Tag Archives: Travel

Two Parrots by Rashin, inspired by a tale from Rumi

Two ParrotsAccording to a note at book’s end, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī of 13th-century Persia, also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, or simply Rumi, “… is currently considered to be the ‘most popular poet in America.’” International award-winning illustrator/writer Rashin wants to make sure that even the youngest readers can access and appreciate the timeless poet. To that end, in a simple, contemporary translation illuminated with captivating pictures, Rashin presents a story about love and freedom from Rumi’s iconic, extensive Masnavi, his six-volume poem of Sufi spiritual lessons.

“Once upon a time, in Persia,” begins this tale of “a wealthy merchant who had everything.” Still, he found himself a bit lonely, and bought a lively talking parrot to keep him company. In spite of all the endless comforts the merchant offers his fine feathered friend, the parrot remains sad in his beautiful golden cage.

As the merchant makes plans for a trip to India, he generously asks all his servants what he might bring back as gifts. Rather than any luxuries, the parrot’s only desire is but a message to a friend: “‘Tell him I would love to see him, but I can’t because I live in a cage.’” The merchant dutifully delivers the missive, only to witness the friend’s sudden death at the news. Upon his return home, how the merchant’s own parrot reacts to his regretful report teaches the merchant “a lesson [he] will never forget.”

Rashin, too, is just as ingenious as her avian characters, as she creates a complementary ‘hidden-in-plain-sight’ narrative in Farsi. In case you’re not lucky enough (like grateful me) to have a literary Persian friend, allow me to share a few tidbits. The three servants’ requests penned on a long scroll, begin with the word ‘sogati,’ the Persian concept of gifts gathered from one’s travels to specifically share with family and friends waiting at home (think souvenirs with purpose) – in this case, items include “perfume, clothes, jewels, sweets, wine, fruits, scarf, fabric.” The merchant is surely indulgent.

Most revealing of all is the parroted epistolary exchange: the sealed envelope at story’s beginning suggests that the Indian parrot’s name is Sina, as he writes, “My dear friend, salaam [hello] …,” to his caged buddy; as the ending nears, the scattered pages around the parrot’s cage show a letter in progress, in which the trapped parrot replies to his friend: “Salaam, my dear friend, I wished I could see you,” and “You are lucky because you are free.”

Love should never be at the cost of freedom, and Rashin-via-Rumi offers an important early lesson about healthy relationships (21st-century helicopter parents – who me?! – might take careful note). Thanks to Rashin’s vivid, empathetic presentation, here’s a teachable moment translated into an enchanting, memorable experience.

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Iranian American, Persian

I Know Here and From There to Here by Laurel Croza, illustrated by Matt James

I Know Here and From There to Here

Absolutely no doubt that you could read either of these titles separately and find two engaging standalone stories. But read them together and you’re guaranteed a much more satisfying experience that reveals Kathie’s love of frogs, the significance of “[only] me in grade three” meeting someone “[e]ight, almost nine,” the importance of the sketchbook, and so much more.

I Know Here – a Canadian mega-award winner – captures all that is familiar for a little girl about to move from a nameless “yellow dot” somewhere in Saskatchewan to the big city of Toronto. Her “here” is close to Carrot River where her baby brother was born, and Nipawin from where the family’s groceries get delivered. “Here” is an enclave of 18 trailers, of which her “school is the trailer at the end of the road.” “Here” is where the dam her father is building “will send out electricity far across the prairies,” signaling that “[s]oon we will all be leaving.” What the little girl knows are the forest, the howling wolves, the tobogganing hill, the moose and rabbits on the Pas Trail – and somehow she’ll need to figure out how to take some of “here” to “there.”

Four years after Here, the sequel hits shelves next month. “Here” trades places with “there” when the family arrives in Toronto: “It’s different here, not the same as there,” the little girl narrates. “There” is where her father’s dam stretched across the Saskatchewan River, and “here” is where his next project is a city highway. From a “road without a name,” the family now lives on Birch Street, even though the birches “must be hiding in the backyard behind the fences.” Doors went unlocked there, but not so here. There the aurora borealis “dance[d] just for us”; here the street lamps keep darkness at bay. But best of all, here is something – someone – new: Anne, who knocks on the door to ask if the little girl is “ready” … for new adventures and new friendship.

Author Laurel Croza, whose back flap bio reveals her peripatetic past, uses her own Saskatchewan-to-Toronto childhood relocation as inspiration for both titles. Her co-traveler, artist Matt James, presents a rich, saturated palette to give textured energy to Croza’s memories. His intentionally naive, guileless style captures just the right balance of longing for the familiar, intertwined with the excited anticipation of discovery. Croza and James twice prove the strength of their complementary collaboration, creating a poignant journey both timely and timeless.

Readers: Children

Published: 2010, 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian

Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami by Gretel Ehrlich

Facing the WaveBefore discussing content, I must start with a warning about presentation – think of it as a public service announcement: Choose the page, choose the page, choose the page!

Although narrator Sumalee Montano (an American actress of Filipina and Thai/Chinese descent with a Harvard degree) lists Japanese as one of her specialty accents on her résumé – she also lists “Asian gibberish,” I kid you not! – any supposed proficiency disappears with actual Japanese names and words: “Junie-cheeeeero” in spite of the distinguished first syllable in Jun’ichiro, “Koh-BEE” instead of Kobe, oh my. That said, to blame the narrator is ultimately misdirected; irresponsible (lazy?!) audible producers who are incapable of employing a reader who is actually familiar with the language featured in a title seem to be the norm. Again and again, careless casting does grave injustice to otherwise well-written, important titles. Might I repeat: choose the page!

Gretel Ehrlich – award-winning journalist, novelist, poet of 15 titles, and a rancher and filmmaker, as well – travels to Japan three months after the tragic March 11, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that triggered a powerful tsunami which then caused one of the world’s worst nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. The devastation is understandably wrenching as she travels along the Tōhoku coast, sharing with survivors their overwhelming losses of home, possessions, and friends and family.

Beyond the harrowing tragedies, however, Ehrlich finds the most life-affirming stories amidst so much cataclysmic death and destruction: a mother who lost her daughter obtains a backhoe license so she can dig for the still-missing; horse and dog rescuers who realize that “many people died … but the animals didn’t even have a chance to run for their lives’”; a stranger who, when he learns Ehrlich is American, asks her to thank the U.S.Navy for providing food, clothing, and water right after the tsunami when no one else could reach his village.

Perhaps the most memorable of all features 84-year-old geisha Tsuyako Ito, “the ‘last geisha of Kamaishi.’” Geisha rarely travel, and “[e]ach region of Japan holds on to its own traditional acts, and they are never passed from one region to another,” Ehrlich explains. “But the March disaster changed protocol and erased territorial boundaries.” The tragedy of the wave brought Tokyo geisha Megumi Kumura to Ito-san’s village bearing a new shamisen after she read how Ito-san lost everything. Megumi-san left with the “Hamauta, the Bay Song,” which only Ito-san knew in all the world; back in Tokyo, Megumi-san taught her four apprentices. “‘Even though the girls aren’t from here, at least the song will be carried on … As long as someone owns it, it can’t be stolen, or forgotten. I’m so grateful,’” Ito-san exclaims.

Such moments of human connection carry Ehrlich’s memoir forward with hope. She finds the unexpected moments of bonding and laughter, of happy memories and promises for a recovering future. “The Wave was … both destructive and beautiful,” she writes in her “Epilogue”; her eyewitness memoir – chilling and inspiring – captures the same.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by AG Ford

Under the Same SonAn 85-year-old grandmother makes a special birthday trip from the U.S. to Tanzania where three generations celebrate with a surprise safari through Serengeti National Park. The story is special enough … but this one is far more layered …

Grandmother Bibi is Rachel Robinson, the widow of the legendary Jackie Robinson who broke the race barrier in 1947 to become the first African American to play Major League Baseball. The author (and co-traveler) is daughter Sharon Robinson and the family’s birthday adventure is hosted by her brother, David Robinson, who “… in 1984, gave up all that was familiar to him – and started a new life in East Africa.”

Artist AG Ford captures all the important moments with brilliant hues and rich vibrancy, from Bibi and Sharon’s arrival in Dar Es Salaam, to their few days in David’s home “exchanging gifts, telling stories, and filling in the gaps from their years apart,” to the unforgettable safari which ends on a historical beach on the Indian Ocean.

The final day of Bibi’s birthday trip takes the family to Bagamoyo, which “‘… was once home to a slave-trading post,’” David explains. “‘People were captured and brought here with their legs chained together to keep them from running away. ‘Bagamoyo’ comes from a Swahili phrase that means ‘to let go of one’s heart.””

The somber moment becomes both a historical lesson as well as a celebration of the deep bonds of family: “‘Your great-great-grandparents were captured on the west coast of Africa and shipped to America, to the state of Georgia,’” David tells his children. As an adult, David made the voyage back: “‘I wanted to return to my ancestral past. And I made my home here with you.’” In the detailed “Author’s Note,” at book’s end, Sharon further explicates: “As the founder of a coffeegrowers’ cooperative, David has committed his life to partnering with the people of this region to fight poverty and foster economic development.”

While continents and time zones might separate families all over the world, heroes like Jackie Robinson and his descendents who continue a legacy of social activism, ensure today’s”‘freedom to travel back and forth.’” And, as Bibi reminds us all, “‘We may be separated by land and sea, but we are always under the same sun.’”

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African, African American

Author Interview: Nina Schuyler (Part 2)

TranslatorFollowing is Part 2 of an extensive interview with author  Nina Schuyler. Click here to read Part 1. Click here for the Schuyler feature.

As a writer who is a woman, who also happens to be a mother of two small young kids – do you feel that motherhood has specifically influenced your writing? And if so, how?
My quick response: Writer’s block? I don’t have time.

On a more honest note, I have a two-and-a-half year old, and the world for him is full of wonder. A toddler’s way of moving through the world is slow, full of curiosity, and easily and delightfully dazzled.

An artist, any artist, works to see the world anew. Having a young son who naturally sees the world with bright eyes, well, it’s a blessing. He’s pointing out to me so much beauty and mystery.

Finally, I’ve learned to get the writing done any way I can. I am so flexible now I should be a contortionist. I have no rituals, no lighting of candles or music or anything. I manage to write nearly every day. If it’s only a sentence, or a revision of a sentence, I call that writing and let it feed me.

And are you and Mr. Timer still good friends?
We are. But I can now go for about 45 minutes instead of just 30. My two-and-a-half year old is older now. I wrote that [blog post] when he was just 1. Now I have more energy and can focus for longer periods of time.

Mr. Timer is still my buddy. He helps me bake and he helps me write.

You mentioned in an interview that you’d “love to read more novels with female characters that shake up and out of the stereotype. More females who experience anger, raw ambition, intellect, sexual hunger, arrogance, a solid ego, authority, power.” Who are some of your favorite women characters who fit such a description? Who are some of your own favorite writers (NO gender specified here on purpose!) who have created such women?
Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for her ambition and passion for her art, painting right to the very end of the novel. J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in the book of the same name for her intellect, her honesty, her solid ego. Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in the book by the same name is dear to me. Olive gave me permission to go ahead and create a complex female character, full of impatience and patience, who is stern, driven, and utterly devoted to her art and her children. Leda in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, for her brutally honest ambivalence toward motherhood. Grace Paley’s first person narrators, especially in her short story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.

Do you think writers who are also women (won’t dare use “women writers”!) need to create more female characters like those you describe above? Just as authors get outed, noted, criticized, or applauded for writing beyond their ethnic box, do you think authors can or should write beyond their gender?
Absolutely. In my first novel,  The Painting, I wrote my way back into the 19th century in Japan and Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, inhabiting both men and women. It was thrilling.

Now that I’ve outed that word—sex, albeit via “gender”—I have to mention your blog post, “Writing Sex,” in which you confess, “I have to write a sex scene. It’s inevitable.” I love that “inevitable.” In the post, you channel the words of Edmund White (“Most sex is funny…”) and Ernest Hemingway (“…and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color”). How come no exemplary scenes by writers who are women?
You’re right. I’m not sure there’s one author, but let’s add the “Song of Solomon” from the King James Bible. Anaïs Nin. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. I’m thinking of writers who do sex in an interesting way. Oh, Toni Morrison’s scene in Beloved between Sethe and Paul D. Garner.

I’d love to hear from your readers about their favorite sex scene in literature.[...click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Nina Schuyler (Part 2),” Bloom, January 8, 2014

Readers: Adult

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Author Interview: Nina Schuyler (Part 1)

TranslatorWith all the vastness of the internet, I had quite a difficult time finding answers to the sorts of questions I had about Nina Schuyler and her relationship to her fiction – most especially regarding race and identity. (I know, so loaded!)

In both of her lauded novels – The Painting (2004) and The Translator (2013) – Schuyler takes a giant leap into a country, culture, language, even gender into which she was not born …and unlike some who have attempted such chameleonic feats (and succumbed wholly to cringe-inducing exotic pandering), Schuyler is sensitively attuned, carefully authentic, and thoroughly convincing.

So when I wrote the feature about Schuyler, I felt a bit restricted because I couldn’t write what I didn’t know. How grateful was I to get the chance to find out more from Schuyler herself! (Her name, by the way, is pronounced NIGH-nah SKY-ler, and not “Nee-nah Shoe-ler,” as narrator Kirsten Potter mistakenly refers to her in the audio version of Schuyler’s The Translator. Choose the page!)

Let’s start with some obvious questions about language … how many do you speak, read, or write?
I speak enough Japanese to be dangerous. On a recent visit to Japan, I asked an elderly Japanese woman for directions to a tea house and ended up at a cemetery. Long ago, I learned Spanish. Now that my two sons are learning it, I, thankfully, am finding my way again in that language. When I lived in Denmark as a university student, I learned Danish. Unfortunately, that language has faded and I’m left with only one phrase: “May I have a cup of tea?”

Might I assume that English is your first language? Your last name is Dutch – is that also your family’s background?
It is. I’m Dutch on my Dad’s side. Pennsylvania Dutch, actually. I grew up knowing a little bit about my heritage, but it wasn’t dominant by any means. My father talked to us early on about the intersection of the Dutch and the Japanese, how the Dutch were one of the rare groups of foreigners allowed to live in Japan, though in confined quarters.

What drew you to learn other languages?
I think the allure of languages is intertwined with my love of words. In my novel The Translator, my protagonist, Hanne Schubert, says she learned seven languages, not to converse with the world, but to make an array of sounds. I understand this appeal.

Unlike my protagonist, however, I want to converse, to reach across the silent, lonely gap and speak, not in my native tongue, but in someone else’s. My attempts, however faulty, always unfold into something memorable.

And being so facile with languages – and your latest novel bears the title The Translator – have you ever considered taking on translating projects?
With my Japanese teacher, I’ve translated Japanese poetry. My small, feeble efforts have shown me how much skill and art there is in moving from one language into another.

Both your novels have been woven around an intersection of East and West – certainly the twain meet in your work. Where did that impetus come from?
When I was growing up, my father often traveled to Japan for work. He’d bring back the usual souvenirs – Japanese fans, geisha dolls in glass boxes, origami birds, chopsticks, and the occasional bonsai tree. The aesthetic was so different from the West, pared down, simple lines. It seemed the embodiment of grace, and I was transfixed. I began to read about Japanese art and artists, and from there, I wanted to learn the language, which I studied in college and then after I graduated. I embarked on that adventure, not knowing I’d be learning three alphabets, and that it would take about 3,000 kanji to read a newspaper. I also studied Japanese economics, with a fabulous professor who wove in psychology, society, and Japanese culture.

Because I am from the West, I see how much the two worlds – East and West – could learn from each other. I know that sounds idealistic – so be it. In my novel, Hanne Schubert moves from her isolated, lonely state to awareness of community and the other. This movement is, in some sense, representative of how the West could stand to absorb some of the lessons of the East. That is, the West, with its hyperbolic emphasis on the individual and individual rights, and the East, with its emphasis on community and harmony and the public good. [...click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Nina Schuyler,” Bloom, January 8, 2014

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, .Fiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

Author Profile: Nina Schuyler

Translator“Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day”

Wife, mother, teacher, poet, writer – Nina Schuyler wears many labels. Her youngest is still a toddler, she balances multiple part-time jobs, keeps up with the daily-life expectations of cooking and laundry, soccer and basketball mom-ing, not to mention the care and feeding of the family’s dog and fish.

In the midst of all the multi-tasking, Schuyler has managed to write three novels, with a fourth in progress: her debut, The Painting, hit shelves in 2004 when she was 41; she wrote a second novel that she hasn’t yet shared with the world; her latest, The Translator, pubbed in July 2013, almost a decade after her first; and she’s already blogged about the sex scenes in her latest book-in-the-making.

“Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day,” Schuyler confesses in a recent blog post on her author website. “Early morning. Late at night. A babysitter who comes and watches the little one, giving me the luxury to stretch out in a big acre of time.” Although she refers to “discipline” as “an archaic word,” she relies on a $5.00 kitchen device to keep her writing. Literally.

[M]y friend, my enemy, my companion, my task master is the Timer . . . it sits on my desk and I set it for thirty minutes. The implicit agreement between Timer and me is that I cannot move from my chair until the beeper goes off. … A new novel, page by page, hour by hour, something – a story? … I sit and write until I hear the beep.

Schuyler had much to do before settling into writing fiction full time, including the study and mastery of many languages. Before, during, and after studying economics and human biology at Stanford University, then law at University of California Hastings College of the Law, Schuyler also acquired Spanish, Danish, and Japanese. She honed her writing skills as a journalist at a legal newspaper, where she dealt with facts. “[A]s I gathered stories for the paper, so much was left on the cutting floor, so to speak,” she told Amy Sue Nathan of the Women’s Fiction Writers blog. “A newspaper article uses a specific form that delivers information efficiently and concisely to the reader. Yet I met so many fascinating characters, characters in the true sense of the word.” That fascination sent her back for a third stint at school, this time to San Francisco State University’s graduate creative writing program: “When I was accepted, I got enough validation to keep writing.”

By the time Schuyler finished her MFA, she had what would become her first published novel. That debut – Schuyler’s thesis after many revisions – “had a speedy entrance into the world—in a matter of weeks, I got an agent, and she sold it quickly.” The Painting was the result of a confluence of sights, sounds, and smells during a Japanese language class in her teacher’s home. On Backstory, Schuyler recalled her introduction to ukiyo-e: “It means ‘pictures of the floating world,’ [Schuyler’s sensei] said, smiling faintly, as if she’d just laid down a winning card. She knew I dabbled in painting and she’d probably found a way to spark her flailing student’s interest.” During an afternoon redolent with green tea, mochi, and the scent of fresh-cut grass outside intermingled with the musty pages of books inside, Schuyler listened to her sensei explain: “’For the first time, art being created for [the] everyday person.’”

These popular paintings of “almost everything” produced during the 17th to 19th centuries became a major export item when Japan capitulated to the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, which opened Japan’s trade routes to the West after 250 years of isolation. That ukiyo-e prints traveled far and wide through open borders was especially fascinating to Schuyler:

I was struck by the image of colorful paintings flying through the air from East to West. Over the next weeks, I found myself thinking about these paintings, broadly, in history, and I couldn’t shake the questions: what is the purpose of beauty? The purpose of art? What if the world was knit together by beauty?

In seeking answers, Schuyler wove a resonating story spanning cultures, oceans, time. [... click here for more]

Author profile“Nina Schuyler: ‘Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day,’” Bloom, January 6, 2014

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, .Fiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

Line 135 by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine

Line 135Clearly this image is not doing justice to the book’s spirited cover with its bright lime green train and fluorescent orange doors. To appreciate its vibrancy is reason enough to go find the real book! See that jauntily ponytailed, smiling little girl? She’s definitely inviting you to join her whimsical, thoughtful adventure …

“There are two places I belong in the world,” the girl explains – her house in the city and her grandmother’s home in the country. Her mother has helped her board the train to visit her grandmother who lives “practically on the other side of the world.” Savvy traveler that she already is, someday, the little girl is going to go “everywhere” and “know the entire world.” Her mother and grandmother warn that’s “impossible … it’s difficult enough to know yourself.” But the tenacious child rightfully insists, “when I am big, I will make sure that life moves with me.”

Contrary? Courageous? “I will go everywhere,” she asserts. She doesn’t need to wait to be “big” to know her future: “I will go here. I will go there. I will go this way and I will go that way. I will know the entire world.” With youthful exuberance, she affirms, “it is possible.” She’ll make you believe …

Beyond author Germano Zullo’s encouraging, inspiring prose, Line 135 is a visually enchanting delight. The titular ‘line’ travels directly across every page, each double spread enhanced with black-and-white, pen-drawn, exquisitely detailed views of changing landscapes as the technicolor train journeys from city to country. That the ’135′ is made up of three prime numbers in sequence – 1, 3, 5 – seems to be a nod to the indivisible connectedness of family (mother and grandmother literally ground both ends of the line from start to finish) in the midst of going here and there and everywhere.

“When you move between two places, it’s called traveling,” the wise young girl explains, as illustrator Albertine felicitously complies with beckoning scenes of stretched skyscrapers, mod shopping districts, stacked apartments, busy factories, overcrowded superhighways … that soon give way to gracious homes, wildflowered fields, uniquely rotund animals, and a few chimerical places that just might be out of this world. Echoing a child’s endless imagination, words and pictures work intricately together to remind us to never let limits keep us from going forth … onward ho, indeed!

Readers: Children

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, European

Paris Was the Place by Susan Conley

Paris Was the PlaceIn Susan Conley’s debut novel defined by deep relationships, the most intriguing alliances get neglected and overlooked for the more commonplace and predictable. Willow – called Willie – moves to Paris to be closer to her peripatetic brother Luke who was most recently in China bringing safe water to far-flung villages, but has settled in the City of Light for love. Their mother passed away a year earlier, and for Willie who is estranged from their once-philandering-now-reborn-Christian father back in Northern California, Luke is her only constant family.

Poetry professor by day, Willie volunteers at night to teach English to refugee girls held at an asylum center while awaiting their immigration hearings. Her students are too-young survivors of violence and tragedy, and Willie finds herself becoming especially attached to Gita who seeks immediate safety from her local rapist brother-in-law, and hopes to be saved from child marriage to a much older groom in her native India. At the center, Willie finds herself ever hopeful of crossing paths with the girls’ lawyer Macon (named so by his American South loving French mother and Estonian father by way of Canada).

Go ahead and take a few guesses as to what will unfold: we’re talking a gay brother in the 1980s, a “funny man with hiking boots” who makes Willie’s stomach do flips, and a pair of deserting parents (the avoided living father, the longed-after missing mother). Over almost 400 pages – or more than 14.5 hours stuck in the ears (narrator Cassandra Campbell clearly enjoys exaggerating her French accents) – Willie succumbs to an awful lot of navel-gazing as her brother weakens, her lover beckons, and her father flees (again).

A redistribution of self-absorption to beyond-the-comfort-zone exploration – about 75%/25% here – would have been a vast narrative improvement. Repetitive street names and places (more than a dozen references to Avenue Victor Hugo alone!) were also unnecessary – it’s a novel, not a walking tour. Verdict? By condensing Willie’s myopic tendencies in favor of further developing the lives of her refugee students, Conley undoubtedly could have written a more provocative, captivating story only hinted at here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, European, Nonethnic-specific, South Asian

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful RuinsSo here’s the last of my recent unintentional assemblage of end-of-World-War-II novels that began with Elizabeth Wein’s wrenching Rose Under Fire, and progressed with Chris Bohjalian’s desperate Skeletons at the Feast and continued with his latest, the vengeful The Light in the Ruins. Of this week’s quartet, Jess Walter‘s Beautiful Ruins (how about that corresponding title?) is the least haunted; that said, the sections that give voice to a would-be novelist’s Italian experiences as an American soldier in the final days before war’s end, and how he spends the rest of his life attempting to make sense of his survival, imbues Ruins with greater gravitas than most of today’s too-easily dismissible bestseller fare.

Walter clearly enjoys playing with his readers, criss-crossing time zones, countries, languages, and characters with alacrity and ease. Narrator Edoardo Ballerini voices Walter’s prose seamlessly, equally comfortable with traditional fishermen as with Hollywood glitterati, even giving Richard Burton’s lines quite the memorable recitation.

Ruins dovetails two major plot lines – in 1962, a young innkeeper in a tiny Italian coastal village falls in love with one of his only guests, an American actress dying of cancer. She’s arrived at The Hotel Adequate View in Porto Vergogna (Port Shame, in English) to wait for her lover before she seeks treatment in Switzerland. Already, you’re probably realizing that much will be lost in translation. Hold on to that thought throughout …

Fast forward decades later to today’s Hollywood, where a development assistant to a powerful film producer is contemplating a job with the Church of Scientology, but reluctantly agrees to take one more film pitch before picking up a bucket of chicken for her porn-addicted boyfriend. Arriving at the studio office at the same time as the would-be scriptwriter, is – surprise! – our Italian hotelier in search of his starlet. Much will be lost – and found – in haphazard but reliable-enough translation.

What might seem like sprawling stories-within-stories is exactly that. But Walters deftly weaves his web, creates a few surprising twists, and manages to tie all the various threads neatly together. He’s especially facile in adding the absurd to enhance an entertaining story: readers of a certain age will surely appreciate the Liz and Dick show, while the reality show titles alone should elicit quite the guffaws. Laughter aside, he also shows how language can become superfluous within our most meaningful connections.

Tidbit: What serendipitous timing: Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West are the latest to embody the iconic Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, this time for BBC. After Beautiful Ruins, you’ll be so well prepared for the Stateside airdate of Burton and Taylorset for October 16 on BBC America. Check your local listings!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, European, Nonethnic-specific