Funny Ladies: Pym & Semple

some-tame-gazelleI finally, FINALLY read my first Barbara Pym novel — and it was her first novel, too: Some Tame Gazelle. Although Pym is a favorite of several of the bloggers I read, I first heard about her books when I was in college. A friend and her mother were addicted to her books, but I never picked one up. They liked the books, they told me, because they were these stories about quaint English village life, yet they were subtly funny.

Some Tame Gazelle proved to be all that. Belinda and Harriet are spinster sisters who share a house in a small village. Belinda is dowdy, timid, and self-doubting, yet has been resignedly in love with the local (married) archdeacon for more than thirty years. She knows it will never come to anything, so it is almost an indulgence. Her sister, however, is an overweight fashionista who fusses and fawns over each new curate and turns down regular marriage proposals from a devoted count. The loose plot surrounds the arrival of a new curate and the visit of a bishop. It’s not much really. The book is more character sketches of these sisters and their relationships.

I kept thinking the whole time as I read — isn’t Pym just a bit mean in her skewering of people’s weaknesses and foibles? I would have been a bit afraid to be her friend! Still, she often made me laugh out loud, like when Belinda ridiculously noted that the “Ovaltine had loosened her tongue.” But other times, I found Belinda’s silly worries and ruminations so sadly amusing.  Still, as a reader I liked Belinda and identified with her in some ways. Maybe it’s more that Pym’s humor is her way of reminding us to be compassionate about others’ weaknesses as we all have them.

I had a chance to speak with my Pym-loving friend while in the process of writing this post, and she told me that Pym was just nineteen when she wrote Some Tame Gazelle. As she pointed out, Pym’s insight into a much older person’s mind is quite remarkable. It was serendipity that I started with Pym’s first novel–I look forward to reading more and will do so with an eye to seeing how her insights of people change, if they do at all, as she matures.

today-will-be-differentAnother funny lady writer I’ve had on my iPad recently is Maria Semple. I listened to Today Will Be Different as an audiobook.

This book takes place in one day in the life of Eleanor Flood, a most impetuous character. Eleanor, stuck in a forty-something parenting/partnering rut of generally inappropriate behavior,  embarks on a series of wild escapades tracking down her MIA surgeon husband. A ton of flashbacks fill us in on their relationship and Eleanor’s back story, especially that involving her beloved but estranged sister Ivy.

I suppose it’s unfair to compare this book with Bernadette…but what the hell. I loved Bernadette. I loved the structure, written as a series of emails and other documents, and I loved the quirky and marvelously  impetuous Bernadette herself. In this new book, I feel like Semple is trying to put the pieces that made Bernadette such a success together in a new way. Instead, they are both too much like Bernadette and they don’t fit as neatly. Like Bernadette, Eleanor is a frustrated creative caught up in mommying and not creating (and in both novels, the kids go to the same elementary school). Both their husbands are top-drawer professionals (Microsoft genius vs. Seattle Seahawks orthopedic surgeon) and rather absent in partnering and parenting because they are so preoccupied with their careers. Both characters have remarkably resilient children despite their wackadoodle ways. Both reach a crisis point involving themselves and their understanding spouses, which finally leads to resolution. While this sounds like such similarity should be a good thing, I was looking for something new and Eleanor wasn’t Bernadette nor was she something new.

One significant difference in the stories is Eleanor’s relationship with her sister Ivy. In the briefest of summary, Ivy marries the mysterious and controlling scion of an old New Orleans family. He’s the leader of a krewe and follows a rigid code of social behavior that seems stuffy, antiquated, controlling, and just plain foreign to Eleanor. She and Ivy become estranged. This whole part of the book was so odd. I felt like Semple struggled to come up a with a new idea so she took the story of the Flood sisters (new) and tried to graft it into her previous success (the old Bernadette story bones). It didn’t work for me. The old square-peg-in-a-round-hole effect.

But Semple is funny! Like Pym, she sees compassionately and humorously into mind of her characters, and this carried me through the book. But rather than English village spinsters,  Semple’s characters are a certain type of upper middle-class white woman with first-world problems — in Seattle. I sound disparaging there, but I will seek out whatever Semple writes next, I just hope she finds some fresh new material for her considerable talents.

Some Tame Gazelle
ebook personal copy

Today Will Be Different
library audiobook

The Underground Railroad

img_0545Much has been made about the train in The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, specifically that it’s an actual train and not a metaphorical one that people ride to escape slavery.  Because of all this commentary, I thought, going into the book, that Cora, the escaped slave protagonist of the novel, would spend more time riding the rails than she actually does.. Cora rides the train a few times, but stops for long spells between stations, in different states, and experiences different states of freedom and enslavement.

The most fantastic thing about the train is its unpredictability. It doesn’t follow a regular schedule, and the riders can never be sure where they will arrive next. Each stop is in a different state, and each state has its own treatment of the slave. If the plantation life that Cora flees is one that we reader might recognize as familiar– slave cabins, deprivation, field work, mercurial and cruel masters — each stop on Cora’s journey takes us into less familiar literary narratives about slavery and racial injustice. At one stop, Cora is seemingly treated as a respected member of society, until she realizes that blacks are the subjects of a systematic sterility program.  At another stop, blacks are being lynched out of existence  and so she is hidden in the false ceiling of an attic for months (shades of Anne Frank?). At another stop, she is given a job (a job!) working in a museum, but it turns out she is merely a live figure in a diorama about slave life. The white people watch her from outside the glass like an animal in a cage. It’s just weird and disturbing. All the while, Cora is being chased by a slave catcher named Ridgeway, who eventually does catch up with her. But I won’t tell anymore…

This is what Cora (and Caesar, he fellow escapee) see at the first station:

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light-colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.

Caesar could barely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation took a bit o f time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Cora saw that Lumbly relished their astonishment. This was not his first performance.

Caesar said, “But how?”

“With their hands, how else?”

Who builds anything in this country indeed. We readers are reminded of the amazing prosperity and achievements built by the hands of slaves — and I think it is safe to add: people of color and immigrants, in general. When I read that passage I was reminded of Michelle Obama who I heard remark on several occasions how humbled she was to live in the White House,  a house a built by slaves.

I thought Whitehead did a wonderful job imagining Cora’s inner world and particularly the shell of distrust she keeps towards both blacks and whites. While the latter is not surprising, the former was. But Cora’s relationships with other black people, at least in the beginning, are so fractured — her mother escapes and abandons her, other slaves are petty and desperate, or sold away; and male slaves rape just as brutally as white masters do.  Later in the novel she will see blacks in roles and relationships that she couldn’t have imagined. And at least we, the readers, learn what happens to her mother.

Overall, I found this book fascinating and heartbreaking. Now I need to read Marlon James’s Book of the Night Women.

Middlemarch and Other Goals for 2017

middlemarchI haven’t written much about my reading goals for 2017. I never much considered having reading goals until I started blogging and following bloggers who are an enthusiastic and goal-oriented bunch. Slowly, my own ideas for bookish accomplishments have taken shape in my mind. Here are some for 2017 and beyond:

  1. Read Middlemarch. Finally. Damn it. I started Middlemarch in October 2011 and I think I finished book one. I took it with me to France in November and it just wasn’t the book to travel with. I put it down and lost the thread. Inspired by others who’ve read this at a planned pace (looking at you, Laila at Big Reading Life), I am going to aim to read a book a month. That means I should finish the eight books of Middlemarch in August this year. This slo-mo approach appeals to me because Eliot is wise and clever, but her narrative passages can be dense and only grasped with close reading, which is slow.  If I try to read the whole thing at once, I may rush and miss much. I am already behind on this goal–still working on book one here on February 2, but that’s okay. I am already really enjoying it (again) and, happily, feeling less annoyed at the prospect of Dorothy marrying Casaubon than I did last time because I already know she is silly enough to actually do it. Anyway, I am finding all sorts of other entertainment in book one now that I am not annoyed (the pleasure of rereading). Stay tuned for more thoughts on Middlemarch.
  2. Read all the Pulitzer prize winners in literature (but not in one year.) This goal is inspired by a friend of mine who is not a blogger, but he is a big reader (looking at you, PJK). We often have book chat emails and follow each other on Goodreads. I had recently finished All the King’s Men (winner 1947), which blew my socks off, when he mentioned the idea of reading all the Pulitzers. After looking at the entire list of winners, I realized that I’ve read quite a few and have rarely been disappointed, which I cannot say about some of the other book prizes. So I’m stealing his thunder and making this a goal. I’ve got nine winners on my TBR shelves already, and reading those this year would be a good start. PJK, if you want to join me and guest post now and then, let me know!
  3. Read 50 books. I know this is small potatoes compared with the incredible number of books some bloggers read, but it is whopping for me. Besides, I have other interests that I love just as much as reading and which will not get pursued if I am always nose in book.
  4. Read more closely and therefore more slowly. One of the great hazards of a quantity reading goals is that I am tempted to read too quickly. I don’t stop to jot down a quote I like or reread passages just to think about them. I don’t know how this is going to work with #3 but I’m going to try to be better about savoring and reflecting.
  5. Listen to more audiobooks. I count audiobooks as “reading.” In fact, sometimes I catch the nuances of a book better when I listen because a skilled reader can really influence my perception of a book. Way back in 1992 or 1993 when I was living in Tokyo, I found a super cheap audiobook (cassette) of Possession by A. S. Byatt in a bargain bin. I had tried reading Possession previously, but gave up–it seemed so stuffy. But in Japan in those days,  all English books–and certainly audiobooks–were expensive, the selection was limited (no Kindle or internet), and required effort to track down. I never had enough books around in those years, so I snapped up that audiobook from the bin. The reader (I don’t remember who now) was so good that many parts of the book I’d thought were stuffy I found to be funny. I remember being amazed at how differently I understood the book from listening. These days, when I can download audiobooks from the library or Audible and so on, there hardly seems to be any excuse. And best for me: I can “read” while I paint or sew…or cook and clean.
  6. Read more graphic novels. I love art and I love books, so I am not sure why I haven’t read more graphic novels. Going to change this in 2017.

It’s taken me until February, but my goals are out there. Let’s see how I do.


A Gentleman in Moscow

img_0542I finished A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles about an hour before the clock struck midnight 2017, so it feels like a “back there” book. But I just want to write a few lines on it, because something about that story stays with me weeks later: the kindness of strangers who become friends.

If you’ve read anything about it, you’ll know that the story is about a Russian count, Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to “hotel arrest” following the Russian revolution. As an aristocrat, he is lucky to be left alive and living in Russia. But if he leaves the hotel where he lives, he is told by the authorities that he will be shot. So he stays put in the hotel for more than 30 years.  Still, an amazing number of things happen in his life, and those events and their trajectory make up the very enjoyable story.

But what struck me, what lingers about this book, is the kindness that the characters show each other. From his years living in the hotel, prior to his sentence, Rostov knows many of the hotel employees and they certainly know him, his preferences,  and his habits. But what develops between the former aristocrat and (most of) the hotel employees — and one or two hotel guests — is a true, deep camaraderie that has nothing to do with politics but everything to do with respect and shared circumstances.

Part of me thinks that however enjoyable, A Gentleman in Moscow is not a deep novel. But really, whatever could be deeper than kind and loyal relationships?


The Signature of All Things

the-signature-of-all-thingsIt’s been a long time since I read  a novel with as deeply developed a character as Alma Whittaker in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. It is easy to feel that Alma is as real — if not more so — than some of the real-life characters  in the novel. Then again, The Signature of All Things is all Alma’s story, from birth to the brink of her death in old age, so it is important that she be interesting enough to carry us through the 500+ pages.

Alma’s life spans the nineteenth century. She is born into a wealthy, immigrant Pennsylvanian family.  Her English father is an uneducated but highly resourceful merchant of medicinal plants. Her mother is a member of a  family of famous Dutch botanists. Alma and her adopted sister Prudence are given spectacular classical educations and encouraged to precociousness. But whereas Prudence is beautiful and draws male attention, Alma, we are constantly reminded, is not. No suitors come calling for her, particularly the one man she hopes will return her affection but never does. Gilbert makes such a point of letting us know how ugly and unattractive Alma is that it made me quite sad for her.

But luckily, Alma is smart, resourceful, and hyper-educated, and has funds to spare. She ends up devoting her spinster life to the study of botany, particularly mosses, while also caring for her father and his business interests as he ages. She becomes  an international expert on mosses, writes books, and conducts a life filled with the purpose of study instead of love or motherhood. But in her early 50s, Alma meets a man who illustrates orchids. He’s younger than her and very attractive, but  he shares her naturalist interests and seems to love her despite her plainness. She falls in love and they marry, but her marriage is not what she hopes for. It’s really from this point in the novel that the novel’s purpose–Alma’s transformation–begins.

One of the most obvious and yet wonderful things about this novel is how Alma’s life and scientific journey are deeply entwined with the real-world history of scientific discovery, particularly botany, taxonomy, and similar sciences, that was exploding in the nineteenth century.  You can tell that Gilbert wallowed gleefully in her research–on mosses, on the propagation of vanilla and medicinal plants, on the historical trade and market demands for botanicals, and on Darwin and the other giants of science who appear in this book — if only by association. Gilbert learned it all so well that she is able to weave Alma’s story around and among real people and places and ideas in a delightful and believable way. Also, this period of history, with its marauding Western naturalists, is fascinating.

Although I own a copy of this book, I ended up listening to it as an audiobook.  Certain aspects of Gilbert’s writing style were really emphasized by listening rather than reading. Gilbert has a tendency to construct passages, both long and short, repetitively,  like this:

There was the threesome of enormous mastodon ribs in the front atrium, dug up in a nearby field by a local farmer, who traded it to Henry for a new rifle. There was the ballroom, gleaming and empty, where once — in the chill of late autumn — Alma had encountered a trapped hummingbird….There was the caged mynah bird in her father’s study….There were rare snakeskins with a filling of straw and sawdust. There were shelves stocked with South Sea coral, Javanese idols, ancient Egyptian jewelry of lapis lazuli, and dusty Turkish almanacs.

These “there was/were” paragraphs go on for several pages. And again:

In her ninth summer, completely on her own, Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o’clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. At six o’clock, the daisies and globeflowers opened. When the clock struck seven, the dandelions would bloom. At eight o’clock it was the scarlet pimpernel’s turn. Nine o’clock: chickweed, Ten o’clock: meadow saffron. By eleven o’clock, the process begins to reverse. At noon, goatsbeard closes. At one o’clock, chickweed…

And that paragraph, charming as it is, goes on. On one hand, this construction lends itself to sharing a dazzling amount of interesting detail that helps the build up a rich exposition of Alma and her life. But Gilbert almost uses this construction like a crutch, and its frequency was really noticeable — even distracting — when listening.

But Alma is such a wonderful character — I feel like I knew her so well!– and she is reason enough to read this novel.

Two Whale Tales

rush-ohIn my Best of 2016 post, I mentioned that it is sometimes better to wait before reading the hot new books to see which ones really deserve the hype. Or which ones float to the surface…like a rotting whale carcass ready to be harvested of its precious oil. That might be stretching a metaphor, but it does lead me into talking about Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett, my first book of the year and one that I didn’t wait long enough to see if it was a sinker or a floater.

Rush Oh! is set in 1908 and narrated by a girl, Mary Davidson, who lives in Eden, NSW, Australia. Her father, Fearless George Davidson, is a well-respected master whaler set on by hard times. He hunts the leviathans that enter Eden’s bay with the aid of a pod of killer whales. Either the “Killers” (as they are known in the book) alert the citizens to the appearance of a whale, or they appear to help corral and tire the beast once the whaleboats are upon it. The whalers repay the Killers by giving them the carcass to pull to the bottom and feast on the lips and tongue. When the carcass bloats and rises, the whalers get to haul their spoil home to render the oil. But in 1908, the whaling industry is in decline. Not as many whales enter the bay for the humans and Killers to hunt as in years past, and George and family are struggling to make ends meet. Mary’s mother has passed away, so she is in charge of cooking and feeding George’s motley whaling crew with whatever she can scrape together. Sometimes it’s not much. She also develops a love interest in the mysterious former Methodist pastor who joins her father’s crew.

Easily the most exciting and sparkling parts of this book are the whaling scenes, and the relationship between the whalers and the orca pod. The hunt scenes are detailed, exciting, gruesome, scary and sad — and really put you in the whale boats with the crew. Barrett explains at the end of the book that Fearless George was a real whaler who really hunted with the help of pack of killer whales. It’s an amazing relationship and each killer whale had a unique personality that was known to the town. Killer whales live a long time, and this pod and their antics and the assistance they gave the whalers of Eden became well-known.  I really enjoyed these aspects of the book.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Mary was a well-used or very interesting narrator. Her “romance” with the pastor is dull and shallow and, being a girl, she doesn’t join the whaling adventures (although she narrates it — odd now that I think about it). This book is a great example of an author having some juicy real-world source material to build a story around, but having the real-world bits outshine the fictitious. (The Son also suffers from this problem somewhat.) While I love the idea of a female narrator in a whaling tale, this book fell short. Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Nusland, for example, has a much more interesting female narrator and story sprung from this male character-dominated setting.

I read Rush Oh! while on a short getaway to the Sonoma coast. It rained the entire time, so it was just a lot of reading and hot tub soaking (could have been worse!). On the way home, we stopped by the bookstore in Point Reyes Station (under the new ownership of an enthusiastic young couple), and my husband, my enabler, found a wonderful old book called Arctic Roving or The Adventure of a New Bedford Boy on Sea and Land by Daniel Weston Hall, edited by Jerome Beatty, Jr. and illustrated by William Hogarth. I am doing the TBR Rudux dare, but we got stuck in horrid Bay Area traffic, so what’s a poor woman to do but crack open the only book at hand…

arctic-rovingsThis slim book (144 pages), republished in 1968 from the 1861 original, is the memoir of “a fifteen-year-old boy on board whaleship CONDOR…his escape from the cruelties of shipboard life, his winter in the Siberian wilderness and his rescue and eventual return to the United States.” While not super detailed or sophisticated, it’s full of exciting adventure like the best parts of Rush Oh! with some of the danger, roughness, and hardship of The North Water. Hall was badly beaten and abused by the captain of the Condor. If he hadn’t escaped and been taken care of by a native medicine man, he likely would have died. I was also amazed that he was rescued because his father, finding him not aboard the Condor when it returned to New Bedford, put a notice in a whaling paper asking any ships headed to the Okhotsk Sea to look for his son on the shore. And they do! And he was found by a sailor who was ordered by his captain to row ashore each morning to look for him! Such a rescue seems so serendipitous and improbable to me when I need my GPS and iMessage just to meet a friend for lunch.

Beyond the story itself, the editor helpfully footnotes whaling jargon and gently corrects any faulty historical details in the narrative. The illustrations are charming and the book is laid-out in a manner reminiscent of nineteenth century publications. It was a great find (thanks, honey!) and equally serendipitous that it landed in my hands on the heels of Rush Oh! (so I just had to break my TBR dare with it, right?) I highly recommend this little gem if you can find a copy.

Rush Oh!
library copy

Arctic Rovings
personal copy

Best of 2016

bestof2016I’ve had one of my best reading years in a long time. My book nerd stats: I’ve read 40 books (likely 41+ by the time the ball drops), or 14,068 pages. Thirteen of the books were over 400 pages, and as usual, the longer books tended to be my favorites of the year. Here are those favorites, with only the first one being in order:

  1. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: This doorstopper (600+ pages) is unquestionably my favorite book of the year, and on my list of all time best. The writing is absolutely sublime. I read this long before it even seemed possible that Trump would be elected, but I now find it ironic that it’s about — on one hand — an unscrupulous populist politician. On the other hand, it’s a love story and one man’s journey down a deep rabbit hole of identity, honor, and self-respect. Big literary themes and tons of nuance. You could write a dissertation on this book.
  2. The Neapolitan Series by Elena Ferrante: Once I read the first book in the series (My Brilliant Friend), I had to read them all, and my goal was to complete them in 2016. Reading them all in this fashion, really allowed me to see the character development. When I started book four, I almost wanted to put it down again because Elena and Lila’s lives and relationships were so complex that it was exhausting. But then I thought about the arc of the narratives: book one has simpler relationships because they were children. By the time book four rolls around, they are adult women with children of different fathers and tangled relationships of in-laws, friends, lovers, colleagues, neighbors, etc. Just like many of us in middle age. A spectacular, Shakespearean series.
  3. Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: I’m always about a year or two behind in reading the popular contemporary novels, such as these two published in 2013 and 2015 respectively. So much has been written about them and it’s all true — they are wonderful. For me, they charged up an interest in stories about the early 20th century and the World Wars. I think I like waiting a year or two after the chatter and hype about a new book dies down; the books that remain floating on the surface afterward are likely the ones worth reading.
  4. HHhH by Laurent Binet: My nascent World War interest led me to this book which has an interesting narrative style. The author is constantly reminding us of how he writes and why he writes while he tells the story of the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during WWII. Fascinating true story served up in a fascinating fictitious style. Loved it.
  5. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple: I had this one on my iPad for a while before I read it. What a treat! A warm, funny, smart story told mostly in a series of emails and other documents and otherwise narrated by the missing Bernadette’s daughter. Makes me want to visit Seattle (and be glad that we moved here instead of there, which was in the cards). I don’t often like “funny” books or biting satire, but this is really well-done and I look forward to reading her latest.
  6. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell: I got a six-month Persephone gift for my birthday, and managed to read all but the last one each month, as they arrived. Fidelity was my favorite of the five I read. During this election season, I have thought a lot about my own journey as a woman and the arc of feminism intellectually and socially in this country. This book arrived in November, right after the election, and made me think even more, especially about how women are socialized against each other, and the importance of…fidelity.
  7. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: This is a beautiful, reflective memoir of Matthiessen’s five-week trek deep into the Himalayas accompanying his scientist/friend to study a rare mountain goat. Ultimately, it becomes more a journey into the self and soul. Gorgeous both in language and thought. Think enlightenment.
  8. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner: I’m still ticked off that Stegner co-opted (plagiarized) so much original material from Mary Hallock Foote, but damn if this wasn’t a good story.  I think about it often and imagine that this is a book I can and will reread. It’s a pioneer story, plus the settings are in states and places that I am familiar with — which added to its enjoyment for me.
  9. The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh: Science (dolphins), scenery (the Sundarbans), and a love story–perfect!
  10. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert: I only rated this book a 3 because there are so many places in this book where Elizabeth Gilbert’s dazzling and relentless self-importance and privilege come cheerfully poking through. But still…she offers uncanny nuggets of wisdom and ideas about the creative process that outshine her obliviousness. I surprise myself that this book makes it on my top 10, but I think about some of her ideas often enough, and with interest, that it definitely made an impression.