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Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce

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?

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A History of the Island, by Eugene Vodolazkin

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.

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A Wealth of Wit in a Straw House

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.

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The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery

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.

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Library Heroes

For millennia the written word has held special significance among those whose faith is centered on holy writ. Some ancient Jewish and Islamic traditions imposed safeguards to prevent the desecration of any piece of writing—sacred or secular—that might bear God’s name.

Christian history is marked by missionaries and others who made literacy and education a priority, on the premise that everyone should have personal access to the written Word of God. Among these, Martin Luther, William Carey, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar names. A less familiar example is the Kyrias family of Albania, active supporters of language development, publishing, and education, particularly among girls.

In contemporary America it can be hard to fathom a culture where the written word is not readily accessible. We read to our children from the day they are born, fill shelves with assorted Bible editions, and ship off excess volumes to thrift stores and little free libraries. The handful of picture books below give elementary-aged children a glimpse of the lengths to which people have gone—and still go—to preserve, procure, and distribute the wealth that is literacy.

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The Silk Road for Young Folks

In slightly belated recognition of translation month (September) and UN Translation Day (Sept. 30), the article linked below appeared on the Story Warren website on September 28, 2022. It features reviews of translated and adapted works for young readers centered around Central Asia and the Silk Road.

Exploring The Silk Road, With Kids (storywarren.com)

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Forty Women and Me: Musings on Loss and The Wonder Years, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields  

In this season in which I and my home are being inundated with belongings, it is loss that I feel most keenly: the house that was my husband’s childhood home and mother-in-law’s abode for 55+ years; family history in the form of heirlooms, papers, books, and embroidered linens; and the woman who has been slowly slipping away from us for the past three years.

Me

In the shuffle of moving, bringing home, and sending away, countless things have been lost, overlooked, or misplaced. Keys, library books, homework, Benjamins, memories (literally), sick chickens, broken mirrors, spilled milk, burnt rice, “the Alaska Letters,” and the book Leslie Leyland Fields gave me to review just before this whirlwind of relocation descended upon us. Continue reading

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Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, by Ella R. Christie

Ella Christie, identified on the title page of her books as a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, traveled in Central Asia in 1910-11. The most attractive aspect of her book, for me, were her notes on daily life, such as a rather gruesome description of an outdoor barber extracting a long parasitic worm from a patient’s leg. Christie identifies the parasite as “guinea worm” or “filaria” (p. 128). Other sources corroborate her account of this reportedly common affliction, as well as the treatment.  

Christie’s visit to present-day Istaravshan, formerly Uro Teppa (Christie calls it “Ura Tiubbe” and comments on the wild variations in spelling) caught my attention because of my translation work on the memoirs of Tajik folklorist Rajab Amonov (see that review here: ). We had the opportunity to spend two nights there in 2010, but I have run across few accounts from 19th-century travelers to that city. Christie describes the town’s situation on a mountain slope, the ruins of the fort, and the winding streets of the bazaars. I was intrigued by her report of encountering an “agent” for Singer sewing machines in this rather off-the-beaten-path location (pp. 197-199).

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Ole Olufsen Part II, Exploring Central Asia, by Esther Fihl

A valuable companion to Olufsen’s personal works is the two-volume Exploring Central Asia, by Esther Fihl (University of Washington, 2010). Partially a commentary on Olufsen’s travels, the work is largely a photographic tour of the museum artifacts Olufsen brought back to Denmark (see Olaf Olufsen Part I for more about the mission). A text box on page 140 (Vol. 1) contains an interesting account from his previously unpublished writings of how he acquired artifacts from the bazaar in Bukhara with the help of one of the emir’s men.

Exploring Central Asia contains numerous vibrant color photos of household items, clothes, shoes, ornaments, jewelry, accessories, tools, and so forth, from various regions. The captions for many of these include excerpts from Olufsen’s writings, both published and unpublished, describing their use or manner of acquisition. Fihl reports that Olufsen was instructed not to return with worn or cast off items ( p. 138). Accordingly, many of the artifacts are gorgeously decorated and in excellent condition, especially considering they are more than one hundred years old (of course, they have spent their entire lives in a museum). Thus, they may not be representative of articles of everyday use, but they at least give one an idea of some of the handicrafts in circulation at the time. Continue reading

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Ole Olufsen Part I, The Emir of Bokhara and His Country

The title page of Ole Olufsen’s book identifies him as Professor and Secretary to the Royal Danish Geographical Society. He commanded Danish expeditions to Central Asia in 1896-97 and 1898-99. His personal account of these travels, The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, is one of the more readable and detailed volumes of its kind that I have perused. (See previous posts on 19th- and early 20th-century Central Asia travelogues.)

While exhibiting the Eurocentric biases exhibited by virtually all Western travelers of his time (OK–let’s be honest–we’re all a bit biased, even in these enlightened times!), Olufsen displays extensive knowledge of the area and gives evidence of having read all the relevant literature available in his day, dating back to ancient times. He possesses an impressive command of the topography and appears to have traversed much of it, though I’m not able to weigh in on his geographical accuracy. The edition of The Emir of Bokhara that I perused (William Heinemann, 1911) claimed to include a map, but I never located one (see part II of this post for more on that). Continue reading

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