The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

23278537TITLE: The Little Paris Bookshop
AUTHOR: Nina George
LENGTH: 365 pages
GENRE: fiction (France, Paris, bookshops, readers, books, relationships, cancer, lovers)
ISBN: 9780553418774
REASON FOR READING: library bookclub
Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country’s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself.MY THOUGHTS:
I’m pretty ambivalent towards this story. It was good more than it was bad–parts of it, especially the traveling on the riverboat bit, were really quite lovely. I’m not sure the plausibility of Perdu and Catherine’s relationship growing as it did–it’s weird because I didn’t have any problem believing in Cuneo’s and Samy’s relationship, which started even odder.The setting and focus on books and reading was nice. Manon’s diary entries, towards the end of her part of the story, hit a little too close to home for me and actually upset me at times. Though I think that was more due to the timing of reading this book.

Blast from the Past–Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

7603Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
5/11/2007-5/30/2007–343 pages–memoir (Islamic Republic of Iran, women, society, education)
Bought summer ’06  from Waldenbooks

Well, seeing as this book was read for the bookclub, most of my feelings have already been discussed. There was one more quote pointed out by another member that I liked–

“Whoever fights monsters should see that in the process he does not become a monster.” ~Nietzsche (p180)

Thinking about that, I’m reminded of A Wind in the Door–“It is the nature of hate to destroy.” And A Swiftly Tilting Planet–“Hate hurts the hater more ‘n the hated.”

Overall, Nafisi’s style didn’t suit me, mostly because of her lack of transition. So that’s why the rate is so low.

—Part 1, May 13, 2007—
The first part of this book, Lolita, was interesting, but at the same time a little confusing for me.
First what was interesting…
I like how Nafisi described each of her students right from the get go. By doing this, it will help me figure out why they may act or respond to certain things. The girls who are more religious (Mashshid and Sanaz) may keep a safter, more conservative stance on some issues that creep up during discussions. And their discussions could still be more uninhibited due to the censor of the window. What is seen through the window is completely different from the women’s every day life, and it helped them to forget they had to act as others would want them to. By forgetting all that was “wrong” with their world, they were able to feel more comfortable in their own skin, even if they orally can’t define themselves.
During this part, Nafisi also explains many problems with the Islamic Republic of Iran. For instance, why she quit as a professor. The system was under such strict regulation, all had difficulty teaching properly for worry of using something bad. It’s sort of the way the NCLB Act worries me, but I know it’s on a smaller scale because it won’t be as strict as the IRI. Aside from school, there’s also the role of women and how it’s changed. I’ll use of quote of Nafisi speaking of Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights. “The virgins, who, unlike Sheherazade, have no voice in the story, are mostly ignored…They surrender their virginity and their lives, without resistance or pretest. They do not quite exist…” The virgins resemble the women in the IRI. They are “seen” as invisible (“they do not quite exist”) and they are submissive to their male relatives (“without resistance”). Although Nafisi doesn’t directly point this similarity out, I think that’s why she included it.
Another aspect of the woman role in the IRI Nafisi included at the end of the part the difference between generations. Nafisi’s generation was able to experience everything which came to be outlawed. But the generation of her students barely glimpsed the freedom once felt. They may be envious because they hear about the women complaining of missing it and so it, therefore, must be worth wanting. So, is what Khaled Hosseini said in The Kite Runner true? “It always hurts more to have and lose than to not have in the first place.” There could be many answers.
Nafisi also explains that the girls are never able to see themselves clearly. They, like many women probably, can only see themselves as they should be, through others’ eyes. Even when the window censors out the daily life they can’t see themselves as they are, even if they can act as themselves.
So now, for what a bit confusing. At the beginning of Chapter 10, Nafisi declares that they, the women/girls, are not Lolita, that the government is not Humbert, and that Iran is not Humbert’s world. But in every way Nafisi describes anything in Lolita, it seems so similar to the life of Iranian women she describes. Now, I’ve never read Lolita, so I can’t say they are the same. Because I don’t personally know much about Iranian women either. But I see similarities between both anytime one is mentioned. Am I misunderstanding Nafisi? Because I can’t figure out why. On page 50, Manna is describing ways the IRI is similar to Lolita. But Nafisi said they weren’t. I’ll have to ask someone.

—Part 2, May 22, 2007—
While reading this second part, “Gatsby”, I was a bit confused at first. The part was so unlike the first and I wasn’t sure at first if I liked it. The first part was more about Nafisi’s bookclub than about her life story. But I did like actually learning her past. The change in presentation was just sudden.
Secondly, I liked this part because I have read The Great Gatsby and so I knew why the literary allusions were significant. Now, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading the book for school, but I still understood what was happening.
“America can’t do a damn thing against us! This is not a struggle between the US and Iran, it’s a struggle between Islam and blasphemy” (p104). This is a nice thought, but the US must always be involved with everything. Case and point: Korean & Vietnam wars.
I loved the whole conversation about the American Dream. It was practically American Studies from three years ago all over again, but with a better understanding. During the trial of Gatsby in Nafisi’s class, the Muslims felt that he was at fault because the fiction had the ability to persuade readers it was true and should be taken as fact. “There was, for Mr. Nyazi, no difference between the fiction of Fitzgerald and the facts of his own life” (p120). But that quote really depicts the idea that fiction and reality are different. Take Zarrin’s closing of the trial: “Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they go whaling after reading Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that” (p135). She points out that by arguing fiction as reality, you are really only arguing  your own ignorance to not be able to tell the difference. This is what my mom argues when I read Harry Potter.
“Americans have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future” p109
“The dream is not about money, but what he imagines he can become. It is not a comment on America as a materialistic country, but as an idealistic one, one that has turned money into a means of retrieving a dream” p142

—Part 3, May 23, 2007—
So I finished the third section for the discussion. This part mainly dealt with the war between Iran and Iraq and her formal expulsion from the university.
My favorite part was the story Nafisi recorded from her friend Lelah about the security guard and the chase 🙂 It was very hilarious.
I found the way Nafisi described her days after expulsion, feeling “fictional,” was interesting. It seems very possible of all people, well women at least, to have an identity crisis when someone is trying to make all the same. I have a feeling Nafisi as a fictional character probably felt she was in a nightmarish story. The conformation of Nafisi reminds me of all those dystopic novels I’ve read before with mindless drones for people (Anthem, The Giver, etc.)
I also found Nafisi’s moral dilemma interesting: wearing the veil or not educating thousands of minds? I don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d been in her place. Maybe the same, but I hope it never comes down to a choice like that for me (or anyone else).

—Part 4, May 24, 2007—
As I’m realizing, I don’t really care for Nafisi’s organization. It’s clearly not chronologically presented, nor really spatially. Most of it may be chronological in general, but the randomness of parts about the books really messes me up. I find I enjoy the writing more if any passages dealing with literature and allusions are left out. For instance, Chapter 23 was completely irrelevant. The chapter just included a short biography of Henry James. But wait–isn’t this a memoir of Nafisi? Whose life am I reading to learn about? The only relevant point brought out in this chapter is found in the last paragraph. Another time at least Nafisi forewarns in the first sentence she’s digressing from her own life (26).
“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” (Henry James p247)
“It takes courage to die for a cause, but also to live for one” (p249).

—Part 5, May 30, 2007—
Well, as with the Gatsby section, I liked this more because I’d read the material being discussed. But, thinking back, I don’t really think Nafisi was discussing books so much as just finishing her period of life in Iran.
At the beginning of this part, Nafisi finally really returns to the class and her girls. There was a chapter dealing with the structure of Austen’s works. I really loved the analogy, but it was basically irrelevant to the story. Speaking of analogies, at the end Nafisi says living in the IRI is like sleeping with a man you loathe. This was also a good analogy and actually relevant too 🙂
I would like to point out a few connections I thought of. First, many people were afraid to leave for the US because they knew they’d probably have to start overa gain. There was a Boy Meets World episode (“Security Guy” Seaso 4, Episode 20) in which Eric doesn’t want to attempt the SATs and he just gets a job rather than going to college. His fellow seecurity guard, from the Middle East, had been an engineer, but had to prove that again in the US. It made me realize people are willing to do all the schooling again because they just need to be here, in the US. I commend these people.
The other connection, if you’d call it that, was figuring out Nafisi’s writing style. I think she basically wrote with few transitions making it seem so random. And I realized that is how one writes in a diary. If it’d been in diary form, it would’ve been simpler to read so as to not really confuse.
A favorite passage: “Things that come naturally to me are considered sinful, so how am I supposed to act?” (p326, Mitra)


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

18143977TITLE: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
LENGTH: 530 pages
GENRE: historical fiction (France, Germany, WWII, soldiers, occupation, war)
ISBN: 9781476746586
REASON FOR READING: local library book club pick

SUMMARY (from Goodreads):

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

MY THOUGHTS: My favorite war to read/learn about is WWII, so it was no surprise when I found this book really interesting. It was a quick read. The story reads from three simultaneous storylines, but mostly going back and forth between the young French girl Marie-Laure and young German boy Werner. The chapters are very short, and the sections of the book go from the day they meet back to the beginning of how their lives first became connected. I was constantly intrigued because I wanted to know how they finally meet, if that was the case because I wasn’t sure it would end that well.

The only part I didn’t like about the book was the end, when we jumped from 1944 to the 1970s, and then further to 2014. Had this been an epilogue, I might not have even read it. I don’t usually like big time jumps like this. I actually would personally prefer for the story to end with a little mystery so I can think what I like about the characters’ futures. So, once the story hit the end of the 1944 section, I would’ve rather just had the story finish. No continuing from 1944 to 1945 with a completely undeveloped minor character and then on to 1974 and 2014. There was an air of mystery in the end, but not enough for me…

Q & A–an interesting traverse through India

TitleQ & A
Author: Vikas Swarup
Genre: fiction
ISBN: 9780743267472
318 pages
: 2005
Source: public library
Rating: 4/5
Challenges/ResolutionsTravel the Globe Resolution (and Further Exploration)

This is the fourth round (of six) for my Travel the Globe Resolution, which I’m doing with a blogger friend, Shannon at Giraffe Days. Here is her post from a book set in India, The Inheritance of Loss.

Q & A is a novel, set in present day India (2005 is when it was published). The story is essentially a compilation of memories from Ram Mohammad Thomas’ past–about a 13 year span, as he, like us, doesn’t remember much from before the age of 5–and these memories help him explain to a lawyer how he truthfully knew the answers to the Indian quiz game show Who Will Win a Billion? We thus hear of Thomas’ entire childhood. While the memories are presented out of order, it’s not all that confusing to read. I think the story flows well, almost as if it is a collection of related short stories.

Throughout the entire story, we travel between three major Indian metropolises: Mumbai, Dehli, and Agra. I loved the way Thomas described the people and lifestyles he grew up with:

“Those who live in their marble and granite four-bedroom flats, they enjoy. The slum people, those who live in squalid, tattered huts, they suffer. And we, who reside in the overcrowded chawls, we simply live.” (p56)

If these three classes are the only three which Thomas truly believes exists, it makes me feel happy that he belongs to the middle class. While his “middle class” and the American sense of the term are very different, it helped me identify more with him. The fact that he had people better and worse off than him made him seem like more than a character in a book. By no means am I saying that I can identify with Thomas–I was/am not an orphan, I didn’t have to work to survive (not until I was almost 19 anyways), and I had a very stable childhood.

It was difficult for me to gather much that was serious or informational about India from this book. With the past three books I’ve read for my Travel the Globe Resolution, I have purposefully chosen books that center around recent (within the last 50 years) major issues to the cultures in the book. (I have to admit that I checked this book out only a week ago because I had thought I needed a book for Ireland, which is due for October 😦 ) The class distinction was the most prevalent issue in this book.

“There are those who will say that I brought this upon myself. By dabbling in that quiz show. They will wag a finger at me and remind me of what the elders in Dharavi say about never crossing the dividing line that separates the rich from the poor. After all, what business did a penniless waiter have participating in a brain quiz? The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use. We are supposed to use only our hands and legs.” (p2)

I like the following illustration of this as well:

“Why did she have to arrange such a lavish wedding for her sister? You people who are poor should never try to overreach yourselves. Stay within your limits and you will not get into trouble.” (p278, Swapna Devi)

And abuse was something that appeared to make frequent appearances:

“You are a young orphan boy. You have not seen life. But I know the daily stories of wife beating and abuse and incest and rape, which take place in chawls all over Mumbai. Yet no one does anything. We Indians have this sublime ability to see the pain and misery around us and yet remain unaffected by it. So, like a proper Mumbaikar, close your eyes, close your ears, close your mouth and you will be happy like me.” (p68)

The following are quotes that I liked, but have no real relevance to anything above.

“But people always remember Marilyn Monroe and Madhubala as young because they died young. The lasting image people have of you is how you looked at the time of your death.” (p228, Neelima)

I have to say I disagree with this. There are plenty of deceased movie stars that I remember as young, but lived to an old age, such as Audrey Hepburn. There are even some that are simply old and alive now, but when I hear their names I think of them in their prime, such as Julie Andrews.

“…dying an honorable death is better than living a coward’s life.” (p29)

Yes, perhaps a little cheesy. But true, nevertheless.

My General Thoughts: In general I did enjoy this book. I can’t remember anything about Slumdog Millionaire (the movie version), so I’m sure that this is a very accurate feeling. While I don’t normally like short stories, or even those which make up a collective story, I think this read a lot like short stories, but I liked it.

One question I do have is, what’s with all the pervvy old men?! Men fondling boys, men taking advantage of other men, men taking advantage of boys, men wanting their daughters–I was beginning to wonder if there’d be a pervert in every chapter! But that stopped after the first four, for the most part. Of which I’m glad. It didn’t really make me uncomfortable. But enough is enough.

Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (thoughts on Part III & review)

TitleBalzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie
Genre: historical fiction (semi-autobiographical)
ISBN: 9780375413094
Length: 197 pages
Published: 2000 (in French, 2002 English)
Source: personal collection
Rating: 3/5
Resolutions/Challenges: none

Reason for Reading: It was in my personal collection and my online book club (Rory’s Book Club) was reading it.

Summary (from book jacket):

At the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for “re-education.” The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin–as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor.

But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.

My Thoughts (about the book in general): In general, I felt rather indifferent towards this book. I didn’t find anything to be overwhelmingly amazing and interesting, nor horribly boring and pathetic. While I found the setting–both time and place–interesting, I didn’t feel like I got much out of the story that would be educational. Yeah, I know that just because it was set in a tumultuous time, that doesn’t mean it has to have a tumultuous story.

Part III Thoughts (for RBC discussion located here)(SPOILERS):

(Here is my post about Parts I & II)

When Dai mentioned those authors’ names, I first thought, “Why so many French writers?” Upon thinking it over, it’s possible that these were authors Dai might have read around the time of his own re-education. I mean, be did move to France after he left Communist China. So I’m thinking there are two possibilities: either Dai read these authors when they were forbidden and they made him choose to live in France or he picked French writers because he moved to France.

I am left a little unfulfilled in the respect that I never learned what the narrators name was. He even described the “three figures representing the three Chinese characters constituting my name.” These were a galloping horse, a pointed sword, and a bell with lots of strokes around it. I suppose I could try to figure it out by Googling these descriptions 🙂 But why did he never say? So many chances to tell, but never did.

“It would evidently take more than a political regime, more than dire poverty to stop a woman from wanting to be well dressed: it was a desire as old as the world, as old as the desire for children.” (p130)
^^^I just found this to be pretty funny 🙂

The random chapters narrated by the miller, Luo, and the Little Seamstress I didn’t enjoy very much. I felt they were out of place with the rest of the story, especially because there wasn’t really any significance to the change of voice. Nothing special happened in these chapters to make the narrative switch necessary. Just another somewhat odd question I have (like the narrator’s name).

I was pretty sure that the narrator and the LS were going to betray Luo’s trust. I was thinking of the love triangle in the movie Pearl Harbor where one guy leaves and his best friend moves in on the girl (although in the movie, they thought he was dead, so it was a legit switch). There were lots of clues I saw to that effect. But I was wrong. This didn’t happen, at all. Although I hadn’t really foreseen the LS’s pregnancy. And I definitely didn’t think she’d run off the way she did. I mean, I didn’t think exactly that she and Luo would end up happily ever after. But I hadn’t expected her to run away.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Parts I & II discussion for RBC (SPOILERS)

Here are my thoughts on the first half of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I’m reading this for a book club discussion, hosted at Rory’s Book Club (RBC) (click here to see the discussion threads).

I’ve found this book to be very interesting so far. I haven’t really spent a lot of time in communist China in books before, so it is very interesting to read about that time. My book’s blurb about the author says that he was re-educated between 1971-1974. And I think that makes me more intrigued by the story–the fact that it’s semi-autobiographical. Or at least that mountain villages and people are somewhat accurate in representation, since he experienced them first-hand.

I, of course, enjoy the fact that much of the story centers on Luo and the narrator (I don’t recall his name being mentioned yet) attaining forbidden books. One has to wonder, would they want to read them if they were allowed to? Or, given the chance, would they read Eastern classics over Western ones? Personally, I’ve never read anything by any of these authors except Dumas. (Authors mentioned were Balzac, Hugo, Stendhal, Dumas, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Romain Rolland, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Kipling and E Bronte.)

I have to say that I’m a little surprised that the narrator and Luo didn’t fight over the Little Seamstress. And Luo is the more confident one, as far as the storytelling goes. I can’t help but wonder, if the Little Seamstress is so beautiful, how the narrator has no feelings of wanting her at all. It’s a little strange that we don’t really know anything about Luo’s and the Little Seamstress’s relationship–but all of the sudden, the narrator mentions that they had sex (and even a little detail, at that!). It makes me wonder whether or not that relationship really means anything. But, then again, the narrator just might not relate everything Luo says. The narrator seems to feel inferior to Luo, but is totally okay with it. And I find that a little strange…

Oh, and I’m wondering if there’s any significance to that rooster clock. If the villagers went through all the belongings that the two boy brought with them and saw anything of value, they could’ve taken it and made it “community property”, couldn’t they? (If they were true communists and shared everything, that is.) Or maybe they were just supposed to take away anything “revolutionary”. Either way, it seems like the headman, who so admired the clock, could easily just take it away from the boys. What role will the clock take later, I wonder…

On a previous note, I wonder why the narrator has no name. Even when asked his name by Four-Eyes’ mother, he replied with Luo’s name. What’s the significance to this?!

Bliss by OZ Livaneli–a trek through Turkey

Author: OZ Livaneli
Genre: fiction
ISBN: 9780312360535
276 pages
: 2002 (2006 English translation)
Source: public library
Rating: 3.5/5
Challenges/ResolutionsTravel the Globe Resolution (and Further Exploration)

This is the third round (of six) for my Travel the Globe Resolution, which I’m doing with a blogger friend, Shannon at Giraffe Days.

OZ Livaneli’s Bliss is a novel in which three very different people unite and ultimately separate. These three people–Meryem, Cemal, and Irfan–represent three very different groups of people in contemporary Turkey.

Meryem is a fifteen-year-old girl living in a small rural village in Anatolia (that’d be eastern Turkey). From the Western viewpoint, she might seem very “oppressed”, but she doesn’t consider herself so because she knows no other life than the one where all women are sinners simply because of their gender and are subjugated to men. In this case, the “helpless fifteen-year-old girl who has no rights as a woman” has been raped by her uncle, a sheikh. This seems to me like the book would just intensify stereotypes like those some people might hold about women in Muslim/Middle Eastern countries (like my mom and grandma, actually). Not sure if this was intentional or not.

Cemal is an ex-commando who just finished his two year (mandatory) stint in the Turkish army. It was his father that raped Meryem (so they are cousins). His father doesn’t tell him what exactly Meryem did to “shame the family”, but he charges him with taking her away to Istanbul to “deal with the problem” (aka, kill her).

And Irfan is a professor of middle age. Married very well-off and living in the modern world where the customs of a village like Meryem’s are practically nonexistant except for political reasons. He is plagued by some crazy psychological ailment in which he basically fears doing the same thing day in and day out–a fear of knowing what is coming and the mundanity of it all. So, he makes a HUGE change in his life

The setting of the story, which takes place in the present, is in various places around Turkey. It starts in east Turkey, called Anatolia. Then, Meryem and Cemal trek west across the whole country to Istanbul. Finally, they work their way south to the Aegean coast.

As for more serious things, there are some issues brought up in the book. First and foremost, the whole helpless girl being raped and it being her fault as a religious issue is there. Then there are the political tensions brought up–the Turks and Kurds are fighting and there is an Islamist Revolution a la 1970s Iran present in bigger cities.

Cemal and Irfan, as characters, were a little annoying to me at times. They seemed to whine and complain and be depressed about anything and everything. Yeah, I know everyone complains from time to time. But it was fairly constant from them. Meryem, on the other hand, didn’t complain much at all. She was completely naive to the fact that the other girls from the village who went to Istanbul and never came back didn’t come back for a ghastly reason. I didn’t really connect with any of the characters and felt that I shared basically no similarities with them at all. As I said before, Meryem might seem oppressed in the Western sense of the word. And I am not oppressed by any means. I liked the fact that until Meryem had left her village near Lake Van and seen more of the country–especially the more “developed” parts–she had no problem with her life. She saw nothing wrong or amiss, and I’m not saying there was. I hadn’t realized that it such a modern world and in a country like Turkey with some very developed parts of the country that there could be such “backward” places and communities. I don’t mean that I think they are backwards, but I can’t think of a better word. (I mean, primitive and undeveloped also sound just as bad, to me.) Oh, and as far as Irfan goes, I’m very different. I appreciate spontaneity sometime, but mostly I like to know what to expect, even if it is the same “mundane” routine for the most part.

Something that I mentioned earlier is one thing that I hadn’t realized. I mentioned that Turkey was/is going through an Islamist Revolution when this story is taking place. But I didn’t realize that this was happening so recently in Turkey. From my very limited and uncomprehending Western knowledge of Islamist Revolutions in the Middle East, it seems weird wanting more regulations and whatnot. A step backward, in my mind. But I have been brought up to think that democracy is the best sort of government, especially a la the USA in respect to all our freedoms. So repression of freedoms I already have and take for granted boggles my mind. But I don’t want to get into anything political, so I’m stopping there.

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin–a trip to Cambodia

TitleThe Disappeared
Author: Kim Echlin
Genre: fiction
ISBN: 9780802170668
227 pages
: 2009
Source: public library
Rating: 3/5
Challenges/Resolutions: Travel the Globe Resolution (and Further Exploration)

This is the second round (of six) for my Travel the Globe Resolution, which I’m doing with a blogger friend, Shannon at Giraffe Days.
Read Shannon’s review of The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman, her pick for Cambodia.

Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared is a very haunting novel, set amidst the political and military turmoil of Cambodia in the late 20th century. The story starts in Montreal, where 16-year-old Anne Greves meets Serey, a Cambodian man who studies mathematics and sings in a rock band. They fall deeply in love, but not too long after they meet, Cambodia’s borders are opened (1979) and Serey decides to go home to attempt to find the family he was unable to get back to for four years because of the Khmer Rouge. Anne, only sixteen, stays in Montreal and about ten years after Serey leaves, she thinks she sees him in some news footage on television and heads of to find him. She does find him, but she has a very Westernized view of democracy and the “democracy” in place in Cambodia doesn’t follow suit. The ending is tragic, in more ways than one.

The book spans about a 30-year period, starting near 1979 when Cambodia’s borders were reopened. Much of the story, however, is set around 1989-1990, when the occupying Vietnamese troops left the country to the UN and other Western aid organizations. It is around 1989 when Anne goes to Cambodia to find Serey. Much of the action is set in Phnom Penh, the capital, where Anne and Serey start their life together. Anne thinks she knows what she is getting into and what she will see because she has seen the news footage of death and destruction, but she isn’t quite prepared for what she sees. Echlin describes the post-war country with great ease. Her writing does not describe what everything looks like, per se, but rather she uses Anne’s narrative to display the country. Anne spends much of her time simply walking around and talking to many people. Through these seemingly unimportant characters, Anne reveals what the country is like by recounting the war’s affects on its people. I have a quote from one of those characters that I think illustrates my point:

Under Sihanouk, people used to greet each other, How many children have you? Under Lon Nol, people said, Are you well? Under the Khmer Rouge, How much food do you get in your cooperative? Now we say, How many of your family are still alive? (p103)

Doesn’t that paint a grave picture? I think it was especially powerful because it describes what life had been like–prosperous–and it described how the country fell into it’s current state of destruction, more than politically speaking.

Obviously, much of the secondary focus of this book is set on how the people in Cambodia are recovering from the past decades of war and military occupation. I say this is only the secondary focus because the greatest focus is set on how much Anne loves Serey (but I’ll explain more about in just a minute). I did not know very much about this time in history for this area of the world. When I did my student teaching in a World History course, I left the school right after the Cold War (universities here are done at least a month before public schools, so I graduated 🙂 ), so this would’ve been in my next unit. Yes, I’ve heard of the Khmer Rouge and assumed it was either a communist or socialist political group (it was communist). You see, I didn’t even learn about this stuff in college, so Western focused was my education that this would be overlooked for the Vietnam War 😦 Since I was so unaware of this area of the world at this time, I got a timeline of political activity in Cambodia and wrote it on a post-it, keeping it in my book so I could refer back. Like with Potiki set in New Zealand, I got what I wanted out of this book: a story set amidst all of the turmoil in Cambodia so that I could learn a little. If the book didn’t teach me all I wanted to know, it would at least force me to research into it a little, just like Potiki did. Everything I wanted to know about the country was in the book, except the basics which I think I need to understand aren’t always explained in works of fiction. Perhaps this means I should sort of research BEFORE I read, so I have the background, instead of waiting for me to wonder at what the characters are talking about and then researching into it.

Going back to the love part of the story, it was actually my least favorite part of the story. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate love and romance in a novel as much as the next person. However, I did not like the way Echlin went about it in this novel. Now, I never studied English so please, forgive me if I really mess up when trying to explain this :/ Anne is the sole narrator of this novel. Serey is the only other character I would describe as a “main character”. All of the story is Anne narrating the story to Serey. For example: “I [Anne] walked into the Globe on Sihanouk Boulevard and I saw you [Serey] standing at the bar” (p71). I found this all quite annoying. Why tell the story to the only other character and to someone who experienced it with you the first time? Shouldn’t they remember? I figured, unless she is recounting all of this to Serey because he had amnesia (which he didn’t), there was no reason for the story to be written that way. Echlin should have, in my opinion, had a third even unnamed character to whom Anne was directing the narrative, or even to the reader himself/herself. This “talking between two characters” the whole time made me feel uninvited to the story, even alienated. I think the story could have been just as powerful had the story been narrated differently.

However, I did like the rest of the story–when it wasn’t concentrated on Anne and Serey’s love. If it was just the two of them living their lives, I liked it. But once Anne went profusely on and on about how much she loved Serey, I got annoyed and felt like she hadn’t changed at all from that 16-year-old who fell in love with him.

Which brings up another point: Anne’s character. I can’t make up my mind about her. She is very passionate and she doesn’t easily let go of the things she loves. She won’t leave the past alone, even though all of the other characters in the novel, at some point or other, tell her to let the past be the past and to move on. But she won’t! Now, I’ve never lost someone incredibly close to me, so I can’t say that I would be able to give it up easily either. But I would hope that after 10-15 years, I would have moved on with my life. Sure, thinking about the lost is okay; but letting it affect you so that your life has so much pain and so many problems for years to come isn’t healthy, I think.

This is not the cover my book came with, but I actually like it better than the one I had. I understand this cover more, where I don’t exactly understand all of the things included on the cover above.

a trip to New Zealand via Potiki by Patricia Grace

Author: Patricia Grace
Genre: fiction
ISBN: 97800955915611
Length: 203 pages
Year Published: 1986
Source: personal collection
Rating: 3/5
Challenges/ResolutionsPersonal Collection Resolution; Travel the Globe Resolution/Further Exploration

Potiki is a novel by Maori author Patricia Grace. The story takes place in New Zealand, following the Tamihana family. The time period and location of the story aren’t mentioned precisely. It is, however, mentioned that the location is on the coast–the Tamihanas live on land between a rocky beach and hills (I’m not familiar with the topography of New Zealand, but it seems this could describe many coastal areas.) As for the time period, it seems to me that the story is not very far in the past, and the book was published in 1986. And because of modern conveniences that are mentioned–jet boats, for one–is a clue that it can’t be too “historical” in nature. The characters portray a wide range of people–coming from a family of four children, this really struck me. Tangi, James, Manu, and Toko are all very different from each other and, at the same time, have similarities–this describes my sisters and me to a T. And the larger Tamihana family are portrayed, the aged granny, the mentally handicapped aunt, the strong father and mother, amongst them. Characters are developed and find themselves throughout the story.

For the most part, the story focuses on the Tamihana family and the “power people” who want to buy their family land to turn it into a tourist resort. This is what initially interested me when I began looking for books set in New Zealand. I wanted to read a book that had a large focus on a struggle between the native population of the Maoris and the “intruding” white people. It just happened that this book promised such a struggle in the form of traditional family land being coveted by the enterprising white businessmen. I was particularly interested in the thirteenth chapter, when the “Dollarman” (really a Mr. Dolman) was a representative of the businessmen just wasn’t understanding why the Tamihanas wouldn’t sell their land if their wharenui (meeting house) was moved in it’s perfect state to another location. Here’s a bit of the conversation:

‘Mr Dolman, no amount of money….’
‘Well now, wait a minute. We have, since our previous communication, had another look at the figures. I’d like to….’
‘Mr Dolman, I know we’re hurrying you, but it’s only fair that you should know. There is nothing you can say, no words, no amount of money….’
‘But look. I’m not sure that you have fully understood…Your land here would skyrocket. Your value would go right up….’

‘Everything we want and need is here.’

‘We’re not getting very far with this are we?…I must say I expected you people to be more accommodating….’
‘Not so accommodating as to allow the removal of our wharenui, which is our meeting place, our identity, our security. Not so accommodating as to allow the displacement of the dead and the disruption of a sacred site.’ (p104-106)

The Tamihanas had friends in Te Ope–I’m not sure if that is a city, an area, or even officially anything in New Zealand–possibly just invented for the purposes of the story. But the Maori people of Te Ope had their land taken away from them during war to be used as a landing field. After the war, the Maori did not get their land back. Rather, the land was made into a park while they just stood by and watched, because their homes had been destroyed. As I was trying to find out about Te Ope, whether it was a real place or people, I stumbled upon an article in Wikipedia (yes, possibly not the most reliable article) about the Maori protest movement that occurred during the 1960s-1970s, at the same time of civil rights movements all across the world. I found out about a Raglan Golf Course, in which land was taken from Maori owners during WWII for an airstrip and then the land was leased to and developed by a golf course. (Eventually, in the 1970s, the Maori occupied the land and successfully regained the territory, from what I understand.) Sound similar? I really do wonder if the mention of people from Te Ope was to include a fictional parallel to the real past. And I wish that I knew more about the history of that part of the world (Oceania). In school here, we focus so much on the United States and Europe, I think sometimes we forget that there is more to the Oceania region than being colonized hundreds of years ago. I think I would like to learn a bit more about this area through historical fiction–any suggestions?

Back to the story, the fact that the “power people” actually went to extremes to get the land from the Tamihanas just made my feelings about the issue stronger. I’ve often been upset how the Native Americans were treated in regards to their lands, and the fact that somehow native peoples everywhere tend to be treated in such as way just makes me so mad.

The stories had changed. It was as Toko had said, the stories had changed. And our lives had changed. We were living under the machines, and under a changing landscape, which can change you, shift the insides of you.
Above all we lived under the threat and destructiveness of the power people, and we had only really begun to understand the power.
Before the burning of the house we had known and felt our own strength, which had come from knowing ourselves, and from knowing a direction. But after that time, the time of the fire, we began to really live with fear, and with a question in our minds as to what else could happen, what else could be done in an attempt to destroy us. Was the strength of our own feet enough? Was it enough to have feet on ground? ‘Because it’s not ordinary,’ Reuben warned. ‘Not just a dirty game. They’ve found money won’t shift you and they’ll want to push you off, frighten you, get you off somehow. We mustn’t think it’s just a dirty game that they’ll become tired of sooner or later. They can’t help it, can’t stop. Can’t think, because they have become just like their machines.’

My (Other) Thoughts: As far as the book aside from these points is concerned, I did like the story. It was what I expected, as far as the native vs. alien struggle. And, I often found the language to be very lyrical while reading. But while all of this is true, I was confused. There were many different narrators in the story: Roimata, Hemi, Toko, Mary. But then there was a very roundabout way of telling the story. I don’t know, but perhaps that is a Maori story-telling tradition? It felt as though, while reading it, I knew it was right but I just didn’t feel like I was reading it the right way. (Does that make any sense? 🙂 )

One thing I definitely didn’t like about the book was all of the Maori words that went unexplained. Whether stand-alone words or complete sentence, the foreign language was never defined. Whole sentences or poems/songs were in Maori and never translated–I have no idea what they mean. For this reason, I sort of felt alienated as a reader, like I didn’t belong 😥 I’m accustomed to a foreign language, being explained as it goes along. Like, “……wharenui, meeting house,….” or something. I looked up a few of the Maori words, but most of them I could understand through the context. But the longer bits of Maori I couldn’t understand 😦

I would, however, recommend this book to anyone looking for what I was searching: a portrayal of the life of Maori people juxtaposed with the “power people” and/or in more modern times. If you’d like a fun book about New Zealand, I don’t think this is exactly the way to go.

Read Shannon’s review of Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones–her New Zealand pick–at Giraffe Days 🙂

Tenant of Wildfell Hall Ch. 29-40 (RBC discussion, SPOILERS)

This third section is, I think, my favorite of the whole book so far. It’s just really interesting because there is a lot going on and we finally get some answers to some questions.

To begin with, we finally figure out what exactly it is that Mr. Huntingdon did to tick off Helen: he had an affair with Annabella (Lady Lowborough). But I thought it was interesting that this wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. But, then again, with the time-period the book I can understand why it is that Helen didn’t leave as soon as she found out about the affair. Helen stuck it out for about two years, living at home with her “husband”–I’m sure if they had Facebook, their relationship status would’ve been “separated” or “in an open relationship” 🙂 Anyways…I give Helen a lot of credit for sticking it out. It must be hell to live alongside a person whom you hate. But, as I don’t have children of my own, I don’t think that I could empathize with her. I won’t know until I have children just what I’d go through for them. (Although I know I would go through a lot for my husband, sisters, and other close family/friends.) But what made Helen decide to finally leave Mr. Huntingdon was that little Arthur, at the tender age of four, was already mimicking his father 😦 I cannot imagine a four-year-old behaving the way Helen described it. (I have to admit that the first thing I thought of in regards to a tipsy tot was Stewie from Family Guy, an American cartoon.) But that would definitely scare me into wanting to leave!

But then something pretty unexpected happened, and right at the end of our section! Mr. H found out that Helen was planning to run away and confiscated pretty much anything of hers with value so she couldn’t get money. So we’re left with a cliff hanger before the next section, leaving us wanting to know how she ends up leaving him if he did this. I mean, maybe he does end up dying, although the fact that Helen acts as a fugitive makes it appear he’s alive and well. But, at least now we know at least one of the bad things Mr. H did.

One thing that I noticed about the men in this section is that they tend to know when they are behaving like imbeciles. Mr. H, for example, was misbehaving in order to gain attention. Well, at least from Helen’s biased viewpoint 🙂 And Hattersley basically told Helen that he couldn’t be bothered to think about what he does. He wants Millicent to be his moral compass–to tell him when he does wrong–so that he doesn’t have to be bothered to think. Hattersley just seems lazy when I tells Helen this. And Mr. H appears needy. But I think that these are weird behavior patterns to gain what they want. If they know that they’re not doing good/right things, why bother doing them at all? Mr. H should remember that he’d be paid attention for good and not just bad–Helen always doted on him when he did right. But I’m pretty glad that I personally don’t know anyone who acts like this…at least not all the time 🙂

So, the questions I still need answered are these: How is Mr. Lawrence involved in Helen’s plight? How did Helen finally run away? and Does Mr. H actually track them down (if alive, which I think he is) before the book ends?