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La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

Just last week I finished Alexander McCall Smith’s newest novel, a compact little story with the intriguing title La’s Orchestra Saves the World.  Unlike his other works I’ve enjoyed (reviewed here and here), this story is set not in Africa, but in World War II-era England.  This is a setting I usually find irresistable, and it has stood me in good stead once again. 

La’s Orchestra Saves the World is a story in which many things almost happen:  La (short for Lavender) almost has a happy marriage; La almost has a love affair; La almost catches a German spy; La almost catches a thief.  In between the almosts, however, are a lot of feelings:  about love; about the war;  about life in general, and how it should be conducted.  The whole idea of the orchestra is almost a sub-point of the story, at least in my opinion.  Yes, La does organize and conduct a war-time orchestra composed of a raggle-taggle group of musicians, but the real story is about La and a Polish man, Felicks, who was a part of the French airforce and shot down in England during the war.  Felicks is proper and reserved, a real Continental gentleman.  La, lonely and widowed after her marriage turned sour, feels a connection with him and even longs to begin a relationship.  Meanwhile, she conducts her orchestra and does farm labor work as a part of the war effort. 

It doesn’t sound like this book is about much, and really, it isn’t.  However, it is full of rich description and interesting observations about war and love and forgiveness:

Her words were unheard.  But she had bestowed her forgiveness upon him, and as she turned and left the room, she thought:  you can be forgiven without knowing it, and for the forgiver it does not matter that the recipient is unaware of what has happened; just as one may be loved by another without ever knowing it.  (104)

The story has a morally ambiguous ending (and even this is a generous appraisal), but I found it altogether a nice story.  I think I prefer Mma Precious Ramotswe as a protagonist/heroine, but still, this wasn’t a bad way to spend a few hours.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

*Warning:  This post likely contains spoilers!  Beware if you’ve never read this book!*

I did it!  I finally finished A Tale of Two Cities!  This book has been on my “need to read” list since I was in high school.  Somehow I missed the class in which it was required reading, so I never read it.  I’m making up for lost time.  I have two regrets about this book: 

  1. that I didn’t read it sooner.
  2. that I didn’t read it faster. 

First, I took a whole semester of French Revolution/Napoleonic period history in college, and much of this novel would’ve made even more sense to me then.  Of course, I had other books to read then, so I never even thought about it.  Second, if I had only managed to read this one in a week instead of several weeks, I wouldn’t have forgotten the identity of some of the minor (but major in their contributions to the plot) characters.  Such is life.  I feel like I slogged through the first two-thirds of the book, and then, when most of the major characters are once again in Paris, I picked up speed.  It got good then. 

Ah, Sydney Carton.  Sydney Carton.  Sydney Carton.  He surprised me.  Way back when I posted these quotes from the novel, I had nothing more than a mere inkling of an idea of how it would all work out.  I have to say that this novel has one of the most satisfying (‘though heart-wrenching) conclusions I’ve read.  What better theme than redemption?  This exchange got me:

‘Are you dying for them?  she whispered.

‘And his wife and child.  Hush!  Yes.’

‘Oh, you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?’

‘Hush!  Yes, my poor sister; to the last.’

I’ve never written much about the name of my blog before, but Victor Hugo wrote somewhere in Les Miserables (another classic I’ve yet to complete) that “hope is the word God has written on the brow of every man.”  I love the idea that as long as we have hope (and we do), we have no reason to despair.  I like to see the theme of hope played out in literature, and if Sydney Carton is not a seemingly hopeless character who ultimately provides the greatest gift to his friends, I don’t know who is. 

Strangely, I thought of To Kill a Mockingbird while I was reading of Sydney Carton’s sacrifice, and it wasn’t Atticus Finch or Tom Robinson who came to mind.  It was Ms. Dubose.  I always loved that little vignette–how Atticus makes Jem go and read to her, a very crochety old lady.  Later, Jem finds out the reason for his father’s insistence that he help her.  In my opinion, she is a noble character because of her steely determination to die a free woman, even in the midst of her pain.  (I don’t want to provide too many details–I don’t want to turn this into a post which provides spoilers for two books.  If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, please do yourself a favor and read it.  Thank you.)  Sydney Carton’s decision to finally do this one thing right reminds me of her.

Of course, there’s the other part of A Tale of Two Cities that I love so much:  the humor.  Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross provide just the comic relief needed in a heartbreaking story.  I’ve quoted the novel extensively in my Week in Words posts, and most of the quotes pertain to these two characters.  For a sampling of Dickens’ humor, you can read these posts here and here and here.   

I love this book, and I’m really glad I finally read it.  Now I want to watch a screen version.  Does anyone have any recommendations?  Any to avoid?

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith certainly doesn’t need my praise; according to its cover, it is a national bestseller.  It’s one of those books with accolades from newspaper reviewers plastered on its front and back.  This is usually all the more reason for me NOT to like it.  (I’m contrary that way sometimes.)  However, when I saw that one of the later books in this series made it on to Sherry’s top 12 books of 2009 list, that was recommendation enough for me from a real person whose taste is similar to mine. 

First and foremost, this book is beautifully written.  It’s not your average mystery potboiler at all; in fact, I would call it downright literary, as others have before me.  Now I’m going to do something I’ve already admitted I don’t like:  call upon “the experts” to tell me (and you) if a book is good.  😉   According to The Wall Street Journal, this is “one of the most entrancing literary treats of many a year. A tapestry of extraordinary nuance and richness.” You can visit Alexander McCall Smith’s website to read what others have said about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I think I was just surprised by this book.  I was expecting something, well, more mysterious.  The fact is, most of the mysteries in this story are solved by the heroine, Mma Precious Ramotswe, within one or two chapters.  This book is all about characterization and nuance and the beauty of Africa.  (Check out this quotation, a lovely description by Precious’ father, to see what I mean.)  While reading this story, two other authors came to mind.  The obvious comparison is to Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.  While I am in no way suggesting that The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is on the same level as Cry the Beloved Country thematically, the language and overall spirit of the book is very similar.  The other, more obtuse comparison is between Smith’s work and that of Wendell Berry.  I just couldn’t help but think of my favorite quote from Hannah Coulter (the quote about education) when I read this passage in Smith’s work.  I guess what all of these authors have in common is, as Angie put it in the comments on this post, a well-honed ability to convey a “sense of place.”  To quote Angie even further, “[Smith’s] books make me feel like I should move to Africa.” 

I feel like I’ve put too serious a spin on what really is a fun book, too, though.  I actually laughed out loud on several occasions while reading The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency–its subtle, somewhat sarcastic humor is my favorite kind. While this passage is anything but subtle, it does showcase the entertaining workings of Mma Ramotswe’s mind:

As far as doctors were concerned, though, you might try as hard as you might to get information out of them, but they were inevitably tight-lipped.

Which was as it should be, thought Mma Ramotswe.  I should not like anybody else to know about my. . . What had she to be embarrassed about?  She thought hard.  Her weight was harldy a confidential matter, and anyway, she was proud of being a traditionally built African lady, unlike these terrible, stick-like creatures one saw in the advertisements.  Then there were her corns–well, those were more or less on public display when she wore her sandals.  Really, there was nothing that she felt she had to hide.

Now constipation was quite a different matter.  It would be dreadful for the whole world to know about troubles of that nature.  She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did.  There were probably enough to form a political party–with a chance of government perhaps–but what would such a party do if it was in power?  Nothing, she imagined.  It would try to pass legislation, but would fail.  (195)

Funny, right?  Okay, now that I’ve referred to bathroom humor twice on my blog in one week, I’ll move on.  😉 

I am most definitely excited about reading more of this series, as well as Alexander McCall Smith’s other books.  I’m also curious about the television series based on this series of books.  Now admittedly, I don’t know much about HBO, but my memories of it growing up (in a family that didn’t have cable until I was a high schooler, and then it was highly censored cable 😉 )  make it difficult for me to imagine a book that is relatively clean (some references to s**, but NOTHING graphic or gratuitous; very little, if any bad language; etc.) appearing on this network.  Has anybody seen it?  Is it worth trying to track down? 

I’m hooked.  I’ll be reading more of Mma Precious Ramotswe.

Mistress Pat by L.M. Montgomery

 

mis⋅tress

6. a women who is skilled in something, as an occupation or art.

According to the Random House Dictionary via Dictionary.com, this is one of many definitions of the word mistress.  Unfortunately, nowadays the word usually has a more nefarious connotation, but back in 1935 when this book was copyrighted, the idea that a woman could or should be mistress of her home was completely acceptable, even admirable.  It has been a great long while since I first read the Pat books, and certainly it was before I was mistress of my own home, but if I could sum this book up on just a phrase, this would be it:  a glorification of all things domestic.

Mistress Pat is the completely charming sequel to Pat of Silver Bush (linked to my review), and indeed, it literally picks up where the first book leaves off.  However, Mistress Pat just offers a little glimpse, a vignette, of the Silver Bush doings in the succeeding eleven years.  In these years, Pat traverses her joyful and at times painful twenties and watches literally everything about her life change.  She has and rejects scores of suitors, to the point that most of her neighbors consider her “on the shelf.”  Her one consolation in life, though, is that she still has her home, Silver Bush.  I don’t want to reveal the ending of the novel, but I will say that it ends satisfactorily.  I will also say that I shed more than one tear in this novel, and it really reminded me of one of the reasons I love Montgomery so much.  (I’m a sap–I’ll admit it.  Nevermind the fact that I am 19 weeks pregnant AND I had a raging headache when I read the sad bits.  As an old acquaintance of mine, an English teacher turned pastor, once said to me, “You just love a good catharsis.”) 

Now that all the sobbing is over, let me get back to my original premise–that this book is all about the delights and joys of homemaking.  You see, Pat is completely content to simply live in her childhood home and care for it, despite the fact that she has no husband and at times, no real prospects in sight.  I enjoyed reading this, and it made me (if only briefly 😉 ) think about mundane tasks a little differently.  Of course, based on Montgomery’s descriptive powers, who wouldn’t want to care for Silver Bush, but I digress. . .

It does seem just a trifle odd at times that Pat would give up the prospect of a life of love in her own home to simply keep looking after her childhood home, but of course, it all comes to rights at the end. 

L. M. Montgomery Reading ChallengeI’m so glad Carrie is hosting her L.M. Montgomery Reading Challenge again.  It gives me a nudge to do something I probably otherwise wouldn’t find time to do:  pull out these delightful old “friends” and visit with them again.  Thanks, Carrie!

These are the books (linked to my reviews) I’ve read for this challenge, which I’ve now participated in for two years:

I think my walk with L.M. Montgomery is probably over, at least for the first part of this year.  However, I do have another Anne-ish post or two up my sleeve, if I can manage them.  Steady Eddie and I spent our honeymoon on P.E.I., after all, and I do have the pictures to prove it. . . 🙂

Stay tuned!

The Light Princess by George MacDonald

I’m really not sure why I’m even reviewing or responding to this story.  I think it is because I’ve wanted to read something by George MacDonald for so long, and now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, I think it bears memorializing.  It’s certainly not because the story doesn’t merit comment; rather, it’s because I’m sure the story merits much in the way of thoughtful comment (as I’m sure all of his works do), but I’m not sure I’m up to it. 

In brief, this is the story:  a king and queen want for nothing, except a child.  They finally have their long-desired child, a girl, but at her Christening, the king’s evil sister, who happens to be a witch, puts a curse on the child.  The curse is that gravity will have no hold on the child.  The story progresses through all sorts of confusion, near-misses, and despair (on the part of the king and queen, at least) until the princess is of marriageable age and a prince comes on the scene who is able to remedy the situation through an act of great personal sacrifice. (For a more thorough and thoughtful discussion of the story, may I recommend Janet’s?)

One of the problems, you see, is that I listened to The Light Princess in audio.  I put the CD  in my kitchen under-the-counter CD player on Thursday last and happily went about my business of making mock chicken-and-dumplings.  (My dear mother-in-law makes the best chicken-and-dumplings around, and she learned from my dear grandmother-in-law.  I’ve never dared try make them from scratch, as they do.  This recipe produces a nice dish, but it’s nothing like the real thing.)  I was immediately taken in by the story, and not just the story’s plot, but by the genius word play that was such a part of MacDonald‘s craft.  The problem is that I don’t catch near as much when I listen as when I read for myself.  Sometimes, my mind even wanders.  This story was engaging enough (and brief enough, if the truth is told) to keep me from spacing out, but I find myself wondering, for one tiny example, how the characters’ names are spelled.  (Does anyone else do this?  Please tell me I’m not the only one.)  As I sat down to work on this reflection, I found that the entire story is available free online.  This allowed me to solve a few mysteries:  the king’s evil sister is named Princess Makemnoit, which is just what it sounds like if you’re listening to the story and not reading it.  The Chinese philosophers that the king and queen consult to help their daughters are named, appropriately, Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck. 

The best part of the story, though, is the constant play on the word gravity.  I’m sure that there is much more to this fairy tale than meets the eye (or ear), but I caught onto a little of MacDonald’s genius merely by paying attention to this one word.  This element of his writing reminds me a little bit of Shakespeare and his constant use of word play.  


I listened to this audio version of the story by Full Cast Audio.  It was very well done, with some original music interspersed throughout the story.  It is a dramatized version, but I did not find it to be over-done.  (I’m sort of picky about this; sometimes it’s too easy to lose the story in all the sound effects, etc., so I usually just prefer straight narration.)  Now, though, my interest in George MacDonald really is piqued.  I think I need to add The George McDonald Treasury to my collection.  My girls listened briefly to the story while I worked in the kitchen, and while I hadn’t intended for them to listen to it because I thought it might be too scary for them (after listening to it in its entirety, I still think this), they were definitely interested in the story.  In fact, they have requested it.  I am eager to share MacDonald‘s stories with my girls (especially since I know that others have done it successfully), but Louise is still a little frightened by the White Witch of Narnia.  I think it best to put MacDonald off for a while, or at least preview him first.  I’m sure, though, that I will be reading more of him.

Top Ten Picks of 2009

Despite the fact that my reading slowed to a trickle at the end of 2009, I managed to read a total of 51 books.  (Why, oh why, didn’t I hurry up and finish just one more book?!?!?  One  a week would be a real record for me, but I guess this is close enough to count, right?)  Add to this number the seventeen or so chapter books I read aloud to my girls (not to mention the countless picture books we shared), and that boosts my total to nearly 70 books. I’m giving myself a hearty pat on the back over this, believe me.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my 2009 reading , and that’s really what it’s about for me right now. 

I’m really not very good at picking favorites, but I’m going to try. Looking back at my Best of 2008 list, I’d say I was pretty much on target in terms of picking the books that were most memorable to me, so here goes:

thumb_change-heart-bookThe last half of this year has been fiction-heavy, so I was surprised to look back and realize that I read about sixteen nonfiction titles.  By far the one that stands out the most to me is Change Your Heart, Change Your Life by Dr. Gary Smalley.  I was charmed by Smalley’s informal, funny, touching presentation at a marriage conference Steady Eddie and I attended, and we promptly bought his book after hearing his testimony.  I’m sorry to say that I’ve fallen off the Bible memorization and meditation wagon through my months of holiday preparations and morning sickness, but I’m ready to turn over that proverbial new leaf for 2010 and make it a part of my life again.  I might just re-read this book to get me started.  It’s that good.

9781576831441Another nonfiction book that I found to be inspiring, encouraging, and convicting is Feeding Your Soul:  A Quiet Time Handbook by Jean Fleming.  (Can you tell by these first two choices that I’m in dire need of some discipline in my own spiritual life?  I am.)  I found this book immensely readable and pratical.  My review of this book is short, but really, this book is more about doing than thinking, so maybe that’s appropriate.
sacredparentingSacred Parenting is one of those books that bears re-reading, and it’s definitely one of the best I read in 2009.  However, I feel sort of like the person James describes in this passage concerning this book (and lots of other things):

23For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24For he looks at himself and goes away and at once  forgets what he was like.  (James 1:23-24)

I saw so much of myself in Thomas’ book, but I’ve forgotten so much of what he said.  Sigh.  It’s good–anything by Thomas is.  I think I need to re-read this one. 

I suppose it’s appropriate that so many of my most memorable reads last year were “God Reads”–that’s exactly how I feel about A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller.  I just can’t believe I’d had to book around for so long and hadn’t read it. 

Fiction-wise, I had a juvenile/young adult heavy year, which is perfectly okay by me.  Of all the adult books I read, though, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Some Wildflower in My Heart get top billing. This year I’d like to break out of my adult fiction rut of reading fiction by primarily one author.


It’s no secret that I love juvenile fiction, and young adult fiction comes in right behind it.  I feel like I’m always playing catch-up when I read about new books on other bloggers’ blogs because I rarely read any book when it’s brand new.  However, I did manage to read a few relatively new titles from these genres which this year which I loved.  The Mysterious  Benedict Society and Volume One of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing are two books I won’t soon forget and two books the sequels of which I really hope to read this year.  I also really enjoyed The Pirate’s Son by Geraldine McCaughrean.  This is the second book by McCaughrean I’ve read, and I look forward to spending more time with this talented and thought-provoking author.

I’m rounding out 2009’s top ten with a classic that I was surprised to enjoy so much, ‘though I don’t know why.  A Girl of the Limberlost is one of those books I’ve always known about, and I’m really glad that 2009 is the year I finally read it.  Old fashioned books really are the best sometimes, aren’t they?

That’s a lot of fine reading. 2009 was a great bookish year, and I’m looking forward to 2010 being the same! I hope to post a few bookish thoughts and plans for this new year in the next day or two, so stay tuned. 🙂

Friday’s Vintage Find:: The Romance of a Christmas Card by Kate Douglas Wiggin

I’ve been wanting to share for the past week about this little gem of a Christmas story I re-read last week, and I’m finally getting around to it.  🙂  First published in 1916, The Romance of a Christmas Card by Kate Douglas Wiggin is the sweet story of a how a hand-drawn Christmas card brings home two prodigal sons to their families.  Dick Larrabee is a local pastor’s son who could never live up to what his father’s parisioners thought he should be, so he left home to make his own way in the world.  Dick’s friend David Gilman followed Dick’s lead and ended up with the same reputation.  However, David “married in haste” but only had to “repent at leisure” long enough for his wife to give birth to twins and then die.  He promptly left town, leaving his babies under the care of his dutiful and loving half-sister, Letty.  This is a very short novel (more of a short story or novella, really), so I don’t want to give anything away.  If you like old fashioned stories with a little bit of romance, this is a cozy little story to curl up with and enjoy by the light of your fireplace (or your Christmas tree).  I think I first read this story as a an older teenager; I think it would be perfect for girls, especially, from about age twelve or thirteen and up.

I have to mention, too, that Kate Douglas Wiggin is the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a book I greatly enjoyed as a youngster.  I haven’t read it in a while, but I’d like to revisit it.  Wiggin also wrote The Bird’s Christmas Carol, a title I’ve heard before but never read.  Has anyone read it?  The short author biography at the back of my paperback copy of The Romance of a Christmas Card (which looks nothing like the book above, I’m sad to say) states that Wiggin “argued for wholesomeness, not hypocrisy, in fiction.”  For all its sweetness, I would say that this Christmas story passes the test, and I can only assume her others stories do, too.

Some Wildflower in My Heart by Jamie Langston Turner

I’ve yet to read a Jamie Langston Turner novel that I didn’t like.  Some Wildflower in My Heart, though, just hit the spot.  I referred to it in this post as a “comfort read,” which might be a little strange, given some of the subject matter in the book.  However, something about Turner’s wonderful way with words and the creation of a strong and interesting narrator in Margaret Tuttle just did it for me.  I really can’t say enough how  much I loved this book.  (Have I gushed enough yet?)   I’m not sure where this one comes in Turner’s titles in terms of order of publication, but I feel like this one is the one in which she really discovered the voice she was looking for for her narrator.    

A Garden to Keep is the story of Margaret Bryce Tuttle, the  supervisor of the elementary school lunchroom in Derby, South Carolina.  However, this job stereotypically belies who she really is–an intellectual with little formal schooling; a woman whose marriage of convenience with her loving but patient husband is something that has never even given her pause (before now); but mostly, a bitter woman who holds everyone–everyone–at arm’s length and has no interest in living her life differently.  All this begins to change when Birdie Freeman comes to work in her cafeteria.  Birdie is a small, homely woman with a huge heart.  Slowly, through small acts of kindness and generosity, Birdie begins to chisel away at Margaret’s facade.  Margaret’s past is revealed through the course of the story, and what a wretched past it is.  Through Birdie, though, Margaret finally comes to understand that while pain and suffering are inevitable, it is possible to turn even the worst suffering around for some good. 

I think the thing I liked most about this book is that it tied up some loose ends for me.  The first book I read by Turner was A Garden to Keep (my thoughts here), and in this book, an older Margaret Tuttle plays a huge part in the transformation of the main character.  Much was alluded to in that novel about Margaret’s life, and my curiosity was piqued, way back then.  I’m so glad I finally got to read this rich, rich story.

If my gushing isn’t enough (or if it hasn’t driven you away 😉  ), here are a few random quotes from Some Wildflower in My Heart to whet your appetite:

An odd assortment we were in our white uniforms that day, seated around Birdie’s tea cart in her living room, partaking of her cream wafers, praline candy, and jam cake, all of us but Birdie feeling removed from our element while she labored with felicity toward her self-appointed goal, not only of drawing us one by one to her heart but also of fusing the four of us into a unit, like the leaves of a lucky clover. (171)

It was on the seventeenth day of December, a Saturday, that I ceased looking for Birdie’s faults, knowing that even if, or rather when, they appeared, they would be of no consequence.  In short, this is the day that I realized she was truly my friend–not only that she wanted to be my friend but that I likewise wanted to be hers.  At the age of fifty, I at last acquired a friend. (262)

I have the rose trillium yet today, pressed between sheets of waxed paper in my dictionary, between pages 534 and 535, on which are printed the words beginning with frequent and ending with frolic.  Between those guide words lies the word friend.  (339)

This is not your typical Christian fiction fare, at least to me.

Semicolon reviewed this same book here. Visit the author’s website here.

For more on Jamie Langston Turner’s works here at Hope Is the Word:

My thoughts on Winter Birds

My thoughts on The Suncatchers

My thoughts on A Garden to Keep

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Birds by Jamie Langston Turner

Winter Birds by Jamie Langston Turner is one of those books that I had a couple of false starts on before I actually read it through to the end.  (I find myself doing that fairly often, actually.)  I picked it up again since it is on my TBR list for the year, so it one of my Big Book Push books for the month.  I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by her so far (reviews here and here), so I was confident this book wouldn’t disappoint.  Well, it didn’t, not in the least.  However, it took me a long, long while to “get over” the fact that this book is written from the point of view of a very melancholy and negative old woman.  Although I’m not an old woman, I am rather melancholy and have to fight (really hard!) sometimes to not see the world as glass-half-empty, so it was hard for me to add insult to injury (at least in my mind) by reading her very dismal take on life. 

This book is similar to the other two of Turner’s that I have read in that it is about a marriage that has fallen apart, at least in the ways that matter most.  Unlike the others, though, this one is about a marriage that is physically dead; that is, one-half of the marriage has physically died, so there is no hope for reconciliation.  Much about this situation would not do for me to mention here, especially if the curiosity of anyone reading this is piqued enough to cause him or her to read it, so I am going to borrow the summary from the back of the book and copy it word-for-word here:

Plain and dutiful, Sophia Hess has lived most of her life without ever knowing genuine love.  Her professor husband had married her for the convenience of having a typist for his scholarly papers.  The discovery of a dark secret opens her eyes to the truth about her marriage and her husband.

Eventually nephew Patrick and his wife, Rachel, take Sophia into their home, and she observes from a careful distance their earnest faith and the simple gifts of kindness they generously bestow upon her and others–this is spite of unthinkable tragedy they’ve suffered.  Dare she unlock the door behind which she stalwartly conceals her broken heart?

Also like all of Turner’s other books that I’ve read, Winter Birds is rife with literary references and allusions.  Sophia’s husband was a Shakespearean scholar and professor, and as his typist, Sophia became quite well-versed in the works of the Bard herself.   Reading a book by Turner is very much like getting into the mind of someone who loves literature, so I would venture to guess that anyone who loves literature would also like her books.

Sophia Hess is a keen observer (and critic) of life.  Every single thing she experiences is held up and examined, almost to the point of absurdity at times.  As I mentioned before, I found this a little maddening, but familiar.   This is Sophia’s take on her current place in life:

When one is eighty years old, as I am, the handling of time is her greatest challenge.  There is no place to rest comfortably.  The present is an empty waiting room.  The past is a narrow corridor, along which doors open into examining rooms too brightly lit, full of frightening instruments to inflict pain.  The future is a black closet at the end of the corridor.  No one knows what is inside this dark cubicle.  The possibility of nothingness is a terror.  If present, past, and future seem out of order in this analogy, it is no wonder.  There is no tidy sequence of time when one is eighty and waiting to die.  (96)

Uplifting, huh?  🙂  Sophia does undergo a change by the end of the story, and although it is by no means dramatic, it is, well, hopeful.  I suppose that’s the bottom line in Turner’s books–hope.  There is always hope.

Visit the author’s website here or Semicolon’s review of Winter Birds here.

big-book-push150

This is the first book I’ve finished for my Big Book Push, but there’s still plenty of time for you to join me!  Read all about it here.

Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji

Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji is one of those books I would’ve never heard about had it not been for 5 Minutes for Books and a virtual discussion I had with Jennifer.    I had commented on someone’s blog that I couldn’t stomach The Kite Runner because of the violence, although I did recognize that it is likely a worthwhile story.  Jennifer recommended Rooftops of Tehran as a good alternative; it is a story that is similar in spirit but it has much less violence.  Rooftops of Tehran was named the selection for this month’s 5 Minutes for Books bookclub, and here we are. 

Jennifer was right–Rooftops of Tehran is a story that I won’t soon forget.  It is the story of seventeen year old Pasha, a young Iranian man whose world is torn apart because of political unrest in his homeland.  At the center of the story is his love for his neighbor, Zari, the promised bride of Pasha’s own friend and mentor, a young, intelligent revolutionary called Doctor.  There are two narrative strands through the first half of the story, and to be honest, I found this to be a little off-putting.  However, one tragic turn of events unites the two narratives; it was at this point that I began to truly enjoy the book.  Until this point, I saw this story as primarily a teenage love story, beautifully written and full of the intoxication and angst of first love, albeit set in a lovely-but-repressed country, but little more.

By the time I finished this novel, though, what I had read was a story of the cost of freedom, friendship, a cultural statement about Persian society in the mid-1970s, and yes, the passion of first love. 

Pasha’s friendship with his best friend, Ahmed, a jokester who is loyal to his beliefs and his friend to the point of death, is touching and heartwarming.  I seems to me that this type of friendship is one that is unusual in our Western society, at least in my experience.  The Tehran neighborhood they live in in the 1970s seems to be what we affectionately and nostalgically look back at our own neighborhoods as being in the 1940s and ’50s in America.  (Of course, whether this is all nostalgia, even for the Persians, I cannot say.)  Close friendships seem to be an outgrowth of their society;  their society’s openness to share their heartaches and griefs, of course, nurtures that sort of friendship.  Again, I wonder if this is still the state of affairs in Iran today.  I would love to say that I have these types of friendship in my life, but I don’t.  To achieve such closeness with others would require a major cultural shift, as well as a shift in my own thinking.  

The idea of freedom, of course, is the very fabric of this story.  From Doctor’s own sacrifice to Pasha’s and Ahmed’s own brand of rebellion at their very strict and repressive school to the unspeakable act which in one moment elevates this story from a teenage romance to a story about the terrible cost of freedom that even ordinary citizens must pay, Rooftops of Tehran leaves an indelible impression.

As a caveat, I just have to mention that this story also contains more profanity than any book I’ve ever read.  Although I would expect some profanity in a book about political oppression and those who oppose it, this profanity was often just in everyday conversation.  I got the point that teens in Tehran in the 1970s cursed.  A lot.  I think that perhaps that was Seraji’s point.  If you can stomach some pretty heavy profanity, though, I think this one might be worth it.