What I read in April

The River Where Blood is Born by Sandra Jackson-Opoku – this is a multi-generational book, complete with gods and tricksters looking on. Much like some of my favorite Alice Walker (yes, this one starts in Africa as well). This will get a full review soon.

Best European Ficition 2010, which I reviewed for BookBrowse.com (I did like it, despite my avoidance maneuvers).

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon– this book was recently returned to me from a friend who had borrowed it. A novella of Sherlock Holmes’s final investigation. Chabon never disappoints, and I don’t even like Sherlock Holmes.

Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean – the story of a woman who survived some of WWII by living (with the rest of the employees & their families) in a museum in the USSR. The story bounces back and forth between her current life in the U.S. Pacific NW – while she is suffering from Alzheimer’s – and her memories of that war-torn winter in… Leningrad, naturally. Lots of interesting questions about memory and what is real, and the power of the human spirit to survive just about anything, and the way myth and art assist in that survival.

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme– I read this because I loved the Julia Child portions of the Julie & Julia film, and this book did not disappoint. The film clearly captured her exuberance and passion for food, France and her husband that shines through this book. Takes us from their arrival in France through the second edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the creation of her television show. Co-written by Child and her grand-nephew.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong– which I reviewed here.

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman. This is the story of an Indian girl…. that I didn’t finish. I got through maybe two chapters, and it just wasn’t working for me. I don’t entirely blame the book – the character was mildly interesting up to the point where I stopped reading. But it was not capturing my interests enough to hang onto it (this was about the time I started reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, so I blame him at least partially for my distraction).  It was a library book, so I returned it without finishing it.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman.  This is the book I read instead of A Disobedient Girl. Neil was blogging about the audio book or something, so I had to go re-read my copy. Pratchett is a witty, fantastically funny author, and I’ve already told you how much I adore Gaiman. I remember finding this book and being thrilled – I’d only read Neverwhere by Gaiman at that point, but I’d read at least half dozen Pratchett Discworld books (Small Gods was my favorite at that point, and still in the top three) and was excited to see the two of them together. My only complaint in this otherwise hilarious comic romp through the apocalypse is the rather anticlimactic ending. Funny, funny, funny book. I can remember feeling compelled to read parts of it to friends because I needed them to know that I wasn’t imagining things, it really was that crazy.


Looks like I only finished seven books in April.  Seems like a slow month (especially since I’ve already read eight in May, and it’s only the 19th). What was I doing? Oh right, I was avoiding Best European Fiction 2010. Also, I read a year’s worth of Neil Gaiman’s blog. I’m not proud of it, but it does indicate how much free time I had on my hands.

pasta, meditation, nookie

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert was a huge bestseller a few years ago. Everyone seemed to be reading it or talking about it. By everyone, of course, I mean people who read. Not really everyone, since there are people who don’t read. Not that they can’t, you understand. They just don’t. Truly. They are out there.

Because of this hoopla, I didn’t read it. Too many people gushing about how it was wonderful/life-affirming/mind-altering blah blah blah.

Not that it didn’t look like a good book, you understand. I just didn’t want to be a part of the crowd, following blindly behind whoever was telling me it was a ‘must-read’.  (I hear some of you laughing at my predictable reaction – stop that!).

Not that I never intended to read it, I just wasn’t going out of my way. I mean, the story of a woman who tries to find spiritual happiness by travelling the world and eating lots of pasta (among other things) – it sounds like a book I would chose to read. So, now that the furor has died – and it was on the sale rack at a certain fantastic local bookstore – I picked it up.

There are a hundred reviews out there to tell you who, what and where, and probably how fantastic/trite/incredible/mind-numbing it is.  But here’s why I liked it:

It reads like a memoir, the retelling of an interesting year in the life of Elizabeth Gilbert. I love memoirs.

It’s written by a master observer of the human race, who is fearless in revealing her own failures while refusing to go for the easy shocking-anecdote.

It emphasizes the spiritual exploration as a personal journey, not a beaten path.  Even if you believe (for instance) that Jesus Christ is the only path to God and salvation, you cannot argue that everyone finds/invests/believes/comes to that truth in a very particular and individual way.

It contains the perfect explanation of how I often see the world that I’d never articulated before. Gilbert talks about the differences between her and her sister, and while her sister is a master of detail, she is always only interested in the story of a person, place or thing.  So – like me – she wouldn’t notice that maybe her bathroom contains 6 different colors, none of which really go together. So, while I’ll probably notice if the bathroom is decorated nicely vs. not, it won’t occur to me that it matters. I only notice if – for instance – all the sinks are hand-painted porcelain and the bathroom stalls are labeled with the names of poker hands (royal flush, full house, etc.. Real Example) – then I’ll want to know the story of why they did that. And if it’s a good story, I’ll never forget it.

It does not try to tell you that you can revamp your whole world in one year, as long as you do this, that, and the other. The book covers a particular year in Gilbert’s life, but she was laying the foundation for her experiences for years before she embarked on this adventure. And she’d done many things to heal after her painful divorce, each of which helped her get to the place where she was ready to jump in with both feet like she did.  There are no quick fixes, there is no perfect answer. Pertinent quote:

You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.

She’s not blind to the instances where what she experienced sounds like a cliché, but neither does she shy away from it. Rather, she treats it with both seriousness and humor.

I wish half the things I’ve read about improving your life and finding happiness were so credible and entertaining.

A few words about a few books

These are all books by authors I’ve previously reviewed and loved and gushed on and on about, so I thought I’d spare us all the embarrassment and just give you a quick blurb, in case you are also a crazy fan person.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is another great read by David Sedaris, who rants about his technoloathing (not technophobia for him, no sir), bemoans his ability to communicate in French (hence the title) and cracks wise about the death of pets and parents.  I’ve waxed poetic about my love for Sedaris before, so I’ll just say he continues to satisfy my every snarky impulse.

Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands is a collection of essays by Michael Chabon that were originally printed in such places as The Washington Post  Book World, New York Review of Books and Architectural Digest (yes, really). His non-fiction is as precise and entertaining as his fiction writing, and he likes some of the same people I do (Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, comic books), so I’ve forgiven him for Sherlock Holmes.  Worth every penny of the $8 I spent at the Powell’s sale rack (and probably more).

Gentleman and Players is another winner by Joanne Harris. The story of an all-boys school in modern-day England, it explores the pain of growing up, the role of teachers in our lives, and the relentless march of time vs. the proud traditions of the past.  Not as powerful as Blackberry Wine or Holy Fools, but a great read.

Animal Vegetable Miracle is the family memoir of a year spent trying to eat local. Barbara Kingsolver, along with her husband and two daughters, commit to a full year of trying to grow as much of their own food as possible, buy food from no farther than an hour from their home (in the southern Appalachians), and try to live a life-less-damaging (to the planet). The book includes recipes as well as essays on some of the statistics behind commercial food production and what-not, but is mostly the journal of a fabulous writer who happens to be trying something difficult and important. I’ve yet to read a book by this woman that didn’t impress me. It makes me happy that there are people like her sharing the planet with me.

a review and some ranting

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong is a sad story. It is billed as the first novel from Viet Nam ever published in the U.S., as well as a book banned within Viet Nam. It shows the world what was going on in Northern Viet Nam right after the western empires pulled out in the mid-1970s.

The story focuses on Hang, a girl who lost her father and is being raised by her poor, single mother. Their struggle is mostly due to an uncle’s power-brokering for the brand-new Communist Party in recently segregated Viet Nam. This uncle chased off the father, only shows up when he needs something from his sister, and contributes absolutely nothing to their household, which is barely scraping by. When Hang’s aunt (on her father’s side) finally reconnects with them, she becomes a new protector – but only at the cost of her mother’s love. It seems that, since Hang has been claimed by her father’s family, her mother no longer feels important in Hang’s life. Like this little girl is responsible for the idiot behavior of her entire family! It is a powerful depiction of how pain and self-sabotaging behavior is passed on from one generation to the next.  BREAK THE CYCLE, PEOPLE!

Painful – but not surprising – to read of yet another culture where the women are expected to serve the men in their family, and sacrifice their health, their children, love, dignity, whatever it takes. And those men with power (though they had little else) are taking advantage and not living up to their responsibility to care for those supposedly in their keeping.

And in case anyone is wondering – the problem is not that it is men in charge and women not in charge. The same thing would happen if the women were all given unearned power w/no question.  The problem is placing an entire class of people in charge based on that class/gender/color/whatever and another in the submissive role for not being of the proper class. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, yes?  Unfortunately, on this particular planet, it is far and away the male gender that has been placed in the power role over entirely too much of the world, and therefore entirely too many women and girls suffering because of it.  I am NOT bashing men because they are men; I’m infuriated at a system that distributes power so arbitrarily.

I am no student of Viet Nam, so I learned a lot here – but always through the lives of these very well-written characters, otherwise I probably would have moved on to some other book (there a big stack over there, taunting me). When I get worked up and angry at characters in a novel, it’s a sign of great writing. In the end, this is the story of cultural upheaval through the lens of one family. The book is wonderful, and I’ll be looking for more books by Duong in the future.

what I did last Saturday

I think I first saw The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek in a San Francisco book store. I was too broke to buy it (because I was already in San Francisco on a trip I couldn’t really afford). I’m sure I wanted it because it was about siblings who grew up with neglectful (but fabulous) parents and how they deal with that.  I must have put it on hold at the library at some point after I got back, but I don’t remember doing it.  I picked it up this morning and the day disappeared while I devoured it.

The book is impressive. Antalek takes us through the pain of each particular child, one at a time, while they spend their adult lives trying to figure out how to be happy.  Every bit of it rings true.  The youngest child is the most protected from the damage done by the parents, buffered by her older siblings and their solid presence, while the older kids take longer to find distance and recover from the heavy hits they took from selfish, immature parents.  And even as they hurt each other, the siblings love each other and try to help each other climb out of the foxholes they’ve dug for themselves. The ending is hopeful, and some of the kids even find love and happiness. But what they have, in the end, is each other.

This family has more siblings, more drama, and more damage – but it’s not really that different from my own family (though my parents were not famous artistic people, but more Joe & Judy Average).  Except in this family, you get to see how everyone feels. Everyone but the dad, who dies from a brain tumor (though even with him we get glimpses). In real life, you don’t necessarily get to see inside your parents’ heads for a glimpse of what the hell they were thinking about while your childhood went down the drain.

I think the hardest sibling to read about is the oldest, Kate.  How she made excuses for the faults of her father while being a parent to her three younger siblings. How she finally took off and never looked back. How she let her need for her father’s approval destroy the only healthy, loving, romantic relationship in her life. How she still tried to make everything ok for her siblings, even as adults, and failed miserably and felt completely unappreciated by them. I saw pieces of myself and both of my sisters in this poor woman. Lucky for us, we’ve all healed a lot more than she has by the end of this book.

I find it hard to believe that Antalek might have grown up in a loving, supportive environment – that’s how realistic this book feels. I have no clue if/how much of it may be autobiographical, and I really don’t care. I just know that she has constructed a family of extraordinary veracity and complexity, and reading their story feels like witnessing a crime and its aftermath.