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Reading woman

Books & Kisses’ BKReadAThon seamlessly follows up last weekend’s 24 Hour Read-a-Thon, from Monday April 28th – Sunday May 4th. Though I will be mostly updating in my native language this week because it is a Dutch event, today’s post is in English due to another announcement.

They say it takes three weeks to form a new habit. Kicking one is much more difficult, but ‘da brains’ are good in acquiring something new. Hell, then re-establishing a familiar routine in 21 days must be a piece of cake! Right?

BoB RaT

Bout of BooksThere once was… a me that could be defined as a reader. But for several years now I’ve been trying to crawl my way out of a reading slump. So I’m signing up to be a BoB RaT from May 12th to 18th, participating in the Bout of Books Read-a-Thon. You may think that gives me a week off between readathons, but NO: if I manage to keep up my pace during the interlude, the BoB readathon will work as a a way of anchoring. In total it’ll be three weeks to kick in the ‘new’ habit! I *want* that happy ending.

My readathon goals will be generally the same as in the Books & Kisses RaT:

  • read every day of the week for at least 30 minutes;
  • finish the book I’m reading when the readathon starts;
  • provide for a change of palate to keep me motivated (i.e. alternate short works with longer);
  • [added] read from my real life folder of paper cuttings and such for 5 minutes each day;
  • make sure I’m well into a new book once the readathon ends;
  • (last but not least) HAVE FUN.

Of course there may be changes when May 12 comes around. Will keep you updated!

B&K Readathon

Kuki posing for TS Eliot's Cats

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to today’s book, Cats by T.S. Eliot, because I don’t really like reading poetry – and maybe whimsical poems even less. So I was pleasantly surprised when I immediately felt sympathetic towards the first poem: The Naming of Cats (Hoe noem je een kat? in Dutch, ranslated by Gerrit Komrij). It’s about cats needing no less than three names.

[..] But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

[..] Maar inzonderheid is daar die naam nog, die ene,
En dat is de naam die je vindt voor geen goud;
De naam door geen mensenverstand bij te benen–
Die ALLEEN DE KAT ZELF KENT, en stug voor zich houdt.

Drawing of cat on sofa by Edward GoreyThat said, the first poem was also the best of them all (as far as I’m concerned). Of course there’s no way of telling how close the translation is to the original, having to do with rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and wit.It is probably not for nothing that the 1939 original was translated to Dutch until 1985! Anyway, while the drawings by Edward Gorey are very much worth looking at, this genre is just really not something I enjoy spending time on. If I have to, I’d rather choose something by our very own Annie M.G. Schmidt.

Today’s Summary

  • Current read
    x
  • Pages read today
    64
  • Books finished today
    1: Cats: Kobus Kruls parmantige kattenboek (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats)  ~ T.S. Eliot
  • Time read
    0:41
  • Books read so far
    Crossing to Safety ~ Wallace Stegner
    Cats: Kobus Kruls parmantige kattenboek (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats)  ~ T.S. Eliot
  • Total of pages read so far
    432
  • Total of time read so far
    4:46

The Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of book lovers on the web, blogging about bookish things of the past week, visiting each others weblogs, and oh — reading books of course ;)

Last November -that’s almost a year ago indeed- Annemieke from Rozemarijn kookt asked on Twitter who would like to receive her copy of A Vegan Taste of Greece, by Linda Majzlik. Of course I was interested and she kindly sent me the book. Shame on me that I didn’t cook from it until a couple of weeks back!

Now why did I finally pick it up?

Cookbook Challenge ButtonWell.. There’s a PPK Cookbook Challenge on the Post Punk Kitchen forum. A vegan cookbook is chosen each week, and if you don’t have that particular book you can choose another from your shelves. This event coincides with Uniflame’s Cookbook Challenge on She Likes Bento. The difference between the two?

  • PPK: any (vegan) book will do if you don’t have the designated title but you’ll need make at least three recipes from it.
  • She Likes Bento: there’s no set amount of recipes to try (just one will do) but you have to choose an unused or hardly touched cookery book.

Conclusion: I’m making it harder on myself by combining the two. What else is new? ;)

A Vegan Taste of Greece by Linda Majzlik

Cover A Vegan Taste of GreeceA Vegan Taste of Greece was the only vegan cookbook I own from which I hadn’t tried a single recipe — so there really was no other first choice possible.

After a short introduction on the origin of Greek food and its place in society, A Vegan Taste of Greece starts with an alphabetical list of a regular pantry, often including nutritional info. Nice! The rest of the book is divided into chapters focussing on different courses: mezedes, soups, main courses, vegetables, grain accompaniments, salads, sauces and dressings, breads, desserts and baking.

I’ve made 4 recipes from 3 different sections: a main course, grain accompaniment and two salads, one green and one legume (bean). Each recipe indicates the amount of servings; mostly four but since it’s just the two of us here at Graasland, I usually made half of it.

Main course: Briami

Greek Briami, Turkish rice with chickpeas, cumin spiced quick bread and avocado salad

Greek Briami, Turkish rice with chickpeas, cumin spiced quick bread and avocado salad

Briami is a vegetable casserole containing potatoes, courgette, red pepper, mushrooms, onion, tomatoes and a selection of herbs & spices like fennel seeds, rosemary and thyme. Wine and lemon juice provide additional liquid. The dish is finished off with olives and vegan cheese, for which I used a combination of faux parmezan and ‘rawmezan’ (a mix of ground nuts & ‘nooch‘, aka nutritional yeast). Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Despite of all the flavourful ingredients I found the briami rather bland. :( It could have used more sauce and even then I’m not sure it would be really good. Maybe my expectations were too high? Mr Gnoe thought it was okay.

It’s an easy recipe to make but it does take some time preparing because of all the ingredients required. And then it has to go into the oven for about an hour. Oven dishes that can be prepared in advance are great when having guests for dinner, but I don’t think I would dare serve this. Don’t want to confirm a possible prejudice that vegan food is tasteless! ;)

Grain accompaniment: Minted bulgar with leeks

Leek bulghhur with seitan stroganoff

Seitan stroganoff with minted leek bulghur

The bulghur was… nice, but once more a bit dull. Admittedly I forgot to garnish with fresh mint. But I could hardly taste the dried peppermint that was also in it, and the leeks were so overcooked that they’d lost most of their flavour. I like leek, so it was another disappointment. I would consider making this again though: as an idea it’s more exciting than just wheat, it’s easy to make and a great way to add more vegetables to a meal. Next time I’d bake the veg separately until just done and combine everything at the end. It was a good combo with the seitan stroganoff though!

Green salad: fennel and avocado

Greek fennel salad with avocado

Greek fennel salad with watercress & avocado

I’ve got this surprisingly good fennel-tomato salad recipe and avocado is one of my favourite fruits, so I was eager to try a Greek recipe combining them. The biggest differences between the two are that the fennel is cooked first in the new recipe and it doesn’t have basil & black olives but watercress (and avocado) instead.

You can probably guess by now… Another flavourless dish. I expect Mediterranean food to be tasty! Furthermore, all ingredients were soft (not to say mushy) and I rather like a crunchy salad. My ideas for improvement? Keep the fennel raw, add olives & basil and maybe a little ouzo or other anise-flavoured drink. Of course having alcohol with your meal decreases the body’s ability to absorb vitamins, but sometimes there’s something to say for taste too. ;) But to be honest, I think I’ll stick with my regular fennel salad recipe.

Bean salad: chickpea

Greek chickpea salad

Chickpea salad

The last recipe, chickpea salad, was a small hit — the best of the bunch anyway. Especially considering it’s rather basic: a mix of cooked garbanzos, cucumber, a variety of peppers, red onion, black olives and a dressing made of skinned and finely chopped tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, crushed garlic, fresh thyme and black pepper. I added a little salt as a flavour enhancer too. Yes, I will make this salad again when I have an open can of chickpeas!

The verdict

It will come as no surprise that I’m not really enthusiastic about A Vegan Taste of Greece. I’m considering discarding it, but first I’d like to try some recipes from other sections, like…

  • A mezé ~ walnut-stuffed mushrooms? Yellow split-pea spread fava? Courgette critters? Or jumping into the deep end with gyros made from scratch, finally using that bag of seitan starter I purchased?
  • Dessert ~ baked nectarines or orange glazed peach slices, almond & apricot pastries… They make my mouth water. :) But all require the purchase of a new ingredient: orange flower water.
  • Baked goods ~ sesame cookies, almond cakes, semolina & lemon slices… No? ;)
  • And the baked beetroot in the vegetable chapter sounds like good too.

So there’s more to explore before the curtain falls. I’d like to try one each from the categories above before my final judgement. Still, there’s a whole series of A Vegan Taste of… (France, India, East Africa, et cetera) by Linda Majzlik. Getting me to try another would require a copy to literally fall into my hands again.

I hardly dare finish with one more flaw of the book.. :\ I think it’s partly a regional problem and doesn’t apply to Americans. MANY of the recipes use vegan cheese or yoghurt. I haven’t been able to find a good cheese substitute and feel reluctant to buy and use the varieties available here. In the US there’s Dayia… Reviews are raving so I’d love to get my hands on that!

And soygurt… It lacks the sour freshness of its animal equivalent, which cannot be fully compensated by adding (extra) lemon. I just purchased a tub though, so I do plan on trying one of the recipes containing yofu too.

To be continued?

If you’ve got one of Majzlik’s books I’d love to hear you think!

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Join Beth Fish’s Weekend Cooking with a food-related post!

dijon

Last week I started a series of posts called Les Vacances de Mme Gnoe, about how I fared as a vegan on a recent holiday in the South of France. Obviously I survived. ;) It may help other newbie vegans going on a journey — or those worrying about going to the land of bouillabaisse, fromage and cassoulet.

Vegan Month of Food buttonIn the first post I related what to eat en route. Today I’ll write about our first dinner in France, when we spent the night in Dijon.

As a vegan it’s wise to be prepared when going on a trip. So if you’re not sure you”ll connect to the internet, do some homework before you leave!

HappyCow's Compassionate Healthy Eating Guide

My first ‘stop’ was at Happy Cow.net: a worldwide database of vegetarian restaurants and grocery stores, also marking them vegan(-friendly). There were two places listed in Dijon: Les Pieds Bleus and Le Shanti. The first was one being described as “simple family type cooking, buffet style, in a typical French canteen atmosphere” — sounds great! So we dropped off our luggage in the hotel and set off in the direction of Place Emile Zola.

Alas… The restaurant was closed for vacation and would reopen the next day when, of course, we had travelled on! This was a surprise to us as in the Netherlands restaurants do not usually close during tourist season. This holiday we were about to learn that the French do things differently. ;)

So we went to search for option #2, Le Shanti, window-shopping and making pictures of the medieval city on our way. This time we found the venue open. There were yummy things on the menu like veggie burgers, wraps, soups and salads. But… you get the picture? More like a place to have lunch or a just quick bite, not for a special occasion like your first holiday dinner!

Back to the city centre it was, where wecould pick from a choice of restaurants on the aforementioned Place Emile Zola. Considering Lebanese first, we felt more like having Japanese and ended up at the Sushi King, “retaurant Japonais” (and that’s not my typo ;).

Menu of Sushi King Dijon

Here they served a vegetarian sushi menu consisting of miso soup, salade de choux (cabbage tsukemono) and three kinds of maki rolls: cucumber, avocado and daikon radish. The usual condiments: soy sauce (sweet or salty), pickled ginger and wasabi condiments. Since I’m a sucker for chuka wakame I ordered an bowl of salade d’algues as well. For dessert I enjoyed a whole pot of Japanese green tea.

Miso soup
Cabbage tsukemono
Sushi
Chuka wakame

We had dinner outside, cozy among other establishments on the city square. The food was good but nothing special and, aside from plain or vinegar rice, these were the only vegan/vegetarian dishes on the menu. I haven’t asked whether the fried noodles with vegetables were (or could be made) vegan and it didn’t really seem like the place to serve food off the carte.

Green tea (Japonais)The waiters were fairly quick and friendly, except for one young man who managed to whisk away our plates a little too early first and ignored us when we wanted to order another drink afterwards. He probably didn’t have his day. ;) We did.

So. If you like to have a decent meal but aren’t too demanding, I can certainly recommend the Sushi King for a vegan dinner in Dijon!

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Join Beth Fish’s Weekend Cooking with a food-related post!

Beth Fish Weekend Cooking logo

Cover Blind Willow, Sleeping WomanA while back I buddy read Haruki Murakami’s collection of short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman with Elsje, from Elsjelas. We decided to turn it into a buddy review as well — such a fun project! Elsje usually blogs in Dutch but she immediately agreed to do it in English because of Graasland readers! How cool is that?!

We hope you’ll enjoy our ‘interview’ as much as we did :)

Why did you read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman?
Elsje: Well, ever since I discovered Murakami, two years ago, I have been wanting to read his whole oeuvre. Not many authors have invoked this type of avidity in me, that’s for sure. And reading more only made it worse. So, this was my 10th Murakami… In addition, this was the most recent book published in Dutch (or any other language, for that matter). Last but not least, my friend Gnoe, also a true Murakami-addict, was looking for someone to read along with.
Gnoe: My reason for picking up Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is quite similar. Shortly after reading my first (and long-time favorite) Murakami The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in 2004, I decided to read all books by the master. Up until now I’ve read most of his novels, but I kept postponing ‘BWSW’ because I’m not really a short-story-grrl. A buddy read with Elsje was exactly what I needed! And it didn’t hurt either that March was Murakami Month at In Spring it is the Dawn ;)

What did you expect?
Elsje: After nine Murakami’s I pretty much knew what to expect: a little supernatural, complicated relationships, unobtainable love, desperate searches for lost loves, death by freak accidents and suicides, music and food. I always seem to like the Murakami novels better than his short stories: Murakami needs to elaborate to be able to hold my thoughts in his train of thoughts. So my expectations were not skyhigh.
Gnoe: Not being a fan of short stories I expected to be a little frustrated ;) Just getting into a story and then… oops! — The End. Hate that. Of course I hoped Murakami would surprise me with some enchanting writing… But I’d already read After the Quake (twice) and it didn’t impress me. Only Super-Frog Saves Tokyo lingers in my mind because it was weirdly sympathetic (or sympathetically weird).

Did Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman live up to your expectations?
Elsje: Absolutely, and more than that. I have to say that some of his most beautiful short stories can be found in this volume!
Gnoe: Well, having such low expectations Murakami could hardly disappoint. And indeed, I loved Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman! But it’s not just because of my anticipations. The stories are wonderful: little gems that are not too short at all. Of course I couldn’t (nor shouldn’t) read them in one sitting, so I had a great time savoring Murakami’s fantasies. Each had that magical touch of the master: lovely language and amazing atmosphere.

What was your favorite story?
Elsje: That one is hard to answer… Browsing the book to make a choice, I find myself absorbed anew… Impossible to choose just one. I believe my favorite stories are:

  • Birthday Girl in which a girl experiences a very strange encounter on the evening of her twentieth birthday
  • The Mirror in which a man finds himself looking at himself in a mirror. Creepy story!
  • The Seventh Man in which a man tells a group of people how, when he was a boy, an enormous wave took the life of his best friend. The man felt guilty for years because he had not tried to save him.
  • The Year of Spaghetti. A man obsessively cooks spaghetti. A whole year of loneliness. Interrupted only by his own thoughts. And then: a telephone call.
  • Toni Takitani: a beautiful story about a man, the son of a jazzmusician, who looses his spendthrift wife in a car accident. The clothes she leaves behind form the basis of a strange advertisement: Toni pays a girl to wear his wife’s dresses, so that he can get used to her being dead.
  • The Ice Man: a girl falls in love with, indeed, an iceman. Heartbreaking story!
  • Where I’m Likely to Find It describes the search for a lost husband. And when I say lost, I mean lost: he disappeared in between floors, going from the apartment of his wife to that of his mother in law.
  • The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day tells the story of a writer who has been told by his father that every man is granted only three true loves. Waiting for that love he is afraid to commit. When he meets Kyrie, he is stuck in one of his stories, a story about a kidney-shaped stone.

Gnoe: I just can’t choose one favorite story either… I liked many of them, but two really stand out (both already mentioned by Elsje): The Seventh Man and The Ice Man. Hm. There’s a striking similarity between those titles, what does that say about me?! LOL

Why did it become a favorite?
Elsje: These stories are little gems: they harbor all the Murakami ingredients, and, moreover, are complete stories. That which I found lacking in short story volumes I read earlier – elaboration – was more than sufficient in these stories. I was mesmerized by especially The Mirror, The Ice Man, Where I’m Likely to Find It and The Kidney-Shaped Stone.
Gnoe: Explaining why I rather like a story is always the hard part, but I’ll try to make sense. Beware of SPOILERS though! Elsje already gave a brief summary of the narratives in relation to previous question so I’ll just skip to my thoughts on The Seventh Man. It brings to mind early school camps & scouting outings, where the — older — supervisors (often teenagers or in their early twenties — like I said: old ;) told scary stories in the evening. The confession of ‘the seventh man’ gives me the chills, but rings true. It’s really heartbreaking, but heartwarming at the same time. I could imagine finding myself in his shoes: shock-reflexes triggering self-preservation but being paralyzed to the point where you can’t warn your ignorant friend for the approaching killer wave. I understood his feelings of guilt although we all very well know he cannot be held responsible. The image of the little boy swallowed by the sea is equally grim and beautiful at the same time. That scene is so vivid, it will stay with me forever. And I just listened to the seventh man telling his story — imagine what’s before his mind’s eye…
The Ice Man is just a beautiful love story: romantic and tragic at once, the way it should. In fiction I mean, ’cause in real life we’d like to live happily ever after ;) What I admire about this story is that I completely and totally believed in the existence of such a creature as an ice man — and in our protagonist’s unconditional love for him.
Fun fact: in his introduction Haruki Murakami says about these stories:

Ice Man‘, by the way, is based on a dream my wife had, while ‘The Seventh Man‘ is based on an idea that came to me when I was into surfing and was gazing out at the waves.

The Great Wave of Kanagawa by Hokusai

Explanation of the title
Elsje: The title refers to the first story, in which one of the friends of the antagonist writes a poem about a blind willow, of which the pollen, when conveyed to the ear of a girl make her fall asleep.
Trivia: I found a video on YouTube by a band named
Willow, called Blind of which I don’t believe it was an inspiration for Murakami…
Gnoe: Well, there’s nothing much to add to that, is there? Unless I could elaborate on how this title reflects the complete collection of short stories, but I don’t have a clue ;) I would also like to muse a little on the meaning and importance of the poem — but again I’m tongue-beaten. I just can’t seem to put my finger on it; frustration finally setting in! ;) The story goes that the long, long roots of the blind willows go deep into the ground where there’s complete darkness. (Darkness: No Good, right?) Then there’s a medium — those little flies — that transfer the doomed pollen to innocent people. Nothing you can do about it: we all got that vulnerable spot (our ears). And then you fall asleep: lead a passive life (not living to the fullest). But what does it all mean? I’m stuck.
Anyway, the darkness reminds me of another Murakami novel: Dance Dance Dance, in which the Sheep Man (the medium between the darkness and the human world) tells the main character he has to dance to keep living. And there’s a connection to After Dark of course, in which a girl falls into a deep sleep as well. But hey, book connections is a question further along!

Theme
Haruki Murakami Elsje: I really cannot think why Murakami specifically brought these stories together in this volume.
Gnoe: I don’t believe there’s an overall theme linking the stories in this collection either, except for some general elements that keep recurring in Murakami’s books. I’ll talk about that relating to next topic. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman probably just consists of stories not previously published outside Japan.

Links with other Murakami stories/books
Elsje: Plenty links can be found. For instance

  • Blind Willow reminded me of Norwegian Wood, in which the main character forms a kind of triangular friendship with a girl and a boy. The boy kills himself and the girl suffers as a result of that. In addition, the memory of the antagonist is jogged by a song he hears on a plane. In Blind Willow, a similar triangular friendship existed in the past, and entering the hospital with his cousin brings memories back about their friendship.
  • Birthday Girl reminded me of A Wild Sheep Chase, probably because of the mysterious events in a hotel. Room 604… Is that the same room number?? No, the room number in A Wild Sheep Chase is 406… Remarkably similar, though!
  • New York Mining Disaster stirred a faint memory of South of the Border. I think that is because the main character owns a bar.
  • Man-Eating Cats: I believe Murakami used part of this story to construct Sputnik Sweetheart.
  • Firefly: this story contains the same early morning ritual as Norwegian Wood. In addition, the roommate is again spic and span. I don’t remember if in Norwegian Wood this roommate was a geography student, but I think he was…
  • The brilliant pianoplayer in Hanalei Bay could be based on the same idea as Reiko in Norwegian Wood?
  • The Kidney-Shaped Stone reminded me somewhat of Thailand, one of the stories in After the Quake.

Gnoe: First I’d like to say that I find it amazing how much Elsje remembers of those books! I guess my taking ages to read the complete works of Murakami has its downside…
I was thinking more of book relations through recurring elements, like ears, food, storytelling, young people dying (early) / entering new life stages and (unrequited or lost) love. Of course there are many more but these come to mind thinking of Blind Willow. Elsje considered them her expectations! (I’m referring to her answer on our second question ;) A Murakami theme I actually missed in this book is the QUEST.
I’d like to highlight some of the elements because they seem important (or beautiful) in any way.

  • Ear: you’ve already heard how ears play a special role in the title story. But it’s not just the poem: the antagonist’s cousin has a hearing problem that was caused by a baseball that hit his right ear as a child. Again an innocent victim hurt by external causes. And it wouldn’t be a Murakami without a special earlobe; in Birthday Girl.
  • Food: Next to the obvious titles The Year of Spaghetti and Man-eating Cats there’s a disgusting story called Crabs (another vivid image I can’t erase from my mind but I’ll spare you that), which shows us a meaningful insight on the topic of food.
    “You know, eating’s much more important than most people think. There comes a time in your life when you’ve just got to have something super-delicious. And when you’re standing at that crossroads your whole life can change, depending on which you go into — the good restaurant or the awful one. It’s like — do you fall on this side of the fence, or on the other side.”

    Yeah well, nice observation but it doesn’t help us much, does it? ;)
  • Death (young people dying):
    “A man’s death at twenty-eight is as sad as the winter rain.” (New York Mining Disaster)
    And a quote from Firefly:
    “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” (How zen!)
  • Storytelling: plenty of storytellers in this book, but there’s a special narrator in Chance Traveller. The story begins as follows:
    “The ‘I’ here, you should know, means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story. [..] The reason I’ve turned up here is that I thought it best to relate directly several so-called strange events that have happened to me. [..] Whenever I bring up these incidents, say, in a group discussion, I never get much of a reaction. Most people simply make some non-committal comment and it never goes anywhere. [..] At first I thought I was telling the story wrong, so one time I tried writing it down as an essay. I reckoned that if I did that, people would take it more seriously. But no one seemed to believe what I’d written. ‘You’ve made that up, right?’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. Since I’m a novelist people assume that anything I say or write must have an element of make-believe.”
    How mean ;) The author made me feel guilty for not believing his story! And it brought to mind that other book in which a (failed) writer appears with a familiar sounding name: Mr Hiraku Makimura in Dance Dance Dance!

Musical links
Elsje: Just a few suitable musical links to listen to while reading the book…

Gnoe: Thank you for the music!

Anything else to say?
We didn’t believe it at first but Elsje discovered that dabchicks really exist! From now on they’re my favorite waterbirds ;)

A cute palm-sized dabchick!

A cute palm-sized Dabchick like in the story!

Elsje: Mr. Gnoe kindly lent me a book on Murakami, written by his English translator Jay Rubin: Haruki Murakami and the music of words. I really recommend this book to Murakami-adepts. Rubin addresses some of the things Gnoe and I have commented on above, in addition, he touches a whole lot of things we seem to have missed. For instance, when answering question no. 8, Gnoe confessed to feeling guilty for not believing one of the stories. Well, Gnoe, let me ease your guilt: according to Rubin, Murakami did make this story up after all!
Gnoe: That’s good to hear Elsje! But as you know there’s something else that keeps bothering me… It’s probably supposed to, but I’d like to hear people’s opinions anyway! Even though it can be considered a spoiler… What is the wish Birthday Girl made? I wanna know! Do you have any ideas?

Book details
Elsje: My volume is a first print, published by Uitgeverij Atlas in 2009. Translation into Dutch was executed by Elbrich Fennema. I am not sure wether she translated the stories directly from Japanese or from the English translation Gnoe read.
Gnoe: My paperback is a first print, published by Harvill Secker in 2006 (copyrighted 2005 by Haruki Murakami). The stories are variably translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin; both seem to have done the job very well!

Cover Blinde wilg, slapende vrouw (Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman)Styling
Elsje: I love the way in which the Dutch translations have been styled. Always bicolored, with a tiny picture at the border between the two colors, signifying one of the main themes. The cover of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Jerry Bauer, depicts the eyes and nose of, indeed, a sleeping woman.
Gnoe: I prefer my English copy to Elsjes’s Dutch because it’s more poetic, suitable to the stories. There’s a Japanese woman sleeping underneath a persimmon branch. She lying on a soft, white underground — obviously a mattress when you take a close look, but it evokes the image of snow. The woman is wearing a spring/summer dress or nightgown, so she has definitely been sleeping for quite some time! In Buddhism the persimmon stands for transformation. The picture is a combination of a modern photograph and a detail of the early nineteenth century painting Persimmon on Tree by Sakai Hoitsu. Yep, I like it ;) The book has a white background with lettering in silver, black and several reds — colors that ‘we’ (Western people) associate with Japan. A subtle detail is that the author name is embossed, not the title (as in the thriller genre).
Well, that’s a long description of something you can largely see for yourself at the beginning of this post ;) The combination of these colors on a white background is visible in the designs of other Murakami editions from the same publisher. Of course it’s a smart move to make them look like a ‘series’ because what bibliophile wouldn’t want to show of his collection of books by Murakami? It would be fun to compare several different Murakami ‘series’ someday! By the way: did you know there’s a group on Flickr with pictures of Murakami book covers?

Gnoe: Hey Elsje, now that our buddy review is ready — let’s make plans for a follow-up to see the Tony Takitani movie?!
Elsje: I think that would be an excellent idea! In addition we could buddyread 1Q84 which appears in print next week… #hinthint

Yep: real fans, that’s what we are ;)

Picture of book
March was Murakami Month. 31 days of special attention for the famous & well-loved author Haruki Murakami. What a good idea for a Hello Japan mini challenge!

This month’s task is to read, or otherwise experience Haruki Murakami’s work.

I have already read a LOT of Murakami’s books, so I decided not to join in the The Wind-up Bird Chronicle read-along, nor the Japanese Literature Book Group choice of A Wild Sheep Chase & Dance, Dance, Dance. But of course I could not let March pass without any Murakami on my plate! And since I don’t get much reading done these days, I have only read Murakami this month! Next to Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book read-along that is…

Cover Blind Willow, Sleeping WomanFirst I picked Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman of the shelf; a collection of Murakami tales. I’m not really a short-story-grrl: I like to dig into a book and need some time to get acquainted with (get a feel for) the characters. My problem with short stories and novella’s is that they seem to be over before they begin :\ But I do want to read the complete works of Murakami, so ‘Blind Willow’ became a buddy read with Elsje. She finished it a while ago whereas I’m still only half way! Is it that bad??? No, not at all ;) I like the characters and the magical atmosphere, so I am really enjoying myself. It’s also nice that I can (often) finish a story in one sitting. But the book does not call out to me to come and read NOW, the way a pageturner does.

So. To complete my mission I could have chosen to write a review of just one of the stories. Or to rent the Tony Takitani dvd again. But nooooo. I did something else I want to tell you about: I reread another, special edition of short stories by Haruki Murakami! It’s called Een stoomfluit midden in de nacht and was a 2006-2007 New Year’s gift of a group of Dutch publishers. Not for sale :) My copy was generously given to me by maupi, who came by it through her work as a translator.

Special edition of short stories by Haruki MurakamiNext to the title story Yonaka no kiteki ni tsuite (originally published in 1995), this publication contains two other stories: Kreta Kanō (Kanō Kureta, 1993) and De tweeling en het verzonken continent (Futago to shinzunda tairiku, 1985). It’s a real scoop because these stories have never before been translated into a foreign language! ^_^

So I now stand for the great task to translate the titles in English — from Dutch, because I don’t read Japanese LOL. The name of the book means literally: A Steam Whistle in the Middle of the Night. Maybe someone can give a hint whether it is the same in Japanese?

* * * Note: the rest of this post contains spoilers! * * *

The story A Steam Whistle in the Middle of the Night is REALLY short: only 3 pages. But it’s the most beautiful of the lot, and maybe that’s why it is also the title of the book; even though it’s the closing story. It’s a heartwarming narrative of a boy expressing his love for a girl. To truly feel the extent of it, she needs to understand first how awful, absolutely gruesome it is to wake up alone in the middle of the night, far from reality. Like being locked up in an iron coffin that has sunk to the bottom of a deep sea — running out of oxygen. The only thing that can bring you back is the faraway sound of a steam whistle. That’s how much he loves her.

Aw.. The image of a steam whistle in the night recalled my childhood, lying in bed on those rare nights of extreme fog.

The first story of A Steam Whistle in the Middle of the Night is Kreta Kanō. Those of you who have read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle will immediately recognize the name :) Kreta works for her Sister, Malta Kanō, who listens to the sounds of body fluids to solve people’s problems. Kreta’s got a huge problem too… She is so irresistible to men that once they lay their eyes on her, they need to possess her: assault being the result. All men. Malta says it’s because her water is out of synch with her body. That’s why men are attracted to her — like the tides, I guess. It’s a fascinating story, set after her adventures in ‘Wind-up Bird’. Kreta also brought to mind the woman in Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers

The ‘longest’ story in this 61 page booklet is called The Twins and the Sunken Continent (again my translation is very literal so I’m open to improvement :) I should read it for a third time because it’s a typical Murakami, making me wonder what the hell it’s all about. There are two mysterious twin sisters (who are also supposed to appear in his novel Pinball, 1973; a book I unfortunately still lack!), a glass club in Roppongi, weird dreams and a missing colleague called Noboru Watanabe — again a name that may sound familiar. In an early story that was later made into The Wind-up Bird Chronicle both the missing cat and the protagonist’s brother-in-law bear that name. In the novel they were renamed to Noboru Wataya. It is said that in real life Haruki Murakami has a very good friend called Noboru Watanabe ;)

Een stoomfluit in het midden van de nacht is a real gem to have. It even makes me reread – and read once again; something I normally just don’t do.

So as you can probably tell, I’ve had a great Murakami March!
I hope I’ve made you join in the fun a bit?!

* All stories in Een stoomfluit midden in de nacht are translated from Japanese by Jacques Westerhoven, © 2003.

Earlier I’ve posted some of my thoughts on A Wild Sheep Chase on Graasland (in Dutch).

Books I got for my birthday

Birthday Book Loot

Again, I am being a real lookgrrl this weekend. Yesterday some grrls came over to watch the 1967 movie In Cold Blood, which we read together in November (I posted my review of Capote’s book last month). I’m actually writing this Sunday Salon post on Friday, so I have no idea yet what I thought of it ;) And when my bookish things of the week go online, I’ll be making last minute preparations for a Dexter 3 marathon. Yay!

Btw I recently heard that the 2nd series and further are no real adaptations, so you can read the Dexter novels in addition to the serial. That would be fun! I guess I’ll wait until I’ve seen them all though, just to be on the safe side.

A week ago I finally finished the third volume of Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat. I decided I would read on instead of composing a Sunday Salon post. Good idea, eh?

I’m not sure if I’ll write a real review this time because I feel I’ve spent enough time on it already. I’ve learnt a great lesson though: I prefer to read plot driven books! So what am I doing reading The Pillow Book? Erm… not sure ;) I think it will be my last one for a long, long time! Now I’m quite confident that I really shouldn’t read Moby Dick. I’ll just follow my instincts ;) In recent years I’ve bargained with Max Havelaar or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, dragged myself along The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha — and it has been enough. Gee, that I had to become 40 to acknowledge such a thing ;)

Next to The Pillow Book I am also reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: a compilation of short stories by Haruki Murakami. I’m buddy reading with Else, who has started a while back so it’s good to have started catching up. I’m just a few pages in but it already seems to be another great book! :)

The Pillow Book

Arrived at entry: 31/21
Entries read since last time: 31

Ha! Not only have I finally started reading The Pillow Book (Het Hoofdkussenboek van Sei Shōnagon), I’m also completely caught up!

What do I think about it so far? I like it, but it is very patchy. Of course I expected that since it’s not just a diary but a journal containing Shōnagon’s musings and descriptions of (court) life in Heian Japan. And I appreciate reading about the beautiful clothes (although it is starting to be much of the same), seasonal traditions and festivals, but… Shōnagon and I are not befriended. I don’t like the way she seems to look down on people, even laughs at them — especially women. Could it be a competitive atmosphere between women around the Emperor and Empress? I’m in a bit of a hurry so I haven’t thought this through very well.

The Pillow Book is quit poetic and the footnotes and appendix give some interesting, sometimes necessary, explanatory information. But I do not look them all up because that would interrupt my reading too much.

The Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of booklovers on the web, where they blog about bookish things of the past week, visit each others weblogs, oh — and read ;)

After the crime
I’m not Truman Capote so I’m not going to take as long as he did to write his book In Cold Blood and ponder 7 years over a review. Let’s just get it over with.

In Cold Blood is a faction novel: fiction based on facts. It tells the story of a horrible murder that happened in Holcomb, Kansas, on the night of Friday 13th 1959. Is that where our superstition about Friday 13th originates from? (No, it’s not.) That night, the much loved Clutter family was slaughtered in cold blood by two young man that had met in jail: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The book concentrates on the events leading up to the killing, the quest to find the murderers, their trial(s) and eventually their execution.

Cover In Cold BloodI’ve had the book on my shelf ever since I saw the biopic Capote in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an awesome leading role as the author. But I never picked it up for fear of being bored… Because of the movie I already knew what had happened, see. But I’m glad I no longer procrastinated! I buddy read it with the Boekgrrls in November 2009; exactly 50 years after the crime. And it was quite a powerful experience.

Knowing about the case was no problem at all: the events are revealed at the beginning of the story. That’s partly what’s good about the book: although the outcome is public knowledge, it is still interesting to read. Most times… it is a bit slow in some parts as well.

The Clutter FamilyI admire how Capote skips around the actual murder for quite some time; getting us to know Herb Clutter, his wife Bonny, daughter Nancy and son Kenyon. Meeting Dick and Perry ‘warming up’ with some petty crimes. The author guides us through the days preceding and following the massacre, showing us the town and its people, following the detectives that are hunting down the killers. And then finally, the moment of horror.

In Cold Blood is supposed to be the first in a genre that is now well-known: ‘true crime fiction’. Capote was looking for inspiration as a writer when he read a small newspaper article about the case in Holcomb. It took him 5 years of ‘investigating’ and another 2 to finish the book. Its suggests to be factual (presenting letters, reports etc.), so many of the people involved criticized him for not being completely true to the case. Capote himself replied that it was obviously a novel = fiction.

Capote in Clutter Home

An interesting question is why Capote was so immensely fascinated by this case that he worked on it for so many years. I recall from the movie that the author seemed extremely ‘attracted’ by the perpetrators, especially Perry. And the weird thing is that even I felt sorry for him at times — or even sympathy, no matter that he was such a ruthless killer. On of the strongest scenes in the book is Perry’s confession to KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) officer Albert Dewey. The murders, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith

*** spoiler alert *** The suggestion that Perry Smith would have suffered from schizophrenia is pretty convincing. Unfortunately for him at that time in Kansas state the Durham rule was not yet in practice. This act decrees that “an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act is the product of mental disease or mental defect“. I must say that I’m against the taking of any life, which means I do not approve of the death penalty in any case – not even in a horrible crime like this.

Bookish connections
Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee accompanied him to the Midwest as his research assistent. I recently read her most acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird which she wrote a few years after the Holcomb tragedy. It has nothing to do with this case, but it does deal with legislation and justice, telling the story of a murder courtcase in Alabama. Capote is depicted in the book as the boy Dill. But Lee is never mentioned in Capote’s In Cold Blood.

BTW from the movie Capote I had gotten the impression that the author himself would play a role in his book as well, which he does not…

Perry’s childhood during the Great Depression, his family travelling the country in search of work, also brings to mind John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I had read just before In Cold Blood:

‘Tex John Smith Family picking berries in Oregon. 1933′ Was the caption under a snapshot of four barefooted children wearing overalls and cranky, uniformly fatigued expressions. Berries or stale bread soaked in sweet condensed milk was often all they had to eat. [His sister] Barbara Johnson remembered that once the family had lived for days on rotten bananas, and that, as a result, Perry had got colic; he had screamed all night, while Bobo, as Barbara was called, wept for fear he was dying. [p.177]

Women Unbound buttonBecause of some quotes about the role of women, the story also made me think of the October Boekgrrls’ buddy read: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which is set in fifties as well. Since I’m participating in the Women Unbound challenge, I’ll give this topic its own heading.

The role of women
Bonny Clutter was a very troubled housewife (according to this book = according to Capote? The people in the village? Her family?). Bonny herself believed that a pinched nerve was the cause of her problems. But to the contemporary reader it is obvious that she was depressed; which might be postnatal depression as is suggested in the book, but I rather believe her unfulfilling everyday life must have amplified it. In the past she had been living in Wichita for 2 weeks, having her own apartment and a job. Doctor’s orders. And it seemed to help…

[..] but she had liked it too well, so much that it seemed to her unchristian, and the sense of guilt she in consequence developed ultimately outweighed the experiment’s therapeutic value. [p.26]

So she turned into a woman that:

[..] had reduced her voice to a single tone, that of apology, and her personality to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offence, in some way displease. [p.23]

Then there’s Nancy’s attitude to her father Herb Clutter.

‘[..] Can’t you make your father understand that?’ No, she could not. ‘Because,’ as she explained it to Susan, ‘whenever I start to say something, he looks at me as though I must not love him. Or as though I love him less. And suddenly I’m tongue-tied; I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes.‘ [p.19]

I don’t have any intelligent thoughts about this but I do think it says a lot about the way women wore culturally imposed and emotional straitjackets at the time. It seems to have been engraved in our x-chromosomes — and the leftovers sometimes pop-up… Because although it’s 50 years later and I’ve been raised by a feminist mom, I’m embarrassed to say that the feelings described are not completely unfamiliar to me. (Can I get another Honest Scrap Award now, please? ;)

Other thoughts on the book…
I did think the Clutters were a bit too good to be true — except for poor Bonny of course, who was such a troubled, incompetent mother & wife :\

If I had not known the book was based on facts and written relatively short after the real events, I would have sworn to have come upon an anachronism:

[..] Nancy had cleaned up, put all the dishes in the dish-washer, [..] [p.49]

OMG my well-to-do grandparents (or should I say my grandma?) first got a washing machine about a whole decade later! Let alone I would know anyone who had a dish-washer at that time… But hey, I wasn’t born yet either ;)

Movie connections…
In Cold Blood has made such an impression that I was reminded of it during several movies I saw shortly after. That happened because of the schizophrenia in the horror movie Bug and the bloody massacre in Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance.

But it doesn’t end here; the bookgroup read will result in a film follow-up real soon! Some Boekgrrls are coming over to watch the 1967 film In Cold Blood with me. It got 8 stars in the Internet Movie Databse so I’m having no worries about being bored because I already know the story ;)

Clutter home in recent times

Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort. [p.7]

Cover The Housekeeper and the ProfessorThe Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase no Aishita Suushiki) is a novel by Yoko Ogawa about a single mother who comes to work as a housekeeper for a former mathematics teacher whose short time memory lasts for only 80 minutes — needing multiple post-it notes pinned to his suit to help him remember things. Each day it’s like meeting eachother for the first time; still they grow close.

Names are not relevant in such a situation, basic properties are. So it’s just ‘the Housekeeper’ and her 10 year old son ‘Root’, nicknamed by the Professor because his head is flattened like the square root sign: . Just like characters of a mathematical puzzle that need to be named to be able to calculate with them.

It’s a charming, heartwarming story about family bonding between people that are not related. I was afraid I would be bored because I’m not particularly interested in mathematics… Nor do I know anything about baseball, which appeared to be another main subject of the book :-o But I had no problem at all enjoying this lovely story. I actually learned something ;) About ‘amicable numbers’ and ‘twin primes’ for example. You can look them up in Wikipedia but it’s much more fun to read this book! It probably explains it better too ;)

Being a museumgrrl I also liked the concept of collecting baseball cards. Though I didn’t learn much about it ;) But something I did come to know more about through the baseball topic, are Devas. I looked them up after reading the following depiction of a famous Japanese baseball player ‘in the field’.

Enatsu on the mound, his fierce stance like a Deva King guarding a temple. [p.81]

Deva King by Aschaf

Deva king, picture courtesy of Aschaf

Devas are Buddhist deities — those angry looking red giants that you must have seen somewhere, sometime. These temple guardians ward off evil = anything that threatens Buddhism. The biggest museum in The Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum (where Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch is on display), recently acquired two of these statues originating from the 14th century Iwayaji temple in Shimane, that was restored in 1839. Research will determine the exact date of these ‘heavenly generals’ (Niō).* When the Rijksmuseum reopens after many years of building activities — hopefully in 2013 — they will flank the entrance of the new Asian Pavilion.

Bookmark Japanese servantAlthough The Housekeeper and the Professor is (obviously) about living in the present, the story is constructed of memories from the housekeeper. She has a gentle way of telling, so when the story unfolds you know something is about to happen, but there’s no real shock effect.

Because of the Professor’s loss of memory and the sticky notes that aid him, this book of course strongly reminds of the fascinating movie Memento. Except in the film Guy Pearce relies on tattoos — and it’s not a kind story like The Housekeeper… But the book also reminded me of another very good movie: Goodbye Lenin, in which a son pretends their hometown East Berlin is still communist when his mother awakens from a long coma in 1990. The Professor’s memory ends in 1975, the year he had his accident, so the Housekeeper and her son often act as if no time has passed as well.

Now, how do you like my bookmark with a Japanese housekeeper on the left? It’s a print from around 1795 by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), called Servant Naniwa O-Hisa carrying a cup of tea and a smoker’s set. Would you like to have one just like it? I bought a duplicate to give away! Just comment on this post telling me if you know of any more GOOD movies about memory, numbers, mathematics or science (you get the picture). The giveaway ends on Friday 5th of February and is open to all!

I read The Housekeeper and the Professor for the Japanese Literature Book Group (discussion post) and as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge and 3rd What’s in a Name challenge (category ‘title’). It was a fine story to begin the year with.

What's in a name challenge button

* As far as I’ve been able to figure out, Niō and Deva kings are (almost) the same kind of temple guardians. But I’m open to correction!

This week I could no longer keep myself from joining the Graphic Novel Challenge as an Intermediate, which means I need to read 3-10 comic books before January 1st. It was a logical step because I had just finished Mutts earlier in the week (short review to be added later on) and I was also really interested in Read All Over’s mini challenge about reading the graphic version of a classic.

So I picked up Dick Matena’s illustrated version of Gerard Reve’s De avonden (The Evenings) at the library; 4 volumes in total. So far I’ve only read part 1 — and I think that might be enough…

De Avonden (The Evenings) graphic novel part 1-4

De avonden: een winterverhaal (The Evenings: a Winter Story) is a Dutch 1947 classic by Gerard Reve (1923-2006), one of The Grand Threesome of Dutch postwar authors. It’s his most famous work, that is known by all generations that lived during and since the forties. The novel describes the last 10 days of 1946 from the perspective of Frits Egters, an office clerq (not a job he’s proud of). It’s a gloomy depiction of a bourgeois existence — and it shocked many people at the time because of its bleakness. And it still does. Then again, the final paragraph of the The Evenings is considered the best prose of Dutch 20th century literature:

Hij zoog de borst vol adem en stapte in bed. ‘Het is gezien,’ mompelde hij, ‘het is niet onopgemerkt gebleven.’ Hij strekte zich uit en viel in een diepe slaap.

I’m afraid I don’t have any translational skills but I’ll give it a try:

He took a deep breath and got into bed. “It was seen,” he muttered, “it hasn’t gone unnoticed.” He stretched out and fell into a deep sleep.

Page 9 from De avonden, part 1In 2001 Dick Matena converted The Evenings into an unabridged illustrated story for a Dutch newspaper, Het Parool. The graphic novel which was published in 2003-2004. As you can see it’s done in (indian?) ink; in different tones of grey instead of black and white pictures full of contrast. Almost sepia, giving it an ancient feeling ;) But I have no idea if the style fits 1940’s comics; anyone can comment on that?

Anyway, it looks quite sombre, matching the story. The characters’ features aren’t very sharp either. As far as I’m concerned the artwork doesn’t add anything to the narrative; actually I think I’d rather read the original book. One thing I did like though was that Frits Egters is about the same age as my father was at the time; so clothes, haircut, etc. are quite familiar from photo’s ;) But I didn’t feel any connection with the story, nor the personae. Of course maybe I’m not supposed to ;) But it should be fun to read, not a chore.

Graphic Novels mini-challenge button

Which brings me to the reason I picked up this classic… My 2007 personal reading challenge consisted of reading all books on the shortlist for the election of the Best Dutch Book (ever). I skipped The Evenings because I thought I had already read it many years ago. Now I’m not too sure anymore… It might be that I just saw the movie? reading the ‘picture book’ seemed a good alternative. But now that I’ve finished part 1, I don’t feel like spending any more precious reading time on the following 3 volumes. Sorry!

Even worse: Dick Matena is a well-known ilustrator and I considered reading his version of Willem Elsschot’s 1933 classic Kaas (Cheese). But now that I’ve concluded I don’t particularly like Matena’s style I think I’ll pass. But you never know… Last year I wouldn’t have believed that I would be reading so many (ahem) graphic novels by now!

Other Bookish things

But graphic novels weren’t the only bookish thing grabbing my attention this week. I’ve also written a wrap-up post for the 2009 Classics challenge — finally. The one for last year’s What’s in a Name Challenge is still on my to-do list and in only a few days I will need to add another because the 3rd Japanese Literature Challenge ends next Saturday!

Now I need to leave it at this because I really should begin writing my review for The Housekeeper and the Professor. Discussion at the Japanese Literature Book Group starts tomorrow! But you might want to know what book I’m currently reading: The Rapture by Liz Jensen. It is GREAT!

The Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of booklovers on the web, where they blog about bookish things of the past week, visit each others weblogs, oh — and read ;)

Who doesn’t know this famous picture of a Migrant Mother of the American Dust Bowl? It could be the icon of John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, which I read in the autumn of 2009; 60 years after its publication date (1939), which was also the year that my mother was born. It came to be my favourite read of 2009 — something I would never have expected!

Set during the Great Depression preceding World War II, the novel focuses on the Joad family, farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. Because of their hopeless situation they set out for ‘The Promised Land’ of California, along with thousands of other Okies in search of land, jobs and dignity.

Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 — the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield — over the red lands and the grey lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. [p.108]

This quote vividly evokes the story of the east to west migration in the US during the Great Depression. The paragraph above is followed by an enumeration of places along the road and it strongly brought to mind the 1946 song that I came to know decades later, thanks to one of the best pop groups of my teenage years, Depeche Mode: Route 66.

The Grapes of Wrath was banned (and even burned) several times. Though I absolutely not agree with it, of course not — the very idea, I can understand see how that happened: there’s a lot of swearing, violence and carnal stuff in it, plus an apostate preacher, Jim Casy. I read the book in Banned Books Week — and what did I think of it?

Cover Grapes of WrathWell, I had a hard time getting into it. The paperback has a small font on thin pages so it reveals itself to be quite a chunker when you open it for the first time. The spoken language needs a bit of getting used to. But my biggest problem was that the chapters alternate between the (interesting) story of the Joad family and some sort of epic story telling that I couldn’t figure out — and bored me a little at first. Was it the (ex-)preacher preaching? Sort of a ancient Greek choir commenting on events? An omnipresent character? Biblical, mythological? Eventually I decided it must be the oral tradition of history — I could picture the poor travelers meeting around a camp fire at night; neighbours and friends for just a short time.

And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. [p.259]

But after a while the story really got under my skin. It made a huge impression that still lasts, even after a few months. I believe it is a great truth that the less people own, the more they’re willing to share. That reminds me of a television program in Holland about hospitality ;)

The attitude of Western Americans was often repulsive.

Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and so miserable… They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas. [p.203]

This.is.so.un.fair.
It almost made me swear out loud.
But of course, those people were scared too…

I copied whole pages in my notebook because I wanted to remember them. Better buy a copy of my own eh? Since this one was a Random Act of Bookcrossing Kindness, sent to me by boekenxnl. I’ll pass it along as soon as I’ve finished writing this review!

Now, on a side note: I was wondering who made the cover of this 1970 Penguin Modern Classic edition. I couldn’t find it in the book details, nor anywhere on the web. What I coincidence that I went to an exhibition on Edward Hopper and his contemporaries in the Rotterdam Kunsthal, where I came face to face with a painting by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) that immediately reminded me of the cover image! Because of the style, and of its subject: Social Realism (or social-documentary). The exhibition note explained that the artist used to make a photo first, which he later developed into a graphic work.

I figured it would be very appropriate to use a work of art by Shahn as a book cover for The Grapes of Wrath, because during the Great Depression he traveled and documented the American south alongside photographers like (among others) Dorothea Lange, who made the picture of a Migrant Mother that you saw at the beginning of this post. What a great discovery to make!

You can guess how proud I was of myself — until I accidentally found out that the blurb on the back mentioned that “it is a detail of a poster by”… Ben Shahn. DÔH. Well, I would like to say in my own defense that I usually never read the back cover because I want to know as little as possible about a book in advance. And in the end I just forgot. But yes, I admit I must be the dumbest person in the whole wide universe. Still, it’s fun to have figured it out all by myself ;)

Edward Hopper's Railroad Sunset (1929) Whitney Museum of American Art

Except for Hopper’s painting Railroad Sunset the rest of the exhibition actually was a bit of a disappointment. An Edward Hopper expo is no Hopper expo when his most famous painting Nighthawks isn’t there. But of course that picture doesn’t belong to the Whitney Museum of American Art, the institution that put the show together with works out of its own collection.

Back to The Grapes of Wrath. A minor point of critique is that the women in the story are horribly subdue. The following quote doesn’t show that for a 100%, but it made me go BWAAAGH ;)

Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great if their men were whole. [p.7]

But I guess some ‘male dominance’ was normal in those times (& that place) and so Steinbeck is being realistic. But then he talks about Jule, who’s partly Native American:

Tom and Willie and Jule the half-breed sat on the edge of the dance floor and swung their feet. [p.327]

Each time Jule makes an appearance this ‘half-breed’ fact is mentioned. That irritated me — and I got the feeling it wasn’t because Steinbeck happened to be such a great observer, but maybe because that was how he approached Amerindians himself. Or am I terribly wrong??

Thirdly, the poor migrants were at times too good to be true. But these things aside: I am SO glad that I have read this classic!

Btw if you’re interested: I stumbled upon a (really) short article about one of the daughters of the Migrant Mother…

The Grapes of Wrath is part of my Personal 2008-2009-2010 Reading Challenge and the 2009 Classics Challenge.

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