The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 224 pgs.
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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō, translated by Cathy Hirano, provides a step-by-step process for her KonMari Method of tidying, which she says should bring you joy and possibly lead to other life-changing moments.  The first step is to discard, and when she says discard, she means get rid of everything that does not bring you joy or has no use.  Discarding should be undertaken by category of items not by room, as many homes stash lotions and hair clips and other items in multiple rooms.  These may sound like daunting tasks, but if the entire household participates, it might take less time.  She says the entire process for tidying the house can take up to six months or more.  Crazy!

Sentimental items like letters from loved ones and photos should be kept for last, because these will be the hardest items to part with and sort through.  All of our clothes should be collected from the various places throughout the house — drawers, closets, linen closets, coat closets, etc. — and placed in piles sorted by tops, bottoms, coats, dresses, etc.  Once they are sorted, you should hold them in your hands, and think about whether they bring joy when you wear them.  They also should be examined for any wear that cannot be repaired and tossed if they cannot be repaired.  This is just one example.  Placing everything in one category into a pile on the floor ensures that you visually see how much stuff you have.  I recently did this with clothes on my own and felt much better once everything was sorted and discarded, but I did this without the help of this book.  Once everything that is to be kept is identified, it needs to be put into its place and when used, it must be put back into its rightful place.

Kondō’s method is very detailed and deliberate.  Each item is held to ensure that the person understands what the item is, what its purpose is, and whether it brings joy.  Some clothes, for example, looked great in the store but not on you when they got home — so these should be discarded.  One piece of advice about lounge wear and that women should wear elegant nightwear to bed struck me as an old-fashioned idea, given that I’ve always found those kinds of bedtime wear uncomfortable to sleep in.  But I may be out of the norm on that one, preferring my t-shirts and shorts or t-shirts and flannel pj bottoms.

While readers will see the points she is trying to make — and it may just be the translation — there are times when the book is too repetitive, which can become bothersome.  Also, there is a mindfulness here that may not translate into American culture like it does in Japanese culture.  Thanking items for serving their purpose, caressing items to ensure they are alive before you take them out of storage, that kind of thing might appear a bit wacky to some.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō, translated by Cathy Hirano, has some great ideas about what papers should be saved, how clothes should be folded to maximize space, and how to rethink about the items we keep.  Attachment is something Buddhists talk about letting go of, and in many ways, Kondō is suggesting something similar in they way she focuses on discarding items.

About the Author:

Marie Kondo (近藤 麻理恵) is a Japanese organizing consultant and author. Kondo’s method of organizing is known as the KonMari Method, and one of the main principles is keeping only possessions which “spark joy.”  Kondo’s best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing has been published in more than 30 countries.  She was listed as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine in 2015.

The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audiobook, 12 CDs
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The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen, narrated by Steven Pacey and translated by K.E. Semmel, is the second book in the Department Q series — though you don’t have to read the previous one to follow along with this one — and Detective Carl Mørck is leading the new department with his assistant Assad in Copenhagen, Denmark.  This department’s focus is cold cases, reopening them to find new clues with fresh eyes, and what Mørck finds is a little more is disturbing.  Reviewing a case of murders from 1987 that involved a gang of young men and women, the detective, Assad, and his new assistant Rose Knudsen are forced to reassess their world view and the motivations of killers.

Adler-Olsen creates a set of murders that are not only over-the-top, but the perpetrators are as well.  Their hyped-up sense of pleasure from beatings, killings, and torture is reminiscent of the television show American Horror Story.  Some of these killers come from the upper echelons of society, and like those before them, they believe they are untouchable because of their place in society and what they have accomplished.  It’s clear that these accomplishments are not enough to sustain their attention or satisfaction; these are men and women who are dissatisfied with their success and are seduced by the dark side (pun intended).  Despite these absurdly crazy characters, and the absent one from the murderous gang who seems to stay enough on the radar to attract the attention of Detective Mørck but not her cohorts, the story has great tension and a layered revealing of events that keep readers hooked.

The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen, narrated by Steven Pacey and translated by K.E. Semmel, is a well paced thriller with bits of comedic banker between Mørck, Assad, and Rose that will leave readers wondering about what they missed in book one if they start here.  This seems like a series readers will get sucked into without really knowing how.  The unusual characters, the foreign setting for U.S. readers, and the noir quality of the situations will entice readers to enter Adler-Olsen’s world cautiously.

About the Author:

Author Jussi Adler-Olsen began in the 1990s to write novels after having followed a comprehensive career as publisher, editor, film composer for the Valhalla-cartoon and as bookseller.

He made his debut with the thriller “Alfabethuset” (1997), which reached bestseller status both in Denmark and internationally just like his subsequent novels “And She Thanked the Gods” (prev. “The Company Basher”) (2003) and “The Washington Decree” (2006). The first book on Department Q is “Kvinden I buret” (2007) and the second “Fasandræberne” (2008). The main detective is Deputy Superintendent Carl Morck from the Department Q and he is also the star of the third volume, “Flaskepost fra P” which was released in the fall of 2009 and secured Adler-Olsen ”Readers’ Book Award” from Berlingske Tidende-readers, the Harald Mogensen Prize as well as the Scandinavian Crime Society’s most prestigious price ”Glass Key”. The fourth volume in the Department Q series, “Journal 64” was published in 2010 and he was awarded the once-in-a-lifetime-prize of “The Golden Laurels” for this in 2011”. In December 2012 the fifth novel was published, “Marco Effekten”.

Photo Credit: Eric Druxman

About the Translator:

K. E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, Washington Post, World Literature Today, Southern Review, Subtropics, and elsewhere. His translations include books by Naja Marie Aidt, Karin Fossum, Erik Valeur, Jussi Adler Olsen, Simon Fruelund and, forthcoming in winter 2016, Jesper Bugge Kold. He is a recipient of numerous grants from the Danish Arts Foundation and is a 2016 NEA Literary Translation Fellow.

Mister H by Daniel Nesquens, Illustrated by Luciano Lozano

Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Hardcover, 61 pgs
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Mister H by Daniel Nesquens, Illustrated by Luciano Lozano, is an early readers chapter book and a little too much to read in one sitting for younger children, like my daughter. For these younger kids, it is best to break it up by chapter for readings so the kids can see the accompanying illustrations, which are delightful, and absorb the story more thoroughly. Mister H is a hippo in search of Africa, his true home, and while he persuades a young girl to free him and leaves the zoo, the conclusion to the story is not a happy ending. Some may find this disappointing, but in many ways, it will help children learn that happy endings are not always available upon first try and that additional chances should be taken.

Nesquens uses a lot of words in this tale and these words can be sometimes large for younger readers, but with help from parents and teachers, kids should be able to sound out these larger words and add to their own vocabularies. Mister H is a tolerant animal in the park who plays with two rambunctious boys and when he is demeaned by a snooty lady in a pizza parlor. Throughout his adventures children will learn how to be persistent in reaching their goals and how to brush off meanness without resorting to similar tactics.

Mister H by Daniel Nesquens, Illustrated by Luciano Lozano, offers a great deal for children to learn about how to interact with others, especially those different from themselves, and how to keep trying even if at first they don’t achieve their goals. Wonderfully illustrated, and observant kids will have fun picking out the happenings that go on beyond just the text.

About the Author:

Daniel Nesquens has been writing children’s books for over ten years. He has published more than thirty titles, including My Tattooed Dad (Groundwood).

About the Illustrator:

Luciano Lozano is a professional illustrator whose work has appeared in books, newspapers, and magazines. He lives in Barcelona. Visit his website.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 96 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, translated by Ted Goossen, is a novella and a dark fairy tale that brings a young teen into the depths of the library’s labyrinth.  The teenage boy loves to read and abides his mother, but the library seems to be his home on many levels until he enters room 107.  From there stranger things happen and the boy meets a sheep man and a mysterious and pretty girl.  Murakami has a wild imagination and it comes to life in these pages.  He’s created a world that is fantastical and odd, but the threats and tensions are real, leaving the reader sweating and despairing alongside his protagonist.

The text is accompanied by odd little drawings and magazine-like images, which add more of a creep factor to the story.  The copy from the library had an odd cover that had one flap flipping up and one flipping down, which could be used as a bookmark, but while reading, they tended to get in the way.  However, that wasn’t enough to detract from the creepy story that unfolded in these pages.  Murakami clearly has a vivid imagination in which animals and men can crossover into different planes of existence.  While many of us enjoy books, reading, and our libraries, The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, translated by Ted Goossen, sure will give readers a reason to pause before entering their libraries again.

About the Author:

Haruki Murakami (Japanese: 村上 春樹) is a popular contemporary Japanese writer and translator. His work has been described as ‘easily accessible, yet profoundly complex’.  Since childhood, Murakami has been heavily influenced by Western culture, particularly Western music and literature. He grew up reading a range of works by American writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, and he is often distinguished from other Japanese writers by his Western influences.  Murakami studied drama at Waseda University in Tokyo, where he met his wife, Yoko.

Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 238 pages
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Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, (on Kobo) reads like a fable with the anthropomorphization of dogs and death.  Saramago’s style lacks punctuation, dialogue separations, and other grammatical elements that many readers come to rely upon, but in this case, these omissions are done with purpose.  Once readers immerse themselves into the narrative, these grammatical signals are not warranted.  The “what-if” scenario in this novel is what would happen if death took a vacation, and no one died — but remained just on the cusp of death and life, unable to improve and get better and unable to fully pass away. 

What transpires is a country in chaos, hospitals overflowing with patients in a sort of stasis before death and nursing homes unable to care for all of the ailing in the most dignified way.  His prose is heavy handed against the government, religion, and business, as well as human nature in general, particularly when explaining the motivations behind the care and disposal of the living-dead.  The absurdity of the scenario and the satire are focused heavily on the internal decision makers and the elite of the church bureaucracy.  Readers will either find his prose humorous in his treatment of these elements, or they will be confused or taking it too seriously that they find the story too limited in scope or too focused on the mundane.

“And then, as if time had stopped, nothing happened.  The queen mother neither improved nor deteriorated, she remained there in suspension, her frail body hovering on the very edge of life, threatening at any moment to tip over onto the other side, yet bound to this side by a tenuous thread to which, out of some strange caprice, death, because it could only have been death, continued to keep hold.” (page 3)

Amidst the heavy handed and grim dealings of the government, religion, and medical fields to deal with the crisis of no on being able to die and be buried, Saramago offers readers a look at the darker side of humanity following an initial euphoria that immortality had been achieved.  A deeply philosophical fable, this novel is almost of two minds — focused on the human institutions and their reaction in one half and then focused on the reasons why death has ceased and wanted a vacation from it all.  While the latter half of the book is very reminiscent of those old myths about the gods falling for humans, Saramago never loses sight of who death is and how manipulative and tactless she can be.  She’s romancing a cellist, but in the only way death can, with veiled threats of harm and mystery about her intentions.  Some readers will either love the last third of the book or find it too cliche.

Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa — our April book club selection — examines what it means to face death or the knowledge of death, whether you get your affairs in order and atone for past sins or go out in a blaze of glory.  Saramago will have readers questioning their own mortality.

What the Book Club Thought:

The book club was all over the place with this one, with some really finding it humorous, a few not even finishing the book, and a few others that simply hated it.  While many abhorred the writing style, others didn’t mind it as much, but wanted a more impactful story about individual families or characters — they wanted to see the more human side of things.  None of the members agreed on who the narrator could be, though some suspected God, the Scythe, or Love as the narrators.  While I was dealing with a toddler during this meeting and a migraine, I probably missed a lot of the discussion, which is unfortunate for me, since I’ve read a few of this novelist’s books before and may have been able to help with a bit of the background, etc. for him and his writing.  There is definitely a great number of issues to talk about and definitely will raise dilemmas, but the members will have to get through the book first.

About the Author:

José de Sousa Saramago (1922–2010) was a Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party.  His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He founded the National Front for the Defense of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with among others Freitas-Magalhaes. He lived on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he died in June 2010.

Ripper by Isabel Allende

Source: Harper and TLC Book Tours
Hardcover, 496 pages
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Young Amanda Jackson is the game master for an online game, Ripper, in which participants — including her grandfather — examine evidence of heinous crimes and try to solve them. Up until recently, the gamers had focused on Jack the Ripper and other past cases, but when a rash of murders with unusual elements surface after a bloody premonition by local psychic Celeste Roko, the members set their sights on solving the new crimes. Ripper by Isabel Allende, translated by Oliver Bock and Frank Wynne, psychologically gets under the skin of the reader as they meet with the Ripper members and become part of the characters’ lives — Indiana, a homeopathic healer and Amanda’s mother; Ryan Miller, an ex-Navy SEAL and security specialist; Pedro Alarcón, Miller’s business partner and former guerrilla fighter from Uruguay; Alan Keller, a socialite man quickly running out of prestige and pennies; and more.

“The cold was like a sudden blow to the body, but soon he was feeling the heady euphoria of a swimmer.  At moments like this — feeling weightless as he defied the treacherous currents, withstanding the near-freezing temperatures that made his bones creak, propelling himself with the powerful muscles in his arms and his back — he was once again the man he used to be.  After a few strokes he no longer felt the cold, and could focus on his breathing, his speed and his direction, orienting himself by the buoys that he could just pick out through his goggles and the fog.”  (page 150 ARC)

Amanda’s online detective game becomes more real than she expects, and the consequences of not solving the case are more dire than she would ever have imagined.  While her mother is free-spirited and lives on little, Amanda longs for something greater, taking cues from her father’s investigations as a policeman and the novels and books she reads on some of the greatest crimes in history.  Graduating from a fascination with wolves and vampires, Amanda has set in motion the ultimate game to pass time with her online friends, but when murders and kidnappings begin to hit too close to home, she has little choice but to take matters into her own hands.

Allende’s modern setting of San Francisco comes alive, with its mysterious fog obscuring some of the characters until such a time they are revealed in their full, flawed glory.  Although the plot is slow moving and the narrative jumps between characters — giving detailed descriptions of their pasts and current issues — Allende is creating a quilt of intrigue, leaving readers to shuffle through the red herrings and the clues to solve the mystery.  What’s stunning here is her characters, particularly ex-Navy SEAL Ryan Miller and his issues with PTSD following a raid in Afghanistan and Indiana with her unending capacity to give to others.  Ripper by Isabel Allende deliberately uncovers psychological motivations in each character, peeling back the skin a little bit at the time to reveal not only petty jealousies but the selflessness of love and family connection.

About the Author:

Isabel Allende is the bestselling author of twelve works of fiction, four memoirs, and three young adult novels, which have been translated into more than twenty-seven languages, with more than 57 million copies sold. In 2004, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award in 2012. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, she lives in California. Find out more about Allende, her books, and her foundation and visit her on Facebook.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum, translated by Charlotte Barslund

Source: Borrowed
Paperback, 184 pages
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Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum is the 9th book in the Inspector Konrad Sejer series and is set in Norway, but readers will get little sense of Norway other than the odd name here and there for places and people and the references to the bitter cold.  While Norway can be bitterly cold in the winter months, there has to be more to a country and its culture than that, but little of that comes across in this novel.  Additionally, the series stars Inspector Konrad Sejer, but readers will get little sense of him in this slim volume where he makes the rare appearance and the main focus of the book being on three young men — Jon, Reilly, and Axel.

“He disappeared into the kitchen and they heard him scrabbling.  Then he returned with the fireguard and placed it in front of the fire.  The cast-iron fireguard with two wolves baring their teeth.

Jon looked at the wolves and at his two friends.” (page 2)

Fossum has created a scenario that demonstrates the power that friends can have over one another, particularly when one of the friends is more dominant in the relationship than the others.  It is easier to agree to cover-up an accidental death than to call the emergency services, or is it.  These young men are like sketches of profiles that police would create following a crime, and while you uncover a little bit about their backgrounds and their pasts, you never really see them in full view, you cannot empathize with their decisions, and you cannot cheer for them to get away with their crimes.  The way in which Fossum has crafted these characters must be intentional, a cautionary tale against the pressures of friendship especially when it can lead to compromised principles.

“‘We’ve talked about the nature of truth before,’ he said.  ‘Many things are true, but they still need to be left alone.  Imaging if people always told the truth, it wouldn’t work.  Society would fall apart.  We need to start each day from scratch,’ he argued.  ‘Build something that people can see, that they can cope with and believe in.'” (page 10)

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum could have been a stand alone novel without the inspector, as he plays a minimal role, but as it isn’t, the novel leaves readers with a desire for more — more characterization, so that the inspector and the young men become real.  Exploring the darker tendencies of peer pressure and how it tests our mettle when we are called upon to do what’s right is a tough subject to tackle.  Fossum explores a number of themes along this line, but with little background on the boys, it’s hard to keep up with their motivations.

***This experience hasn’t soured me on reading others in the series, but this one just fell short for me.

About the Author:

Karin Fossum is the author of the internationally successful Inspector Konrad Sejer crime series. Her recent honors include a Gumshoe Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for mystery/thriller. She lives in a small town in southeastern Norway.

3rd book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; this is set in Norway.

230th Virtual Poetry Circle

Welcome to the 230th Virtual Poetry Circle!

Remember, this is just for fun and is not meant to be stressful.

Keep in mind what Molly Peacock’s books suggested. Look at a line, a stanza, sentences, and images; describe what you like or don’t like; and offer an opinion. If you missed my review of her book, check it out here.

Also, sign up for the 2013 Dive Into Poetry Challenge because its simple; you only need to read 1 book of poetry. Check out the stops on the 2013 National Poetry Month Blog Tour and the 2012 National Poetry Month Blog Tour.

Today’s poem is from Cesare Pavese’s Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950, translated by Geoffrey Brock:

The Cats Will Know

Rain will fall again
on your smooth pavement,
a light rain like
a breath or a step.
The breeze and the dawn
will flourish again
when you return,
as if beneath your step.
Between flowers and sills
the cats will know.

There will be other days,
there will be other voices.
You will smile alone.
The cats will know.
You will hear words
old and spent and useless
like costumes left over
from yesterday’s parties.

You too will make gestures.
You’ll answer with words—
face of springtime,
you too will make gestures.

The cats will know,
face of springtime;
and the light rain
and the hyacinth dawn
that wrench the heart of him
who hopes no more for you—
they are the sad smile
you smile by yourself.

There will be other days,
other voices and renewals.
Face of springtime,
we will suffer at daybreak.

What do you think?

221st Virtual Poetry Circle

Welcome to the 221st Virtual Poetry Circle!

Remember, this is just for fun and is not meant to be stressful.

Keep in mind what Molly Peacock’s books suggested. Look at a line, a stanza, sentences, and images; describe what you like or don’t like; and offer an opinion. If you missed my review of her book, check it out here.

Also, sign up for the 2013 Dive Into Poetry Challenge because its simple; you only need to read 1 book of poetry. Check out the stops on the 2013 National Poetry Month Blog Tour and the 2012 National Poetry Month Blog Tour.

Today’s poem is from Rosa Alice Branco (translated from Portuguese by Alexis Levitin):

Between Yesterday and Your Mouth

I will spend the night with those days.
With the smile you left in the sheets.
I still burn with the remains of your name
and see with your eyes the things that you touched.
I am here between the bread and table, in the glass
you lift to your mouth.  In the mouth that holds me.
And I don't know what I am between yesterday and what will come.
Yesterday I was the river at evening, the gaze that caressed the light.
My son writes on pebbles on the beach and I invent
steps for deciphering them.  They all roll far away.
That's how the sea is.  I am learning with the waves
to melt away to foam.  There is always a seagull
that cries out when I come near, there is always a wing
between the sky and my floor.  But nothing belongs to me,
not even the words with which I cement the hours.
Perhaps love is just a small difference in time zones
or a linguistic accord that only exists
deep in the flesh.  But here where I am not
what grounds me is the certainty that you exist.

What do you think?

Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture by José Saramago, translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 464 pages
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Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture by José Saramago, translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor from Portuguese, is a travelogue, but not in a traditional sense of naming specific destinations, their locations, and offering impressions in a straightforward manner.  Readers looking for a travel guide would be best served looking for another book about Portugal.  Saramago refers to himself as the traveler, which can be wearisome throughout 400 pages of text, and many of the visits he makes throughout the country are to either museums or religious locations/buildings, which is odd given his atheism and tenuous relationship with the Catholic church after writing The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.  Moreover, this travelogue is as close to being a memoir as it can be given Saramago’s reflections, daydreams, and observances about the more modern Portugal around him.  (He exiled himself, a Communist, to the Spanish island of Lanzarote following The Carnation Revolution in 1974 where he remained until his death in 2010.)  However, he does say that he wishes these religious relics and pieces to be preserved as works made by human hands.

“The traveller thanks him, and sets off in the direction indicated.  There the palheiros survive, huge barracks made of wooden slats blackened by the wind and the sea, a few already stripped beams exposed to the gaze.  A few are still inhabited, others have lost their roofs to the wind.  It won’t be long before nothing will remain beyond a photographic record.” (page 146)

In many ways, Saramago is reflecting on the life he’s led, the perceptions he’s had and still has, and how as time moves on the ornaments of those memories and perceptions are stripped bare, leaving only the barest outline of the past — until the emotions and personal connections are lost and all that is left is a photo out of context.  “During the lengthy voyage that took nearly six months, the conviction was born in me that in every place I passed through there was a piece of old Portugal bidding farewell to the traveller I was, an ancient Portugal which was beginning, finally, while still doubting whether it wanted to or not, to move towards the twentieth century,” he says. (page xii)  He reconciles the past with the present, as seen through a melancholy perspective, and like the villages and people the traveller approaches slowly, he passes through one town to another, gets lost, and meditates on what he encounters.

Saramago reflects on stonework quite a bit and its ability to stand the test of time, and through his ruminations, readers are likely to see his struggle with the endurance or inability of workers and tributes to stand the test of time — there are some shrines and other edifices he finds hold stories that are no longer accessible.  Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture by José Saramago, translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor, may suffer from poor translation, but there are moments of great reflection and insight that shouldn’t be missed, even if they are mired in melancholia and dark moods, by patient readers.

About the Author:

José de Sousa Saramago is a Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist. He was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party.  His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He founded the National Front for the Defense of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with among others Freitas-Magalhaes. He lived on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he died in June 2010.

This is my 57th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero, Translated by Carolina de Robertis

Source: Riverhead Books, Penguin
Paperback, 374 pages
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The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero, translated by Carolina de Robertis (see my review of Perla), is set just before the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile when Castro is in power in Cuba and Germany has been cut in half by the wall.  Cuban exile Cayetano Brulé has left Miami with his wife, Maria Paz Angela Undurraga Cox, for her home in Chile, but he continues to feel out of place as no one trusts a Cuban and he cannot find work.  Meanwhile, his wife is increasingly engaged in the reform movement in the country, while at the same time she is pulling away from her husband.  Wandering in a strange country with bad coffee, Cayetano unwittingly bumps into Pablo Neruda at a party in a library and shortly receives an offer he cannot refuse.

“The door was made of knotted wood.  It didn’t open.  He stroked the old bronze knocker, put his hands in the pockets of his fleece jacket, and told himself that all he could do now was wait.  He exhaled wafts of white breath into the overcast winter morning and thought, amused, that it looked as if he were smoking, even though, in this city, there were no more matches or cigarettes.”  (page 12)

Brulé is a man that is transformed by his business relationship with Neruda, who hires him to uncover the truth about his past that haunts him, but this relationship evolves into admiration and a personal connection that transforms Brulé into a confident detective.  Not only is the novel about finding solace, it also is about one man’s journey home.  Neruda was a complex man and legendary, and the author clearly admired the poet and held him in high regard, but the novel also demonstrates that even the most legendary of us have flaws.  It is those flaws that make us who we are, ensuring that those who love us are constantly challenged.  By the time Brulé meets Neruda, he is already a legend and Nobel laureate, and Neruda knows it and revels in his success — so much so that it becomes a crutch for any mean moment or poor decision in his life:  “I did it for my art.”

“‘Because if poetry transports us to the heavens, crime novels plunge you into life the way it really is; they dirty your hands and blacken your face the way coal stains engine stokers on trains in the south, where I was born.'”  (page 24)

“‘The casualties of our good fortune are a terrible thing, Cayetano.  But the road to personal happiness is paved with the pain of others.'”  (page 130)

Ampuero’s novel is a detective novel wrapped up in literary and historical fiction that depicts a turbulent time in Chile’s history, but also a time of idealism on the part of Neruda and President Salvador Allende.  The Neruda Case transports the reader back in time and paints a picture of idealism and its failures, but also its continued promise of hope.  Ampuero’s portrayal of Neruda is as complex as the man himself, and his detective is a man that readers will become emotionally attached to and cheer on in his mission.  One of the best, sweeping novels I’ve read this year.

**On a side note, I was pleased to find that Ampuero lived near Neruda’s home La Sebastiana as a boy and regrets that he never had the courage to knock on the poet’s door.**

About the Author:

Roberto Ampuero is an internationally bestselling, award-winning author. He has published twelve novels in Spanish, and his works have been translated around the world. The Neruda Case is his first novel published in English. Born in Chile, Ampuero is a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa and currently serves as Chile’s ambassador to Mexico. He lives in Mexico City and Iowa City.


This is my 37th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated by Anthea Bell

Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated by Anthea Bell, is a dystopian young adult novel set some time after a civil war has torn apart an unnamed nation.  If any of this sounds familiar, it should — Hunger Games — and like Suzanne Collins’ book, kids and adults are required to fight in an Arena, though more in gladiator style with swords.  And the similarities do not end there, but there are differences between this world and Collins’ world, with the Hunger Games capital seemingly more dangerous and the world of the districts more stark.

Mourlevat spends a great deal of time on the boarding school and building the characters of Milena and Helen.  These young girls are taken to a boarding school at the edge of the world, where they must memorize and follow 20 rules to stay out of the SKY, which isn’t the sky at all.  During the year, they have three opportunities to meet in the village with their consolers, who basically provide the children comfort and guidance.  The girls’ adventures begin on one such trip they meet two boys, Milos and Bartolomeo.

“The Sky did not deserve its name.  Far from being high in the air above, the detention cell was underneath the cellars.  You reached it from the refectory, down a long, spiral staircase with cold water dripping from the steps.  The cell measured about seven by ten feet.  The walls and floor smelled musty, earthy.  When the door closed behind you, all you could do was grope your way over to the wooden bed, sit or lie on it, and wait.  You were alone in the darkness and silence for hours.”  (page 7)

In the back of the book, the author mentions that the story is based upon the life of Kathleen Mary Ferrier, an English contralto singer.  In some ways the recruitment of Ferrier during WWII is similar to Milena’s mother’s story, but in other ways they are vastly different.  There is a resistance in Winter’s End, but it remains very mysterious to the very end when the network begins to take action against the Phalange.  While the oppressors show no compassion for those different than themselves and shoot down unarmed individuals or send dog-like men against the innocent, the Phalange remain mysterious — their origins, their motivations, and the history with the oppressed.  In many ways, the actions against Milena’s mother and Bart’s father seemed more related to a broken-hearted man, than an over-arching battle between the Phalange and the resistance.

Winter’s End is a thrill ride in the latter half of the book, and it will definitely keep the attention of younger readers.  It’s also aptly named, as the sun seems to be shining more brightly by the end of the novel, though an epilogue about Helen’s consoler and her son was not necessarily needed and seemed like it was tacked on as an afterthought.  Overall a satisfying read, but not near the caliber of other books in this category.

About the Author:

Jean-Claude Mourlevat once wrote and directed burlesque shows for adults and children, which were performed for more than ten years in France and abroad. The author of several children’s books, he lives in a house overhanging the River Loire, near Saint-Etienne, France.

About the Translator:

Anthea Bell OBE is an English translator who has translated numerous literary works, especially children’s literature, from French, German, Danish and Polish to English.

This is my  28th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Here’s What the Book Club Thought:

Overall, most of us enjoyed the writing in this YA book the most, and there was a great many symbols of French culture, particularly the power of music and symbols to a revolution.  The young lady in the group who selected the book did not like Milena as much because she was too perfect, while another member said she was more like a symbol than a character — harkening to the symbol of the revolution bit that the author seemed to be striving for.  Two or three members were saddened by events that killed off one particular character who had become a favorite, and another member pointed out how there was a lot of build up in the book about the revolution but little action.  One member wanted more of that action, and I think most agreed that the end of the book seemed rushed.  Overall, it was just an OK read for most of the group, with the youngest member planning to give it four stars.