Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's in a Name?

At age 14 Little Bee flees her home village in Nigeria. She ends up as a stowaway on a freighter taking tea to England. Discovered en route, she is turned over to the authorities upon arrival and sent to the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre. After two years there she is suddenly inexplicably released but without the necessary papers. What to do, where to go? Among her very few possessions are the business card and driver’s license of Andrew O’Rourke, an English journalist. Little Bee had met Andrew and his wife Sarah when Andrew and Sarah were on vacation in Nigeria. They are the only people she knows in this new country so she sets out to find them...and she does. This is the beginning of Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

The rest of this novel is told by Little Bee and Sarah in alternating chapters. We learn why Andrew and Sarah went to such an unlikely place for vacation; how they met Little Bee; how she came to have his driver’s license; and how they react to her re-entry into their lives. It’s a grim story – not the best choice for reading on Christmas Eve but I didn’t know that when I started. There is probably no “good” time to think about asylum, refugees, emigration, immigration, detention, deportation.

Another important character is Charlie, the four-year-old son of Andrew and Sarah. Charlie absolutely refuses to wear anything sleeping or waking (except at bath time) other than his Batman costume complete with mask, belt and cape. Sarah finally resorts to getting a second one so that at least she can get out the sweat and grass stains. Life for Charlie is framed in terms of goodies and baddies: you’re either one or the other. For the rest of us it is not quite so simple.

Little Bee herself may have framed the central question of this novel: “But please, what does it mean?” I said. “What does it mean, to belong here?”

At the end of the book, Little Bee finds beauty and joy. I’m not so sure that I did.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Favorite

My favorite Christmas book?  Without a doubt it's Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory.  Written in 1956 for Mademoiselle magazine, it is the nostalgic but not sentimental story of Buddy, a seven year old boy living in the South with distant relatives, and his best friend and companion Sook, an elderly but childlike cousin.  Buddy narrates the tale of their Christmas preparations, including an elaborate fruitcake-making production, the choosing and cutting of a Christmas tree, and the making of decorations and gifts.  (It was later made into an excellent television show with the incomparable Geraldine Brooks as Sook and Capote himself as the narrator).

I hope you all have fond Christmas memories of your own and that you add new ones today.

PS Don't forget - our Living2Read discussion of The Radetzky March begins on January 8th.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Anna's Best Books of 2009

It is really difficult to believe that we have been blogging for almost two years! As we come to the end of 2009 it was fun to look back at what we have read and try to choose our favorite books. I was surprised to see that I did not blog any non-fiction this year. That could be for more than one reason. But there is something reassuring and comforting about reading a good novel. Maybe we(I) needed that reassurance and comfort during this past year. I did read some very good novels this year. I chose these five novels as my favorites because they were all great surprises, written by authors I didn’t know and for some it was the author’s first novel. Try one of them and see if you aren't surprised or give one for a gift and join us in 2010 as we discover more wonderful books!

"The Housekeeper and the Professor", by Yoko Ogawa is a beautiful story about a math professor who suffered a brain injury and has only eighty minutes of short term memory.It is a unique story about memory, mathematics, baseball and love that asks the underlying question of whether one can truly love without memory.

"Olive Kitteridge", by Elizabeth Stout is a novel in stories. There are thirteen stories that are connected by the larger than life character, Olive Kitteridge. She is a strong woman, not always liked by those around her, but one who gives the reader the opportunity to watch her change and become the woman she wants to be.

"Tinkers", by Paul Harding is a first novel that is a wonderful combination of beautiful writing, stunning descriptions and a heartwrenching story. The author retells the life stories of three men, a boy, his father and his grandfather. He uses theses stories to show the mystery of existence and connection.

"The White Tiger", the first novel by Aravind Adiga was a facinating story about the self proclaimed White Tiger who is telling a fictional Chinese premier, via emails, the story of how he became a successful entrepreneur. The story is told with charm and wit but it is a strange tale that takes a grim look at the class system in India and the problems evolving with the new developing India.

"The Piano Teacher", by Janice Y. K. Lee takes place in Hong Kong just before and after World War I. It is the story of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and the devasting impact it had on the lives of the natives and the large expatriate society in Hong Kong. It is a story of war, love and betrayal told with sparse and riveting prose. One that brings to life a time and place in history, and again the first novel of this author.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Men Behaving Badly

Is this becoming a sub-category of American fiction? The main character is a decent, flawed male who makes bad decisions and lives to regret them. He's a taciturn loner prone to excessive drinking, womanizing, and machismo. But he is nourished by the stark beauty of the western landscape he inhabits. And his story is told in unadorned prose that seems to match his persona.

Did it begin with Hemingway and his simple declarative sentences? Sam Shepard often populates his plays with these damaged types. Cormac McCarthy portrays them in his dark morality tales. More recently Ron Carlson, in his novels “Five Skies” (Loss and Redemption)  and “The Signal” (Western Love), explored the psyche of emotionally scarred men struggling to become their better selves.

The latest in this literary line is Brian Hart's first novel Then Came the Evening. His flawed hero is Bandy Dorner. In the opening pages he behaves so badly that the story needs to skip ahead eighteen years to pick up the story, as Bandy approaches the end of a prison term. He returns to his native Idaho to try to connect with his ex-wife Iona and a son he didn't know he had.

Perhaps more than the other authors I've mentioned, Hart explores the complicated dynamic that pulls family members together and pushes them apart. His portrayal of the angry, needy son Tracy is especially honest and touching. His descriptions of the small Idaho town and its residents felt gritty and true. Violence seems to be a necessary component of this genre, and as is often the case there was more of it than I needed, although Hart doesn't wallow in it the way McCarthy sometimes does. And occasionally I felt that the story jumped in time and left me wanting the gap filled in.

Still, I admire Hart's attention to the specifics of place that made this story feel so real and honest, and in Bandy Dorner he has created his own version of the flawed Western hero.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It Doesn't Seem Possible

With Afghanistan in the news almost every day, I thought I should know more about the country. I had read Khaled Hosseini’s works of fiction set in that country and Greg Mortenson’s first book on setting up girls’ schools there. I wasn’t quite ready for something as serious as Taliban by Ahmed Rashid. But I did have Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between. This is his chronicle of his walk between Herat and Kabul in the winter of 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. He had already walked across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. This was the missing piece. It wasn’t that he didn’t have other means of transportation. He was offered rides and warned against walking alone. But Stewart meant to walk, literally, every step of the way.

For the most part Stewart was alone. Only as he reached the more isolated, primitive villages did rules of hospitality dictate that he be provided a guide to the next village. At one point he was given a dog to be his companion. Was it really a gift? For the most part it was a liability. Now Stewart had to find food not only for himself but also for the dog. In some of the villages a dog was considered unclean and Stewart was refused lodging.

Many of the villagers were illiterate and had never been even as far as an hour’s walk outside their village. No electricity or television: hence very little knowledge of the outside world. Living in caves. Differences and jealousies between and among their groups deep and violent. But there amid these impassable mountains remnants like the Minaret of Jam and Turquoise Mountain of a lost culture.

Here is how Stewart describes himself at the end of the journey:
“My stomach had gone and I had a hacking cough. The zipper on my jacket had jammed; one of my bootlaces had snapped; and the rice bag covering my backpack had fallen to pieces. I had bedbug bites and prickly heat; my nails were long; and my hair had not been cut in four months…I ran my filthy hands over my failure of a beard, my black eye, my blistered lips and peeling nose, and looked at my clothes, which had gone unwashed for three weeks.”

As one man’s journey, this is a fascinating book. As a picture of what lies ahead of us in our country’s efforts in this region, it is terrifying.

PS: The rest of Rory Stewart's biography is equally amazing. Read it here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lost in Shanghai

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the wonderful novel “The Remains of the Day” which won the Booker Prize in 1989. Ishiguro is a memorable writer and “The Remains of the Day“ is one of my favorite novels. Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan and raised in Britain. His novels are usually set in Britain and his narrators are strong British voices.

Christopher Banks is the narrator of Ishiguro’s novel written in 2000, “When We Were Orphans”. Banks was born in Shanghai to British parents in the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel spans a time frame from 1930 to 1937, as Christopher retells his life story and attempts to solve its mystery.

Christopher lived with his parents in Shanghai where his father worked for a large British company and his mother was a social activist. He had an idyllic childhood which he shared with his best friend and neighbor, a Japanese boy named, Akira. This idyllic life ended for Christopher when he was ten years old and his father suddenly disappeared. Within weeks his beloved mother also disappeared and Christopher was sent to England to live with his aunt. Christopher’s life long desire to become a detective and solve the mystery of the disappearance of his parents becomes a reality in London after he finishes Cambridge.

Ishiguro does a wonderful job of telling the story of Christopher’s childhood using Christopher’s boyhood reminiscences. In 1938 as an adult and a renowned detective, Christopher returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery. Here Ishiguro’s story becomes difficult to follow as Christopher’s reality quickly slides into fantasy.

But being the great storyteller that he is, the author brings us to a believable ending. The last chapter is set in 1958 as Christopher looks back on his life as an orphan and the strange circumstances that surrounded his family.

“When We Were Orphans” was a great read. Maybe not as great as “The Remains of the Day”, but definitely an intriguing story, written with the beautiful prose and compelling plot that has consistently characterized Ishiguro’s novels.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Read Any Good Sagas Lately?

Saga – not a word I use very often. The dictionary defines it as “a form of the novel in which the members or generations of a family or social group are chronicled in a long and leisurely narrative”. Originally they were Icelandic tales of heroic deeds and Viking voyages. Modern examples would include The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, maybe even Jean Auel's Earth's Children Series.

Sea of Poppies is the first book of Amitav Ghosh's three book saga set in nineteenth century India in 1838, just prior to the Opium Wars. In the first two sections, “Land” and “River”, Ghosh assembles a cast of characters from all strata of society and threads their stories together so that in the third part, “Sea”, all are aboard, either as crew or passengers, the former slave ship Ibis as it leaves Calcutta to deliver coolies (indentured servants) to British plantations on Mauritius. 

Ghosh wraps a lot into one book. It's an historical novel, with detailed descriptions of opium processing and trade, a Dickensian tale with a cast of quirky characters, a romantic drama painted on a broad canvas, and has a lexicon all its own. On every page there were at least five words I didn't know, either because they were part of the local patois or of the vocabulary of nineteenth century sailing ships. What's a zemindary, a bandobast. a budgerow, a lascar? But somehow the meanings become clear as you keep reading, and you are swept along with the characters as they hurtle towards their destinies.

And here I must confess that, in my ongoing efforts to read as little as possible about a book before I read the book itself, I had not learned that this book was the first of a trilogy. So as the pages turned and the end neared, I couldn't figure out how Ghosh was going to resolve all the story lines. I had just about concluded that on the last page the ship would sink and all on board would perish when I finally read the back cover blurb - “the first of an epic trilogy”. And by the time I reached that last page, I would gladly have picked up book two immediately if it were available.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is it the climate?

I never seem to own the books that I would like to have. For most of the 26 years of our book group I would purchase the monthly book. But occasionally, probably after a string of less than inspiring reads, my conscience would get the better of me (trees, shelf space, cost) and I would get the next month’s book from the library. Inevitably (it must be a variation of Murphy’s law), that book would be terrific. Such is the case with Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy which we read as a group in 1994. I remember it as a book of great force (it’s hard to forgetan image of a wheelbarrow, body parts, and lye). I was prompted to look for it on my bookshelf because I just finished reading McCabe’s Winterwood, published in 2006. When I picked up Winterwood, I mistakenly assumed that McCabe had not written anything in between but in fact he had published 5 other novels in between.

I guess my first comment about Winterwood would be: is there an Irish novel that does not have child sexual abuse as its touchstone?

In 1981, on assignment from his paper to write an article about “folklore and changing ways in Ireland,” Redmond Hatch returns to his home town of Slievenageeha and meets Auld Pappie Ned, a 70-year-old fiddler who lives outside of town in a tumbledown shack. To the younger townspeople, Ned is a harmless teller of tales and the keeper of their traditions and customs from the past. In succeeding weeks, Hatch returns to interview Ned and learns more about his own past than he bargained for.

According to the chapter headings, we are following Redmond chronologically for the next 20 years. But at the same time McCabe takes us back to Ned’s youth and to Redmond’s childhood. In McCabe’s hands it is a masterful technique and makes this book a real page turner with the suspense building to a tragic end. All I can say is: if you are a woman married to an Irishman, think twice before cheating on him.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Charlotte's Favorites - 2009

It's time once again for me to choose my favorites from among the 42 books I've blogged this year. It's always a hard choice, especially when I've read great authors like Updike, Roth and Welty. But I've tried to pick books that caught me by surprise, made me laugh, touched my heart – made an impression that has stayed with me. Once again, I tried to pick three and ended up with six, and there are at least three more that could easily have made the list. And that doesn't even include my journey through five Rabbit books! It was a good year:

Brooklyn (A Simple Story)– because Colm Tóibín created a character that resonated for me as if she were my long lost sister.
Lucky Jim (Academic Satire) – very simple – it made me laugh out loud.
City of Thieves (A Russian Coincidence) – because David Benioff turned the Siege of Leningrad into both a riveting thriller and a tale of friendship.

Love and Summer (Summer In Ireland) – ah, the Irish. My bias is clear. William Trevor is a master at telling a simple story in beautiful prose.
The Vagrants (The People of Muddy River) – the most powerful book I read this year – a haunting story of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
Sag Harbor (Summer Vacation) – a coming-of-age story like none I've read. Funny and honest.

My list of "Books I Want to Read" never gets any shorter, so I am looking forward to a 2010 full of great reading. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reading can be fun!

It’s been a long time since I have had this much fun reading. If someone else were in the room with me, I had to cover my mouth to hide the big grin. And the reason for all this mirth? The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer.

Heyer is often compared to Jane Austen: they were writing about the same period of English history but Austen was writing contemporaneously whereas Heyer was writing historical fiction. Heyer was unbelievably prolific: more than 40 novels, a dozen short story collections and almost as many thrillers. I wonder if reading them all could still hold my interest; but this first one was an unmitigated delight. I guess I avoided reading Heyer because her novels are generally described as “romance novels” and I mistakenly thought that they would not be “literary” enough (whatever that may mean and however foolish a sentiment that may be).

There is a lot of historical detail in the book that I trust is accurate: clothes, food, manners, some passing references to the historical figures of the day, in this case Napoleon and Wellington. But by far the most memorable part of the book is the dialogue. It will have you smiling from ear to ear if not laughing out loud. The repartee between the imperturbable Lord Carlyon and Mrs. Cheviot is masterful.

I don’t want to spoil any aspect of the plot for you. But here’s my recommendation: take a break from “serious fiction” and treat yourself to this book. You don’t even have to tell anyone; but if you are like I am, you will want to share the fun.