Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“Someone dies in this book”

should be the name of this blog.

The latest novel o' death, Sonata for Miriam by Linda Olsson, takes place near water. Trivial and monumental events are forgotten and picked up just as the rusty hair clip found on the deck at the novel's beginning.

Rather than detail these events, I will provide a short guide to the novel’s characters. If you decide to read the book, you’ll be less confused than I was. If you don’t, the character descriptions provide an intriguing synopsis anyway.

Miriam (Mimi) – The daughter of Adam Anker and Cecilia Hagg was raised with her father in New Zealand.

Adam Anker – Born in Krakow, the novel's narrator was raised in Sweden by Wanda Anker. After his daughter’s birth, Adam takes her to live in New Zealand where he works as a composer and teacher.

Clara Lipski Fried – Adam comes across a picture of Clara’s brother, Adam Lipski, in a War Memorial museum in New Zealand. Thinking Lipski is a relative, Adam contacts Clara. She gives him a picture of his mother and tells him he should meet with her friend Liebermann in Krakow.

Szymon Liebermann – A childhood friend of Clara, Liebermann lives in Krakow. His brother fled with her brother during the war. He introduces Adam to his chess partner Moishe. Later, Clara sends Liebermann an old bundle of letters that he passes along to Adam.

Moishe Spiewak – Moishe knew Adam’s mother and aunt before the war. He spent time in Lithuania with Lipski but then moved to New York and became an art dealer and finder of lost art for survivors. He helps Adam find his Krakow birthplace and comforts him as the truth of his birth is revealed.

Adam Lipski – Clara's brother was a talented violinist who fled Krakow during the war and was never heard from again.

Wanda Maisky Anker – Adam's mother raises him in Sweden after fleeing Poland.

Marta Maisky – Wanda’s sister is adored by Moishe but in love with Lipski. After Lipski leaves, Marta entrusts Clara with her love letters.

Ben Kaplan – Ben, a childhood acquaintance of Adam, is now a famous director who wants Adam to compose the score for his next film. A meeting with Ben gives Adam an excuse to return to Sweden where he reunites with Cecilia.

Cecilia Hagg – After a brief affair with Adam, she chooses her art over her daughter. She lives alone on an island in Sweden and narrates the later part of the novel.

Memories are unreliable. This statement rings true for the reader as well as the characters in Sonata. You may need to read this book twice before everything makes sense. But don’t worry. You’ll want to.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To Kill a Lark Bunting?

When I lived in Japan, the junior high school assistant principal asked me to come up to his desk one day. He handed over a small book that had belonged to his grandfather. In it were his grandfather’s notes taken in an English class. But as I read “dig the latrine,” I realized the English class had taken place in a prison camp. Both horrified and fascinated, I read through the rest of the book and carefully returned it to my boss. Hopefully my red face conveyed what my Japanese could not.

Surrounded by Hello Kitty, sushi and Ninja Warrior , it’s easy to forget there was a time when our two countries were enemies. But Sandra Dallas takes us back to that world where "Nip" does not refer to a cheese cracker.

By the third page of Tallgrass, I had to double check the cover to make sure this wasn’t Harper Lee’s long awaited second novel. Dallas’ characters channel the precocious observations and level headed charm of Scout and Atticus. In this case, Rennie (“Squirt”) and her father Loyal Stroud deal with WWII racial tensions surrounding the internment of Japanese-Americans to a camp near their Colorado beet farm.

The Strouds hire some of the camp residents to help out on the farm, and Loyal becomes the unofficial spokesman for the Japanese-are-decent-folks side of town. Hooligan Beaner Jack and his sidekick Danny do more than their share to represent the opposite view. A couple of murders, pregnancies, and telegrams from the front later, all in the town are examining where they stand.

If you like Hisaye Yamamoto and love Harper Lee, you’ll eagerly mow through Tallgrass.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I Should Have Said

You know how you always think of the perfect comeback -
five minutes/days/years too late?

Nico, the teenage narrator of Goldengrove, informs us the French have a phrase for this – “l'esprit d'escalier.” Nico, like most teenage girls, is obsessed with the wit of the staircase. Even more frustrating than coming up with a stellar retort too late is having an older sister who is never at a loss for words. Nico’s sister Margaret smokes, wears vintage, dates a painter, and sultrily sings jazz standards (“Is your figure less than Greek/Is your mouth a little weak/When you open it to speak/Are you smart?”). Nico takes these lines from “My Funny Valentine” especially to heart since they are the last lines she hears Margaret sing.

After Margaret dies, Nico attempts to work through her grief by doing Margaret things with Margaret’s boyfriend Aaron. No, not that. They go for drives. They watch old movies. But Nico knows all is not innocent. Rather than tell her parents of these outings, she asks one of her father’s bookstore employees, Elaine, to cover for her.

But as the summer progresses, Aaron wants to do other Margaret things. He asks Nico to wear Margaret’s clothes. He asks Nico to eat pistachio ice cream, Margaret’s favorite. After one particularly creepy scene involving the ice cream, Nico is no longer deluded into thinking Aaron is grieving for Margaret but realizes he’s trying to replicate Margaret. Elaine comforts Nico by renting Vertigo – illustrating Aaron isn’t the first guy to dress up a gal to look like a dead girlfriend.

Francine Prose crafts a believable teenage narrator in Nico blending the right amount of insecurity, insolence, and innocence. Sure her father owns a bookstore AND a lake house, but these idyllic settings inform the plot rather than distract from it. Despite the poem referenced by the title of this novel, it is not Margaret, but Nico, you’ll mourn for when the book comes to an end.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Go Ask Amy

She had me from “we are not Kleenex people.”

What’s not to like about a woman who soaks up her divorce tears with a roll of Charmin? After the last tear has been absorbed, Amy Dickinson and her daughter move out of her sister’s house in Freeville, New York to Washington, D.C. No matter where her physical address is, however, home is always Freeville.

One’s true home is an integral theme to Dickinson’s memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville. Although she is a single mother, raised by a single mother, both she and her daughter are always surrounded by an extended family of close sisters - who still meet once a week for a diner breakfast even though they see each other every day anyway.

Her life experiences in and around Freeville read like letters to an advice column:

Dear Amy,
My ex-husband is allergic to cats…

Dear Amy,
My father has just married his fourth wife…

Dear Amy,
My Sunday school student ate Peanut Jesus…

Perhaps this illustrates why Dickinson was chosen to take up Ann Landers’ pen in her advice column "Ask Amy."

If this wasn’t a library book, I would have been tempted to add marginalia like “so true” and “!” throughout chapters entitled “Falling Up” and “Dork Like Me.” However, I wouldn't have wasted any ink on a rather long chapter about her cat Pumpkin.

While I consider subscribing to a newspaper that carries Dickinson’s column for more of her wit and wisdom, I’ll just have to settle for listening to her on NPR. And of course I’ll be on the lookout for the cookbook her mother has always been meaning to write: After the Cat has Licked It.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Book that Changed My Life

This is the book that made me give up meat, that made me live in Japan, that made me attractive to my husband, that made me meet his cousin, that made me read her blog, that made me write this post.

Ironically My Year of Meats inspired me to become a vegetarian in 1999. Prior to reading this book, I had been avoiding red meat for about a year. But Ruth Ozeki’s fictional account of a filmmaker commissioned to inspire Japanese housewives to cook more beef, gave me an acute “allergy” to anything with legs. I use allergy only because it was a handy way to explain my diet when I myself ended up living in Japan in 2000. Luckily tofu needed no translation.

Instructed by Mere’s blog to pay it forward, the first five people to comment on a book that changed your life will receive a personalized list of five book recommendations from me. If you blog, then I challenge you to pay it forward to your readers.

Need more inspiration? Click here to listen to TAL’s piece on the same theme.