The Lizard Cage – Karen Connelly (2005)

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It’s been a bit crazy at work this week, although, amazingly enough, we are almost halfway through the semester already. This new job keeps me busy, and busy equals happy for me. (Plus, I can’t quite believe that I actually hold this job sometimes as it’s that good!)

Apart from the being occupado at work, I’ve also been reading and writing in my spare time, and it’s finally reaching autumn temperatures around here more days than not, so what’s not to love?

There has been one tragic thing that occurred on campus last week, which was a troubled student shot and killed one of our campus police officers. Life on campus has been a little subdued for the last few days, unsurprisingly, and our thoughts are with the family of the fallen officer. It’s been a sad week.

Not to be insensitive or anything, life has been moving along despite this event, and I’ve finished up a great book called “The Lizard Cage” by Karen Connelly (2005), a novel that follows the life of a political prisoner who is being unjustly held in a horrible cell in Burma/Myanmar (depending on who you ask). It’s from the POV of the prisoner, and it details his day-by-day life in prison in solitary confinement (the cage of the title) and the people with whom he interacts.

It’s a great read, although the subject matter can be hard to take (prison rape, inhumane treatment, etc.). It’s actually written by an American woman who lived for two years on the border of Burma/Myanmar, and it’s quite amazing how she can lead the reader into the head of this political prisoner in a realistic manner. It’s clear that she has done her research with this.

Despite the harsh living conditions and inhumane treatment, the protagonist is a great example of human resilience, and there are some other patches of humanity that are allowed to shine through. Some of the other prisoners are not horrible people, there is a small boy orphan who lives at the prison as he has nowhere else to go, and there are a few others that come and go, but for the most part, it seemed to be a pretty dark place.

However, the prisoner in question (he who lives in the Lizard Cage) finds small things for which to be grateful – the lizards who climb down the walls from the outside skylight, the ant colony who travel through his space, and the one or two people who show him some small kindness in this unpleasant world.

However, Connelly has done a good job with making this a very readable book without glossing over the hardships of the characters. It’s a good balance and kudos should go to her.

I also read another book, but can’t remember what the title of that was to save my life. Unlike my typical slightly obsessive habit, I didn’t seem to write down the relevant details, but hey. Life goes on, my friends.

Then I started a NF read about Victorian times, but it was soooo badly written that I ended up not being to take it any more, so threw that one down. (It was a shame though, as the topic was perfect: the servants of Victoria? Yes please, but it was not to be.)

Now I’m enjoying a read of Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. Victorian times? Check. Social history? Check. Uses some epistolary work? Check. Well written? Check, check, check. I’m enjoying it and am looking forward to reading some more of this over the weekend.

Hope life is good for you as well.

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Lantana Lane – Eleanor Dark (1986)

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We have lived round the corner from the world, with not even a signpost to betray our whereabouts… and if the treasure we have accumulated makes no show upon our bank statements, neither is it subject to income tax…

Picked off my much-neglected Virago collection bookshelf, I had absolutely no expectations for this novel, except that I wanted to read something off my own TBR. So, I had a very clean slate for this, and it ended up being a really good read. (By now, I should know that to be true for the vast majority of Virago titles.)

Set in a non-specified quite modern year in the countryside of Australia, this novel tells the stories and tales of a small group of inhabitants (called Anachronisms by the author, a perfect phrase) who live on (or just off) a dusty road called Lantana Lane. (Thus the title.) Lantana, if you’re not familiar with it, is a plant that grows quickly and widely. I didn’t know this, but I think Australians view this plant as a veracious tropical weed. In the U.S., I know that I’ve bought some from a nursery to plant in the garden as it’s one of those hard-to-kill plants… And amazingly, I haven’t killed one yet so perhaps it really is immortal. (See pic below.)

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Anyhow, as with my last few reads, I would describe this book as a tapestry book, in that you’re introduced to a community of individuals with one thing in common (in this case, location), and then as you learn about everyone, their stories get combined (similar to how threads get combined to create a tapestry). (I know – I thought of that metaphor all by myself. 😊)

Most of the characters are linked somehow with farming or the land, with the common crop being pineapples (or “pines” as they are called in the book). Though not well off with money, the tiny community mostly get on with each other, are cooperative and collaborative, and all pretty interesting characters. It’s a very rural set up, and although each of these characters commonly refers to the drudgery and poverty under which they suffer, there is a lot of good will and common sense at the same time.

Wow. That makes it sound like an Australian version of Lark Green, but these guys are a bit more meaty and edgy than those characters.

And so the book is structured around fairly short chapters, each covering a slice-of-life that happens to each of the characters (and thus to the community). It’s an earthy book, revolving around land and weather, and the neighbors are all very down-to-earth without crossing into cute. Dark is a strong writer, and despite not having a very clear image of what this folk actually look like, I ended up with pretty clear images of how I imagined each character to look, and I was pretty engaged with the narrative and what happened in their lives.

It’s also a surprisingly witty book, drily written and frequently made me smile with the writing which took me by surprise but which I loved. (The humor matches the climate: very dry.) It reminded me of Thomas Hardy in some ways, since both of these authors have used agricultural workers who are pretty isolated from other communities, but closely formed within their own. This is similar, also, in the ways that although these characters may not be very experienced in the ways of the world, they are wise about themselves and each other, so it’s not written as a mean poke at anyone or such.

This was a great read from an author with whom I was unfamiliar, and I highly recommend it. Good one. (A cursory search on-line for other reviews found it be a rather rare title to read. Is that true?)

So – here’s some news…

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So, there is some momentous news for me in my world: I have a new job. Yessiree. I’ve left my previous job for some different adventures but still at the same university. I have been invited to join the faculty in the department of Media and Communications at the university, and I am completely excited about this. I’m going to start in the fall (i.e. next month), and until then I’m on vacation which means … Guess what?

Loads and loads of free time to do stuff! This is such a great gift for me, as I usually tend to feel as though I don’t really have enough time to do All the Things, and now I have the next three weeks off. And how am I going to fill the time, you ask? Well….

I am reading the textbook(s) to become familiar with the material that class will be covering, and I’m researching some of the Best Practices for teaching in the classroom. I’ll be covering sophomore writing classes for media (along with a technical writing class for the English department), and I am so psyched to be back into the classroom after such a long time. I’m also going to be (posh title alert) Editor-in-Chief for the college’s publications, and I am very looking forward to this whole new adventure.

In the meantime, I have a few days in which to mess about doing non-work stuff such as working out, reading, writing, and doing general catching up on life. My reading mojo has returned as well, and so that’s been a lot of fun for me. I have missed the joy of reading over the past few months, and have a small pile of books that I’ve pulled from the TBR shelves from which to choose.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying Our Longest Days, a collection of WWII Mass Observation diaries edited by Sandra Koa Wing (2007), along with a fiction read of Ceremony by Leslie  Marmon Silko, a First Peoples author, and both are good so far.

I’m also preparing to travel to CA to see some family out there, and, as always, am enjoying the excitement of choosing which titles to take with me to read (on Kindle and otherwise). Book nerds unite!

So – life is good right now. I hope that you can say the same of your life. 🙂

(Life is good except for the orange clown and Charlottesville. That’s not good at all. What is wrong with some of these humans? I’m sending gentle thoughts to the many out there. Be kind. Be calm. Be courageous.)

 

 

General Catch-Up…

catch_upSo it’s been a busy few weeks, both at work and at home. Reading has taken a bit of a backseat role, and this is reflected in my book totals, but all is well. Stats are only something that I keep a vague eye on, and so it’s not something to stress about.

I did have a DNF the other day (Color by Victoria Finlay) – a non-fiction that looked as though it would be right up my alley: micro-fiction type covering the history of different colors; instead, for some reason, I could only get through 150 pages of this. I’m not sure exactly what it was that impacted my read of this title, but it did so there you go. 🙂 Off the TBR pile so that’s good news. It’s been there a while.

It seems that I have been reading more difficult books lately, so, thinking it would be good to have a break from all the problems of the world, I decided to pick up a fairly straightforward title by Anna Quindlen, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, and am finding this an enjoyable read. It actually reads as smoothly as a hot knife through butter, and this is just what I’ve been craving. Sort of a palate cleanser, if you will.

Movies – seen some corkers lately. Highly recommend that you go see “The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, a rom-com but this time it’s an intelligent and witty view of a relationship with some really big medicalThe-Big-Sick challenges. I laughed out loud so many times during this movie, and I can neither confirm nor deny that there may have been a tear at some point. Seriously, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

(ETA: This is an unfortunate name for the film in England though. If you’re “sick” in UK English [at least when I was growing up there and in our family], the word “sick” is the name for actual physical vomit itself. If you’re not feeling very well in UK English, you might say “I’m feeling poorly” or similar, not “I’m sick”. What this title is actually saying is “The Big Puddle of Vomit” in UK-ese. Haha.)

The other night, Superhero and I watched Arrival with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner (you’ll know his face), and Forest Whitaker. It’s a light sci-fi film about how humans react when twelve pods of aliens arrive on earth. I really liked it because it was all about linguistics and language – how to communicate with a different species when there is no common vocabulary? – and Adams was great. Even if you’re not sure about watching sci-fi, this is much more than that, so I bet you’ll like it.

happy_valleyIn between reading and movies, we finished up the TV police series, Shetland (another really good series set in Scotland – subtitles might be needed), and now have started Happy Valley, a police series set up in Yorkshire. Quite dark in places, but still very good. It’s good to see some England as I’ve been wanting a fix of scenery.

Life is chugging along nicely. We’re gearing up to go to LA for a weekend trip to visit some family, and then a trip to Colorado in September with some friends. (Half of the group are doing a grueling trail run, while the other half (including me) will be strolling through the shops and having a cup of coffee at the finish line to meet the runners…

Speaking of LA, do you have any recommendations of things to see? We’re planning on seeing a taping of Bill Maher’s show, and, fingers crossed, a tour of the Stahl House, but that’s a bit iffy right now. Any other ideas?

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Stahl House in Los Angeles.

Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States – Héctor Tobar (2005)

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Part of a treasure trove discovered at an FOL book sale one year, I picked up Translation Nation up for any number of reasons: first (obvs) it looked really interesting; second, I live in Texas which will probably (if it’s not right now) be a majority-Latinx demographic state in the near future; third, I had noticed that I was reading too many white people authors (for me) and I wanted to add more diversity to the list,  and then finally, I wanted a really good solid non-fiction read about someone with a very different life experience….

Focused on looking at how life in the America of today is being changed by (and having an effect on) the Latinx experience, the book is split into four parts as a literary device to organize a lot of different perspectives and people. (Tobar has definitely done his homework in finding sources and varying points of view.) However, although this may have seemed a really good idea as a framework at the planning stage, it ended up being a rather obvious device on which to hang a bunch of disconnected topics.

So, this was an ok read, really. Started off really strong with really easy well written prose, but by the time I came to the end of the book, I realized that it was more of a patchwork effort put together to form a book (more so than the book contents support the entirety of the work). However, despite the patchwork, the overall picture that he paints with his reporting is mostly fully realized and with plenty of detail.

Tobar is a well-respected journalist, and was part of the writing team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1992 LA riots, so he knows writing. And the actual writing wasn’t part of the issue – it was just that there wasn’t really quite enough to make this project a book in length and the padding wasn’t that well hidden.

But let me back up and give you the strengths: Tobar is the son of Guatemalan immigrants, and so knows of what he speaks (in terms of being in the Latinx community). He’s a strong writer with strong opinions, and he had a lot of latitude and support to travel in support of this book for interviews et al. He meets and talks with a lot of Latinx folks across the U.S., and participates in immersive journalism when (among other things) he lives in a ramshackle trailer with other workers at a chicken plant as part of this research, so that piece was solid.

It’s also a positive take on things which was really good to see (especially when you compare the immigrant/fear rhetoric coming out of the administration at the moment), and it reflects a more optimistic worldview for this country of immigrants. It’s also clear in showing how much influence the Latinx community can (and does) have, some obvious and some more hidden… It’s a lot deeper than fish tacos, my friends.

So, it’s slightly frustrating when you know an author is capable of some great work (ref: Pulitzer Prize), and yet the final product doesn’t reflect that in some way, especially when you’re aware that there really wasn’t quite enough material there.

Gosh. It sounds as though I really disliked this book, and I didn’t for the majority of the read. It wasn’t until the end when I could see the whole picture that it wasn’t quite the awesome read I was hoping for. I think I was swayed by seeing the title on a junior level History college syllabus somewhere and thought that, due to that selection, it would be stronger.

If you are looking for titles about the Central American/US immigrant experience, I would point you towards the work of Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004), Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border [NF 1993], perhaps, or his fictional Into the Beautiful North [2009])…) As you can probably surmise, I enjoy this guy’s work – it’s really solid.

For a different perspective via a well-written novel, T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is an excellent read and contrasts the lives of two very different families – separate lives but the same goals and how does that play out? Truly a good read.

Onward and upward, my readerly friends.

Summer Reading Suggestions Part Two: Armchair Traveling…

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Summer months can mean traveling, and even if you’re stuck at home in the heat (or cold!), you can still cover ground that’s very different to yours from the ease of your armchair…

Any editions of America’s Best Travel Writing will work and help your internal travels on the way, really, but it helps to align the editor person of that year with your own particular tastes. (Or so I learned the other day.) I really recommend Mary Roach’s book from when she edited…. But then I’m a Mary Roach fangirl to nth degree. There are a lot of others from which to choose…

If you have a lot of luggage to take with you, have a look at Victorian traveler Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries (1854), and be thankful that you don’t have to carry all his stuff. 🙂

As I live in Texas and summers can get pretty hot (114 degrees the other day), I really enjoy reading books about adventures in cooler places as they can remove me (at least in my mind) from the high temperatures that we have here.

Going northwards to the Canadian wilds is cooler, and Mary Bosanquet’s true recollection, Saddlebags for Suitcases (1942), is a good account of how she traveled across Canada on horseback before she had to settle down and get married. (Lucky to have such rich and generous parents, but good read all the same.)

If you’d rather stay on the main land of the U.S., have a looksee at Charles Dickens’ excellent travelogue of his time in the States, American Notes for General Circulation (1842). (Old but still relevant and en-pointe a lot of the time. Really funny in some ways, and I think if you’re a fan of Bill Bryson, you’d like this one. Seriously. A lot of overlaps.)

For a very different perspective of traveling and adventuring, the poignant and exciting two-volume diaries of Cherry Aspley-Garrard’s harrowing trip with Captain Scott to the Antarctic is riveting. (And cold.)

If you’d prefer Siberian levels of cold, try Esther Hautzig’s compulsively readable The Endless Steppe about her childhood where her family gets sent to Siberia as part of the WWII action in Poland. (It’s very good. And it’s very cold. And it’s amazing what the human spirit can do to survive.)

For more cold (but not *quite* so cold) reading, how about Crowdie and Cream by Finley J. McDonald and The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee? Both accounts of living in the Hebrides up in north Scotland. Brrr.

More coolish travel accounts include Jonathon Raban’s really good 1987 book, Coasting, about his time traveling in a small boat around the edges of United Kingdom. (English summer is not known to be very sunny and warm at times…)

Raban’s a really good writer, and as a related aside: he has another book from when he was traveling around North Dakota and its environs, called Badlands (pre-blog). (Just really good solid travel non-fiction, and fun if you’re stuck in a chair in a hot place comme moi.)

If you’d like to travel to the Pacific islands of the state of Hawaii, the non-fiction writing of Tony Horowitz is fascinating: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook has Gone Before (2003) follows the journey of Captain Cook except through modern eyes and with modern transportation. Really interesting and written with a good sense of humor.

The traveling theme continues with the excellent Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater’s 1990 account of how he “followed” the arrival of the yearly monsoon in India. A fun, lively and respectful account of some of the people he met, and the adventures that came up.

For a different take on India, there’s a really good story of a young man from India who came back to his roots from his Australian adopted family via Google Earth and some plain hard work: Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home is a good read. (Writing’s not great, but story is fantastic. In retrospect, maybe just watch the movie, Lion. 🙂 )

While you’re out that way, drop into the Antipodes (to me) and have a look at Once We Were Warriors by Alan Duff (1990), an excellent and very powerful novel about Maori life in New Zealand…. (It’s not a happy read, but it’s doggone excellent.)

Traveling further afield, Monique and the Mango Rains (Kris Holloway) (2007), a memoir which tells of the friendship between Peace Corps. Volunteer Holloway and a young village midwife in Mali (West Africa). A very positive and honest take on this particular country…

For another positive take on both the progress in HIV/AIDS treatments and a look at Botswana, try Saturday is for Funerals (2010) by Unity Dow and Max Essex. If you’d prefer a graphic novel of young life in the Ivory Coast, pick up the volumes starting with Aya by Margaureite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2007) which show a more typical side of life in Africa and teenagers dealing with typical teenaged issues.

Or you could veer madly to the east on the map and steer your way to North Korea with Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick) and learn of (the rather strange) life in that country. While you’re out this way, check out anything by Peter Hessler for a look at life in China when he was living there…

Back stateside and if you’d rather travel back in time,  there’s a really interesting book that digs into the history of Frontier Counties in the U.S. (i.e. those counties which have rather low populations so they’re very rural) so you might like Duncan Dayton’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993). (I happened to love it and would readily read anything else by this author. Published by an academic press, so dense information but very readable.)

And if you’re heading to the beach, then Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea (1955) is a thoughtful short (and pretty easy) read. This is not actually a shell identification guidebook :-), but it does revolve around different shells although it’s a tad more philosophical. Provocative and supportive for women of all ages, but particularly for, shall we say, women of a distinctive age. 🙂

More to come, but this next time with a focus on readings and writings by POC authors…

Hooray for summer!

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

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Wanting to read something that I couldn’t put down this Memorial Day weekend, I pulled “Americanah” off the library shelf, Scary Big Book though it is, and settled down on our new comfortable couch. Four and a half hours later, I emerged at the end of the book having been immersed in the world of two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they traverse the uneven terrain of love and adulthood.

I was aware that Ngozi Adichie was an excellent writer (see review of We Should All Be Feminists here), but it’s been a while since I’ve managed to select a book that I couldn’t put down, and it’s been even longer since I’ve have had a few hours to devote solidly to an awesome read. Both of those opportunities came when I took the day off from work for the three-day weekend, and I have to say that although I’m only half-way through the year right now, there is no doubt that this title will make the Top Ten List at the end of the year.

Obviously, I’m not the only one to have noticed this book. It’s been awarded honors from across the world for writing excellence, including the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, selected for the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the NYT Book Review, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK), and given the 2013 Heartland Award for Fiction by the Chicago Tribune. Even if the book hadn’t won all these awards, I would be writing the same gushing review so please don’t think that I’ve been swayed by all these accolades. They are completely and wholeheartedly deserved by Ngozi Adichie.

To the book itself: the plot follows the lives of two young Nigerian people, Ifemelu and Obinze, as their paths interweave and separate over the years and across geopolitical lines. Both grew up together in the same time and at the same secondary school, but Nigeria (at that time) was under military rule which meant that a lot of its citizens wanted to leave for elsewhere and other opportunities. Ifemelu departs for the U.S. to attend university, leaving Nigeria with the plan that Obinze will join her once his visa is approved.

However, the visa process takes much longer, and as Ifemelu moves through her college, she becomes a successful blogger on the intersection of race and life (from her perspective as a “Non-American Black”) whilst Obinze struggles to make a life in England as an undocumented immigrant. So there is the dichotomy of gender, there is the dichotomy of race, there is the comparison of life choices and the role of luck, and then there is the question of what constitutes success in each person’s life. The novel has a lot going on, but it’s all occurring underneath the surface because the writing of the story is so strong that the characters’ lives remain the focus for the reader. It’s a slow-burn novel which sucks you in as the pages turn, and once finished, the book stays in your mind for days after. (It’s that good.)

If you’d like to spend the next few days in the company of two smart and very normal young people who are trying to work out which paths to follow in life, this read will give that to you. It’s been so long since I’ve jumped in with both feet to a great fictional read and been transformed into the lives of these characters that I have to admit that this was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Without resorting to hyperbole, I think that this was one of the best novels I’ve read in years, and I kick myself that I haven’t picked it up before now. Do yourself a favor, and choose this title soon. I bet you’ll thank me later.

Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s time for a general swabbing the decks sort of post today, so thought I would just round up what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been reading. I was at the library the other weekend, and happened to stumble upon a part of the non-fiction section that I haven’t seen before – the Dewey 900s.

book391I tend to focus deeply on a subject, but am trying now to spread the book love a little more widely which has meant me wandering the NF shelves and seeing fabulous titles that I didn’t even know existed. I’m not sure why I haven’t wandered in this direction before, but there you go.

The 900s are the Geography and History part of the library, and seems to have a great selection of titles that are right up (down?) my alley. Having to use great restraint, I picked up two titles the other day, both of which were interesting in their different ways and both of which were fairly satisfying to read. Let me give you a mini-review of the first book, in the interest of time and other limited resources.

HebridesmapWanting to read something very different from current life, I picked up John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird, which is a collection of columns covering life in the Hebrides. I have not been up that way yet, so this was pretty interesting to read as McPhee uproots his family (wife and four young daughters) to go and live in a crofter’s cottage on Orunsay for a few months.

Oransay is a tiny island in the Hebrides and seems to have resisted modernization for the most part (at least during the time that McPhee was writing). McPhee writes for the New Yorker magazine, and so as this was a collection of his columns, each chapter is not really connected to previous or following chapters. (And that’s ok.)

In my busiest and most crowded days, I tend to think how nice it would be to go and stay in the Hebrides far away from iphone service and civilization in general so I was curious how this American family would fare in such an environment. It’s not all roses though as the people who live on the small island tend to view “incomers” with reserve when compared with the “islanders” (i.e. the people who live there FT and have been there for generations).

This had the potential to be such a great read, but it wasn’t and I’m not sure quite why. McPhee is a good writer, the subject was interesting, but it seemed really superficial and unfocused overall. It’s as though the writer couldn’t make up his mind as to whether to be a travel narrative, a history of the islands and its people, or life on the island and thus ended up being none of those things. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t jive with this read, but it wasn’t riveting for me. However, it might for someone else so have at it.

I also came upon another read about a Polish family were exiled to Siberia during WWII with only the clothes on their backs. It’s an amazing non-fiction read and deserves its own blog post so expect that this week.

Onward ever onward.