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Thursday, February 28, 2013

FOR THE LOVE OF VENICE by DONNA JO NAPOLI

For the Love of Venice



I did not realize that this was a story more geared to youngsters till I read it. Set in Venice it is about a family of Americans - father engineer, wife and two sons who set out to Venice. Father is involved in the famous scheme of putting up concrete walls to prevent the 'bora' of water coming into Venice and flooding the city which it does periodically with much devastation. Percy and Christopher totally American find themselves as aliens in this Venetian environment but very gamely take it head on, improve their Italian language skills, take in the culinary delights other than pizza and soldier on.

There is teenage romance and more importantly a bit of political action. Venetians according to this part of the story are tired of everything being geared towards tourists. Apparently even buildings cannot be renovated or even propped up so that they could be safe, as the municipal authorities want to keep it authentic ancient and Venetian. The population of Venice is dwindling and from 700,000 has fallen to 200,000 and according to the story the population is an elderly one with youngsters fleeing elsewhere. 

The group of youngsters involved in the campaign to keep EXPO out of Venice are concerned for their city and the Venetians and want to keep it a living city, not a city which is like a museum for the dead and history only. 

The book brought out facets which I think are little known to anyone. My copy is an old one but I presume the facts are similar. Properties are bought by rich foreigners who use it once a year as a holiday home. For the rest of the year the house is boarded up. Young Venetian families cannot find a place to live, there is no new accommodation and marriage has to be put off. I have heard of similar stories in rural Provence and the South of France. On the other hand we would have ruins of palazzos and buildings if the foreigners did not buy them, because the local populace does not have the means of maintaining these buildings.  

Coming from a country which is also dependent on tourism for its economy, I did not think of resentment on the part of the locals against foreigners. I sincerely hope it is not there in Sri Lanka because that would be foolish. We earn from tourism a great deal and the benefits are numerous. In this book however, there is an underlying sense of resentment that foreigners though bringing in the money are not really desirable and why they have to cater to them at all is questioned.

I have no answers for Venetians but despite this being a teenage romance with a bit of politics thrown in, I enjoyed the detailed description of Venetian life. 



Tuesday, February 26, 2013

THE GRAVEDIGGER'S DAUGHTER by JOYCE CAROL OATES

The Gravedigger's Daughter


My first read of an author who is prolific I understand. The story is around Rebecca Schwart the youngest in a very dysfunctional immigrant family. Father former Maths teacher and now a gravedigger, paranoid with suspicion of everything and everyone, everyone is out to get you. Fresh from persecutions in Munich suffering indignities of every kind, he comes to America with huge expectations. His wife on the other hand is made to feel even more terrified than her husband and is paralysed with fear over all outsiders and will venture out of her house only in very rare circumstances. Add to the mix two sons overshadowed and brutalised by a father who does not understand them at all. One son runs away from home after a murder and the second son also disappears from home.

Rebecca is left at home to fend for herself until the day she comes back home to find her mother murdered and her father dead by his own hand. Rebecca is taken in by a teacher who is very fond of her but who basically wants to make her a good Christian. Rebecca does not rebel openly against the teacher whom she is fond of, because Rebecca does realize that she would have ended in the State's foster care system if not for the care of this teacher.

Fast forward Rebecca's life, she is now Hazel Jones herself a victim of violence and she makes a new life for herself and her husband and baby son. Finally she seeks to escape the violence of her husband and carves a newer life for herself. She thinks she can escape her past but none of us really do. I doubt that anyone can compartmentalize their life to this extent that they ever completely forget what happened.

How the past is always present and haunts not just Rebecca but also her parents who can never escape the mental anguish of their history. Some immigrants make good- most do and we read such brilliant stories of them. This is not one of the so called happy endings. 

The suffering in the Schwart family is very real. The father's harsh treatment of his two sons - Herschel who despite living in America from the age of seven never really gets to grips with English, his own ne'er do well attitude and finally criminal life, then Gus overshadowed by both brother and father and the mother - saddest character of all.

The book was heavy with sorrow from beginning to end - not a book I will recommend. We have enough sadness in the world without something like this weighing you down. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

IT'S MONDAY! WHAT ARE YOU READING?



This week I am not doing Mailbox Monday as no books came into my house this week as well. Reading has been going on apace though not as much as I would have liked.

I have one review of The Grave Digger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates still to be done. This was a very sad book and now I am beginning to realize that such books depress me. Episodes of sadness are part of the reality of a story (and of life in general) but continuous, heavy sadness can be quite heavy.

This week after a very, very long time I did not finish a book. Underground by Tobias Hill. I did read over seventy pages but found the story to be almost disjointed. Maybe it would have come together later on but it was too abrupt for me. It was almost like a translation where some of the actual meanings get lost. Maybe just me.

I also am re-reading Rosmunde Pilcher's Winter Solstice. Almost three quarters of the way through. Set in England and Scotland and very much about relationships. Written in an easy, very descriptive style its relaxed reading. 

The book I am a 100 pages in and enjoying the very old fashioned prose is A Thousand Miles Up the Nile by Amelia Edwards. I like very much the footnotes and explanations on various Egyptian terms and the small illustrations and pen drawings make the journey sound very vivid. It also makes me realize  how lovely it must be to spend three months in a country and not rush through a trip in ten to fourteen days. We expect to see, absorb and understand a new culture in a short time whereas how much more you could appreciate this when you do it slowly.

Also reading Alison Weir's Isabella. I thought this biography would be very startling but it is slow. It may be more interesting later on as I am still reading about Isabella's very early life as a queen.

Today is Poya day (a full moon day) which is a public holiday and one of religious significance to Buddhists. It is significant that it was on this day that two important disciples were appointed and also the formation of the first ever Buddhist council. So this week becomes a short week of just four days.



This is a photograph of the Navam Perahera celebrated at the Gangaramaya in Colombo. An annual event, the photography is courtesy of a site dedicated to this procession. The elephants are all dressed and walk with their mahouts along with drummers and dancers representative of all regions in Sri Lanka.

Friday, February 22, 2013

WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE by ANNE PERRY

Weighed in the Balance (William Monk, #7)

Lots of Counts, Barons, Baronesses abound. The Countess Rostova approaches Sir Oliver Rathbone with a case which is astounding. Astounding in its audacity. Accusing Gisela the "princess" of the day the living equivalent of a Romeo and Juliet story of murdering her husband, it is first surprising that Zorah is not lynched first by fellow countrymen and next by the common man in England where the case is being held.  Even Rathbone cannot understand why he took the case and his colleagues think this is the beginning of the end of all their careers when the case falls flat on its face.

We proceed through investigations carried out in Venice and this is the part of the story I enjoyed. Venice in all its glory in the 1850s. A home for minor royalty of so many states - people ousted from their own homes and Venetians living under Austrian rule. No one could imagine Venice (by the descriptions) that it is a state under enemy rule. Despite the military out in full force Venice enjoys a social status surpassed by none with life continuing for the nobility and the rich as if there is nothing amiss. Monk who comes from proletariat beginnings is appalled at the sheer waste and almost ignorance that the rich have for those not just working for them, but also for the circumstances surrounding them. Reminded me very strongly of many countries today whose rulers/rich segments  seem to live in a world so far apart from those who surround them and also oblivious to what is going on. So things have not changed very much since the 1850s.

The emergence of so many strong women was a nice touch in this story. We have Zorah steadfast throughout till the truth was out, we have Gisela the slightly removed from reality Princess, we have Hester the nurse and confidante of Sir Oliver and Monk  all who play vital roles in the story.

The story winds through Venice and back to the courts in England with a jury of respectable gentlemen who have to decide the case. The language was slow and ponderous but the book was not in the least bit heavy. It took me just a little while to get into the swing of the story but after about 15 pages I was hooked!




Thursday, February 21, 2013

SINGLE LIVES by AMANDA BROOKFIELD



Annie and Marina are very close friends but with very different personalities. Annie writes a column for a newspaper using incidents from her personal life to get inspiration for the weekly column she edits. Annie is also rather desperate to find a life partner and feels that life in general is passing her by and with it her chances of finding someone to love.

Marina on the other hand is lighthearted about life in general but it is she who first finds someone who is her soul mate and sets about organizing a spiffy, upmarket wedding with all the frills. In the meantime Annie begins to feel so alone, alienated and friendless with what she perceives as Marina abandoning her in favour of her boyfriend and husband to be, Jake her closest gay friend abandoning her in search of mysterious new people and Annie herself spiralling into a web of self doubt and suspicion, first with her neighbour and landlord and then with those around her.

This was a book which dealt with Annie mainly - and how a 35ish woman feels in a world where everyone else is part of a duo and where she feels alone. I do know that there are lots of women who would love the single life but at the same time it must be a very lonely existence for those who do not wish for it. For those who seek the companionship and love of a good relationship, it must be heart breaking not to find the person one would like to share the rest of your life with. 

The fact that this story ends happily was a bonus point!

On a non book note, I was able to attend two concerts held in Colombo - both opposites of each other. One was a fusion jazz evening. The musicians and singers were from four different countries (though three of them were of Sri Lankan origin) and it was wonderful music. Yesterday was an evening of what was described as Taal Tantra - a mix of Indian classical music with European jazz. Strange though it sounds the mix was very good. Tabla playing at its best and the drums were out of this world! My going out like this has been on hold for months due to the illness of my husband. He has recovered to the extent that he is back to full time work but is immobilised and works from a wheelchair. In Sri Lanka unfortunately, practically any place is not geared for taking a wheelchair so outings are extremely restricted. Still it is better than being in bed for which I am extremely grateful. Baby steps!!!



Wednesday, February 20, 2013

IT'S MONDAY! WHAT ARE YOU READING?


Though I should have done this meme two days ago, life has got in the way. Apologies to Sheila of Book Journey. We have had crisis after crisis on the domestic front and plenty of work which took me away from home as well.

Somehow everything got neglected - reading, the blog, looking at other blogs and in the evening I was only fit for an episode of Downton and Melissa and Joey and sometimes Grey's Anatomy if I was not too tired! why they keep GA for 10 pm to 11 pm I don't know. Wish it was earlier.


The books I am reading and finding good are 


A book which caters for my immediate needs - i.e. one I can read, put down, forget about and come back to easily. Like it very much. Almost done.

Weighed in the Balance (William Monk, #7)

The writing is ponderous - you think old fashioned, slow but after just 10 pages it has quickened considerably. I found the number of titled people in the beginning confusing but now I am straightening it out in my mind to the essentials. Almost 100 pages in. All whilst getting a pedicure so that was good multi tasking!



Thursday, February 14, 2013

FLIGHT LESSONS by PATRICIA GAFFNEY




Flight Lessons


Anna and Rose were very close to each other. During the story Rose even thinks that Anna coukl be her mother. They become estranged and in Anna's case very bitter over Rose's affair with Anna's father especially when Anna's mother was alive. Anna looks on it as a betrayal by her aunt of her sister and cannot go beyond that.

At another aunt's request Anna returns home to the family run restaurant which has been in the family to help out her Aunt Rose on the proviso that it is purely temporary. Rose  hopes that it would be the way to reconciling the family and that all the years apart are in the past and that her niece will stay with the family. Anna returns to a restaurant going slowly downhill due to apathy on the part of her aunt to discipline staff, a chef who is aggressive and not moving forward and a general falling apart.

Apart from the daily running of a restaurant and the busy schedule it entails the story is about family - the generation gap, the clashing of personalities, and at the end the closeness of being family and the ties that bind a family. The importance of being part of a group, of belonging and knowing that a family's love and care will protect you and that family love you despite lots of faults is overwhelmingly seen in the story.

Nice read!









Tuesday, February 12, 2013

FOREIGN AFFAIRS by ALISON LURIE

Foreign Affairs



Two main characters both English professors both working in the same college back in the States but their paths do not cross or rather they cross very seldom in England as they are moving in very different circles. 

Vinnie is thought to be a plain Jane, long past the idea of romance and "sensible". Fred is known to turn heads as he is quite handsome. Both are on strict budgets and cash poor. Vinnie would not mind an affair with a suave Englishman but she finally falls in love with a brash, crude Western style cowboy (her words not mine!) while Fred falls for Rosemary, the most ethereal English beauty whose actual heart is made of stone and psychiatric to boot though that is only apparent at the tail end of the story.

For me the story was slow - and rather dull but midway it perked up and became very interesting. I liked how both main characters developed. I also liked the constant reference to the traits of the English and English touristy stuff even though most of it was referred to it with disdain by the Americans! How insular were the American visitors was more than apparent throughout the book!!! Whether this was part of the characterization of the people involved or whether it poked gentle fun at the Americans I dont know.  But it was quite humourous throughout.  Apart from the idea of romance which was present right through the book, the idea of human relationships whether friends, acquaintances or even being foreigners in an alien land were part of the story. The latter is particularly relevant because it is a feeling that a lot of people who travel overseas feel - a sense of belonging when one is all alone in a foreign country.

Altogether a lovely read. 





Monday, February 11, 2013

MAILBOX MONDAY/IT"S MONDAY! WHAT ARE YOU READING?







Mailbox Monday hosted by Unabridged Chick for February.



Foreign Affairs


A Pulitzer prize winner. (I do get to them late but I do get to them eventually)
For the Love of Venice

I am a sucker for anything to do with Venice. Don't know anything about this one. I hope its not too soppy!
Weighed in the Balance (William Monk, #7)

Read her before.

The Last Empress (Empress Orchid, #2)

Impressive reviews on this one. Set in the last decade of the 19th century.

Flight Lessons

A story of two women. Like this kind of story.

The Gravedigger's Daughter

Immigrant stories are the other genre I like.

Front Cover

One of history's most famous femme fatales. Whats not to like?

Shadows and Strongholds

England 1148. Elizabeth Chadwick a favourite author of mine.

Lords of the White Castle
Westminister 1184 in the court of King Henry.


Read her before and liked her book. This one about a journalist. 

Underground


This was a win from ages ago. 

I am not adding to this mailbox the books I have already reviewed - they are already up.

Talking to the Dead - Helen Dunmore

The Marsh King's Daughter - Elizabeth Chadwick

Guppies for Tea - Marika Cobbold

A few green leaves - Barbara Pym

My reading has picked up and this last week saw me reading almost a book a day which was a huge improvement on my earlier month's reading pattern which was dismal.


Hosted by Book Journey.

Am currently reading Foreign Affairs - am finding it a bit slow but halfway through and seems to be picking up pace for me now.






Sunday, February 10, 2013

MAILBOX MONDAY/IT'S MONDAY! WHAT ARE YOU READING?






Mailbox Monday for February is sponsored by Loris Reading Corner.


I either have an absolute drought in books or it becomes something like a blizzard - something equivalent to a 3 feet of snow.



Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie - a 1984 Pulitzer prize winner.

For the Love of Venice
Anything to do with Venice is a big draw for me!

Weighed in the Balance (William Monk, #7)

Weighed in the Balance by Anne Perry

The Last Empress (Empress Orchid, #2)

The last decades of the nineteenth century were very violent in China. Seen impressive reviews of this book around.

Flight Lessons

I like stories about women and this is about two of them.

The Gravedigger's Daughter

love stories of immigrants. This is another one.


Front Cover

A biography of one of history's most famous femme fatales!

Shadows and Strongholds

Set in 1148, one of my favourite historical fiction authors












Saturday, February 9, 2013

TALKING TO THE DEAD by HELEN DUNMORE



Basically a drama within a small family of two sisters - long dead mother, father and baby brother it is also a bit of a mystery murder with the "supposed" cot death of Baby Colin when Nina was just four and Isabel seven.

The story is set in present times with Isabel the mother of a new born, Nina the sister who has come to help out after a difficult confinement and we have Richard the husband who is bewildered by the situation that faces him. On the one hand a wife who seems unapproachable, one with several psychiatric problems who has also to be handled carefully as her state of health is not quite right. On the other hand we have his attraction to his nubile sister in law, who is also more than happy to accommodate his sexual needs, as and when the need arises and wherever possible!

There is also Susan the nanny and her mother Margaret and there is Edward a homosexual friend of Isabel who monopolises her time night and day with one on one chats excluding all others.  The different relationships in one house are not conducive to any kind of relaxed friendship. Everyone seems tense and on guard as it were for something that is going to happen. The bubble has to burst. No one can continue in this very uneven manner however much of good food, good wine and nice dinners are organised in the house.

The story about family ties - the ties that bind can also be those that divide. The machinations within a family - how one person can use their position of strength and in this case elder sister to subvert and make submissive the mind of a sibling is frightening. 

An excellent novel and an author I am going to look out for in the future as well.

Friday, February 8, 2013

THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER by ELIZABETH CHADWICK









Miriel finds herself at odds with her stepfather who dislikes her intensely and wants to incarcerate her in the convent of St. Catherine's so that she will never be seen again.  Miriel's temperament is not made for the convent and her constant rebellion there makes her a thorn in the side of the nuns especially one of them who gets a sadistic satisfaction in putting her down at every turn.

Whilst in the convent and on one of her visits to a sick villager Miriel comes across the washed up body of Nicholas who has escaped death in the quicksands of the nearby estuary and she is partly responsible for his nursing during the stay in the convent. When Nicholas leaves the convent, Miriel sees this as her only form of escape and goes away with him but subsequently she robs him of the gold treasure he had retrieved which was part of St John's gold which sank along with the baggge train of the king. Fortunately she does not rob it all, but she does take a great deal of it!

Miriel uses the treasure to build up her fortune (her knowledge of wool and spinning holds her in good stead). Forced into one marriage with a man thirty years her senior he dies leaving her unprotected. Miriel is then forced into a second marriage which is disastrous for her and it is during this marriage that she finally meets once again with Nicholas - now a prosperous ship owner. 

More than about Miriel the story deals with medieval times and the dominance of men over women. How helpless women were and even though someone as wealthy and as clever as Miriel was, her property and wealth belonged to her husband and it was he who had a say in what could or could not be done. His power as husband was absolute. He could even persuade a doctor to declare her mentally unstable and force her to be institutionalized. Medieval times were not kind to women in general. 

The book was a romance in the main with a bit of history thrown in. The legend of the fortune which disappeared in the marshes is history - I wonder whether people today with all the modern gadgetry available still look for it? 




Thursday, February 7, 2013

GUPPIES FOR TEA by MARIKA COBBOLD




Another short read and one which was very timely for me personally. I work with children in orphanages and my contacts with the over 70s are few and far between. This was a really good eye opener for me how the descent into senility starts and once started how quickly it descends till you actually hit rock bottom.

Very sensitively written the story revolves around Selma a woman whose husband has died after a fifty year marriage partnership, her daughter Dagmar who is obssessed with cleanliness being oblivious to anything around her and the grand daughter Amelia very fond of the grandmother who brought her up but at the same time caught between a rock and a hard place when the actual practicalities of having a senile, incontinent person around all the time are brought to the fore. At the same time Amelia knows that her grandmother just wants to live and die peacefully in her own home (now sold over her head by her son) and she is in an institution for the elderly. How to make her wish come true and take her back to her old home for just the Christmas holiday is the highlight of the book and how Amelia succeeds in this is very touching (though scary!).

The difficulties of old age - all your achievements whilst being younger just fade in the face of being elderly, the immobility, the restrictions of illness brought on by forgetfulness and then one is faced with the fact that the youthful and useful part of one's life is very fleeting because this is an age where old age and feebleness is scorned and it is a question of survival of the fittest and finest and all what you were is just stories of the past. It is the now that is important.

This book may be not everyone's choice of a good read but it was for me. The feeling of empathy and warmth towards an ailing, difficult person is never easy and Amelia was able to be so despite her inner feelings of anger and sadness that life has come to this at the end - knowing that her own life is being put on hold in order to deal with such a cantankerous old woman is never ever going to be easy but Amelia does it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A FEW GREEN LEAVES by BARBARA PYM



My book is a much brighter book cover than this one - a few very bright green leaves on a beige background. Much more appealing than this one.

This was just what the doctor ordered - set in rural Oxford in a village, with a rector, spinsters galore,  woodlands, gentle ramblings, jealous women, spiteful women this was bliss!!!!!

One of the main characters Emma is an anthropologist who has a vague idea of writing a book, and the whole book becomes a study actually of what is happening to its people, how they behave in situations and maybe how did people behave in similar situations a century ago. We have the rector Tom, vague, head in the clouds, interested in medieval history and specifically a deserted village, totally unaware of present needs, aspirations and ideas and two doctors - one in the present and one in a 1930s past who still prescribes a woman to buy a hat as a cure for all ills.  This at a time when no one is wearing hats! Funny if not slightly annoying - the characters I mean.


At the same time I would not say this is a happy book. There is a tinge of sadness, of frustration throughout of bossiness on the part of one and submissiveness on the part of the other, the feeling of not being able to do what one actually would like to do - restricted by whatever the norms of the era was - respectability, doing what everyone else does and this left me with a feeling of being sorry that they just could not find that little spark of independence to actually voice or do what they really wanted to do. I wanted to shout or rather in a ladylike manner nudge them into being happy first of all and hang what everyone else thinks. But and this is a big but the world does not work like that and even today there are lots of us governed by invisible bonds and rules, more binding than ever before. 

This was a small book and I am glad. I will be reading stuff like that for a few weeks at least as I need some light stuff. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

THE RADIANT WAY by MARGARET DRABBLE




I was looking through my TBR book for something which was not over 300 odd pages long. I was a bit tired of the 600 page chunksters I had and did want something I could read easily.

Margaret Drabble was not an easy read. The author is very detailed and descriptive and you have to follow the story carefully in case you miss out some obscure detail that will definitely crop up later and will be crucial to the follow up at that point.

The story starts on New Years Eve 1979 with a complacent Liz with her husband Charles throwing a posh party for a Who's Who in London. All sectors of society seem to be well represented from the gentry to the hoi polloi and Liz is happy with her choices. This part of the story gives you a feeling of something going to happen and happen it does. Liz is shaken out of her feelings of complacency by her husband declaring his intentions of getting a divorce. And marrying the Lady Henrietta.

We then move on to Esther and Alix and Liz close friends since Cambridge days. The story though it starts in detail about Liz is about all three friends and their life after this New Years Eve do. Alix teaches at a psychiatric institution whilst Esther is an art historian.

With the break up of Liz and Charles's marriage, Liz has to find herself a new home which is her main concern and Alix and Esther feel that it is their duty to support Liz during this time.

The title itself piqued my interest because this was a standard English teaching primer for the lower grades in Sri Lanka and one I used myself. I finally found that this is the reference used in the book itself which was unusual. The story set during a period of vast social changes in Britain involving three women of a more privileged class makes for an interesting read.


Not a very light read but it was different.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

THE WIND UP BIRD CHRONICLES by HARUKI MURAKAMI


I really should go (at least for a little while) for books which are not so heavy. This was 600 odd pages and it was heavy reading.

Having read quite a bit about this author, I was very curious to see how I would go with Japanese literature. This was not an easy read. It kept me entranced in bits and pieces but my attention wandered over large tracts of the book.

Okada is a low key employee at a law firm. Married to Kumiko, apparently quite content in his marriage, he leaves his job and is at home. He takes over routine domestic jobs and is quite happy to be the house husband in this situation.  All the adventure starts with their cat going missing and subsequently Kumiko herself goes missing and then bizarre adventure after another follows, not all of which I could follow.

During this troubled period Okada meets up with several people - all quirky, all eccentric and all slightly "different". From May Kasahara a troubled teenager, to Malta Kano to Creta Kano both taking names from two islands, to Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka. All these people had fantastic histories behind them and their life history sounds very surreal. They all also have features in their lives which connect them in some way to each other - whether its a mark on the face which suddenly appears to prostitution to rape to the coincidence that whoever hears the wind up bird ends up dead.

It was very difficult to know what was real and what was fantasy in the book. I am not very good at analysing fantasy and maybe the fault lies with me! Whether the fantasies experienced by Okada was in a dreamlike state relating to his life I do not know.  For me it was a bit of a mess and though I plodded through it I did not enjoy the book as much as I felt I should.

I have Norwegian Wood with me but I think its going to be a while before I get to that book.