Dandelion Wine – Ray Bradbury (1957)

Dandelion Wine cover

Well, the Zora Neale Hurston book ended up waiting to be read as, for some reason, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine popped its head up and leapt into my hands. I think I thought it might be a slightly spooky Halloween-y read. In the end, it turned out to be an absolutely charming almost perfectly written coming-of-age story about one summer through the eyes of a 12-year old boy in small-town Illinois back in the 1920’s. (Nothing to do with Halloween.)

Really a collection of snippets and events from his memory (as the PoV is from the grown man looking back – omniscient), this book encapsulates how one thinks a summer should be for kids: endless summer days packed with playing and generally mucking about with a small gang of friends.

So, although this book is several different memories strung together, the common theme between them is summer (and in particular, dandelion wine, a product of sunny days. Recipe here). Bradbury writes expertly and with control as he describes how summer happens for the protagonist, Doug Spaulding. And everything happens from the poignant description of one of his friends leaving unexpectedly to how the Honeysuckle women’s society rig their elections to the night-time fear of walking home from the movies when there is a serial murderer out loose.

Not every story is funny, but a lot are. Some are slice-of-life stories as events seen through this boy’s eyes – when an elderly neighbor dies, for example, or the rumor that a lady down the street is really a witch…. Whichever event is being described, Bradbury writes superbly and this was an absolute joy to read.

This is very close to an almost-perfect read for me. I loved it and highly recommend it. Definitely one of the best books this year for me.

They went down into the cellar with Grandpa and …looked at all the summer shelved and glimmering there in the motionless streams, the bottles of dandelion wine…one for every summer day. “What a swell way to save June, July, and August”…

Note: “Dandelion” is now forever associated in my mind with Crazy Eyes on “Orange is the New Black” TV series… 

(Uzo Aduba is the actress who plays this part in the fab drama, Orange is the New Black.)

(Uzo Aduba is the actress who plays this part in the fab drama, Orange is the New Black.)

The Bite of the Mango – Mariatu Kamara and Susan McClelland (2008)

Bite of the Mango bookAfter having this on the TBR pile for ages, I finally pulled it off the shelf and read it. I had been hoping for so much more (similar to the read of Monique and the Mango Rains), but it was not to be. That’s not to denigrate the story or experiences of this author in any way. I just could not seem to connect with this young girl as she told her story via a Western journalist.

The true story is compelling – Sierra Leone is taken over by rebels who attack small villages. Any villagers unfortunate enough to be caught by the renegades have atrocities committed against them, and in this particular case, the young woman is caught and has her hands cut off and she has to walk to the next town to get medical care etc. So – yes. It’s a riveting story. So why wasn’t I pulled into it like some other books?

The story is first-person narrative, but is filtered through a Western journalist and written in a very simplistic style – very “Dick and Jane go to town” structure. I wasn’t sure I could make it through a book written like this, but then rationalized it by saying that the story is autobiographical and “perhaps this is a tool to see what happened through the young girl’s eyes”.

But it didn’t really get any better after that. I really wanted to love this – however, it was not to be. I finished it, but it was rather a trial in the end. That’s a shame as the story is mostly compelling and needs to be told. Perhaps just not in this style.

Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (1874)

Thos. Hardy - Far From the Madding Crowd

Really enjoyed this Hardy title, and found that as the book progressed, it became harder and harder to put down and go and do “real life” things. I ended up doing a marathon read last night and was really immersed into Wessex and the lives of the villagers that Hardy had conjured up.

What I was most interested in this read was the difference in vocabulary and references that Hardy uses in his writing. It’s been a while since I have needed to do a “New Words to Me” blog post, but reading Hardy helped me to add a lot of new words to that list, along with loads of references to biblical and Greek/Roman myths.

So – why is it that more recent/modern writers tend to stick to the familiar vocabulary and images when other older ones didn’t? Yes, some modern writers do play a lot of with language (John Banville comes to mind), but generally speaking, there is not the range of vocabulary or mythical references in more modern publications. (Perhaps it’s just the ones that I’ve been reading?)

Is it because the older (read: Victorian) writers wore their learning lightly and made these literary references assuming that the reader would know them? Or were these older writers being elitist and showing off their education to their readers? Would the average reader at the time of Hardy know his references to Ixion’s punishment and when “the sailors invoked the lost Hylas on the Mysian shore”? Or were his readers just as puzzled as I was (and hitting the books to find out more)?

Another curious point is the link between the main female character — Bathsheba Everdene — and the more current heroic character of Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games”. I had wondered if there was a connection between the two, and in further research, it seems that HG author Suzanne Collins did name Katniss as an homage to the Bathsheba character – both have strong independent characters that don’t always go down well in the society in which they live, both have similar romantic issues (Katniss/Peter (I think), and Bathsheba/Gabriel)… I wonder how many teen readers know that as the reference? Probably not too many, I would think, which is a shame as Hardy is a great read.

Speaking of literary influences, now I am curious to re-read Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel Tamara Drew which heavily references Far From the Madding Crowd. When I first read the Simmonds’ work, I hadn’t read this particular Hardy title so probably ended up missing a ton of references. I’m interested now to go back and re-read the graphic novel and see the parallels between them. (See here for my brief thoughts on Tamara Drew post-read.)

I’m now thinking of finding the 1967 movie adaptation of Far… as that seems to have the best reviews. (Although I am curious to see David Nicholl’s 2013 BBC adaptation as well. Perhaps I can catch some of that when I visit UK later this fall.)

It’s a shame that more people don’t read more Hardy – I think they think of him as writer of tragedy and sadness, but if you read his Wessex books, they are pretty light-hearted and funny at times. I’d almost classify Hardy as a rural more down-to-earth Jane Austen in some ways, but people tend to get stuck on the disastrous story of Tess and get scared off. They’re missing out.

Other Hardy reads on the blog:
** Under the Greenwood Tree (1872)
** Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)

Horses of God – Mahi Binebine (2010)

Horses of God cover

“No. You cannot defeat a man who wants to die.”

Being a semi-regular reader of other book blogs, I tend to gravitate towards more serious topics at the moment, and Maphead (see side menu for link to his great blog) recommended this title by Binebine. I was looking for something different and as this was set in the slums of Morocco and based on a true story, this would hit the spot. Plus Maphead usually chooses really obscure books (which is right up my alley.) I don’t always like to read what everyone else is reading. Contrary, I know.

Library didn’t have it (understandably as it’s a bit specialized) and so ordered this as a physical book. It’s slight – about 167 pages, but the story will sock you through the eyes and make you think and re-think about news that you hear almost every day.

The story is set in the shanty town of Sidi Moumen, and details the growing up of four boys who all end up growing up to choose to be suicide bombers. It’s based on a terrorist bombing incident that actually happened in Casablanca in 2003, and although there is no excusing killing innocent bystanders, after I had read this my thoughts were with the young men who choose to wear the “Paradise belts” and kill themselves and others for hope, really. I know – how can one be empathetic towards terrorists? However, after reading this and seeing how little hope there is when one lives in a dreadful dirty slum city, who is to say that you wouldn’t have made the same choice if it had been you in that situation?

The writing was very very good (or the translation from French was). Here is an example of how quickly new people to the slum slip into the routine of ordinary life there:

“They slip into the mold of resigned defeat, grow used to the filth, throw their dignity to the winds, learn to get by, to patch up their lives. As soon as they’ve made their nest, they sink into it, they go to ground, and it’s as if they’ve always been there and never done anything but add up the surrounding poverty…”

(The selection of the word “nest” is perfect for this bit. Birds tend to build nests by gathering up little stray bits and pieces around; people in this slum city do exactly the same action for building their own homes (or “nests”) – gathering sticks, metal or plastic to make their living space.)

The PoV is presented from one of the boys (now a grown and dead man) who relates his story with a really unexpected dry wit. (This was a great touch as it’s a serious story otherwise. There were some one-liners in here which really humanized the subjects and made me laugh out loud.) But most of the narrative is very neutral about life – the boys grow up in slums, they live for playing football/soccer* for their local team**, there is little education and fewer jobs and less money, and they cling together as a gang against the hardness of their own lives. In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age story as well for a bunch of very normal slightly naughty boys in poverty.

There are very few options to leave this shantytown life, so when there is a meeting of a charismatic religious man who espouses the philosophy of revenge on the Infidels (who caused all the problems in the first place) and a future life in heaven where life is clean and luxurious, it’s easy to sympathize with why the boys fall into that group. Who could say that they would have behaved differently in that situation? I don’t think that you can.

This was an amazing read and has won numerous international prizes for fiction. However, I haven’t seen its title anywhere except on Maphead’s blog (and then on Goodreads when I went there to research it more.) It’s also been made into a movie (same title in English; French: Les Chevaux de Dieu) by Nabil Ayouch and which wowed critics at some of the international film festivals.

Honestly, this was one of the most searing books that I have read this year, and highly recommend it even if it only makes you think about a bit more.
• The local football/soccer team is called the Stars of Sidi Moumen which is so poignantly hopeful considering these kids’ probable future of never leaving their slum lives behind. It almost makes me cry.
** I was curious about the meaning of the title (Horses of God) and after doing some superficial research, found that in the religion of Islam (and countries where that is a prevalent belief), horses play a pivotal role in both religion and life (nomadic travel, horse racing etc.). When a majority of other social events had been banned, horse-racing was still allowed, and in the Islamic religion, messengers for God travel on horses. (That’s what I gleaned, at least. If it’s different, please let me know!)

The Awakening – Kate Chopin (1899)

The Awakening cover

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.”

This book (a novel? A novella?) is really the story of a coming-of-age of an adult woman in Louisiana who is struggling with becoming an independent person while being married to a wealthy man she doesn’t particularly love. A young male acquaintance named Robert is the catalyst for her realization of the possibility that she could be happy and independent, but how to do that, in this world of strict etiquette and gender expectations? I had been thinking (from an earlier reading) that this edition of Chopin’s work was an early Feminist work (published in 1899). However, then, on further delving, it was pointed out that very few people read “The Awakening” when it first came out as it was not a commercial success and it received some pretty awful reviews so it wasn’t republished.

Her other short stories were published and even anthologized, but “The Awakening” didn’t really receive much positive attention until 1969 when a volume of her work was republished and regained attention. And this is rather a shame, as this is a good read with some great descriptions of Bayou coastal life and life in the South. On reflection, Chopin’s The Awakening’s critical rejection could also have been due to the misogyny of the time – most of the media reviewers were men (at that time), and as her leading character was a frustrated married woman who refused to accept the limitations of the woman’s role and instead chose an alternative way (thus completely rejecting societal mores), it might not be that surprising that the male reviewers did not embrace this radical viewpoint.

“Has she,” asked the Doctor, with a smile, “has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women—super-spiritual superior beings? My wife has been telling me about them.”

So, yes, it’s a Feminist work but it’s been quite widely argued that it wasn’t written to bring attention to the issue of feminism, emancipation or any other cause. Chopin was not involved in any Feminist or other causes (according to researchers) and it’s argued that Chopin was just writing the world as she saw it as an artist and writer and not trying to change the world. She wasn’t using it as a tool to further women’s suffrage, even accidentally.

However, as I write this, surely it’s clear from even a cursory reading of this that Chopin believed in the right of a woman to have an independent life and was a pre-supporter of Woolf’s concept of “a room of her own”, whether written down or not.  And by so doing, wouldn’t it be logical that she would want all the other freedoms that would come with that? Or was it the whole concept of individual freedom that Chopin was admiring and gender was irrelevant? And how would race fit into that? (She lived for most of her life in Louisiana which was a huge piece in the slavery industry picture then.)

I don’t know. It’s tough to read something that was written at the end of the nineteenth century without looking at it with the perspective of a twenty-first century reader. How can you really ever take that pair of glasses off because your (own) experience of life has to influence how you interpret things, especially works as nebulous as art? Perhaps Chopin was really just writing this to make a buck and there wasn’t any extra meaning to this whole thing.

The Light in the Forest – Conrad Richter (1953)

The Light in the ForestThis title is the story of a young white boy who is captured by a First Nation tribe at an early age and grows up in their culture. A decade or so later, the boy (now 15) is traded back to the white settlers and to his original family, and naturally, there are all sorts of cultural clashes that occur as they all try to make the transition. What’s notable in this book, I think, is that it was written with a sympathetic viewpoint towards the First Nation people (even though the vocabulary refers to the group as “savages”). The overall view is that the FN people are equal to whites which was not a common perspective in 1950’s white America. The story does veer awfully close to the “Noble Savage Beast” idea, but generally speaking, the tribe is presented in a positive light.

What I also appreciated was the non-predictable story line. I had expected “Boy raised in tribe, leaves tribe for original white family, does not assimilate and goes back to happiness with tribe family”, but it’s much more twisty and turn-y than that and I did not predict that ending. I’d be interested in sitting in a typical high school (or perhaps junior high) classroom when this is discussed to hear what the students think.

Richter and his wife were living in Pennsylvania before they moved to New Mexico in 1928 for his wife’s health (compare with Mildred Walker who moved west in 1926). Richter had grown up chatting with the descendants of pioneers and so was familiar with their stories and history, and the story seems pretty true to form.

This was a very quick read, so I read it all on one Sunday afternoon and enjoyed it. It’s definitely a “high school read” (in terms of basic literary discussion), so it was ok. Richter wrote other work, one novel winning the National Book Award and another winning the Pulitzer Prize so he must have other more in-depth work out there. I’ve not heard a lot about this name though. Another name for the TBR at a later point methinks.

Winter Wheat – Mildred Walker/ The Southwest Corner – Mildred Walker

book229a

Mildred Walker is a new-to-me writer and somewhere somehow I came across her name on the interwebs. She is not a writer who seems to come up much in conversation, which is a shame as her work is very good and she deserves to be read more than she is right now. As the Philadelphia Inquirer once wrote, “You are either a Mildred Walker enthusiast or you are missing one of the best writers on the American scene…”

Walker wrote quite a large number of books, and I happened to pick up “Winter Wheat” (1944 about rural life in Minnesota) and then “The Southwest Corner” (1951) about an older woman who lives on the East Coast and is trying to decide how she should spend her end days. (Sort of a more likable version of Hagar in “Stone Angel”…)

“Winter Wheat” seems to be the title that pops up most commonly, but all twelve novels in her oeuvre have been republished by the University of Nebraska Press so there are other titles available out there. She has been compared with Willa Cather for her “prairie” writing, but from what I can tell, she covers a lot more territory than prairie in her travels across the world of fiction. So let’s look more closely at the two that I have read.

Winter Wheat is set in the rural world of early Minnesota in a small farming family who have homesteaded there. It’s very close to the outbreak of WWII and the uncertainty that comes with that, it’s not been that long since the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head in the Midwest, and Ellen Webb is hoping to go East to college (depending on the fortunes of that year’s farm crop). This is a bildingsroman novel , although this one seems to have a bit more bite to it than most. Ellen travels to college (a long train journey for this small town character) and whilst at school, meets another college student boy and they fall in love. Gil (the boyfriend) is invited out to the farm over the summer, but things don’t go as planned and by the end of the visit, things between the couple have changed.

Gil gives Ellen a new awareness of her home life – how far removed they are from “cultured” life on the East coast, how her parents have an ongoing prickly love-hate relationship with each other, and how close the family is to poverty. Gil’s perception impacts Ellen and so, when he leaves, there is a wake of dissatisfaction for Ellen in how she views her family’s world. It’s only as the summer progresses that Ellen learns to accept how things are and gradually moves on.

This is a bittersweet novel of how strong emotional ties can between family members and how easy it is to put your own ideas onto the lives of others. It’s also heavily tied up with the rural metaphor of wheat and its growth cycle in the harsh world of this dusty treeless world they live in. (This metaphor gets a bit clumsy at times, but it works overall.) Walker lived for a number of years in Minnesota as her husband worked as a physician, so I think she was quite familiar with the geography of the area.

The second novel that I read by Walker was still focused around gender roles and choices, but this time from the perspective of an older woman in Vermont who lives in a rural removed house but is considering what to do as she continues to age. Should she get someone to live with her as a companion and help? Should she move? I liked this title more than Winter Wheat, mainly because the protagonist was more likeable, really.

It’s also very relevant to the problems of aging today – how do you balance your independence with your aging and the need to have elder care? The main character, Marcia Elder, decides to advertise for a companion and gets one with decided opinions. As Marcia has her own opinions (but tends to keep them to herself), the story turns into more of a “coming of age” event as well, although of a different kind.

Elder’s growth comes through learning to stand up for herself (even in the face of impressive opposition). It’s a good story, and there were some fantastic descriptions of life in Vermont. It’s also very expressive in its depiction of aging and all that goes along with that stage of life. (”The Southwest Corner” title refers to the corner of most houses facing a certain way when the elders of the family would live in the southwest corner as that had the most sun and was warmest in the long winters.)

Walker was quite surprising for her time – she graduated top of her class from Wells College in Aurora, NY, in 1926, and went on to earn her Master’s degree in English Lit from the University of Michigan. She and her husband moved to Montana in 1933 and that’s when she started published her books.

It’s interesting, to me, to consider her life out on the plains in rural Montana as she sat in the car writing and waiting for her husband to complete his house calls. I wonder what her career plans would have been if she had lived in a later day and age when gender roles were more flexible than they were back then. Interestingly, when her hub died (in 1955), she moved back to Wells College and became a professor of creative writing, and in 1960-1961, she was a Fulbright Lecturer in Kyoto, Japan.

I have enjoyed reading Mildred Walker’s work and will pick up more at a later point. Thanks to whoever it was who pointed the way to her. I appreciate it.

August – Gerard Woodward (2001)

August - Gerard WoodwardThis is the first volume in a trilogy (but excellent as a stand-alone piece), and tracks a couple of decades in the lives of the Jones family, a despairingly middle class English group, as they navigate their annual holiday camping in a field in Wales. (Sounds a bit dreary, right?) When the story first begins, it’s all happy enough but as time progresses, the wife/mother starts to sniff bicycle puncture repair glue (an issue that the family tries to avoid) and other family members have their own struggles.

The common thread throughout the years covered by this volume are the rather dismal family holidays of three long weeks spent in a tent during the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. Despite this grim situation, the holiday becomes something to mostly look forward to for the family, especially in the younger years when the children were small and more compliant. As time goes on, the family struggles with what to do with their addicted matriarch and their growing children, and, understandably, the holiday loses its allure.

This story rather reminded me of the book “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sheriff [1931] (pre-blogging days so no post) which also focuses on a family holiday, although that book was in the 1930’s England in a more “innocent” time in some ways. In both cases, the motivating force behind the holiday is the father who views the event as the glue that holds the family together.

It’s interesting that, in one aspect, glue is a positive force in this tale – it holds the ever-changing family together (through the group denial of this substance abuse) and, used to mend punctured tires, glue provides the freedom for happiness that is entailed through the activity of bicycling. (Bicycling plays a big role in this book, both as a form of basic transportation but also as a precursor to the upcoming holiday. It signals the beginning of a happier event as some commute by bicycle to the camp field.)

And then, on the other hand, in Woodward’s book, glue (and its addictive properties) becomes the force that cleaves the family apart – they rarely address the downward spiral of their mother and so there is a push and a pull of this substance throughout the narrative – both sticky and repellant at the same time.

“August” is rather a witty and poignant look at a fairly unremarkable family as they grow up and grow out of the family unit. The eldest child and son is a talented piano player who is unhappy with his predicted role of being a piano professional along with all the associated pressure from that (especially from his father). The father figure is a school art teacher whose dream of being a professional full-time artist is unfulfilled but accepted. (He knows that he doesn’t really have the talent that it would take to be successful in that role.) It’s curious to me that he (the father) is accepting of his own artistic limitations for himself, and yet he pressures his son to meet similar expectations. It’s that push-and-pull again – encouraging/pressuring the boy to be an artistic success and the boy pulling himself away from all that the family represents to him.

The eldest son, Janus, plays a large role in the narrative as well, and what’s interesting about his name is that it is a Roman God who has two faces, one facing backwards and one facing forward. I thought this was a nice tie-in with the father’s expectations of him:  the father looks back in time at his earlier goals of being a full-time artist (not fulfilled) and then looks forward in time to the future success of his son being a famous piano player…

Lots to think about and a good read. I have the next one ordered on ILL so we’ll see when that comes in.

Janus

Janus

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen – Lucy Knisley (2013)

book218This is a graphic novel that stands out from the pack for a number of reasons, the biggest (for me) is that it steps outside the normal MO of other graphic novels which is to wallow in bad memories of dysfunctional family backgrounds and a world that doesn’t understand them. (Superhero graphic novels may well be different from this, but I’m not familiar with that world.)  But this one is the supreme opposite of that – Knisley had mostly happy parents (divorced though they were), she was an only child, and grew up learning how to work happily with the environment around her, especially in the world of cooking.

Knisley’s parents were both foodies with a capital “F” – one a professional chef and the other very interested in eating good food. With this support system, Knisley acquired a very open attitude towards food of all kinds (although her parents had a horror of processed junk food). So when the author was a young child, her parents were feeding her squid and mushrooms, and she acquired a wonderfully broad palate and appreciation of “adult” food.

This graphic memoir details her childhood and growing up with parents who had a foodie palate and a healthy attitude to meals. Despite their best efforts, Knisley did sneak in some junk food every now and then, and although her parents didn’t embrace this, they didn’t forbid it which helps to encourage a healthy attitude to the world of eating.

The author of this is an art school grad (in Chicago), and this is one of the first graphic novels where I have really noticed the art itself. Most of the time, I view the graphics as merely a vehicle to tell the story, but in this edition, the graphics are continually good, clear and cheerful.

“Cheerful” is what I think I most admired about this book – I really appreciated the optimistic approach to life and the honest straight-forward appreciation of food (along with a few of her favorite recipes). She’s does a good job of sharing her enthusiasm to food and life in the kitchen, and I found myself picking up that attitude. I’m not sure that I will ever develop a love for mushrooms, and certainly not for rare-cooked lamb, but I am glad she got this published.

Very enjoyable and happy read.

How to Make an American Quilt – Whitney Otto (1991)

Book Quilt AmI just loved this short read. I hadn’t read it for years, and was curious if the reread would be as good. Would it hold up? Why yes, Virginia, it did, and with the experience of older age comes a different reading.

The book is from the PoV of an adult granddaughter who is visiting her grandma one summer just before she (the granddaughter) gets married. As they while away the long hot days in this small Northern California town, there are lots of observations drawn about people and life through the quilting bee that meets regularly at the grandma’s house.

The book is structured with alternate chapters, one chapter being more or less straight narrative about one of the women friends and their relationships, and then the next chapter being a “how to” quilt instructive chapter, but with a lot more to it. The how-to chapters progress from how to start making a quilt to how to store one at the end, and mirror the growth of a relationship, regardless of whether that is a familial one or one that is more romantic in nature. It’s really well done – subtle and understated.

As others have previously noted, the book structure is a patchwork pattern that echoes the regularity of a more traditional quilt pattern, and although it’s probably been done before, this was done very well. Finn Bennett-Dodd, the visiting granddaughter, is one of the quilting bee that summer, and as the heat of the sun is repeated every day that endless summer, so are the stories of the circle of friends – the wrenching heartbreak, the stitching together of friendship, and (you know I can’t resist the ongoing metaphor) the tapestry of life.

This is a quick summery read, but not without its depth. One of the characters loves swimming and diving and that is similar to how this reading experience was for me – you jump up off the diving platform and then you sink in the story as you’re engulfed into the water, not coming up until it’s the end and you have to breathe.

For a slightly different take on quilts (this time more of a fiber art take), check out these quilts (and the fascinating backstory) of the quilters of Gees Bend, a small African-American hamlet in Alabama whose innovative quilt designs have been displayed at prestigious venues and various art places around the world. (Article from Smithsonian magazine.)