Carolyn Leiloglou’s debut work for middle grade readers incorporates art history and principles of painting into an engaging narrative. Beneath the Swirling Sky isn’t the first book in which characters travel through paintings or engage with art history. Also familiar are tropes of belonging to an endangered ancestral line, questing to save an abducted sibling, and hunting down art thieves.
Such perennial devices nevertheless retain their appeal. What adolescent wouldn’t want to discover inherited gifts that enable them to profoundly change the world? Possibly those chary enough to recognize the probable weight of accompanying responsibility. But who has time to worry about that?
My husband and I read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow together some twentyyears ago. In my memory we started it during a 2003 visit to Turkey, which coincided with a late February snowfall. Clearly this is the power of suggestion at work, as it recently came to my attention that the English translation was published in 2004.
Whatever our setting or the weather, I found the book’sethereal narrative almost as enigmatic as the facts of publication now reveal my memory of its reading to be. But a brief return to Istanbul last year renewed my interest in Pamuk’s works despite their, to me, elusive quality. An enchanting three-day sojourn in Istanbul left me wanting to read something that would reflect the ethos of our travels. A few days later I stumbled upon The Black Book in a Dushanbe bookstore, one of only a few titles available in English.
It proved to be even more perfect choice than I realized at the time. Billed as a mystery, I naively expected something along the lines of conventional detective fiction. Granted, the protagonist, Galip, is the loving husband of the missing person rather than a dispassionate investigator. But the farther I read the less I could make of Galip’s relentless criss-crossing of Istanbul in his search for his wife.
I don’t recall where or what I first heard about this book, but as the last in a long line of Mrs. Birds and the author of an epistolary work in progress, I had to investigate. Likewise elusive is the memory of any book that so utterly delighted me with its unadulterated charm, where goodnatured families, kindhearted friends, and generous stangers prevail. Unabashedly optimistic, Dear Mrs. Bird labors under no grim modernist necessity of adhering to stark realism.
Well, yes, there is a war going on in 1940 London, where Emmeline Lake is a volunteer in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Throughout the first half of the book, lulled into near complacency by Pearce’s lilting wordcraft, her mastery (as near as I can tell) of WWII-era British diction, and Emmy’s relentless good cheer, I felt an occasional twinge of guilt. Should I really be enjoying this so much? After all, people are losing lives and livelihoods right and left in the Luftwaffe’s nightly bombing raids. Are Emma, AJ, and I all in a state of denial?
Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus sat on my shelf for a number of years after a friend gave it to me. During that time I loaned it out at least once, my neglect being no testament to my valuation of it. On the contrary, I suspected it of being highly affecting on account of both craftsmanship and realistic representations of its fifteenth-century protagonist. But the travails of even a fictional saint seemed too much to traverse during a stretch of life that encompassed (sequentially, thank goodness, not all at once) a mother-in-law with dementia, a worldwide pandemic, and a husband with cancer, not to mention a daughter in middle school.
At length, however, advance notice of the impending publication of Vodolazkin’s A History of the Island prompted me to pick up Laurus. While the 2023 book is not a sequel to Laurus, I wanted to be familiar with the author’s earlier work before taking on the new one.
I discovered that while Laurus does engage weighty themes, the author’s wit and the protagonist’s (often implausibly) transcendent state of mind prevent the latter’s trials from overburdening those of us who trudge vicariously alongside him. The setting is our world, but it’s a half-mythic world, where signs and wonders are commonplace. Surreal elements extract the action from the realm of the literal into a space where I, at least, could observe and reflect from a certain remove.
I ended up reading A History for our mother-daughter book when we were assigned to select a book with an unusual narrative style. A History qualifies on many levels. It reads like the history book it purports to be, but the narrative is interspersed with commentary by the centuries-old monarchs of said island.
Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue enthralled me when, early in 2021, I happened upon his meandering boyhood memoir of faith and family history. (Click here for that review.) Personal connections with the Persian speaking world heightened my interest in his account of his mother’s conversion to Christianity and their subsequent flight to the West. But more than regional interest engaged me.
Nayeri’s prose disclosed hope and humor in the grimmest of circumstances. My husband had just been diagnosed with cancer, and the pandemic was still in full force. Upon reading the final page of Everything Sad—the same day I started it—I went searching for more of Nayer’s work.
But aside from a few early reader chapter books, I found only the 2011 edition of Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow. Alas for me, I dismissed the collection of four novellas as unpromising, based on the spurious statistic of Amazon reviews (a mere twenty-five). But when Candlewick re-released the title in 2022 I decided it might merit further investigation. It did—and does.
I have thought at times it would be appropriate to, à la Augustine, retitle this blog “Confessions.” I often feel constrained to commence a post with a disclosure of some sort: my failure to fully appreciate a work’s literary merits, failure to understand it, failure to–shameful truth–read to the end before drafting a review.
In the present case my confession is this: I was unprepared to learn so much from Prior’s engaging, accessible volume. That holes exist in my literary knowledge I am well aware. But to have encountered, despite my MA in literature, such a wealth of information and ideas both surprised and delighted me.
Granted, Prior is a professor of graduate studies at Southern Baptist Seminary. I studied at a public university where the Frankfurt School and deconstructionism, rather than the classical virtues, were central to our course of study. But while Prior’s work reflects a Judeo-Christian worldview, her discussion constitutes a rich survey of Western thought, extending from Aristotle to post-modernism.
I borrowed Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo from the library last spring (2022), after a neighbor introduced me to Saunders’s Story Club for writers. I was intrigued by Lincoln’s multiple narrators, speaking in first person, passing off the story from one to another at irregular intervals, sometimes even interrupting one another or finishing each another’s sentences. But at the time the death of a child—Lincoln’s, to be precise—was a subject matter too oppressive to shoulder, and I returned the book after a close skimming of its contents.
But I was sufficiently impressed by Saunders’s innovation and the spiritual vein I thought I detected to queue up for the library’s audio version of Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I finally reached the front in July; thus my association between Saunders’s selected Russian short stories, along with his commentary, and staining our back deck in the mild warmth of a Pacific NW summer.
A Swim in a Pond reprints seven short stories by Chekhov, Golgol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The discussion that follows each highlights essential strengths—or weaknesses—of the nineteenth-century works in question.
As a teen I read and re-read the Anne of Green Gables series, puzzled over the brooding Emily of New Moon trilogy, and rejoiced upon discovering Along the Shore and Chronicles of Avonlea–more L.M. Montgomery to be read. When Wonderworks released the definitive three-hour Anne movies in the 1980s, my high school friends and I reveled in Anne teas and Anne sleepovers, swooning over Gilbert and worshiping at the feet of Meghan Follows.
How, in all this Avonlea infatuation, I never stumbled across The Blue Castle is a mystery as deep as Barry’s pond–admittedly shallow, as bodies of water go. Likely my fixation limited my vision to works concerning she of Green Gables. But in the end I came to Montgomery’s 1926 novel (published five years after the last–known–Anne installment) at just the right time. My fifty-first January proved an ideal season for The Blue Castle’s mix of melancholy, mystery, unexpected romance, and reverence for nature in all its seasons.
At twenty-nine, Valancy Stirling still lives with her mother and the aptly named Cousin Stickles. Valancy holds to the unshakable belief that, not only is she unloved by any of her tribe of dour relations (mother included), she has never truly lived.
Two days after Christmas found me in a decided post-holiday slump. Inclement weather had foiled our holiday travel plans (along with those of half of North America), and we were home alone with a stretch of gray, unplanned days before us. Independent sources had recently recommended The Mirror Visitor Quartet to both my daughter and me. Since A Winter’s Promise offered the–well, promising–prospect of light, atmospheric, wintry fantasy, I ventured in.
The opening pages checked all a book-lover’s boxes: A young woman emerges from a wardrobe (well, a mirror in a wardrobe) into an archive housed in a bad-tempered old building. For added enchantment, the heroine, Ophelia, is a museum curator and wears a scarf possessed of its own animating spirit.
Having heard Anne Tyler’s name for years, reading a selection from her prolific and successful oeuvre seemed overdue. Vinegar Girl, it turns out, was an excellent, not to mention entertaining, place to start.
Despite my research prior to choosing a title, it somehow escaped my notice–or I forgot–that Vinegar Girl is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The choice seemed serendipitous, given my reading earlier this year of a modern rewrite of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (read the review of Jane of Austin here).