My Mother’s Day Gift to My Daughter

Anne of Green Gables (Anne of Green Gables, #1)Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has always been dear to me, ever since I came upon it in hardcover on Mom’s bookshelf. I was 11, Anne was eleven. Anne suffered from an imagination, as did I. I wasn’t an orphan like her, but I lived on a farm with no kids around and no trips to the library. Anne became a kindred soul. Soon Anne, who I still visit annually, will become even more dear to me. In the month of May about the time a befuddled Matthew brought home the girl-that-was-supposed-to-be-a-boy, I plan to present to my 11-year-old daughter this novel. It won’t be the hardcover because my mother refuses to give up her copy; it’ll be one easy to hold and can stand up to wear.

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Shades of Every Other Big Writer

The Shadow of the WindThe Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t know about you but when a novelist is compared to Umberto Eco, Charles Dickens, Jorges Luis Borges, Charles Palliser, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arturo Perez-Reverte, A. S. Byatt , Victor Hugo (I could go on), I can’t resist giving it a go. The Shadow of the Wind is the first in a trilogy by Zafon who, on his website, is committed to telling stories readers want. I suppose it’s because he’s committed to keeping himself housed and fed.

I can’t be bothered to summarize the plot because I want to get on with what interested me about it , so here’s a quick tagline: In post-WWII Barcelona, a young man, Daniel Sempere, seeks to restore the memory of his mother by tracking down the author of a novel in his safekeeping. I didn’t buy into Sempere’s line of reasoning; it’s like scouring the pope’s speeches for instructions on condom use. No matter: the how more than covered for the why. Zafon takes a twisted shadowy journey among crumbling mansions and cracked souls in his tale of remembrance and redemption. There are other big thematic words I could unroll but, because of my current writerly obsessions, I’ve settled on sacrifice and her dark twin, self-destruction. I was also distracted by Daniel Sempere, who is fictional proof for why narrators make poor heroes; and Fermin Romero de Torres who—bless you, Carlos Ruiz Zafon—gets his own book in The Prisoner of Heaven and is proof-fictional and otherwise—that good looks are over-rated.

Fermin is a secondary character, and as such, ought to know his place. It is for him to support the hero’s journey, to deliver a few zingers that speak to the hero’s plight or to the controlling themes, and perhaps to spin out a thin subplot of his own. Fermin does all that, and is one thing more: butt-ugly. It’s hard to feel attached to, as Daniel puts it, “the little man with scruffy looks and the tongue of a barker.” He steps into the story when Daniel is left bloodied on the street.

“Are you all right?” asked a voice in the shadow. It was the beggar I had refused to help a short time before. Feeling ashamed, I nodded, avoiding his eyes. I started to walk away. “Wait a minute, at least until the rain eases off,” the beggar suggested. He took me by the arm and led me to a corner under the arches where he kept a bundle of possessions and a bag with old, dirty clothes. “I have a bit of wine. It’s not too bad. Drink a little. It will help you warm up….”

By offering what little he has to one who has scorned him, Fermin becomes a hero in a shabby suit. Again and again, he’s larger-than-life by way of the small gesture: he consoles a dying woman, keeps vigil over a tortured neighbor, rustles up leads when all others have failed, and appears when needed.

Now that doesn’t make for a character hero. That honor goes to the one who achieves the greatest arc or greatest change in their character, and Fermin remains steadfast and big-nosed to the end. By rights, it’s Daniel Sempere, then. He’s the one with the journey to find the story of Julian Carax, thereby catching up himself and others in his haphazard investigations.

The problem is Daniel ends up telling the stories of people more interesting than him. By doing so he’s practically admitting that whatever was happening to him isn’t nearly as fascinating as what happened to someone else. Three-quarters of the way through the story, Zafon has Daniel lay out the full contents of a long letter (written in an unbelievable 24 hours) by the reclusive Nuria Montfort, a letter which lifts the veil on much of the mystery. Daniel goes from narrator to reader; he essentially walks off the stage and joins the audience. Does he still have a character arc? Yes, he takes a bullet for the man he believes in. But so does Daniel’s elusive author, Julian Carax. And so does Nuria Montfort (actually she takes another deadly instrument). And no, I’ve spoiled nothing. Trust me.

It is Nuria that I found the most haunting because of her fifteen years of sacrifice for a man who didn’t try to return her love. Part of me shrieks, “Forget him! Move on!” Yet haven’t we all had situations and people we couldn’t walk away from? So she accepted the sacrifice and its dark twin, self-destruction.

Self-destruction ends in death or, if intervention occurs , resurrection. You’d have to be illiterate not to pick up on the allusions to death, more populous than headstones in a cemetery, the most obvious one being the library called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Apparently books, like people, are only dead if forgotten. This whole thing about memories supporting life is a well-worn Homeric sentiment, one that I wish Zafon hadn’t felt the need to push into the mouths of his characters. Fortunately, it didn’t matter: I’ll remember the novel more for its scruffy virtues than any good-hearted flaws.

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Russian Would-you-look-at-the-detail! Elegance

Russian Elegance: Country & City Fashion From The 15th To The Early 20th CenturyRussian Elegance: Country & City Fashion From The 15th To The Early 20th Century by L V YEFIMOVA
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For someone who finds matching her socks a sartorial challenge, I was knocked on my blue-denimed backside by the exquisite garments in this volume. I was especially drawn to the designs inspired by the peasant costumes. The love for color and pattern in the simple blouse and sarafans find their mark in the aristocratic costumes, though what was woven with red cotton thread is redone in gold and silver. The other Russian contribution to fashion is the padded jacket. The trim Regency-era garment from the milder European climes has been quilt-lined as a concession to the frigid weather, instantly bloating the wearer. Anna, my long-limbed, arm-swinging heroine, will not be pleased when I press her into one of these.

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City of Thieves and the Unforgettable Kolya

City of ThievesCity of Thieves by David Benioff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

During the siege of Leningrad, two young men, sentenced to hang for spurious crimes, are given a reprieve. One is the narrator, Lev Beniov (possibly the author’s grandfather but as with all novels, who knows or cares.) Lev is small, shy, terrified of girls and other figures of authority. Acting as his foil is his cellmate, Kolya, a brash, swashbuckling hero and a womanizer par excellence. They have five days to secure a dozen fresh eggs so that a colonel’s daughter might have a proper wedding cake. And so begins their quest through a starved city and behind enemy lines.

It’s a novel about deprivation and repression and the inanity of war. More importantly it’s a tale about friendship and the daily courage of making the right choice. But forget all those weighty themes and read it for Kolya.

He’s the larger-than-life character, throwing punches, diffusing confrontations, protecting the weak and cheerfully fornicating. To him are given the best lines I’ve heard in a loooong time. On his way to his execution, he instructs the drivers, “Gentlemen, to the opera!” Okay, perhaps you need to be there to get it. And really, you need to be.

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The Sound on the Page: Quick Review

This is one of those craft books I like because it talks less about what should be done and more to what could be done. The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing

The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing by Ben Yagoda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If content is the what and style is the how, this book is the what on the how. It was a random pick off my small town library’s shelf, at a time when I was struggling with what my writing voice ought to be. Yagoda didn’t solve the problem for me but he took me on a wonderful tour of writers who’ve certainly given it thought. He built his book with essays, punchy quotes from the quick and the dead, and a good many interview excerpts. I left it on the kitchen table and snatched a few pages at a time over salad and scrambled eggs. The method worked because it’s a book that needn’t be consumed in large chunks. (Atrocious pun intended.)In the end, I can’t say I’m any closer to formulating my style and that, perhaps, is one of Yagoda’s ‘take away’ points (Lord, did I just make another food pun?): style is recognizable but how it got that way is for each writer to discover and keep discovering.

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Oh, those Russians!

 No one seems to know what to do with Russians. Play chess? Make purple soup together? Tramp with them through snow-filled forests in felt-lined boots and fur-lined hats to shoot bears and fleeing Germans? Read one of their novels, and die in the process from old age or grief?
They are not an easy people, and I should know because I’m married to one. Well, half-Russian which makes our children one-quarter Russian and therefore emotionally manageable, most of the time. Russians are mercurial, vengeful and petty. They’re also expansive, magnaminous and indulgent. They are their own worst enemy (how else do you explain how the world’s largest nation isn’t also the most powerful?) and their own saviours (no one else saved Russia in WWII except Russians). Their lands have been besieged as much as they’ve laid siege. They manufactured rubbish cars and tractors but launched the first man into space.
They define bipolar disorder. What the rest of the world takes medication for, they’ve turned into a national trait. It makes them unpredictable, volatile, brilliant and passionate. Do I generalize? Of course but not without planting a kernel of truth…I think. Do you agree with my assessment? If you do, what accounts for it? Something in the Volga? What has been your experience with Russians?
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