A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Mariam had never before worn a burqa. Rasheed had to help her put it on. The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling. The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth.“You’ll get used to it,” Rasheed said. “With time, I bet you’ll even like it.”

They took a bus to a place Rasheed called the Shar-e-Nau Park, where children
pushed each other on swings and slapped volleyballs over ragged nets tied to tree trunks.
They strolled together and watched boys fly kites, Mariam walking beside Rasheed,
tripping now and then on the burqa’s hem. For lunch, Rasheed took her to eat in a small
kebab house near a mosque he called the Haji Yaghoub. The floor was sticky and the air
smoky. The walls smelled faintly of raw meat and the music, which Rasheed described to
her as logari, was loud. The cooks were thin boys who fanned skewers with one hand and
swatted gnats with the other. Mariam, who had never been inside a restaurant, found it
odd at first to sit in a crowded room with so many strangers, to lift her burqa to put
morsels of food into her mouth. A hint of the same anxiety as the day at the tandoor
stirred in her stomach, but Rasheed’s presence was of some comfort, and, after a while,
she did not mind so much the music, the smoke, even the people. And the burqa, she
learned to her surprise, was also comforting. It was like a one-way window. Inside it, she
was an observer, buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers. She no longer worried
that people knew, with a single glance, all the shameful secrets of her past.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the second novel by author Khaled Hosseini, following his best seller, The Kite Runner. It is the story of Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man, married off at a very young age to a man 25 years her senior, a man she does not know. Rasheed is haunted by the death of his first and only child, and his resentment against Mariam grows as she fails to provide him with another. It is also the story of Laila, the 14 year old daughter daughter of an educated couple, who is forced by circumstance to marry Rasheed, now almost 60, though her heart belongs to a neighbor boy who has exiled to Pakistan. That both of these women are married to Rasheed, that he starts out kind and somewhat caring, but turns more and more brutal as time goes by, mirrors the events going on around them.

The story begins in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the mid-1970s. It follows the characters through their years of Soviet occupation and resistance, the brutal warfare under the Mujaheddin, the tyranny under the Taliban, and the relative normalcy of post-September 11 Kabul, when the Taliban have been deposed, and the country tries to put itself together again.

A wonderful book, full of simple words of depth and honesty. The characters were easily related to, even in a land and culture so foreign to our own, and I wished again and again for their happiness.

Neverwhere

NeverwhereRichard Mayhew is on his way to dinner with his fiancee’ Jessica, an important dinner where he will be meeting her boss for the first time.  When a young girl steps through a door in a wall and collapses in front of them, bleeding, Jessica is all for ignoring her and moving on to impress her boss, but Richard vows to help the girl.  She begs to not be taken to the hospital, to be taken somewhere safe from her attackers, so he takes her home with him, infuriating Jessica in the process.

In getting help for the girl, Door, Richard finds himself in a labyrinthine version of London below the London he knows.   This ‘London Below” is a magical, haunted realm, filled with homeless folks, as well as inhabitants from other times, like monks, ancient Romans, warriors and vampires, as well as angels and demons.   Compounding his problems is the fact that in ‘London Above’, he is suddenly invisible, and he loses his job, his home, and his fiancee’.  So he must find a way back to his own reality, where he can return to the life he knows.

Neverwhere was first produced as a show for the BBC, and was shown in 6 episodes in 1996.  Neil Gaiman wrote the story for the television show, and he adapted it into a novel that same year.

I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, but I didn’t feel myself compelled to pick it up very often.  Eventually, I decided to skip the middle of the book, and read the last few chapters instead.  I guess I’m just not a big fan of the Fantasy genre.  The level of detail required to create the mythical worlds bogs me down and I lose interest.  But if you’re a fan of Fantasy, you might find this to be an enjoyable read.

Broken For You

Broken for YouImmediately following her diagnoses of a fatal brain tumor, Margaret Hughes stops in at a small pastry shop in Seattle, and orders four desserts.  Sort of a ‘what the hell’ approach, because really, if you only have a year to live, who cares what you eat?  She strikes up a conversation with the shop girl, a painfully thin girl with black lipstick and a nose-ring.  Margaret asks, “If you found out you had only a short while to live, maybe a year or two, how would you spend your time?”   The answer surprises her.

“I suppose I’d think about whatever it is that scares me the most – relationshipwise, I mean – and then do it.  Do the opposite of what I’ve always done.”

Margaret takes this advice to heart, and determines to end her solitary lifestyle.  She is a very wealthy woman, living alone in a huge mansion, so she puts an ad in the paper for a boarder.  Enter Wanda Schultz, a stage manager who has come to Seattle in search of her boyfriend, who abruptly left her in search of a better life.  Wanda is probably 40 years younger than Margaret, and has a gift for fixing things, be they pipes or broken china.  She is broken inside, though, and has rigid barriers put up around herself, refusing to allow anyone to love her.

Margaret’s mansion is filled to the brim with delicate figurines and china, most of which are extremely valuable.  She spends hours every week caring for these items, dusting them and talking to them, listening to their opinions on matters.  Wishing they didn’t weigh so heavily on her heart.

A lot of things get broken in this story.  Hearts, bones, dishes, and figurines.  And in the process, both Margaret and Wanda find their ways toward happiness.

I liked Broken For You quite a bit.  The comparisons of Stephanie Kallos to John Irving and Anne Tyler may be a bit overreaching, but apt enough.  Her characters immediately reach into your heart and touch you.  I look forward to reading more from Ms. Kallos in the future.

Changing The Rules

I’ve decided to switch out a few of the books on my reading lists. There are only three months left in the year, and I keep getting distracted from the books that I’ve ‘challenged’ myself to read. Maybe I’ll get to some of the books I had originally planned to read, and maybe I won’t. So there. I thought of being all sneaky and just changing the list on my sidebar, since no one seems to read my book posts, and the people holding these challenges couldn’t care less if I switch my books or not. But then I thought, hey, I can get a blog post out of this. Why waste that? So, here’s what’s out, and what’s going in in its place.

Casual Classics Challenge ~ This challenge is very lenient in its definition of ‘classics’. You’re allowed to pick any book written before 1970. How’s that for crazy, huh? So, here’s what’s out, and what’s in.

Kim

Out: Kim. I tried with this one. I wanted to like it, because I loved Kipling’s Just So Stories. Maybe I’m just not a big fan of adventure tales, because try as I might, I could not get into it.

The Old Man and the Sea

In: The Old Man and the Sea. Believe it or not, I never read this in High School. I don’t know how I got through without it, but I did. So I’m thinking maybe it’s time to go fill in at least one gap in my education.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve read any Hemingway at all before.

Mrs. Dalloway

Out: Mrs. Dalloway. I didn’t even give this one a try, and I know I should have. Maybe I’ll try again some time.  I suspect it’s lovely, but the last time I tried to read it, I couldn’t do it.  But there’s a part of me that just really, really wants to have read this book.  Ever feel that way?  Like I’m not sure I want to read it, but I want to have read it.  Odd feeling.

Gift From the Sea

In: Gift From the Sea. This was a gift from my mom when I was a teenager, and I loved it then. I re-read it in my mid 20s, but I don’t think I’ve touched it since then. I wonder if reading it from the ripe old age of 43 will give it new perspective? I know that when I re-read Madame Bovary a few years ago, it was like I was a different person. Which in some ways, I guess I am.

TBR Challenge ~ This is just 12 books that you want to read. Easy, right? I don’t have a real reason for taking the books off of this one that I’m taking, except that between January and now, my interests have changed a bit. So maybe I’ll read some of the ones I originally listed, and maybe I won’t.

Tale of Murasaki

Out: Tale of Murasaki. I kinda do want to read this one. I read Tale of Genji in college, and this is a fictional story of the author. But I’m just not feeling it right now.  I suspect I’ll come back to this one, perhaps next year.  The author is the author of Geisha, and is herself the only westerner to have ever become a Geisha, at least according to the book jacket.  This is a historical novel about the author of what is usually considered the first novel ever written.

In: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I know, I already read this. So what?  My step-mom and I agreed that this was an unfortunate title, and both of us were turned off and almost didn’t read it for that reason.  But enough people told us it was really good, so we both (separately) read and loved it.  So don’t be put off by the dumb title.

The Gargoyle

Out: The  Gargoyle.  I’m vacillating on this one.  Has anyone read it?  Sounds like it might be interesting, but I just can’t seem to motivate myself to read it.  Yet.

Neverwhere

In: Neverwhere. I was telling a neighbor how much I enjoyed Stardust, and she suggested I might like Neverwhere, which is also by Neil Gaiman. She then loaned me her copy, which sort of ups the ante on when I need to read it, right?

The Road Home

Out: The Road Home. This one isn’t really totally out. I’m still reading it for Dewey’s challenge.  I was going to read it for two challenges instead of one, but then I decided that I wanted to include the book I just got from the library on the recommendation of my step-mom.  Which is….

Broken For You

In: Broken For You. My step-mom was telling me how much she liked this book, and that a friend of hers said it was one of her favorite books ever. I’m on page 34, and already I like the characters better than I ever did most of the characters in Saving Fish From Drowning.

Saving Fish From Drowning

I could see the details of the world they passed through.  Now that I had the gifts of the Buddha, I could flow unimpeded by safety concerns, and the hidden forms of life revealed themselves: a harmless snake with iridescent stripes, myriad fungi, flowering parasites of colors and shapes that suggested sexual turgidity – a wealth of waxy flora and moist fauna endemic to this hidden spot of the earth, as yet undiscovered by humans, or at least those who assigned taxonomic labels.  I realized then that we miss so much of life while we are part of it.  We fail to see ninety-nine percent of the glories of nature, for to do so would require vision that is simultaneously telescopic and microscopic.

Bibi Chen is a well renowned and somewhat snobby art patron in San Francisco, circa 2000. She is to serve as a tour guide for a group of her friends, taking them to China and Myanmar, showing them the delicate beauties and wonderful treasures that a large tour would miss. After her sudden death, her friends decide to go on the tour anyway, and make the best of a bad situation.

Bibi watches from the afterlife, with the ‘gifts of the Buddha’, as her friends try to make due, hiring incompetent tour guides, eating dangerous foods, and defiling holy relics. They veer off of her planned course over and over again, eventually finding themselves in Burma, where they mysteriously disappear.

I wanted to love Saving Fish From Drowning. I loved The Joy Luck Club, with its wonderful, terrible relationships between mothers and daughters, and the lasting bonds of friendship. But while the characters in The Joy Luck Club felt real to me, their joys were my joys, my heart broke when their hearts broke, the characters in Saving Fish From Drowning felt more like caricatures. They all seemed a bit too stereotypical and forced, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about them. As a matter of fact, I had to force myself to finish the book, as I had been struggling with it for awhile. The situations were somewhat ridiculous, and some of them made no sense. She worked for almost 500 pages on this book, and yet some decisions seemed haphazard and thrown in for lack of a better solution. I will say that I enjoyed portions of the book, and that some of Bibi’s observations were lovely to read. The strongest portions of the book, for me, were those when Bibi is remembering her childhood in China, and those leading up to the rescue of the missing travelers. Of course, the rescue itself is one of those pieces that felt thrown together.

With some reworking, this might make a fun movie. I can’t say I loved the book, however.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Dear Sidney,

How comforting it was to hear you say, “God damn, oh God damn.” That’s the only honest thing to say, isn’t it? Elizabeth’s death is an abomination and it will never be anything else.

This short paragraph struck my heart, because it’s almost what my dad said when I told him that my mom had died. Everyone else was mostly sad for me, worried for me, and said kind things like, “I’m so sorry”, or “Oh, no”, or whatever wonderful and caring things they said. But my dad, he and my mom were part of their own group in High School, their own society that railed against the tyranny of school, wrote poetry, and so on. They were dear friends (obviously), and so his reaction when I told him that she had died was the honest and pained, “Shit.” I get that.  I agree with that.  And reading this book, I was reminded of it, not only because of the passage above, but because it’s how I felt about not being able to talk to her about it.

Shit. That’s the word that comes to mind. Because really, why couldn’t my mom have lived long enough to read this book? She would have adored it. She adored The Snow Goose, which is a parable based on the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II. The Snow Goose is a sentimental, lovely story of courage, loss, and bravery. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a clever, lovely story of courage, loss, and bravery.

I say clever because the writing is so dry and British, I just loved it.  Clever little quips and funny descriptions abound.

I’m as tender-hearted as the next girl, but dammit, if you don’t get back here soon, Charlie Stephens is going to have a nervous breakdown.  He’s not cut out for work; he’s cut out for handing over large wads of cash and letting you do the work.  He actually turned up at the office before ten o’clock yesterday, but the effort annihilated him.  He was deathly white by eleven, and had a whiskey at eleven-thirty.  At noon, one of his innocent young things handed him a jacket to approve – his eyes bulged with terror and he began that disgusting trick with his ear – he’s going to pull it right off one day.  He went home at one, and I haven’t sen him yet today (it’s four in the afternoon).

It is the time just following World War II, and writer Juliet Ashton lives in the ruins of London, still displaced from the apartment destroyed by the Nazi bombings. She is successful enough, mostly known for her columns written under a pseudonym during the war, columns published in the newspaper, which take a lighthearted look at events. The idea being that people are surrounded by pain and terror and separation, and might need a little distraction. Julia receives a letter from a gentleman on the island of Guernsey (off the Normandy Coast, one of the Channel Islands), telling her that he has come into possession of a book she once sold, and wondering if she might help him to find some more books by that same author, as Guernsey was somewhat brutally occupied by the Nazis during the war, and the bookshops sold their books to residents desperate for fuel, who ended up burning them. They strike up a friendship, and she becomes intrigued by his stories of life in Guernsey under the occupation, and of the literary society that was quickly formed to thwart the Nazis on the island.

The book is written entirely in the form of letters, letters between Juliet and her friends, her publisher, and the members of the literary society. I have to say, it was a quick, fun read, yet at the same time devastating in the stories of war and horror that it told. The stories of the cruelty of the Nazi regime, and yet the unexpected kindness of some of the Nazi soldiers…it touched my heart.

I’ll not go into it too deeply. Suffice to say that I am very glad I came across this book. My friend Kate, my mom’s dear friend Kate, recommended it to me based on a foolish Facebook quiz. Then less than a week later, I walked into our local Barnes and Noble, and saw that the book was chosen as part of our local, “One City, One Book” program, and I decided that enough people were telling me to read it. Besides, a kind neighbor had given me a gift card to B&N in her thanks for me watching her cat over the weekend.  Almost like the universe was telling me to read this book.  I’m glad I did.

Fortunate Son

Fortunate SonFortunate Son is Walter Mosley’s parable of color and class in America, exemplified by two boys, one black, one white, who live together for a few years as children, and consider themselves to be brothers.

Tommy is the black brother, who was born with a hole in his lung, which curses his health and strength his entire life.  He spends his first 6 months of life in the hospital, visited every day by his devoted single mother, who comes to see him as soon as she gets off of work.

Eric is the same age as Tommy, and is born in the same hospital. He is described over and over again as an Adonis, god-like in his golden good looks, strong and mighty and self centered.  Eric’s mother dies in childbirth, and his father is a surgeon who sees Tommy’s mother every day as she visits her baby and tries to help him gain strength.

Eventually, they fall in love, and Tommy and his mother, Branwyn, move in with Eric and his father, Dr. Nolan, and life is happy for them for awhile, though the parents never marry, due to Branwyn’s hidden passion for Tommy’s father, a no-good who dumped her soon after finding out she was pregnant.  The boys consider themselves to be brothers, and are very close.  Then Branwyn comes down with a severe flu, and dies.  Tommy’s father comes and takes him from his comfortable Beverly Hills household, down to the mean streets of Los Angeles.

Tommy is a sensitive child, one who cannot stand harsh lights or loud noises, a sweet boy with a heart of gold.  Life is very difficult for Tommy, and he rises to the challenges put before him to the best of his ability.  But things get worse and worse for him.

Eric is big and strong, girls want to be with him, boys envy him, and everything comes very easily to him.  He seems to have life handed to him on a silver platter.  His only problem is that he feels cursed…he killed his mother by being born, he killed Branwyn by giving her the flu, and his father becomes more and more distant as the years go by.

Eventually, life brings Tommy and Eric back together in an unlikely way, and they are both relieved and happy, and determined to not be separated again.

I don’t know…the bad things that happened to Tommy were so bad, and the world was SO easy for Eric, it reminded me at one point of that SNL skit where Eddie Murphey goes undercover as white, and people laugh and hand him cash.  For example, when Eric’s girlfriend is pregnant, and they’re living in student housing at UCLA.  He is, of course, chosen for an experiment where they give amazingly fancy apartments to students.  And then, some kind-hearted person in Student Housing discovers that Eric is now an independent minor, not being supported by his father, and Financial Aid takes care of everything, all tuition, all housing, plus a stipend.  Believe me, I was a white student in the California State system, and no one ever did anything like that for me.  Of course, I wasn’t Eric the Golden Boy.

Golden Boy didn’t turn out to be a jerk or anything.  He was a decent guy with a hole in his life.  Tommy’s misadventures didn’t make him jaded or hard.  He kept his sweet temperament and optimism, against all odds.   The allegory is so obvious and strained that it was sometimes ridiculous.  I was sucked in, however, and was able to finish the book, though I didn’t think it was anywhere close to the quality of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries.

I read Fortunate Son for my TBR Challenge, but I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone else.

The Solace of Leaving Early

The Solace of Leaving Early

Langston Braverman walked out on her PhD oral exams, and came home to small town Indiana to recover from that which ails her. She is so wrapped up in her own pain that she has no energy left to pay attention to what is going on around her, and there’s a lot going on. Her childhood friend Alice has died, leaving two young children behind, and Langston is so self-absorbed that she isn’t even the least bit interested in how her friend died, doesn’t want to attend the funeral, just wants to hide in her parents’ attic and try to figure out what to do with her life.

While Langston’s disconnection with her town, her belief that the residents are somehow crass and ugly and beneath her could have been off-putting, and sometimes were, I still found much to like in her character. She recognizes the beauty around her, sometimes belatedly, but at least she is able to find it when it presents itself to her.

The sliding window of the drive-thru opened, and the same frumpy, dispirited, and vaguely rude middle-aged woman they saw every day stuck her head out.
“Yep.”
Langston smiled at her, but collapsed inwardly; she lived among savages. “I’d like a chocolate dip cone, a vanilla cup with multicolored sprinkles, and an ice-cream sandwich. Thank you.”
The woman closed the door without a word.

Surly Woman slid back the window, and handed Langston the ice cream in the order she’s requested it, and then just before she took Langston’s money, gave her an extra cup with a swirl of vanilla ice cream and half a dog biscuit stuck in the top. Langston’s eyes filled with tears, and she had to turn her head to hide it from the girls. What is wrong with me? she thought. I’ve become so emotionally labile. Before Langston could say anything to the woman, she’d taken the money and gone to get change. The girls immediately began to argue about who got to hold the cup for Germane, and when the woman came back Langston was only able to get out, “Thank you so much for that unexpected kindn–” before the window closed with a “Yep”.

Langston has a tendency to wallow, but when the time comes and she needs to step up and become a full-fledged member of her community, she does so with compassion and grace.

Amos Townsend is a local minister in town, and a friend of Langston’s mother. He is in the midst of a profound crisis of faith, and is trying to figure out how his words and actions affect his congregation. He struggles over his weekly sermons, struggles to connect with his congregation, most especially the couples he councils.

“Every week when Amos saw them he couldn’t help but wonder if there was ever a conversation about anything in Steve and Lydia’s household, apart from grocery lists and car maintenance. They all seemed so resigned and complacent; so blank. They were curious about nothing, they exhibited no restlessness, they seemed to want nothing more than they had. The slightest reference, on Amos’s part, to an inner life, seemed to bounce off their collective surface like a foreign language, and finally, Amos was forced to consider that perhaps there was simply no one there. They were human, yes, and they bore immortal souls. All God’s creatures. But Amos didn’t understand them any more than he understood bison or oak trees.”

I loved Amos…he is a kind, wonderful, interested, curious, flawed man. I especially liked the parts where he ruminates over his sermons, trying to connect to his congregation, trying to show them his inner soul, trying to reach them.

“Why?” he wanted to ask his congregants. “Why does this happen to us? Because we have abandoned an infinite number and variety of pure possibilities, and perhaps they live alongside the choices we did make, immortalized in the cosmic memory. Perhaps there are unknown lives walking alongside ours, those paths we didn’t take, and we reach for them, we ache for them, and don’t know why. We have, none of us, lived our lives as we ought to have, and maybe that’s a good, working definition of sin. God doesn’t care, the angels don’t care, no one is mad at us for our failure. But what agony, to know our better selves, the life we might have lived is there, just out of reach!”

Langston and Amos are thrust together by Alice’s daughters, two young girls who have re-named themselves Immaculata and Epiphany, and who speak with the Virgin Mary daily. Immaculata and Epiphany witnessed the death of their mother, and their scars are deep.

I loved this book. I loved how perfectly matched Langston and Amos were for each other, though of course, neither of them sees it. They are both people of ideas, reluctantly forced into the harsh reality of people and pain. I loved Langston’s mother, a fiercely intelligent and caring woman who has secrets of her own. Secrets that could help mend a lot of Langston’s pain, if only she were open to seeing them.

The Solace of Leaving Early is Haven Kimmel’s first novel. Highly recommended.

Out Stealing Horses

Out Stealing Horses

In the meantime, I am spending my days getting this place in order.  There is quite a lot that needs doing.  I did not pay much for it.  In fact, I had been prepared to shell out a lot more to lay my hands on the house and the grounds, but there was not much competition.  I do understand why now, but it doesn’t matter.  I am pleased anyway.  I try to do most of the work myself, even though I could have paid a carpenter, I am far from skint, but then it would have gone too fast.  I want to use the time it takes.  Time is important to me now, I tell myself.  Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.

Trond is a 67 year old Norwegian man who has recently lost his wife and his sister, and has decided to live in a remote cabin, so that he can get his head around the events of his life, of his father’s life, to try to understand why, following World War II, his father leaves and never comes back.

Immediately following the war, Trond and his father go out into the country for a summer, to do some logging and make some quick money that way. Early on in the book, a tragedy occurs that we think will shape the book, will shape Trond and inform the narrative. But while it is certainly an important event in Trond’s life, it is not central to the story. Rather, the story is about his father’s involvement in the Norwegian resistance, an involvement that his family knew nothing about. Time shifts from the mid 1940s to the late 1990s, and we learn about the summer that Trond and his father spend, and the effect that it has made on the man that he becomes.

The book is sparse but rich. There were no words wasted, but nothing left out. This is my first book by a Norwegian author, I believe, and I wonder how much of the feel of the book is that Scandinavian flavor to life, and how much is simply the voice of the author, Per Petterson. I thought this book wonderful, and I’m so glad that I read it. I found it on the ‘recommended’ table at Green Apple Books, as it was highly recommended by the staff. I felt somewhat savvy and cool buying it, as though people in the suburbs do not have access to such worldly literature. Imagine my horror when I found it on the table of our closest Borders Books.

Oh well. Out Stealing Horses was declared one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, so I guess it couldn’t be considered a secret, could it. On closer thought, I’m glad it made it out to Borders. I’m glad that more people will have the opportunity to find this wonderful book, to perhaps meander through its story and fall in love with the language and pacing, and be surprised by the exquisite combination of a feeling of not much going on, juxtaposed with some very real and dramatic events.

Highly recommended. I read Out Stealing Horses for the TBR challenge.

The Hearts of Horses

The Hearts of HorsesHorse books for kids and young adults are fairly common.   I was a huge horse book fan as a kid, some of my favorites being Black Beauty, The Black Stallion series,  and Smoky the Cow Horse.  I had dreams of becoming a kind, caring, gentle horsewoman, and of having that wonderful bond with my horse that is described in these books.  The reality is, though, that horses are a lot of money, and a lot of work, and if you’re not going to spend a lot of time with them, you’re better off not having one.   So at least thus far in my life, no horse.

When I came across The Hearts of Horses a few months ago at a local bookstore, I thought that perhaps I had come across a horse book for adults.  I’ve read one other book by Molly Gloss, The Jump-Off Creek, which I really enjoyed.  This book is similar to The Jump-Off Creek in that it has a strong female character, one interested in ‘cowboying’, and that it takes place in Oregon.

The year is 1917, and while World War I has been raging in Europe for awhile, this is the first winter of American involvement in the war.  Nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen rides into a remote county in eastern Oregon, hoping to find work as a ‘broncobuster’.  With many of the county’s young men off fighting the war, there aren’t any male broncobusters around, and there are some horses that need training.  So Martha is hired by George Bliss to tame a couple of his horses.  He is so impressed with her quick success, and by her gentle methods, which do not involve breaking a horse’s spirit or beating them, that he recommends her to the neighbors in this small community.  Martha soon finds herself with enough horses to tame that she has work for the winter.  After the initial ‘breaking’, getting a horse gentle enough to be ridden, they need daily training to refine their skills, so she sets up a daily circle ride, where she rides from one ranch to another, switching horses at each stop, giving them the experience that they need to become good, reliable, useful horses.

This circle ride provides glimpses into the homes and lives of the various horse owners.  There are Reuben and Dorothy Romer, a family with an alcoholic husband, a wife who chops wood for the school to support the family, and their three children.  There is Walter Irwin, a nice enough man on his own, who has hired the cruel and abusive Alfred Lagerwell to manage his ranch.  Ruth and Tom Kandel have bought a young horse for their son, who is on the brink of thirteen.  It is to be Tom’s last gift to his son, as he is diagnosed with cancer that is beyond surgery or hope.  The Thiede’s are a young German couple, experiencing the distrust of their community in a time of war against their father land.  They are loyal to the United States, but people trust them less and less as the war rages on.  Then there are the Woodruff sisters, spinsters who are not interested in settling down into becoming housewives, just the kind of women that Martha admires and aspires to be.  The Woodruff sisters have a hired hand, Henry Frazer, who understands Martha more than she knows…or at least, he would like to.

Through the circle ride, the story moves through the families on her route and their separate dramas.  Martha becomes more than a temporary worker, she becomes a member of the community, cared for and depended upon by her neighbors.  Their hopes and fears permeate the story with its heart, their losses are harrowing and ring true.

Martha flared up.  “I don’t know either, but if you let him go on working here he’ll go on hurting the horses until he kills one, which I won’t let happen.”  Her voice shook from deep feeling, and she cleared her throat a couple of times to try to hide it.  She put her hands inside her coat pockets and fisted them.

Walter stared at her, taken aback, startled to see tears standing briefly in her eyes.  He hardly knew the girl, but on the evidence of her dress and the masculine work she’d chosen for herself he had formed an opinion of her as hard and leathery, not very much different from the ranch men who were his neighbors, men he believed to be without an ounce of soft feeling or the capacity for sentiment.  Martha went on looking at him heatedly, with her chin squared and her fists working inside her coat.  Her silence and her stubborn stare made him feel put upon, provoked into taking some kind of action.  He turned from her again and looked out at the mountain range without seeing it, and in a moment found the gumption to put himself on the right side of the question.

It is quiet moments like this that fill the pages of The Hearts of Horses.   Quiet moments that separately are wonderful little stories in and of themselves.  Together, they make a wonderful book, one that didn’t strike a false note, and the glimpse into a time long gone was interesting both for that time behind us, and for the mirrors to our lives today.

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book

Nobody “Bod” Owens is the protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s newest story, The Graveyard Book.  The book starts with the murder of Bod’s family, and his unknowing escape as an 18-month old toddler.  Bod climbs out of his crib and down the stairs, and, finding the front door open, takes the opportunity to explore, unaware that his parents and sister are being ruthlessly stabbed inside.  He ends up at a nearby graveyard, where he is taken in by the dead (and undead) residents.

His story is told in a series of episodes, some seeming more like short stories than part of a larger tale.  He grows from a toddler to a teen under the watchful eyes of his ghostly parents, the ghost of a witch, a werewolf, and a vampire.  The ‘man named Jack’ who murdered his family is still out to get Bod, and brings continuity to the main story of the book.  But mostly, this is the story of how a young human child makes his way in a world populated by those who are so very different than he, much like Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which Gaiman said was his inspiration.

The Graveyard Book is emotionally honest, and serves as a wonderful allegory of childhood.  Bod’s adventures into ancient burial chambers guarded by jealous spirits and the trip he takes into full on danger by entering a ghoul gate juxtapose nicely with his adventures amongst the living, dealing with middle school bullies and greedy antique dealers.

I enjoyed The Graveyard Book quite a bit, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gaiman’s work.  This is primarily a children’s book, most appropriate for readers aged 9-12, but I suspect young teens might enjoy it as well.  The Graveyard Book was this years winner of the Newbery Medal.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

(cover found here)

I LOVED this book. Really, really loved it. So charming and quirky and wonderful, I suspect I’ll be buying it as a gift for a few people, and recommending it to many others.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of Paloma and Renée, two inhabitants of an elegant apartment building in Paris.  Paloma is the youngest daughter of a wealthy couple who inhabit one of the apartments, and Renée is the building concierge.  Both Paloma and Renée hide their true selves from the world around them, fearing the consequences if people find out their secrets.  And their secrets are the same:  they are both fiercely intelligent, lovers of beauty and art, sensitive and kind at heart, though neither suffers fools kindly.

Here, a lovely glimpse into the mind of Paloma, who has decided that life is futile, and therefore is determined to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday, and is presently biding her time amongst the living:

In the split second while I saw the stem and the bud drop to the counter I intuited the essence of Beauty.  Yes, here I am, a little twelve-and-a-half-year-old brat, and I have been incredibly lucky because this morning all of the conditions were ripe: an empty mind, a calm house, lovely roses, a rosebud dropping.  And that is why I thought of Ronsard’s poem, though I didn’t really understand it at first:  because he talks about time, and roses.  Because beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it.  It’s the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death.

Oh my gosh, I thought, does this mean that this is how we must live our lives?  Constantly poised between beauty and death, between movement and its disappearance?

Maybe that’s what being alive is all about:  so we can track down those moments that are dying.

And a glimpse into Renée’s mind, she who loves art and beauty above all else, yet hides these predilections behind the facade of the ‘typical French concierge’: lazy, slow, foolish, addicted to television soaps, and cantankerous to boot:

This is the situation: her am I, Renée, fifty-four years of age, with bunions on my feet, born in a bog and bound to remain there;  here am I going to dinner at the home of a wealthy Japanese man – whose concierge I happen to be – solely because I was startled by a quotation from Anna Karenina; here am I, Renée, intimidated and frightened to my innermost core, and so acutely aware of the inappropriateness and blasphemous nature of my presence here that I could faint – here, in this place which, although it may be physically accessible to the likes of me, is nevertheless representative of a world to which I do not belong, a world that wants nothing to do with concierges; as I was saying, here am I, Renée, somewhat carelessly allowing my gaze to wander beyond Monsieur Ozu and into a ray of light that is striking a little painting in a dark frame.

Only the splendors of Art can explain why the awareness of my unworthiness has suddenly been eclipsed by an esthetic blackout.  I no longer know who I am.  I walk around Monsieur Oze, captured by the vision.

Monsieur Ozu is the catalyst for change in this story.  He is a new tenant in the building, the first new tenant they’ve had in over 20 years, and he is able, at a glance, to see beyond the facades put up by Paloma and Renée.  He is interested in art and literature and beauty in the world, and he recognizes kindred spirits in Paloma and Renée, and seeks out their friendship.  Through him, they discover not only their own worth, but each other, and the a beautiful friendship is born.

Again, I loved this story.  It was one of those books that I didn’t want to put down, while at the same time, I didn’t want to end.  I would recommend it to anyone, and very highly.   I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it in the future.

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road

“He felt as if he were sinking helplessly into the cushions and the papers and the bodies of his children like a man in quicksand.  When the funnies were finished at last he struggled to his feet, quietly gasping, and stood for several minutes in the middle of the carpet, making tight fists in his pockets to restrain himself from doing what suddenly seemed the only thing in the world he really and truly wanted to do: picking up a chair and throwing it through the picture window.

What in the hell kind of life was this?  What in God’s name was the point or the meaning or the purpose of a life like this?”

Are you living the life you wanted to live? Are your job, your marriage, your home, and your love life as fulfilling as you had hoped they would be? Is anyone that you know living the life of their dreams in every aspect? Or have we all found ourselves settling, settling for the life that we are living, coping as best we can with the cards we’re dealt?

In Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates explores the disappointments and pain involved in finding yourself on a different path than the one you had set for yourself.   That first path, and the promise that it holds, can be a deadly path if we’re not allowed to follow it.  When we become embittered and angry with our lot in life, the desperation can lead to depression, alcoholism, and a slow, painful death.  The kind of death that takes your whole life to occur.

Frank and April Wheeler are a handsome young couple, who meet and fall in love in New York, and consider themselves to be somewhat sophisticated and worldly wise.  Frank has no specific ambitions, career wise.  He seems to think of himself as somehow above any job that he is qualified for, and so when he graduates from college, he seeks out the most boring job he can find, one that will not take any part of his mind or soul, one that requires nothing more than that his body occupy a desk chair for 8 hours a day, so that he can keep his mind free for higher, more lofty pursuits.  What he fails to realize is that this kind of job can cause your brain to atrophy, and that it can suck your soul dry faster than you ever thought possible.

April had dreams of becoming a theater actress, a dream that she pursues without much enthusiasm or fervor.  They meet, fall in love, and have vague dreams of starting a family someday down the road, after they’ve fulfilled some of their dreams of sophisticated living and travel, living and really experiencing life in Paris, in a way that simply cannot be accomplished in the United States.  Of course, life seldom works out the way we expect it to, and April’s first pregnancy derails their dreams, and starts them down a path of fulfilling expectations rather than dreams.  The next thing they know, they find themselves the owners of a starter home in the suburbs of Connecticut.  Frank commutes into the city to his mind-numbing job, shares his cubicle with his alcoholic office mate, and succeeds in shifting paper around the office in an endless circle, where no one seems to get any actual work done, but they all mange to pick up their paychecks all the same.  April is at home with her two young children.  They look down their noses at their neighbors, at their house, at their surroundings, and ultimately at themselves.  They feel they are better than this suburban lifestyle that they are living, but they have no idea how to free themselves from it.  They meet a few like-minded malcontents, and decide to start a local theater troupe, thus bringing the enlightenment of wonderful, “thinking mans” plays to the suburbs.  The book begins with opening night of their maiden production, and right away we are confronted with the expectations and hopes that are brought to the table, and then crushed, partially by the troupe’s unwillingness to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the production.  How the characters deal with the evening and its failures is very telling.

The majority of the story is Frank’s discovery that what he really wanted all along was those exact things that he already had.  His final understanding that he is not any better than anyone else in his little suburb, not any better than the life he has chosen for himself…his realization that he indeed has chosen this life, that he in fact chooses it every day of his life, and this discovery proves to be his undoing.

April’s story is given much less space, but is more shattering.  She really does want to leave the suburbs, and instead of being secretly relieved when their plans go awry, she is devastated, and is forced to truly examine how she came to be this shell of  a person, a person she doesn’t recognize or respect.  She is brutally honest with herself and her motives.

I found myself engrossed in this novel, and found my mind returning to it several days later.  I will definately re-read it, and I’m looking forward to the insights and depth that come with repeated readings.  It’s that good.

This evening, we went to see the film version.  I once heard a director say that when converting a novel to a film, you have to cut about 3/4 of the detail out, yet keep the feeling of the story.  The director did exactly that, I thought.  You felt Frank’s frustrations, and April’s desperation.  You felt their triumphs and their failures.  I thought Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio did amazing jobs as Frank and April, and the supporting actors were all wonderful as well.  Highly recommended.

2009 TBR Book Challenge


Having just finished the TBR Challenge for 2008, I’m ready to set my sights toward 2009.  In honor of one of my favorite book bloggers, Dewey, who passed away recently, several of the books on this list are books I came to via her blog, The Hidden Side of a Leaf.  So many of the books I’ve read in the last couple of years, I found on her blog.  I am going to miss her.

The challenge is to read 12 books in 12 months, all at once or spread out, whichever way you want.  They cannot be re-reads, and you have to make a list and stick to it, unless you go to your alternate list.  The website, with rules and participants, is here.

Here’s my list of 12 books I would like to read this year, plus 7 alternates.

  1. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates.  Ted bought be this book for Christmas, and said he had heard a lot of good things about it.  OK, I’m in!  With the movie version coming out soon, I’d better read this one first thing.
  2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery.  Dewey had this book on her ‘Sunday Book Coveting’, in which she would mention books that she was considering getting.  She ran out and got this book right away, as she couldn’t bear to wait for her library to get it.
  3. The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss.  A few years ago, I read another Molly Gloss book, The Jump Off Creek, which I really enjoyed.  Add that to my love of horses and strong female characters, and it looks like we may have a winner here.
  4. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Peterson.  This book is on a lot of ‘best book of the year’ lists, and I saw it on my last trip to Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and it had a little tag highly recommending it.
  5. The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel.  I bought this book back in March, and haven’t gotten to it yet.  That makes it a TBR, right?
  6. Fortunate Son, by Walter Mosley.  I got this book at the same time as The Solace of Leaving Early, at Cody’s books.  I’m sad that Cody’s closed down entirely.  I’ve been going there my whole life, and it was probably the best bookstore in Berkeley.
  7. The Road Home, by Rose Tremain.  I read about this book on Dewey’s site, in her ‘book coveting’ section, and she made it sound very interesting.
  8. The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson.  This is another book from Dewey’s blog.
  9. The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby.  When I was in graduate school, I read The Tale of Genji, which is widely considered to be the first novel written, and is hundreds of years older than Shakespeare and Chaucer.  It is the tale of the courtly life of Prince Genji, a Japanese nobleman.  This novel is the tale of the author of Genji, Shibiku Murasaki, who describes the life of a Geisha.  Liza Dalby is reputed to be the only western woman who has succeeded in becoming a Geisha.
  10. Saving Fish from Drowning, by Amy Tan.  I loved The Joy Luck Club, many years ago, so I’ll revisit the world of Ms. Tan, and see what I find there.
  11. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  I tried to read One Hundred Years of Solitude about 20 years ago, and couldn’t get into it.  So I thought I’d try something a bit smaller by the same author, and see how I do.
  12. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini.  The Kite Runner broke my heart, but it was a beautiful book, and I’ve heard that this book may be even better.

The rules say that I can make a list of alternates as well, which I can use to replace the books on this list if I decide that I want to.  That’s a good idea, because at one point in the last challenge, I discovered that I had already read a book on my list, and had forgotten it!  So, here is my list of alternates, in case one of these doesn’t keep my interest, or in case I discover that I’ve read it and forgotten all about it.

  1. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  This book was on my list for the non-fiction challenge last year, but it got pushed aside when my mom died, and I read A Year of Magical Thinking instead.  I received this book as a gift from two different people, so I suspect it’s pretty good.
  2. Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes.  I had a book giveaway last year, trying to get rid of a few books and unclutter my house.  Those unclear on the idea of uncluttering, or perhaps more worried about uncluttering THEIR houses than my house, sent me books that they thought I might like.  This one came from Amy.
  3. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham.  I bought this one quite awhile ago, and tried to read Mrs. Dalloway in preperation for it, but I couldn’t get into Mrs. Dalloway, so I pushed it aside.  I might try Dalloway again, too.
  4. The Night Listener, by Armistead Maupin.  I’ve read his Tales of the City books, years ago, and liked them.  So I’ll give this a try, maybe.
  5. The Hindi Bindi Club, by Monica Pradhan.  This was another book sent to me in exchange for a book in my giveaway.  Looks like fun.
  6. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig.  I confess, I don’t remember where I got this book.  It may have been given to me in exchange for a giveaway book, or it may have been a Christmas or Birthday gift…I’m a bad person, and I don’t remember.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy it for myself, but one never knows.
  7. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. What’s not to like about a boy being raised by werewolves and ghosts in a graveyard? Nothing, that’s what. I have a feeling this one might get bumped up from the alternate to the regular list pretty quickly.

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth

(picture and game found here)

The Pillars of the Earth is set in 12th century England, and sweeps a period of about 40 years.   It is the story of the building of a grand Cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge (there is a real Kingsbridge, but not this one), and the people involved.  That doesn’t sound like it would make for a very interesting novel, but it turned out to be a page-turner of a book with flawed characters and enough twists and turns to keep any soap opera buff happy. There is sex, violence, murder, sabotage, intrigue, historical fact, and lots of ups and downs.  The main characters all seem to almost get what they want, time and time again, only to have their desires pulled out from under them.

The strength of the novel is the characters, who are fairly well drawn, and the research Follett put into the architecture and history of the time.  I enjoyed getting a glimpse into how life must have been lived so long ago…the common living/sleeping areas, sometimes with horses and cows brought inside to live.  It must have smelled very bad.

The weakness of the novel is that, like a soap opera, the story lines are drawn out and predictable for the most part, which I found somewhat annoying.

It definitely kept me engaged, but at 967 pages, I thought it was probably about 400 – 500 pages too long.  There is a “Gone With The Wind” feel to it, with the epic drama taking place in a mixture of real and imagined events, but without a central character as flawed and complicated as Scarlett O’Hara, it falls short in comparison.

I’d recommend it, but not as highly as I expected, as so many people suggested this book to me.

I read Pillars of the Earth for my 2008 TBR Challenge, and finished it with 4 whole days to spare.  Whew.