Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

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We arrive in this world connected, to people, to places, to cultures. Just because we move on with our lives, emotionally, intellectually, or geographically, this does not mean that our connections are all left behind.

In Mira Jacob’s debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, her characters all struggle with connections, to each other, to their past, to their culture, and ultimately to themselves. For some that struggle includes a connection to reality. The story looks at three places, India, Albuquerque and Seattle, and three times, the late 70s, early 80s and 1998.

When we meet the Eapen family, in 1979, they are visiting the place and family they had left, in Salem, India. Thomas Eapen, a surgeon, had sought a better life for his wife and children in America. Home still has power, though, and his mother, also a physician, tries her best to persuade her son to remain. We meet the family members who had remained, and see some of the strains that might lead one to seek a life elsewhere. The motherland still has a hold, though, and Thomas’s wife Kamala, would like nothing more than to remain.

Amina Eapen is a photographer, working in Seattle in 1998. She had been a successful photojournalist, but has stepped back from that for reasons I will not go into here, and is now shooting events. Amina has a gift for capturing telling moments and is our camera into the history and struggles of the Eapen family. Dr. Thomas Eapen is seriously ill, seeing things that are not there, talking to people who are long dead. It has affected his work. When his wife calls Amina, she returns home to Albuquerque. Eapen’s illness is the maguffin for examining the experience of the Eapen family.

In addition to the strain of emigrating from India and constructing a new life on the other side of the world, the Eapens suffered a huge loss. We learn early on that Amina’s brother, Akhil, died young. The story goes to the early 1980s, where we see Amina and her brother in school, beginning to have relationships, struggling to grow up. Akhil shows some odd behavior, sleeping for vast stretches, falling asleep in inappropriate situations, believing that something glorious is in store for him if only he can complete a particular task. It is not entirely clear whether this is eccentricity or a condition, and neurosurgeon Thomas dismisses it.

So, there is a bit of mystery here. What happened to Akhil? What is going on with Thomas? It also takes some time to learn why it was that Amina stepped away from photojournalism. It is in peeling back the layers of those stories that we learn about the characters. There is a bit of romance as well, but, thankfully, it does not at all take away from the story.

While this is not a laugh-out-loud sort of read, there are plenty of light, even delightful moments that will make you smile. Of course, there are very sad ones as well

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The author – from her web site

Much is made of attachment to place. When Thomas cedes his ownership rights to a family property in India there is a direct connection to be made to a story to which Amina is connected, of Native Americans in the northwest ceding land to the extant society in return for the hope that a large amount of cash can improve their lives. There are also smaller scale elements relating to territory.

To live in the Eapen’s house was to acknowledge the sharpness of invisible borders, the separations that had divided it like two countries since 1983. It had been years since Amina had seen her mother wade into the yellow light of her father’s porch, and as far as she knew, Thomas had never once crossed the gate into Kamala’s garden.

One of the connections made is in the similarities between the old world and the new, between generations. Just as Thomas’s mother schemes to try to keep him in India, Amina’s mother schemes to try to keep her in New Mexico. Just as Thomas’s brother spoke to people who were not there in India, Thomas holds his own conversations with the dead in America. Both Thomas and Akhil balk at the limitations inherent in their conditions. Food is used as a way for old and new to connect

Cooking was a talent of her mother’s that Amina often thought of as evolutionary, a way for Kamala to survive herself with friendships intact. Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird. Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.

Bonds are made through feeding as a way of loving.

Another element is secrecy. Amina maintains a private cache of her special photographs, non-commercial ones that epitomize her skill at catching important moments. Thomas keeps his medical situation secret, and a few other things besides. And that ties in to feeling like an outsider, whether one is a native in a land now dominated by European invaders, or a new arrival in America, whether one is a black sheep in a family or an ostracized teen at school.

Amina has a wonderful relationship with her cousin, the wonderfully named Dimple, and there is a supportive, non-parental adult, the cool aunt, Sanji, who is able to bridge the gap between the young and the not so young, offering understanding and support, along with adult wisdom.

As for the sleepwalking element, there is a character who literally sleepwalks, and his connection to dancing is revealed at the end. Thomas’s visions might be seen as a form of sleepwalking. Akhil has big issues with sleep, but sleepwalking is not among them. And there are other characters who see things that are not there, which may be a form of sleepwalking. There is a mention in the book of a sleepwalker’s disregard for her surroundings. It is unclear if the author is suggesting that we are all sleepwalkers in a way, or that we should pay more attention to our effects on the world, or should attend to our visions. Did not get it. Doesn’t matter though. There is plenty to go with here, even if one is not able to cross every thematic t or dot every metaphorical i.

Gripes? I would have liked to have seen more, well anything actually, on the Eapen family’s experience when they had first moved to the USA. We only get to see them once they are already settled.

Amina is engaging, definitely worth caring about. Family is family is family, whether the family in question is from India or Indiana, and you are sure to recognize some folks in Amina’s clan who remind you of members of yours. The story is interesting. One gets a strong sense of the warmth and humor as well as the struggles inherent in these multigenerational family connections. Awake or asleep, the music is playing here, and it wouldn’t hurt to step out onto the dance floor for a while.

I received this book through GR’s First Reads program – thanks guys!

Review posted – April 25, 2014
Pub date – July 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Mira Jacob co-authored Kenneth Cole’s autobio, wrote VH-1’s Pop-Up Video, and was a co-founder of Pete’s Reading Series, at Pete’s Candy Store, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a venue where authors have been reading their work to appreciative audiences for over a decade. She is married to academy award nominated documentarian, Jed Rothstein. They live, with their son, in Brooklyn.

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

The Eapen family are Syrian or Saint Thomas Christians. This Christian sect was news to me. The wiki entry is pretty interesting.

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The Home Place by Carrie La Seur

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There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. Dorothy Gale

Alma Terrebonne is a successful Seattle-based corporate lawyer. She makes a nice living, has a handsome banker bf named Jean Marc, and a promising future that is hers for the taking. But when her little sister dies under suspicious circumstances she races home.

Vicky Terrebonne was a single mother in Billings, Montana. One freezing night, she left the semi-conscious group of substance abusers at her apartment, hoping to score some weed from her ex. Victoria’s frozen, face-down body was found the next day. As soon as her mother had headed out, 11 year old Brittany started calling family members, hoping someone would come to take her away before Vicky returned. When no help came she retreated, in an incredibly moving moment, to find comfort with her imaginary dog.

Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right, but Alma heads back to the place and family she had fled anyway. She figures it would only be a few days. But she plans to keep a keen eye out for the predatory sorts in her office who are eager to take advantage of her absence to steal cases from her. It is no secret that the prairie is not the only place with vultures.

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The author – from her site

Through Alma’s return we get the back story of the Terrebonne family. Alma and Vicky’s parents had died when Alma was 17 and Vicky several years younger. Vicky was taken in by her Aunt Helen and domineering Uncle Walt, but stays away from them now. She had a history of drug-abuse and was constantly calling on all possible family members for help, usually of the financial sort. Alma had managed a nifty escape to a northeast college, then law school and finally a career on the coast. There are plenty of family secrets to go along with the mystery of whether Vicky was the victim of circumstance or foul play.

to him, the home place is beyond quaint. It’s isolated, disconnected, abandoned—and she knows better than he does how many eccentricities it hides. Firearms and whiskey hidden in odd corners, violence and insanity just below the surface, the way that civilization can become nothing but a thin polish over the animal will to survive.

Be it ever so humble, the home place of the title is a property that has been in the family for generations, rural, limited communications capacity, an outhouse, primitive. It was where her father and Uncle Walt had been raised. It is also a place where she and her sister had spent a lot of time as kids. It is the epitome of home, and offers the good earth that is the essence of the family name.

For a Terrebonne, the home place is the safe haven, the convergence of waters, the place where the beloved dead are as real as the living

If home is such a wonderful thing, why do we refer to the unattractive as homely? The home place of Montana, in this portrait, is one that features long-term, unacknowledged PTSD, cooking of books and maybe an illegal substance or two, anti-gay bigotry, violence of various sorts, a dark view of the Mormons, shady business dealings and a somewhat cartoonish bully of a land agent who does everything but kick a dog trying to intimidate mostly elderly people into selling their land to a mining interest. La Seur also offers some description of the relationships between the white residents and the local Native American population, which includes the detective assigned to Vicky’s case.

La Seur is a Billings resident so she knows of what she speaks in describing the place, and the interactions among its residents. The language she employs to give readers a sense of Montana begins at a very lofty place:

The cold on a January night in Billings Montana, is personal and spiritual. It knows your weaknesses. It communicates with your fears. If you have a god, this cold pulls a veil between you and your deity. It gets you alone in a place where it can work at you. If you are white, especially from the old families, the cold speaks to you of being isolated and undefended on the infinite homestead plains. It sounds like wolves and reverberates like drums in all the hollow places where you wonder who you are and what you would do in extremis. In this cold, you understand at last that you are not brave at all.

This wonderfully spun passage goes on for a bit and remains glorious. Such rich description does have the occasional reprise, but it was disappointing that there was not more of it.

La Seur also knows of the rape of landscape. Like Alma, La Seur is an attorney, a working class girl who managed to become a Yale grad and Rhodes scholar. She founded the non-profit organization Plains Justice to give residents a voice to stand up against the power of big mining interests. I expect her descriptions of despoiled landscapes and the tactics of land agents come from personal experience,

So, we have a mystery, an onion of family secrets to be peeled back, some wonderful descriptions, a strong character in Alma, consideration of the best use of the land and what constitutes a home. What’s not to like?

I am particularly allergic to romance books. Although I read plenty of books that have romance in them, I would never read a book that was labeled romance. While there is not nearly the volume of romance here that one might find in an actual specimen of the genre, there was enough to trigger my gag reflex. Part of home for Alma is Chance Murphy (not nicknamed Last or Fat, so far as I know), a cowboy sort with a degree in electrical engineering, sensitive, tough. I think he came from the build-a-guy factory. I could see him introducing himself. “Why, howdy ma’am. My name’s Studly, Studly McMuffin,” as he touches two fingers to the front tip of his Stetson. Or maybe he has a red cape stowed somewhere. Alma is plenty tough, and the story is interesting enough. This not-so-lonely ranger, or at least the degree of him, was a distraction and a downer for me. I understand that his presence was not fluff, as he offered a second draw for Alma and allows for some more detail to her back story. Not only does she have to look at how involved she wants to be in raising her niece, but there is the question of whether she wants to take a chance on rekindling her just-down-the-road adolescent romance with mister perfect, and where she ultimately wants to hang her hat.

With all she knows about the legal world, and conflicts around mining rights on the high plains, combined with her evident ability to weave a story, La Seur has the raw materials that are needed to put together a dazzling sophomore effort. One is already under way. I am looking forward to it.

There is plenty of grit in this very promising freshman novel, enough to compensate for the mush. I get that not everyone starts to sneeze and wheeze when a female character gets the drools for some guy, so it may not irk you as much as it did me. The Home Place offers a detailed look at Big Sky country that is not all bison, trout, mountains and glaciers, a look that synchs pretty well with another recent Montana novel, Fourth of July Creek. La Seur does let us in on the appeal of the place. Whether for good, ill, or both, there probably is no place like home for most of us. So tracking Alma’s decision process should ring at least some bells for plenty of readers. You will learn a bit about a place you most likely do not know well, get to unravel a few mysteries at the same time, and you won’t have to leave the comfort of you-know-where to do it.

Review posted – April 18, 2014
Pub date – July, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A profile of La Seur from The Rhodes Project

La Seur also posted several energy-related vids on youtube that might be of interest

A quote from Carrie

It doesn’t matter if our elected leaders understand the seriousness of climate change if they lack the balls to face down [the] fossil industry. (4/11/14)

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Communication: From Pheromones to the Internet and Beyond by Max Swanson

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In Communications: From Pheromones to the Internet and Beyond, Max Swanson, a long-time researcher with Atomic Energy of Canada, and physics prof at the U of North Carolina, offers a wide-ranging overview of communication, from unicellular beasties to complex organisms, from humans to machines, from proximate to distant, from the physical to the abstract, from then to now and from now to the future. Along the way he looks at communication as it pertains to religion, politics, education, government and marketing. He casts an eye on self and spiritual communication as well. He has clearly given the subject a lot of thought and presents myriad ways in which communication occurs, including, but not limited to sight, touch, sound, feel, language and even ways of communication that might not seem obvious, such as DNA. There are significant and valid points raised here. One is the importance of education for females. Another is the danger of concentrating media control in too few hands. Yet another looks at the historical experience of nations that base their education systems on testing to the exclusion of all else.

I had very mixed feelings about Communication. It is unclear to me who the intended audience is. It comes across as equal parts fascinating and obvious. There are plenty of jaw-dropping items, where you are pleading for Swanson to tell you more, tucked in between sections that make one want to wonder aloud “yeah, and?” Here is one of the latter, on the relative merits of information vs misinformation.

Wild swings in the stock markets and the global economy are due in large part to panic or euphoria caused by inadvisable spin of financial news, whether good or bad. On the other hand, timely worldwide flow of information facilitates the realistic evaluation of news, the distribution of goods, the coordination of health maintenance, and timely warnings of disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

Duh-uh.

However, as a springboard for investigation of its composite elements Communication is marvelous. Have a class of 12th graders read this and there is huge potential that each will come across something that stimulates their curiosity. They won’t so much be able to satisfy it here as be prompted to a journey that might lead somewhere exciting, even if they do that search on handheld communication devices, and have to occasionally be zapped with tasers whenever they text someone or resume that game of Angry Birds. Here is one of the fun items:

In Egypt, thousands of years before the Christian era, giant obelisks may have provided a unique and innovative long-range communication system. By striking these obelisks, priests in Luxor and other religious centers could have created resonant sounds heard many kilometers away.

If you are thinking, as I did, that this sounds like a fab idea for an action/adventure novel, sorry, it has already been taken. Damn! Maybe as an element in a video game? And another:

Most humans are capable of hearing sounds with a frequency between 20 hertz ad 20,000 hertz (cycles per second) and volume greater than 5-15 decibels. [Are decibels digital temptresses?] Hearing is best in the frequency range between 1,000 and 5,000 hertz. Some very low frequency sounds cannot be consciously heard, but are accompanied by a vague feeling of unease when in their presence. This feeling may be associated with the phenomenon of ghosts.

Seems like he buried the lead there, slipping in an item we could use a bit more on, but it is off to the next topic straight away.

I am sorry to report that much of Communication reads like a text book, and is sorely lacking in the sort of humor that someone like Mary Roach brings to science to grease the intellectual in-ports. But there are also many fun items to be found here, no question. The issue is balancing the delight of taking in the juicy bits with the not-so-exciting other elements. Bottom line for me is that I am glad I read it. I learned some new things, which is like heroin to me, and that made trudging through the rest an acceptable cost. It might be for you too.

Posted April 11, 2014

I received this book through the GR FirstReads program.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

book coverThe death of Nella Oortman’s father left the family in difficult straits, saddled with unexpected debts and a declining standard of living. But the widow finds a suitable match for Nella, in a successful Amsterdam merchant and trader. As he travels extensively, the wedding is a quick affair, and it is a month before he will return to his home. In October of 1686, Nella arrives there, in a very exclusive part of the city. She is greeted by her new husband’s sister, Marin, who makes her feel as welcome as a case of influenza, and who just might make you think of Mrs. Danvers.

As a wedding gift to his 18-year-old bride 39-year old Johannes Brandt acquires for her a cabinet, a kind of doll house that mirrors the Brandt home. Nella engages the services of a miniaturist, a craftsperson, to help fill the spaces. What she receives is far more than she expected, as the pieces reflect a bit too closely persons and events in the family’s life, some frighteningly so. Also, they do not always remain exactly as they were when she’d received them. And they arrive with Delphic messages. Do these tiny constructions predict the future, reflect their owners’ fears and concerns, reveal secrets, tell truths, or offer misdirections? Nella determines to find out who this mysterious miniaturist is and what is behind these small objects.

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Burton says “When writing my hero, Johannes, I had this guy in mind.”

Burton did considerable research to get her 17th century details right.

I have a bibliography as long as my arm. And then there are first-hand resources—maps, paintings, diaries, prices of food, inventories, wills—and the physical city of Amsterdam itself. I first went in 2009, which is when I saw the house in the Rijksmuseum, and then again August 2012 for my birthday – with a long list of questions and locations to visit post-fourth draft. Where did they bury the bodies in the Old Church? How many windows on the front of a gable? How did they winch furniture in? A lot in the book is all historically true in terms of life in the city… – from the Richard Lee interview

Nella’s search and her coming of age occur in a difficult time and place. The Amsterdam of the late 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, is a world financial and military capital, a harsh, unforgiving place, where human failing and difference is not be tolerated, where neighbors are encouraged to spy and report on neighbors, (yes, very much like your office) and where it is always a contest whether the worship of gold or god will hold sway in any given circumstance. The two domains cross paths frequently.

It is this city. It is the years we all spend in an invisible cage, whose bars are made of murderous hypocrisy.

It is a time when being a woman was much more of a challenge than it is today. Marriage, paradoxically, was seen by some as the only way for women to secure any influence over their own lives. But what if a woman wanted something more, something of her own, the opportunity to be the architect of her own fortune, and not submit to a life in a golden cage. Nella may have stepped into a wealthy man’s world, but she must still take care for the many traps that have been laid by a cold society and those jealous of her husband’s success and of her. And there are challenges as well with her marriage, which was not quite what she had bargained for.

I wanted to create women who are not more ‘strongly female’ or ‘stronger than other females’, or ‘strong’ because they are braver than men, or can physically lift more saucepans or anything like that. I just wanted some women who for once are not defined by any other ideal than that they are human. – from the Richard Lee interview

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Images that inspired Nella and Marin

Jessie Burton has written a dazzling first novel. The Miniaturist presents readers with a worthy mystery, and maybe a bit of magic, offering enough twists and turns for a figure skating contest, opening tiny door after tiny door to reveal the secrets of Brandt’s household. This is a look at the Dutch golden age that will resonate with contemporary gender, race, religious and power issues. The author offers just enough imagery to enhance without overwhelming, and breathes life into an array of compelling characters. In addition, Burton paints this world with the eye of a true artist, and does it all in a book that you will not want to put down. It will require no Dutch courage to get through this one. To have crafted The Miniaturist is no small achievement. Jessie Burton has written a book that seems destined to be huge.

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The dollhouse of the real Petronelle Oortman, currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Review posted – April 4, 2014
Release date in the UK – July 3, 2014
Release date in the US – August 26, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

One must wonder what London-resident Burton thinks of actors, given how she portrays one here, and given that she has worked as an actress, while toiling as an executive assistant to bring in a few guilders. Here are links to the author’s personal webpage and her Twitter feed. She has a few more historical novels in the works. If she continues writing at this level she will be making history instead of writing about it.

In addition, her Pinterest page is most definitely worth a look

There is a lot of interesting material on Burton in this interview by Richard Lee at the Historical Novel Society site and more here in a piece from The Guardian.

Sugar loaves figure significantly in the story. While I had heard the term Sugarloaf before, my only association with it was with mountains, whether the iconic mound in the Rio de Janeiro harbor, or the host of other mountains across the planet that share the name. Never gave it much thought. But folks with a bit more historical knowledge than me (most of you) would probably know that there was a time when sugar was routinely formed into solid cone shapes for shipping. That Rio hill and its cousins seem a bit more understandably named now.

Here is a link to the wiki entry for sugarloaf, which I found pretty interesting. And another that deals with tools used for handling the stuff. Sweet.

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