Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Lucky Gourd Shop

I first heard about the novel The Lucky Gourd Shop from the very nice Kim on Goodreads. I was (and still am) looking to read more novels about Koreans and Korea. Kim had the good taste to recommend The Lucky Gourd Shop and I’m grateful. Thank you, Kim!
The Lucky Gourd Shop begins with what really turns out to be an introduction to the story; three Korean teens looking to their adoptive, American parents for information about their birth parents. The adoptive parents’ efforts are thwarted by bureaucracy and uncooperative personnel.  Up to this point The Lucky Gourd Shop is a true story. The author, Joanna Catherine Scott is the mother of these children who had questions about their cultural and biological past. Her frustration at not being able to reconstruct her children’s past for them led to her to write The Lucky Gourd Shop, a fictionalized what if about their mother.

When the few pages of set-up are done and the actual story starts the novel becomes hard to put down.  Scott creates a flawed but spirited mother for her children in Mi Sook. She was abandoned as a baby in a trash bin and taken in by the owner of Seoul coffee shop. Throughout her childhood Mi Sook was handed off to each of the shop’s successive owners over the years. This fantastical, Oliver Twist like beginning immediately creates a passed down, family fable feeling that is a crucial part of the success of the novel.

Like every good, orphaned heroine, Mi  Sook dreams of the elusive  independence and security. Eventually Mi  Sook becomes the mistress and then wife of a local construction worker. Her husband, Kun Soo, is a man so desperate for sons that he is willing to jettison the wife that has given birth to his five daughters and marry a woman with no family or money to bring him honor and status.  This is no love match and there is unhappiness for husband and wife right from the start, but Scott does not to make a villain of either character. If looked at outside of his culture and economic circumstances Kun Soo’s  behavior is brutal and distressing  but Scott is careful to try to create a rounded picture of each of their lives and experiences.  It’s impossible to forgive Kun Soo but you do see him as every bit as trapped in poverty and tradition as Mi Sook.

The journey of Mi Sook from friendless orphan to wife and mother, from a hopeful child to a woman whose vision of her children’s future is so bleak that she feels compelled to abandon them at an orphanage is powerfully told.  Scott weaves other character’s tales of trouble, Korean myths, culture and history into the storyline so that the story of Mi Sook and her circumstances has a believability and depth to it.  

Joanna Scott gave her children a lovely gift in The Lucky Gourd Shop. This ancestry made be cut from whole cloth but it has credibility, courage and heart.  Reading this novel I was reminded of stories of stories from my own family’s past. None of our stories are so harrowing but they are very important to my own sense of identity and belonging.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Rules of Civility

Wow. I think I have just read the ultimate in This meets That novel. It’s The Rules of Civility by first time author Amor Towles. It’s a playful, revisit to a 1930’s that only happened in books and movies.

It is 1937 and best friends Katey and Eve are at the lower end of the white collar world by day and perched on bar stools scouting for Mr. Right by night. Start the snowflakes and cue Auld Lang Syne because on New Year’s Eve the immanently eligible Theodore Grey walks into the Greenwich Village bar where Katey and Eve are nursing their martinis. Then—spoiler alert---things change forever.

The plot of The Rules of Civility is a crazy quilt of every Joan Crawford movie made between 1932 and 1939, Sex in the City and the novels of Anita Loos and Frances Parkinson Keyes. It is every bit as enjoyable as those four things just not as original or fresh.

Towles gets all the mechanics in The Rules of Civility right. The settings are detail perfect from bachelorette flats to elegant Oyster Bay mansions. The dialog feels authentic with plenty of snappy banter and the characters behave appropriately risqué for the time. You’ll have fun with Katey and Eve but if it is a bit familiar don’t scratch your head over it. The déjà vu is real.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Where I Spend My Money Matters To Me

For fourteen years I was the manager/buyer for a very successful independent bookstore. It was a lot of hard work but over the years I worked with some wonderful, smart, good at their job people in the store and in publishing, got tons of free books, was able to force my book tastes on customers and was for the most part content with the job. If a surprise chance to move into another area of the book biz had not come along chances are I would still be there. I have worked in chain bookstores as well as "my" bookstore. Both kinds of retail require work but being employed in an independent store where every sale means another chance to stay open, where customer service is a matter of survival, where every penny spent is weighed in the balance, where the creation of every display is a crucial element in the week's business plan that is WORK. I am telling you this employment history because it explains the level of retail experience I have which is considerable.

Given this experience I tend to be hyper critical of any retail establishment I go into. After all I have done every single thing that every employee in that business has done for most of my working life. If a store is messy more than once in a great while I am not going back. If I do not get great customer service when I seek it (Which is not often because I find that in general clerks are so badly trained in their stores inventory and policies not to mention manners that it is not worth my while to ask for help.) I am not going back. If the store is perpetually out of the products or titles I desire, I am not going back. The Internet's greatest gift is not its ability to allow me to shop from home and have my purchases shipped to my door. Oh no. Its that the Internet helps me to avoid the wealth of crap retail environments and customer service out there.

Where I live I have happily have access to two independent bookstores (My locals.), a Barnes and Noble and for a little while longer a Borders. All four of these stores are less than twenty minutes from my home and in some way convenient to other places I have to visit. How lucky am I?

 I most frequently purchase at one of my locals. It is extremely important to me that they stay in business so I have to help that happen. It's too late to miss them when they are gone and that is what will happen if I and others do not support them. However this is no pity support. I like them. Their staff is on the job, the stores are well cared for, the selections good and they make a point of appreciating my business. Yes, every single title or funky doodad I buy there I could pay less for online. There are times when I do buy things online I could have bought at my locals because of the price or convenience but the majority of the books I buy come from my locals.

I will miss my Borders very much. For years they have offered me an excellent selection of titles. I have discovered more books I never heard of (and that's saying something) in that store than in any other bookstore in the U.S. I like the layout of the store and have found the staff to be accommodating and attentive. The atmosphere was always pleasant, the bathrooms clean and the sale tables interesting. I will not be vulturing at the closing sale. It's too sad that they couldn't make it and that all those people will be out of work. I do not want to partake in their final days.

The Barnes and Noble in my neighborhood is far and away the least favorite of my four bookstores. It didn't used to be that way. It was always at the bottom of the list but no so far down. I did not avoid it like I do now. I never found the staff to be any great shakes or interested in me at all. Parroting company policy and saying that a book, "Should be over there", is very big in that store. So what happened to make them a dreaded last resort? Well the economy tanked a few years ago as you undoubtedly recall, B&N decided that the Nook was it's future and then what seemed to be a quarter of the store became warehousing for the kind of expensive, brainy kids science kits, over the top tea sets and guarantee your child a place in Harvard toddler toys that clueless Aunts and Uncles and moneyed Grandparents buy.

Now whenever I go into that B&N it is a mess. The front of the store, Nooktown, is spotless but go back four feet and you find depleted bookshelves, sections that have obviously not been straightened or organized in days and four or five bargain book bays with choices that seems to take years to change. I swear there has been a ten copy stack of the hardcover edition of Free Food for Millionaires (A very enjoyable novel.) on the fiction bay for two years. Obviously this B&N does not have enough staff or books to justify its size and as a result it looks unkempt and unappealing. B&N cutting back on their discounting hasn't done anything to help me overcome my unhappiness with the state of the store.

The loss of Borders will benefit my locals as far as my purchasing goes but I will wish it was still there anyway.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

To Dance with Kings

In the mood for a big, well populated, well upholstered, well written historical novel? How about To Dance with Kings by Rosalind Laker? The plot is packed with enough coincidences, bed hopping, riches, poverty, sacrifice, bastards, sleaze, violence, back stabbing, thwarted love, food, ambition and fabulous gowns to keep a reader quite entertained and a little dizzy.

Things don't get much more dramatic or opulent than a novel set at Versailles between the Louies XIV and XVI and Laker makes the most of it. She takes four generations of women from the wrong side of the tracks and lets them loose on the aristocracy. Then all the reader has to do is sit back and enjoy the fulfilling cheesiness of it all.

At 613 pages To Dance With Kings may not be for the faint of heart but it is for the historical fiction fan who likes their history laid on with a light touch, their heroines charismatic and struggling and their storytelling old fashioned and satisfying.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gone With The Wind Part 2

A few weeks ago I blogged about the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind. Lucky me I had a comment posted by Angela telling me about her website "Gone With The Wind" Showtimes. The site is dedicated to letting all of us know when Gone With The Wind will be shown on the big screen. How cool is that?
If you have never seen GWTW at the movies you owe it to yourself to give it a try. It's a fabulous experience if you have never seen the film. If you have only ever seen it on a television screen then you have never really seen it. As fun as it is to go to the movies there are very few movies that you need to see in a theater. GWTW is one of them. It's too beautiful, too engaging, too epic to fit in a living room.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This Burns My Heart

Almost two years ago or exactly twenty-three months and six days ago I had just read The Calligrapher's Daughter (It was terrific.) and was wondering why after a lifetime of reading I had read so few novels set in Korea or about Koreans and why after a life time working in the book biz I couldn't rattle off at least a dozen titles that fit the Korean bill right off the top of my head. Why? I think the simple answer is the correct answer. Publishers were not interested in Korea.

That lack of interest seems to be changing. Changing very, very slowly but changing. In the past twenty-three months and six days I have read eight novels set in Korea or about Korean Americans. So if I heard about eight books there must have been many others that didn’t cross my path right? How nice is that to know that others are out there waiting for me...

One of the Korean Eight was This Burns My Heart by first time novelist Samuel Park. The story begins just after the end of the Korean War in South Korea. Soo-Ja is the daughter of a factory worker. She knows that tradition dictates that she will be a wife but she is smart and ambitious. Soo-Ja longs to go to school and join the Foreign Service. She is in love with a rebellious, medical student named Yul but is unwilling to go against the wishes of her family or the formalities of her culture and marry for love. Instead she marries Min. Soo-Ja is sure that she can rely on Min’s promise to move to Seoul after the wedding. The move will keep her out of the role of servant in her in-laws home and offer her the opportunity to pursue her dream. Of course Min has lied, is too weak to leave his Father and so Soo-Ja is trapped in a loveless marriage and at the tender mercies of her in-laws.

Korea in the mid 1950’s is on the path toward the future. Ancient cultural moirés are starting to lose some of their hold. Park very convincingly recreates the culture and attitudes of the times. His Korea is a hard place to live. The old guard is crumbling, the country is divided, they have been through two devastating wars in 15 years, the economy is in shambles and being able to recognize a friend from an enemy is as all important as it is difficult. Over time through necessity, effort and bad luck Park makes Soo-Ja confront these changes. Park’s confident manipulation of Soo-Ja through her youthful assurance to the trials of adulthood and middle age alongside those of South Korea are believable and persuasive.

This Burns My Heart is exceptional novel set in a country I am eager to learn more about. In this book Samuel Park tells us the story of one woman’s life in an emerging nation through unrequited love, loyalty, personal sacrifice, loss, motherhood and ambition. Those are not unique elements. We have all read many novels that cover the same ideas but how often have you read a novel that you cannot imagine being set anywhere else other than where the author has placed it? A novel whose main character experiences all those timeworn historical fiction troubles and yet whose voice is still distinctive and fresh?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Soldier's Wife

Do you remember The Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene? I think I was thirteen when I read that. That is the perfect age for that book. It’s about a jewish teenager named Patty whose town in Arkansas is to house a German prisoner of war camp.  Despite the ill will and fears regarding the German nation, Patty befriends one of the young soldiers in the camp. Her friendship with him is an escape from her hard home life and from loneliness  but when their relationship is discovered Patty has to choose between popular opinion, her family and this soldier who means so much to her.

It is a wonderful novel. It made a huge impression on me as a girl and now I think I’ve read the adult version.  It is The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy.  The basic bones in German Soldier and Soldier’s Wife are the same: two women involved with the enemy during wartime much decide where their loyalties lie.  That is a good start to a drama, right?

The soldier’s wife is Vivienne. She and her young family live in Guernsey. When the war begins Vivienne’s husband is off to fight and she is becomes a single parent and the caretaker to her husband’s mother.  Facing the threat of German invasion, many of the inhabitants of the islands send their children away for safety’s sake but Vivienne feels compelled to keep hers with her in the island.
The German Invasion does come and with it a harsh occupation. Normalcy is a thing of the past. Vivienne’s life is quickly taken over by food, fuel and every other thing shortages and the increasingly strict restrictions placed on the citizens of Guernsey by the German soldiers.  The kindness of one of the enemy soldiers occupying the house next door is the beginning of Vivienne’s affair or her collaboration depending on how you look at it.

Leroy is most successful and entertaining when writing about the day-to-day workings of Vivienne’s life and Guernsey itself.   She paints an evocative portrait of island life and a woman juggling multiple, complex relationships in an extreme situation but never captures the desperation this existence would have to bring on.
Historically The Soldier’s Wife is World War 2-lite. The author breezes through all that hard war stuff and fails to take any advantage of some of the real horrors on Guernsey like the use of slave labor. The heavy concentration on Vivienne's assignations that stay secret for years (Really? On and occupied island?) miss the intensity they could have had if Leroy brought more of the war into the novel. If you know nothing about the German Occupation of the Channel Islands not to worry you will finish The Soldier’s Wife just as knowledge free.
It’s too bad. I like the setting and all of the ideas behind this novel but as it turns out The Soldier's Wife is no Summer Of My German Soldier, my friend.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Miss Timmons' School For Girls

A book with a title like Miss Timmons' School For Girls can go either way. It could turn out to be that the title is completely accurate predictor of the story to come or it could be that the title is a mod writers jest and the book is really about a computer genius by day and a cross-dressing party girl by night who secretly adopts the orphans of a Nepalese village, puts them all through college and then finds love and acceptance with a former policewoman. In this case it's the former and I'm glad.

Miss Timmons' School For Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy is a coming of age story. The twist to this tale is that it takes place in India in 1974 and also involves a murder. Charulata Apte, not quite twenty-one, is the new teacher at Miss Timmons this term. Charu is a much loved only child from a Brahmin family. She is university educated and longs for a modern life in Bombay. Her parents would rather see her in a prosperous marriage surrounded by children but doubt that this can come about given the 'stain' on Charu's face. Charu and her parents reach a compromise about her immediate future after a scandal puts all of their dreams out of reach. This new plan sends Charu off to teach in a out-of-the-way girl’s boarding school.

The Miss Timmons' School started out in 1901 as a boarding school for the young daughters of the British Empire whose health was too delicate for the heat of the plains. Being situated in the western hills, the school offered these ladies a proper British education in a cooler climate. By the time Charu arrives in 1974, the school has been in and out of fashion several times and through a few different incarnations. Back in vogue in the early 1970’s the school still favors a British style education but now the girls are all from good, Christian Indian families.

Shy Charu is not surprisingly dazzled by a free thinking fellow teacher, Moira. Moira is a pot smoker who listens to rock and roll, talks about hippies and embodies all the things that Charu thought living an independent life in Bombay would bring her. Currimbhoy populates the school and it's faculty with more of the same likeable and interesting but somewhat standard types. The rule follower, the gossip, the plotter, the liar, the brain, they are all there and comfortably move the story along.

The dramatic crisis of the novel is a murder that involves the school. Charu is devastated by the loss of a friend and shocked to find herself a suspect in the murder. Given the traditions of Miss Timmon's School for Girls it isn't likely that a gruesome crime would be allowed to take center stage and it doesn't. This book is not a whodunit. Instead the murder is a catalyst for change and the opportunity for Currimbhoy to bring more of the village into the novel.

The main character in Miss Timmons' might not be Charu but the weather. The monsoons are a major presence in the novel. Their approach, arrival and passing bracket all the action between the human characters. They have a profound impact in the decision making at the school and in the village. Although the tone of Currinbhoy's novel could not be more different the force of the monsoons on the characters as well as the school's remote location reminded me of the winds and isolation that torment the nuns in Rumer Godden's Black Narcissius.

Miss Timmons' School For Girls is a pleasant visit to a far away land and time. Nayana Currimbhoy enlivens this old fashioned tale with a contemporary take on the problems of growing up different.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Could I Have Been So Blind?

Seriously. How did I miss this? I read Emily Alone. We spent a few precious days together. I thought it was brilliant. Maybe the book power of Emily Alone blinded me to the cover art but I am wide eyed and seeing now my friend. Isn't Emily, Velma? Velma Eugenia Dinkle, crime solver. One of those 'pesky kids' from Scooby Doo.

Apparently Velma grew up, married, gave up detective work and raised a family. I'm sure money grubbing mill owners, wiley farmers and small town shopkeepers across the land breathed a sigh of relief when Velma retired. Now they were now free to scare all the locals they needed to into abandoning their land, closing thier inns or selling their old amusement parks for a song so these villians could destroy the America we all know and love.

The Return of Captain John Emmett

Ah...The Return of Captain John's a little bit Maisie Dobbs a little bit Ian Rutledge, a little bit  Regeneration triliogy with a dash of the for God and country innocence and awakening of R.F. Delderfield. It has an intriguing start followed by weak plotting but I still enjoyed it very much. It's not trashy at all so it doesn't count as guilty pleasure but I am a bit stymied by how much I liked it given what a pedestrian novel it is.

Captain Emmett has managed to survive World War One. He left to fight a brilliant scholar, friend to the downtrodden, loving to his family and loyal to England young man. Four years later he was a moody, occasionally violent lost soul. In an effort to help him recover from the catch-all diagnosis of being shell shocked his mother and sister place him in one of many institutions now overrun with soldiers needing help. It doesn't work. Emmett seems to be getting better and then...

Then I stop giving away storyline info because this a mystery and discover is all. Suffice to say that sister asks for help from an old school chum of Emmett's, things get complicated, things get dangerous and things get sorted out. It's a mystery. It follows the same patterns that mysteries follow.

So why did I like this book? You know I'm going to go with atmosphere, characterizations and back-story. The novel begins after the war and travels back forth from happier times to the trenches to 1920. The author, Elizabeth Speller, hits the right notes for each of those three distinct moments in time. Each is so different from the other and each carries their own highs and lows.

Right from the start Speller gives us enough believable background on the main characters lives prior to the war to whet your appetite but not enough to make the novel's (pretty mild) revelations pointless. There's a little happy, a lot of promise and then terrible losses as the war begins for these characters as there was for everyone in 1914 and after. Their appeal and my sympathy married up to make this read very enjoyable.

While The Return of Captain John Emmett is just published here in the U.S. it already has a sequel out in Great Britain. If the Captain does well enough over here for the publisher to bring out the sequel as well will I read it? Yes, I will.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pigeon English

What the heck? Yet another book I think should have been published as a YA.
Pigeon English is a well written, sometimes painful account of an eleven year old Ghanaian immigrant, Harri, who gets caught up in gang wars in London. His family has been broken up by the immigration and his father and little sister have been left behind in Ghana. Now Harri has the violence, drug dealing and other threats that can come from living in inner city public housing to deal with along language and cultural barriers, loneliness and just plain everyday eleven year old kid worries.

The author Stephen Kelman mixes they murder of a local boy into Harri's story and while it illustrates even more clearly the dangers of Harri's life it also adds an unnecessary element of
Flavia de Luce and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time into the book as Harri and a friend turn amateur detectives. Kelman does a very creditable job recreating Harri's young life and seemingly insurmountable troubles when he isn't belaboring Harri's observations on life. However, there is nothing here that elevates Pigeon English from the two-a-penny teenage problem books that pervade the reading choices of the twelve to sixteen year old set to adult fiction.

P.S. The cover? Painful. It feel like the unhappy marriage of something by the wonderful Ezra Jack Keats and the old Little Bill cartoons. Ick.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Emily Alone

Riddle me this my friend how is it that an author of thirteen very well reviewed, excellent novels who is published by a real, BIG publisher is not a household name? Doesn't get the intense pre-pub buzz with every new title? Isn't the author that all little authors wish to be like when they grow up? You can't answer me can you? I thought not.
The author is Stewart O'Nan. O'Nan is a brilliant writer. He is a master of making small, ordinary lives important, meaningful and unexpectedly eventful. In his newest novel Emily Alone he expands a character from an earlier novel, Emily Maxwell the family matriarch in Wish You Were Here, into a heroine.

There is nothing remarkable about Emily or her life. Emily is 80 years old. She has out lasted a husband and raised a family. She is healthy for her age and financial secure. She even has good relationships with her two children and grandchildren. Maybe ‘good’ is a strong word. How about we say they have we’ve-all-grown-up-and-we’re-going-to-get-along relationships.

Emily spends her days within an ever decreasing circle. Her friends are passing away at a good clip. If she could score frequent flier miles for attending funerals she could go around the globe. Her world isn’t just shrinking socially it’s also shrinking physically. Where she feels comfortable going and where she’s willing to go are on smaller and smaller lists. The urgencies of life are over for her. Emily doesn’t dwell on what is missing in her life. She grew up during the Depression and WWII complaining would not occur to her.

In O’Nan’s talented hands Emily is a real person. She’s thoughtful, smart, a bit judgmental, a good friend, funny, observant, a person you would want to spend time with. She is also someone who is coming to grips with the end of her life. There is no death wish in Emily but there is awareness that if the end isn’t in sight it’s just around the corner. A health crisis involving her sister-in-law Arlene and a new car bring Emily back out into a larger world and more self-questioning about her success and failure follow.

How do I convey what a dynamic novel this is? Should a novel where the main character spends time redistributing the open Kleenex boxes into busier rooms be a page turner? No but it is in Stewart O’Nan’s hands. He is a remarkable writer. He should be on bestseller lists all over the place. Read Emily Alone and be impressed, enlightened and enteratined.

Pot Luck-y For Me!

French authors. How do we feel about them? I have read four: Annie Ernaux, Dumas père and fils, Victor Hugo and Flaubert. That's it. That is not so many for an entire non-third world country. Why haven't I read more? Access I think. The average bookstore (independent and chain) does not stock many classic French authors. There will always be some if not all of Proust and a copy of Madame Bovary. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked for a copy of  Madame Ovary or Madame Burgundy over the years. More often than not there will be a père Dumas or two, sometimes you see Zola's Nana or Germinal or perhaps Balzac's Pere Goriot or Cousin Bette and…..and then there were none. Contemporary French authors I know even less about so as far as I can tell I don't see any of them in U.S. bookstores.
I do want to read more French authors but where to begin? Voila! I will read Emile Zola. Why Zola? When I was a kid I saw the movie The Life of Emil Zola starring Paul Muni and I was fascinated. So I guess you could say that Zola has been on my TBR list for a couple decades. It's about time right?

Okay. I'm ready to go but now which Zola? He wrote many, many novels. However only a fraction of his novels are available in English and in the U.S. I chose Pot Luck. I chose it for two reasons. I love, love and heart that Manet painting on the cover. Look at all those gorgeous blacks! Beautiful. And. The tile. Pot Luck. It made me laugh. It's as close to buying a cookbook for myself as I am ever likely to come.

In France Pot Luck is entitled Pot-Bouille. (Side note: Pierre Boulle is the author of the novel The Planet of the Apes which is a movie (original version) that I adore. Coincidence that Pot-Bouille looks like Pierre Boulle? I think not.) The introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of Pot Luck that I read by Brian Nelson, who is also the translator, explains the translation to the title Pot Luck far better than I could so I won't go into that here other than to tell you that the introduction is well worth reading.

Pot Luck is the tenth novel in Zola's twenty novel series Rougon-Macquart. It was first published as a serialized novel in 1882. Some other novels published in 1882 include:

Wilkie Collins- After Dark

Henry James- The Portrait of a Lady

George Bernard Shaw- Cashel Byron's Profession

Robert Louis Stevenson- The New Arabian Nights

Anthony Trollope- The Fixed Period

Mark Twain- The Prince and the Pauper

Jules Verne- Godfrey Morgan

Pot Luck is the examination of the residents of an apartment house in Paris. The tenants on the Rue de Choiseul lead exemplary lives. The husbands adore their wives, the wives are nurturing caretakers, the bachelors are earnest gentlemen, the daughters are virtuously awaiting husbands and the servants are faithful and discreet and then you go inside. Facade is everything in Pot Luck.

Our tour guide to this Parisian enclave is Octave Mouret. Octave is young, ambitious, charming and just up from the country, but he is no hayseed. His preoccupations are moving ahead at the Ladies Paradise department store where he is employed and finding a mistress. The long term plan is to seduce the glamorous wife of his employer Mme Hedouin but in the meantime he makes his presence known among the women in his building.

The other tenants are an amazing collection of characters. Every man, woman and servant is a completely believable creation. Each has a public face that meets all the proprieties of the middle class and private vices that are perfectly fine as long as no one ever finds out about them. Secret villainous behavior abounds in Pot Luck. It's a sorry place to be weak or needy. The ambitions of mothers with marriageable daughters, of respectable men with their bits on the side and servants half starved, overworked and at the mercy of their employers pack every page. It's a fascinating novel that lays bare the hypocrisy of a society.

Pot Luck was an exciting, eye opening read. I loved this novel. It is so different from other novels I have read from the same period. There is a very contemporary feel to it. Maybe it's all the sex? I have tons of classic novels that reference the inappropriateness of reading French novels and now I know why! Zola has completely captured my imagination with his examination of bourgeois Paris and this only my first step into a twenty book series. Lucky me!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Sandalwood Tree

It's not often I read books on the same subject one right after the other but that's what has happened this time around. I finished Partitions and immediately read The Sandlewood Tree. Both of these novels revolve around the Partition of India in 1947. The Partition is one of the many moments in history steeped in bloodshed and inhumanity whose powerful drama lends itself to fiction. Although the Partition is the backdrop but for Partitions and The Sandalwood Tree they each have a unique voice. Partitions is Indian independence from the Indian viewpoint and covers different levels of society. The Sandalwood Tree is from a more Raj point of view and covers India over two different generations.
In The Sandalewood Tree author, Elle Newmark, tells the story of two loves ninety years apart. The novels starts with Evie and Martin's plan to move to India for Martin's studies. He has won a Fulbright Fellowship to document the end of British rule in India. Evie desperate not to be separated again after their long years apart during the war convinces Martin that she and their young son should accompany him to India.

Evie expects to arrive in a Hollywood-esque India. She imagines India will be colorful, exotic, a fantasy land. The reality is that along with the colorful, exotic, fantasy land there was also great poverty, heat, crowds and chaos. With Martin working and the language barrier Evie is back to being a lonely single parent just like during the war. A chance happening changes all that for Evie. While obsessively cleaning their bungalow she finds a packet of letters. The letters were written in 1857 by two young English women, Adela and Felicity. Allowing herself to become consumed by their correspondence Evie is determined to discover what happened to these two women.

Adela and Felicity left England for India for different reasons and with different mindsets. Most of the same social conventions were in place in the colony as were in England and within the relatively small British communities there were plenty of people there to see that they were adhered to. However they did find a level of freedom and self determination that was unknown to them in Victorian England.

Evie's pursuit of Adela and Felicity's history brings her a new freedom as well. Her investigation takes her out of herself and the safety zone she had created in their new home. She searches anywhere she can find that might have a connection with the colonials and seeks out some of the almost extinct British Raj who might be able to help.

Newmark does an admirable job building up her mysterties and revealing secrets but comes up short on conveying the politics, religious divisions and dangers of the Victorian period in India and during the Partition. There are plenty of pleasant descriptions of temples, marketplaces, clothing, native and colonial homes, food, etc but this is India through a filter. India lite. An entertaining introduction to novels set in India. The most interesting part of The Sandalwood Tree is Newmark's juxtaposition of the expectations of three women a century apart.

Monday, July 4, 2011


The novel Partitions by Amit Majmudar is set during the turbulent and brutal division of India in 1947. Four disparate people come together, each on a flight to safety: twin brothers Shankar and Keshav, a young Sikh girl Simran and elderly Ibrahim Masud. As India is torn apart, these four will lose and find their families, identities and beliefs.
If you have read anything about the Partition of India you know that it was brought about by the dividing up of India into a couple nations. The British were pulling out and India was gaining its independence. The divisions were along religious lines: Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. It is estimated that as many as thirteen million people were displaced by the division and anywhere from 500,000 to one million people were killed during the violence that ensued. All along the new borders there was bloodshed and chaos.

Majmudar uses this traumatic moment of division as his jumping off point. Each of his characters has lost everything with the independence. The twin boys were separated from their mother at a train station and are desperate to find her. Simran is running away from a father who would rather kill her than see her defiled and marauding bandits kidnapping girls to use them as prostitutes. Ibrahim is a Muslim and a doctor willing to heal anyone who needs him despite their religion. He has been driven out of his home and is on his way to Pakistan.

This set up of frightened people coming together as a family in a time of crisis to aid their survival is nothing new but Majmudar makes fresh use of it with strong characterizations, the unique upheaval caused by the division and his choice of narrator, Dr. Roshan Jailly. Dr. Jailly is the deceased father of the twins. He broke with convention and his family years before when he married outside of his caste. Jailly is our spirit guide through all of the politics and refugees.

Amit Majmudar is a poet and it shows. He attacks his story with unsparing precision and lyrical description. Partitians is a journey from desperation to hope for Shankar, Keshav, Simran, Dr. Masud and the reader through a troubling moment in history.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Ten Thousand Saints

Wow. I never would have thought of myself as the audience for TenThousand Saints. Me and my historical fiction, my Dickens, my English novels about manners and colonialism? This is a novel about leftover hippies, yuppie invasions, pot sellers, zines, militant punks, AIDS, Vermont and New York City in the 1980's but this vigorous, imaginative, debut novel by Eleanor Henderson is packed with authenticity and mature storytelling.
Ten Thousand Saints is the story of Jude Keffy-Horn. He was raised by adoptive, divorced, hippy parents in a small city in Vermont. On the last day of 1987 Jude’s best friend and partner in getting high, music and skipping school, Teddy, dies of an overdose. He had spent the previous night doing numerous drugs and having sex with Jude’s sort of stepsister, Eliza. Jude and Teddy were just shy of their sixteenth birthdays when this happened. Sixteen was the magical number that meant quitting school and committing completely to getting wasted as often and for as long as possible lifestyle. Teddy's death is a bit of a wake call for Jude's Mother and he is sent to live with his pot farmer Father in NYC.

Surprisingly choosing to surround Jude with endless pot and place him in a city where anything is within arm’s reach does the trick. Jude careens from one extreme to another but instead of an excess of waste and drugs he becomes involved in the straight edge punk scene ( a combo of Hare Krishna and Hindu principles with a dab of cultish-ness mixed in) and embraces the total abstinence of drugs, sex and meat. Jude's parents would rather he be on a continual high than reject their choices with these new addictions but no matter. Jude creates his own family. There is Eliza, a scared prep school dropout who may be pregnant with Teddy's child and Teddy's militantly straight edge brother Johnny, a tattoo artist and musician.

Jude’s new life is centered on three things: honoring Teddy’s memory, music and trying to outrun his parents mistakes. The most prominent manifestation of Teddy is Eliza’s pregnancy. All three: Jude, Eliza and Johnny go to great lengths to try and make sure Eliza can have the baby. Music, forming a band, is a big point of passion in the novel and it is the story’s entrée into much of the pop culture history of the 1980’s.

This is the kind of panoramic novel that is usual to see centered on revolutions and multigenerational sagas about settling the American west. It’s much rarer to see this big vision brought to a relatively small time period and cast but Henderson does just that. She shines a light on this grimy world and the violence of growing up in it for this generation. This is unsentimental, strong storytelling.

Reading Ten Thousands Saints is an engrossing experience. The characters, the dialog and the settings are so wholly believable incarnations the 1980’s that it is like going through a time machine. There are a few moments when the editor could have used a stronger hand but that is a very minor observation, nothing that interferes with your enjoyment with the book. Eleanor Henderson is to be applauded for writing such a vivid, accomplished first novel.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Gone With The Wind Part 1

Gone With The Wind, the novel not the movie, is celebrating it's 75th anniversary this year. That's impressive, my friend.

When I first heard of Gone With The Wind it was as a movie. I was very young, six or seven. It was one of many times after the movies' initial release that it was being re-released to theaters. This was back in the pre-video (which is pre-DVD) days and before it was ever shown on television for the first time. That was in 1976 for those of you keeping score at home. GWTW at the movies was a big deal at my house. None of my brothers or sisters had ever seen it and my parents had not seen it in decades. Having been born near the end of the crowd I was one of the many not going.

There might have been discussions about seeing GWTW that I overheard and maybe there were commercials on TV that I saw. I don't know any of that for sure. I cannot say if I ever saw an advertisement in the paper for the movie or stills from it. What I do remember is knowing for certain that GWTW was about angels. I knew that like I knew fish sticks were yummy and that pretending to wipe a booger on my sister would send her into a frenzy. I have no idea how that knowledge got cooked up in my baby brain but it was cold hard fact Gone With The Wind was a movie about angels.

Fast forward to me aged ten at my local library. I had started sometimes going into the grown up section to look at those books. One day I spied with my little eye Gone With The Wind the book. Who knew? I thought, "Hey! That's that movie about angels. It's a book too. I'm going to read that." So I checked it out. I'm sure I showed it to my Mom, I showed her all my books. I asked her if she had read it and liked it. She said yes to both questions. That was all I was interested in. I never inquired as to whether or not she enjoyed it or if it was okay for me to read.

Within seconds of starting the book I was ensnared. I devoured it in four all GWTW all the time days. Being ten I only had cursory American History knowledge but I knew enough to know that Scarlett's independence, her aggressive willfulness, courage and entrepreneurship would have been unusual for a woman in the 1860's. I was much to young and inexperienced to know that every heroine in historical fiction has those qualities.

Another trip in the time machine later and I am seeing the movie for the first time. I was in college and one of the student organizations would show old movies on the weekends for a buck a pop. Cheap and fun entertainment. Neither my friends or I had ever seen the movie but of course whether we had ever or read it or not we had all certainly heard of Gone With The Wind and off we went.

Did you know that Gone With The Wind was a romance? I did not know that. Go figure. Read a book when you're ten and look at what goes sailing right over your head. I was completely gobsmacked! Not only was GWTW a romance but it was soaked through with breathtaking color (Does anything beat technicolor for gorgeousness? I think not.), a fabulous score, amazing settings and wonderful performances. Gone With The Wind truly is a movie best seen on the big screen and a novel best read when you're older than ten.

Here are the bestselling titles for 1936 and 37. I love looking at old bestseller lists or as I call them shopping lists. I am pleasantly surprised how many of the books I have heard of and are still in print! Any you want to read?

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages

Judging by the coy, textbook-like title you might think that The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages is a lighthearted entry in Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies Detective Agency series. Not at all. Turns out this novel is nothing like Smith's quirky exotic-ness. This new book by Sophie Hardach is a serious look at contemporary issues facing immigrants.

None of the main characters in The Registrar's Manual is where they began life. They are all immigrants and refugees including our first narrator. She is a thirty something German woman working in a registrar’s office in France. Her job is to assess marriage applications to determine if a prospective bride is being coerced into marriage. The application of a Kurdish couple arouses her suspicions. Her investigation leads to charges of ignorance of culture and traditions on her part. The ensuing difficulties force her to examine her revolutionary youth and involvement with a refugee named Selim fifteen years ago.

We learn from flashbacks that Selim was running from Saddam Hussein's horrific treatment of the Kurds when he swam to Italy. After some false starts and near misses the thirteen year old finds himself in Germany with three passports. There in relative safety, compared to what he's already been through, Selim tries to establish a life for himself while still maintaining his religion and culture. His attempts to be accepted and the uncertainty of his residency status are hard enough burdens to deal with but when the September 11th terrorist attacks occur Selim's problems multiply a hundredfold.

The nameless junior clerk in the registrar’s office will cross paths with Selim once again during her examination of the young Kurdish couple. Their past connection, her former radical ways and the guidebook she gets in the mail, The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages unsettle her and Selim's life in startling ways.

Hardach plays with language throughout her novel and there are a lot of languages to play with in a book where the characters travel through such a large chunk of Europe. What you say, what you meant to say, what they heard and what will get you into trouble becomes even trickier when native tongues, second languages and I have no idea what you mean all collide. Add to that the uncertainty Hardach builds into Selim's history and the convolutions of bureaucracy.

The Registrars Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages is a smart and challenging look at many topical issues: law, belonging, prejudice, suspicion and marriage encased in imaginative storytelling. It's all amazingly interesting. Hardach has done all that and left her own opinions at the door. There is no preaching. She does not try to pound your brain into submission while she force feeds you her beliefs. Bravo. Sophie Hardach is absolutely an author to watch.

P.S. Right now The Registrar's Manuel for Detecting Forced Marriages is available  in the U.K. but not here in the U.S.A. I have not seen any information about it being published here but if I had any say at a publishing house it would be.