Tag: Baltimore

20 Books of Summer, #7–10: Auster, Darlington, Durrell, Jansma

Owls and leopards and dogs – oh my! My animal-themed reading project continues. I’m more than halfway through in that I’m in the middle of quite a few more books, but finishing and reviewing them all before the 3rd of September may still prove to be a challenge.

 

Timbuktu by Paul Auster (1999)

My first from Auster – and not, I take it, representative of his work in general. Never mind, though; I enjoyed it, and it was a good follow-up to Fifteen Dogs. Like the Alexis novel, this gives an intimately imagined dog’s perspective, taking seriously the creature’s whole life story. The canine protagonist is Mr. Bones, who’s accompanied his mentally unstable writer owner, Willy G. Christmas, from New York City down to Baltimore, where, one August Sunday, Willy wants to find his old high school English teacher before he dies.

What took me by surprise is that Auster doesn’t stick with Willy, but has Mr. Bones move on to two more living situations: first he’s the secret friend of 10-year-old Henry Chow, whose parents run a Chinese restaurant, then he’s a family pet in suburban Virginia. Although his English comprehension is advanced, he isn’t able to reproduce its sounds like some of the dogs in Fifteen Dogs can, so he can’t tell these new owners his real name and has to accept being called first “Cal” and then “Sparky.” In dreams he still hears Willy’s voice. He assumes Willy is now in the afterlife (“Timbuktu”), and longs to rejoin him.

The novel is tender as well as playful and funny – I loved the passage where Mr. Bones wakes up to pain but doesn’t realize he’s been castrated:

How was he to know that those missing parts had been responsible for turning him into a father many times over? Except for his ten-day affair with Greta, the malamute from Iowa City, his romances had always been brief—impetuous couplings, impromptu flings, frantic rolls in the hay—and he had never seen any of the pups he had sired. And even if he had, how would he have been able to make the connection? Dick Jones had turned him into a eunuch, but in his own eyes he was still the prince of love, the lord of the canine Romeos, and he would go on courting the ladies until his last, dying breath. For once, the tragic dimension of his own life eluded him.

 

Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington (2018)

Initially the idea was to see all of Britain’s resident owls, but as often happens, the project expanded until Darlington was also taking trips to Serbia to find a Long-Eared Owl, Finland for a Eurasian Eagle Owl, and France for a Pygmy Owl; and going on a fruitless twitch to see a vagrant Snowy Owl in Cornwall. Each chapter considers a different species and includes information on its anatomy, geographical distribution, conservation status, and any associated myths and anecdotes (The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel does much the same thing, but with less richness). She has closer encounters with some than with others: when volunteering with the Barn Owl Trust, she gets to ring chicks and collects pellets for dissection. But even the most fleeting sightings can be magical.

The book also subtly weaves in what was happening in Darlington’s life at the time, especially her son Benji’s struggles. On the autistic spectrum, he suddenly started having physical problems that were eventually explained by non-epileptic seizures. I would have welcomed more personal material, but that just speaks to my love of memoir. This feels slightly hurried and not quite as editorially polished as her master work, Otter Country, but it’s still well worth reading if you have any interest in birds or nature conservation. (I’ve only seen two owls in the wild: Barn and Tawny.)

 

Fillets of Plaice by Gerald Durrell (1971)

This is a pleasant miscellany of leftover essays that didn’t make it into any of Durrell’s other books. The best is “The Birthday Party,” about an incident from the Corfu years: Larry insisted on taking the fridge along on Mother’s birthday outing to an island, and their boat ran out of petrol. In “A Transport of Terrapins,” teenage Gerry works as a lowly pet shop assistant in London even though he knows twice as much as his boss; and meets other eccentric fellows, such as a bird collector and a retired colonel who has a house full of model figures for war gaming.

“A Question of Promotion” is set on one of the animal-collecting expeditions to Cameroon and turned me off a little with its colonial attitude: Durrell talks to the natives in condescending pidgin as he helps prepare a feast for the District Commissioner’s visit. In “A Question of Degrees” he visits two hospitals for a cataclysmic nosebleed, while “Ursula” is about a girlfriend who couldn’t open her mouth without uttering a malapropism. Entertaining scraps for diehard fans; if you’re new to Durrell, though, start with My Family and Other Animals and Menagerie Manor.

 

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma (2013)

I’d meant to read Jansma’s debut ever since Why We Came to the City, his terrific novel about five university friends negotiating life in New York City during the recession, came out in 2016. I assumed the leopards of the title would be purely metaphorical – a reference to people not being able to change their inborn nature – and they are, but they’re also surprisingly literal in the one chapter set in Africa.

Jansma’s deliciously unreliable narrator, never named but taking on various aliases in these linked short stories, is a trickster, constantly reworking his life into fiction. He longs to be a successful novelist, but keeps losing his works in progress. We think we know the basics of his identity – he’s the son of a single mother who worked as a flight attendant; he grew up in North Carolina emulating the country club and debutante class; at Berkshire College he met his best friend and rival Julian McGann in creative writing class and fell for Julian’s friend Evelyn, the great unrequited love of his life – but Part II introduces doubt by calling the characters different names. Are these the ‘real’ people, or the narrator’s fictionalized versions?

The characters go on a bizarre odyssey that moves the setting from New York City to Nevada to Dubai to Sri Lanka to Ghana to Iceland to Luxembourg, finally ending up back in the very airport terminal where it started. As I remembered from Why We Came to the City, Jansma interleaves Greek mythology and allusions to other writers, especially F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The coy way in which he layers fiction on fiction reminded me of work by John Boyne and Tom Rachman; other recommended readalikes are The Goldfinch and Orchid & the Wasp.

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America Reading & Book Haul, Etc.

The wedding of a college friend – who I calculated I’ve known at least half my life – was the excuse we needed to book a trip back to the States for the last two weeks of May. Along with the classy nuptials in the Fell’s Point area of Baltimore, we enjoyed a day’s sightseeing in Philadelphia, a couple of outings to watch birds and other wildlife on Cape May (a migration hotspot in New Jersey), two meet-ups with other friends, and plenty of relaxation time with my mom and sister, including a Memorial Day picnic at my mom’s retirement community and a tour of Antietam Battlefield. It was much hotter than anticipated, including some days in the high 80s or even 90s, and the hayfever, ticks and mosquitoes were bad, too, but we survived.

While back in Maryland I continued the intermittent downsizing process I’ve been going through for a while now. After being on the market for nearly a year, my family home finally sold and went to closing while we were over there. So that provided a scrap of closure, but my current estrangement from my father (we don’t even know where he’s living) means there’s a lot of continuing uncertainty.

In any case, I managed to reduce the number of boxes I’m storing with my sister from 29 to 20 by recycling lots of my old schoolwork, consolidating my mementos, reselling one box of books and donating another, donating a box of figurines and decorative bottles to a thrift store, displaying some at my mom’s place, giving away a few trinkets to a friend’s kids, and packing a bunch of stuff – photo albums and decorations as well as 64 books – in our various suitcases and hand luggage to take back to the UK.

And I also acquired more books, of course! A whopping 46 of these were free: eight review copies were waiting for me at my mom’s place; three were from the outdoor free bin at 2nd & Charles, a secondhand bookstore; one was found in a Little Free Library near our friends’ place in New Jersey (Emerald City by Jennifer Egan, not pictured); and the rest were from The Book Thing of Baltimore, a legendary volunteer-run free bookshop. I mostly raided the biography section for an excellent selection of women’s life writing; the fiction is unalphabetized so harder to find anything in, but I picked up a few novels, too. My only purchases were new (remainder) copies of one novel and one memoir from Dollar Tree. Total book spending on the trip: just $2.12.

 

What I Read:

 

Two that I’d already started but finished on the plane ride over:

  • The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: (As featured in my spring reading list.) “Love and flowers, death and flowers.” Poetic writing about small-town Minnesota life, a tense relationship with her late mother, and her late father’s flower shop.
  • The Girls by Lori Lansens: I love reading about sister relationships, and the Darlen girls’ situation is an extreme case of love and jealousy given that they literally can’t get away from each other. Not as good as the two other conjoined-twin novels I’ve read, Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, but I would read more from Lansens, a solid Oprah Book Club sort of author.

 

Three review books that will be featuring here in the near future:

  • Goulash by Brian Kimberling
  • Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan
  • Mother Ship by Francesca Segal

A few quick reads:

  • A Certain Loneliness: A Memoir by Sandra Gail Lambert: (A proof copy passed on by an online book reviewing friend.) A memoir in 29 essays about living with the effects of severe polio. Most of the pieces were previously published in literary magazines. While not all are specifically about the author’s disability, the challenges of life in a wheelchair seep in whether she’s writing about managing a feminist bookstore or going on camping and kayaking adventures in Florida’s swamps. I was reminded at times of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
  • No Happy Endings: A Memoir by Nora McInerny: (Borrowed from my sister.) I didn’t appreciate this as much as the author’s first memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh, though it’s in the same style: lots of short, witty but bittersweet essays reflecting on life’s losses. Within a year of being widowed by cancer, she met a new partner and soon was – surprise! – pregnant with his baby. Together they formed a blended family of four children ranging from 0 to 15 and two wounded adults. McInerny also writes about her newfound spirituality and feminism. The problem with the essay format is that she cycles through aspects of the same stories multiple times.
  • Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey: (Free from 2nd & Charles.) Trethewey writes beautifully disciplined verse about her mixed-race upbringing in Mississippi, her mother’s death and the South’s legacy of racial injustice. She occasionally rhymes, but more often employs forms that involve repeated lines or words. The title sequence concerns a black Civil War regiment in Louisiana. Two favorites from this Pulitzer-winning collection by a former U.S. poet laureate were “Letter” and “Miscegenation”; stand-out passages include “In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm” (from “Pilgrimage”) and “I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime // of me — mulatto, half-breed” (from “South”).

 

I also read the first half or more of: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, my June book club book; Hungry by Jeff Gordinier, a journalist’s travelogue of his foodie journeys with René Redzepi of Noma fame, coming out in July; and the brand-new novel In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow – these last two are for upcoming BookBrowse reviews.

 

But the book I was most smug to have on my reading list for the trip was the recent novel Cape May by Chip Cheek. What could be more perfect for reading on location? I asked myself. Unfortunately, it stood out for the wrong reasons. In October 1957 a young pair of virgins, Effie and Henry, travel from Georgia to New Jersey for an off-season honeymoon in her uncle’s vacation home. They’re happy enough with each other but underwhelmed with the place (strangely, this matched my experience of Cape May), and even consider going home early until they fall in with Clara, a friend of Effie’s cousin; Clara’s lover, Max; and Max’s younger sister, Alma. Effie and Henry join the others for nightly drunken revelry.

[SPOILERS!] As the weeks pass Effie, ill and dejected, almost seems to disappear as Cheek delves into Henry’s besotted shenanigans, described in unnecessarily explicit sexual detail. When Effie makes a bid or two for her own sexual freedom late on, it only emphasizes the injustice of spending so much time foregrounding Henry’s perspective. Despite the strength of the period atmosphere and seaside location, this ends up being dull and dated. If you’re after a typically ‘trashy’ beach read and don’t mind lots of sex scenes, you may get on with it better than I did.

Reading a few pages of Cape May over an ice-cold G&T at the wedding reception.

 

Bonus bookishness:

Vineland, New Jersey was on the way from our friends’ house to Cape May, so we stopped to take my proof copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered to its spiritual home. Alas, Vineland is an utterly boring small American town. However, Mary Treat at least appears on a painted mural on a building on the main street. The Historical Society, where Kingsolver did her research, was closed, but we photographed the outside.

 

What’s the last book you read ‘on location’? Did it work out well for you?

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler: Well…

A few years back I read a rare interview with Anne Tyler in which she described getting together with her lady friends of a certain age to watch The Wire and experience how some other Baltimore residents live. The gangs-and-drugs world of The Wire, of course, could hardly be more different from the safe semi-suburban spaces Tyler’s characters inhabit.

However, if you’ve heard one thing about Tyler’s new novel, Clock Dance, her twenty-second, I expect it’s that a character gets shot. Finally, a realistic look at the condition of Baltimore, I thought! To my frustration, though, Tyler does just what she did in her previous novel, the Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread, and immediately defuses what could have been a hot-button issue. Sure, her characters have dysfunctional family problems aplenty, but nothing ever gets too out of hand. So in Spool son Denny’s confession that he thinks he’s gay is never given serious consideration, and in Clock Dance the Chekhovian gun we (perhaps) encounter early on in the novel does indeed return to be used in the contemporary-set section, but – and I’m sorry if this strikes you as a spoiler – it’s only a shot in the leg, the result of some kids playing around with a gun, and the unwitting victim is fine.

Essentially Clock Dance is three stories followed by a short novel: glimpses into four periods of Willa Drake’s life. In 1967 she’s 11 and her angry mother Alice, who’s reminiscent of Pearl Tull from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, gets fed up and leaves – but soon comes back. (You see what I mean about dangling life-changing traumas in front of us but then instantly neutralizing them?) In 1977 Willa is a college junior and flies home over spring break to introduce her boyfriend to her parents. He wants her to give up her linguistic studies and join him in California, where he has a job. On to 1997, when Willa suddenly becomes a widow and has to learn to survive one day at a time. Fast forward to 2017, when the remarried Willa, now based in Arizona, gets a call informing her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot and she needs to come look after her and her daughter and dog in Baltimore.

It’s somewhat ironic that I just read Breathing Lessons earlier in the summer: Clock Dance is awfully similar to Tyler’s 1988 Pulitzer winner in that both protagonists are trying to make things right with their daughter-in-law and granddaughter figures. In Willa’s case, her son never married Denise and isn’t the father of nine-year-old Cheryl, but Willa still feels a grandmotherly concern and, as she seems to be the only person the neighbor knew to call in an emergency, she agrees to fly out with her second husband, a humourless retired lawyer and golfer named Peter. They will stay in Denise’s home on Dorcas Road in Baltimore for as long as she is in the hospital. Peter is impatient with the situation, but Willa feels purposeful for the first time in years, and before long she’s starting to think about Dorcas Road, with its lovably quirky set of neighbors, as home. Could she make her own useful life here?

Tyler is surprisingly good on modern children and technology, and there are some terrific individual scenes, like the fairly awkward dinner Willa has with her elder son, Sean, and Elissa, the woman he left Denise for. But at times the dialogue didn’t ring true for me, with some 1950s vocabulary like darn, gosh, pussyfoot, hoodlum, and jeepers, plus (I checked this in the Kindle book) a whopping 188 sentences start with some variation on “Well, …” That works out to more than once every other page, a tic Tyler’s editor should have ironed out.

The U.S. edition of Clock Dance, which features a cactus on the cover, tries to make more of the partial Arizona setting, though most of the book is set in Tyler’s familiar small-town Pennsylvania and Baltimore. Willa admires saguaro cacti – “She loved their dignity, their endurance” – and Peter also buys one from the hospital gift shop, as a sort of symbol of resilience and adaptation to one’s surroundings. The U.K. cover, by contrast, goes for nostalgic Americana and reminded me of this passage from Breathing Lessons:

(An early Tyler novel is called The Clock Winder, but I imagine the similarity in the titles is just incidental.)

The story behind the title: Cheryl and friends perform what they call a “clock dance,” wherein two girls stand behind a third and they all move their arms in rhythmic jerks like a clock face. Willa imagines her own ‘clock dance’ would be a mad whirl from stage left to right: a race against time. Her efforts to redirect her life before it’s too late are heartening, but overall I didn’t sense strong enough themes in this novel; in particular, I would have preferred if Tyler had been consistent in checking in with Willa every decade and making each vignette truly count.

Of the eight Tyler novels I’ve read so far, here’s how I’d rank them (from best to least good). You’ll see that this latest one falls somewhere in the middle.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

The Accidental Tourist

Breathing Lessons

Vinegar Girl

Clock Dance

Back When We Were Grown-ups

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

 


My rating:

Clock Dance is released in the UK today, July 12th, by Chatto & Windus and came out on the 10th from Knopf Doubleday in the USA. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

20 Books of Summer, #1–3: Hadley, Timms & Tyler

I’ve been reading sophisticated short stories, a food/travel memoir, and a prize-winning slice of cozy Americana.

 

Sunstroke and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley (2007)

Everything is running away so fast; your deepest responsibility is to snatch at all the living you can.

Here’s a little something I wrote as an introduction to a review of Hadley’s most recent short story collection: “When I think of Tessa Hadley’s books, I picture a certain quality of light. I see piercing yellow shafts of sunlight filling airy, wood-floored rooms and lowering over suburban English gardens to create languid summer evenings. I think of childhood’s sense of possibility and adolescence’s gently scary feeling of new freedoms opening up. And, even when the story lines are set in the present day, I imagine the calm sophistication of 1950s–70s fashions: smart sweater sets and skirts, or flowing hippie dresses.” This volume is from a decade earlier and is not quite as strong, but that distinct atmosphere is still there.

Each story pivots on a particular relationship: A mother fends off her son’s spurned lover; a teenager helps her older sister recover from a miscarriage; a woman hosts her former brother-in-law. Several stories revisit the same place or situation decades later. Claudia flirted with Graham when he was a teenager and she a grown woman; in “Phosphorescence” he tests whether there’s still any power in that connection 25 years later. In “A Card Trick” Gina goes back to a writer’s home she visited with family friends 25 years ago and reflects on how life has failed to live up to expectations. In “Matrilineal” Nia shares the comfort of a bed with her mother twice: once as a little girl the night they run away from her father, and again 40 years later in a hotel in New York City.

My two favorites were “The Surrogate,” in which a young woman falls for her professor – and for a pub customer who happens to look like him; and “Exchanges,” about two women on the cusp of middle age whose lives have diverged.

 

Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms (2014)

The only diary I’ve ever religiously maintained is my food journal.

Timms is a Scottish journalist and food blogger who moved to India in 2005 when her husband got a job as a foreign correspondent. She delights in the street food stalls of Old Delhi, where you can get a hearty and delicious meal of mutton curry or fried vegetable dumplings for very little money. Often the snacks are simple – the first roasted sweet potatoes of the season or a big bowl of rice pudding made with buffalo milk and flavored with cardamom – but something about snatching sustenance while you’re on the go can make it the best thing you’ve ever tasted. It takes some searching to avoid the “pizza-fication” of Indian cuisine and discover an authentic hole-in-the-wall. Timms relies on local knowledge to locate hidden treasures and probes the owners until she gets recipes to recreate at home.

There isn’t a strong narrative to the book, but the food descriptions are certainly mouth-watering. Timms also captures the “magnificent mayhem of the spice market” and the extremes of the climate – a Delhi summer is like “being trapped inside a tandoor for three months of the year.” I reckon “Mr Naseem’s Sheer Khurma” will be fairly easy and so worth trying as a light dessert to follow a curry feast. Made with whole milk, ground rice, dried fruits and nuts, it’s a sweet custard traditionally used to break the Ramadan fast.

 

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1988)

“Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?”

Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for this one. I’d rate it third out of the seven of her novels I’ve read so far, after Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. (In general I seem to like her 1980s work the best.) The main action takes place all on one day, as Maggie Moran and her husband Ira travel from Baltimore up to Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of her childhood friend’s husband and pay a visit to their son’s ex-wife and their granddaughter.

Of course, circadian narratives are so clever because they manage to interleave sufficient flashbacks to fill in the background. So we learn how 48-year-old Maggie – a precursor of Rebecca Davitch from Back When We Were Grown-ups and Abby Whitshank from A Spool of Blue Thread and the epitome of the exuberant, slightly ditzy, do-gooding heroine – has always meant well but through a combination of misunderstandings and fibs has botched things. She settled on Ira almost out of embarrassment: she’d heard a rumor he’d been killed in military training and sent his father an effusive condolence letter. When their son Jesse got Fiona pregnant, Maggie convinced Fiona to give him a chance based on a sentimental story about him that she perhaps half believed, and now, years later, she’s trying to do the same.

I loved the funeral scene itself – Serena is determined to recreate her wedding to Max, note for note – but I wearied of a sequence in which Maggie and Ira help an older African-American gentleman with car trouble. This is very much the Maggie show, so your reaction to the novel will largely depend on how well you’re able to tolerate her irksome habits. (Really, does she have to confuse the brake and the accelerator TWICE in one day?) Ira is the usual Tylerian standoffish husband, and Jesse the standard layabout progeny. What I found strangest was how little Tyler bothers to develop the character of the Moran daughter, Daisy.

Still, I enjoyed this. It’s a story about the mistakes we make, the patterns we get stuck in, and the ways we try to put things right. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Ultimately, we’re all making up this life business as we go along.

(I’ll also be reviewing Anne Tyler’s new novel, Clock Dance, on July 12th.)