14 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer, and out from Penguin Books.

Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

Before escaping to Wales, Emilie was a translation studies instructor who has been working on a thesis on American poet Emily Dickinson. She was fired after it was revealed that she’d had an affair with a student. She confessed the affair to her husband (most of the characters’ names are not revealed until the climax) but then fled, leaving her cell phone on the ferry. Once she arrived in Wales, she decided to rent the farm for the last two months of the year. The only things she brought with her were a mattress, some books, a portrait of Dickinson, and some painkillers.

The farm has a field with ten white geese. Despite the field being surrounded by barbed wire, the geese begin to disappear. Emilie suspects that a fox might be eating them and feels guilty about it; also, she’s only “renting” them, so when there are only six left, she builds them a shelter that they end up spurning. “They ran off the wrong way in a column or scattered, as if understanding that it was hard to choose between six separate birds. . . . Panting, she scooped up a few pebbles and threw them at the geese. ‘Ungrateful, dirty, filthy, stinking, pig-headed creatures!’ she shouted. ‘I’m trying to bloody save you!’”

Ironically, Emilie, who smokes and takes her painkillers with alcohol, seems to be the one who needs saving. Early in the novel, she’s attacked by a badger after resting on its stone circle near the house. Nobody believes that the bite on her foot came from a creature commonly perceived as peaceful. “That’s impossible,” more than one person tells her. However, this “badger story,” as it comes to be known, is not just a running gag used during the story’s lighter moments.

For the rest of the review, go here.

14 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where he worked. Even though he stuffed his pockets with heavy objects from the hotel, the pond was too shallow, and the water only reached his waist. At one time, Emilie was close to her uncle growing up, but she hasn’t thought of him in a long time.

Perhaps she did now, in this foreign country, because it was November here too or because she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank—no start or end, a circle—as the past, present and unlimited future. And because of that, she also thought she understood him just standing there and not trying to get his head underwater. A standstill. . . . She inhabited the house the way he’d stood in the pond.

This episode haunts Emilie throughout Ten White Geese, the second novel by Gerbrand Bakker to be translated into English, as she tries to figure out how to move forward. However, in her attempts at a new life, she not only experiences cultural and language barriers, but she eventually faces the threat of going back to everything (and everyone) she abandoned.

Before escaping to Wales, Emilie was a translation studies instructor who has been working on a thesis on American poet Emily Dickinson. She was fired after it was revealed that she’d had an affair with a student. She confessed the affair to her husband (most of the characters’ names are not revealed until the climax) but then fled, leaving her cell phone on the ferry. Once she arrived in Wales, she decided to rent the farm for the last two months of the year. The only things she brought with her were a mattress, some books, a portrait of Dickinson, and some painkillers.

The farm has a field with ten white geese. Despite the field being surrounded by barbed wire, the geese begin to disappear. Emilie suspects that a fox might be eating them and feels guilty about it; also, she’s only “renting” them, so when there are only six left, she builds them a shelter that they end up spurning. “They ran off the wrong way in a column or scattered, as if understanding that it was hard to choose between six separate birds. . . . Panting, she scooped up a few pebbles and threw them at the geese. ‘Ungrateful, dirty, filthy, stinking, pig-headed creatures!’ she shouted. ‘I’m trying to bloody save you!’”

Ironically, Emilie, who smokes and takes her painkillers with alcohol, seems to be the one who needs saving. Early in the novel, she’s attacked by a badger after resting on its stone circle near the house. Nobody believes that the bite on her foot came from a creature commonly perceived as peaceful. “That’s impossible,” more than one person tells her. However, this “badger story,” as it comes to be known, is not just a running gag used during the story’s lighter moments.

In a strange way, the badger, the geese, and even that mysterious creature eating the geese are trying to tell her that she doesn’t belong in Wales. They’re not the only ones: some of the locals, including a snarky doctor and an intolerant hairdresser, treat her more like a tourist than a new resident. Even the friendly wife of a baker makes her feel that she cannot survive here on her own.

Furthermore, a couple of characters also try to assert their authority over Emilie: the repulsive “caricature of a Welshman” named Rhys Jones and the mysterious university dropout Bradwen. Jones doesn’t own the land that she’s renting, but acts as a messenger from the real-estate agent who does. Also, because of an arrangement made in the past, he lets his sheep graze on the farm without asking her permission and comes and goes whenever he pleases; at one point, he even makes an unwanted advance toward her.

Her relationship with Bradwen is more complicated. While establishing a long distance route that would include a path through her farm, he falls and hurts himself. She offers to let him and his dog Sam stay the night. They leave the next morning but return that afternoon. Since Bradwen doesn’t want to return to his father, she lets him stay; in exchange, he performs various chores and errands for her. She also agrees to help him establish the route.

Initially, it appears that Bradwen is trying to help her move forward, literally and figuratively. As the novel progresses, they become more intimate, even though she sometimes struggles to communicate with him. In one interesting scene, Emilie, who is fluent in English, finds herself having trouble understanding a simple word like “kite,” which Bradwen uses to describe a bird. “She couldn’t work it out. She knew that it meant something else, this word that the boy had said twice now, but she could only picture a red diamond on a string with a tail of knotted rags. Somewhere in her head, something needed to happen. His English needed to become her English, so that she could simply understand him.”

However, even when language is not a problem, they do not always understand each other. For example, on more than one occasion, when Emilie commands Bradwen to leave the house, he refuses. He acts as if she needs him for the errands and chores, but the reader senses that he has another motive. Sometimes, he assumes things about her; at another point, when she’s asking him questions, he shuts her down completely.

While Emilie and Bradwen are trying to work out their relationship, her husband, like Emilie’s uncle, doesn’t know whether to “move forward” or “move back”; eventually, he chooses the latter. After he is released from jail for attempting to burn down the university, he seeks help from his in-laws; however, every time he does, a communication breakdown occurs. In one scene, while the Dutch version of American Idol is distracting them, Emilie’s parents trail in and out of conversation with her husband. The in-laws do not help much, but the husband ends up finding an unlikely ally: the police officer who arrested him. When the husband accidentally learns that his wife may have some kind of serious illness, the officer helps track her down.

While Ten White Geese is not a thriller, it does have the pacing of one. Bakker gives the reader some great plot twists, which balance well with the minimalist descriptions of life in the country and the disjointed dialogue, competently translated by David Colmer. However, even though readers will be absorbed in the plot, they will also be compelled by the characters and their struggles to break through the barriers that keep them from moving forward.

2 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Christopher Iacono on Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, forthcoming in April from Archipelago Books.

Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog, and has a new coffee mug that aptly describes my state of mind earlier this morning (Rochester was greeted to 6’ of snow this morning—the light, fluffy kind that makes you want to sleep in, skip the office, and slink out to the closest bunny hill for some maximally not-death-defying boarding. And by “you” I mean “Kaija,” particularly re that last part).

Since many of you are also probably back in the office this week and looking for inconspicuous ways to waste some time until you’ve fully recovered from whatever it is you do during the holiday stretch, why not read Chris’s review on a book about an ex-slave who lives in a tree and talks to herself? WELCOME TO 2014, EVERYONE! First review of the year! FIRST. DIBS. Here’s the beginning of his review:

In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:

If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?

This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.

For the rest of the review, and to have a great 2014, click here.

2 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:

If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?

This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.

The narrator (none of the characters are named) starts out by describing her life in the veld. She tries to keep track of the days by using green and black beads that she finds, although she later uses them in a more haphazard manner. She also “competes with animals” for scarce food that only makes her sick. Finally, she admits that to get through her days in the veld, sleep is “the dense solution,” and only when she wakes does she feel a sense of empowerment. “Imperiously I stand now and gaze out over the veld, and every time I step outside the world belongs to me. Every time I step out from the protecting interior of the tree I am once again a human being and powerful . . .”

This sense is quite a sharp contrast from her time as a slave. Despite her claims at the beginning that she is “ignorant” and “stupid,” she actually shows some intelligence, but her status as a slave prevents her from ever thriving beyond the confines that others have forced upon her. For example, her first owner was only interested in deflowering her and sold her as soon as she gave birth to a child, which was later taken away. Her second owner, a spice merchant, made her “toil with a pick and hoe in the garden in the murderous heat” during the day while living under the threat of having her tongue cut out. Her third owner, whom she called her “benefactor,” showed her signs of tenderness that were undermined by a bad reputation.

After the benefactor’s death, she tried to run away but was captured along with other slaves who were eventually massacred. As she relives the moment she spoke to these slaves, she discusses the fear that has remained with her all this time.

I told them all I knew about my origins. Humbly I offered them the scanty history. My facts I patched together as they occurred to me, my memory of a journey with fear the starting point and fear the end point. I was well grounded in the knowledge of fear. I had felt him in my blood vessels, for he had come to live in me and I had begun to smell like him, and with his eyes I had seen forests and plains shift by poisonous and distorted; with his ears I had listened, and there was a growling, and even the stillness rumbled, and there was bitterness in my cheeks. Oh, fear is by no means whatsoever a connoisseur of events. He gobbles up everything. He crushes everything. He leaves no bloody trail behind because he stands still. Everything comes from him, feels drawn to him, and he knows it.

Later, she goes with the benefactor’s eldest son on an expedition to try to expand his late father’s business, an expedition she calls “fantastical” and “stupidly romantic.” On the journey, she keeps close to her final owner, a man known as “the stranger.” However, things start to go awry during the expedition: leaders fight among themselves, cattle disappear. Eventually, the narrator finds herself without the protection of the stranger.

Instead, the tree becomes her only protection; it not only provides her shelter from the elements, but also becomes her confidant. As she recounts the story of that fateful expedition, she wishes she could write, so she could “scratch [the tree’s] enormous belly from top to bottom.” “Thus I decorate you line after line with our hallucinations so that you can digest, outgrown, make smooth this ridiculousness, preserve the useless information in your thick skin till the day of your spontaneous combustion . . . You are full of my scars, baobab. I did not know I had so many.”

Thanks to Stockenström’s rich language (wonderfully translated by award-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee) and brilliant use of symbolism, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a heartbreaking story about what we stand to lose as humans, and about how what we stand to lose can never be returned. While the novel is not exactly a fable, Stockenström does incorporate elements from that genre in her story, not only by using animals for important aspects of the story, but also by eschewing names to show that, in the end, we are all part of the same human race. Finally, like the fables of the past, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree provides a moral: Regardless of our social status, the impact we cause on other humans lingers for a long time.

12 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Christopher Iacono on Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, out from New York Review Books.

Chris is a new addition to our reviewers, and is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane swept, mosquito ridden, nasty-minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing on my garden, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”

This is how Telumee “Miracle” Lougandor begins her story in the new edition of The Bridge of Beyond by Caribbean novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart. This introductory paragraph sums up her life: Despite the fact that fate has brought her life so much suffering from the time she was born, she finds happiness in it. In fact, Telumee is the last of a line of strong women who showed great strength during times of great adversity.

After being freed by an owner known for his cruelty, Telumee’s great grandmother, Minerva, works the land and raises her daughter with the help of another in a hamlet called L’Abandonee. Minerva’s daughter, Toussine, is not as lucky as her mother: Her house burns down, two of her children die, and her husband is murdered. Meanwhile, her third child, Victory, who is also Telumee’s mother, spends her time getting drunk and wandering the streets, unable to care for her two daughters. Despite the tragedies and the fact that she is isolated in a cabin in another village, she becomes venerated as “Queen Without a Name.”

Go here for the rest of the review.

12 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane swept, mosquito-ridden, nasty-minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing on my garden, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”

This is how Telumee “Miracle” Lougandor begins her story in the new edition of The Bridge of Beyond by Caribbean novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart. This introductory paragraph sums up her life: Despite the fact that fate has brought her life so much suffering from the time she was born, she finds happiness in it. In fact, Telumee is the last of a line of strong women who showed great strength during times of great adversity.

After being freed by an owner known for his cruelty, Telumee’s great grandmother, Minerva, works the land and raises her daughter with the help of another in a hamlet called L’Abandonee. Minerva’s daughter, Toussine, is not as lucky as her mother: Her house burns down, two of her children die, and her husband is murdered. Meanwhile, her third child, Victory, who is also Telumee’s mother, spends her time getting drunk and wandering the streets, unable to care for her two daughters. Despite the tragedies and the fact that she is isolated in a cabin in another village, she becomes venerated as “Queen Without a Name.”

After Victory finds “her god. . . . a great connoisseur of feminine flesh,” she sends Telumee to live with her grandmother. Toussine brings Telumee across “the bridge of beyond”—“a floating bridge over a strange river where huge locust trees grew along the banks, plunging everything into a blue semidarkness”—to her cabin. Despite the circumstances that brought the two together, they immediately bond with each other.

During their first years together, Toussine instills wisdom into her granddaughter through proverbs such as “life is not all meat soup” and “They’re only big whales left high and dry by the sea, and if the little fish listen to them, why, they’ll lose their fins.” She also tells stories such as “The Man Who Tried to Live on Air” to remind Telumee and her friend, Elie, about good and evil in the world. However, their relationship is not just filled with pithy expressions and mythical tales. As Telumee points out, “she was only waiting for me to pour forth the last floods of her tenderness, to revive the gleam in her worn-out eyes. There we were in the woods, supporting each other, tackling life as best we could and as we pleased.”

Toussine also introduces her to some colorful characters including the sorceress Ma Cia, who has been known to change into animals such as horses or birds. Of course, the folklore surrounding Ma Cia makes an impression on the young girl, and no one—not even the wise Toussine—tries to dispel any of the myths. During their visit to Ma Cia, though, Telumee learns about the island’s dark past. “For the first time, I realized that slavery was not some foreign country, some distant region from which a few very old people came . . . It had all happened here, in our hills and valleys, perhaps near this clump of bamboo, perhaps in the air I was breathing.”

In addition, it is around this time that Telumee learns that even though she is not a slave, she is not one of the fortunate ones, either. During a brief visit, Victory brags about her other child, Regina, who wears fancy dresses and can read and write. As if that isn’t bad enough, Telumee later becomes an employee of the Desaragnes, who are descendants of slave owners, in order to help her ailing grandmother. As their employee, Telumee not only has to put up with the insults of Madame Desaragnes, the lasciviousness Monsieur Desaragnes, and poor living conditions, but she is also not able to see her family and friends for long periods of time.

This is not to say that Telumee’s existence is completely miserable. There are moments of happiness, albeit brief. For example, she and Elie have the opportunity to go to school. She also escapes from the Desaragnes and later marries Elie, who becomes a logger and is a big dreamer like her. Later, she finds joy with Ely’s logging partner Amboise and the child Sonore.

Unfortunately, though, things do not turn out the way Telumee hoped. Those whom she thought she could depend on end up betraying her, and those who do not betray her die, leaving her alone. At one point, she even tries to unsuccessfully conjure a spell with Ma Cia’s help. Still, she remembers the lessons she learned from her upbringing with Toussine.

I see that heaven’s gift to us is that we should have our head thrust into, held down in, the murky water of scorn, cruelty, pettiness, and treachery. But I also see that we are not drowned in it. We have struggled to be born and we have struggled to be born again, and we have called the finest tree in our forests “resolute”—the strongest, the most sought after, the one that is cut down the most often.

Overall, The Bridge of Beyond, which was brilliantly translated by the late Barbara Bray in 1974, is a unique experience, a spiritual journey in a harsh place that employs the vibrant language of proverbs, legends, lore, and even songs. Even though there is no linear plot, the reader is compelled to stay with Telumee’s story until the very end because of the unbreakable bond with her ancestors from whom she learned about crossing the “bridge of beyond” over the “murky water of scorn.” Through this amazing journey, Schwarz-Bart conveys the message that these hardships are part of life, but they should not be enough to bring us down.

....
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