I’m sneaking in just in time here, on the very last day of the #20BooksofSummer challenge, with my final three reviews: two novellas, one of them a work of children’s fantasy; and a nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir.
The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967)
I’d heard of Garner, a British writer of classic children’s fantasy novels, but never read any of his work until I picked this up from the free bookshop where I volunteer on a Friday. My husband remembers reading Elidor (also a 1990s TV series) as a boy, but I’m not sure Garner was ever well known in America. Perhaps if I’d discovered this right after the Narnia series when I was a young child, I would have been captivated. I did enjoy the rural Welsh setting, and to start with I was intrigued by the setup: curious about knocking and scratching overhead, Alison and her stepbrother Roger find a complete dinner service up in the attic of this house Alison inherited from her late father. Alison becomes obsessed with tracing out the plates’ owl pattern – which disappears when anyone else, like Nancy the cook, looks at them.
I gather that Garner frequently draws on ancient legend for his plots. Here he takes inspiration from Welsh myths, but the background was so complex and unfamiliar (see the blurb from the back of the book as an example!) that I could barely follow along. This meant that the climactic ‘spooky’ scenes failed to move me. Instead, I mostly noted the period slang and the class difference between the English children and Gwyn, Nancy’s son, who’s forbidden from speaking Welsh (Nancy says, “I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer”) and secretly takes elocution lessons to sound less ‘common’.
Can someone recommend a Garner book I might get on with better?
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978)
For two months of 1973, from late September to late November, Matthiessen joined zoologist George Schaller on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau to study Himalayan blue sheep. Both also harbored a hope of spotting the elusive snow leopard.
Matthiessen had recently lost his partner, Deborah Love, to cancer, and left their children behind – at residential schools or with family friends – to go on this spirit-healing quest. Though he occasionally feels guilty, especially about the eight-year-old, his thoughts are usually on the practicalities of the mountain trek. They have sherpas to carry their gear, and they stop in at monasteries but also meet ordinary people. More memorable than the human encounters, though, are those with the natural world. Matthiessen watches foxes hunting and griffons soaring overhead; he marvels at alpine birds and flora.
The writing is stunning. No wonder this won a 1979 National Book Award (in the short-lived “Contemporary Thought” category, which has since been replaced by a general nonfiction award). It’s a nature and travel writing classic. However, it took me nearly EIGHTEEN MONTHS to read, in all kinds of fits and starts (see below), because I could rarely read more than part of one daily entry at a time. I struggle with travel narratives in general – perhaps I think it’s unfair to read them faster than the author lived through them? – but there’s also an aphoristic density to the book that requires unhurried, meditative engagement.
The mountains in their monolithic permanence remind the author that he will die. The question of whether he will ever see a snow leopard comes to matter less and less as he uses his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance (“not fatalism but a deep trust in life”) and transience: “In worrying about the future, I despoil the present”; what is this “forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day”? I’m fascinated by Buddhism, but anyone who ponders life’s deep questions should get something out of this.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore (1994)
Thanks to Cathy for reminding me about this one – I had intended to make it one of my novellas for November, but as I was scrambling around to find a last couple of short books to make up my 20 I thought, “Frog! hey, that fits”* and picked it up.
Oddly, given that Moore is so well known for short stories, I’ve only ever read two of her novels (the other was A Gate at the Stairs). Berie Carr lives just over the border from Quebec in Horsehearts, a fictional town in upstate New York. She and her best friend Sils are teenagers at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and work at Storyland amusement park on the weekends and during the summer. When Sils gets into trouble, Berie starts pocketing money from the cash register to help her out, but it will only be so long until she gets caught and the course of her life changes.
Berie is recounting these pivotal events from adulthood, when she’s traveling in Paris with her husband, Daniel. There are some troubling aspects to their relationship that don’t get fully explored, but that seems to be part of the point: we are always works in progress, and never as psychologically well as we try to appear. I most enjoyed the book’s tone of gentle nostalgia: “Despite all my curatorial impulses and training, my priestly harborings and professional, courtly suit of the past, I never knew what to do with all those years of one’s life: trot around in them forever like old boots – or sever them, let them fly free?”
Moore’s voice here reminds me of Amy Bloom’s and Elizabeth McCracken’s, though I’ve generally enjoyed those writers more.
*There are a few literal references to frogs (as well as the understood slang for French people). The title phrase comes from a drawing Sils makes about their mission to find and mend all the swamp frogs that boys shoot with BB guns. Berie also remarks on the sound of a frog chorus, and notes that two decades later frogs seem to be disappearing from the earth. In both these cases frogs are metaphors for a lost innocence. “She has eaten the frog” is also, in French, a slang term for taking from the cash box.
(I can’t resist mentioning Berie and Sils’ usual snack: raw, peeled potatoes cut into quarters and spread with margarine and salt!)
A recap of my 20 Books of Summer:
- I enjoyed my animal theme, which was broad enough to encompass straightforward nature books but also a wide variety of memoirs and fiction. In most cases there was a literal connection between the animal in the title and the book’s subject.
- I read just nine of my original choices, plus two of the back-ups. The rest were a mixture of: books I brought back from America, review copies, books I’d started last year and set aside for ages, and ones I had lying around and had forgotten were relevant.
- I accidentally split the total evenly between fiction and nonfiction: 10 of each.
- I happened to read three novels by Canadian authors. The remainder were your usual British and American suspects.
- The clear stand-out of the 20 was Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, followed closely by The Snow Leopard (see above) and The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt – all nonfiction!
- In my second tier of favorites were three novels: Fifteen Dogs, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, and Crow Lake.
I also had three DNFs that I managed to replace in time.
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton [a review copy – and one of my Most Anticipated titles]
(I managed the first 36 pages.) Do you have a friend who’s intimidatingly sharp, whose every spoken or written line leaps from wordplay to a joke to an allusion to a pun? That’s how I felt about Hollow Kingdom. It’s so clever it’s exhausting.
I wanted to read this because I’d heard it’s narrated by a crow. S.T. (Shit Turd) is an American Crow who lives with an electrician, Big Jim, in Seattle, along with Dennis the dumb bloodhound. One day Jim’s eyeball pops out and he starts acting crazy and spending all his time in the basement. On reconnaissance flights through the neighborhood, S.T. realizes that all the humans (aka “MoFos” or “Hollows”) are similarly deranged. He runs into a gang of zombies when he goes to the Walgreens pharmacy to loot medications. Some are even starting to eat their pets. (Uh oh.)
We get brief introductions to other animal narrators, including Winnie the Poodle and Genghis Cat. An Internet-like “Aura” allows animals of various species to communicate with each other about the crisis. I struggle with dystopian and zombie stuff, but I think I could make an exception for this. Although I do think it’s overwritten (one adverb and four adjectives in one sentence: “We left slowly to the gentle song of lugubrious paw pads and the viscous beat of crestfallen wings”), I’ll try it again someday.
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan: I read the first 164 pages last year before stalling; alas, I could make no more headway this summer. It’s an amusing historical pastiche in the voice of a notorious forger and counterfeiter who’s sentenced to 14 years in Van Diemen’s Land. I could bear only so much of this wordy brilliance, and no more.
Tisala by Richard Seward Newton: I guess I read the blurb and thought this was unmissable, but I should have tried to read a sample or some more reviews of it. I got to page 6 and found it so undistinguished and overblown that I couldn’t imagine reading another 560+ pages about a whale.
For next year, I’m toying with the idea of a food and drink theme. Once again, this would include fiction and nonfiction that is specifically about food but also slightly more cheaty selections that happen to have the word “eats” or “ate” or a potential foodstuff in the title, or have an author whose name brings food to mind. I perused my shelf and found exactly 20 suitable books, so that seems like a sign! (The eagle-eyed among you may note that two of these were on my piles of potential reads for this summer, and two others on last summer’s. When will they ever actually get read?!)
Alternatively, I could just let myself have completely free choice from my shelves. My only non-negotiable criterion is that all 20 books must be ones that I own, to force me to get through more from my shelves (even if that includes review copies).
How did you fare with your summer reading?
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.
This is my third year of prioritizing novellas for my November reading. I have plenty more on the go that I’ll try to write up as the month progresses. For this first installment I review three each of my recent fiction and nonfiction reads, all of them 150 pages or fewer.
Lady into Fox by David Garnett (1922)
I accidentally did things the wrong way round: a few months back I read Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero, which includes the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 winner “Mrs Fox,” clearly modeled on Garnett’s half-charming, half-horrible fable. In both, an upper-middle-class marriage is derailed when the wife turns into a fox. Here Mr. Tebrick sends away the servants and retreats from the world to look after Silvia, who grows increasingly feral. To start with the vixen will wear clothing, sleep in a bed, play cards and eat table scraps, but soon she’s hunting birds outdoors. Before long she’s effectively a wild creature, though she still shows affection to Tebrick when he comes to visit her den.
Anyone in a partnership will experience a bittersweet sense of recognition at how Tebrick and Silvia try to accommodate each other’s differences and make compromises to maintain a relationship in defiance of the world’s disapproval and danger. Beware unsentimental animal peril throughout. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
It’s a wonder I never read this Pulitzer winner in high school. Like that other syllabus favorite, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, it’s a Great American novella praised for spare prose and weighty symbolism. My two decades’ worth of preconceptions were proven accurate insomuch as this is a gloomy story about the nobility but ultimate futility of human striving. After 84 days without a catch, Santiago returns to the waters off of Havana and finally gets a bite. Even after the harrowing process of reeling in the 18-foot marlin, his struggle isn’t over.
This is my third experience with Hemingway’s fiction; I remain unconvinced. I appreciated some of the old man’s solitary ruminations on purpose and determination – “My big fish must be somewhere,” “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is” – though they sound rather like sound bites. And I kept almost falling asleep while reading this (until the sharks showed up), which almost never happens. Take that as you will.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)
It’s the late 1980s and teenager Silvie Hampton and her parents have joined a university-run residential archaeology course in the North of England, near bogs where human sacrifice once took place. Her father is a Rochdale-area bus driver, but British prehistory is his all-consuming hobby. They’ll skin rabbits with stone tools and forage for roots and berries. What could be better?! As it turns out, it’s a stifling summer, and the students can’t sneak off to civilization often enough. Mocked for her family’s accent, Silvie is uncomfortably aware of her class. And, always, she must tread carefully to avoid angering her father, who punishes perceived offenses with his belt or his fists.
Women’s bodies and what can be done to them is central; as the climax approaches, the tricksy matter of consent arises. Though I enjoyed Silvie’s sarcastic voice, I was underwhelmed for much of the book, yet ended up impressed by how much is conveyed in so few pages. If you haven’t read anything by Sarah Moss, do so immediately.
Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away by Victor Lee Austin (2016)
Austin, an Episcopal priest and academic, met his wife Susan at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was his companion for nearly 40 years. Unusually for a cancer story, it wasn’t the beginning of the end when Susan was diagnosed with an astrocytoma brain tumor in 1993; surgery was successful and she lived for another 19 years, but white-matter disease, a side effect of radiation, meant that her brain function was continually diminishing.
The book gives a clear sense of Susan’s personality despite the progression of her illness, and of the challenges of being a caregiver while holding down a career. I enjoyed the details of the human story of coping with suffering, but in overlaying a spiritual significance on it Austin lost me somewhat. “God, who had given us so much, now gave us this evil,” he writes. While once this kind of language would have meant something to me, now it alienates me. I valued this more as a straightforward bereavement memoir than as a theological treatise.
The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel (2017)
“There is something about owls. More than any other family of birds they produce a reaction in us, and have done so across time and continents.” Some species-specific natural/cultural histories can be long-winded, giving significantly more information than your averagely interested lay reader needs (Foxes Unearthed, for instance), but Lewis-Stempel’s short book about Britain’s owls gets it just right.
He gives some general information about the family, surveys the native species and occasional visitors, gives tips for telling them apart – I’m going to photograph a page on the difference between the five major species’ pellets for future reference – and shares legends and poems that feature owls (including a jaunty little Tennyson piece that reads like a folk song; I’ll suggest that my husband turn it into one). The black-and-white illustrations by Beci Kelly are charming, too. It’s a shame I missed this when it first came out, but it would still make a great gift for a bird lover this Christmas.
Pages from a Nature-Lover’s Diary by Kathleen A. Renninger (2013)
These are lovely excerpts from nature sketchbooks Renninger kept between 1987 and 2013. My mother bought the self-published book from the author at a craft fair, and I enjoyed spotting lots of familiar place names from southern central Pennsylvania, where my mother and sister used to live. In the past I’ve unfairly considered the area devoid of natural beauty, but it’s clear from Renninger’s encounters that the wildlife is out there if you’re patient and lucky enough to find it – mostly birds and insects, but even larger mammals like foxes and bears.
Many of her sightings are by chance: near her feeders or clothesline, or while driving past fields or down a residential street. Each month ends with a poem; these are slightly florid, but so earnest that they won me over. There are plentiful punctuation issues and the cursive font is a challenge to read, but the captured moments and the sense of the seasons’ passing make for a sweet book I’d recommend to anyone with a local interest.