20 Books of Summer, #11–13: Harrison, Pym, Russell
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)
20 Books of Summer #4 + Substitutes & Plane Reading
You’ll have to excuse me posting twice in one day. I’ve just finished packing the last few things for my three weeks in America, and want to get my latest #20BooksofSummer review out there before I fly early tomorrow. What with a layover in Toronto, it will be a very long day of travel, so I think the volume of reading material I’m taking is justified! (See the last photo of the post.)
Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (2001)
I admire nonfiction books that successfully combine lots of genres into a dynamic narrative. This one incorporates travel, science, memoir, history, and even politics. Halpern spent a year tracking monarch butterflies on their biannual continent-wide migrations, which were still not well understood at that point. She rides through Texas into Mexico with Bill Calvert, field researcher extraordinaire; goes gliding with David Gibo, a university biologist, in fields near Toronto; and hears from scientists and laymen alike about the monarchs’ habits and outlook. It happened to be a worryingly poor year for the butterflies, yet citizen science initiatives provided valuable information that could be used to predict their future.
The book is especially insightful about clashes between environmentalist initiatives and local livelihoods in Mexico (tree huggers versus subsistence loggers) and the joy of doing practical science with simple tools you make yourself. It’s also about how focused attention becomes passion. “Science, like belief, starts with wonder, and wonder starts with a question,” Halpern writes.
The style is engaging, though at nearly 20 years old the book feels a bit dated, and I might have liked more personal reflections than interviews with (middle-aged, white, male) scientists. I only realized on the very last page, through the acknowledgments, that the author is married to Bill McKibben, a respected environment writer. [She frequently mentions Fred Urquhart, a Toronto zoology professor; I wondered if he could be related to Jane Urquhart, a Canadian novelist whose novel Sanctuary Line features monarchs. (Turns out: no relation. Oh well!)]
Readalikes: Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen & Ruins by Peter Kuper
I’ve already done some substituting on my 20 Books of Summer. I decided against reading Vendela Vida’s Girls on the Verge after perusing the table of contents and the first few pages and gauging reader opinions on Goodreads. I have a couple of review books, Twister by Genanne Walsh and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, that I’m enjoying but will have to leave behind while I’m in the States, so I may need that little extra push to finish them once I get back. I’ve also been rereading a favorite, Paulette Bates Alden’s memoir Crossing the Moon, which has proved an excellent follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood.
(What I haven’t determined yet is which books these will be standing in for.) Waiting in the wings in case further substitutions are needed is this stack of review books:
Also from the #20Books list and coming with me on the flight are Madeleine L’Engle’s The Summer of the Great-Grandmother and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, which are both terrific thus far. The final print book joining me for the journey is Transit by Rachel Cusk. I have attempted to read her twice before and failed to get through a whole book, so we’ll see if it’s third time lucky. It seems like the perfect book to read in transit to Canada, after all.
Finally, in progress on the Kindle are Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the last in his set of four seasonal essay collections, and The Late Bloomers’ Club by Louise Miller, another cozy novel set in fictional Guthrie, Vermont, which she introduced in her previous book, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living.
It’ll be a busy few weeks helping my parents pack up their house and moving my mom into her new place, plus doing a reduced freelance work load for the final two weeks. It’s also going to be a strange time because I have to say goodbye to a house that’s been a part of my life for 13 years, and sort through box after box of mementoes before putting everything into medium-term storage.
I won’t be online all that much, and can’t promise to keep up with everyone else’s blogs, but I’ll try to pop in with a few reviews.
Happy July reading!
Review: Ruins by Peter Kuper
In the past few years I’ve made a conscious effort to get more into graphic novels. In that time I’ve discovered some real gems – highlighted in a previous post entitled “Graphic Novels for Newbies” – and Peter Kuper’s latest book, Ruins, is among my favorites. Kuper is a comics legend: he’s a long-time MAD Magazine illustrator and the author of more than 20 books, as well as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
Ruins appealed to me because of its environmental theme, but I found so much more to love. I previewed it in my last post, “Books as Objects of Beauty,” because it’s a simply gorgeous physical book – what with the embossed title on the cover and spine, the red-edged pages, the built-in ribbon bookmark, and the entomological drawings on the endpapers. Luckily what’s inside is just as special as the packaging.
In essence, this is the bittersweet story of an American couple traveling from Manhattan to Oaxaca, Mexico for a sabbatical year. Samantha hopes to brush up on her Spanish, work on a book about Mexican history and legends, and finally get pregnant. George, recently laid off from his job as an entomologist at the Natural History Museum, is delighted with Oaxaca’s invertebrate life – leafcutter ants, edible grasshoppers, and a pesky scorpion – but not so convinced about having a baby; surely the world is too messed up to bring a new life into?
The novel’s small cast also includes Angelina, their housekeeper; another George, a British bookseller; and Al, a former photojournalist and heavy drinker who joins with our George to document the local teachers’ strike. We learn that Samantha has lived here before and has returned in part to exorcise tragic events from her past. The book’s title thus has many meanings in context: not only the ruined cities Samantha and George visit as tourists and the ruin corrupt Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz is currently making of the place, but also the decay of relationships old and new and the decline of the environment.
The environmental agenda comes through in the parallel story of one monarch’s migration. Sections set in Mexico alternate with short interludes showing the butterfly’s journey south from America to Michoacan, Mexico, where monarchs gather en masse in a pine forest. The limited palette of these spreads, in contrast with the vibrant colors of the Oaxaca scenes, is particularly effective: the monarch is generally the only speck of color against a monochrome blue-gray background showing rather dreary American scenes. Tagged in Pennsylvania, the monarch flies over polluted rivers, a nuclear power plant, an abandoned West Virginian mine, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Monsanto tomato pickers, a Texas border arrest, and a Mexican drug deal gone wrong – a symbol of precarious hope in spite of circumstance.
A Mexican folk belief has it that monarchs are the souls of dead children returning. At the end of the book a newly hatched butterfly starts its journey north – but what has become of our human heroes? That’s for readers lucky enough to get their hands on a copy of this wonderful book to find out.
Kuper and his family lived in Oaxaca from 2006 to 2008 and return annually for visits; you can see both familiarity and love in his terrific drawings of the city and its natural surroundings. Just as it tempers monochrome with color, Ruins carefully balances sadness and hope. If you think a graphic novel can’t sustain an involved and satisfying plot, think again. I’d especially recommend this to Barbara Kingsolver fans – the Mexican setting and monarch migration theme tie in with The Lacuna and Flight Behavior, respectively.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy.
Books as Objects of Beauty
At least half of my reading nowadays is e-books, usually downloaded from NetGalley and Edelweiss and read on my Kindle. All the same, I still love the feel and smell of paper books, and it’s a special treat when the books are things of beauty in their own right. A few books I’ve reviewed recently have been absolutely stunning physical objects. Here are some photographs and a rundown of their key attributes:
The Water Book by Alok Jha – Just look at that gorgeous, shiny cover! I was less taken with the contents of the book itself, but never mind. (My review is forthcoming at Nudge.)
Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman – Embossed embroidery effect on the cover, handwriting and sketches (including the only known C. Brontë self-portrait, only recently identified) on the endpapers, and built-in ribbon bookmark. (My review will go up at For Books’ Sake on Wednesday.)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James – The dustjacket of this Booker Prize winner is lovely enough, but take it off and you still hold a striking object, in appropriately Rastafarian colors. (Full review in December issue of Third Way magazine.)
Ruins by Peter Kuper – Embossed title on the cover, with the monarch in matte; entomological drawings on the endpapers; alternating monochrome and full-color sequences; plus a built-in ribbon bookmark. (To be reviewed here in the near future.)
To survive in this modern age, physical books have to be more than just words on a page, because e-books do that much more efficiently. They simply have to be beautiful.
What are some of the most eye-catching books you’ve encountered recently?