(This was meant to be one entry in a roundup of mini-reviews, but I found that I had far too much to say about it. On Sunday I’ll feature three more May releases I’ve read.)
1997. Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. At 31, she lives in a tiny studio apartment off of her brother’s friend’s house and cycles everywhere. Between shifts waitressing at Iris, a trendy restaurant above a Harvard social club, she chips away at the Cuba-set novel she’s been writing for six years.
Through her writer friend Muriel she meets two love interests at a book launch for Oscar Kolton, a former Boston University professor and novelist who’s been leading a fiction workshop since his wife’s death a few years ago. One is the fortysomething Oscar himself; the other, who initially seems more promising, is Silas, a would-be writer from the workshop. But before they have a chance to see if this will go somewhere, Silas is off. He leaves Casey a voicemail saying he needs to get away for a while. Oh well; just another flake, she thinks.
After he and his adorable young sons come in to the restaurant for brunch one day, her interest is squarely in Oscar. Or, that is, until Silas comes back and she finds herself dating two men at the same time. A museum trip with Silas here, a dinner out with Oscar there. As if her love life isn’t complication enough, before long she finds herself looking for a new job, a place to live, a literary agent, and reassurance that she’ll be okay when she takes advantage of her short-lived health insurance to get some minor medical issues checked out.
I almost passed on reading this one because I’d gotten it in my head that it was nothing more than a romantic comedy with a love triangle. I’m so glad that Kate’s review convinced me to give it a try after all. On the face of it this could hardly be more different from King’s previous novel, Euphoria, about anthropologists doing field work in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, but King’s attention to the intricacies of human relationships links the two. When I read Euphoria in late 2014, I noted the natives’ practice of cutting off a finger for every close relative lost. Here you also get the sense that everyone has lost someone, and that these losses are as visible as physical traits. Casey is only on her second conversation with Silas when she thinks, “I can tell he lost someone close somehow. You can feel that in people, an openness, or maybe it’s an opening that you’re talking into. With other people, people who haven’t been through something like that, you feel the solid wall. Your words go scattershot off of it.”
There are so many things to love about this novel, including the wonderful/terrible scenes where she rattles off her mother’s story to two doctors and her awful father and stepmother show up for lunch. Count the rest: The Boston-area setting, the restaurant bustle, that feeling we’ve all had of wasting our talents while stuck in the wrong job and the wrong living situation. Casey’s confiding first-person, present-tense narration, the little observations on writers (when John Updike comes into the restaurant she touches his loafer for luck; she nearly swoons when Jayne Anne Phillips is at one of her tables—“Black Tickets is like a prayer book to me”; she thinks she’s blown a high school English teacher interview when she states a dislike for Cormac McCarthy—“he seemed to be alternating between imitating Hemingway and imitating Faulkner”), and even the choice between Silas and Oscar (“Fireworks or coffee in bed”). She doesn’t make the ‘right’ choice I was expecting, but if you’ve been following the clues closely you’ll realize it’s the only one she could have made.
What I loved most, though, was that we see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. “There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.” I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her as I did for Ana in Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Those who have tried writing a book will probably get even more out of this than I did, but it will resonate for anyone who’s ever felt lost and uncertain about life’s direction. “Isn’t our whole life just one long improvisation?” Casey hears at a writing festival.
Think of this as an older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.
A real standout and one of my few early favorites from 2020.
With thanks to Picador for the unsolicited copy for review.
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)
A whole book about fig trees? That’s right! If you’re a voracious nonfiction reader like me, you’ll find freelance journalist Mike Shanahan’s history of fig trees unexpectedly fascinating. It opens with him atop a series of ladders in a national park in Borneo, reaching past a venomous snake to pick some figs. He did many such exciting things in his research towards a PhD in rainforest ecology, but that 1998 encounter was significantly more intrepid than his earliest experience with the genus: he remembers a potted weeping fig in the hallway of his childhood home.
From that little tree to the largest banyans, Ficus encompasses 750+ species and has had a major place in human culture for millennia. Fig trees turn up in Greek origin myths and are sacred to Hindus. Romulus and Remus were rescued from drowning in the Tiber by fig tree roots. The tree the Buddha sat under to meditate? A fig. The fruit Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden? More likely a fig than an apple given the Middle Eastern climate and the fact that they then sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. (The confusion may have come about because in Latin malum means either “apple” or “evil”.)
Figs offer some biological surprises. For one thing, the plants have no apparent flowers. That’s because the flowers are internal: a fig is not technically a fruit but a hollow ball lined with tiny flowers that must be pollinated by two-millimeter-long fig-wasps. Strangler figs colonize a host tree, starting as a seed in the canopy and enveloping it in long tangled roots. Many tropical birds and mammals rely on figs, including monkeys and hornbills. Figs were, Shanahan writes, the “original superfood” for our primate ancestors.
The habitats where fig trees thrive face severe challenges, including drought, forest fires and poaching. However, history offers encouraging examples of how fig species can be key to tropical forest restoration. After a volcano erupted on Papua New Guinea in 1660, for example, the razed land was fairly quickly recolonized by Ficus species from seeds dropped by birds and bats – a prerequisite for wildlife returning. Similarly, fig trees were all that remained of the forest on Krakatoa after its famous volcanic eruption in 1883.
Building on this precedent, the Forest Restoration Research Unit, based in Thailand, now uses fig species to kickstart the restitution of tropical landscapes; one in every five of their plantings is a fig. Likewise, figs can be used to restore post-mining landscapes and lock up carbon. Researchers are looking into using drones to collect and deposit the seeds.
I’d never realized how often figs show up in the historical record, or how dependent on them we and other creatures have been. “Look after fig trees and they will look after you. It’s a lesson we have all but forgotten, but one we could learn again,” Shanahan concludes. Have a look at the bibliography and you’ll see just how much information is synthesized into this short, engaging book. It’s another gorgeous design from Unbound, too: the colorful cover was what first attracted me, and the author’s black-and-white pointillist illustrations adorn the text.
Nowadays I tend to think of figs as an exotic, luxury food. Every year we add some dried figs to our Christmas cake, creating caramel bursts of crunchy seeds. When my husband and I lived in Reading, we briefly had a LandShare arrangement to look after an established garden. Hidden behind a suburban fence, it was a secret paradise overflowing with fruit: plum, greengage and apple trees plus a fruit cage containing berries, currants, and – in one corner – a small fig. I remember one glorious late summer when we were inundated with more ripe figs than I’d ever seen before. We would heat them in the oven and serve them split open and oozing with goat’s cheese and runny honey. Our very own taste of Eden.
Ladders to Heaven was first published by Unbound in 2016 and releases in paperback today, September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert had it in her? I’ve read and loved all of her nonfiction (e.g. Big Magic), but my experience of her fiction was a different matter: Stern Men is simply atrocious. I’m so glad I took a chance on this 2013 novel anyway. Many friends had lauded it, and for good reason. It’s a warm, playful doorstopper of a book, telling the long and eventful story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional nineteenth-century botanist whose staid life in her father’s Philadelphia home unexpectedly opens outward through marriage, an adventure in Tahiti, and a brush with the theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
The novel’s voice feels utterly natural, and though Gilbert must have done huge amounts of research about everything from bryophytes to Tahitian customs, nowhere does the level of historical detail feel overwhelming. There are truly terrific characters, including mystical orchid illustrator Ambrose Pike, perky missionary Reverend Welles, and a charismatic Polynesian leader named Tomorrow Morning.
We see multiple sides of Alma herself, like her enthusiasm for mosses and her sexual yearning. For a short time in her girlhood she’s part of a charming female trio with her adopted sister Prudence and their flighty friend Retta. I loved how Gilbert pins down these three very different characters through pithy (and sometimes appropriately botanical) descriptions: “Prudence’s nose was a little blossom; Alma’s was a growing yam,” while Retta is “a perfect little basin of foolishness and distraction.”
Gilbert also captures the delight of scientific discovery and the fecundity of nature in a couple of lush passages that are worth quoting in full:
(Looking at mosses on boulders) Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the center of the boulder where all the water pooled.
The cave was not merely mossy; it throbbed with moss. It was not merely green; it was frantically green. It was so bright in its verdure that the color nearly spoke, as though—smashing through the world of sight—it wanted to migrate into the world of sound. The moss was a thick, living pelt, transforming every rock surface into a mythical, sleeping beast.
Best of all, the novel kept surprising me. Every chapter and part took a new direction I never would have predicted. Like The Goldfinch, this is a big, rich novel I can imagine rereading.
One of my favorite parts of reviewing (e.g. for Kirkus and BookBrowse) is choosing “readalikes” that pick up on the themes or tone of the book in question. I’ve picked four for The Signature of All Things:
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: An enthusiastic, wide-ranging memoir of being a woman in science. There’s even some moss! This was a really interesting one for me to be reading at the same time as the Gilbert novel. (See Naomi’s review at Consumed by Ink.)
The Paper Garden, Molly Peacock: This biography of Mary Delany, an eighteenth-century botanical illustrator, examines the options for women’s lives at that time and celebrates the way Delany beat the odds by seeking a career of her own in her seventies.