Book: Knitting

KnittingKnitting by Anne Bartlett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An easy and quick read for a sensitive and insightful novel with a strong connection to knitting, yarn and fabric. I wouldn’t have picked up this book if I was not a hobby knitter myself.

The story is set in Adelaide, southern Australia, and follows the lives of two very different women. Sandra is a tightly-wound academic, who is trying to cope with the recent loss of her husband to cancer, while Martha is a free spirit who gives most of her time to her creative knitting. A chance meeting of the two women starts an unlikely friendship. As they work together on a vintage knitting exhibition, both women need to deal with their deepest secrets and conflicts. There are no dead bodies or sinister powers at work here, just the usual scars of life. Sandra and Martha slowly find their way to healing them, and to accepting their own flaws.

I found the book’s rambling about the connection between knitting and writing a bit tiresome. Sandra’s perfectionist tendency to crafting words irritated me, especially as I did not see or read any parts of her lean, and brilliant writing. In contrast Martha’s perfectionism was endearing because the garments she created in the process were aptly described. I had the distinct feeling that perhaps the writer is better at knitting than word-crafting.

Help Me Out

August will mark the five years anniversary to my arrival in Cape Town, a time when I finally faced up to the fact that perhaps I did not want to go on with the status quo of my marriage. You may say, and correctly that it took me a long time to realize it, but well, that is the way things were.

From where I am sitting now I shake my head in wonder. How on earth was I bullied to think for nine years that I was to blame for all the ills of this relationship. How did I ever accept the verdict of my husband and his judgment on everything when I was an adult with a healthy common sense myself. It all goes down to upbringing and culture. My mother – bless her and keep her healthy- is the most wonderful woman in the world but by her example she encouraged a subservience to the male head of the family, and unfortunately for myself and my sister we did not have any other examples to a healthy balanced relationship. If you add to that the fact that my ex is 13 years my senior with that much more experience than myself, a female who had a very sheltered upbringing, you may understand where my feeling of inferiority came from. Regardless, of the reasons I was intimidated into thinking that it was always me to blame until East London.

I am often reprimanded about my fondness for East London, a sleepy town in the Southern African province of the Eastern Cape. Admitting that you lived there is apparently extremely uncool.  East London to me is the place where I finally rose up emotionally to my chronological age. It was a long, long time coming.

I will always remember East London for its rolling dunes and beautiful beaches, for the twin rivers that border it and for the simple uncomplicated people who live there. One day I will go there again with someone I love whether it is a partner or a son it does not matter, but I would like to show someone what I found there… I found myself.

It was a long journey that I made alone, without the help of a mother, a sister, a trusted girlfriend or even an agony aunt, but I did have a therapist. It was back in July 2005 that I saw a therapist in East London, I tried desperately to speak to someone and even in such a sleepy hollow as this town -or perhaps exactly for that reason- therapists were booked for months in advance. This one had a slot after two weeks, maybe she was not that good. The only thing I remember about her place is the cream-colored couch and the light pastels of her consultation room. During the hour session, the woman did not speak much she just listened and commented and in that hour I articulated all the negative feelings accumulated throughout six years of marriage. The therapist made the appropriate noises and comments throughout and pointed me to the road that I have already glimpsed when I phoned for an appointment. It was not love that I was living it was an act of willful manipulation. It was time for me to break free and I did.

One month later found me on the shores of Cape Town. A few miles away from the Cape of Good Hope, and to me it was Good Hope. I had a lot of time to reflect on my past life and to think about the way forward; what I really want for my future. I could not, or was not allowed to severe my marriage completely, because at the time my husband  kept trying to win me back, for the wrong reasons now I know. It was the first time though since coming to South Africa where I lived according to my own rules, without having to defer to his every strict edict. I had a great time and indulged in simple pleasures that were not allowed at home: Staying up late, sleeping in, reading in bed, chocolate, cheese and many other treats and junk foods that were extremely frowned upon in my married life. I exercised when I wanted to, and rediscovered the simple joy of doing things for pleasure, not because I needed to break a sweat or do a chore. I also enjoyed the company of Spliff the cat, who shared my bed on some cold winter nights, another no-no in my husband’s dictionary.
The people I shared a house with – two singles dealing with their own problems with relationships and life- gave me plenty of insight, advice and anecdotes, and together we formed an unlikely but rewarding friendship. I enjoyed their company, more so because they also fell on the disagreeable side of my partner’s rules, he had something against overweight women and gay men.
Along with all these personal benefits, things were slowly going my way on a professional level. I bought a computer and worked on my first large freelance translation project, while I also attended interviews for jobs in Cape Town.

Still, no matter how successful I was, or how much I rationalized my relationship and analyzed its glaring flaws, there were many hurdles to conquer mentally and emotionally. I was helped along by a song that came out that year: All These Things I have Done by the Killers.
I would wake up at night sometimes to listen to FM radio on my headphones and would start humming along to the beautiful melody and the lyrics. Unlike the hopelessness of Losing My Religion, somehow there was an underlying theme of hope in this one, and the person crying for help, finds or at least expects to find a way out.
The best part for me was the refrain of : I’ve Got Soul But I am Not a Soldier. It translated my exact feelings: I do have a heart and emotions and I am capable of love and hope, but I will not continue this endless battle of my marriage, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The video of that lovely track, and the lyrics are below.

When there’s nowhere else to run
Is there room for one more son
One more son
If you can hold on
If you can hold on, hold on
I wanna stand up, I wanna let go
You know, you know – no you don’t, you don’t
I wanna shine on in the hearts of men
I wanna mean it from the back of my broken hand

Another head aches, another heart breaks
I am so much older than I can take
And my affection, well it comes and goes
I need direction to perfection, no no no no

Help me out
Yeah, you know you got to help me out
Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the back burner
You know you got to help me out
Yeah

And when there’s nowhere else to run
Is there room for one more son
These changes ain’t changing me
The gold-hearted boy I used to be

Yeah, you know you got to help me out
Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the back burner
You know you got to help me out
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down

[x10]
I got soul, but I’m not a soldier
I got soul, but I’m not a soldier

Yeah, you know you got to help me out
Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the back burner
You know you got to help me out
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the back burner
You’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down

Over and in, last call for sin
While everyone’s lost, the battle is won
With all these things that I’ve done
All these things that I’ve done
If you can hold on
If you can hold on

I read in one interpretation that the lyrics are written from the viewpoint of God. Speaking how people turn to Him only when they need help, which makes sense. However, like any work of art this song evokes different feelings, images and memories in different people. The message for me was hope, eventually I shall prevail, or find help, I have what it takes.

In April 2008, I moved with my six-month old son Robert to the same house that welcomed me when I first arrived in Cape Town.  I was determined this time to finish what I failed to do almost three years ago.  The circumstances this time were more difficult than the first time around, but on some levels I was much happier. I never took walks alone to the beach anymore and wondered about my future, I never worried about what I would do about love. I had all the love and the future I wanted in my son. When my song played, there were two of us to dance to it.

Book: Triptych

Triptych (Will Trent, #1)Triptych by Karin Slaughter

I will first start with the title of the book. This is the first time I remember when I look up a title in the dictionary. My digital Collins says:
triptych [ˈtrɪptɪk:]
n 1. a set of three pictures or panels, usually hinged so that the two wing panels fold over the larger central one: often used as an altarpiece
2. a set of three hinged writing tablets
From Greek triptukhos, from tri- + ptux plate.

One of the story’s characters has a triptych on her mantelpiece. When the two side panels fold over the central one a new image or canvas is formed. There is a blurb on the book cover: Three people with something to hide. One killer with nothing to lose. I believe the Triptych reference is to these three people and the way their deception makes things take different forms at different times.

I bought this book after I read Fractured by the same author because I liked the character of Special Agent Will Trent and wanted to read more about his personal story. This book did not disappoint, as the plot moved at a cracking pace. There were plenty of unexpected twists that kept me turning the pages, and re-reading some parts to discover how the author expertly wove the pattern of deception.

I love the way Karin Slaughter handles her characters. Unlike clean predictable sleuths such as Temperance Brennan (Kathy Reich’s forensic anthropologist), Karin Slaughter comes up with more vulnerable and gritty characters for her police force. They show many human frailties that anyone can relate to and sympathize with. Her characters fight their private battles as they are fighting crime, and this makes them all the more appealing.

The story starts with the murder and mutilation of Aleesha Munroe, a prostitute and a drug addict living in one of Atlanta’s rough neighborhood. Detective Michael Ormwood is in charge, but he soon finds out that he needs to work with Special Agent Will Trent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Will Trent is helping out because the murder has some similarities with other attacks around the state. Within 24 hours Michael’s next door neighbor is found dead in his backyard and in order to solve the mystery the two men need to look back into a past that refuses to stay buried.

I will not elaborate more on this excellent thriller in order not to spoil it for future readers. More than just a good thriller the story challenges the perceptions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. It showed the grim reality of prison and why a convicted felon almost always ends up back in prison.

I will remember many characters in this book. For example there was the mother character who fought bravely and unrelentingly for her son, it was a character I related to. She stands in contrast to the mother who fought blindly for her son doing a lot of damage to people’s lives in the process.
Another character later in the book speaks poignantly about her children: “It’s the most wonderful blessing God has given us, our ability to bring a child into the world. You hold them in our arms that first time, and they are more precious than gold. Every breath you take after that is only for your child”. This is so true.

Book : Fractured

Fractured (Will Trent, #2)Fractured by Karin Slaughter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the first time in my life when I read a detective novel solely for the character of the investigators. The story starts very strong with the nightmare scenario of a rich woman coming back from tennis to find her daughter lying in a pool of blood and a man kneeling above her holding a bloody knife.

The story does not improve from then on, and the only bright sparks are the side stories of the investigators.
The crime drama unfolds over the course of three days with following up the usual leads in the tradition of CSI and Law and Order, the only thing is that it takes longer to get to the conclusion and when it finally comes it is a little bit of a cliche. It would have been all deadly boring if it was not for the interest in the character of Will Trent, a Special agent who grew up as a ward of the state, and Faith Mitchell the 33-year old detective whose son is a college freshman. I think I had a secret wish for them to get involved romantically, but by the end of the book they only managed to hit it off to a friendship and a long-term partnership.

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That’s Me in The Corner

Last week I reconnected with a dear friend from the home country and we had an online chat. The talk led me down memory lane and made me think of old songs and music that I listened to in the past, songs that punctuated my life and formed a sort of accompanying sound track to its incidents.

I think everyone has these songs, those that we fell in love to, and those that helped us fall out of love.  Because of my background my soundtrack is an odd mixture of influences and genres, my current iPod play list has songs in Arabic, English, Spanish and German in addition to instrumentals, new age and podcasts. For this blog though I will stick with songs that have special significance for my life.

The melancholy strings of REM’s Losing My Religion take me back to my marriage. I picture myself sitting next to my husband in the car humming along to the words that spoke of my life.

My marriage was a singular fight of trying to keep up with my ex and trying to squeeze out a little bit of love and appreciation out of him. I often felt I was stuck in a corner, especially at the beginning of our relationship when I literally had nobody to turn or speak to. Sometimes I thought the feelings we shared originated only in my wishful thinking or my dreams, because there was nothing tangible in my life to show that he loved me. That is exactly what I thought the singer was talking about when he said:

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spot light losing my religion. Trying to keep up with you and I don’t know if I can do it.  Now I said too much, I haven’t said enough. I thought that I heard you laughing, I thought that I heard you sing. I think I thought I saw you try.

Listening to it now is like riding in an emotional time capsule, it takes me back ten years to the feelings, the emotions and the torment. I can see myself then, in the passenger seat of a car on a Johannesburg free-way, humming along to the song next to a silent and brooding partner. Yes, that was me in the corner.. No more, no more.

Book : The Samaritan’s Secret

The Samaritan's SecretThe Samaritan’s Secret by Matt Rees

I kind of goofed up by picking up this work thinking that it is an earlier installment of the Omar Youssef series than another book I own, but this is the third item in the series not the first.

The setting is what makes these detective stories interesting. Omar Youssef is not the typical policeman he is a Palestinian school-teacher who finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery. This time he is traveling to Nablus with his family to attend a wedding of a police officer colleague when a tragedy strikes and a body is discovered in the vicinity of Samaritan temple. The victim is Ishaq, the son of the temple custodian, who was also the financial adviser of a senior political figure in the Palestinian hierarchy.

True to old-style detective novels Omar Youssef unravels the layers of the mystery surrounding the murder, giving us in the meantime a snapshot of life in the West Bank, the Palestinian realities of corruption, extremism and survival. It also gives some insight into the small Samaritan community resident near Nablus.
I found this a very quick and interesting read, a good old-fashioned mystery with clear-cut motives and none of the high-tech investigation style, which I suppose is something to be expected considering the setting of the West Bank.

Book: The Rowing Lesson

Rowing Lesson, The by Anne Landsman

Betsy Klein is summoned from New York to the bedside of her dying father. The father who is the main protagonists is lying in coma, and already exists only as a memory in the mind of his loving daughter who takes us through his journey from his adolescence in the rural western cape to becoming a man as a student in Cape Town and beyond that to her experience of him as a father teaching her to row on on a river near George.
One cannot help the feeling that these are actual memories from a real life. The first part for me was fascinating as it traced some of South Africa’s history during the great wars. It also drew random pictures of the life of a Jewish family in George. The writer did not shy away from describing the father as he truly was, a lover of nature, a helpful physician but also a stubborn brute with evil temper and embarrassing outbursts. The father as the central character played out his role as son, orphan, jealous brother, adolescent at the cusp of his first sexual experience, student away from and home, suitor, doctor, husband, father, father-in-law and patient. All of his roles were refreshingly real and flawed, his frail humanity showing at every stage.
The book reminded me a collage, a collection of memories with Harold Klein at their center, it was all too obvious that the book will inevitably end with his death, but I was hoping for a more fitting farewell something more substantial. His death when it came was like an exhalation of a final breath, quick, silent and anti-climatic.

This a thought-provoking literary book for someone who wants something a little challenging.

Book: Shatter

Shatter Shatter by Michael Robotham
This is the first book I read by Australian author Michael Robotham. Joseph O’Loughlin is a clinical psychologist who gets called to talk down an unidentified naked woman poised to jump from Clifton Suspension Bridge. He is unable to communicate with here as she seemed to focus on someone else speaking to her through a cell phone, and ends up jumping in front of his eyes. A few days later the victim’s daughter shows up on Joe’s doorstep, and voices her own doubts about her mother’s ability to commit suicide.

This enters Joe into a personal battle with the evil mind of a killer. Someone who can humiliate, violate and break his victims by shattering their minds. The story is a fast-moving and terrifying thriller full of characters you can relate to. Joe himself is a broken and flawed; he suffers from Parkinson, and has no illusions about his powers of understanding the human mind. There are many interesting insights in the narrative that make it more than just a fiction thriller.
Joe experiences a range of emotions that anyone can recognize, and dissects them in a very self-effacing way. He says he got involved into psychology in the first place to better understand the woman he loves, his wife Julianne, but he admits that she remains largely a mystery to him. Joe also reflects on the variability of the human mind, the different ways people deal with pressure and grief. He makes very truthful observation about family, love and children. It is heartbreaking to note throughout the book that it is much easier to break a human mind than to heal it. The fractures of the human mind are mostly on the inside.

The book is written from the first person perspective of both Joe the psychologist and the perpetrator, bringing in contrast their treatment of the human mind, and adds a chilling aspect to the novel.

Here is a quote that touched close to my heart spoken by a minor character. She is a mother describing one feeling that is common to all parents:
“You never stop worrying. You worry through the pregnancy, the birth, the first year and every year that follows. You worry about them catching the bus, crossing the road, riding a bike, climbing a tree.. You read stories in newspapers about terrible things happening to children. It makes you frightened. It never goes away. And then you think how they grow up so quickly and suddenly you don’t have a say any more. You want them to find the perfect boyfriend and the perfect husband. You want them to get their dream job. You want to save them from every disappointment, every broken heart, but you can’t. You never stop being a parent. You never stop worrying. If you’re lucky, you’re going to be around to pick up the pieces”.

 

Book : Baking Cakes in Kigali

Baking Cakes in Kigali Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Angel Tungaraza is a Tanzanian expat in Kigali, Rwanda. Her husband works as a special consultant at a local university and she has her own home-based business, baking individually designed western-style cakes. This helps make extra money for her large family, because after the death of both her children she cares for five grandchildren and their young minder.

As Angel designs the perfect cake for each customer and occasion she gets to know her customers and becomes sometimes part of their lives, and through their stories we get to know their world. Angel is true to her name compassionate, and exceptionally tolerant. She intervenes whenever she can giving people a push in what she figures is the right direction or helping them see things more clearly. Her good intention are rewarded most of the time.

There are many issues encountered in this book: The Rwandan genocide, AIDS, child soldiers, Gender equality, sexual orientation, poverty, African identity, female genital mutilation, and African wildlife (especially the endangered gorillas) among many others.
Angel is someone I would love to have as my best friend, because she has exceptional understanding and tolerance for all these themes. Although the book does not explain how a woman who has always lived on the continent and only went for visits to Germany, while her husband did postgraduate studies there, could arrive at such worldly tolerance and wisdom.

The book is fine for people who do not know anything about Africa, it brings it to them gently. It does not vilify Wazungu (White people) completely although it is funny to note that the only two asshole characters were a Canadian working for the International Monetary Fund and an American who the whole community knows to be working for the CIA. Other minor baddies/ eccentrics include an unbalanced former child soldier, the drunk manager of the building, and the Indians who are afraid of catching their death from germs; these characters all come across more comical than evil. All African characters are essentially good, even the prostitute is an honest working woman who looks after two sisters and an orphan.

If you are willing to suspend your disbelief for a few hours, and enjoy a story where small people try to make a difference and succeed, then you will enjoy this book. It is gentle and warm, does not have a complex plot, and reads like a series of stories with some direct sermonizing. But a skeptic like me would end up with a few exclamation marks (!) knocking about inside my head. For example, how on earth could an Italian-born man be such a strong proponent of “circumcising” his own daughter, while her Somali mother is not ?

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Solo Adventure: 24 Hours in Geneva

Geneva is a very small city. The airport is no more than 15 minutes away, which made my transport to town really easy.

I arrived at my hotel before regular check-in time and had to store my overnight bag and then go out to explore the area and the site of my interview tomorrow. It is very good that I have one night to rest and tomorrow I will leave right after the interview.

My flight was uneventful, except that my next door neighbor was a talkative Austrian with a keen interest in sailboats. In fact he was in Cape Town to finish a catamaran he is planning to sail around the world soon. So we kept each other company for parts of the evening and then he fell asleep and I resorted to watching movies for the rest of the night. I arrived in Frankfurt groggy and tired and we parted ways to go to our respective flights; but we exchanged emails and he promised to give me a call when he is next in Cape Town to check up again on his boat.

I walked about in Geneva until check-in time. I bought a wi-fi account and the hotel provided a city transport ticket for two days, and I took advantage of it during the afternoon.  First though I freshened up and treated myself to lunch and a Swiss beer, I tried to fit the role of a business traveller (not very well). Later I explored the town, a bit of the lake and stopped at a supermarket to buy some supplies for dinner. I bought Muessli to take home, some cake and bananas which will have to do for my dinner.

When I settled in the evening at my hotel I had some time to type emails and look at my notes for the interview. I was so tired by the early evening that I slept without any problem, without worrying about a thing.