The Hired Man

the-hired-man

Anne and I have just finished reading The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna.  This 2013 novel tells a story about the memories triggered by the arrival of an English family in a village in Croatia and their encounter with the narrator Duro Kolak.  It is a splendid easy to read but hard to put down novel that identifies the ongoing impact of the 10-year war in the former Yugoslavia.  The tragedy of that war is slowly unfolded as layers of paint are removed from two mosaics by Grace, the daughter in the English family.  Grace is aptly named as her observant character enables some of the harshest parts of the story to be told.  Highly recommended!

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Two Brothers by Ben Elton

Two Brothers by Ben Elton

Two Brothers by Ben Elton

I very much enjoyed Ben Elton’s latest novel in my summer reading package this year.  Two Brothers is the account of the Stengel family; Berlin Jews who try to make their way through the unfortunate events of the 1920’s – 1940’s.  The two brothers find themselves on different sides of the racial issue through their own manipulations, bravery and cleverness.  It is a tough read that is made easier by the courage and resilience of the main characters.  You can look elsewhere on the web for a synopsis (I don’t want to take the ‘fun’ away), but it is enough to say that the cast of strong characters in an appalling environment provide a convincing counter to the spurious argument that the Jews did not resist the Nazi-instituted hate as much as they could have.  The boys’ mother Frieda is amazing and at the end profoundly brave.  The character with the most flaws is the beautiful and manipulative Dagmar Fischer… the extent she goes to survive is testament to her audacity and sheds light on the profound and sacrificial nature of the devotion and courage of the Stengel family.  The novel is an enlightening insight into the contrasting ways that humans respond in crisis… it brings out the best in some and the worst in others.
Elton is a great storyteller and this is among his best and most creative.  For me, his novels based around wars – this and The First Casualty are his best.  Interestingly he dedicates the novel to his uncles Heinz and Geoffrey – both who served in WWII on different sides.

The Messenger

The Messenger version I have with helpful study notes

The Messenger version I have with helpful study notes

One of the novels I read over the summer holiday was Markus Zusak’s The Messenger (published in some countries as I am the Messenger).
It is the second time I have read it… it is among my favourite novels and is an easy read.
It has some quirky characters in the fine Zusak tradition.  He always has young adults as his main characters in his novels and is unhelpfully relegated to the category of young adult fiction when there is always much to satisfy the older adult as well!
The novel (and the novelist!) poke around the life of a young going-nowhere-after-the-death-of-his-alcoholic-father man, Ed Kennedy, over a period of months.  He received four aces in his letterbox and cryptic tasks that he is invited/forced to attend to.  Some are harrowing, some are violent, but all are redemptive, not only for Ed, but also for the company he keeps and engages with through the mysterious tasks set for him.
Ed is loveable… his friends are interesting and disturbing and shaped, like he is, by a series of life-events that are gradually exposed as Ed watches, listens, and intervenes.
There is some significant intervention!
The intervention and redemption theme is of particular interest to me as a Minister of the Gospel, as is the heart-warming interaction with the overwhelmed yet very human priest.  There are hints of  ‘kingdom of God’ (as I know it) in the interventions that are at times hugely inspiring.  There is also a great deal of hope waiting to be discovered in Zusak’s portrayal of what is possible for meaningful life in community.
I love this book.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement

I have been reading Camilla Gibb’s 2010 novel in the book group I am part of.  Set in Vietnam it is a bold thing for a British/Canadian author to tackle – her PhD in anthropology obviously helped because it is an equisite insight into the real world behind the tourist mecca that Vietnam is.
It is a low-key drama that unfolds gradually and in a way not compellingly, though I wanted to finish it.  The loss and division in the history of Vietnam for over 60 years (well, forever really) plays out in the lives of the characters – Hung with his Pho (pronounced Pha) rice noodle soup makes connections that are all marked by tragedy, and the artist’s daughter gets caught up in it is well.  Good read.

what my nose is into at the moment

I’m reading two thoughtful books at the moment – both with theological wisdom. The first is the Mary Doria Russell novel Children of God.  If it is anything like it’s predecessor The Sparrow, it will be a classic – promising so far!
Take This Bread is an interesting account of Sara Miles making her way into the life of faith in Jesus Christ.  She seems to be bringing her quirky self along for the ride, which is only reasonable as she is bound to meet mostly quirky people in the church anyway.

Sweet Tooth

I have just read Ian McEwan’s latest novel Sweet Tooth.  It is a 1970’s set low level spy novel about a young idealistic woman, Serena, who is recruited to ‘spy’ on or woo an emerging novelist.
The story unfolds well for the reader with enough pace and tension to keep the pages turning.  The ending is clever – very clever really, and feasible.
Some interesting themes emerge to invite reflection: ‘ideology and truth,’ ‘what is work and what is love?’ ‘creative ways to beat writer’s block’ and, the disturbing one, in what way does deception make for a more intense and fulfilling relationship?  With the two main characters, some deception seemed to help.  I am not of their kind I suspect!

The church, represented by Serena’s Bishop father, was a wet and hopeless blanket… oh well, it was the 70’s!

The title leaves a bit to be desired… a spy ‘project’ name that while descriptive of the intent, is somewhat lame-duck-ish.  If they make a movie, that name won’t last.

blackcurrant relish

Anne made a wonderful blackcurrant relish yesterday.  The recipe comes from a wonderful little book  by Jenny Leith of Upper Moutere near Nelson.  We bought the wonderful ‘The Mighty Blackcurrant Recipe Book’ at the the Old Post Office  [image from Nelson Mail image on the web]

The relish is easily made:
450 grams of blackcurrants (frozen are fine, but freshly picked is warmer on the fingers and faster to cook!)
1 large red onion (chopped up is more effective)
2/3 of a cup on wine vinegar
1.5 cups of sugar
1 tsp salt
Boil for 20 minutes until soft and thick
Jar it up!

If you are new to cooking you might want to consider a few tips:
1. watch the brew so that it doesn’t stick to the saucepan surface and burn.
2. heat up the jars with hot water to prevent them from cracking
3. empty out the hot water before adding the relish (trust me on this one!)

So far we have eaten it with cold smoked chicken and on cracker with cheese.  It is heavenly and quite good for you!

December Listening Reading Watching

Music in my ears…

Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto, AHK-toong BAY-bi Covered (Q magazine’s way of celebrating 20 years since the release of U2’s Achtung Baby album) – especially Gavin Friday’s version of The Fly (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZw2dc_kYHI); and delirious’ d:tour live (I finally found a copy)

Watching…
Weeds (season 5 – still crazily bad & compelling); Florence & the Machine No Light, No Light (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGH-4jQZRcc);

Reading: