Tuesday, September 30, 2014

HOME IS THE SAILOR






Home Is the Sailor, Jorge Amado, Alfred A Knopf, 1964, (translated from the Portuguese, published by Livaria Martins Editora, 1961), 298 pp



As has become routine for me with Amado's novels, it seemed to take forever to get my reading up to speed in Home Is the Sailor. As in every earlier novel of his though, I came to the end feeling I had been told an informative and entertaining tale.

The eponymous sailor, Vasco Moscosco de Aragao, had never sailed a ship in all of his 60 years. He was the son of a Brazilian businessman and raised by his grandfather in the city, caring nothing for business or hard work. Wealthy and gregarious, he made friends in high places. His only sorrow in life was that he had no title, no rank, no degree. He was only Mr de Aragao.

Or so the story goes. The book's narrator calls himself a historian, while he is in fact a lowly journalist in a town of retirees, whose lover is the whore of a rich man. When Captain Vasco Moscosco de Aragao arrives in town, calling himself a Master Mariner, he instantly becomes the most popular man around due to his exciting tales of adventure on the oceans of the world. The former most popular townsperson becomes jealous and challenges the truth of the Captain's claims.

Our narrator/historian takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of the conflict and the reader is the beneficiary as his findings are related. Twists and turns, cliffhangers, and Amado's signature humor all come together in the second half of the novel which I read at four times the speed as I did the first half.

It could have been that I am not Brazilian, that Portuguese is difficult to translate, that Amado's sentences are eerily similar to William Faulkner's, or that I have been reading so much contemporary fiction. I don't care what caused my trouble. It was worth reading and the theme is oddly contemporary. Captain de Aragao, Master Mariner, was a certain kind of self-made man, composed of his past, his connections, his dreams, and his gift for enjoying life. As Amado says to us on the final page:

"Does truth lie in the everyday events, the daily incidents, in the pettiness and vulgarity most people's lives are composed of, or does the truth have its abode in the dream it is given us to dream to free our sad human condition?"


(Home Is the Sailor is out of print and best found in your local library or through used book sellers.)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL






Kabul Beauty School, Deborah Rodriguez, Random House, 2007, 278 pp



This was an interesting read. It was a reading group pick and sparked controversy in the group discussion as it did in the world.

Debbie Rodriguez is the daughter of a hairdresser from Holland, MI. I have spent some time in that town. My Top 40 cover band used to play at the Holiday Inn there in the early 1980s. The first wet burrito I ever ate was at a Mexican Restaurant in Holland. It is a small, mostly blue collar central Michigan town. Debbie is one of those women who do before they think and therefore get a lot done but lead volatile lives.

After a nasty divorce, she leaves her two sons with her mother, gets involved with an NGO and lands in Afghanistan. Within a year, she has a project of her own, backed by Vogue Magazine and Clairol, and starts the first Afghan beauty school in Kabul.

Over the next several years Debbie is either doing total immersion in Afghanistan culture, including marrying a man there, or she is back in the States seeing her sons and drumming up more financial backing for her school.

The book is fast-paced, anecdotal, and entertained me as I learned about the culture, the women, the marriage rites, and the unsettled life of that strange (by American standards) country. Compared to more serious books such as The Bookseller of Kabul or The Swallows of Kabul, Kabul Beauty School made me laugh as well as ponder how women will ever get rights or equality there.

When they do, it will be in part because of women like Rodriguez. She has been criticized both in America and Afghanistan and I don't know how a reader could know for sure if those criticisms are accurate. I believe her when she says that she fell in love with the country and its people. She comes across as having no other agenda than to make the lives of some women better by giving them a skill by which they could make a living. I believe that was her intention.

She made mistakes, she admits it, and finally left because of what she perceived as real threats from the Afghanistan government. I was struck by how much she accomplished precisely because she did not over think things. She just went ahead and got stuff done.

Friday, September 26, 2014

HEADS YOU LOSE






Heads You Lose, Lisa Lutz and David Hayward, G P Putnam's Sons, 2011, 301 pp



Here we have another example of how my reading groups lead me into books I would not otherwise read. This time it was pretty much a losing proposition.

The book started out OK with some laugh out loud humor. The two authors purport to be frenemies. They agree to write alternate chapters (kind of like AdLibs, only whole chapters) and write snarky notes to each other after the other one's chapter. The notes are included.

Story takes place in a very small town near Mt Shasta, CA. There is a murder but as it turns out there are several murders. A brother (who grows and sells pot) and a sister (who works at the local bar) try to solve the murders. The title comes from the fact that the first dead body is missing his head.

I liked some of the humor and Mt Shasta is one of my favorite locations, though some of my romantic notions about the area were thoroughly trashed. As murder mysteries go it wasn't the best I've ever read and the authorial smack down grew old pretty fast.
 
 
(Heads You Lose is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)



Sunday, September 21, 2014

STATION ELEVEN






Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel, Alfred A Knopf, 2014, 232 pp



When I saw the movie based on Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I decided not to read the book yet. It has been four years now and I still haven't read it though I am a fan of his writing. I read Station Eleven and realized that of all the post-apocalyptic novels out there, this is the one I wanted to read. It is The Road written by a woman.

In saying this I take nothing away from Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, because as far as I am concerned nothing can be taken away from those three novels. Atwood, as always, works on a larger canvas. Emily St John Mandel brings us the intimate details of small personal lives. 

I finished reading Station Eleven about three weeks ago and am slightly embarrassed to say that I don't remember what the title refers to. One of the reasons the book is not horrific is that the virus that obliterated over 90% of humanity was an incident from more than a decade earlier, but the characters are survivors of that pandemic and the setting is made up of the best of what's still around.

Most of the characters are members of a nomadic troupe of actors and musicians who call themselves the Traveling Symphony. If I were a post-apocalyptic survivor, I sure would not want to be stuck in some stinking community raising food and scavenging for whatever is left. I'd want to be roaming from settlement to settlement bringing the magic of theater and music to all the sad starving people.

I'd want my closest companions to be called "the second clarinet" and so on and I would be militant towards anyone who messed with my company. I would possess treasured secret memories of actors and musicians who brought salvation to audiences on any given night back when there was electricity, the internet, cell phones, fuel, hotels, abundant food but most of all art.

So it is for the actors and musicians of the Traveling Symphony. They have their memories which become part of the fabric of this tale. They have fierce loyalties to each other and a sense of purpose for their personal and collective existence. This novel is their story.

I have read and loved each of Emily St John Mandel's novels: Last Night in Montreal, The Singer's Gun, and The Lola Quartet. She is a magician who creates spells over her readers by means of characters, language, and a special understanding of all types of artists. She is a one woman trauma unit for victims of horrific events. I want her to have a long successful career as a novelist so I can read each book as it is published.

With Station Eleven she moved from the independent publisher Unbridled Books to the big time of Alfred A Knopf. That move is bringing her the increased recognition she deserves. Knopf better be good to her. I'm already miffed that her book tour does not include an appearance in Los Angeles. But I'm not too worried because a talent like hers could survive anything just as the main character of Station Eleven does.


(Station Eleven is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

THE CHRONICLE OF SECRET RIVEN




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The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Ronlyn Domingue, Atria Books, 2014, 385 pp



Book Two of The Keeper of Tales trilogy takes place 1000 years after The Mapmaker's War. Secret Riven is the daughter of an ambitious historian and a gifted translator. She is silent as a baby, toddler, and young child, not speaking until she is in second grade.

Her silence is only an outward manifestation of Secret's differences. She can communicate non-verbally with plants and animals. She also suffers from unsettling visions and dreams, many of which leave her either ill or in pain. Ronlyn Domingue has an exceptional ability to make you feel Secret's uniqueness and what it is like for her when she is too young to comprehend what is happening.

"Secret's whole body vibrated with the sound, her being a bell struck with full force. She felt suddenly heavy and strong, as if her body were no longer her own."

The novel's subtitle is An Account of What Preceded the Plague of Silences. Exactly true because the account of Secret's first seventeen years occasionally mentions this plague but by the end of the book the plague is still to come. It did not occur to me until just now that Secret will be especially suited to survive a plague of silences.

In such an eerie story, even more fairytale-like than The Mapmaker's War, every chapter is some degree of strange. A mysterious manuscript sent to Secret's mother to translate causes illness and terrible challenges for both of them. The mother is cold and distant toward her daughter but beloved by the father. A set of myths in an appendix explains the mystical history of Secret's country. She is led into a forest by a red squirrel where an old woman teaches her these myths and provides some much needed mother love. Whenever Secret returns from afternoons in the forest, no time has passed in her world.

The life of this unique and amazing girl is revealed chapter by chapter, year by year, as she grows. In fact, the format is similar to the way I am constructing my memoir. Both mine and Secret's birthdays are in late summer, shortly before a new school year begins, an uncanny coincidence for me.

The pace is slow and dreamy, now and then relieved by incidents between Riven and the country's Prince, who becomes one her best friends. Secret's oddness and psychical suffering are intense, her life unpredictable even as it follows the patterns of daily life, school, and yearly growth. Thus the book contains a never ending tension.

I was made part of this girl's life so deeply and intimately that when the book ended I felt adrift. The conflicts she carried with her for 18 years are by no means resolved. Obviously that will happen in the final volume, still being written according to a recent interview with Domingue, but due to be published next year.

I am fairly sure I will not forget anything about Secret Riven and when I start the next book, her story, her chronicle, will be right there.


(The Chronicle of Secret Riven is available in hardcover and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

THE STING OF THE DRONE






The Sting of the Drone, Richard A Clarke, Thomas Dunne Books, 2014, 292 pp



Oh, those reading group members! They get me to read books I would otherwise never pick up. Sometimes I even learn new things.

The Sting of the Drone is one of those right up to the moment thrillers written by an author with years of experience in the United States federal government, giving him loads of credibility. Certainly I have been aware of drones as bits of the news trickle into my consciousness. I am notoriously bad at keeping up with the news, mostly because much of it is bad and also because I find news reporting as a writing genre boring.

But put a current event or two into a novel, as long as the writing is passable, and now I'm happy to learn. Drones, what they can and cannot do, what the military are allowed and not allowed to do with them, what it is like to be a drone pilot: it is all fascinating. I am glad I read this book.

Now when I read in the news that the US could possibly take out the current ISIS leader with a drone instead of raining shock and awe on more Iraqi peoples, I get it. As to whether it is a "better" way to wage war, I am still thinking it over.


(The Sting of the Drone is available in hardcover and compact disc by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS






The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Jan-Philipp Sendker, Other Press, 2006, (translated from the German by Kevin Wiliarty, published in Germany in 2002), 238 pp.


This was a reading group pick. From the blurbs and reviews I saw I expected an overly sentimental love story. It is an unusual love story and is "poignant and inspirational" as the cover blurb says. In fact, it was way too sentimental for most of the reading group but not for me.

I guess I am a romantic. I do believe in love even though I have learned that love can bring more hurt and disappointment than anything else in life. I loved this book.

The love between the two main characters, a blind young man and a handicapped young woman, began in Burma in the 1950s when it was still called Burma. The two are separated by events beyond their control and the young man ends up in America living an entirely different life.

Years later the story of the two lovers is told by an elderly Burmese man who presents for a Western reader insight into the culture, beliefs, habits, and views about life in a remote village of this ancient society. The combination of the incredible connection between the lovers and their unique culture created a beautiful and moving tale. 

How good and deep and magical can true love be? This book told me how. I know it sounds corny but I feel I learned how to create a better love with my husband than I had before reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats.

Favorite quotes:
"Life is a gift full of riddles in which suffering and happiness are inextricably intertwined. Any attempt to have one without the other (is) simply bound to fail."
"...in some cases the smallest human unit was two rather than one."
 
 
(The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)