It’s been fourteen years since I last read this book, the first in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, so I figured I was due for a re-read. It’s set in Cornwall on the Drew family’s August summer holiday, so it’s a summery book in that sense—there’s a seaside carnival and beach excursions and sunburns—but it’s also a quest narrative, and a page-turning adventure story about good versus evil, with an Arthurian element too.

At the start of the book, Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew arrive in the village of Trewissick with their parents: they’re spending four weeks in a rented house with a family friend they call their Great-Uncle Merry, and they’re delighted to learn that the house comes with a sweet dog named Rufus. They’re expecting a normal fun seaside holiday, though they know that Great-Uncle Merry is maybe a little eccentric, and that strange or interesting things somehow always seem to happen when he’s around. On a rainy day, the kids explore the house and find something very old and very interesting, which leads them on a quest for something even older: but they’re not the only ones trying to find it, and the other people who are looking for it are somehow allied with forces of evil, as their Great-Uncle Merry is somehow allied with forces of good. Danger and adventure ensue, and the second half of the book was pretty unputdownable for me, even having read it before and knowing how it would all end.

I love this description of the day the kids explore the house:

The thunder rolled quietly, far out over the sea, but the rain fell with grey insistence, blurring the windows as it washed down outside. The children wandered aimlessly about the house. Before lunch they tried going for a walk in the rain, but came back damp and depressed. (16)

And I love Merry’s description of fairy tales:

Once upon a time … a long time ago … things that happened once, perhaps, but have been talked about for so long that nobody really knows. And underneath all the bits that people have added, the magic swords and lamps, they’re all about one thing—the good hero fighting the giant, or the witch, or the wicked uncle. Good against bad. Good against evil. (72)

In her introduction to this book, whose subtitle is “A Journey into Cold,” Ehrlich describes it as “a book about winter and climate change” and also as “a six-month chronicle of living with cold” (xi). It’s a mix of personal narrative/travelogue and facts about melting glaciers and Arctic pollution and disturbed ecosystems, a mix of lyricism and starkness. Ehrlich writes about blizzards in Wyoming and glaciers in the southern Andes and a trip to Spitsbergen on a 150-foot sailboat; she writes about seeing mink and coyotes and swans and geese, about seeing polar bears and whales and dolphins and walruses and sea birds, and about a visit to the Norwegian Polar Institute, where she talks to scientists who study climate change.

In the Andes she sees glaciers and thinks about how they’ve shaped the landscape through which she and her friend/lover are hiking; in Wyoming she goes canoeing with friends in an icy river. She write about winter as when “we go behind the scenes of our own lives” and says this: “Winter is a white vagrancy. There are no days or nights. Just breathing and snow pushing space between thought” (4-5). I like how she writes about how winter means “seclusion, intimacy, ceremony, cabin fever”, and how she writes about reading all through the winter in Wyoming, decades ago, just after having lost her fiancé to cancer. (69). I like how she writes about the aftermath of blizzards: “What’s left is a swept-out room of stark beauty and clear light” (105).

At one point Ehrlich takes a bus to see the Perito Moreno glacier and writes about how glaciers, built up over time, tell us about the past:

A glacier is an archivist and historian. It saves everything no matter how small or big, including pollen, dust, heavy metals, bugs, bones, and minerals. A glacier is time incarnate, a moving image of time. (53)

I like how this book looks at time and space, globally and personally, though I sometimes wanted there to be less abstraction/philosophizing and more straight-up description. Still, this was a satisfying read, even (especially?) in the middle of summer, though of course it made me depressed about global warming.

At the start of Turtles All the Way Down, Aza Holmes’s best friend, Daisy Ramirez, is talking about a news story: a local billionaire was about to be arrested on bribery-related charges, but he disappeared just before the raid. Aza, it turns out, used to be friends with one of the missing guy’s two sons: they went to camp together when they were eleven. Later, they hear on the radio that there’s a $100,000 reward for information leading to the missing guy’s whereabouts: so of course, they decide to try to solve the mystery and get the reward. Which, of course, reunites Aza with her old camp friend, Davis Pickett, who she totally had a crush on when they were kids, and who turns out to be a sweet and sensitive guy now.

So the story is about Aza and Davis and Daisy and regular high school stuff—dating/not dating, tensions between friends, etc.— and also about Davis’s missing dad—and also about Aza’s mental health. She has OCD and has been struggling her whole life with intrusive thoughts, particularly around bacteria/the possibility of a fatal bacterial infection, and there’s a lot in the book about how she feels stuck in her own spiraling thoughts, trapped in a body that kind of terrifies her. I like the way the book is a mix of Aza’s narration and her exchanges via text with Davis and blog entries he writes that she reads; I like the way they’re trying to figure out intimacy when both of them also have other stuff going on in their lives that makes that challenging.

Spirals are a recurring image in the book—spiraling thoughts, this Raymond Pettibon painting, the spiral of our galaxy: I liked this quote a lot, from one of several times when Davis and Aza look at the night sky together:

In the moonless darkness, we were just witnesses to light, and I felt a sliver of what must have driven Davis to astronomy. There was a kind of relief in having your own smallness laid bare before you, and I realized something Davis must have already known: Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out. (284)

I’ve been meaning to read this book since it came out, and am glad I finally got around to it. It turned out to be a perfect book to finish on a day when I was home sick with a fever: so sweet, so compelling, and it totally made me cry. Also, my boyfriend, who doesn’t read YA at all, read this book before I did (I had initially checked it out from the library before a business trip last month and didn’t get to it in time) and he liked it a whole lot too, which I think says something about John Green in general and this book in particular.

The first chapter of Master and Commander is such a total delight. It’s 1800, and there’s a concert happening in a fancy house on Menorca. A Navy lieutenant named Jack Aubrey is thoroughly enjoying the music, tapping the beat on his leg without realizing it; his enjoyment is spoiled when the man sitting next to him, a doctor named Stephen Maturin, grumpily tells him that if he’s going to tap the beat, he should at least do it in time. This ruins Aubrey’s mood: he finds himself feeling glum, thinking of how he doesn’t have a ship to command even though he’s been waiting for one for a while; when he leaves the concert we get this:

He was profoundly dissatisfied with himself, and with the man in the black coat, and with the service. And with the velvet softness of the April night, and the choir of nightingales in the orange-trees, and the host of stars hanging so low as almost to touch the palms. (11)

But then he gets a letter giving him command of a ship called the Sophie, and then everything is right with the world. He runs into Maturin and apologizes to him, after which they have breakfast together and talk; after another meal together later, Aubrey asks Maturin to be the Sophie‘s surgeon: and so a friendship starts. I like the opposites-attract aspect of Aubrey and Maturin’s relationship: Maturin is good at languages; Aubrey is terrible at them; Maturin knows next to nothing about boats; Aubrey has been at sea since he was twelve; Aubrey is big and garrulous; Maturin is smaller and more reserved. They’re both smart, though, and they love music, and their personalities end up complementing each other nicely.

The rest of the book is set largely on board the Sophie, which has various adventures/encounters/skirmishes with other ships. There’s a lot of naval vocabulary, some of which gets explained to the reader as it gets explained to Maturin, and some of which doesn’t get explained at all. There are frigates and xebecs and ships-of-the-line, and a whole lot of rigging and guns. But the Sophie and all the other ships out there are of course full of people, and it’s the interactions between them that made the book enjoyable for me. I liked reading about the tensions between Aubrey and his lieutenant, a man named James Dillon who turns out to have a shared history with Maturin. I liked reading about Maturin’s conversations with the doctor on a French ship, and about Aubrey’s interactions with the sailors and officers of the Sophie. But mostly I liked reading about Aubrey and Maturin: Aubrey being scared of a live snake in Maturin’s room when they’re ashore; Maturin being irate when someone drinks the wine preserving a dead snake he’s brought aboard in a jar; the two of them playing music together; Maturin trying to keep Aubrey from shooting himself in the foot, socially/in terms of his prospects for advancement; the two of them just talking, being friends.

My boyfriend often teases me about how I like really little books, and I always protest that I like books of varying lengths/sizes, but there is something appealing about a little book that’s easy to slip into a purse. The Door in the Wall by H.G. Wells is a Penguin Mini Modern Classic, and it’s little indeed: I read it in the course of a late afternoon/evening, mostly on the subway. It consists of three short stories: “The Door in the Wall” (from 1911), “The Sea-Raiders” (from 1897), and “The Moth” (from 1895). The first and last stories are somewhat thematically similar, in that they both deal with ghosts/hauntings, though they’re quite different in feel.

“The Sea-Raiders”, which I like the least, is about giant cephalopods wreaking havoc on the English coast, but even though I found it less engaging than the other two, it wasn’t terrible. There’s a sense of danger (made slightly less vivid by the third-person narration, but still) and also of scientific interest/curiosity, and also a sense of the menace of the unknown depths of the ocean, and I like the interplay of those elements. I also like this description of the cephalopods:

The creatures, it seems like most deep-sea organisms, were phosphorescent, and they had been floating, five fathoms deep or so, like creatures of moonshine through the blackness of the water, their tentacles retracted and as if asleep, rolling over and over, and moving slowly in a wedge-like formation towards the south-east. (46)

In “The Moth”, meanwhile, we learn about a lengthy feud between two entomologists. There’s humor in this story, with the entomologists publishing journal articles and replies (maybe this is funnier because I work in academic publishing?) and dissing each other in late-1800s style: at one point one of them “suggested that [the other one’s] microscope was as defective as his power of observation” (50). When one of them dies, though, the other finds himself adrift without his old nemesis, and haunted by a moth that reminds him of his dead scientific rival, at which point the story takes a turn from funny to dark (in a good way).

My favorite of these stories, though, is “The Door in the Wall”, which is the longest of the three and feels the most well-developed, plot-wise/idea-wise/style-wise. It’s a portal fantasy/parable about the dangers of either following or not following your desires, depending on how you look at it, and it’s narrated by a man whose childhood schoolmate, who grew up to be a very successful politician, has just died unexpectedly. We learn about how the man told the narrator about passing through a door into a garden in another world when he was a young child, and about how that garden/world then proceeded to haunt him for his whole life. The description of the garden is really pleasing, as is the narrator’s friend’s description of how he used to amuse himself on the way to school by trying to find a different way to get there than the usual one, getting himself lost on purpose and trying to find his way without being late: it’s like a schoolkid’s psychogeographical experiment, from long before the Situationists.

In The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú writes about his experiences working as a US Border Patrol agent, and also about his life before and after that job. He writes about his mom’s Mexican-American family, and her former job as a park ranger, and how he studied international relations in college and wanted on-the-ground experience of the border, after learning so much about the history and theory and policy of it. He writes about walking from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez with his mom, before becoming an agent, and about not wanting to take that same walk afterwards: he writes about the ways the job changed him. He writes about stress-dreams, and about grinding his teeth; he writes about a classmate quitting before even becoming an agent; he writes about the migrants he encounters, on and off the job. He writes about his own ambivalence about what working as a US Border Patrol agent means: when he’s in school, one of his instructors talks about having killed one migrant and having saved the life of another, and Cantú’s thought is this: “I wondered if he thought of his body as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping. I wondered, too, about my body, about what sort of tool it was becoming” (19).

Cantú’s mother worries about that, too, about the effects of taking a job within an inhumane system, about what it does to a person, and it was interesting to me to read this book fairly soon after having read Ali Smith’s Spring, a novel in which one of the characters is a detainee custody officer at an immigrant removal centre in England, struggling (albeit fictionally), with similar issues. “You are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people,” Cantú’s mother says, when he’s starting the job “(25). “Stepping into a system doesn’t mean that the system becomes you,” he replies (ibid). But by the end of the book, when he’s acting as helper and translator for the family of someone who’s been detained after re-entering the country without papers, I’m not sure if he would agree. (Cantú helps that person’s family partly because that person is his friend, but it might not be as simple as just that.)

This is a book about place, too, not just a book about a job and about migration/border policy in general and about specific people’s stories, and I liked Cantú’s descriptions of the kinds of desert landscapes I’ve never seen, like this:

At night, finally allowed to patrol on my own, I sat watching storms roll across the moonlit desert. There were three of them: the first due south in Mexico, the second creeping down from the mountains in the east, and the third hovering just behind me—close enough for me to feel smatterings of rain and gusts of warm wind. In the distance lightning appeared like a line of hot neon, illuminating the desert in a shuddering white light. (38)

Or like this, at the book’s end, when Cantú is in Big Bend National Park, swimming in the Rio Grande:

I stood to walk along the adjacent shorelines, crossing the river time and again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood. All around me the landscape tumbled and breathed as one. (247)

The City in the Middle of the Night is set in the future on January, a tidally-locked planet settled by humans after Earth has become uninhabitable. It’s a harsh world: half frozen night, half boiling day, with a narrow twilight range where people live in the two main cities, Xiosphant and Argelos, one of which is rule-bound and repressive, the other of which is a perpetual carnival. People aren’t the only life-forms on January, though: there are creatures they call giant squid, which live below the ice on the Sea of Murder, and hunting predators they call bison, and large creatures they call crocodiles, which turn out to have a culture and civilization of their own that long predates the arrival of humans.

The City in the Middle of the Night alternates between sections narrated by Sophie, a Xiosphanti student who, early in the book, is banished to the night but survives, and sections about Mouth, a smuggler who grew up in a nomadic civilization that was suddenly and catastrophically wiped out. The two stories intertwine, and we also learn about a bigger cast of characters: Sophie’s roommate Bianca, who’s part of Xiosphant’s elite but says she wants to make the city more just, Mouth’s companion Alyssa, who grew up in Argelos and is ready to be done with smuggling, and more human and non-human characters, including the crocodiles, who end up saving Sophie when she’s banished to the night. Sophie starts calling them the Gelet, a Xiosphanti word with connotations of building and exploring, once she learns that they have a whole technologically-advanced civilization, and it’s their city that’s the city of the title.

I liked the Gelet city most of all, I think, but I found this whole book really compelling: I liked the pace of the alternating/intertwined storylines, and all the ideas the book explores: racism and colonialism and trust and communication and memory, friendship and romance, being an outcast, being a survivor, climate change, the interconnectedness of everything.

Spring by Ali Smith

May 20th, 2019

Spring, which is the third book in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, is one of those books with two intersecting storylines where I was initially sad when the perspective shifted, because I liked the first storyline so much and wasn’t sure how the rest of the book could compare. But this is Ali Smith, so I needn’t have worried: the rest of the book won me over. Like Autumn and Winter, Spring is very of the moment: most of the book’s action takes place in October 2018, though there are memories of earlier years and little glimpses of certain characters’ futures. The first storyline is centered on a film and television director in his late sixties named Richard, who’s at a train station somewhere in the north of Scotland. He’s frustrated with his work, and grieving for his best friend/work collaborator, an older woman named Paddy. In the second storyline, we meet Brit, who works at an immigration removal centre, and Florence, a twelve-year-old girl who brings a bit of magic realism to the book with her uncanny ability to move through the world with ease, getting people to do what she wants. In addition to the narratives of these storylines we get other things: bits of writing by Florence, part of a script for a terrible film project Richard has been working on with a writer he can’t stand, lists of things Brit has learned at her work, a letter from Paddy to Richard, postcards from Richard to Paddy. There are also things about Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke (the terrible film project is about them) and Tacita Dean (whose work Richard sees at a gallery show) and of course about spring and hope and life and change. We read about “the thinnest of green shoots” splitting a rock, and about “transformation. How we’re changed by things. Or made to change, Or have to learn to change” (9, 276). We read that life “can change over time, what looks fixed and pinned and closed in a life can change and open, and what’s unthinkable and impossible at one time can will be easily possible in another” (248).

There are a lot of great things in this book, but one of my favorite things is how Richard has an “imaginary daughter”: he’s divorced, and estranged from his ex-wife and their child, but Paddy at one point suggests he imagine his daughter as being with him—suggests that he take this imagined daughter to galleries and plays and on holiday, and send Paddy postcards as he does. I love that Richard does send postcards to Paddy, over the course of decades, and I love how the image of the postcard recurs at certain points in the book, and I love how Richard uses his imaginary daughter as a reference point, and I really love this, from after Richard sees Tacita Dean’s chalk drawings of clouds (one of which, Why cloud, is reproduced in the back of the book):

They’d made space to breathe possible, up against something breathtaking. After them, the real clouds above London looked different, like they were something you could rad as breathing space. This made something happen too to the buildings below them, the traffic, the ways in which the roads intersected, the ways in which people were passing each other in the street, all of it part of a structure that didn’t know it was a structure, but was one all the same. (79)

In her introduction to this book, Samin Nosrat talks about salt, fat, acid, and heat as “the four cardinal directions of cooking”; in his foreword, Michael Pollan (who learned to cook from Nosrat) talks about how this book will teach you to use those things in combination “to build striking new layers of flavor in whatever you cook” (4, 2). Nosrat writes well, and I like the way she combines food memories and stories (the Persian food her mom made when she was a kid, learning how much salt to use while working in the kitchen at Chez Panisse) with food science and instructions/recommendations for cooking (I realized, while reading this book, that I don’t think I could previously have explained exactly how baking soda and baking powder work, even though I like to bake). Nosrat’s prose is nicely complemented by Wendy MacNaughton’s beautiful and fun color illustrations of everything from pasta shapes to the colors of caramelized/caramelizing sugar to a tote bag overflowing with vegetables.

I learned a bunch of things from this book, like: you should salt eggs before scrambling them because the salt “helps their proteins come together at a lower temperature, which decreases cooking time”—meaning the eggs retain more water and are moister and softer (33). Or like: if you want a citrus-flavored olive oil, look for the ones with agrumato on the label, which “are made using a traditional technique of milling whole citrus fruit with the olives at the time of the first press” (66). I learned about layering salt (combining different salting methods and kinds of salt/salty ingredients for the effect you want) and about how we use fat when cooking or baking to create different textures (crispness, tenderness, flakiness, lightness). I learned that you should “let all meats—except for the thinnest cuts—come to room temperature before you cook them” (151). And I learned that “legumes, fruits, and vegetables will cook much more slowly in the presence of acid” and that you add vinegar to the water when poaching eggs because “acid encourages the proteins in an egg white to assemble, or coagulate, more quickly but less densely than they otherwise would” (112-113).

The second part of the book—the recipes and menus and variations—felt less useful to me, largely because a lot of it felt overly ambitious in one way or another. There are recipes with techniques I either don’t want to try at home (deep-frying) or can’t try at home because I live in a city apartment/don’t have outdoor space or a grill (smoking things). Anything involving a whole chicken, or chicken stock that I’m supposed to have made from scratch, seems too daunting to me. The likelihood of me cooking pasta with clam sauce, or four pounds of pork shoulder, feels low. Part of the problem is that I like one-pot meals, or at least, one pot plus one tray roasting in the oven, and most of the menu suggestions in this book are not that kind of cooking. Some of the yogurt sauces sound delicious (like: Persian Herb and Cucumber Yogurt, with mint and walnuts, garnished with dried crumbled rose petals, or Persian Beet Yogurt, with tarragon and red wine vinegar), but if I’m not roasting a whole chicken, I’m not sure what I’d eat them with. The things I felt like I might actually make were all sweet ones, like olive oil and sea salt granola, or meringues with cardamom, or flavored whipped cream (scented with rosewater, or made with cream steeped with Earl Grey tea or bay leaves). That said, I learned enough from the first half of the book that I’m still glad I read it, and if you’re a different kind of cook than I am, the recipes may be exactly what you’re looking for.

French Exit is described on the title page as “a tragedy of manners,” which is apt. It’s a dark/funny/darkly funny novel about Frances Price, a (formerly) very rich widow who, at the age of sixty-five, has burned through all the money in her husband’s estate and finds herself having to move to a friend’s apartment in Paris in a hurry. It’s also the story of her son, Malcolm, who has lived with his mother since he left boarding school at the age of twelve, and their cat, Small Frank, whose body houses the spirit of Franklin, Frances’s late and not-at-all-missed husband/Malcolm’s father. They all move to Paris, though Malcolm is engaged to a woman in New York, and though Malcolm has no idea what they’re going to do once they get there, and along they way they interact with an amusing cast of characters, including but not limited to a medium, a wine merchant, a private investigator, and another American widow living in Paris.

Somehow Patrick deWitt makes his characters simultaneously awful and likable: I saw him read the first chapter of this book at a bookstore in Brooklyn last year, and the quirky humor of that first chapter made me want to read the rest of the book. That humor is present throughout the book, though it ends up being moving, too, especially in the interactions between Frances and Malcolm, and in the stories they both tell about their unhappy childhoods and fraught parent-child relationships. If you’re looking for straight-up realistic fiction, this is probably not the book for you, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and are in the mood for an odd family story, this is an excellent read.