Saturday, December 31, 2011

A last look back

It's time to wrap up the old year.  I do think it's valuable to look back because it helps to see where you've been and then figure out where you want to go.

In 2011 I read 149 books.  I thought I'd hit the 150 mark, but discovered I'd double counted one of my books back in August.  Oh well.....whatever.....Here's how they break down by genre:

116 Fiction
2 fantasy
2 graphic novel
11 historical fiction
56 mystery
1 Sci Fi
3 short stories
40 pure fiction
2 Poetry

30 Non-fiction
13 bios/memoirs
2 travel
2 sociology studies
1 science
6 history
6 food
Now comes the Fun part.  Listing the best reads.   Please note: these are MY best fiction reads, not necessarily the best fiction published in 2011...many were published earlier than 2011. And I'd be VERY hard pressed to choose the best of the best, so please don't ask!

Fiction (links go to the book page on

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Cloud Atlas
One Was a Soldier
Lester Higata's 20th Century
The Beautiful One has Come
God of Small Things
Nervous Condition
Sea of Poppies
Night Circus
A Trick of the Light

Best Non-Fiction Reads of 2011

Cleopatra: a life
The Social Animal
American Nations
Strange Relation: A Memoir
Curse of the Narrows

Honorable Mentions

Work Song
A Buddha in the Attic

Major Disappointments

Land of the Painted Caves
The Russian Affair
Great House
The Tiger's Wife
The Reading Promise

And finally by Format:

56 audio
10 audio /print (these were books I listened to and read in print. I often find this a particularly fascinating way to inhale a work.)
30 e books ( I love my NOOK!!)
52 print

So here's to a great year for 2012 although I don't expect the numbers will be nearly this high.  I'll be posting my expectations for the year within the next 24 hours.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

A Man Booker Prize Nominee
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher-Format: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 515 pages
Audio book Brilliance Audio, 18 hrs, 14 min
Narrator Phil Gigante
Subject: Opium wars, colonialism
Setting: India, Canton
Series: Ibis Trilory
Genre: historical fiction
Source: public library

I just finished this fantastic book, and now I'm panting to get to the next one. I really couldn't stop long enough to take notes, so I just decided to let go and wallow in the gorgeous language, and the wonderful characters. I'm certainly having some love-hate relations with a couple of them, and really want to see how this story progresses. The story is set in India, and is a good exposè of the British Empire and its control of the Opium trade. One of the main characters is a young mixed race sailor from Baltimore, who has chosen to make his fortune sailing on this gorgeous Baltimore clipper ship. His rise to a place of some power in the company provides a backdrop for several other personality driven story lines.

The reader gets a really good picture of how the British used the Indian caste system to keep the natives under control. However, they also needed workers in the fields, and forced many lower caste individuals into what amounted to slavery, loaded them onto a sailing ship (the Ibis) and headed for the Mauritius Islands. I was so fascinated with this journey that I went to Google Maps to see where the Mauritus Islands were. There are wicked way out there in the middle of no-where. The voyage reminds me somewhat of "Amistad" with enslaved people totally at the mercy of a gang of hoodlums who will exercise power any time they can.

I really have to let this settle before I can write a proper review, but I highly recommend listening to this in addition to reading it. I literally did both. I would read a chapter as I listened to it. The audio was well synchronized to the book chapters, making it very easy to keep track. The incredible voice of Phil Gigante the narrator, and his ability to speak the difference languages and dialects really added a dimension of pleasure to the experience.

Sea of Poppies is volume #1 of the Ibis Trilogy. I can't wait to get the next one "River of Smoke".

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Special Christmas Wish

Although everyone may not be enjoying the peaceful romance of a White Christmas,
I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you all the blessings, peace, health, and happiness 
the idea brings with it.
No matter your faith, or your chosen holiday, this is one time of the year when everyone of us can stop to celebrate our common humanity, our desire for peace, and hopefully take the time to spread peace and goodwill through small acts of goodness, love and kindness.
May you receive the blessings promised by the Light born on Christmas
and the happiness of knowing you are loved.
May we all receive the peace we so desperately long for and that this war-torn world deserves.

Merry Christmas
Happy Hannakah
Happy Kwanza
and for all other
Joy for all days.
Tutu will be absent from the blog scene for the rest of 2011 - I'm spending some restful time with my children, sisters, mother and granddaughter.  I'll be back on the New Year with a recap of this wonderful reading year, and some news about a couple of new projects.

Here's hoping Santa left a PILE of books under your tree, along with some hot chocolate, and a warm snuggly.  Happy New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Double Header of Familiar Series

This time of year does not offer large uninterrupted chunks of time for reading, so I often turn to the familiar for relaxing and enjoyment. Recently, I had the opportunity to get back to two of my favorite series: Lily Bard and Salvo Montalbano. They're very different, but by now, I'm familiar with the characters, the settings, and the basic life events of each, so I can sit back with each of them and simply enjoy what's happening right now. It's like meeting up with an old friend while you're downtown Christmas shopping. You stop in at your favorite eatery, have an enjoyable mid-day meal, a glass of wine, and catch up on what's been happening. You leave refreshed, and looking forward to seeing them again.

Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher Format: Berkley (2008), Edition: e-book 224 pages
Subject: Christmas wedding in a small town - oh yeah - a cold case missing child investigation
Setting: Arkansas
Series: Lily Bard mysteries
Genre: amateur sleuth/private investigator crime solving team
Source: electronic Epub download from public library

This is my kinda series -- I love Lily Bard, adore her main squeeze Jack, and needed a Christmas book to get me in the holiday mood. Not only is there some Christmas, there's a southern wedding, and that in itself is enough to produce lots of enjoyment. Add the old cold case of a missing girl and a few more bodies and this gets very interesting.  Nice resolution, nothing overly coronary.  This one as an ebook took only about 3 hours to cruise through. Easy, fun, and still fresh enough that I want to track down the 2 left in the series I haven't yet read.
Author: Andrea Camilleri
Publisher Format: Penguin Books- Blackstone Audio, 5 hrs, 52 min, 276 page equivalent
Year of publication: 2010 (original print copyright 2004)
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Subject: crime solving; mafia, kidnapping
Setting: Sicily
Series: Inspector Montalbano mysteries
Genre: police procedural
Source: public library audio download

In this latest of the ongoing adventures of Salvo Montalbano and his sidekicks Fazzio, Mimmi, and Catarello, we are introduced to the Italian concept of kidnap/ransom where everyone expects the victim to be ransomed, the police want to help facilitate the exchange of ransom money for the victim, and even the priest says that if the family can't afford the ransom, then the godfather of the victim must pay.  There's none of the American expectation that the bad guys should be caught and punished.  Everyone knows the mafia rules and everything will be fine as long as the money is paid.  In this case, however, the crooks appear to have kidnapped the daughter of a penniless and broken old man, and it is up to Montalbano to identify the true motivation for the kidnapping.  Classic Montalbano.  If you're a fan of this series, you'll enjoy it.  If you've never read any, I'd suggest starting a little earlier in the series (this is #8).  They're always good for a short satisfying escape from reality.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Author: Steve Martin
Publisher- Format: Grand Central Publishing (2010), Hardcover, 304 pages
Subject: Art dealers, auctions, art history
Setting: New York
Genre: fiction
Source: my own shelves - a 2010 Christmas gift!

I can't believe it took me so long to get to this one!  I had it as one of my top picks on my Christmas wish list last year but it just kept getting buried in other "must reviews."  I'm so glad I didn't give up on it.  Steve Martin has given us a well-written, tightly plotted view of the art world in the recent and current economy.  He certainly seems to have done his homework to be able to present realistic scenes of auction houses, private galleries, international jet-set buyers, and less than honorable wheeler-dealers. The protagonist, Lacey Yaeger, an aggressive up-and-comer in the art world, takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions, motivations, love affairs, and monetary ups and downs. Told through the voice of art writer Daniel Franks, her career, her mentors, her co-workers, her love affairs, and her competition are all well drawn and pulled together to provide a taunt story that keeps the reader turning pages long past bedtime.

In addition to a good story and some good basic explanations of art, art history, and  how art is collected and sold, the book features twenty-two beautiful four color plates of many of the works featured in the book.  The pictures added the extra frosting to a good solid cake.  Steve Martin has certainly proved that his writing abilities are on a par with his acting and directing. 

Trying to "read" this in an audio version is probably a non-starter since the lushness of the paintings would not be available to contribute to the reader's experience.  As an e-book, it would only work on a color reader.  I think a lot would be lost in a strict black and white world.  As a print hardback, it's a winner, a definite positive, enriching, and enjoyable read.  Now that I've finished last year's Christmas book, I can look forward to this year's with a clear conscience.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't) by Betty White

Author: Betty White
Publisher-Format: Penguin Group: Putnam Adult Kindle edition, 272 pages
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Lessons learned from life
Genre: Memoir
Source: Public library download

A recent press release from Penguin Audio announced that Betty White has been nominated for a Grammy for the audio edition of this work.  It's not hard to imagine that.  The print (or in this case Kindle) edition is just as much fun as I imagine the audio would be.  Penguin tells us:
In If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t), Betty’s wit and wisdom take center stage as she tackles topics like friendship, romantic love, aging, television, fans, love for animals, and the brave new world of celebrity. Drawing from a lifetime of lessons learned, If You Ask Me mixes her thoughtful observations with humorous stories from a seven-decade career in Hollywood. Longtime fans and new fans alike will relish Betty’s candid take on everything from the unglamorous reality behind red-carpet affairs, to her beauty regime (“I have no idea what color my hair is, and I never intend to find out”), to the Facebook campaign that helped persuade her to host Saturday Night Live despite having turned down the hosting job three times. Featuring all-new material, with a focus on the past fifteen years of her life, If You Ask Me is funny, sweet, and to the point – just like Betty.
 We downloaded this ebook from our library's Overdrive program to test our new Kindle e-reader.  The process was painless, and turned out to be a really fun.  Betty White is a tell-it-like-it-is lady whose long and noted career in TV is only one aspect of what makes her tick.  She actually reads and answers her own fan mail, confesses to be totally inept with computers, has loads of interesting friends - male and female- and as everyone knows, is absolutely devoted to the cause of humane treatment of animals.  Stories of her interaction with dogs, dolphins, chimps, cats, snakes, and humans all bring smiles to the reader.  Her easy, breezy style of writing gives the reader an experience similar to sitting down by the pool to sip lemonade together.   The e-book worked very well, even showing the numerous black and white pictures in sharp clarity.  I'm betting the audio was a definite winner given Ms. White's natural sense of timing and comedy.

This is one that would make a great Christmas gift in any format for someone who grew up watching Hollywood Squares, Password, Golden Girls, and Mary Tyler Moore. It's an easy read, and will be well received by those who like celebrity memoirs.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: A Thousand Lives: An Untold Story..... by Julia Scheeres

A Thousand Lives:An Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
Author:Julia Scheeres
Publisher Format: Simon and Schuster, Free Press, e-book galley, 320 pages
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Jim Jones leader of the People's Temple, and the organization's structure and activities
Setting: San Francisco, and Guyana
Genre: historical narrative
Source: e-galley from publisher via Net Galley

Publisher's marketing copy:
"They left America for the jungles of Guyana to start a better life. Yet what started as a Utopian dream soon devolved into a terrifying work camp run by a madman, ending in the mass murder-suicide of 914 members in November 1978.

In A Thousand Lives, the New York Times bestselling memoirist Julia Scheeres traces the fates of five individuals who followed Jim Jones to South America as they struggled to first build their paradise, and then survive it. Each went for different reasons-some were drawn to Jones for his progressive attitudes towards racial equality, others were dazzled by his claims to be a faith healer. But once in Guyana, Jones's drug addiction, mental decay, and sexual depredations quickly eroded the idealistic community.
It's been 33 years since this tragedy occured, in which 914 people died in a mass suicide/murder scheme in November 1986, and the story still is repugnant to me.  I can perhaps understand that individuals might choose to commit suicide for a variety of reasons, but I'm not able to comprehend participating in a mass suicide event that included killing hundreds of innocent children.   Julia Scheeres has done extensive research, including interviewing survivors, and its shows in the details she was able to uncover to give us so much of the story behind the headlines.  She begins with the young Jim Jones and traces his "call" to ministry, his education, and his founding of the People's Temple.

But she doesn't stop with Jones' story.  By telling us the story of several members of the church - young, old, black, white, married, widowed, divorced, single, recovering addicts, paroled criminals - we begin to understand why people felt wanted, needed, and hopeful that here was an opportunity the world was not offering anyplace else.  As she follows these members through the years from California to Guyana, we witness the increasing megalomania of Jones and the tension, the uncertainty and the terror of those who finally come to realize that there is no way out of the situation in which they have placed themselves. 

It's terrifying, shocking,and appalling, but it's mesmerizing, spell-binding, and absolutely compelling. It was so depressing to see that the promise of hope so many accepted was perverted by someone purporting to be God, and that people could believe such a person could in fact lead them to eternal happiness.  Watching Jones turn disatisfied people into sub-human creatures who could turn on their own spouses, and children, was not a pleasant reading experience, but it was a story that once started could not be put down.

I only wish the review copy I received had been better edited, but I'm sure the publisher cleaned up those glitches by the time it was released.  It's a powerful story, and one that deserves to be shown to the world, if for no other reason than to prevent it happening again.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review : Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher- Format: e-book galley: Knopf Doubleday 160 pgs,and audio: Books on Tape, Random House Audio - 3 hrs, 52 min
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Japanese mail-order brides
Setting: US - 1st half of 20th century
Genre: historical fiction
Source: ebook- publisher galley through NetGalley; audio - public library download

The publisher entices us thusly: "... a tour de force about a group of women brought from Japan to San Francisco in the early 1900s as mail-order brides. In six unforgettable, incantatory sections, the novel traces their new lives as "picture brides": the arduous voyage by boat, where the girls trade photos of their husbands and imagine uncertain futures in an unknown land . . . their arrival in San Francisco and the tremulous first nights with their new husbands . . . backbreaking toil as migrant workers in the fields and in the homes of white women . . . the struggle to learn a new language and culture . . . giving birth and raising children who come to reject their heritage . . . and, finally, the arrival of war, and the agonizing prospect of their internment. Once again Julie Otsuka has written a spellbinding novel about identity and loyalty, and what it means to be an American in uncertain times."

Written almost entirely in the first person plural voice, the author uses this unusual point of view to give us what appears to be an impersonal overview of all that is happening - "we did such and such, one of us did this, etc." .  But as the haunting repetitious prose chants itself into our brain, we the reader realize that the events being portrayed were at once incredibly personal, intimate, and private moments of the entire group.  They may each have experienced their lives individually, but these experiences paint a collective picture of loneliness, despair, hope, encouragement, and ultimate heart-break.  

It is truly, as the publisher touts, a tour-de-force.  It is easy to see why it was a National Book Award finalist.  The poetic nature of the prose, and the vivid imagery of the women's adjustment to life in America, to marriage with men they did not know, and to a country that does not quite accept them, are well worth the short time needed to immerse oneself into the story.  It won't be quickly forgotten.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher /Format: Random House audio,13 hrs,40 minutes; 400 pg. equivalent
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: magic, illusions, circus
Setting: fictional circus
Genre: fiction: Magical realism, fantasy

Opening excerpt:


The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. 

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

But it is not open for business. Not just yet. 

Within hours everyone in town has heard about it. By afternoon the news has spread several towns over. Word of mouth is a more effective method of advertisement than typeset words and exclamation points on paper pamphlets or posters. It is impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe. 
And the black sign painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads:
Opens at Nightfall 
Closes at Dawn
I don't normally read or enjoy pure fantasy, but from this point I was absolutely captured. I could not put this down. At one point, as I was listening in the car, I drove an extra 10 miles out of my way because I did not want to stop. The story is one of pure magic.

A young woman, Celia Bowen, daughter of a famous magician, is trained by her father to use and enhance very exceptional powers she has. She becomes the premier illusionist in the "Cirque de Reves". Her father enters her (without her knowledge) into a contest of magical wits and powers against another magician - the protegè of the circus' owner, an old rival.  This young man Marco  also does not know at first that he is locked into this combat. As both young people grow, and become more adept at their powers, they are drawn romantically to each other; the circus gains in fame; more fans are engaged; and more incredible actors are introduced to us. The suspense builds beautifully as the reader knows that there is a contest, we know who the contestants are, but we don't know exactly what is involved. We are as much in the fog about the details as the main characters. Even with a constantly back and forth time line, we have no trouble hanging on to the illusion. We sit on the edge of our seats in that circus tent waiting to see what happens next, and every time a new magic occurs we wonder: "Is this it? Is this the contest?" Later, as the suspense builds and the characters become more involved, we undergo another kind of suspense waiting for the climax.

I can't say anything more.  I can't spoil this fabulous, wonderful, engaging, and incredible story telling.  It is a book to be read in any format, and enjoyed over and over again.  It's definitely going into my personal permanent collection, and into my library's collection too.  Grab some popcorn, settle back in your favorite reading venue and treat yourself.  It's the best thing Santa can put in your book pile. Prepare to be seduced.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Kinda Tree!

If you haven't seen her gorgeous blog, you can find this and thousands of wonderful bookshelves, and book doodads at Bookshelf Porn.  If you like on Facebook, or subscribe in a reader, you can see all of these everyday.  One can always dream.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stressed = Desserts??

A very wise friend once told me that "Stressed" is "Desserts" spelled backwards, so this week, while I haven't been writing any reviews, I have been relieving stress.  I suppose I could have done a Weekend Cooking post about my assorted squash/praline pie that I made Monday night, but the whole point of stress reduction is to avoid doing what sounds like a "COULDA, SHOULDA, WOULDA".   So I baked this gorgeous pie, and after hearing the government's report about the lack of nutrition in many of our breakfast foods, we've been enjoying it for breakfast.  After all, it has vegetables, protein, and very little fat.  And it's yummy.  And I don't even have a picture to share.  Oh yeah, did I mention the pain meds for the back and shoulder I threw out lifting a 20 pound turkey for Thanksgiving?  Working great, but not good for motivating one to do too much work.

So....Sleigh bells, snowflakes, giving, parties, cookies, wrapping, ornaments, wreaths....trees, travel, friends and relatives. Our expectation of holidays often comes from a combination of Hallmark, Hollywood, and Home and can lead to depressing let-downs when others' expectations are different (or one's old bones are creaking).

Holidays can be especially challenging if travel and distance is involved. I think the older we get, the more we value our little creature comforts--we want our own bed, our own pillows, we like our own brand of coffee, and want to watch a specific late night news show (or sports event) while our hosts want to go to bed early and turn off the TV. We look forward to visiting with family, but also value our time here at home enjoying each other's company and the quiet that is life in the woods.

The stress of meeting everyone's holiday expectations can often make it seem like more effort is being expended than is needed.  So this year, we're trying here in Tutuland to keep it simple.  We're baking cookies to share with friends and family, we've put up a gorgeous wreath on the door and candles in the windows and we've gotten some gifts for the kids.  We're going to go to "Grandma's" in Baltimore and share Christmas Eve with my three sisters, two kids and everyone's spouses and then spend a quiet Christmas day with G-ma.  The favorite cat-sitter lady is lined up, the volunteer schedule is filled at the library and the town's tree is lit. So we can sneak out of town for a few days.  Now we just need to find a good audio book for the trip down and back (actually can almost get in two - total of 24 hours on the road.)

Meantime, there are several other books I'm trying to finish, and several more that are complete you may have noticed, my reviewing genes seem to have gone on vacation early this year.  I will have at least five more reviews before the end of the year, and they're all great books, but I think when those are done I'm going to kick back, and just read without thinking about reviews for the rest of the year.

In the meantime, those cookies are certainly DESSERTS that are taking care of the STRESSED.  What are you doing this year to keep holiday mayhem under control?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

Author: David Rowell
Publisher/Format: G.P. Putnam's Sons, pprbk galley 272 pgs
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: hope and despair
Setting: Eastern seaboard of US from New York to Wash D.C.
Genre: Literary fiction
Source: Early Reviewers program of LibraryThing

In the Train of Small Mercies, David Rowell essentially gives us a snapshot of a single day in the lives of six very different people.  The date is never given, but those of us who are old enough to remember will never forget the events of June 1968 and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.  Using the day of RFK's funeral and the interminable trip of his funeral train from New York to Washington D.C. as the backdrop, the author introduces us to a cast of characters who have nothing in common except their struggles with personal hopes, dreams, disappointments and disasters.

We meet Lionel Chase, a young college student who, on his first day working as a Pullman porter, is assigned to serve aboard the Kennedy train.  He'd really rather be with his pregnant girlfriend in North Carolina.  Michael Colvert, a fifth-grader whose father is quite absent from his life, comes dangerously close to disaster as he and his buddies play on the rails waiting to catch a glimpse of the casket as the train rolls by; Delores King, a huge Kennedy fan married to one of RFK's most ardent detractors, sneaks her young daughter out of the house to go see the train, and in doing so, puts her daughter in grave peril.

Further along Edwin Rupp is having a pool party, and hoping this opening of his personal swimming venue will somehow put some spice back into his sagging relationship with his wife.  Their yard not only has a new pool, but the train tracks run right along the fence line, perfect for viewing the rolling funeral cortege. We also follow Maeve McDerdon, Irish nanny extraordinaire, whose appointment to interview with Ethel Kennedy for a position minding the newest little Kennedy is abruptly cancelled because of the funeral.  And finally, we meet Jamie West, recently returned (minus one leg) Vietnam vet, whose life, like all the others in this saga, will never be the same, and who is just beginning to reconcile his past dreams with his future opportunities.

Each of these characters has flaws, each has dreams, each puts his or her life on hold for this one day, to watch the train go by.  Their stories are connected only by the train tracks, and the national day of mourning.  Otherwise, they are simply and crisply presented as six short stories, all of which have elements of hope woven into them. 

I usually enjoy this format in fiction, but..... while the writing was superbly readable and descriptive, and the characters well drawn, I found it difficult to find a thread that really pulled them together as tightly as I've come to expect.  There were continual mentions of RFK and his influence, sprinklings of expectations from segments of the population about the premature ending of not only his candidacy but also his life, but I just could not feel them congealing into a whole work.  It's a well-written, well-edited piece of fiction.  I just wish the six stories hung together in a more specific and coherent whole.

Friday, December 2, 2011

All I want for Christmas is a book.....

What a marvelous idea! Often parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles come to teachers and librarians asking for suggestions about "good" books to get for special kids in their lives for Christmas gifts. Rather than develop a list of what other people's kids have liked, or what teachers and parents THINK their children SHOULD read, why not let the little ones pick out a few of their own. Even if you ask them to make a list to send to Santa you at least will know what appeals to them.  Children definitely have a better chance of reading a book they pick themselves than one foisted on them because someone in authority said they SHOULD read it.

If your budget this year doesn't stretch to buying books, don't forget the public library. Establishing a regular library visiting schedule with your children is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child. Pat Conroy, in his bestseller My Reading Life, credits his mother's habit of taking all her children to the library every week, and letting them choose their own books as one of the biggest factors in his adult literacy and success as a writer.

So, make a day of it tomorrow. Visit a local bookstore, stop and get a hot chocolate, and go home to read a good book. And just think.....the children may be so enthralled with their books, they'll disappear so you can get the grown-up holiday chores done.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Author:Tsitsi Dangarembga
Publisher/Format: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Second edition, Pprbk, 224 pages
Year of publication:  2004
Subject: treatment of women in colonial Rhodesia
Setting: Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
Genre: fictional autobiography
Source: Maine Humanities Council "Let's Talk About It" book club

From the beginning this story grabbed me.  Young Tambu opens by telling us she is not sad when her brother dies.  Whoa!!!  Who would not mourn the loss of a sibling?  She gives us a picture of her life as one of poverty, lack of education (or opportunities for anything other than the very basics), and utter hopelessness that things might improve.  Until her brother dies.....There are no other sons, so suddenly, she is next in line to be educated, to have a chance to improve not only her life but that of other women of her village. Until then, her life is encapsulated in this quote:
My father thought I should not mind (Not going to school) Is that anything to worry about? Ha-a-a, it's nothing, he reassured me....'Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?  Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.'  pg. 15.
My father (who was the son of immigrants) had much the same thought about the value of higher education for women. Fortunately my mother had a more enlightened attitude. And Daddy did eventually admit that he was quite proud of all his daughters' accomplishments.

In "Nervous Conditions" Dangarembga gives us a portrait of two cousins in Rhodesia during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Tambu, the main protagonist, is constantly compared and compares herself to her cousin Nyasha, who was raised in England where her parents were studying, until her early teens. After her brother's death, Tambu goes to live at the mission complex when her Uncle (Nyasha's father) is made headmaster of the school. Nyasha is uncomfortable living in Africa, having never been given the chance to experience the language or mores of village life. Tambu, on the other hand, is fascinated with Nyasha's Englishness on the one hand, but repelled by the fact that the English influence is gradually destroying her family and its traditions.

There are other women's stories woven into this one: Tambu's mother, who is unable to see herself as other than the possession of her husband. Tambu's aunt (Nyasha's mother) struggles to reconcile her African identity with the life she lived in England, and the creature comforts she enjoys by virtue of her husband's position and their relative wealth. Lucia, a woman who lives in the village and who has a child by father unknown, wants to better herself, get an education, and doesn't care a fig about social status, or cultural taboos.

Watching all these women react to the men in their lives could paint a picture of bleak despair, but Dangarembga manages to give us hope, offers us a picture of women overcoming the ravages of colonialism, educating themselves and their families to recognize the dignity of human beings, taking control of their own lives, salvaging the traditions of their culture and molding it into a life to be valued and celebrated. Through Tambu's eyes we experience the open-eyed wonder of a young girl who suddenly has clean clothes, a real bed, modern bathing and toileting facilities, not to mention a more varied diet than she'd been used to and her ambivalence about these "privileges" when she returns on school holidays to the family's hut.

Her uncle is viewed as almost omnipotent by both the men and women of the village, the family and the school, and she struggles to come to terms with the power he can exert, his seeming generous support of her family, and the often confusing contradictions of his actions and his English education. It's a fascinating book, beautifully written, and full of puzzling juxtapositions, examples of cruelty and of kindness. The picture it paints of the life of women in Rhodesia during that time period does not give us as many answers as it provokes questions. I certainly hope the author will write a follow-on book about young Tambu. It would be intriguing to see how she turns out as an adult.

I read this book as part of a series of book discussions sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council who provided the books to our library for the "Opening Windows: Women's Stories from Different Cultures" series.  Our group has certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed the previous books in the series.  We all agreed that this was definitely our favorite so far.