The (Wo)Man Booker Prize Shadow Panel as Assembled by Frances

While I walked through the Art Institute of Chicago with my mother this morning, admiring the Degas exhibit and alternately checking my iPhone for a call from my ENT, I noticed a message from Frances. She proposed a very happy reading idea, in that we read the nominations for the Man Booker Prize before September 15, 2015. Having read them, we can review and choose our favorites before the prize is officially announced on October 13, 2015. Ah, some of the best reading I do all year is that which I do with others, and how I long to begin the following list which was announced yesterday:

Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

The Green Road by Anne Enright

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

The Year of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So keep tuned in, for thoughts from the (Wo)Man Booker Prize readers: Frances, Teresa, Nicole, Rebecca, and I.

Who might be so busy reading I won’t have time to teach this fall.

Of Things in August Hoped For

I abandoned The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende today. I had intended to read it for both Spanish Lit Month and the Japanese Literature Challenge 9, but I tired of feeling I was  outside of the book, separated from the characters by a relentless narrative of facts. Normally, Allende’s writing completely engrosses me, particularly with The House of Spirits, and I’m not sure if it’s her or if it’s me to blame for becoming frustrated.

For I am rather excellent at being frustrated these days. The sinus infection from a tooth implant gone awry has lasted my whole entire summer, which I wouldn’t mind so much if it didn’t have an accompanying thump in my upper jaw. And with the arrival of August is the arrival of a new school year, at least in my part of the world; the first day of school for the dear children and I is August 20. Twentieth. Which is still summer as far as I’m concerned.

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Lest I continue my bitter complaints, let me point out some positive things about August. There’s Austen in August for which I purchased this gorgeous annotated edition of Emma for $3.00 at our library. (‘Cause if it isn’t Nora Roberts, they don’t keep it on the shelf.)

And, there’s Women in Translation month for which I plan to read the third book of the Neopolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I hope to get in another Japanese novel as well, quite possibly Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto.

imageAnd, I’m folding the most beautiful stars for my classroom. There are many, both big and small, which I will string on invisible thread to cascade down from the ceiling at the back of my room. Because if you’re going to be hot, in an un-air-conditioned upper room at school when you should be at the beach, you should at least have something pretty to look at.

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa for Spanish Lit Month

Dear Spider Extortionists,

Although you’ve burned the offices of Narithuala Transportation port, a business I created with the honest effort of a lifetime, I’m publicly informing you that I will never pay the amount you demand to give me protection. I’d rather you kill me. You won’t receive one cent from me, because I believe that honest, hardworking, decent people shouldn’t be afraid of crooks and thieves like you but should face you with determination until you’re sent to prison, which is where you belong.

Signed,

Felicito Yanaque (I don’t have a maternal surname)

What courage it takes Felicito to write this letter, and further to publish it in the newspaper! He refuses to concede to the extortionists who try to scare him into giving them $500.00 per month for “protection”. In fact, he takes them on with a vengeance, refusing to acquiesce even when his transportation business is burned down and his lover, Mabel, is kidnapped.

Why won’t he give in to their demands? Because of his father. The memory of his father, who was the very pillar of strength in Felicito’s eyes, will not permit him this betrayal.

“His father might have been poor but he was a great man because of his upstanding spirit, because he never harmed anyone, or broke the law, or felt rancor toward the woman who abandoned him, leaving him with a newborn to bring up. If all of that about sin and evil and the next life was true he had to be in heaven now. He didn’t even have time to do any evil, he spent his life working like a dog in the worst-paying jobs. Felicito remembered seeing him drop with fatigue at night. But even so, he never let anyone walk all over him. According to him, that was the difference between a man who was worth something and a man who was worth only a rag. That had been the advice he gave him before he died in a bed with no mattress in the Hospital Obreco: “Never let anybody walk all over you, son.”

Parallel to Felicito’s story is the story of Don Ismael Carrera (boss of Rigoberto who is the manager of Don Carrera’s insurance office). In stark contrast to the relationship with his now deceased father that Felicito holds dear, is the one that between Ismael and his twin sons. From their youth, these boys (Miki and Escobita) have done as they pleased which included carousing, lying, stealing and even rape. They become furious when their widowed father marries his housekeeper, Armida, as she is the one who will inherit his fortune, because all they want from their father is his money.

Perhaps more than anything, to me, this novel is about what it means to be a good father, to be an honorable son. We read of the sharp contrast between one son who holds his father’s teaching so dear that he himself will not bend when threatened, and two other sons who are simply waiting for their father to die so that they can be rich. We read of yet a third son who sees nothing wrong with brutally mistreating the very man who raised him. What are we to make of this? It leads us to the meaning of the word hero.

In this novel, a hero is one who upholds his father. One who won’t let himself be walked over. One who stands in the face of adversity with courage and strength and honor. My favorite kind of guy.

The Discreet Hero was originally published in 2013, and published in English with a translation by Edith Grossman in 2015. I read it for Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Lit Month, and as my first introduction to Mario Vargas Llosa, I can say it was a brilliant one. He has given me so much to ponder about Peru, but even more importantly about the power of a discreet hero.

Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa for Spanish Lit Month


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This is is a novel I would not have discovered without the review at seraillon. And it is without a doubt a book I would have sorely missed had I not read it. At sixty-four pages, it can be read in a single evening…for some of you, in a single hour. But, it is not a book to be rushed.

Is it a mystery? Is it an ode to the love of literature? Is it a romantic story of one bookseller’s passion for a beautiful woman who comes in and steals his books? It is all three.

Our narrator owns a bookstore named La Entretenida (literally, The Entertaining) into which Severina walks one day. When she leaves, she has “slipped two little books from the Japanese section into her bag.” Every time she comes to the store she takes a few books. Every time she takes a few books he records the missing titles along with the date and time. But, he does nothing to stop her.

In fact, he falls in love with her.

It is almost with obsession that he follows her and her grandfather, whom he has been told is her husband by another bookshop owner, to their pension. Even though he knows where she lives, temporarily, and rents a room there for himself, she remains elusive. From what country does she come? How have they remained in Spain with false passports? All of her belongings fit into one small backpack, for she seems to live on books alone.

Of course that is fantastical. But it is a suggestion that I feel Rodrigo Rey Rosa offers up. And as a fellow bibliophile, I find myself not questioning the veracity of this story at all, especially as her grandfather explains it quite clearly below:

I ought to begin by pointing out, though it shouldn’t come as any surprise, that we’re really quite ordinary people. I have my ideas, and she goes along with them, but in her own way, of course. Books have always been my life. Both my father and grandfather lived exclusively from books, each in his own way – books of all sorts. And I’m not speaking metaphorically: books are our sole means of subsistence,” he said and then fell silent.

A Heart So White by Javier Marias for Spanish Lit Month

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Javier Marias often writes sentences that are full paragraphs, and while some require me to read them several times over for clarity, others make me reach for my pen to record them in a journal I keep for exquisite quotes.

“Look,” I said, “people who keep secrets for a long time don’t always do so out of shame or in order to protect themselves, sometimes it’s to protect others, or to preserve a friendship, or a love affair, or a marriage, to make life more tolerable for their children or to shield them from some fear, of which they usually have many. Maybe they simply don’t want to add to the world a story they wished had never happened. Not talking about it is like erasing it, forgetting it a little, denying it, not telling a story can be a small favour one does to the world. You have to respect that. You might not want to know everything about me, later on, as time goes by, you might not want to, and I won’t want to know everything about you either.”

This is, perhaps, a strange thing to say to one’s new bride. But it gives an indication of the depth of secrets contained within Juan’s story. From the very beginning, when Teresa who would have been his aunt had she not shot herself in the breast before Juan was born, there is a sort of veil which covers everything. “Why did she kill herself?” we ask ourselves, filled with apprehension as we read to the end of the book. “Why are there so many secrets the couples keep from one another?” For each of the couples in this novel have a relationship within which something is hidden.

On his honeymoon in Havana, Juan overhears a woman named Miriam arguing with her lover in the hotel room next door. She is told that his wife is dying, and Miriam says that has been the case for a very long time. And then she asks Guillermo to kill his wife. “If you don’t kill her, I kill myself. Then you get one woman’s death on your hands, either her or me.”

Perhaps equally tragic was the relationship of Juan’s friend, who desperately seeks love through a dating service. Each person sends a letter, and often an accompanying video of himself, to the person with whom a potential match is made. But, the man responding to Berta’s letter will only be satisfied with a video showing all of her personal parts; he makes it quite clear that he will sleep with her only if she is attractive. How tragic to me that she responded to his request, so great was her need for relationship.

Threats and empty promises, wounding one another through lies and deceit, these are how Marias’ couples seem to interact.

The lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth appear throughout the novel, for it is from one particular phrase that it takes its name.

“She (Lady Macbeth) likens herself to him, thus trying to liken him to her, to her heart so white: it’s not so much that she shares his guilt (of murder) at that moment as that she tries to make him share her irremediable innocence, her cowardice.”

Yet, can one partner cover another’s guilt? Conversely, does one’s guilt shade another’s heart so white? This is the struggle which Juan faces as he uncovers his personal history involving a father who has been married three times, and not one wife is still alive.

“It was simply a matter of accepting the belief or superstition that what one doesn’t say doesn’t exist. And it’s true that the only things never translated are those never spoken or expressed.”

A Heart So White won the Dublin IMPAC prize for the best novel published worldwide in English in 1997. Find other thoughts from JacquiWine’s Journal, A Little Blog of Books, and Tony’s Reading List. Other friends who read it this month are Frances from Nonsuch Book and Scott from seraillon.

Coloring Flower Mandalas: 30 Hand Drawn Designs for Mindful Relaxation by Wendy Piersall

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“Following the success of last year’s Coloring Animal Mandalas come Coloring Flower Mandalas, a new book featuring 30 beautifully hand drawn designs for mindful relaxation.

Mandalas, the Sanskrit word for “circles,” have been used for meditation and healing for thousands of years.image

Coloring Flower Mandalas, illustrated by the talented Wendy Piersall, adds the beauty of inspiring blooms-including orchids, roses, lilies, poppies, sunflowers and more-into these intricate designs for page after page of coloring bliss.

Relax, focus, reach a higher state of mindfulness, and simply enjoy yourself as you artfully bring these blooms to life.” ~Ulysses Press

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When this book arrived, I was offered the opportunity to interview artist Wendy Piersall. She answered the questions I had about her beautiful work below.

Me: I have always loved coloring ever since I was a little girl. My favorite coloring book was The Fine Line Coloring Book by Jeanne Wenzel. Did you always enjoy coloring, from when you were a little girl, or was this an interest you acquired later? Did you have a favorite coloring book?

Wendy:  I always LOVED coloring as a child, it was one of my favorite things to do. I remember coming across some of Dover’s very first coloring books with more advanced designs in the late 1970’s. They were mostly geometric designs, in fact some are still available today (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0486201805/). I liked these books not so much because they were geometric, but because they posed a greater challenge than something from Disney. As an adult, I must admit that I didn’t start coloring again until I started drawing adult coloring books in 2013. It was so much fun I wanted to knock myself in the forehead for not doing it sooner!

Me: How do you create your mandalas? Do you start in the center, begin with a circle, or have your own way of making each one?

Wendy: I use Adobe Illustrator and a Wacom drawing tablet to draw my mandalas. Each one is a really different drawing process depending on the subject. I make extensive use of the custom brushes and symbols in the program to replicate the art easily and with precision. Sometimes I’ll draw the focal point and then create patterned circles around it. With Coloring Flower Mandalas, some of the designs were just happy accidents that fell into place while I was experimenting! That doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, I really enjoy being surprised by the effects I can create with the program.

Me: Which medium do you recommend as the best for coloring: pencils, water colors, crayons, all three?

 

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Wendy: I don’t really recommend crayons, they are waxy, uneven, and not detailed enough. My personal top two favorite are Polychromos colored pencils and Copic markers. Both are pretty expensive, but they are just dreamy to work with. I also really enjoy using watercolors, but I can only do that when I can print onto watercolor paper. Not everyone has a printer that can handle 140LB paper, but if you do, it’s really worth the extra trouble! (So of course, Wendy, I had to buy a set of Faber-Castell polychromos pencils for myself, which you see pictured above.)

Me: Is it a good idea to color the general area of mandala or each specific, tiny space?

Wendy: There are no rules when it comes to how to color! :) I mostly like to color each tiny space, but not all the time. Sometimes I’ll color a group of shapes and add shading instead of coloring each one. I have carpal tunnel in my right wrist, so sometimes it’s just easier to color groups instead of each space. I think it’s so much more important to enjoy the process instead of worrying about whether you are doing it ‘right’! :)

Me: What music do you like to listen to while you color/meditate?

Wendy: I’m surprised how often I get asked this question! My favorite genre of music is electro swing, which is a combination of 1920’s jazz with 2010’s funk and dance. There are some great compilation electro swing albums, including the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby.

Me: When the mandala is finished, what do you do with it? Leave it in the book, frame it, use the paper for another purpose such as gift wrap?

Wendy: I have a set of framed clipboards from Ikea up in my studio, and I frequently add or swap out colored drawings.(Seehttp://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/80292250/). They are PERFECT for showing off colored designs and so easy to change day to day!

Me: I really love your coloring mandalas, and so do my students. Thanks for creating such beautiful designs!

Wendy: That’s so sweet – thank you so much! By the time you get this, my third coloring book, Coloring Dream Mandalas, will soon be available. It is my favorite book so far…

Already I am looking forward to seeing the Coloring Dream Mandala book on paper. Thanks to Ulysses Press and Wendy Piersall for addressing the artist in each of us.

The Significance Behind the Title of Go Set A Watchman; Midnight Release on July 14, 2015

Go Set A Watchman Tivoli

We went to the midnight release of Harper Lee’s most recently published book at the Tivoli theater in Downers Grove. The $36.00 ticket included a panel discussion led by teachers from my district’s High School, trivia games, and a showing of the film To Kill A Mockingbird. At midnight, it was legal to pass out the first editions of Harper Lee’s latest published book, Go Set A Watchmen, which was written in the 1950’s and rediscovered last fall.

Leaning over to me, as we waited for the film to start, my friend asked me, “Did you know that the title has a biblical reference?”

“No!” I exclaimed.

But, it’s true. The title comes from this verse in the Old Testament:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” ~Isaiah 21:6

“How many people in the theater know this?” I whispered. And we decided it must be shared. With a fair amount of trembling, I walked down the aisle from the back where we sat to the microphone in the front as the panel was still entertaining questions from the audience, and I gave my name. Then I read the scripture, to enhance the literary perspective of the readers there who ought to know that Harper Lee chose the beauty of the King James Version to make a point…that someone ought to declare what he sees.

I don’t know if it was well received. There was a rather full pause as I made my way back to my seat, and my friend whispered to me that my voice didn’t waver very much. But, it doesn’t matter to me. I love this fact. I love that Lee’s title bears a connection to my favorite book ever.

And now, to add to the stack of books on my mission style desk, is this beautiful first edition.

Go Set A Watchman novel

Paris in July: Murder on the Ile Sordou

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When I was a young bride living in Europe, I would often take the time offered to teachers in the summer to flit about my favorite countries. I would put on a shade of Chanel lipstick, which is no longer made, named Explosion; it was a brilliant fuschia which matched my maillot de bain perfectly, and somehow I felt quite comfortable on the beaches of the French Riviera wearing ridiculously bold colors. It was the 1980’s, after all.

Along the coast of the Riviera is a most beautiful city named Aix en Provence. which is about 30 km north of Marseille. It is here that the author of this mystery, M. L. Longworth, writes when she is not teaching in Paris. Her novel Murder on the Ile Sordou takes place on a fictitious island, but one that may resemble any of the islands off the coast of Marseille, and it is a novel with more ambiance than any mystery I have read.

While it may resemble the writing of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or Donna Leon’s Venice, this mystery has a quality all of its own. M. L. Longworth brings France in general, and Provence in particular, to life with her dialogue, her setting, and her characters. Even the meals which they enjoyed after a two hour afternoon nap seemed indescribably delicious.

I’ve made a summer menu, so let’s just forget about the storm out there: we’ll begin with cucumber and melon gazpacho and then red snapper ceviche shooters, followed by vegetable spring rolls. Once we’re sitting we’ll eat roast bass with olive oil, mussels, and cherry tomatoes, and, finally, in honor of our meat-loving host, a rack of grilled lamb with stir-fried summer vegetables, wasabi puree, and a cilantro-mint vinaigrette.

A loud round of applause rang out. “And not to forget dessert,” Emile said, holding up his hand.” A chocolate cake served with fresh strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream, surrounded by a concoction I call ginger and lavender drizzle.”

Oh, the lavender in Provence! The seafood! The cresting waves of the sea on a summer evening…I was there in an instant, enjoying the remembered sensations even more than the mystery itself.

If I should tell you about the mystery, I would spoil the surprise. You must read it yourself to discover which of the guests who have arrived by boat will be murdered and why. But, while you are reading of the case to be solved, you will be immersed in the culture, and for me that was the most special aspect of this book.

 

Spanish Literature Month…Another Reason I Love to Blog in July

Bolaño & Borges shelfHere is a photograph of Richard‘s Bolano shelf. I think I have one of them: 2666. My knowledge of Spanish literature is less than admirable, and so it is with great anticipation that I embark on another Spanish literature month with Richard and Stu.

There are the obvious choices from which to choose, obvious to me at least: Julia Alvarez, Isabelle Allende, Sandra Cisneros. I have loved the books that each of these women have written, for somehow I do better with female Spanish authors than male. I never even finished Roberto Bolano’s 2666 or The Savage Detectives (but I did make it through Monsieur Pain!).

This year I’m going to follow a few recommendations from others. When Jacqui and I read Javier Marias’ Infatuations we were both so taken with it that we exchanged several emails to discuss it further between ourselves. So of course, I must take up her suggestion of A Heart so White.

Last year, Scott reviewed Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, and I was so intrigued by his review that I immediately downloaded it on my kindle. But, as it is yet unread I will pick it up this month.

What would blogging be without old friends to host enticing challenges, and new friends to give recommendations? My life is immeasurably enriched by those of you who blog with me; without your input I would find myself in an endless circle of what is only in my own experience.

Do you have any other titles that I ought to read for Spanish Lit Month this July?

A Nineteenth Century Point of View from France…Scarlet and Black by Stendhal

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“Julien will be a notable worker in our Lord’s vineyard. He is not lacking in memory or intelligence and he is thoughtful. But will his vocation last? Is he sincere?”

I have been living in 19th century Paris for the past week, viewing it through the eyes of Julien Sorel who is Stendhal’s hero in Scarlet and Black. I have been held captive by his actions every minute of our acquaintance.

Julien begins his life as many things: a peasant, a carpenter’s son, a Latin scholar, the lover of the Mayor’s wife (Madame de Rhenal) at age twenty. But, when he goes to seminary, and then eventually on to become secretary for the Marquis de la Mole, Julien becomes a Parisian dandy.

Not that he can compete with the rich young gentlemen of the day, who bore the Marquis’ daughter, Mathilde, to death. No, Julien adheres to liberal views which he is not shy about sharing; he is also aware of the hypocrisy he exhibits in not having enough independent wealth for even his daily bread.

In fact, he feels that all priests are hypocritical, and it isn’t until the final chapters of the novel that Julien believes in God himself. He has been far too preoccupied with love affairs, social status, and the glory he has found in living as the nobility do.

Who can say how deep was his love for Madame de Renal? Surely at the time they felt their love to be true, but it could not be sustained with her a married woman. Probably it was inevitable that he fall in love with the Marquis’ daughter at his next place of employment. But, you can see how that love could be called into question as well, once her father sees Julien’s penniless status as compared to the Marquis’ power and riches. All of which Julien could inherit upon marrying Mathilde.

Stendhal makes us look at status and ambition, while examining the priests and nobility, in this novel which often struck me as overly dramatic. Yet, I can forgive a novel written in 1830 for making me want to cry out, “You vile brutes!” after certain passages. The story is what makes it compelling, as I alternatively cheered for Julien and longed to slap him for his stupidity. What has changed between people of his era and people of today?

As I read, I marked quotes from Stendhal that seemed particularly insightful. Many of them apply to French culture today as I think back on the times that I have been in Paris. Below are some of the passages I highlighted.

On priesthood: “I’m confiding this detail to you so that you will have no illusions about what awaits you in the priesthood. If you are thinking of paying court to those in authority, then your everlasting damnation is assured. You may get on in the world, but you’ll have to do things which will harm the poor and needy. You’ll have to flatter the sub-prefect the Mayor, and, in short, any man of importance, and make yourself the servant of his passions. This way of behaviour, which the world calls savoir-vivre, may possibly, for a layman, be not entirely incompatible with salvation. But in our calling, a man has to choose between success in this world or the next – there is no middle way.”

On being a freethinker: “In their eyes he was convicted of the heinous vice of thinking for himself and of forming his own judgements instead of blindly following authority and example.”

On attitude: “Have you forgotten Horace’s nil mirari (never show enthusiasm)? Just consider how all this tribe of lackeys, seeing you standing here, will make fun of you; they’ll see in you one of their equals unjustly placed above them. Under cover of good-nature, of giving you sage advice and guiding you in the right direction, they’ll be trying to trip you into making some gross blunder.”

On speaking: “By the way, don’t let these Parisians hear the sound of your voice. If you say a word they’ll find out a way of making you look ridiculous. It’s a special knack of theirs.”

On entertaining guests: “The Marquis was absolutely correct in his behaviour to his wife; he took care to see that her drawing-room was adequately furnished with guests – not with peers, for he found his new made associates insufficiently noble to be entertained at his house as friends, and not amusing enough to be received in an inferior footing.

On attire: “Young Parisian women are not very fond of people of a certain age, especially when they do not dress very smartly.”

On facial expressions: “A melancholy air can never be good form; what you want is to look bored. If you’re melancholy, it means you want something you haven’t got, or there’s something in which you haven’t succeeded. That’s an admission of inferiority. On the other hand, if you’re bored, it means that the person who has vainly tried to please you is your inferior. Realize, my dear fellow, what a grave mistake you’re making.”

On conversations: “The policy of the government in power, which forms the main topic of conversation in middle-class houses, is never touched on in the houses of people of the Marquis’s rank, except at moments of great emergency…Provided you did not treat God, the clergy, the King, or anyone holding public office as a matter for jest; provided you did not speak in praise of Beranger, the newspapers of the opposite party, Voltaire, Rousseau, or anyone allowing himself any freedom of speech; provided, above all, that you never mentioned politics – then you were free to discuss anything you pleased.”

On belonging: “In Paris, people are civil enough to hide their laughter, but you always remain a stranger.”

(I read this book for Paris in July hosted by Tamara. It also applies to one of the books I have listed to read for The Classics Club.)