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New Beginning, Saramago

The Sunday Salon.com
seeingI finally put behind the year of 2008 in terms of reading. I under-estimated the time needed to finished the last book, which spilled into the new year and is counted for 2009 stats. This week has been devoted to composing year round up and new year resolution posts. Being a spontaneous reader, I don’t have a solid resolution as a reading plan:

Year in Review: Reading Wrap-Up
Bookish Resolution
Year in Review: Top Book-Related Posts

I opened the new book that I was supposed to begin on New Year’s Day. It’s a sequel to one of my all-time favorite novels. Four years after the plague that paralyzed the same unknown capital, on a rainy election day, practically no one goes to the polls until 4 in the afternoon. When the rain tapers off, everybody seems to arrive at once; when the ballots are counted, almost three-quarters turn up blank; after a week of governmental consternation, the elections are held again, on a perfect sunny day, and the results are actually worse — 83 percent of the voters have not marked their ballots. This communal exercise of what the narrator calls “the simple right not to follow any consensually established opinion” does not sit well with the authorities; one cabinet minister refers to the electoral blank-out as “a depth charge launched against the system.”

Reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Sunday Salon.com
pajamasLast week I attended a reading of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at a local bookstore. It is a 2006 novel by Irish novelist John Boyne. I have not read the book yet, but decided to go to the reader against my principle to see how parents receive the heavy subject matter on which the book focuses. Against the odd that boys usually don’t read as much as girls do, most of the kids who sat cross-legged and listened raptly the story to be told were preteen boys!

When Boyne finished his first draft, he gave it to his agent, saying, “I’ve written this book, it’s very different to anything I’ve done before. I think it may be a children’s book but I think adults might like it too.” The book is about a young boy, Bruno, the son of a Nazi commander general. From his bedroom window, Bruno spots a fence behind which he sees many people in ‘striped pyjamas’. These are Jews, and they are in a Nazi concentration camp.

I started reading it today but I have to wrap up Cutting for Stone and write a review for it. The 535-page novel is an epic that explores human connection and dignity of sickness. I strongly recommend the book, which gives a very graphic delineation of life and Enthiopia and the poverty-stricken neighborhoods in America. At some points it brings tears to my eyes when it muses on what physicians can really do for patients with terminal illness. “Words of comfort.”

In the next two weeks I plan to focus on reading two books for the Man Booker Prize Challenge. Forgive me if I’m a tad sluggish in returning your comments, as I’ll be hip deep grading final exams and papers. I also have to shop for the books that I have pledged for my high school holiday gift drive.

Reading Little Bee

Last call for the Books Giveaway to win the book of your choice by December 1.

The Sunday Salon.com

lbee“I was realizing, right there, that it was one thing to learn the Queen’s English from books and newspapers in my detention cell, and quite another thing to actually speak the language with the English.” [4]

The back of the ARC reads: “It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach is horrific…Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.”

This book rocks. Innovative, tantalizing, and addictive. No sooner had I opened to the first page was I completely taken into the world of Little Bee, the Nigerian refugee girl who spent two years in a detention center in Essex. But there is more to her story that the book will only unfold it at its own pace at the right time. She was one of the few surviving victims of a three-way oil war that annihilated her village.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) As for Little Bee (and some of us), it’s far better not to know the truth, to have that painful ruminations of what happened on the Nigerian beach deleted from her brain for good. It’s better to not be in the know unless you’re fully prepared to cope with it.It’s like a wife who finds out about her husband’s affair and she is not angry at the adultery but the cover story. More to come later, I have to sop up this book before the weekend is over.

The Sunday Salon: Cold Mountain

Enter the Books Giveaway to win the book of your choice by December 1.

The Sunday Salon.com

cold-mountainI woke up to a bright Sunday morning, to an invitation of late fall. There’s chill in the crisp air, a tell-tale sign that I might have to put away the shorts and warm-weather shirts for good this year. I should be en route to Taipei for a concert (birthday treat to myself) reading the second half of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. This book is endowed with a magical feeling to it. I’m mesmerized by the symbolic qualities of the landscapes of which the meaning I have yet to fully comprehend. The novel tells the story of W. P. Inman, a wounded deserter from the Confederate army near the end of the American Civil War who walks for months to return to Ada Monroe, the love of his life; the plot shares several similarities with Homer’s The Odyssey.

Let me share with you the story of my picking up the book. I have been dimly aware that I have overlooked this novel. At the bookstore, I picked up a copy of trade paperback and opened to a random page, it read:

“He rose from where he lay on the ground, and though perplexed as to how she came to be there he longed to hold her and went to do it, but three times as he reached his arms to her she fogged through them, vague and flickery and grey. The fourth time, though, she stood firm and substantial and he held her tight. He said, I’ve been coming for you on a hard road. I’m never letting you go. Never. … Inman was roused from sleep by the song of morning birds.” [131]

Reminiscent of Soul Mountain by Gao Xinjian, Cold Mountain delves on a landscape that beholds a hope. The mounatin somehow symbolizes a human spirit to be reborn. The elements of landscape are actually physically nuances of Inman and Ada’s spirits. The silhouette of the range, the features of the magnificent topography are simply tokens of some other world, some deeper life with a whole other existence toward which they ought aim their yearning. Although not a speed read, this is a book to be savored quietly, to be unfolded at its own pace. Review to follow around Thanksgiving.

The Sunday Salon: Café Comfort

The Sunday Salon.com
dogbabelI woke up to the warm clammy air that lingered on overnight. Sixty-five degrees at five-thirty in the morning. This is very unusual for San Francisco at this time for the year. The rain that poured down in sheets two weeks ago, the wetness that was tell-tale of winter’s onset, is no more. By seven-thirty, ensconced at my favorite corner table at the cafe, rays of sun tingled the back of my neck with an unusual fierceness—this was going to be a warm day. I kept my gaze focused on my new book, The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. As gurgle and sizzle of the expresso machine greeted the early birds, the cafe came to life. I lingered over my (first cup of) coffee for an hour, watching the sun shift across the cafe, illuminating each panel of window.

After the heavy reading about self-affirmation and religion that Jane Eyre has enlightened me, I have to read something lighter to ease up my mind. Although The Dogs of Babel does not fully qualify for a beach read, it’s a well-written story about recovering the loss of a spouse. When Linguist Paul Iverson found his wife dead in the backyard, fallen from the apple tree, he began a quest to solve the mystery of Lexy’s death with the help of the only witness: their dog, Lorelei, a Rhodesian Ridgeback.

Tender and down-to-earth, this novel reminds me of Enzo, the philosophical dog from The Art of Racing in the Rain except Lorelei doesn’t talk. Paul wishes. He contrives to coax words out of the canine in order to shed light on what really happened. The book also touches on the subject of dog mutilation that is reminiscent of Heart of a Dog but the extent with which this is explored is less daring and is more true-to-life. I can’t help thinking what my dog might tell me. He watches me, follows me and locks into my daily routine. What is he thinking? Does he feel comfortable at home? Does he like the park I take him to? Would dogs still be man’s best friend if they speak the common tongue?

“There is a kind of grieving that dogs do, a patient waiting for homecoming, a sniffing for a scent that is no longer there. Since Lexy died, I have often seen Lorelei sitting at the top of the basement stairs, listening for noises from the workshop below. This morning, I find her in the bedroom, sleeping stretched out on one of Lexy’s sweaters.” [63]

What are you reading this weekend?

Linked Short Stories

The Sunday Salon.com

I have repeatedly spoken about my not being well-read in short stories, which usually don’t leave a trail in my head and I need something more hearty and meaty like a long novel to nibble on. Alice Fulton’s collection of short fiction might remedy my deficiency. The 10 linked short stories in this collection track the lives of four generations of women from Troy, N.Y., where love comes to die. The first story begins in 1908, and subsequent stories are spaced approximately a decade apart, creating a colorful patchwork of the 20th century. She may be a poet of the higher realms but her prose in this book is muscular and brilliantly appropriate. Beautiful sentences, beautifully crafted, never get in the way of the story she is telling; they just make the reader’s experience richer and more satisfying. Some of the women she inhabits in telling their stories are bereft of humor, but when her character is a woman of wit, she is hilarious.

According to the New York Times, Fulton is an award-winning poet, so “it should come as no surprise that vivid descriptions abound.” If this collection is any indication, Fulton may be firmly establishing herself in a different genre. She once said she is drawn to the symbolic elements of a poem, how they act as a “pattern of lace held together by tiny joining threads.” Her prose, however, might be regarded as a tightly woven blanket. It’s exciting to watch Fulton as she finds the right threads with which to create nuanced fiction, firmly bound.

Some New Crushes

The Sunday Salon.com

Advance Reader’s Copy
Publication: March 1, 2009
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Told with great tenderness, My Abandonment is the story of 13-year-old Caroline and her father who have lived for four years on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, in a forested park. To avoid attention, which might risk their being discovered by the police, they have moved thrice and wear camouflage clothing. It’s a strange novel (based on a true story) that reads like an allegory.

“Our house is like a cave dug out with the roof made of branches and wire and metal with tarp and plastic on top of that and then the earth where everything is growing. Only Father and I see it’s a home.” [12]

Tuesday in Silhouette has posted a very thoughtful review of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, a what she calls a very Austenian book that reflects on the cold brutality of relationship in life. So can love and happiness really go together? Or what if your love for someone can’t translate into a lifelong bondage? Another one that catches my attention is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. This National Book Award-winning novel, set in final days of the Civil War, tells two parallel stories: that of Inman, a wounded soldier who is engaged in a Homeric journey to get back to his love Ada; and that of Ada, who is struggling to maintain her farm. The strength of this novel is Frazier’s prose, which recreates a time, place, and mood like few other novels set in the past.

Reading Salon: Booker Shortlist and Little Giant

The Sunday Salon.com

I have finished the review of The White Tiger but I have set my heart to read all five other books short-listed for this year’s Booker Prize to see how it measures up to the contenders.

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic) Winner
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)

I have enjoyed The Glass Palace and In an Antique Land so I will begin with Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppins. At the bookstore I purchased a copy of The Secret Scripture, which will be my last book for the Man Booker Reading Challenge. Meanwhile a stream of ARCs will be feeding my bookish appetite. Right off the bat is a novel that features local San Francisco author publicity. The debut novel will be published on Januray 8, 2009.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker is your typical Ugly Betty type of story, but with more consequence. When Truly Plaice’s mother was pregnant, the town of Aberdeen joined together in betting how recordbreakingly huge the baby boy would ultimately be. The girl who proved to be Truly paid the price of her enormity. Truly Plaise is born a giant. She is all about bumps and bulges, Her father blames her for her mother’s death in childbirth. The preacher’s wife believes she has got the making of Satan in her. The school teacher calls her a little giant. Her education is stalled before it even starts. While her remarkable size makes her the target of constant humiliation and curiosity, her sister Serena Jane is an epitome of feminine perfection. The book does not read like chick lit although the major characters are girls. Forty pages into this novel set in 1950s New England, I’m already in the thrall of this unique book endowed with a mesmerizing folkloric feel. Tiffany Baker’s writing is very lyrical.

By the way, I finally become a member of Goodreads! I have to search for my friends who are on it. Are you on Goodreads? Let’s take a head count.

Guernsey

The Sunday Salon.com

Guernsey is a British Crown dependency in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. Although the defence of all these islands is the responsibility of the United Kingdom, Guernsey is not part of the UK but rather a separate possession of the Crown, comparable to the Isle of Man. Guernsey is also not part of the European Union.

The Bailiwick of Guernsey was occupied by German troops in World War II. Before the occupation, many Guernsey children were evacuated to England to live with relatives or strangers during the war. Some children were never re-united with their families. During the occupation, some people from Guernsey were deported by the Germans to camps in the southwest of Germany, notably to Biberach an der Riß and interned in the Lindele Camp. This historical setting forms the backbone of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

“Of all the sights I saw the day they [the children] left, there is one picture I can’t get out of my mind. Two little girls, all dressed up in pink party dresses, stiff petticoats, shiny strap shoes—like their Ma thought they’d be going to a party. How cold they must have been crossing the Channel. [124]

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all. One day a member of the group, Adam Dawsey, found a book that belonged to Juliet Ashton, an author who pulls her wit’s end coming up with the subject on her next book. Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey—which is where I left off before having brunch. I plan to finish the book today in one sitting. Review saved for later.

The Sunday Salon: Brunch Club in Hong Kong

The Sunday Salon.comBefore catching the hydrofoil to Macau, the neighboring former Portuguese colony an hour away, I had a quick breakfast at The Brunch Club on Peel Street in Central. It’s really a neighborhood cafe and news-stand. I stumbled upon this cozy little place tugged in the little street that serves eggs, french toasts, benedict’s, omelets and other tasty fares. Lined on one wall is a rack full of magazines and newspapers. I browsed a couple issues of Cargo and Culture Hong Kong, along with the Sunday Post (South China Morning Post).

The place is quiet shortly after it opens the door at 8 in the morning. I take up the table next to the rack so the magazines are just stone’s throw away. I brought with me Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down, which I started at the gate in San Francisco. It’s not a difficult book to read but West’s poised writing style and sense of time certainly requires concentration. Much of the vital shift and revelations take place in dialogues. The famous conversation between an exiled count Nikolai and a stranger reactionary Chubinov spans over a hundred pages. The long-winded exchanges between the two interlocutors put the book on slow wheels but the information that is revealed renders the novel all the more intriguing. The premise and historical context might make this qualify for the Russian Reading Challenge, since the novel moves in the direction that will eventually lead to the Russian Revolution.