Monday, March 19, 2007

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

I don’t usually read books that people go on and on about. Partly, because you end up knowing so much about the book…there isn’t any adventure to it. Partly, because I like to be individual and shun things that might make it look like I’m conforming… self-aware is that statement!!!! Truth is, I don’t usually enjoy highly recommend books, because I find they are usually sad, and I just don’t need to read about the suffering of others. I’m a very sensitive person and being bombarded with my own memories and the lives of those around me is enough…without reading more.

Anyway, I’m discussing this because I’ve gone out on a limb once again and read something that was highly talked about. Unlike Arthur and George (see previous review), I liked this book very much. I did not, however, find it as funny as the blurbs on the book cover made out to be. I found it a very good read and I would recommend it.

The narrator of the book (Nadezhda or Nadia), is the youngest daughter of immigrants to England from the Ukraine. The mother has recently passed away. The father, to the horror of his two girls, has decided to marry a visiting Ukrainian woman. The woman wants to move to England, and obviously is using this frail 80 year old man, to make this happen. You never get a really good feel for Valentina, other than what the narrator tells you. She is a bit stereotypical; she uses the last of the money given to her before moving over to stop along the way and get breast implants. She eats boil-n-bag food and wants a Rolls-Royce, because it is important to have these as western status symbols.

The relationship between Valentina and the father is only secondary really to the story. The important relationships to me are those between the narrator and her father and sister. Nadia and her sister Vera, have a very rocky relationship. Nadia has always been concerned with others. She was involved in the socialist movement of the 60’s and teaches sociology at University. Vera is a survivalist, she thinks of her and her children before anything else. They are polar opposites. As the story goes along you see that having a common enemy has made it possible for these sisters to communicate. Instead of just avoiding each other, they have to work together to help their father. At the end of the book, the narrator has a better understanding of why her sister is who she is. The revelation is stunningly done. Because it isn’t chronological, you get the pieces a bit at a time. I find this wonderful.

I think that Nadia learns a bit more about her father during this book also. There is of course the struggle of a child becoming the caretaker. Both Vera and she have to help their father out of the situation he is in, but they have to learn to understand him a bit more too. Nadia finds out, as we do, that her mother, father and sister’s lives have been shaped by what happened to them in World War II. The things that are revealed about the father show that he is a survivalist like Vera. There aren’t heroic tales of his ability to help others. He did what he had to, to survive. Instead of making Nadia hate him, she realizes that what happens in war is not rational or sane. As she is fighting the “war” with Valentina, she finds her self doing many things that are against her usual ideology. To protect her father she feels that she finds herself torn between trying to understand and befriend Valentina and getting her out of her father’s life. Once Valentina starts to physically abuse him though, she does what she has to, to help him survive, because this time he can’t do it on his own.

So what about the title of the book? Well, the father has decided that he must write the history of tractors. This helps us to understand the history of the area, through tractors instead of through the battles or just the explanation of the politics. It is an interesting way to learn history, not as dry as it sounds. I think it also helps to humanize the father. He isn’t just an old man, who is being taken advantage of. He is also a very intelligent person, who retains lots of information about the topic that has always been important to him.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Skeleton Crew by Beverly Connor

I’ve been reading through Connor’s work for the last few years, taking my time with them as I try to do with all my mystery series. This one was very good. Lindsay Chamberlain is an archaeologist and forensic anthropologist, which is something I’m strangely interested. I also like the fact that I’ve been on the University of Georgia campus, so I feel that I have a tiny connection.

Lindsay is working on a new site that is actually in the ocean. They have built a cofferdam off the island and sucked out the water so that they can excavate a shipwrecked boat. How they built the dam and maintained it was really interesting. Connor also ties it together with a journal that has been found by the only survivor of the shipwreck. She includes passages from this journal. As the translator is translating the work for the archaeology team, you also get to read in his own words what happened. It adds to the suspense and is well done.

The problems start right away when it is found out that there are treasure hunters watching every move that is being made. There are rumours that there is another shipwreck somewhere with lots of treasure to be had. The island that they are excavating has been under the care of a biology research team who have been shoved to the side by this more “important” work. The biology team aren’t happy and do all they can to cause problems and not be helpful. People start turning up dead and there are too many people that could be blame. Boats become sabotaged and the crews are put into dangerous situations.

Lindsay must figure out: who is doing the present day killings, whom did the 400 year old killings, and at the same time a romance is budding between her and someone she has had a rocky past with. It all culminates in what everyone had feared throughout the book, a hurricane which helps Lindsay solve all the mysteries in one fell swoop. I did not figure this one out at all.

Her book list for this series is:

  • A Rumor of Bones
  • Questionable Remains
  • Dressed To Die
  • Skeleton Crew
  • Airtight Case
  • Kill Site (to be published in 2007)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Book Retreat in Wales

Sunday, February 25, 2007 12:00

Marion picked me up in Much Wenlock and we had a nice drive down the Welsh coast. We then had trouble finding the B&B, but after a lot frantic calling and direction asking we found the place. The views are staggering and with two lovely dogs and Carole and Alan happy to see us arrive we felt better. We were happy too; to see the lovely soup and quiche’s waiting for us….since we were a bit late!

At lunch Anna read us our first short story. It was Grace Paley’s work “Wants”. It can be found in a copy of the book Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Virago, 1979). This work was really moving about a woman who runs into her first husband. In the two pages and some, you learn so much about the woman, the man and the type of marriage they both felt they had.

We all had the afternoon free to do what we wanted. Three of us, including me, are staying in a self-catering cottage that belongs to one of Carole and Alan’s neighbors. The house is a lovely three bedroom semi-detached that is on the back of the B&B. The rooms are cozy and there are two bathrooms, which makes it nice for us. The only problem is it has been raining, so after our late night discussion in the fire lit lounge, we had to put on our walking shoes and coats and go out into the cold night!

After we settled in, we all came back to the main house and sat in the lounge, talking, reading or stitching. Slowly everyone who was staying at the main house disappeared to take naps or rest in their rooms while the rest of us read and had a bit of a chat. There is a lovely barn that we have been given the use of for silent time. That is the wonderful thing about this place. We can go where we feel comfortable.

We had a wonderful supper and then gathered for the discussion. Everyone spoke up and told their opinions, which is nice. You feel that you have a very even group then. Carole and Alan also joined us. Alan runs several different reading groups. He didn’t seem to be too intimidated with all the women in the room!

After a good night’s sleep, we made it up to the main house for a lovely breakfast. Anna then read us the second story of the weekend, “Across the Bridge” by Heinrich Boll. Unfortunately, there isn’t any bibliographic information about this work. After this the others went of for a coastal walk and though I was really tempted, feeling a bit of a cold coming on I decided not to go tramping out in the rain. I had promised myself peace and quiet to do some drawing and writing, so I’ve stayed behind at the fire side.

Tonight we are to have a talk by a poet about ways we remember poetry being different then the ways we remember books. It will be an interesting discussion.

Monday 26/Feb/2007 10:30

Last night was fabulous, but I’ll start with where I left off. After a wonderful lunch of soup, bread and cheese, we all went into the lounge for another reading. This time Anna read to us “The Stone” by Tove Jansson that was published in her book A Winter Book. We then went off our separate ways. I didn’t seem to leave the lounge for the whole day really. I enjoyed reading, knitting and doing some drawing. That is what I came for, to relax and take some “me” time. At tea time, we all got together to discuss the two stories we had read. We then had some free time to get ready for the evening.

We were so fortunate to have Gillian Clarke come to have supper with us and give us a poetry and short story reading. Her and her husband regaled us with stories about Wales and India (where they had just visited). We almost didn’t leave the supper table all night, but we did slowly make it into the lounge to have a wonderful reading of three poems and one short story. (Gillian’s poetry books are in print still.) The short story was “Honey” which can be found published in Magpies: Short Stories from Wales edited by Robert Nisbet. Her story was very poetical and rich with images, something that you want to take some time with. She had turned the story into a radio play also, which she has done many times. These have been performed on BBC Radio 4. We were up and captivated until midnight, when we called it a night and let Gillian and her husband leave.

I always find poetry easier to listen to than to read. I read very quickly, and tend to read concepts instead of each individual word. That’s fine for regular fiction or non-fiction reading, but makes it difficult to read poetry or stream of consciousness writing. Having this lyrical story read to you, allows your imagination to be the only thing you are really working with. I guess that is why I have heard it is better to read poetry out loud.

Tuesday February 27. 10:00

This was Ali Smith day. We started at breakfast with a reading of her story “Writ”, which is a limited edition unfortunately. The story is about a woman who is confronted with her 14 year old self, because of an unexpected kiss from an acquaintance. The thought of confronting my 14 year old self was actually something I wish could have happened. As with most things, I think I would have liked to have been reassured that life was going to be better. Many of those gathered; felt that, as in the story, their younger selves wouldn’t have listened to them. But I think I would have. I would have been so relieved to hear how happy I was finally going to be. How little I needed a “Man” in my life and that I would live in England with a wonderful man who loves me for who I am.

Still feeling the cold coming on, I stayed at the house while every else had a walk along the coast. They came back for lunch, where we had another wonderful meal and another story. This one was “Astute Fiery Luxurious”, a Guardian original fiction for 2003. This story is about two people in a very close relationship who receive a package in the mail that has their address on it, but doesn’t say who it is for. The story is very intriguing because Smith keeps so much open for interpretation.

Sue and I then went around some of the local craft sites. I felt the need to get out of the house. After supper we had another discussion about the two stories. Carole joined us for this discussion and was asked about some of her writing. She has a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wales. She wrote poetry for her dissertation about a noble woman named Nest. She lived in Wales during the Eleventh century. I’ve taken a peek at it this morning and it is really very interesting. Reminds me of Tennyson or Homer, where you are learning history through poetry. Though with Carole’s writing, you know that a woman with a love of her subject and a woman’s understanding has written the poems.

This morning the rest are having a tour of the farm from Carole and then we are going to have another quick walk along the beach and then home. (I didn’t end up going on this walk, which was good because they came home absolutely soaked, but very very happy.)

Even though it has been a short weekend, and most of us did not know each other before. We have enjoyed not only each others insight into the works we have been reading, but also each others company.

Anna asked us at the beginning of the retreat what we hoped to get out of the experience. What I wanted was some peace and quiet. I was able to get that and much more. I wanted to expand both my artistic creative side, but my reading side also. I’ve been able to do both. I’ve met wonderful people, read things that challenge me, and reawakened my need to read more. I also feel that I understand myself a bit better. The ability to say no, I want to stay by myself and not go out with the others all the time, felt good. I fought the need to conform, which has always been a driving force for me. I was able to stay behind. Write, read and craft all day with periods of interesting conversations. I didn’t feel that the others thought that strange or anti-social. It was very freeing for me.

There was an aspect to this retreat that you wouldn’t have had if it had been mixed genders. We were able to discuss things as multi generational women, about our lives. The way we deal with things like where are we going with our careers, family life and use the readings as ways of thinking about our lives as women. I’m not saying it was better for that. I think that if there had been men here it would have been fulfilling also. But I think there was something special about sitting around a room with women who have different experiences that made this retreat very special to me.