Sep 30, 2014

The Diddakoi

by Rumer Godden

I think this was only other unread Godden on my shelves, I looked for it immediately after finishing The Kitchen Madonna. It wasn't quite as intriguing to me, but still a good book. It's about a gypsy girl who lives with her grandmother in their wagon on a certain gentleman's land- he's called the Admiral. When her grandmother dies, the gypsy girl Kizzy is left adrift- she's actually only half gypsy so the other "travellers" are reluctant to take her in, and she herself adamantly rebuffs attempts to put her in a children's home. When she hears that her grandmother's old horse will probably be sold for dogfood, she runs off with the horse and ends up on the Admiral's doorstep. Of course he takes her in and nurses her through pneumonia, but then the whole village knows where she is and no-one thinks it right for a household of "three old men" to raise a child. They argue over who should be responsible for her; meanwhile she sinks into bitterness. By the time someone volunteers to give her a home, she has her heels set and is determined to make the kind woman miserable, as well as hatching plans to run away with the old horse, or go back to the Admiral's house. She's such a fierce, determined child.

There's another storyline going on alongside all this- the children at school (which Kizzy resents attending) tease and bully her mercilessly. The teacher tries awkwardly to make things stop, but the children just carry their animosity outside the schoolyard and attack Kizzy while she is walking home. When things look dire she is rescued- and finds she has been gaining more friends than she was aware of. Eventually Kizzy comes around to trust some people, to respond to kindness, but she never looses her longing for independence, to live the way her grandmother did. She finds her way in the end, also finds ways to make amends with the other children, and to find a more solid home. There are glimpses into the culture and lifestyle of the gypsies, and the climactic event of a fire surprised me with its vividness- I really wasn't expecting that of this author for some reason. Dramatic, but pulled everything together nicely.

Rating: 4/5      147 pages, 1972

Sep 29, 2014

Shakespeare Wrote for Money

by Nick Hornby

Bah, another disappointment. I recall really liking Nick Hornby back when I read The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt practically back-to-back in my eagerness. This one, not so much. In fact, halfway through I started skimming. Skipped ahead to the part where he talks about The Road (since I've read that one) and the rest just couldn't hold me. Is it because I haven't heard of most of the books he mentioned, and only read the one? Or because he seems to talk more about the contents, and less about the reading experience. It's hard to be interested in a rambling discussion of something I'm unfamiliar with. I wonder now if I went back to the two previous collections, would I find them as delightful as the first time around?

Also this is the kind of book I really ought to hold onto, in case I might actually like it another time around. Only this was a third try- I already gave it a go a few times before. Bummer.

Abandoned      131 pages, 2008

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The Kitchen Madonna

by Rumer Godden

A lovely story that I fell into at once. It's about a brother and sister with busy parents, who live in London. The children have seen a number of nannies and house "help" come and go. They really like the new maid, Marta, who is a recent immigrant. But Marta is very unhappy and homesick. She tells them of some Ukranian customs, including how she used to keep an icon picture in her kitchen back home. The children fixate on the idea that if they can find an icon to help Marta feel at home, she won't leave like the previous helpers did. They search through London museums and specialty shops, but when they finally do find a suitable icon like the one Marta described, it is far too expensive for their pocket money. The girl is about to give up, but the boy stubbornly decides that he will make one. It's really delightful to read about his crafting: how he plans to make the picture, how he collects materials and enlists help from a few adults in the neighborhood, overcomes some setbacks, and the finally impression the image makes. Also wonderful is how real the characters all seem. The kids are naughty, kind and silly by turns. They do their best, make mistakes, keep going. Through the whole experience the boy goes from being rather aloof and unfriendly to finding ways to express how he cares about other people. I read it all in one day.

Rating: 3/5    89 pages, 1966

Sep 28, 2014

Lost in the Barrens

by Farley Mowat

This book has sat so long on my shelf I don't even remember where it came from. It's an adventure story about two boys who get abandoned in the remote Barrenlands of northern Canada. One is a Cree boy, the other nephew to a local trader. They visit a neighboring tribe of starving Chipeweyans who set off on a desperate hunting trip into lands further north, hoping to intercept caribou on their migration route. They fear going into Eskimo territory, who have long been their enemies, but see no other way to survive. The boys aren't supposed to go along but they convince the Chipeweyan leader, who then refuses to be responsible for them. Not quite able to keep up with the main group, the boys get separated and left behind. They have to survive the winter on their own, with limited tools, weapons and clothing. However the Cree boy has lots of survival skills and the Canadian boy is pretty good at thinking up new ideas, so together they manage well, in spite of wrecking their canoe, getting injured, encountering a bear and loosing some food stores to wolverines. Things start to look up when they find two lost husky dogs and tame them. Now they can build a sled and set out for home- but in their eagerness they go too soon, before winter is really over. Stuck in a blizzard, their only hope for rescue lies in an Eskimo encounter- which they fear above all else.

So. This is a good adventure story, especially if you like the wilderness survival type. It's a bit dated (references to Vikings and Eskimos), and written for a younger age group so didn't really hold my attention all the way through. I did like reading how the boys figured out how to make things with their limited supplies and what they could get from the wilderness. It just doesn't have quite the level of detail or characterization I appreciate more these days.

Rating: 2/5     192 pages, 1956

Sep 27, 2014

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

by David Sedaris

This was just what I was looking for. The book cracked me up on page 3 and I was laughing intermittently through the whole thing. Why have I never read any Sedaris before? His descriptions of everyday incidents and inner musings on them are simply hilarious. Yes, sometimes they made me cringe, and after reading his description of cadavers I am not at all sure I want to dive into Mary Roach's Stiff (been on my list for ages) but I certainly got my giggles again. This book doesn't have a plot, it's just a collection of little snippets from his life. Sometimes the segues surprised me, but they always wrap around again at the end of each chapter in a satisfying way. He goes into things like emnities with neighbors, awkward seating situations on airline flights, feeding a spider on his windowsill, buying a skeleton for his boyfriend, watching nature documentaries, the reactions people have when they learn he's gay, visiting Japan, taking language classes, attempts to quit smoking and so much more.

I don't really know what to say other than: do you need something amusing? Read Sedaris.
And: I'm going to pick up another book by this author whenever I see it.

Rating: 3/5       310 pages, 2008

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Sep 21, 2014

House of Sand and Fog

by Andre Dubus III

Three people, an Iranian ex-colonel, a recovering addict and a police officer, come into violent conflict over a house. I did not really know what this book was about before I opened it; the premise at first startled, then intrigued me. It goes like this: Kathy is living in the house her father left her, when she erroneously gets evicted for tax evasion. Her house is put up for sale and the Iranian man, struggling to keep up the high standard of living his family once enjoyed, snatches the chance to buy it at a low auctioned price. He has a plan to resell the property to keep his family afloat, perhaps even restore their prestige. One of the cops who comes to the house to evict Kathy finds himself drawn to her, and gets heavily involved, taking it upon himself to seek justice for Kathy when normal processes stall, to basically get her house back for her. She herself goes ballistic on the Iranian family, practically stalking them, harassing them, the officer threatening them, the Iranian colonel refusing the back down, recognizing his rights- it's all a big mess. For a long while I kept thinking: this is the turning point, here they will work things out. No, here. Ah, here. But then it goes bad, and you see there is no way out. And (surprise!) a number of people end up dead. Several who were innocent and of all the characters in the story actually behaved decently to their fellow human beings. This irked me.

But I liked the way it was written. It's told from three viewpoints, the frank casual style of Kathy's voice contrasted against the stilted language and formalities of the colonel's. You really get to see why each of these people think they are doing the right thing, why they are all so indignant towards each other. I did not understand all their motives, but I saw where they were coming from. The dreams really stuck with me. The ironic sadness of the policeman ending up acting just like the men he despised- pushing his weight around to get what he wanted, what he saw was right. And the good people who meant no harm and were kind they suffered too. Now I really need a cheerful read.

Oh, and it was pleasant in a way to read a book set in a familiar location. I once lived in San Francisco, so the descriptions of foggy roads, gray beaches, flocks of tourists dressed for the wrong season, was kind of nostalgic.

Rating: 3/5        365 pages, 1999

Sep 20, 2014

Baby Loves to Rock!

by Wednesday Kirwan

A board book my three-year-old picked out at the library. Simple concept: each page shows an animal and creates a fun play on words with a typical characteristic (or popular saying) about that animal paired with a musical style. The end shows the baby on one page rocking out with a guitar and sunglasses, but also grinning aboard a rocking horse on the other side. Cute and fun.
Rating: 3/5   26  pages, 2013

Sep 14, 2014

My Ántonia

by Willa Cather

This is the story of an immigrant family adjusting to life on the Nebraska prairie during the early 1900's. It's about one girl in particular, the oldest child of a Bohemian family. Told by their neighbor Jim, it details the family's early struggles and how things changed throughout the community as they grew into adulthood. The hard work on the farm, living with deprivation, struggling to learn new ways in a new country, missing the old land. I found the personalities of Ántonia's parents intriguing- one caustic and demanding of respect, the other gentle and longing for home. Jim describes Ántonia as a strong, curious, determined girl who worked hard. Later she moves into town to work in a rich family's home, but retains her love for the countryside. I won't tell you all what happens, but I did admire Ántonia, how she held staunch to her morals, how she made the best of a bad situation, how she was beloved by her children and esteemed by her close friends in the end. It was interesting to see the portrait Cather builds of a frontier town, and how the fortune of several characters didn't turn out as you might expect.

But in spite of all that, it was a book I just couldn't get into. Partly because I have been preoccupied of late, but also because the story felt distanced to me. Jim the narrator never really tells much about himself, he seems to be a bystander without much personality. And the story of Ántonia is told in a rather dry fashion- events reported, things described, but without much emotion (at least, it didn't come through to me). It's more the story of a town and of the wide landscapes, and I wasn't quite in the mood for that. In fact, the entire thing came across to me as a grown-up version of a Little House on the Prairie story. Which is not at all meant to be insulting- Wilder's books are very good!

This is one of those books I'd always meant to read, and it's a classic, so I feel kind of bad not appreciating it more. As if I'm missing something. I've heard it's one of her best novels so now I have misgivings to try any more Cather, which disappoints me as well. Maybe later down the road...

Rating: 3/5        290 pages, 1918

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Sep 6, 2014

The Second Chance Dog

by Jon Katz

This book surprised me a little. Yes, it's another one about the dogs on Bedlam Farm. This one focuses on a particular dog named Frieda, who belonged to a woman that became Katz' wife. It's a love story, a story of patience and acceptance and learning to remake one's life. Katz knew Maria for several years as a fellow artist and friend, before they both became divorced and he dared express his interest in her. They gradually explored their relationship and Katz knew he wanted to be closer to Maria, to spend the rest of his life with her. But her dog stood in the way. Frieda was fiercely protective of Maria and didn't want to let anyone near her, especially men. Katz worked tireless hours, patiently earning the dog's trust, teaching it some discipline, learning about its background and why Frieda was so fierce. Eventually things worked out, but it took him an entire year. He doesn't have exactly conventional views (at least, in modern circles) on dog training, so this was an interesting read in that regard.

I noted his observations on how casually many people take dogs into their lives, without spending the money or research on them. Amused by an incident where his dog Izzy helped break up a riot (a violent food-fight really) at a nursing home among alzheimer's patients. Insightful his description of helping Maria navigate the world of the internet, and how she responded to putting her artwork out for the world to see. Startling and clear, how he found inspiration from the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Sullivan, to reach through to Frieda and teach her to be calm and accepting. The dog ended up becoming as fiercely protective of Katz and his farm as he once was of only Maria (protecting the farm animals too, when first she saw them as prey), and being calmer in general around situations that used to cause excited outbursts. A remarkable story of what efffort one man went through to get through to this particular dog and her beloved human.

Rating: 3/5       267 pages, 2013

Sep 1, 2014

Soul of a Dog

by Jon Katz

In this book Katz muses on one particular idea: do animals have souls? He tells stories about the various animals on his farm, highlighting their individuality and possible self-awareness, their responsiveness to people, their motives. He surmises that some animals are just relating to people to get something out of them (his cow likes extra food) but that other animals- the dogs- are more attuned to our emotions and respond to need. Waffles around on this. Gets into spitituality more than I had expected. I'm no longer a religious person, so all the introspective back-and-forth about will dogs go to heaven? did not interest me and honestly I got tired of it. But I did like reading the portraits of the various species he lives alongside: the sassy goats, gentle donkeys, one hen who acts out of the ordinary; a cat who is friendly and loving to humans but ruthlessly hunts down smaller creatures (typical). There are, as usual, glimpses of his life- the struggles of running a farm, his friendship with a few particular neighbors, his visits with Izzy the border collie to a local hospice. Mostly it's about the animals. Reading several books in a row by Katz, some phrases and sentiments start to feel oft-repeated to me; the musings have taken a slightly different path but reflecting on the same bent so I feel like I'm reading nothing new and begin to get a distracted. A bit of space between them would improve the reading, I think.

I borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      184 pages, 2009