Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: Elizabeth and Her German Garden

September 15th: This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings. The babies go out in the afternoon and blackberry in the hedges; the three kittens, grown big and fat, sit cleaning themselves on the sunny verandah steps; the Man of Wrath shoots partridges across the distant stubble; and the summer seems as though it would dream on for ever.

Published in 1899, this is the journal of Elizabeth von Arnim, cousin of Katherine Mansfield, through a year at her husband's estate north of Berlin. Elizabeth's life takes on a totally new dimension when she discovers this estate, her husband's second home. The grounds are in a state of disarray, and Elizabeth sets out to surround the castle with gardens. She goes from being a good German hausfrau and socialite to a master gardener.

The book opens with Elizabeth alone at the estate; with her husband and children ("the babies") back at their first home, she find absolute bliss in her solitude. She immediately sets out to tame the wild gardens and to simply revel in the outdoors. Eventually her babies join her there, and her husband, known as the Man of Wrath, comes occasionally. Very little is said about the inside of the estate, except that she dreads sleeping each night.

I can so relate to Elizabeth on so many levels. Her writing is poetic but witty, and she speaks about her garden with such joy and reverence. She is just a happy, grateful person—at least when she is free to be outdoors and do her own thing. She writes: "We were meant to be happy, and to accept all the happiness offered with thankfulness—indeed, we are none of us ever thankful enough, and yet we each get so much, so very much, more that we deserve." For Elizabeth to have to be a perfect hostess and attend operas, however, would be like me having to awaken at 6 a.m. and be at business meetings all day.

Elizabeth is constrained by the times, however, in a way that I am joyfully not. She is continuously frustrated by being a woman and having to abide by certain rules. She despises having nurses for her children, preferring instead to let them run wild in the gardens. She writes: "It is so nice without a governess that I would put off engaging another for a year or two, if it were not that I should in so doing come within the reach of the arm of the law, which is what every German spends his life in trying to avoid. … We are liable at any moment of receive a visit from a school inspector, who will inquire curiously into the state of her education, and, if it is not up to the required standard, all sorts of fearful things might happen to the guilty parents."

She yearns to do all the yard work herself but to do so was simply out of the question. "I wish with all my heart I were a man, for of course the first thing I should do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doing everything for my flowers with my own hands and need not waste time explaining what I want done to somebody else. It is dull work giving orders and trying to describe the bright visions of one's brain to a person who has no visions and no brain."

The book is so much more than Elizabeth's gardening journal. It is the story of a woman who seized a world for herself and her children, rather than allowing society to dictate her life. It's a book that embraces personal freedom and the joy that comes with going against traditional expectations.

Other Reviews
Girl eBooks ("One of the beauties of reading well-seasoned literature is that we modern women forget what life was like for women a hundred or more years ago.")
So Many Books ("A pleasant book, perfect for spring.")

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Review: Picture Bride

It isn't very often that I pick up a book that isn't somehow familiar, either by title or author. I grabbed up Yoshiko Uchida's Picture Bride in the bargain section of my favorite used book store a few weeks ago, just because it sounded good. And I am so glad that I did.

I am particularly fascinated by stories of the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War 2. Just a few weeks ago I reviewed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is getting rave reviews by book bloggers. I found Picture Bride to be much, much better.

The story takes place between 1918 and the mid-1940s. Hana is a young woman who agrees to come to America and marry a Japanese man she'd never met. From here we follow Hana into her life as a Japanese immigrant, struggling to live in a white world but holding tightly to to her Japanese community. In this community are a cast of wonderful, strong characters who are determined to make their way in America.

Hana and her husband eventually have a little girl, who grows up to be thoroughly American and ashamed of her Japanese parents. The novel eventually takes us to the experience of the internment camps, and I've rarely read it expressed better than it is here.

This is a simple and quiet novel, and somehow it touched me deeply. I find it interesting that Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has received such accolades but it is a little known book like this that packs such a powerful punch. I highly recommend it, along with these books below about the Japanese-American experience:

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas
The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Creel
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Yokohama, California by Toshio Mori
Citizen 13360 by Mine Okubo
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book Review: My Name Is Asher Lev

I had a friend and fellow bibliophile in college who always said that Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev was her favorite book. I always meant to read it. I had read The Chosen and The Promise, but somehow I never picked up Asher Lev.

I was prompted to read it now because it will be the "common book," required of all first-year students, at Belmont University this fall, where my son will be attending. I've already read and reviewed the University of Tennessee's choice this year for its Life of the Mind program, Mountains Beyond Mountains. The two universities picked completely different types of books, so it's really impossible to compare their two choices. (Let's just say I struggled to complete Mountains Beyond Mountains, but I felt immensely fulfilled when I finished My Name Is Asher Lev. But beyond being required reading for freshmen, the two have little in common.)

Asher Lev's world is confined to the strict beliefs and traditions of the Hasidic community, post World War 2. Asher's only duty as a young boy is to be an obedient Jew, to study the traditions and to someday be a leader in this strict sect, like his father. But Asher Lev is not like his father. Asher has a a gift that his father considers straight from Satan: he is an artist. Asher tries to put aside his art, but it is evident from a very early age that his gift can't be buried.

The novel takes us from Asher's first memories as a boy of about four into his early 20s. His life is filled with struggles: as an artist struggling on a personal level, as a Hasidic Jew in a secular world, as a son who betrays his parents. His life is full of guilt and torment, but he is unable to sacrifice his art for the sake of his family and his community.

Throughout the novel, Potok clearly expresses the burden that often accompanies great genius. His writing is powerful; the nuances of relationship are practically tangible. The character of Asher Lev will stay with me for a long, long time. I am going to add the sequel to this book, The Gift of Asher Lev, to my reading list.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Sunday Salon: Happy 50th To Kill a Mockingbird

On this, the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, it seems only appropriate to republish a post I wrote two years ago, the last time I read My Favorite Book Ever. And so, from April 2008:

Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

I've been putting off this review for a couple of weeks now. How can I possibly express the utter perfection of this novel? I first read Harper Lee's phenomenal debut when I was in high school. I fell madly in love with it and read it again. Read it again in college, again in my 20s and in my 30s. It is the only book I have read more than twice (other than the Bible) since I was a child. I have always maintained that it is my favorite book, and after reading it again in my 40s, I wish that a spot existed higher than #1.

Why do I love this novel so much? I think because everything that matters is here. Jesus said that that the two greatest commandments are to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength" and to "Love your neighbor as yourself." And in this novel, Harper Lee puts these beautiful words into action through her characters. Take, for example, these quotes:

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself:
I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks. ~Scout

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. ~Atticus

Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house, they are company and don't let me catch you remarking on their ways like you were so high and mighty. ~ Calpurnia

Folks don’t like to have somebody around knowing more than they do. It aggravates them. You’re not going to change any of them by talking right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language. ~Calpurnia

On Religion vs. Following Christ
We're so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we've got men like Atticus to go for us. ~Miss Maudie.

If spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that's something I'll gladly take. ~Atticus

Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts our for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. ~Miss Maudie

Footwashers believe anything that's pleasure is a sin. Did you know some of 'em came out of the woods one Saturday and passed by this place and told me me and my flowers were going to hell? … They thought I spent too much time in God's outdoors and not enough time inside the house reading the Bible. ~Miss Maudie

Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of--oh, your father. ... If Atticus Finch drank until he was drunk he wouldn't be as hard as some men are at their best. there are just some kind of men who--wh're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results. ~Miss Maudie

On Equality and Justice:
The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash. ~Atticus

If there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other? If they're all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? ~Jem

How can you hate Hitler so bad an' then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home? ~Scout

On Courage:
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. ~Atticus

It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived. ~Scout

It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. ~Atticus

On Integrity:
They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions... but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience. ~Atticus

Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets.~ Miss Maudie

On Growing Up:
The sixth grade seemed to please him from the beginning: he went through a brief Egyptian Period that baffled me - he tried to walk flat a great deal, sticking one arm in front of him and one in back of him, putting one foot behind the other. He declared Egyptians walked that way; I said if they did I didn't see how they got anything done, but Jem said they accomplished more than the Americans ever did, they invented toilet paper and perpetual embalming, and asked where would we be today if they hadn't? Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts. ~Scout

There was no doubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water. ~Scout

Atticus said that Jem was trying hard to forget something, but what he was really doing was storing it away for a while until enough time passed. Then he would be able to think about it and sort things out. When he was able to think about it, Jem would be himself again. ~Scout

On Parenting:
When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness' sake. But don't make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles 'em. ~Atticus

Bad language is a stage all children go through, and it dies with time when they learn they're not attracting attention with it. ~Atticus

Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I've tried to live so I can look squarely back at him. ~ Atticus

There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible. ~Atticus

On Education:
Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. "Besides," she said, "we don't write in the first grade, we print. You won't learn to write until you're in the third grade." ~Scout

The remainder of my school days were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to
school at home, knew everything-at least, what one didn't know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn't help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. Jem, educated on a half-Decimal half - Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books. As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me. ~ Scout

The second grade was grim, but Jem assured me that the older I got the better school would be, that he started off the same way, and it was not until one reached sixth grade that one learned anything of value. ~Scout

I could go on and on. If you haven't read the book, please read it, and then read it again. I get more out of it upon every reading. I can understand why Harper Lee never wrote another novel. Some say she must have a world of writing stored inside of her, but it seems to me just pretty much covered everything already.

Linked up at Weekly Geeks

Friday, July 9, 2010

Oh, Harper Lee

It's easy to say, when asked, that my favorite author is Harper Lee because my favorite book ever is To Kill a Mockingbird. But is she really my favorite author? Can I really pick one author out of thousands based on one single novel?

Probably not. It's not fair to all my other favorite authors, like John Steinbeck, John Irving, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Charlotte Brontë, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Llewellyn, Willa Cather, and about 50 others. Or more. I didn't even include any really contemporary authors, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Khaled Hosseini or Ian McEwan. Or favorites from childhood like C.S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Roald Dahl.

Perhaps I wouldn't like any of these people in real life, over a cup of coffee in a "clean, well-lighted place" (although it's hard to imagine not liking Lewis and Wilder). Perhaps they'd all seem like pretentious snobs, like one Pulitzer-Prize winning author I once had to drive to her office when her leg was broken.

But really, in spite of their fame and oftentimes their burden of addiction or emotional distress, aren't they, or weren't they, all just writers at heart? Surely we'd have something to talk about. Or perhaps it would be easier to sit across the table and write notes to one another on tiny scraps of paper.

Linked up at the Book Blogger Hop at Crazy for Books

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Review: Mountains Beyond Mountains

As I mentioned in this post, I chose to read Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World because it's this year's selection for the Life of the Mind freshman reading program at the University of Tennessee, where Dr. H. teaches.

I really wanted to love this book. I totally support programs like UT's Life of the Mind. I think it is an awesome way to get students and faculty moving together.

But I am puzzled as to why this book was chosen. The premise is fascinating. I was excited to read this story about Dr. Paul Farmer, a specialist in infectious diseases, who makes it his life's quest to bring health to Haiti, one person at a time. I loved reading about Paul Farmer and his experiences in Haiti. He is an obviously brilliant man with a compassionate heart beyond comprehension. I believe in him and believe that he and his team at Partners in Health are making incredible things happen around the world. The stories of his experiences in Haiti, Peru, and Russia are absorbing and compelling for the most part.

The problem for me was that the book was disjointed. Am I allowed to say that about a book written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author? The first half of the book mainly focused on Farmer and was extremely well done and engaging. But the second half became an odd combination of random conversations and medical jargon. People came in and out, and I lost track of who they were. Pages at a time seemed superfluous to the narrative; I found myself skimming dialogue that appeared out of nowhere and was disconnected.

I have read dozens of reviews about this book, and everyone seems to give it a 5-star rating. I understand that U.T. chose this book largely because of the Haitian crisis. I think it's fantastic that exhibits, lectures and movies will continue on with this theme throughout the school year. I love that the university is embracing a global perspective, taking students (and faculty) out of their self-absorbed years and encouraging them to consider personal responsibility in this world. I'm just afraid that this particular book wasn't the best choice.

That, of course, made me wonder what other books about Haiti might have been picked. I quick search brought up lots of titles, including several by Dr. Paul Farmer, like The Uses of Haiti and Partner to the Poor. I have a feeling I might like Dr. Farmer's writing voice more than I liked Kidder's filter. I'm going to be adding some of these titles to my TBR list.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Sunday Salon: June in Review

Books Read in June
(click on links for reviews)
Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine (highly recommended)
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (recommended)
The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (recommended)

Currently Reading (going on 2 weeks!)
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World.

To Be Read in July
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizaeth von Arnim
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Books Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
Refuge on Crescent Hill by Melanie Dobson (Reviewed at Reading to Know)
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (Reviewed by Word Lily)
The Threadbare Heart by Jenny Nash (reviewed at Maw Books)
Undress me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman (Reviewed at S. Krishna's Books)

Movies-from-Books Watched
The Road. We thought this was an excellent movie adaptation. Highly recommended but please read the book first! (My review of the novel The Road.)

What was your favorite book of the month?