Friday, May 28, 2010

Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Kidd Taylor (2009)

Subtitle: A Mother-Daughter Story. Since I loved Sue Monk Kidd's A Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid's Tale, I picked this up, which turns out to be a highly introspective non-fiction book by Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter. Sue is going through menopause (I can relate) and thinking about writing a novel instead of just non-fiction. Ann has just graduated from college, hasn't been accepted in the Antiquities grad program, and is searching for herself at that stage. They take a series of trips together to Greece and France, both journaling along the way, and then some years later they compiled this mother-daughter story. Very compelling, very my kind of spiritual, and as a bonus we learn about where she got the ideas for A Secret Life of Bees

I was listening to this book and often realized that this kind of deep contemplation was not suited to short stints on the road. This is a book I will have to reread by actually holding it in my hands. But I also need to purchase a copy and send it to a friend in Latvia.

Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme & Oliver Tallec (2009)

Just picked up a colorful children's book off a library cart. Big wolf lives alone under a big tree. A little blue wolf comes along, and big wolf reluctantly shares his space and food. I didn't know where this was going. Then little wolf goes away and big wolf discovers he is lonely. I realized this little book is completely hitting home for me. With my son graduating and leaving home soon, I realize that I will be lonely. Though we both have been looking forward to this change, I think there will also be a lot of emptiness.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Usborne Book of Castles by Lesley Sims (2002)

So I go through the exhibits at the Medieval Congress at Western Michigan, one of the few things that the university is known for internationally, and do I pick up one of the many wonderful scholarly works on the Middle Ages? No, I pick up a kid's book on castles. One of those complex, highly illustrated kid's books that explains a topic by breaking it down into parts and explaining those parts with some text, lots of drawings, photos, plans, side-bars, etc. This one even offers links off of an internet site for the book for more things to look at, and provides downloadable pictures for kids to put into reports. I liked the illustrations from medieval manuscripts, stained glass and other art of the times.

I am fascinated by castles and cathedrals, these large architectural structures built in an age that seems quite primitive to me, but obviously there were many skilled minds and hands back then. This book looks at castles from the early wood castles to the stone and brick ones, mostly from AD950 to 1500. Castles lost their purpose when warfare and political and social structures changed. Many were abandoned and were dismantled or became ruins. There were a couple of more periods in history where castles were built, including romantic castles of the 19th century. Though we have a lot of mansions still being built today, I don't know if any recent architecture could be considered a castle.

Though I know quite a bit about castles and the  lives within - from the many mostly fiction books I have read (all those fantasy books set in alternate medieval times), movies (Lord of the Rings comes to mind), and castles I have visited, this book pulled things together for me and filled in various gaps.  So here are some of the things I learned: I hadn't thought of the layout of rooms in castles and that in the beginning the living space was not very comfortable, but at some point they started focusing more on comfort. I didn't realize the great hall also functioned as a dorm or that when lords moved from castle to castle, they moved everything including furniture and most of the staff. I don't think I ever thought about what it entailed to feed a whole castle full of people. The hierarchy of people (and even birds of prey they were allowed to use for hunting) was neatly delineated, like steward- bailiff - reeve. I got an explanation of why there is a fence between jousters (so the knight knocked off his horse would not be trampled.) Before tournaments were developed they had melees, a free for all with lots of injuries and deaths. I didn't realize there were different types of horses in those days. I liked that the book mentioned castles in Japan and the Middle East too.

I learned some new terms and the origin of words like heraldry, undermine, holiday, villain. I had somehow missed out on terms like fletchers, who fixed feathers to arrows. (I always wondered where they got so many arrows in movies, like Legolas in Lord of the Rings, when he said he had killed huge numbers.) I didn't know falcons lived in mews.

I kept wondering throughout the book how the castles and life described fit into Latvian history. I was taught about the early wooden castles, and know the Latvian countryside is strewn with castles. The book points to only one in Latvia - Rigas pils (built 1340, rebuilt 1515). This is currently the residence of the president of Latvia. Some of the castles in Latvia are ruins, but others still function. My favorite castle in Cesvaine was built in the 1890's as a hunting lodge, so that fits in with the romantic castles built in a later age. I couldn't resist and just looked up Latvian castles and found a map of medieval castles in Latvia.They had identified 17 standing castles, 52 ruins, and 39 places where castles had stood. I have visited at least 10 of these. I would also like to see a Latvian version of the hierarchies of people. I am not ashamed to admit I like kids books.

Lessons Learned by Nora Roberts (1986)

I haven't read a Nora Roberts in three months. She will have written five more books in this time and reissued ten others. I will never catch up - and I don't really plan to either, this is just fluff between more valuable readings.

This is definitely a 1980's book, where the man character Juliet keeps referring to herself as an 80's woman, bent on making a career, no room for a man in her life, etc. (Also, no cell phones or Internet.) She is a publicist for a publisher and has to take the gorgeous Italian chef Carlo Fanconi around the US on a book tour. Again, a glimpse into two careers - the grueling pace of book tours and a bit about being a chef.  Juliet was a bit whiny for my taste, Carlo too unbelievably perfect - sensitive, romantic, heart of gold, etc. but this is a Silhouette romance which tend to be like this. 

When I grasped the situation - career woman in New York with man deeply rooted in Italy, I was afraid that it would end up like the Trigiani book Brava Valentina, where the author doesn't address the huge geographic distance between the couple. Roberts does acknowledge the issue and plants a few seeds throughout the book, so that it doesn't sound implausible at the end that the couple does find a way to bridge the gap.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Tsar's Dwarf by Peter H. Fogtdal (2006, trans. 2008)

I met the author at the banquet of the Baltic and Scandinavian studies conference in Seattle. When I found out he was a Danish novelist, I told him I had been reading some Swedish authors and what would he suggest I read from the Danes. Well, he had one of his novels translated into English - this one, and he and his companion suggested a couple more, which I hope to review as soon as I read them. We had all of them in our library.

Fogtdal explained that he was fascinated by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great who he considered a psychopath. One of Peter's eccentricities was that he collected dwarfs, had a special house outfitted for them, and had forced many of them to marry each other. In his author's note Fogtdal explains that he had started a book just about Peter the Great and gotten bogged down, but when he thought of telling the story from the point of view of a dwarf, it all fell into place.

Sorine is gifted by the Danish king Frederick to Peter the Great, when he is visiting Denmark, planning military cooperation. She is saucy and intelligent, but the life of a dwarf is difficult. People constantly are laughing at her and treat dwarves as playthings, tossing them about, expecting them to be entertaining. It is a miracle that some of them found ways to be funny, learned songs and dances, but maybe it was just a mechanism for survival. Sorine (renamed Surinka for the Russians) doesn't believe in a God that would give her this fate.

Surinka gives us a glimpse into history, as she travels from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg, spends time in a monastery, in the Tsar's Curiosity Cabinet (museum including live human specimens), and with a Polish wine merchant's family. I am definitely intrigued enough to want to read more about Peter. I do remember him as one of the fascinating characters from history, who built St. Petersburg on a swamp. He influenced Latvian history too, but I no longer recollect how.

Fogtdal's book felt somehow different from an American novel, like European films feel different from American ones. They seem to show more of life's tragedies, and tend to look deeper into people's souls. Though faced with atrocities, poverty, and humiliation, the spirit of the dwarf makes it through and makes my difficulties in life seem trivial.

Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau (2008)

Somehow I had missed this fourth book of the City of Ember series that my son and I enjoyed so much. Actually, we were very disappointed in the third book, which went back and explained how the underground city of Ember had been created, but this book didn't have half the energy and interesting twists we found in the first two books, so I think we gave up. Then the other day I saw this in the audio book shop and it looked like it picked up where the second book left off - and again it was wonderful.

Lina and Doon are two twelve year olds who discovered the secret of the City of Ember and brought the people out of the city into the devastated, but now recovering world. The people of Ember have settled in the town of Sparks, a long day's walk from the cave where they had lived for quite a few generations. They now have to face the elements of changing seasons, without the luxuries of electricity or running water, and they have to grow their own food - wheras in Ember they mostly survived on canned goods and some greenhouse grown foods.

Life is hard in Sparks and when Doon's father gets injured, and he buys a partial book from a traveling vendor, he starts thinking that it may be useful to return to Ember to see if anything of value could be salvaged, especially food and medicine. This leads to an extended adventure that I think would thrill most middle school readers. They end up finding something else that the elders left for the people of Ember to find and help rebuild their civilization. I love the importance of books and the struggle to prove to others that all those squiggly lines could be of some use in a fairly harsh world. That the knowledge of others can be recorded and used by future generations. I have a few quibbles with the logic of the book - why can't they continue to go back to Ember to salvage various goods and even appliances and technology that have been lost in the outside world, but mostly it works.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes (2010)

Set in Dublin, Ireland, read with an Irish accent that took a bit of getting used to, and narrated by this unknown spirit, that floats through walls, sees inside people's hearts and sees when they beat in sync. We get the stories from four flats at 66 Star Street - Katie, the one who just turned 40 and works PR with rock stars and her boyfriend Conall, a brilliant, overly busy business shark that reorganizes bought up companies. Andrei and Jan, two poles working in Ireland, who have rented the small third room to feisty Lydia, who drives a taxi and worries about her aging mother. 88 year old Jemima, who has psychic powers and her foster son Fionn, who has just gotten a job filming a gardening show. And on the lower level, Maeve and Matt, a seemingly perfect young married couple. As their lives intertwine and face various hardships and tragedies, we get to know about their lives, their pasts, their concerns, and they all grow on you.

The narrator is a bit disconcerting, as we are not sure if it is death or some more benevolent spirit. And the countdown of days from 60 something, but it all makes sense in the end. I mostly enjoyed the Irish voice of the book, and I grew to care for all the characters.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham (1937)

Given to me by my good friend Sniedze, written by one of my aunt's favorite authors. I think the only other thing I have read by Maugham was Razor's Edge. Since I love theater, I enjoy reading about it too. Julia is an aging actress that is very good at observing people and then bringing those observations to the stage. The only problem is, that she continues various roles in her life off stage and has lost a sense of who she really is. Her husband Michael, turns out to be a better manager than actor and manages the theater. Julia takes on a young lover, but this is all just the outer trappings. Maugham is brilliant in showing us the inner thoughts and lives of these people - mostly Julia. Will have to read more Maugham.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave (2008)

I had a couple of hours to kill in the Minneapolis airport, so I hung out in the bookstore. It was fun seeing how many of the books I had already read, but then there was a knowledgeable sales clerk, who made some recommendations based on what I have liked before. This was one of the books she suggested.

This is an incredibly moving book, though very disconcerting. One more of the world's tragedies is presented. Little Bee is a Nigerian girl who lands in an immigration detention center in England. She looks up the only people she know in England and a relationship ensues. Little Bee is an amazing character. Her home world is in turmoil, with the oil companies destroying villages and the people that live in them. England is not open to asylum seekers. But Little Bee survives, with tenacity and a deep intelligence. She learns English from the papers, though makes some foux pas.

Sarah and Andrew are reporters, he is a serious investigative journalist, she manages a fluff woman's magazine to which she tries to bring some serious articles. They have a son Charlie, who will only answer to Batman and constantly wears a Batman outfit. My child too went through that phase, and I had a black hand towel pinned to a black turtleneck that was one of his favorite thing to wear.

A book to pass on to friends that care about injustice in the world.