Midweek @ Musings: Pumpkin’s Orange Pause

Cats don’t generally understand puns, let alone create them.  So I have to say I’m quite proud of the very clever title for this post!

When Laura decided to take a short break from reading Orange Prize nominees, I was a little upset, because I’ve had so much fun writing my Orange July posts.  But I said to myself, well, it’s just a little pause … and then it hit me.  An Orange Pause!  And I have orange paws!  And I have just the photo to prove it.  MOL (meow out loud) 😆 !

So, yeah.  I’m a smart cat.

Meanwhile, since last week’s post, Laura read and reviewed Molly Fox’s Birthday.  And then she decided all this Orange intensity was getting to be a bit much, and went off to read a mystery (All Mortal Flesh, by Julia Spencer-Fleming).  And then … well, I don’t really know what happened next because the next thing I knew, Laura was on vacation!  Without me!  😥  I know she has Great House on her Kindle, and she also packed a Virago Modern Classic (green, not orange, so not really my thing …).

I’m sure she’ll have book reviews and more to share when she returns.  And I’m composing an Orange July wrap-up post for your reading pleasure!

Until then, visit the Orange January/July groups on Facebook and LibraryThing for more Orangey chat!

Review: Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden

In this quiet, contemplative book, an unnamed narrator spends a day reminiscing about her long-time friend, Molly Fox.

Molly Fox is an actor, and is generally regarded as one of the finest of her generation. (She insists upon ‘actor’: If I wrote poems would you call me a poetess?)  One of the finest but not, perhaps, one of the best known. … She likes the fear, the danger even, of the stage, and it is for the theatre that she has done her best work. Although she often appears in contemporary drama her main interest is in the classical repertoire, and her greatest love is Shakespeare.  (p. 2)

The narrator is a playwright, using Molly’s house as a retreat to work on her latest play while Molly is away in New York and London.  During the course of a day — which happens to be Molly’s birthday — she relives significant moments in their lives, and reflects on their relationships with friends and siblings.

The two met many years before, when Molly was cast in the narrator’s play, and supported each other through the highs and lows in their careers and relationships.  The narrator’s older brother, Tom, is a priest who befriended Molly and may have counseled her through some difficult situations.  Molly’s brother, Fergus, suffers from undefined psychological difficulties precipitated by traumatic events in his childhood.

As the narrator putters around Molly’s house, she recounts several events in her relationship with Molly, painting a clear picture but one that seems just a bit too cut and dry.  I suspected there was more to the story than she was letting on, perhaps more than she was willing to admit to herself.  I began to pick up on tiny clues to a deeper perspective.  When Fergus drops in to visit Molly but finds only the narrator at home, he stays to chat and ultimately provides critical insight to Molly’s character and history, casting entirely new light on everything that was revealed before.

This was a very interesting study of memory and point of view, and how personal experience shapes relationships.

Midweek @ Musings: Pumpkin’s Progress, Orange July Week 3

Meow!  Welcome to another of my weekly Orange July updates.  I have to say I was rather disappointed in Laura’s review of The Tiger’s Wife.  She really misled me on that one, making me think she liked it and all that.  And how could she not like a book with a cat in it?  Sigh.  I’m glad she enjoyed The White Family though — read her review here.  As I predicted, it was intense but it really held her interest.  I’m afraid I can’t say much more about the book.  I was too busy keeping the dogs away from Laura, and therefore away from me.  I have an exceptional talent for making myself seem very large, hissing loudly, and bopping them (the dogs, that is) on the nose.

And now Laura is reading her fourth book for Orange July.  Four books already!   Can you believe it?!   She’s off work this week, which leaves more time for reading (and more time for me to sit in her lap … purrrr … ).  Laura’s current read is Molly Fox’s Birthday, but I haven’t been able to tell what she thinks of it.  Hey, I’m a cat, not a mind-reader!  You’ll just have to come back in a few days when she posts a review.  And I have a very clever idea for next week’s post, so I hope you’ll visit then, too!

Are you reading anything Orange?  Leave me a comment and I’ll purr back at ya. And be sure to check out the Orange January/July groups on Facebook and LibraryThing for more Orangey chat!

Review: The White Family, by Maggie Gee

Alfred White has had a long career as a London park keeper.  His days are spent patrolling the park, monitoring its condition and making sure visitors adhere to park rules.  Alfred is close to retirement, and has seen a lot of change over the years. He longs for the Britain of his youth, during and after World War II. He is especially upset by the influx of foreigners, changing the ethnic mix of his London neighborhood and, consequently, the park visitors.

One day Alfred collapses on the job and is hospitalized.  His sudden weakness shocks his wife and adult children, who have grown accustomed to Alfred’s firm, controlling hand.  His adult children have all gone their separate ways, but are brought back into contact at Alfred’s bedside.  Darren is an established journalist living in the US, and is on his third marriage.  Shirley is in a relationship with a black man, which caused a rift with her father.  Dirk has been unable to establish an independent adult life, and lives at home while working in a corner shop.  He has developed disturbing extremist political and racial views.

May, the wife and mother, held this crew together over the years.  Like many women of her generation, her husband made all the decisions.  When Alfred went into hospital, May found she couldn’t even withdraw money from the bank on her own.  But May is also strong inside, in her own way, and she has a suppressed intellect that remains an important part of her life:

She always liked to have a book in her bag. In case she got stuck. In case she got lost. Or did she feel lost without her books? There wasn’t any point, but she liked to have one with her, a gentle weight nudging her shoulder, keeping her company through the wind, making her more solid, more substantial, less likely to be blown away, less alone. More — a person. (p. 19)

Through short chapters narrated by different family members, Maggie Gee develops the White family’s history and the nature of the parent-child and sibling relationships.  Each of the children bear scars from their father’s discipline and temper.  Darren appears successful on the outside, but is deeply wounded inside.  Shirley has been unable to have children, and struggles with issues of faith.  Dirk is a ticking time bomb, prone to alcohol-infused bouts of temper as he acts out his resentment towards anyone better off than himself.  Alfred and May, for all their flaws, have shared a long and loving marriage, and are likeable in their own ways.

This book is not for the faint of heart.  There’s a lot of sadness, as the entire family copes with Alfred’s medical condition.  May considers, for the first time, that Alfred may not always be there for her.  Alfred struggles with weakness & infirmity.  Each of the children relive their childhood and their relationship with Alfred, and rather than bond together each of them struggles individually.  There are also many disturbing moments, particularly Gee’s portrayal of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.  This would have been a 4.5-star book were it not for a too-tidy denouement about Shirley which struck me as both unrealistic  and unnecessary.  Still, this is a well-crafted story, with a strong emotional pull and an intense and startling climax.

Review: The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht

In The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht weaves together fantastic tales filled with folklore and a bit of magical realism.  Natalia and Zora are two young doctors, traveling to a remote village to administer vaccinations to local children.  It’s shortly after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and political/religious tensions are still high.  Just before leaving home, Natalia learns her beloved grandfather passed away while on a journey far from home.  Her grandmother is justifiably distraught.  She was unable to be with her husband at his death, and she doesn’t understand what he was doing in the place where he was found.

Natalia mourns silently; she doesn’t even confide in Zora.  Her grandfather, also a doctor, was clearly a mentor and role model.  As Natalia remembers visits she and her grandfather made to the zoo, she begins retelling stories he passed down to her, mostly about his life and the people of his village. The stories read like folk tales.  The end of one story often led to another, to flesh out a particular character even further.  This put me off at first, because I kept wanting to get back to Natalia, Zora, and the village.  I struggled a bit with the magical realism in stories featuring “the deathless man,” but I persevered and enjoyed them more than I thought I would.

I really wanted to love this book, but in the end I simply liked it.  I spent the first half of the book frustrated, unsure where it was going.  Then I got swept up in one of the stories and thought, “now we’re cooking, I’m really going to like this!”  I found the connections between stories interesting, and became emotionally invested in some of the characters.  Unfortunately, I was unable to hold onto those feelings.  Téa Obreht is clearly a talented writer, and despite my feelings about this book I’m looking forward to watching her career and reading more of her work.

Midweek @ Musings: Pumpkin’s Progress, Orange July Week 2

Hi again everybody!  I had so much fun cat-chatting with all of you last week.  I meowed really loudly at Laura to show my appreciation, and I rubbed my flank up against her leg, which is my way of saying, “more please.”  She understood me completely, and invited me back for another “Pumpkin’s Progress” post.  And don’t I look handsome curled up on the Star Friendship Quilt with Laura’s latest Orange July reads?  Purrr …

So, last night Laura finished The Tiger’s Wife.  This was one of my picks for Orange July, because I thought it would be about a tiger.  Or at least about his wife.  Which it kind of was.  But not really.  And for a while there, Laura seemed less than happy with it.  She’d read a bit, and then quickly get distracted by a Phillies baseball game, or the Tour de France.  That wasn’t all bad, because it freed up her lap for me!  But when she’s unhappy about a book she gets kind of crabby, and that’s no fun for either of us.  Well I don’t know what happened, but suddenly the book seemed to grab her attention.  That’s usually a good sign, but I guess we’ll have to wait for her review to learn more.

Next up is The White Family.   This book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002.  I copied Amazon’s book description for you (admit it, you’re impressed a cat can do that!):

This ambitious, groundbreaking novel takes on the taboo subject of racial hatred as it looks for the roots of violence within the family and within British society. The Whites are an ordinary British family. Alfred White, a London park keeper, still rules his home with fierce conviction and inarticulate tenderness. May, his clever, passive wife loves Alfred but conspires against him. Their three children are no longer close; the elder son has left for America and the youngest son is a virulent racist. The daughter is involved in an interracial relationship with a black social worker. When the father’s sudden illness forces the children to come together, their deep fears and prejudices come to the surface, raising issues about kinship, trust, and hatred. Maggie Gee expertly illustrates the tensions and prevailing social problems of modern day England in this fascinating novel.

Well it doesn’t look like any cats appear in this book but it does look interesting and, like many Orangey books, pretty intense.  I hope she likes it!

That’s all for this week.  Check out the Orange January/July groups on Facebook and LibraryThing for more Orangey chat!

Review: The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of Love takes place shortly after Sierra Leone’s Civil War (1991-99).  Adrian, a British psychologist, has returned to the country following an initial short volunteer experience.  He’s left his wife and daughter at home in the hopes of making a difference, helping the people of Sierra Leone recover from trauma.  His methods are viewed skeptically at first, but eventually he begins to have a positive impact on his patients.  Kai is a brilliant young surgeon working in the same hospital, and haunted by war trauma and lost love:

And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.  (p. 185)

Kai is still in love with Nenebah, a woman who left him some time ago.  He also misses his best friend Tejani, who left the country to practice medicine in the US.  Kai toys with the idea of joining him, and takes steps necessary for immigration, but is clearly ambivalent about leaving other loved ones behind in Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, silence rules the day: the war is simply not discussed; personal stress is suppressed, as if it’s all a big secret.  Most of Adrian’s cases suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, having witnessed horrific violence during the war that they have been unable to deal with on an emotional and psychological level.  And then there is Elias, the patient who on the surface appears the most “normal.”  Elias checks himself into the hospital, knowing he is near the end of his life. He has a compelling need to unload his personal story on someone, and Adrian begins meeting with him.  Elias worked at the university, first as a lecturer and ultimately as dean.  While his personal circumstances kept him away from most of the violence, he and other academics were arrested under suspicion of some vaguely described wrongdoing.  Elias describes his response to this event, and its impact on important people in his life, in a matter-of-fact way but gradually Adrian realizes there’s much more to Elias’ story.

Aminatta Forna uses patient stories, gradually revealed through Adrian’s therapy, to help the reader imagine the war’s events.  She also builds a web of people which I found fascinating.  Kai and Adrian’s lives intersect first on a professional level and later in deeply personal ways.  The connections between people and events unfold slowly, and for me each revelation was very emotional.  This is especially true of Elias; when his “sins of omission” are revealed, his real character becomes known, as does a connection that binds him with both Adrian and Kai.  The ending was especially wrenching and yet somehow, just right.

This is a superb book; I was transfixed and couldn’t put it down.

Midweek @ Musings: Pumpkin’s Progress, Orange July Week 1

Hello, I’m Pumpkin.  You met me last week, remember?  I’m Laura’s Orange July mascot.  Usually she puts this dopey bird at the top of her posts, but I’m taking center stage for the next few weeks, bringing you progress reports on the annual reading event devoted to reading at least one book that has won or been nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Laura’s been reading The Memory of Love since Friday.  She likes it.  She doesn’t know this, but I’ve heard her talking to herself about it maybe being a 5-star book.  I know that doesn’t happen very often, and being a cat I’m naturally curious.  I’d like to get a closer look, but every time I turn around she has that book in her lap.  This leaves very little room for me, and that’s making me a bit cranky.  Right after she took this picture, I snuck a peek but all I could see was that she’s read more than 300 pages.  Well, at least that means I can reclaim her lap soon.

Next week I hope to chat with you about one of my picks for Orange July, The Tiger’s Wife.  If you’d like to chat about Orange July with some humans, be sure to check out the Orange January/July groups on Facebook and LibraryThing!

Hey, how did that bird get in here? 

Midweek @ Musings: Pumpkin’s Picks for Orange July

It’s almost time for Orange July, the annual reading event devoted to reading at least one book that has won or been nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction.  I had a great time during Orange January, reading 4 nominees, and ever since the 2011 Orange Prize announcement I’ve been fine-tuning my July reading list.  And this time I also have a mascot!

Meet Pumpkin:

Seven years ago we were staying in temporary housing, waiting for our house to be built.  About a week before moving day, a sweet cat turned up on our porch.  We put signs up everywhere, but no one claimed him.  We couldn’t just leave him there, so we packed him up with the rest of the menagerie, and brought him to our new house.  It took him a while to adjust; he spent years in that typical cat state somewhere between timid and aloof.  But recently he decided I am his favorite human.  He likes to hang out in my reading chair, and crawls into my lap when I sit down.  So this year, as I was choosing my Orange July reads, I asked Pumpkin for his opinion.  After all, he’s orange.

Pumpkin and I plan to read:

  • The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (2011 winner)
  • The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna (2011 shortlist)
  • Great House, by Nicole Krauss (2011 shortlist)
  • Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden (2009 shortlist)
  • The White Family, by Maggie Gee (2002 shortlist)

Pumpkin specifically recommends The Tiger’s Wife (because it’s about a cat, right?), and Great House (because the cover is very orangey).  As you can see, he’s not exactly an expert in literature.  But I’ll be sure to share more of his commentary during Orange July!


Review: The Colour, by Rose Tremain

In 1864, Joseph Blackstone, his new wife Harriet, and his mother Lilian emigrated from England to New Zealand in search of a better life. Lilian, recently widowed, pines for her former lifestyle and resents having to live on their remote farm.  But at the same time, she also hopes to rise above her station, and is disappointed to encounter familiar class barriers in New Zealand:

The familiar feeling of being snubbed — a feeling she’d thought belonged only to England, where the disdain of the upper classes infected every encounter — made Lilian want to weep, or, worse, give Dorothy Orchard a vicious swipe across her badly coiffed head. Lilian was particularly vexed by the knowledge that she never understood exactly how people like Dorothy Orchard achieved their instantaneous mastery over others outside their class.  It happened before you noticed it, like a perfectly executed card trick.  (p. 78)

Joseph is arrogant and stubborn, refusing to listen to advice from the locals on where to build his house, and what materials to use.  Joseph and Harriet have an odd relationship.  Joseph has a secret in his past, and married for all the wrong reasons.  It’s not clear what they see in one another, and it doesn’t take long for Harriet to realize she will never truly love Joseph:

For day by day, she kept secret from him her own lovelessness.  It piled up in her. At times, it was not merely lack of love that she felt; it was hatred of the blackest kind. And though she struggled to conceal it from him, perhaps she succeeded no better than he did with his blatant heaps of earth? In the nights, she often awoke at first light to see him staring at her, his eye close to hers, his fists clenched around the sheets. Did he know that she did not love him? Did he understand all too clearly that she loved the wilderness he had brought her to, but not him? (p. 95)

Yet both Harriet and Lilian are committed to making their farm a success, even after Joseph finds gold in a nearby creek and decides to join the hundreds of other men seeking their fortunes in New Zealand’s gold rush.  Circumstances eventually force Harriet to go off on her own, in search of Joseph.

The story is told from alternating points of view with chapters narrated by Harriet, Joseph, and a couple of other characters who weave nicely into the storyline.  Joseph turns out to be an arrogant and hapless loner, unable to relate to women and desperate to please his mother by accumulating wealth.  Harriet is strong and independent, undaunted by Joseph’s failings and refusing to bow to societal expectations of women.  It is only through Harriet’s intelligence that the couple have any chance of finding gold and making something of their lives together.

But that’s only part of this story; Rose Tremain has more to say than “just” historical drama laced with love.  She also shows how the quest for gold took its toll on the land and destroyed both individuals and communities.  Those who are untouched by greed and continued leading simple lives were by far the happiest and, one could argue, the most successful.