The life of objects: a novel by Susanna Moore.

The novel beings in 1938 in Ballycarra, County Mayo, Ireland. Beatrice Adelaide Palmer is the only child of Elizabeth Givens and Morris Palmer. As is true of many teenagers, she is unhappy with her life in this very small Irish hamlet, where her parents run a haberdashery. She yearns to find her way in the larger world.  Beatrice’s confidant is her teacher and minister, Mr. Knox who inculcates within her a love a reading and of birds. Early on Beatrice’s mother curtails any further education for Beatrice and requires her to work in the family store. Bored there, and forbidden by her mother to read while working, Beatrice teaches herself to crochet, and soon is creating beautiful lace pieces.

Countess Hartenfels, a rare visitor to Ballycarra notices Beatrice’s lace and strikes up a friendship with Beatrice. She invites Beatrice to journey with her to Germany to work for her friends the Metzenburg’s.  Of course Beatrice accepts the invitation, much to the protest of her parents. And that is the beginning of Beatrice’s experience with the larger world – with Germany as Hitler claims power and moves the world into war.

The novel is a coming of age story. But it is more than that. Told in the voice of Beatrice, we experience the personal loss, the personal transformations, the social upheavals of life in the middle of a country at war. 

Be careful if you read this book. You will feel like you are there in Germany during the war. You will feel like you are looking over Beatrice’s shoulder seeing, feeling, breathing what she sees, experiences and smells.

I am always looking for a good book with a strong woman character. I found one in this book!

Susanna Moore. 2012. The life of objects: a novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Another Mother Tongue by Judy Grahn

I must have read Another Mother Tongue shortly after it was published in 1984. If I am writing about it now in 2012, some 28 years later, you KNOW it is an important and powerful book in my life. 

Another Mother Tongue is categorized as history and gay & lesbian studies. It is that, but it reads like a poetic novel. It certainly relates the history of lesbians and gay men across history, as much as that history – so doggedly and diligently erased and denied – can be pieced together from shards, fragments, fables and myths. The book is also Grahn’s coming out story, her life, her loves, her struggles and triumphs. For a young lesbian in the 80’s – before Ellen Degeneres, before K.D. Lang, before the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge, before the L Word, roll models were few and far between.  There were Gertrude stein and Billy Jean King (well, maybe there was Billy Jean) and Martina Navratalova. This was the era when asking someone if they liked Holly Near music was code for asking if that person was a lesbian – but you had to know someone to tell you the password! Judy did that for us in this book. That and so much more! Grahn found our history and our culture and she celebrated it with joy and angst and passion and flair. She invites us to sashay down the lavender trail as we come out of the closet. She celebrates fairies, fags, butches, dykes and amazons. This may not be a book for everyone, but if you are feeling sad and alone, pick it up, give it a read. You will be neither as sad nor as lonely by the time you put it down.

 The author, Judy Rae Grahn was born in 1940, in Chicago, Illinois. She is a pioneering lesbian feminist poet, writer, and social theorist. Her bio (http://www.judygrahn.org/) notes that she currently serves as Associate Core Faculty for the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, in their Women’s Spirituality Master’s Program.  She is former director of Women’s Spirituality MA and Creative Inquiry MFA programs at New College of California, from which she resigned in July of 2007. She holds an earned Ph.D. in Integral Studies with an Emphasis in Women’s Spirituality from California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

So, give Grahn a read, check out Another Mother Tongue for sure, and check out her poetry as well. “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke” in Edward the Dyke and Other Poems, will break your heart even as you laugh till you cry – it is an evocative rejection of the detritus of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ even demands respect for the dignity of the most basic human right to love.

I think it was June Jordan who once said that Judy Grahn’s poetry and writing saved lives. I surely agree! What about you?

Judy Grahn 1984  Another Mother Tongue. Beacon Press: Boston, MA

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key solidly qualifies as one of those books that will haunt you. I finished reading it a day or so ago, and I find that I keep wondering, keep thinking about Sarah, her choices, her decisions, her acts, what was done to her, what she survived, and what she did not survive.

At the beginning of the book Sarah Starzynski is 10 years old. Her parents migrated from Poland to France before Sarah was born. She and her brother Michel were born in Paris. The Starzynski family is Jewish in 1942, all of this is a very dangerous combination.

In July 1942 all of the Jewish people in Paris and in much of France were arrested by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv rounded up. The Jewish families in Paris knew that something was coming, but didn’t know what. They believed that the men were going to be taken to work camps, so the many of the men were in hiding. When the police came to the Starzynski’s door, that night Sara believed that it was just some trouble that would soon be over. The police told them to pack a bag and prepare to go, her brother who was 4 years old and still deeply asleep, refused to go.  The police had not yet seen him – he was still in bed. Sarah hid him in their secret hiding place – a hidden closet in their bedroom – and locked him in. She and her mother were then taken away by the police. In the court yard, at the sound of the mother’s screams, the father came out from hiding and joined his wife and daughter. Sarah quietly told her father about Michel’s hiding place, but they could not get back to the apartment. And Sarah and her parents are taken away first to holding areas and then to the camps, even while Michel remained locked in his hiding place.

In 2002 as the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv round up approaches Julia Jarmond, an American expat journalist living in Paris with her French husband and their daughter, is assigned the writing of a story on the Vel’ d’Hiv, an assignment that draws her into the life of Sarah and the discovery that her husband’s family moved into Sarah’s family’s apartment just after the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. Julia eventually uncovers the great secret of her in-law’s family. Young Sarah did escape from the one of the holding camps and with the help of a farm family who hid and adopted her, made her way back to Paris and the apartment. By that time the Tezacs family has already moved into the apartment. Young Eduard, Julia’s father-in-law to be, opened the door to Sarah after her escape from the camp as she tried to return to Michel. He witnessed her efforts to open the hiding place and the aftermath. The story follows Julia as she searches to discover and understand the truths of Sarah’s life.

None of this convey’s the richness, the engaging telling of the stories of the lives of Sarah and Julia. It is an engaging book. It will make you think. It will make you feel. You should read it!

If you have read it, what parts of the book stayed with you the most?

If you have not yet read it, what seems the most intriguing to you?

Tatiana de Rosnay 2007 Sarah’s Key. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

I just finished listening to the audio book of Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. What a great book!  It is set in Seattle, and told in the voice of Henry, a Chinese American man. The book moves back and forth between 1942 and 1986.

In 1942 Henry was 12 years old, and his father, a very conservative and traditional immigrant from China, had just sent Henry to an all white prep school. Life is not sweet for Henry when we first meet him in the book. He is taunted by the other Chinese kids for being too white, and bullied by the white kids for being Chinese. And then another Asian student is enrolled in the prep school. Keiko is Japanese American. She and Henry are both ‘scholarshiping’ at the prep school, and so they meet in the cafeteria where they work serving lunches and doing clean up. They bond as they clean erasers and put classrooms back in order after school. And then in another part of the world there is the attack on Pearl Harbor, and President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066 authorizing the relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry.  We witness the effects of the relocation through Henry’s eyes as he loses his best friend who he comes to realize is so much more than his best friend.

In 1986 Henry is in his 50’s and his wife, Ethel, has just died. Henry is grieving, and trying to find balance and the path for his life as a widower. He is trying to deepen his relationship with his son who is about to graduate from college. And, he keeps remembering and thinking about Keiko. Early in the book, the Panama Hotel, a hotel in the Japanese area of Seattle, has been purchased after being boarded up since the war years. In the process of renovation, boxes that had been stored in the basement of the Hotel by Japanese American who were being relocated are discovered, evoking even stronger memories for Henry. The opening of the hotel opens Henry’s heart, opens his relationship with his son, and …. well, I’m not going to give the rest away.

This is a GREAT read. Not a perfect read, but who cares. Nothing is perfect. It is a book that will keep you engaged. It will teach you a bit about the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II. And it will warm the cockles of your heart. That’s quite a lot for a book!

When did you first learn about the Japanese internment? What did you know about it?

How close do you think we have come at other moments to similar actions against other groups within the United State?

Jamie Ford. 2009. Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Ballantine  Books: New York.