It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.
Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)
If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.
They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.
It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.
“Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”
(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)
(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.
Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.
There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.
An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)
This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?
The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”
I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.
(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)
Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:
- Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
- Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
- Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)
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.
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?
On Wednesday we got back from two weeks in the States. We were so busy catching up with family and friends we hadn’t seen in a year and a half or more that my reading really slowed down: aside from the three books I took on the plane and finished within my first week, I only read another two books (not counting two during the trip back). Alas, I seem to be in a bit of a rut: everything I read was 3 stars. I haven’t finished anything I’d rate higher than that since late May. I do hope I can break that pattern before June ends!
What I Read:
In Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, Bennie Ford writes an extended letter during an unexpected overnight layover in Chicago, ostensibly to demand his $392.68 back, but really to tell his life story. His daughter is getting married in California tomorrow; it’s Bennie’s chance to make things right after years of estrangement. Will he make it to the wedding or not? The structure of the book means it doesn’t particularly matter, and I stopped caring a little bit as it went on. The sections of a novel Bennie is translating from the Polish felt irrelevant to me. Still, amusing, and a good one to read in the airport and on a plane.
Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym: I’m completely unmusical, so I enjoyed learning about what it’s like to be a violin virtuoso and a child prodigy, and what it means to fall in love with an instrument. Kym also puts things into the context of being a Korean immigrant to London. The central event of the book is having her Stradivarius, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, stolen from a train station café in late 2010. It’s a brief and fairly immersive story, but the style is melodramatic and choppy at times.
Back When We Were Grown-ups was my fifth Anne Tyler novel. Rebecca is in her fifties and the pillar of the large Davitch family, even though she only married into it six years before her husband’s sudden death. The Davitches are always renting out their home for their party business, and Rebecca has over the years developed a joyous persona that she’s not sure is really her true self. What would life have been like if she hadn’t become a stepmother to Joe’s three girls but instead married her college sweetheart, Will? While this is funny and warm, and a cozy read in the best possible way, it didn’t really stand out for me.
Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell, first published in 1954, tells of his animal collecting in Guiana, South America. The highlight is pipa toad reproduction and birth.
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin is a very atmospheric read, set on a South Carolina island with a haunted cottage where a family was swept away by a hurricane. However, I thought the rhythm of the young narrator’s languid summer days caring for his great-aunt became tedious, and I struggled to buy how self-aware he was meant to be of his fragile mental state at the age of 11. It’s reminiscent of John Irving (quirky secondary characters and so on) but without the same spark. I was sent a review copy for BookBrowse but found I couldn’t recommend it with 4 stars or higher.
To my surprise, I completely went off Kindle reading on this trip until the flight back, when I raced through Salmon Doubts by Adam Sacks, a sweet but inconsequential graphic novel about the salmon’s life cycle. I also started the poetry collection Fast by Jorie Graham but left it unfinished.
Two more DNFs from the trip were The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I may try again with both in the future. Alas, library reading was a total wash: Hourglass by Dani Shapiro didn’t arrive in time, I abandoned the Coates, and I didn’t feel in the mood for advice letters so ended up not even starting Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.
My enjoyable read on the long journey back was Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Janzen gave the Mennonite tradition she’d forsaken a second look after her life fell apart in her early forties: her husband left her for Bob, whom he met on a gay dating site; and she was in a serious car accident. It’s more in the form of linked autobiographical essays than a straight memoir, so she keeps cycling round to some of the same themes, and it gets less laugh-out-loud funny as it goes on. Still, I was impressed by how the author has managed to pull what’s good from experiences most would consider disastrous. (I also read the first third of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.)
Now that I’m home I’ve started a huge pile of review books and library books and instead of the 1–3 books at a time I was reading while we were away I’m back up to my more usual 14.
What I Bought:
Day 2: A stop at my parents’ local Dollar Tree to stock up on greetings cards for the year’s events (2 for $1!) also brought some unexpectedly good book finds. [Not pictured: a paperback of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, our favorite of his novels.] Total spend: $3.18.
Day 4: The obligatory visit to Wonder Book & Video in Frederick, Maryland, one of my happy places.
Day 5: A trip to bookstore chain 2nd & Charles in Hagerstown, MD. Total spend (minus my trade-in of various books and CDs): $5.19.
Day 6: A book of Mary Oliver poems from the Goodwill store in Westminster, MD.
Day 14: Some bargains from a thrift store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where we met up with my friend and her family while they were on holiday. Total spend: $4.50.
I also managed to snag a couple of Crown ARCs that are not out until October.
The state of my closet back in the States (most of those boxes contain books):
Other Bookish Sightings:
A Little Free Library at my parents’ local organic supermarket. I dropped off a few proof copies before I left.
The Peabody Library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
A trip to Mermaid Books in Williamsburg, Virginia (overpriced – no purchases), where I spotted an amusing cover on Anne Tyler’s first novel – she still has the same hairdo!
Ephemera in two of my purchases.
Other highlights of the trip:
- Meeting my sister’s fiancé (!) and his kids.
- Going to an alpaca farm with my sister and nephews.
- Surprising my mom with her early 70th birthday gift: a mother–daughters trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for dinner and a showing of Shear Madness, a long-running improvisational murder mystery with audience participation.
- Exploring Williamsburg (and Jamestown Island) for the first time since I was a kid.
- A day trip to Cape May, New Jersey – a place to go back to, methinks.
- Plus all our meet-ups, however brief, with friends.
- Not forgetting the total of seven cats and two dogs we got to spend time with.
- Two weeks of doing absolutely no work. I didn’t miss it for a second.
One last book haul photo: These were the review copies (top two) and giveaway books awaiting me when I got back to the UK. (I won the Schaub from Liz’s blog; I’m on a great run with Goodreads giveaways at the moment: along with these Sedaris and Whittal titles, I have new books by Cathy Rentzenbrink and Anne de Courcy on the way.)