“What was this book about?”

JacketBooks on Tap read The Ten Thousand Things  by Maria Dermoût at Champion Brewery on December 8. None of us had read of it before, but a few of had seen it mentioned in Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The book takes its title from a Tang Dynasty poem and for the astute reader sets the theme: all of life is connected and repetitive. One very observant reader caught on to the fact that it is technically a frame novel, starting and ending with commemorations of the dead.

Written by a woman born in Java to a Dutch family that had been in the area for four generations, the novel is both European and Indonesian with strong influences from local folklore, Buddhism and natural philosophy. It is likely set on Ambon Island in the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia (formerly the Spice Islands), where Dermoût lived and where her son was born. She details the natural beauty of the area, describing the Small Garden-cum-plantation where generations of the Dutch Kleyntjes family has lived, the seashells, the flora and the landscape. This close observation draws on the work of naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius who worked on Ambon and the area’s animism and Buddhism. It also lends a magical realism flavor and makes the book timeless and out of time.

What there is of a plot centers around Felicia, the granddaughter of the Small Garden owner. Told by her grandmother to have courage, she leaves with her weak father and rich mother for Europe, has a disastrous marriage and returns alone to the Small Garden with her young son. Grandmother and granddaughter work closely to raise money using the products of the plantation and selling them in the town on the main part of the island. Felicia’s son grows up, joins the army (against the grandmother’s wishes) and is killed in service, a death Felicia brands a murder. It’s murder that connects the other plots, and it is these victims who join Felicia at the commemorations at the start and finish of the book. At the climax, Felicia truly listens to her son (although he is dead) and for the first time has empathy for the murderers and their victims. She only glimpses this universal balance with the perspective of age but does seem to be newly committed to it.

So what were we drawn to in this unusual novel? The atmospheric descriptions made us want to visit the island. Its tight focus also seems accurate for remote island life. The duality running throughout the book kept it interesting: it isn’t clear if all the murder victims were in fact murdered, if the traveling bibi cursed the family, if Raden had more than a filial relationship to his step-mother, if the Commissioner had a wife, if the three girls are the same as the ones in the nightlight or if Pauline killed the sailor (and if so, the right one). This duality was also see more subtly in such things as Felicia’s name (her grandmother thought it a jinx and Felicia certainly had sorrow in her life) and the black mussel sauce and the white mussel sauce the grandmother is known for.

The novel is strongly matrilineal, with the women controlling the action even in chapters focused on men. Raden cannot continue in school because his step-mother refuses to sell her jewelry to fund him, the women in the Commissioner’s household may have murdered him but definitely close ranks after his death and Constance and Pauline are at the heart of the household supposedly run by the official and Moses. Raden was of particular interest as a Indonesian student working for a European professor. Before starting the book some of us were worried that this 1955 book set in Indonesia written by a white woman would be contain ugly racism. However, Dermoût gives voice to all characters and upended our expectations. While not perfect, it is an intriguing look at a time and place we hadn’t read much about and ends on a realistically hopeful note.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Ambon Island map
Naturalist Georg Eberhard  Rumphius
River of Doubt by Candice Millard (similarities to Professor)
Speaking of islands, information about the USVI’s hurricane recovery needs

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“There isn’t always an explanation for everything.”

61h05xx7u-lBooks on Tap read A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway  at Champion Brewery on November 2. Ostensibly a novel about an American ambulance driver and English nurse who fall in love at the Italian Front during World War I, it was quickly recognized as “one of the few great war stories in American literature.” The plight of the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, closely mirrors the author’s experience in Italy during the war. They both drove ambulances, served briefly (Frederic seems to fight for two days within the book), suffered severe knee injuries in a mortar attack which left the men around them dead and received Italian war medals. They then both fell in love with a nurse while recovering in Milan, but in Hemingway’s case the affection was not shared.

Not all participants had read Hemingway previously and those who had didn’t recall all the details of this book. The first thing we discussed was the tone of the novel. Like Hemingway’s other works, it is terse but in this case it is not evocative. Two of us listened to the audiobook, where the repetition wasn’t as noticeable and the rhythms of the conversations tended toward the lyrical. The realism of the book is overshadowed by the drippy dialog between Frederic and nurse Catherine (we wondered if the author was capable of writing a female character) and the lack of urgency in the interpersonal relationship. However, the scenes of the retreat and river escape aligned with our pre-conceptions of Hemingway’s style and conveyed his message about war. Some readers compared these scenes to The Revenant book and movie and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

There is room for ambiguity in the realistic description of war. No one seems to care about the cause of the conflict and the Italians differ in opinion on tactics and leadership. The unceasing rain, while historically accurate, also emphasizes the long slog characteristic of this war and the ultimate interiority of the main characters, cloistered in hotels and hospitals. Catherine claims that the war will never end and their unborn child will become a general. Frederic and an Italian priest contemplate the end, saying “It is in defeat that we become Christian. . . I don’t mean technically Christian. I mean like our Lord. . . We are all gentler now because we are beaten.” Through unimaginable bloodshed, we earn acceptance and humility.

Mysteries abound in this novel. Why was Frederic in Italy before the war? Was he really studying architecture? Where did they find the money to stay in Switzerland for months? Why were they estranged from both families? Perhaps the biggest mystery is Catherine. Does she truly love Frederic or is this a relationship of convenience, swept up in the war. How could a women who worked a dangerous, arduous job, an atheist who lived independently from her family be as clingy and afraid of upsetting her partner as Catherine was? Her obsession with thinness made us wonder if Hemingway or Frederic were the misogynist.

The ending was so abrupt that some audiobook listeners weren’t sure that the novel had ended. However, another reader pointed out that the ending is fitting – this self-absorbed couple doesn’t have a future and may not have been in love. One astute reader shared her favorite alternate ending, available in some paperback editions: “When I woke the sun was coming in the open window and I smelled the spring morning after the rain and there was a moment, probably it was only a second, before I began to realize what it was that had happened. And then I knew that it was all gone now and that it would not be that way any more.”

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Battle of Caporetto map and more on the Italian Front.
Other works
WWI reading list
Confidential to Will: Is this it?

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“Sometimes it is better to imagine a past than remember it.”

houseBooks on Tap read House of Stone  by Anthony Shadid at  Champion Brewery on October 5. A memoir about the months he spent restoring his family home in Marjayoun in southern Lebanon, the book was published shortly after he died from an asthma attack while reporting near the Syrian border. A memoir differs from an autobiography in that it typically focuses on a signal aspect of the writer’s life, such as sailing around the world or kicking an addiction. Or as Gore Vidal wrote,“a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Oddly, Shadid at times hides himself in the story, not delving into the pain of the separation from his first wife and daughter and only alluding to the other duties he has during this time frame. On the other hand, he is a writer, so he will write to process these feelings and the book as a whole reflects his reporting: chronological and fact-driven.

Shadid intercuts the struggles he has hiring tradesmen, buying supplies and understanding his neighbors with family history, tracing how the grand house was built, declined and rebuilt. He admires the great-grandfather who financed and built the house, the great-grandmother who maintained it as a widow and the grandmother who was born there but came to America to save the ensuing generations, who include doctors, lawyers and award-winning reporters.

The negotiations about the house provide humor as nearly every request explodes into a fight. This instant anger may be born of trauma, from the 1975 civil war to the Israeli occupation to Rafik Hariri’s assassination. It is also a useful rage, giving one the upper hand in negotiations. One of our readers noted that Americans need to know about this tendency if they are ever to help negotiate peace in the area.

While most people liked the book, those that didn’t agreed that it could have used a map and photographs. However, Shadid does define the Levant and the way of life practiced there until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Some of us struggled with the transitions between the family history and the modern-day restoration, but one astute reader among us noted that this structure mirrors the history of the house itself. As the family story progresses, the house goes from good to bad while during Shadid’s personal story the house goes from bad to good.

And what a family story. Over four generations, Shadid illustrates the pull of the area: the beauty of landscape, the interconnected lives of the residents, the limited options presented by the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing civil wars and the general  instability of life near the Israeli and Syrian borders. Again and again he returns to his family’s position in the town and the intermarriages which make him known to the residents before he even officially moves in. One book club member was struck that despite the bombing, occupation and ruin the house faces, everyone knows who the abandoned structure belongs to. Which turns out to be many people. Shadid is warned time and again by family in America and people in Marjayoun that he should under no circumstances rebuild the home because too many descendants have a claim on it and could cause trouble just after Shadid pours money into the project. Despite this foreshadowing, nothing comes of the warnings. Just the opposite happens, at the end of the book Shadid brings his second wife and their son to the house, declaring that no matter where they live, “this is home now.”

Our book club members recounted their own tales of the pull of the family place, from Switzerland to Lebanon itself. One woman generously shared her own experience of marrying into a Lebanese family in Kansas, who were drawn to the area in the 1920s when it was open territory with little infrastructure. Peddlers back in Lebanon, that serviced the new settlements, later opening grocery and furniture stores. Much like Shadid, her American-born son now feels more comfortable in Lebanon. Another club member reported similar chain migration in his area of West Virginia.

We also discussed the current state of migration to the US and the fact that, because of travel bans and xenophobia, Shadid’s family couldn’t do today what they did in the early 20th century, meaning that many of them would have died young and poor. Central Library recently screened the documentary Eight Borders, Eight Days which follows migrants from nearby Syria as they try to get to Europe in 2015. Shadid’s great-grandfather lived as an Ottoman gentleman, something that only a few Marjayoun residents are still able to do and are noted for it. While Shadid frequently alludes to the glory days of the empire,  everything collapses (as one member pointed out) and certainly other parts of the empire suffered.

Finally, we discussed the imagined past mentioned in the blog post title. As we struggle with preserving, contextualizing and assimilating history in Charlottesville, we have to acknowledge that because history is all too often remembered from a single perspective it is indeed imagined more than remembered.  

Next month we will be reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as part of JMRL’s WWI centenary programs.  To get a free copy of the book to keep, please email Sarah at shamfeldt @  jmrl . org.  We’ll also be choosing books for spring 2018, so bring your suggestions!

More Information:
About the author
About the book
New York Times Obituary
Shadid’s guided tour of the house
Cemento tile making
Lebanon timeline
House of Stone book club kit
Shadid’s previous book Night Draws Near
Articles by Shadid

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