The Stolen Bicycle by Ming-Yi Wu (translated from the Mandarin by Darryl Sterk, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

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Twenty years ago, when Father first went missing, it occurred to us if we could find his bicycle, we might find him. Only then did we discover that his bicycle was gone, too – that Father and his iron steed had left us together.

Lucky brand bicycles, which in fact seem to bring no luck at all. Butterfly wings made into collages. Mudslides in the jungle of Burma and granades exploding. An orangutan named Mr. Ichiro, and elephants named Miss Ma and Ah Mei, so carefully portrayed they seem to have human characteristics. Red cedars and banyans within the branches of which one could climb to hide from enemy soldiers.

A man, on a search for his father.

Dead, or missing fathers, everywhere.

These images swirl in my head as I read, letting me know that I am reading about much more than just a stolen bicycle. This novel is about war and the horrendous things people have done to one another, but it is also gentle and insightful.

Stories exist in the moment when you have no way of knowing how you got from the past to the present. We never know at first why they continue to survive, as if in hibernation, despite the erosive power of time. But as you listen to them, you feel like they have been woken up, and end up breathing them in. Needle-like, they poke along your spine into your brain before stinging you, hot and cold, in the heart.

Some favorite quotes as I read:

“Brother had bawled on the whole way home on Ma’s back – well on his way to a career of annoying everyone around him to no end.”

“The boss had reached that age when loneliness starts to choke you and any company will do.”

“The truth of a novel does not depend on facts.”

“Then I did my best to forget about it. This is my habit in the face of uncertainty – I try not to think about things, hoping they’ll turn out fine.”

“Bicycles in War lists some of the advantages of war bicycles. For starters, bicycles were as fast and agile as cavalry, but didn’t have to eat, drink, shit, piss or sleep like a horse. A bicycle also won’t kick or bite. Even more important, a bicycle unit doesn’t consume gasoline like a motorcycle unit. And riding a bike is much quieter than riding a horse or driving a vehicle.”

“I was shocked to realise how quickly a familar face could fade from memory after just a few days’ absence.”

“But as I grew older, I discovered that people living for their own happiness often bring pain to those around them. They don’t seem able to consider their family members’ opinions, or their feelings. Everyone envies this kind of person. Sometimes I felt I was a lot like him, the difference being that I didn’t have the courage to face disapproval.”

“Emotionally he stayed underwater, only occasionally sending up a periscope.”

“If you can accept that – that some things aren’t meant to be, that you can’t get all you want – you can be more accepting in your own life.”

The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Reading The White Book is like reading an exquisite poem. It is not written in free verse, exactly, but the images conveyed, the very sharpening of our senses, is revealed in every phrase.

The narrator mourns the death of her sister, a sister “white as a moon-shaped rice cake”, a sister she had never known. Instead, she had been “born and grown up in the place of that death.”

“I think of her being weaned and raised on rice porridge, growing up, becoming a woman, making it through every crisis.

I think of death deflected every time, faced with her back as she moves firmly forwards.

Don’t die. For God’s sake, don’t die.

Because of those words knitted into her, an amulet in her body.”

Han Kang examines a multitude of things that are white: snow, salt, a lace curtain, handkerchief or sugar cube…

“She isn’t really partial to sweet things any more, but the sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is colored by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.”

Her writing sparkles, but the end result for me is a certain detachment. I am unable to connect with the loss of a sister I never knew, to feel a shadow over my life from the death of a sibling. But, for those who can, they will surely be moved by this novel, and especially the final sentences Han Kang writes:

“With your eyes, I will see the chill of the half-moon risen in the day.

At some point those eyes will see a glacier. They will look up at that enormous mass of ice and see something sacred, unsullied by life.

They will see inside the silence of the white birch forest. Inside the stillness of the window where the winter sun seeps in. Inside those shining grains of dust, swaying along the shafts of light which slant onto the ceiling.

Within that white, all those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Leave it to Jenny Erpenbeck to write the most compassionate novel about refugees I have ever read. In my mind, even Exit West by Mohsin Hamid cannot compare.

Perhaps it is not only because of her beautiful writing that she is able to do this; perhaps because she is German she has an idea of what being a refugee must be like.

When I taught in Germany during the 1980’s the Wall was still up. My husband and I rented an apartment from a man whose father had come to visit friends and was never allowed back to his home in the East. We saw films of people trying to escape into the West, and it was horrible.

Our narrator, Richard, lives in Berlin after the Wall has been taken down. I found him to be alienated from his country in ways that faintly resembled how the Africans were alienated from theirs.

In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, from one day to the next, though the view out the window remained the same.

If being a refugee is like being a stranger in a land, than Richard himself qualifies as one in telling this story of his past and Germany’s present.

His terrain has changed not only with the fall of the Wall, but with the death of his wife, the absence of his lover and now the end of his career. As he tells us of his youth, in the East side of Berlin, we hear of pain and suffering which resonates with that of the refugees whom he is so curious about.

His curiosity expands into “interviewing” the African refugees when he visits them in the nursing home where they have been temporarily moved, then helping them, and finally befriending them.

Some of my fellow bloggers have suggested that this novel is more about the theme than the writing, and indeed, the theme of the refugee’s plight is relentless. But, the novel is compassionate, and thought-provoking, and in many ways uncomfortable to me as I examine my own thoughts regarding this current issue in our world.

One of the most striking pages to me was one in which on a field of white, the only sentence was this:

Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?

Some favorite quotes, highlighted as I read:

He can’t even comprehend that his departure is just a part of everyday life for all the others – only for him is it an ending.

…everything he’s ever studied – is now his own private property and nothing more.

Today alone, six people died in swimming accidents in the greater Berlin area, the newscaster says in conclusion, a tragic record, and now it’s time for the weather. Six people just like that man still at the bottom of the lake. We become visible. Why didn’t Richard see all these men at Alexanderplatz?

The Africans probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.

Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.

When you become foreign, Awad says, you don’t have a choice. Somewhere here is where the problem lies, Richard thinks: the things you’ve experienced become baggage you can’t get rid of, while others – people with the freedom to choose – get to decide which stories to hold on to.

Learning to stop wanting things is probably one of the most difficult lessons of getting old. But if you don’t learn to do that, it seems to him, your desires will be like a bellyful of stones dragging you down to your grave.

For a long time the old man and this young man sit there side by side at the desk, watching and listening as these three musicians use the black and white keys to tell stories that have nothing to do with the keys’ colors.

Buy with free international shipping and delivery from Bookwitty.

Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto by Gianni Rodari, an utterly charming book for Italian Lit Month

Fairy tales usually begin with a boy, or a young man, or a girl who experiences a series of adventures and then becomes a prince or a pincess, gets married, and then hosts a grand banquet. This fairy tale, on the other hand, begins with a ninety-four-year-old man who, after a number of adventures, becomes a thirteen year old boy. Is this an insult to the reader? No, because there’s a perfectly good explanation.

Baron Lamberto is wealthy and old. His butler, Anselmo, keeps track of his 24 ailments in a notebook, recording them in alphabetical order.

Strangely enough, the name of Baron Lamberto is repeated throughout the day over and over by six employees whose job it is to call it out, three times in a row, 24 hours a day. Without knowing why.

One day, Lamberto notices a hair growing out of the top of his bald pate. Then, he finds that he is moving without the use of his gold-pommeled canes. His retinas are clear and bright. Suddenly, in a myriad of other ways, he resembles a man approximately forty years of age.

The man whose name is spoken remains alive.

These words spoken by an old Egyptian fakir must be true, judging from the results of its cure. For when 24 bandits come to Lamberto’s house, as well as his nephew whose pockets are “money-starved”, a series of unfortunate events begin unlike anything Lemony Snicket can imagine.

The novel resembles something written by Lewis Carroll, or Roald Dahl, or the brothers Grimm, for all the unlikely, and often horrific, things that occur. (It was actually written during the time that the Red Brigades were terrorizing Italy.)

But, it is also hilarious. The irony is too delicious to miss, and I ended up being utterly charmed by Gianni Rodari’s scornful wit. It is, as he himself claims at the end, “a fairy tale that obeys its own rules.” And, at the end if we don’t like it, he invites us to change it to suit ourselves by adding a chapter or two to his book. For one should:

Never allow yourself to be frightened by the words: The End.

I read this book particularly for Stu’s Italian Literature Month this March, and I am so glad that I did.

We Should All Be So Joyful About Such Simple Things

“Hi, Mrs. Smith!” says Saahithi, jumping into my room this morning. “Do you notice anything different about me?”

“Well,” I say, “your hair is in a beautiful pony tail…”

“No, I got new shoes! My bedtime is normally 7:30, but I went to bed at 8:00 last night because we went to the Premium Outlet Mall, and I got new Nikes!”

“Wow! They are purple and they have green accents,” I say. “Now those are gorgeous!”

“I know, right?!” she replied, happily smiling and turning her foot from side to side for me to admire every angle.

The bell rings, and I have to send her onward to her fourth grade class, but the joy of a nine year old thrills my heart. Oh, that we wouldn’t lose it.

On the Fleeting Nature of Things

Sometimes we know when it will be the last time we ever do something. Parent teacher conferences were Thursday, and I’ll never meet with a parent to discuss his child’s progress again. Institute Day was Friday, and I’ll never have to sit through hours of tedious in-service again. Valentine’s Day was last month, as everyone knows, and I’ll never have the chance to make valentines, or receive them from my class, again.

But, sometimes we don’t know when it is the end of something. When was the last time I ever wrote with a piece of chalk on a blackboard? Used transparencies on an overhead projector? Ordered films which came in tin canisters and had to be threaded reel-to-reel? More importantly, when was the last time my son jumped into my arms where I then shifted him onto my hip for easier holding? When was the last time I drove through Paris, or kissed my first husband, or played a Bach fugue on the piano with authority?

Billy Graham’s funeral was yesterday in Charlotte, North Carolina, and his children will not see him again as long as they are on earth. He made it to his last destination. And I am considering good-byes today. Remembering, or trying to remember, all the things which have passed by or transitioned into something new. Thinking about all the things of which I will have to let go.

Probably it is healthiest to welcome the changes that have come into our lives. But I am a nostalgic person by nature, and I am sad about things gone by to which I never had the chance to say farewell. I never had the sense to know it would be the last time.

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

The unnamed grandmother had a chance to leave Latvia for Germany at the end of the war. “There was time before the Red Army invaded Riga,” we are told. But, instead of risking her life, and the life of her unborn child, she decided to stay.

“My mother’s decision determined not only her life but also my father’s and mine. Unwittingly I blamed her for everything.” p. 74

And so this daughter grew to be a resentful mother, a dysfunctional mother, a woman obsessed with medicine, fertilization of human eggs outside of the body, and the novels Moby Dick and 1984. Over and over her daughter comes home to find her mother in bed, unconscious, overdosed on alcohol, little white tablets, or both. It is a sad life, in itself a picture of the suffering going on in Latvia during the 1970s.

I was driven out into a world for which I cared nothing. A world in which I had been unnecessary since birth. p. 51

At first I was confused as to who was narrating the story, as the author alternates between the mother’s point of view and her daughter’s. But the effect ends up being a masterful job of blending despair and hope. And the female point of view also coincides beautifully with the concept of milk.

The mother says, “I disappeared for days so I wouldn’t have to feed my child. My milk was bitter: the milk of incomprehension, of extinction. I protected my child from it.” p. 33

What a perfect symbolism for the bitterness that has permeated Latvia with the Soviet invasion. The daughter herself is unable to drink the milk which is mandatory to do at her country school. Her mother comes to meet with the teacher, so this burden can be lifted, and when it is the milk suddenly tastes sweeter.

At lunch, no one put a glass in front of me. But I tasted a little of my neighbor’s milk. It was the same milk that I couldn’t stand, but I could drink it or not. I had gained a little freedom. p. 59

I wanted to be patient with this mother, who at times was successful with her gynecological practice at the ambulatory centre, who at times was compassionate to her daughter who tried so desperately to please and encourage her mother. But, in the end I could be no more patient with her than she was with herself. After numerous suicide attempts, she is of course successful, for any one who truly wants to die will find a way. It doesn’t matter to them if they are loved by children or parents; their selfishness and despair take precedence over anyone else’s desires.

The Berlin Wall comes down at the end of Soviet Milk. This family and others have lived through desparate sorrows and governmental manipulations, but finally there is hope for those who endured. Those who had the courage to face hardships. Communism. Poverty and lack of independence. Finally, we can breathe with the daughter and her grandmother, no longer dependant on milk, but ready for solid food.

Reading The Bible as Literature Event

Roofbeam Reader began this event in January, an idea to read through the Bible in 2018. He developed a plan, to follow as arduously or loosely as one chooses, and he has faithfully posted his progress on his blog and Instagram (using the tag #2018BibleRBR).

I, too, have been reading through the Bible as I try to do every year. Many years I have gone all the way to the end, others I’ve gotten lost before the finish line. But, I am so encouraged by my reading this year that I am ahead of schedule. I have read from Genesis through Deuteronomy, and just last night I began Joshua.

I think that a small part of this is because I bought a compact Bible on sale this Christmas for $9.00 (now it is 11.00) and it has given me “permission” to write all over it. I do not feel concerned about ruining a gorgeous leatherbound Bible with real gilt edging, several of which I have in my collection.

Also, because of it’s slim size, I am not holding a massive tome that is difficult to manage. I can easily read several chapters in bed before I go to sleep, which is what I do every night.

But, this is not an ad for a bookstore or a personal praise report on my own reading. This is to say that if you have never read the Bible before, or if you’ve read it only rarely, you would be surprised how it is new every morning. Somehow, the Word falls fresh and seems to hit exactly where it is most needed.

Finally, here is a picture of some passages I underlined just last night:

Four times we are told to “be strong and courageous.” Four times in one chapter. And that is excellent advice which I find myself needing on a daily basis.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a novel quite unlike anything I expected

We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks, when we don’t need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free.

I thought, perhaps, that this novel might be along the likes of the ever popular, and oh so disappointing, thrillers such as The Girl on The Train. The nanny is a murderer, I thought, far from perfect at all. I did not realize, at first, that this novel has been translated from the French, nor that it won France’s prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt. (The U.S. cover pictured above has been criticized on Twitter, and rightly so, for leaving all that out.)

From the very first page we are shown a horrific scene:

The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put in a gray bag which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived.

You can see how it would be easy to assume you were reading a typical American thriller from this opening. But very quickly, the story veers off from what would seem American, but is clearly French as it goes far beyond the external situation.

The parents live in a tiny apartment in Paris. Myriam is a lawyer, but also a distraught and exhausted mother. Paul is a musician, but also a struggling and sometimes impatient father. Like every young professional couple they must balance the needs of their family with their professional aspirations, and something always seems to come up short.

Until Louise arrives. She is blonde, and diminutive, and able to perfectly manage two children and a small apartment, making it seem spacious and clean and joyful. She prepares delicious meals, helps create delightful birthday parties, and gives the children endless enjoyment with the stories she tells, the imagination she reveals.

It seems so perfect, but there is a thread of tension running underground. For one thing, it certainly can’t be as idyllic as it seems for we already know that one of the children is dead. For another, the tension around Louise mounts increasingly with every page.

Louise sleeps in the family’s apartment when they go to visit Myriam’s mother-in-law in the mountains. Louise imagines returning to Greece with the family on holiday, but as they prepare to come back to France she will announce that she is staying. Her unhappiness is palpable, and why shouldn’t it be? Nothing in her personal life resembles the lives of those she works for.

Euphoria gives way to days of dejection. The world seems to shrink, to retract, to weigh down on her body, to crush it. Paul and Myriam close doors on her and she wants to smash them down. She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrrow, a warm hiding place. Sometimes she feels ready to claim her portion of earth and then the urge wanes, she is overcome by sorrow, and she feels ashamed even to have believed in something.

And why shouldn’t she feel so overcome? Her husband has died, forcing her to sell their home and face unsurmountable bills; her daughter has caused nothing but trouble and has now run away never to be seen again; her landlord charges exhorbitant rent for a studio apartment which is in great disrepair and even blames her for the fact that the shower has sunk into the rotting floorboards beneath. Louise can clean, and work endless hours creating a perfect life for her clients and facade for herself, but there is nothing in her own life that is beautiful, or easy, or promising. No one even loves her.

It is not a novel of mystery, or a thriller, or even crime as we know the murders from the very beginning. It is a story of desparation and isolation. It is the story of the true mother being more concerned about her position as a lawyer than she is about her children. It is a tragedy everywhere one looks.

Find an excellent review on 1st Reading’s Blog.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, a brief summary and two questions

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…she (Isabel’s aunt) is horrified at my contenting myself with a person who has none of Lord Warburton’s great advantages – no property, no title, no honours, no houses, nor lands, nor position, nor reputation, nor brilliant belongings of any sort. It is the total absense of all these things that pleases me. Mr. Osmond is simply a man – he is not a proprietor!”

I have finally finished The Portrait of A Lady, and I have two questions: why did Isabel Archer marry Gilbert Osmond? And, why did she plan to return to him on the very last page? I am all the more eager to discuss this with you, and to continue with John Banville’s interpretation of Isabel’s story in Mrs. Osmond, as Henry James leaves us with Isabel’s life quite unresolved.

In the very briefest of summaries, Isabel Archer has been brought from her home in America to England by her aunt. She immediately forms strong attachments to her cousin, Ralph, and her uncle. She is also courted by Lord Warburton, a wealthy man who has been smitten by Isabel’s charms. Back home she has left Caspar Goodwood, another suitor who lives in New England. There is no shortage of people who admire Isabel. In fact, her cousin is so taken by her that he begs his father to leave her an enormous part of the family fortune upon his death. When Madame Merle, a friend of Isabel’s aunt, learns of Isabel’s inherited fortune, she leads her into a marriage with Gilbert Osmond, an odious man with a most lovely daughter who seems in such stark contrast to her wretched father. When Ralph lies dying of consumption, Isabel tells her husband she must go to his bedside, and she is firmly forbidden to do so. Yet in a brave act of independence, she leaves Rome for Gardencourt, in England, and learns that it has been Ralph who bestowed his fortune upon her, not his father as Isabel thought. The Portrait of A Lady ends with Isabel returning to Rome, to her dreaded life with an appalling man.

So, why did she marry Gilbert Osmond in the first place? Because she was young and naive? Because she was led to it by the manipulations of an older woman with dark intent? Isabel would not listen to those around her whom she loved and trusted, such as her cousin Ralph. Instead she listened to Serena Merle, who manipulated Isabel into this marriage for her own purposes. Henry James never once says that Isabel loved Osmond, and what I come away with is that she felt coerced into this marriage by those whom she trusted, but scarcely knew.

Gilbert Osmond was the one who caught her, put her in a cage so to speak, as her cousin Ralph feared he would. Osmand had a contempt for everyone but a very few, and “for everything in the world but half a dozen ideas of his own.” It would be a wretched prison to find oneself in, married to a man with such superior views in direct contrast with one’s own. Poor Isabel, her imagination, her vivacity, is squelched under our very eyes. It is as if Osmand is trying to put her to death.

I admire her greatly for going to her cousin’s bedside despite her husband forbidding her to do so. It was something she needed to do as a decent human being, something she needed to do for herself and her beloved cousin as he lay dying. But, to turn the final page and discover that she is on her way back to Rome, back to Osmond, is quite alarming. Does she feel she has no other choice? Is she imprisoned not only by her husband, but by the social mores of her time? If there was any help to be had by being independently wealthy, now would be the time to claim those favors. For inheriting a fortune has been of no help whatsoever to her life thus far.

Tell us what you think, JoAnn, Audrey, Helen and Jillian. Arti has put up a wonderful post on Ripple Effects, and Lisbeth has put up a lovely post on The Content Reader.  I would love to continue a discussion with any thoughts I may have missed.