Monday, December 28, 2009
Challenge Completed - Orbis Terrarum
My challenge:Read 10 books, by 10 different authors, from 10 different countries.My list:1 - Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (Britain) finished 4/23/09, rated 6/102 - This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Morocco) 12/15/09, rated 9/103 - Angel of Grozny by Asne Seierstad (Chechnya) - finished 3/1/09, rated 8/104 - Infinity in the Palm of her Hand by Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua) finished 3/19/09, rated 7/105 - Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee (India) finished 5/8/09, rated 7/106 - Cutting Loose by Nadine Dajani (Lebanon) finished 6/13/09, rated 8/107 - Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan) finished 6/24/09, rated 8/108 - A Good House by Bonnie Burnard (Canada) finished 7/4/09, rated 7/109 - After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld (Australia) finished 10/2/09, rated 8/1010 - The Book of Murder by Guilermo Martinez (Argentina) finished 8/09, rated 6/10I do love this challenge - if Bethany hosts it again in 2010, I have a feeling I'll be joining....=)
MAGICAL REALISM AKIN TO SEEN MIRACLES I'VE READ ABOUT IN JUDAISM
EXEMPLIFIED IN A SAGA OF FATE OR ARRANGED EVENTS
Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people–a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy. Twenty-five years after its publication, Midnight’s Children stands apart as both an epochal work of fiction and a brilliant performance by one of the great literary voices of our time.My thoughts:Well. I think this is a novel I would like to read as part of a class - there is so much going on, dealing with events in history I don't know about or understand, that I believe much of the book just flew right over my head.That being said, it was certainly an interesting read. I've mentioned before that I struggle with books that use magical realism, and this was, again, a struggle in this novel. I don't know exactly why it's so difficult for me, but it always trips me up. This novel is chock full of it, pretty much from page one, so it made it slow going - I've been chipping away at it for the better part of 2 weeks.I was initially concerned about the style - here's the first paragraph, so you understand what I mean.“I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blindly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Budha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate – at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time.”
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jellounpublished 2001195 pagesSynopsis from publisher:An immediate and critically acclaimed bestseller in France, This Blinding Absence of Light is the latest work by internationally renowned author Tahar Ben Jelloun, the first North African winner of the Prix Goncourt and winner of the Prix Mahgreb. Crafting real life events into narrative fiction, Ben Jelloun reveals the horrific story of the desert concentration camps in which King Hassan II of Morocco held his political enemies in underground cells with no light and only enough food and water to keep them lingering on the edge of death. Working closely with one of the survivors, Ben Jelloun narrates the story in the simplest of language and delivers a shocking novel that explores both the limitlessness of inhumanity and the impossible endurance of the human will.My thoughts:Brutal. Beautiful. Horrific. Hopeful. Terrible. Triumphant.All of those words are apt descriptions of this breathtaking novel. It was both a pleasure and a despair to read, and I don't think I'll soon forget it.From the very beginning, I could tell I would be captured by Salim's story. As he describes the environment and companions in his prison cell, I could see it -"Night clothed us. In another world, one would say that night waited on us hand and foot."At times, I had to stop reading and take a breath, feeling almost claustrophobic reading Salim's words."Night had thrown her cloak over our faces no longer astonished by anything, a cloak without even the tiniest moth holes, oh, no; it was a cloak of wet sand."I won't list the horrors experienced, though rest assured they are many; prisoners don't just die, they die horribly, from things I had never thought of that can kill you. But the soul of the book isn't the suffering - it is the way the prisoners find to keep themselves human. By telling each other tales out of the Arabian Nights, and American movie scripts; by keeping close track of the time; by adopting a lost dove, passing it from cell to cell, and eventually letting it fly free. By choosing forgiveness instead of anger.The story moves from past to present, as we learn of the reasons Salim and his fellow prisoners are captured, and their day-to-day lives in prison. My lack of knowledge of the history of the time and place occasionally made it difficult to keep up with the plot, but mostly the author explains just enough in the text to assist readers like me. There are no extra words in the sparse prose, and yet the author manages to engulf readers in the narrative."I should say that there were different kinds of silence. The silence of the night. It was a necessity for us. The silence of the companion who was slowly leaving us...The silence of blood circulating sluggishly...The silence of the shadow of memories burned to ashes...The silence of absence, the blinding absence of life."This is an incredibly powerful book. It is not action packed, or plot-driven, or even especially entertaining. But of all the books I've read this year, I know this is one I will remember. It is the story of the worst man can do to man, and the power of humanity to overcome. It is remarkable.
Angel of Grozny by Asne Seierstad (Chechnya) -
SeierstadSynopsis from the publisher:In the early hours of New Year’s 1994, Russian troops invaded the Republic of Chechnya, plunging the country into a prolonged and bloody conflict that continues to this day. A foreign correspondent in Moscow at the time, Åsne Seierstad traveled regularly to Chechnya to report on the war, describing its affects on those trying to live their daily lives amidst violence.In the following decade, Seierstad became an internationally renowned reporter and author, traveling to the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other war-torn regions. But she never lost sight of this conflict that had initially inspired her career. Over the course of a decade, she watched as Russia ruthlessly suppressed an Islamic rebellion in two bloody wars and as Chechnya evolved into one of the flashpoints in a world now focused on the threat of international terrorism.In 2006, Seierstad finally returned to Chechnya, traveling in secret and under the constant threat of danger. In a broken and devastated society she lived with orphans, the wounded, the lost. And she lived with the children of Grozny, those who will shape the country’s future. She asks the question: What happens to a child who grows up surrounded by war and accustomed to violence? A compelling, intimate, and often heartbreaking portrait of Chechnya today, The Angel of Grozny is a vivid account of a land’s violent history and its ongoing battle for freedom.My thoughts:This book is much more than just an account of the orphans of Grozny. Seierstad gives readers a concise, accessible history of the conflict that has raged between Russia and Chechnya for the past 100 years. I went into this book completely uninformed about the situation in this part of the world, and honestly believe I learned enough to understand what has taken place. Seierstad does an excellent job of filling in the history without writing a "report" - she is telling the stories of the land, and the people who live there.The backbone of the book is Hadijat, the woman who cares for the orphans of Grozny. Seierstad lived with her for quite some time, and paints a realistic portrait of this modern-day heroine - brave, strong, resourceful, but also tired, sometime short-tempered, and afraid. Seierstad never romanticises the characters she encounters. Each has their strengths, and often their weaknesses, and she doesn't sugar-coat either. This has gotten her into trouble with some of her past subjects (see all the past uproar about The Bookseller of Kabul), but I found I appreciated that she portrayed the people with warts and all. Noone is perfect - not the politicians, or the housewifes, or the orphans from the street.Seierstad's writing is excellent, and drew my interest from the very start. In this paragraph, she describes the first time she finds herself being shot at:"One week later I'm lying in a ditch. Bullets rip twigs from the trees overhead and graze the top of the incline, triggering a cascade of stones and weeds. In the field next to us the shots land within a few metres of each other. When they hit the ground earth spurts up - just like in the moves, I say to myself. Yes, that is in fact what I'm thinking as I lie with my face in the dry turf and prickly thistles. "She is equally engaging as she describes talking to a woman whose sons have died for the resistance, or a young man who has chosen to murder his sister as an honor killing. This book is full of the real-life LIFE of the people living through years of war, and Seierstad makes you feel like you know, and in an odd way understand, the choices they have made.I can't say I enjoyed this book - it's not the type of subject matter to be enjoyed. But it was a completely engrossing, worthwhile read, and I'm glad I spent time in Seierstad's world.
Synopsis from publisher:Beginning on August 9, 1945, in Nagasaki, and ending in a prison cell in the US in 2002, as a man is waiting to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, Burnt Shadows is an epic narrative of love and betrayal.
Hiroko Tanaka is twenty-one and in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. As she steps onto her veranda, wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, her world is suddenly and irrevocably altered. In the numbing aftermath of the atomic bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, two years later, Hiroko travels to Delhi. It is there that her life will become intertwined with that of Konrad's half sister, Elizabeth, her husband, James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu.
With the partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan, Hiroko will find herself displaced once again, in a world where old wars are replaced by new conflicts. But the shadows of history--personal and political--are cast over the interrelated worlds of the Burtons, the Ashrafs, and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York and, in the novel's astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound these families together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences. My thoughts:This was a very good novel that was ALMOST a great novel - but just missed it by a hair.I loved the first two sections of this book. In part 1, The Yet-Unknowing World, we meet Hiroko and Konrad, and explore with them their burgeoning love. They are both outsiders - he a German, she a woman whose father is branded a traitor. People avoid them on the street, chose not to speak to them, and yet they find each other. Konrad tells Hiroko it might be better for her to distance herself from him, but she chooses not to. Their future is bright. Shamsie paints such a vivid picture of these two characters, who are both strong and yet vulnerable. And then comes the first tragedy."Functional, Hiroko Tanaka thinks, as she stands on the porch of her house in Urakami and surveys the terraced slopes, the still morning alive with the whirring of cicadas. If there were an adjective to best describe how the war has changed Nagasaki, she decides, that would be it. Everything distilled or distorted into its most functional form. She walked past the vegetable patches on the slopes a few days ago and saw the earth itself furrowing in mystification: why potatoes where once there were azaleas? What prompted this falling-off of love? How to explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans."Part 2, Veiled Birds, finds Hiroko traveling to India to meet Konrad's family, and try to salvage a life for herself. Once again, Shamsie's characters are vivid and alive, and her writing beautifully descriptive of the locations and mindset of the people of the time. Her portrait of the marriage of Elizabeth, Konrad's sister, and her husband James is penetrating, a perfect snapshot of a couple forgetting why they loved each other. And then the second tragedy comes."Elizabeth almost laughed. So much for the demure Japanese women of all the stories she'd heard. Here was one who would squeeze the sun in her fist if she every got the chance; yes, and tilt her head back to swallow its liquid light. At what point, Elizabeth wondered, had she started to believe there was virtue in living a constrained life? She clicked her heels against the floor in impatience at herself. Virtue really had nothing to do with it."In Part 3, Part-Angel Warriors, Hiroko and her husband are living in Pakistan with their son, Raza. In a section that brims with life, Raza stumbles upon a group of militant Afghanis while trying to appease his father. As he comes to identify more and more with this group, Shamsie lets readers in on the ease at which a basically good boy can become a terrorist. I found this section to be especially fascinating, with its themes of family love and loyalty, the desire to find a place to belong, and the quickness with which situations can spiral out of control. And then, of course, the third tragedy."Stay. Stay. Stay. She should have repeated it like a madwoman, banged her head against the wall in a frenzy, hit him and wept. She should have said it just one more time, just a little more forcefully. She should have taken his dear, sweet head in her hands and kissed his eyes and forehead. Stay."It was the fourth section that I felt was lacking. It takes place in America and the Middle East after the events of 9/11/01, and the connection I had felt to the characters up until this point wasn't maintained. Hiroko appears less in this section than any of the others, and it could have been that I missed her presence. But more than that, I just felt like the story lost its focus, and didn't have the emotional impact the author was intending. It does, inevitable, contain another tragedy, this one the most unnecessary of them all.This is the first novel I have read by this author, and I will certainly be looking for more of her work. While the ending did lose me a bit, the overall story was compelling and beautifully written, and I do recommend the novel.
Relative Reads Review - A Good House by Bonnie Burnard
I was given the great fortune of growing up in a family of readers. Both of my parents read, and so do the majority of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. In fact, my Great-Grandma had cataract surgery in her 90's, because she couldn't bear to not be able to read. I thought it would be interesting to read some of the books THEY have discovered and enjoyed over the years, so I asked them to send me some recommendations, and the fun began! I have a list of the titles various family members have suggested on the side of the blog, so if you want to see what will be coming up you can take a peek.A Good House by Bonnie Burnard (recommended by Aunt Rhoda)published 1999309 pagesSynopsis from publisher:A Good House begins in 1949 in Stonebrook, Ontario, home to the Chambers family. The postwar boom and hope for the future color every facet of life: the possibilities seem limitless for Bill, his wife Sylvia, and their three children.In the fifty years that follow, the possibilities narrow. Sylvia’s untimely death marks her family indelibly but in ways only time will reveal. Paul’s perfect marriage yields an imperfect child. Daphne unabashedly follows an unconventional path, while Patrick discovers that his happiness requires a series of compromises. Bill confronts the onset of old age less gracefully than anticipated, and throughout, his second wife, Margaret, remains, surprisingly, the family anchor.This extraordinarily moving and beautifully crafted first novel was a number one bestseller in Canada where it won one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards, the Giller Prize, in 1999.My thoughts:This is a very quiet book. It tells the story of the Chambers family from 1949, when Bill and Sylvia are a newly married couple, to 1997, when Bill and his second wife, Margaret, are grandparents, watching their grandchildren marry. It's not really a story about any one particular thing - just the lives of this family, as they love and win and lose over the years. But, because of that, it's about nearly everything - family, and love, and loss, and winning, and defeat, and all the tiny, mundane things that hold a family together, no matter what, through all the years.The first chapters of the novel are involved more intimately with the characters' lives - there are just a few, Bill and Sylvia and their children, and so Burnard gives the reader a chance to delve more deeply into their stories. As the years pass, the family grows larger, and Burnard must skim over much more of what happens to each particular character - suddenly, children are born and grown, spouses come and go, making the individuals seem more distant. For readers (like me), who really enjoy connecting with specific characters, this distance can make the second half of the novel less rewarding than the first. I found it to be an interesting parallel to a real family - the more we multiply, the less we are able to know each other intimately.I especially enjoyed the sections about the children growing up in their small town. There were moments when something in the story made me recall an exact moment of my own childhood so clearly - specifically, the chapter where the kids put on a circus. I can remember my sister and I, and some neighborhood kids, putting on "shows" at my grandma's house, complete with costumes and batons. We'd make the adults sit and watch us - it was really pretty pitiful, I'm sure. But these paragraphs really resonated with me, and I felt like I understood these characters' lives:"There were tough kids and kids not nearly tough enough, but most of them were assumed to be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. If there were quarrels or fights, and occasionally there were, these were not reported back to parents because parents never did anything anyway. Parents couldn't save you. When kids came home muddy and soaking wet or bleeding from an unusual wound or cranky or worried or defeated, there was no great fuss. A dish of ice cream, a bowl of cereal, a joke, a bath, a bandage, a good night's sleep, these were the solutions."Burnard has written short story collections, and in a way, this novel was similar to a collection - each chapter had its own beginning and end, and didn't really carry over into the next. Things happened, and then we move on, and something else happens, and then we move on - the only thing really tying each section together was the constant desire of the family to hold itself together, no matter what was going on around it.I was also interested in her portrayal of the family as a group - a very clearly defined, members-only type group, with their own set of rules and expectations. Whenever a new person was introduced, THEY were required to conform to the group. There was never any question of the group changing to meet them. And if someone inside the group varied from their unspoken rules, there were swift consequences - the rules were set, no deviation tolerated. It's interesting to think of a family in this way. I tend to believe my own family is much more tolerant of new people and ideas, but I've never had to try to experience it as an outsider. I wonder how true that assumption is.I don't think this novel will be for everyone - it's thin character development and slow moving narration will likely be frustrating for some readers. I ultimately liked the novel. It felt comforting to me, like a warm blanket to curl up under. I was interested in Burnard's examination of the family, and how its members respond to each other and to outsiders over the years. It's a novel about nothing, and everything, and well worth the time I spent inside its covers.
After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyld
Order: USA Can
Pantheon, 2009 (2008)Hardcover, e-Book
Read an Excerpt
Reviewed by Elizabeth Schulenburg
When Frank arrives at the rundown shack by the shore in northern Australia, he is running away from his life. He's just recently experienced a bad breakup. Feeling at loose ends, he travels to the home his grandparents escaped to fifty years ago, mostly abandoned since their deaths. He sets to work building a place for himself, befriending the neighbors, finding a job. But his own history of violence comes back to haunt him when a local girl goes missing, and he finds the past doesn't always stay gone for good.Leon is a teenager in 1950s suburban Australia, the beloved only child of parents saved from the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. When his father volunteers to fight in the Korean war, Leon finds himself shouldering the adult responsibility of running his parents' bakery. Upon his return, Leon's father is a changed man, and Leon's relationship with both his parents is strained. When Leon himself is conscripted into the Vietnam war, his own experiences become a mirror to his father's.After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice is an arresting debut novel. As Frank and Leon's stories entwine, and eventually meet, the reader is offered a glimpse into the scarred psyches of men damaged by the violence and horror of war, and the families torn apart by that damage. Wyld's characters have all experienced some sort of tragic loss - loss of a parent, a child, a love - and their faltering attempts to deal with that loss are at the heart of this novel.'But when she was in the bath or at night when she closed the door to her bedroom things became very quiet, like she had sat down just inside the room and stayed still until morning. Sometimes he looked through the keyhole to check she was actually there and she would be lying in bed, the covers up to her throat, with hardly a crease in them. She lay bone straight, her chest barely rising and falling, her eyes wide open. She stared at the ceiling like she was stopping it from falling on her.'Wyld's simple prose evokes the barren landscape to which Frank retreats, and the loneliness each of her characters struggles with throughout the book. Readers looking for a novel with its ending tied up nicely will be disappointed - the moral of this story is not reconcilliation and forgiveness. However, readers looking for a fascinating character study are encouraged to seek this one out. Its powerful story will make for an unforgettable reading experience.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.
The Book of Murder by Guillermo Martinez published 7/09 224 pagesOriginally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com.What happens when a crime novel comes to life? Could a novelist do the unthinkable - live out his story?Ten years ago, a young writer in Argentina faces a crisis - up against a deadline, he breaks his wrist, leaving him unable to finish his manuscript. Desperate, he calls his editor for help. His editor offers a perfect solution: he will send Luciana, a brilliant typist, to help the writer finish his work. Luciana usually works for Kloster, a rather eccentric novelist, but he is away for a month and her services are available. So the writer employs Luciana, finishes his novel, and doesn't give her another thought.A late night call from Luciana a decade later startles the writer, but her story is even more alarming. Convincing the writer to meet her and begging for his help, she relates her belief that Kloster has been systematically killing her loved ones for the past ten years to revenge a personal tragedy for which he holds her responsible. At first the writer is skeptical, but as Luciana lays out her circumstantial evidence, he unwillingly finds himself believing her."Why did I say yes when everything inside me said no? Why didn't I fob her off with some excuse and put as much distance between us as possible? There are times in life - not many - when you can see, with dizzying clarity, the fatal fork in the road represented by one small act, the catastrophe that lurks behind a trivial decision. That evening I knew, above all else, that I shouldn't listen to her anymore. But, overcome by the intertia of compassion, or politeness, I stood up and followed her out."Against his better judgment, the writer arranges a meeting with Kloster and teases out his version of the events. As Kloster refutes each of Luciana's assertions with a perfectly logical explanation, the writer becomes more and more perplexed. Who is telling the truth? Whose life was truly ruined? Are the events coincidence, or the work of a truly brilliant murderer? Martinez spins a chilling tale of revenge and murder with just enough ambiguity to keep the reader constantly guessing. The story is presented almost entirely in the form of two monologues - Luciana and later Kloster telling their stories takes up the bulk of the narrative. This is a uniquely effective approach for this novel, as it allows the characters to relate their own tales but gives no actual insight into the workings of their brain. Readers are never given access to what is truth and what is lie, keeping them wondering until the very end of the novel. Unfortunately, this approach does not allow for a great deal of connection to the story. Readers looking for characters with which to sympathize may be disappointed; Martinez holds them at arm's length for the duration of the novel. His logic and persuasion are second to none, but there is a lack of emotion that permeates the story. Readers looking for a cerebral mystery will be more than pleased with this haunting tale, and its unexpected ending will likely keep all readers thinking for many years to come.