Romanità

The city gave its name to the power of patience— Romanità . Romanità excludes emotion, hurry, doubt. Romanità waits, sees the moment and moves ruthlessly when the time is right. Romanità rests on an absolute conviction of ultimate success and arises from a single principle, Cunctando regitur mundus: Waiting, one conquers all.

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell

It divides

Later that summer, as rain fell, such a moment shimmered and paused on the brink, and then began the ancient dance of numbers: two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty- two, and a new life took root and began to grow. And thus the generations past were joined to the unknowable future.

Probably the most beautiful description of conception I have ever read.

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell

Visible and physical dependence

“You can see it, can’t you. Hasta’akala: to be made like sta’aka. To be made visibly and physically dependent on someone stronger. He offered us hasta’akala. He took me to the garden and showed me the ivy and I didn’t make the connection. I thought he was offering Marc and me his protection and hospitality. I thought I could trust him. He asked my consent and I gave it. And I thanked him.”

Father Sandoz willingly gives up his dignity.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

ACOSCoverBook seven of the Wheel of Time series under my belt, seven more to go. As usual, nothing really happens until the last 20% of the book. Jordan wastes words telling us all about setting and clothing descriptions for characters where it adds nothing to your understanding of them. (Detailed livery descriptions for nobles, their servants, and armies — almost all of whom are lesser, unimportant characters.) He constantly describes facial reactions to reveal plot. The telling is so rampant it’s tiresome at times.

What is interesting to read are the various customs of each nation; the Ebou Dari’s extreme reverence for Wise Women, for example. The gholam’s origin story is another. Loial, who, as an Ogier, is filthy with backstory potential) gets limited stage time in book seven.

While Jordan does a much better job weaving the disparate plot points together in book seven it’s the easy “outs” that irk me the most. (That, and 300 Aes Sedai characters that are impossible to keep straight. (Thank you Wheel of Time wiki!).

Lan Mandragoran appears out of nowhere “just in the nick of time” to save bossy the cow Nynaeve from Moghedien’s random attack in Ebou Dar. (Surprisingly, Nynaeve hasn’t yanked her braid right off her head, yet.)

The Wanderer (actually Moridin in disquise) who again, pops out of nowhere to save Rand from falling down a hole during the “climactic” battle scene with Sammael. We waited the entire book for this battle, and Sammael gets killed by Mashadar after a long, drawn-out chase sequence? Rather unsatisfying. It’s almost as though Jordan gave up. Equally frustrating? Nynaeve, Elayne, Aviendha and Mat are all still in Ebou Dar 855 pages later. Will they ever emancipate the Bowl of the Winds? (I sense, yes! this will happen. The reason? Book nine depicts snow in the cover art. The weather’s got to change at some point.)

Will Elayne ever take the throne of Andor? Will Mat ever escape from under the pile of rubble he’s currently trapped under? Is Sammael really dead? Will Nynaeve ever finish off Moghedien for good in an epic battle royale? Will we ever see Egwene, Perrin, Faile, and Loial again? Maybe book eight has some answers.

January – March 2015

Ru by Kim Thúy

RuCover3-187x300Ru is Kim Thúy’s time-shifting biographical novel about fleeing war-torn Vietnam in 1979 to start over in Granby, Québec.

While labels are reductive, names and nouns are a linguistic starting point we rely on to understand what it is we’re working with.

As a reader, I struggled with the book as a biographical novel. Which parts are true? Which bits are fiction? The fact that the line blurs, troubled me. I visited Hanoi, Vietnam for a short week, but of all my travels, it’s been my favorite trip. I guess — and my inability to digest this book as a biographical novel is not a criticism, simply my personal response — I’m eager to know more about a country I loved and want to return to from someone with first-hand experience far deeper than mine.

Even memoirs have hazy edges; memory is malleable, imperfect, and fallible, though a fictionalized biography seems to taunt you with the truth. This book is a series of short, detailed, vivid vignettes — scenes set before you like a delicious, carefully prepared full-course meal, but you’re left wondering if the crab cakes you’re eating are actually made of pollock, or something else entirely.

The definition of “ru” in French and Vietnamese as it appears in the beginning of the book gave me pause:

In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge — of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.

For me, “Ru” rings true in French as a river of tears, of blood, and money flows from re-education camps into Mirabel Airport in France as refugees flee Vietnam with all their worldly wealth (diamonds and gems) embedded in their teeth. I found dissonance in “ru” in Vietnamese as a lullaby, given the torture, expropriation, poverty, and depravity the book depicts.

These questions aside, Ru is a beautiful novel translated from French into English. It’s featured as one of the books in the 2015 Canada Reads competition. It’s worth your time.

February, 2015

Carrying love in your head, not your heart

Just recently in Montreal, I saw a Vietnamese grandmother ask her one- year- old grandson: “Thu’o’ng Bà để dâu?” I can’t translate that phrase, which contains just four words, two of them verbs, to love and to carry . Literally, it means, “Love grandmother carry where?” The child touched his head with his hand. I had completely forgotten that gesture, which I’d performed a thousand times when I was small. I’d forgotten that love comes from the head and not the heart. Of the entire body, only the head matters. Merely touching the head of a Vietnamese person insults not just him but his entire family tree. That is why a shy Vietnamese eight- year- old turned into a raging tiger when his Québécois teammate rubbed the top of his head to congratulate him for catching his first football.

Ru by Kim Thúy

Tell by Frances Itani

francesitani_tell This is the second Frances Itani book I’ve read this year. Set in Deseronto, Ontario just after the First World War, Tell takes us into the lives of side characters from Deafening. Maggie and Am, (Grania’s aunt and uncle) and Tress and Kenan (Grania’s older sister and her war-damaged husband) take centre-stage in this novel.

Tell is the story of two tattered marriages, one just starting and one many years old. The epigraph is especially prescient:

But isn’t that why we fall in love anyway, to be able to say the secret, dangerous words that are in our heads? To name each other with them in the dark? –Anthem, by Helen Humphreys

Two couples, both unmoored, are forced apart by different types of horror and helplessness: the horror of the First World War and catastrophic injury; the helplessness of watching your two children die horrible, slow deaths from diphtheria, isolated from medical help on the farm in the pit of a Canadian winter.

Tell is a novel of loss. It’s about our secret selves — the parts of ourselves we keep hidden from our spouse — that one person who is supposed to understand, and to love us, regardless; that person to whom we’re supposed to be able to “say the secret, dangerous words that are in our heads.” It’s about the relentless silences, shame, and grief that eat away at us over the years. The pain eventually gnaws its way out — leaving a messy, bloody hole that can only then begin to heal.

But pain was pain. One person’s and the next person’s and the next. One kind of pain was no more weighty than another, surely. Where the pain took place, the map of it, made not a speck of difference.

This is a book worthy of a re-read, and worth your time.

January and February, 2015

Deafening by Frances Itani

deafening-cover Proceed with caution: here be spoilers.

Deafening is a beautiful and poignant novel set in Deseronto, Ontario, Canada and in the trenches during the First World War. The novel tells the story of Grania O’Neil, a woman who lost her hearing to scarlet fever as a five-year-old.

This book explores “death” in distinct forms; from the death of language in illiteracy, the death of potential in marginalization, to mortal peril from the Spanish Flu and the First World War.

Mamo, Grania’s maternal grandmother and steadfast champion, sees Grania’s full potential and helps her achieve it. Grania recovers language as she and Mamo work through painstaking one-to-one lessons from The Sunday Book. It is Mamo who argues for Grania’s education, urging her parents to send her away to the nearby School for the Deaf.

Mamo’s boundless love is not without its costs: once students at the School for the Deaf enter in September, they’re forbidden from seeing family members until the following June and Grania and Mamo are deprived of one another through the long school year. Later in the novel, Mamo sacrifices herself, refusing to allow anyone else into Grania’s sickroom when Spanish Flu strikes. In nursing Grania back to health, Mamo catches the flu and falls victim to the pandemic. It is the scenes with Mamo and Grania, and Grania after Mamo’s death that are among the most poignant in the book.

This book shook me out of my own comfy, peaceful reality. Grania marries Jim and he promptly enlists and heads off to serve Mother Britain in the First World War. Jim is gone for three years. Three. Years. The newlyweds’ relationship survives off a brave hope and intermittent letters. I can’t possibly imagine a world where my husband would be drawn off to war for three years. This separation, isolation, abject horror, and sacrifice for someone else’s cause is entirely foreign to me. As the war continues, casualties mount, “the boys” who do return do not come back whole; they’re either maimed or scarred in body, mind, and soul. As Grania observes, no one remains unaffected:

“Everyone has lost something in this war, she thought. We have waited so long, and we have all lost something.”

This was a book I enjoyed much more on the second read. With full understanding of the plot, the second read reveals even greater depth in the connection between Grania and Mamo as we truly learn what and where they go and do when things get bad, a form of release and a coping mechanism Grania eventually reveals to her sister Tress in a bid to help heal her war-damaged husband Keenan.

Deafening is worth your time.

December 2014 — January, 2015

The Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

WoT06_LordOfChaos Lord of Chaos is book six of The Wheel of Time series. Mired in bloviated description, it plods for 986 pages only to end in a rushed battle scene and a confusing epilogue that begs more questions than it answers. Is Demandred disguised as Halima? Or, was it really Demandred disguised as Moghedien the entire book? Research reveals that no, Halima is not Demandred in disguise, despite the fact that she’s the only female character in six thousand pages to channel saidin, the male source of the One Power. It’s not nice to pull fast ones on your readers, Robert Jordan.

The book spends a lot of focus on Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve, yet strangely their storyline peters out in Ebou Dar as they search for a mysterious, but cleverly hidden ter’angreal thought to help control the weather.

The oddest thing in this book was the ceremony held as Egwene gets raised to Amyrlin. This series has been almost puritanical with only blushing, prudish references to nudity and sex, yet Jordan creates a scene in which all sitters, along with Amyrlin candidate Egwene, bare their breasts, declaring, “I am a woman” to prove that they’re female.

Mat Cauthon remains an insufferable misogynist who thinks women are all disingenuous schemers who wouldn’t last a day on their own if it weren’t for his protection.

Perrin and Faile, a pair who had been interesting characters in book five, seem wooden and flat. Faile’s ever-present jealousy and Perrin’s inability to communicate with his wife in any simple way became tiresome in their few scenes.

Thankfully, Loial is back, though sadly ignored, plot-wise for 90% of the book.

Despite the scrambled plot lines, the tedious repetition, and dozens of meaningless characters, I still want to know what happens to our crazy kids from the Two Rivers and Elayne, the daughter-heir of Andor. I can only hope that the characters deepen in upcoming volumes and that the writing somehow tightens. This book took me a few months to read, not just because of the flagging plot, I had to start reading other books to give myself a break from The Wheel of Time. On to book seven, albeit slowly.

October 2014 — January, 2015

The hands in death

If Grania were here beside him he would be able to tell her about the hands. If only he did not have to look at the hands. In death they told more than the face; he knew that now. It was the hands that revealed the final argument: clenched in anger, relaxed in acquiescence, seized in a posture of surprise or forgiveness, or taken unawares. Clawing at a chest, or raised unnaturally in a pleading attitude.

Interesting image here — Deaf folk use hands to communicate in life, and in this passage it seems as though hearing people’s hands communicate their final truth.

Deafening by Frances Itani