River of Dust by Virginia Pye….

Featured

River of Dust@EllenWeeren or @AReasonToRead

Reading this book was a special treat for me because I had the chance to meet Virginia Pye before I read her novel – even got me a signed copy, I did. And, by the by, she is delightful.

This historical novel is set in Northwest China in 1910 and chronicles the lives of a missionary couple whose young son, Wesley, is kidnapped by nomads right before their eyes.

Some reviewers have called this a “dark” novel but I disagree. I think it’s a beautiful (albeit sad) telling of what might happen when parents who, for what they believe is the greater good, willingly expose their child to dangers he would not have experienced otherwise.

It’s a story about birth and loss and guilt and trying to start over under impossible circumstances. It’s the ultimate test of faith –  not just in God but also in the ones we love – it’s the slow unraveling of reasonable madness.

I simply loved it!

The idea of using China as a backdrop for her novel came to Virginia from her grandfather’s journals detailing his time there as, you guessed it, a missionary. She has said the similarities between this story and her grandfather’s end with the setting.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres but the books usually take so long to read. Virginia, however, wonderfully and concisely captured the essence of the time and place, making River of Dust a fairly quick read – and yet, it’s still compelling. I kept wondering what I would do in those circumstances.

I never came to an answer.

This is a story that will stay with you for a long time.

virginia pye2

 

 

 

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell……

Featured

@EllenWeeren or
@AReasonToRead

This debut novel by Lisa O’Donnell is
creating a lot of buzz (tee hee). the death of bees

The story starts out with Marnie sharing that she has buried her parents in her backyard. Readers just as quickly learn that Marnie and her younger sister Nelly are trying to take care of themselves in a house that is literally falling apart while the neighbor’s dog continuously digs up their dad’s bones.

I could see this being a Tim Burton movie. It’s dark and ridiculous at the same time.

It’s a fast read. And I guess it’s YA crossover to Adult – but with all the cussing and adult topics sprinkled in, I’d definitely make sure parents read it first to decide if it’s appropriate for teenaged readers.

The story had a lot of promise – the whole “Death of Bees” opportunity for symbolism was forgotten too early in the story – and parents being buried in the backyard is an intriguing premise – but to me, it all fell short. Things very neatly tied up that weren’t necessarily plausible and things that required more explanation (like how the school continuously ignored the girls situation) weren’t explored enough.

Having said that though, everyone in my book club really liked the book, except me. So there you go.

the time keeper by Mitch Albom……

Featured

If you are familiar with Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, then you already have a sense of the time keeper by Mitch Albom.

by Mitch Albom

by Mitch Albom

I thoroughly enjoyed both of those books, so I was excited to learn about the time keeper. At first, I was a little hesitant to buy in to the whole concept because the book is about understanding time. That is a huge undertaking. It shouldn’t have surprised me for one second that Mitch Albom would be able to pull it off.

In the beginning of the story, we meet the man who will become Father Time – the inventor of the concept of measuring periods of light and darkness. God wants him to understand what he has done and how the world will change because of it – perhaps why time was never meant to be measured in minutes and seconds or even full days and months.

Father Time is asked to think about his creation in isolation for what seems to be an eternity. Then, when he is released, he is tasked with finding two people who are intimately aware of time – one who wants more time and one who wants less.

As the story unfolds we learn about the journey the three embark on separately until their worlds meld and they face the “end of their own time” together.

In true Mitch Albom style, it is a beautiful tale told in fable-like fashion where truth and understanding are the most valuable lessons. We learn why time matters and why it shouldn’t. And we are reminded that our own actions are never performed in a bubble – there is always an impact on someone else.

I highly recommend this book. It can be purchased via Amazon here for $16.49.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht……

Featured

(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

Téa Obreht is a storyteller, there is absolutely no doubt about that.

The Tiger’s Wife is a magical folk-take, rich with layers of simple lore, sophistication, complexity, and then, somehow, simplicity. It celebrates the relationship of Natalia and her grandfather beautifully. It explains how their lives are intertwined and tangled in a way that cements relationships beyond simple DNA.

Her debut novel is intricately laced with details and imagery. I personally have a hard time holding on to a lot of details when I read a complicated story, but I don’t think it matters too much if some of the specifics of this story dangle through the knotted threads of my memory. That is the way of folktales – they slip and tilt with every retelling so that the listener (or reader) gets to enhance it in his own remembrance. The larger layers of the story are clear and strong and vibrant, and they easily carry us through the novel.

The characterizations are fabulous. We get to know the people we are reading about and enjoy their nuances. One of my favorites pieces of the story is when Natalia’s grandmother learns that her husband has died. He was out of town when he died and it took some time for the news to get to the family. Natalia’s grandmother is supposed to observe 40 days of mourning and she is angry that 2 days of mourning have been stolen from her because she washed his clothes, made his bed, and prepared food for him not knowing he was already dead. This piece of the story provides lovely insight into the overwhelming loss the widow feels. So much has been taken from her.

As the story unfolds, we see how the four-year-old Natalia at first holds tight onto her grandfather’s hand as he takes her to the zoo to visit the tiger and on walks through trails. We share in her sense of wanting to keep up with his larger stride and not slip behind, to not slow him down. And then we can understand how Natalia temporarily outgrows her grandfather as her companion for adventure because he might instead slow her down.  All the while, walking in his shadow, as if to see if she can fit inside it without being lost herself. She studies medicine just as he did and lives in his house. She embraces and mimics his passion of caring for children in far-away villages.

Finally she yearns once more for the closeness she once shared with her grandfather and they begin their adventures all over. Then, as the deathless man holds tight to his promise, Natalia loses her grandfather again -this time forever. She connects the readers to him largely by sharing the landscape and the people of his stories with us. Through her, we get to meet the tiger’s wife.

But the story captures more than just the connection between a man and his daughter’s daughter. It reveals how legends are born of gossip and based in fear. How  important histories are often not written in books and stocked away on shelves but are captured in slanted memories and shared over cooling cups of coffee.

As a writer, I enjoyed not only the story but the words Téa used to tell it. She has a fabulous way with prose and there were several passages that I stopped to reread just to enjoy the way they flowed. Here are two examples…

The way is nothing like the drive Zora and I made to Brejevina, though here, too, there are vineyards, shining green and yellow toward the east. Old men cross the road in front of you on foot, behind flocks of newly shorn sheep, taking their time, stopping to wave the fat lambs over, or to take off their shoes and look for bits of gravel that have been bothering them for hours. The fact that you are in a hurry is of no particular interest to them; in their opinion, if you are making your journey in a hurry, you are making it poorly.

And the second is Natalia’s reply after hearing that man with whom she is walking had lost his son and had unexpectedly found his body near the trash…

I said: “I’m sorry,” and regretted it immediately, because it just fell out of my mouth and continued to fall, and did nothing.

This book was fabulous and I highly recommend it!

Up Next – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eudenides

Featured

I started this book a while ago and never finished it. I cannot remember why. But I do remember how much I loved the language of it – some of the passages were simply magically written. Plus, the author is a Pulitzer Prize winner. That can’t be all bad, right? Well, we are about to find out.

(and the picture of the cover is from Amazon)

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga…….

Featured

(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

Written from the perspective of a driver in India, this book made me look at things a little differently – which is good. I happen to be an American living in India right now and I happen to have a driver. Most days I am thrilled to be so fortunate – but there are days when it seems bothersome. This book was a good reminder that my driver surely feels the same way.

The author reveals the ending of the story in the beginning – that Balram murders his boss. This did capture my attention and make me want to find out why. Which may have been the main reason I got through the first 5o or so pages. It started off slow and did not pull me in right away. I was glad I finished it though.

I am still trying to make a clear connection to the title of the book with the storyline – I am sure there is somewhere in the book that this is spelled out and I simply missed it. My best guess is that white tigers are rare and strong and that the main character of this book seems to be someone who is uniquely strong enough to survive in India. And not just survive – but succeed. And like the white tiger – there are those who would like to capture him. Throughout the book, Balram sees wanted posters with his pictures on it. He seems to enjoy hiding in plain sight and taking chances in his own little game of cat and mouse.

Balram Halwai is the main character and the book is basically his letter to the His Excellency Wen Jiabao the Premier of China who is planning to visit India.

In his introduction, Balram explains that even though neither man speaks English, this letter must be written in English because that is the only language in which it can all be explained. This is an interesting paradox in India. It is said to be an “English-speaking” country and in many ways it is. But often things do get lost in translation making for muddled and frustrating communication.

I was never clear on why Balram was writing this letter. Mr. Jiabao was planning a visit to India and Balram claims he wants to share with him the real India. But Balram was a calculated man who really only took action that would result in his own personal gain. So, I found the premise of the book a little weak.

Beyond that though, it was fascinating to “hear” what a driver might think of the people he works for. I think that those of us with drivers forget that the drivers have opinions too. The drivers in this book were mistreated and laughed at and disrespected in many ways. I don’t know how common that really is but we certainly forget that they might not always like us and the things we ask them to do. That they might laugh at our jokes but that sometimes might only be because they believe (or fear) their laughter is tied to keeping their job.

There was also nice insight in the book into the hierarchy of staff in India.

Balram really is not that likeable of a character. He does not send money to help his family back in the village. He is certainly selfish and cocky  and clever. And yet, he is someone you can sympathize with.

Balram’s predicament is one you often see in India. People with lots of smarts do not really have the opportunity to nurture their abilities and are often tempted to use their smarts in clever ways just to survive. And unfortunately, that means sometimes breaking the law.

Balram writes the book at night by the light of a flickering bulb. That is a little how this book felt when I was reading it. Like we were sneaking a peek at the other side of life in small little flashes – and sometimes it is better to see reality in flickers rather than all at once.