Thursday, June 22, 2017

An Aroma of Coffee, by Dany Laferrière (French, L’odeur du café)

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

Yet another delightful book by Dany Laferrière!  For those who do not read French, never fear; I have every confidence that this book will translate well. For, as Dany has said himself, his books are North American, only the words are in French! This is the sixth of his that I have devoured, and with each one I fall deeper in love with the writer, his stories and his unmistakable voice. Sometimes his stories make me laugh, some of them make me daydream.  The scenes, the images that he paints with his eloquence, make me wish I were there with him.  In fact, he asks as much of his reader.  As he says in the introduction of the recent re-edition, “In fact, I do not write, I paint.  All the while dreaming of the art of these primitive painters” whose paintings he remembers well (my translation).  He asks his reader not to “read just to turn the page, but to come stroll down the streets of Petit-Goâve.” (introduction to the 2010 ed. My translation).  I, for one, felt as if I were there.

L’odeur du café is about his childhood in Haiti at his grandmother’s home. These are some of his most profound memories, despite his young age.  One might even say these are the years that made him the man he would become.  It is the magic of this coffee that his grandmother served to all her passing neighbors, the odor, the community that this process created, that anchored him.  He tells us about his friends, all the gossip in town, the places he would go (school, cemetery, etc) and even about some of the more memorable conversations he had with his grandmother, Da.  When asked about what Heaven was like, Da showed him her coffee pot, for example. Dany retells us the stories that his grandmother would share with him, stories of werewolves, zombies and devils, and which neighbors could shape-shift into one of these at night; for example, all of Petit-Goâve knew that Passilus could transform into a horse after midnight.  

The folklore and tales of magic are the themes that so endear this book to me.  It is not so unlike what we live with here in New Orleans, with the voodoo influence that came up from Haiti, especially strong after the revolution. When I tell people, especially long-time locals, about some of the stories in this book, the response is usually a matter-of-fact, oh yes, sure. The tradition of the secret name, for example, which no one is supposed to know lest you find yourself at the mercy of the one who knows, the spirituality, the ancestor traditions, the bizarre and strange stories of the inhabitants, the neighbor who “walks under the rain without ever getting wet…”. Interestingly, I discovered a very similar expression in Haiti, one similar to something we here in the South say often.  In Haiti, when it rains while the sun is shining, they say “Baron Samedi is beating his wife.”  The Baron Samedi is a very powerful loa of the Dead, something like a god in Haitian voodoo.  I believe it is only a regional expression in America, in the South in general, or possibly specific to Louisiana… maybe some of my blog readers will confirm this for me?  We have been known to say, “the devil is beating his wife” in that same situation. Coincidence? I think not.

These stories are fascinating and intriguing. They are short stories, vignettes, snapshots of scenes and images of his life.  Divided, and subdivided and divided once again, so that the reader can read just a few paragraphs and then put it down if the time is short, or if the reader needs to reflect after reading a passage.   It is books like this one which enrich my life, ones that are full of life, heart, inspiration.  These are the kind of books which stay with me quite a long time, and it may well be one like this that I eventually reread, only because I remember how much I loved it the first time.
Without a doubt, a full and enthusiastic 5 stars!!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

L’elegance du herisson, by Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

I might never have decided to read, or even for that matter know about this book, had it not come highly recommended by a friend.  I have to admit that had I read reviews before reading the book, I may have never picked it up.  Some of them are scathing. Or perhaps it is the translation that turns people off.   I think due to my French literature background, I may be better equipped to appreciate this book than others.  I began this book last year but kept putting it down to read other book club selections or to do reading for courses, yet I kept coming back to it because the characters are truly endearing, and I really wanted to know what would become of them.  There was a very strong pull to return to the story, and what a beautiful story it is!  I am not even certain that my review will do this book justice, to be honest.  Muriel Barbery is a philosophy teacher as well as a writer.  Much of this book deals not only with the philosophy that the character Renee is studying, but also the philosophy surrounding her daily life.

We meet first Renée, a concierge and autodidact, who has basically given up on life and love and who hides her intellectual side due to the stereotypes surrounding concierges.  She is very concerned about social games and rank, feeling obligated to hide who she really is and feeling unable to cross social boundaries to befriend those who do not belong to her class.  
We will next meet Paloma, a young girl who is unusually intelligent, but already cynical about life and the mediocrity which seems to afflict adulthood, adults who from time to time “sit and contemplate the disaster which is their lives” for whom the “final destination…[is] the fishbowl”.  She says of her family that they are all “anesthetized, empty of emotions.” Therefore, she is determined to end her life on her next birthday. The book will alternate between Paloma’s journal entries and Renee’s daily life stories.  Their stories will converge when Mr. Ozu moves into the building.    

It is Mr. Ozu who will make it possible for young Paloma and Renée to meet.  Mr. Ozu does not hold to Renée’s beliefs and is thus unconcerned with her class issues.  He will help her to understand that friendship breaks down those boundaries.  He sees beyond the outer shell she puts up around her.  He is able to see he for who she is. Thus, Renée will discover in these two tenants kindred spirits which will help her come out of her shell.  They too discover the wonderful elegance of the concierge who appears rough on the outside (like the hedgehog) but who is so eloquent, well-read and elegant on the inside.  Unmasked, her secret is out!  

Besides the thread of the characters’ lives, the philosophy within was what I found most satisfying and rich. Paloma wants to end her life, but before doing that very undoable thing, going down that one-way road, she wants desperately to find a reason to live.  She starts two journals, each one alternating chapters with Renée’s life story.  The first one is “Penée Profonde” (deep thought), and the other is “Journal du mouvement du monde” (journal of the movement of the world).  In these, as well as in Renée’s musings, we find discussions on art, beauty, the importance of pets as companions, the importance of grammar and its uses, routine and ritual, and the absurdity or meaning of life.  What is the purpose of art?  It is to make our emotions visible.  It is life, but “on another rhythm”.  (346)  It is through a minor character that we get one of our biggest philosophical awakenings.  Jean, the troubled son of a family living in the building, once asked Renée the name of these beautiful flowers growing in the garden around the building.  She tells him the name, which he forgets.  But it is the flowers that he holds on to, even at his lowest moments.  He tells her that it is these flowers, the camellias, that he held onto, contemplated, and which made him feel better. Renée believes that even a camellia can change destinies.  There is a point to it all.  Can beauty in this life, this world, change one’s life?  Can it make it more livable, easier to cope with, to swallow the horrors around us?  
Then the discussion of Paloma’s defense of grammar comes to mind.  What is the point of it, why do we learn it?  It is as she says the way to beauty.  Maybe you have read something so beautiful that you stopped to contemplate it?  It can move one’s emotions, fill the heart, create images and paint a beautiful picture.  It is painting with words.  As Renée said, “what more noble distraction than that of literature.”

Some reviews said that the book was light on character development and too heavy on philosophy. What I think people misunderstood about this book is that the character development is in the philosophy.  These characters are searching for meaning in life. They basically live in their heads, observe the world around them and see this life as pointless.  They feel that it is their destiny to never escape being like their parents: their families mistakes will be their own; their families pointless existences will be their own.  Yet, it is through this mediation that they find their way out of the destiny to which feel they are doomed.  It was meeting the great-niece of Mr. Ozu that Paloma, for the first time ever, finds she is unable to foresee the destiny of someone.  This gives her hope for herself.  “If you want to heal yourself, heal others” (365), so she goes on a quest to heal Renée.
It is a wonderful story to remind us all that life, love and friendship never come too late.  We can always change our lives, beat the odds, live and love again.  We must know that we are worthy and remember not to hesitate when the time comes; we must do it while there is still breath.  Sometimes the end comes too soon and unexpectedly.  The ending to this novel must be disappointing for some, and I will admit that I cried.  Yet I know it had to end this way. This is life. Always the unexpected will happen, and life is always, always too short to do everything we want to do. In the meantime, we have camellias.  We have art, and music, and cats, and literature, too.  

There is so much more here that there is not enough time or space to relate it all!  Absolutely 5 stars!!!!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

Following in my ongoing theme and ever-growing love of historical fiction, I recently acquired this little gem in a coffee shop that has a bookshelf full of books from the nearby used bookstore.  I know very little about old China, so I was intrigued not only by the historical time period and location, but also by a crime that “haunted Peking”, and the unusual circumstances that I would soon learn about it.  In fact, and a reader would learn this by simply reading the back so no spoilers here, it went more or less unsolved for the last 70 years until Mr. French pieced together the facts during his research to give us, the readers, something of a conclusion.    

It is the true story of the murder of a woman named Pamela Werner, the adopted daughter of E.T.C. Werner, in 1937 at a time when China was beginning to change.  The Japanese are encroaching on their territory, and the atmosphere of fear and dread is growing.  Part of China’s 1.5 million residents included two to three thousand foreigners, many of whom lived in or near what was called the Legation Quarter, a gated area where most of the embassies and consulates were located.

The murder took place, however, just outside of the Legation Quarter, at the base of the Fox Tower, believed to be a place of sorcery and magic, haunted by fox spirits, a superstition so fearful that normally the area is deserted at night. Such spirits are believed to possess the power to beguile men, cunning spirits that seek victims to steal their energy.  Of course this particular location for the victim meant that most Chinese were nervous.  There were many false confessions with blame on the spirits, but also a lot of false accusations.  Many looked to her father as a possible suspect. However, at 72 years old could he really be capable of such a crime?  The strange and disconcerting facts of this murder were the fact that the body was horribly mutilated, almost beyond recognition, drained of blood, heart missing, yet her very expensive watch was still on her, eliminating the possibility of a robbery gone wrong.  The notes about the autopsy were in fact quite unsettling.  It seemed as if a madman or a sadist had committed this crime.  The problem was that with no blood at the scene, the next step was to find the scene of the crime which will take them a very long time indeed.  

In fact, due to doctored testimony, false leads and misleading testimony, even unverified testimony by the Chinese police, the case would eventually go cold.  Pamela’s father would not give up on his daughter, and refused to let the men who did this go free.  Despite the brewing war and the Japanese invasion, Werner hired his own detectives and began his own investigation.  Fluent in Chinese, and publishing notices for information in Chinese, he got much further than the police ever did, even despite the current situation in China at the time.
This book will take the reader through all the police investigations, witnesses, leads both false and otherwise, all the dirty little secrets of both victim, father and anyone involved, and all the politics involved until the trail goes cold.  It then picks up with Werner’s informal investigation, lasting five years and his continued pleas with the police with all his new evidence to try to reopen the case. Finally French will put it all together for us.  
                                              Pamela Werner

With an Edgar Award and high praise from John Berendt, a must-read for any lover of history, crime and detective novels! 5 stars!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

I was very curious about this novel since I had known the writer as a musician under the name of John Wesley Harding back in the 1990s.  As I was a fan of his music, I was very curious about what he could do as a novelist. This novel does not disappoint, even though you may read lukewarm reviews online.  I will say this though, there is a lot of music terminology and description on which I am not well versed.  It is less about the music and more about the mystery that drew me into the book.  It is a thrilling novel, with a twist that I never even imagined possible.

It is a story within a story because of the similarities not just of the main character’s name, but of the way his own story unfolds, and that of the opera he writes.  It begins in 1910 in England, with a music critic, our narrator Leslie Shepherd, who meets a brilliant young composer Charles Jessold at a party.  He sees potential in the composer and wants to build a career for him.   He intrigues him and the entire party with the story of a man, a composer, with a similar name, Carlo Gesualdo. The story of Gesualdo is a true and gruesome tale of a musician in Italy 1590, who murdered his wife and her lover when he caught them together.  From that day, Shepherd and Jessold become fast friends, and they begin to collaborate on musical compositions together.  

The book is divided into several parts. Part one is entitled, Charles Jessold, as I knew Him and is prefaced by a news article detailing the facts of the murder case against him, as well as a message from our narrator explaining the reasons he has decided to write this account of Jessold’s story, a kind of personal memoir, from the person who may have known him best.  This section gives the story mostly from the point of view of their professional and working relationship.  We do learn about Jessold’s drinking more and more as his work continues and about being imprisoned in Germany for several years during wartime. Part two, Post-Mortem, is written years later where we start to learn more of back story, the personal relationships that unbeknownst to us were playing out simultaneously, which seriously pulled the rug out from under me.  This section really comes more from the perspective of Shepherd.  He is urged to write the biography of Jessold by the family, and after resisting for a period, feels compelled to cooperate, to set the record straight.  The final part is quite short, entitled Ars Moriendi, and only suggests without stating directly the fate of our narrator who has finally completed his biography.

One of the things that I loved so much about this book would definitely have to be the language. Stace has such a vast vocabulary and is not afraid to use it. His colorful use of language wove some of the best descriptions I have ever read.  I found myself reading aloud to friends certain passages that I thought were simply brilliantly written, perfectly said, memorable, occasionally hilarious. From describing the mess at Jessold’s house as a “steeplechase”, to describing an armrest battle in the theatre as a “border dispute” which he does not expect to “reach a détente”, Stace is a veritable wordsmith.  He is also a genius at plot twists, keeping his reader completely in the dark, without even a hint or nod in the direction of where it is going until we are there, mouth gaping open in disbelief, characters we believed existed but did not, murders or innocents who were in fact not, mystery tickets to the theatre, secrets whispered in the dark.  All of it surprising, all of it unexpected.  All of it brilliantly woven together.

Despite the detailed musical descriptions that I had difficulty following, I think this book deserves high praise. I, for one, thought it was fascinating, entertaining, and extraordinarily well-written.
⅘ stars!!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane by Erik Larson

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

I once again have found myself under the mesmerism of Erik Larson.  His first and maybe shortest novel, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, found its way into my possession at the annual po-boy festival, where the book fair always puts out their millions for us to peruse.  Having already read the three that follow this one, accidentally in chronological order, I was overdue to read this one.  I am, as usual with his work, amazed at the wealth of information, attention to detail and research contained within his stories.  This particular gem retells the story of the 1900 Hurricane (before naming practice) that made a direct hit on the coast of Galveston.  
What is important to note here is that for many people who live in areas of turbulent weather, keeping track of, talking about, and/ or being aware of (and in awe of) the weather means life or death.  It is more than a pastime. Americans, particularly but not limited to those in the South, are somewhat obsessed by the weather, with good reason.  Our weather can be devastatingly dangerous.  
What many people probably misunderstand, myself included in that lot until I read this book, was that the devastation of this storm is not a direct result of officials and forecasters being  unaware of storm. It was simply that many were convinced that the storm was going to take another path and was nothing to worry about.  They even believed in fact that it was not even such a serious storm to begin with.  They were also convinced that they were somehow protected from storms taking a path in their direction, that it was scientifically impossible.  Thus, few, if any, residents were warned of the storm’s approach until it was literally too late.  Cuba, who apparently had pioneered hurricane detection (who knew?), had been right all along, that the storm was something to watch, but no one listened to them (9).
Throughout the book there is some brilliant writing.  As someone who appreciates good writing, I look for very colorful language in the books that I love.  To make a fan of me, all you need to do is come up with something like this:  “In Galveston, the humidity was nearly 100 percent.  To move was to drip.” (25).  Or another, “The air was like a moist sweater.” (132) Absolutely brilliant, and descriptions I can completely relate to, living not so very far from there in a place every bit as humid. He is even more colorful, while creating a tragic image,  when he describes the flooding of Galveston as “a gigantic ship sinking beneath the sea.” (149)

The one criticism I could have about this book was the way it would occasionally jump around in time, previewing what was to come or backing up to pick up a timeline already started.  I sometimes had trouble keeping up with the chronology.  That would be my only critique.  Otherwise, the story is riveting, captivating, fascinating and very scientifically intriguing.  I learned a lot about these storms that I have literally grown up with.  A lot of the science was quite a bit beyond my grasp to understand, but I still found myself fascinated with it.  Some of the storm statistics recounted here were absolutely stunning, so much so that I found myself unable to resist reading them aloud to anyone who would listen (just ask my parents!). In the end the 1900 storm, Isaac’s Storm (named for the forecaster most closely associated with it) would take the lives of 8000 men, women and children and change its history forever (16).  We will also learn about the formation of storms from a wave off the coast of Africa, to the evolution of killer storms like this one, of Columbus’s encounter with a killer storm in 1492, and of other killer storms that have made history, named and unnamed.  
An intense, gripping, suspenseful and dramatic tale that I found hard to put down.  As we witness the play by play, of approach to inundation, Larson puts together events that few witnesses survived to tell.  It is his first book, and it clearly shows that he has developed his style and refined his writing greatly since then.  Obviously I give this high marks, if only events were told consistently chronologically, it would be full marks.  ⅘ stars. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro
May contain spoilers!

I began this book over a year ago, and for some reason I had put it down until recently. Whether it was the long and complex way in which the writers begin with Mary’s family tree, where all women are also named Mary, or whether it just was not able to grab me until that fateful moment when Mary meets Percy, I just could not pick it up again until a few weeks ago.  A friend and fellow book lover suggested a reread of Frankenstein in honor of the Halloween season (and coincidentally the 200th anniversary of said novel) for a book club.  I decided it was a good time to go back to this book and simultaneously read Frankenstein.  I also highly recommend the reading of these two together. It vastly enhanced my experience, deepened my understanding, and made the novel all the more fascinating to see the parallels to her own life experiences.

Once past the evolution of her family tree, from her mother’s liberated lifestyle and her upbringing, the book quickly takes shape. The parallels between Mary and the creature she creates in Frankenstein start to become abundantly clear.  She, like the creature, are motherless, as her mother died in childbirth.  So much of her life, in fact, finds its way into her novel to such a degree that I am amazed that I was never aware of it.  I first read Frankenstein more than twenty years ago.  I am not sure whether I was able to read this deeply into it as I could do now that I was reading Hoobler’s book.  Percy, an admirer of Mary’s father William Godwin and his work, had become friends with Godwin.  Therefore, Mary meets Percy, and they take off together, Percy abandoning his wife and two children to run off with her.  I was completely taken by surprise to learn that Percy was something of a hippie, believing in free love and very much an activist.  Along the way, they meet Byron, already an international celebrity and known as much for his looks as for his writing.  Byron brings Polidori, his personal physician, and Mary brought her half-sister, Clare.  

All throughout their journeys, they discussed some of the newest scientific developments, many of these ideas will find themselves in her future novel.  She heard about capturing lightning in Leyden jars, reanimating dead frogs with electricity and many such things as she would never forget.  She gave birth to two children with Percy, in these early days, neither of whom would survive,  which raised questions for Mary, “Could she create life and not death in those she loved? Was she a monster?” (93).  She dreamed of her baby coming to life again, rubbing it before the fire to make it live again.  Were these early experiences inspiration for her novel?

My favorite chapter by far was “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe”, of course about Byron.  I did not know so much about Byron before reading this, and I really appreciated the background because it explains a lot,  for example, why Polidori would basically describe Byron in characterizing his vampyre for his short story.  Byron was already the best known poet of his time and enjoyed international fame.  Even Percy was in awe of him, and said that he could not write in Byron’s presence, afraid of never writing another line of poetry so long as he was around him.  (Byron, a psychic vampire?)

Soon after the publication of her novel, which received good reviews and was quickly adapted for stage, a series of unfortunate deaths begins to plague Mary’s life, hence the subtitle of this book.  It starts with her half-sister Fanny and Percy’s first wife.  However, it does not stop there, and by the end of the book we realize that Mary finds herself alone, not so unlike her monster.  She tries to find her place in society, but alas is shunned by most due to her unconventional life choices.  Here the eerie part is how much like her nameless monster she really is, shut out  by society and mostly only known for her father’s, her mother’s or her husband’s name.  

Mary’s novel poses some very real questions about blind ambition and the potential dangers and fear of modern science.  How far should one go in prolonging or creating life?   Yet, it does not stop there, as she has also broached a psychological or sociological question of nature versus nurture, what was responsible for the monster’s evil ways?  Was it neglect or was it his nature?  

A brilliant biography and history of the birth of one of the greatest Gothic (maybe even the first science fiction) novels ever written.  Well worth every bit of 5 stars!!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Le Cas Eduard Einstein, by Laurent Seksik (in French, Trans. The Eduard Einstein Case)

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

This was the November selection of the Alliance Francaise book club, and I had been waiting for this one impatiently from the time it was announced.  It is an absolutely fascinating historical novel on the life of Eduard Einstein, the youngest son of Albert Einstein.  It has a unique format, in that it is told from three points of view, from Eduard, his father Albert, and his mother Mileva, Albert’s first wife, alternating chapter by chapter.

The possibly little known fact is that Eduard Einstein started exhibiting signs of schizophrenia from about 18 years old, ended up in a clinic for the rest of his life and went through a series of horrible treatments during that time.  The novel starts here, the day his mother drops him off at Burgholzli psychiatric hospital.  The reader is not immediately aware of the reasons why, but very aware of the woman’s anguish, suffering and worry. She says that one might say that the “devil took possession of the soul” of her child. Through hints and suggestions, in Eduard’s chapter, the reader becomes slowly aware of the significance of the events that led to his visit to the hospital.  There is the possibility that he attacked his mother, and he says that objects seem to him to move and take strange forms, that nothing is solid and that there are also voices that murmur. (23).  There are moments when he sounds quite lucid, then others where he seems to have trouble discerning what is real, or has trouble remembering things.  

Of course, there is a lot more happening here than simply Eduard’s commitment to a hospital.  Albert and Mileva having separated after their move to Berlin for Albert’s work, she returned to Zurich with her two children, and he moved on and eventually remarried.  This caused a gulf of distance between Albert and his sons, a feeling of abandonment, even stronger for the younger one.  He rarely returned to visit. The 1930s also meant Albert has become enemy of the state number one and will soon be forced to flee to America.  One of the biggest questions as to the cause of Eduard’s illness was whether the breakup of his parents and abandonment of his father caused a break in Eduard.  He felt it more acutely than his older brother.  Or was it more a question of living in the immense shadow of his genius father, his world-famous father?  There is the other possibility that it was a genetic trait in the family of Mileva, for her sister also spent time in Burgholzli.   For Albert it was the one problem he could not solve.  He fled to America, never to return, not for the death of his first wife, even when it was safe for him to return.  He could not face his failure, because it meant facing his son. 

Eduard will undergo devastating treatments, like insulin shock therapy, and subsequent comas that follow it, a dozen or so times, and electroshock therapy, to name a few, causing huge gaps in his memory.  By the end, this young  man who used to love to play the piano, and was apparently quite good at it, could no longer remember how. Throughout all of this, he only has his mother. She lived for him alone and sacrificed her whole life for him, for both of her sons, even for Albert, giving up a brilliant career and huge talent for family.  Albert went to America and had his oldest son and his family follow him.  This admirable and strong woman, who had given up so much for Albert, suffers through this alone, with Eduard’s ups and downs, suicide attempts and delusions.  Eduard ends his days at the hospital a little like the end of Voltaire’s Candide, cultivating his garden, a proud moment for him to be given a little plot of land at the hospital to cultivate.  

The reader feels right in the middle of all of this.  It is touching, sincere, moving.  While it may be listed as a novel, there are three pages at the back of the book listing letters and other works and biographies from which dialogue and details are cited.  Seksik had written a biography on Einstein in 2008, so he has done immense research.  
This novel lived up to all my hopes and expectations.  It is brilliant and fascinating, and led to a fabulous discussion at the Alliance Francaise.  A very enthusiastic 5 stars!!

(Einstein and Mileva)
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