Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dolci From My Week #4

Sweet things from my week:

Traveler of the Century, short listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was mine for .25 cents at our library's Spring book sale on Friday...

the Easter basket I prepared for my son...

the Fannie May dark chocolate rabbit for myself...

the red Easter eggs my mother dyes in the Greek tradition...

the first daffodil of the season...

this verse, Mark 16:6-7, which marks the meaning of tomorrow for me.

Please share any 'dolci' from your week, I would love to read the things that made it sweeter! Happy Easter!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Thoughts...Beyond The Shadows

Photo credit here.

Every time I feel sad, I feel guilty.

I ought not to feel sad. I have so much.

I have a job, a career of almost thirty years, that used to mean everything to me.

I have a home from the early 1960's that could use repainting now, but it sits by the river giving me views I could never afford.

I have a loyal and true husband, and a son who is a Marine. Maybe he'll be deported someday.

These are riches, but they come with shadows. 

It's the same story; I look for perfection when it is not to be found. I look for assurance when there are no promises. I look for joy when sometimes there is too much disappointment.

"Into your hands I commit my spirit," He said. He knew that He must look beyond the circumstances and trust. Sometimes trust is the hardest thing.

But, it is the most necessary.

Monday, April 14, 2014

No, Seriously, It's Snowing (and a few thoughts on Atlas Shrugged)

I had to stop reading Atlas Shrugged for a minute to snap this picture outside of the window by my reading chair. Talk about déjà vu! Yet, in a way I still find it lovely, as long as we don't have a Snow Day tomorrow which will put us to June 10 as the last day of school.

So, I'm reading Ayn Rand. Again. Because I love her. The first time I read Atlas Shrugged I was seventeen, and I snagged my mother's copy from her book club. (No romance novels for that group, let me tell you!) I went right through it, and then on to The Fountainhead and finally Anthem.  

Parts of me are unable to accept some of the tenets in her Objectivism philosophy. The "money" as God thing doesn't cut it for me. Neither does extreme selfishness which excludes compassion for the truly weak.

But, when I get discouraged by the bureaucracy which surrounds me; the laws which seem to have no effect but to hinder excellence; the way my search to exceed what I know and do ends in no reward other than my own self-approval, I pick up Atlas Shrugged.

It comforts me. 

It reminds me that excellence is worthy, and more importantly, necessary. It reminds me that when I become the best teacher I can be, the students have the best learning. It reminds me that no matter what I do, be it teaching or reading or flipping a hamburger, I need to do it to the very best of my ability. Otherwise I am cheating myself, and thereby those who receive what I am offering.

Most days, I applaud Atlas for shrugging.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St. Exupery

I have read The Little Prince. I have read Night Flight. But this book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery unites them under the larger umbrella of flight. Of what it was, exactly, to be a pilot in the 1930s. I can scarcely imagine how a pilot can also be so skilled a writer. After two evenings, I am only on page 38 because I must stop and contemplate all the things he has to say.

On courage:

"You'll be bothered from time to time by storms, fog, snow. When you are, think of those who went through it before you, and say to yourself, 'What they could do, I can do.' "

On money:

"True riches cannot be bought. One cannot buy the friendship of a Mermoz, of a companion to whom one is bound forever by ordeals suffered in common. There is no buying the night flight with its hundred thousand stars, its serenity, its few hours of sovereignty. It is not money that can procure for us that new vision of the world won through hardship..."

On loneliness:

"When we exchange manly handshakes, compete in races, join together to save one of us who is in trouble, cry aloud for help in the hour of danger-only then do we learn that we are not alone on earth."

On fear:

"He knows that once men are caught up in an event they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man has faced the unknown, that terror becomes the known."

It is quite interesting to read this book on the heels of The Sorrow of Angels. Imagine two mail carriers, one from Iceland and the other from France, who face the elements with indomitable courage. I couldn't have planned a better pairing of novels if I'd tried.

More on this one, Wind, Sand and Stars, when I finish. Thanks to Therapy Through Tolstoy for the inspiration to pick it up.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Top Six for the IFFP (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) and the Conundrum Thereof

It was with great excitement and joy that the Shadow Jury for the IFFP, organized by Stu and Tony, read the list of fifteen books which were long listed on March 8. When we emailed one another our results, we all agreed that the top six should be as follows:
  • The Infatuations by Javier Marias
  • Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andrei Makine
  • The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson
  • The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke
  • A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon
Content with our decision, I went to bed on April 5 certain that the official short list would include several of the top books from our list. Surely, I thought, it will contain my personal favorite: The Sorrow of Angels.


The Independent Foreign Fiction prize short list included instead the following six:
  • The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim
  • A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli
  • The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke
  • Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami 
Now, I don't want to criticize the judges because who am I, but simply a life-long reader who is passionate about translated literature. I am not a broadcaster, an author, a lecturer, nor even a former stand-up comedienne. Note the judges below:
  •   Alev Adil, Artist in Residence, Principal Lecturer and Programme Leader for MA Creative Writing at the University of Greenwich
  •   British writer, broadcaster and former stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes
  •   Nadifa Mohamed, award-winning author
  •   Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer and Columnist, The Independent
  •   Literary translator Shaun Whiteside 

Perhaps it will become clear some day, to someone, just why these five judges chose the titles they did. Personally, I suspect that the reasons lie beyond literature and take on more of a political nature. Be that as it may, I can't suggest strongly enough that should you choose to read outstanding translated literature, you take as "must read titles" those from the Shadow Jury's list. Especially those in the top four slots. They will comprise some of my favorite reading of the year, of that I am certain.

My special thanks to Stu, Tony, Tony, Jacqui, and David for their thoughts and input on the IFFP long list. Thanks also to The Mookse and The Gripes for review links to the aforementioned books. I so look forward toward determining what we think should be the winning novel, to be announced May 22, 2014.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Silk Armor by Claire Sydenham (and Give-away)

"They were never supposed to go to university, Sevgi and Didem told me; universities were for men. Any father fool enough to let a daughter enroll deserved what the place made of her."

When we meet Claire and Victor they are at the train station in Turkey, preparing for the first leg of a journey which already seems fraught with despair. They do not know, exactly, what time the train will arrive. There are no seats available in the waiting room. Soldiers guard the entrance to ensure that everyone who comes into the station has a ticket. Then suddenly Victor stands up because Didem is waving to him outside the window. In the middle of the night. He runs to her, disregarding his duffel, as well as the fact that his ticket is with his colleague, Claire. And so the story begins, from somewhere near the end of it, first.

Sevgi and Didem are beautiful students at Anadolu University in Eskişehir. They long for more in their lives than to be simply a butcher's daughter or a female who must live under the constraints of a Muslim woman. Sevgi wears a veil, which covers her luxurious auburn hair; Didem is less conservative and, in the beginning, able to deceive her father. She tells him she is taking language lessons from Claire when actually she is sleeping with Victor, and from this duplicity their story unfolds. 

It is a story involving the girls, their teachers, their families, and even a Turkish young man. It is a complicated story of kismet (fate) which could be deacribed as simply the end result of the choices that we make.

While I was caught up in their story, in the way that life is so very complicated especially when we exercise our own will or desires, the part that especially struck me is the meaning behind the title. I have always wondered why it is that women will submit to wearing a veil, thereby abandoning not only their individuality but their beauty. What Didem explains, in a letter to Claire, makes clear to me that sometimes women choose to wear a veil for themselves. That sometimes having an armor, even if it is merely of silk, is a good and necessary thing.

"So I need to say: I did this myself. For myself. I put on the veil not to remind other people of who I am but to remind myself. This is important. I need it the way near-sighted people need glasses. To compensate for a weakness. It's through the veil the world comes into focus for me. Men on the street don't look at me as if they want to devour me anymore. And so I don't think of them that way anymore. I think of them the way I should. The veil helps me to see what is good in them."

This fascinating novel took me to Turkey. It showed me the lives of American teachers abroad, the lives of young and lovely Turkish girls, the strictness of their environment, and how our expectations and dreams can be thwarted by our desires. No matter from which country we call home.

The publisher of Silk Armor is offering a give-away of the novel (U.S. only, please). You may choose an edition for the Kindle or a paperback copy. Simply leave your name and email in a comment below to be considered for the drawing. 

Dolci From Week #3

Sweet things from my week:

Because I love the streets of Chicago with interesting embellishments and bicycles to rent...

Because my mother took me to the Langham Hotel for a proper tea which was absolutely delightful. From the savory finger sandwiches...

to the raisin scones served with clotted cream...

to the pastry plate which included a lavender eclair, an orange tart, and a green apple/boysenberry mousse. Merci boucoup, Maman!

Because even though he's blurry, while the background is clear, I do love chocolate rabbits.

I hope that you have things which made your week sweeter, that you'll put them in a post for us all to see, and feel free to link to it here:

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson

The novel is described as depicting the struggle between man and nature. And, it is that. But, it is also about the struggle between man and himself, the way we wrestle with who we are, and really, is there any honorable thing inside of us that we can hang on to? It is one of the most important books I've read all year. 

I am incredibly moved by the writing. 

I am incredibly moved by the relationship between the postman and the boy, whom he accuses of talking too much, when the man speaks little if at all.

He is too busy with his thoughts, with his intention to survive the snow covered mountains of Iceland and his intention to figure out who he is. What he'll do with the woman he'd die for, if only his body wouldn't betray him. 

We challenge ourselves against so many things that seem intent to get us down: cruel weather, life's monotony, the fear of what we are against, or what we might become if left unchecked. 

The Sorrow of Angels closes with Jens, the postman, and the boy flung headlong into space as they traverse back down the mountain. They have had to leave their important task behind, a dead woman whom they are transporting to consecrated ground, and we know not what will happen to them as we turn the last page. 

But, we are secure in knowing that they have each other. They have a dauntless spirit. And they have what they learned while carrying the post to the southernmost tip of Iceland.

This is a book I will never forget. I loved it with all my heart.

Find Tony's review here.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Secret Garden at Macy's on State Street

When I was a little girl, going to Marshall Field's on State Street was a destination place. Countless floors of dresses, accessories, furniture, children's clothing, shoes and cosmetics could "give the lady what she wants" as Marshall Field himself directed.

It was a sad day for Chicagoans when Field's sold out to Macy's. Until yesterday there had been no reason for us to go to this glorified Target to purchase something and bring it home in a white plastic bag with a red emblem on it.

However, the floor filled with an interpretation of The Secret Garden let this multi-storeyed building once again take my breath.

Notice me waving to you from the top of a fountain in the opening chalk drawing, a delightful optical illusion.

A Bartlett Pear tree...

The door...

An upside down tree...

Fantastical shrubbery flowers...

A fountain before the Japanese interpretation...

A bonsai on a table...

A lady in red...

There are many more, but the post can only be so long. If you are able to visit Macy's in Chicago, The Secret Garden will be there through Sunday, April 6.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Iraqi Christ: A Guest Post from Fellow Shadow Jury Member, Jacqui

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

I’ve been reading this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list (along with a group of book bloggers chaired by Stu) and Bellezza has kindly invited me to share my thoughts on one of the long listed titles.

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, is published in the UK by Comma PressThis collection of fourteen short stories gives us a striking insight into the traumas and turmoil that penetrate the lives of Iraqis. Instances of violence, slaughter and torture are commonplace and these stories are peppered with searing images:

I heard what you wrote yesterday. How the first explosion shredded Marwan’s face. The windows shattered and the cupboards fell on top of him. His mouth filled with blood. (pg. 57)

Characters are often trying to erase or contend with painful memories of past events. Blasim draws on fablesdreams and metaphors to great effect here, mixing the surreal with thetangible to illustrate the nightmares that haunt these people as they go about their lives:

The trees sprouted out of the ground, then spread and grew within minutes to a height of more than a hundred feet. They were born dead, without leaves, and their thin branches were entangled like broken cobwebs. Every tree killed the ground for half a mile around it in a circle. The soil turned to rock and no form of life survived. It was a disaster. (pg. 105)

The Iraqi Christ is a powerful and vivid set of stories. I particularly liked the mix of abstract and realist elements, especially in ‘The Hole’ and A Wolf’ (two of the strongest stories in this book). In ‘The Hole’we meet a man on the run from two gunmen. Our man drops into a hole in which he finds djinni and the body of Russian soldier from anotherwar. The story has a hallucinatory quality to it, as does AWolf’ in which the lines between reality and imaginary horrors start to blur:

I was on my way to the bathroom when I saw the thing running towards me from the sitting room. I jumped into the bathroom and slammed the door behind me. I was likesomeone who’d seen the Angel of Death. It was a wolf. A wolf, I swear. (pg. 46)

Blasim’s collection of stories certainly deserves its place in the IFFP long list, but I don’t think it’s quite up there with some of the other contenders for this year’s prize (and it’s a strong field this time). The stories vary in their approach and tone; some of the tighter, more focused narratives worked particularly well for me, while others I found a little meandering at times. At one point, a character says:

‘But we’ve strayed from the subject. Is my chatter making you dizzy?’ (pg. 50)

Yes, perhaps just a little. And yet, like many of the books I’ve read from the IFFP long list, this one took me to a different place, another world.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dolci From My Week #2

Because while I love a red lip, it's important to keep the eye neutral (lest I resemble someone from The Crimson Petal And The White)...

Because on my favorite sofa cushion, she reminds me of The Princess and The Pea...

Because the arrival of The Sorrow of Angels, from a book shop in England, came earlier than I expected, and now I have time to read it before the IFFP short list is announced...

Because I sat next to my husband for a two hour performance of Bill Cosby, who at 76 is still as witty as ever. (My brother and I would listen to his album, to Russell, my brother whom I slept with until we could recite it verbatim; usually in car trips with our parents.)

May you find many opportunities to laugh this week. And, if you care to share any sweetness from your week I would love to read it. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ten by Andrej Longo

I tend to glorify Italy. To out it in a realm of my understanding which includes gelato, lilting language, cobblestone streets, and apartments stacked against each other in which I secretly long to dwell. I imagine a Naples something like this:

rather than the one which inhabits the pages of Andrej Longo's Ten.

The book is a series of interlinked stories looking at the "underbelly of Naples", stories which make me react in an almost visceral way. The sentences are powerful and short, as if they'd been punched onto the paper before they punch into your heart. They are not filled with fancy turns of phrase, but more closely resemble what I think Hemingway meant when he said he wanted to write "just one true sentence" by the end of the day.

Interestingly enough, with such dark themes as crime and corruption, the Mafia and murder, the titles of these stories reflect the Ten Commandments. The reader is faced with beginning a chapter entitled something like, "I Am The Lord Thy God, Thou Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me" and equating it with a Mafia godfather to whom people must turn for safety. The irony is quite compelling.

This collection is part of the IFFP's long list for 2014. It will most certainly make my personal short list. Like Sylvia Avallone's prize winning novel, Swimming to Elba, I could get enough of Andrej Longo's prose.