Haunting Book: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

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Constellation of Vital Phenomena coverI had another novel in mind for my last haunting book review this month, but then I read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, and it immediately became the most haunting book I’ve read this year.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena  is the story of the impact of the Chechnyan wars on the people of a small village. The citizens of this village show all the humanity and inhumanity of how people behave under  stress. The story revolves around a man’s abduction by Russian soldiers while his eight-year-old daughter Havaa watches. Her neighbor Akhmed takes her to an abandoned hospital where only one doctor, a weary woman named Sonja, remains to treat the victims of war and illness. Sonja, already overwhelmed by the work of running a hospital single-handedly, does not want to assume responsibility for Havaa.

The novel’s timeline takes place over five days, but through numerous flashbacks we see the impact of both the first and second Chechnyan wars on the characters and their families. The flashbacks give the novel a broader scope than simple narration of the five days of Havaa, Akhmed and Sonja’s lives could have. The story is both small and universal, as any good novel should be.

Marra’s prose is beautiful, even as the events he depicts are horrifying. We see torture and sex trafficking, drug abuse and lust, betrayal and euthanasia. Each tragedy makes sense in its time and in the connections between the characters, even as the horror of the novel’s totality mounts.

The novel’s title comes from a definition in Sonja’s medical dictionary:

“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” 

 

And, indeed, the novel is about life and all its vital phenomena. Ultimately, we see the power of love and compassion amidst the ugliness of war, but to say any more would be a spoiler.

SPOILER ALERT— THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA.

Some of the characters in this book are heroes, but few are truly villains. Most are victims. They all lose family and friends, and many lose their self-respect as well. Some do their best during extraordinarily difficult times, and some discover their inability to act as they should.

Here are some of the key characters in the novel:

Havaa: At the heart of the novel is eight-year-old Havaa, whom Akhmed saves after her father Dokka is imprisoned by the Russians. As a child, she is not responsible for anything that happens to her, and caring for her drives many of the developments in the plot. Havaa also carries a secret that binds many of the characters and their pasts together.

Akhmed: Although only Havaa’s neighbor, Akhmed takes her to a hospital to save her, and agrees to work as a doctor in exchange for her care. He went to medical school, but is a far better artist than doctor. He is married to Ula, a woman with dementia, whom he mostly abandons to work in the hospital

Sonja: Sonja is a London-trained surgeon who returned to her native Chechnya to find her sister Natasha. She is bitter and exhausted because of her inability to care for everyone the war has sent her way.

Natasha: We see Natasha only in flashbacks. When war came to Chechnya, she fled and was caught up with sex-traffickers who also turned her into a drug addict. She returns, then flees again, and Sonja never finds out what happened to her, though the reader does.

Khassam: An old man and neighbor of Akhmed, Khassam tries to salvage what is left of his community when he cannot salvage his relationship with his son, an informant.

Ramzan: Ramzan, Khassam’s son, was tortured during the first Chechnyan war, and now informs on his friends and neighbors. He is troubled by his actions, and yet cannot find a way to extricate himself from the horrors and losses in his life.

Even when characters seek to escape their cruel reality, even when they betray their friends, I had to forgive them, because of the horrors they endured. Sonja has saved so many lives with her skill and lost her brilliant career; should I condemn her for her brusqueness toward a child who needs a home? Ramzan has been tortured and maimed; I condemn him for informing on his friend to avoid more torture? Akhmed saves Havaa and brings light to Sonja; should I condemn him for killing his bedridden and dying wife when he is about to be captured?

Anthony Marra does a masterful job at making readers ask these questions, of making us sympathize with people surrounded by cruelty who often become cruel themselves. His haunting prose is always cognizant of and compassionate toward human frailty.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena  is most like The Sandcastle Girls of the other haunting books I have reviewed, and also contains themes similar to the non-fiction Unbroken. We see the same inhumanity of man to other men that war brings out no matter where in the world and when in time it occurs.

This book is fiction, but its themes are real. It is a miracle that any of the characters in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena retained any scrap of goodness in the face of the evil around them. And those of us who live our lives away from evil cannot in our complacency hold the less fortunate responsible. Some of Marra’s characters believe they are beyond redemption, but we readers do not have to believe that they are.

Who are we to judge?

 

California Grows Quickly Despite Slow Communications

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Throughout 1848, fortune-seekers streamed into California, even though the U.S. government had not yet acknowledged the discovery of gold. By October 1848, there were 8,000 men mining for gold in California, doubled from the 4,000 in July of that year.

William T. Sherman made his second trip to the gold fields in the fall of 1848, and reached the Stanislaus River, called “Sonora” after the region of Mexico where many of the miners came from. Sherman reported that more and more mines were being discovered every day, both north and south of the Stanislaus.

Peter Burnett, photo from Wikipedia

Peter Burnett, photo from Wikipedia

Miners poured into California from Oregon. A few brought wagons down the east side of the Sierra Nevada and reached Sacramento in late October 1848. One of these Oregonian miners was Peter Burnett, who later became California’s first governor.

Burnett described the difficulties of the trail to California along the Yuba in his Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer. He wrote:

I could hear the wagons coming down that rough, rocky hill until midnight. Some of the people . . . had been without water for nearly two days.”

. . .

“Below, glowing in the hot sunshine and in the narrow valley of this lovely and rapid stream, we saw the canvas tents and the cloth shanties of the miners.

Meanwhile, not only was official acceptance of the gold rush slow to come from Washington, but news from the East Coast also arrived slowly in California. On October 23, 1848, the San Francisco newspaper, The Californian, reported news just received from the east via Monterey:

We have been politely favored with the perusal of a letter from Monterey to a gentleman of this town, from which we gather some highly interesting and important intelligence. Two vessels had arrived at Monterey, by which intelligence had been received from Boston and Washington up to June 29.

. . .

“Martin Van Buren was a self nominated candidate for the Presidency, taking the anti-slavery side of the question. Hale of New Hampshire, was the abolition candidate.

“The election for Presidential electors is to be held on the same day in November throughout the Union.

This last point was significant, because 1848 was the first year in which the presidential election took place on the same date throughout the U.S.—November 7, 1848.

In the 1848 presidential election, the candidates were Martin Van Buren, a former Democrat (and former President) who headed the Free Soil Party, Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party, and Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party. Taylor won, but died in 1850, just sixteen months after taking office.

Of course, residents of California could not vote in the 1848 election, because California was not a state. This newspaper account came just a week before the election took place. It had taken four months—from late June until late October—to reach California. How could California ever become a part of the nation when communications were so slow?

And yet, less than two years later, on September 9, 1850, Congress approved California’s statehood.

When have poor communications caused difficulties for you?

Haunting Book: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

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Book Thief coverI’ve posted about other haunting books set during wartime (see here and here). The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is as haunting as any of those featured in my earlier reviews.

A writer friend of mine gushed one day, “You’ve got to read The Book Thief. It’s so wonderful. And I am the Messenger. Zusak’s language is so good. Every writer should read them.”

She is someone whose opinion I value, so I tried The Book Thief. It was wonderful—beautiful language, a poignant and riveting story. I wasn’t so crazy about Zusak’s first novel, I Am the Messenger. The Australian writer Zusak was more successful in portraying Nazi Germany than in writing about his native country.

The Book Thief is the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, whose mother sent her to live with a foster family in Germany during World War II. She is the book thief of the title and steals books from a wealthy woman in town. Her foster family also harbors a Jewish man, and much of the novel deals with the relationship between Liesel and the Jewish Max Vandenburg.

Although the novel has been marketed to a young adult audience, it is a dark and tragic tale, and the narrator is Death. Some readers think Zusak’s choice of perspective is weird, but it worked for me. Death stalks the characters from the very beginning of the story, when Liesel’s little brother dies and she steals her first book, The Gravediggers Handbook. Death is omniscient, while a human character would not be, allowing for a rich story that sees more than Liesel possibly could.

SPOILER ALERTS—THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN THE BOOK THIEF.

The characters in The Book Thief were unique: Liesel herself, trying to survive her childhood during wartime; Rosa Hubermann, the gruff foster mother who worries about feeding the child; Hans Hubermann, the artistic foster father who worries he cannot feed Liesel’s spirit and so teaches her to read; the Jewish refugee Max Vandenburg who also feeds Liesel’s love of books; the neighborhood rapscallion Rudy Steiner, as trapped by the war as Liesel is; and the rich mayor’s wife Ilsa Hermann who permits Liesel to steal books from her library.

Death himself is a compelling character. Who knew Death has such a wry sense of humor? He tells us early on:

***HERE IS A SMALL FACT  ***
You are going to die.
 

In The Book Thief, Death is overworked in wartime and compassionate toward his customers, not the Grim Reaper of Ingmar Bergman films. He needs a vacation and a distraction. Death explains himself:

. . . why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from?
. . .
It’s the leftover humans.
The survivors.
They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail.
. . .
It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors–an expert at being left behind.
It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
* A girl
* Some words
* An accordionist
* Some fanatical Germans
* A Jewish fist fighter
* And quite a lot of thievery
 

That, in a nutshell, is the story.

The childhood friendship between Liesel and Rudy develops into puppy love (more on Rudy’s side than on Liesel’s), and the reader yearns for their adolescent infatuation to mature into adulthood. Even Death seems to root for them. But will they survive the war to let it happen?

Although the plotline is often harsh, the moments of kindness in The Book Thief give the tale a humanity—even from Death—that I found both tragic and sweet. Zusak writes about the randomness of life and about how we can change its course through how we treat others. His prose is unsentimental and lyrical, tragic and sweet.

Not everyone dies in the course of the novel, though Death does greet many of the characters. I won’t tell you who dies and who survives. All I’ll say is that I cried.

The Book Thief makes a strong case for the power of words and of writing to maim and to save. As Hitler’s Mein Kampf killed a nation and much of a continent, so Max’s words and Liesel’s own become balm for the soul.

I have not seen the movie, but I’d like to see how much of the mood of the novel was retained. The book has almost 70,000 reviews on Goodreads, so I won’t go into any more detail; you can read about it there. I’ll just say, every writer should read The Book Thief.

What book would you recommend to writers?

Halloween Costumes: Making Good and Making Do

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My husband and I have been invited to a Halloween party requiring costumes, and we are panicked. What will we wear?

I’ve seldom put a lot of effort into Halloween. As I’ve written before, I am the pumpkin carver in the family, and we usually have a jack o’lantern for the front porch. I buy candy to give to trick or treaters, and when my kids were small, I did a little decorating.

And they had costumes. But rarely did I put much effort put into the costumes. When my son was a baby—my first Halloween as a mother—I made him a cape to go with his Superman onesie. The time spent on that cape was a good investment. It became a pirate’s cloak for a later Halloween, and also inspired his superhero play for years. It may still be buried in a drawer somewhere.

More typical of my costume efforts was the Halloween when my son was three. I talked him into being a doctor, because the hospital where I had given birth to his sister a few months earlier had given him paper mini-scrubs and a mask—a good enough costume, I decided, no matter how unappealing to a toddler boy in love with Batman and Robin.

pumpkin costume

The pumpkin costume I made for my daughter

The year my daughter was two, she insisted she wanted to be a pumpkin. Her brother tried to explain that being a pumpkin wasn’t the thing to do, she was supposed to look scary and smash pumpkins instead.

No dice. She wanted to be a pumpkin. My daughter was far less malleable than my son had been as a toddler.

So I made a pumpkin costume—the most elaborate costume I ever created. I measured her, designed it from scratch on paper, purchased orange and green and black felt, cut out the pieces, sewed them together, stiffening the seams to make it stand out around her body. I even made a matching green hat and bought my daughter green leggings for a complete pumpkin ensemble. I was very proud of myself.

By the time Halloween rolled around, my daughter was less enamored of being a pumpkin. I think she had entered the princess phase. But I managed to get her to wear the pumpkin costume for trick or treating.

And I made her wear it again the year she was three. I was back in my “making do” mode. The leggings didn’t fit that year, but I found black tights or something to keep her warm.

Now, after more than a quarter century, the costume hangs in a spare closet, waiting for some other child to need it. (See picture above.) This is why I didn’t put much effort into costumes. The payoff wasn’t there.

In later years, we occasionally bought a plastic costume off the rack, but usually we created costumes from clothes on hand. One year, my son decided he would be Dick Tracy. Dick Tracy wears a yellow coat and yellow fedora and carries a gun. We found a yellow hat, and I convinced him that his yellow rain slicker could be the coat. A water gun made a good enough gat.

J as Dick Tracy

Son as Dick Tracy. He’ll scare the crooks, won’t he?

That same year, my daughter was an angel. All that costume required was her white nightgown and a silver shoebox cut into a halo shape and stapled to a headband. Voila! Instant holiness, no matter how much of a devil she was in daily life.

M as angel

Daughter as an angel. She could pretend for an evening.

But none of this helps with this year’s conundrum . . .

What are my husband and I going to be this year? The party is this Saturday. All ideas are welcome.

Haunting Books: The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

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cuckoo calling coverI’ve mentioned before that I wasn’t fond of the Harry Potter books. But I read all seven of them, if only so I could talk to my nieces and improve my crossword puzzle performance.

Despite my indifference toward the Harry Potter books, when all the hoopla arose around J.K. Rowling hiding her identity to publish an adult crime novel, I decided to read it. I also was about to publish a novel under a pseudonym, and I was curious why a famous author would follow this path also. And her first book under the name Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling, received good reviews.

I’ve now read both books that Rowling has published to date under the Galbraith pseudonym. Both The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm were better than the adult novel that Rowling published under her own name, A Casual Vacancy, though that wasn’t a bad book.

(NOTE: In this review, I’ll call the author Galbraith, unless I’m referring to the Harry Potter books.)

I thought The Cuckoo’s Calling was a wonderful, gritty detective story. Like all the best noir protagonists, Cormoran Strike is a tortured soul with an unfortunate former love interest. What makes him unique is that he is a disabled veteran, still suffering from a war injury in Afghanistan that left him without part of his leg. He was forced to leave behind his successful career in the British military police to become a private investigator. Cormoran is also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star.

In The Cuckoo’s Calling, Galbraith has Cormoran investigating the death of a supermodel, someone who lived in the world of the rich and famous that his father inhabits.

Rowling’s many years of writing the Harry Potter books shows in the fast-paced plot and well-developed characters in The Cuckoo’s Calling. If it takes a million words before a writer knows what he or she is doing, then Rowling has paid her dues, and kudos to her for moving out of the youth fantasy genre into hard-boiled detective fiction. She is good at it.

SPOILER ALERTS—THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN BOTH THE CUCKOO’S CALLING AND THE SILKWORM.

One of the things that I liked best about The Cuckoo’s Calling was the relationship between Cormoran Strike and his gal Friday, Robin Ellacott, a young PI wannabe, who is engaged to a guy who wants her to be a Human Resources clerk. The reader can tell instinctively that Cormoran and Robin would be a better match, if only he can get over his ex-longtime-girlfriend, and she could drop the dorky fiancé.

Obviously, Cormoran and Robin get the bad guy. But before they do, readers wend their way through a maze of suspects and clues that equals the best of modern crime writers. The ability to develop intricate plots that sustained Rowling through seven Harry Potter books shows in her Cormoran Strike novels. She doesn’t have the edginess of Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), but Rowling writes a very competent noir novel in a modern setting. Her plotting and the relationship between Cormoran and Robin take The Cuckoo’s Calling to near the top of my list. I think her mysteries are comparable to the novels of Tana French and P.D. James, both of whom I like very much.

silkworm cover imageI really cared about what happened to Cormoran and Robin, so I again jumped to get The Silkworm, the second novel published under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym. I highly recommend The Silkworm as well The Cuckoo’s Calling. They can be read in either order, though it is always nice to start with the first book in a series.

In some ways I enjoyed the second book more than the first. It is set in the world of authors and publishers—a world I know a little better than the world of super-models. And the relationship between Cormoran and Robin shifts a little, as both recognize problems with their current and past loves, though they also recognize the perils of a workplace romance.

The Silkworm is far gorier than the first book, as it features a horrific murder method involving disembowelment and acid. I must say that as soon as I realized that missing entrails were a component of the mystery, I developed a strong suspicion about the murderer, which proved to be correct, though I had no idea of the character’s motivation.

The second novel was also grittier than the first. The savagery of the murder and the shadiness and sexual deviance of the many suspects all made The Silkworm darker and more violent than The Cuckoo’s Calling.

My only complaint about the plotting in The Silkworm was that once Cormoran figures out whodunit, the readers have to wait a couple of chapters before he tells them. Cormoran sets up an event to provoke the murderer into action, but the readers don’t know who or what he’s trying to do. All writers manipulate their readers, but this obvious manipulation felt clumsy and annoying to me.

In addition to delivering a really good murder mystery, Galbraith also provides commentary on English social classes, wealth, and gender inequality. The themes of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm feel real, even if some of the bad guys are over-the-top evil.

I am definitely looking forward to Book Three about Cormoran and Robin. I like these characters far more than Harry Potter and his gang, but then, I read Harry Potter as an adult.

What mystery or thriller series do you eagerly seek out?

Seeking the Familiar in the New: The Columbia and the Rhine

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I think it is human nature that we try to make sense of our world, to organize what we encounter in life so it makes sense with what we already know. I had this experience on our recent cruise along the Rhine River. Each place I saw, I thought, “This is like . . . ,” and tried to compare it with a place I had already been.

Much of the Rhine reminded me of the Columbia River. Not necessarily the section of the Columbia where I grew up, but the Columbia River Gorge downstream toward Portland, Oregon.

Here’s a picture of the Columbia River Gorge:

Columbia River Gorge, from Wikipedia

Columbia River Gorge, from Wikipedia

And here’s a picture of the Rhine I took on our trip:

LoreleiBut, of course, there are differences. I didn’t see any waterfalls along the Rhine, as I have seen so many times along the Columbia. I don’t recall vineyards right along the Columbia, as there are along the Rhine, though there are many vineyards in both Washington and Oregon in the hills beyond the Columbia.

And there are no castles overlooking the Columbia.

Castle along the Rhine

Castle along the Rhine

But the hills above both rivers offer lovely overlooks of the valleys below. Here is a picture I took near Vantage, Washington, of the Columbia River this summer:

Columbia from above Vantage

Columbia River, from overlook near Vantage, WA

And here is a picture from Marksburg Castle looking out over the Rhine:

Rhine from Marksburg Castle

Rhine River, from Marksburg Castle

The vegetation is different, but the majesty and power of the rivers are the same.

And now, after our Rhine River trip, I have a whole new set of familiar images to match against my future experiences.

What have you seen in your travels that reminded you of home?

Haunting Book: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

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Goldfinch coverThe Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, haunts me because I hated it so much. I know it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. I also know I hated it.

Earlier this year, I wrote a review of the book on Goodreads that read “While this book is well written, the only character I cared about was the painting.” I intended to write more, but got distracted. Still, that one sentence pretty much sums up my feelings about the book.

Oh, I could say I liked the dead mother also. (That’s not a spoiler, because you learn the mother dies in the first fifty pages or so.)

SPOILER ALERT – THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN THE GOLDFINCH.

Ms. Tartt created a few unique characters—the Russian boy Boris comes to mind. But many of her characters were stock types—Theo’s friend the nerdy Andy Barbour; the rich, depressed Mrs. Barbour; the kindly friend James Hobart (“Hobie”) who later takes Theo in without asking too many questions about his past; the bitchy stepmother Xandra. None of these characters were very likeable.

Even the protagonist Theo, comes across as the epitomical shell-shocked orphan, thrown into a cruel world through no fault of his own. Theo’s world is modern and crosses many social strata, but it is no less squalid than Dickens’s 19th century London slums. But Theo doesn’t rise above his world, he sinks into it. He wallows in it. I tried to like Theo, but I just couldn’t drum up enough sympathy for him to make The Goldfinch worthwhile. And certainly I didn’t have enough sympathy to last 800 pages.

I was entertained by Boris’s shenanigans and manipulations, but I couldn’t sympathize with his and Theo’s drug and alcohol use and shoplifting. I chuckled when Boris first came on the scene, but within a few pages I wanted to throw the book across the room each time he conned Theo into another bad act.

I could see that Ms. Tartt wanted us to sympathize with all these characters as products of their environment, but I couldn’t help wanting to shake them into taking responsibility for themselves. Theo becomes the addicted thief his father was, despite despising his father.

You’d think Theo would have developed just a little self-awareness through the years, but he didn’t. He only came to his senses after he is almost killed, again as the result of Boris’s manipulations. Even then, his first reaction is to hole up in drug-induced oblivion in a foreign hotel.

Ms. Tartt’s language is often beautiful, but she goes on ad nauseum. One article said that the book had been acquired by its publisher in 2008, yet not published until 2013. Ms. Tartt must have added fifty to one hundred pages of extraneous text each year in between.

One of my friends gushed about the book when she was about 200 pages into it. By the time she finished, she agreed with me—the book is at least 300 pages too long. I really wanted it to be over long before Theo left Las Vegas to return to New York.

But I had to find out what happened to the painting. That’s all that kept me going until the end.

What books have you thought you should like, but you just couldn’t?

On Baking Cakes: Generations of Life Lessons

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My mother with my children, during my son's Cub Scout years

My mother with my children, during my son’s Cub Scout years

My mother’s death brought to mind many memories for all her family members. My son sent my father a letter describing one of his memories-a time when my mother instructed him in how to bake a cake.

He was a Cub Scout at the time, and the pack was holding a fundraiser. The fundraiser was an auction of cakes made only by the boys and their dads. Mothers were strictly forbidden to help.

Little did the pack leaders know that my husband made more cakes than I did. (There’s a reason for that, but that’s another post.) My husband was out of town, however, so my son had no authorized helper.

In my wisdom as a lawyer and a mother, I decreed that, although the rules forbade me to help, my mother, who was visiting, could be present, if she didn’t actually do anything, but only told my son what to do. In truth, she would be a far better instructor than I would.

So I left them to it.

Here is how my son described the event:

Angel_Food_Cake_Pan“The weekend before the auction, Dad was out of town, but as was true for most of her adult life, Mom wanted no part of baking. Thankfully, Grandma was visiting, so a bit of adult supervision was on offer. My mother, of course, wasn’t going to let me bend the rules, so Grandma was to supervise and help me understand the recipe, but she was not to do any of the work. I wanted to make an angel food cake, which it turned out wasn’t the easiest thing: it has a special pan, a different texture, and even a different physical orientation for cooling.

“. . . Grandma was patient with me and enthusiastic throughout. Her encouragement made the project fun and interesting in the doing.

“That is no small thing: that cake was the first thing I ever made for myself in a kitchen, and because it was for the auction I would never get to taste it.

“When I was little, cooking seemed like a chore one did on the way to dinner. Today, it’s one of my favorite ways to pass the time . . . . What I love most is the tinkering and screwing up and learning. I love the way vegetables’ color gets richer during the first two minutes of a boil. I love the change in aroma as I stir a new herb to a stockpot. I love the number of different ways one can get bread to rise.

“Grandma’s devotion one afternoon twenty-five years ago is the reason I find such joy in cooking. She made me feel good about the work as I did it, and I learned to see the making rather than the eating as the good part. All she was doing was being helpful to her daughter and her grandson for a few hours. In return, I got a lifelong way to find peace.”

The cake turned out fine and made some money for the pack. But more important was the experience my mother and son had together.

We never know when the little things we do make a difference in people’s lives. My mother did many little things for others. And that is why we remember her with love.

When did someone do something little for you that made a big difference in your life?

P.S. Thanks to my son for writing most of this post.

Haunting Book: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

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This month I’m writing another series of book reviews on “haunting books.” I haven’t read that many really good mysteries or thrillers by new authors this year, though I recommend to readers that you try any book by Tana French (see review of In the Woods here) or William Landry (see review of Defending Jacob here). Therefore, my reviews won’t necessarily be of haunting books in the traditional sense. But they are reviews of books that have stuck with me for some reason.

luminaries coverMy first “haunting book” post this year is on The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013. I first heard about The Luminaries last fall, about the time it won the Booker award. It sounded intriguing—a story of New Zealand during its Gold Rush years in the 1860s. I was hard at work drafting my novel about the California Gold Rush in the 1840s. Could The Luminaries offer me any inspiration?

But I was daunted by the 800+ page length of Catton’s novel. My reading time was limited, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to so long a book. When I start a book, I intend to finish it.

I put my name on the hold list for The Luminaries at my local library—both for the hard copy version and for the ebook—and waited. My name came up shortly before Christmas, and I checked it out.

When my son came home for Christmas, I had just started reading the book. He was also reading it for his book club and was further along in the story than I was. He raved about how wonderful the novel was, so I got more serious about plowing through it.

The book starts out conventionally enough. A stranger comes to town on a dark and stormy night and insinuates himself into a suspicious group. It could have been an Agatha Christie mystery. But such was not the case.

I could tell as I read that there was a complicated structure to the book—a structure so complicated it was beyond my abilities to fathom as a reader or a writer. I read that Catton based her novel’s structure on the zodiac and astrological symbols. Each character was designed to represent either one of the twelve zodiac signs or a planet. Supposedly, the characters interact based on the relative movements of the constellations in the heavens, and the decreasing length of the chapters corresponds to the waning of the moon.

I know nothing about astrology (beyond reading my daily horoscope for amusement), and I didn’t understand any links between the characters and the zodiac signs or planets. Even when I read that Te Rau Tauwhare, the Maori native, was linked to Aries, for example, I still didn’t know what to make of it. The star charts for each chapter were meaningless to me.

So I read the book as a murder mystery set in an intriguing time and place. I learned about the Hokitika goldfields in New Zealand in the 1860s, and had a good time doing so.

The prose in the book was lovely. The plot was intriguing. But it started off so dang slow. I like a book—particularly a murder mystery, which The Luminaries is at heart—to move quickly. As has been widely reported, the first chapter in this book is 360+ pages.

The novel is dark, like watching a movie filmed mostly in shadows. The characters are grim and tortured. But I still enjoyed the book. The pace picked up after I got through the grueling first chapter.

It took me a couple of months to read the book, rotating from hard copy to ebook, depending on my library’s check-out demands. At one point, I had to stop for a couple of weeks, when I had to return the copy I had and no other version was available.

A more committed reader would have purchased the book.

Nevertheless, despite the slow trudging that reading The Luminaries required, the novel makes my “haunting book” list for several reasons:

  • My awe at Catton’s ability to structure such a complicated book and still make it a good story. As I said, I could tell something was going on with the book’s structure, though I couldn’t understand it. Nevertheless, it was a good read, despite its length.
  • The Dickensian prose, detailed and lush and often macabre, which painted a picture of unfamiliar lives and times. I’ve read many Victorian novels by Dickens and others. The Luminaries is reminiscent of them in style, but the complex structure of the book takes it out of the Victorian genre.
  • The history, which taught me about New Zealand’s colonial days and the Hokitika goldfields, the harshness of gold digging in the mid-nineteeth century, and the intricacies of English law. Who knew property, inheritance, and shipping laws could be so intriguing?
  • The characters, each compelling in his or her own way, from the opium-addicted prostitute to the cruel sea captain to the devious shipping agent. The large cast of characters presented a microcosm of their time and place. I felt that I came away with a feeling for the many classes of people that flocked to New Zealand to seek their fortunes in gold.
  • The plot, which in the end was simply a good murder mystery, with a romance at its core. It had all the twists and turns that a mystery should have, complete with mistaken identities, illegitimate children, forgeries, stolen gold, and betrayals intended and unintended.

I recommend The Luminaries. But set aside a long period in which to read it. And you might even consider buying it.

What long books have you enjoyed?

Travels to Europe As Book Ends of a Career

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In August 1979, shortly after the bar exam, my husband and I traveled to London for two weeks. It was our delayed honeymoon, almost two years after we were married, and celebrated the end of law school and the beginning of our working careers. We knew that it would be a while before we would be able to take another extended vacation.

The London trip was a wonderful respite, a time to relax before we launched into new jobs. We had no worries, other than living within the travel budget we had set. (Money was tight until we began earning salaries.)

We got to know London and its museums reasonably well, finding our way on our own via subway and bus. We spent a day at the British Museum and didn’t see everything. The Tate Gallery offered a lovely diversion one afternoon. We ventured out of the city to St. Albans and a couple of other nearby sites. One day we happened upon a cricket match that neither of us could understand.

Earlier this month, thirty-five years after our trip to London, we took our next vacation to Europe as a couple. We’d taken family treks to Switzerland, Denmark, and Italy, and my husband and I had each traveled in Europe for professional reasons, but this was our first return to Europe with just the two of us. And we chose a Viking River Cruise on the Rhine River.

We hadn’t really planned the timing, but this year’s excursion marked the end of my husband’s career at the law firm where he began working in 1979, just after our London vacation. I retired from full-time work a few years ago, but he has continued to practice law. His retirement party at the law firm was the Friday before we left. So we will remember our two trips to Europe as book ends to his career.

Wandering in the Black Forest

Wandering in the Black Forest

As one would hope, our circumstances this time were very different from thirty-five years ago.

First, we weren’t on a budget, which was a nice improvement over 1979. But we still had to watch our spending.

Unfortunately, while we were traveling, our credit card was the victim of fraud back in the United States. The card was canceled two days after we began our trip, which was a huge inconvenience. The debit card worked in ATMs, but not at all vendors, and the transaction fees were higher than on the credit card.

The second change from 1979 was that this year we let Viking River Cruises plan our days. They handled airline reservations, transfers from airport to hotel to boat, and transport back to the airport when we left. And they provided tours and tour guides in every city along the way. We traveled by boat from Basel, Switzerland, on the Rhine to Amsterdam.

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Marksburg Castle

Castles.

Cathedrals.

Windmills.

Narrow medieval streets and modern autobahns.

Full breakfasts and three course dinners.

And even a battlefield for my husband.

We could have handled our own arrangements, but I admit it was a relief to let someone else do it. I always have to do the planning on our vacations. I enjoyed being pampered, starting the moment I got up and had bacon and eggs and pastries waiting for me. The pampering continued through dinner and dessert and the fresh evening breeze off the water.

I’m hoping I’ll get more pampering, now that my husband is retired. But maybe he wants pampering as well.

Who will pamper whom? I’ll have to let you know how we negotiate having both of us at home.

How have you celebrated transitions in your life?

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