Review of Carys Davies’ West

If you want a satisfying and thoughtful read that you can inhale in one afternoon, this is the book for you. In this slim novel (150 pages!), Davies explores the limits on one’s life and how best to live it. Her narrative centers on Cy Bellman, a settler, who is caught in his desire to go West to see if ancient creatures like the wooly mammoth still exist; Bess, his ten year old daughter who he leaves behind; and Old Woman From a Distance, a Native American boy he hires to take him west. All three are trapped by their circumstances and have to best negotiate their beliefs and choices despite the prevailing wisdom around them, as Bellman reflects, “You had so many ways of deciding which way to live your life. It made his head spin to think of them” (113). It reminds me of the proverb about not leaning on our own understanding; almost all of the characters seem so sure about the world, but as Davies reminds us, there is much we do not know or understand. However, her message does not advocate the second part of the proverb to trust in the Lord. West is where god and the Great Spirit are more fallible than man; we are here to do the best we can with our limited understanding.

This novel could easily be over 400 pages had it been written by somebody else– the atmosphere, setting, characterization– all warrant a book of that length. It is a testament to Davies’ prodigious talent to distill a story of such scope to so few pages and not have the reader feel like they are missing anything.

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Review of Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family

I purchased my copy at Daunt Books in Marylebone, London after the sales gal told me that it was one of the best works of “travel” literature she’s ever read and how the bookstore’s owner saw it as the “guidepost” of the store: representing the store’s intent on taking readers to another world. Take me to another world, it did. The world is Turkey, circa early 20th century, with the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire being obliterated by WWI, followed by the rise of Kemal Atatürk and the Turkish Republic. Orga places us firmly in his family as they experience the changes wrought by these circumstances and shows their empowering and embittering effects. This book was very interesting to me for many reasons.

I have read a lot about WWI, but the focus is often very Euro-centric, and we don’t see very many narratives of how it impacted other parts of the world, despite it being a global war. The only thing we know really about Turkey is the Dardenelles campaign and Gallipoli, but that seems separated from Turkish life. Orga allows us to experience the effects of war as it takes his family from the upper-echelon of society to the pit of poverty and starvation and rips his family apart. The biggest change is his mother. She married his father when she was 13 and was a 19-year-old pregnant mother-of-two when the war broke out. Until then she wore the veil, stayed cloistered, unseen, and mute inside, and played the role as doting mother. Quickly widowed and impoverished, she transforms herself into as modern as a woman could be for that time and place. She has to be seen and have a voice and make hard decisions that irrevocably impact her family. It is through her that we see the war’s greatest impact on Orga’s family. It is easy to forget that she is so young throughout the memoir. In many respects she was ahead of her time, which is remarkable since she started out as a very young and traditional woman, content to be to maintain her place. She quickly establishes a new set of values.

Orga also delves into what it means to be a family. He sees how the war changes his family members, especially his mother, and how it changes their relationships. What had been a simple love is now complex, full of hurts and disappointments. He often grapples with his feelings regarding his family, and I appreciate how honest he was about those feelings.

If you want to be taken back in time to another place, this book is for you!

Finding Zen in Buda

Looking south across the Danube under the grey clouds sat Gellerthegy (Gellert Hill): dark, dead, unwelcoming.  Budapest in March, unlike California with its early buds and blossoms, still slept in its winter slumber. Although it sits atop both the city and the “things to see” list,  I wondered if it would be worth the climb.  Was really now the time to see it in its barren tree glory?

Six months before I decided that I would visit Budapest.  By myself.  Partly to satisfy a life-long dream of exploring a foreign place alone and partly just as a personal challenge, could I do it?  Could I handle a language as complex as Magyar that added numerous “k”s and “z”s to words? The forint whose bills started at 500?  Could I navigate my way through streets that were unpronounceable? Could I spend a week in my own company?

  Budapest was easy.  Ridiculously so.  First, basically no one else in the world speaks Magyar, but almost everyone in the world (it seems like) speaks English.  English was their  default.  Most Hungarians were fluent, and if not, knew enough to get by.  The menus were translated. At first I felt the thrill of ordering off a menu I couldn’t understand and then my waiter came by and flipped it over– to the English side.  On the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel, I acquainted myself with the Hungarian Forint, and by the time I reached my destination, I had the amount ready to pay him, tip included (10% as is customary).  Because I spent so much time researching my location and mapping out how to get places beforehand, once I checked in I set off to the Chain Bridge and Buda Castle without assistance.

My own company was a bit more complex. If Budapest’s default was English, mine was go, go, go, plan, plan, plan, do, do, do.  My energy lately had been spent outward, unfurled in all directions.  Solving problems, planning lessons, listening, cajoling students, cajoling adults, grading papers, leading, following, going to meetings, commuting, organizing, and on and on. Just “being” fell to the bottom of the list.  More frightening was looming feeling that I was not enjoying basic pleasures anymore.  Everything felt like something to do, as if I was on autopilot through my life.  My creative zone eluded me and even sinking into a good novel seemed out of my grasp.

Even on a trip by myself where I could be my own boss, I fell into this default mode. Following my itinerary, I made sure I saw the sights that were “worth it”.  My first day of exploring Buda Castle, St. Matyas Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion was quite nice, but my second day making the  trek to City Park, going to the zoo, walking around the Jewish Quarter, and then going to the Opera left me feeling flat.  These were things that I felt like I “had” to do. Maybe it was because all of them were on the Pest side of the Danube: the flat, more developed and trendy area devoted mostly to hip clubs and shopping.

  Gellerthegy called to me, but I resisted.  There were other things to do and see, like take a tour of the stunning Parliament building.  Surely this was more important than climbing a barren hill.  Then I thought about being part of a tour group and following close behind the guide to hear.  Then I thought about other people in the tour.  Then I thought about the time schedule.  Then I realized that I didn’t want a schedule, other people, or a guide.  In fact, I was perfectly happy looking at the outside all lit up at night from across the river.  That was enough for me.  What I really wanted to do was walk up a hill.

  The next morning was cloudy as I struck out down Karoly Utca to cross over to the Buda side via the spare, white Elizabeth Bridge.  Before I could reach it I was distracted by the shops on Vaci Utca and meandered down the narrow street of knick-knacks and souvenirs.  It deposited me in front of the Grand Central Market, Budapest’s largest market.  The first floor was rows of fresh fruits and vegetables, rich-smelling smoked meats, cheeses, pastries galore, and paprika stands.  Tucked in the back was a dairy stand selling fresh yoghurt, my favorite treat.  I purchased a cup of yoghurt and a cinnamon apple strudel and had a little picnic on a park bench.   The yoghurt was light and creamy with just a hint of tang; the strudel was warm and crisp, just sweet enough.  Sated by my treats I made my way upstairs to the maze of shops selling wooden products, Rubik’s Cubes (invented by a Hungarian), dolls, purses, glasses, every kind of good that could feature the word Budapest on it.

  Because of my detour I crossed the Danube on the green Liberty Bridge that placed me at the base of Gellerthegy.  I began my ascent at my own pace.  The hill was quiet with only a few people about.  The trees naked limbs cast a sharp silhouette against the clouds.  Vista points along the way allowed one to stop and soak up the panoramic view of both sides of the city: the bridges lacing the Danube; Margaret Island parting the river; the hills rolling into Slovakia; Parliament and Buda Castle just dots on the landscape.  My pulse quickened as photo opportunities revealed themselves to me.  Slowly with heightened awareness, I let my surroundings speak to me as I photographed the scenery.  Time, people, concerns all fell away as I entered a quiet space of focus.  Everywhere, it seemed, called to me.  Shyly emerging from scattered branches, flowers dotted the hillside.  I walked up to the Liberty Statue at the top of the hill of a woman holding up a palm leaf to the sky. The clouds dispersed to allow the sun to streak though, shining gentle rays of light upon all, revealing the hill, the flowers, and myself coming back to life.

   
    
    
 

C’est la vie:Paris Reflections

Where Are They Now?

It was quite a scene inside the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Artisans carved stones, men sawed wood, workers lifted beams up with pulleys, others stoked the for for iron work, and the horse pulled carts across the workspace.  Out of sight were the artists assembling the stain-glass Windows and beginning the multitude of paintings.  The diorama showed how people worked together to build this great landmark; there were centuries of these men.  As a twenty-first century visitor snapping pictures of it on my iPhone, I wondered, where are they now?

  
The men who helped build Notre Dame are long buried along with the world that needed skilled artisans. Today’s world has little need of men who wield tools and know their craft to create things of beauty.  Much of anything now can be pre-fabricated and made with machines.  Yes, we need people who know how to fix machines and build houses, but what do we have for our artisans? What roles do we have in our society that fosters this creativity and hands-on knowledge?  Paris abounds with work from another time, but where did their descendants go? What legacy did they receive beyond a big, beautiful, buttressed cathedral?

Two Worlds

Some things never change. Montmartre, for instance.  It’s always been a home to the bohemian set and rough around the edges.  The first shots between the Communards and the Versailles government were fired there in 1871 after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War.  Escaping Baron Haussmann’s  demolition and redesign, it holds on to its old world Parisian charm of quaint buildings; some of its inhabitants make one hold on to her purse. Tightly.

On top of the Montmarte Butte sits Sacre-Couer, the stark and majestic cathedral that overlooks the city: the church of the clouds. Majestic and otherworldly, it provides a sharp contrast to the gothic scrolls and spires of Notre a Dame and St. Chappelle.  It’s power is hidden from sight as you exit the Ligne 2 Anvers station and walk the narrow cobblestone streets lined with souvenir shops and falafel places. At the base of the hill young men spread their wares on the ground hoping for a gullible tourist.  The stairs that ascend to the church are littered with Heineken cans, orange juice containers, and drunken reveled playing loud music.  Beneath them lies the Paris skyline– pinkish gray in the setting sun; above them, behind heavy wooden doors, a haven of calm.

  The priest intoned his service and prayer as nuns sang behind him.  The congregation made up of visitors and locals peppered the pews. Visitors walked quietly around absorbing the understated beauty.  Unlike most European cathedrals, the colors and decorations were muted.  The mosaics represented biblical figures as common men– people like you and me.  These scenes inspired comfort and compassion; the God that ruled here was a compassionate and forgiving one who realized our humanity.  He did not inspire fear, damnation, and guilt. Everything prompted reflection and care– from the careful placing of the tiles in the mosaics to walls of blank stone.  It allowed space for one’s own thoughts, a space to process the narrative of guidance, support, and becoming better people; how can we make the world a better place?

These thoughts weighed on my mind as we walked back into the night.

Paris: A Lesson in Kindness

Our hearts dropped when we entered the Metro. She was huddled on the seat, face tear-stained and turned to the window, her extensions falling from her hair, her boots and fishnet stockings ripped and disheveled.  It was clear that she was not in a good way.  As the doors closed and we pulled away, she sat motionless.

At the next stop a man and two women entered our car, they looked at her as they walked by.  A few seconds later the man walked back wearing a look of concern. He knelt to her and asked if she was okay.  She didn’t respond.  The two women came over to her, gently placing their hands on her shoulder, quietly talking to her without judgement. One went to the box to contact the conductor; we could hear the conversation, but we couldn’t understand what was said.  But at the next station a Metro worker was waiting for our car.  He, too, bore a look concern and was ready to assist. She did not want to get off the train, and the train moved on to the next stop. The women and the man stayed with her, a stranger to them.  At the next stop they walked off together, and one of the women used the emergency phone to call for help. They were still with her as we pulled away.

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At the open air market in an esplanade near the Bastille monument, I purchased a bouquet of miniature daffodils to emulate the French who are often seen carrying flowers.  They were bright against my teal coat as we walked down Rue St. Antoine to the Ile-St. Louis to the St. Regis, our lunch destination. As we entered, a waiter greeted us and smiled at my flowers. “Ah! For me?” he asked. “Oui!” I responded, holding them out to him. He took them and lovingly placed them in his front shirt pocket, patting them for safe keeping.  We laughed and he returned them back to me.

   
   
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We entered the Luxembourg Gardens, and even though there were no leaves on the trees, the park was full of families enjoying the bright afternoon.  Parents spent time with their children who were playing with the boats, climbing on the playground, playing soccer or basketball.  The kids were smiling and laughing and shrieking with glee. None was having a fit or misbehaving or on a cell phone; the parents were present and doting, but overall unconcerned. None hovered. Parisians visited on park benches, played pétanque or tennis, others read in the quiet corners.  The feeling of community overswept us.
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The Church of St. Sulpice differed from other cathedrals; it was care-worn and showed its age. We wandered from alcove to alcove until we were approached by a tiny elderly lady in a purple cap.  She scurried toward, eager to show us, complete strangers, the alcove for St. Joseph.  Religious paintings depicting Joseph learning that he should wed Mary surrounded the sculpture of him holding the baby Jesus.  He differed from the rest as his face beamed with light.  “I asked the church to put a light on him, and every night I prayed and prayed.”  She pressed her hands together, looking up towards God. “Then my prayers were answered. They put in a light for him.”  She left us quickly as she came.  We realized that this was the first time we had ever seen Joseph with the baby; it’s always Mary.  Would we have seen it if she didn’t surreptitiously share her joy with us?

  
  
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This is the story of Paris: a city full of people enjoying life, being present, and taking care of one another– even those who they do not know.  Everywhere we have gone, we’ve been met with kindness. The city has been shaken with the recent attacks, but they have responded with generosity of spirit. Instead of striking them with fear, it has given them greater impetus to live the way life should be lived: with care, concern, and compassion.

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Our waiter was abrupt and dismissive, frustrated by our lack of French.  If he knew English, he refused to speak it and barely looked at us.  After our drinks, I handed him the money for our bill, giving him my best, “C’est bon.” He stopped, looked at me, smiled, and said, “Thank you.”

 

How Paris Became Paris: A Review

More often than not, I will come back from visiting a place and then read a random book that turns out to be chock full of information about the place I just got back from. This is typically followed by lamentations of “Why? Why? Why didn’t I read the book before I left for the trip?!” And then a reflection on life’s unfairness: “How was I supposed to know that a Teddy Roosevelt biography would tell me so much about New York?” Or “I was that close to the Jardins des Plantes?!”

Fortunately, the gods of Amazon took pity on my poor soul and deluged with my inbox with recommended reading about Paris, where I am headed today. That is how I ended up with a copy of Joan DeJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City. It was with great joie de vivre that I tore the book out of the box, ready to devour its contents. I flipped open the book and noticed the print was… small. Sigh. C’est la vie.

  The small type was compensated by lots of fascinating pictures and many big ideas. It is the perfect kind of book to read before visiting a city– especially Paris. When I think of how Paris became Paris, I think of Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III and the tearing down of old Paris and building the one we know and love today. But DeJean takes us out of the the 19th century and firmly places us at the dawn of the 17th century to show us how Paris went from a cramped, dirty hovel to being the City of Light that set the trend for how all cities should be. Baron Haussmann just improved on the design.

We take for granted everything that makes a city a city: public spaces with park benches, promenades along river fronts, places for people of all classes to mix, streetlights, distinct neighborhoods, the sense of style, shopping, and postal service. This mode of living is commonplace to us now, but four hundred years ago they were a part of a French revolution: a revolution on what it means to live in city. This was not a grassroots movement as it stemmed from forward thinking monarchs who realized that Paris itself could be a crown jewel and a reflection of their status as rulers.

The Pont Neuf bridge serves as a metaphor for the effects of all of the Parisian innovations. Built in 1604, it defied the typical bridge purposes by being made of stone instead if wood and not having any homes or stores built upon it. It was a connection between places, with nature, and ultimately, with people. Traversing the Seine through the the Ile-de-Cite, it was built to allow both carriages and people across. The stone construction allowed for heavier cargo and brought more trade through the city; to allow pedestrians safe passage, it included new raised paved walkways. This design was so new that there wasn’t a word for it. Today we call them sidewalks. The lack of buildings encouraged the public to stop during their walks and enjoy the view of their meandering river. Parisians flocked to this bridge; it became the epicenter of news, performances, commerce, and a place to just be. People from all walks life could meet together, to see and be seen.

Each innovation, in its own way, succeeded in this endeavor. The open spaces of the Tuilieres and Place Royale, the quais along the riverfront, expanded paved roads, mixed use buildings all brought people together. The use of streetlights enabled people to stay out after dark with less fear of crime; shops and cafes stayed open later. Since it took its counterparts in other countries almost a hundred years to fully implement lighting, it gained its moniker “City of Light”. As Paris became the fashion capital, newspapers and the advent of fashion magazines and fashion plates helped export Paris to the world. Plate glass windows, textiles, and a new level of commerce brought about boutique stores and a new hobby called shopping. Visitors from around Europe flocked to Paris to partake in its unique, cultured city life, and other cities worked hard to catch up to its modernity.

How Paris Became Paris is not just an enjoyable read for anyone heading to that city, but for anyone who is interested in how civilization turned the corner from Medieval life to the modern world. For this traveler, I look forward to enjoying the sidewalks, the boulevards, the bridges and parks, knowing how these simple daily pleasures helped transform the world we live in.

Challenges of an Ordinary Life: A Book Review or Two

“Hey, Ms. L, are you going to see Pride and Prejudice with Zombies?” my student asked.  This  is a much asked question as all of my students, family, and friends know how much how much I LOVE Jane Austen’s P&P.  Not as well known is how much I do not like zombies. It is a trend that I wish would finally die already. Along with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and all the others.

“I just want stories of ordinary people dealing with ordinary life,” I replied at the end of our conversation.

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My wish was granted in Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, a coming-of-age story about Eilis Lacey, a young woman who leaves her small town in Ireland in the 1950’s to seek better opportunities in Brooklyn.  What it lacks in the brain-eating undead or the repartee of Elizabeth and Darcy, it makes up in quiet reflection as Eilis navigates her new life, customs, and people as she finds both love and herself. Like her ocean voyage from Ireland to the States, her path to adulthood is fraught with undercurrents that threaten to keep her off-balance.  Toibin centers the novel on the daily details of Eilis’s life and her weighing of each new experience for what it means and determining what kind of life she wishes to have.  She wrestles with her choices, their consequences and effects on others.

My Goodreads list reminded me that I have read other novels recently about ordinary people: Jojo Moyes’s  Me Before You and Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, and it made me wonder why Brooklyn resonated with me so much more.  Both novels connect to Toibin’s theme of life and how to live it.  Me Before You is an immensely readable novel about Lou Clark, a character similar to Eilis in that she is used to living a small life but is thrust into one greater as she begins working for Will Traynor, a quadriplegic.  Will makes Lou question what she want out of life as he himself has decided what he wants from his.  Of course, romance ensues.  Such stories can easily be made saccharine and sentimental, but Moyes keeps the reality centered in the daily routine of caring for a quadriplegic and the physical struggles quadriplegics face. Nothing comes easily for Lou as she makes many of the assumptions about quadriplegics the reader would make.

Nothing comes easily for the characters in Little Bee either.  The main character, Little Bee, escapes to England from the war in Nigeria and searches for the only people she knows there, a couple who she met on a beach years before.  Little Bee’s arrival changes the couple’s life forever, especially for Sarah whose purpose in life has gone astray by her previous choices and consequences.  Chris Cleave can write beautiful prose, but it seemed like he was trying very hard to be profound and show that the affects of war on children is an issue.  It may have also been the fact that I read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and had watched Beasts of No Nation, unflinching and immediate accounts of child soldiers in African wars, right before I read Little Bee.  The cards were stacked against him.

So what is it about Brooklyn that separates it from other novels about ordinary people?  It is, I figured, about ordinary events.  Eilis doesn’t have her life changed by a quadriplegic or by war; she immigrates to America.  While many of us have not moved from one country to another, many of us have moved to areas vastly different from where we’re from.  We have had to learn new ways of doing things, meet new people and determine them to be friend or foe, experience different weather patterns, figure out how to fit in in ways that are authentic to us, and suffer from homesickness.  If we return to the place we called home, we see it with new eyes and have to ask ourselves if it is really home anymore.  Does it reflect the kind of life we want to live?  Are its values our values?  At some point we have to come face to face with ourselves, that we are not the same person who moved away.  We had to stand on our own two feet and prove ourselves and come to terms with life and how to live it on our own. In the end we learn how to make our own lives a little less ordinary.