Aleph by Paulo Coelho – A Book

People who read a lot are often what I call “word people”. They love words, their meanings, their histories, their connotations, even, sometimes, the sounds of them. I am no exception. When someone recommends a book with the title Aleph as in the case of the book by Paulo Coelho, the title attracts me without even knowing what the story is about. Aleph is name of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Arabic alphabet, and, also, the Aramaic alphabet. In this case the Aleph is also a “spiritual world, in a parallel universe, where time and space are eternal and always present”. It is when you find yourself, temporarily, at a nexus of your personal time and space.
There are people who spend their lives looking for “spiritual enlightenment” of one kind or another, and Aleph is a book that would appeal to this group of people. Mr. Coelho explains that he has become too comfortable with his life in his South American home. His “spiritual teacher”, “J” suggests travelling. Mr. Coelho realizes that he is still trying to solve a puzzle from a past life so he decides to open himself up to travel. He commits himself to a number of book signings and after parties and eventually commits to a trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He has been warned to watch out for a Turkish woman, and feels that he has avoided that possibility by travelling in Russia, until he meets Hilal.
This type of book is not really my cup of tea but it was a quick read so I finished it. The idea of making a physical journey and having it turn into a spiritual journey is certainly not new and some of life’s greatest lesson are probably learned when we leave our comfort zone. However, I am not totally convinced of the truth of past life regression, or of having to make up in the present for things done in a past life. Despite my personal reactions, people who do follow a “spiritual” path may find Aleph quite interesting.  Meanwhile I did enjoy learning a new word and this rather esoteric aspect of its meaning.
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I will give Paulo Coelho another chance. His book The Alchemist is still on my list and has been called a “modern classic”. I plan to read it along with my long list of other titles.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh – A Book

The story told in The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh has little in common with Alice Hoffman’s Illumination Night, but, for me, these two books share a quality, which for want of a better term, I think of as “magic”. Victoria has spent her whole life in the foster care system or in group homes, with the exception of a placement with Elizabeth (not without her own issues), who tries to become her family. Victoria has built defenses so strong that she seems determined to miss her own, surprisingly healthy and fulfilling adult life when it happens to her almost by accident.
Victoria learned one thing that may have saved her life. From her almost-mother, Elizabeth, she learned the Victorian language of flowers. Few of us have a clue about the meanings of the flowers we enjoy in our everyday lives. Victoria does and what she knows, when she uses it in her employer Renata’s flower shop Bloom, changes peoples’ lives and Victoria’s too. Roses alone have a little mini language all to themselves: burgundy rose, unconscious beauty; orange rose, fascination; pale peach rose, modesty; pink rose, grace; purple rose, enchantment; red rose, love; white rose, a heart unacquainted with love; yellow rose, infidelity. We no longer know that sage means good health and long life, or that pansy means think of me, or that spirea means victory. We do remember that rosemary means remembrance but this is one of few meanings we remember. In the back of The Language of Flowers is a fairly good dictionary of flower meanings. I loved the way Victoria’s life turned out although she almost sabotaged herself. Life rarely happens without adversity and Victoria’s life is no exception. Perhaps not great literature, but a great story, this book has a sort of Victorian essence that I really enjoyed.

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Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George – Book

Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait, W...Image via Wikipedia
When Margaret George writes royalty I seek the book out because I know I will enjoy it. In this particular novel Ms. George writes about Elizabeth I. She doesn’t cover old ground. I have read a number of accounts of Elizabeth’s early years, fraught with the uncertainty of the “royal” moods of her elders; her father, Henry the VIII, and her sister, Mary Queen of Scots; winding her way through the contest between Catholicism and Protestantism that her father precipitated. These were the years when she was young and fresh and lovely and desirable; and the years when she decided that she would turn away from desire and become the Virgin Queen, married to England.
This story of Elizabeth shows the Queen in the last decade of her reign, the Queen who must best the Spanish and their Armadas; the Irish and their most stubborn Chieftain, the O’Neill; and the handsome, disrespectful, and even treasonous, Essex.
We go with Elizabeth and her household from royal dwelling to royal dwelling; on spring or fall progresses to far corners of her realm; to battlefields, tilts, banquets, war councils, parliament, and all the places the Queen went. We see what her subjects loved about her and what they found imperious. She punished many of her ladies and the men who bedded and wed them without her permission.
We also meet Lettice, the woman who married Elizabeth’s greatest love, Robert Dudley when he realized that he and Elizabeth would never marry (he betrayed her). Elizabeth can bear a grudge and Lettice is not allowed at court. However, Lettice, who is Elizabeth’s cousin and looks something like her, has lived the life Elizabeth might have lived if she wasn’t Queen. The problematic and charismatic Essex is Lettice’s son. Margaret George takes us back and forth between Queen Elizabeth’s realm and Lettice’s much smaller “kingdom”.
The book is rich in detail and, although it is a novel, Margaret George reads extensively in order to write an historical novel that is true enough to the facts to inform us and yet lively enough to entertain us. There is scholarship behind it, but the novel is not scholarly or dry. Now I come back from the world of Elizabeth and Lettice and all their contemporaries. I will take a breather and then let a new book take me to a new place and time. I enjoyed my time with this Tudor queen.
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American Gods by Neil Gaiman – Book

Neil Gaiman wrote American Gods ten years ago. The book has become something of a classic and has been newly published in a Tenth Anniversary Edition featuring the author’s preferred text. This is a Brit writing about America, which, in this case, probably gives the perspective needed to write such a story. Gaiman imagines all the immigrants who came to America from everywhere and who brought all of their gods with them. The gods have fallen on hard times in America. No one makes blood sacrifices to them anymore, or builds altars, or leaves food and other tokens. They remember the gods, they just don’t worship them. America, says the book’s main character, is not fertile ground for gods.
So we meet Mr. Wednesday (who is Odin) and Low Key (Loki) and all the old world gods now living rather sad and sleazy lives in America. We meet Whiskey Jack and the Buffalo Man, Jacquel and Ibis, Czernobog, and several trios of portentous ladies, young and old. If I list all the gods you will not have any fun discoveries to make.
Mr. Wednesday enlists the services of an ex-con named Shadow to be his driver, errand boy, and personal assistant. Shadow connects us common mortals to the gods and it will be his assignment to “rescue” us from the gods.
The old world gods are headed towards a battle with new world gods like Mr. Wood, Mr. Stone, Mr. Town, Mr. World, the Fat Techno Boy and Media. Mr. Wednesday tells us, over and over, that “a storm is coming.”
Who thinks of this stuff? Neil Gaiman for one and it is very entertaining stuff as these “characters” lark about America causing trouble and chaos and death wherever they go. We are enlisted in their cause. After all, they are just trying to stay “alive,” and they are sort of charming.
Just before Shadow left prison his wife Laura was killed in a car accident while doing one of the “nasties” in a car driven by Shadow’s best friend. Laura visits Shadow and gives her reasons for being unfaithful and tells Shadow that it is him she loves. She sends Shadow on a separate quest to find out how to bring her back to life, but of course, I can’t tell you how that ends either.
I will remember this book well for quite a while and will still be pondering the meaning. It reminds me of two things. One thing it reminds me of is John Barth’s book, Giles Goat Boy with its juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern. Another is of something we used to say when we were hippies. There was a counterculture comic book character called Mr. Natural. When anyone asked Mr. Natural “what is the meaning of life,” he answered, rather cynically, “it don’t mean sh_t, except this book is a little deeper than Mr. Natural and the answer is not quite so pat. Enjoy!

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Minding Ben by Victoria Brown – Book

Minding Ben is Victoria Brown’s first novel. The book is fiction but Ms. Brown actually lived out events very similar to those she writes about. She is from Trinidad, her character, Grace, is from Trinidad. She came to NYC at sixteen; her character also arrives in NYC when she is sixteen. Grace is supposed to be met at the airport by her aunt but no one meets her. She must fend for herself. She meets a woman who is also from the islands who offers her a less than appealing place to stay, but considering how little this woman, Sylvia has, is an amazingly generous thing. Sylvia has three children and is living in an apartment riddled with peeling lead paint which is affecting the health of her youngest child and with a relative named Bo whose life is on a downward trajectory. Both are uneducated and have little hope of improving their lives. These ”friends”  (who expect babysitting and housekeeping help and who frequently ask for money) serve as an example to Grace of where she does not want to go in her new American life, but her dilemma is, of course, how to avoid it. Grace nannies for a while and when that job ends she is thrown back on the mercy of Sylvia and crew while she looks for a new position. Grace’s immediate goal is to find a sponsor who will support her citizenship application or to make a fake/real marriage with Bo who is already a citizen (which fortunately she doesn’t do.)
Grace answers an ad placed by the Bruckner’s who need someone to mind their son Ben. They hire Grace who enters the world of West Indian nannies in the nearby park. She is a live-in nanny on week days and goes back to Sylvia-world on weekends. The Bruckner’s are and are not terrible people. They are probably just extremely self-absorbed. They also believe in getting their money’s worth and Grace works a twelve hour day doing housework and cooking in addition to minding Ben.
The best thing that happens to Grace is that she meets a well-to-do gay man who lives in the same building as the Bruckner’s and who has a greenhouse built around his penthouse apartment. He is trying, unsuccessfully  to grow papayas. Grace, who gardened with her family, helps him with his papaya problem and helps him care for his plants. When the Bruckner’s no longer need her services she is invited to stay in Dave’s penthouse to care for his plants while he is in Key West.
The author, Victoria Brown, majors in English at Vassar College and attends the University of Warwick in England before she returns to teach English at LaGuardia Community College. Now she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children and she has a babysitter of her own. We can guess that Grace’s life went very much like this.
I’ve read nanny books before and they always have appeal because they form a little window into a world most of us don’t occupy. There is an element of the gossip sheet about them, although we cannot actually identify the rich people we are reading about. This book is interesting on that level, but it also forms another little window into the world of those who come to America from the West Indies seeking a life that promises more opportunities and affluence, but does not always deliver. All in all, Victoria Brown did good.

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The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon – Book

Piazza Navona, RomeImage via Wikipedia
When I first started reading The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon I was a little underwhelmed. The setting was Rome, the time the present. Two people who have a past meet in Rome when they are in their sixties. I thought this might end up being a bit of a travelogue with old people.

But then, holy flashbacks Robin, we find out that these two had a great and rather tragic relationship in their teens and all through college and they experienced all those sensations of young love in the 60’s and 70’s. They were meant for each other. However, when we meet them in the present, they haven’t seen each other for almost 40 years. What happened to these young lovers? What pulled them apart? How did their lives turn out? Do they get back together?

In many of their conversations these two talk about, the “big” topics like music, art, poverty, war, sculpture, fountains, love, death, and above all beauty. This is not the stuff of ordinary conversations. They do, also, discuss the ordinary, and all the time they are talking they are walking or eating and so they take us on a tour of lovely Rome while they remember what they meant to each other and while they try to figure out what they mean to each other now.
I enjoyed eavesdropping on the psychological and the actual journey these two went on very much.
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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simanson – Book

I waited at least two months to get a copy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simanson. I was 145th of 145 people on the library waiting list, but the book was well worth the wait. It was touted as “charming” and it was, but it was also relevant. Diversity is affecting the equilibrium of people in almost every country on the planet, so it is no surprise that this is also the case in England.
Major Pettigrew’s father was with the British forces when India was a reluctant part of the British Empire. He was awarded two matching Churchill shooting guns for saving an Indian princess. When the father died he gave one pistol to each of his sons. It was understood that the guns would be reunited if one son died first.
The story begins with a funeral and ends with a wedding and a modern family “arrangement”. Major Pettigrew’s brother dies suddenly and he does not leave his gun to his brother, Ernest (our Major) as had been agreed. Trying to figure out how to get this matched set of guns together again and in his possession complicates Major Pettigrew’s love life. In fact, he eventually has to choose between love for his guns and love for a person. A widower, he finds himself attracted to the widowed Mrs. Ali who runs the local grocery. She is Pakistani. Even a burgeoning friendship between Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali sends the small village in which they live into a tizzy. The British “natives”, as you may imagine are not adjusting well to “diversity”, especially when differences in skin color and religion exist. The ladies who belong to Major Pettigrew’s golf club do not offer smooth sailing to the growing connection between Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali. The ladies pretend this is not about skin color, etc. by turning it into something about “class”.
Mrs. Ali’s family of resettled Pakistanis do not approve of the relationship much either and the traditions of a land where Mrs. Ali never lived seem destined to reach out and grab her.
This is a charming, but not a superficial, book. Try it, you’ll love it. It even made me laugh out loud a few times.
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Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close – Book

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close is not a book from my lists. It is one of those books that I occasionally pick up while browsing the “new books” shelves at the library. I have a weakness for “Chick Lit” and this looked like “Chick Lit” and it is a book that will mostly be read by women (I would guess). Although this book reads a bit deeper and “darker” than “Chick Lit”, it is still a modern story about young women who could be any of us.
It is written almost like a series of short stories but you soon realize that this is an illusion. If we start a chapter with a character we don’t know pretty soon we see how they are connected to the characters we already know.
We check in with these women when they are just out of college and the book ends somewhere near their 30th birthdays. They drink too much, they own too many bridesmaids dresses, and they go through men like tissues looking for someone special. Do they find him? You know how this goes; read the book and see.
This is Jennifer Close’s first novel and it is very genuine and enjoyable. It is the perfect book for a rainy day because you can finish the whole story in a long afternoon.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – Book

Cover of "Cutting for Stone (Vintage)"Cover of Cutting for Stone (Vintage)In Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese we start with an Indian woman, trained as a nun and a nurse, sent by her order to Africa. We know something has gone awry because, as the story opens, she is in labor, it’s not going well, and the surgeon she has worked in tune with for seven years, Dr. Thomas Stone, is so anguished by her distress that he is unable to help her. Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies giving birth to Thomas Stone’s twin boys, Marion and Shiva Praise Stone. The twins are joined by a stem connecting their skulls and must be delivered by Caesarean but Dr. Stone, a great surgeon, cannot bring himself to cut into Sister Mary, even though, and probably because, he loves her. The twins never meet their father, Dr. Stone, because he runs to Kenya, has a nervous breakdown, and ends up in America.

Hema, the Missing Hospital Ob-Gyn (Missing Hospital began life as Mission Hospital, but this is Ethiopia and stuff happens) and Ghosh, another Missing Doctor (who takes the place of Dr. Stone) have been falling in love for a while. They might never have found each other, but the twins fix that. Hema, Ghosh, Shiva and Marion become a family.

What happens to this little family and to the Missing Hospital crew, and to Dr. Thomas Stone is an excellent story and I will not tell it here. You will need to read the book. Both twins do take after their birth parents in that they end up as surgeons, one formally schooled, one not.

This is a family story, although the family is non-traditional. It is also a medical story, a story of surgeons which is where the title comes from (a title with a double meaning, as you will see, “cutting for stone”).
Although most of this novel takes place in Ethiopia and is mostly African in its descriptions, characters and events, it reminds me of a John Irving book in that the characters are a combination of the eccentric and the normal. Shiva/Marion, the twins are both unique and familiar as is the contrast between the stable family life the boys are provided by Hema and Ghosh, and the other, more offbeat details of their parentage and their lives in Ethiopia (and eventually in America).

I loved this story and got very attached to the characters. It is a good old-fashioned novel written in a modern, global world.

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Portraits of a Marriage by Sando Marai

This edition of Portraits of a Marriage by Sandor Marai (sorry about the missing accent marks) was originally published in Hungarian in 2003. The translation copyright for this current edition was issued in 2011 to Alfred A. Knopf. Although the book takes a more formal style than the literary forms we most often encounter these days, the subject of the book, marriage, is obviously universal.
Peter, had two wives (not simultaneously), his first wife Ilonka and his second wife, Judit. The book has four parts. In the first part Ilonka discusses her marriage to Peter. In the second part Peter discusses his marriages to both Judit and Ilonka and in the 3rd part, Judit explains her marriage with Peter to her new lover in Rome and she also discusses several other relationships with men. In Part 4, the Epilogue, Judit’s lover meets Peter in New York City, although Peter’s name is not mentioned and the (also unnamed) lover does not know who Peter is as he discusses his life before and after World War II. Judit comes up in the conversation but is only referred to as “Sweetheart.” In this section, besides the irony of coincidence, we get a picture of Budapest when the Russians have just taken over.
Throughout the story, as we dissect these two marriages we also have the contrast of the relatively normal years before World War II and before Hitler invades Hungary; we have descriptions of what life was like for people in Budapest during World War II; we have a description of the short sweet anarchy following the war; and we have the beginning of the occupation of Hungary by the Communists after the war and just before the Iron Curtain locks Hungary away. Budapest is as much a character in this novel as any of the people. Life in Budapest changed forever. By the time it emerged from behind the Iron Curtain there were no longer any people like Peter in Budapest. This novel becomes a portrait of a lifestyle that is just a memory.
This is, and isn’t, a love story because, although there are two marriages, in each marriage there is very little passion. There is some sexual attraction and the hope of love prior to each marriage, but passion is missing from both soon after consummation. Peter’s family is wealthy and “middle class”. His upbringing and his manner, and his very beliefs about culture keep him quite detached from any emotional entanglements. His life shields him from connection to others.
There is a lot more to experience in this book, but it does read more like a modern classic, than a modern novel. Perhaps it is just very European. It is the kind of book that tempts you to get out your highlighter so you can mark certain passages for quotation. It’s a very literary and sophisticated book, and while it is a time capsule from wartime Budapest, it is, perhaps, not for everyone.

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