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 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?
Next month marks five years that I’ve been a freelance reviewer, and I turn 35 later in the year. With these milestones in mind, I’ve been pushing myself a bit more to make contact with new publications and try to get my work out there more widely.
Most recently, I was pleased to have my first article in Literary Hub, an essay about rereading Little Women in its 150th anniversary year in conjunction with the new BBC/PBS miniseries production. (I shared this article intensively on social media, so do forgive me if you’ve already seen it somewhere else!) This is the first time, apart from here on the blog, that I’ve blended book commentary with personal material. I think it’s probably the best “exposure” I’ve had for my writing thus far: last time I looked, Literary Hub’s Facebook post about the article had gotten 123 likes and 33 shares, with 71 likes and 22 retweets on Twitter.
[Note: I now know that the spelling is Katharine Hepburn and have asked twice over e-mail for the editor to correct it, but it’s clearly very low on their list of priorities!]
I continue to review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on a regular basis. My latest review was quite a negative one, alas, for Richard Flanagan’s First Person (). Upcoming: Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau () and A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits.
I reviewed Florida by Lauren Groff (), my fiction book of the year so far, for Stylist magazine. This is the fourth time I’ve volunteered for their “Book Wars” column, but the first time I’ve ‘won’ – I attribute it to the high class of book!
Bylines coming later in the summer:
- A dual review of two nature-themed memoirs in the Times Literary Supplement (June 15th issue). This is my third piece for the TLS, but as it’s a longer one it feels a little more ‘real’.
- An essay on two books about “wasting time” (including Alan Lightman’s) in the Los Angeles Review of Books (June 20th).
- A dual review of a memoir and a poetry volume by African writers in Wasafiri literary magazine (Issue 95).
Upcoming work, with no publication date yet:
- A dual review of two death-themed poetry collections for PN Review.
- Two book lists for OZY, one on the refugee crisis and another on compassion in medicine.
- A review essay on Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman for Glamour Online.
This is the second year in a row that I’ve managed to read the whole of the Man Booker Prize shortlist before the announcement of the winner. (In 2013 and 2014 I only got through four of the six titles.) Here’s my take on the final two from the shortlist (see my quick impressions of the others here and here), plus one from the longlist. I finish with thoughts about my favorites and the likely winner.
All That Man Is by David Szalay
In a riff on the Ages of Man, Szalay gives nine vignettes of men trying to figure out what life is all about. His antiheroes range from age 17 to 73. Each section has several chapters and follows a similar pattern: a man from one European country travels to another European country; there are lots of scenes set at airports or otherwise in transit, and part of the overall atmosphere of dislocation is simply the effort of having to adjust to foreignness. These trips are made for various reasons: feckless French twentysomething Bérnard has been fired by his uncle so goes ahead with a vacation to Cyprus; tabloid journalist Kristian flies from Denmark to Spain to confirm rumors of a government minister’s involvement in a scandal; recently impoverished oligarch Aleksandr takes his yacht for a farewell Adriatic cruise.
Predictably, sex is a major theme: reluctant hook-ups, fantasy lovers, affairs regretted, wild oats never sown. At times I was ready to fill in the title phrase in my best Cockney accent with “All That Man Is…is a bloody wanker.” As individual stories, there’s nothing particularly wrong with these. Inevitably, though, some are more interesting than others, and they don’t quite succeed in feeding into an overarching message, unless to confirm a mood of hedonism and angst. Life is short and pointless; enjoy its moments while you can, eh? Overall, I didn’t find this to be the philosophical and elegiac experience I expected. The prose is great, though; I’d certainly read a more straightforward novel by Szalay.
Favorite lines: “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window.”
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
“Music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.” A sweeping epic of life in China in the turbulent 1960s–80s, this is the Canadian novelist’s fourth book. Narrated from the present day by Marie (or Ma-Li), who lives in Vancouver with her mother, the novel plunges into layers of flashbacks about her family’s connection to Ai-Ming and her musician father, Sparrow. With loyalty to the Communist Party (the title is a line from its anthem) considered the gold standard of behavior and Western music widely denounced as revolutionary, these characters are in a bind: will they pursue their identity as artists, or keep their heads down to avoid trouble? This theme reminded me of Julian Barnes’s fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, which also asks whether music can withstand political oppression.
If, like me, you know next to nothing about China’s Cultural Revolution and the transition from Chairman Mao to successive leaders, you will learn so much. There is no denying the power of this portrayal of history. In addition, I was consistently impressed by the book’s language. Thien incorporates Chinese characters and wordplay, musical bars, and snatches of poetry and folk songs. However, I didn’t find this easy reading. The flashbacks can feel endless, such that I experienced Marie’s sections as a relief and wished for more of them. I had to set daily reading targets to get through the novel before the library due date. Yet it is the sort of epic the Booker Prize loves – with echoes of Ruth Ozeki’s The Tale for the Time Being (which should have won in 2013) and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – and is full of wise observations about what keeps us going when life falls apart. (See my full review at Nudge.)
And here’s another from the longlist that I read recently:
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
A short work of muted horror, all about atmosphere and the unexplained. Set in a Cornish fishing village, it sees newcomer Timothy Buchannan trying to figure out what happened to Perran, the man who occupied his rundown cottage until his death 10 years ago, and why everyone refuses to talk about him. Flashbacks in italics give glimpses into Timothy’s life with his wife, Lauren, who is meant to join him when he finishes the renovations; and into the fisherman Ethan’s past. I enjoyed the unsettling mood and the language used to describe the setting and Timothy’s dreams. Ultimately I’m not sure I fully understood the book, especially whether the late turns of the plot are to be viewed literally or allegorically. What I take away from it, and this is perhaps too simplistic, is an assertion that we are all joined in our losses. A quick, creepy read – you could do worse than pick it up this Halloween.
My two favorites from the shortlist are #1 His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and #2 Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. But my prediction for tomorrow’s winner is Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.