Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mr. Rosenblum's List

or Friendly Guidance
for the Aspiring Englishman

Natasha Solomons
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

I came very close to not finishing this book because in the early chapters so many sad things happened. I didn't feel like I was ready for that just yet. Now, I’m so very glad I did finish it.

It’s about this German Jew named Jack Rosenblum who keeps a list of the ways he must assimilate to the British Way, particularly after his experiences being detained as an Class A Alien during the Second World War. Eager to never be mistrusted by the British Crown again, he wants the ultimate goal for any Jewish person of the time: being a Jew lucky enough to be given membership to a Golf Club.

Turned down by nearly every Golf Club in his area, he decides to build his own golf course, gaining not only a reputation as the “Mad Jew” of the countryside he dwells in, hell bent on making a golf course he need not be ashamed of being allowed to play on, but he gains friends like Curtis, an old school Dorset fellow who believes in the mysterious Woolly-Pig - a strange creature that is only seen by the truest of Dorset men.

Jack desperately feels the need to belong as an Englishman in England. He's ashamed of being German, and also ashamed of being a Jew. His new religion is the pamphlet he received on arrival to England entitled, "Rules of Being English." He incorporates each rule into his everyday existence.

While, Sadie, on the other hand, was never willing to give up her heritage nor her memories. She doesn't want to forget where they came from or the family they've lost. Sadie loves to bake - it keeps her close to her memories of family who died in the Holocaust. Her special love is the Baumtorte. In one lovely passage, she is teaching her grown daughter, Elizabeth, to make it in hopes that she might remember too.

The two women lugged the tin bath inside to scrub it clean. They counted out the eggs, weighted the butter, flour and sugar and mixed them together. Sadie unfastened her stockings, washed her feet, and climbed into the bath and began to tread the batter slowly between her toes, the mixture oozing creamily.

Taking her time, she blended the ingredients, feeling them grow smooth and slippery beneath her skin. Elizabeth watched as she ladled the buttery mixture into great tins and toasted each layer under the grill. The cake grew tall, sprouting like a sapling ... the sweet scent of baking pervaded the house. The fragrance of Baumtorte was always tinged with sorrow."

Baumtorte means Tree Pie in English. The circular layers of the torte resemble the circles in the trees.

 Living in London has driven Jack and Sadie apart. They no longer can remember their early days spent crazily in love. It isn't until moving to the Dorset countryside and Jack's impossible scheme of creating his own golf course that breaks down their barriers and allows each of them to look, REALLY, look at each other. In Dorset, they learn to love again. In the land of woolly pigs, bluebells and jitterbug cider.

In The Times review, they said, “Hilarious and touching … Yes, the movie is already on its way – but please read the delightful novel first.”

The author says the book was inspired by her grandparents, who arrived in England from Berlin in 1936 with almost nothing. On disembarking they were handed a pamphlet titled Useful Advice and Friendly Guidance for All Refugees.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Time was Soft There

A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.

Jeremy Mercer
St.Martin's Press
New York 2005

A young Canadian journalist flees his hometown, Ottawa, for Paris after becoming inadvertently mixed up with some crime figures. He runs out of money and ends up living at Shakespeare & Co., since they have a writer-in-residence program.

The bookstore is filthy and filled with all sorts of odd and possibly violent characters. The owner is possibly the worst businessman ever in the entire world. It’s one of the world's most famous bookshops. The original opened in 1919 and was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.

It was forced to close in 1941 with the Nazi occupation and complications. In 1951 was reopened under another name and in 1964 it resurrected the original name and became the principal meeting place for beatnik poet notables such as Allen Ginsberg, Wm. S. Burroughs down to Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell.

Down til today the tradition of the bookstore continues and writers of all sorts find their way here, one being Jeremy Mercer. He finds himself in Paris with very little cash and the very real possibility of becoming homeless.

A chance encounter leads him to the bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. Here he finds a temporary home in return for a little work and the requirement of reading books.

”When I'd arrived, Shakespeare & Co. appeared the answer to all my problems. A place to recuperate, time to calculate my next steps, an assortment of lost folk to camouflage my own disenchantments.

”This was the best of Paris. Dreams, like money, can be accounted for in simple terms of deficit and surplus...In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes...Hope is a most beautiful drug.”

We watched the movie, Julie and Julia last week. There is a scene where Meryl Streep, playing as Julia Child, enters the bookstore. It was summer and lovely, but didn’t mean that much to me. And then a few days later this book fell off the bookshelf at the library and into my hands.

I’ll likely not get to Paris in this lifetime, but this book made me feel like I’d been there.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Winter Book

Tove Jansson
Sort of Books
London 2006

I'm reading this wonderful selection of stories for the second time - because it's so very hot here. As Nan said, Mrs,Bale would not like this. People in other parts of the continent would laugh at us. Folks are sweltering in Toronto; there was a major power failure - everyone was using their air conditioning. I grew up in Toronto when not many of us had AC, so I know what it's like. That's why I live here on an island in the Pacific Northwest where it's usually cool  and green. We're just not used to this.

Now, isn't the cover of this book just lovely. Makes me feel cooler just to look at it. The stories are not all about winter - the first section is titled Snow. The stories are drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century.

Tove Jansson is probably best known for the Moomin Books, one of which I wrote about three years ago. it's here if you'd like to look.

Philip Pullman commented "As smooth and odd and beautiful as sea-worn driftwood, as full of light and air as the Nordic summer. We are lucky to have these stories collected at last." Tove Jansson died in 2001 at the age of 86. This is a picture of the young Tove

She grew up a bohemian artistic child, a daughter of artists and bohemians; her mother was the famous Finnish/Swedish illustrator and artist Signe Hammarsten; her father, Victor Jansson, was an equally well-known sculptor.

After her mother died, she wrote The Summer Book, the acknowledged adult masterpiece. Ali Smith wrote "the simple, spare story of a very old woman and a very young girl and the adventures, losses and gains that inevitably follow when great age and youth live together on a very small Scandinavian island for the whole of an endlessly lit summer."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bento Box in the Heartland

My Japanese Girlhood in
White Bread America

Linda Furiya
Avalon Publishing

Her father arrived in the U.S. from Japan with $29 in his pocket. Her mother left a highly satifying, fulfilling life working in Tokyo and spending the weekends skiing and hiking, to go to the U.S. to get married and become a housewife in a foreign land. Her dad worked two jobs throughout her childhood, one of them "chick sexing" (separating the male and female chickens), and her mom spent much of her time planning how to make Japanese foods and rationing ingredients so they wouldn't run out

Linda Furiya grew up in rural Indiana, in one of the few Asian-American families in her community. She takes us back to her early childhood and describes her unique family upbringing, of which food was central. Her parents felt closer to home (Japan) when they could eat Japanese food; however, this was not easy given the unavailability of fresh Japanese ingredients in rural Indiana in the 1970s. She recalls with the occasions when they would drive into Chicago or Cleveland to procure Japanese ingredients or go to a Japanese restaurant, and how those excursions lifted the whole family's spirits.

Each chapter ends with a recipe, most of which are fairly simple for those unitiated to Japanese cooking. Roasted Pork Tenderloin (Yakibuta), Short-Necked  Clams Steamed with Sake, Chestnut Pastry (Kurimanju), Steamed Buns with Meat Filling (Nikuman). I don't much fancy Japanese food - too salty for me, and most dishes contain meat or chicken. But I loved reading this book because it made me remember my three year's living in a Japanese community when I was working in Hawaii.

Her girlhood in the small Indiana Farm community where she grew up ws marked by differences. She was the only Asian in her school, the only girl whose mother packed rice balls and chopsticks in her lunch box, the only one whose parents' idea of a family vacation was loading the station wagon with an oversized cooler and driving across state lines for twelve hours in search of fresh fish.

"Maybe it was the game fishing TV shows on Sunday mornings, with glistening fat fish fighting the line and arcing in the air, but that summer he got the idea in his head that Florida was Mecca. The focus of that summer was to obtain fresh fish. We headed south from the glacier-cut hills and rivers of Indiana, through the rolling horse country of Kentucky, and down through the forests of Tennessee. After spending the night at a Holiday Inn in Georgia, we reached the salty sea breezes and moss-covered banyan trees in Panama City, florida's 'Redneck Riviera.'" Japanese home cooking had become the only daily thread her parents had to their culture... a simply bowl of perfectly steamed rice or ramen noodles in hot broth could do wonders in keeping homesickness at bay.