she finds a myriad of photographs of her and the strange man still asleep in the bed. Her confusion and panic is just the beginning of what is a fantastic story.

This book is a must read for anyone who likes great writing, thrillers or suspense novels. What a pleasure!! I will be watching for more from this author.

Watson’s website can be found here.

Read the Guardian Review.

Hamlet, Shakespeare

“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory … What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – no, nor woman neither …”

William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

From If I Were Another, Mahmoud Darwish

I am
from
here
and here
is here
and I
am I
and here
I am
and I
am here.

Hand Me Down World, Lloyd Jones

It has been quite some time since I read a book that has gripped me so from all angles. Unlike Ghostwritten, which I thought was superb and riveting and intriguing and unusual, Hand Me Down World caressed me with a different tone. It was soft and mellow, smooth around the edges, neatly woven together. It totally eclipsed my expectations.

To start with, the plot: nothing outlandish, a woman, working in a hotel in Tunisia, is seduced by a patron, a tourist from Germany. She falls pregnant, has his child and then in her post-partum daze, unwittingly signs papers which allow him to steal away, child in hand, and disappear back to the bowels of Europe. The woman is left bereft and in a strangely inactive yet determined way, she sets out to retrieve her child … although, perhaps ‘retrieve’ implies too much of a plan … rather, she sets out to find her child, to just set eyes upon him, to know that he is alive and to somehow affirm her own existence through seeing him.

It is a good story, but what sets this book apart is the way that Jones has crafted the tale. It unfolds like a flower, each petal revealing a different angle, told from a different perspective, explaining a different part of the story. There is the truck driver, the film maker, the snail collector, the blind man and the Frenchman. The kind woman on the beach and the Inspector. Each character contributes a new shade to this telling and through the eyes of all these different voices readers come to appreciate the complexity of this tale. Ironically, the only voice absent is that of the lost child, a son, who has a presence, but is silent. There must be some metaphorical significance to his glances and looks, but I have not yet lighted upon it.

The protagonist in this narrative is controlled and composed, even while she is floating in the sea between Africa and Europe. Another type of character would have surrendered at this point:

“Her shoulders ache, her lips are swollen, her eyes hurt. Her skin wants nothing more to do with her. It has lost the silky touch that guests always liked to comment on. Whenever they stopped to pet her she liked to watch the slow marvel of herself emerge in the eyes and face of a perfect stranger.”

But this character is so determined in her mission that she never loses this strength of conviction in her actions and behaviour. And it leads her to be strangely divorced from her body and its requirements. This absence appears throughout the text: while she sits on a train, steals from people around her, has sex with strangers. Everything takes on a different and validated purpose because it is part of her mission to find her son.

She is an interesting construction. We know almost nothing about her past, about the time before the hotel. She is simply a pawn, part of a larger global enterprise to service tourists who wish to sample the exotic Other. She has no history, no accent, almost no thoughts of her own. This makes her illusive, a conundrum, confounding for readers. Yet, despite our inability to ‘know’ her and through this ‘knowing’ to empathise with her, we are still drawn to her and gripped by her mission and her single-mindedness. She is like a gentle tide, pulling us deceptively further out to sea.

Part of the wonder of this book is the way that the protagonist is created, in a hand me down fashion, by the voices of others and it is this, I think, that makes her feel so trapped and immobilised, as though she is waiting for the approval of someone else, waiting to be authored. On so many levels she is defined by her maid’s uniform, her pristine blue coat, her perfect English phrases. Ironically, it is the blind man who sees through her, sees that she is vacuous and empty.

I absolutely loved this book. I loved every moment of it, every page, every breath that the characters took, every word that was spoken. I loved the silences between those spoken words and the descriptions of the places and the emotion that flowed so subtly from each character. I will definitely be reading more of Lloyd Jones! Mr Pip, here I come!!

A review from The Observer.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua

I first stumbled across this controversial book in the Wall Street Journal where an extract published caused furious and frenzied responses from a wide spectrum of the community, both local and global. The original publication depicted Chua as somewhat of a demon, extreme, manipulative and, in all honesty, quite vile. She was described as terrorizing her children, forcing them to perform to a strict schedule of tasks, limiting their interaction with their peers and preventing them from engaging in anything that might be deemed ‘fun’. Chua herself confesses that she is “not good at enjoying life”, this is apparently not one of her “strengths”. For Chua, childhood was “a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.”

I was intrigued. It was hard not to be. Chua’s position – that Chinese mothers are superior to their Western counterparts – was so outside of our expectations of political correctness and accepted social ettiquette. How could one not read this book?

As one might expect, the Post sensationalized Chua’s book, selecting the most vitriolic segments to create its extract, probably hoping to inspire debate. And her response to the uproar parallels the disclaimer with which she starts her book:

“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising their kids than Western ones.

But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

What Chua’s book is actually about is her own journey through parenting her two, very different children. It is about an extraordinarily driven woman who seemingly managed to balance marriage, children and a demanding academic role and still be apparently successful.

But Chua’s message is clear: “All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.” Chua goes on to detail what she perceives as some of the greatest differences between Chinese and Western parents and parenting:

“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

And I have to confess that this gave me pause to think about my own parenting style – how often do we pander to our children, concerned that we might offend them, desperate to enable them to lead a soft and easy life and certain that the way to do this is to bring them dinner while they sit in front of the television and warm their milk just so in the evenings.

It is almost impossible not to like Chua – she is bright, devoted and respected. She is also reasonably honest about herself, confessing her inability to have fun and painfully detailing how she failed with her younger daughter, Lulu. However, this does not stop readers from wanting to shake her and make her refocus! Interestingly, the urge to bring the author to her senses is consumed by Katrin’s – Chua’s sister – battle with cancer which neatly distracts readers, allowing them to empathise with Chua on a totally different plane.

But, there is a resounding and subtle sadness to this book. Despite Chua’s convictions, she still has doubts, is still uncertain about her choices and her parenting style:

“Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. This has always worried me. When I see the piano – and violin – induced calluses on my daughters’ fingertips, or the teeth marks on the piano, I’m sometimes seized with doubt.

But here’s the thing. When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart … I have a hard time believing that Western parenting does a better job with happiness.”

Perhaps, for Chua, the lesson is to decide what parenting is actually about: is it predominantly concerned with creating “happy” little people or is it more about molding character and determining futures. This book doesn’t provide any answers. It does, however, present a fantastic read filled with thought provoking ideas.