Category Archives: what’s on your bedside table

The Monday Book: EVERY HOUSE NEEDS A BALCONY by Rita Frank

This book came into the shop, and I’d seen somewhere online that it had been nicknamed “The Israeli Kite Runner.” So I took it downstairs to our flat and made it my bedside book.

Hmm….. on the one hand, it’s very atmospheric, makes you feel the Haifa poverty and inner city activity of the time period (post-WWII). On the other, translated books have that one-step-removed feel, and this novel has that in spades. It feels like reading from behind a curtain.

The story centers around a woman who decides to marry a guy from Barcelona, both Jewish, different classes, dealing with a lot of the ethnic and economic and political effects of the day. Marriage strains, sick babies, family members who aren’t cooperating, etc. If it weren’t for being set in Haifa, it would be an Aga Saga. But instead, it’s kind of an atmospheric time piece. Maybe even a peek behind the curtain.

I love character-driven books best of all, and this one isn’t. It’s setting-driven, and I have to admit that works really well. I didn’t care about the people, but it was like watching a television instead of reading in terms of the filled-in living details and little tossed-on-top nuggets of unexplained culture. It’s written from the inside, and those of us on the outside can learn a lot just from watching the casualness of the unexplained as it appears.

It’s not a book in which a lot happens action-wise, at least not most of the time, but it’s a great depiction of how time, place, and money can rock a marriage. Any marriage, any time, any place.

Four stars, shall we say?

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The Monday Book: WAFFLE STREET by James Adams

True confession: I found this book from the movie. During my recent writing retreat in Florida, I was looking for “mindless entertainment” to fall asleep by. With my trusty laptop propped on my stomach, I surfed Netflix, and found that people who liked The Big Short tended to watch Waffle Street.

Fair enough; I wasn’t looking for much. What I got was way beyond expectations. The heartwarming story of white guys finding redemption in places they wouldn’t normally hang out (a la that Starbucks saved my life book and all) turned out to be something between a financial handbook for dummies and a quirky character sketchlist for small towns. I loved the film and the book.

A lot of the really good explanations of financial stuff (using chickens and waffles) fell out of the movie, but when you find out that James’ best friend at the restaurant was an ex-con grill cook, you have all the straight man set-up you need for the best lines ever about financial misconduct.

The book is heartwarming, sadly, but it’s also that wee bit unpredictable. Adams’ wife isn’t the sweet supportive pushover the movie makes her out to be. The restaurant owner isn’t a self-made down home boy. Throw in the crazy lady who keeps counting change to buy her favorite waffle, the evil midlevel manager who turns out to be human, and a few other stock characters who don’t quite fulfill their archtypes due to a few surprise moves, and pour syrup over the top – but lite syrup. Neither movie nor book are sticky with sentiment.

I did feel a twinge or two, reading the the book, that Adams was describing without solving. He isn’t saying “fight the system.” He’s saying “wow, look how funny the system is.”

He’s probably right about not wasting energy. Two pancake turners up for Waffle Street. waffle-street

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Baby Worries a Little Bit

Hi, I’m Baby. No, go ahebabyad; I’ll wait while you sing the lyrics of the pop tune going through your head. Really, it’s fine; I’m used to it.

Now then, thank you for the serenade but I really don’t feel like singing right now. My whole world appears to be tilting and I’m just so concerned. My housekeeping staff are getting older, and lately she’s been very unwell. He spends a lot of time tending to her, and the other day didn’t he come out of her room, scoop me up in his arms, and cry all over me? He said something like. “Baby, we love you and we’re going to make sure you’re okay.”

Well if that doesn’t frighten a body…..

They are very nice housekeepers and I’ve grown quite fond of them over the years. I’ve never had any other staff; they brought me here when I was literally a baby, and we’ve been together ever since. They understand my little needs and habitues, such as what time second breakfast should be, and how to draw the blinds to angle that afternoon sunbeam precisely onto the sofa cushion.

We like to watch cooking shows together, and until recently she and I never missed One Life to Live. Now, though, she spends her time in the bedroom, and my personal bed has been moved next to the sofa. It’s all clear to me; I shall soon have to move. That’s what he meant.

One does what one must, but I can’t tell you the conflicting emotions running through my mind at this moment. Will they be all right without me? Who will wake them up in the morning, ensure she doesn’t miss an important episode, see that he makes their evening meal on time? (He always made theirs right after mine.)

Also, although one doesn’t wish to appear selfish, who will look after me, since I must leave here? Where am I going? Will it be quiet, will it be warm? Will they be kind to me? I realize some of my little perks may have to fall by the wayside, but if one has to contemplate hardship, there’s a difference between no sunbeams and no supper.

Really, I don’t show it to the staff, but I’m very concerned. I hope the best for them, but whatever is to become of me? Being a white cat makes me “desirable,” she said the other day. Well, yes, thank you, of course. But will that be sufficient? I just don’t know….

Baby is available for adoption through Appalachian Feline Friends. Message them or Willie Dalton for information. She is six years old, spayed, and utd on all shots. She prefers a quiet life with multiple meals and no expectations of entertaining children or controlling mice.

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The Monday Book: THE FRIENDLY PERSUASION by Jessamyn West

You know how you start thinking about an old friend, and then look them up, and find they were thinking of you? This book is like that.

west-persuasionWest wrote it (and its companion volume Except for Me and Thee) more than 75 years ago, but it’s still just as funny and sweet, mostly because it’s about humans. Just humans, and how they interact, living on a farm in the Midwest as Quakers.

Well, there’s that Civil War bit, and their brush with the Underground Railroad, which is somehow more intense now reading it in these troubled years. So much should have changed by now…..

Not much has changed in human courtship, either, and the stories around love affairs (would be or actual) are as hysterical as they are accurate. If you want to just escape into a world that pre-dates Jan Karon but echoes our own modern troubles, this is a good one.

The author was a woman ahead of her time. She wrote two of my all-time favorite quotes about writing: “Talent is helpful in writing but guts are absolutely essential” and “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.”

That kinda sums up The Friendly Persuasion. One of the reasons people will still be reading it years from now is its poignant accuracy in describing human interactions.

 

 

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The Monday Book: TOGETHER TEA by Marjan Kamali

together-teaWhen this book came into the shop, I knew it would hit my reading list. I like books about Eastern culture, particularly latte lit. (Novels that have female protagonists dealing with general life, are smart, and don’t devolve into cooking lessons, is the best definition of latte lit I’ve heard.)

Kamali’s book has a couple of clunky bits where she just wants you to believe certain things about her characters without developing them. However. her sharp, sassy writing style makes up for it. She’s like a sweet cynic when she gets hold of words. The novel’s premise is that the mother and daughter in an Iranian family that fled after the Revolution decide to go back for a visit. They go because of love interests – Mom has picked up one she doesn’t one, and the daughter has rejected one Mom picked out for her.

At one point Mina (the daughter) describes herself as balanced on the hyphen between Iranian-American. It’s a lovely passage. In the course of the visit, the depiction of one mom dealing with her family’s everyday pressures compounded by a country flipping itself upside down in a near-civil-war is fascinating. This isn’t an intense political book; it’s one family’s experiences. And its power lies in the way Kamali writes more than the plot or characters.

Here are some examples of the little gems Kamali drops in her writing:

Explaining to her ten-year-old daughter why she now has to wear a hijab to school when a month ago the Shah’s guard were snatching scarves off women’s heads if they wore them:

It’s always through the women that the men express their agenda. Cover up so they can feel like they’re in power.

Iranian hospitality (which is Southern hospitality to the power of 10) requires you to beg the guest to eat and the guest swears it will kill them to do inconvenience you. On round three of one such exchange, Mina, returned to Iran after 15 years in the states, loses it in this gloriously subtle way:

Mina: Would you like some nuts.

Guests: Oh thank you, no, may your hands not ache.

Mina: Please take a nut.

Guests: No, No.

Mina: In God’s name, take a nut.

Her humor is understated like that.

When the family arrives in America, the mom, a quiet, sweet, simple woman by American standards, buys a box of red hair dye and colors herself. When  she comes out of the bathroom, her husband claps and then goes in and cleans up what looks like the scene of an ax murder. The mother turns to her daughter and says they’re going for a walk. Which they do, the daughter much cowed by Mom’s new hair. And Kamali writes this:

Was freedom just tiny movements like this? Simply knowing that no one cared if the sun shone on your hair? …. But dominating all the new colors was the jarring red of Darya’s hair, an unfamiliar defiance that screamed silently at the start of their American life.

And as the book comes to its predictable wedding conclusion, Darya (Mom) looks at the chaos of Iranian-American wedding traditions and messiness around her and reflects:

Real life was messy. It would never add up. It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t need to be.

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The Monday Book: AMERICAN DERVISH by Ayad Akhtar

american-dervishI like character-driven books, and I like books that explore culture clashes, so this was a win-win. Hyat Shah, a teen in the pre-9-11 world of American Islam, is discovering himself through a combination of religion and lust that feels pretty authentic.

Told through his eyes is the story of his mother’s best friend Mina, who falls in love with a Jewish man. Hyat is directly involved with how this does (or doesn’t) go and all through the book you get no sense of agenda, just skilled descriptions of real people trying to live their lives one non-surefooted step at a time.

Hyat himself is a fascinating character, a Muslim Holden Caulfield trying to step with care through the world, but usually putting his foot right into the middle of the muck. Perhaps deliberately, sometimes. His mother and father don’t much like each other. Hyat’s got the hots for his mother’s best friend but can’t admit it. He also thinks her son is a spoiled brat but as a teenager has to share everything with this six-year-old.

It’s a typical American family, these Shahs.

The ultimate (not really a spoiler here) inevitable break-up of Mina and Nathan isn’t really the point or climax of the book; it’s the building action of these wondrously drawn characters, people who are just people, that makes 375 pages fly by in minutes. You can’t put this down, even if it is a little voyeuristic – akin to watching people you like board the Titanic.

Lose yourself in some excellent writing that asks many more questions of its reader than it answers. Pick up AMERICAN DERVISH at your local bookshop or library.

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The Monday Book

Jack’s Guest post – The Swan Thieves

Wendy and I listened to Elizabeth Kostova’s 17-disc novel as a recorded book to entertain us from Big Stone Gap all the way to western Wyoming and part of the way back. We like big books for big drives, and we cannot lie. Actually, I believe that the voices made a big difference and held our attention well.

As for the story – I thoroughly enjoyed it. The format is the tried and trusted multi-strings that begin as if they are completely unrelated, seem to develop without any obvious connection, and then finally resolve with all loose ends satisfactorily tied up.

The tale opens with a successful artist being arrested for attempting to damage a painting in a New York art gallery and continues through the voices of him, his ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, a 19th C. French artist and her uncle, and mainly the opening artist’s psychiatrist.

I’ve often found that this style of book loses me as I try to keep up with the different strands, but this time I had no problem and I felt gripped all the way to the end. The story is set mainly in New York, Maine, N. Carolina and Paris as well as 19th C. Normandy. Among other elements of enjoyment, the author really describes them well.

I suppose if I have any quibble at all it’s that the different threads of the story were rather abruptly brought together at the end, almost as if Kostova. got fed up and decided she’d had enough. I would have preferred a gentler landing perhaps. Then again, a book that entertains for 17 hours of driving is holding its own.

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