Tuesday 13 December 2016

Chronic Christmas - Lene Andersen

Chronic Christmas, by Lene Andersen, is the result of a series of blog posts growing into a full length book. The author,  a Canadian blogger known for her award winning blog, The Seated View, is a colleague and friend who asked me to have a read and review the finished result. That created an unexpected dilemma, as THIS is my book blog. However, my friendship with Lene comes via my other blog, The Original Dragon Mother, where, among other topics, I write about Rheumatoid Arthritis. In the end, I decided that my review of Chronic Christmas belonged there, so to read what it's all about, hop over to Dragon Mother and see. You'll also find a link to where you can purchase this little gem.

Friday 9 December 2016

Books - an Icelandic Christmas tradition

I just spotted this article on Facebook, and decided to drop it here. I missed it when it did the rounds when it was published last year. We don't do Christmas, but I'm THAT relative who gives actual books as gifts, so I'm totally on board with this concept, and the fact that the whole country does this is just wonderful.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

The Dovekeepers - Alice Hoffman

I had my first real binge of book buying on Friday morning. In amongst the books was this one - the cover attracted me first, and then when I read the synopsis I had to include it in the pile. I'm a sucker for good historical fiction, especially historical Jewish fiction. 

I spent six weeks in Israel in early 2008, and was fortunate to have many opportunities to travel a lot of the country from my base in Jerusalem. Israel is a place where the history is very present. Every new building site must have an archeological survey done prior to the commencement of the build, and invariably, those digs produce yet more artifacts that fill gaps in the known history. In the week between the two programs that took me to Israel, a friend came from London to traipse around the country visiting some of the places the courses wouldn't take me.

One of those places was Masada - King Herod's mountaintop fortress in the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. It was an incredible day. We, with a friend from my first course, booked a cab driver for the day who took us first to Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered - evidence of the community of Essenes, a hard line sect of Jews who chose to live apart from the mainstream communities in order to practice their very strict form of Judaism. From there, we went on to Masada. It's one of the many places in Israel where I felt that the barrier between present and past was very thin, and my sense of the people who lived their last days felt very present. Perhaps it was because of the manner of their deaths, and that they'd not been accorded proper Jewish burial rites, perhaps it was the proximity of the Roman army camps that can be seen all too clearly from the walls of the fortress in the desert below. I don't know. But all three of us felt it. My London friend and I had been choristers together in our Sydney synagogue, and we sang Eli Eli in the depths of one of the cisterns - it felt spooky, but right, hearing our voices spin in the perfect acoustic of the underground space, and is one of my favourite memories of the day. We wound up at the Dead Sea - IN the Dead Sea, floating in the salty water - a bizarre, but wonderful experience.
Hoffman's The Dovekeepers is a fictional recreation of the period that begins with the destruction of the Second Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem, and expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem and ends with the mass suicide of those left on Masada when the Romans manage to breech their defenses. The records show that there were seven survivors - two women and five children. The book traces their stories, weaving contemporary research with what is known - primarily from the history written by Josephus, a Jew who was a Roman soldier and historian, who wrote the only contemporary account of the siege.

The narrative begins and ends with Yael, daughter of an assassin of Jerusalem who, with her father, leaves the city in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. She has lived a solitary life, unloved by her father as her mother died giving birth to her. Resembling her mother, she can only cause her father pain. But in her solitude she finds her strength, an inner stillness that enables her to disappear in the desert and find an affinity with the birds and animals there. They leave with another family, the head of that family also an assassin, a colleague of her father's. Her brother, who'd followed in their father's footsteps, has long gone, and their aim is to find him again. The other family eventually fall ill and die, just before an envoy from Masada find them and take them to rejoin their son and brother. 
They find a highly organised community, surviving due to the nature of Masada's construction. Herod, for all he was a weak and corrupt king, was a highly gifted architect, and Masada is a marvel, still, of his very clever solutions to making a mountaintop fortress sustainable. Among other things, a large flock of doves are kept, to provide both food and manure, and Yael is sent to be part of the group of women who maintain them. She meets Shirah, with her daughters Aziza and Nahara, also dovekeepers, and Revka, who cares for her grandchildren. Both women have pasts littered with tragedy, and tangled reasons of how and why they ended up on Masada. 

Revka takes up the narrative after Yael, complete with the story of how she, her daughter and her husband with their two small boys start out towards Masada, and are then set upon by Roman soldiers while they camp in an oasis. Revka's daughter dies in the encounter, the two boys become mute following the trauma of seeing their mother die, and Revka remains traumatised after killing the soldiers. Her son-in-law, who was in the desert saying the Yom Kippur prayers, is devastated, but shuns any form of comfort from Revka or his children. Revka tells then of her growing bond with Yael as she learns to understand that Yael too, has learned the gift of silence through trauma, and is more than she appears to be. Both of them learn to trust Shirah, who is a practitioner of the now forbidden practice of Jewish witchcraft. 

It is Shirah's daughter, Aziza, who is the third voice in the narrative. Shirah, a girl whose mother is cast out of Jerusalem aged 13, with the newly born Aziza. She finds sanctuary in the east, with the Moabites, and a man who teaches Aziza to be a warrior. Aziza's younger sister and brother are born to this man, but Shirah takes all three back into Judea, and Masada, answering the call of her first love, Aziza's father Eleazar, who is the leader of the rebellion there. Aziza's struggles are primarily with her identity - born a girl, she lived as a boy with the Moabites, but is turned back into a girl when they reach Masada. Her mother lives according to the lore of kedesha - outlawed Jewish witchcraft - and the notion that everyone has a specific destiny, or fate, her own having said that anything she loves will be destroyed, so that she withholds her love from Aziza, hoping to protect her from her destiny.

The final stint of the narrative falls to Shirah herself. Shirah, who is destined to never leave Masada, and ultimately gives her own life that her last child can be saved - the baby she bears to Eleazar, the leader of the rebellion, her great love for whom she forsook her Moabite lover and the chance that her other children could survive. In the end, it is only the newborn baby that survives when all but Yael, Revka's grandsons, Yael's son, and the abandoned Essene boy escape with her, after all the other occupants of the fortress die by their own hand rather than surrender to the Romans to become enslaved. 

In the epilogue, Yael looks to a future for those survivors, all the time yearning to return to Judea, and Jerusalem in particular. History tells us that it would be more than 2000 years before that was to happen, with the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948. In the intervening time, Islam was created, and during a period of Muslim rule, the Al Aqsa Mosque was built on the Temple Mount, leaving only the Western Wall of the retaining wall of the original structure accessible to Jews. While there are religious Jewish zealots who would see the mosque torn down and a third temple built, the ramifications of that don't bear thinking about, and in any case, rabbinic Judaism has moved on from that time of animal sacrifice, and the Temple practices of old would hardly be appropriate in the modern world. 
Hoffman lists a solid stack of resources she accessed in the writing of this novel. The mesh of known history with fiction is seamless, and the details of Jewish daily life of the time is beautifully observed. Another pair of books of the period that are as good, which are about Jewish witchcraft, are Maggie Anton's books Rav Hisda's Daughter - in two volumes - set in ancient Babylon and Israel. She goes into a lot more detail about ancient magical practices and women's spiritual life ofcthe time. Rav Hisda's daughter is mentioned in the Talmud - the books of discussion on Jewish Law - Rav Hisda himself was one of the ancient Talmudists.

Masada remains one of those historic sites that have the capacity to raise goosebumps when you visit. The sense of those many hundreds of people facing down certain death is very present, and it's chilling to look down on the remains of the Roman camps and see just how close they were. We were pressed for time the day we visited, and ascended and descended the mountain via the cable car. I'd like to visit again and make the climb up the pathway that traverses the side of the mountain, to have a better sense of the daily reality for those long gone occupants. And to have more time just to spend there than the couple of hours we had in 2008. 
Looking out to the Dead Sea through a window in the wall of Masada

My companions on top of Masada 
The Israeli flag atop the walls of the ancient fortress

Floating in the Dead Sea at the end of our day in the desert

Wednesday 2 November 2016

E.J.Oxenham, The Abbey Girls - New Treasures

On the list of the ten most popular posts on this blog is my post about Elsie J. Oxenham's Abbey Girls series. One of the things that has fascinated me ever since I started this blog was what gets hits and what doesn't. If you'd asked me beforehand about the potential popularity of any of the posts, I'd not have picked that one to hit the top of the list -  a post about a long out of print series of vintage English boarding school books...! And yet, it is.

One of the issues with collecting old books is the availability of the books themselves. Until recently with the efforts of Girls Gone By Publishering and the Elsie J. Oxenham Society, the books were all out of print. It was a matter of scouring secondhand bookstores and op shops, hoping against hope that there'd be a treasure lurking tucked away on a bottom shelf, in the form of one of the more difficult to find from the series. I have a few of those in my - incomplete - set. Others I managed to pick up through dealers. And then the new paperbacks from the aforementioned publishers came out, with their covers carrying reproductions of the original hardcovers' illustrations. On the whole, they've been very well done, and it's marvelous to be able to actually read the stories, not just to be able to start filling in the gaps of the series. Currently, there are four new ones available that I need to save up to get that are so rare that finding the original hardcovers is well nigh impossible, and if one does surface, they can be prohibitively expensive.

Cut to the first weekly shopping to the South Melbourne Market and the [compulsory] exploration of the bookshop situated right at the bottom of the stairs from the carpark, and I was delighted to find a copy of Jandy Mac Comes Back - one of the later, and more common of the series. I already had it, my existing copy was terribly battered, and the one in the store was in good condition WITH an intact dust jacket - bonus. So, I fronted up to the cash register, only to be asked by the proprietor if I collected the series. When I said yes, he directed my attention to the two beautiful, fat, cobalt blue hardcovers on the top shelf behind the till...

First edition copies of The Abbey Girls and The Abbey Girls Again.

Beautiful. Expensive. Rare.

He pulled them down for me to look at, and I was in lust, immediately. However, mindful of our tight budget at the moment, I regretfully handed them back - quite apart from anything else, I have copies of both. Nice copies, particularly the first one, but not first editions, and there is something a bit special about first editions...

Then DB appeared, asking what I'd found, and the guy pulled them down again to show him. Whereupon, DB insisted that I get them. I demurred, because $$$$$ - many $$$$$. Again he insisted, and I had to remind him of our very long list of other, more important things we need, for the house, for ourselves... But he was insistent, saying - correctly - that they were a once in a lifetime opportunity, and they'd give me huge amounts of pleasure - at which point the proprietor told us he was happy for the books to be paid off over time. That clinched it for DB - he fished out $100 and asked if that was enough to start with, which it was. Last weekend, I paid off the last $50 and brought them home.

They ARE beautiful, and I'm very tickled to have them. I'll take my copy of The Abbey Girls Again in and see if he'll take that off my hands, but I'll keep my original copy of The Abbey Girls as it is also a nice, very old edition, with quite different coloured plates - it's the book I used to illustrate the linked post about the series up at the top of this post.

DB has managed to save up to buy himself a new pair of nicks (cycling pants) in the meantime, which was one of the more urgent things on his list. We still need rugs for our floors, a cabinet for the glasswear that's still in packing boxes, and wardrobes for our bedroom so we can stop living out of suitcases and packing boxes, and an island bench for the kitchen that has additional storage space... We'll get them all eventually, and in the meantime, I have my beautiful treasures which are motivation enough to pull all the books that just got unpacked and shoved into the bookcases any old how, and rearrange them properly so that they can take pride of place at the beginning end of the line of Abbey books!

Sunday 30 October 2016

Tiny Books #7 - The World According to Lucy

After a long hiatus, I'm back, and vowing (hoping) to get back on top of regular posting. Sometimes it's important to take a break, and while this one was most definitely not planned and, also, overlong, I am feeling itchy about writing about what I'm reading again, so hopefully getting back on track won't be a big chore. Interestingly, I'm quite aware that the core of book bloggers I got to know when I started this one have also not been blogging much, so perhaps there is only so long any of us can keep going before we need to stop and do something else. I have been writing, and for those who are interested and perhaps haven't seen my other blog, you can hop over to The Original Dragon Mother for some quite different reading.

Along with The Owl and the Pussycat, this book, The World According to Lucy, was at the back of my mind when I started the Tiny Books project. It was a gift from my mother when I was quite small, and unlike The Owl and the Pussycat, has survived the many, many moves (including our most recent interstate move some two and a bit months ago) without going AWOL for too long, although it took this recent move for it to resurface!
It is a cloth covered hardcover, 10cm x 13.5cm, published by Hallmark Cards in 1971 - clearly part of a gift range. It contains a series of four frame strips, one to a page, that cover Lucy's position on a number of different issues, bringing into play many of Charles Schulz's other beloved Peanuts characters.

Lucy has always been my favourite of the Peanuts crew. Perhaps because she's not afraid to speak her mind, no matter how unpopular that might make her. She's been a somewhat controversial figure, I think, because she certainly wasn't what was considered the role model for girls when I was growing up. She's argumentative, opinionated, and loud with it! 
Despite often being treated quite badly by Lucy, Charlie Brown, Shroeder and Linus keep coming back for more, which always suggested to me a level of regard they had for her - maybe they're drawn to her strength, as none of them are particularly strong characters. Her forthrightness appears to always slide off Snoopy's back, however. 

I loved Peanuts as a kid, and I still enjoy it now, although it doesn't appear as regularly in the papers as it once did. Twenty had never heard of it - he went completely blank when I made a comment once that was based on a Peanuts strip. There's a level of daily ordinariness and innocence that is the core of Schulz's gang of neighbourhood kids (and dog) that is quite lacking in more contemporary cartoons, which are largely based in the realm of fantasy and superhero genres.  That it was, and is, read in comic strip form rather than animation - although there have been various animated specials, and the Peanuts movie from 2015, I didn't like any of them - seems to have removed it from the sphere of today's average kid. 

The world was a simpler place when Schulz started drawing Peanuts, and that is very much reflected in the strip, and this book. Was it a better place? Maybe, in some respects. As a self-confessed old-fashioned type, the appeal of Peanuts is timeless - even if today's kids are out of step with that very timelessness and fail to enjoy Schulz's celebration of the mundane!

Sunday 31 January 2016

Body of Glass - Marge Piercy

Having found an image of this book in the list of photos of book covers in my file of pics for this blog, I've clearly planned to write about this book for some time - it just hasn't happened. Until now!
Marge Piercy is one of my favourite writers. She's known as a feminist writer and the books reflect that. That there is also a strong Jewish flavour and, often, theme to her books is another attraction for me. Body of Glass, also published as He, She and It, is one of two books that use time slip structures, in this case, a post apocalyptic time in the future, and 16th century Prague. The other, which I must re-read - and write about - Woman on the Edge of Time, switches between current time and the future. The rest of Piercy's fiction deals with women's politics, historically and at the time of writing. 

Body of Glass runs two story lines. In the future time, set in east coast America, everyone is on the Net, but not everyone is equal. Society is divided into those in the corporate multis (educated, financially comfortable, but ruled by the culture and hierarchies of their particular multi, down to things like clothes and hair styles), the free towns (independent of the multi structures, but always at risk of being taken over for the products they create) and the rest, who populate 'the glop' - a dangerous and unpredictable environment along the east cost, largely underground due to UV radiation dangers. Most food is vat-produced from various algae, as arable land is now scarce and 'real' food is a luxury. The entire population has access to the Net and online espionage is a real threat to the free towns. Artificial intelligence is a feature of every day living, with smart houses that interact with their inhabitants, programmable vehicles,  and robots for various menial jobs. Artificial organs are the norm when people's own fail, so there is a black market for real organs and pirates that prey on people to 'harvest' them for sale.

Shira Shipman, the central character, is a mid level tech in a multi. When she loses custody of her son after her divorce, she returns to her home town - the free town of Tikva, known for the quality of its online security systems. She is offered work with Avram, father of the boy she once loved and never got over. Avram's project is a clandestine and illegal one - the creation of a cyborg that can help protect Tivka online and in real space. It's his life work, and he has collaborated with Shira's grandmother, Malkah, on the latest version, which has resulted in his first viable cyborg, Yod. Shira's job is to socialise Yod. Shira is torn between being fascinated by her work, and trying to work out ways to retrieve her son. As it becomes apparent that Tivka is under siege from the multis, her work with Yod becomes critical, and her mother - who handed her over to Malkah as a baby and is a mysterious character who is also being hunted by the multis - appears, which creates a new lot of tensions, and also a way to go after Ari, her son.

The other story line centres around the chief rabbi of Prague in the 1500s, Rabbi Judah Loew, also known as The Maharal. He was a real man, known as a Talmudic sage and secular scholar, but also as a famous Kabbalist, and legend has it that he created a golem. It was a time of rising anti semitism, and the Jews of Prague - confined to a ghetto - were at constant risk of attacks. The Maharal takes two of his fellow scholars out of the ghetto in the dead of night to create the golem, Joseph, which he has to teach how to act so as to pass him off as a real man, so as to allow him access to the whole of the ghetto precinct, as well as the wider town, in order to listen and watch, and hopefully prevent attacks. In the future time, Malkah tells Yod the story of Joseph, equating the cyborg with his 16th century Kabbalistic counterpart.

The links between the past and future times can get quite thought provoking, and I find myself looking for equivalents in our own times - the questions we are all asking now as the pace of technology outpaces our understanding of many of the ethical issues that can arise. In Yod's time, there has long been a prohibition of creating artificial life to the level Avram achieves with Yod - an individual who is part robot and part sentient being with wants and needs of his own. Yet, he has been created with one basic idea in mind - he is a weapon, created to protect Tivka and its people from the Joseph, the man of clay was created to protect the people of the Prague ghetto. Both are under control of their masters - Avram and The Maharal - who have the ability to destroy them should they step out of line.

Yod achieves far more autonomy than Joseph ever does - in the progressive environment of Tivka, he is 'outed' for what he is, and the town is prepared to consider his case for independent living and status. However, time is running short and the risks from the multis is growing. It becomes clear, the more Yod and the others penetrate the inner workings of the multis, that the upper echelons of those communities know about Yod and what he is, and they want him. They are prepared to go to great lengths to get him, and Avram's files. To what level must the citizens of Tikva be prepared to go, and how can Yod help them achieve lasting freedom?

There are FAR more complexities to this book than the outline I've given here. There are stories within stories and it's a great big read! Piercy's ability to hold together a highly complicated story that operates on many levels is impressive, and I continue to find myself gripped by this book regardless of the number of times I've read it. I don't think it's in print any more, and I have no idea if it's available for e-readers. I did spot a few secondhand copies on both eBay and Amazon at a range of prices. Well worth seeking out.

Sunday 17 January 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop - Nina George

Although DB and I haven't managed to get away properly for some time, due to the pressures of work and finances, we had a very brief trip to Melbourne just after New Year for a dear friend's birthday - which, because we flew, offered me an opportunity to shop in the airport bookshops. I have no idea what it is about airport bookshops over regular ones. They abound in bestsellers and pot boilers, obviously, and yet I nearly always manage to find an unexpected gem. The Little Paris Bookshop was one of those gems.
I, wrongly, assumed from the blurb, that it was just going to be one of those easy, pleasant reads that I'd enjoy on the plane, and then pass on to the next person looking for something new to read. It didn't take very long before I realised I had an unexpected treasure in my hands, and to slow down and enjoy, rather than gobble it up...! 
The central character, Jean Perdu, runs a bookshop on a restored barge on the River Seine in Paris called the Literary Apothecary. Gifted with a sense that understands which books will soothe the souls of his customers, Jean, more often than not, refuses to sell particular books, suggesting alternatives instead, that will heal them rather than contribute to their angst. Unfortunately, he can't seem to do that for himself, and is emotionally crippled from the loss of his great love when she left him to return to her husband. 
It's been twenty years since she left, and his life has shrunk to the barge and his apartment - stripped of everything but the barest necessities, and with the room where she told him she'd be leaving sealed up. Forced, when his concierge prevails on him to assist a fellow tenant refurnish after her marriage breakup, to reopen the room and extract the table his neighbour needs, he rediscovers the letter Manon left him that he never opened. In his pain and rage at her departure, he shoved it in a drawer of the table, refusing to read it, assuming that it was a missive of 'typical' excuses and pleas for friendship after the relationship... He couldn't have been more wrong. 

Manon, by the time he reads the letter, has been dead for twenty years. She was dying when she left him, but in the letter begs him - as she couldn't to his face - to come to her before she dies, and tells him that her husband knows and is prepared for him to come.
Manon is an elusive character in the book. We learn of her via the rare snippets of Jean's memories of her that he allows to surface, or is forced to deal with when they're triggered by events, and well into the book, entries from her diary. The letter triggers an emotional crisis, the like of which he's refused to allow in the twenty years since Manon left, and he abandons his neighbour in her crisis, flees to the barge and casts off, heading south. With him is another misfit, a young author, Max, surprised by the notoriety and fame of his first novel, in the grip of writers block for the demanded second book. Later on they collect another misfit, Salvatore Cuneo, who joins them after a fracas in a riverside dance hall. The ill assorted trio, all plagued by their own ghosts, travel the rivers and canals, still heading south, ostensibly for Jean to find Manon - he doesn't tell the other two she is dead...

The book is a story of intensely personal journeys, growth that comes from embracing the pain and challenges of life rather than running from them, and the joy that can come from the unexpected. Haunted by Manon's loss, Jean's life has all but stopped for twenty years at the point where he finally reads her letter. His flight from what his life had become to the unpredictable life that grows on Frances waterways in close companionship with the other two men exposes him not only to their vulnerabilities and flaws, but to his own. He is forced to acknowledge that much of what his life became after Manon was not, in fact, due to her desertion, but to his own response, and what that means for him in terms of honouring her memory and beginning to live again. 

While the overall idea that runs through the book is simple - it's very much a story of redemption - the details are complex and unexpected. Writing a full review and explaining what happens would result in a condensed version of the novel if I were to attempt to not create untold confusion, and that would mean far too many spoilers. There is nothing maudlin or mawkish about the narrative, rather it is refreshing and quirky, with much that is amusing. I hope that what I have set out in this post is enough to entice people to give the book a go - especially if heading away from home, as it's the perfect book to enjoy on a break.