This was a rare case of reading a novel almost entirely because of its famous first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I was familiar with the quote from the Bookshop Band song “Once Upon a Time” (video on bottom right here), which is made up of first lines from books, but had never read anything by the late Iain Banks, so when a copy of The Crow Road turned up in the free bookshop where I volunteered weekly in happier times, I snapped it up.
There’s a prosaic explanation for that magical-sounding opening: Grandma Margot had a pacemaker that the doctor forgot to remove before her cremation. Talk about going out with a bang! To go “away the crow road” is a Scottish saying for death, and on multiple occasions a sudden or unexplained death draws the McHoan clan together. As the book starts, Prentice McHoan, a slothful student of history at the university in Glasgow, is back in Gallanach (on the west coast of Scotland, near Oban), site of the family glassworks, for Margot’s funeral. He’ll be summoned several more times before the story is through.
Amid clashes over religion with his father Kenneth, a writer of children’s fantasy stories, plenty of carousing and whiskey-drinking, and a spot of heartbreak when his brother steals his love interest, Prentice gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to Uncle Rory, a travel writer who disappeared years ago. The bulk of the book is narrated by Prentice, but shifts into the third person indicate flashbacks. Many of these vignettes recount funny mishaps from Kenneth or Prentice’s growing-up years, but others – especially those in italics – reveal darker matters. As Prentice explores Uncle Rory’s files from a project called “Crow Road,” he stumbles on a secret that completely changes how he perceives his family history.
This reminded me of John Irving at his 1970s‒80s peak: a sprawling coming-of-age story, full of quirky people and events, that blends humor and pathos. In all honesty, I didn’t need the mystery element on top of the character study, but it adds direction to what is otherwise a pleasant if lengthy meander through the decades with the McHoans. I particularly appreciated how Prentice’s view of death evolves: at first he’s with Uncle Hamish, believing there has to be something beyond death – otherwise, what makes human life worthwhile? But Kenneth’s atheism seeps in thanks to the string of family deaths and the start of the Gulf War. “They were here, and then they weren’t, and that was all there was,” Prentice concludes; the dead live on only in memory, or in the children and work they leave behind. I can’t resist quoting this whole paragraph, my favorite passage from the novel:
Telling us straight or through his stories, my father taught us that there was, generally, a fire at the core of things, and that change was the only constant, and that we – like everybody else – were both the most important people in the universe, and utterly without significance, depending, and that individuals mattered before their institutions, and that people were people, much the same everywhere, and when they appeared to do things that were stupid or evil, often you hadn’t been told the whole story, but that sometimes people did behave badly, usually because some idea had taken hold of them and given them an excuse to regard other people as expendable (or bad), and that was part of who we were too, as a species, and it wasn’t always possible to know that you were right and they were wrong, but the important thing was to keep trying to find out, and always to face the truth. Because truth mattered.
That seems like a solid philosophy to me. I’ll try more by Banks. I also nabbed a free copy of The Wasp Factory, which I take it is very different in tone. Any recommendations after that? Could I even cope with his science fiction (published under the name Iain M. Banks)?
Page count: 501
Short books; short reviews.
The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell (1968)
I learned about this from one of May Sarton’s journals, which shares its concern with ageing and selfhood. The author was an American suffragist, playwright, mother and analytical psychologist who trained under Jung and lived in England and Scotland with her Scottish husband. She kept this notebook while she was 82, partly while recovering from gallbladder surgery. It’s written in short, sometimes aphoristic paragraphs. While I appreciated her thoughts on suffering, developing “hardihood,” the simplicity that comes with giving up many cares and activities, and the impossibility of solving “one’s own incorrigibility,” I found this somewhat rambly and abstract, especially when she goes off on a dated tangent about the equality of the sexes. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (2004)
“Activism is not a journey to the corner store, it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.” This resonated with the Extinction Rebellion handbook I reviewed earlier in the year. Solnit believes in the power of purposeful individuals working towards social justice, even in the face of dispiriting evidence (the largest protests the world had seen didn’t stop the Iraq War). Instead of perfectionism, she advises flexibility and resilience; things could be even worse had we not acted. At first I thought it depressing that 15 years on we’re still dealing with many of the issues she mentions here, and the environmental crisis has only deepened. But her strong and stirring writing is a reminder that, though injustice is always with us, so is everyday heroism. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)
Lama by Derek Tangye (1966)
Tangye wrote a series of cozy animal books similar to Doreen Tovey’s. He and his wife Jean ran a flower farm in Cornwall and had a succession of cats, along with donkeys and a Muscovy duck named Boris. After the death of their beloved cat Monty, Jean wanted a kitten for Christmas but Tangye, who considered himself a one-cat man rather than a wholesale cat lover, hesitated. The matter was decided for them when a little black stray started coming round and soon made herself at home. (Her name is a tribute to the Dalai Lama’s safe flight from Tibet.) Mild adventures ensue, such as Lama going down a badger sett and Jeannie convincing herself that she’s identified another stray as Lama’s mother. Pleasant, if slight; I’ll read more by Tangye. (From Kennet Centre free bookshop)
The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico (1951)
Like Tangye, Gallico is known for writing charming animal books, but fables rather than memoirs. Set in postwar Assisi, Italy, this stars Pepino, a 10-year-old orphan boy who runs errands with his donkey Violetta to earn his food and board. When Violetta falls ill, he dreads losing not just his livelihood but also his only friend in the world. But the powers that be won’t let him bring her into the local church so that he can pray to St. Francis for her healing. Pepino takes to heart the maxim an American corporal gave him – “don’t take no for an answer” – and takes his suit all the way to the pope. This story of what faith can achieve just manages to avoid being twee. (From Kennet Centre free bookshop)
Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami (2002; English translation by Jay Rubin, 2003)
Reprinted as a stand-alone pamphlet to celebrate the author’s 70th birthday, this is about a waitress who on her 20th birthday is given the unwonted task of taking dinner up to the restaurant owner, who lives above the establishment. He is taken with the young woman and offers to grant her one wish. We never hear exactly what that wish was. It’s now more than 10 years later and she’s recalling the occasion for a friend, who asks her if the wish came true and whether she regrets what she requested. She surveys her current life and says that it remains to be seen whether her wish will be fulfilled; I could only assume that she wished for happiness, which is shifting and subjective. Encountering this in a larger collection would be fine, but it wasn’t particularly worth reading on its own. (Public library)
I’ve also had a number of novella DNFs so far this month, alas: Atlantic Winds by William Prendiville (not engaging in the least), By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (fascinating autobiographical backstory; pretentious prose) and The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West (even more bizarre and crass than I’m used to from him).
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
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?
Working from home, I don’t get out or see other people nearly often enough, so any time I think of a way that I can get more human interaction while contributing to a worthy cause – like spreading the love of reading – it’s worth seizing.
I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but here in our town there are tons of empty storefronts on the main street and in the mall, which makes everything feel half-derelict. The Global Educational Trust was donated a shop space in my local mall and set up a free bookshop that has since been taken over by Fair Close Centre, a non-residential center where the elderly can socialize and take advantage of hot meals and other services. The shop creates awareness of Fair Close and what it has to offer, and also promotes reading and lifelong learning.
I volunteered late last year when it was first being set up, and for the past few weeks I’ve been putting in two hours every Friday afternoon. Did I mention it’s full of free books!? This is kind of a problem for someone who already has a house full of books plus boxes of them in storage back in America. (But not really a problem.) The first time I was there I scored eight books; on four subsequent visits I’ve both donated and acquired books, sometimes in unhelpful ratios. Seven given versus two taken: excellent! Two donated and nine acquired: not so good. Six out; three in: A-OK. This past Friday I broke even with four of each.
We’re making do with insufficient shelving, whatever we’ve been able to scrounge from going-out-of-business shops, etc., so the categories are not very precise yet. Most of my work so far has been rearranging the central area for fiction (someone thought it was a good idea to have the alphabetical sequence going across the four bays of shelves, rather than from top to bottom in one case and then on to the next one to the right, as is the custom in any library or bookstore!) and pulling out all the nonfiction that snuck in. You often see this in charity shops: people who don’t know much about books end up shelving memoirs, travel books and history in with the fiction. In this photo you can see evidence of my tidying in fiction, A–F.
The other project I’ve been working on lately, though it’s still very much in the planning stages, is a theological lending library at my church. This was prompted by me looking through our shelves of religion books and deciding that there were upwards of 20 books that we would likely never read again/ever but that others might find edifying. In the end I pulled out 36 books to donate, ranging in outlook from C.S. Lewis to Rob Bell. I’m also aware that my mother-in-law, who’s retiring from ministry this year, will likely shed many theology books when they downsize to leave the rectory, and there are various retired clergy members in our church who might have books to pass on. So I had a meeting with our vicar last week to talk through some ideas about where we might house a library and how the system might work.
For now we plan to trial a pop-up library in the cloisters in mid-July, advertised via the notice sheet in early June. In the weeks leading up to it, we’ll accept book donations to a box at the back of the church (and reserve the right to jettison books that seem dated or unhelpful!). The lending will be on an honesty system, with people writing their name and the book title(s) in a ledger. We’ll suggest that books borrowed at the pop-up in mid-July could be returned in early September, though keeping them out longer wouldn’t be a problem. Nor, for that matter, would it be a problem if some books never make it back to the shelves – we’d like to hope they’ll be helpful to people.
The only other equipment to get hold of now is a set of bookplates with the church logo. As to how to classify the books, I may well model our system on this one. I know I’ll have fun cataloguing the books and affixing spine labels and bookplates. It’ll be like my library assistant days all over again – except just the fun working-with-books bit and not the babysitting-students bit.
Are you involved in any volunteer projects?
The answer to the riddle: when all the books are free! Christmas came early on Sunday when I visited a place I long knew of but had never visited: The Book Thing of Baltimore. It’s an entirely not-for-profit venture run with the help of volunteers and donations. “Our mission is to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them,” says their website. My hubby and I were going into the city to meet friends for the day, so I suggested a quick run to Book Thing, a hidden treasure on an unassuming concrete lot that’s only open on the weekends.
I brought along a backpack crammed full of unwanted books from my old bedroom to donate, thinking that I would pick up just two or three in return. I was expecting one disorganized room full of pretty crummy books. To my delight, it was an enormous four-room warehouse with an amazing selection. A wonderful place to wander around and pick up things at random, but not great for seeking out particular titles given that the books – notably, fiction and biographies – are in no discernible alphabetical order.
Are you at all surprised to learn that I came away with a backpack just as overstuffed as I came with? At one point, as I was stacking up some terrific animal-themed books, my husband said, “You do realize you can only take what you can fit in your backpack? We’re going back by train!” My refrain was “but they’re all free!” I ended up with 31 books in total.
I was especially thrilled with: The Fur Person, May Sarton’s book about cats, which I’d been hoping to find secondhand on this trip; Tigers in Red Weather, Ruth Padel’s travel book about searching for the world’s few remaining tigers in all their known habitats – I’d already read it but my husband hasn’t; Dakota by Kathleen Norris, a new favorite theology writer; Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time (how apt!); and A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson, which I’d never heard of but should fit right into my interest in women’s diaries.
Lest you think I’m some selfish book fiend, note that the pile on the left in the photograph below is for giving away to family and friends this Christmas. (Yes, I am aware that the pile of books we are keeping dwarfs the gift stack. Sigh.)
All in all, it was a great day in Baltimore. We had a terrific lunch at City Café; browsed part of the amazing (and also free!) Walters Art Museum; toured the central campus of Johns Hopkins University, where my friend is a PhD student; walked through a small park; observed the shops and eateries of hipster Hampden; and saw the famous Christmas lights on 34th Street. They call it “Charm City,” and on Sunday it more than lived up to its name.
Book Thing is as sprawling as my favorite bookshop, Wonder Book (Frederick, Maryland), but you needn’t hand over any money. It’s as varied and tempting as any public library, but you don’t have to bring the books back. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like free books!