In the High Peaks

Saturday, April 2, 2016

March: The Month of Books Galore

For close to six weeks, we've had neither winter nor spring, in a time period that is usually filled with the most snow of the season. It's been sad, really. According to local meteorologists, this was the warmest winter on record for our region. Our local economy is dependent on winters that have sustained cold. As long as it stays below freezing, even if there's little snow, the mountain resorts can make snow and keep area businesses humming and people employed. And if there's the bonus of sufficient snowfall, we have boom winters.

Our snowshoes have lain in a dusty pile all season, never used. We hiked with micro-cleats over hiking boots when the ground had a bit of snow or ice, but overall it was not a good season for winter hiking.

On to Books!
I've been promising to reveal more about A Free Life by Ha Jin. I enjoyed this novel thoroughly, and its 667 pages sped by. A Chinese couple with a young son are exiles to the U.S. after the time of the Tianneman Square tragedy. This novel follows their experiences and struggles as they try to construct a financially secure life. They begin their marriage in the Boston suburbs, but when they realize they are not making a secure future there, they move to Georgia, to the outskirts of Atlanta, to start a restaurant business. For Nan, the husband, who is an intellectual and has dreams of becoming a self-sufficient poet, this life is not easy emotionally. For both Nan and his wife Pingping, running the restaurant consumes their entire lives, yet they persist at it, acquire a dedicated clientele, dream up tantalizing dishes to increase their business (don't read this book hungry!), buy a small house on a lake, spare themselves no luxury whatsoever, so that they can pay off their mortgage and gain financial security.

I realize that what I've described may sound uninteresting, but it was anything but. Nan continues to challenge himself writing poetry and eventually realizes that he needs to write in English, not in Chinese (just as the author Ha Jin has done in his life). Nan has always had a facility with English and he realizes that to express what he wants to say, he needs the English language to do it. He pursues his dream, meets lots of poets, and continues this life. A fascinating picture of Chinese-American immigrant life just before the millennium, and I think the themes and situations are familiar to immigrants everywhere.

Girl at War by Sara Novic: Reads like a memoir but it's a novel of a young Croatian girl in the very early 1990s at the start of the Balkan Wars. We see her enjoying the remnants of a normal life for a girl of Zagreb, the capital city. The war breaks out and destroys every bit of normalcy. Food and water vanish first. Then her baby sister becomes very sick, and her parents risk their lives over and over, traveling first to Slovenia, then to the border with Bosnia, to send their baby with renal failure on an airlift to the U.S. The baby departs safely, but the return to Zagreb is a nightmare. In the chaos of tragedy, the ten-year-old protagonist becomes a soldier for the Croatians who are trying to save their country.
This novel was my first read of the Balkan Wars by a Croatian native. It was well done and very much worth reading.

The Past by Tessa Hadley: This is Hadley's most recent novel. Four supposedly mature adult siblings, all very different from one another, reunite to spend three weeks in their grandparents' home in the country (England) as they try to determine whether to sell it or not. This home was always a nurturing vacation home for the children, and each has widely different memories. I found that Hadley's characterizations made the siblings seem remote from the reader. I caught glimpses of the essence of each one, but maddeningly I found them all to be hard to relate to. I didn't find the characters likeable (which is not necessary), except for Alice, perhaps, but then again not so much. I think this can be true of siblings within a family of multiple children.
Pluses: The atmospheric, detailed description of the house. The summer setting. The view of Wales across an estuary? (Do tell: Where do you think this novel was set?)

Gosh! I still need to give a wee synopsis of All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. Next time!

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