If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson – A New York Setting – A Post A Day in May

I’ve had Jacqueline Woodson’s novel(la) If You Come Softly (published in 1998) on my piles for almost ten years. When I discovered her name on this year’s Women’s Prize For Fiction Longlist, I decided it was finally time to read it. I was a bit surprised to find her on that list, as I thought she only wrote books for Young Adults and I don’t seem to remember having seen any YA titles on the past lists. I suppose, one could also call Red at Bone a YA novel, as the protagonist is a young woman.

I know, a lot of people shy away from reading YA literature but that’s a real shame as one can find some of the most original writing under that label.

The epigraph to If You Come Softly and the title are taken from a poem by Audre Lorde

If you come as softly

as the wind within the trees

You may hear what I hear

See what sorrow sees

I couldn’t think of a better epigraph to set the tone and capture the mood of this beautiful, mournful book.

If You Come Softly tells the love story of Jeremiah and Ellie. They fall in love at first sight on their first day in their new private school. Ellie lives with her parents in a huge flat overlooking Central Park. Jeremiah is from Brooklyn. He too, is from a rich family. His dad is a famous film director, but nobody at his new school knows that. Nobody even thinks that Jeremiah’s family has money, they think he attends the expensive school because of a scholarship. Why would they think that, you may wonder? Because Jeremiah is black, and this school is mostly white. And so is Ellie who is white and Jewish.

These two young people couldn’t care less about the colour of their skin and, while they think it might be difficult to be together, they do not expect it to be this difficult.

This is a very short book and I’m still surprised it manages to be so deep. Love at first sight stories often don’t work but this one does. Woodson conveys the feelings so well. There’s something magical about Jeremiah’s and Ellie’s love. And it’s exactly that soft, mellow magic that stands in such stark contrast with the world these two live in.

Towards the end, when Jeremiah is on his way to visit Ellie, there’s a very short passage that punched me in the gut.

He hated lying to his father. Yes, he did go to Central Park, but it was to hang out with Ellie- to sit and talk with her for hours and hours.

“You be careful over there. No running.”

Ever since he was a little boy, his father had always warned him about running in white neighbourhoods. Once, when he was about ten, he had torn away from his father and taken off down Madison Avenue. When his father caught up to him, he grabbed Miah’s shoulder, Don’t you ever run in a white neighbourhood, he’d whispered fiercely, tears in his eyes. Then he had pulled Miah toward him. Ever.

I think this passage hit me so hard, because as a reader one instinctively understands, on a very visceral level, what it means: One senses how scary it must be to be a black person in a world where even running can be dangerous.

As I said before, this is a short book but it’s powerful and tightly written. You won’t find a superfluous word or passage. Only key scenes that manage to move and touch.

I can see why Jacqueline Woodson won so many awards. I’m pretty sure, I’ll read more of her. She might even become a favourite writer.

A word about the cover – Since I bought my book ten years ago, the cover I added, is the old cover. Sadly, they have changed it meanwhile. This one worked so well on so many levels.

Philip Roth: Nemesis (2010)


There have been a few reviews of Philip Roth books recently (on Babbling Books here and here and on Book Around the Corner here) and because I commented on the one or the other posts saying that I didn’t like him, Leroy suggested I read Nemesis. The premise of the book sounded very interesting and so I finally read it. While I cannot say I’m a convert, I can still say that this is a very fine book and one that’s topical, well written and thought-provoking too.

The first thing I noticed, was that you can feel that this is an assured writer. You can feel it for many reasons. The most important one was that the writing seemed so effortless. It’s free of artificiality, flows nicely, contains many well captured scenes and the way it is told is quite wonderful. The book is told by a first person narrator, who appears only very briefly and then disappears and blends into the background of the story he tells. It isn’t his story and we will have to wait almost until the end of the book to find out who tells it and why. This is artful, and that’s why Nemesis is a great example that it’s worth to finish books because some really need all the pages to become a whole and to fully reveal their meaning.

It’s the summer of 1944. A scorching summer in Newark, New Jersey. Bucky Cantor is a young man, a physical education teacher who just graduated and starts his first job as a playground supervisor in the Jewish neighbourhood of Newark. It’s a summer job to which he has been looking forward to and which he executes with a lot of energy, enthusiasm and passion. Bucky is a small but strong and muscular man and if he wasn’t so terribly short-sighted he would be off fighting against the Germans like his best buddies Jake and Dave.

Bucky lives with his grandmother. His mother died in childbirth, his father, a thief, disappeared and the beloved grandfather has just passed away. But Bucky is by no means lonely as he has a fiancé, Marcia,  who comes from a rich Jewish family who accepts him and loves him just as much as Marcia herself does. Things look promising for Bucky if it wasn’t for a nasty, evil God, as Bucky sees it,  who decides to send the plague, in form of a polio epidemic, on Newark and the Jewish neighbourhood in which Bucky lives and works.This is 11 years before the vaccine is invented and Polio is a devastating disease. It’s not entirely clear how you contract it and while some forms are mild, most are not only crippling but can lead to death.

Roth does a great job at describing the panic, sadness, shock and horror that follow the outbreak of this epidemic. It has an absolutely devastating effect on the community of Newark and underlying racial and social tensions break out with a horrifying force.

While Nemesis tells the story of a disaster which strikes a whole community it also tells one man’s story and how he copes with disaster.

What I found amazing is the way Roth showed that in the end it’s far less important what befalls us but what really counts is how we deal with it. I can’t reveal too much or the book would be spoilt, let’s just say, that when guilt and blame come into the equation a bad situation can turn into a nightmare.

Disaster and how we cope with it isn’t the only theme in the novel. There are others like loss, regret and guilt which are all equally well illustrated.

Nemesis is a book which takes a while to develop its full aroma. I could imagine that the one or the other reader would find it a bit slow at first but it’s worth reading until  the end. While I’m still no Philip Roth enthusiast, I really liked this book and think I might pick up another of his novels some day.

Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain (1997) Literature and War Readalong December 2011

The last book of this year’s readalong, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain,  is the only book on the American Civil War.

Cold Mountain juxtaposes the stories of Inman, a Confederate soldier, who was badly wounded at Petersburg, and Ada, the woman he loves, who waits for him in Cold Mountain. It describes Inman’s slow and long return to Cold Mountain and how Ada copes on her own after her father has died.

I have only just finished this book and I am still a bit stunned. This is an extraordinarily well-crafted novel. The structure is interesting from the beginning on. The chapters alternate between Inman’s and Ada’s point of view and are symmetrical. Motifs and themes that are described in one chapter will be echoed in the next. This is fascinating. At the beginning, for example, we see Inman at a hospital. He was badly wounded and most of the time he is lying in bed and watching the world through a window. The window is like the frame of a picture.

That summer, Inman had viewed the world as if it were a picture framed by the molding around the window. Long stretches of time often passed when, for all the change in the scene, it might as well have been an old painting of a road, a wall, a tree, a cart, a blind man.

In the next chapter we see how Ada struggles. Her father has died and left her nothing but a farm. The farmhands have all gone, either to war or they are hiding. Ada has lived almost all of her life in Charleston and has only lived in Cold Mountain for a few years, because her father was ill, and the mountain air was thought to be beneficial. She can sew, paint, play the piano and loves to read but never in all of her life has she worked with her hands. She doesn’t know how to keep the farm going, how to produce anything. She spends long stretches of time sitting in a chair, reading and staring through a window that starts to look like a frame, the sky outside like a painting.

There is nothing that Inman experiences, that Ada’s story doesn’t echo and vice versa. They both struggle to survive, they both find unlikely friends. I liked this structure a lot but there is more to this novel. It’s exceptionally well written. Words are chosen carefully, the prose is crystal-clear and manages to paint a picture of a breathtaking landscape that we see change with the seasons.

Maybe Ada would have starved or contracted an illness and died if Ruby hadn’t turned up at her farm. From that moment on her life is changed forever. Ruby has never read a book but she is so resourceful and attentive to every little detail of nature, one almost expects her to spin straw into gold. There is nothing she cannot use, mend, transform. And she knows how to teach Ada to become as capable as she is. All Ada knew so far was a life of leisure and that life now turns into work. It’s interesting to see how useless money has become during the war and how valuable it is to be able to produce your own food.

After a while, when plants grow and they have produced all sorts of things, the women are not only independent but almost completely self-sustaining. And they have become very close friends. They sit on the porch at night and Ada reads to Ruby. They talk and sit like an old couple. Content. At least Ruby is, Ada still longs for Inman.

After a while I started to dread his return. Their life seemed so peaceful, I couldn’t imagine how Inman would fit in. What would happen, would Ada send Ruby away, would they live together?

All this time Inman is walking and hiding. He is constantly in danger, he is a deserter after all and the country seems to have become lawless. Anyone can shoot you at any time. That’s what happens to him anyway. He is taken prisoner, shot and left for dead. He finds refuge with an old woman, who, like Ada and Ruby, lives completely on her own, with a little herd of goats.

This is a very powerful episode. The war is constantly present throughout the book. Inman remembers the battles, the dead men, the wounded. The butchery. But nowhere is this as much in the foreground as when he speaks with the old woman. I’m not very familiar with the American Civil War and the impression I got from reading Cold Mountain was that maybe initially there was a cause but very soon there were a lot of lawless people attracted who came in for the change and the freedom to go about killing people as they pleased.

While Ada and Ruby live an almost sheltered life, Inman, in crossing the country, sees the many faces of this war. The poverty, the illness, people who die for no reason, the cruelty, the violence. His own biggest fear however is that he is too damaged to live a happy life with Ada. The old woman says something that made me think and I wondered whether this is really true:

That’s just pain, she said. It goes eventually. And when it’s gone, there is no lasting memory. Not the worst of it anyway. It fades. Our minds aren’t made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do to bliss. It’s a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us.

Something that struck me more than anything, besides the beauty of the language, the artful structure and the wonderful complexity of the characters, is how American Cold Mountain is. It’s a hymn to the landscape and the history of the country, that includes everything, the mythology of the Cherokee, the stories of the settlers, the possibilities that this country offers to resourceful people.

Cold Mountain is a stunning novel and I’m sorry, I feel haven’t done this book any justice. It’s a complex, rich and a very rewarding book. It’s rare that I feel envious of characters in a book but at times I thought that there could hardly be a better life than the life led by Ada and Ruby.

If you have seen the movie, it is still worth, reading the book. It is so much richer.


Cold Mountain was the last book of the Literature and War Readalong 2011. The first book of the Literature and War Readalong 2012 is Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. The discussion takes place on Monday, January 30 2012.

Literature and War Readalong December 30 2011: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

While I’m busy collecting the titles for next year’s Literature and War Readalong I should not forget to make you aware that there is still one more book on the list for 2011. Initially I had chosen two books on the US Civil War but German Literature Month made me remove The Killer Angels from the list.

This year’s last readalong title is Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I’ve watched the movie a while back but don’t remember all that much apart from a stunning cinematography. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the novel and especially the friendship between the two women is said to be very compelling so I’m really looking forward to reading it and find out if I will like it or not. For some reason I think it’s a particularly good choice for December.

For those who have no idea what it’s all about and whether or not it’s worth joining here’s the blurb.

Charles Frazier’s debut novel, Cold Mountain, is the story of a very long walk. In the waning months of the Civil War, a wounded Confederate veteran named Inman gets up from his hospital bed and begins the long journey back to his home in the remote hills of North Carolina. Along the way he meets rogues and outlaws, Good Samaritans and vigilantes, people who help and others who hinder, but through it all Inman’s aim is true: his one goal is to return to Cold Mountain and to Ada, the woman he left behind. The object of his affection, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Raised in the rarified air of Charleston society, Ada was brought to the backwoods of Cold Mountain by her father, a preacher who came to the country for his health. Even after her father’s death, Ada remains there, partly to wait for Inman, but partly because she senses her destiny lies not in the city but in the North Carolina Blue Ridge.

Tatjana Soli: The Lotus Eaters (2010) Literature and War Readalong October 2011

Soli’s debut revolves around three characters whose lives are affected by the Vietnam War. Helen Adams comes to Vietnam in the hopes of documenting the combat that took her brother from her. She immediately attracts the attention of the male journalists in the region, and quickly falls into an affair with the grizzled but darkly charismatic war photographer Sam Darrow. As Helen starts to make her own way as a photographer in Vietnam, drawing as much attention for her gender as for her work, Darrow sends her his Vietnamese assistant, Linh, a reluctant soldier who deserted the SVA in the wake of his wife’s death. While Linh wants nothing more than to escape the war, Darrow and Helen are consumed by it, unable to leave until the inevitable tragedy strikes. The strength here is in Soli’s vivid, beautiful depiction of war-torn Vietnam, from the dangers of the field, where death can be a single step away, to the emptiness of the Saigon streets in the final days of the American evacuation.

For one reason or the other I had a hard time getting into this novel. I struggled for almost 100 pages but all of a sudden I was hooked, fascinated and almost entranced. And I wanted to talk about it. I don’t always feel the urge to talk about what I’m reading but with this book, I felt it because the topics Soli chose are still as conflicting and important today, during any war, as they were at the time, in Vietnam.

The book starts in 1975 with the fall of Saigon and then switches back to 1963 and the moment when the young photojournalist Helen Adams arrives in Vietnam to cover the war. Helen is keen, eager and ambitious and a sensation as she is one of the first women photographers to want to cover a war.

Helen’s character is complex and interesting and through her we see the fascination and problems of this dangerous profession. Helen’s character is based on the stories of real photographers, one of them Dickey Chapelle, one of the first female war photographers who was killed in action.

There aren’t many professions that I find as problematic as war photographer and the novel does a fantastic job at letting us look into their world.

Helen knows from the start that if she wants to become a famous photographer, shoot interesting pictures, she must follow the men into combat. This is not only dangerous, it’s also voyeuristic because the photographers take pictures of everything. Dying soldiers, executed Vietnamese, piles of bodies, screaming children, in short, people during their final moments. They often wonder whether they are more than just vultures, whether it is justified to do what they are doing. On the other hand they get addicted to the high they experience in the heat of the action and the exhilaration that follows an incredible shot that will go on the cover of a magazine and will be seen by the whole word.

Helen and the others constantly oscillate between two states of mind, the selfish drive and the urge to help and reveal to the world what is going on. It seems as if this was a very addictive job and when the novel nears the end and at the same time the end of the war, there is a feeling in the air as if a party was over.

The danger cannot be underestimated. Not only the soldiers, whom Helen gets to like, are killed, many fellow photographers lose their lives as well. One could say the better the picture, the more dangerous the situation was for everyone involved and especially for the subjects.

An older woman from the group, a mother or aunt, screamed and ran forward toward the alcove, and one of the soldiers shot her. Captured on film. The curse of photojournalism was that a good picture necessitated the subject getting hurt or killed.

I was wondering why I always find it much more problematic when someone shoots a photo of a wounded or dying person but have far less of a problem when a reporter only tells or writes about it. Maybe because the dying people lose their privacy. In order to get a good shot, the photographer needs to focus on the pain, to invade the space of the other.

A the heart of The Lotus Eaters is a complex love story or rather the story of a love triangle. I was far less interested in that aspect of the book and that’s maybe why I didn’t like the beginning so much as it focuses a lot on that story line.

Soli manages to give a good feeling for the war. She captures how the war and its perception changed over time, shows how different its meaning was for those abroad, the Americans and Europeans who lived in Vietnam,  as well as for the Vietnamese people. In the beginning the presence of the French can still be felt.

The Americans called it “the Vietnam war”, and the Vietnamese called it “the American war” to differentiate it from “the French war” that had come before it, although they referred to both wars as “the Wars of Independence”. Most Americans found it highly insulting to be mentioned in the same breath with the colonial French.

The descriptions of the city, the country and the jungle are vivid and evocative. For that alone the book is worth reading. I equally liked how she managed to show what it meant for women to cover war. There are no women soldiers and when the female photographers follow a group into combat, they are the only women present which was problematic as well. There were sexual tensions and the fact that the men felt responsible for the women, furthermore they didn’t want to be seen injured or wounded by women.

When Helen goes back to the US for a while, in the late 60s, she tries to make people understand why she does this job. Helen explores her reasons very often and at one point she has to admit it is also because she excels at what she is doing.

“I just went as a lark. It turned into something else. What do you do if you have a hazardous talent, like riding over waterfalls in a barrel? A talent dangerous to your health?” After the question came out of her mouth, she felt embarrassed.

I’m glad I read The Lotus Eaters.  It has many beautiful passages and is very thought-provoking. It gives an in-depth view of one of the most dangerous professions without giving any easy answers. It’s up to the reader whether he thinks they are purely adrenaline addicted vultures or whether they are doing a heroic and admirable job.

I often wonder whether we need those pictures. Do we need to see the horror in detail, up close? Does it help stop wars? In one instance Helen says that every good war picture is an anti-war picture. Is that true and does it justify what they are doing?

I’m curious to hear what others thought.

Other reviews:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)


Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Serena (Savy Verse & Wit)

Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried (1990) Literature and War Readalong September 2011

A sequence of stories about the Vietnam War, this book also has the unity of a novel, with recurring characters and interwoven strands of plot and theme. It aims to summarize America’s involvement in Vietnam, and her coming to terms with that experience in the years that followed.

I expected The Things They Carried to be a very good book. A very good book about the war in Vietnam. What I found is not only an outstanding book about the war in Vietnam but also about the art of storytelling. I’m really impressed. I don’t normally rely so heavily on quotes but in this case, I think, the author is the best person to give an accurate impression of his excellent writing.

But this too is true: stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They’re all dead. But in a story which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. (…) The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.

The Things They Carried is told in interwoven stories. They are linked through the characters who return in most of them and through the common themes of war and storytelling. Each of the tales shows another way of telling a story or looks at an episode from another angle. Some are explicitly written by a writer for his readers only, they have never been told before. Some describe how the soldiers tell each other stories of what happened while they were separated or how they keep on retelling the same stories over and over again. Telling these stories gives meaning and is also liberating and healing. Those who cannot tell stories, those who are shut up by what they saw, those are bad off.

What is so fascinating about this book is that you can just read it like a series of linked episodes or you can read each episode as an attempt to tell the story another way.

One of the most powerful chapters is certainly the first, the one that gave the book its title. Through the enumeration of the things the soldiers carry, we get to know the soldiers, we sense that some of them will die and some will be wounded. As we learn later many of the young men O’Brien served with and who are introduced too us in this first chapter, die. Some through enemy fire, some in accidents. Some deaths are heroic, others are ridiculous, like Kiowa’s who got shot and then suffocated in a field full of shit. What impressed me in this story is the description of the stress, the weight they had to lift, the endless walking.

They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.

We learn a lot about the feeling of having been in a war and in this particular war. We hear about the state of mind of the soldiers and what war did to them. There are some chapters that made me feel uncomfortable like the one of a young soldier’s girlfriend who stayed with them a few weeks, joined the Green Berets and ultimately disappeared in the night, swallowed by the war. She got addicted to the feeling of danger and the heightened sense of being alive that went with it. This is fascinating and also unsettling.

I have read other accounts of men who went to war, I know my own father’s stories but they sound different which leads me to the conclusion that some experiences were typical for the soldier in Vietnam.

The average age in our platoon, I’d guess, was nineteen or twenty, and as a consequence things often took on a curiously playful atmosphere, like a sporting event, at some exotic reform school. The competition could be lethal, yet there was a childlike exuberance to it all, lots of pranks and horseplay.

At the end of the book you have the whole story of Tim O’Brien’s time in Vietnam. From the day when he got the letter that informed him that he was drafted, to the first days in Vietnam, all through the weeks that passed, all the things that happened, the friends he found, the friends he lost and how he ended up feeling like an outcast because he was sent away from his company after he was wounded and had to do some light duty in another camp. Maybe not all of this is true, as O’Brien writes, but a lot of what is made up is closer to what really happened than that what is just the plain unadorned truth.

Here is my favourite quote:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The Things They Carried is fascinating and powerful. Writing at its very best.

I hope others have read it as well and liked it as much. I would also like to hear how it compares to Matterhorn.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Silver Season

Vanessa Diffenbaugh: The Language of Flowers (2011)

The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

I saw The Language of Flowers at a bookshop, spontaneously bought and read it right away. After all the books I read during the last weeks (Sebald, Josipovici and Morante – all upcoming reviews) I felt like reading something “heartbreaking and redemptive” as the book cover states.

Victoria is 18 years old and finally relieved from the foster-care system she has been living in since she was born. Her only chance at adoption went by when she was 10 years old, after that she spent most of her life in homes. She is aggressive and shy, wounded and mistrusting. With nowhere to go she decides to sleep in a public park in San Francisco. Flowers are her only passion, growing them, taking care of them as well as their meaning. She learned all about flowers from Elizabeth.

In chapters that alternate between then and now, we find out who this mysterious Elizabeth was. Elizabeth was the owner of a vineyard. She knew everything about the language of flowers as it was used by the Victorians. I don’t want to spoil this novel, and will only tell you that Elizabeth was Victoria’s only hope to be adopted but a tragic event prevented it.

The Victoria of today soon discovers that even though she can live in the open, she still needs money for food. She is lucky and can convince the local florist of her talent with flowers. Renata hires her, amazed that this wild-looking, unkempt girl has such a talent. While buying flowers at the flower market they meet Grant. Victoria has never been in love and doesn’t want anyone to come close. He is clearly interested but she fights off his advances at first. His knowledge about flowers and, surprisingly, also about their language, helps Victoria to open up. It is a coincidence, but not a too far-fetched one, that Grant turns out to be Elizabeth’s nephew.

As I said, this book has a redemptive ending but the road that leads there is more than bumpy. It’s not a romance but love plays an important role. It’s more the story of a young woman who has been too deeply wounded to trust, a novel about mothers and motherhood and of course about flowers. There was one part in it, involving birth and nursing that is very powerful, to say the least.

Victoria’s gift is so considerable that she will start her own business. Not only does she know about the meaning of flowers, she is capable of arranging them in a way that they affect someone’s life. A person looking for a relationship will find a partner thanks to Victoria’s flowers.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh created a flower dictionary and included it at the end of the book. She went trough many Victorian books, comparing the meanings. Often there was more than one meaning for a flower, occasionally they were even contradicting. She decided what she thought works best. She also added flowers that are more common nowadays and left out those that cannot be found anymore.

The Language of Flowers reminded me a bit of The Mistress of Spices but it is far better. It has been compared to White Oleander which I loved but I didn’t think they had anything in common.

I must admit I wasn’t exactly the right reader for this. It’s hard to describe what problem I had with it. There were moments when I really liked it and others where I was thinking it felt artificial.

One thing  is for sure, the right reader will absolutely adore this book. The combination of the meaning of flowers, a wounded woman who struggles to find happiness and extremely graphic descriptions of giving birth and nursing is quite different.