Friday, April 18, 2008

Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga (1989)

Another good novel about books, suggested by a friend. I was well into it when it started sounding familiar and I realized I had read this book some time ago, but before I started keeping a blog of what I've read. This time it is Margot, who works in preservation at the Newberry Library, who goes off to Florence in 1966 to help them recover from a flood that damaged much of their art and their books. She ends up spending much of her time in the library of a convent. I have come up against the same theme in two books concurrently, where the convent is considered a good place for women to hide from disagreeable marriages. Here they actually can get research done on behalf of women, and a big motivator in the book is to keep the convent independent and away from the control of the bishops. In this convent library they find the "sixteen pleasures" a Renaissance Kama Sutra. I loved to read about the efforts made to save books and art and the details of restoration. I liked Margot's ties to Italy - she had come there with her mother, an art teacher, and later returned to graduate high school with her class, so she had the language, and was drawn to the place where she was so happy with her mother, who has since died.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Bridge to the Stars by Henning Mankell (1990, trans. 2005)

I decided to start with a young adult book from Mankell, a famous Swedish writer. Joel is 11 years old and lives with his father in northern Sweden, his mother has abandoned them, and the dad is reluctant to talk about it. Definitely a big issue, especially at this age. Joel starts sneaking out at night to follow a dog he thinks he has seen. I am not sure of the importance of the dog, but it seems to be the thing that motivates him to keep going out at night. When the father starts spending time with a local waitress, Joel is understandable jealous, but it is interesting how it all is played out. I think Mankell hit on some very real pre-teen emotions, but I would be interested in hearing how American kids like this book, as the pace seemed slow.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Naked in Death by J.D. Robb (1995)

Always a good one to keep me awake while driving long trips, I decided to start at the beginning with Lt. Eve Dallas' adventures. I was surprised that Roarke, her rich love interest shows up in the very first book. But then again Nora Roberts couldn't write a book without a few steamy sex scenes. Just interesting in how they met. I still wonder why I don't tire of these formulaic books - three murders, last scene with Eve being attacked by the murderer, city politics. But I like her characters, and many of them like Mavis and Feeney stick with her throughout her books.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

I don't think I will ever tire of reading good novels about books. Here's another. The main story that ties all the other together is about Hanna, a rare book preservationist, who gets the opportunity to examine and stabilize a 500 year old book, a Jewish Haggadah in Sarajeva. She finds small anomalies and things in the book that lead us to stories about the books travels over the years and through southern Europe. Each story is a heart wrenching one of the Jewish plight over the centuries.

The butterfly wing led to the story of how the book was saved during World War II and the harrowing destruction of the Jews by the Nazis. It also gives us a glimpse of Tito in his youth.

Each of these flash-backs into history not only tells the immediate story of the book itself, but gives a broad brush illustration of numerous people's lives - their lives, sorrows, families, lovers, castes, religious groups, which all end up affecting the fate of the book. For a while I couldn't understand what a doctor in Vienna in 1894, who discreetly treated STD's, had to do with the Haggedah. It turns out one of his patients was the one to rebind the Haggedah, and his illness influenced how he did that.

The wine stain leads to a priest, who worked as one of the main censors in Venice of 1609.

The minuscule crystals of sea salt lead to the story of the books creation in Spain of 1492, during the times of the Spanish inquisition and when all Jews were expelled from Spain.

The hair leads to the story of the creation of the illustrations, another very interesting peek into the history of Spain. May be another topic worth exploring. I now I've been fascinated by the story of the Moors in Spain, but I didn't realize what an interesting combination of Christians, Muslim and Jews have created Spanish history. One of the quotes I liked in this book was that the Christians made war, the Muslims build buildings and the Jews raised the funds. I still don't understand how Spain got to be such a huge empire. (Some of the other books I have read about Spain: The Spanish Bow, Zorro, Constant Princess (Katharine of Aragon was from Spain), and I am sure there are others.)

Some parts were hard to listen to - the torture, the killing, exile, etc. But then I had a sense of being privileged to get a glimpse of "what really happened" to the book, while the main character Hanna, just had a crumb of that history - the book had been in such and such a place because that is where this type of butterfly lives. I plan on buying this book for friends.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Bill Bergson, Master Detective by Astrid Lindgren (1946, trans. 1952)

I have read a lot of Astrid Lindren's books in my day, as many of her books were translated into Latvian from Swedish, and provided Latvian kids with exciting adventures rarely found in kids books by Latvian authors. My favorite character was Pippi Longstocking. After reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, where the main character is compared to Lindgren's masterdetective Kalle Blomkvist, I had to find this book.

Though tame by today's standards, Lindgren still weaves a good tale of a curious boy (with his name Americanized to Bill Bergson), a bit bored on summer vacation, looking for suspicious characters. He finds one in the neighbor's Uncle Einar. Playing detective he get his friends Anders and Eva-Lotta into serious trouble, but you know they get the crooks in the end.

Reading these translations, I keep wondering about the choices translators make. Why change Kalle Blomkvist to Bill Bergson. Is Blomkvist too foreign a name, but Bergson a Swedish name that English and American kids could handle? In my present state of wanting everyone to become more familiar with other countries and cultures, I would hope that original names would be retained.

Of course I had to check out Lindgren in our literary resources, and found that she was amazingly prolific, having written over 70 books between 1944 and 1997. She died in 2002. Many have been produced into movies. Pippi has been so popular, that her books have
been translated into more than sixty languages from Arabic to Zulu. Turns out Pippi was a character that Lindren invented when telling stories to her daughter. When first published, readers loved it, educators were critical about this free spirited girl who didn't care much for authority. Early feminists were influenced by reading about Pippi, seeing new possibilities. Lindgren was also trying to provide non-violent reading for kids. No wonder she is considered a national treasure or "premier export product" according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography.