Due

I received a past due notice from the university library this week. I owe them 80 nok and a Norton Anthology of American Literature. The book has been sitting in our front hallway awaiting its return since last month, but I haven't been on campus since just before my birthday. It turns out that, even an easy pregnancy like mine is too taxing in the last month to make sitting behind a desk for four hours twice a week worth it. I miss being in school, but I'm happy with the reason.

My baby girl, my little Hazelnut, is due today. We discovered my pregnancy fairly early, at exactly four weeks, so this day has been a long time coming. At the same time, the pregnancy has moved smoothly, so my moments of real impatience have been few. I wanted to feel her sooner than I did (21 weeks). I wanted to start to "show" sooner than I did (26-ish weeks). And now... I want to meet her!

For a control freak, pregnancy can be especially strenuous. We can't control any of the aforementioned milestones. We have no idea how our labor and delivery will go. Instead, we dutifully watch what we eat and how much we exercise, and we read book after book about pregnancy and childbirth until we have at least a false sense of control on that issue.

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Here's the stack I've worked through over the last few months. My favorite was Becoming a Mother by Gro Nylander. I read the English translation of this Norwegian classic, and its reasonable, encouraging tone made me confident about motherhood. It's one of two books I'm bringing to the hospital with me. The other is Australian midwife Juju Sundin's Birth Skills, which has equipped me for labor. By that, of course, I mean that I understand that the pain I feel will be purposeful, and I hope this will alleviate my fight or flight reflexes and keep me calm. I also have a list of strategies to help me cope with the pain. Whether I will have the presence of mind to execute those strategies when the big day comes is anyone's guess. But still, a false sense of security is better than none at all in my world! 

Beyond that, I found the two What to Expect books to be a little cliche, but the First Year edition should be a good reference. And I'm very pleased with The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp. Here's hoping his fourth-trimester philosophy makes as much sense in concrete as it does in the pre-baby abstract.

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As I launch into the writing of my third and final term paper of the Høst 2014 semester, it occurs to me that I never did share my reading lists with you, my readers, many of whom like lists of books almost as you enjoy the actual reading of the books themselves. I'm like that, too. Reviewing a soundly curated book list is like taking an imagination break and walking the stacks of a library of the mind. So, I thought I'd post a couple of the lists here for your pleasure/edification. (Course descriptions have been cribbed from the UiO website.)

Women Writing: Feminist Fiction in English (ENG 4363)

This is a course in English-language feminist fiction from the nineteenth and/or twentieth century. Students will study a selection of novels and/or short stories that focus on women's lives and reflect on what it means to be a woman and a feminist from various sexual, racial, class, and national perspectives. The course will consider the development and thematics of feminist fiction and its contribution to the development of new narrative techniques.

  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)
  • Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
  • Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
  • Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
  • Sarah Hall, Daughters of the North (2007)
  • Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox (2011)
  • Joyce Carol Oates, 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' (1966) (available online)

This was my favorite reading list of the semester, and not because I'm a raging feminist, either. I simple responded well to the variety of voices. Every book was unique and uniquely suited to the aspect of Women's Writing we discussed that week. Mr. Fox was, far and away, the strangest, but being the most contemporary, that didn't surprise me. A Room of One's Own was the book I couldn't believe I hadn't encountered prior to this course (having graduated with my B.A. in English from UC Davis in 2006 and my M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Lesley University in 2012). And Wide Sargasso Sea is the book I'm not recommending to people who tell me their favorite classic was Jane Eyre

Time & Money in the American Novel (ENG 4416)

Time and money are two of the main forces that shape human ends.  Our conception of time has a profound impact on how we understand ourselves, and on how we draw the boundary between the possible and the unreasonable.  In a similar fashion, our collective understanding of money exerts a sharp influence on how we order our personal and communal lives.  This course will examine these two forces through the lens of literature. It will use the reading and analysis of a select group of American novels as a way of interrogating the links between time, money, and literature.

In this course, we will examine the ways in which novels work to naturalize or challenge social conceptions of time and money.  More importantly, we will consider all the ways in which the reading of novels helps us reflect on the nature of time and money, and we will think about the way these reflections are connected to issues of race, sexuality, subjectivity, and community.

  • Frank Norris, The Octopus
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, The Quest of the Silver Fleece
  • James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
  • Nella Larsen, Passing
  • James T. Farrell, Judgment Day
  • Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis
  • Richard Powers, Gain

Honestly, I think this course needs to be renamed. Time, Money & Race in the American Novel would have been spot on. These were challenging texts, all. The Octopus was exceedingly long, but beautiful, and it was a perfect fit for the class. The Quest of the Silver Fleece is the book that will stick with me longest, I think, and I enjoyed writing my final paper on it. Here I'll admit that I did not read Judgment Day. I was in California for the class discussion and had already selected a different text as my qualifying essay topic, so I gave myself a break. And between the surreal Cosmopolis and the enigmatic Gain, I'd have to say that this was the most eclectic class reading list I've ever encountered.

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I gifted myself two hours of reading time today, over lunch. At hand was Twice Eggs, a new essay from Alex Johnson, one of my mentors at Lesley University, and a writer I deeply admire. Approaching her new work, I looked forward to hearing Alex's voice again--that effortless intelligence and poetry, manifested in a shrewd eye for detail, and a light-handed delivery.

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Twice Eggs is the story of Alex's return to southern Italy after years away to visit the family of Giorgio, an old flame. As much as Giorgio and his current desires to leave his homeland figure into the narrative, the heart of the piece lies in Alex's relationship with Anna, the woman who, had things worked out differently at that long ago crossroads, would have been Alex's mother-in-law. Perhaps it is fitting that I began reading over lunch: one hand clicking through the pages on my Kindle, the other collecting spilled sesame seeds with my fingertips and bringing them to my tongue. Food is everything in Twice Eggs. It fuels the narrative from the opening glimpse of Anna's garden, "planted with nightshades--eggplant, tomatoes, firecracker red peperoncini hot peppers whose oil is drizzled over warm waxy potatoes." And everything we see and learn of Anna revolves around her garden and her kitchen. Alex's return to this kitchen triggers every kind of sensory memory, both for her and for the reader. 

We all have those moments, coming into contact with the scent or taste of a place and time so distinct in our past that our minds drop everything else and leave the present behind entirely--the olfactory gland being the secret to time travel. Then, often, once we have found that rain-on-the-blacktop middle school quad or that milk-sour corner of Grandma's kitchen in the back of our minds, we wish either that things could have turned out differently or, sometimes, that they could have remained exactly the same. Regret and nostalgia spring from the same soil.

Alex's return to Viggiano, a village "deep in the Mezzogiorno, the instep of Italy named for the blinding mid-day sun," recalls her earlier visits to the same place, on the arm of young Giorgio. A time of almosts. Of younger motivations. Of instant gratification and ecstasy and a reproving potential-mother-in-law. Alex makes her reader feel the danger and beauty of Viggiano. It is a hot, dry place. The hillsides are barren, remote, hard, deceptive. It is not ground I expect much from, but when locals scour the same hillsides, they come up with honey. It is in this sun-baked village that she might have made another choice, turned a down a different road.

Crossroads are the main concern of the narrative, and Twice Eggs does what solid, powerful essays are supposed to do: present something in common with the reader in an uncommon realm, then slice open the moments and places and interactions for observation, and set them out to dry in the sun under crystals of salt. Such common ground in this case includes the beauty of being chosen and accepted by another family, the impact of myriad superstitions on everyday life, and, even in the contented present, finding your gaze trailing backward toward the what-ifs of doors long closed.

Read it. Revel in the way Alex deftly drops out of chronology for quixotic asides about history, geology, religion, and drama. Wander the streets of this village in southern Italy, where Alex was warned not to travel alone since the waves of Tunisian refugees began to wash up on the coast. Realize the weight of life and slowness of time in a region which has experienced Fascism, leprosy, and the wiping out of Pompeii. And then want to go there, with every fiber of your being, with every taste bud of your tongue. Always, somewhere in the room, you'll find a platter of "tissue-thin salami flecked with fennel or shot with Senise pepper."

Today, Twice Eggs is available for only $1.99 on Amazon (Kindle, USA) and $1.99 on Barnes & Noble (Nook). It's a short, delicious summer read, and I highly recommend it to you.

Alex Johnson is the author of The Hidden Writer, which won the PEN/Jerard Award for nonfiction. She is also the author of Leaving a Trace. Her personal essays have been included in several anthologies, including I Always Meant to Tell You and To Mend the World. Her essays, reviews and travel pieces have appeared in numerous national publications, among them: The New York Times, O, (the Oprah Magazine), The Nation, Ms. Magazine, AGNI. Her work has been featured frequently on National Public Radio, including on "Talk of the Nation" and the "Diane Rehm Show." She has taught memoir and creative nonfiction at Harvard, Wellesley, and in Lesley University's MFA Program. Twice Eggs is adapted from The Saint's Laundry, a memoir in progress.

Ploughshares Solos is a digital-only series of stories, essays, and novellas published by Ploughshares Literary Magazine in Boston. Previously, I hadn't heard of Ploughshares Solos, but it will heretofore be something I seek out, perhaps with a bit of an insatiable reader's desperation. Three cheers for excellent writing in the short form!

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Before moving to Norway, I did several things to prepare. I purchased books about the country and culture, fully utilizing Amazon's if-you-bought-this-you-might-also-like algorithms. I Googled around and came up with a list of expat bloggers living in Norway, dutifully combing their archives for insights into Norwegian life. There was never any way I would find it all, would be truly prepared. But no one was going to accuse me of not trying!

There is one resource I didn't come across at the time and now wish I had. Norway: A Handbook for New Residents (198 NOK) is a book by M. Michael Brady. He collected as much information as he could find about every conceivable topic important to someone living in Norway, and compiled it in a single book. First printed in 2005, I own the updated 2012 edition, and I cannot overstate how convenient and useful it is! 

I do want to point out right away that Mr. Brady supplied me with a copy of this book for the purposes of my writing a review. This does not affect my personal take-away. All opinions expressed about Norway: A Handbook for New Residents are mine and absolutely sincere.

The Handbook is not warm or fuzzy. As the back cover states: "This is a book of facts taken from printed and online Norwegian resources and from country comparisons published by international agencies."

At almost 500-pages long, that's a lot of facts! But Brady has thoughtfully organized the tome, allowing three separate ways to track down the information you need quickly. First, the book is divided into an alphabetical list of chapters by overarching topics (e.g., Arriving and settling, Clothing and footwear, Foreigners, immigrants, minorities and integration, etc.). Then, individual subtopics are listed alphabetically within their relevant chapters. And finally, Brady has supplied two separate indexes by keyword, one in English and one in Norwegian.

When I say the Handbook is comprehensive, I mean it includes everything useful I can think of. From Second-hand shops to Halal meat, from instructions for Pant to an explanation of Julebord.

Chapter 23 is a timeline of Norway's history, from the first traces of human habitation (ca 9000 BC) to 2012, the year Norway passed a Constitutional amendment separating church and state. Chapter 6 (Church, religion and beliefs) breaks down the religious history of Norway's population, but also provides lists of Christian denominations in English and Norwegian, as well as phone numbers and links to churches, synagogues, and mosques within the country. Information on women's shelters for victims of domestic abuse can be found in Chapter 10 (Crime, wrongs, and countermeasures). Meanwhile, Chapter 25 (Housekeeping) diagrams the different widths of available light bulbs and explains municipal fees due for refuse collection and recycling. 

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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jhumpa Lahiri has become my favorite author, and I expect the love affair will go on and on.

Reading her prose is like walking an endless strip of hot sand. It burns, but breaks softly beneath each footfall, exposing softer, cooler sand beneath. It is impossible to cross this stretch of sand quickly. This is the rhythm of her work, grand in scope, but possessed of infinite detail.

When a character cooks croquettes for a party, the reader sits in the kitchen and witnesses every move of the cook's hand, every ingredient, every utensil. Bread crumbs shuffled into a pan, oil popping in a pot on the stove, a slotted spoon. Such writing requires patience, but the reading is pure pleasure. It washes over you. Like life.

I do wonder if I am predisposed to enjoy Ms. Lahiri's work because it deals in the cultural discordance of life for immigrants. Her characters often live in a new country for decades over the course of a single book, and she touches on each nuance of their adjustment, but they never assimilate fully.

Best of all is the way she handles the relation of Bengali culture and Hindu ritual--the application of vermilion to the part of a married woman's hair, taking the dust from the feet of one's grandparents--details which seem exotic to me, offered with deftness and clarity, and within a compelling context. Always furthering the story. Always powerful.

Her stories are neither particularly happy, nor sad. In the case of The Namesake, we watch as a young man with a ponderously odd name grows up apart from the culture of his parents. And the events of his life, small and large, pass the way the events of our own lives pass--whether or not we're ready for them. Exquisite. Necessary. Accidental. Mundane until they are remembered years later.

I was recently reminded that the word nostalgia comes from the Greek word meaning pain from an old wound. This quality runs beneath the hot sand of all Lahriri's work. It's what will keep me coming back. Already, I am yearning for more of her signature slow burn.

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Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have the sins of our forefathers laid bare and tied to the post for our review. Stowe demonstrates the visible gradient of slave owners and slaves alike--a sliding scale from the best to the worst--in 19th century America. But then, with a startling crack, she splits the façade of that gradient apart. It dissolves before the eyes of the reader. There is nothing relative about one man owning another, whether he treats his property with respect or abject cruelty. Nothing matters beyond the value of personal freedom.

There were those at the time who argued otherwise, and Stowe offers these denials and protestations alongside the rest, usually juxtaposed with a gut-wrenching illustration of human bondage. Even now it's tough to say what struck me hardest in the reading. Was it watching a woman's children torn from her grasp to be sold on an auction block? Was it the continuous breaking of promises from master to slave? Was it the cold-hearted trading of men and women done in parlors over coffee? Perhaps it was the subtle sounds of abolitionism and realizing that those on the side of "right" were once nothing but a weak, wavering minority in my home country.

While the prose is consistent, beautiful and compelling, I found the latter half of the book preachy to the extreme, so moralistic that it began to sound like harping. This is unquestionably a Christian tome. But it is a testament to the power of religion, not only because the book swayed hearts and minds, but because of what the author writes in her final chapters about the incredible faithfulness of those slaves who believed in God, as well. Some of the battered, sunken, deprived masses of African slaves in the United States--numbering over the course of history into the millions--found a reason to pray and sing and praise and hope. On top of this, Stowe illustrates the irony of such profound faithfulness in a society where Christianity was used to justify the necessity and even the righteousness of slavery.

Slavery is a blight upon American history, and this book (along with Frederick Douglass's Slave Narratives and Solomon Northrup's 12 Years a Slave) should be required reading for every citizen, precisely because there are still some people who don't want to read it. They are squeamish and indignant. They believe racism no longer exists. They want to forget it all happened.

Which, on second thought, is what was most difficult about this book. The stories of Uncle Tom, Eliza, and George are fictionalized accounts of people who actually existed. Compiled to form a narrative, names and dates adjusted for continuity, but otherwise real. What of those real men, women, and children? What of the millions whose stories were never told? If anything is made brutally clear in this book, it is that the subjugation of a population lays waste to its history. Slave owners in America did worse than own and abuse the living: they rendered their slaves nameless, voiceless, detached from time and place, and buried everything in the backyard. Then left bootprints on the unmarked graves.

It is the overwhelming size of what has been intentionally forgotten that breaks my heart.

Read this fine piece of 19th century literature, and in reading know that racism will never be extinguished in America. The roots of it are far too deep and far too much the fault of the men and women who founded our country. And if you believe you are blameless, having been born almost 150 years after Uncle Tom's Cabin was published, think again. Every time you subconsciously take some small credit for the good in our history--the pride you feel in the Declaration of Independence, for example--you must take an equal bit of the blame. Many of the men who signed that illustrious document were at their leisure to pave the way of a young America because they had slaves to work their land and make their money. You may hold your chin high on the Fourth of July, but you can't claim the ink of that revolutionary quill without getting some of the blood on your hands, as well.

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Weighing in at over 800 pages, The Luminaries confounded my expectations over and over again. This is a mystery involving more than a dozen central characters, offered up within the context of historical fiction (the gold rushes in New Zealand in the 1860s). That, and the 2013 Man Booker Prize sticker on its cover, summed up how much I knew about The Luminaries before I began the book last month. I waded in, putting aside my reservations about the volume's heft, because I wanted to know how it had beaten out Jhumpa Lahiri's nomination for the same award (The Lowland). Less than one hundred pages in, I had my answer.

The majority of the characters in this book are male. Every one of them is distinct in physical presentation, personal motivation, and voice. Allowing herself ample time and room to stretch her storylines, Catton made certain that any character she introduced would be essential and, more importantly, memorable. Because the plot is a knot. Because the stars aligned so that these men (and a pair of equally important women) collided, and it is up to the reader to sort things out.

Such sorting is no chore when guided by the steady, confident, divining rod of Eleanor Catton's authorial hand. I was on the edge of my seat for the entire 800 pages. Murder, theft, fraud, exploitation, and blackmail course through the veins of this story, and, impossibly, it never became tedious.

Occasionally I would lift my eyes from the pages and run through the "facts of the case" in my head, ticking off the characters from my interior list, to make sure I was on the right track. But I didn't unravel the knot early, nor did I furrow my brow with fatigue. I wanted to dive back in. There was enough beauty, enough historical information, and enough movement between times and vantage points to keep my interest fresh. There was also enough uniqueness to the individual characters to invite my personal inclination to their stories and subplots, too.

I think that's what impressed me most: the consistency of voice, intrepid and intriguing in the third-person point of view. It never wavers. The narrator is omniscient and discriminating and patient. Catton's descriptions of the gold camps and mining towns reminded me of something I might have read by Dickens or Tolstoy, due to the scope of her vision and her articulation of the details in each scene. She breathed life into the diggers and the opium eaters and the whoremongers and the landlords and the shipping magnates and the sea captains. She underscored the circumstances of indentured Chinese workers, the Maori people, the camp prostitutes, and the convicts. For 800 pages, I lived in a New Zealand mining town, and when I closed the book in the end, I hated to shake the mud from my boots and leave that place behind me.

Here is what The Luminaries wasn't: heavy-handed, cheap, titillating, slow, expected, or easy. Twenty-eight year old Eleanor Catton has my unabashed admiration for imagining and executing this book, one that, had it been written by a man, would have been lifted up as another example of "masculine" literature. Instead, it is evidence of all that literature can accomplish in excellence without any consideration of the author's gender. It is progress manifested. It is an achievement for author and reader alike. I'm proud to own it and, one day, will be eager to read it again.

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If you're planning a transatlantic flight in the near future and are looking for a book to keep you from going dull-eyed in front of the four-by-six seatback video screen, Gone Girl fits that bill. 

Once begun, it was difficult to put down. It stuck there in my hands, sticky the way blood is sticky. Four-hundred sixty-three pages in two days. I expected no less. A dozen people must have recommended this book to me within the last six months. 

Ordinarily, I am wary of pop culture phenomena like Gone Girl. Too many people entertained by the same book logically equates to a lower common denominator met. People are unique in their likes and dislikes, curiosities, and tastes in literature. When something appeals across the board, I hold back. Is it The Hunger Games? Is it Twilight? Is it Harry Potter? Is it Fifty Shades of Grey? 

At least in regard to the former three titles, I found the reading level to be too young for my taste, and didn't get past the first chapter of the first book in each series. This is not to say they aren't good books. Millions upon millions of people (and book sales) would beg to differ. It's just that they are easy reads. Manageable. Digestible. Entertaining. I assume the same is true of Fifty Shades, with the addition of one important adjective: titillating. All things an eager populace with short attention spans and addictions to the blood spatter of Dexter desire in their books, too.

As it turns out, Gone Girl's popularity is something of a relief to me, in that its foundation is an intelligent, high stakes plot conveyed by expertly-rendered unreliable narrators. 

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My bedside library slouches around the base of the small silver lamp on my nightstand. The New Yorker is to blame. Four issues, each only partially read. One still shrink-wrapped. They are too large. Their covers too slippery. In the pile, they move whole inches at the slightest jostle. Sandstone. The wrong foundation for this mound of literature. But I cannot tuck them away on the shelf yet. James Wood's review of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch in the current issue refuses to be neglected that way. I also flag the best pieces, ones that resonate personally or strike me as prime material for teaching someday. Keeping the Faith: Egypt's preachers after the crackdown by Peter Hessler (Oct. 7) requires such a flag. Then I'll put the magazines away. I promise.

Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time and a slim, white volume of poetry by T.S. Eliot rest lightly atop the rest. I finished In Our Time weeks ago now, but I can't put it back on the shelf yet. The brutality of its passages about wartime, the bloody pilgrimages and hoary revelations about man's character, stick like burs to my brain. No, I need it in arm's reach for a while. Before he was Papa, Hemingway was a young man with a machete-pen and a raw, stark way of looking at the world. Everyone has a beginning. Every author has a first book. So, it sits there, reminding me when I roll to the left and open my eyes first thing in the morning that I've got a first book waiting within me. 

Eliot's poetry, too, has been finished (if one can ever truly finish reading a poem). I picked it up at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris on my last trip. Last week, it was my bath time book. Light as the bubbles in the tub, I drank the whole thing in a single soak. Prufrock, yes, but other meditations on life, aging, family, society, poverty, and play also. It is here among the rest of the nightstand mess because, warm and blushing from the bath, I wandered straight to bed and fell fast asleep without remembering much that came between. My poetry shelf in the office is too disorganized to welcome Eliot anyway. So, he'll stay.

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Readers! I've got good news... In August I was hired as an Editorial Assistant by Adventum, a literary magazine specializing in creative nonfiction, with an emphasis on wilderness and outdoor adventures, as well as nature-inspired Haiku. It's the perfect fit for me, and I'm proud to be part of the publication.

Along with reading submissions for the upcoming issue of Adventum, I also co-author The Adventum Blog. I urge you to swing by and subscribe today! By following The Adventum Blog, you'll receive book reviews, publication announcements for our many talented authors, contest information, and some creative work, too.

Whenever I post something new on The Adventum Blog, I'll include a link here, as well. Just in case you want to read more of me!

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Spotlight: West with the Night (26 Sept 2012)

The book that made me want to live a life worth writing about.

In 1942, Beryl Markham had more than a few harrowing tales to tell. She published her memoir West with the Night to share them with the world. Raised in Africa, a continent still shrouded in a kind of dreadful mystery to the rest of the world, Markham had trained race horses and survived a lion attack, but most intriguing of all was her time as a pilot. Continue reading...

For the Love of a Travel Notebook (13 Sept 2012)

An offering in favor of Moleskine's City Series from a writer/traveler.

The writer's notebook. Tucked away in pocket, backpack, or purse, it's a longstanding tradition. And while technology may press to replace the ubiquitous writer's notebook with something far more-er-digital, I can't give in yet. I have too much nostalgia for the medium used by my predecessors and heroes: Hemingway, Muir, Jan Morris and Beryl Markham. These folks traveled, absorbed the landscapes around them, and wrote. Right there in the wild. And I strive to do the same. Continue reading...

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Recently, my friend Anna asked me to review an anthology which included an essay of hers. It is important to note that I take book reviewing seriously, especially when I'm allowed more than 140 characters in which to share my opinion. Remember that I am part of this book's target audience as a current expat, but I remain in all other ways as unbiased as possible. I hope those of you who are also current expats or are planning to move to another country soon will find my review especially useful. Make no mistake, this is a textbook-style tome and not a quick read, but it is an important book for those who appreciate the globally nomadic lifestyle.

Below is a copy of what appears in the Amazon customer reviews section for the essay collection titled Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids

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To steal an artful phrase by Anna Maria Moore, one author in this remarkable essay collection, the volume itself is "a collection of... passports...filled with stamps blurred by hands thumbing through them in customs offices" around the globe.

Here, the editors have successfully combined personal essays and scholarly articles from Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) and other Global Nomads to form a guidebook of sorts. This guidebook teaches and explains life lived in a globally-mobile sense: multiple cultures, multiple languages, frequent departures and separations. To live this way presents a complex set of challenges, and one byproduct is often a sense of alienation. The collection helps answer the questions: Where is home when your country isn't your country? Who are your people when no one around you has lived as you have lived?

It also helps explain the tax and toll struggling with this question can take on the psyche. For example, in my favorite scholarly essay in the collection, Memory, Language, and Identity: The Search for Self, Liliana Meneses explains that memories imprint based on the language associated with them; communicating in a language other than his mother tongue, a multilingual person might be unable to recall or recount early life events. The admirable adaptability of Third Culture Kids as adults is a direct result of this challenging upbringing. As Moore explains it, after four decades and five continents, she has become "a wild strawberry plant."

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I write in the margins and on the blank pages of books authored by other writers. It's a habit. When I happen upon those scribblings later, it's always a treat. The following is an essay I penned on a trip to Northern Italy in 2009. All summer long I'd been following the Green Revolution in Iran. I'd seen the blood pool in the street beneath the body of Neda Agha-Soltan after she was gunned down during a protest in June. Her death scarred me. I wanted to know about the lives of other young women in Iran. To that end, I picked up Dr. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to read on our vacation...

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I am seated on a bench in the northern Italian mountains. There is a white church steeple and a brass weather vane in the shape of a rooster straining in the brisk wind.  Muddy brown sparrows hop from branch to branch in the midget pines to my right. Jonathan's head is tilted back and his eyes are closed.  We are waiting for something, breath bated, and hopeful.

Clouds engulf the head of Monte Cervino, the exotic Italian name for this side of The Matterhorn.  Even as the radiant blue sky is visible over our heads in all directions, a remarkable dome, this mysterious mountain is coy. She has wrangled her own weather this morning and wears it like a white headscarf. For an instant, she reveals her eyes. She watches me. I am yearning for more, lusting for her full, perfect face. But she is well aware of her status as a check box, one of many on this trip, and isn't about to give me the satisfaction.  That's her call.  I snort with ambivalence and, in response, she tucks even her pretty, snowcapped eyes away from us again.

While we wait, I read. Reading Lolita in Tehran has accompanied me every mile of the way on our trip through France, Monaco, and Italy. The 2003 memoir by Dr. Azar Nafisi chronicles the clandestine activities of a group of young Muslim women in the mid-1990s. In search of literary truth and personal independence, they risked their safety to congregate in the private home of their teacher.  There they could shed their heavy scarves and robes, sit in a circle, and study the great novels of history.  

A verbal scalpel slices the cover of Lolita and allows the students to see past the prose and into the heart and guts of the work, its intentions and its context.  I can recall the cover of my own copy of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece, purchased at the UC Davis bookstore at the beginning of my junior year.  It is a photo in grayscale, saddle shoes and girlish ankles.  Tiny white socks folded down in delicate cuffs.  

Reading Lolita in my Introduction to Literary Criticism class startled me. Humbert Humbert, the perverse romantic, the child rapist poet, was the first narrator to make me feel sick.  I wanted to hate the book.  I wanted to plant my feet staunchly on the moral high ground and pitch the book into the fire.

It took a good teacher to change my mind and heart.

I cannot remember his name, but his gait, crippled, lurching and rolling, is burned into my mind's eye.  He'd been in a bicycle accident as a child, shattering his fragile leg bone beyond hope of anything more than a cursory repair. Yet, thirty years after that event rendered him weak and unstable for life, he paced the breadth of his classroom at Davis without more than a nod to his disability, and he willed his classful of eager English majors to reconsider Lolita as something more than the senseless ramblings of a pedophile.

He wanted me to mine Humbert's grotesque justifications for something deeper.  Consider the author's intentions, my teacher urged me.  Nobokov was not a depraved man with a penchant for little girls. Nabokov didn't want to suck the marrow from the skeletons of their fairy tales. He was a Russian author with a genius for gaining access to another plane of thought and fancy, and he excelled at granting that access to his readers in turn.  Nobokov invented Humbert as he invented so many other protagonists. He constructed an individual dispossessed of the stranglehold of our realities and allowed that individual to run free.

Nafisi introduced this same concept to the young women who'd gathered in her cozy, curtained apartment in Tehran.  Her six students also struggled with appreciating Lolita as something other than the confessions of a sexual predator.  

"Why do we enjoy books like this?  Isn't that wrong?" they asked each other.
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reddoorbrand.jpg
What is the import of a splash of milk billowing up gray and beige under the tinted surface of my morning tea? Who can say whether it is better to spend a day on a snowy hillside or in the radiator-heated coziness of my office? And what does it matter to the universe that I want to write a book?

Sometimes my mind gets caught in the web of abstraction. My morning begins with poetry.

I pour tea,
add sugar,
a small, sacred splash 
of milk.
I spin it with a spoon, 
ridding the sky
of its cumulus clouds.
(Elevation 7,000 feet)
Sip. It is clear
my life begins at conception.

The good news is that, even after my mind is thus entangled, my body (in particular, my typing fingers) can still function in real time. 

The tea is too hot. I take up a short stack of good books, ones that resonate months and years after the initial read. I flick pages and stick Post-Its on pages that jump out and say, "Remember me? I once blew your mind!" Then I open a blank Word document and begin to type my review. Keywords, key characters, key characteristics. I write, I prune. Soon I have condensed the plot and my rating to a mere 120 characters.

I know what you're thinking. Audrey? Write something THAT short? No way. 

I don't blame you. Here on TGBTRD I have all the room I want to wax philosophical. But Twitter has rules, and I must abide by them. This pet project of mine is finally live! I have just launched my Red Door Reviews:

Tweet-sized offerings on book content and quality. Title, review, link, star rating. A rapier wit as space and context allow.

If you feel so inclined, please follow me @RedDoorReviews on Twitter. 

This project began with a simple concept: People who love to read want to know what other people who love to read have read and why. The constraint of 120 characters helps me reduce some of my trademark (hah!) pontifical wandering in favor of true review. Naturally, my reviews are all offered IMHO.

My tea is cold. What exciting new venture will my mind and heart conceive tomorrow?

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries in the Book Reviews (Red Door Reviews) category.

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