Monthly Archives: April 2010

Watching Small Island

I blogged last week about watching the first part of the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island. I watched the conclusion online and now want to read the novel. I thought the actors did a wonderful job portraying characters who have all had their lives drastically changed by war, by racial prejudice, but particularly by interacting with each other. Hortense and Gilbert, both from Jamaica but newly immigrated, were raised to believe that England, “The Mother Country”, is full of opportunity and good people. It is all Hortense can dream of-becoming a teacher, walking through the gardens… What they find shocks them. Their room has rats, it is cold and dark, Hortense cannot find a position as a teacher and Gilbert is constantly demeaned. But still they have this quiet resolve. And then there’s Queenie who awaits her husband’s return from the war. She is adamant about renting rooms to Hortense and Gilbert even at the stares of her neighbors. What’s more, after he ignites a passion within herself, Queenie has an affair with Michael. After a long absence her husband returns-both have questions to answer about themselves, their spouse, and their beliefs.

What I found most poignant in the film was a scene where Michael reflects on the reasons why he will leave England. He says something to the effect of England being just another small island full of people with small minds. It’s interesting now to think of my assumptions about what I would see in the film. I assumed the small island was Jamaica, but it is also a story about England. I suppose they both function as small islands and serve as a way to fuel the progress of the characters.

Levy has published a few other books which I am now pining to read. My library has both Small Island and Fruit of The Lemon . Her newest work, The Long Song was just published this week and looks awfully good.

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Waiting by E.C. Osondu (Discovering the Caine Prize)

I saw a story on the Guardian books site about a prize announcement…they called it The African Booker. Of course, I’m interested. The Caine Prize for African Writing is awarded to African writers for short stories “reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition”. E.C. Osondu won The Caine Prize in 2009 for his story entitled Waiting.

Orlando Zaki was named for the tattered Orlando, Florida shirt that he wears. Other kids have similar names-sometimes the names stick when they receive a new shirt from the Red Cross and sometimes they get a new name. They are orphaned, fighting for food, and waiting to be adopted. I am always taken by stories written from the point of view of children. They are observant, resilient, and extremely fragile.

The shortlist for 2010 was announced April 26. The most exciting part (or maybe it’s extremely sad) is that I’ve never heard of any of these writers and their stories, except one- Chimamanda Adichie was shortlisted in 2002. I read her Half of a Yellow Sun last year (love it!) and have her collection of stories on the shelf. Links for 2009’s shortlist and the winner are on the website. “Discovering” them is what I intend to do!


Love’s Shadow by Ada Leverson

I’d had my eye on the Bloomsbury Group series since they were released in England and I saw them mentioned on various blogs.

Now that some are available here in the States I’ve been scooping them up as I see them.

So when Library Thing offered a copy for Early Reviewers I was super excited, and even more excited to have been offered a copy to read and comment on.

According to Bloomsbury’s website

“This series celebrates lost classics written by both men and women from the early twentieth century, books recommended by readers, for readers. Literary bloggers, authors, friends, and colleagues have shared their suggestions of cherished books worthy of revival.”

Thus far the series include:

  • Miss Hargreaves
  • A Kid For Two Farthings
  • Love’s Shadow
  • The Brontes Went To Woolworths
  • Mrs. Tim of The Regiment
  • Henrietta’s War
  • Love’s Shadow was originally published in 1908. It tells the story of Edith and Bruce Ottley who live in England. Edith has become bored and we quickly see that her husband is a large part of the problem. He is a real handful-a hypochondriac, a non-stop talker, a chauvinist (though he thinks he’s not as bad as other men), and is generally oblivious to others. Edith is opposite in that she is calm, reflecting and lets off these quick and witty remarks that just fly right over Bruce’s head. Then there is Hyacinth Verney who is in love with Cecil Reeve. Cecil is, however, taken with a much older lady who wants nothing to do with him. There are other characters peppered in including Anne, Hyacinth’s lady companion and the strange social misfit Mr. Raggett. The novel revolves around how they all deal with their predicaments.

    Really the book is a comedy about the intricacies and sometimes absurdities of courtship and married life presented through very distinct personalities that drive the story. It took a few chapters to get into the groove as each chapter is about a different person and their experiences. It became like watching a sitcom in which the scene flips between the cast of characters.

    I knew nothing about Ada Leverson nor her work before receiving this book but learned a great deal from the introduction. Love’s Shadow is the first in The Little Ottleys Series. I was lucky enough this weekend to stumble upon a Virago edition of The Little Ottleys which includes all 3 stories. Now I will be able to learn what happens to this couple and their acquaintances.


    I can’t wait to see what else will be published in the Bloomsbury group, until then I’ll happily make my way through Miss Hargreaves and The Brontes Went to Woolworths, both of which I’ve heard great things about in the blogosphere.

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


    To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

    I’ve read The Victorian Chaise-Lounge and Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski and enjoyed them. So I was particularly excited when Persephone published To Bed With Grand Music. And just like with the other 2, I enjoyed this one as well.

    To Bed With Grand Music opens with Deborah and her husband laying in bed together attempting to say good bye before he is shipped off to Egypt during World War II. Promising faithfulness Deborah is shocked and dismayed when he can not promise her the same. He can only promise that he will not love another woman. So off he goes and Deborah remains at home along with her housekeeper and her young son. At the advice of her mother she takes a job in London, though it is not the local job that her mother had in mind. Rooming with an old friend, Deborah is able to experience life in the city-dinner out with male accompaniment, glamourous dresses, stiff drinks, and perfume clouds. She also discovers sex-particularly sex as a substitute for what she has lost because of the war, but also because of what she has found. Deborah becomes a serial dater, entertaining boyfriend after boyfriend and all the while rationalizing her actions away and assuming a double life in both appearance and state of mind. On the weekends she lives in the country with her son and during the week she is a working woman out on the town wielding her new power. It is clear that Deborah has a real talent for cajoling her partners both out of their money and for their sympathy. She is a woman who came to London eating beans from a can and is now carrying a crocodile purse and eating out.

    We are not able to see what this does to Deborah because she is able to make her position seem acceptable and even justified. She is surrounded by others who do the same thing. Couples are always paired off in this new society created by war but none of them are married to the person that they are with. There is this understanding that floats about in the book where couples create their own terms and do what pleases them at the moment.

    Laski didn’t make me sympathize with Deborah or even make me feel any disdain. I simply enjoyed being along for the ride.

    As part of the Persephone Group on GoodReads I generally read a Persephone each month. Next month, however, I will attempt to read that one plus others along with other bloggers in celebration of Persephone Reading Week. Hosted by Claire and Verity, it starts May 3rd and ends May 9th. I enjoyed this celebration last year (click the Persephone Reading Week tag to see what I read) and have brought out my stack of unread Persephones and have ordered the 2 newest releases (hopefully they arrive in time what with all the volcanic ash). I have no idea what I’ll read and have decided to select as I go along. Last year I was able to read 3, this year I think I can do just as well. I did think it would be fun to photograph the contenders, so here they are.


    Small Island by Andrea Levy

    Last night I was able to catch the first episode of the PBS Masterpiece showing of Andrea Levy’s Small Island which is based on her book. I’d heard a bit about the book (mostly that it was good) but was unaware of the plot or all of the praise and awards that it has received. Sitting down to watch, it started off a bit slow but by the end I was immersed in the story. We meet Hortense (played by Naomie Harris), a young lady living in Jamaica, with dreams of becoming a teacher and moving to England. She dreams of electric lights and a garden. It is clear that she is a bright woman and seems to regret that her island is too small to hold and fulfill her dreams. War breaks out between England and Germany and many Jamaican men enlist and are shipped off. We follow a young man named Gilbert (David Oyelowo) as he enlists. Hortense finds herself learning to knit socks as opposed to learning to become a teacher. Still she resolves to do the best that she can and await news of her friend Michael. In the film she is the only one knitting red socks.

    At the end of the war in a courageous and somewhat desperate act to realize her dreams of going to England, Hortense marries Gilbert. Meanwhile an English woman named Queenie awaits the return of her husband from the war. She is caring for her father-in-law and has opened her home to soldiers who need lodgings. What she finds is a capacity for love that she didn’t think existed. And somehow these lives will all clash together in the second episode. I will certainly be tuned in.

    According to her website, Levy’s own father immigrated to England from Jamaica.


    The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff

    I will confess that I picked this up one afternoon because it was short. I’d finished a book and had a few hours to spare. The premise looked interesting enough and was also something that I normally do not read. The Barracks Thief pops into the lives of three young men who have been trained by the Army to be paratroopers. They are stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and are awaiting departure to Vietnam. One evening they are ordered to guard an ammunition field. Compelled by boredom and I suppose a desire to lash out, they engage in some dangerous and violent acts. Doing this has fueled their desire for recklessness.
    After the ammunition dump escapade the men seem confident even excited about the prospect of war but a series of petty thefts begins to occur amongst the group of men shattering their camaraderie and cohesiveness as a unit. They become unsure and even unbelieving that one of their own would take money. This difference between what is and isn’t accepted amongst the unit I found intriguing.

    Though a short novel, the best part is that it is packed with emotional and personal exploration. We are able to enter the minds of two of the men and see how even absurd acts can be rationalized. Wolff does a good job of helping the reader understand each character and even accept their reasoning, even if in normal circumstances we would not.

    The Barracks Thief was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1985. This year’s winner, Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, was announced last month.


    Grease Town by Ann Towell

    Rumor has it that people are able to strike it rich in the oil business. Could it be that common men are made into kings in a place where liquid gold pours from the ground? This and the promise of adventure are what propel Titus to stow away in the back of his brother’s wagon in an effort to make it to Oil Springs, Ontario an oil boom town in Canada. His Aunt has already decided that he cannot go but he can’t bear to know that Lemuel will set out on an adventure while he remains within the clutches of his caring though overprotective Aunt. Though Lemuel finds Titus in the cart he does not take him back. Along the way the pair meets Mr. Longville and agrees to take him along to Oil Springs. It is not long before the boys become suspicious of Longville. They do however make it to their destination and take up with their uncle. Titus is not a likely hero, he is young, sickly and meek but this is his story about a series of events that have a great impact on his life and illustrate the tension present in a place and time like this one.

    The story is set during the American Civil War, a time when states are fighting to maintain the right to own slaves and many slaves are daringly attempting to escape bondage and inhumane treatment. Both black and white families have settled in Canada with the hope of making a life for themselves.

    One of the first young boys that Titus meets is Moses, the son of a former slave who, like so many other people, is in Oil Springs to make a better life. They become fast friends and quickly come up with their own scheme to make money and skip school in the process. Not everyone approves of this relationship but certainly not of Titus skipping school. Another agitator in the community is the misconception that former slaves are taking jobs from white workers by working for little pay. There are a group of laborers with Mr. Longville as their ring leader who believe that black laborers are intentionally working for little pay. It is not clear what others in the story believe but Titus is aware that blacks have no choice in setting their own wage. In a fit of ignorant rage Longville and his followers torch the cluster of shanties where black laborers live with their families. Moses lives in this community with his father, mother, and baby sister. Titus and his uncle are desperate to save them. What ensues is the reason Titus is telling his story. He wonders if such a small person can do big things, namely standing up for what is right.

    Though this book is geared toward younger audiences, I think adults will enjoy it too. I read a good bit of young adult fiction and wasn’t particularly blown away but I did appreciate a young boy as narrator and I think young kids will appreciate a person reflective of themselves and hopefully will come away knowing that they don’t have to be great at everything in order to make a difference. While not earth-shattering, Grease Town provides a good moral but is not overdone or heavy.

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


    National Library Week

    I subscribe to a blog written by my local library system. Each day a different librarian highlights and writes about a book. All sorts of books are highlighted, some that I have read and some that I have not. It certainly has increased my want-to-read list and I must say I’ve visited the library a lot more since they started last year.

    Yesterday’s post mentioned National Library Week (April 11-17) and featured The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett which highlights the use of the library and specifically bookmobile use. You can read my thoughts on it here.

    I didn’t know it was National Library Week (or that this celebration existed). Neil Gaiman serves as the honorary chair this year. My first thought was lovely library and reading inspired events but it seems they are highlighting online resources, so no festivals and such. Oh well. Maybe I’ll checkout/download an audio book.

    Today The American Library Association (ALA) will release the “Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2009” list. Yay for banned books!


    The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi Durrow

    Rachel Morse is a young girl of dual heritage who has been sent to live with her grandmother after a terrible accident involving her family. Throughout most of the story we do not know what this accident was but we slowly find out. Billed as the story of a young girl’s coming of age in a place and time that is made complex due to race, sexuality, beauty, and class The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is interesting no doubt. It is one story of biracial experience. It is the 1980s and Rachel is suddenly plunged into a new home and new life with a slew of challenges meeting her at the door. She has previously lived with her Danish mother , siblings, and for a while her African-American father. Now living in Oregon with her African-American grandmother she faces the woes of adolescence combined with racism, mostly in the form of snide remarks, from both within and outside the race. The story centers on how Rachel handles herself and others and how she ultimately decides to define herself and how this affects her relationships.

    The Girl Who Fell From the Sky won the Bellwether Prize in 2008 and was released this year. According to the website The Bellwether Prize for Fiction specifically seeks to support a literature of social responsibility and change. The intent is to advocate serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. I have not read any of the other prizewinners but they do look interesting. The Bellwether Prize was founded and is fully funded by Barbara Kingsolver. The brochure on the website talks more about fiction’s ability to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart and the capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility. Previous prizes have been awarded to:

    •Donna Gershten, 2000, Kissing The Virgin’s Mouth (HarperCollins, 2001)
    •Gayle Brandeis, 2002, The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins, 2003)
    •Marjorie Kowalski Cole (1953-2009), 2004, Correcting the Landscape (HarperCollins, 2005)
    •Hillary Jordan, 2006, Mudbound (Algonquin, 2008)
    •Heidi Durrow , 2008, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin, February 2010)

    I felt mislead by the descriptions of this book being in the tradition of Annie John (Jamaica Kincaid) and The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison) both of which I have read. I just thought the book didn’t go where I wanted, it was too safe, it felt limited. And Morrison and Kincaid are neither safe nor limited, they really challenge us to think about issues in society. Though The Girl Who Fell From the Sky does introduce a difficult issue to many who may not be aware of the personal effects of race and its effects on relationships, I’m not sure the book evoked much empathy and social responsibility for me. There didn’t seem to be much call for change or any sort of acceptance or self reflection on the reader’s part and I’m not sure that Rachel ended up accepting herself. I think just as she’s getting there with regards to her identity and her sexuality the book ends abruptly. This of course is a real life occurrence, it is difficult for us to accept ourselves in the face of so much that is decided and unwavering in society. This may in fact be the point and could cause some readers to reflect on their own experiences or better appreciate the experiences of others. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky does succeed as a novel that will bring about emotions and provide insight into the experiences of a particular situation. I personally was shocked at Rachel’s reaction to her grandmother’s way of thought, her thoughts on her grandmother’s class status, and black culture in general. She didn’t try to see through the eyes from which her grandmother looked. I thought this served to stifle social consciousness or maybe if I turn it around, and hopefully this is the case with other readers, readers were able to see this flaw in Rachel and check some of their own prejudices and preconceived notions. It seems like we were supposed to feel sorry for Rachel, but I didn’t. I thought she was kind of bratty (fueled by her young age and also by trying to hang on to what she had known and seen through white eyes). Her mother’s attempt to shield her from society’s gaze by protecting her from her history ended up hurting her.

    Though this is Rachel’s story I was more intrigued by a young boy who calls himself Brick and who saw what happened to Rachel’s family in Chicago. His home life is terrible, and his mother is often absent. To escape and keep his sould in tact, he bird-watches. Eventually he leaves home and spends much of his young life on the streets. Just after the accident Brick was able to meet Rachel’s father and is determined to deliver his message. It is obvious that he is bright, reflective, and strong-what seems to act as a counter and complement to Rachel.

    I’d held off on writing about my thoughts on this because it was a book that ignited something within me. I thought that if I let it sit for a while and worked the thoughts over in my mind it would be easier to write about. It was an enjoyable read and Rachel an interesting character, I just wanted more.


    Passing by Nella Larsen

    She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be all three. Nothing, she imagined, was ever more completely sardonic.
    Sitting alone in the quiet living-room in the pleasant fire-light, Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. IT was a brutality, and undeserved.

    I think I’ll need to read Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) again. Just so that it can all sink in. I read it a few months ago so one would assume that would be plenty of time for sinkage. I think the section above does a good job summing up the tug that both women feel in this book. They are old friends and meet coincidently one day at a restaurant in New York. Clare is passing for white and is married to a white man who is decidedly racist. She has left her family and friends behind and lives a tense life deceiving those around her. Irene passes when it is convenient (she was passing the day she and Clare met at the restaurant), has married a black man and raises her children in Harlem to be aware of their racially charged world. She plans charity events and generally leads a pleasing life. After learning about Clare’s situation Irene struggles with acceptance and is increasingly alarmed by the danger that Clare is creating for herself. She also begins to wonder about her own actions. Irene’s internal struggle is most prominent because the novel is written from her point of view. But through her eyes we also see that Clare is torn and that her deception weighs heavily on her. The mental taxation and stress of their situations is sharply painted. Identity is a major theme in this book, particularly what it means to be yourself, and to be accepted by others. The biggest realization I think they come to is what are the personal implications for not being able to be accepted for who you really are.