14 July La Fête Nationale: A Salmagundi of French Literature

Prise de la Bastille by   Jean-Pierre Houël Source:Wikipedia

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël
Source:Wikipedia

Today is a holiday here in France, marking the celebration of la fête nationale or as we know it in English Bastille Day, commemorating 14 July 1789 when the population fearing an attack by the royal military stormed the Bastille prison and released the many political prisoners in what became a symbol of the end to the rule of the monarchy and the beginning of independence.

There will be a military parade in the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris and here in Aix-en-Provence and most towns in France there will be organised displays of fireworks to commemorate.

To celebrate the National Holiday, I am following the initiative of Marina Sofia at Finding Time To Write to highlight some recently read and upcoming French reads, now available in English, here is my salmagundi of French Literature!

Click on the title to read the review and read to the end to find the definition of that tasty word for the day Salmagundi:

Two French Books I am looking forward to reading:

Poisoning (3)

The Poisoning Angel by John Teule

translated by Melanie Florence

This book is actually to be published today 14 July 2014 and the author is a well-known name in French contemporary literature. In fact I have one of his books in French on the shelf already.

This one is based on a true but gruesome story of one of the most notorious serial poisoners that France has ever known and was described by the Sunday Telegraph as:

“a bawdy romp one minute, a gruesome tragedy the next. The writing is beautiful, witty, grisly and moving, and reeks of authenticity.”

Let’s hope all that comes off in translation.

Vatican Cellars

The Vatican Cellars by André Gide

translated by Julian Evans

This book will be published in August 2014 to mark the centenary of the book’s first publication. It is set in the 1890’s around a group of ingenious fraudsters who claim that the Pope has been imprisoned and a false Pope enthroned in his place.

I haven’t read anything by this author, but he sounds like he caused quite a sensation with this novel and others, as he took it upon himself to explore morality in his work and was a major influence on the writing of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947 and one year after he died (in 1951) his works were placed on the Vatican’s list of banned books.

Three French Books I Read This Year:

Nagasaki (2)

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

translated by Emily Boyce

A short novella, based on a true story of an event that happened in Japan, that will make you check your fridge contents and ensure you lock the door at night.

Foundling2

The Foundling Boy by Michel Deon

translated by Julian Evans

Coming of age story of a young boy left as a baby on a doorstep, who grows up and has an insatiable need to travel and experience the world. The sequel soon to be translated into English as well.

People in Photo

The People In the Book by Hélène Gestern

translated by Emily Boyce,Ros Schwartz

A wonderful epistolary novel about a young woman searching for answers about events in her mother’s life before she was born, a photo provides a clue to those she knew.

Two Great Books Set in France:

All the Light

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

Paris and Saint-Malo pre and during WWII following the lives of two children and their growth into adolescence, Marie-Laure who lost her sight at six and Werner who lost his parents and is raised in an orphanage. An excellent story that leads to the crossing of paths of these two characters and wonderfully evocative of place.

I Always Loved You

I Always Loved You

by Robin Oliveira

An insightful historical novel about the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in late 1800’s Paris as she struggles to establish her name in the art world, enduring a life-long though fractious relationship with the impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas.

Salmagundi:

  1. a mixed dish consisting usually of cubed poultry or fish, chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions, oil, etc., often served as a salad.
  2. any mixture or miscellany.

 Bonne Fête!

 

 

 

The Italian Chapel

They were brought to the island as ‘the enemy’ and by the time they left they would have developed relationships and connections that continue to endure today between the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands and Moena, the Italian mountain village where the artist and decorator Domenico Chiocchetti originally came from and where he returned after the war.

the_italian_chapelPhilip Paris has written both a non-fiction account of the short history of the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm and this book, the novel I have just read and adored. The fictional form allows the author to imagine some of the relationships for which there is little detail and create others that may have been.

It is a war-time story without guns, battles and tragedy, it could even be said it depicts what war purports to be all about, a strategy to create peace and establish tolerance and what better conduit to promote acceptance than to build a chapel, whose sole purpose is for prayer and reflection, a sanctuary from the day-to-day reality.

550 Italian soldiers are captured during WW2 in Egypt and sent to Camp 60 on Lamb Holm, Orkney Islands where they live in ramshackle Nissen huts and are used as free labour to build barriers between the islands to prevent entry to the mainland from invading forces.

“The nearest land is mainland Orkney, which is also an island. You will know from your journey that we are a long way from Italy. You’re all here to do a job, to help build a unique set of barriers between mainland Orkney to the north and between the islands to the south of Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. Four barriers in all.”

In the opening pages, bulldozers arrive with instructions to raze camp 60 to the ground, leaving no trace of the former POW camp. The Italian Chapel sits there beside the Nissen huts awaiting its fate. We then learn the story of how it came to be there.

Image of the Madonna

Image of the Madonna

The novel introduces us to key characters in the camp, the artist Domenico Chiocchetti from the northern Italian village of Moena who keeps a small prayer card his mother gave him, with the image of the Madonna’s face in his pocket throughout the war, retrieving it at moments when he needed to escape the present, or remember the past and whose image will become a symbol of the thing he leaves behind, the only physical reminder that there was a POW camp on the Scottish island during the war.

We meet Aldo, who doesn’t talk about his family, but can source anything the men require, Buttapasta, a cement and stone artist, Giuseppe the romantic who had been a foundry worker in the US, they will all become instrumental in the project that occupies the men when the causeway barriers are complete and their status changes after Mussolini is sacked and the Italians are no longer the enemy. The men decide to create a chapel out of two unused Nissen huts and scraps from shipwrecks and whatever their captors can source.

The prayer card becomes the inspiration for Chiocchetti’s portrait of the Madonna and child, painted on plasterboard behind the altar.  An altar is made from concrete left over from building the Barriers, tiles are rescued from a sunken blockship ( a ship deliberately sunk to prevent access to a channel) and wood salvaged from a shipwreck is transformed into a tabernacle. Carved lanterns are created from Bully Beef tins and candlesticks made from the brass stair rods, all contributing to create a beautiful and peaceful interior.

Philip Paris author observing the Rood Screen built by Italian POW soliders

Philip Paris author observing the Rood Screen built by Italian POW soliders

It is a story of optimism, incredible resourcefulness and the things men do to keep their spirits up when the circumstances are against them. It is an easy, light read and moving without being overly sentimental and knowing this wonderful refuge actually exists made it all the more meaningful and special for me as a reader.

Philip Paris has researched this period in history and tried to track down those who were on the island or their relatives and creates a memorable and heartfelt story of tough times that are lightened by a mutual desire to build not just a chapel, but a refuge of incredible beauty that can still be visited today.

“It was the prisoner’s escape, a tunnel to spiritual and cultural freedom, while their bodies remained in captivity.”

Literary Blog Hop Winners!

 

I am delighted that two readers will soon be turning the pages of these wonderful books:

Carrots and Jaffas, an insightful imagining of a period in the life of identical twin boys when they become separated and;

The Blue Room a stunning translation of Norwegian Literature, a book that spans a day in the life of a young woman locked in her bedroom by her mother.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Literary Blog Hop and thanks again to Judith at Leeswammes for organising it. I’ve had lots of visitors here and a few new followers.

The Winner of  Carrots and Jaffas is….

AMB wins

A.M.B!

who writes about books, writing, and the law at The Misfortune of Knowing

The Winner of The Blue Room is…..

Madness

 Elizabeth who writes about love, self acceptance and confidence at ChubbyMadness

I hope you enjoy the books,  I would love to hear your thoughts on them and thank you to everyone else for participating, you are all winners really!

Happy Reading!

Literary Blog Hop Book #Giveaway

From today until Wednesday June 25th I am participating along with many other international bloggers in a Literary Blog Hop Giveaway hosted by Judith at Leeswamme’s Blog, an avid reader and reviewer from the Netherlands.

literarybloghop

Comment below to win the books I am offering and visit the other blogs to enter their offers.

I am offering two books, recent reads and not the usual thing you find in a bookshop. Both titles are literary gems, one an award-winning Norwegian translation, the other a riveting, thought-provoking glimpse into a cross cultural family that thanks to blogging and twitter connections I became aware of. They are fabulous reads, but do check out my reviews first to find out if they sound like something you might enjoy.

You can enter for one title only or for both, one comment puts you in the draw for both books, unless you tell me you are only interested in one of the titles. Ok, here they are:

COMMENT to WIN A COPY of

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik translated by Deborah Dawkin - read my review here.

“a gripping portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship that will send a chill down your spine.”

OR

Carrots and Jaffas by Howard Goldenberg – read my review here.

 “a glimpse into the heart of an ancient land and a fractured family, through the story of a stolen child.”

 

BlogHop Button

To enter the giveaway, open worldwide to anyone whether you have a blog or not, just leave a comment below to be entered in the draw.

Follow my blog Word by Word to get two chances to win and mention it in your comment.

Follow the blog Word by Word and @clairewords on twitter to have three entries in the draw.

If you are already following, make sure to remind me in your comment.

Good Luck and enjoy visiting the other blogs listed here, just click to visit:

Linky List:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. The Misfortune of Knowing
  3. Bibliosue
  4. Too Fond
  5. Under a Gray Sky
  6. Read Her Like an Open Book (US)
  7. My Devotional Thoughts
  8. WildmooBooks
  9. Guiltless Reading
  10. Fourth Street Review
  11. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  12. Word by Word
  13. Words And Peace (US)
  14. Ciska’s Book Chest
  15. Falling Letters
  16. Roof Beam Reader
  17. Readerbuzz
  18. The Relentless Reader (US)
  19. Mom’s Small Victories (US)
  20. Daily Mayo (US)
  1. The Emerald City Book Review (US)
  2. A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
  3. Lost Generation Reader
  4. Booklover Book Reviews
  5. Bay State Reader’s Advisory
  6. River City Reading (US)
  7. Books Speak Volumes
  8. Words for Worms
  9. Wensend
  10. Bibliophile’s Retreat
  11. Readers’ Oasis
  12. The Book Musings
  13. My Book Retreat (N. Am.)
  14. Books on the Table (US)

Carrots and Jaffas

Allia NurseAll quiet on the blogging and reading front recently as life’s dramas intervened and demanded my full attention. Our daughter had a diabetic crisis 2 weeks ago and has been in hospital, she is stable now and happy to be home and said I can use this new picture she created for her Facebook page.

Consequently I have been carrying Carrots and Jaffas around with me and rereading passages, though I finished it more than 2 weeks ago and finally today had time while our son was at hip hop to move my scribbles here. Apologies Howard for taking so long to share your wonderful book.

Carrots and Jaffas is a wonderful example of how the virtual world allows us to come across writing voices that we don’t always find in bookshops or through mainstream publishers, that don’t require one to have publishing connections or be in the know. Just to be open to the random, serendipitous crossing of paths.

We find them when we are curious, someone may write 140 characters on twitter that prompt us to follow them, read their blog, consider their book and Voila, an instinct results in the arrival of a unique and intriguing book and an unforgettable reading experience.

Howard Goldenberg followed me on twitter, and this is what I saw when I considered whether to follow back.

Howard Tweets

 

Intrigued, I clicked on his blog link and perhaps uncharacteristically, as his posts are quite varied, the first thing I read was a book review for a book called Joyful by Robert Hillman. The author name seemed familiar, so I read on and was captivated by the review, not just Howard’s account of the story, but the homage to the book and its author his review paid. I thought not only does this sound like a wonderful book, but I want to read more of Howard Goldenberg’s writing and continued to read post after enthralling post.

When his novel Carrots and Jaffas arrived I opened the first page and read praise of the book by the author I mention above, Robert Hillman and a few pages further on, I realised why the name had sounded familiar. There on a page of epigrams preceding the first chapter I read the following quote from one of my Top Reads of 2013 The Honey Thief I reviewed here:

“My heart and my mind, my bones and my flesh and all the organs of my body are bound together with the cords of the stories I was told.” From The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman

CarrotsCarrots and Jaffas is a story of twin boys, one of whom will be stolen, the people who surround them and whom they encounter, and how the events that occur change their lives and character.

The boys are the identical sons of Luisa and Bernard, a couple who worked and met in the same hotel. We are witness to their initial encounters and courtship in the opening chapters of the book, Luisa with her unique use of the English language, peppered with old-fashioned biblical words and quotes, charming in her deliverance. Bernard is enraptured by this exotic woman who interprets his comments in ways he could not have imagined, and is curious to understand more.

A month or so into these pleasant outings, an envelope appears on Bernard’s desk. Square in shape, lilac in colour, unbusinesslike, it sits on his keyboard like a question mark. Curious, he picks it up. A hint of gardenia in his nostrils. Bernard, more than curious, hefts the envelope, feels its substance. Fast fingers break the seal and Bernard reads:

La Señorita Luisa Morales

Has pleasure in inviting

El Señor Bernard Wanklyn

To Mate.

The delight and humour encountered in their courtship sits in stark contrast to the first pages in which we are witness to a kidnapping and the deranged thinking of the captor as we understand he justifies his act with thoughts of retribution for an elderly Aborigine lady Greta, who had two sons stolen from her by the authorities many years before, something that pains her still today.

Louisa and Bernard’s family unit is a metaphor for lives changed by tragic disappearance, the intersection of mixed cultures, social classes, politics and dysfunctional families. Luisa is an Argentinian immigrant whose parents were part of the “disappeared” during the time of the generals. After her grandmother took her to the park one day when she was three years, ago, they returned to discover both her parents gone, disappeared. Her grandmother continues to sit with Las Madres of the disappeared, mothers waiting, never giving up hope that their sons and daughters might return.

Separation changes relationship dynamics and Goldenberg deftly handles the effect of passive versus active separation on the identical twins with surprising, thought-provoking results. The experience is unusual and exposes the reader to the positive growth of someone in an otherwise traumatic situation. Observing the separate experiences of the twins exposes the suffering of those left behind, helpless in their efforts to find their son, the brother and yet when we are with Jaffas we are not afraid for him.

Image from the film Rabbit Proof Fence based on book by Doris Pilkington

Image from the film Rabbit Proof Fence based on book by Doris Pilkington

There are so many layers and learnings, such acute observations and joy in language and celebration of storytelling in this novel, it is difficult to describe without spoiling the experience for the reader, the spontaneous humour, the obvious cultural aspects, all round it was a pleasure to read and engaging all the way through. There were perhaps a few too many coincidences that made me pause for consideration, but then we know stranger things happen in real life and certain experiences can tend to gravitate towards people, repeating in history, so I let it pass.

Thoroughly recommend seeking this out and checking out Howard’s blog here. He writes fun poetry too.

Thank you @HelenHelenback for sending me a copy of the book.

Tove Jansson Anniversary 100 years #TOVE100

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

2014 is TOVE100, 100 years since the birth of the Finnish artist and writer Tove Marika Jansson.

I have read a few of her books (the adult books translated by Thomas Teal), discovering her about a year ago and I have become a little obsessed with her work since then.

To celebrate her 100 years, I plan to read a few more books by or about Tove Jansson and invite you to join me if you wish.

Books Read

A Winter Booksee my review here

A quiet, honest collection of stories, containing evocative black and white photos that add to the atmosphere the author evokes making the reader experience life on the island and all its challenges, right up to the final story, Taking Leave, the last visit, when the nets have become too heavy to pull, the boat too difficult to handle, the sea too unpredictable for two aging women.

The Summer Booksee my review here

An elderly artist and her six-year-old grand-daughter spend a summer on an island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and desire for independence, coming to an understanding, teaching each other something along the way.

The True DeceiverSee my review here (coming)

An aging women artist living alone on the outskirts of a village is befriended by a younger woman, who after faking a break-in moves in with her brother, allegedly to provide companionship. It is a relationship that peels back the layers of both women, bringing their inclinations and bugbears to the surface, a face-off between truth and kindness, both containing elements of deception.

Sculptors daughterPlanning To Read

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography, Written by Boel Westin, Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

The Moomintroll Books

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™

She wrote and illustrated children’s books and later in life began to write for adults as well. She was close to nature and spent nearly every summer on a family island in the Pellinge archipelago, in the Gulf of Finland, an environment that features often in A Winter Book and The Summer Book.

Born on 9 August 1914 to a family of artists, her mother was a graphic designer and her father a sculptor. An artist before anything, she was multi-talented, painting, illustrating and writing, not confined to any one genre. Her first book for adults was part fiction, part memoir, The Sculptor’s Daughter, written 10 years after her father’s death.

Although I admit to never having read any of them, she is most well-known for nine children’s books that grew out of her family of characters, little white trolls living in Moominvalley named Moomintroll, Moominmamma and Moominpappa along with other creative creatures such as the Hattifatteners, Mymbles and Whompers. She also illustrated other classic children’s books including versions of Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit.

Tove Jansson and Her Moomintrolls © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson and Her Moomintrolls
© Moomin Characters™

Her career started early, drawing for a liberal satire magazine Garm at the age of 15, the title where her large nosed character Moomintroll made its first appearance. I think she may have been filling in for her mother, based on a comment I read in The New Yorker, but I’ll find out more when I read the biography. Her first book Sara and Pelle and the Octopuses of the Water Sprite – was published when she was just 13.

Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages, making her one of the most well-known Finnish artists, remembered by many from their own childhood and continuing to gain new audiences today.

“I didn’t realise it was set in a real place. I thought she’d made Finland up. Finland was like Narnia, with these incredible characters that were so strange but instantly recognisable because you had met lots of them – noisy Hemulens or neurotic, skinny Fillijonks.” Frank Cottrell Boyce

Events

There are numerous events happening worldwide and the national gallery of Finland, Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki is holding an exhibition of all oeuvres of Jansson’s career, her surrealistic paintings of the 1930s, modernist art of the 1950s and more abstract works in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as her satirical anti-war illustrations for the magazine Garm, her murals created for public spaces, and illustrations of her Moomin characters and stories. I’m unlikely to make it to Helsinki, but was pleased to discover the audio presentations linked below, 2 minute descriptions (in English) of 12 of her paintings which you can view while listening.

Further Reading, Listening

Two Minute Audio Descriptions of 12 of her Paintings, via the Finnish Art Museum, Ateneum

TOVE100 – website with events happening internationally, resources

The Hands That Made the Moomins – An article in the New Yorker

 

Have you read any of Tove Jansson’s books? Are you planning to read any of them this year?

la fête du muguet et du travail

Le Muguet

Le Muguet

Au mois de mai, fais ce qu’il te plait.

In the month of May do what your heart fancies.

Provencal proverb

Today is a public holiday here in France, to commemorate la fête du travail and la fête du muguet.

I wrote a little about this tradition two years ago here, sharing my experience of a neighbour knocking on our apartment door and presenting me with this small token of friendship and bonheur (happiness) le muguet. Around town, I noticed people selling the small flowers in the street.

This commemoration actually has two origins and two separate histories, one dating back to the Middle Ages and the other to Chicago in 1886.

La muguet, also known as lys des vallées (lily of the valley) is a plant originating in Japan, long symbolising the arrival of spring, and on 1 May 1561, the year he became King, Charles IX chose it as a gift to bring bonheur to the women of the royal court.

Charles IX, King of France 1560-1574

Charles IX, King of France 1560-1574

It wasn’t until 1976 that it was also associated with la fête du 1er mai, la fête du travail.

In Chicago in 1886 a movement was launched to lobby for the 8 hour working day and the 1st of May was chosen to commemorate it. A strike involving 400,000 workers on May 4, referred to as the Haymarket Riot, paralysed a number of factories, the protest became violent resulting in the death of a dozen people including seven police.

Haymarket Riot, 4 May 1886, Chicago, Illinois

Haymarket Riot, 4 May 1886, Chicago, Illinois

In June 1889 in Paris, for the centenary of the French revolution, it was decided to associate the 1st of May with the objective of attaining the 8 hour working day and in commemoration of the movement launched in Chicago on 1 May 1886.

Initially, they wore a red triangle to represent the triple objectives, 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours of leisure. This was replaced by the flower l’églantine and finally in 1907 by le muguet.

On 23 April 1919, the 8 hour day was ratified by the French senate and on 24 April 1941, during the German occupation,  the 1st of May was officially designated la fête du travail.

8 hours

Today la fête du travail is celebrated in most countries across Europe, except Switzerland and the Netherlands. It is also celebrated in South Africa, Latin America, Russia and Japan.  In the UK, the first Monday in May is celebrated and in the US, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Voila! Bonne fête à tout le monde.

Nagasaki by Éric Faye

Thanks to Gallic Books, another recent English translation of a French literary work is being published in 2014, Nagasaki, a slim novella inspired by a newspaper cutting of real life events.

Belgravia Books

Belgravia Bookshop offering Gallic Books and other translations

Shimura Kobo lives alone in a quiet suburban street, by day he works as a meteorologist, he rarely socialises with his colleagues, nor does he see family much, his life causes fewer ripples in Nagasaki than the weather he forecasts for it.

“There comes a time when nothing happens any more. The ribbon of destiny, stretched too wide, has snapped. There’s no more. The shockwave caused by your birth is far, oh so far, behind you now. That is modern life. Your existence spans the distance between failure and success. Between frost and the rising of sap.”

Recently there have been a few barely detectable disturbances to his inanimate way of living. A container of fruit juice seems to have lost a few centimetres, and isn’t there one yoghurt pot less than was there this morning? He begins to take extra care securing his home, yet still has the feeling of something not being quite right.

Nagasaki (2)He sets up a webcam in his home and sits at work watching his kitchen as if studying the meteorological charts, waiting to detect any sign of disturbance.

It is a brief story where the revelation comes early, its slow residual effect only beginning in the aftermath. About halfway the narrative shifts, adding to the mystery of how the revelation impacts Shimura, as we no longer have access to his thoughts.

That it is based on a true story is enough to haunt the reader, but the way Eric Faye narrates it, contributes to the way this story inhabits the mind as we read. Like the best stories, it stays with you long after reading and invites discussion with others about how such a thing could happen in our society.

And it will make you check your door locks more carefully.

 

Note: Thank you to Gallic Books for providing a copy of the book.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

I thought I still had quite a few pages left in my current notebook until I opened it just now to discover 20 pages of predatory animals and prehistoric looking reptiles wreaking havoc across the lines. Trying to keep an energetic 11-year-old amused in a waiting room, I lent him my notebook and black pen for a short period and this is a sample of what now intersperses my less animated prose. And I see his sister has been in here as well, quite different styles.

So with Spring well and truly here, it is time to start afresh, so a new notebook seems appropriate.

But back to my unadorned scribble within, now transferred to the screen.

Shadow of the CrescentThis novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and it was a title I had not heard of, but a name that looked familiar. Which it is, the Bhutto family name is renowned in Pakistan politics as is its tragic link with political assassination. Fatima Bhutto is part of that family, though she has said she is not interested in pursuing a political career, preferring to express herself in poetry and now this, her first novel.

It wasn’t the blurb so much that drew me to the book, it was that unique perspective that can be present in someone who has lived across different cultures and is equally at home in the East and in the West for example the Turkish writer Elif Shafak.

Fatima Bhutto was born in Afghanistan, raised in Syria, educated in the US and now lives in Pakistan. The kind of cultural traversing of frontiers that could potentially give a writer a unique perspective, no? And didn’t she once date George Clooney? Okay, not relevant, but then maybe it is.

Set in a town called Mir Ali, the story takes place over a period of three and a half hours and the chapters are labelled 9.00, 9.25, 9.53 and so on until Noon. The prologue is at 8.30am in a white house in Mir Ali on the day of the festival of Eid (the end of Ramadan). The bazaar is opening, rain threatens and a fog blankets the rooftops.

Three brothers live with their widowed mother, one of whom is married and lives on the upper floor. The brothers are Aman Erum the eldest and most recently returned home from studying in the US after the death of their father, Sikander, the middle married brother who is a doctor and Hayat, the youngest who attends meetings and seems uncertain of himself.

“Most Pakistanis thought of Mir Ali with the same hostility they reserved for India or Bangladesh; insiders – traitor – who fought their way out of the body and somehow made it on their own without the glory of the crescent moon and the star shining overhead.

But the shadow of that moon never faded over Mir Ali. It hung over its sky night after night, condemning the town to life under its shadow.”

Over breakfast, they discuss where they will each separately pray that day, not wishing to be at the same mosque should there be any danger, the first time they have done this.

“No one prays together, travels in pairs, or eats out in groups. It is how they live now, alone.”

The chapters alternate between the three brothers following their movements or reflecting on their recent past although this wasn’t clear until the end when I went back to try to understand why I felt after reading the entire book, I didn’t know the youngest brother at all and could make such little sense of the other two.

Fatima BhuttoThe character who stood out the most for me was Sikander’s wife Mina who rescues the narrative with her odd behaviour of looking up public notices of funerals and making her way to the homes of the grieving families. Something is wrong here and Bhutto has the reader in the palm of her hand teasing out what is going on with Mina and the reluctance of her husband to intervene.

Despite the format of alternative chapters for each brother, Hayat’s are very short and of little depth, which may be deliberate, but this has the effect of making him an inconsequential participant in the narrative. The first chapter on Aman makes up 20% of the novel and I almost gave up here due to the style of telling, the introduction of his childhood sweetheart Samarra providing some relief.

It was when we met Sikander that the pace picked up and the characters became more real and interesting, due in part to the odd behaviour of his wife.

The novel was heading for Noon while filling in back story and narrating an extraordinary event that Sikander and his wife encounter; the reader is anticipating something about to happen and the use of the clock is like the count down and I turn the page anticipating… well not anticipating…

Acknowledgements. The End.

I really wanted to enjoy this book, as I did with Elif Shafak’s Honour, The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul , as she seamlessly traverses the East West cultural divide, but I found it lacked too many essential elements that I was unable to ignore and played into too many post 9/11 clichés, leaving little room for hope or healing.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett MarriageAs a metaphor for a collection of essays that pays tribute to a life of writing, it’s an apt title, though as the title of a book that lures me towards picking it up to read the blurb and buy it, I admit to being slow to respond to this collection. It is actually a very beautiful minimal cover, the fact that it has a white background and contains only text proof it is a book targeted at existing fans of Ann Patchett, no need for seductive images or clever marketing to lure readers, this cover has the mark of confidence and attitude.

It also contains something of an illusion, the author’s name is embossed in a shiny aquatic blue, which depending on how much light you expose it to, either appears blue or black. It occurred to me while reading, that this might not be an accident, I played around with the cover, watching letters I would swear were shiny blue disappear and become matt black. Appearances are not always the truest guide, looking at things from a slightly different angle, can significantly alter perceptions. Even this title is not all that it seems and now that I have finished the book, I find it most apt.

Many of the essays have been published in other publications, as Ann Patchett describes how she grew to become a writer of fiction, something she always wanted and knew she would do, but that necessitated a slew of other jobs as well as writing non-fiction articles for magazines that would pay. As she points out in the very first lines of the book:

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novel have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was.”

Grace PaleyWe read about the memorable story her father read to her over the telephone one Christmas, her fiction teacher Allan Gurganus who made them write a story every week for two semesters, turning them into musicians of language who learnt that a habit of regular practice leads to improvement and classes with Grace Paley, for whom support of human rights sometimes trumped attendance at class, whether that meant her disappearing to protest in Chile or being absent from a scheduled appointment having given her attention to a tearful tale from another student.

“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story.”

It is perhaps not until she opens her own bookstore, Parnassus Books that the influence of Grace Paley rises, as Ann Patchett becomes something of an activist herself for the plight of the independent bookstore, which she writes about ni the essay The Bookstore Strikes Back.

Parnassus Books

She writes about a legacy of separation and divorce stretching back generations, not so much present in the genes, more like evidence that we all need to experience those natural life stages that often mean a significant relationship or marriage doesn’t survive. Finding it hard to accept and taking advice from her mother to heart, she vows never to remarry. She is wedded to her work. And she has a dog. She loves.

She shares a growing love of opera, a late bloomer having discovered it almost by accident while researching her novel Bel Canto she discovers what becomes a lifelong passion, which living in Nashville, known for another type of music altogether wasn’t so easy to foster, until The Met realising that thousands of people would love to see opera regularly but couldn’t, came up with the idea of bringing it to the masses via cinema – live high-definition opera performances.

Met Opera“We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid ten times more for tickets, and some more than that, as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience members on the screen stop to greet the familiar people around them, and like the audience in New York, we clap for both arias and curtain calls. We call out Brava! And Bravo! The rational mind understands the singers can’t hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.”

“There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a whiff of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.”

And The Story of a Happy Marriage? Yes, it is an essay in the collection and one that she was endlessly encouraged to write and in the end becomes the cover title of this book, because the metaphor is all embracing of a woman who always knew what she wanted, never straying from that despite the numerous obstacles and even finds time now to give back to those who helped set her out on the path early on.

The essays stand on their own but equally form a cohesive narrative and are written as if Ann Patchett is writing to that one true friend, one of the reasons that many readers and reviewers have commented on this collection by saying they could imagine being friends with
her. And as she says in one of her books, Truth and Beauty:

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”