Monday, March 25, 2024

The Force of Such Beauty

The Force of Such Beauty
  The Force of Such Beauty
Author:  Barbara Bourland
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2022. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0593329341 / 978-0593329344

Rating:   ★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The last time they caught me at the airport, I panicked."

Favorite Quote:  "All fairy tales serve the same purpose. One woman's story, told to warn the others. Here is how I lost my feet here is how I lost my voice; here is how I lost my children. Here is the moment I was given from my father to my husband. Here is where the danger lies: the man with the blue beard, the urge in the forest, the tricky gentleman, the lying merchant, the prince in the tower. Fairy tales are not about sparkling shoes or white cats. They are about the ribbons that adorn, then, sever your neck."

The author's note expresses what this book attempts to capture. "For a real-life woman sitting across from a prince, the princess story skips the middleman and marries you directly to the state itself. It's logical. It's rational. It's the desire for a better life. And what could be more human than that? There will always be princesses. Yet - what must it take to spend each day tow steps behind your partner, always in shadow? What must it take from you to discard yourself - modernity, even - in exchange for the illusion of safety? In the case of this book's narrator, Caroline Muller, it takes everything."

Caroline Muller is an athlete, an Olympian, a medalist. Her entire life has been about running. Her elite athlete status has led a to privileged and sheltered life. Everything revolves around her career, and everyone revolves around her, the star. An accident ends her career. With it, life as she has ever known it ends. She is cast adrift, no longer the star or the center of attention. "I learned that the world was made from men - for me - that men controlled the world, and further - that their desire for my attention was the only leverage I possessed." A chance meeting and a series of events lead her to marry Prince Ferdinand Fieschi of Lucomo, her literal prince charming. "It isn't until you feel safe that you realize how difficult  it was before, when you were constantly afraid, as though you have been hearing a noise in the background for so long that you cannot pick it out until someone turns it off. And when you hear the sound of silence, it's sweeter than you knew anything could be."

Sadly, Caroline discovers that her happily-ever-after is not quite so happy for her even in an amazingly beautiful setting in the lap of luxury as a literal princess. "The force of such beauty is meant to destabilize a person. I was no exception." The book description captures that and the book begins with the fact that Caroline tries to run away. This is not the first time. Perhaps, not the last either. The parallels of some of the details of Caroline's story to those of the lives of real princesses is obvious and clear. This book presents the picture that tarnishes the image of the charmed life of a princess. It brings out the rules, the requirements, and the constraints of royal life. It paints a very sad picture. 

The aspect of the book that is perhaps even more fascinating for being unexpected is the view on South African history and politics. Caroline Muller is a runner and from South Africa. "Running was the only sport that could not be segregated by the government, could not be kept down by oppression, could not be bought out from under the feet of my peers. They could not, you see - they could not segregate the roads. Not during the day, anyway." Caroline and her friend and fellow runner Zola have very different experiences as runner and go on to lead very different lives. They stay connected in some way throughout this book, and, time and again, the realities of and changes in South Africa become a fascinating part of the story of the European princess.

A memorable story. Given recent news and requests for privacy, this book takes on a whole new meaning and relevance..

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Day Tripper

The Day Tripper by James Goodhand
  The Day Tripper
Author:  James Goodhand
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2024. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0778369641 / 978-0778369646

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Wind howls through the rafters."

Favorite Quote:  "The world is as wide as the chances that come our way. Take an opportunity, and it leads to more opportunity, and so on. The world opens  up, like wings or...something."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The premise of the book from the description:  "What if you lived your days out of order?"

The expansion of that premise in the book itself:
  • "My whole life already exists? ... Yours, and mine, and everybody's ... We are all eternally surrounded by our own past and our own future."
  • "What if everybody experiences time randomly? It's just that their memory and conscious thoughts provide a grid - map - references for everything - creating the illusion of one chronological, continuous existence."
  • "You and I, regardless of the order in which they come, live each day of our life once. We are just like everyone else in that regard."

The lesson of the book, as you might predict: "This - our predicament - you could see it as a curse, forced to live life out of order, never knowing what comes next, what matters and what doesn't. But it can be a very find gift as well. In the right hands..."

I love the unique premise of this book. The book conveys that premise beautifully. Alex Dean never know what is coming next. Most days, he is even unsure what came before or in the middle. He wakes up every day in the middle. Each day is a piece of the puzzle, and perhaps he can find the picture and a vision for his life.

The first person narration embeds the reader in Alex's confusion and his dilemmas. It works to convey his point of view. At the same time, the first person narration creates a dilemma for the reader. The book jumps into this out of order life and continues day to out of order days. It makes it difficult for me as a reader to find an anchor or to "get to know" Alex such that I invest in the character. I am not sure how a little bit of grounding in Alex's life or the character could be accomplished given the theme of the book, but I wanted some.

I travel along with his confusion. I empathize with individual relationships - parents, girlfriend, friend. However, without the context, it is difficult to invest in the relationships.

That is exacerbated by the fact that the entire book is Alex's perspective. It would have been interesting to perhaps see some of the other characters and their views. Are they having their own out of order experiences? What are the joys and sadness of their relationship with Alex? What have they noticed about him?

Perhaps, that is the entire point of the book. We don't know another's perspective. In order or out of order, we see the world as we see it not as it may actually be. To some extent, the lesson of this book is similar to that of the movie Groundhog Day. In that movie, the character lives the same day over and over again. Over time, he manages to change his entire outlook and his life in that one day. In this case, Alex jumps forward and backwards in time. Perhaps, knowing a future outcome, he can make a change in the past? However, does that then change the future again? If Alex lives each day only once, how does that work? Read the book and find book. A book memorable for its premise.

About the Book

What if you lived your days out of order?

It’s 1995, and twenty-year-old Alex Dean has it all: a spot at Cambridge University next year, the love of an amazing woman named Holly and all the time in the world ahead of him. That is until a brutal encounter with a ghost from his past sees him beaten, battered and almost drowning in the Thames.

He wakes the next day to find he’s in a messy, derelict room he’s never seen before, in grimy clothes he doesn’t recognize, with no idea of how he got there. A glimpse in the mirror tells him he’s older—much older—and has been living a hard life, his features ravaged by time and poor decisions. He snatches a newspaper and finds it’s 2010—fifteen years since the fight.

After finally drifting off to sleep, Alex wakes the following morning to find it’s now 2019, another nine years later. But the next day, it’s 1999. Never knowing which day is coming, he begins to piece together what happens in his life after that fateful night by the river.

Why does his life look nothing like he thought it would? What about Cambridge, and Holly? In this page-turning adventure, Alex must navigate his way through the years to learn that small actions have untold impact, even in a life lived out of order. And that might be all he needs to save the people he loves and, equally importantly, himself.

About the Author

James Goodhand has written two YA novels. His YA debut, Last Lesson, was called "a powerfully charged study in empathy," by the Financial Times. THE DAY TRIPPER is his adult debut. He lives in England with his wife and young son.


Excerpted from THE DAY TRIPPER by James Goodhand. Copyright © 2024 by James Goodhand. Published by MIRA Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
SEPTEMBER 6, 1995 | AGE 20

It’s three-deep at the bar, and I get my order in seconds before they ring for time. I double up: a JD and Coke each and two beers to take with us. The lights are up and the music’s gone quiet as I weave the tray through the punters. Standing in the doorway out to the terrace, I am disorientated. There must be fifty tables outside between here and the river and it’s still packed out, darker and smokier than ever. I search the crowd but can’t see Holly.

I negotiate my way down to the water’s edge. She’s maybe ten tables away, oblivious, a ciggie poised skyward in her fingers like she’s posing for Vettriano. I smirk, enjoy my good fortune again.

“Excuse me, good gentlemen,” I say to a group of four in my path, voice cocky with booze and lust. They shuffle over, not breaking from their conversation. The resulting gap between their circle and the edge of the path isn’t wide enough—a careless elbow would send the tray of drinks into the river, possibly me with them.

“If you don’t mind, guys?” I lay a palm on the forearm of the bloke with his back to me. Their circle opens out and he turns side-on, ushering me past. “Nice one,” I say, glancing at him as I pass.

I look back at the ground. There’s a delay in my brain processing who it is I’m walking past. There’s a moment in which it seems that we’ll just carry on, pretend like we don’t know each other.

The air thickens. Time slows. I stop, a step past him. Look again. Razor-sharp short back and sides, hooded eyes, lopsided mouth. Preppy. It’s a face I catch myself imagining sometimes, never for long. A waking nightmare. Not that my imagination does it justice. Not even close, I now realize.

His recognition of me unfolds in slow motion. Perhaps like me, alcohol has dulled his synapses, delayed the inevitable shift of mode.

Blake Benfield. There have been times in the past when just hearing that name in my head has stopped me dead, left me incapable.

How long since we last ran into each other? I was sixteen—best part of four years, then. Feels so recent. Our paths crossing has always been inevitable; we grew up barely a mile apart. He spat at me that last time, called me faggot cunt. The many times before that I’d just legged it, hidden from his fury and his hatred. But you get too old to do that.

This crowded place seems so quiet now. Like there’s cotton wool stuffed in my ears. The two bottles tip over on my trembling tray, foam splattering to the ground. One rolls over the edge and shatters on the concrete. People turn.

How long have we stood here, him glaring at me, me unable to hold his stare? Saying nothing. A few seconds? Feels longer.

There’s the smell of burned-out house in my nose. The sound of his whisper in my ears that I try to drown out.

Don’t think about it. Do not think about that day.

Why do I shake? I’m a fucking grown man. Why am I shaking?

He takes a half step closer to me.

I once told him I was sorry. It was years ago—when I was still a kid. I was sorry. Does he remember?

I spin around. Where’s Holly? She must be watching this.

There’s no more delay. There is, of course, nothing for me and this bloke to say to each other. We have ventured into each other’s space, and that brings with it a remembering. And, as we always have, we must deal with that in our own way.

His knuckles graze my chin. I stumble backward and the tray falls to the ground. His swing is off, though; there is no pain. Not even surprise. We definitely have an audience now.

My response is pure instinct: palms raised, lean away. Easy now.

I don’t want to fight this man. I want to go back thirty seconds, walk a different route, have this night back for myself.

Blake closes the gap, my weakness an invitation. His second punch crashes into my ear like a swinging girder. My brain slaps side to side in my skull. Vision sways. My head boils, a cool trickle from my eardrum.

Where is Holly? Panic grips. I can’t just stand here and take this.

My eyes flit to our audience. He swings again, this time with his left. But I see it coming, dodge. He stumbles.

I drive my weight, shoulder first, into his ribs. He goes over, sprawled among the spilled drinks and shattered glass.

On all fours, he stares up at me. I’m perfectly positioned. I could kick him square in the face. End this right now. Why don’t I do it? Why can’t I bring myself to do it? I’d rather turn my back and cry than kick his head in.

He glares up at me. Why do I pity him? Why am I so uncomfortable towering over him like this? It’s like the positions we’ve always held have been reversed. The power is mine.

I let him find his feet.

He’s up and level with me again. He glares like a bloodthirsty dog, wipes his nose on the sleeve of his polo shirt. If we were alone, maybe I’d run. But with people watching, with Holly watching, that’s no option.

My punch lands perfectly. His jaws scissor against each other. For a second his head floats, eyes rolling.

I realize my error too late. I should’ve followed up when I had the chance. One punch is only enough in the movies, everyone knows that. His hands are on the collar of my shirt, cloth tearing as he holds firm. His forehead slams into the bridge of my nose like a sledgehammer. My face is suddenly and totally numb. I drop to the ground. A ruby-red stain spreads fast through the jewels of broken glass around me.

He shouts above me. Every filthy word I’ve long come to expect. Something soft disperses against my head. Spit.

The neck of the Stella bottle I dropped lies on the ground. Inches away. Blood gurgles in my mouth as I take a deep breath. I launch like a sprinter. Leading with the dagger of green glass, I’m aiming straight at his face and closing fast.

Blake backs into a table, stumbles, hands slow to cover his face. His eyes widen, abject fear. But this is no time to be derailed.

I see it too late. No time to react. One of Blake’s friends windmilling a table ashtray. The side of my skull cracks like thunder.

The ground feels like a cushion, drawing me in and bouncing me back. My vision finds enough order in time to see the sole of boot accelerating toward me, like a cartoon piano from the sky.

There is no pain. Just a sense of floating in space.

Time passes. More blows land.

The surface of the Thames billows like a black satin sheet as it rises toward me. There’s no fear. Is that Holly I can hear calling my name? It’s so distant, so hard to tell.

The river gathers me in like it’s here to take care of me.

Cool water spears my lungs like sharpened icicles. I sink forever.

A low hum builds in my ears. Lights fades to nothing.

And I sleep.

NOVEMBER 30, 2010 | AGE 35

My head throbs. It doesn’t matter if I open or close my eyes, the pain worsens either way. My mouth is like dust. Joints and muscles lie seized.

Last night is a blank. I hate that. I look above me. Focusing is excruciating. The ceiling is browny cream, textured in spikes like a Christmas cake. An unshaded bulb swings in the draft, the filament shivering. It’s really cold in here.

Where the fucking hell am I?

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Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, March 11, 2024

The Man Who Could Move Clouds

The Man Who Could Move Clouds
  The Man Who Could Move Clouds
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2022. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385546661 / 978-0385546669

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "They say the accident that left me with temporary amnesia is my inheritance."

Favorite Quote:  "There was a difference between keeping knowledge secret, and living in secret. I could do the former, but I would not do the latter."

Ingrid Rojas Contreras biggest acknowledgment of this book credits her mother. "Thank you, most of all, to my mother, who told me stories, and in telling me stories, taught me how to live." The stories are of family, love, Colombian heritage, and of sight and magic.

The impetus for this book is an accident and a shared dream. An accident leaves Ingrid Rojas Contreras with temporary amensia for a period of weeks. She learns that her mother too suffered an accident as a child that left her with certain abilities that were her heritage. "They say the amnesias were a door to gifts we were supposed to have, which Mami's father, Nono, neglected to pass."

Nono is at the heart of this story. Nono, was a curandero, a traditional healer (like a shaman) gifted with "instructions for talking to the dead, telling the future, healing the ill, and moving the clouds." A dream that both the author and her mother have leads them on a quest back to Colombia to disinter and free Nono from the demands and the wishes people leave at his grave. Those requests keep him tethered.

"This is a memoir of the ghostly - amnesia, hallucination, the historical specter of the past - which celebrates cultural understanding of truth that are, at heart, Colombian. The stories in this memoir are the true lived experience of those who lived it, as told to me."

The cultural history in this book is fascinating. The story weaves back and forth between the present to stories of the past - the author, her mother, Nono, and other relatives. At times, the thread is difficult to follow. After a while, I stop trying to follow the chronology and float along on what is at most times a mythological journey. However, that approach disengages from any emotional impact of the book. It is more like reading a story than a memoir. In fact, I have a hard time remembering this is a memoir.

Perhaps, a more focused approach on one or two main story threads may have been a more emotionally compelling book. Perhaps, some greater explanation of the cultural paradigm underlying the curandero would be beneficial in grounding the book for a reader not familiar with the culture and ritual. With the myriad stories and the lack of a cultural context, I am not sure I completely understand the family story being told.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Slow Noodles

Slow Noodles by Chantha Nguon
  Slow Noodles:  A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes
Author:  Chantha Nguon with Kim Green
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2024. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1643753495 / 978-1643753492

Rating:   ★★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In 1975, the Khmer Rouge informed the Cambodian people that we had no history, but we knew it was a lie."

Favorite Quote:  "A refugee must learn to be anything  people want her to be at any given moment. But behind the masks, I am only myself - a mosaic of flavors from near and far."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The book poses a question. "When you must flee and can carry only one thing, what will it be? What single seed from your old life will be the most useful in helping you sow a new one?" That is the unimaginable choice faced by those flee or are forced to leave their home and their very lives. Time and time again, history describes such events. News stories today are full of them. Can anyone who has not lived it even come close to imagining it? I think not. That makes books such as this one so important. They offer a glimpse into a reality hopefully we are fortunate enough never to inhabit. It also offers an understanding of those who are flung into a refugee life. It offers lessons, perhaps, of how history seems to end up here over and over again despite each horror being followed by promises that it must never happen again. These memoirs bear witness.

In the 1970s, almost two million Cambodians died due to the policies and program of the Khmer Rouge regime. A genocide of almost two million!

The author, Chantha Nguon, survived. This is her story. "But the past never goes away. The fear and pain are still there, buried in our brains like mines. It is better to defuse them than to leave them entombed, quietly, waiting for a single misstep. That is why I am telling my story."

The facts of the book - the losses of this one individual, the time span, the history, the desperation, the risks - are moving. They are all the more so for the calm manner in which the narrative is related. Occasionally, I find myself stopping and re-reading a sentence over and over again to let the enormity of it sink in. This history of loss is measured in not days, weeks, months, or even years. It is over a decade! "Of course, I should have had more faith in impossible futures. After all, we'd already endured a series of them, each more unimaginable an unforeseen than the last."

What makes this memoir even more gripping is its anchor in food memories. "The dishes I loved best when I was small were the ones that took the longest to make. My puppy sense told me that time equaled loved, and love equaled deliciousness. On the time continuum, instant noodles tasted careless, like nothing at all; the kuy teav noodle maker's hand-cut mee were far superior. But the slowest and best noodles of all came from my mother's kitchen." Throughout the book, you find recipes. Some are for the dishes of the time and place. Some are conceptual as the "recipe" in the book description. Food memories is something we all share. A smell or a taste brings us to a time and place. The relatable memories bring the story closer to us. Although we may never comprehend the enormity of it, in some small way, we can understand a small piece.

The book ends on a note of hope. "But if there's one thing I learned from my mother, it's that losing everything is not the end of the story. She taught me that lost civilizations can be rebuilt from zero, even if the task will require many generations of work." Perhaps, there is hope yet as conflicts and genocides continue across the world today. Perhaps.

About the Book

A haunting and beautiful memoir from a Cambodian refugee who lost her country and her family during Pol Pot's genocide in the 1970s but who finds hope by reclaiming the recipes she tasted in her mother's kitchen.


Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination. Subtract a reliable source of food, life savings, and family members, until all are gone. Shave down childhood dreams for approximately two decades, until only subsistence remains.

In Slow Noodles, Chantha Nguon recounts her life as a Cambodian refugee who loses everything and everyone—her home, her family, her country—all but the remembered tastes and aromas of her mother’s kitchen. She summons the quiet rhythms of 1960s Battambang, her provincial hometown, before the dictator Pol Pot tore her country apart and killed more than a million Cambodians, many of them ethnic Vietnamese like Nguon and her family. Then, as an immigrant in Saigon, Nguon loses her mother, brothers, and sister and eventually flees to a refugee camp in Thailand. For two decades in exile, she survives by cooking in a brothel, serving drinks in a nightclub, making and selling street food, becoming a suture nurse, and weaving silk.

Nguon’s irrepressible spirit and determination come through in this lyrical memoir that includes more than twenty family recipes such as sour chicken-lime soup, green papaya pickles, and pâté de foie, as well as Khmer curries, stir-fries, and handmade bánh canh noodles. Through it all, re-creating the dishes from her childhood becomes an act of resistance, of reclaiming her place in the world, of upholding the values the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy, and of honoring the memory of her beloved mother, whose “slow noodles” approach to healing and cooking prioritized time and care over expediency.

Slow Noodles is an inspiring testament to the power of food to keep alive a refugee’s connection to her past and spark hope for a beautiful life.

About the Author

Chantha Nguon was born in Cambodia and spent two decades as a refugee, until she was finally able to return to her homeland. She is the co-founder,of the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center, a social enterprise that offers a living wage, education, and social services to women and their families in rural northeastern Cambodia. A frequent public speaker, she has appeared at universities and on radio and TV news programs, including NPR’s Morning Edition. She cooks often for friends, family, and for private events. An excerpt from Slow Noodles in Hippocampus was named a Longreads Best Personal Essay in 2021.

Kim Green is an award-winning writer and public radio producer and contributor based in Nashville. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, the New York Times, and on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Marketplace, and The New Yorker Radio Hour. A licensed pilot, she was formerly a flight instructor.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.