Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English is an almost cinematic portrayal of immigration, of the sacrifices families make to obtain a better quality of life in first-world countries like England, and of the harsh circumstances that await the poorest upon arrival. 

Stephen Kelman’s writing is so imaginative that the words themselves seemed to lift off each page to create vivid scenes of present-day London in my mind. Only this was not the London of Westminster, Big Ben, or Piccadilly, but rather a London of crumbling housing estates, a city far from Tube stops, a place of poverty and violence. That we experience this story through the eyes of a child, makes Pigeon English all the more compelling.

Our protagonist, Harrison (Harri) Obuku, has immigrated to London from Ghana with his mother and older sister. Harri’s father and infant sister remain in Ghana but plan to join them when more money is saved for passage.  Harri is “the man of the house” at eleven years old. The story is told completely from Harri’s point-of-view; we know his every thought and emotion and we journey with him as he navigates his new environment with curiosity and confusion. There is just something about this boy–his ebullience, his inquisitiveness, his authenticity. I cared for him immensely from the moment I met him. It is worth reading Pigeon English just to spend time with Harri.

The book opens with Harri and a friend coming upon a bloody scene–a boy Harri knows has been stabbed to death while being robbed of his take-away food. What is horrifying is the stoicism both boys display, as if this event is commonplace. Even the sight of the boy’s blood doesn’t really faze them.

Harri and his friend decide to find the boy’s killer, which makes Pigeon English a murder mystery of sorts. Only it really isn’t, as the dark forces that killed this innocent child, become readily known to us, the readers. Harri’s pursuit puts him in grave danger, but he cannot sense it. His early experiences in Ghana and his current situation in South London where fear is intrinsic to the environment have made him numb to danger. I found that I wanted to immerse myself into the story just to protect Harri, I had developed such affection for him.

The language in Pigeon English gives the story a vital heart beat. Mr. Kelman brings Harri’s character to life with his external and internal dialogue, a mixture of Ghanaian-British English. This unique dialect only made Harri more endearing. Some reviewers have criticized the author for Harri’s repetitive dialogue in the book, but I think they have missed the point. Harri is a boy with a limited vocabulary and is bound by these limitations when attempting to express himself. One word stands out among all the rest, “hutious,” which in Ghanaian means “scary.” Harri says the word a lot, which says a lot about the world Harri inhabits.

I had initially thought that the title Pigeon English was simply a clever play on words, especially after immersing myself in the book’s dialogue. However, there is more to this title and it relates to a spiritual thread that runs throughout the story.  Although I loved the idea of Harri having a guardian angel that watched over him and with which he alone could communicate, the selection by the author of an actual pigeon for this role, one who is eloquent and philosophical, simply did not work for me. I struggled with the symbolism. Perhaps the intent was to link one of God’s lowliest creatures on earth with the plight of poor immigrants, but why? Was it meant to show that the meek will inherit the earth? Unfortunately, we are given no answer which I think is a disappointing flaw in an otherwise wonderful story.

The morning after I finished Pigeon English, it was short-listed with five other titles for the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Stephen Kelman certainly has the attention of the literary world with this first novel and I will definitely look for his next book given the overall quality of this debut.

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach — One City One Book 2011

Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Readers Cafe & Bookstore at Fort Mason

The San Francisco Public Library’s One City One Book program is under way and this year’s book, Packing for Mars, by Bay Area author Mary Roach is like a backstage pass to the drama that is space travel! A fabulous pick, it should appeal to a broad readership regardless of age, gender, culture, or status. If you think space travel is cool, this book is for you!

I’ve always figured that life aboard a spaceship isn’t that different from life on earth. I was wrong. People pose extraordinary engineering challenges when it comes to space travel because of our basic human needs–like eating, bathing, defecating and more–as well as our varying physical dimensions and different genders. These challenges piqued Ms. Roach’s curiosity and she spent more than two years deeply researching the history and science behind hurling humans into space. What she found is serious and silly, sublime and ridiculous. The result is an entertaining and accessible work that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate (pardon the cheap pun).

I laughed all the way through this book while faint memories of science lessons long forgotten resonated in my mind. Perhaps I would have paid more attention had my textbooks been written by Mary Roach. High-school teachers should definitely put this on a reading list!

I was absolutely blown away when I came upon one piece of information completely unfamiliar to me–about the event that really marked the beginning of the American space exploration era. The very first living creature to experience weightlessness was a rhesus monkey named Albert. In 1949, he was launched upwards. He was not on board American-made rocketry, but rather on the top of a Nazi V2 rocket, whose previous payloads had been warheads destined for London and other Allied cities during World War II. In defeat, Germany was forced to turn over the V2s to the United States. Several clever American engineers came up with the grand idea for what to do with these “spoils of war.” I just love the notion that technology invented for evil became utilized for the global good because our world has certainly been witness to the innumerable benefits of space exploration since that day when Albert took his ride.   

Packing for Mars is great fun. It entertains while it educates. And it’s a spectacular selection for San Francisco! Get your copy and check out a complete schedule of all the cool events planned around the book at www.sfpl.org/onecityonebook.

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Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Turn of Mind is a briskly paced, maze-like murder mystery that is also imbued with haunting pathos. 

The prime suspect, Dr. Jennifer White, suffers from late-stage Alzheimer’s. Her best friend, Amanda, has been murdered.  The story is told completely from Jennifer’s point-of-view, a daunting task taken on by the author but so deftly handled that you cannot help but feel you are experiencing dementia first-hand as you navigate the prose through the troughs of a destroyed mind.

The fact that Jennifer is a renowned orthopedic surgeon somehow makes the story all the more tragic and Alzheimer’s even more horrifying. That a mind of such strength and conditioning could succumb to the disease’s virulence seems unfathomable. No one is safe–and that is chilling.

Jennifer’s narration is fragmented, shattered–like a full-length mirror dropped from a great height. Yet among the confusing mental shards lie moments of lucidity that offer glimpses into Jennifer’s life as well as subtle clues regarding the murder itself. Though Jennifer can no longer recognize her family and friends, we come to know them intimately through the rich character development that Ms. LaPlante crafts out of what appear to be disconnected thoughts, memories, and dialogue. We also learn about the person Jennifer was before the onset of disease. At times I disliked her very much, even finding moments when my compassion for her waned.

Looming phantom-like throughout the story is our victim, Amanda. We slowly glean the complexity of Amanda’s relationship with Jennifer and her family as decades of secrets, lies, loyalties and resentments surface. But could it all lead to murder?  Perhaps.

Turn of Mind was a thrill to read and unpredictable to the end. It’s that kind of story you replay in your mind, long after the book is done.

Alice LaPlante is a Bay Area author who teaches Creative Writing at San Francisco State University and Stanford University. Turn of Mind is her debut novel. I selected this book because of the author’s local connections and I’m so glad I did. I think her students are in very good hands.

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Bossypants by Tina Fey

Tiny Fey’s sidesplitting autobiography showed up at the library just in the nick of time. Recent reads had taken me down a somber path, and I was more than ready for a little levity.  Bossypants is an absolute belly laugh a minute. It’s also an interesting and poignant self-portrait of a woman who has made the most of her talents while not taking herself too seriously along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed it and if you’re a fan of Tina Fey, you will too.

Ms. Fey strings together a series of hilarious anecdotes that depict her life story–from a very normal upbringing with stable, hardworking parents through a typically awkward adolescence and young adulthood, and on to those lean Second City years where she learned her craft and earned street cred. What is it about Second City? It’s like a petri dish for comedy–producing an endless strain of funny people.

The chapters devoted to working on Saturday Night Live were the most fascinating for me, since it was through SNL that I came to appreciate Tina Fey. We are let in to the mysterious world of SNL and given a glimpse into her experiences and ascension through the ranks.

Who will ever forget Tina Fey as Sarah Palin? Long after that woman becomes a footnote within modern U.S. history, Tina Fey’s impersonation will forever resonate as one of the funniest bits of political satire in this generation’s memory.  Ms. Fey gives us her perspective on what it was like to portray Sarah Palin. SNL has long been recognized as a social and political barometer for America, and Ms. Fey acknowledges that the show played a role in the 2008 election when the stakes were very high. But for all the laughs her Sarah Palin brought to so many, there was a backlash from the right and of course much of their vitriol was directly targeted at Tina Fey. Sometimes comedy can be very serious.

Some of the greatest laughs in Bossypants come when Ms. Fey tackles personal topics–like marriage, motherhood, being female. Yes, the themes are familiar, but the punch lines are as fresh as they come.  And in the midst of the laughs lies an endearing sincerity, sans schmaltz.

I recommend reading Bossypants in private. It’s impossible and even a little unhealthy to try to stifle your guffaws. I gave my family a break one Sunday and read in my backyard, thinking I could laugh out there with complete abandon. At one point, I spotted my neighbor sneaking a peek at me through his fence. I panicked. How long had he been there, watching me laughing like a lunatic by myself? Oh well. It’s my garden and I’ll laugh if I want to! So I kept on reading. While I was out there, I couldn’t help but picture one Sarah Palin tiptoeing off to her own backyard (where she normally keeps an eye on Russia), to secretly savor Bossypants, beehive hair rhythmically waving with every repressed laugh. What a great visual.

Bossypants does not disappoint!

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In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

How can a work of non-fiction, one that is devoted to such a dark time in our world’s recent history—the rise of Nazism in Germany—turn out to be such an absolute page-turner, so completely riveting and illuminating, that you find you cannot put it down? Such is the genius of author Erik Larson. He has produced a book that appeals to a general readership, to those of us with a rote memory about the build-up to World War II, who desire a deeper understanding.  He succeeds in making this inconceivable period accessible to all.

Thousands of dense tomes about Hitler and Nazism fill somber library shelves all over the world. What makes this book unique is its perspective, for the stories within come from the point of view of the Dodd family, an American diplomatic family stationed in Berlin from 1933 through 1937. They associated with the leaders of the new Nazi regime both politically and socially and witnessed, first-hand, Hitler’s demonic grasp for absolute control over Germany’s vulnerable population. Mr. Larson performed an exhaustive examination of diaries, letters, memoirs, as well as official U.S. and German document archives, to piece together these years using the Dodds’ own words to describe each moment.

William E. Dodd was a moderately successful professor of history at the University of Chicago. In 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Dodd U.S. Ambassador to Germany. He was not the president’s first choice, but the position had proven difficult to fill. Dodd, naively and even selfishly, accepted the appointment because he thought it would give him more time to devote to writing his life’s work, a multi-volume history of the American South. Dodd and his wife, along with their two adult children, Martha and Bill, moved to Berlin.

Successful in the world of academia, Dodd was an outsider to the world of U.S. politics and a non-entity in Berlin from the moment he arrived. One cannot help but question whether, had a savvier political entity been appointed, the course of history might have been diverted. Regardless, anti-Semitism existed in our country at the highest levels of our government. State Department officials went so far as to manipulate immigration quota rules for Germany to keep Jews who sought escape from entering America—and lied to Dodd regarding this. Many of Dodd’s official memoranda to Washington D.C. regarding escalating violence towards Jews went ignored—several of Dodd’s most important documents never arrived in the U.S., as many strove to undermine his work. The U.S. government was more focused on pressuring Germany to repay loans made to it prior to the 1929 stock market plunge than it was on attending to Hitler’s blatant rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, his overt buildup of arms, and the worsening violence against the Jews. I had always been aware of a seeming lack of humanity on the part of the United States; but to read some of the direct quotations from key U.S. politicians coldly responding to Dodd’s dispatches from Germany was absolutely chilling.

Dodd’s daughter, Martha, brings a surprising novelesque quality to this already dramatic work. An aspiring novelist, she documented with all-too-intimate detail, her self-indulgent years in Berlin, and her words do not cast her in a good light. A pseudo-intellectual, she comes across as vapid and shallow—more like a character stolen from the pages of The Great Gatsby, than the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany. We read of her various escapades and trysts, thinking them quite unbelievable, but a multitude of supporting resources corroborate her tales. Martha was smitten with the Nazis and their crisp uniforms, banners, and marches. She slept with the head of the Gestapo and other well-positioned Germans, and behaved in ways that turned her father into even more of a laughing-stock to his staff, other diplomats, and the Nazi government itself. Without the protection of her diplomatic stature, she would certainly have died at the hands of the Nazis because of her behavior and associations. Eventually, she became disillusioned with Nazism and dabbled in Communism, only because of a love affair she had with a spy. Later on during the McCarthy years, she had to flee the U.S. to Prague, where she lived out the rest of her life. If this were a novel, we would appreciate Martha as a well thought up character, but she was not fictional which makes her behavior even more audacious—and repugnant.

I’ve recently read numerous novels that relate to both world wars. I found that I wanted to attempt to go beyond my own simplistic knowledge of these catastrophic times to better understand their root causes, so the publication of In the Garden of Beasts this May was timely. Not familiar with Erik Larson’s prior work, I half-expected to slog through this history book, perhaps becoming so overwhelmed by its density that I eventually would put it down. However, the opposite was the case. If every history book read like this, we would all be much more knowledgeable about our various pasts.

This is a valuable addition to the existing body of research, especially as it relates to the United States’ political and cultural attitudes towards Germany during the formative years of Nazism. Highly recommended.

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More about Farishta…in Patricia McArdle’s own words

Patricia McArdle in Afghanistan

Through the miracle of social media, author Patricia McArdle read my recent post about her wonderful book, Farishta. She took the time to write a Comment which I want to share with my growing community of readers. In her own succinct and sincere words she states her motivation for writing this book.  I am grateful that she visited onequietvoice and I am even more intent on bringing visibility to her book and to her mission of spreading awareness worldwide about solar cooking. I have attached an image of Ms. McArdle in Afghanistan demonstrating the technology. Please visit www.solarcooking.org to learn more about Ms. McArdle’s work and the topic itself. 

Dear OneQuietVoice,
I really appreciate your comments on Farishta. My goal in writing this novel was to connect with readers who would probably never pick up a non-fiction tome about the war in Afghanistan or about solar cooking, but who might be drawn into the world I inhabited for twelve months via a compelling work of fiction. I hope that other readers will have reactions similar to yours. I believe that Americans need to know more about the complicated situation in Afghanistan, and to understand the implications of that war for the families of those who have lost their lives and for surviving soldiers and civilians who will have to bear physical and psychic scars for the rest of their lives. There is so much more to that war than the daily body counts and the endless reports of corruption.
–Patricia McArdle

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22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

 The title, 22 Britannia Road, connotes such an idyllic destination. It conjures up bucolic imagery–scenes of pastoral British cottages with proper English gardens in bloom, and afternoon tea in real china cups. What I knew of the actual story –that of Polish refugees in England at the end of World War II–caused me to hesitate selecting it as my next read, knowing it would surely be painful. Yet, somehow, I felt the title guaranteed me an eventual happy ending, and so I committed myself to it. It is indeed a heartrending story of grief, guilt, and redemption–and it is utterly exquisite in the telling.

The story takes place during the years 1937 thru 1946, years that stand in stark contrast to one another, and in between lies the horrific tale of the Nowaks, a young family living in Warsaw who becomes separated by the German invasion of 1939. Methodically researched by debut author Amanda Hodgkinson, theirs is a realistic account of what millions of Europeans endured in World War II.

We are introduced to Silvana and Janusz and their seven-year old son, Aurek, in 1946, at Victoria station, London. Silvana and Aurek have travelled by ship from Poland to England through a British refugee service that is working to reunite families separated by the war. They have not seen each other in over six years. It is not an overtly emotional event. It is awkward and stilted. Silvana’s hair is shorn, her face is gaunt, and she is skeletal. Aurek is wild, animalistic, and unnaturally small for his age. Janusz realizes the happy ending that he has planned, that he has worked so hard to craft for his family, will not be easy nor immediate.  

Back at 22 Britannia Road, in the town of Ipswich, the Nowaks make sincere efforts to rebuild their lives, striving for normalcy. Through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed alongside the main storyline, the experiences of Silvana, Aurek, and Janusz are slowly unveiled, and like dabs of ugly paint splattered upon a blank canvas, Ms. Hodgkinson renders the horrific portrait of their six years apart.

Throughout the miasmic buildup to the German invasion and occupation, Janusz struggles with the decision of leaving his young family to join the military that will defend Poland. Eventually, he realizes that he must go and he reluctantly boards a train, leaving Silvana and infant Aurek behind. As we find, however, not all is heroic with Janusz. His decisions show that when faced with adversity, he chooses the easier, softer way and he will have to live with the guilt of those choices, even as he works to erase the past and create a new life with his family later on.

The dense Polish forest eventually provides refuge for Silvana and Aurek. This was a reality for so many refugees who sought escape from the German and eventually Russian soldiers. Forests have been long been utilized in storytelling to depict places of evil, goodness, and magic. It is this rich setting that provides readers with such incredible plot twists and dramatic scenes. Among the trees, Silvana and Aurek alchemize into almost mythical characters. Literally, Aurek grows up in the forest, becoming one of its creatures, while Silvana transforms from a demure housewife into a hardened survivor. As a mother, I was deeply drawn to the inner strength of Silvana and the primal love for her son that empowered her. Could I have endured so much? Could I have gone that far to save my children?

22 Britannia Road is the kind of novel that stays with me for days, its characters lingering in my consciousness as if they were real–which for me is the most fulfilling kind of reading experience. I find myself, even as I write these words, standing in harsh judgment of Janusz, yet I am sympathetic towards him as well. Moreover, through Silvana, I find a deepening connection with the plight of mothers in war-torn areas everywhere. For Silvana’s story is a universal one. Be it Poland in World War II, Korea in the fifties, or current-day Afghanistan, war exists to tear families apart while mothers seek to transcend war’s afflictions and keep them intact.

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