An Unnecessary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Aaliya is a 72 year old woman living alone in a Beiruit apartment. From childhood she has felt somehow different from others, a difference she sometimes carries with a small amount of pride but  which has always left her with the awkward feeling of never belonging anywhere. She has spent most of her life translating works of literature into Arabic, translations that no one will ever read because as she finishes them, she boxes them up and stores them in her spare room She's been doing this for 50 years.

Aaliya is the narrator, so we have the privilege - and it is a privilege - of being inside her head throughout the book. Through her thoughts and memories we experience her childhood, her family, her awful marriage, and her despair. Her love of literature fills every chapter with enough book references and quotes to keep you adding titles to your tbr for days.

She is, has always been, lonely, yet tends to keep apart from other people. She is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and she doesn't like her mother, brothers, neighbours, or herself. She is one of the most honest characters I've ever read, or maybe it's just that I recognize bits of my flawed self in her, those bits you just don't talk anyone. Alan Bennett has said : “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”. When I was reading this book I felt the author was reaching out her hand and taking mine. You can't ask more from a novel than that.

This opening line: "You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn't help my concentration." begins a novel that doesn't rely on plot, but on her memories, her present situation, and her ideas and philosophies, formed mostly from the literature to which she devoted her life. I am taken with the way this author expresses herself, how neatly her sentences convey her thoughts, and the clarity and impact of her imagery. Here are a few other lines/phrases that caught my attention:

"Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: Insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She'll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is."

There is no one more conformist than one who flaunts his individuality.

I know. You think you love art because you have a sensitive soul. Isn’t a sensitive soul simply a means of transforming a deficiency into a proud disdain?

…the impatience of the entitled...” This one stopped me in my tracks.

…with an Egyptian pyramid’s worth of effort....” I love this. 

I don't recall where I heard about this book, but I feel very lucky to have found it; it's one of the best I've read this year.

Akin, Oryus

 Akin by Emma Donoghue

Noah Selvaggio is a 79 year old getting ready for a trip to Nice, his early childhood home. He is going only because his sister passed away and left him money that she insisted he must use for fun. He hasn't been back since he was sent to America at the age of 4, but he has an interest in searching out information about his grandfather, a famous photographer, and his mother, who stayed in France when she sent him away.

Just before he leaves, he receives a call from a social worker tracking down relatives of an 11 year old boy, Michael, whose father, Noah's nephew, is dead and whose mother is going to prison for drug possession. If Noah doesn't help, Michael will go into the foster care system. Noah can't bring himself to abandon his nephew's son, and so reluctantly decides to take the angry-at-everybody, foul-mouthed but otherwise uncommunicative Michael to France with him. Once there, Noah looks both for answers about his family and a way to connect with Michael, discovering things about his family's past and present that change the way he sees his life. 

A good story and well written. I very much enjoyed this one. 

Oryus by Craig Gordon

The first in a fantasy series with Biblical overtones and echoes of The Lord of the Rings, with a hooded, grey-haired figure who offers words of wisdom and/or impending doom, an assortment of beings from different lands, and an intense young man of noble character destined for a greatness he does not seek.
The plot is decent, but there is only the one story line. I think it must have been written for younger readers who I'm sure would enjoy the adventure more than I did. I found it lacking in depth, with no clear theme and very little character development.

And it was disappointing to find the end of the story set up to lead into a sequel. The last chapter did end on a reasonable note but then there's an epilogue warning of that impending doom mentioned earlier. It would be nice to know how it ends without having to continue a series that doesn't appeal to me. Shouldn't it warn you on the cover somewhere that you're starting a series?

East of Eden, Under the Overpass

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Expecting this to be a bit of a slog, I opted for the audio book. Reviews I'd looked at swung wildly between wonderful and horrible, so, seeing it was quite lengthy, I chose to take the easier road. Now I wish I'd read a hard copy. It gave me a lot to think about; I'd stop listening to consider what they'd just said and what it meant to me, and ten minutes would slip away before I'd remember to get back to it. It's the kind of book that compels you to keep a pen in your hand for underlining meaningful passages, and then, when you come to the end, you close the cover and sit quietly, grateful for the experience.   

It begins with two brothers Charles and Adam Trask, sons of Cyrus Trask. Charles loves his father, while Adam merely respects him, and Charles is painfully aware that of his two sons, Cyrus loves Adam more. Adam is coerced by his father to join the army, while Charles goes on to be a prosperous farmer. In time Adam marries Cathy, the worst of all possible choices for a wife, and they have twins. Cathy doesn't want anything to do with them and Adam sinks into a depression, not caring for his sons or even naming them. Fortunately he has Lee, his cook, a wonderful character, to tend them until a neighbour, Samuel, another great character, comes to remind Adam rather forcefully that he has two sons to raise. The boys get named, grow up, and eventually meet their mother, a trauma impacting them in radically different ways. 

Good and evil, destiny and free will, these are the main themes. The twins, like all of us, have both good and evil tendencies, and with one tending more heavily to the wrong side of the scale, the book asks if darkness is his destiny or if he can choose who he will be in the world.

East of Eden is a powerful story, insightful and utterly absorbing. A great read.

Under The Overpass by Mike Yankoski

These are the eye-opening experiences of two young men who stepped away from university for a few months to live with the homeless on the streets of several major US cities. They slept in shelters when beds were available but spent most nights outside in parks or in any reasonably safe spot they could find. Money for food and bus tickets to the next city was earned panhandling - singing and playing guitar. Their experience, though harrowing, was not truly the same as that of other people on the streets because they always had a safety net. They knew they could walk away from it at any time, and even if they did stick it out for the planned time period, eventually they'd be going back to their normal lives, with warm beds, clean clothes and plentiful food. Still, what they saw and heard while they were out there changed them and gave them stories to tell that are worth the reading.  

Harry's Trees, Moonlight Over Paris & Kiss My Asterisk

 Harry's Trees by Jon Cohen

This is the story of three people who have suffered great loss in their lives and who, in each other, find their way through grief to happiness again. Harry's two favourite things in life are his wife, Beth, and trees. When he loses Beth in a bizarre accident, he heads for a section of forest he's familiar with through his work with the forestry service, and is found there, injured, by the recently widowed Amanda and her daughter, Oriana. Oriana thinks Harry has been sent into their lives by her father, whose spirit she believes to be now embodied in a red-tailed hawk that keeps showing up at crucial times. She convinces her mother to let Harry stay in Oriana's tree house for a couple of weeks, and when a legal settlement brings Harry a significant amount of money that he doesn't want, they hatch a furtive plot to be rid of it. Things get complicated when Harry's brother, Wolf, who lives up to his name and fiercely believes he's entitled to the money, comes after him. Add to that a smarmy real estate agent who wants to take advantage of Amanda's financial woes to foreclose on her house and you have the makings of quite a story, with a little adventure, a bit of fairy tale magic, and, of course, a romance. It's sweet, but not sappy. The characters, most of them, feel real and so does their grief, though Harry's brother and the real estate agent are a bit cartoonish. It's an appealing story and worth the read.

Moonlight Over Paris by Jennifer Robson

This was pretty good. The title seems trite and hasn't much to do with the story, other than it is set in Paris, but the characters are interesting and the plot, though the end was predictable, kept me wondering what was coming next. There's something about this story that resonated with me. There’s no reason why it should: I’ve never been to Paris and certainly never lived the lifestyles described here. Maybe it was the reader's performance; she made every character likable, not that I want every character in a book to be likable, but again, there's just something about this one. I think the word I’m looking for is lovely; it was a lovely story. With a pleasant setting, an engaging plot, and charming characters, it offered exactly the escape from reality I was looking for. 

Kiss My Asterisk, a Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar  by Jenny Baranick

If you're looking for a quick refresher on punctuation and grammar, but don't want a dry text book full of obscure rules and their exceptions, you will like this. It covers the basics: when to use commas and semi-colons, when to spell out numbers or use numerals, when to capitalize and when not to capitalize, etc. It's called a Feisty Guide because it's full of attitude and innuendo, nothing at all like your prim and proper high school English teacher. It's fun, if a little over the top with the sex talk - not dirty, but not subtle either: high school information, junior high humour.   


Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Another stellar novel from this excellent author. This was in fact her first novel; it is only "another" to me as I'm coming to it after several others.                                  

Lucille and her sister Ruthie get dropped off at their grandmother's house, then watch as their mother drives away, never to be seen again. Five years later they are put into the care of two prim, elderly ladies, for whom the responsibility soon proves to be too much, leading to their mother's younger sister, Sylvie, coming to "keep house" for them. Sylvie, long a drifter, doesn't easily adapt to staying in one place or even living within walls or under a roof, choosing some nights to sleep in the car or outside in the grass. She feeds them, barely, but is careless about the house, leaving it to deteriorate around them. In time Lucille rejects this lifestyle, wanting normalcy and security, but Ruthie begins to understand Sylvie and her need to be untethered. When local authorities question whether Ruthie is being properly cared for, Sylvie makes an effort, cleaning up the house and answering all their questions, but it is of no use. They are coming to take Ruthie away...   

Robinson writes some of the most poetic prose I've ever read. She tells of life's hard things with words that infuse light and air into them, making them feel less tragic. I've never read any other author who can do this. The story itself is profoundly moving, but the stunning way she uses language to tell it makes it something more, something that soars above story-telling, yet also plunges you deep into the world she's creating. It's exhilarating, and comforting at the same time. Read it slowly, so you can take in every rich sentence. 

I will remember this book for its beautiful sadness, a sadness not disheartening but giving a kind of comfort and not without hope. This is my fourth of Marilynne Robinson's books, two of which, and now three, have made it to my all time favourites list. I can honestly say of these books: they make my life better.   

If you still aren't convinced, here are a few quotes to tempt you:

“She conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one's destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting.”

“Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.”

“Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.”

The Bookworm and The Case of the Missing Marquess

 The Bookworm by Mitch Silver

Lara Klimpt, ex-chess player, now Professor of Geo-Politics, is quietly given six Second World War dictaphone cylinders to translate into Russian. The voice on the recordings is that of Noel Coward, the well known actor and playwright who was also secretly a spy for the British Government. The information the cylinders contain reveals an ingenious plot to influence Hitler's thinking and will explain why Hitler chose not to invade England but, instead, turned his armies toward Russia. 

Lara's brother, Lev, works at an Alaskan oil field, where he is about to accidently uncover a massive political hoax being perpetrated by Russia and the US. Now he is being hunted by an assassin hired to remove him from the equation. 

The US President is heading for the G20 Summit in Moscow where he plans to make an announcement that will help get him elected for another term, but will leave America heavily dependent on fossil fuels for years into the future, fuels firmly in Russia's control. 

All of this comes together in a well-written, fast-paced tale of historical and modern day intrigue that makes for an entertaining read. This is not a genre I often choose, but I enjoyed it very much and hope to try another by this author.

The Case of the Missing Marquess, An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer

The younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes is worried about her mother who has disappeared. Tired of waiting for her brothers to find answers, she begins her own investigation, getting into all manner of trouble along the way. Part of a series written for a younger reader, I chose it because it was offered as a free audio book. It's not my cup of tea, but I expect it would be quite appealing to young girls and I would certainly recommend it for someone that age. For anyone who's interested, I think there's now a television series based on the novels.