Blog of the Year 2012

Blog of the Year Award banner 600

Things are a bit hectic in my life these days or I would have thanked the lovely Neer from A Hot Cup of Pleasure earlier for this award.

Thank you Neer, it’s very kind of you and much appreciated.

As is the custom with awards, we pass them on. I’ve decided to choose three blogs that I have discovered in 2012 and which I enjoy a lot.

Here are the rules for the Award

1 Select the blog(s) you think deserve the ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award
2 Write a blog post and tell us about the blog(s) you have chosen – there’s no minimum or maximum number of blogs required – and ‘present’ them with their award.
3 Please include a link back to this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award atThe Thought Palette. and include these ‘rules’ in your post (please don’t alter the rules or the badges!)
4 Let the blog(s) you have chosen know that you have given them this award and share the ‘rules’ with them
5 You can now also join the Facebook group – click ‘like’ on this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award Facebook group and then you can share your blog with an even wider audience
6 As a winner of the award – please add a link back to the blog that presented you with the award – and then proudly display the award on your blog and sidebar … and start collecting stars…

As said before, I chose to pass on this award to three blogs that I have discovered in 2012 and which are all three well worth visiting.

Babbling Books – Brian is one of the rare bloggers who reviews much more non-fiction than fiction and his reviews are always very engaging and thought-provoking. He loves philosophy and whether it’s a novel or a non-fiction book, he’ll always take a closer look at the philosophical ideas in a work.

creativeshadows – I’ve come to appreciate Victoria’s blog for her essays and in-depth analysis of books, short stories, various topics and themes. All of her posts are wonderfully well written and engaging.

The Literary Bunny – I enjoy Christina’s blog a lot. For one it’s very lively and her choice of the books she reads and reviews is quite varied. She will also write about interesting facts or bookish news. A nice eclectic mix.

Kevin Powers: The Yellow Birds (2012) Literature and War Readalong January 2013

Kevin Power’s book The Yellow Birds is oddly lyrical and beautiful. Why oddly? Because it is a book about war, about killing people, about young recruits facing their own and their country’s demons, about torture and killing of innocent people, old men, women and children, animals, a book about a young man losing his best friend, about guilt, mistakes and trauma but still it is lyrical and beautiful and that is odd.

The Yellow Birds is a first person narrative. Private Bartle tells his story in chapters alternating between 2004, Al Tafar, Iraq and 2005, Richmond, Virginia, interrupted by the one or the other chapter set in other places in 2003, 2005 and 2009.

The 21 year-old Bartle joins up in 2003. He meets Murph who is only 18 then. They are trained and led by the hardened tough-guy Sgt Sterling. In 2004 they are shipped to Al Tafar, Iraq. The two young men, become attached to each other from the beginning, and once they are in Iraq, that friendship intensifies.

At the beginning of the story, the young Privates are detached. They kill because they have to kill. They are constantly under attack but that’s how it is. The heat bothers them more than the killing as such. However, the longer they stay, the more the war gets to them and finally a tragedy happens.

We know from the beginning that Murph dies but we don’t know how, we only know the circumstances must have been terrible and that Bartle feels guilty. The truth is unveiled slowly.

There is a lot I liked in this novel and a lot I didn’t. The descriptions are wonderful; we are there and see the landscape, we feel what it must have been like to fight in this terrain, the dry orchards, the city, a place swarming with soldiers and civilians, being attacked constantly without ever knowing where the enemy will come from. The horror of killing civilians and animals. I thought Powers captured this very well.

There are lyrical scenes like this

I try so hard now to remember if I saw hint of what was coming, if there was some shadow over him, some way I could have known he was so close to being killed. In  my memory of those days on the rooftop, he is half a ghost. But I didn’t see it then, and couldn’t. No one can see that, I guess I’m glad I didn’t k now, because we were happy that morning in Al Tafar, in September. Our relief was coming. The day was full of light and warm. We slept. (p. 24/25)

I had a problem with the fact that the book was much more about a friendship than about the war as such. Bartle returns traumatized. It could appear that what is traumatizing about a war is that you lose your best friends. That’s a crude simplification. It certainly makes matters worse but it’s not the only reason for PTSD.

I’ve read a lot of articles about the high suicide rates among US troops and veterans of this war, much higher, it seems, than in any other war. I would have wished that this was addressed. I would also have liked that we learned more about the war in Iraq. Surely it’s not only the terrain that makes this war different from others.

Despite my reservations, this is a beautiful book, with a surprisingly gentle atmosphere, pervaded by a floating mood. There are graphic scenes and they are hard to stomach. Each country has a predilection for certain types of torture and unfortunately we get a descriptive sample of what that is in this region.

All in all I would say, this novel is far more a moving, even heart-breaking story of a friendship under exceptional circumstances – namely during a war – than a novel about the war in Iraq. If you come to the book with these expectations, you will find a well crafted novel with many beautiful scenes and a powerful story about loss.

Other reviews

A Fiction Habit

Danielle – A Work in Progress


Judith – Reader in the Wilderness

Uncertain Somewhere

Savvy Verse and Wit

TBM (50 Year Project)

Tony’s Book World


The Yellow Birds was the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is The Flowers of War aka Jingling Shisan Chai by Chinsese writer Geling Yan. Discussion starts on Thursday 28 February, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Sudden Fiction International – 60 Short Short Stories


I have always liked short stories but even more than that I like very short stories, tales that are barely one to five pages long. The success of their first edition of Sudden Fiction led the editors to the idea to do the same for international fiction that they had previously done for American Fiction. The collection Sudden Fiction International presents 60 very short stories from authors from all over the world. I’ve started to read the collection over the last few weeks and I’m amazed. It’s a fantastic collection. Not only is each and every story wonderful, it also introduces the reader to authors from many different countries. The result is rich, varied and vibrant. Reading and discovering these tales feels like it would have felt to be offered a huge collection of marbles as a child. Each of them is round and perfect but they all have another pattern, another colour, a different transparency.

In addition to the stories there is some background information on the authors provided at the end of the book. Most of the times the information is given by the respective translators.

I know that many people are reluctant to pick up short stories. They don’t know how to read them, feel they cannot immerse themselves as much as they want. I believe that the very short story could be helpful because it can be read and re-read in one sitting without too much effort.

I have read quite a few of the stories already and with the exception of Cortázar’s story, I liked them all. The two which did stand out the most so far were Buzzati’s The Falling Girl and Kawabata’s The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket. The first is the story of a young girl which jumps from a skyscraper but falls very slowly and has enough time to talk to the people she passes by. It’s a sociological look at contemporary Italy. Kawabata’s story is a thing of rare beauty. A man sees children at night, each of them carrying a lantern in another colour. The children are looking for insects and one of them finds a grasshopper. The story offers a nostalgic look at childhood and the way time passes so quickly and dreams die too soon.

For those interested I noted a few of the authors, stories and countries they represent. Although this is the second tome, there are still quite a lot of American stories in this one and many from other English-speaking countries too.

Dino Buzzati – The Falling Girl – Italy

Yasunary Kawabata – The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket – Japan

Colette – The Other Wife – France

Rodrigo Rey Rosa – The Book – Guatemala

Bessie Head – Looking for the Rain God – Botswana

Jamaica Kincaid – Girl– Antigua

Joyce Carol Oates – The Boy – US

Sergei Dovlatov – Katya – Russia

Feng Jica – The Street Sweeping Show – China

Amanda Eyre Ward: How to be Lost (2005)

How to be Lost

How do you cope when someone gets lost?  How much time must go by until you allow yourself to move on? Does your life come to a standstill after the loss? How many possibilities are there in one life? These are some of the questions Amanda Eyre Ward explores masterfully in her lovely first novel How to be Lost.

The Winters are a dysfunctional family, rich and apparently happy, but there are some dark secrets hidden beneath the surface. The parents are heavy drinkers and their three daughters are often scared by their fights and excesses. One day the youngest, Ellie, disappears and the family breaks apart.

The novel starts fifteen years later with the oldest daughter Caroline working as a cocktail waitress in New Orleans. She’s left suburban New York shortly after the disappearance of her baby sister. Like her parents, she is a heavy drinker. She is not unhappy, her life isn’t what it could have been, she’s all but forgotten about her talent as a pianist, but this provisional life of drifting and temporary jobs suits her.

When her mother sees a picture in a newspaper, showing a young woman who looks exactly like the lost sister, all their lives are set in motion. Caroline will go on a trip and look for the young woman. The outcome of her search will free them one way or the other. Maybe it is Ellie and they finally find out what has happened or if it isn’t, they will be able to declare her dead.

What I liked a lot about Eyre Ward’s novel was how it manged to tell a riveting story in a suspenseful way but still captured the interior lives of the characters and did unfold the back story in a captivating way. It’s a book that asks a lot of questions and answers many of them.

One of the most interesting ideas is the theory of the split lives which is presented towards the end. The idea is that every time you make a decision, your life splits and someone else, somewhere, lives the life that you could have had.

The exploration of how many different lives we could have lived if at one given time something particular hadn’t happened or if, at another time, we would have made a different decision, fascinates me. Looking back at my own life so far, I see such a lot of “split moments”, moments where I could have done something different and would now be living a completely different life. Capturing this premise masterfully, is one of the strength’s of this novel.

Often when I read about a dysfunctional family I feel it is done in a much too biased way. With her gentle tone and the transformative ending, Ward creates a much more nuanced portrayal. There can still be a lot of love and deep and even healthy feelings underneath the dysfunction. And there is hope and the possibility of a new life for many children coming from families which seemed rotten inside.

How to be Lost is one of those novels I liked a lot while I was reading it but, unlike many others, after putting it away, it still haunts me.

James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier: My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974)

My Brother Sam is Dead is a historical children’s book set during the American Revolutionary War. I didn’t really want to read a children’s book but it seems there are a great deal of novels for children and young adults on this period and hardly any literary fiction at all (Please, correct me if I’m wrong). I thought I had found a few literary novels but every time I looked at a book more closely it turned out to be a novel on the Civil War.

The Colliers are brothers and have written quite a lot of books for children together. While Christopher does the research and writes down the structure of the books, James writes the novels.

It’s a well written book but very clearly for children and meant to teach history. It’s quite educational and very anti-war, something which, oddly enough, has been criticized. American patriots, to this day, seem to think that it’s ok to go to war as long as the goal is freedom. Freedom is certainly worth fighting for but, as the Colliers exemplify, it will always be better to see if there are no other options.

In order to show the different positions, they created a conflict inside of one family. The Meekers own a tavern in Redding, a Tory town. The older son, Sam, is about 16 and in college, the younger, Tim, is only 10 at the beginning of the novel. When the novel opens, Sam and his father get into a fight because Sam joins the Patriot troops and wants to fight the “lobsterbacks” – the English. Sam’s father is against this. He doesn’t see why they should fight the King and his troops. Young Timmy is somewhere in-between. He admires his brother but he also loves his father and respects his opinion.

The main reason for the outbreak of the war, as presented in the novel, is that the colonials feel it is unjust that they have to pay such high taxes to England. They want this to stop and become free.

After his dispute with his father, Sam runs away and joins the troops. The novel then focusses on the remaining Meekers and shows how difficult it was for families to survive and to stay out of the conflict. The war soon invades everything. They were attacked by Patriots, British troops got all their food. Staying neutral was suspicious.

I don’t want to tell too much of the story as it’s a short book and there are a few tragic events which shouldn’t be revealed here. Obviously the title contains a spoiler but it will still be surprising to find out how Sam died.

I liked reading this, it’s quite atmospherical and think captures well what it must have been like for families to live during that time. The Collier’s position, which becomes clear when you read the book and which is shown in some quite ironic moments, is that they are not sure whether the war was really needed. They seem to think that there might have been other solutions for the colony to become independent.

The book contains background information on the story and the characters, some events and people were real, some were not. It also contains an interview with one of the brothers. All this together makes this an interesting book, not a literary gem but nicely executed and informative. In some ways you could even call it a cautionary tale.

I’d like to end the review with a  quote taken from the interview with Charles Collier.

I want a reader to understand the complicatedness of the Revolutionary War. Maybe there was as much bad as good that came of it, especially if one considers the Meekers. I think any book that deals honestly with war will be antiwar, because any book that glorifies war isn’t telling the truth.

The review is a contribution to Anna’s and Serena’s American Revolution Reading Challenge. Please visit their site for other reviews or if you’d like to join  as well.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – Los ingrávidos (2011)

Faces in the Crowd

I discovered Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd – Los ingrávidos on Stu’s best of list last year. Somehow I had missed his review (here). The book sounded really interesting and since I was in the mood for some unconventional writing, this was just the book to match the mood. Valeria Luiselli is a Mexican writer and has published essays and short pieces. Faces in the Crowd is her first novel.

The narrator of  Faces in the Crowd is a young married woman.  She lives with her husband and two kids in Mexico City and leads a life which is far from fulfilling. She decides to write a novel about her time in New York where she worked for an editor and met a lot of colorful people. Writing the novel isn’t easy. Her life isn’t her life, her children claim a large part. Her writing isn’t her writing, as her husband reads it and gets jealous.

The book has an interesting structure. It consist of small and very small paragraphs and episodes, some are up to two pages long, many not much longer than a sentence or two. In the beginning the narrative jumps from the present to the past but in the middle of the novel the narrative voices start to multiply.

Leave a life. Blow everything up. No, not everything: blow up the square meter you occupy among people. Or better still: leave empty chairs at the table you once shared with your friends, not metaphorically, but really, leave a chair, become a gap for your friends, allow the circle of silence around you to swell and fill with speculation. What few people understand is that you leave one life to start another.

The narrator is very interested in the poems of Gilberto Owen, an Mexican poet who lived in New York. His voice will be one of the most important ones towards the end of the book and we are led to believe that it’s not the young woman anymore who writes about a writer but the writer who writes about the young woman.

This may sound quite confusing but it’s not, it is always clear whether we are in New York or Mexico City and who is telling the story. It’s a unusual book and I was reminded of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives more than once. Faces in the Crowd may very well be a novel but it has a lot of non-fiction elements. Many poets and writers like Ezra Pound, Gilberto Owen, Federico García Lorca, Nella Larsen are present. Many of the sequences circle around topics like reality and imagination, the boundaries between the two, illusions and inventions. Many symbols and stories echo and multiply throughout the novel. Early on there is the story of Ezra Pound who believes he has seen the face of  a dead friend who had been killed in the trenches on the subway. This is a recurring element. The young woman believes she has seen Gilberto Owen’s face on the subway, although he is long-dead and later, when he tells the story, he believes to see hers. The book is populated by real and imaginary people and their ghosts.

I’m glad I’ve read Faces in the Crowd, it’s very different. It’s a book to read again, slowly. Some of the paragraphs and sequences even work on their own and they are all very different in tone and style.  Some contain small stories, some are thoughts, philosophical reflections, meditations, some are like small poems. There is a reason for this structure as the narrator tells us in the beginning:

Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything i write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

The only reservation I had,  was the woman’s voice and the lack of atmosphere. I thought she was a very cold and distant character and not likable at all, especially in the parts set in the present. It’s as if she is dead inside. A ghost. Which she probably is.

The narrator of the novel should be like an Emily Dickinson. A woman who remains eternally locked up in her house, or in a subway carriage, it makes no difference which, talking with her ghosts and trying to piece together a series of broken thoughts.

If you like unusual books or are a fan of Bolaño’s writing, you should give it a try. It’s rare that I pick up a book after having finished it and re-read passages, and find they have even more meaning read out of context.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (2012)

I saw Chris Pavone’s The Expats at the local book shop and the blurb sounded interesting. It said the novel was about a young married American woman, Kate, mother of two, who followed her husband to Luxembourg and reinvented her life as an expat mom. They meet another expat couple, become friends and some weeks into the friendship Kate starts to doubt that Julia and Bill are really who they say they are. As a matter of fact none of the people in this novel are who they say they are.

I’m not a fan of spy novels and if I had realized that’s what this was supposed to be, I wouldn’t have bought it but the blurb was misleading. It sounded much more like the story of a woman who reinvents herself, gives her life new meaning, which is a topic I love. Despite the fact that it’s a genre I’m not fond of and a very long novel, I was still willing to give it a try and finished it rather quickly. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean I liked it.

I wrote above that this was supposed to be a spy novel but I’m not sure it really is. It’s the story of a woman who had a secret she didn’t even tell her husband and that secret was, that she used to work for the CIA. Later, when she finds out that all the people around her have secrets, she tries to uncover them but that’s not really spying, is it? It’s rather a crime novel without murder, a thriller without danger. Still it’s quite suspenseful as there are many twists and turns or rather manipulative cutting and withholding of information. If you don’t mind that, you will find it gripping. Unfortunately I hate it when the twists and turns in a novel are not achieved in a natural way but simply through the cutting up of the story. Every time some question arose, some mystery was hinted at and about to be resolved, the author jumped back or forth in time. Annoying.

Another thing that I found hard to take is that Kate’s husband is called Dexter. How can you write a genre novel and call your main protagonist Dexter? Maybe Dexter isn’t as iconic as Ripley but he is not far from it.

Some other thing that bugged me – big time – were the cobblestones. Pavone spent some time as an expat in Luxembourg and clearly he wanted to share his insider information of Europe. Or rather what an American expat would call his insider information. I suppose one of the things that must have really made an impression on Pavone were the cobblestones. Sure, there are cobblestone roads in European cities but not everywhere. And why all his protagonists had to stand, walk, drive on cobblestones and not on roads, streets, alleys… I have no clue. I live in a very old European city, one with a big medieval old-town center and I can guarantee you, there aren’t all that many cobblestone roads and certainly not in the newer parts of the town or the roads on which cars drive.

I also really didn’t care for the country clichés. So Switzerland is just a rich ski resort? Everybody eats ham sandwiches in Luxembourg all the time? Paris… yeah well, Paris has sordid clubs and food, food, food. Amsterdam has prostitutes in windows (who knew?).

Still, as I said, I finished this quickly, as the first secret which concerns the identity of Julia and Bill is interesting. After that the novel was quite predictable. Maybe a forgiving reader might like it but I thought the construction was annoying and the whole novel was full of trite clichés and one-dimensional characters. Last but not least who wants to read a book in which people with an annual salary of 300.000$ have a hard time to make ends meet?