Snake Pit

Undset, Sigrid. The Master of Hestviken: The Snake Pit. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Reason read: to continue the series started in October with The Axe.

In this installment of the Master of Hestviken series readers get to know Olav Audunsson’s past as he has returned home to Hestviken; most importantly, how his mother died when Olav was only a month old, which explains how he came to live with Ingunn’s family. Speaking of Ingunn, when we left her in The Axe she had given her illegitimate child (Eirik) away to be fostered and went with Olav to his family home. Happily ever after? Not really. Olav is tortured by the fact he cannot seek absolution for the slaying of Ingunn’s baby daddy. No one can make even the connection between Teit and Ingunn because it was Teit who disgraced Ingunn. Meanwhile, Ingunn as of late is either pregnant, miscarrying, or otherwise deathly ill. In fact, for a good portion of The Snake Pit Ingunn is very sick. Towards the end of the book after the successful birth of her daughter Cecilia (finally!) she lies bedridden for over three years, crippled by some mysterious paralysis. Yet, through it all, despite it all, deep down Olav still loves her.

As an aside, one has to forgive Undset’s language. In this current culture struggling with equality and inclusion, the reader must stoically ignore the misogynistic behavior and attitude of Olav towards his wife, the one he anticipates “will be in his power” because she is “weak.” Quite a bit of gender bashing occurs.

Author fact: Undset also published a diary called Return to the Future (also on my Challenge list).

Book trivia: Snake Pit is the shortest installment of the Master of Hestviken series. Additionally, characters from Undset’s other series make a small appearance at the end of Snake Pit. Lavransdatter’s father helps Olav get home to his wife.

Nancy said: Pearl said Snake Pit was a masterpiece.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Norway: Land of the Midnight Sun” (p 162).


Four Corners

Salak, Kira. Four Corners: Into the Heart of New Guinea: One Woman’s Solo Journey.
Salak, Kira. Four Corners: One Woman’s Solo Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001.

Reason read: November is supposedly a really good time to visit Papua New Guinea, if you enjoy that kind of dangerous travel.
Confessional: I started reading the uncorrected proof of this memoir before receiving the published version.

There is no doubt Kira Salak is a strong woman. As an eleven year old kid her father taught her how to handle a gun. She remembers her father encouraging his young daughter to aim between the eyes. All her life Kira considered herself tough, wanting to be a soldier, a warrior of Green Beret quality. For all of her courage, time and time again while reading Four Corners I was struck dumb by her seat-of-her-pants travel style in Papua New Guinea. Salak travels beyond the outer reaches of civilization because she has an inexplicable calling to do so. It seems incredulous one could be so naive about everything, including basic survival skills for the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Salak goes into the region without a clear plan or even a way to support herself should the missionaries and locals refuse to ensure her safe passage regardless of the money and/or gifts she has to offer. She’s a creative writing student with no concrete connection to why she is there. Other reviewers of Four Corners called Salak “lucky.” She is that and then some!

I love it when a book makes me curious about other things. After reading Four Corners I had to research Well’s morlocks and Christian’s mutineers.

Quotes I had to quote, “Sometimes our lives are chosen for us, and we have about as much control over the matter as we do the situation we’re born into” (p 13), “Living is nothing but an attempt to champion the choice you’ve made” (p 148), “I am looking at hate, a hate so deep it’s palpable” (p 168).

Author fact: Salak has her own website and the photos I was hoping to see in Four Corners can be found here.

Book trivia: I was hoping for pictures (since the cover is so interesting) but none were included. See comment above.

Nancy said: Pearl had a different title for this book, Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea. Pearl also said “for a goodly dash of [great beauty and danger] try Four Corners (Book Lust To Go p 150).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the super simple chapter called New Guinea (p 150).


Master of Hestviken: the Axe

Undset, Sigrid. The Master of Hestviken: the Axe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Reason read: I needed something for the Portland Public Library 2019 Reading Challenge. The category is women in translation.

Considered to be the companion to Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, The Master of Hestviken series tells the saga of Olav Audunsson in thirteenth century Norway. As a boy he was raised by a foster family. When you are first plunked down in the middle of the drama you meet Steinfinn, a young man who fell in love with a fair maiden named Ingebjorg. So far so good, except Ingebjorg was betrothed to someone named Mattias. Doesn’t matter. Steinfinn and Ingebjorg run away and live together as if they are man and wife. They soon have a family of three children, one of them being the beautiful Ingunn. In addition to their own children they foster a young lad by the aforementioned name of Olav Audunsson. Thus begins the romance of Ingunn and Olav. Both Olav and Ingunn’s fathers agreed the two would grow up to marry each other, but after Steinfinn passes the young couple are told it was only a game their fathers played and the betrothal is not real. Cue the violins, people. Olav commits murder with an axe named Kinfetch and that complicates things. He escapes punishment but in the meantime Ingunn is struck by some mysterious paralysis amid rumors of witchcraft. And the plot thickens. Especially when she becomes pregnant during Olav’s exile…

As an aside, I have to admit, thirteenth century drama is not my cup of tea. Luckily, The Master of Hestviken is chopped up into four books and each book is a little over 200 pages long.

Author fact: Undset was originally born in Denmark.

Book trivia: Master of Hestviken was originally published in one single volume and according to the inside flap, had been out of print in England until 1962.

Nancy said: The Axe is part of the series that Pearl considers Unset’s “other” masterpiece.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Norway: The Land of the Midnight Sun” (p 162).


Thank You and OK!

Chadwick, David. Thank You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan. New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1994.

Reason read: Japan celebrates Respect for the Aged Day on September 18th.

I love how Chadwick opens his preface. It all starts with not getting a calendar for Christmas one year and feeling lost come New Year’s day. In that case, why not go to Japan? In truth, Chadwick had been studying the Zen life since the 60s. He went back to Japan in the mid 80s to reestablish his training.
Thank You and OK! covers a four year period in Texan Chadwick’s life and there are two threads to his story: his stay at Hogoji monastery and his life with his second wife Elin in modern Japan. As an aside, one needs to pay attention to dates to orientate oneself to each story but it isn’t hard to do.
My biggest take-away from reading Thank You and OK! is just how different are the details when the bigger picture is the same. What I mean by that is Japan and the United States both have vending machines, but you can buy hot sake out of one in Japan. Japan and the United States both have weird insects, but in Japan their centipedes are over a foot long and are poisonous. Counting the months of pregnancy even differ. In the States we start with zero. In Japan they start with one. That’s oversimplifying the case, but you get the idea.

Lines to make me nod, “I’ve always been hesitant to get physical with insects” (p 12), “we didn’t talk while we ate but everybody slurped the bejeezus out of the noodles” (p 49), and “I can never control what I say anyway, things just come out” (p 52).

Unrelated fact I did not know before reading Thank You and OK!: the author of the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” committed suicide.

As an aside, I wonder how many people picked up the tip about asking for directions to an imaginary place as a way of checking out the scene without paying for it and tried it for themselves?

Author fact: Chadwick is a self professed Texas-raised wanderer, college dropout, bumbling social activist and hobbyhorse musician.

Book trivia: no fun photographs of Japan. Bummer.

Nancy said: Pearl indicated Thank You and OK! was one of the best gaijin accounts.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Japanese Journeys” (p 118).


Ayatollah Begs to Differ

Madj, Hooman. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: the Paradox of Modern Iran. New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

Reason read: the Iran-Iraq War of 1980.

Iran, a land of contradictions and gross misunderstanding. Madj shares historical facts and personal reflections revealing a side of Iran and Iranians few westerners get to see. Does he want to clear up misconceptions? He understands there is a widespread lack of thoughtful acceptance of middle eastern culture. The United States especially is not on solid ground with their relationship is an understatement. The two sides are polarizing when there is so much more to understand. How can westerners reconcile dead camels on display, their throats slit for religious sacrifice? Other illogical points to consider: Birth records in Iran were instituted in 1930. Also, the chador was illegal for women to wear in the 1930s. Interestingly enough, the Shah was persuaded not to enforce this law until it was finally changed in 1941. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 promised to do away with class. Even the employees of the President dress the same as the man who poured their tea. In contrast, Madj says “When American…politicians may often come from ordinary backgrounds their lifestyles usually change dramatically when they have reached the pinnacle of power, they are long removed from their more humble roots” (p 17). This doesn’t happen in Iran.
Madj sits comfortably in a dual cultural identity, western (educated in both England and the United States) and middle eastern as the son of an Iranian diplomat and the grandson of a professor of Islamic philosophy. It’s as if he wants us to understand him as much as he wants to explain Iranian culture. Take the practice of ta’arouf, for example. He recognizes that it is an exhausting and sometime ridiculous practice similar to an over-polite chess match. Or customary gestures of hello: in the United States you thrust out your right hand to grasp someone else’s right hand (and shake vigorously), but in Iran you instead place your right hand over your heart as a gesture of respect. It’s the little things…

Quote that struck me, “Just as one doesn’t have to be religious to feel and appreciate the emotion of a gospel signer, one doesn’t have to be devout to feel the emotion of Muslim religious music, and Shia chants reach into a place deep in the Iranian soul, formed by centuries of cultural DNA and the certain Persian knowledge that the world is indeed a wicked place” (p 87).

Author fact: Madj is a writer of short fiction and has his own website here.

Book trivia: Majd includes some really great color photographs.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter simply called “Iran” (p 108).


Foreign Correspondence

Brooks, Geraldine. Foreign Correspondence: a Pen Pal’s Journey From Down Under to All Over. Thorndike, Maine: Thorndike Press, 1998.

Reason read: International Reading Day is on September 8th.

Brooks started writing to pen pals when she was ten years old. [As an aside, I think I was around the same age when I formed my letter-writing habit.] Finding all of Brooks’s pen pal letters prompted her to wonder if she could find their authors some thirty some odd years later. Where were these forty-something year olds? Who were they now as adults and what lives were they living? Before she launches on her journey to find lost relations, Brooks spends some time remembering her own childhood and how each pen pal played a part in it. As a kid she yearned to get away from boring Australia with its lack of culture and panache. As a good girl, she recalls her fear of her father’s lack of participation in Catholic worship and how it might send him to hell and yet she herself wanted to be a rebel; “to kiss boys, take drugs, be hauled by the hair into a police van at an antiwar protest” (p 78). She remembers wanting to expand her religious horizons with the letters she would write and receive. Those pen pals would bring Brooks full circle by reminding her of her roots and just how far she has come as an adult.

Quote I liked, “We have grown older together, trapped in the aspic of our age gap” (p 59) and “It’s unfortunate to arrive at an Arab summit in Casablanca only to find that your underwear is touring sub-Saharan Africa without you” (p 142).

Author fact: According to Brooks’s memoir, she had a budding acting career early in life.

Book trivia: Brooks includes touching photographs of her family as well as the pen pals who shaped her life.

Nancy said: Pearl mentioned an interview with Brooks. I had to ask the Seattle Channel if they could rerelease the video because it was over ten years old. I am happy to say they consented and even though the interview didn’t mention Foreign Correspondence I enjoyed it very much. As an aside, the interview focused on People of the Book (not on my list).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Australia, the Land of Oz” (p 26).


Florence Nightingale

Bostridge, Mark. Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Reason read: Florence Nightingale passed in the month of August. Read in her memory.

I read this biography in the hopes of shedding the cliche Florence Nightingale has inadvertently become in my mind. The very name conjures up a saintly figure of epic kindness. A woman with angel wings and endless patience. Someone with a glowing halo and endless caring calm. I wanted Bostridge’s biography to turn an otherwise glossy icon into flesh and bone with faults and no-so-saintly feelings. It turns out, the public did a lot to add to the “lady with the lamp” mythology for when the desperate attach an attribute like hope to a person, the image becomes angelic. Such was the desperation of soldiers during the Crimean War. The lamp Nightingale often carried beat back the darkness (and encroaching fear of death) with its soothing soft glow. Elizabeth Gaskell called her a saint. John Davies implied she was a goddess with a magic touch.
Tidbits of interesting not-so-saintly information I enjoyed learning: from an early age Nightingale wanted to care for the sick. She was not shy about voicing her criticism regarding hospital conditions: defective ventilation and horrid sanitation practices. She didn’t get along well with others as her persistence for improved conditions irked administrators far and wide. Through and despite all that, like a modern day celebrity craze, there was a insatiable demand for her likeness. Portraits of her cropped up everywhere. People were writing music about her. By 1855 people were naming boats and buildings after her.
Trivial details: Nightingale traveled through Egypt to Cairo with budding author Gustave Flaubert by sheer coincidence. She made Elizabeth Gaskell’s acquaintance. She had a sister who lost her identity in the shadow of Florence’s greatness. Florence made unusual animals her pets, a cicada and and owl.
There is no doubt Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon is the result of meticulous research.

When I am dead and gone will people remember me as someone in a “righteous rage to get things done” like Florence Nightingale was remembered? I just love that image of her.

Author fact: Bostridge also wrote Vera Brittain and the First World War: the Story of Testament of Truth, which is not on my Challenge list, but I am reading Vera Brittain’s Testament books.

Book trivia: Florence Nightingale is full of black and white illustrations and photography.

Nancy said: Pearl called Florence Nightingale a really good biography.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Egypt” (p 75). Florence Nightingale should not be included in this chapter because it is not about Egypt, the majority of the biography does not take place in Egypt, nor is Egypt important to the life of Florence.