Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Western Europe’ Category

Talon Come Fly With Me by Gigi Sedlmayer is a quiet adventure about a young girl with special needs who befriends two mated condors. While the story suffers from a weak plot and simple writing, it’s also a heartwarming and informative one.

Nine-year-old Matica has a growth handicap that traps her inside a body the size of a two-year-old. It also causes her to be rejected by the residents in the remote village of Peru where she lives with her brother and Australian missionaries. Size however does not impact how she’s viewed by a local mating pair of condors. After a year of her watching them, Matica attempts to meet them face to face. She does this by visiting them in the same place day after day, until one of them becomes curious and flies near her. After this, she brings them dead lizards to eat. As a way of the male bird saying thank you, he flies up to her and allows himself to be touched.

Seldmayer could have easily filled a book with just the above drama, but instead strips her narrative to a few bare-boned chapters. She does the same disservice to Matica’s encounters with poachers, largely because Sedlmayer fails to integrate any tension, conflict, or surprise twists. Instead she relies heavily on a passive narrative laden with dialog. While this simplistic style might make the story more palpable for reluctant readers, it unfortunately left me at times bored.

After Matica has the opportunity to touch a male condor, her relationship expands to include his mate. When poachers attempt to steal a condor egg, the condor couple turn to Matica for help. She carries the egg home with her, where she keeps it warm. Every day the condors check with her to see if their baby has hatched. When the baby is finally born, Matica feeds it, cleans it, and even helps it to learn to fly. The second half of Talon Come Fly With Me is dedicated to Matica’s relationship with the baby condor, and here’s where Seldmayer’s admiration for these unique birds shines through.

Although Matica is a sympathetic character, a story from the viewpoint of the condors alone may have resulted in a stronger emotional connection for me. The condor family are the stars, and through Seldmayer’s detailed portrayal of them, I learned about their idiosyncrasies and their diminishing numbers. Talon Come Fly With Me is a pleasant way to launch one’s reading of nature books, after which one should turn to literary giants of the genre such as Jean Craighead George.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is an atypical reading experience. Set in Russia in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the USSR has just ended and Russia is still in its infancy, One-Two takes you into the mind of conjoined twins Faith and Hope. The style is at first disconcerting, being told from an alternating first and second person, but in the end feels like the perfect choice. A psychological drama, the novel reflects on how difficult but also how important it is to remain human.

Faith and Hope do not have an easy life. Their own mother, aghast at the sight of them, signed their death certificate. The twins were handed over to one institute and then another as experimental subjects. When the scientists wearied of the twins, they were transferred to boarding school where they experienced some measure of happiness. The windows had no grids, the air smelled of moss and pine, and the twins felt like normal children for the first time. They even developed friendships. Unfortunately, due to a suicide by one of the boarders, their stay was short-lived. The next stop was an orphanage, where once again the twins were viewed as objects of curiosity and sunk into misery. Their one relief was a library and the news that successful operations were being performed to separate conjoined twins. But again, these comforts were short-lived. One-Two is a hard story at times to read, as there seems be no redemption in sight.

But I want redemption for Faith and Hope, who from start to finish I am rooting for. I like who the twins are. They value friendships from their peers, the knowledge to be found in libraries, and the kindness of strangers. They’re also self-aware and know when they are being cowardly or mean, but also how to be strong in the face of relentless suffering and pain. I empathize with the twins who wish for a different appearance, just as many of us are dissatisfied with our looks. Faith grows up knowing the story of the Ugly Duckling by heart, because she wants to undergo a similar transformation. She treasures artwork of a friend who depicts them as beautiful. Whether accurate or not, I find enlightening the insights into life as a conjoined twin. One teacher tells the class that anyone cheating will be seated at separate desks, and Faith laments how impossible that would be. Then there are the constant questions from bystanders of how the two function day-by-day with bodies that are conjoined. Perhaps the most bittersweet is how the twins at times encourage other and at other times wish desperately to be their own person. Finally, I feel abhorrence at their treatment. When the twins take a bus ride, passengers make comments such as they’ll never get used to them and they’ll one day turn into haggish toads. At the orphanage, when staff see them, the twins are told to cover themselves. And these are among the least cruel reactions.

The style is initially what I least cared for. The first person is used when Faith describes her traumatic childhood, and the second person is used when she talks to her conjoined twin. There are times when I wanted to simply stay inside Faith’s head and times when I wanted to know what her sister thought not what Faith said to or about her. At the same time, the technique serves to increase tension, and thereby creates a frightening foreboding. While narrating her story Faith occasionally presents philosophical truths that seemed too mature for her to know at the age being depicted. At the same time, her emotions swing from optimism to despair, and feel agonizingly real. By the novel’s end, I felt as if the author could not have chosen any other way to tell his story.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is one of those books that need to be reread due to its complexity. The twins manage to struggle past thoughts of revenge, suicide, and other dark emotions to hold on to the belief that their life has been amazing and full of miracle, and therein they teach us how to be human. Upon the initial reading one will grasp the essentials of the plot and the characters, but an additional reading will be needed to fully comprehend all the truths being imparted.

A national best seller. Winner of many awards. A major motion picture. Atonement is a literary novel by Ian McEwan, set in the 1930’s in England. It is about a young adolescent girl’s imagination and her older sister’s moment of flirtation with the son of a servant. My husband and I both read this book. The features which stood out the most to us were McEwan’s style and his portrayal of characters.

The style in Atonement at times had me checking my watch and at other times made my heart race. One might blame the plot for my reaction. The first half of Atonement focuses on the preparations of a play by a younger sister for her soon-returning brother, the divorce of parents faced by three visiting cousins, and the changing feelings for a childhood friend. My husband said that for the first 100 pages not much happened. Yet at the least two of those scenarios, that of marital conflict and sexual arousal, has been the entire subject of thoroughly enjoyable novels. So, in my mind, style is at least partly to blame for two reasons. First, if not much happened in those first 100 pages, it’s because McEwan choose to present mostly the internal thoughts of his multiple characters instead of showing them in action. Second, at times, scenes felt overwritten. I could well imagine McEwan being able to write a lengthy chapter about a father breaking a coffee cup. As for the remaining 200 pages, the pace became more pleasurable. My husband and I would both agree that one reason is a lot more happened. The love interest of the older sister went to war, while both the older and younger sister served as nurses. At the same time, I’ve read books about war where I found myself yawning, and so style deserves a lot of credit. Indeed, McEwan’s attention to detail really brought to life the trauma and brutality of war.

While my husband and I might have felt that his style didn’t always work, McEwan’s portrayal of character earned a lot of admiration. I’ve read a lot of novels where each alternating chapter flips back and forth between the two main characters. This results in an overly structured feeling, which I mostly dislike. In Atonement, perspectives sometimes switch within chapters. Other times, McEwan focuses on lead character for several chapters. As such, the decision of when to change viewpoints seems solely dependent on it worked for the sake of moving forward the plot. This results in a more organic feeling, and really worked for me. Now I must admit, I have read other novels too wherein viewpoints seemed to change on the flip of a coin. The problem with them, in contrast to Atonement, is that the switches often felt arbitrary. Or maybe the characters simply weren’t developed enough for me to see them as individuals, with the result that I often felt confused by who was speaking and when. That’s not an issue in Atonement, where I felt very early as if I could easily describe each of the characters to my husband.

For the past couple of years, my husband and I have tried to pick a book that we’ll both read and discuss. We use lists of best-sellers and award-winners to make our selection. Atonement’s plot is what initially appealed to us. While that actually turned out to be at times lackluster, there was still much we found to like about Atonement. As such, it gave us a couple of weeks of engaging reading, as well as lively discussion, which is exactly what we want from a book we pick to share.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

After I finished reading How to Lose Everything by Phillip Mattheis, my husband and I had a long discussion about this mostly true story. Our chat revolved around two questions: Does a book need an uplifting moral or theme to have merit? When is the entertainment value of a book sufficient on its own?

There’s a line in an old song by Cyndi Lauper that says, “Money changes everything.” This pretty much describes the theme of How to Lose Everything. The summer of 1994, four teenage boys find a fortune inside an abandoned house. Initially, they feel such thrill about their find that they keep wanting to feel the money. Because this money isn’t rightfully theirs but belongs to whoever owned the house, the boys don’t feel comfortable telling their parents about the money. Or maybe the boys would have kept their discovery secret anyway, because therein they remained in control of the money. In any event, they also start out feeling content enough to spend the money on incidentals like candy, smokes, pizza, and drugs.

But money changes everything. After a time, the boys become protective of their find. They don’t feel that anyone else would know how to handle the money or even deserves it. They also become less content with what they have. The latter leads to three negative decisions. First, they start buying bigger stuff like fancy clothes and gifts, which begins to draw attention from gangs. Second, they eventually return to the house and damage property to find more cash. When a long search finally shows up more cash, they argue about who should have the money. Third, and this is what I found most interesting, they began to lose the thrill of buying stuff. Now that everything was within their reach, it actually became more exciting to see how much they could steal instead of properly purchase.

The back flap of How to Lose Everything contains this description: “Eighteen years later, Jonathan returns to that life-changing summer to tally up the cost of that discovery, exploring how broken dreams can lead to a new sense of purpose.” If the memoir had lived up to this summary, I think I might have felt more satisfied. As it is, the four friends don’t seem to dramatically change. They start out feeling bored with life. Money initially adds excitement to their life. But in the end, they seem as apathetic as ever, except now they are facing the repercussions of their descent into drugs, parties, sex. To say more would result in spoilers, but without the counterbalance of reflection, the book for me came close to feeling like another raunchy teen movie.

Having decided that for me How to Lose Everything didn’t have a strong enough message, I began to ponder instead its entertainment value. Obviously, it’s unusual for anyone to stumble across a fortune. Therein lies one potential intrigue. Just as big of one for me are the notes that Jonathan finds in envelopes along with money. The notes talk about threats, dangers, and fear. His friends seem dismissive of them, not wanting to investigate any source which might lead back to the owners. But Jonathan is curious and even worried. Each time any of them return to the house, he takes more notes and tries to decipher them. This creates a sense of mystery.

Because of its unique plot lines, How to Lose Everything makes for an interesting one-time read memoir. Despite the fact that I know that drugs and sex can be a huge part of teen life, I also felt however that Mattheis remained too casual about all of his bad choices for me to want to read it again.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

This past week I rediscovered Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight. In doing so, I realized it held even more depth to it than my childhood reading of it had revealed. For example, this beloved classic dog story is set in a different time and place than those with whom I am familiar. Even the main character of Lassie is a more complex dog than I remembered, in that she at times like humans wavers between fear and love.

Lassie Come-Home was first published in 1938. At that time, just like today, there was a disparity between the poor and the wealthy. Back then, however, those struck by poverty might consider selling their canine companions to dealers, kennel owners, or rich men. And so Knight writes in his fictional story, “That way many fine dogs had gone from homes in Greenall Bridge. But not Lassie!” The day came however that even the Carraclough family had been beaten so low that the parents felt there was no other choice. Imagine growing up, every day being met faithfully after school or work by your dog, and then one day she is not there. Such is what happened to Joe. When he inquired of his parents, they told that Lassie had been sold and would not ever be theirs again. Needless to say, Joe was devastated and Lassie was confused.

Eric Knight was born in England. Although he later moved to the United States, his homeland is believed to have served as the setting for Lassie Come-Home. In the early chapters of Lassie Come-Home, Lassie escapes the kennels to which she has been sold and devotedly returns to Joe. She doesn’t understand that because the family has sold her, they will be obligated to return her. The third time this happens, Joe doesn’t take her home but instead hides out with her on the moors, which Knight describes as: “as island of outcropping rocks, great sharp-edged blocks that looked much as in some strange long ago a giant child had begun to pile up building block towers”. Eventually, the new owner relocates Lassie to Scotland, where he hopes to put an end to her escapes. For a time it does, but one day on a walk Lassie breaks from her collar and begins the long journey across Scotland to England and back home again to Joe. She encounters many adventures and Knight treats readers to descriptive passages of the landscape.

Of course, at the heart of Lassie Come-Home is the bond which exists between boy and dog. Although Lassie had to traverse mountains, swim rivers, and resist attacks, she persevered. One instinct kept her going, despite injuries and fevers, and that was the one to meet Joe at school at 4:00. Along the way, Lassie sadly discovered that not all men are equal in their treatment of animals. Boys threw rocks at her. Men shot their guns at her. Others hurled sticks or came with nets to imprison her. Given how daring Lassie acts in the television series, you might not recall this detail but in time, Lassie came to fear those men whom she didn’t know. At a pivotal time, when a peddler who had befriended her came under assault, Lassie at first runs away. As she heads homeward, Lassie feels conflicted. Fear would tell her to just keep going, going, going…. Love would require her to return and defend the peddler, even if meant even more harm to herself.

If it’s been awhile since you last read Lassie Come-Home, this holiday season would make an excellent time to pick up a copy again. And if you have yet to read the tale which inspired such adoration for the breed of collies, what are you waiting for?

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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