Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mornings in Jenin

My Favorite Flower!

There are three things I love to see when I open a book: a map, a family tree and a listing of chapter titles. Any one of those three things is enough to make me seriously consider a purchase. ---Maybe some smart marketing person can take that information and come up with a stupendously successful campaign. I can't be the only person swayed by those three things--- I'm not sure what the lure of those things are, but any one of them is enough to start to win me over. If there are all three at once? I am heading to the cash register immediately.

I recently finished reading Mornings in Jenin and it has chapter titles and a family tree. Once again those items were my good talismans. Mornings was originally published in 2006 as The Scar of David. I don't know how it came to be as the cover says "fully revised and edited" and then published in paperback by Bloomsbury U.S.A. but I don't need to know. I'm glad it happened.

Mornings opens dramatically. Amal, a Palestinian woman, is staring down the barrel of an Israeli soldier's gun. The story moves backward from that point but not with any loss of drama. In 1948, Amal's grandparents are working the same olive farm that their family has owned for generations. when they are forcibly relocated to the refuge camp of Jenin to make way for the new Jewish state. It's there that Amal was born into a family locked into grief and unanswered prayers. She grows up never having known the security of belonging somewhere. The lives of the three generations of this family dovetail the history of the Palestinians over the last sixty years. It is a brutal and potent history.

Author Susan Abulhawa has done an excellent job in humanizing the headline following events she incorporates into her novel. Here is a well rounded presentation of history through one family's eyes. There is good and bad on both sides, but this is the story a Palestinian family and their perspective takes center stage. Thanks to Abulhawa's skill Mornings is a moving story of adversity and politics.

Happy and maybe better informed

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Too Short History Of Women

This time it's the one that got away. Do you know the book, A Short History of Women? It came out last June. It never made it to my radar I am sorry to say. I recently bought a copy at my library's winter book fair. Lucky me! What a stunning book. The author, Kate Walbert has written a masterpiece of powerful restraint. When I finished the book I had the Reader's Holy Grail Moment. I was deeply satisfied, wanted to talk to a fellow reader about it immediately and knew that in my house of books I had nothing else to read because what could compare? That is a lovely moment.

This is 5 generations of women's lives all starting with a British suffragette, Dorothy Trevor Townsend. Dorothy is starving herself to death as an act of civil disobedience in a WWI London hospital. The day to day routine of hospital is fascinating and a beautiful introduction to how well Walbert captures the quiet qualities of the lives of her characters in this novel. It is WW1 and most Dr's are serving overseas so with almost no males around her, Dorothy's dying days are spent in a world ruled by women. She has children she's not allowed to see, a public that is against her and time to reflect on her life and choices. Dorothy's hunger strike, the extreme embodiment of commitment, will color her children's choices for generations.

Dorothy's heirs: her daughter Evie, her son Thomas's daughter Dorothy and Dorthy's daughters Caroline and Liz all take up the suffragette/feminist mantle in some way in their lives whether they realize it or not though not in the public way their Grandmother did. The paths they choose science, the arts or as a contemporary housewife are all different but they all still chafe at what society has set out for them. Short History is no diatribe against what hasn't happened for women nor is it a celebration of girl power. There is an undercurrent of anger in these characters but also a striving to understand themselves, the complications of their relationships and what to do about it all.

Reading Short History was a pleasure. It's witty, dramatic and enlightening. Walbert's quietly authoritative writing is smart and disturbing. She moves effortlessly from the historical to the contemporary parts of the book. There are big questions here about life and the big events that change lives but they never overwhelm the storytelling. This is a brilliant, unforgettable novel.

Happy, but sorry that the lovely cover of this book doesn't reproduce well here. You'll like it in person.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Wives of Henry Oades

Hello Flower!

I have had good luck in books lately. How about you?

The Wives of Henry Oades caught my attention not because of it's crap cover but because of it's title. I love that title. It's perfectly clear what you are going to read about and doesn't give anything away. Well except that Henry has had multiple marriages so if that's a problem for you give this one a pass, if it isn't you'll be deee-lighted.

Henry is based on a true story. In the late 1880's Henry Oades and his wife Margaret move from Englad to New Zealand. Henry has a post as an accountant waiting for him there and everything is going to be great. Henry wants adventure. Margaret doesn't want to leave London, but what choice does she have? When they get to New Zealand life is tougher and much more rustic than they had expected. During a Maori uprising Margaret and the children are kidnapped. Guilt and grief stricken Henry searches for his family for months. Finally he gives them up for lost and abandons New Zealand for California. There Henry meets Nancy a young widow with a new baby. The two pool their grief and marry, each determined to start over.

Q: Knock. Knock.
A: Whose there?
Q: Margaret.
A: Margaret who?
Q: Your wife Margaret Oades and your children.

Six years after their abduction Margaret and the surviving children have escaped their slavery and made their way to Henry's Berkley farm. And this is only the beginning. Henry decides to do the right thing and support both of his wives and families. A 1900's blended family. Once the Berkeley Daughters of Decency (Do you think they are still active?) hear what's going on they have bigamy charges brought against Henry. At the time bigamy is a crim punishable by hanging.

This book was so interesting. Author Johanna Moran (Another first timer!) has done an excellent job in taking the bones of this true story and fleshing them out into a wonderfully singular novel. The developing relationships, the frontier drama, the bigamy trial, the strong voices of the characters, Moran manipulates it all beautifully. This novel is a job well done!


P.S. It is too bad about that cover! It's awful. It makes a worthwhile, picturesque, startling read look like a sleeping pill advertisement. Good thing I saw the title first because if I was going to judge this book by it's cover I'd have walked by.

P.P.S.  The Wives of Henry Oades is also a fab-o book club choice.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Parrot And Olivier Like To Be In America


You have heard me mention my friend Simon who lives in London, correct? Well periodically Simon sends me books. The boxes he sends are always wonderful. He is a terrific judge of what I will enjoy reading, I love seeing the covers that are used outside of the U.S. and who doesn't like to get a package in the mail? In the current box, among other treasures, was a copy of Peter Carey's new novel,  Parrot and Olivier in America. Lucky me. I was not even aware that Carey had a new book coming out. Shocking! It's due out over here in April but nana-nana-nana-na-na I have it now. Not to rub it in or anything like that.

Carey has twice won the award that most often co-insides with my own perfect taste, the Man Booker. I'm sure we both remember my rants on that prize so I won't go there again. Anyway, Carey has won the Booker for Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and  The True History of the Kelly Gang (2001) and he was on the short list for Illywhacker (1984). Impressive. There have been many other awards and nominations along the way for Carey but for now I'm going to ignore those. Just know they are numerous.

So? Parrot and Olivier in America? Despite my deep love for the collected works of Peter Carey I had one concern prior to beginning this novel. I knew from reading the book jacket that this book was inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and 'in America' is right there in the title. So... That has got to mean that the novel will be examining the U.S. and frankly I was not interested in reading a new and improved Democracy In America bashing novel. I get enough of that in my newspapers, in line at the Post Office and my brother-in-law to get me through my day. As it turned out my worries were for naught. I should have known. This is Peter Carey! Parrot and Olivier is not a retelling of Democracy In America so much as it's the you cannot turn away banjo playing cousin.

The narrative alternates between Olivier a priggish, indulged son of French nobles who were traumatized by the terrors of the Revolution and the very downtrodden and mysterious Parrot. When Papa and Mama discovery little Olivier's involvement with Napoleon supporters they are scandalized. They send him away to America for his own protection. Not trusting Olivier to be able to take care of himself and stay out of trouble in the wilderness they hire John Larrit (a.k.a. Parrot because of his ability to mimic)) to be their spy and Olivier's servant, secretary and protector. Olivier and Parrot take an instant hatred to each other. Olivier's blue blood wants nothing to do with the bastard son of an engraver, a survivor of the Australian penal system. Parrot's artistic soul and outlaw ways dismiss Olivier as an inbred fop.

Once in America Olivier and Parrot's points of view are even wider apart. Olivier's snobbish disdain for the New World only slackens when he falls in love with a Connecticut woman. Otherwise all of America is big rude, dirty, money grubbing wasteland to him. Parrot's opinions are a bit more varied, but this isn't a paradise for him either. As the novel progresses and each of our narrators have more adventures and we see America through two very different sets of eyes and experiences the novel gets more fun. The numerous walk ons add to the deceptively haphazard events. Our guides are far too self centered to see what lies beyond their current situation. Parrot and Olivier's relationship does change over the course of the novel. They gradually and grudgingly go from servant and master to...ummmm... friends.

Peter Carey is an amazing writer. A writer who takes chances with each new novel and gets better with each novel. In Olivier and Parrot in America his glorious characters ramble through a confused, vaudevillian America. Carey keeps them oblivious to much but their situations and attitudes illuminate the ideals and failures of the young democracy. Carey's language is rich and powerful. A delectable treat! Parrot and Olivier in America is joy ride through through the preciousness of history.


P.S. This time the U.S. cover is much better than the U.K. cover. Agree?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

People In A Glass House

Hey Flower guess what?

I'll tell you what. While Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Who I heart in case you don't remember.) was winning the 2009 Booker, Simon Mawer was one of the nominees losing for The Glass Room. He may have won if nominated a different year because his book is splendid but when up against the powerhouse that is my girl Hilary he was an also ran. Indeed who could have competed successfully against all that Mantel exquisiteness? I'd like to say no one but having just finished The Glass Room I have to say that the Booker judges had to make a close call.

The Glass Room starts out in Czechoslovakia in the 1920's. Wealthy newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer have built a modern marvel of a house. It's all clean lines, steel, onyx and glass. The perfect home to see them into a bright future. No reader needs a Magic Eight Ball to see what's coming. It's the 20's, Viktor is an educated Jew and Germany is their backyard. That being said knowing the historical events that will surround the fictional characters of a historical novel in no way precludes your pleasure and respect for the novel. Rather your knowledge of history should be brought to a human level, a sympathetic level by the writer's ability to tell a story within a historical context. That doesn't always happen. It does here.

As the worst of 20th century history moves forward in the novel various people will come and go from the glass house. These are not people who are going to change history this is not that kind of novel. These are the people trying to get through the war and what life brings them next as best they can. The real survivor here is the house. Over a 60 year period history comes to this house nothing happens outside of it. The house is all of us. It doesn't make anything happen it is a mute and static witness.

I don't want to put the hex on The Glass Room by saying it is a novel of ideas but that is exactly what it is-- but that is not all that it is. The brilliant characters and the plot lines are all there to propel the reader along. This isn't a dry, philosophical, God help me when will this end book you had to read for school. This is effulgent writing that views the last 60 years from a very interesting stage. I was quite impressed with The Glass Room.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Now that I'm caught up, Amy Tan reads to get a new novel out, ok?

I think that if you are lucky when a loved one is lost to you there will be no regrets regarding how well you knew them. You will have had the time and oppertunity to ask all of the questions that you wanted to and you would have been told all the stories they knew. When that loved one is a parent it seems to me most often that what you didn't know is exactly what would have brought you the most peace and understanding when they passed.

In Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, middle aged ghostwriter Ruth Young is losing a parent by inches. Ruth is a woman who has defined herself in many ways but now suddenly she sees herself only as the daughter of a newly diagnosed Alzheimer patient, her mother LuLing. LuLing was raised outside of Peking by her beloved Precious Auntie. When her Aunt is lost to her through betrayal and deceit, LuLing eventually makes her way to America. As LuLing wanders in and out of the tenacious disease that will soon control her she struggles to tell Ruth all she needs Ruth to know to stay strong and find her own happiness. Ruth doesn't understand what she presumes are her Mother's ramblings. Partly to pass the time and partly to escape her Mother's chatter Ruth begins a translation of her Mother's diary. It is then that she learns of the traumatic events of her Mother's life and begins to understand her Mother's courage and desire to communicate with her.

My bare bones description of the story should not be taken as that's all there is. AmyTan has layers upon layers (Ah! The old multilayered!) of back story and family history throughout Bonesetter's. How she can manipulate all that fascinating information into the personalities of her characters is spectacular. Reading the absorbing life stories of generations only to have them come skillfully dancing back to the present and all of it's worries and to matter? That is masterful writing. That is storytelling.

I could say that mother daughter relationships are not new ground for Amy Tan but that's like saying that men fading out of their prime is not new territory for Philip Roth. This is what these authors write about. You read them because you have an interest in that and because they write so well. End of story--which is a shame!


P.S. In case you were wondering you can get any or all (I would recommend  the all) of Amy Tan's great novels---and I can say that now that I have read them all---at any Independent Bookstore. Good news, right?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Another Eve Day!

Happy Valentines Day Eve Flower!

Do you and Mr Flower have plans for the holiday?
It seems strange to me that V-day is on a Sunday. Although I can accept that it has happened many times before. I think of Valentine;s Day as a school day. A day with mini Valentines cards put into paper bag mailboxes (being sure to have one for everyone in your class) followed by parent volunteer made cupcakes and juice for all. Viva la V-day I say. What's wrong with a holiday that brings you a boat load of mail assuring you of never ending love and sweets? Nothing I say. Let's celebrate it once a month instead of once a year.

As for people that see Valentine's Day as a reminder that they are without someone tied to them by a promise of enduring love and a certificate from the state of their choice entitling them to half of everything? Get over it I say. No need for a 12 step program or a paparazzi stalking rehab for this mindset. All you have to do is to stop reading women's magazines they only want you to believe you have a cover full of defects that only they can cure for you, by yourself your own flowers and chocolate that way you get what you want and watch The Third Man.

Why The Third Man? Well it is an excellent movie that you need to see for enjoyment/worship and as a cultural reference. I don't want to say, "I never knew the old Vienna before the war with it's Srauss music, it's glamor and easy charm" and not have you know what I mean. You could watch it on any Eve and it would be appropriate (especially on Thanksgiving I find) so it is completely on target for V-day. I don't know if you've ever seen it so I will not give away any of the plot (And what a plot! Thank you Graham Greene!) but there are a couple love stories in there along with so much other fabulously wonderfully exciting things. The love stories aren't the usual affairs. These two love stories take place under wildly unique circumstances and are played for dramatic effect but they are also painfully honest in their sweetest moments and their sad moments. And. At the end someone walks away independent and ready to survive. ~~~Sigh~~~ Lesson learned and maybe role model created? Oh yeah. In your face women's magazine!

Happy and with lots of things to love.

Hey! By the way...Happy Chinese New Year. It's the year of the tiger and now commence not being able to get "Eye of the Tiger" out of your head for the next 12 months.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Taken by the Horns

Flower, it was a dark and stormy night.

That's generally as scary as I want anything I read to be. I am not brave. It has only been in the last two years that I have slept with the lights off. So what am I doing reading a book by the hot new writer of horror/suspense, the author of the bestselling The Heart-shaped Box, the man that babies are named for and critics adore, Joe Hill? With the lights now off at night I should be baby stepping my way into watching Scooby Doo without getting anxious (more true than I would like anyone to know) about those pesky kids pulling the mask off Swamp Thing only to discover that it's Old Charlie who runs the mill rather than letting a terrific writer put pictures in my head that I cannot erase.

Woe is me.

The novel that is doing all this damage is Horns. When our hero Ignatis Perrish wakes up after a night of bad behavior he's got regrets, a hangover and devil horns. Quite the triple threat. Ig soon realizes that the horns are no hallucination and in fact like a good lipstick they have come with a gift. The initial discovery of the gift is a sarcastic crack up but that doesn't last long. Ig discovers there is a very dark awareness that he now has to navigate. As unwanted and icky as the horns and the G.W.P. are this isn't the worst thing that has happened to Ig. A year ago he went from being the young man with a good back ground on his way up in the world to the un-prosecuted but publicly convicted and shunned rapist and murderer of his beloved sweetheart , Merrin. Since Merrian's death Ig has been treated like the devil in his small town and now he looks the part. Ig decides to try and use his new power to find Merrian's real killer and make that person confess.

The unexpected, sarcastic humor that Hill laces through Horns is what I enjoyed the most. The suspense and bizarre experiences of Ig are what kept me reading. As Ig begins his quest for justice and a way out of his year long private hell you are immediately captured. The novel goes back and forth between then and now and the truth is cleverly exposed. Hill writes this novel with a kind of telling you a story over the backyard fence chattiness which offsets the horrific events perfectly. You are surprised every time and you are completely stuck. You will have to get to the end of this invention to see it all play out and you will soooooooooooooo enjoy doing it.

Happy and maybe the light's back on for a while but it was worth it.

P.S. I was sent an ARC of Horns by the good people at William Morrow part of HarperCollins Publishers and I thank them for it!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Blast From Science's Past

Flower, my Flower!

It's been ten days and I am still committed to my Read It Or Remove It (R.I.O.R.I.) policy. How is that for dedication? Impressive is the word you are scratching your head for I believe. This time the book was the educational and absorbing The Dragon Seekers by Christopher McGowan and it was discovered on a frequently looked at bookcase in show room new condition. Having recently read and enjoyed Remarkable Creatures, Seekers being about the first dinosaur hunters is a perfect follow up.

We are not always fair to early scientists. When we look back with our powerful hindsight and vast ninth grade science knowledge at their accomplishments they somehow seem quaint. For instance how could nineteenth century scholars ever have failed to know what every six year old knows? That dinosaurs once ruled the Earth. It seems impossible.

The Dragon Seekers is a fascinating account of early Victorian naturalists, geologists, amateurs and eccentrics* who searched out the remains of frightening creatures never before seen or imagined. These men and women who were from all social classes and some of whom had little or no formal education. They made huge strides in our understandings of fossils and for the most part their contributions were forgotten in the post Darwin world. Seekers tells their stories with all the excitement of first discovery.

Author McGowan has successfully captured the magnitude of what these forgotten trailblazers did for a modern world that thinks all evolution and religious belief verses the possibility of life before Adam and Eve started with Darwin.


P.S. Why were there so many Victorian eccentrics?  You never hear about Elizabethan eccentrics or Me Generation eccentrics. What was it about the 1800's that turned so many people eccentric?

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Marraige Bureau for Rich People Who Need People

Flower, Flower, Flower.

Once upon a couple weeks ago I was killing time in a large chain bookstore (LCB) while waiting for a friend. I had been wanting to read something by Emile Zola for a while so I decided to look at what LCB had in stock. Have you ever read Zola, Flower? If so what did you think? I've never tried him but I recently watched The Life Of Emile Zola (love the bio pic) and that reminded me that I wanted to read him.

The only Zola LBC had in stock was their own edition of Nana. I was disappointed. I'm no big spender. I would like everything to be published as a mass market. But. I find LCB's editions to be too cheap and cheesey for me. The cover designs use unappealing, washed out colors and are boring, the paper the books are printed on is such a sub-par quality that the books never close and the paper actually sucks the moisture right out of my hands, the bindings are #@$% and that's not the worst of it.

What's worse is that if LCB has an edition of their own of classic work A they rarely stock any other editions of that title. I don't want to give anyone LCB's horrid edition of Jane Eyre. Books are like food--presentation counts! Would it cost them so much to also stock the Penguin or Random House Modern Library edition or something? Arugh! I want a nice edition and if there is a choice of editions I want the choice. My choice was to stop by my local independent bookstore and get my book there. Where I'd like you to know they had a choice of the Penguin or Oxford editions of Nana and 2 other Zola novels in stock as well.

Anyway. Enough with the small thinking of LCB!

 My time in LCB was not wasted. Oh no my floral friend. While searching for Zola, the idol of France,  I found  Farahad Zama.

That brighter than bright cover caught my eye immediately. Look at it. It's lovely. You aren't going to stumble across colors like that in any ho-hum world. It was love at first sight, Flower and interest soon after as I read the description. It wasn't purchase at first sight though. My cash once again went to my local.

How wonderful when my instincts are right. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is a delight with a conscience. Mr Ali has retired from the Indian civil service. He feels the need to keep doing something so he opens a marriage bureau on the veranda. Almost immediately his matchmaking company is a success despite the local Aunties. Good thing since this gets him out of the way of Mrs Ali and their activist son. The Bureau has a lively and touching clientele all with very specific needs. Into the business comes modest Aruna. From a poor but proud family Aruna longs to be a bride but knows that without family money that won't ever happen. Ta-Da! Enter a sort of Doctor Darcy and the happy endings spring forth.

Marriage Bureau is a warmhearted and winsome novel. There is a helping of Jane Austen in the humor and social assessments and Alexander McCall Smith in Zama's light touch in showing us the grim realities of  political corruption, the caste system and poverty that the average Indian is up against without losing the cozy community feeling of the novel. Mr Ali's love connection business also reminded me of one of my all time, extra favorite novels, (Also set in India.)  A Suitable Boy. For me, not living in India, Marriage Bureau also has a built in exotic element in the setting and a mysterious quality in the customs. Zama has written a bewitching take you away from your troubles book.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Map of the Invisible World


We have spoken of this before so I will only do the Happy Recap on this subject. We are thrilled when authors we love have a new book out. Seriously, what Reader doesn't love that?

I can hear your little brain from here. Who is it this time you're wondering. Why it's household name (in my household) Tash Wa. If you say his name quickly it sounds like a magic word. Tashwa!

Wa's first book, published in 2005 and winner of the Whitbread prize for a debut novelist was The Harmony Silk Factory. It was a favorite of mine that year and I forced it into a lot of grateful hands. It is the story of Johnny Lim, a shady figure in 1940s Malaysia. Johnny's story is told by three unreliable narrators: his angry son, the son's deceased, adulterous mother via her diaries and Johnny's ex-pat friend Peter Wormwood. Depending on the whose story you believe Johnny was: a good and true friend, a Communist leader, an informer for the Japanese, a black-market businessman or a working-class Chinese. I thought it was a first rate book full of moody settings and distinct, articulate writing.

So here now is Wa's new novel, Map of the Invisible World. Once again there are multiple, disparate stories and ethnicities coming together. That is a huge hook for me. As is any book set outside of the U.S. All the world is exotic to me. In Map a distraught young orphan making his way to Jakarta to search for his Dutch foster father, the brother of that orphan raised in comfort in Malaysia questioning his luck in being adopted by a wealthy family, an American teacher, an American embassy attaché who may or may not be undercover CIA and a dangerous radical communist. None of these people are where life should have put them and none are safe. This is Indonesia in 1964. The country is one more riot away from civil war. It is the year of 'living dangerously'.

Map proves that Aw has mastered the difficult multiple storyline novel. He can sustain all the treads, the tensions and your interest over 400 pages. His writing is stunning. The details of the invisible worlds in a third world country of poverty, squalor, political machinations and murders, colonialism and the destruction of families are all brought before you. These are the big issues. Aw incorporates them and all the turbulence of a country falling apart effortlessly into the rich psychology of this novel.


P.S. I bought my copy of Map of the Invisible Word at my local independent bookstore and while I was there I also bought: When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson, The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville and just to break the Kate trend I picked up The Knitter magazine. I am excited by all 3 purchases! Those are 2 of my fav writers and 1 of my fav magazines.