Monday, November 23, 2009


The Foreign Wife Elegy by Yuko Taniguchi is a lovely series of poems that depict the author's emotions on leaving home, her childhood, her thoughts on being foreign, her husband's medical work and her dependence on him as a reason to stay in this country. Taniguchi's short, evocative poems exquisitely capture a moment and leave the reader with a sense of quiet sadness.

This is my favorite kind of poetry. It is short, which makes it quick to read. It vividly paints a scene, making it easy to imagine. It expresses and produces emotion, giving the reader something to think about.

In the words of one poem: "lovely, lovely, lovely."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Toil and Trouble

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle by Liza Campbell

Liza Campbell, second daughter to the 25th Thane of Cawdor, tells the story of her Grimm’s fairytale life – complete with castles, servants, evil charms, evil stepmothers and Beauty-and-the-Beast-style father. It is detailed look at the world of the nobility, immersed in bygone ways and traditions. Steeped in history as a child, Campbell knew how to do the Scottish reel before she attended parties with peers her own age and could explain the history of the area while knowing little of current events.

Liza Campbell's memoir depicts a privileged and tortured childhood made terrifying by her unpredictable and power-drunk father, Hugh Campbell, who didn’t know how to communicate love, except in letters. She describes her father's decline as he struggles with great responsibility and fear of living up to his family name by philandering, drinking, doing drugs, and selling family heirlooms. Although she was obviously scarred by her experiences, Campbell manages to portray her father with some sympathy. His parents did not teach him how to handle emotions, prepare him to handle his huge estate or show him how to be a good husband and father. His role models were always those who showed off their power, hurting those around them. Scared of the great responsibility to live up to his title and bearing the weight of generations, Hugh Campbell avoids it with every effort. At his death, he deals a blow to his successors that they are still dealing with today.

This is definitely a tell-all book, designed to bolster the position 26th Thane of Cawdor and his siblings in their feud over heirlooms with their stepmother. It is a fascinating story – I barely put it down over the 6 hours I read it – and I ended feeling fired up, wanting to send a letter to the Dowager Countess, demanding that she return all property to her stepchildren. This sort of story has sadly become more common as families split, remarry and make wills that run counter to expectations. It is my opinion that widows should be provided for, but that all family property and heirlooms should always follow family lines -- maybe reverting to them after her death -- unless they give up all claims to it. But, as Liza Campbell herself notes at the beginning of the memoir, “My story is only one slender wedge of the pie.”

 For further reading check out the following websites:

The feud continues here and here.

Liza Campbell's website. She is an artist!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Making peace with disillusionment

Mohja Kahf presents an insider’s loving view of Islam through this coming-of-age immigrant novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf . Khadra Shamy, a young Syrian girl, moves to Indiana with her family to be missionaries to the evil Western world and help the American Muslims navigate the difficulties in clashes between shariah law and American law. They face many difficulties as they build the small Dawah Center into an established Muslim community. Khadra struggles between doing what is expected of a proper Muslim girl -- the limitations it puts on staying true to herself – and the freedom that American culture offers. As Khadra grows, she sheds her black-and-white thinking with the stages of childhood: discovering that her idealistic view of Islam is not always perfectly practiced in Arab or American lands, that parents sometimes lie, and that she can be a good Muslim while also being an independent woman.

The author advocates Islam as love, a woman’s right to enter a mosque and pray and learn, and the importance of Mohammed’s wives. It also reveals that shariah law allows abortion up to 120 days, and wife-initiated divorce – showing how progressive Islam could be considered. This is juxtaposed with one character’s suicide bombing, polygamy, Holocaust denial, the delight the Muslims took in the Iranian hostage situation and the Iranian Revolution. As Khadra grows older, she meets many who disagree with the views she was brought up with, and she begins to challenge them and herself to seek a way to tie her beliefs and new understanding together.

I enjoyed reading this novel for the inside take on Islam. I think it is wonderful that the author has been able to counter anti-woman messages with other quotes from the Quran and Islamic history. She is able to present a peaceful version of Islam that would provide more equality than is practiced in most parts of the world. However, in my view, it is a little too easy to say, “oh their interpretation is wrong, that is why they commit these terrible acts.” It is too easy to say that jihad ought to be a war of words, not violence, when it is obvious that many interpret passages of the Quran to be a call to violence. I agree with the author that most Muslims are more apt to desire peace – as most people in general are – than to wish to be a radical and possibly lose their lives, but it also seems like a pat answer. The idea of martyrdom has drawn many after all. Kahf mentions the Islamic challenges to freedom, yet seems to believe that these will fade away as Muslims encounter Western culture and assimilate only the good aspects of it. This can be true for some communities, but certainly not all. This is in rather direct opposition to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s portrayal of the Muslim interactions with the Western world and I am more inclined to believe Ali, who has gone through much tribulation for challenging woman's freedom and place in Islam.

For further reading: check out Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s two wonderful books: A Caged Virgin and Infidel.

I want to end with this quote by Khadra’s father from The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.
“Brothers, do not for a minute think that we will stop protesting against the immoral and unfair policies of America outside, in the Muslim world. May my tongue be cut off if I forget Jerusalem. But let’s face it: here inside American, there are many good qualities. Law and order, cleanliness, democracy, freedom to work and honestly seks the provision of the Lord, freedom to practice religion. These are Islamic qualities. America is like Islam without Muslims. And our sick and corrupt Muslim home countries – they are like Muslims without Islam” (144).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Save the girl, save the world

Lois Lowry is a much beloved YA writer and deservedly so. She has set her tales in realistic, believable, flawed worlds where a child finds the key to bringing healing or redemption often in spite of the will of adults. I first fell in love with the world of The Giver when I was in 8th grade and always wanted to learn more. Did Jonas survive? What happened to the little baby? In her delightful novel, Gathering Blue, Lowry hints that they may have found a safe haven among another group of people.

Gathering Blue is the tale of a young recently orphaned girl with a disability that causes some in the community to dismiss her worth and right to live. Her village has had very little technology since the great Ruin, and strength usually wins over all else. After her mother's death, Kira's talent for embroidery saves her life and gives her a new role in the community as the ward of the Council of Guardians. Grateful, Kira works hard to learn how to make and use dyes. While struggling to meet all the expectations of her new protectors, Kira learns an awful secret that opens her eyes to the realities of her world and changes the direction of her life irrevocably.

Lowry keeps the interest of young and adult readers alike with memorable characters, lots of action and short sentences. She skillfully foreshadows the impending discovery, creating a sense of growing uneasiness as Kira explores the limits and possibilities of her world. Kira's experiences with her world raise questions of values, responsibility and the importance of kindness.

If you loved The Giver, or any of Lois Lowry's books, I recommend you pick up Gathering Blue. Lowry is one of the best YA writers out there. I can't imagine anyone actually disliking the story, unless you only like to read Henry James, with his unending description and long sentences. (I do love Henry James, but young teenagers often find their attention drifts away.) If you want to find out more about Kira and her world, read the sequel, The Messenger which focuses on one of the most fun characters of Gathering Blue, Matt.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bridging a ocean

The Ocean in the Closet by Yuko Taniguchi

I was very excited to read Yuko Taniguchi’s novel because she is a fellow tango dancer. I met her once at a tango event in Rochester and thought she danced beautifully. When I discovered that she was also an author, I just had to read her books. I’m glad to have discovered them. Taniguchi writes in a clear voice that is different from all the authors I have been reading lately. Taniguchi creates a distinct interior world that the reader can readily enter. It was similar to walking through a Japanese garden – all the senses are alive to contemplate the beauty in stillness, rushing water or suggested wildness.

The Ocean in the Closet depicts three generations of a family struggling with the separations caused by two wars. Anna Johnson, a half Japanese woman adopted by Americans, has a nervous breakdown and abandons her young children. Fueled on by love for her mother and a hope of family restoration, nine-year-old Helen seeks out her great-uncle Hideo Takagaka with encouragement from her Uncle Steve. Helen and her uncle travel to Japan in hopes that reconnecting Anna to her roots and showing that she was loved will bring healing to her heart.

The Ocean in the Closet is a story of loss, pain and hope. Taniguchi beautifully captures the voice of a child struggling to understand and cope with her feelings of abandonment and her mother’s pain. Hideo’s own struggle with the aftermath of WWII and living with the loss of his family is woven beautifully into the narrative and provides a Japanese perspective on the occupying American forces and view of war. Taniguchi explores the suffering caused by racial prejudice in both cultures and points to connection and understanding as way to making peace.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tales of Loss

Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie is the tale of a twenty-something Pakistani girl, the daughter of a famous activist. Aasmani's mother disappeared amid despair over the death of her lover, the Poet, while Aasmani was a young teenager. Aasmani’s name recognition lands her a job at a television company and her uncanny resemblance to her mother, Samina, causes others to expect greatness. She struggles with the expectations and her sense of abandonment with a sharp tongue and a cynical attitude. At the television company she meets the son of her mother’s friend, the beloved and famous actress Shehnaz Saeed, who also feels the pressure of having a well-known parent. They are drawn together in a mystery that brings Aasmani the hope that she may find her mother and restore the broken pieces of her heart.

Filled with the language of poetry, Shamsie depicts a post-9/11 Pakistan filled with loss and sadness, and glimmers of hope. Aasmani’s journey through her loss mirrors that of the country’s loss of freedom, as did the Poet’s love for her mother and country cause him to cry out against the injustices of government. Aasmani’s sharpness and rudeness to others reflect the anger and pain she feels over the loss of her mother and father-figure, similar to the way that the country currently refuses to back down to American demands. No one wants to be taken advantage of or pushed around. In the end, the courage to face the future and determine her steps back to wholeness bring freedom and lightness back to Aasmani.

This is a timely novel, and one I highly recommend to any who would like to know more about the people of Pakistan. I also recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi for a better understanding of the people of Iran. I believe that the people of America and all the countries of the Middle East need to understand each other and be able to relate so that we can establish a lasting peace between us.