Friday, October 16, 2009

The Dragon House by John Shors

John Shors' novel, "Dragon House" is magnificent. The story takes place in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City. This part of the world is known well by John Shors. He journeyed through many Asian cities after college. Along the way he met street children. "Dragon House is mainly about the street children in Ho Chi Minh City. The book gives a close up view of what life is like for these children. Some of these children are used by adults to get money to support their habits for women and Opium. Other children may have no fathers or mothers. These children live under bridges, sleep on cardboard. Then, there are the sick children, like Tam. She is lovingly cared for by her Grandmother, Qui. The relationship between Qui and Tam is unforgettable.

In Dragon House through the lives of interesting individuals I could see that life is never fully dark nor fully light. It is the shades of darkness and light which gives this novel a quality of reality. I had to remind myself over and over that these characters were not "real" people. "Dragon House" is a novel. Sahn, the policeman, Iris, the American who opened the center, Noah, the soldier who fought in Iraq , Loc, the indescribably wretched human being without a conscience who used children for his own desires are shaped and blended by a unique writing artist, John Shors.

In meeting each character we learn about their present as well as their past. I suppose it's true that I am shaped by my past. Still, I have the last word, the choice, on how I will allow that past to shape the rest of my life. This alone was pretty fascinating as I read and observed the daily lives of each character.

Dragon House is also filled with the beauty of a land once ravaged by war. I  loved John Shors' descriptive passages of different places. "A curved red bridge led to an island. This bridge was called the Flood of Morning Sunlight." Nearby women delicately practiced tai chi. In "Dragon House" there are dragons weaving their way through the pages like I might read about them in a fairy tale. Only these dragons don't spit fire and scare me. One day Thien told Iris about the Vietnamese thoughts about dragons versus the way Americans see dragons. "In Vietnam, dragons are the greatest, the most noble of creatures. They have protected us for thousands of years."

There is no end to what I could write or say about "Dragon House" by John Shors. Well, I would love to hitch a ride on one of those scooters. I almost think Ho Chi Minh City name should become The Land of Scooters. In the end, I think of Mai. One day she admitted to feeling invisible all of her life. I am sure all street children experience this feeling. John Shors, through this book, and I'm sure through the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation more children will become happily visible through the tools of education and love. By the way I am looking forward to reading "The Wishing Trees" by John Shors.

Americ Libre by Raul Ramos Y Sanchez

"America Libre" by Raul Ramos Y Sanchez is a page turner. From the moment I picked it up, I didn't want to do anything but finish it. This is the story about Hispanics in America. Like all people the Hispanics yearn for the right to live ordinary lives like other citizens. To be treated differently erases all their human dignity.

If people lose their self respect because of the insanity of other people, there has to come a breaking point. In the novel this is the time when the more able Hispanics choose to fight rather than to continue to lead such horrific lives. Mano and Rosa are one such couple. They have three children: Julio, Pedro and their little girl. Sadly, Mano can't find work during hard economic times. This unfortunate incident leads to the unraveling of the family's lives.

I was totally unable to remove myself from caring about this one family's turmoil. Their catastrophes seemed to reach out like the tentacles of an octapus touching the whole Hispanic community until danger had reached every corner of the barrios of California.

Each chapter is listed as days and months. Each chapter begins with a quotation about repression, revolution, etc. It is as if Raul Ramos Y Sanchez thought of the need for centering while reading the pages of his book. After all inside the book the whole world is wildly out of control. The author forced me to look at the world through the eyes of a Hispanic.Somehow, this intimacy or empathy is not gained by just looking at nightly news or a two hour documentary. Reading the book forced me to sit down and linger over the words of the United States government and the words of the Hispanic. I could hear in my ears and read over and over again the stereotypes faced by this community.

Yes, the age old term "stereotypes" plays a role in this book. I questioned myself. How much of what I believe is truly true rather than what I expect to see or hear because of gleanings from the media or friends?  The book made me search my heart. After finishing the book, I can make a statement. I see more clearly now.

Thank goodness Raul Ramos Y Sanchez won The International Latino Book Award for Best Novel. He and the words from his pen will help America truly live by and believe in the words on The Statue of Liberty.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Triumph of Deborah by Eva Etzioni-Halevy

"The Triumph of Deborah" by Eva Etzioni-Halevy is a Biblical novel about Deborah, the Judge and Prophetess of Israel. With great precision and creativity Eva Etizioni-Halevy draws a historical picture of the history of conflict between Israel and Canaan. It is a time of turmoil. Those in power one day are not in control the next day. Those in slavery became free according to who conquered and who became conquerors. It is a time when women  had a huge role to play in  history. For instance, Deborah, the Israelite, who prophecies and commands the strategies of the Israelites war against the Canaanites. There is Jael, another woman, who will murder a Caananite leader, King Sisra,  for the sake of her people.

There is also a slave girl named Nogah. Nogah crossed the boundaries of both the Israelite world and the Caananite world because she was born biracial. Through her eyes Eva Etzioni-Halevy gives a view of Nogah's life. Her father is  King Jabin, a Caananite. Her sister, Asherah, is Caananite, and  her mother, Reumah,  is an Israelite. Because of a complex racial and religious heritage her life, in these Biblical  times, is fragile and fascinating.

Then, there is Barak who carried out the commands for the soldiers that were spoken by Deborah. Barak is another complex character. He wears the blue fringe around his garments which testify to the fact that he is a keeper of Torah law. Sadly, his flesh is weak. Too often, like Samson, a pretty woman can dismember his values like a Levite priest might disjoint an animal for sacrifice. It's not surprising how many lives are disrupted by his boundless appetite.

I loved Uriel, the scribe. Uriel becomes Nogah's tutor and protector. He is old and wise beyond his years. There are many characters to despise and love in "The Triumph of Deborah." Along with the well rounded characters, there is interesting history. The gods and goddesses worshipped by the Caananites, the thirty day mourning period of the Israelites and the healing arts used during this era. For birth control, "insert a rolled-up strip of linen, coated with an ointment of beeswax mixed with olive oil..."

It is impossible to read this book without feeling transported to another world. Eva Etzioni-Halevy has written a wondrous novel. I am left trying to  hum The Song of Deborah in order to remember the journey I have taken in the past few days. I look forward to reading more books by this talented author, Eva Etzioni-Halevy. This is truly a magnificent novel.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Vogelein Clockwork Faerie by Jane Irwin

Vogelein is a Young Adult Graphic novel. As a matter of fact, Vogelein-Clockwork Faerie is one of Booklist's top ten Graphic Novels for 2003. It's the first Graphic novel I've ever read. I was quite impressed. Vogelein is a faerie created by a kind man named Heinrich. He lives in Germany. Since her creation, Vogelein has traveled far and wide making many new friends and one particularly angry enemy. He hates "fir" meaning man. Vogelein is very sad. Fortunately, her friends give her ways to cope with the permanent state of her life like "if it won't kill you, it will only make you stronger."

The book is well put together with great illustrations, beautiful poems written by Yeats, Waltman and even Martin Luther King. There is a glossary and so much helpful material in this book making your journey with Vogelein more fun. You won't forget Vogelein. As a matter of fact, I hope to meet up with her again in other books by the authors.

Ill Met By Moonlight by Sarah Hoyt

It Happened in Italy by Elizabeth Bettina

It Happened In Italy by Elizabeth Bettina, is a missing part of Italian and Jewish History. Campagna, Ferramonti and other remote Italian towns were places where Jewish people did not experience the horrors of Dachau or Auschwitz. Therefore, the words “concentration camps” were never used by the carabiniere. Some of the rescued people likened their lives to living in a “hotel.”

In these Italian villages the Jewish people went to synagogue, prayed, and families were kept together. They practiced The Bris and cooked matzoh for Passover. While reading Elizabeth Bettina's book, It Happened In Italy, I was amazed to learn the meaning of Christian in Italian. In Italian Christian means human being. Elizabeth Bettina includes many black and white photos in the book. The photos prove the survivors' memories are true.

Elizabeth Bettina is a woman with purpose. Her journey is one of miracles. One group had the chance to meet with Pope Benedict. Each person wanted to share their miracle of hope with the world and to say thank you to the Italians before their earthly journey came to an end.

So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba

"So Long a Letter" by Mariama Ba is a spectacular book. Ramatoulaye is a widow when the novel begins. We meet her while she is in mourning. Soon, we learn about the other sorrows of her heart. Times throughout which she cried and cried. Her healing strength comes through writing this letter to Aissatou. Because the friendship means so much to her Ramatoulaye names her daughter after Aissatou. I thought this was a beautiful way of showing appreciation for a friend who always had a listening ear and a nonjudgmental heart.

In this letter to Aissatou, Ramatoulaye gives details about her marriage to Madou Fall. This lengthy letter is like a flashback in time. Both Aissatou and Ramatoulaye faced the identical situation with their men. Each woman chose a different way to handle their new circumstances. Still, neither woman judges the other woman.

I adored the book for so many reasons. I loved the friendship between the two African women. I enjoyed learning about the West African culture and I liked learning more about the African male. At the last page, I had my pen ready to write down other titles by Mariama Ba. Unfortunately, this is her first and last novel. "Ba died tragically in 1981 in Dakar after a long illness, just before her second novel Le Chant Ecarlate appeared. "So Long A Letter" by Mariamb Ba is translated from the French by Modupe Bode-Thomas.

If anyone can translate the French phrase, I would appreciate knowing the name of the novel in English.