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. Continue reading

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… Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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: Continue reading