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Recent Reads

It has been quite some time since I was at leisure to post a thorough book review. But as I recently shared book recommendations with a couple of friends, it seemed worthwhile post these brief observations for a wider audience.

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

I recently determined to read more contemporary historical fiction, as I am working in the genre myself. I thank Jane Kirkpatrick, a notable historical novelist from Oregon, for recommending Ruta Sepetys’s books.

Salt to the Sea is a multiple-point-of-view novel culminating in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea in January 1945, the deadliest maritime disaster in history. The POV characters represent Prussia, Germany, Lithuania, and Poland. Sepetys herself is Lithuanian-American.

Although the subject matter is grim, the characters are well drawn and (aside from those who aren’t supposed to be) sympathetic. I found the “shoe poet,” an elderly cobbler with a penchant for philosophizing, particularly appealing. While tragedy is unavoidable, the author doesn’t leave us crushed by it, and magnanimity and nobility of character are, if not precisely rewarded, celebrated. Sepetys’s other work is high on my to-read list. The Fountains of Silence is her most recent.

Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart

JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN (Li Du Novels)

This work of 18th-century historical fiction represents a comfortably familiar detective story–complete with a mysterious murder, a proliferation of suspects, and satisfying execution of justice–in an unfamiliar setting. In a culture that is far removed in time and, for most of her readers, place, Hart succeeds in crafting an array of sympathetic characters. The storyteller-sidekick Hamza is a particular gem. And how could you go wrong with a detective who is a librarian? (Of the Chinese imperial court … exiled and wandering in Tibet … the plot thickens.) Upon completing this initial volume, Brian and I proceeded directly to the second and have now embarked on the third.

Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy, by Jean Webster

Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy (Penguin Classics)

My daughter and I just read Dear Enemy and re-read Daddy Long-Legs for our mother-daughter book club. I actually enjoyed the sequel more than Daddy Long-Legs, though preference for one book over the other was pretty well equally divided in our group. Both books are epistolary novels, in which the narrative is delivered in the form of letters. As almost half of my historical novel is composed of letters, I can attest to the challenge of preventing such a work from devolving into a dry recitation of facts and events. But the distinctive voices and witty turns of phrase employed by Webster’s letter writers  prevent any such literary catastrophe.

Daddy Long-Legs was published in 1912, four years after Anne of Green Gables, and our group observed a number of similarities in theme, style, and content. For starters, both Anne and Judy are orphans. In Dear Enemy, Sallie, a college friend of Judy’s, reluctantly accepts the post of superintendent of the orphanage in which Judy grew up. Much of the book’s appeal for me lay in Sallie’s stories of the children’s antics and the institutional reforms she undertook. Also of interest are the differences and trends in public care of minors over the past hundred years. I don’t know how many of Webster’s views were already espoused by policy makers of her time, but some of the ideas generated by Sallie are now standard practice in the foster care system.

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Forty Women and Me: Musings on Loss and The Wonder Years, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields  

In this season in which I and my home are being inundated with belongings, it is loss that I feel most keenly: the house that was my husband’s childhood home and mother-in-law’s abode for 55+ years; family history in the form of heirlooms, papers, books, and embroidered linens; and the woman who has been slowly slipping away from us for the past three years.

Me

In the shuffle of moving, bringing home, and sending away, countless things have been lost, overlooked, or misplaced. Keys, library books, homework, Benjamins, memories (literally), sick chickens, broken mirrors, spilled milk, burnt rice, “the Alaska Letters,” and the book Leslie Leyland Fields gave me to review just before this whirlwind of relocation descended upon us. Continue reading

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Sub-Text in the Sub-Floor

A host of concerns other than blogging have required my attention for the last couple of years: two trips to India; a mother-in-law in residence for eight months; hosting author lunches (at my former bookshop) and foster kids (in our home), not to mention the ordinary responsibilities of running a household; incremental progress on my historical novel; and, now, a return to manuscript editing. (For more on that and for contact information, click on the About tab above.)

I hope, eventually, to return to making occasional posts here. In the meantime, Story Warren has posted my latest review, a look at a delightful children’s picture book by Phoebe Gilman, Something from Nothing. I discovered Story Warren last year after our family read The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, by Jennifer Trafton, a frequent contributor to the site. (We’re indebted to our young friends in Texas who recommended Jennifer’s book to us.) As an often-too-serious parent, I especially love what Jennifer has to say about “holy silliness” in this Story Warren interview: “Let there Be Play”

Story Warren is a fantastic resource and stimulus for creativity in kids and adults alike. To read my review, click here: “Sub-Text in the Sub-Floor”

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Books in Chennai, Part III: Higginbotham’s

Birds' Words

This third post on Books in Chennai is a bit delayed, but the visit wound up the week that included visits to two other literary destinations, chronicled in Books in Chennai, Part I: Anna Centenary Library and Starmark  and Books in Chennai, Part II: Kid Lit.

Higginbotham’s, reputedly India’s oldest extant bookstore, was established in 1844 by Abel Joshua Higginbotham. Despite the fact that the establishment looks a little the worse for wear–both inside and out–I made some good book discoveries. (If you don’t have time to read the whole post, skip to the end–I saved the best for last.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higginbotham%27s Link to Wikipedia article on Higginbotham’s

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Indian Authors, part II: Kid Lit

Birds' Words

The previous post on Indian authors principally concerned contemporary adult fiction and nonfiction on display at the Starmark bookstore in the Phoenix Mall. While there I spent a fair amount of time with the children’s and young adult books, and we have subsequently read a few of them.

So here is a sampling of what we found:

The Pterodactyl's Egg, Annie Besant, story for kids, cover

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Books in Chennai, Part I: Anna Centenary Library and Starmark

Our family is currently in Chennai, India, for a ten-week stay. You can read more about our travels on our shared blog, Birds’ Words. This post is the first in a series about Indian authors whose books I have run across here, as well as local libraries and bookstores.

Birds' Words

During our first week in Chennai we discovered the Renga Lending Library here in our own neighborhood (Click here to read that post: “Saved by the Neighborhood Library“). The following week we trekked a little farther afield to three other book sites: The Anna Centenary Library, built in 2010; The Phoenix Mall Starmark, one of the newest bookstores in Chennai; and Higginbotham’s, India’s oldest bookseller.

IMG_20150824_111304_499IMG_20150824_150118_096

The Anna Centenary Library is a Tamil state library, established in 2010. It seems to draw a large number of students for study and research. The library features an attractive children’s room with a large collection of English books, and we spent several hours there.

In an interesting coincidence, on the day after our visit The Times of India ran an article about a recent court ruling requiring better maintenance of the library. Having observed that the impressive building did not appear to be in tip-top condition, I was glad to see that…

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Silk and Cotton: Textiles from the Central Asia that Was, by Susan Meller

Susan Meller’s books on Central Asian textiles are a rare find. Even if I weren’t researching a novel set in early twentieth-century Central Asia, the wealth of brilliant photos alone would be captivating. Since I am, Meller’s  coffee-table sized books provide a treasure trove of information not just on textiles but dress, trade,  agriculture, ethnic groups, and the impact of Russian colonization and the Soviet Union on all of these. Continue reading

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