Poem In Your Pocket Day is Today

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I have loved to celebrate Poem In Your Pocket Day with my class in years past. I taught the children how to make an origami pocket, into which they would place a favorite poem, and off we would go to the school’s reading garden to share them with one another.

This year, my mother had a poem she wished to share. And so, we copied it, rolled it, and tied it in a ribbon for Spring. She brought these poems to our friends at Book Club yesterday, in early celebration of Poem in Your Pocket Day today. (Now the women are prepared to celebrate, too.)

I have to share the poem she chose because it is just delightful, for bibliophiles in particular:

I Opened a Book

I opened a book and in I strode,

now no one can find me.

I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,

my town, and my world behind me.

I’m wearing the cloak, I’ve slipped on the ring,

I’ve swallowed the magic potion.

I’ve fought with a dragon, dined with a king,

and dived in a bottomless ocean.

I opened a book and made some friends,

I shared their tears and laughter

and followed their road with its bumps and bends

to the happily ever after.

I finished my book and out I came,

the cloak can no longer hide me.

My chair and my house are just the same,

but I have a book inside me.

~Julia Donaldson

Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day! Be sure to share one with someone today.

If Cats Disappeared From The World by Genki Kawamura

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Soon after a young postman learns that his migraines are due to a cancerous brain tumour, he is visited by the devil and offered a deal.

“In order to gain something, you have to lose something…It’s just a matter of a simple exchange.”

“Exchange of what?”

“All you have to do is remove one thing from the world and in return, you’ll get one more day of life.”

Now I love getting rid of things. I’m not diagnosed with cancer, and I don’t make deals with the devil, but purging the house? Emptying shelves, closets, and drawers? I feel very liberated after doing that. So, the deal doesn’t sound all that negative to me. Especially when the first thing to disappear from the world is his phone. And not only his; cell phones are gone from the world. What commisseration I felt in reading this:

Mobile phones have been around for only about twenty years, but in just that short amount of time they’ve managed to take complete control over us. In the span of two decades something that we don’t really need has come to dominate our lives and make us believe we can’t live without it. When human beings invented the phone, they also invented the anxiety that comes with not having one on you. (p. 35)

The next things to go are movies, clocks, and then the issue of cats. Does the postman have it in him to rid the world of cats just so that he can live?

The book is a bit “lumpy”, whether that’s due to translation or the youth of the author I can’t quite tell. There are things that don’t quite connect; for example, what has happened to all the things the devil made disappear from the world when he made a deal with previous people? The theology is a bit wonky, too, in the idea that the devil represents all the regrets one has in one’s life. (If only he was that innocuous!)

But, when I step back and look at it as a whole, I find some very pertinent issues are addressed, such as the relationships in our lives which may need to be healed. Or, the recognition of how fragile we all are. It is the journey which the author takes us on, the discovery through the postman’s eyes, which is what makes this book special.

Yeah, but just being alive doesn’t mean that much all on its own. How you live is more important. (p. 152)

Yes, to that.

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto (“…a dog-driven invitation to living full forward.” A tender, lovely book.)

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Each step is good. Every footfall. “Walk as if you are missing the Earth with your feet,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen master whose writings I’d always loved. “Now walk as if you are kissing the Earth with six feet,” I thought, “and say, ‘Good dog!'” (p. 57)

It isn’t until Stephen is 38 that he gets his guide dog, Corky. And then, his life opens up for him. He can move past an alcoholic mother who denied his blindness all her life,  never “permitting” him to admit to a disability.

But, when a social worker gives him a pamphlet about seeing eye dogs, he goes to New York to find connection with a Labrador named Corky.

This is a beautiful book. It isn’t just for dog lovers, and it certainly is not just for those with difficult seeing. For all of us bear wounds of some kind which make passing through this world a bit tricky at times. My life was affirmed as I read Stephen’s story describing his life. How fortunate we are when something can make the journey easier, especially if that is a joyful, loving dog.

Palm Sunday in the Snow

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The palm branch signifies victory, triumph, peace, and and eternal life. It was given to triumphant athletes in ancient Greece, and it was one of the most common attributes of victory found in ancient Rome.

It is no wonder then, that palm branches were given out to us this Sunday, and waved before the Lord on His triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  The crowd took branches of palm leaves and went out to meet Him shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (John 12:12)

We wave the palm branches in praise, the thing we were designed to do. We won’t let anything steal our praise. (Not fear, or doubt, or even a titch of snow in April.)

New Every Morning

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The Lord’s unfailing love and mercy still continue. Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise.

~Lamentations 3:22-23

(Good News Translation)

When I came downstairs this morning, there was so much rose gold in the living room I thought that my husband had turned on the lights. But, he was sitting with his coffee, and he said, “Look out the window,” at the same time my friend Robert texted, “Look at the sky.”

I grabbed my phone quickly to try to capture a bit of the sky outside of our front door, but it only ends up looking like a Hallmark card. There is no way to capture the glory of His handiwork with a piece of technology.

Nevertheless, I am reminded that His mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness, Oh Lord.

A Brief Summary Of Each Book Long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, and My Favorites in Order

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1. The Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli: an impeccable portrayal of friendships, told with the hope and innocence of young men who are facing danger ahead, the kind only war can bring.

2. Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: a mystery of sorts, with the love of animals at its core, but also including the eccentricities of a woman dismayed by the world around her.

3. Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi: a story of several generations living in Oman, showing me life in the Middle East in ways that do not make me feel the need to writhe against their culture, nor defend my own.

4. The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: a disconcerting view of history as we’ve been taught, reminding us that what we know to be true probably isn’t. Especially if it comes from the hands of the government.

5. The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa: depicting the difficulties of immigration for those who need to leave their country and those who try to help them.

6. The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann: a German man travels through Japan tracing Basho’s footsteps as he describes nature and tries to find himself.

7. At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong: an architect recognizes the mistakes he made for his own growth and profession at the expense of others when it’s too late to do anything about them.

8. The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg: a bitter account of the dreadful life led by Valerie Solanas, the woman who tried to kill Andy Warhol.

9. Love In The Time of The Millennium by Can Xue: a bizarre, nonlinear account of characters searching for love and meaning in China.

10. The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran: counts and recounts the bodies of the dead in Santiago, Chile, through the eyes of two friends, hoping to make sense of the city around them.

11. Jokes for The Gunman by Mazen Maarouf: short stories about war, pain, and disappointment told with distressing irony, often from youthful points of view.

12. Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: incredibly imaginative short stories of the vilest nature with not a shred of hope or redemption in any of them.

13. The Years by Annie Ernaux: one woman’s memoirs, with a particular emphasis on France, ultimately reflecting her disappointment with authority in general and men in particular as she recounts the experiences of her life. Some of which are universal.

And now I await the official announcement of the short list from the Man Booker International Prize judges, due April 9, wondering which six of these thirteen will be the favored ones. Meanwhile, the Shadow Jury finishes their reading of the long list and is compiling a list of our favorite six. Do not expect that my favorites will reflect the Shadow Jury’s favorites. From the comments and scores we have determined in private so far, I can already see that there are large differences of opinion. But, this is what makes reading together so much fun: finding out what is critical to one another in the literary world.

Love In The New Millennium by Can Xue (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

Reading Love In the New Millenium is like dreaming a bad dream: disjointed things are happening on every page, with no clear significance or meaning (to me).

“Do you understand everything now?” she asked.

Wei Bo did not understand at all. What sort of woman was A Si’s mother? Why had Long Sixiang wanted him to come here? His sole impression was that the old woman had a cruel temper.

“No, Sixiang, I don’t understand.”

“Good!” Ling Sixiang clapped her hands. ” Your not understanding is understanding!”

These are the kind of nonsensical sentences that fill the pages at the beginning of this book.

“People come and go so quickly here!” said Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And they do in Can Xue’s world, too. We don’t really know Wei Bo, except that he is forty-eight and works in a soap factory. We don’t really know any of the women who are a part of his life: Niu Cuilan or A Si (his lovers); nor Xiao Yuan, his wife. We discover that Cuilan and A Si worked in the cotton mill, and then gained employment in the health spa as prostitutes; the later life-style seems easier than the former. There are also Long Sixiang and Jin Zhu, the Gold Pearl. They have left working in the cotton mill as well, to become prostitutes though they are old and had a hard time getting started in the business. These women come and go from Wei Bo’s life with relative ease.

Many things go in and out of Wei Bo’s life. I don’t know what to make of paragraphs like this one, involving an elderly woman who has sung La Traviata for forty years, and walks with Wei Bo after the performance.

“Where do you live?” (He asks her.)

“Over on that side, in the fifteen-story building. It’s been lovely to take a walk with you.

The actress walked in the direction of the tall building. A gust of wind lifted her black skirt, and Wei Bo saw her fly upward like a great bird, both feet leaving the ground. She alighted at the entrance to the building. The door opened itself, she all but flapped through it, then the door shut. The large black door with its pair of copper ring handles made a mournful impression. Before long her aria emerged through an upstairs window, although Wei Bo could not understand a word…” (p. 74)

Wei Bo could not understand a word? Neither, sadly, could I.

Most of this novel was incomprehensible to me, and it frustrated me as I read. But, I could not put it down. It called me to continue, to wander down the path that Can Xue created so that I could see what might lie ahead. Or, under a leaf. Or, in the fifth room of a cave dwelling. The occurrances in this novel are bizarre, to be sure, but the imagery is quite astonishing. Like the vivid cover on the front, there is a richness in design and color which mimics the writing inside. It is like nothing I have ever read before. I don’t know what to make of it. But, I think I like it.

Her songs aren’t about our past life, or about the emotional life of people today, but instead about the life we have never even imagined.

(Thanks to Yale University Press for a copy of this book to review.)

Find a most excellent review of this novel here.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

Only a piece of machinery could possibly carry all the world’s pain. Only a machine, simple, effective and just. But if everything were to happen mechanically, our prayers wouldn’t be needed. (p. 49)

Well, this is a strange and endearing book. It reads, in part, almost like a fairy tale where macabre goings-on are carried out by the forest folk.

It is the elderly Janina Duszejko’s opinion that animals are committing the murders which have occurred on the Plateau where she lives in one of three cottages. As the novel begins, she is pulled awake in the middle of the night by her neighbor, Oddball, who takes her over to Big Foot’s house where the later has been discovered dead. He has a freshly killed Deer head on the table and a small bone on which he choked to death in his mouth. “One Creature had devoured another, in the silence and stillness of the Night.” (p. 26)

As Janina searches for Big Foot’s identity card, on the sideboard and in the drawers, she comes across a wad of photographs, one of which utterly shocks her.

I looked at it more closely, and was about to lay it aside. It took me a while to understand what I was looking at. Suddenly, total silence fell, and I found myself right in the middle of it. I stared at the picture. My body tensed, I was ready to do battle. My head began to spin, and a dismal wailing rose in my years, a roar, as if from over the horizon an army of thousands was approaching – voices, the clank of iron, the creak of wheels in the distance. Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits. (p. 27)

The names of things and emotions are capitalized in this novel. The Animals. The Deer. The Little Girls, Tools, or even Hypothesis. It casts a disconcerting importance on parts of the English language, making it almost other worldly. It mimics, perhaps, William Blake’s style from which her title comes:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” (William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

And yet, what Olga Tokarczuk says about the animals, I, too, hold very much to be true. “Animals have a very strong sense of justice,” she writes. (p. 202) They certainly seem more capable of understanding the nature of things than we human Beings.

You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves…And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other. (p. 223)
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead tells the story of Janina, her grown up student Dizzy (who translates Blake’s poetry), and the men living around her who love to shoot. But, it is so much more than that. Within the pages of this book, Olga Tokarczuk picks up much larger themes: of relationship, and religion, and a deep seated sense of justice for the unprotected; for those she loves.
My copy is filled with tabs, marking places which I feel I could have written myself for how profoundly I feel them. Places such as these:
There’s also a stony precipice nearby, but anyone who thinks it’s a natural feature would be mistaken, for it’s the remains of an old quarry, which used to take bites out of the Plateau and would surely have consumed the whole thing eventually in the avid mouths of its diggers. They say there are plans to start it up again, at which point we shall vanish from the face of the Earth, devoured by Machines. (p. 58)
and
I see us moving about blindly in eternal Gloom, like May bugs trapped in a box by a cruel child. It’s easy to harm and injure us, to smash up our intricately assembled, bizarre existence. I interpret everything as abnormal, terrible and threatening.
and
‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘It’s attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)
and
Crime has come to be regarded as a normal, everyday activity. Everyone commits it. That’s just how the world would look if concentration camps became the norm. Nobody would see anything wrong with them.”
and
I worked at a school and taught the children various useful things: English, handicrafts and geography. I always did my best to capture their attention fully, to have them remember important things not out of fear of a bad mark but out of genuine passion.
Janina’s passion, which I cannot help but see as part of Olga’s herself, is a great and tumultuous thing. It takes over her being, giving her a purpose from which she will not swerve. She may not have the answers, not be able to solve the wounds of this world by her own actions, but she is searching for Light. On page 48, in the beginning of the novel, Olga writes:
It undoubtedly gave us respite, and the corpse (Big Foot’s) lying there became more and more unreal, until it was just an excuse for this gathering of hard-working people on the windy Plateau. We sang about the real Light that exists somewhere far away, imperceptible for now, but that we shall behold as soon as we die. Now we can only see it through a pane of glass, or in a crooked mirror, but one day we shall stand face to face with it. And it will enfold us, for it is our mother this Light, and we came from it.
That is a little different from that verse in Corinthians of which it resonates, but it reflects the fact that many of us are searching for the Light:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)
I loved this book. Hubert Mingarelli’s The Four Soldiers and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead are by far my two favorite books from the long list. I have two more to go before I am done: Love in The Time of The Millennium by Can Xue and The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran. Then I shall give you a one sentence summary of each of the thirteen, should you not have taken the time to read all of them as I did, for the short list will be announced April 9, 2019.
(Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for a copy of Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead to review.)

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

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Photo credit here.

One of the best parts of reading translated literature is going to the places it will take you, even if only in your head. I have never been to Oman, on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. I have never eaten dates with my coffee for breakfast, or worn silver bangles and earrings and anklets, but I have had my hands hannaed, and I thought the designs were beautiful. The whole culture intrigues me.

Celestial Bodies is a novel of life in al-Awafi, a small and poor village outside of Muscat, the largest city and capital of Oman. There is the mother, Salima, and her three daughters: Mayya, Asma and Khawla (who loves lipstick and Harlequin Romance novels). There is Silima’s husband, Azzan, who secretly sleeps with a Bedouin woman named Qamar, the Moon. And, there is Abdallah, son of Merchant Sulayman, husband of Mayya, whose voice is interspersed with each chapter of the novel. He tells us of the terrible fear he had as a child, being hung upside down in a well filled with darkness and snakes by his father who would not hear his screams.

Perhaps most interesting of all is Zarifa, the slave who becomes Merchant Sulayman’s secret lover, and Abdallah’s mother after his birth mother has been killed in complications having to do with a basil plant. Zarifa is a large woman, of heart as well as girth. Her story tells of a whole different strata within the many layers of this society.

Each parent, each child, each cousin, sister, aunt, uncle and grandparent has a life which is intricately woven within this novel. It is an intriguing story, and a fascinating depiction of a world I know little about. I found it well written and multi-faceted, as every book long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize ought to be. (Celestial Bodies also won the 2010 Best Omani Novel Award.)

Japanese Literature Challenge 12: We Have Come To The End

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It has been such a privilege to read Japanese literature with you these past three months. I want to extend a big thank you to Gnoe who inquired about it last Summer, and Mel U who has participated since the beginning years of the challenge; they were enough to let me know that at least three of us would be reading Japanese literature together. But, there have been so many more who read with us, both old friends and new. Andrew Blackman joined for the first time, as did Gretchen. My friend from the Man Booker Shadow Panel, Vivek, has expressed an interest in joining in next year. Hooray!

Gnoe read and reviewed one of my favorite books for the challenge this year, The Traveling Cat Chronicles. I was intrigued by how she threw it across the room, declaring her hate for it, and in the next sentence saying how much she loved it. Because it is sad and joyful at the same time, I think.

Akylina has read my favorite crime writer, Keigo Higoshino, whom she mentioned is one of her favorites as well. She reviewed A Midsummer Equation by Keigo Higashino, noting that unlike many other Japanese crime novels, we don’t find out what happens until the end.

Andrew Blackman wrote the finest review of The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogon that I have ever seen. I enjoyed his perceptive, in-depth, and interesting thoughts as much as I enjoyed her “diary” giving us an account of life in the Empress’ court.

Nadia of A Bookish Way of Life reviewed several stories from the Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, a collection I’m now longing to buy myself as she mentioned two of my favorite authors.

Nishita of Nishita’s Rants and Raves has begun Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 for the challenge proving it’s never too late to pick up a Japanese novel even if this particular challenge is over.

Suko of Suko’s Notebook has read and reviewed Kafka on the Shore, my favorite of all Haruki Murakami’s novels. It is not an easy job to define his work, and she does a brilliant job of highlighting the most important aspects of this book.

Michelle of su[shu] has read and reviewed Penance by Kanae Minato, and novel I enjoyed as much as her novel, Confessions. Michelle, too, compares the two novels, and says this of Penance: “It felt like a little study of character. It was as if the book was the answer to the question, “If a friend is assaulted and murdered, how would it affect you? Where would you end up?”

Although the challenge is officially over, I have two books waiting for me when my Man Booker International Prize long list reading ends. One is If Cats Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura and the other is Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. I hope that you, too, will continue to enjoy Japanese Literature as we “wait” for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 to come around next January. Thank you for the books we’ve shared together this time around.