Language’s Power (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See)

“For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me – as a girl and later as a woman – to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.”

In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan we enter the life of 19th century women living in isolated Hunan Province, China. This is during the era when little girls’ feet were bound in order to make them beautiful in the eyes of husbands – at times hints of sexual overtones slip into the narrative, but these are not explored and remain subtle and innocent.

All I knew was that footbinding would make me more marriageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life – a son. To that end, my goal was to achieve a pair of perfectly bound feet….

Lily was seven when the bones in her feet were broken and shaped over painful time into tiny arches.

Lily and Snow Flower lived in an era of matchmakers, during a time when a special bond, called laotong, might be formed between two young girls, and when fortuitous marriage matches were dreamed. It was also an era of girls’ and women’s isolation and of a secret written language called nu shu that was known only to women. Lessons – life-lessons – were taught in an upstairs women’s-only chamber. But when famine and war struck, all these beautiful-footed women’s lives became at risk. They could not run; they could barely, and only in pain, walk any distance.

Lisa See creates an intimate glimpse into women’s lonely lives. The narrative is packed with historical details that lend authenticity to the haunting tale of lives seen through the lens of Lily who was born in 1823 and who lived through the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). Lily shares a lifetime of hopes and realities as seen from her eightieth year, from “one who has not yet died.”

The writers among readers will be fascinated with the lyrical story the two girls write on the fan that passes between them throughout their lifetime. The messages are poetic, while adhering (for the most part) to tradition. The rituals and conventions of the time are stark and vivid. See delivers them without judgement and with honesty. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan provides a look into how women understand their lives and how they experience what love they manage to find.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Time Travel: Culture Clash (Obasan by Joy Kogawa)

“There is silence that cannot speak.”

Sometimes we come to a book late. For me, Obasan, published in 1981, is one of those books. It is historically based fiction that reads like memoir – a hybrid, better than either genre. I’m reminded of a line from Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil: “A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real.” Obasan is a work of art, a hard-as-stone story beautifully told.

Through Obasan, I travelled to another time, another culture, another horror of war and misguided political decisions. But Obasan is not a diatribe on political incorrectness; it is an intimate glimpse into people’s lives, love and loss, what was endured. In the end, insight and something that lurks between acceptance and forgiveness, a moving forward.

The narrator, Naomi Nakane, knows that “All our ordinary stories are changed in time, altered as much by the present as the present is shaped by the past.” She struggles to understand her childhood from her adult view and to grasp what it all means now. Her childhood was protected to a great degree, but Aunt Emily’s life was altered, split-away, and she knew the depth of loss and fought it with letters, but to no avail. When Naomi is grown, she receives a package from her aunt. “The fact is,” she thinks, jarred by Aunt Emily’s clippings and notes, “I never got used to it and I cannot, I cannot bear the memory. There are some nightmares from which there is no waking, only deeper and deeper sleep.” Perhaps it is easier to leave the blinders on and to not remember.

Despite the story’s dark theme, Joy Kogawa’s writing is sprinkled with light and lyrical passages. In one passage that particularly touched me, Naomi recalls a walk with her uncle: “The laughter in my arms is quiet as the moon, quiet as snow falling, quiet as the white light from the stars.”

Obasan is an important story: culturally, politically, and artistically. It is a beautifully told story that takes readers into the heart of experience. It neither shies away from, nor dwells upon, the hard historical reality that tore people’s lives apart. Canada’s story, without Obasan, would be incomplete. It is hard to face political wrongs, but they must be faced in order to be whole, complete – for all parties. As Yann Martel wrote in Beatrice and Virgil: “Stories – individual stories, family stories, national stories – are what stitch together the disparate elements of human existence into a coherent whole.”

Please read Obasan and think about the “silence that cannot speak.” Kerri Sakamoto, in the preface to my edition of the book, writes: “It was the authenticity of those words that so shocked me; the distillation of shame and muted fury….In the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing, families – including my own – were taken from their homes, separated, and interned in camps simply because they looked like the enemy.” These words should haunt us all and make us think of their relevancy today as with others who come to make our country their own.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Obasan

 

Post script: for lovers of Japanese-themed stories

Two other “Japanese” books that have survived weeding from my crowded bookshelves that I recommend are Epitaph for a peach by David Mas Masumoto, an American-Japanese story (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) and Snow by Maxence Fermine, translated by Chris Mulhern (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, Inc, 1999).

Epitaph for a peach tells the story of an ending in California – the end of the peach farm – by a “third-generation Japanese American farmer [whose] lineage in agriculture dates back centuries. The Masumotos are from a solid peasant stock out of Kumamoto, Japan, rice farmers with not even a hint of samuri blood.” The U.S. experience of Japanese-Americans living on the west coast during WWII differed from the Canadian; there may have been hardship, but not the expulsion nor the confiscating of property.

Snow is a seeker’s story. It takes us on a lyrical search by Yuko through snow-covered mountains to find enlightenment…colour…and it is also an exquisitely told love story. If you like haiku, its simplicity and complexity, you will like Snow.

On my “to read” list: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. According to Martin Puchner (The Written Word), Murasaki’s “epic novel, The Tale of Genji, became a foundational text that influenced Japanese aesthetics for centuries to come.” Written about 1,000 years ago by an 11th century Japanese lady-in-waiting, The Tale of Genji is a story Puchner compares to the Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh. Puchner says, “Murasaki’s diary felt to me like a turning point in the history of literature—it sounds so recognizable, so intimate, so modern.”

“The fact that someone living in an extremely different time, halfway around the world, a thousand years ago, could whisper in my ear in that way—it’s magical. That experience is part of what draws me to world literature in general, a reminder of the power writing has to transport a voice across time and space.” (Quotes from a January 23, 2018 article by Joe Fassler, “The Technology Shift Behind the World’s First Novel, The Atlantic online.)

 

 

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: When does one belong? (Birds of Passage by Robert Solé)

Sitting on a sailboat tied to a dock while day-after-day rain pours and wind gusts wildly might be the best place and time to pick up a nice thick novel. I’m new to Robert Solé’s writing and new to the Syrian migration to Egypt. The novel was published in French in 1992 as Le Tarbouche, it won the 1992 Pix Méditerranée. It was translated into English in 2000 under the title Birds of Passage, which shifts the focus from the business of the family to four decades of exile (1916-1958) in Egypt. What better way to be distracted: a new author, a new context, and a gossipy multi-generational family saga?

The old patriarch is proud of his tarbouche– or fez-making factory and the wealth it accrues for his family. The Barrakani are a big, loving family who gather daily around the dining table to eat, of course, but also to share stories. These scenes are some of my favourite. However, Birds of Passage is a saga, a tapestry woven with many threads.

One of these threads involves religious tension in the Greek Catholic family. Education is valued and the best education is by the Jesuits; so the children are enrolled in the Roman school. You can imagine what happens when the eldest son, destined to take over the family business, announces that he will become a Jesuit priest. This thread plays itself out against a back-drop of the dominant Muslim faith of the country (at this point, not an issue, but later, after the revolution, religion does have an impact).

Like all family sagas, there is intrigue and mystery, love affairs and devotion, dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered. Solé writes with insight into the day-to-day struggles and joys of his characters and with knowledge about Syrians in Egypt during the early-to-mid twentieth century. At times the story moves along in raucous fun; at others, dramatically. But there’s another reality beyond family crisis and celebrations.

Egyptians, under British occupation, resent the Syrian enclave with its financial and political influence. The British merely condone the merchant class of Syrian migrants, the relationship with the Sultan, complex. The Barrakanis successfully maneuver through this minefield, but they are never accepted as Egyptians. Although they survive both World Wars, their business acumen and isolation from the mainstream cannot protect them from the outcome of the revolution that began in 1952. They’ve remained Syrians in their hearts and attitudes. Never having fully integrated into Egyptian life, they find in the end that they are “birds of passage” and must move on to exile elsewhere.

The novel moved with me from the airy cockpit of the sailboat to the cabin in the bow and the next day repeated the journey until I’d read all 375 big pages. Given the situation in Syria today, Birds of Passage has provided a little insight into the psyche and culture of its people, historic migrations, and determination to be Syrian wherever they might live. Birds of Passage is a good read.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Birds of Passage

Review: Where family stories might lead (Palm Trees in the Snow by Luz Gabás; The Bolter by Frances Osborne)

 

Secrets are revealed through old letters and a personal search in Palm Trees in the Snow, as they are in Possession: A Romance (the previous book reviewed). But that is where the similarity of the two stories ends.

Palm Trees is purported to be fiction, but in the Author’s Note readers learn that the novel was “inspired by real events” and informed by Luz Gabás’ father and grandfather’s stories. She writes, “Thanks to their memories, both spoken and written, I knew from a very early age of the existence of the island of Fernando Po and so many other things….” Yet, while the research about place and circumstances feels authentic – Spain’s Rabaltué and the African island – Gabás has difficulty lifting characters and their experiences off the page.

Palm Trees in the Snow is a big ambitious book that was recommended by friends. It attempts to describe Spain’s colonial period on Fernando Po, an island off the coast of Africa, first from a Spanish point-of-view and later the indigenous perspective. The story revolves around two very different brothers, their loves and their children, which makes it a bit of a complicated family saga seen through the eyes of one of the daughters. Unfortunately, Gabás’ characters seldom seem real, the storyline often feels flat, and her sex scenes read like Harlequin Romance. While Gabás has potential for a really good story, she could have used the help of an editor or maybe a reading of Frances Osborne’s The Bolter.

Osborne also sets out to discover family secrets. She succeeds in telling an insightful, page-turning tale. The biography unfolds during a similar African colonial period to that of Gabás’ story, although in this instance England and Kenya.

Like Gabás, Osborne is a granddaughter who discovers her link to a mysterious heritage when she was little more than a child. Idina Sackville was a contemporary of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham (Out of Africa and West with the Night, respectively) but this reference is for context and those book reviews can come another time. Idina Sackville was daring, “her scandals were manifold.” Idira’s behaviour so extravagant, shall we say, she was fictionalized into a Nancy Mitford character; she became Michael Arlen’s Iris Storm, and this year (2017), she appeared as Lady Idina Hay in Wilbur Smith’s War Cry, an adventure story set in post WWI Kenya. Osborne’s challenge was to dig beneath the colourful legend in search of the “whole” woman who was her great grandmother – the black sheep of the family, the woman behind the legend.

Gabás’ ambitious attempt to explore the colonial experience on both colonizers and colonized kept me turning pages despite its frequent textbooklike tone and shallowly-drawn characters; Palm Trees in the Snow is recommended with qualifications. Osborne, on the other hand, creates emotional involvement while her context of the social and cultural values of the time (in both England and Kenya) keeps her storyline focused on character and the pages almost turn themselves; I highly recommend The Bolter.

Books available at your local bookstore or online:

Palm Trees in the Snow

The Bolter