The Book Club BELLES LETTERS Newsletter
|Vol. 16, no. 1||January 2009|
Belles Lettres: (bel-letr) noun, plural but singular in construction (French, literally fine letters) literature that is an end in itself and not practical or purely informative: specifically, light, entertaining and often sophisticated literature.
Belleletrist: a writer of belles lettres
The Book Club NewsletterCheck this space (and watch for email from Kathy K) for the newest upcoming books during 2009. We begin with a great title for February, Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight. This one's so popular for group reading and discussion, some libraries have multiple "book club" copies available for checkout. Plan, if you can, to gather at 6:30 on February 12 at the Harvest Moon coffeeshop on Minnetonka Avenue. Barbara has heard this author speak, so she'll lead the discussion.
Review of Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai
Memoir’s still a strong seller in
American bookstores, and the hottest form of memoir is “outsider
literature.” After all, who has a more fascinating vision of your
surroundings than a newcomer, who sees it all with fresh eyes and a foreign
And how about this outsider: a child living in a Middle Eastern nation under a ruler who’s known as a puppet of the United States; a Jew in Iran; a girl in a society that idolizes men; a deaf person on a society where every detail must be noticed and every whisper heard.
It’s that child, a deaf Jewish-Iranian girl, who narrates Caspian Rain. The novel, the fourth by Gina Nahai, tells with
vivid color and detail the story of a young Jewish couple living in
The young couple we meet on the first page will quickly wind up married despite that societal gap separating their families’ social backgrounds. Right from the start, the slight chance they had for happiness – which is, after all, a very Western expectation of a marriage – doesn’t have much of a chance. His position is already set out for life, working in his father’s business. She is a woman, a role as confining as that of a slave.
The families try uneasily to reconcile their insurmountable differences, but with the birth of the couple’s baby, all hope is dashed; a son could have redeemed his mother and won his father some respect from his cold, critical parents. But it’s a girl. The child will symbolize much that’s wrong with her family, though she only comes to know that with the passage of time. The child, Yaasi, is torn between her increasingly bitter and frustrated mother, and a distant father who develops an obsession with the beautiful mistress of a powerful and never-named man. As he spends more and more time away from home with the rich socialite, the school sends word to their home that something must be done about Yaasi.
She can’t say why she’s a problem. The girl doesn’t know, doesn’t understand why friends find her awkward and teachers think she’s continually distracted. Her mother begins to make the rounds of doctors’ offices, and one by one they tell her, despite her furious denials, that the child is going deaf.
This isn’t something that makes them sad; rather it’s a dangerous truth, a flaw that puts the woman and girl closer to losing the domestic safety of their home, miserable and confining though it is. There is nowhere else in the world for them to go.
The young mother’s family lives in
a ghetto in
His grown sister Bahar, who is Yaasi’s mother, knows the Ghost Brother stands for the secret the family intended to bury with his young body when he died – that though he was born hearing, he gradually went deaf, quit school, and spent his days riding his bicycle on the streets. He was their flaw, the family’s bad luck, and there was no place for him. He’d never heard the approach of the car that hit and killed him.
Author Gina Nahai was born in
Recent bestsellers including The Bookseller of Kabul and A Thousand Splendid Suns have already introduced us to the plight of women oppressed by cultural and religious customs, but Nahai’s Caspian Rain poses the notion, repeated by the characters around the hemmed-in and abandoned young wife Bahar, that no matter how bad you have it, it can be worse. Her sister, after all, is married to a psychiatrist who savagely beats her and locks her up for days in a pigeon coop on the roof, where her trembling children sneak food to her till she’s allowed to come back into the house.
The book is narrated by the girl Yaasi, who struggles to portray her mother Bahar not as an angry and distant mother, but as the bright, irrepressible young woman we meet at the start of the book. “A girl of limited means and abundant spirit,” Bahar expected to fall in love, get married, finish school, teach, and enjoy her life. As the bitter truth plays out, one out of five isn’t bad, given her inescapable circumstances.
Caspian Rain is a shuffling trip through a maze of smothering cultural restrictions: they outline a happy life by its absence. A neighbor of the family’s, who was once imprisoned and tortured on a flimsy charge, spends the rest of his life haunted by the notion that he’s spied upon and liable to be prosecuted – and in his case, is that paranoia, or a very likely fate?
The daughter, Yaasi, has learned early on that her name means “despair,” though her father’s name, Omid, means “hope” in Farsi. He finally, permanently, leaves his family just as his daughter’s black-market hearing aids fail and she discovers she is completely deaf. There is no school for her then, no sign language or text messaging as she becomes the farthest outsider of all, confined within the walls of her mother’s miserable husbandless home.
The narrator of this book is aware all along of her outsiderness: a Jew in Muslim Iran just before the revolution of the early 1980s, a deaf girl in a land with no accommodations for handicaps, an unwanted female born to an unhappy couple. Yet she concludes that the joy her young mother anticipated, the comfort she did have on occasion, and every brief fleeting happy moment, wouldn’t have existed without the pain and loss that bookended those small treasures. The tragic climax, while it may mean Yaasi’s death, is also a moment in which she realizes there are people in her home and neighborhood who care for her after all.
The book, despite its depressing themes, is an adventure to read – it’s filled with rich visual, sensual detail, from the sizzling food to jeweled raindrops in the sun during a summer vacation. The author, clearly familiar with her setting, lays out in matter-of-fact conversational descriptions the social rules that bind her characters, and that often sound as if they’re from another century far back in history.
If there’s a lack in this book,
it’s any hint of what resources might have been available for the deaf
girl. It would be nice to learn whether
there are any options and networks for deaf citizens in
Two of the author’s previous three
novels deal with Jews in 20th-century
Spare yourself the agony of this endless election; instead, peruse a list of books written by the candidates for president in the 2008. Is there a one of them who hasn't spent long nights after campaign appearances huddled over their word processor? Here are the books written by the candidates themselves, some in cahoots with collaborators, ghostwriters and pals. Take a look
And to read up on the potential presidents, here are a couple quick-shot websites for those who just can't get enough...or want to doublecheck something in the now-shrinking field of candidates.
On the Issues
What They Claim
How the Media Report on Them
- - - - - -The Ladies #1 Detective Agency meets the TSA
Belles read some of the work of Alexander McCall Smith a while back, featuring a central character who is no slave to diets and fashion, preferring instead to take pride in the fact that she is "traditionally built" and sometimes a challenge for the suspension of vehicles of lesser quality. Now this:
In November , an association of Ugandan activists of Rwandan
descent complained to the Ugandan Parliament that the government was
discriminating against its women, in that passport-application officials single
them out to verify their Ugandan nationality based on whether their derrieres
and legs are sufficiently large. According to a columnist for the newspaper
East African, "
- - - - -Did Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry see you placidly through a peaceful summer read, or put you to sleep? Did Paulo Coelho fascinate you with The Alchemist or drench you in an excess of earnest platitudes? Belles choose a marvelous selection of literature every year, and often we’re startled to find at our gatherings just how wide the range of reaction is. Admit it -- you've had a chance, at least once, to get an admiring glance for saying, "Oh, yes, when my Book Club read that..." Feel free to send notes on your opinions to your Humble Editor, for publication or just as an excuse to send a chatty email from home.
- - - -
The Wiz Biz
The Sci-Fi cable TV channel aired a mini-series early in 2007 featuring the misadventures of a modern-day wizard named Harry Dresden. He's the protagonist in a series of sci-fi/fantasy novels penned by one Jim Butcher, books which have quickly become the kind of best-seller that comes pre-packaged in a cardboard display case. The whole series of adventures is offered up at Borders and other chain bookstores, which know a big profit when they see one.
When Jim Butcher decided in the early 1990s to become a published author, he didn't find a lot of confidence in his chances -- in fact, he acquired the nickname “Longshot.” He’s reportedly kept the nickname, even after selling two complete series of books. The writing can get a bit thin and the dialogue predictable, but he’s successfully tapped into the market for a kind of breezy adventure in its genre that mimics some of the big murder-mystery bestsellers.
“Here’s the secret of how to get published: keep going,” Butcher says. Though he’d been getting rejection notices since he was 20-something, he went to a science fiction convention, met an agent who’d turned him down, and after making that personal connection, he got a book publishing offer. You’ll find him appearing to talk about his books at Comic-Con events, not the Pulitzers, but he’s got enough money now to buy the library of his choice, so he’s probably not mourning his lack of awards.
From Storm Front:
“Don’t I always make the potions like you say, Bob?”- - - -
“What about the diet potion you tried?”
“Okay. That one was a mistake.”
“And the antigravity potion, remember that?”
“We FIXED the floor! It was no big deal!”
The then-teen hailed for writing one of the most successful dungeons-and-dragons-type novels of recent years produced a sequel, and in case anybody missed it, the website points out they’re part of the “Inheritance Trilogy.” Shur'tugal (from a the book's fantasy-lingo title for dragon-riders) also nudges the reader curious about the third book to expect it probably in summer 2008, with a title beginning with “E” and containing six letters. A fun website aimed at net-savvy younger readers, Shurtugal.com might be the place to watch for updates on that sequel. ( http://www.shurtugal.com/ )
- - - -
May -- Brunch at Barb's
Dear Belles: what an annual delight to meet again in the springtime, with all the lilacs blooming! Our lovely hostess once again has outdone herself with an exquisite spread, matched only by the wide-ranging and intelligent conversation. There were also photos, and a fashion accessorizing demonstration by Faline, quite possibly the best-dressed of the Belles. She certainly has better taste (and dexterity) than your humble editor, who promises to add a review of the May book club selection soon.
But for now, as promised, here's the interview with Mary Doria Russell.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
by Donna Woolfolk Cross
If you like historical fiction, this is a great new example of the daring way the genre weaves the writer's plot among the threads of genuine fact, history and lore.
Pope Joan isn't the first account of a girl who took a clear look at the world around her and decided men have it better. But her fictional story has its roots in a wonderful tale, the persistent legend that once there was a woman filling the role of "Il Papa," the Pope. That part is unquestionably true -- that there's been such a legend since the thirteenth century.
Donna Woolfolk Cross spent years working in England, and she's done her research on the legends about a woman working her way into the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church. She's carefully crafted the slow unfolding of her character's life to include not only vivid images of those miserable Middle Ages, but also to match up with the loose ends of the legend itself, from the general illiteracy of the common people to the Roman road all popes tradionally avoid.
- - -
She loved Gerold; about that there was no question. But could she be a wife to him? Never having lived as a woman, could she begin now, so late in life?
"Help me Lord," Joan prayed, raising her eyes to the silver crucifix atop the altar. "Show me the way. Let me know what I must do. Dear God! Lift me into Thy bright light!"
Her words flew up, but her spirit remained below, weighted down by incertitude.
A door cracked open behind her. She turned from her place before the altar to see a head insert itself in the opening and as quickly withdraw.
"He's in here!" a voice shouted. "I've found him!"
- - - -
This is more than just "Middle-Earth for the Catholic Schoolgirl": the story's as compelling as a novel, with the authoritative flavor of a biography. The legend at its basis persists to this day, and church officials have studied it to see just why it holds such fascination. The Catholic Encyclopedia examines the tale thoroughly and concludes it didn't happen...but once you've read Pope Joan, you'll be a lot harder to convince.
If you liked Pope Joan and think you have the stamina for a lot more hardscrabble gritty reality, take this one along on a long trip: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley is completely different from Moo, her comic novel set on a college campus, A Thousand Acres, her King-Learesque tale of a farming family, or her other best-sellers, for that matter. It's rich in detail and chronicles the lives of two and-a-half generations of farming families on the edge of a small, harsh island. It's either an engrossing tale rich in historic fact, depending on your stamina, or an interminable prehistoric version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Long LONG Winter.
by Marilynne Robinson
The Iowa Writer's Workshop has produced alumni including Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and Flannery O'Connor, and its faculty are a pretty impressive lot, too, including John Cheever and Frank Conroy. A current teacher there won a 2005 Pulitzer with her novel Gilead. Marilynne Robinson's deliberately-paced book rings with the words of a man who's spent a lifetime -- a long one -- as a preacher. The language is so authentic, you can hear the words being said aloud...perhaps in the voice of your own preacher.
The narrator talks a lot about religion, but never preaches to other characters or the audience; rather he discusses it with himself, in the way anybody mulls over the thread of their life, turning passages over and over and examining their meaning. Here's an excerpt.
It's not a book full of explosions, or intrigue, though slowly and with movement in time that has you following it like a cliffhanger, she reveals facts about her characters: the narrator's father, a minister so earnest in his service to the poor that his constant thefts from the household leaves his own family impoverished, and his own father in turn who went away and died in a strange part of the country. There's a voyage with a father and a young son, which includes another glimpse of poverty so bitter you fear for them, and there's an intense, burning anger that underlies much of their relationship, and which the teller of the tale has tried to understand all his life.
And there's the sweet, slowly unfurling love of a man for a wife he won late in life, and the child who's a miracle of delight for him. You also realize that in his oldest and dearest friendship there's another family matter that turned out not so well, and you wonder just how sinister are the things mostly left unsaid about that family and what was done, or not done, or undone, by a black sheep. You'll wait to grasp his whole portrait with a creeping fear that the story will be an awful one, and only in the plot's deliberate unfolding will the reader realize what his sins consist of. The narrator, too, has his sins -- of pride, and stubbornness, and a loyalty that he learns may not be too generous but rather not generous enough.
Read about the Writers Workshop
Read about Marilynne Robinson
Look for an interview with the author by your humble editor, in the column to the right.
A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey
Where to begin?
He was chosen by our book club as a Minnesota author, with a
hair-raising tale and a path that passed through Minnesota's
world-class Hazelden drug and alcohol treatment center.
Then we learned he'd lied about a lot of it.
Memoir is what's selling these days, true stories of personal
adventures and revelations. For every cozy fiction book we curl
up with, we also like to read the genuine record of someone's
experience. Publishers like it, too. So Frey gave them what
they'd publish, and juiced it up.
Then the story came out, in this expose' in The Smoking Gun, a
website that ferrets out court papers, arrest records, and other
indisputable documents to get to the real truth of events in the
news. And eventually Frey admitted he'd embellished his own
experiences beyond recognition.
So what do you do?
A clerk at a Borders Bookstore, asked about a stack of Frey's
books on a counter, says they're selling as well as they did
before the news came out. Go figure -- perhaps people are
reading it for a different reason now.
Satire sites like The Onion had a heyday with it and so did
comics and late-night television hosts: Jay Leno suggested Frey
is the president's new speechwriter. Author Stephen King wrote a
thoughtful piece about it, dissecting the author's re-appearance
on the Oprah Winfrey Show and her thorough interrogation and
scolding of him. Amazon added the criticism to its review site,
and noted the publisher's taking it very seriously and appending
a publisher's note to future editions.
So do we still read the book?
How could we not?
It's history now!
The PR story is: Christopher Paolini began writing this book when he was fifteen. It’s got dungeons, it’s got dragons, it’s got rapiers and wit, too…though it starts off a bit shakily, like a teen driver. What the brief blurbs don’t always get to is the fact that Chris’s parents are in the publishing business, and that he was four years older, nearly 20, when the volume was completed.
Not to take anything away from it: a kid’s written the kind of book lots of kids that age simply adore, and he gets a lot of it just the way they like it. And, of course, there are kids of every age out there, some of us who often still like reading what’re billed as “Young Reader” novels.
If you’ve read lots of this kind of literature, (did anybody read more books by Terry Brooks back when we delved into fantasy?) you’ll recognize some elements that have become nearly formulaic: the humble country lad, the brave golden-haired wench, the blustering soldiers and the cheerful old eccentric with a big secret basically make up a set of players that can be nudged like game pieces onto many treks across the board.
The book opens with a fatal chase and the mystical disappearance of a magical stone. Before another chapter’s gone by, the country boy’s acquired it, in a burst of smoke and fire, and is on his way to encounter the burly soldiers, or a threat even worse, so he’ll be set on his path to adventure. If the language is a bit breathless and the emotions rather often searing, they’re as perfectly at home in this genre as short skirts are at a supermodel convention.
- - - -
Suddenly, Eragon’s neck prickled. He tried to keep working, but the uneasy feeling remained. Irritated, he looked up and jerked with surprise – a small boy crouched on the edge of the windowsill. His eyes were slanted, and a sprig of holly was woven into his shaggy black hair. Do you need help? asked a voice in Eragon’s head.
- - - -
Paolini’s parents published 10,000 copies, a small run for a big book, and mounted an ambitious grassroots publicity campaign. It worked, and big publisher Knopf picked up the book and signed him to a contract for two more.
Last summer, the first sequel, "Eldest," was published and promptly shouldered the latest Harry Potter book out of first-place on the best-seller lists. It didn’t even hurt that, in some of the editions of the book (an estimated one percent of the 1.3 million-volume run), a printing error replaced 32 pages of the novel with a selection from an entirely different book, to the brief confusion of readers. With a few chapters replaced by a section from the Cornelia Funke book Inkspell, not due to be published till the following month, the volume became a collector’s item…and the publisher offered a free replacement.
As you might expect, the sequel’s longer. The first book ended a bit raggedly, with the action clearly to be carried on in the next volume. While it was too incomplete to stand alone, the next volume picks right up and carries on the pace, as the young hero Eragon recovers from the wounds of an epic battle and sets out to study magic under the elves.
20th Century Fox picked up the novel quickly and the movie’s been cast with a number of famous names including Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, and Robert Carlyle. Original reports forecast it to open in theatres in the spring of 2006. For the latest, you can check in from time to time at the Internet Movie Database.
- - 0 - -
What's on YOUR bookshelf?
(see list at left)
Help me fill in the lists and I'll post every book Belles have read since we got together in 1993. I'll also update the lists as we choose new ones, and add reviews and book news now and then. You've got my email (I can't post it, or automated Internet "bots" will harvest it from the website and send me spam) .
Make your own parody of "Books for Dummies" cover
Gilead author: Marilynne Robinson interview
(not the website!)
Once Upon a Crime
(lots of mystery books)
Uncle Hugos/Uncle Edgars
Red Balloon Bookshop
Barnes & Noble
Half Price Books
Buffalo Gal by Lisa McAllister