The Road Home

The Road Home

Lev looked at the cloth.  He was indifferent to it.  He felt indifferent to all that was untrue.  Behind him, somewhere, he could hear a tennis game start up and he envied the players.  He thought how, in his life in England, he never ran anywhere anymore, but only stood at his sinks or crept into bus shelters or wandered the streets with slow steps, like the steps of a n old man.  And this realization wounded him the more because he knew suddenly – as he stood and stared at the shining holly so ridiculously festooned- where he wanted to run to.  He stood very still, gazing at the ground.  Then he pulled free of Lydia’s arm and fumbled for a cigarette.  He’d shocked himself with his thoughts.  He felt his hands shaking.

The Road Home begins with Lev’s long bus ride from the Ukraine to London. He leaves behind his mother and his young daughter, and his best friend Rudi. He brings with him the overwhelming sorrow of missing his wife, who died of Leukemia the previous year. Lev comes to London in search of work, as the only industry in his small town is lumber, and all of the trees have already been cut down. On the bus, Lev makes friends with a countrywoman, Lydia, who is traveling to London to work as an interpreter for a famous Ukrainian musician. They forge a tentative friendship, and both feel a sense of loss when they each go their separate ways in London. Lydia travels to a home where she is embraced by a loving couple, has a warm place to sleep and a job to do. Lev finds that the money he has so carefully saved will not go nearly as far as he had hoped in London, and soon finds himself sleeping in someone’s small yard. He finds work delivering pamphlets for a small kabob shop, a job that exhausts him, and pays barely enough to buy him food.

From here, Lydia helps him to acquire a job as a dishwasher at a fancy restaurant, and helps him to find a room for rent, in a flat he shares with Christy, a lonely Irish man pining for his own young daughter, who has been taken from him by his ex-wife, and isn’t allowed to visit. Lev sleeps in her little bunk-bed, surrounded by her stuffed animals and doll house, and feels grateful to have a job, a place to live, and a new friend.

Lev becomes more comfortable in London, learns some English, starts dating Sophie, who preps vegetables at the fancy restaurant. He sends money home to his family, calls and talks to his friend, tells stories to his new friends of his and Rudi’s adventures at home. He starts to settle in and make a life for himself, mostly looking backwards at his past. Then the news comes that his small village is going to be submerged deep below a hydro-electric dam, and he is pulled from his reverie and forced to look forward, to make a plan for how his mother, daughter, and friends might not only survive the dislocation that is being forced upon them, but also somehow come out of it better off than they were before.

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to appreciate this novel.  I picked it up for Dewey’s Reading Challenge, as I remembered reading about it on her blog, and wanted to honor her in some small way after she passed away so suddenly.  I’m glad that I did, because this book is a real treasure.  The characters she brought to life will stick with me for quite awhile.  Highly recommended.  Rose Tremain won the Orange Broadband prize for fiction in 2008 for this novel.  I’m thinking I may want to seek out more of her work.

How I Live Now

How I Live Now

Daisy is a fifteen year-old anorexic from New York, sent to live in London with her aunt and cousins when her father and her pregnant step-mother decide they can’t deal with her and her disorder anymore.  They are much more interested in the unborn child they have not yet met, than the very much alive and in-need-of-help-daughter they already have.   Daisy arrives in London, met by her cousin Edmond, who is fourteen, smokes, and drives.  She is impressed.  Her cousins appear to be somewhat telepathic, though that isn’t the crux of the story.  The crux of the story is that soon after she arrives, her aunt has to leave on a business trip that takes her out of the country, at which point, war breaks out.  At first, things are fine for Daisy and her cousins, because the war doesn’t seem to touch them in the British countryside.  Daisy and Edmond (first cousins) fall in love with each other, and the lack of a parental figure helps them immensely in their forbidden love.  Things don’t stay easy and idyllic for them and the other cousins, however, as the war progresses and comes to their small town.

I loved this book.  Daisy was a truly human and understandable character.   She’s in love with her cousin, which is repugnant.  She has an eating disorder, which is only hinted at, but never ignored.  She could be anyone, thrust into a horrific situation that is completely out of her control.

Stardust ~ Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess

(image found on Charles Vess’ site, here)

Dewey from The Hidden Side of a Leaf was a huge Neil Gaiman fan, so when deciding which books to read for the Dewey’s Books Reading Challenge, I wanted to include at least one Gaiman book. I decided to read Stardust, and while I was at the library the other day picking up another book, I happened to see the version that was illustrated by Charles Vess. I didn’t even know there was such a version, but it looked like it might be fun, so I picked it up. Boy, I’m glad I did. The pictures are so beautiful, and really add to the story. I’m sure the non-illustrated versions are lovely, but if you get a chance to read the illustrated version, I highly recommend it.

(image found here)

Now that I’ve convinced you to get the illustrated version, I’ll move on to the story itself.   Tristran Thorn is a young man who lives in a town named Wall, which is separated from the land of Faerie by, um, a wall.  One day he is walking with the lady of his dreams, Victoria, when they spy a falling star, one that falls to Earth.  Victoria promises Tristran that if he fetches the star for her, she will give him whatever he wants.  With visions of true love in his heart, Tristran ventures into the land of Faerie, determined to bring back the star and win Victoria’s hand in marriage.

He finds the star more quickly than one might expect, though it’s not the scientific thing that his teachers had led him to expect. Instead, he finds a beautiful woman with “a scowl of complete unfriendliness”.  She is not the least bit pleased to learn that she has been promised as a prize to win the heart of Tristran’s lady love.

“I did it for love,” he continued. “And you really are my only hope. Her name, that is, the name of my love is Victoria. Victoria Forester. And she is the prettiest, wisest, sweetest girl in the whole wide world.”

The girl broke her silence with a snort of derision. “And this wise, sweet creature sent you here to torture me?”

Thus begins the journey back to Wall.  Unbeknownst to either Tristran or the star, there are others out there who would do even worse to her than to give her as a gift, including an old witch determined to regain her youth, and a trio of murderous brothers, each intent upon becoming the last man standing, and thus inheriting the rule of their land.

This is a fairy tale for adults, or at least teens.  Maya is 13, and I have no problem allowing her to read it, though there is some mild sex and certainly a bit of gore.

Gaiman is a witty and clever writer, and there are many tiny twists in the book that readers will find delicious, like this one:

It was night in the glade by the pool and the sky was bespattered with stars beyond counting.

[…] A field mouse found a fallen hazel nut and began to bite into the hard shell of the nut with his sharp, ever-growing front teeth, not because he was hungry, but because he was a prince under an enchantment who could not regain his outer form until he chewed the Nut of Wisdom. But his excitement made him careless, and only the shadow that blotted out the moonlight warned him of the descent of a huge grey owl, who caught the mouse in her sharp talons and rose again into the night.

[…] The owl swallowed the mouse in a couple of gulps, leaving just its tail trailing from her mouth, like a length of bootlace. Something snuffled and grunted as it pushed through the thicket — a badger, thought the owl (herself under a curse, and only able to resume her rightful shape if she consumed a mouse who had eaten the Nut of Wisdom)…

Having now read The Graveyard Book and Stardust, I’m thinking I might want to read more of Gaiman’s work. I’ve heard Coraline is quite good, so maybe I’ll look out for that at the library. Also, I’ve heard that the film versions of both Stardust and Coraline are wonderful, so I’m looking forward to seeing them as well.

We Are On Our Own

(Graphic found here)

We Are On Our Own is Miriam Katin’s memoir of her survival during World War II. Told in graphic novel format, it is the story of Miriam and her mom, who are running from the Nazis in occupied Hungary. Miriam’s father is away at war when the orders come for her and her mother to list all of their belongings, and report for deportation. Rather than risk what the end of that trail might hold for them, Miriam’s mother purchases fake documents that identify her as a poor servant with an illegitimate child, and they travel into the countryside to hopefully wait out the war on a small farm.

There are those out there who would do Miriam and her mother only harm, those who would do them only kindness, and those like the landlord in the graphic above, who would betray them without admitting having done so, even to themselves. Miriam’s mother must make many difficult decisions, endure many horrors, in order to stay alive and keep her young daughter safe. But safe they remain, and after the war, they are finally reunited with Miriam’s father.

The story is told from Miriam’s point of view, so we catch only glimpses of what her mother is going through. Her innocence is very touching, and is an interesting point of view for a war story. That the tale is that of a very young girl and her mother gives a different perspective than we usually get, and it’s all the more compelling for that reason.

At first glance, the title seems to apply to Miriam and her mother, in their fight for survival. That there are no people to help them along. But there are kind people all along, willing to help her as much as they can. No, they are not on their own because of no friendly faces or kind hearts. They are on their own because of a loss of faith. At least for Miriam and her father, they can not believe that a kind and loving God would allow such horrors to happen to good people. Interestingly, the book is ambiguous regarding whether her mother suffered this same loss of faith or not.

I highly recommend this book. Really some of the very best of the genre. I first heard of it via a review on Dewey’s blog, and so I read We Are On Our Own for the Dewey’s Books Reading Challenge.

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.

Dewey’s Book Challenge

Dewey's Book Reading Challenge

I was looking around for a Classics Reading Challenge yesterday, hoping for some accountability that will get me to read a few classics, when I came across this excellent blog, A Novel Challenge, which lists a TON of current reading challenges.  Really.  A lot.  If you’re looking for a chick lit challenge?  She has links to one.  Historical Fiction more your thing?  She’s got that, too.  Practically anything you’re looking for, it’s there.  I found a classics challenge there, and as soon as I figure out what I’m going to read for it, I’ll put up a list.

Anyway, one of the challenges I came across is the Dewey’s Books Reading Challenge, for those of us who loved her blog and her book reviews.  If you’re not familiar with Dewey, she was a voracious reader, and a very active member of the book blog community, and she passed away in November.  There are a lot of people out there who really adored her blog, clearly.  Sadly, her blog, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, seems to be down right now.  I’m not sure if this is because her husband has removed it, or if hackers got to it somehow (they’ve done this to me), or if there are just technical problems and her husband is either unaware or too busy with real life to fix them.

The challenge is to look on Dewey’s blog and find 5 books she reviewed, and read them in 2009.  This is a problem, because of Dewey’s site being down, but there are a lot of bloggers participating, who perhaps got their lists together before the problems started.  I’m going to take two of the books I had already decided to read for my TBR challenge, and then add three more that I found on other participants’ blogs.

The descriptions of the books are lifted from Powells, and are Publishers Comments.

Stardust, by Neil GrumanStardust, by Neil Gaiman.

“Young Tristran Thorn will do anything to win the cold heart of beautiful Victoria — even fetch her the star they watch fall from the night sky. But to do so, he must enter the unexplored lands on the other side of the ancient wall that gives their tiny village its name. Beyond that old stone wall, Tristran learns, lies Faerie — where nothing, not even a fallen star, is what he imagined.”

I’ve also heard that his other book, The Graveyard Book, is exceptional, and is about life in a graveyard with ghosts.  As a matter of fact, there’s a reading challenge dedicated to Mr. Gaiman, so he must be pretty popular.  I’ve heard wonderful things about this book, and I know a film version was made a few years ago.  I’m looking forward to it.

Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery.

“We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there’s Paloma, a 12-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the 16th of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.”

I’m also reading this book for the TBR Challenge.   Dewey didn’t actually review this book, as it was the book she was reading when she passed away.  But she was so enthusiastic about it, I had to give it a try.

The Road HomeThe Road Home, by Rose Tremain.

“In the wake of factory closings and his beloved wife’s death, Lev is on his way from Eastern Europe to London, seeking work to support his mother and his little daughter. After a spell of homelessness, he finds a job in the kitchen of a posh restaurant, and a room in the house of an appealing Irishman who has also lost his family. Never mind that Lev must sleep in a bunk bed surrounded by plastic toys — he has found a friend and shelter. However constricted his life in England remains he compensates by daydreaming of home, by having an affair with a younger restaurant worker (and dodging the attentions of other women), and by trading gossip and ambitions via cell phone with his hilarious old friend Rudi who, dreaming of the wealthy West, lives largely for his battered Chevrolet.”

This is an Orange Prize winner, and I’ve loved other Orange Prize winners, so I’m thinking it might be really good.  I almost bought it at Moe’s in Berkeley the other day, but it’s still in hardback, and I’m too cheap and short on space for that.  So I’ll get it from the library. I’m also reading this for the TBR Challenge.

How I Live NowHow I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff.

“Fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister. Her aunt goes away on business soon after Daisy arrives. The next day bombs go off as London is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy.

As power fails, and systems fail, the farm becomes more isolated. Despite the war, it’s a kind of Eden, with no adults in charge and no rules, a place where Daisy’s uncanny bond with her cousins grows into something rare and extraordinary. But the war is everywhere, and Daisy and her cousins must lead each other into a world that is unknown in the scariest, most elemental way.”

Maya almost read this book, as it was suggested by my SIL, who is a librarian in Juneau. Kathy (my SIL) hasn’t read it yet, but said that her coworkers all rave about it. We got it from the library and she started it, but it looked like two first cousins were going to fall in love with each other, which grossed Maya out to the point that she lost interest. I’ll give it a try, though.

We Are On Our OwnWe Are On Our Own, byMiriam Katin.

“A stunning memoir of a mother and her daughter’s survival in WWII and their subsequent lifelong struggle with faith In this captivating and elegantly illustrated graphic memoir, Miriam Katin retells the story of her and her mother’s escape on foot from the Nazi invasion of Budapest. With her father off fighting for the Hungarian army and the German troops quickly approaching, Katin and her mother are forced to flee to the countryside after faking their deaths. Leaving behind all of their belongings and loved ones, and unable to tell anyone of their whereabouts, they disguise themselves as a Russian servant and illegitimate child, while literally staying a few steps ahead of the German soldiers.

“We Are on Our Own “is a woman’s attempt to rebuild her earliest childhood trauma in order to come to an understanding of her lifelong questioning of faith. Katin’s faith is shaken as she wonders how God could create and tolerate such a wretched world, a world of fear and hiding, bargaining and theft, betrayal and abuse. The complex and horrific experiences on the run are difficult for a child to understand, and as a child, Katin saw them with the simple longing, sadness, and curiosity she felt when her dog ran away or a stranger made her mother cry. Katin’s ensuing lifelong struggle with faith is depicted throughout the book in beautiful full-color sequences.

“We Are on Our Own “is the first full-length graphic novel by Katin, at the age of sixty-three.”

Dewey introduced me to the genre of graphic novels, for which I am grateful.  She hosted a Graphic Novels Challenge last year, which I really enjoyed.   I had no idea that they could be more than ‘comic books’, so I was amazed to discover the depth that can be reached.