Category Archives: Books I enjoy!

Saturday’s Book: “Brooklyn Heights” by Miral al-Tahawy

Looking for tea and sympathy…
Naomi’s Photos

This was the last book I took from the library before we shifted into “Corona Mode” and the library locked its doors.

It is another good example of the kind of book I never would have known about without the help of a librarian!

This is a book about people who don’t belong, particularly women who don’t belong (though not only women). It is told from the perspective of a woman from a strictly conservative Bedouin family who lived in a small town in Egypt, in the Eastern Nile Delta.  Not only are women relegated to specific, limited roles, but the Bedouins are considered outsiders in the village.  Then there is the Coptic woman who is honored but is even more of an outsider.

The book moves between flashbacks of childhood in Egypt to life in modern-day Brooklyn Heights, where we meet more outsiders, Muslim immigrants from different parts of the world who dreamed of a new life in the USA, but their dreams were never realized.

Tahawy writes beautifully and I enjoyed the vivid depictions of the life of the main character, Hend,  in Egypt. However, I was disappointed with the parts relating to her life in Brooklyn. Nothing seems to happen, nothing goes progresses or regresses or anything. It seemed as if the author had only caused Hend to immigrate to present more “outsiders” while abandoning Hend’s tale.  It’s rather depressing, depressing without it being part of a way to move forward. Or backward – frankly, I was quite concerned that Hend would commit suicide.

Nonetheless, I do recommend reading this book -there are many fascinating parts.

 

 

Double Book Post: “The House of Spirits” by Allende & “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Owens

Nowadays art museums are on the sidewalks!
Naomi’s Photos

I enjoy a book that is so engaging that it “takes me” to another place and time period – the best way to travel while staying at home, right?

At first I thought both of these books were giving me that experience.

But I discovered that to be a mistaken assumption.

Only “Where the Crawdads Sing” kept me completely absorbed in the tale of the life of  Kya, a girl who was abandoned as a child and grew up in the marshes of North Carolina. The descriptions are so vivid, that this totally unfamiliar (to me! ) landscape is brought to life.  There are also some very interesting facts about nature, which are cleverly woven in to match the plot without slowing down its progress.

Perhaps not every turn of events is totally believable but that really didn’t bother me a single bit. I went with the currents and let the author lead the way.

Certainly, a great book to read when you aren’t supposed to leave the house!

Distortions…
Naomi’s Photos

I was pleased when I began “The House of Spirits”, I’ve enjoyed several books you could define as “magical realism” and was completely prepared to go wherever the author wanted to take me. Particularly as I don’t know much about Chile and it’s history and felt much more interested in that compared to what is going on in the world nowadays.

The book follows the life of the Trueba family,  clearly a “larger than life” family, a rich family complete with daughters possessing unusual qualities, old women with unusual skills and unfamiliar superstitions,  uncles with schemes for getting rich who manage to die twice and more.

Great!

Wikipedia says the book follows the lives of four generations of the Trueba family. I had to consult Wikipedia because I abandoned the book after generation three hit puberty.

I couldn’t take it anymore.

It became very repetitive.

Very repetitive.

There was way too much focus on the unsavory character of Esteban (who married into the family) and endless extremely detailed descriptions of his cycles of sexual desire and senseless violence.

So many disasters befell Esteban that I hoped the story would continue at some point without this character, (you know, move onto the next generation?) but he was invincible.

I read more than half the book and then quit.

Goodbye Esteban!

**** I’ve almost finished another book – post coming soon!

 

“Women’s Day”, Being A Teacher & “The Mermaid Chair” by Sue Monk Kidd

By Alice Lurio Axelbank

Yes, I admit it.

I’d much rather reflect on how the book I recently read ties in with “Women’s Day” (March 8) and what it has to do with me being a teacher, than dwell on the question of whether we’re going back to school as scheduled in two days despite the CoronaVirus.

Stressful times indeed.

Now, don’t get me wrong – “The Mermaid Chair” is a good book and I do recommend reading it.

But I didn’t think so at first.

The book seemed to start off with such a worn-out situation that I was seriously considering moving on to another book.  A woman, who supposedly has a “perfect” marriage (smart, good looking husband with a good income) and a lovely daughter, is very unhappy. She has to leave everything in order to “find herself”.  The woman does not work outside the home, she wanted to be an artist but can’t find her “voice’.

Painful fall?
Naomi’s Photos

So there I am reading the first part of the book and thinking “Really”? Leave the house, get a job, interact with people – who says that developing an independent career, a part of your life that is totally your own, has to contradict being married? Isn’t it obvious that today there are plenty of women who enjoy both? ”

I even imagined the main character becoming an art teacher working with special needs children who finds that helping others express themselves through art can be very rewarding. Particularly rewarding when you have a supportive family to come back to after some of the difficult days at school.

These thoughts led me to think about “women’s day’ and my choice of career. I will be eternally grateful to the women who fought hard to ensure that teaching was not one of the truly few respectable professions a woman could enter.

I became a teacher because I chose to be a teacher, not because there were no other options available.

As a female teacher in the national school system, I have never ever experienced any sort of discrimination based on gender, simply because the majority of teachers and administrators are women. There are no differences in salary to worry about and my opportunities to develop within the system have nothing to do with gender.

I am also fortunate to be able to come home to a family who expresses interest in what I do and perceives my job as my chosen carreer, not just as a source of family income.

The end of the day – a good time to think! Naomi’s Photos

This year, in these tense times of THE VIRUS, “Women’s Day” reminded me to count my blessings! Having a family I love and a job I enjoy are great blessings indeed!

To get back to The Mermaid Chair – the book is much more complex and far more interesting than it seemed to me to be in the beginning. I won’t give you any more spoilers, but Sue Monk Kidd writes in a very engaging way, there are story developments  I did not foresee and my “complaints” were resolved as I learned more.

I’m really glad I read the book.

 

Saturday’s Book: “Raised From the Ground” by Saramago


(Naomi’s Photos)

Mau-Tempo means “bad weather” in Portuguese.

Mau-Tempo is also the last name of the family whose lives we follow for many years in 20th century Portugal.

Bad weather is certainly a suitable way to describe the difficult times this family of uneducated farm laborers lived through. Miserable times, to be exact.

That’s not a spoiler – it’s pretty obvious from an early stage of the book.

But the magic that kept me reading from cover to cover is the manner in which the tale is told.  Saramago wrote about the type of people he grew up with. He combines an intimate knowledge of details regarding every aspect of their life with sympathy and warmth , creating a sense for me of having watched these people in a movie, they feel so real.

Saramago’s telling includes beauty and even humor in this tale of woe, with unique metaphors and vivid descriptions.

The author tells this story from different points of view, moving seamlessly, (sometimes in the same sentence!) from one character to the other.  This feat particularly blew me away. There’s an escalating dialogue between a group of hungry local men, trying to strike in order to get a slight raise, and a group of desperate workers that have come farther away, eager to take their place no matter how bad the conditions are.  This entire confrontation scene shifts constantly from words spoken by one side to the counter-arguments of the other side, yet is all perfectly clear. Words such as “he said” “they replied” are not used in this book.

This is one of Saramago’s earliest books but was translated into English after he won a Nobel Prize and passed away.  The politics are clear and his indignation raw. No message is shrouded in allegory. I understand that publishers didn’t think a translation of this book would sell well  – a mix of his trademark slow, run-on sentences with politics.

I’m glad it was translated.

I’m glad I read it.

Saturday’s Book: “The Patron Saint Of Liars” by Ann Patchett

Those who observe…
Naomi’s Photos

Ann Patchett is certainly one of my favorite authors.

I absolutely LOVED “State of Wonder” and “Run”.

“Bel Canto” and “Commonwealth” tie for second place.

The Magician’s Assistant was good too – I had that one as an audiobook!

“Truth and Beauty” is something else completely, not fiction,  I enjoyed it as well.

All these books were written after her debut novel,  (published in 1992), “The Patron Saint of Liars”, which I only recently got my hands on.

While I certainly enjoyed reading the book, I found it to be not as good as her later ones. This is to be expected, though perhaps my expectations that this would the case influenced my judgment. Her trademark movement of the plot forward from the point of view of different characters is a pleasure and I truly truly applaud her for her ability to deal with human drama in a moving way without turning the plot into a soap opera tear-jerker type of thing.  You think you know exactly what’s going to happen, but then events don’t unfold that way.

It’s just that the basic story itself, about Rose from California, who walked out on everything, went to a temporary home intended for Catholic unwed mothers to have their babies in Kentucky, and ended up staying there for years, isn’t that the compelling.  Though frankly, with all that is going on in the USA now related to the topic of abortions, you could say the plot is more relevant than ever.

I hesitate to say it but I think the book could have been improved by being a bit shorter, especially the part told by the man’s point of view.

BTW, the first few pages are a prologue and can be read on its own as well. The descriptions and the way she presents the events are stunning, riveting and so beautifully written! Perhaps I felt a bit of a let down afterward because of the comparison.

I certainly recommend this book, but not as your first book by Ann Patchett, if you have never read anything written by her before.

 

 

A Garland of Books – A “Catch Up Post”

Setting the stage
Naomi’s Photos

My backlog of book-posts isn’t getting smaller and something should be done before I forget what I have read!

So here’s a  brief “3 book catch-up” post for 2019!

Journey to the Dawn by Angoff

This book was recommended to me countless times by both my parents, who read it in the 1950s, shortly after it was published.  It tells the story of the extended Polonsky family,  first vividly depicting their lives in a tiny Jewish hamlet in Russia, then following their journey to a slum in Boston, in the early years of the 20th century.

I’ve read scathing criticism about the characters being too “goody-goody” to be believable and that the descriptions of the hardships were far too nostalgic and romanticized. The author based the book on his own family’s similar journey.   However, that didn’t particularly bother me, as I was interested in all sorts of minute details which I believe were faithfully rendered. For instance  the role of the “Feldsher”, who served the community in Russia instead of a doctor and the remedies he was able to administer and the fact that in Boston the immigrants were eligible for free health care and education. As a teacher, I was also very interested in the great details about Jewish education and public education available at the time.

I’m glad I read it.

One…
Naomi’s Photos
I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg

I’ve enjoyed several books by Fannie Flagg, but this one was disappointing. The story of a former, aging Miss Alabama was easy to predict, though the author did manage to throw in some unexpected details. I like the way the author always highlights characters from diverse backgrounds with warmth and respect in her books while giving you some historical background (and humor ) along the way, but in this book, it simply doesn’t come together so well.

” Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” and “Welcome to the World, Baby Girl” were so much better.

What goes on inside?
Naomi’s Photos
The Counterlife by Philip Roth

I discovered this book among the many books left in my father’s library. I was quite surprised since my father barely ever read fiction. Out of curiosity, I decided to read a few pages and found myself reading the whole book.

Every time I thought I had had enough of Nathan Zuckerman’s philosophies regarding people and Judaism, both in the U.S and in Israel), the book would surprise me completely. It’s called Counterlife for a reason – think of sliding doors allowing you to relive your life in alternate versions. The different versions do connect in clever ways which actually makes it seem quite believable.

It’s not a cheerful, feel-good read, but it’s a book that made me think. Although frankly, I’m not sure if I thought more about what he said or how he said it!

Saturday’s Book: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

A window of opportunity
Naomi’s photos

“Becoming”.

What a great title that rings so true – we aren’t one thing all our lives and that’s it. We change, we evolve, we “become”. I became a woman, a teacher, a wife, a mother, a blogger, a “dabbler” in photography, just to name a few. Who knows how many more things I will become in the future. A great point to make at the start of an autobiography!

The part that fascinated me the most in Michelle Obama’s tale of “becoming” is the part about her childhood and education. My mother had felt that section was too detailed but I was so interested in all of it. One one hand it highlighted the powerful role of parents who prioritized education for their children despite hardships and fostered curiosity and literacy skills.  On the other hand, it also highlighted the frightening aspect of  “lack of opportunity” and plain “luck”. Michelle Obama’s mother fought hard to get her daughter tested, out of classrooms where she wasn’t learning anything and into better educational programs.  And Michelle Obama worked extremely hard to excel in these programs. But what if she had been born a few years earlier? When there was no program that accepted talented inner-city children? Or was just as talented but didn’t secure one of the limited places? What if a child with her abilities had remained stuck in a classroom where no real learning was taking place?

These points are highlighted sharply in the story of an inner-city high-school Michelle Obama visited while she was The First Lady. The students couldn’t physically make it to school on some days because they were so afraid of the gang violence going on in the streets. She discussed the fact that education can be a “ticket out” but it isn’t so for everyone.

There are too many children out there who are left behind!

In short, I admired Michelle Obama even before I read the book and I found many more reasons to do so after reading.

I’ll be interested to read about what she “becomes” next – she can do and be whatever she decides to be.

Saturday’s Book: “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

Metal nurse?
(Naomi’s Photos)

What an amazing book!

I was riveted! A book that was quite hard to put down!

I’m completely in awe of the way Emma Donaghue (yup, the author of “Room”) constructs the story – she manages to create what some call “a psychological thriller” while giving enough historical and cultural information to support the claim (my claim) that it feels like a historical novel

The book takes place in Ireland in the mid-1850s, not long after the great potato famine had “ended”. In a small, impoverished place, a wondrous girl seems to be existing on air – not eating but apparently thriving. It is considered by many to be divine intervention. A tough, no-nonsense English nurse, who was trained by the great Florence Nightingale herself,  is sent to investigate.

As the tension builds up and the events unfold, there are rich descriptions of the way of life there, the tragic famine, and of the early days of the newly born profession of nursing.

Believe me, if you haven’t read the book yet, this is all you need to know in advance.

Enjoy!

I certainly did!

 

It’s Saturday! TWO Movies, One Book & Half a Recipe – All Related to Korea!

Getting a different perspective…
Naomi’s Photos

I didn’t plan on having a “Korean Themed Month”.

In fact, there weren’t any theme plans at all  – it just turned out that way!

It all began with the movie “Parasites” by Korean director Bong Joon Ho.  There was a lot of favorable talk about the film after the Cannes film festival 2019  film (the movie won the Palm de Or) so we went to see it at the cinema.

I’m glad we did!

As someone who is very good at predicting events in movies, I found myself riveted to the screen (except for a few scenes which are difficult to watch. I closed my eyes), not knowing what would happen next.  It’s funny, sad, shocking and strange, leaving one with a lot to think about. There is a lot of social commentary here from different angles – is the movie just about a poor family taking advantage of a rich one (hence “parasites”) or are the rich also “parasites”? Perhaps the role of “diplomas” and what they really stand for?

Then we discovered that another movie by the same director was on Netflix – “Okja”.

This begins like an adventure/fantasy/action film that totally glued us to the screen, it was so larger-than-life, funny, and aesthetically beautiful.  After about 15 minutes into the film I was pretty sure that this movie was a Korean fantasy version of “Free Willy” except with a genetically modified supersize (truly big!) pig. A very good-natured pig, by the way.

I was WRONG.

Yes, the movie IS about saving the pig but there is so much more. Much more.

It seems to me that this is the director’s way of presenting things – starting with a funny and intriguing part, drawing you in, keeping you amused and then walloping you lots of social commentary.  No one is spared – rich and poor, animal exploiters and animal activists and more.

If you haven’t seen these movies don’t read up on them – just watch them. You really don’t want spoilers!

I am also reading the book “Pachinko”, by Min Jin Lee

I don’t usually write about books I haven’t quite finished (I’m reading it on a Kindle, so I can tell you that I have read 86% of the book) but there are exceptions to every rule.

The book is a family saga over several generations. It begins with a family of humble means in Korea, in the early years of the 20th century.  While it begins in Korea, the major part of the tale follows the family’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs over a long period of time as they live in Japan. There is a strong emphasis on cultural background (mainly Korean but Japanese as well) with vivid descriptions of food, dress, customs and more.

Till now I was quite happy with the book. There’s a lot I didn’t know. I hadn’t even looked up “Pachinko” until midway through the book because it hadn’t occurred to me that it was  a “thing”!  However, it’s a shame the book isn’t a bit shorter – this last section is getting to be far too “soap opery” for me.  There is a limit to the number of generations and family members who deal with calamities and blame most of them on the fact that the poor main character got pregnant when she was 15 to someone who would not marry her that I have the patience for.

If there is something that the book presents as a common theme to both Korean and Japanese cultures is that there are no “second chances”, the sins of the fathers will haunt the descendants forever…

Nonetheless, I recommend the book.

Finally,

I knew this was a “Korean Themed Month” when  I sat down yesterday to look for a new vegetarian recipe to try, and the first recipe that popped up was Vegan Korean Bulgogi! Not a dish I had heard of before. I can’t really report on that though since I made so many changes as I was cooking that it morphed into something else entirely.

Here’s to movies and books that take you around the globe!

 

 

 

 

Saturday’s (late) Book: “My Brilliant Friend” by Ferrante

Connected! Naomi’s Photos

This is the second book in a row with a poor choice of cover. The picture of the bride and groom striding purposefully on a beach towards a white city, with little bridesmaids in tow is misleading. It reinforced my suspicion that the book was probably “chick lit” or at least followed the familiar stereotyped patterns of books (and movies!) depicting friendship between women.

Whatever adjectives one may decide to use in regards to this book, stereotypical cannot possibly be one of them.

The writing style is unusual. It’s raw, uneven, different and (most of the time!) made the book hard to put down.

In addition, the book is not only about a powerful bond between two girls that begins in childhood and lasts as they mature into adulthood.  It is also a bare-bones, often brutal look at the cruel cycle of poverty and lack of education. The book makes it very clear how difficult it is to break out of this cycle which seems bent on repeating itself. It may be about Naples in the 1950s but the social picture depicted could fit many other times and locations.

As a teacher, I was very interested in the detailed descriptions of the girls’ education or lack of education, as the case may be. However, when the same level of detail was devoted to the wedding of one of the two girls, I found it rather tedious.

This book is the first one of a series. At first, I thought I would move straight on to book two as I was so intrigued by the book. Yet by the time I got to the end I decided that a change would be welcome and moved on to reading other things.

I DO recommend reading this book but I don’t think I will watch the series if it comes our way. The descriptions in the book are vivid enough for me!