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Monthly Archives: March 2015
Oskar is a young boy trying to come to terms with the death of his father in the 9/11 crash. His mother and grandmother are his only family now, or so he thinks. When Oskar finds a key in a vase in his father’s closet, he thinks it’s a thread whose end will bring about a much sought after answer. Whose key is it and what does it open? Will finding the lock bring something of his father back? Was he meant to find it? His only clue gives him an idea of where to start, although it’s a pretty wobbly start and there are months of puzzles ahead, waiting to be solved.
I wasn’t taken with the book at first. I thought it was trying too hard to do something clever, and then I realized I was trying too hard not to like it. Oskar seemed like a smart boy – inquisitive, always searching, but burrowing his pain deep inside, letting it out only for the briefest of moments in conversations with his mother and grandmother. Their interactions range from silly to heart-breaking seriousness in the blink of an eye, the words warm and comforting then sharp, leaving invisible wounds.
Somewhere halfway the story my perception changed – what seemed at first a jumble of events began to have a shape – of what, I did not know but at least then I began to feel confident things were going somewhere. I became fascinated with the apparent ramblings of a young boy and the letters sprinkled throughout the book, letters from his grandmother or grandfather and other people I couldn’t keep track of. But at some point it didn’t matter who wrote them but what was in them. Ramblings turned to life stories, turned to feelings, turned to tears in me.
The black and white photographs (ordinary things most of them, until the end of the book where some of them become so much more); the jumbled writing (I gave up on that, who wouldn’t, I wonder), the pages of numbers, crossed out words – all this make the book an interesting experience, almost as if the writer wanted to give the reader as complete an experience as possible. There’s Oskar’s cat, Buckminster, leaping in the air, two hands tattooed with the words YES and NO, and other pictures whose meaning I didn’t understand but accepted nevertheless. I loved how the whole book is a mix of locks, keys, doors, conversations that open you raw, light, shadows, handwritten letters, relationships and feelings, feelings, feelings.
Oskar’s quest does have an ending – dissatisfying as I thought it was, but some sort of closure. This book I felt, was not so much about him making peace with the death of his father as much as the reader being given the reason why things happened the way they did. Because in trying to have a look at Oskar’s father meant going deeper into the family history and having a look at Oskar’s grandfather, a man scarred so badly by war and a long lost love that he gave up a future because he couldn’t let go of his past. It’s as much a story about loss as it is about love and looking at it all through the eyes of a child.
Some of my favorite passages:
To my child: I’m writing this from where your mother’s father’s shed used to stand, the shed is no longer here, no carpets cover no floors, no windows in no walls, everything has been replaced. This is a library now, that would have made your grandfather happy, as if all of his buried books were seeds, from each book came one hundred.
It’s hard to say goodbye to the place you’ve lived. It can be as hard as saying goodbye to a person. We moved in after we were married. It had more room than his apartment. We needed it. We needed room for all of the animals, and we needed room between us.
The walls of the hallway were Nothing, even pictures need to disappear, especially pictures, but the hallway itself was Something, the bathtub was Nothing, the bathwater was Something, the hair on our bodies was Nothing, of course, but once it collected around the drain it was Something, we were trying to make our lives easier, trying, with all of our rules, to make life effortless.
She died in my arms, saying, “I don’t want to die.” That is what death is like. It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing. It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are. I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in March 2015
My guest for this month’s interview is Caroline who blogs at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. Her blog is one of my favorites because she writes in a way that makes me want to read most of the books she reviews, even one or two that I started and then abandoned. We also hosted some reading events together, the most recent being Angela Carter Week back in June last year. I was very happy when she agreed to answer the following questions.
1. Who are you?
This is such a difficult question. I wrote three different versions, one worse than the other. The first was an almost philosophical exploration of what “I” means. The second sounded a bit like a job application, and the third gave the impression that all I ever did was reading and failing at not buying more books.
And then I thought of a meme I’ve seen years ago on a few blogs. I liked it so much but never tried it myself. I figured this guest post was a good opportunity. As far as I remember, it was called something like “I’m from”. The idea was that you try a sort of prose poem about yourself and what you like.
I’m from dark purple and rainy days, the pattering of drops on a glass roof, the dawn chorus on a bluish summer morning, from stuffy boudoirs and open spaces. I’m from sleeping cats and playful dogs, from rounded hills and leafy trees, bookshelves as high as cathedral roofs, sacred spaces and noisy pubs, from friendships spend talking until the early morning, from a smile on a dark night on a lonely road. I’m from a lively room and a quiet garden, from a writer’s despair and a reader’s delight. I’m from an old bathrobe and a silky dress, from high heels and bare feet on dewy grass. I’m from a book devoured in three hours and a poem learned by heart. I’m from silver jewelry and lucky charms, and talismans carried in a pocket. I’m from honey milk on sleepless nights, from popcorn while watching a movie, from olives and dates and elaborate meals, from coriander and spices. I’m from a painting of blackberries and African masks, from a song by the Waterboys and a composition by Glass. I’m from magnolia blossoms and the scent of lilac, from fern in the shade and moss under trees. I’m from the murmur of a brook and the wind in the reeds. I’m from saying no when it needs to be heard and yes when that’s what I can give. I’m from walking through Bath and dining in Rome, from book shopping in Paris and sleeping in Brittany. I’m from no parents, no siblings, no relatives, no kids; I’m from a few very close best friends. I’m from a day spent reading and a night at a club. I’m from no God but many saints, from prayers and from song. I’m from melancholy and the jokes of a trickster, from a pun and a curse. I’m from heady perfumes and freshly washed sheets, from a story told by firelight. From a poem by Yeats and a cat on the lap, from an owl’s hoot and bats chasing at twilight. I’m from foggy autumns and yellow leaves, a walk on a graveyard and a phone call late in the night.
2. Why do you blog and what is your blog about?
Initially, my blog was meant to help me stick to a daily writing routine. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to blog about. I have too many interests to stick to one topic only and, finally, I began to write two blogs in parallel. One was a movie blog dedicated to war movies, written in English, the other one was a blog about spirituality, music, and personal essays, written in German. I wrote them both on an almost daily basis for half a year – and still post regularly – before I decided it wasn’t enough. I had to start another English blog, dedicated to “Books, Movies, Cats and Other Treasures”. At first the blog was more varied but then, eventually, it became more and more of a book blog, or rather a blog, in which I review mostly literary books. These days I feel that that isn’t enough anymore. I feel like starting a book blog dedicated to children’s books and another one focusing on genre other than crime. And maybe a blog about writing.
3. Favorite books/authors/genres
My favorite fiction: literary fiction, crime and children’s books.
My favorite nonfiction: memoir, psychology and spirituality.
I don’t think I have a favorite author. Not anymore. It used to be E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Raymond Chandler, but since I’ve read all of their books when I was a teenager and haven’t re-read them, I don’t know if I would still like them as much. I suppose I would.
I’ve loved too many books to pick only a few favorites. I have a list on my blog, in the About section. The books I like the most are those that touch my soul and find their ways into my dreams. Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi Contini is one of them and so is Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep and Paula Fox’s The God of Nightmares.
I’d like to mention three nonfiction books that have been extremely important to me. They are the type of books I usually don’t review. Ken Wilber’s Grace and Grit, Suzanne Segal’s Collision With the Infinite and Judith Handelsman’s Growing Myself.
4. Best book to take with you on a desert island.
I wouldn’t take a novel. I would take either one of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s books, or one by Ramana Maharshi. Or a book like Barbara Walker’s The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets because it is so full of stories.
5. Best book to use as a doorstop.
I would never use a book as a doorstop. I simply couldn’t. It would feel sacrilegious.
6. Three tips for bloggers.
Enjoy what you are doing and try to write regularly. Whether once a week or daily doesn’t matter, just stick to some routine. Be welcoming and answer comments. Someone has spent time reading what you have to say and was kind enough to leave a comment, so, unless you’re a famous blogger who receives hundreds of comments, you should always try to answer.
7. Best/worst blogging experience.
I’ve had too many great experiences blogging to name just one. I love to organize events and I’m always astonished and happy to see how many people join and contribute.
I also love that I’ve made some extremely good friends. I wish that I might meet them in real life some day.
8. You are also a writer. Tell us more about your books.
I am a writer but I’m not published yet. Until this year that was by choice. I didn’t want to publish too early. I’ve written two novels in German, several dozen short stories, personal essays, thousands of diary pages and a lot more. Then, a few years ago, I realized I didn’t want to write only in German and French anymore. Since then I’ve finished two novels and over a dozen short stories in English. Just like I read in different genres, I write in different genres. My „first love“ will always be literary fiction, but one of my novels is an Urban Fantasy novel, another one is a children’s book. At the moment I’m finishing another children’s book and a book for adults. I’ve also started a crime novel.
A month ago I finally took the plunge and sent out a few query e-mails and submitted some of my short stories to literary magazines. I’m still waiting for answers. The response time, in some cases, can be up to eight weeks or more. I’ve got one negative response, which was still very nice. The agent told me that she thought the book was hard to sell but that she’d be very interested in reading anything else I had to offer. Since she’s one of the top US agents, I’m more than happy.
9. What is your writing routine like? Do you have one?
I write daily, mostly in the mornings, and again later in the afternoon. I try to write at least 1000 words. On good days it’s a lot more. Sometimes less.
10. Four tips for writers.
Write regularly. Daily. Fix yourself a word count and try to stick to it. If you write more – that’s good, but try not to write less.
Don’t show your project or talk about it before it has a shape. If you share too early you might disperse the energy.
Finish your projects. Starting one story/book after the other is a form of procrastination.
Don’t try to publish too early!
11. What are you most passionate about?
Authenticity, compassion, and tolerance. Not just of different skin color or gender but of different styles and different rhythms.
12. Last book that made you cry.
I don’t usually cry because of books, that’s why I’ll always remember the one book that did make me cry. Back when I read it, I was working for an editor, reading foreign language fiction and assessing whether a book would be a good fit for the German market. One of the books the editor sent me was by an English author I’d never heard of, Lucy English. She’s written three novels, one of which, Children of Light, was sent to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been moved emotionally as much by any other book. It’s set in the South of France and in Bath. It contains so much joy and so much heartbreak. It is a truly lovely book. Her second book, Our Dancing Days, was a very emotional read as well. I’ve still kept her first novel Selfish People “for later”. I’m sad that she’s stopped writing and that hardly anyone knows her.
13. Two books that helped me overcome difficult situations.
In the past I’ve often sought solace in books. I distinctly remember two books that I found during extremely difficult moments and which were so helpful. One was a book of short texts by the Japanese author Kenko. Here’s my favorite quote from the book:
It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met…
The other book that was important was Nell by US writer Nancy Thayer. Her novels aren’t exactly literary, they are rather mainstream, but I like her very much. I loved that the character Nell was almost exactly like I was back then.
14. Ask me a question.
Will you stay in Thailand or do you have plans to move somewhere else?
I plan on staying here for now but I don’t see myself living in Thailand forever. I may go back to Europe at some point.
Last Sunday I went to our regular bookcrossing meeting held here in Bangkok once a month. I’ve been to these meetings for a few years now and it’s one event I look forward to every month. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s quite simple: people go to bookcrossing.com to connect with other readers; they leave books in train stations and cafes and hospitals and hotels, or specially designated “bookcrossing zones”, any place it can be picked up by others – bookcrossers or not – but before they do that they register the book on the site and write a number code (BCID) which can be later entered on the same site and this way track the book on its journey. I have registered books this way and left them at hotels or gave them away to people. Some came to me from Vietnam and UK, some went to Cambodia, Germany and Australia. It’s always exciting to find an email which lets me know somebody has found one of the books I released and I can see how far the book has traveled.
A while ago one bookcrosser from London was coming through Bangkok on her holiday and joined us for a chat about books. She brought James Patterson’s novel Toys, which I look forward to reading as I haven’t read any of his novels before.
There were lots of wonderful books to choose from at our bookcrossing get-together. I got all three books of The Farseer Trilogy, a fantasy I’ve been looking forward to reading for months, and also The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, because with such a title, how could I resist? And because I had just visited my favorite bookstore, Kinokuniya, I had with me The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker, recommended to me by Pryia, and an English translation of The Pendragon Legend by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb. That should keep me busy for a while.
Right now I’m reading the Book 1 of the trilogy and I’m already a big fan. Not only do I like the main character, Fitz, but his ability to communicate with animals makes this even more appealing. I’m glad this is a trilogy and not one of those fantasy series that are still being written. Nothing wrong with those either but I don’t like to wait.
If you know any good fantasy series, please let me know. I’d love to read more and I’m just getting started.
Home is such a thin word. So thin, and yet it can s t r e t c h between two continents. Maybe all thin words like this – hope, love – possess a flexibility that allows people to carry them everywhere, even across the oceans. But while hope and love can begin anywhere, home once had roots.
How do we define home – is it the place where we first saw the light of day, the place where we have lived most of our life, or the place where we live in at the moment? I’ve been asking myself this question for years.
Last month I was home – not the place I have lived in for more than a decade, or the one where I saw the light of day, but the one in between. My second home, perhaps that would be a good name for it.
I saw family and friends, went places, touched snow for the first time in years, ate way too much, slept erratic hours, visited bookstores and a big library, bought souvenirs. And I felt almost like a tourist, taking out my pocket camera to snap quick photos before my hands froze and I had to stop and search in my pockets for the warmth of my mittens. This is one thing I did not miss, the biting cold, the sudden departure from the 30 degree Celsius weather to temperatures below 0.
I found the city slightly changed – a bit more modern, cleaner, the people nicer. I was shocked by the number of pastry shops selling pretzels sprinkled with salt and poppy seeds, a popular snack which I indulged in nearly every day. I forgot how many such shops there were. I missed: bread, cheese, and the joy of walking without sweating in the first five minutes; mulled wine with a hint of pepper; Romanian books. I’ve read one in which a little old lady with a razor-sharp mind and the ability to deceive nearly everyone almost gets away with committing a crime. But then her cat spoils everything. I think Caroline would have enjoyed this book.
I visited a bazaar with all kinds of artsy things for sale and I took a photo of an old picture and I remembered M—l and his collection of vintage photographs he sometimes blogs about.
I had a great time. And I came back with some photographs and a handful of great memories.