Marie’s Reading: “The First Book of Calamity Leek” by Paula Lichtarowicz

calamity leekThe First Book of Calamity Leek  by Paula Lichtarowicz opens with an attempted escape.

Truly, one of the girls who live in the Garden, protected by their dear Mother and Aunty, has tried to scale the Wall and get Outside.  Her cryptic words, when Calamity and her Sisters find her: “No Injuns.”

Thus we’re pulled headlong into the world of Calamity Leek.  She tells us all about Mother, who has rescued them from Outside, and Aunty, who is training them to be Weapons to go to war against the demonmales who dominate the world.  All of their knowledge of the world comes from Aunty’s Appendix and Showreel, which she shows them at regular intervals.  Calamity is treasured here, close to Aunty, loves her Sisters, and she believes in the divinity of Mother, and in their sacred mission.

Soon enough we learn that Calamity is telling us of a time gone by–in the present, she’s in an Outside hospital and has lost everything she’s known.  The book is the story of how she ended up there, and what happened to the Garden.

Calamity is a joy to follow.  She’s smart and brave and sure and proud, and completely loyal.  What’s heartbreaking is how these wonderful things about her have been used and abused by Aunty.  Calamity is strong, and she loves fiercely, but she’s also brainwashed.  It’s a heartbreaking combination.  Her voice and language are at once foreign and familiar, fitting for a girl who’s grown up in isolation.

References abound in this book, all springing from Aunty’s delusions and background (she’s a disfigured former actress).   A lot is left up to the reader to piece together, since we get the story from Calamity’s limited point of view.  It’s a bit of a puzzle, but easy enough to figure out when you’re on the outside looking in.

One blurb on the back of this book called it a mash-up of Margaret Atwood and Roald Dahl, and I was trying to figure out where the Dahl came from.  I’ve just now figured it out: all of the adults in this book are either completely insane and abusive or completely useless.  They’re tyrannical or they misunderstand.   It’s the kids making sense of their own world and beating the odds, and through the elevated craziness of Aunty and Mother’s little garden, it’s possible to see how completely off-kilter the adult world is, particularly to  children.

The First Book of Calamity Leek  is original, creative, and poignant.  It’s also funny and smart, chock-full of references and creative use of language.  I’ll go ahead and say this has been one of my favorite reads of the year so far.

For readalikes, I’d suggest Room by Emma Donoghue.  The story is narrated by a young boy who has grown up in the small room where his mother has been held captive.  It’s much more serious in tone and deals with consequences in the real world more deeply, but it also uses a unique point of view to deal with hard issues in a sideways sort of way.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan might also appeal, for those who love how tough Calamity is.  The main character there is a wounded young woman who might have killed a police officer, and is put into a detention center called the Panopticon.  You can read my blog post about it here.




Marie’s Reading: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

paying guestsIn the interests of full disclosure, I have to tell you right off that Sarah Waters is one of my favorite writers.  Ever.  I have never been disappointed once by any of her books, including her latest, The Paying Guests.  So any and all reactions I give  in this post might be construed as biased.

That said: I loved this book!!

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Marie’s Reading Some Things, Let Her Tell You Them

As you can probably tell by the title of this post, I am not “braining so good” today, as we say on the Internet.

Cannot Brain

But I have been reading some books lately.  So I’ll do my best to coherently tell you about them.

prayersPrayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
This is one of those novels where a plot description just isn’t enough to explain what the book really is.  The story is about Ladydi, a young girl who lives in a tiny community in Gurrero, Mexio, on a mountain just outside of Alcapulco.  It is a poor area completely dominated by drug lords.  There are no men on the mountain, as they have gone to the U.S. to find work.  Only women remain, and the young girls are in constant danger of being stolen (kidnapped and then trafficked by the drug lords).  Ladydi comes of age and tries to make the best life she can for herself in this environment.

Just given that description, it sounds dire and depressing.  For sure, there’s a deep sadness here, but it comes across as just a reality of life.  There’s also a lyrical, almost poetic note to Clement’s prose.  Somehow the brutality of Ladydi’s world and experiences is both lessened and magnified by the style.  And, of course, Ladydi is tough and matter-of-fact, and never melodramatic.  She’s a wonderful protagonist to follow.  The depiction of Mexico and the people who still love it no matter what it has become is also moving and provides a wonderful sense of place.  If you like this, try Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees or Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman.

closed doorsTalking of Lisa O’Donnell, her new book Closed Doors is every bit as affecting and ultimately hopeful as The Death of Bees.  In Closed Doors, a boy named Michael Murray is trying to piece together exactly what befell his mother one night.  All the information he has comes from the overheard and confusing (and often contradictory) statements from the adults around him.  O’Donnell excels at creating a close-knit island community that any small-towner will recognize–for the bad and for the good.  She also gives great believable voice to Michael, a boy who never seems to be anything but just that–a boy who lives in a tough situation and can’t make sense of it to himself.  Family dynamics and dealing with trauma are painted quite realistically as well, from darkly funny to hopeful to sad.  It’s a moving piece of realistic fiction.  If you liked Emma Donoghue’s Room, you might give this one a try.

alexandriaThe Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid
Book clubs are fantastic when it comes to getting you out of your usual reading comfort zone.  The wonderful nonfiction book group I joined is no exception.  Our latest read was The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, a wonderfully readable and accessible survey of the political and intellectual history of the once-great city of Alexandria.  Personally, my classical history is sorely lacking, so I learned a LOT just by reading this slim volume.  If you’re a better-versed student of the period (331 BC to AD 646, roughly), you still might enjoy the focus on the intellectual and scientific–all the work of the great Library of Alexandria, much of which is now lost.  In the introduction, the authors give part of the point of their work as:

We will not only return to the lost wonders of Alexandria, we will also try to enter the ‘mind’ of the city, to discover why it produced such an extraordinary flowering of creativity, knowledge, and understanding.  And we will discover that at the core of this dazzling whirlpool of ideas lies the thing you are reading now: the written word.

Never has a city and culture so devoted to the idea of learning for learning’s sake existed before or since Alexandria.  This book is also a love letter to a lost library, to lost ideas.  Only about one percent of the books once held in the library at Alexandria survive today.  This is really wonderful read on several levels, including the bibliography and notes!

That’s all my brainbox can handle for now, kids, if I want to get any cataloging done today.  My current reading consists of The Count of Monte Cristo (another book group pick), Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English,  and, on a whim, The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh.  Mostly,  I’m hovering like a vulture waiting for Sarah Waters’ new novel, The Paying Guests, to be ready to circulate.  I will most definitely be writing a blog post about that one.


Marie’s Reading: “The Painted Girls” by Cathy Marie Buchanan

painted girlsSet in Paris in the late 19th century, The Painted Girls tells the story of the Van Goethem sisters, Marie, Antoinette, and Charlotte.  The family is in dire straits after their father dies.  Their mother takes work as a laundress, but drinks up most of the profits.  It’s up to Marie and Antoinette to take care of themselves, each other, and Charlotte.  Marie becomes a dancer at the Paris Opera, while Antoinette takes a job at a theatre.  Eventually Marie winds up as a model for the artist Degas, and Antoinette falls in with a young man who is not as wonderful as he seems.  Through hardships, challenges, and betrayals of many kinds, Marie and Antoinette remain devoted to one another, leading eventually to a relatively happy ending.

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