Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Three Years of Millie

Today is Millie's "birthday", the third anniversary of the day I adopted her. Tonight she'll be celebrating with a denta-chew and an extra-long walk. In the meantime, how about a little walk down memory lane?

You're a funny one, Millie!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Turtle Diary

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban is an odd little gem of a novel that's filled with quirks, dark humor, and life-affirming moments. The particular copy of the novel that I own is also filled with lots of ink marks, as each new page seemed to reveal a new sentence or passage worthy of underlining. 

The novel is told through alternating diary entries of two characters identified only as William G. and Neaera H. Both are lonely, middle-aged people who live isolated lives in London. William is a divorced, ex-advertising executive who works in a bookshop and lives in a room in a boarding house. Neaera is a children's book author who is prone to bouts of writer's block and insomnia. Externally, their only commonality is that they are both drawn to and fascinated by the sea turtle exhibit at the London aquarium. Internally, as revealed through their diary entries, we see that many of their other thoughts and feelings run along similar lines. After crossing paths several times at the aquarium, Neaera and William find themselves reluctantly swept up into a joint plan to break the turtles out of the aquarium and return them to the sea. It's an adventure that has a profound uplifting effect on both of their lives--though not in the predictable way the might expect.

I must admit that I approached Turtle Diary with a mix of curiosity and apprehension, seeing as it was my first venture into Hoban's adult works He's most famous as the author of the Frances the Badger children's series, which was one of my favorites when I was young. (My middle name is Frances so I was pretty sure the books were written with me in mind, badger or not.) In an interesting connection to those books, this edition's Introduction mentions the fact that Hoban had an ambivalent, at times even dismissive, view about the value of writing books for children. In this novel, he gives voice to these feelings through Neaera, whose books are also centered around a cast of animal characters. She is often given to self-deprecating thoughts about the ridiculous nature of her work. Yet even as Hoban expresses, he also manages to fill the book with exactly what he would want us to believe he's rolling his eyes at: animals that help to illustrate the meaning in everyday human activities. Between the sea turtles that William and Neaera rescue and various other creatures who make passing appearances in their lives and thoughts, Hoban's animals increase the fable-like quality of his story. It's exactly what I would have expected from the creator of Frances, and makes for a book that's well worth reading. It's not without its darker moments--most notably the suicide of a supporting character--but the end result is surprisingly inspiring.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Fancies

The biggest book-related news of the week has been the revelation that J.K. Rowling penned the detective novel The Cuckoo's Calling under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.  Although I'm not the biggest reader of mysteries, I am kind of curious to see what she's done here, especially since, unlike some, I actually really enjoyed her novel The Casual Vacancy. I'll admit that I do wonder about the timing of the leak, though. The Cuckoo's Calling came out at the end of April, and while it apparently received some critical praise, I doubt it would have become a best seller if Rowling wasn't suddenly attached to it. What do you think? Will you read it?

(image via here)

Other noteworthy items:

More big publishing industry news (from The Onion).

My favorite real news story of the week

Comma Workshop creates lovely quilts that feature text from poems and stories. Their current project features excerpts from Thoreau's Walden.

A peek inside a home that does a nice job of decorating with books.

And I'm trying really hard not to be tempted by NYRB's Summer Sale.  (That collection of Nancy Mitford's histories is calling my name!)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Howard's End

Although it's a bit after the fact, I'm finally getting around to writing about the book I read for the last Classics Club Spin-- Howard's End. This was a re-read for me, and it surprised me in two respects. First, in a flare up of reading amnesia, I confused the plot of Forster's novel with Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Although the two authors aren't exactly that easy to confuse, both books do involve fancy English houses. All I know is that I opened Howard's End expecting to encounter a butler and maid (who would remind me an awful lot of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson), and instead found myself facing the Schlegel sisters. Incidentally, Margaret and Helen Schlegel were the cause of the the second surprise of the book--the fact that I didn't like it very much at all! I found the Schlegels to be so annoying and hard to sympathize with that they negatively colored my reading experience this time around.

Margaret and Helen Schlegel are two sisters of German-English descent. They're a Bohemiam, liberal-minded, independently wealthy pair living on their own with their younger brother Tibby. At first glance, they would seen to be the polar opposites of the Wilcoxes, a rich, conservative, upper class family that owns a country house called Howard's End. The Schelgels first meet the Wilcoxes when they are traveling abroad. Once back in England, their lives interest at three pivotal points. First, Helen spends a matter of hours engaged to youngest son Paul Wilcox. Later, Margaret develops a friendship with Ruth Wilcox, the family's matriarch who harbors a sentimental, artistic streak. And finally, after Ruth's death, Margaret falls into an unlikely courtship with widower Henry Wilcox, whom she eventually marries. Margaret is aware that her personality is vastly different from Henry's, but she believes that she can get through to him and turn him into a more compassionate, open person. Some of her main efforts to bring Henry around involve a series of misguided attempts to help Leonard Bast, a poor young man who is repeated thrown into the path of the Schlegels. Not only does Leonard ultimately fall victim to Margaret's meddling, but he also pulls Helen into his tragic downfall.

One of the most famous lines from Howard's End is "only connect". It's a mantra that comes up repeatedly in the novel and describes the intention behind Margaret's desire to find a way to connect with Henry, and to teach him how to connect with others, especially with the lower class of people that Leonard represents. The way she goes about trying to make this happen comes across as extremely self-centered and self-righteous. She's obsessed with getting others to "connect" on her terms and fails to realize that there might be other perspectives outside of her own. The irony of Margaret's attitude may be intended to play into the themes Forster is exploring in the novel, but I found it so off-putting that I have to rank Margaret Schelgel among my least favorite literary characters. I know that many people love Howard's End and will likely disagree with me on this, so I want to make it clear that I'm by no means anti-Forster. I liked A Passage to India and loved A Room with a View, but just couldn't get past my personal distaste of this particular novel. But even though I didn't like it, I still have respect for it as a piece of literature. So much respect, in fact, that I refrained from going with my first choice for the title of this post: "Howard's End...Couldn't Come Soon Enough"!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Fancies

This week I made my first farmer's market stop of the season. I like to plan my summer meals around the veggies I can find there each week, but in past years too much advance planning caused me to fall into a routine of getting the same few items over and over again. I've decided to be more spontaneous with my produce this year by trying to buy one item each visit that I don't have a specific recipe for but that just strikes my fancy. My spontaneous pick this time around was a bunch of swiss chard. Later, a quick search on Pinterest led me to discover a delicious recipe for swiss chard and white bean gnocchi. The recipe is definitely a keeper and one I'd highly recommend trying.

Other discoveries of the week:

Here's proof that one letter has the power to drastically alter a book cover.

Have you heard that Paul Giamatti is joining Downton Abbey next season?

An infographic guide to abandoned books.

A vintage interview with Henry Green that's interesting, strange, and funny by turn.

Don't you want one of these for your desk at work?

And if you live in England, you may just have a chance of seeing Mr. Darcy emerging from a lake near you. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Beautiful Truth

The second book with a Vermont setting that I've read of late is A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam, which comes out in September. I received an advance copy at a literary fiction presentation that I attended at BEA this year. During the half-hour session, a handful of small, independent publishing houses and imprints each had five minutes to present one of their upcoming titles. I actually had to check my ears when the editor who spoke about A Beautiful Truth took to the podium and said "I know there are a lot of chimp books out there...". It wasn't until she said "chimps" a few more times that I felt confident that, yes, indeed, this is a book about monkeys. Apparently I've been ignorant of the primate micro-trend that's happening in the literary world. The presentation convinced me, though, and I left feeling sold on reading about chimps. Or, it might be more accurate to say, about chimps and the humans who love them.

The novel is told through two alternating narratives. The first follows a middle-aged couple in Vermont who are unable to conceive a child and so adopt a baby chimp named Looee to raise as their son. The second narrative is presented through the eyes of a group of chimps living in captivity at a research center in Florida. Both stories highlight the opposing natures within the chimps. At home in Vermont, we see Looee interacting with his parents in a very lovable, human way, but also giving in to his more wild, animal instincts. At the center in Florida, we watch certain chimps learn human language and communication skills taught to them by the researchers, but also see how they develop their own system of communication and code of conduct within their animal community. Eventually the two narratives intersect when Looee is sent to Florida after one of his animal impulses results in tragic consequences.

The presentation I heard at BEA emphasized the fact that this is a brutal book, but one that held up a mirror to the universal human condition. I certainly saw the brutal side of the book in the sense that it turns an unflinching gaze on the motives and behaviors of the chimps. They are not portrayed as cute, cuddly creatures. Some of the passages that describe their baser animal behaviors were uncomfortable to read. Even more uncomfortable were the details about the chimps' living conditions at the research facility, and the medical experiments that are conducted on them there. To call them harsh and ethically questionable would be an understatement. If McAdam was intending to balance this brutality by connecting it to larger human themes, I don't think succeeded. Although obvious parallels could be drawn between the lives of the chimps and the human condition, none of them were particularly moving or packed any emotional punch. Instead, what made a greater impression on me were a handful of annoying little details, like the fact that the possibility of adopting a human baby is barely considered by Looee's parents, dismissed in one afterthought-like sentence about how the process of adopting a child was too long and complicated. Surely anyone willing to turn their lives upside down for a chimp might be willing to put their names on a waiting list for a while, no? It's not often that I have a hard time suspending my disbelief when reading a novel, but I just couldn't seem to manage it when it came to Looee's parents and I had very little sympathy for their storyline. I actually found the chimps' narrative to be more believable, and have to give McAdam credit for the unique language that he created for them. Disconcerting at first but easily understood by the end of the novel, the chimps' words and phrases are gradually absorbed by the reader in an experience that mimics what the chimps themselves go through as they are trained to communicate with humans. It's an interesting feat to pull off in a novel and definitely one deserving of praise, although it still might not be quite enough to make the book worth your time.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Dog Governess

I've written before about the art of Janet Hill. I have to ration myself in looking at her work, though, or else I would be way too tempted to order more prints (and I already own this one, this one, and this one). But after taking a peek at her site recently, I can't help sharing a new series by her that I'm completely smitten with: Miss Moon Was a Dog Governess.

(image via here)

Each piece in the series features Miss Moon teaching a different lesson to her canine charges. You can see them all here.

It would be perfectly reasonable to hang one of each along my floorboards as artwork for Millie, right?

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Double Bind

I'm fresh off of spending some fictional time in Vermont, the setting of both of the last two books that I read. First up was The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian, a novel that offers up the intriguing premise that Jay Gatsby and Daisy and Tom Buchanan weren't fictional characters from The Great Gatsby, but were instead actual historical figures from the 1920s. In the present-day action of the novel, the protagonist is Laurel Estabrook, a twenty-something woman who works at a homeless shelter in Burlington, Vermont, where she attended college. Laurel is familiar with the Gatsby and Buchanan names, which were notorious in the area of Long Island where she grew up. When she begins working on curating a collection of photos that were left behind by one of the shelter's deceased residents, she finds herself confronted by the Gatsby saga, which seems to have mysterious ties to both the photo collection and to Laurel's own past.

In my mind, one strike against this book was the fact that Bohjalian seemed to approach the Gatsby-related elements of the novel from a point of view that ignored the larger themes of Fitzgerald's novel and reduced his characters to shallow, selfish caricatures. I realize that this is a somewhat common stance (made apparent to me by some of the articles I read surrounding the recent film adaptation earlier this summer), but it's one that is decidedly opposed to my own view of Fitzgerald's work. Bohjalian's focus on only the flaws of the Gatsby characters made me feel slightly at odds with his book, not to mention perfectly willing to notice the flaws of his writing style, which frequently drifted off into unnecessary, cliche descriptions of peripheral details that added nothing to the story. Yet in spite of these two big complaints, I actually found The Double Bind to be a pretty engrossing read. It was clear that events were building to some kind of major revelation, which had me racing through to the end to see if I was correct in the plot twist that I suspected (I was, to a certain extent). Though the ending wasn't quite as satisfying as it could have been, the overall effect of The Double Bind is an entertaining, if flawed, read that will interest--even if it slightly annoys--Gatsby fans.

Are there any books that you've enjoyed, even while disliking specific elements of them?


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