Top Reads 2013

I thought it was impossible last year and this year seems just as difficult, unlike last years clear-cut outstanding read, which I would recommend to anyone and everyone, I’m not so confident that my Outstanding Read of 2013 has universal appeal. But I absolutely loved it and recommend it highly!

Outstanding Read of the Year

Arthur BraxtonMy outstanding read of the year, the one that stopped me in my tracks and then pulled me along at a fast pace and left me wondering what it was that was so compelling only to realise it was the originality of voice was Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton.

I love that I knew nothing about it before reading it, I chose it on instinct, had never heard of the author and the book just worked its magic from the beginning . Then there was the serendipitous event occurring at the Victorian Baths where it is set, just as I was reading it – well that was the icing on the cake.

It’s a coming age story of a teenage boy who starts hanging out at an abandoned Victorian bath-house where things don’t always appear as they should, he discovers an uninhibited young woman swimming naked in the pool, the point from which all his perceptions about life begin to alter. It is strange, magical, weird and infused with hope without being in any way sentimental.  But don’t take my word for it, read it!

As for the rest, in no particular order, here are my memorable fiction and non-fiction reads for 2013.

Top Fiction

BoothThe Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was the first book of the year and a reread for me, something I rarely do, but I wanted to see if Martin Booths excellent book stood the test of time. And it sure did. I love this book and the way this author writes. The book is about a British prisoner held for many years in a Russian gulag, who decides not to return home after his release. The story is narrated on the day of his 80th birthday as he looks back and his past comes to visit him.

monster 2A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – in all pursuits, sometimes it’s a good idea to go off piste  and for me this venture into young adult fiction was exactly that.  I picked this up in the library having recalled seeing a few excellent reviews and was intrigued by the concept of a writer picking up the threads of another writers idea and bringing it to fruition – Siobhan Dowd died tragically at the age of 47 and Patrick Ness brilliantly brings her story idea to life in this incredible, poignant tale.

BrodeckBrodeck’s Report by Phillipe Claudel – a very recent read and his words stay with me, I feel like I want to read everything he has written. Having survived a concentration camp, Brodeck returns to his village where life resumes as before until a stranger arrives in the village unsettling the inhabitants to the point where they decide to dispose of him, Brodeck isn’t involved but is given the task of writing a report about it. He writes twin narratives, unveiling the best and worst tendencies of humanity.

HonourHonour by Elif Shafak The 4th book by this wonderful Turkish author I have read and she is becoming more known with each new book, this one being nominated for numerous prizes and Turkey being the guest nation at this years London Book Fair. Honour is a story of a poor family and follows the lives of two sisters, one who goes to live in London as an immigrant, though she will always be that girl from the village. It highlights the difficulty in straddling two worlds, especially for the next generation, who try to assimilate into the new culture, but who when vulnerable are often drawn back into the least desirable aspects of the old culture.

The Honey ThiefThe Honey Thief by Mazari Najaf this is an original set of short stories told by a Hazari man from Afghanistan to his Australian friend. The stories originate from an oral story telling tradition and offer a unique insight into an ancient, adaptable people, who have survived  centuries of persecution. In addition, the author shares some excellent recipes.

Shadows & WingsShadows & Wings by Niki Tulk A wonderful story about family connections, silence and our inability to bury the past. A young girl living in Australia travels to Germany to visit the birthplace of her Grandfather and to learn about his role in the war. Simultaneously, his story is narrated from when he was a boy, to when he became that young man who, like all men at that time, was drafted into war. A beautiful book, thoughtfully narrated and at times so excruciating, it is as if we are reading a personal diary, not a work of fiction. I wish more people knew about this astonishing book.

Top Non-Fiction

Hare Amber EyesThe Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal – I am probably one of the last to have read this, since it was published two years before I picked it up, although I bought numerous copies when it did come out for family as Christmas gifts, knowing it would be an excellent read – and while it may not be to everyone’s taste, if you have any interest in European culture and history, this story of the Ephrussi’s, a Russian Jewish family from Odessa, whose two sons set themselves up in Paris and Vienna, told through the eyes and potter’s hand of the ceramicist and descendant Edmund De Waal will certainly appeal.

FindingsFindings by Kathleen Jamie I read this excellent collection of essays in February, a month in the northern hemisphere where many are in hibernation and there is not much to sing and dance about. Finding’s was like being in nature when we are not, the way Kathleen Jamie writes is to make us appreciate and really see without the need to label, identify or show off our knowledge. She observes with a painter’s eye and takes the reader on a similar journey, infusing the imagination with images of those forsaken Scottish  islands she visits. Brilliant winter reading.

Brain on FireBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan This book is a must read for anyone who knows anyone who has had any kind of brain disease or impairment. Susannah Cahalan was just an ordinary girl, working as a journalist, when in her early twenties, she started imagining things and observed herself becoming somewhat crazy. Some kind of infection got to her brain and thankfully for thousands of others, who have already benefited from the things she shares here, she lived to write about it and demystify the malfunction of the brain, something that results in thousand of incorrect diagnoses, due to the little we know about how to remedy it.

Portrait of a FamilyPortrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga After a visit to Istanbul in May, I indulged in a wonderful period of reading Turkish literature and this book was a great find – a recommendation from the English bookshop in Istanbul and they weren’t wrong. It is a classic, a fabulous story of the life of one family whose destiny is changed by war – another unique insight into a culture and the intimate family life of people we don’t usually have the opportunity to witness.

Happiness of Blond PeopleThe Happiness of Blond People: A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity by Elif Shafak it’s a short but compelling essay by one of my favourite writers, a woman who was born in the East and lived many years in the West and  has a unique perspective from which to make her observations. Worthwhile reading and love these Penguin Specials, short essays are so popular here in France, it’s great to see them being made available in English too.

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women what better way to wind up a year of reading than with some short, poignant Buddhist stories, some only a few sentences long. This is a volume to sit near the bedside and dip in and out of, because not every message will be relevant for today. One hundred stories interpreted by another 100 wise women and we are free to interpret them ourselves. 

So what books stood out for you in 2013?

Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel, tr. John Cullen

BrodeckThis book has been on my radar since I read Le Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel last year. That was the first book I had read by Philippe Claudel and our book club decided we should read it in French. I remember at the time, one of my twitter followers mentioned Brodeck’s Report as being her favourite, and on a recent visit to West End Lane Bookshop in London, I found this copy.

Brodeck’s Report is the story of the young man Brodeck, who as a child arrived in a French village with an old woman who had taken pity on him, finding him sitting alone in the ruins of a house fire.

He becomes a protégé of the village, who save enough to send him to university with the intention of him making an important contribution to village life, as it was clear he had the capability. Their plans are thwarted by unrest in the city and Brodeck flees to the village with a young woman who will become his wife. The village soon becomes occupied, resistance is taught a harsh lesson and the community are encouraged to ‘cleanse the village’. Brodeck and one other who came from elsewhere are sent away.

InnWhen the story begins, Brodeck is home, having survived the camp and after stepping out to find butter, stumbles into the midst of a village gathering at the Schloss Inn, where those grouped have decided he will write a report about the unknown, nameless stranger who came to visit, who had now met his end.

The novel is quiet, devastating and yet brilliant. Claudel takes one village which happens to be near the border – and what is a border but an imagined, even a painted line on paper – of an occupying country, and uses the village and its resident to portray humanity and its many inclinations, including its inability to learn from mistakes – which manifest when a stranger rides into town, installs himself at the local inn and goes about his business, without letting anyone know what that is. Many of the events portrayed in the novel are the result of illusory thought, of man’s inclination to create a story when there is none and to punish the outsider, the one who has inspired their dark imagination.

BrodeckBrodeck is tasked with writing an account of the events that do take place and as he does so, he simultaneously writes another account, his own narrative of what is occurring and what has happened in the recent past. He writes to try to make sense of it, as is his nature and to know what he must do.

Reading Primo Levi adds to an understanding of Claudel’s work and having read this novel so soon after Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, it illuminates something more of that work as well, it is as if they write about the same people, only Claudel dares to take the reader deeper into the heart of his villagers forcing us to open our eyes.

“It is a strange time of day. The streets are deserted, the encroaching darkness turns them into cold, grey blurs, and the houses become shifty silhouettes, full of menace and innuendo. Night has the curious power of changing the most everyday things, the simplest faces. And sometimes it does not so much change them as reveal them, as if bringing out the true natures of landscapes and people by shrouding them in black.”

Stunning.

Seasonal Comfort Reads

Merry Christmas to you all, I hope you all have/had a wonderful, relaxing day spending it exactly as you wish.

tower-and-santa-336x280We had a unique Christmas Day, with a picnic lunch on the TGV (fast train) to Paris – delicious savoury canapés, no cooking required and no dishes to wash up afterward either.

I am looking forward to reading time, although I may not get much done, since there is so much to see and do here in Paris.

But first, some Christmas Book news!

Christmas DayThis season The Guardian ran a series on writers and readers’ favourite books to curl up with on biting winter nights.

As some of you might remember, as I mentioned and gave away a copy of this book last year, my seasonal comfort read is Paul Durcan’s book length poem Christmas Day.

Well, there might not have been any books under the tree this year, but having my review published by The Guardian on Christmas Day was the best gift of all!

Click here to read the review.

Joyeuses fêtes à tous!

joyeuses fete

Are Prize Winning Novels an Indication of Readership or a Nation’s Literary Heritage?

After the BBC’s journalist in Paris Hugh Schofield asked the question about Why French books don’t sell abroad, the Cultural Attaché to the US Embassy in New York, Laurence Marie responded with an extensive list and discussion of a list of French titles that are selling abroad. She also mentions how widely French literature is being translated into other languages and her article makes fascinating and insightful reading. I have collected book covers of some of the works mentioned, plus others, below.

Sometimes we hear about literature from another country when the author wins a major literary prize. However:

Are Prize Winning Novels Really Indicators of a Nation’s Readership?

French Books That Are Selling Abroad!

French Books That Are Selling Abroad!

I don’t think so.

Literary prizes usually have an agenda, if not multiple agendas.

In the case of the UK’s Booker Prize it was set up to try to bring more literary works into the mainstream.

It is known that the prize doesn’t actually influence the reading habits of avid readers. It is targeted at those for whom books are competing against other forms of entertainment.

I like the literary prize season, not so much in anticipation of a winner, but for the longlist, where we are more likely to find something new that might appeal to our taste, because of the variety offered and the number of works screened.

So what are the French literary prizes?

Le Prix Goncourt

I don’t know the French literary prizes well, and Schofield mentions in his article that there are over 2,000 of them, but the Le Prix Goncourt is well-known and has been around over 100 years since 1896.

The last recipient was Pierre Lemaitre, whose thriller Alex  (reviewed here by Savidge Reads who said of it: “a thriller that almost made ‘Gone Girl’ look tame”), was a bestseller last year and his prize-winning novel Au revoir là-haut looks set to be the same.

Nancy, a blogger in the Netherlands whom I admire enormously, tasked herself to read only French novels last year, as an interesting way to learn the language and not only has she succeeded in learning the language, but she has not given up, she continues to read novels in French. You can read her review (in English) of Le Maitre’s Au revoir là-haut here.

The prize was established by Edmond de Goncourt, a successful author, critic, and publisher, who bequeathed his estate to establish an academy and the prize was initially created to allow talented writers the opportunity to write a second book. The prize is seen as being SO prestigious, the prize money has not changed since the early 1900’s and remains something around €10.

Le Prix Femina

Leonora MianoTen members of the Goncourt academy are responsible for the judging of Le Prix Goncourt, and in protest against this all male jury, le Prix Femina was inaugurated, an equivalent literary prize open to all sexes, however the jury is all female.

This year the prize was won by Léonora Miano, a Cameroonian author who has lived in France since 1991, for her 7th novel La Saison de l’ombre (The Shadow Season).

There is also a Prix Femina étrangere for foreign books which was won in 2013 by Richard Ford for Canada and Le Prix Femina essai, a popular genre in France, the essay; this year won by father and son duo Jean-Paul Enthoven and Raphaël Enthoven for le Dictionnaire amoureux de Marcel Proust (Marcel Proust’s Love Dictionary).

2013 Pric FeminaThere are certainly no shortage of prizes here in France (other major literary prizes are the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise, the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Interallie and the Prix Medicis), and their lists make interesting reading, for their longevity and breadth and for that fact, that they are so little known by readers in the English language.

Although prize-winning literature might be translated into English, it may also create a false perception of readership, being skewed towards that overly intellectual perception of literature that Schofield refers to as being elitist, which can alienate the average English language reader (and perhaps also the average French reader).

Every nation is proud of their literary culture and achievements and like to endow their icons of that tradition with prestigious titles, however down here at the ordinary people reading level, there is a whole other canon of literature being read, whether it is in the English language or any other.

CIMG3882To know more about what ordinary readers are immersing themselves in, it is necessary to speak to people like us, those who don’t often have a voice in the media or on a jury, they are the voices that are worth hearing from, even if what they provide is anecdotal evidence.

I am speaking to some of the French people I encounter in everyday life who are passionate readers, to find out what they think about French literature and what they are reading, to be featured in future posts.  And to find out more about all that translated fiction they love to read here.

They’re Reading Thousands of Great Books Here, Cité du Livre – A Local French Cultural Centre and Library

Yesterday via a link on twitter, I read a provocative article in BBC News Magazine by Hugh Schofield entitled Why don’t French books sell abroad? It was an interesting, if superficial article, that made a few observations without going into any depth to understand the contemporary literary scene in France. It asked questions, reminded us of some old provocative stereotypes and did little to enlighten us on the subject of what excites French readers and why the English-speaking world aren’t more aware of their contemporary literary gems.

Kate from BooksKateRates, reads and blog about French literature and wrote an interesting blog post in response to the article and I have been scribbling notes since reading the original article. I plan to share them here, as it is a fascinating subject if one takes the time to research and understand it.

But firstly, I wanted to show you the library, as it offers a glimpse into  how the French absorb literature and culture and it’s one our favourite local hangouts.

Situated in what was a 14,500 sqm match factory, the library, La Bibliothèque Mèjanes, is part of the Cité du livre, a centre for the arts and culture which includes an auditorium for lectures and readings, rooms for more formal lectures, a small cinema showing themed films for 3 week periods (currently Humphrey Bogart films), a music and film lending room, adult and children’s libraries, a press room, an exhibition space (currently celebrating the centenary of Albert Camus), a café and plenty of space for research and study.

Library Press Room

Library Press Room

As we walk in through the enormous sculptures of the covers of Camus’s  L’etranger on one side and Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and Molière on the other, we arrive in a long corridor and the reception area for borrowing and returning books.

Turn left and we head towards the reading library where outside the door is a display of books for adolescents. A quick glance at these books shows us that half of them are translated fiction, from South African, German and Hispanic authors.

AsterixInside, we walk past displays of translated literature originating from South Africa, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then the stacks of Bande Dessinée, the very popular hardcover graphic novels, which even today remain at the top of the French bestsellers list, right now its Asterix chez les Pictes, visiting the people of ancient Scotland!

And here are the novels, in French called romans. Rows and rows of books and you might notice something they all have in common, well, in fact, something they all lack. Colour.

Compare it to the shelf opposite which contains the English language novels. It certainly removes that whole likelihood of an impulse buy based on an intriguing cover.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Most French literary novels are published without fancy colourful covers and while in the bookshop you might find first editions with promotional covers, there are many more with pale or cream covers without images and a black or red text title.

However, after looking around a little more, I discover that there is colour in some sections. Science Fiction and Fantasy are full of dark colours and the books covers in the section entitled Policiers (Crime) are mostly black. However, novels and poetry, even the section called American Literature pale into insignificance among a sea of white. It reminds me of one of the three principles of France l’égalitié and certainly here, all books have the same chance of being found, whether it’s from the library or in the bookshop, not just due to their bland covers, but also due to a government policy called le plan livre and the fixed price of books.

It costs €17.50 to join the library (adult) and its free for children, there is no cost for lending and no fees for late returns. 16 items (books and CD’s) and 3 DVD’s can be borrowed at any one time for a period of 3 weeks and the first renewal can be done online. The library is also full of computers providing free internet access to all members. My only complain is that its closed on Sunday and Monday. C’est la vie en France!

So what kind of books do French people read today? And is it true that nearly half of the fiction read is translated foreign fiction? And why don’t we see more books by French authors in English bookshops?  These questions and more I will talk about in the next post Reading Contemporary French literature.

PeopleIn the meantime, if you want to know what’s popular in France and available now to read in English, check out Gallic Books, who offer the best of what’s available in French translated in English with new titles coming out every month.

I’m looking forward to reading The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern due out in English in February 2014.  If you wish to read it in French, it’s already available with the title Eux sur la photo.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I picked this book up knowing I would likely finish it in a couple of days.  After a period of slow reading, sometimes we need a faster paced book to get us going again. Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was passed to me by my book buddy and I was warned that it had flaws, and I did notice a definite divide among readers on Goodreads between those who loved it and those who couldn’t get past certain criticisms.

It is a fascinating story in part because of its little known historical background, that in the Depression era of the late 1920’s, early 1930’s (and as far back as 1854) thousands of abandoned and homeless children were rounded up in New York and coastal cities and taken by train to the Midwest of America, where preceding their journey, posters had been displayed in towns announcing that the train would be passing through. These children were offered to those interested in providing a home for them and on the day the train passed through the children were paraded in front of an interested adult audience.

While some were welcomed and loved, unfortunately, particularly for the older orphans, many experienced hardship and were destined for servitude, babies were more likely to attract those looking to create a family; older children attracted those looking for cheap labour.

HomesForChldrenChristina Baker Kline had two grandparents who were orphans, whom she says spoke very little about their experiences and her husband’s grandfather and siblings featured in a non-fiction story called Orphan Train inspiring her to research the subject further.

The book follows several months in the life of 17-year-old Molly Ayer growing up in Spruce Harbour, Maine who has been in and out of about 20 foster homes already and is spending 50 hours doing community service in the home of 91-year-old Vivian, assisting her clear up her attic and interviewing her for a school project. Spending time in her home and listening to Vivian talk about her early life opens Molly’s mind when she learns Vivian’s childhood was another version to her own. It generates in her a sense of belonging that she has not experienced since her father died in a car accident and she starts to become interested in filling in some of the gaps in Vivian’s story as this unexpected friendship develops.

“In truth, though she hasn’t admitted it out loud until now, Molly has virtually given up on the idea of disposing of anything. After all, what does it matter? Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner or later. And then professionals will descend on the house, neatly and efficiently separating the valuable from the sentimental, lingering only over items of indeterminate origin or worth. So yes – Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process – in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots.”

orphan trainsIn between Molly’s contemporary narrative, the author switches to Vivian’s historical narrative spanning twenty-three years from 1929 when her family first arrive in New York from Galway in Ireland. While the narrative changes from one timeline to the next, there are parallels that connect the two and keep the book from reading like separate narratives. Because Molly meets Vivian quite early on, the juxtaposition of time actually keeps the thread of the story alive, as if we are reading what Molly is hearing.

My only criticism was provoked by a nagging question I had over why the story wasn’t more emotionally engaging. There are some significant events and turning points in the story that normally create a cathartic effect, as if the reader were actually experiencing them and American writers in particular do this particularly well. However, upon re-reading I noticed that often at the point where the character shares what is happening, rather than continue with the first person narrative and share the characters dramatic reaction, the first person perspective often changes into the third and looks back at the event, rather than staying and engaging with it. It creates a feeling of detachment and prevents the reader from experiencing the drama, it cuts short what we expect to encounter and halts any feeling of empathy we might have been capable of feeling.

Towards the end of the book, Vivian as a young woman makes a decision that I found surprising and difficult to believe. Usually when we have come to know a character well, their decisions are understood and we develop empathy for the character, even when they make a decision that is counter to our own imagination. I was surprised by Vivian’s decision because despite her experiences, her character development hadn’t suggested to me that she would make such a choice.

Rather than detract from the story though, I think this is something that makes an interesting discussion point, was I the only one to think like this for example? Are the choices that people make, in particular orphans, adoptees and children who have had traumatic childhoods, influenced so predictably by their experiences? Can a writer who has not had such an experience inhabit characters like Molly or Vivian with authenticity?

An excellent read and an insightful look into a lost generation of children whose experience is difficult to imagine.

The Hidden Lamp edited by Florence Caplow

Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp is a rich source of feminine wisdom, a compilation of one hundred stories, some a mere paragraph long, each one chosen by one woman and commented on, sharing a contemporary perception of how that text speaks to her.

We as readers have the opportunity to receive the wisdom of the original text, reflect on it ourselves, observe the comments of the woman who has chosen to share it with us, often with a personal anecdote in this unique collection of twenty-five centuries of awakened women – those who in Buddhist terms have gained enlightenment.

Most well-known Zen stories or koans (according to American Zen Master, poet and author Zoketsu Norman Fischer) come from three collections Blue Cliff Record (12th C), The Book of Serenity (12th C), and The Gateless Barrier (13th C) and are an almost exclusively male domain.

In this collection, we find the long missing stories of women, shared in a unique collaborative style between its editors and commentators. Many of those interpreting the texts are Zen teachers and many others come from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and lineages, lending the collection an open-minded virtue, accessible to all, whether male or female, and regardless of knowledge of Buddhism philosophy and practice.

“Koans are powerful and succinct stories, most often about encounters between Zen teachers and students. They can be playful and humorous, mysterious, opaque or even combative.”

It is an invitation to consider what has been said, to ponder it and respond ourselves.

Reading the stories make fables seem like children’s stories. These excerpts often require an extraordinary stretch of the imagination to understand and there will be some we are simply not ready to interpret.  For those who have studied them, their revelations have often taken months or even years to realise.  Thanks to the commentaries, we can at least read of another’s insight although this does not in all cases necessarily bring clarity. We must accept that we are not yet ready for their learning.

Joko Beck

Charlotte Joko Beck

One of the first stories came from Peg Syverson’s reflection after listening to Joko Beck* give a talk. A young man raised his hand and bluntly asked “Are you enlightened?” to which she replied “I hope I should never have such a thought!”

Peg Syverson shared that she had thought of this exchange many times since she first heard it, that many of the things this teacher of hers said, surprised her. She likened it to another story of a Japanese master Nan-in, serving tea to a professor, pouring the tea until the cup filled and then overflowed, and still he continued to pour until the professor said, “It is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup”, said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The responses are often unexpected and penetrating. Their meaning isn’t obvious on first reading, they require us to look at the question, and at what those who ask are bringing along with the question. Syverson recounts her own audience with Joko, the question she was required to ponder and respond to, then despite several weeks of contemplating an answer, when she gave it, would receive another insightful, thought-provoking response, which upon reflection, changed the nature of her relationship with her son, the subject of her initial question. The clarity of the teacher’s mind in responding so succinctly is astonishing.

The answers seem nearly always to require that you go away and reconsider the exchange, eventually revealing the answer that perhaps was always within you. It is a kind of active learning, rather than the passive receipt of an interpretation and response, which can easily be set aside or forgotten.

The Hidden Lamp is not a book to read in one sitting, it is a reference to draw on now and then and a rich source of ancient feminine wisdom and modern thought, whose content is valid for one and all. Some of the names of the women in the book will be well-known and others less so, however their contributions might as well be nameless, as it is the story that brings the richness to the reader, the reputation of all the contributions having already been established.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Personally I always have at least one text of Buddhist thought/philosophy on the bedside table, I find them a quiet source of intellectual wisdom that easily resonates with my own world view.

Whether it’s a collection like this or one of the many excellent works of the Dalai Lama, or the pocket books of Pema Chodron, they all share a wisdom that comes from the practice of kindness, empathy and altruism while providing a prism of compassion through which to observe our everyday thoughts and encounters. A kind of preventative medicine for the mind, these awakened beings have spent years pondering the nature of suffering and both their practices and their words are a thoughtful guide and nurturing remedy to all negative emotion or thought.

* Joko Beck (American, 1917 – 2011) was a pianist and mother of four, who began Zen practice in her 40’s, founded two schools and wrote two books Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang tr. Chi-Young Kim

This book is proof that it is not just reviews and the recommendations of friends that help us choose which book to read next, that an excellent cover and title coupled with an alluring blurb can suffice to motivate that impulse.

The HenThe cover made me pause and the promise of an inspiring fable in a short piece of internationally acclaimed translated fiction sounded enticing enough, but the discovery that the author Sun-mi Hwang had herself overcome the obstacle of childhood poverty and found a way to educate herself to achieve her dream to read and write sealed it.

Like Margarita Engle’s novel in verse The Wild Book and Tove Jansson’s Summer and Winter Book’s, sometimes a mood enhancing book is just what we need to bring ourselves back to life’s simple values for encouragement and reassurance.

The story revolves around ‘Sprout’, a battery hen frustrated with her caged life laying eggs in a sloping wire cage which causes her eggs to roll away, enabling the farmer to conveniently collect them to sell. She hatches a plan to escape, seeking a life outside the barn where others animals appear to roam free and where she feels it most likely to be able to achieve her dream of nurturing an egg to life.

Along the way we meet the old dog that guards the barn, the rooster who crows in the morning, the yard hen, a community of ducks and the lone hungry weasel.

“Whenever she saw the yard hen, Sprout couldn’t stand it – she felt even more confined in her wire cage. She too wanted to dig through the pile of compost with the rooster, walk side by side with him, and sit on her eggs.”

010113_1257_AMonthinthe2.jpgSprout escapes the coop and directs all her energy into survival. She learns who her friends are and who to be wary of.

She discovers the perceptions that govern the role each animal is set to play.

“Yes, you’re both hens, but you’re different. How do you not know that? Just like I’m a gatekeeper and the rooster announces the morning, you’re supposed to lay eggs in a cage. Not in the yard! Those are the rules.”

No fairy tale, this is fable at its best, confronting the reality of stepping outside the role society has dictated (even if nature has not divined) and showing that while achieving the goal can be possible, it is a route fraught with challenges. Reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm or Adams Watership DownSun-mi Hwang brings us her perception of society through characters that we recognise with our own interpretation and reminds us that even the most far-fetched dreams are worth pursuing, no matter what the odds.

We read with trepidation and a strong desire, not so much for Sprout to succeed in her quest, but to survive. It is a delightful and touching story, deserving of its success.

Note: The book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic,

Without planning it, I have just read one book after another set in Croatia, one set in the fictitious village of Gost on the mainland the other on a small island.  Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man and Courtney Angela Brkic’s The First Rule of Swimming portray different lives and paths, but complement each other in portraying contemporary life, where the past is ever-present and no one likes to speak of those who are absent.

First RuleThis is the first work of Courtney Angela Brkic I have read though I see she has published a noted collection of short stories entitled Stillness and a memoir The Stone Fields, short-listed for the Freedom of Expression Award.

The prologue of The First Rule of Swimming starts on the fictitious island of Rosmarina, Croatia in 1982 when 8-year-old Magdalena is reading a letter from her cousin Katarina, a letter that has clearly been opened and resealed.

“Katarina’s family had left when Magdalena was only two, a shadowy period that she tried hard to recall. But she was never sure if the faces she sometimes pictured were real or simply her imagination.”

When she writes the return postcard, her grandfather writes one as well, gluing it to hers – a message – to which they receive a cryptic reply about a cat, which causes Magdalena some confusion and her grandfather immense physical pain.

The book setting then moves to the present, with Magdalena taking care of her grandparents, her grandfather now in a stroke induced coma, but refusing to let go. Though most of the island’s youth leave to find jobs on the mainland, her strong connection to the island keeps her there pursuing a teaching career and ignoring any pressure to do otherwise, even at the expense of what seems like pending spinsterhood.

NY harbourBut when her sister Jadranka leaves for New York and disappears without trace a few weeks after her arrival, she leaves the security of the island to go after her, followed soon after by her estranged mother.

“It was as if a cord connected her to Rosmarina, and only for Jadranka did she have the will to fight against it. This attachment was both habit and biology. In her childhood a researcher had studied the islanders’ sense of direction. It was a capability he explained in terms of the Inuit in the far-off Arctic, who could find their way even through blizzards.

“It’s a rare genetic gift,” he had explained to her grandfather. The scientist had concluded that not everyone possessed the skill – which he termed innate nautical orientation – but she belonged squarely to the group that did. “

Behind these events is the slow revelation of what happened to certain members of the family including the girl’s Uncle and the truth about their father, something their mother has always kept from them and that appears to be connected to Jadranka’s disappearance. It reveals an era of suspicion, denunciation, false imprisonment and vendetta. Life was dangerous for anyone associated with those who held opinions not deemed favourable.

“Grudges went back generations, and children were judged by things their parents had done, some of them years before their birth. Small wonder, Magdalena sometimes thought, that her sister preferred places where nobody knew her.”

The two girls know little of the past, but will come to learn how much it has affected their present, the journey to New York will help them find answers.

It is a compelling read that like The Hired Man, will leave the reader curious and disturbed about the recent past and that tendency for humanity to brush things under the carpet as if they never happened.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.