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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Obscurity

The latest mindless book I read was by Evelyn Anthony. I am happy to say that I no longer have any of her works in my possession, this is the last one and it is going out the window soon. The title is obscure enough that only ten people have it listed on librarything.com. I am not listing it because I try to appear a little more intelligent than I am.

Today I have resumed menstruating unexpectedly. My body is perhaps telling me that I am ready for the next baby, which is not bloody likely to happen unless I get raped – well lets not tempt fate shall we, this place is full of nasty crime and I am not planning on becoming another statistic.

On Saturday the weather was extremely hot, Sunday was cloudy and humid, today it is raining and cool. But give me the cold any day instead of the suffocating heat.Hubby is resuming his social life, which is a great success since he never had one to start with. Yesterday he was out with (???). He later said that they went to a pizza place and a fish restaurant. Well, whatever floats his boat. Meanwhile I am still coasting and waiting for what he comes up with in the next few weeks. He wants some time, and as he constantly drones whenever I try to talk it out with him : “Give me a break”.A friend of mine spent the weekend in Swellendam, which is medium sized town two hours away from here. She and her family are planning to relocate there. Considering that she has a very successful swim school here and her husband runs a successful plumbing business, the move might be foolhardy, but I can fully understand. People move on with their lives, they take charge and they make workable plans. Unlike my husband who is fond of dreaming of whatever is not achievable at the moment.I also have plans. I can relocate with my son to join my family. I can also move upcountry and build a small house. I have thousands of different plans. The only problem I have is the husband, who has a difficult time accepting available options.

I have been knitting as well. Knitting is therapeutic and very relaxing. As you build up the stitches of your work, your mind wanders and you consider your life. I hatched many dreams and plans as I was knitting. I even came up with a plot of a new story. It is a kind of sci-fi scientific thriller and takes place in a futuristic world where women learned to do without men. They even managed to pro-create by cloning without the need for men. Quite a neat idea, don’t you think, but it doesn’t end as you would expect, because women in the end are their own worst enemy and they actually give men the power over them. My story is still unformed, but the knitting has taken shape and it is a purple turtle that will find its home with a special little girl. There are plenty of flaws and mistakes in the turtle, but I learned quite a few techniques by making it. The pattern had just enough kinks and twists to be challenging.While my husband was painting the town I cooked and I baked. I cooked a kind of paella with a tin of mackerel, which turned out a little bland. Then I baked chocolate brownies which were slightly over-baked and tasted funny. The recipe came from here. I thought it had too much salt for one thing, and then there was no vanilla or any other flavouring. I had my fill of chocolate batter and crunchy over-baked, funny tasting brownies. I simply pigged out, since there is no one at home with beady eyes to watch every mouthful that I take. Yes, I needed it.

Another Spy Thriller

One day I will finally get through the masses of books that I bought in another life. I have a sort of masochistic rule: If you bought it, you have to read it before tossing it out the window. So for every new interesting book I read, I have to get through three old unfashionable ones. This is one of those latter ones.

Evan Kendrick is a larger-than-life all American hero, a la Rambo (minus muscles plus brain and wit), he gets involved in a commando operation in Oman, and from then on lots of other trouble.

During the adventure he joins forces with one Kahlela Adrienne Rashad, a special agent, half Egyptian Arab and half American. He is also reunited with a business partner, father figure, Emmanuel Weingrass, a Jewish, eighty-something old man with connections to the Mossad and impressive fighting skills, both physical and verbal.

 

Conspiracy is the name of the game and it keeps going on and on. I think what made me buy this book years ago was the Arab and Middle East connection, but the treatment of the region was extremely shallow. Yes, duh, what did I expect? What is really funny however is the rendering of Arabic in some of the dialogue, for example, a seedy neighbourhood in Masqat is transliterated as الشارع المش كويس literally : the no-good street, as if we Arabs lack the imagination and the tact to call it anything else. Besides who came up with خليلة Kahlela as an Arabic name? and teaching us that it is pronounced Kai-Layla or something like that? It actually means mistress (as in lover) among other things, and no Arab man in his right mind will call his daughter that name.

I still have three Ludlums to get through, but then no more, so help me god.

Ten Weeks: Introducing the Extremeties

We managed to get out this weekend again. This time we moved away from the touristy areas towards Rondebosch, which is a central district of Cape Town, and very popular with the younger crowd due to its proximity to the University of Cape Town (UCT). The main destination for our visit was a location for a book exchange in Rondebosch Mall. This part of the outing was a huge disappointment, so the less said about it the better. The only benefit was unloading some of my trashy airport literature, which I managed to accumulate over the years, but I still cannot bring myself to part with before reading first. In the exchange basket I also left the book I was reading at the hospital and during Robert’s first week. It is a very old book :”The Beautiful is Vanished” by Taylor Caldwell. The subject matter was depressing, as it is about a father losing his only son in the First World War. Later in the book the stricken father remarries and has another child, but the open ending of the story leaves us to anticipate that this child will be faced with the next war. I think I cried several times while I was reading that book, because all of a sudden I could completely relate to the emotional turmoil of the bereaved father. I hope and pray that I will never have to dissuade my own child from participating in a war. But I digress; the mission of unloading my books was accomplished in roughly thirty seconds, after which we were left with an unplanned chunk of time, so we chose to walk around a bit in the leafy streets of Rondebosch.

We took one of the pathways around the Baxter Theatre, and ended up somewhere within the UCT campus. Some of the walkways we trampled are over a century old, and there are many interesting historical pointers along the way. We also inspected the cricket field, where I saw real wickets and stumps for the first time. Cricket is not a known sport where I grew up, but it will probably be a sport that my son will play in the future.
Sunday was another cold day, so we stayed put at home, and Robert got to wear his warm sweater again, while he snoozed away in his seat. The big event for him this week is starting to discover his hands, and to grasp things. Up until now, if we closed his hand over a piece of cloth or a toy he would hold on to it, and sometimes for a very long time, but without really being aware of this. Grasping was more of a reflex than a willful act, but this is gradually changing.

His hands are starting to reach out towards things, but mostly he is doing lots of exploring to his own face. After several trial and error attempts where he swats at his own eye or nose, his fingers finally find his oral cavity and start exploring inside it. Sometimes he is so rough he brings himself to gag, but the rest of the time he just puts his fist, and his fingers there, and slobbers all over. His interest in his surrounding is increasing by the day; a week ago I suspended a pom pom, a crocheted circle and a ball made of tinfoil while he sat in his car seat, the idea was to encourage him to swat at these objects and develop his small motor coordination. These objects remained mostly unnoticed, but now he started to look at them, and observe them swinging back and forth, when he rocks his chair. Inadvertently, he swiped at them a few times, but he has yet to reach out for them.

Another first for this week was when Robert went to sleep on his own. It was one of those days when his bedtime came while he was still wide awake, and since he was clean and no longer interested in feeding, I thought it was fair to leave him be in his cot, while I got my own dinner. Surprisingly, he lay back in his cot, very relaxed and spoke to the colourful animals hanging above his head. There was minimal fussing and soon he drifted to la la land. Both Ron and I hoped that this will be the shape of things to come.

Also, the incidents of stomach cramps, and gas have become relatively rare, which in turn means general relief from the crying fits that went along with it. This development comes as Robert’s digestive system becomes more efficient. Some of the notable pointers in this area are: less frequent trips to the changing table as bowel movements become less frequent (but more substantial), and less time spent winding or burping. In the first few weeks of his life, it used to take me up to ten minutes to get a single bubble out, but now I get a huge satisfying belch in a few seconds.

According to what I read, the third month in a baby’s life brings the most exciting changes. Ron and I are beginning to see these changes and watch out for new ones, because every single day Robert shows us something new.