Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Kid For Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz

A Kid For Two Farthings is a short little tale about a boy named Joe who lives in London’s East End. He is not in school yet but is learning all that he needs to know from his neighbor Mr. Kandinsky, a tailor. Mr Kandinsky shares many stories with Joe about life and history, one of which is about the elusive unicorn that brings good luck because of its magical horn.

All around Joe the adults are struggling with life amid poverty. They all have something that they desire. Joe and his mother would both like to see his father return from Africa, Mr. Kandinsky would like a steam press to be able to compete with other tailors, and Shmule is a wrestler who desperately wants to win a fight so that he can by a ring for his fiancée. After hearing Mr. Kandinsky’s story about the powers of unicorns to grant wishes Joe is convinced that he should locate one to grant everyone’s wish. One day in the market amongst talking birds, crystal ball readers, and other wares Joe comes across a unicorn. He is small, disfigured, and has a tiny lump of a horn on his head.


The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The Spare Room follows Helen and Nicola during a few rough weeks in Nicola’s cancer care. Nicola is at stage four and is terminal. Helen has opened up her spare room so that Nicola can visit her old friend and receive treatment at an alternative health care clinic. We meet Helen as she is preparing for Nicola’s arrival. She is confident that she will be able to handle her friend’s visit; she fusses over the rugs, appropriate lighting, and the placement of just the right bunch of flowers. She is worried about what might be appropriate for this particular circumstance, she worries about how her friend will look and how things will be when she arrives. In these few weeks Helen becomes Nicola’s primary caregiver, often sacrificing sleep, work, friends and family, and her own ideals. The premise of the novel is simple, yet Helen Garner beautifully weaves intricate layers of ideas to ponder that will eventually touch each of us.

Slowly through the novel we begin to learn more about the two women’s relationships and about who they are, how they view and cope with death and illness. Helen paints herself as a realist who believes in Western medicine and particularly pain killers to manage Nicola’s increasing discomfort. Nicola, however, has yet to accept the fact that she is nearing the end and frantically clutches to the idea that she will get well. By taking treatment at a suspicious clinic that makes outstanding promises and takes exorbitant amounts of money upfront and whose treatments leave her unbearably ill Nicola feels that the cancer is tearing from her body and that she doesn’t need additional care and support. Helen sees a different side of this and is eventually horrified to discover that the few weeks she was sure she would be able to handle have become unbearable. Garner writes with humor and frankness. We see Helen speed through a battery of emotion for her friend. She is overcome with love, anger, fear, humility, and the realization that death is inevitable.

Three times that night I tackled the bed: stripped and changed, stripped and changed. This was the part I liked, straightforward tasks of love and order that I could perform with ease. We didn’t bother to put ourselves through hoops of apology and pardon. She sat limply on the chair and watched me work.

Horrified sympathy passed along her eye beams. It weakened me. A huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot. I was afraid I would slide off the bench and measure my length among the cut roses. At the same time a chain of metallic thoughts went clanking through my mind, like the first dropping of an anchor: death will not be denied. To try is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love.

I received this book for review from Picador via the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I was planning a holiday trip with my boyfriend to Savannah, Georgia for a New Year celebration. Savannah is a five hour drive from my place. A wonderful hotel room overlooking the river, plenty of historic sites to behold, and lots of tasty southern food that I’ve grown up eating. But there was one thing-5 hours (10 round trip) is long time in the car. Sure I have my ipod but what about my books. I can’t bear to read in the car or even a bus because motion sickness is dreadful. Then I thought about the blessings of audio books. I haven’t listened to a book since my read-along days but I was curious by the idea that I could listen to someone tell me a story. And then I wouldn’t feel as if I’d neglected my reading. I wanted to get something that we would both enjoy, so off we went to hunt for the perfect tale. We figured it would have to be something mysterious and suspenseful but not too heavy.

We didn’t even wait for the trip. The next day while driving around town we popped in the disc and off we went. It seemed an appropriate day to listen to descriptions of a funeral in Highgate Cemetery as it was cold and raining and just very bleak. We rode around-taking side streets, stopping at a local bookshop, at the farmer’s market and always reluctant to get out. We promised not to listen past the 2nd CD but that was really about as far as we got. I could not stay awake listening to the CD and after attempts on the drive there and back we gave up. I bought the book soon after and I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

I finished this one a while back and hate that it’s taken so long to write about. It’s amazing how quickly the details slip away from you. Her Fearful Symmetry is about two sets of twins, family secrets, the supernatural, and a very interesting cemetery. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about these things all wrapped into one, especially the supernatural part, but the story was quite enjoyable.

Elspeth Noblin has an estranged twin sister named Edie. We meet Elspeth on her death bed suffering from a form of leukemia. She is surrounded by her partner Robert and all their good memories. At Elspeth’s death she is buried in the historical and very intriguing Highgate Cemetery and leaves her London flat to Edie’s twins Julia and Valentina. She has some requests though, they must live in the flat one year before selling and their parents are not allowed to visit or see any of Elspeth’s papers. No one is sure of what happened between the Elspeth and Edie and parts of the novel center around uncovering why they are estranged. The young (uninteresting and pale and painfully thin) twins have never been to England. Even so, they pack up and move in.

There are many things to see and do in London and with a hefty inheritance the twins are not inclined to find jobs. They are generally not inclined to do much at all. They venture everywhere together and always look exactly alike but like most twins we read about one, is always more timid and possibly less satisfied with twin life than the other. But really it seems that the novel is more about the search for freedom. Freedom from the past, secrets, and freedom to live your best life or in Elspeth’s case, freedom after death. Though Elspeth is a ghost I didn’t feel at all spooked. In some cases her ghostly romps are entertaining. She is learning how to become a proper ghost-how to move objects, how to communicate with the twins and Robert, and generally how to keep herself entertained in the confines of her flat.

Their neighbors are interesting as well. Martin lives upstairs and sets crosswords for the paper and has a terrible bout with OCD. He cleans and counts like a madman and has gotten to the point where he will not come outside. His poor wife is fed up and moves to her own place to free herself of his rules. Robert, Elspeth’s partner lives downstairs and volunteers at Highgate while he is composing his thesis. I most enjoyed the descriptions and background of the cemetery. It seemed that the book could have been completely about the the lush landscape and historical curiosities-I don’t think I would have missed anyone.

Niffeneggar gives tours at Highgate Cemetery and is also the author of the widely popular The Time Traveler’s Wife which has now been made into a movie. I have neither read the book nor seen the movie. I suppose I will have to come out from under my rock.

Nikki Giovanni’s Love Poems

It’s Valentine’s Day and what would be better than reading a few love poems. When these poems are written by Nikki Giovanni you know to expect some to be mushy, matter-of-fact, and always stimulating. I find Nikki’s poetry to be bold and exciting. This collection is also romantic in parts and truthful about the pains of love. I think Nikki wants us to see that love can be expressed in many ways, some in which we’d blush and some to produce reaction.

My House

i only want to
be there to kiss you
as you want to be kissed
when you need to be kissed
where i want to kiss you
cause it’s my house
and i plan to live in it

i really need to hug you
when i want to hug you
as you like to hug me
does this sound like a silly poem

i mean it’s my house
and i want to fry pork chops
and bake sweet potatoes
and call them yams
cause i run the kitchen
and i can stand the heat

i spent all winter in
carpet stores gathering
patches so i could make
a quilt
does this really sound
like a silly poem
i mean i want to keep you

and my windows might be dirty
but it’s my house
and if i can see out sometimes
they can’t see in either

english isn’t a good language
to express emotion through
mostly i imagine because people
try to speak through it
i don’t know maybe it is
a silly poem

i’m saying it’s my house
and i’ll make fudge and call
it love and touch my lips
to the chocolate warmth
and smile at old men and call
that revolution cause what’s real
is really real
and i still like men in tight
pants cause everybody has some
thing to give and more
important need something to take

and this is my house and you make me
so this is your poem

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

I picked up this book from a pile of trash, among discarded clothes, CD cases and other things my college roommate had no use for. I couldn’t believe she was going to throw out this book or even any book. I’d held on to it since then, having learned about Frederick Douglass in history courses, school plays and class presentations, I thought I knew his story. Did anyone else have to pick a person during Black History Month and dress up and give a speech about “your life”. Every year there was a Frederick Douglass. Like said, I thought I knew his story. But this slim volume contains so much more than they would ever teach us in class. Isn’t that usually the case?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
is the first of three autobiographies. It focuses mainly on Douglass as a young boy, a slave who becomes increasingly aware and unsatisfied with his life as a slave and the images he sees of his fellow man. He struggles with what slavery has done to slaves and to the slave holders. He writes a lot about being hungry and witnessing whippings as a young boy. Douglass credits the turning point in his life to moving to Baltimore to work for a family and learning to read and write. He is increasingly able to see that control is not only physical but emotional and often times spiritual and that reading and writing can begin to change things for him. He actively seeks out people that will help him learn to read, becomes introduced to idea abolition and begins to work out a deal in which he can keep some of the wages he earns.

In what I’ve read about Douglass’ work readers seem to be surprised that a former slave could write such a piece. I was more moved by his appeal to emotions against slavery. He hits the emotions hard and I think it is because of this that Douglass is remembered as a great orator.

On the one hand, there stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us, -it’s robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting itself greedily upon our own flesh. On the other hand, away back in the dim distance, under the flickering light light of the north star, behind some craggy hill or snow-covered mountain, stood a doubtful freedom-half frozen-beckoning us to come and share hospitality.

Amazing stories like Douglass’ are numerous. They include topics beyond slavery, and should be shared and discussed all year. Black History is everyone’s history.

Image Credit

A Teaser

teaser tuespic

What do I do after my transition?
Well, I’ll be able to read minds. I’ll be able to steal better without getting caught-If I still want to. I’ll be able to snoop through other people’s secrets, even make robots of people. But…

From Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

My mom called me all excited about this book. She stumbled across it on the internet and was intrigued by the story, a piece of US history that I’m sure most have never heard. She’d been reading for an hour before she called me and an hour later I was out hunting for it at the local bookstore. (I had to go to two before I found it-always call around first!)

Wench is a fictional account of the happenings at a resort in Ohio. But first, a bit about this resort. According to the author’s note Tawawa Resort opened in 1852 near Xenia, Ohio. She says that Southern slave holders visited the resort and brought along slaves as accompaniment. According to local history many of these slaves were mistresses, hence the name wench, and were a reason for the resort’s decline. Other visitors, including Northern abolitionists were not keen on these openly displayed relationships. Tawawa closed its doors in 1855. The Cincinnati Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church bought the land in 1856 and established the Ohio African University. After the beginning of the Civil War the school closed. The African Methodist Episcopal Church bought the property in 1863 and the school was renamed Wilberforce University. The Historical Marker Database has a bit more information about this site. Mom says she read that Perkins-Valdez imagined what it would be like to be an enslaved woman traveling to this resort.

The story centers around four women-slaves who accompany their masters to Tawawa House each summer for a vacation. They are also their master’s lovers and in some cases the mothers of their children. They have become close friends and each looks forward to this vacation and sprucing up the small cottages, and getting away from drab and dangerous plantation life. The men camp, hunt, fish, dine and smoke cigars while the women meet to share stories, recipes, and serve as a comfort to each other. These are women that can understand and appreciate each other’s circumstance. Initially we get to know each woman and a bit about her life.

Reenie comes to the resort with ‘Sir’ who is her master, brother, and lover. Sweet has multiple children at home and must continue to work in spite of her pregnancy. Glory, a Quaker with anti-slavery sentiments, lives with her husband near Tawawa House. Their farm supplies food to the resort. Described as a “Northern white… who didn’t understand the rules”, she sympathizes with the women and is willing to risk her life if she can help.

Mawu who, in an act of defiance, changed her name from Betsy accompanies Mr. Taylor (‘Tip’) up from Louisiana. She does not like him but he insists on being her lover. She has born him four children three of which he sold, the other suffered brain damage after a fall. Mawu is the newest to the group of women. She comes to Tawawa red hair ablaze; she refuses to have more children and is alive with thoughts of escape and of spells and herbs.

Lizzie (Eliza) belongs to Nathaniel Drayle of Tennessee both emotionally and physically. She has born him two children Nate Jr. his spitting image and Rabbit (May) who looks like a ‘white doll’. His wife Fran is not able to have children and overlooks the fact that her husband is sleeping with Lizzie. Lizzie has lived and worked in the house since she was a young girl. Drayle taught her how to read and favored her over the other slaves. As a young girl she learned early that she could receive things from him if she gave pieces of herself. She struggles with her love and affection for Drayle against the backdrop of realizing that she has no real choice, she is not free and neither are her children. She constantly struggles with the desire to escape but is held back by the fact that to escape would mean risking her children’s lives. Isn’t Drayle good to her? He tells her he loves her and does things for her and her children, her life can’t be so bad enough as to run away. She contemplates Mawu’s question: “Is he God to you?” But Drayle, like the other slave holders, is unpredictable. The life of a slave is unpredictable. As the story progresses, we learn more about Lizzie’s life and the story focuses on her point of view for the duration.

Time passes slowly until the women can make it back to their cottages at the resort. We are able to see what the resort means to each woman. The moral predicament is a delicate and complex one: that of slave and mistress, of love and contempt. At times the women wield amazing power and at others they are painfully reminded of their place in the world.

The servants did not hide their curiosity as the slave women walked through the kitchen. Each woman had experienced a range of reactions from the slaves back home: jealousy, pride, pity. Here in Ohio, they had not spoken much about what the free colored people thought of women like them. This was partly because they did not care. They had each other, unlike down south. There it was a lonely battle.

Wench is Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ debut novel and overall, not bad at all. This is a story I’ve read many times, though it never felt recycled. The inclusion of this piece of history made for an interesting story. The women were all very real to me especially Lizzie. It was obvious that by the end of the novel she’d been changed by her friends, her summers at Tawawa House, and new discoveries. The only thing that I would have wanted a bit more of was description. Sometimes I couldn’t quite imagine the surroundings; the clinking of china at the table, the dust flying in the slave quarters, the flouncing dresses of women in town. But then again, some people feel bogged down by that sort of thing. In historical novels for me it is sometimes the best part.

Off to drop this one in the mail, Ma is eagerly awaiting.

The Calligrapher’s Night by Yasmine Ghata

The years went by, and from being a pupil I passed to being a teacher. Why hurry? Now that I am dead I no longer have to count minutes. My memory is intact; memories are more tangible than reality. My life flashes past in front of me at the speed of light, assails me and then withdraws without warning. All that I could not grasp while still alive comes back to me intermittently. I am a witness to the visible and the invisible: now I can tell the whole story.

We meet Rikkat Kunt just as her life is ending. It is where the story of her life as a calligrapher begins. Calligraphy is a male dominated career, an art form that is highly regarded. We follow her path to practice among the best, to learn from the great masters. Rikkat describes the moments of calligraphy showing that at times her gift travels through her hand and is guided by the spirit of her deceased teacher and at times is influenced by emotion, and at others by a divine presence. She remembers her marriage and it’s end, the birth of her son and their forced separation, their reunion. In addition to working toward recognition as a woman and defending her work against her husband’s ideal of a woman’s place calligraphers in Turkey are threatened by cultural reforms in which the Arabic language and the art form are abolished to be replaced by the Latin alphabet.

The Calligrapher’s Night is Ghata’s fictionalized account of her grandmother’s life, who was a calligrapher.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

It is 1899 and Calpurnia Virginia Tate is braving the Texas summer heat to become a “naturalist” even if young ladies don’t normally do such things. She is fascinated by nature and all of the moving and chirping creatures around her. As the only girl amongst 6 brothers she often wonders why expectations are different for her. She is not interested in knitting, cooking, and housekeeping but wants to romp around outside discovering the next big science thing. Her previously reclusive grandfather takes her under his wing and challenges her to make observations, ask questions, and then answer those questions. In her little red notebook pond water comes to life and a fat hairy caterpillar turns into a large fluttering moth.

At the introduction of each chapter Jacqueline Kelly includes a brief snippet from Darwin’s The Origin of Species which is the book that Calpurnia is reading. Overall the book was enjoyable but as a novel set in 1899 I didn’t always have that historical feeling. I didn’t really believe it was 1899. Mind you, I have no idea what 1899 in Texas looked and smelled like.

The world according to Callie Vee:

    My mother had got one girl out of seven tries at it. I guess I wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind, a dainty daughter to help her bail against the rising tide of the rough-and-tumble boyish energy that always threatened to engulf the house. It hadn’t occurred to me that she’d been hoping for an ally and then didn’t get one. So I didn’t like to talk patterns and recipes and pour tea in the parlor. Did that make me selfish or odd? Worst of all, did it make me a disappointment?

    Now fainting. That’s a subject I’d always wondered about. The heroines in books seemed to faint a lot, swaying genteelly onto a handy padded couch or into the convenient arms of some concerned suitor. These heroines were always willowy and managed to land in graceful postures of repose, and were revived with the merest passing of a decorated flagon of smelling salts under their noses. I, on the other hand, apparently went over like a felled ox and was lucky to land on the grass and avoid cracking my head open.

Cool Girl’s Guide to Crochet by Nicki Trench

I crocheted some as a girl. My mom and auntie were very much into crafts, sewing, and the like. (They are both home economics majors) I’d since forgotten how to crochet and wanted to find a way to get back into it so when I stumbled upon this book on a bargain shelf I picked it up along with a set of crochet hooks and some yarn. It looked easy enough with step-by-step instructions and lots of photos. That same night I was able to complete a basic chain stitch and a few rows of single crochet but my work was lopsided and slowly turning in but I couldn’t figure out from the book how to fix it. Mom could tell me over the phone and that same day I finished my yarn and I think I’m making a scarf. I of course haven’t tried any of the patterns-they all seem a bit too hard for a beginner. And I think it would have been nice to have more photos of the stitch instructions. Anyhow online videos have been a great help and I’ve found a place that gives classes in crocheting and knitting. With my first snow of the winter it was a good weekend to crochet, read, and sip tea. Now I just have to get more yarn and I’ll be wearing my scarf to work this week.