A Young Life: without sentimentality or cynicism (Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia)

“I was born in the year of the paradox, in the labyrinthine city of Jijiga. After a three-year absence, the rains had come, swelling the rivers and streams. The clay desert, as dry as the skin of a drum, became green once more. Queen Menen, wife of King Haile Selassie, lay dying. She was as reluctant to leave this world as I was to leave the womb.”

Nega Mezlekia tells a tale that spell-binds, and he does it with dark humour – an extraordinary feat for the story of Ethiopia’s coup and counter-coup history. The first paragraph sets a tone Mezlekia maintains. In Notes from the Hyena’s Belly we journey into a child’s world of paradox, a world in which innocence and awareness, love and cruelty co-mingle. We glimpse the roots that nourish a precocious, curious and stubbornly confident boy as well as the socio-economic-political reality of Ethiopia – accomplished with lightness (even through life-threatening situations). Mezlekia shows us how deep this complex duality runs: “In Ethiopia,” he writes, “poetry is second only to the achievements of kings. Poets are sought after and treated with great reverence by the ruling class. …The most popular form of poetry, known as the kinae, offers one message to the untrained ear and another to cultured listeners.” Notes carries on the tradition.

Mezlekia is a skilled, insightful poetic writer, one who has mastered nuance and the twist that both informs and surprises. His language and rhythm, his lack of sentimentality and cynicism carry us through Ethiopia’s sad history as we keep turning pages. Mezlekia provides insight into his journey from boyhood shenanigans into manhood within a revolutionary and war-torn context. He has written a powerful story of lost innocence and of survival.

Notes from the Hyena’s Belly goes beyond the personal story; it offers insight into what it is to be human, a connection and an awakening for each reader. On the one hand, this biography is specific to Mezlekia, but it also tells a story that is far too common across the post-colonial African continent and, I’m afraid, even beyond. We can draw parallels to what is happening in the world today.

Given the skilful writing and master storytelling, it is little wonder that Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s award for literature (2000). (It was published in the U.S. simply as Notes from the Hyena’s Belly.) Highly recommended.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Notes From the Hyena’s Belly

Of Mothers and Daughters (Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami

“I called my mother every Sunday from the silence of my basement apartment, reluctant to tell her how I yearned to get away from this freezing cold city where even the traffic sounds were muffled by the snow.”

The novel opens with this bit of narrative. Kamini is studying in Calgary (what her mother, still in India, calls “that Calgary North Pole place”), but most of the story unfolds in India, beginning when Kamini is only six years old.

Tamarind Mem (published in the U.S. as Tamarind Woman) is the first of four novels by Anita Rau Badami. The novel languished on my bedside table for a very long time, always being resorted to the bottom of an ever-changing pile of books. Then, I picked it up and didn’t put it down until immersion into a life I can barely imagine was sated. It is the story of women, of mothers and daughters and all the complexities those relationships hold (and bury). It’s a story of horoscopes (iffy ones) and memories (steeped like tea). Our protagonist Kamini says,

I was never sure about Ma’s feelings for me. Her love, I felt sometimes, was like the waves in the sea, the ebb and flow left me reaching out hungrily. A love as uncertain as the year that I was born, when the Chinese had marched across the border into India making a mockery of the slogan “Hindu-Chinee brothers-brothers.” That year the price of rice shot up, a grim famine swept across the north, and nothing was the same again.

Not a great beginning for a girl-child.

Like The Painter of Birds by Lídia Jorge and Birds of Passage by Robert Solé (both previously reviewed), Tamarind Mem is a family saga, although somewhat smaller in its reach. These three novels explore place (Portugal, Egypt, and India) and movement away (migration). They are also stories that seek understanding about a character’s place in the family.

Badami probes memory and cultural heritage – and the experiences and values conflict from time-to-time in the mother-daughter narrative. The women, often at odds, are joined by love, stubbornness, and folly too. Men are scarce: Kamini’s father is a “railroad man” who travels all over India and who is seldom home and there’s also the auto mechanic. The men come and go, leaving bits behind. The father leaves a railroad pass after his death. On it, Kamini’s mother, Saroja, travels across India, retracing her husband’s path. Kamini travels to Calgary to study, her sister, Roopa, marries and moves to Toronto; an old nursemaid Linda Ayah and extended family of aunties are left behind.

This is a book blessed with many reviews. What new can I offer? Little…except to pose the question: what is the value in reading any novel? For me, magic lies in the flow of words, of how each story unfolds. I want my curiosity satisfied, to learn a fact and to gain an insight. The story need not to be “hot off the press,” to borrow a cliché, or on any “10 best” list. It needs to show me something I didn’t know I needed to see, needed to understand. Tamarind Mem provides a glimpse into a distant world, migration, the conflict of generations and of cultures, the universally felt experience of mother-daughter impatience, misunderstandings, and love. This story is sensitively and beautifully told, a first novel worthy of a read.

Available through your local bookstore or online: Tamarind Mem

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Grief’s Response (After You’ve Gone by Jeffrey Lent)

“If love had a language, he’d realized it would be this, not words or gestures but the mellifluous richness he’d heard that summer evening, anchored between the pair of violins and the bass. The musician seated with his cello tucked between his knees, bent in concentration and intensity of focus that swept and fled, stroked and drew upon man, instrument and bow.”

Thirteen years separate the publication of After You’ve Gone and Doris Lessing’s Love, Again. Surely other novels exist about the discovery of love in later life, but these are  two that stand out for me. When Doris Lessing’s book came out in 1996, it seemed bold. Told in the voice of a sixty-five year old woman who didn’t imagine loving again but who became swept up in not one but two affairs of the heart, the story suggested hope and insight for baby-boomers heading into the seniors’ curve. Recently, I came across Jeffrey Lent’s novel told from a male perspective.

Henry Dorn’s son (Robert) and wife (Olivia) die in a car crash. He is bereft. His two grown daughters (Alice and Polly) try to comfort him but they have their own families and cannot fill the void in his heart. He begins a quest, first travelling to his birth-home in Nova Scotia seeking answers to family questions; then back in New York, he takes a steamer to Amsterdam hoping to discover older Dorn roots and to start life anew. He is lost in the way Rebecca Solnit describes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration—how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” In her book, Solnit explores the question philosophically. In After You’ve Gone, Lent explores it through fiction.

Ultimately, like Love, Again, After You’ve Gone is a later-life love story that plunges into deep waters where discoveries of the self are made. His journey is poignant. There’s the emotional journey of the first year:

The worst moment has not been the anniversary of the deaths, which was a peculiarly quiet afternoon of gentle spring rain, the day so long anticipated that its arrival brought no sudden thrust of grief but rather was almost consolation—in that year he’d passed all number of possible anniversaries that were unmarked and this was another he was helpless against, and the world went on raining….Ten days later he disembarked at Penn Station and porter and trunks in tow hailed a cab and set off for the pier and the Veendam II.

That first year slips by quickly enough. It’s aboard the steamer that he spots Lydia Pearce and where renewal begins:

A woman in the tight knee-length and sleeveless calisthenics outfit suddenly came upon him, loping in a steady slapping of bare feet….She glanced at him as she passed but the glance was empty as if she were looking toward some far distance greater even than the horizon. He…watched her go.

You know where this is going (and it does lead there). While love affairs are as old as the novel itself, Lent avoids clichéd traps. He gives us a beautiful read with a few twists and surprises. This is not a novel for the bereft alone, it offers insight and perhaps even wisdom for each of us into the very human ways of the heart.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: After You’ve Gone

Chasing the Author (The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves)

“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. It was the early summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Mónica in a wreath of liquid copper.”

A tumultuous story of intrigue, The Shadow of the Wind leads us on an ever-deepening mystery much like the unpacking of Russian stacking dolls. At times, the novel feels like a gothic thriller, at others like magic realism. Like Gabriel García Márques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel we find the fabulous mixed with the mundane of everyday. In some ways, the story’s twists and turns reminds me of A.S. Byatt’s Possession (previously reviewed). Zafón reveals Barcelona as Charles Dickens reveals London. His labyrinthine plot winds through the post-war city and through a boy’s curiosity over a writer whose work is systematically being destroyed. The story unfolds in often surreal and soul-wrenching ways.

On Daniel’s fourth birthday, his mother is buried, a victim of cholera. At ten, he still misses her but cannot remember her face. Perhaps to distract him or simply to celebrate the first double-digit birthday, his father (a bookseller himself) takes Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books:

“This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived d dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens….In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they have only us, Daniel. Do you think you’ll be able to keep such a secret?”

My gaze was lost in the immensity of the place and its sorcery of light. I nodded, and my father smiled.

Daniel chooses a book, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, a book and its author cloaked in mystery.

As Daniel grows up he is surrounded by books in his father’s bookshop, but obsessed by one. He meets Bea and is smitten. He wants her to understand that Carax’s book is a true story and to know what it means to him:

I began my story with that distant dawn when I awoke and could not remember my mother’s face, and I didn’t stop until I paused to recall the world of shadows…. I told her about my first visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and about the night I spend reading The Shadow of the Wind. I told her about my meeting with the faceless man and about the letter signed by Penélope Aldaya that I always carried with me without knowing why…. I told her how…this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.

The Shadow of the Wind weaves through Barcelona to Paris and back to Barcelona. It is a detective story: Daniel in search of Carax; Daniel in search of ghosts. But it is far more than mystery; Zafón takes us into the heart of yearning where Daniel eventually becomes aware that “In Carax’s lost footsteps, I now recognized my own, irretrievable.” This is a story of love and betrayal, of despair and hope.

This is the first book I’ve read by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and loved this post-war glimpse into Barcelona, magic realism, and of course the ode to literature and writers that runs throughout. I echo Entertainment Weekly’s claim that the novel “is ultimately a love letter to literature, intended for readers as passionate about storytelling as its young hero.” It is a book to become lost in and ultimately to come away from enriched.

 

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Shadow of the Wind

Magic of the 8e Paris (The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson)

Reading The Emperor of Paris is a bit like picking up puzzle pieces one-by-one and slowly discovering the picture they create. In each short chapter, we peek into the lives of the people of the eighth arrondissement, Paris. It’s a particularly innocent era before World War I when the neighbourhood was a place disconnected from the larger city and world. And after the war we witness transformations – some difficult, others freeing.

A bakery – Boulangerie Notre-Dame – stands at the centre of the 8e neighbourhood. Here we meet many of the book’s characters and glimpse their personalities, challenges, and their moods. In living quarters above the bakery we share an intimacy between Monsieur (which everyone calls the baker) and little Octavio:

Sitting in the attic window with his son nestled in his lap, Monsieur Notre-Dame would slowly turn the pages of the Arabian Nights. When he reached an illustration, Octavio would laugh and point.

A beginning then, Monsieur would say.

He told the boy his stories. They were conjured out of his head, tales that had little to do with the pictures in the book, the flying horses or the thieves in their treasure caves or the scruffy boy with his magic lamp. Monsieur told them not as the book might have, but as he saw them, jumping to life before his eyes.

This passage hints, or foreshadows, something of the man Octavio becomes. The imaginative “reading” instills Octavio’s passion for books and offers a glimpse into an affliction that eventually brings Isabeau Normande into his life.

The immigrant artist becomes one of my favourite characters. Even after being dismissed from studying, he draws obsessively, mostly in the park in all kinds of weather. CS Richardson paints pictures with words, and as this scene his sparse words show us what Kalb sketches:

Jacob Kalb, a stuffed carpetbag under his feet and his knees under his chin, hurried a last sketch of the old woman across the aisle. Since crossing into France he had managed a passable likeness of the woman’s pocked cheeks, the creases around her puffy mouth. In small vignettes he had made studies of her hands and their bouquets of arthritic fingers. On the page her hair looked like lengths of wire exploding from under her hat.

 Richardson creates scene after scene that unveil the community, allowing us to see inside the hearts and actions of his characters. For example, the Fournier family run a bookstall that reflects both the bookstall and, in many ways, the neighbourhood:

The Fournier bookstall held too much poetry, mixed its philosophies with its mechanics and its travelogues among its fictions.

But the eclectic bookstall is more than a metaphor for the varied personalities of the community. It provides the pivot that creates change involving both Octavio and the scarred Isabeau Normande. In subtle ways, by the end of the novel Richardson seamlessly places all the puzzle pieces together, creating a unified whole.

The Emperor of Paris is like a fable brimming with magical, imaginative images not unlike the Arabian Nights except for the specificity of place and time. Richardson’s tale created a movie that ran across the screen of my mind, an ultimately satisfying movie made with perfect words.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Emperor of Paris

Book Review: Fictional Fact – Imagining Klimt (The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey)

In this imagined look at the life of the Gustav Klimt, we glimpse Vienna and the bohemian lives of artists in the city during the turn of the 20th century. In The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey, we meet Klimt through the eyes of Emilie Flöge, a young, upper class bourgeois girl attending a parade with her father and sisters:

 “…our father was talking to a man we didn’t know. The man was wearing a threadbare sack suit and a pink daisy in his buttonhole. We had never seen a man wearing anything like that. He was not tall, but broad-shouldered and strong-looking. He was tan like the woman selling ices. He was carrying a leather case in one hand and what looked like a toolbox in the other.”

Emilie sneaks away to watch Klimt paint. Later he comes to the house to paint the daughters and Emilie convinces her father to allow her to take painting classes. Emilie grows into a young woman. One thing – as you can imagine – leads to another, and eventually to “The Kiss.” Emilie is believed to be the woman in the painting. The man is purported to be the artist Klimt himself. But Hickey’s story ventures past Klimt’s death, taking Emilie as far as the Russian invasion of Vienna near the end of the Second World War. Emilie and her niece have taken refuge at an old summer home that abounds with memories of Klimt’s visits. Emilie toys with the idea of travelling back to Vienna to see her city house, but resists:

“I am not ready for the accounting, not yet, the tally of buildings lost and buildings saved, paintings burned and paintings not. In my mind Vienna is still whole, I can see it. When I am stronger I can go back and face the losses. When the war ends I will go back.”

Hickey feeds the images we have in our minds about Vienna, about the sub-culture of artists, about the war and how it changed the lives of countless people. Despite the obvious research required to write creatively about such a well-known figure and period, Hickey keeps the story lively, not letting it droop into art-history mode for which I give her kudos. However, the book in many ways is a light romance, an easy read, which may be the perfect book for a lazy holiday weekend for those of us who like to snoop into artists’ (imagined) lives.

Notes about Klimt:

Most readers will recognize the art of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), since images from his “gold period” pop up everywhere on greeting cards and posters. One of these, the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” was confiscated by the Nazis during WWII. In 2006, a movie called “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting from the contemporary Austrian establishment.

While talking with an artist friend about Klimt’s style, she asked if I’m familiar with the work of Margaret Macdonald Macintosh. Macintosh’s work was shown in Vienna in 1900 at the “Vienna Secession.” Klimt was also one of the exhibitors. Some believe that her influence created the famous shift in Klimt’s style that occurred after the show. Others suggest Klimt “stole” the style. Don’t you love when serendipity and a bit of artsy gossip slip into your life?

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The novel is available through your local bookstore or online: The Painted Kiss

Review: In a Landscape of Sand & Stone (The Painter of Birds by Lídia Jorge)

“I dread to think what they’ve told you about me!” He laughed, he was always laughing. “I bet they told you I was a wastrel, a soldier, and about a blanket I used to lie down on when I went off drawing birds. I dread to think what they told you about that blanket and those birds… They probably described me as a con man, a globe-trotter and an adventurer. I bet they poisoned your mind against me.”

In provincial Portugal not far from the Atlantic a family lives together in a dilapidated rambling house under the thumb of a tyrant father, Francisco Dias. Sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren call the house home. The men provide the back-breaking labour on the farm. All, that is, except for the youngest son, Walter, who is The Painter of Birds. Walter is as free and migratory as the birds he paints. As you can imagine, this creates some trouble for his father and brothers. But this isn’t the only cause for distress in the house. The house and its inhabitants are all rife with the collusion of secrets.

Without giving too much away, in his youth Walter was a charmer of young women. When the parents of one of the girls discovers the rounding of their daughter’s belly, they take her to the doorstep of Francisco Dias. Walter’s brother Custódio marries Maria Ema and in due course gives birth to a daughter. It is through Walter’s daughter that the story unfolds.

This may sound like a hokey soap opera or melodrama, but it is not. The Painter of Birds is literary and lyrical. Lídia Jorge subtly reveals psychological and emotional insights into a time and place when families were held together by custom, poverty, and relative isolation from the larger world. It is a story of pent-up jealousies and resentments. And it is the story of a daughter’s quest for love and understanding. At the same time, Jorge’s story is metaphor.

Early in the book, Francisco Dias is called to the school where the teacher tells him:

…what extraordinary hands Walter had, hands that drew as if the memory of nature were concealed beneath their fingertips. A truly remarkable talent. …Walter used to lie down on the ground and wait for the birds to land, sometimes he would catch them in baskets and cages from which he would subsequently release them, but first, he would reproduce them on paper, copying their feathers and their shapes, giving their eyes in particular a special life. It was as if the wretched sparrows could speak, as it the thrushes were laughing, all because of those lines he added to their eyes or because of the way he drew their raised tails and their spread wings.

Much later, birds adorn the letters that arrive at the house. Birds. Well-travelled birds. But it is not only birds and Walter that will travel during the changing world of mid-twentieth-century-rural Portugal. This complex story explores timeless themes of family, dependence, and independence wrapped in a daughter’s yearning for truth. I particularly enjoyed the metaphors of travel and birds and would love to hear from other readers of The Painter of Birds.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Painter of Birds