Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This book was published in 1989 but I never heard of it until Oprah had it as a book club selection this past year. Then my friend Aisling lent it to me this summer along with a bunch of other books, and she told me both she and her husband really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to reading it.

At 1076 pages, it is a very thick book and a great one to keep at the side of your bed and read a bit in every night. The advantage to it being so thick is that, even if you get swept up in the story and want to keep reading late into the night, you know there is no possible way you can reach the end so you give up quicker and leave it for the next night and get more sleep! At least that's how it was for me.

And I did get swept up in the story, but at the same time I was able to take my time (a real feat for me) and savor it. At times it has the feel of a trashy romance novel, especially in the numerous rape scenes, but aside from that, it is an epic historical novel, following priests, builders, townspeople, earls, knights and the politics of a town in medieval England that is building a cathedral. I especially enjoyed the connection to real English history with the ups and downs of the crown and how it affected the local people. A great read!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Red Room

No, not "Redrum" from The Shining.... Red Room is an online social network for authors, readiers, literary agents, book clubs. My mom pointed it out to me, and it looks very interesting. Especially the "write a novel in a month" challenge! Very interesting...

Mary just sent me a new supply of New York Times Book Reviews and after reading just one issue, I have a list of at least six books I'd like to read. I don't think my local library is going to be that up to date on English language literature, so I will just have to add them to my notebook and have hope or wait til my next trip to the US or England. But it is amazing how enthralling it can be to read something written about something written and read.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Anita Shreve: A Wedding in December

My mom and I were just talking about how you can get on a reading jag with books by a certain author, voraciously devouring everything they've written and anxiously waiting for the next one to come out. And how, then, inevitably, you get tired of that particular author's books, they start to sound a bit the same, and then you stop being so enthuisiastic when a new book comes out.

The nice thing is, after you've broken up with your author for some time, you can often come back to their books and really enjoy the reunion! You read something new by them again, after a long time, and you remember why you loved their books so much in the first place.

My mom has just had this experience with Patricia Cornwall, I have recently with John Grisham (see below) and now Anita Shreve, with her novel "A Wedding in December" which was published in 2005.

A while back I read everything I could get my hands on by Shreve. I think she is an incredibly gifted writer and a wonderful craftsman of tales. This latest novel did not disappoint me. It follows a group of high school friends, now in their forties, who meet at for the wedding of two of them. They all have had their struggles over the years, some have secrets, some have major health problems and they all still grieve the death of one of their friends back during their high school days.

I certainly can relate to that feeling you start getting as you hit your forties and start ruminating about certain points in your life, the "road not taken", the "what if's", and others of your generation that you haven't heard from in years! This novel explores that for all of the characters - while they all have totally different lives, they are still touched by their shared past. It was a great read.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Testament by John Grisham

Remember that Bookcrossing book I found a while back at Greenway in Leuven? Well I just finished it on Sunday. I was down and out with the flu and spent the whole day napping and reading and being taking care of by my husband and boys (they did a good job).

This book was exactly what I expected: a fast paced story, lots of legal twists and turns, colorful characters, and once I got into it, I was unable to put it down. I have always enjoyed Grisham's novels and this was no execption.

The story follows the legal battle over billionaire Troy Phelan's last will and testament - he excludes his six children in favor of giving all the money to a daughter he has never known as she was given up for adoption long ago. Lawyer Nate O'Riley has to track her down in the Pantanal area of Bolivia where she is a missionary, at the same time he has to keep his own demons in check.

The part of the novel that takes place in the Pantanal is well researched and captivating. So I learned something about this part of the world.

I am going to be posting about this book over on Bookcrossing, too, and will be releasing it into the wild sometime soon (although I think my husband wants to read it before I let it go)!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Something to Share

This summer we accidentally discovered a lovely bookstore in Brussels: Passaporta Bookshop. Not only was it open on Sunday afternoon and offered coffee and a place to sit, it is definitely one of those bookstores that invites browsing and perusing and generally getting lost among its stacks of treasures (my sister Christy will tell you this is one of my major character faults - do not take me into a bookstore if you have to be somewhere else on time later, for some reason "bookstore" trumps "not wanting to be late").
One of things I discovered at Passaporta was a new series by Penguin called "Great Journeys": a series of 20 slim volumes of excerpts from history's greatest adventurers' stories. I could not resist - the books have beautiful artwork and are such a dotey size, you can't help but pick them up. I actually ended up buying several of them, for gifts but also for myself, which felt really indulgent. But like I said, books are a real weakness!
I just finished number 16 in the series, "The Congo and the Cameroons" by Mary Kingsley, who writes about her travels in Equatorial West Africa in the late 1800's. It is amazing to follow her up and down the Great Peak of the Cameroons, through mangrove swamps, in all sorts of weather, narrowly avoiding bottomless pits, and doing it all on her own, in charge of her own troop consisting of a cook, boys to carry water and supplies, and several trackers. She was certainly a woman who did not let the prevailing customs of her day stop her in her love of travel and adventure and Africa itself:
Why did I come to Africa? thought I. Why! who would not come to its twin brother hell itself for all the beauty and charm of it!
After her second trip to Africa, she wrote the bestselling "Travels in West Africa" (1897), from which the Penguin book is excerpted. Tragically, during her third trip to Africa, while working as a volunteer nurse in a POW hospital during the Boer War, she died from enteric fever at the age of 37.
The Penguin series is a great opportunity to get acquainted with these obscure but amazing writers from long ago - when travelling was still a grand but risky adventure and there was so much of the world still to be discovered!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Back to Bookcrossing?

Yesterday I was so excited. You see, I was having lunch with a friend at Greenways, a nice little vegetarian spot in Leuven, and we accidentally discovered a whole pile of Bookcrossing books sitting on the table next to us. (Well, actually it was after my friend accidentally knocked over the table and we were picking the stuff up, that we discovered the books!) There were several in English, a couple in Dutch and one in French.

I had to explain to my friend what Bookcrossing is because she had never heard of it. It's basically a way to share books you've read and what you thought about them with complete strangers and at the same time be able to follow the book's journey around (ideally) the entire world, by leaving the books to be "found" in public places. First, of course, you register the book on the Bookcrossing website, whereby it gets its own specific number, which you write in the book.

I've been a member of Bookcrossing for about four years, and I love the whole idea behind it, but I gave up on it after a while because I got discouraged, none of my books ever really being "found". I did pass on some books to friends, hoping they might journal about them on the site and pass them on to others, or trade with other Bookcrossing members, but it never really took off for me. Perhaps I will have to give it another shot, now that I know I good spot to leave books in Leuven.

What book did I pick up yesterday? The Testament by John Grisham, left behind by someone from Gent. I'll write more about it here and on the Bookcrossing site as soon as I've read it!

Monday, September 29, 2008

I'm Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti

Another entry for Book Around the World, this time for Italy! My friend Aisling lent me this book - we always exchange books in the summer - and it turned out to be a gripping, tragic story.

The story is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Michele, a boy living with his sister and parents in a small village in Italy in 1978. It's a blisteringly hot summer and Michele and his friends bike around the hills, trying to stay out of the adults' way and have a good time. Unfortunately they make a discovery in an old abandoned barn that will change their lives forever.

It was certainly hard to put this book down once it got into the thick of things. The tension builds up as the ending approaches. Apparently it was also made into a movie. Finally, the novel bears a strong connection to many of the themes in Lord of the Flies. Not uplifting, but beautifully written.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why, by Amanda Ripley

I received this book completely free in the mail through the program Read It Forward. I was excited to get it, because I had actually read a short review of it in Oprah magazine, and it sounded interesting. While I was reading it, it was the week of 9/11 and there was a lot in the news and on TV about those days. I saw the film United 93 and a National Geographic special on 9/11 at the time I was reading the book, so it all seemed incredibly topical to me, not to mention the fact that we had just returned from a visit to the US and had just been through all the international plane travel hullaballo. Who doesn't think about a disaster happening while travelling?

Amanda Ripley is a Time Magazine journalist and her book is excellently written and researched. In spite of its very serious subject matter I highly enjoyed it. Using examples and survivor stories from various disasters, accidents, and terrorist attacks, Ripley walks us through the different stages people go through when put in such a dire situation. Reactions ranging from denial, fear, resilience, panic, paralysis, and heroism are all explored.

Of course, what I was most interested in were Ripley's recommendations for those of us who might one day be in an unthinkable situation. The website for the book has more specific advice here, but two things she does mention in the book struck me:

- always read the safety card on every plane (all plane models are different) and be sure to locate the nearest exit as you board
- after checking into a hotel, take the stairs down from your room so you are familiar with a safe route out

And it is important to be aware of the normal psychological pitfalls that we are all liable to fall into as unexpected things happen, such as being overly optimistic or passive or sucumbing to group dynamics; by reading this book, you can make yourself more aware of what they are and hopefully keep yourself safe in future.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mira Stout: One Thousand Chestnut Trees

I found this book at my library and it sounded intriguing, about an young American woman whose mother immigrated from South Korea and her search for her identity through her mother's memories of Korea during the war as well as during her own actual visit to family in South Korea in 1987. It is a fascinating story, although I only really got into it when she finally got to her grandmother and mother's stories in Korea, and then at the end, her own visit there.

This book will teach you a lot of facts about Korea's history but at the same time it is an incredibly moving story of a family being torn apart by war and repression, first by the Japanese and then through the events of the Korean War. Living abroad myself, I could relate to many of the author's thoughts and impressions on being multicultural, removed from your home country, feeling like an alien. Of course, for her, being half caucasian and half asian brought its own challenge:

Naïvely I had expected to discover an instant identity; to be clasped to the country's bosom and greeted like a returning prodigal daughter. Instead I drew stares of indifference, incredulity or sufferance. After all, I was an outsider. Being half-caste had the same effect in the East as in the West. Your face was subliminally unsettling to both races. Eyes brushed over you as if you did not quite count, you were an aberration, a blip that would be smoothed over by the next manifestly white or coloured face that came into view

Stout writes about the division of Korea, and the families that were split by it, in a way that makes it seem so tangible to those of us who cannot imagine having no news, no visits, no information whatsoever about our loved ones. I got as choked up as the main character did while she visited the demilitarized zone:

A strange pressure built up behind the lump in my throat, burning and pushing at my chest; a surge of grief so powerful that I knew it could not be mine alone, but an accumumated, collective grief. My mother's unclaimed loss lay within me, along with aunts', uncles', and grandparents' suffering, and the interwoven despair of myriad families similarly caught in this division.

While visiting Korea she briefly toys with the idea of staying there, learning the language and making a life there. She can appreciate the way the Koreans' lifestyle differs from what she has known in the United States:

I felt exhausted by being American; weathering a constant storm of revisionism and the accompanying babble of inflamed opinion; the abrasive worship of celebrity and riches; even the massive choice of junk foods in the supermarket was tiring...

The descriptions of life in Korea are detailed and fascinating, the cultural mishaps often amusing. An engaging story that allows the reader to learn a great deal about the country - the perfect kind of book for the Book Around the World Challenge!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Garth Stein: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Jenny and Mark brought this book with them on their recent visit to us and left it for me to read and bring back to Mom (our own family version of Bookcrossing). I was initially very resistant to reading it, as I try to avoid books and movies with dogs, because they are always too sad - something bad always happens to the dog. But both Jenny and Mark convinced me that this book was worth it, and yes, although the dog does die at the end, that it is from natural old age and not some tragic accident, so I gave in and put it in my carry on to read on the plane.

Well the first chapter got me all teary eyed from the get go, and by the end, on the last leg of our journey I was nearly bawling - having to dig in my bag and find a tissue to blow my nose. The story IS sad, but it WAS worth reading.

The race car references were a bit over my head at times, but I absolutely loved the part when the main character, Denny, takes his dog, Enzo, the narrator of the story, for a test run at the race track, Enzo's first and only time to join his master at top speed. In fact what makes this book brilliant is the way the writer gets us inside Enzo's head, showing us what he thinks, feels, and observes. Incredibly well done.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Summer reading

Why, oh why, do I do this to myself? Staying up til the wee hours reading books that I just can't put down, because I have to find out what happens! I was at our library on Saturday and brought two books home and now I am all finished and hoping to sleep at a reasonable hour tonight!

Anita Shreve: Body Surfing

Just finished this last night! The story of a young woman, Sydney, who has been divorced once and widowed once by the age of 29, and is spending the summer at a cottage on the shore as a tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family. All is well til the two older sons arrive for the weekend, and one of them sweeps Sydney off her feet. This causes a rift between the two brothers, and a year later, on her wedding day, Sydney finds out why.

I enjoyed it, Shreve's novels are always so well written, they just barrel you along like a train. The characters are well presented, real people. And the twist between the two siblings certainly gave me food for thought!

Jodi Picoult: The Pact

This was the one that kept me up all Sunday night. This book is already ten years old, but I hadn't heard of it. I have a read some of Picoult's other books and enjoyed them, and this one is just as engaging.

It's the story of two neighboring families who have a son and daughter, respectively, who have grown up together all their lives and become a couple in high school. The daughter carries a secret with her that makes her desperately unhappy and she convinces her boyfriend, the son, to help her commit suicide. The rest of the story follows the prosecution of the son for killing her, and what this does to everyone involved.

Well written, could not put it down! Even though the outcome was what I was rooting for, in some sense, it did not come across as believable that a jury would make that decision at the end of that trial. It seemed a bit too convenient.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tara Brach: Radical Acceptance

The full title of this book is "Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha". I bought it some time ago in my attempts to explore meditation and fit a practice into my daily life. I've done quite some reading on the subject, quite a lot less actual meditation, but it is still something I strive towards as it has huge benefits, spiritually, mentally, as well as physically.

Tara Brach's book approaches meditation through the Buddhist concept of Radical Acceptance, which Brach defines as "the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is." By accepting everything as it is in the present moment, we free ourselves from suffering and pain. Of course, this is no simple task, it takes attention to our state of mind, which is best achieved through the practice of meditation, for which the book gives detailed instruction of many types and ways to meditate.

Another crucial concept in the book is compassion, both for ourselves and others. The first step is to have compassion and loving kindness for ourselves, and then move on to extend it to people around us:

Even if we don't like someone, seeing their vulnerability allows us to open our heart to them. We might vote against them in an election, we might never invite them to our home, we might even feel they should be imprisoned to protect others. Still, our habitual feelings of attraction and aversion do not have to overrule our basic capacity to see that, like us, they suffer and long to be happy...Our circle of compassion naturally widens to include them.

In what was to me one of the best chapters in the book, Brach further talks about seeing the goodness in and forgiving ourselves and others. A Herculean task sometimes, but something worth striving for as being able to forgive is so important in relieving pain and suffering:

We maintain the intention to forgive because we understand that not forgiving hardens and imprisons our heart. If we feel hatred toward anyone, we remain chained to the sufferings of the past and cannot find genuine peace. We forgive for the freedom of our own heart.

Brach's book is filled with insight, food for thought, case histories from her therapy clients and her own personal experiences with meditation and Radical Acceptance, and detailed instructions of how to go about incorporating these ideas into your life. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

Who else had to read this in high school? We had this one year, I think it might have been sophomore English class with Mr. Seidel, where we had to read all these very depressing novels. Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, and a couple others along those lines. It seemed dangerous to me at the time, because if you were already a little bit bummed out, the books we had to read would have really pushed you over the edge.

I was at our library recently, stocking up on some books for summer, when this caught my eye. I thought my oldest might be interested in it, since he's an avid reader, and then I thought perhaps I would re-read it myself, wondering what the effect would be after all this time. I remember that reading it as a high school student, certain things in the book just didn't seem clear to me, and it always had this air of mystery to it for me.

Well, re-reading Lord of the Flies didn't have quite the same effect on me as when I saw the original Willie Wonka movie in college (I was amazed at how many things in that movie simply flew over my head as a kid), but I definitely "got" certain plot elements much better this time around. Especially the whole thing about the kids having confused a parachutist who crashed on the island as some kind of a "beast". Golding is sometimes very subtle in his way of describing certain things and you have to be reading with attention not to miss things.

The other thing that was interesting was reading it with the perspective of being a mom of three boys as opposed to being a teenage girl which gave me much more compassion and sympathy for the boys on the island. I felt sorry for them that things went so terribly wrong.

Another thing that was fun about reading it again was realizing how much the makers of the television series "Lost" must have been influenced by this book. Only a brilliant novel could still inspire us like that 50 years on.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I haven't seen the movie, but stopped in my local library last week and picked up a few novels in English, and decided to take this one home. I didn't know anything about it except that it was made into a movie and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, so I figured it must be good.

I just loved this book. The supsense in the first part of it was nearly unbearable, as you just know something bad is going to happen and the feeling of impending doom is palpable. I actually couldn't sleep the first evening I started it because I kept worrying about what was going to happen, and to whom.

Then the awful sequence of events starts to get underway and I had a sickening premonition of what it would be. And yes, three lives ruined, two families destroyed...and no way back, no way to fix it.

And then the war. Robbie as a soldier trying to get himself evacuated out of northern France, struggling for the landing beaches while suffering from a shrapnel wound in his side. Cecilia and Briony both nurses in military hospitals, with their gruelling work load. At the end a sort of reconciliation, a possibility of atonement...or is it?

The third and last section of the book was devastating: I had to read the fourth-to-last paragraph of the book at least five times before the "reality" of the ending got through to me. The promise of atonement and a life after the war were but a "fictional" account, nothing more.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

More on "The Sorrow of Belgium"

I was glad to be able to lend my copy of the English translation of "The Sorrow of Belgium" to a fellow blogger who just happened to be a student in one of my husband's classes (talk about that 'it's a small world" feeling!). The semester is drawing to a close, and my book came home with a nice note from Joan, where he gave his take on the first part of the novel:

From the first part I especially liked the description of Flanders and Belgium. It is also interesting, the personal evolution of Louis, how he loses many things throughout the years...It's amazing, the descriptive ability of Mr. Claus.

Joan promised to review the book if he ever finds time to finish it once he returns to Barcelona!

Samantha in the Netherlands also recently reviewed the book at: I enjoyed where she said sometimes she liked Louis and sometimes she didn't! I think this speaks to the ability of Hugo Claus to create complex charachters, that, just like people in real life, are not all good or all bad, but a mixture of both.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jeffrey Eugenides: Middelsex

I realize it's been nearly three weeks since I've posted here, and it's not that I haven't been reading but have simply been busy with other things. It seems that no matter how busy I get, reading is the one thing that I always have time for! Even if only for a few minutes before turning the lights out at night...

I finished Middelsex by Jeffrey Eugenides about two weeks ago, but did not find the time to sit down and post about it then, although I wanted to. The book is incredible, impressive and I got completely caught up in the story. Which surprised me, because when I first heard what the book was about, I had a hard time imagining being interested in it.

The story is about Callie Stephanides, a girl growing up in Detroit in the 1960's and 70's, the three generations of her Greek-American family, and her discovery as a teenager, that she is actually genetically a boy and the impact this has on her and the family.

This is a brilliant epic novel, and at the same time an intimate portrait. I loved the tale of the grandparents' immigration from Greece to America, their adjustment to life in Detroit, the portrait of Detroit itself through the years, and the way the family's life was depicted. I could totally relate to Callie's insecurities as a pre-teen girl (didn't we all feel ugly and awkward and insecure?) which for her became magnified a million times over by the discovery of her true identity.

I am including this novel in my "Book around the world" challenge for the United States, because I feel the novel, through its portrait of immigrants making their way in the new culture, assimilating but at the same time holding onto old traditions, tells us a lot about what is was like for so many millions of people who came to America. I am very interested in genealogy and how it must have been for them. The novel also gives us a view of a major American city, Detroit, and the way it changed over the years, through immigration, poverty and racial tensions.

It is a novel with many layers. And it is all so beautifully written and every character so fully alive and real! My only regret: I would love to hear the rest of the story of Cal and Julie and what happens to them in Berlin.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Maarten 't Hart: Het Dovenmansorendieet

Sorry to be going on again about a book in Dutch but my husband brought this home from the library and it was so good, I wanted to put an entry in about it. I have no idea if it might be translanted into English, but I'll try to give you an idea about it here.

Maarten 't Hart is a very well known Dutch novelist, whose books are required reading in school here. I had never heard of him, but my husband had to read him in secondary school. He also writes essays on various interesting subjects, like a recent book on composers and a scientific study of rats (!).

This book, of which the title could be translated as "The Falling on Deaf Ears Diet" is a very personal account of 't Hart's take on food and the point or pointlessness of trying to lose weight. The author lets us know right off the bat that he is a tall, thin, rather ascetic person, and has never really had a weight problem. His thesis is that, being thin and never having had a weight problem (except for the short time he lived with an overweight aunt and her family and ate what they ate), he might be able to help people who do have a weight problem by explaining to them his food habits.

The interesting thing, in reading the book, is that from his so interestingly described childhood in the Netherlands after the war, living through food shortages and austere meals at home, he comes full circle to a nearly vegan diet today, but perhaps not for the classic reasons. For example, while he does feel that fish and seafood must have been a very healthy part of human diet in the past, he simply cannot recommend eating it today because of the devastation to the oceans and the high risk of toxin contamination. He simply cannot bring himself to buy fish anymore. As far as dairy is concerned, he is a self-professed cheese lover, but limits himself because of the high fat and salt content, and recommends that people in the Netherlands should really cut back on their high dairy consumption, also citing Colin Campbell's work in "The China Study" (the book that originally got me on the path to veganism). As a young man he worked for a time in a local butcher and he says that after seeing what they put in all their sausages, cold cuts and other prepared meat products, he never ate them again. Finally, one of his most interesting theories about why so many people struggle with obesity today is that they simply drink too much, whether it be soft drinks, alcohol, or even water. Looking back, he says that people never drank so much in the past as they do today, and thinks the trend today whereby we constantly have something to drink is unnecessary.

For people who are interested in losing weight, he recommends:
- eat lots of laxative foods (fruit, veg, pulses, whole grains)
- moderation with bread, rice, pasta and other carbohydrate-rich foods
- get plenty of exercise
- avoid alcohol, sugar, packaged food "products" and all junk foods

Foods he recommends: quinoa, teff, amarant, buckwheat and other whole grains, brown rice, pulses, fruits and vegetables, potatoes (only boiled or steamed), rye and spelt breads, red wine (no more than two glasses a day), every day a handful of almonds, pumpkin seeds and dried apricots, all kinds of nuts, especially walnuts, olive oil, dark chocolate, tea, sea vegetables, and mushrooms, and quorn.

He does veer from vegan diets in that he also recommends butter (in moderation), yogurt, young cheese (preferably goat or sheep), buttermilk, cottage cheese and eggs - but he is able to obtain these products from a local dairy farmer who produces them biologically and without salt. Not everyone is able to get this kind of quality and freshness, and the guarantee that there are no hormones or other added uglies. My personal experience with eliminating dairy is that it can have profound health effects. Perhaps if one was able to get very high quality dairy to use in small amounts it might not be so detrimental. As for the eggs, he only uses eggs from his own chickens who live freely in his yard and eat lots of yummy weeds full of healthy omega 3's, but just this week the Belgian food agency released a study that shows home-produced eggs actually have higher levels of dioxins and other toxins than store bought eggs!

Finally, as above, he would recommend fish and seafood, if it were not for the environmental implications of those industries. And he says that anyone who wants to eat meat should be required to slaughter the animal themselves.

This book, while not very thick, was chock full of "food for thought" and completely took me by surprise in how he ends up promoting a near-vegan diet. At times the book reminds me of Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food" (he quotes Pollan many times). He is also an excellent writer and a real intellectual! Highly recommended to anyone who is as interested in food and health as I am.

Maarten 't Hart. Het Dovenmansorendieet. Arbeiderspers, 2007.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hugo Claus: The Sorrow of Belgium

In 1983, 25 years ago, Hugo Claus' Het Verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) was first published. Next to his poetry it is his most personal book; one in which he weaves many of his childhood memories. He spent his entire childhood, from the age of 18 months until he was eleven, in a boarding school, and this made a huge impact on his life.

The Sorrow of Belgium is a family epic which takes place from 1939-1947. Louis Seynaeve is eleven years old at the beginning of the story and attends a Catholic boarding school, where he together with three of his friends has a secret club called the "Four Apostles".

Louis' family is pro-German, and they are relieved when the Germans invade Belgium, as they feel the war will be good for Flanders and will help it to get out from under the domination of the French-speaking Belgians. Louis decides to become a writer, and once he begins to be exposed to other ideas and books, his opinion of the Germans slowly starts to change. When Belgium is liberated, Louis' family disintegrates; his father is arrested and jailed for collaborating with the Germans.

The book paints a detailed and colorful picture of Belgium: family relationships, village life, politics, poverty, Catholicism, and finally, it is an intimate portrait of a child's life and coming of age.

As I mentioned in a previous post, even before Hugo Claus passed away last week, there were many activities surrounding the 25th anniversary of this book, considered one of the classics in Belgian literature. One of those activities was a "reading marathon" held here in Leuven in February. DJ Bobby Ewing (our official "town DJ") has just made an audio "remix" of this event including well known Belgians reading passages from the book, set to music. It can be downloaded for free at:

A memorial service for Claus will be held this Saturday at 11 am in the Bourla Theatre in Antwerpen.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hugo Claus, 1929-2008

Today Hugo Claus died at the age of 78. He had had Alzheimers for several years and chose to have euthanasia, which took place this morning in Antwerp, Belgium.

Belgium is in mourning for one of our greatest artists. Hugo Claus was a writer, poet, painter, film directer and playwright. Having only ever read his most well known book, "The Sorrow of Belgium", I can't say I am very familiar with his work, but everyone here recognizes him as one of the monuments of Belgian literature.

This year, "The Sorrow of Belgium" celebrates its 25th anniversary. Just last weekend there was a whole section in our newspaper dedicated to it and a few weeks ago a "reading marathon" of it here in Leuven. I am currently re-reading it for "Book around the world" and will post more about the book itself in the future.

In the meantime, my sympathy goes out to the family and friends of Hugo Claus.

Anne Enright: The Gathering

This was an impulse purchase when I was out with my boys shopping at FNAC, the multimedia chain here that actually has a pretty good selection of English books. We were looking for the fourth book in the Wolf Brother series for my middle son (and he only wanted to read it in English) but they didn't have it - so we ended up ordering it from Amazon. Anyway, while we were in FNAC of course I had to browse the adult fiction section...and I ended up buying The Gathering, which won the Man Booker prize last year.

The few books by Irish writers I have read, I have enjoyed very much, and this was no execption. There is something faintly unfamiliar about Irish fiction that makes it exotic and interesting to me: certain words (like "eejit"!), a certain atmosphere of melancholy, the slightly different way of life that is portrayed, and of course the Irish language itself that pops up every now and then.

The Gathering is a dark first person account by a middle aged woman, Veronica, who is dealing with the suicide of the brother she was closest to in her large family, and at the same time dealing with many demons from her difficult childhood, but also her discontent with her present life, especially her marriage. In fact, the novel was much more about Veronica than her brother Liam. Veronica also spends a great deal of time imagining what her grandmother Ada's life was like when she was young and her strange relationship with her husband, Grandpa Charlie, and his best friend, Lamb, who ended up playing a pivotal role in the childrens' lives.

The novel touches on heavy themes: child abuse, alcoholism, mental illness...but also Veronica's struggle to love her husband and be a good mother:

...and it is just as you suspected - most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy to even love you, even that, let alone find their own shoes under their own bed; people who turn and accuse you - scream at you sometimes - when they can only find one shoe.

Haven't we all felt like that as mothers (or fathers) at times? Ultimately the book is a fatalistic view of families and how love is expressed, or not expressed, to our spouses, siblings, parents, children, aunts, uncles...

There are so few people given us to love...We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love anymore. And there is no logic or use to any of this, that I can see.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A suggestion

My friend Joy emailed me, having just read The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard. An Oprah book club entry. Joy said she spent the weekend speeding through it. "I had hesitated to pick it up, since it dealt with the kidnapping of a 3-year-old, but it was worth it (although I really did squirm at times). Another reason to read this: the author is another U of I alum!"

Joy and I both graduated from the University of Illinois so we love to support alumni authors! I have this sneaking suspicion that I already read it, but I am going to look it up at the library or on Amazon to make sure. We'd love to hear anyone else's comments on it!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Michael Pollan: In Defense of Food

One of my major interests is how diet affects health, and I have read a lot of books on this topic. Most recently, this book by Michael Pollan, who also wrote The Ominvore's Dilemma (which I haven't read). In Defense of Food is excellent. He doesn't try to scare people into veganism, but he shows very reasonably, how we can make better food choices, which affect not only our own health, but the whole food chain, in a positive way. His basic premise is: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

"Eat food" refers to Pollan's opinion that "the most important fact about any food is not its nutrient content but its degree of processing". Therefore we should be eating food as close to its natural state as possible, and avoiding processed food "products".

"Not too much" refers to Pollan's thoughts on good eating habits: eating regular meals instead of grazing all day long, eating less food but better quality, sitting down at the table, eating slowly, cooking at home, and even gardening.

Finally, "mostly plants" means just that: "a diet rich in vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of dying from all the Western diseases." Pollan does not require full fledged vegetarianism or veganism - eating very small amounts of meat is still acceptable and beneficial in his book.

I found this to be an eloquent exploration of our modern eating habits and how we do have the power to make small changes that have enormous impact. Read more about my own personal take on food at my health and fitness blog here:

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Johanna Spaey: Dood van een soldaat

I just finished reading this quirky novel, and in spite of the fact that it has not been translated into English, I wanted to mention it. I picked it up at our library which had a display of books by local writers. Johanna Spaey is a native of Leuven and born the same year as myself. The story takes place around Leuven in 1919 and follows a single female doctor in a small village who, together with the local "veldwachter" (rural police officer) is investigating the murder of a soldier, as well as trying to reconnect with her brother and boyfriend, who both returned from the war as broken men. It's part love story, part thriller, part detective novel, part feminist tract...

I wish it was translated into English: I'd love to pass it on to my mother because about every other chapter the doctor character is eating some kind of cake, pie or pastry, which I know she would get a kick out of! The story is a bit hectic and is like one of those plays where people are constantly going in and out of the doors on the stage - from one house to the next, back and forth...bit by bit the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

For more information on the author and her book, check out this website which promotes Dutch literature:

My husband just finished reading this novel and he actually liked it better than I did but found the ending confusing. And he is a native Dutch speaker...hmmm.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hugo Claus: The Sorrow of Belgium

Bonnie of the "Book around the world" challenge just let me know that she added The Sorrow of Belgium to the site: She wanted to know if I would be willing to write some comments (of course!) but since it has been 18 years since I read it, I am going to read it again. Which is quite ironic, since this year is the book's 25th anniversary and there was a reading marathon of it in Leuven last weekend. So it is actually a great opportunity to re-read a classic of Belgian literature. I own the English translation but I am seriously considering reading it in Dutch this time. When I first read it, my command of Dutch was nowhere near good enough to read it in the original but now it would work!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another fun reading challenge

Ok, I admit it, I've been spending some time lately lurking around other blogs about books! I found another intriguing reading challenge: books around the world: . The idea is to read a book dealing with each and every country in the world - thankfully there is no time limit! The challenge blog has a list with suggestions for many countries, but sadly enough they didn't have Belgium listed. So I suggested The Sorrow of Belgium by Hugo Claus. A wonderful book! Hopefully this will inspire someone to read it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Jane Austen book challenge

Being new to book blogging, I have been looking around at other blogs about books and literature and I discovered that there are loads of wonderful blogs by readers, writers, reviewers and book lovers like myself. A lot of them set up reading challenges. I found a blogger who's holding a Jane Austen challenge this year and decided to join in:

The goal is to read at least two Jane Austen novels in 2008. As it so happens I love Jane Austen, and always enjoy the movies. The Dutch TV channel is currently showing one of the BBC mini series of Pride and Prejudice, I think. Now I have a reason to get myself to the library this week to check some books out - as usual I know I've read some Austen novels, but simply cannot remember which ones. So this will be a good opportunity to sort that out once and for all.

On another note, we have just decided to go to London over spring break and I am so looking forward to making a stop at the Persephone bookshop. They are the coolest publisher, re-publishing literature by, for and about women in beautiful editions: I have never been to the bookshop in person, always ordered the books via post. I better bring an extra suitcase!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Zadie Smith: White Teeth

Remember I was busy reading this a few posts back? I just finished it and it took me longer than normal on this sort of novel. I think part of the reason I was slower with this was the large amout of dialogue in North London accents which I sometimes had to read several times to figure out what it was, or simply wanted to read it several times (sometimes even out loud!) to get a feel for how it would sound. But I'm not complaining - I often find myself zooming through books much too fast and it was nice to take this one a bit slower.

White Teeth was Zadie Smith's debut novel, published in 2000. It is a kind of epic novel following two main characters, Archie, an Englishman and Samad, Bengali, who were in the same tank crew in World War II, and who later in life meet again in North London, and the subsequent relationships between their wives and children. Late in the novel another family gets thrown into the mix. The novel is a rollercoaster ride from one theme to another, from one character to another, touching on things like race, immigrants, religion, genetic engineering, sibling rivalry, parenting, fundamentalism, class and cultural differences, feminism, love and history. It is a fascinating ride, very intellectual at times, humorous and entertaining at others. I have to say, despite the two main characters not being the easiest of protagonists to identify with (for me anyway) I ended up really enjoying the book. I also liked the way the author wove the image of teeth (from the title) in and out of the book.

My favorite character in the book was Irie, Archie's daughter, and the one I liked the least was Joyce, the mother of the third family that gets involved. And of course, Future Mouse steals the show at the end!

I also loved that the ending was very satisfying, tying up a few loose strings, bring some themes full circle and leaving you with the feeling that the characters lives went on and on, just like real people, but no dreadful feeling like I sometimes have with books, where it seems to me that the most interesting part of the characters lives is what comes after the conclusion of the book. No, with this book, I definitely have the feeling that I have just been served all the most significant parts of their lives and I can live quite happily with the ending.

I will definitely be looking to read more of Zadie Smith in the future. I noticed that our library has a few of her novels in the original and I am thinking On Beauty might be the next one I read.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thyroid Balance

Three years ago I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and while I don't have a severe case and have managed to do really well on hormone replacement, I do have to keep on top of it and have my levels checked periodically. The last few months I started to feel more and more of some of those odd little symptoms that signal that the thyroid is not working optimally, and scheduled my appointment with my doctor a bit sooner than usual, and lo and behold, my gut feeling was right - my TSH levels are nearly two points higher than they have been the last two years and it looks like I'll need to increase my dose a bit.

Why am I writing all of this in my blog about books? When I was first learning about hypothyroidism I bought several books on the topic and there is one in particular that I think is excelllent and I turn to it again and again for reference. One of the reasons my gut feeling worked so well is from what this book taught me to pay attention to. Just recently when I suspected there was something not right, I got it out and re-read certain parts to help me figure out what was going on. The book is:

  • Thyroid Balance: Traditional and Alternative Methods for Treating Thyroid Disorders. Glenn S. Rothfeld, M.D. and Deborah S. Romaine. (Adams Media, 2003)

What I love about this book are the excellent explanations of both hypo- and hyperthyroidism, the very clear information about the endocrine system as a whole, which is important to understand (at least to me, but I realize I am a wonk about health info - not everybody is going to find this as interesting as I do!), and the clear and unbiased review of all your options for treatment. Out of the several books I bought, this is the one I would definitely recommend as the one book you should have if you have any kind of thyroid problem.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Marianne Williamson's latest book

Marianne Williamson is one of my all-time favorite spiritual writers. Her writing and spiritual philosophy is based on the classic work A Course in Miracles, which is in itself so dense and difficult to understand, that Marianne's interpretation of it in her own books is far easier to understand and apply to real life than the Course itself, I find. The basic premise of the Course, as I understand it, is how the practical application of unconditional love and forgiveness for others as well as for ourselves can help us deal with all sorts of problems in our lives.

So of course while I was in the US recently and saw her newest book (The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Midlife) in the bookstore, I had to buy it. Unfortunately at the beginning I was a little disappointed by it. Simply because it felt to me that she was recycling insights she had already written elsewhere and that there was little new to be found, and it is fluffier than her previous books. Still, Marianne writes beautifully about love, forgiveness and spirituality, and by the end of the book I was happier with it. She applies the principles of the Course to the middle phase of life - 40 and up.

However, if I was recommending one of her books to read to someone who has never read her before it would not be my first choice. Here are three others I personally find better:

  • A Return to Love : Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles (1992)
  • Everyday Grace: Having Hope, Finding Forgiveness and Making Miracles (2002)
  • The Gift of Change: Spiritual Guidance for a Radically New Life (2004)

I actually read these in reverse order, having first discovered Marianne Williamson with The Gift of Change. This is a fabulous book, much denser than her most recent one. My copy has tons of passages underlined. A major theme in the book is the fact that we have a choice in how we respond to things in our life, and by consciously choosing to respond in a certain way, we create our life:

Practive kindness, and you start to become kind. Practice discipline,
and you start to become disciplined. Practice forgiveness, and you
start to become forgiving...We have the power to generate as well as react
to feelings; to hone our personalities as we travel through life...It is
never too late to become who we really are

Everyday Grace is a gem of a book, taking some of the core principles of the Course in Miracles and applying them to everyday situations. Another book that I have lots of pencil marks in and one I turn to in difficult moments for inspiration and comfort.

A Return to Love was the first book she wrote, which grew out of her extensive lecturing on the Course in Miracles. It might be better to read this one first before the others as her explanations of the principles of the Course are more fundamental, and the applications of it are more to individual problems and themes, rather than the more universal viewpoint that Marianne later adopts.

And I don't feel that it is necessary to get a copy of The Course in Miracles to benefit from Marianne Willamson's books. I have a copy of it, but to be very honest, it is so dense and difficult to understand that I quickly gave up my attempt to read it (at this point in my life anyhow!) and rely on Marianne and other spiritual philosphers like Dan Joseph ( to point out and clarify the important points to me - in ways that I can apply in my own life.

Incidentally, for those of you who have XM radio (we don't here in Belgium) Marianne has a regular show on Oprah's network. For more information about Marianne Williamson, go to:

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Quick Update on Penguin Celebrations

I happened to be in the store where I originally bought the three Penguin Celebrations editions and thought I would see if they still had some...scanned the shelves once, twice, three times...didn't see them. Finally thought to ask a salesman and he told me they were all GONE. The distributor took all the unsold Celebrations in Belgium and put them all in some bookshop in the Brussels Airpot. Dang!

I did check the Penguin website and you can still buy some of them online...but not all of them are available. I am nearly done with Zadie Smith...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Penguin Celebrations

So I already mentioned I recently finished Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History. I bought it in the edition published by Penguin last year in their series "Penguin Celebrations", a collection of 36 books (philosophy, mystery, fiction, travel, autobiography and viewpoints) to celebrate their winning the British Book Awards Publisher of the Year Award in 2007.

When I saw them in a local bookstore, I was charmed and very tempted to get the entire collection. The bookstore was running a special, buy two, get one free, so I managed to limit myself to just three, but it was hard because I fell in love with their cute retro covers and their old fashioned feel. Also the fact that I had already read some of them helped me to resist. If you happen to see them anywhere, check them out, they are darling books and great titles to boot.

At the moment I am reading the Penguin Celebrations edition of Zadie Smith's White Teeth. I am so tempted to go back to the bookstore and see if they still have some of the other volumes from the collection!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ann Patchett: four titles

  • Bel Canto: A Novel (2002)
  • Truth & Beauty: A Friendship (2004)
  • The Patron Saint of Liars: A Novel (1992)
  • Taft: A Novel (1994)

This is the other reason I was inspired to start this blog: I recently completely by accident got on a streak of reading some of Ann Patchett's books, and I guess I just wanted to share it with someone!

My mother left the novel Bel Canto here at my house a while ago, and it was on a bookshelf with other books I hadn't gotten around to reading. Something about the description of the book just did not grab me: the story is about an opera singer who is supposed to perform at a big party at an embassy in a South American country and everyone is taken hostage by rebels, and the story is about how they all cope with being held hostage and the fallout from the situation. Hmmm.

So the book sat on my shelf for a while. Then an issue of Runner's World came in the mail last year with a book review of Ann's latest novel Run. The review intrigued me and suddenly I remembered I had this other book by her sitting on my shelf. So that is what got me to read Bel Canto.

I loved Bel Canto! Once I started reading it, I just couldn't put it down. The relationship that develops between the singer and the Japanese gentleman who admires her is so unusual and intimate and private that is it sometimes almost uncomfortable to read about, you feel like a voyeur knowing too much about them; yet, they are surrounded all the time by the other hostages and rebels and in fact, have no privacy. The other characters, hostages and rebels alike, are also very interesting, well done and I was taken with all of them, and very invested in the outcome! I won't give away anything else about the end, but I enjoyed the book very much and highly recommend it.

So then I was at Jenny's house earlier this month (for our half marathon: read about that in my other blog at and up in her guest room there is a bookshelf with books visitors leave when we are done with them. I had just finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History on my long flight over (yes, I left it at Jenny's house!) and was looking for another book to read, and saw that there was another book by Ann Patchett sitting there: Truth & Beauty.

Truth & Beauty is not a novel, it is a memoir of the author's friendship with another writer. But it is so well written that it reads like a novel. Again, I loved reading it, although so much of it is sad and hard. It makes me want to be a writer, but also not want to be a writer, if you know what I mean. You see how both of them struggle to make a living out of their writing, how her friend Lucy struggles with her health and how Ann does everything she can to be supportive. At times I was amazed at her bravery in putting everything out there for all of us to read, but at the end of the book, I felt it was a warm and honest tribute to her friend and their friendship.

While I was still at Jenny's (and still reading Truth & Beauty) we stopped at a bookstore one is dangerous to take me to a bookstore, sometimes I buy far too much and then my suitcases are way too heavy. But I promised myself I would be good. One of the four books I got was Ann Patchett's debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. I would have wanted to buy Run, her latest, but it was only available in hardcover and weight and budget constraints made me decide to wait til it comes out in paperback and my next trip to the US.

The Patron Saint of Liars is a novel about a woman from California who is unhappy in her marriage, discovers she is pregnant, and decides to leave without telling her husband or her mother (who she is supposedly very close to) and go to a home for unwed mothers in Kentucky to have the baby and give it up for adoption. So far, this is my least favorite (but it is still a good read) of Ann Patchett's books. I had a hard time relating to the main character and understanding why she felt compelled to leave everybody behind. I liked the characters of her second husband and her daughter, whose stories complete the book, but I felt bad for them that she treated them so coldly. She ended up having all these people around her who loved and admired her, but for some reason it meant nothing to her. Finishing the story made me feel deflated and sad.

I finished The Patron Saint of Liars after I was already home in Belgium. Last week my oldest son wanted to go to the main public library in downtown Leuven. The advantage to the main branch over our little local branch is that not only do they have a huge collection of music CD's (for my son) but they also have a great selection of English fiction (for me!) So while I was waiting for him to decide what CD's he wanted to borrow, I thought I would see if they had (you guessed it) anything by Ann Patchett.

Well, they did, actually, they had just about everything (except Run, probably too recent still). I decided to check out Taft. This is another novel that I couldn't see myself picking based just on the description and not knowing anything about the author. It is about a black man, John, who used to be a blues drummer but now is a bar manager in Memphis and the weird relationship he develops with a young white woman who works as a waitress in his bar and her brother. It is also about his struggle and desire to be a good father to his young son while dealing with the difficult relationship he has with the boy's mother. The book was so good I read it in one day.

For me the best part and the core theme of the book was about fatherhood. The relationship he tries to maintain with his boy and his grief at being so far away from him, the minefield of the in-laws...this is beautifully countered by the parts of the book that are about Taft, the father of the white girl and her brother, who also tried his best to be a good father. It was not clear to me if the parts about Taft (who had died) were what John imagined or dreamed about Taft, or what had really happened to Taft, but somehow it didn't matter. You could see that somehow John felt compelled to help the sister and brother as some kind of substitute for not being able to fully be with his own son. What clashed for me a little bit was how John related to the girl. Their attraction to each other never seemed realistic to me. But totally believable was the sacrifice he made to protect her brother, who didn't really deserve it but had no father of his own to step up to the plate for him.

So I will definitely be looking to read Run when I can get a copy of it, and my next trip to the library I am going to get The Magician's Assistant, her other novel. I'll keep you posted!

And if you want to know more about Ann Patchett and her books, go to:

Monday, January 28, 2008

Why "In Consideration of Books"?

Since I began to read as a child, I have always been a book worm. But in our family that is the norm, I think...we are all always reading books and these days, we read books and leave them at each other's houses and then someone else reads them and passes them on. Our own version of Bookcrossing! My mother is always telling me about the latest book she has read and she is always interested in new titles, always inspiring me to read more.

My sister Jenny and I were recently talking about how sometimes you read a book and then you completely forget what it was about and how annoying this is, especially when you end up reading it again and then realize halfway in that actually, you've read it already. Jenny's mother-in-law started keeping a journal of all the books she has read since she retired a few years ago, and while I was visiting recently, she showed it to me. It seemed like a great idea to somehow keep track of what you had read, what you felt and thought about it.

Last year at my sister's urging, I reluctantly started a blog about the half marathon we were preparing to run, and I found to my surprise that I really enjoyed the process of blogging on a regular basis. Now that the half marathon is behind us, I was thinking about how I wanted to continue blogging on something else I am passionate about and then it hit me - I can blog about the books I am reading, not only for myself but also to share with others and hopefully get feedback and exchange ideas, something that I sometimes miss after finishing an especially good - or terrible! - book.

So check back soon for my first post in consideration of books!