The Hollow Land appears under the heading “For Children” on the list of Jane Gardam’s work at the start of the book, but these nine linked stories read perfectly well as grown-up literature, too. The stories are mostly centered around a pair of children (Bell Teesdale, who’s eight when the book opens, and who narrates the first story, and Harry Bateman, who’s a few years younger), and the stories are partly about childhood experiences, but they’re also about landscape/place/culture: the Cumbrian setting of these books feels vivid, even though I’ve never been there.
The first story, “Harry and Bell,” introduces the title characters and their families and their circumstances: Bell’s dad is a farmer, and his grandfather lives with Bell and his sister and their parents, and one summer they decide to rent out the grandfather’s old farmhouse to a family from London, the Batemans. The Batemans almost leave early: they’re at the farm during haying time, and there’s a particularly noisy night when the Teesdales need to work the field past midnight to get the hay cut before it rains, but Bell and Harry between them help to set things right between the families, and then the Batemans keep on coming back—by the last story in the book they’ve been renting the old farmhouse, Light Trees, for twenty years, since 1979.
This book is often quite funny: there’s humor in the circumstances the characters find themselves in, and in how those circumstances are narrated. I loved the start of “Sweep,” whose first paragraph I can’t resist quoting in its entirety:
The chimney sweep, who also kept the fish and chip shop, had said that he would take the big London lads fishing one day and they had said thank you. Smashing. “Oh great,” they had said—and forgotten. They weren’t prepared then on a dark wet August day for a knock on Light Trees’ ancient oak door and the sweep—Kendal was his name—to be standing there sopped through, with floods streaming from his hat and his arms full of rods. (37)
Most of these stories are summer stories, but not all of them: the Batemans visit in the winter, too, at least once, and there’s a lovely wintry snowy icy story, “The Icicle Ride,” which also features this great sentence, about a farmer driving a Land Rover full of sheep: “A wall of yellow-eyed wool looked out over his shoulders” (85). So good. This is the third book I’ve read by Jane Gardam, and they’ve all been pleasing: I look forward to reading more.
I hadn’t heard of this rhyming picture book, but when I saw it at the library, the front cover made me want to pick it up: a solid-looking dog on a ladder, adjusting a mysterious contraption made of pots and pans and colanders and whisks and wires, in front of an old TV that seems to be showing a staticky picture of a poodle. How could I not be intrigued?
The book opens with Wilma and Walter Wimbledon being woken up by a weird noise. Walter goes and checks it out, and comes back to say it’s just their dog, Stanley, howling at the moon. As the night continues, each of the four Wimbledon kids gets woken up by something, and each time Walter checks it out but comes back saying, “It’s only Stanley.” Walter doesn’t seem at all perplexed by Stanley’s nighttime activities, offering a straightforward explanation for each weird noise or smell: Stanley “fixed the oil tank” or is “making catfish stew,” as if these are perfectly normal things for a beagle to be doing. What Stanley is actually up to is … considerably more interesting.
The art of this book is fun: I love the way each kid who gets woken up piles into their parents’ bed, which obviously gets a bit full by the end, and I love the wordless spreads where Walter goes to see what Stanley’s up to, accompanied each time by the family cat, Max, who seems to know more about what’s going on than Walter does, and whose curiosity means that he returns to bed in a slightly different state after each investigation. Those wordless spreads are totally my favorite part, especially the one with Stanley in the kitchen with a crazy setup of beakers and retorts, determinedly stirring a pot bubbling over with a mysterious green liquid (which the cat, of course, laps up from a spill on the floor).
This was a really good read for a Sunday when I was home sick with a cold/fever: it was good enough that I didn’t even feel too bad about not being able to partake in my usual Sunday evening activity (rock climbing). I think it’s better-written than the previous Veronica Mars book (The Thousand Dollar Tan Line) was: there was only one sentence I noticed that was so horrible that I had to stop reading and comment on how bad it was to my boyfriend. (Describing Veronica watching a surveillance video showing another character: “She headed to the elevator. Inside, the close-up of her face showed her carefully made-up face” (122).) But the writing isn’t the point of these books, for me: it’s the chance to be surrounded, again, by familiar characters from the TV series: crime-solving Veronica, her PI dad Keith (who’s currently fighting corruption in the local sheriff’s department), former biker-gang leader Eli Navarro (who’s fighting a series of charges in a situation in which the police department planted evidence on him), basketball-player-turned-basketball-coach Wallace Fennel, and others.
The crime in this one is pretty gruesome: a local 19-year-old woman is raped, beaten, and left for dead in a field at the edge of town. She’d been drinking at the bar of the fancy Neptune Grand hotel, and she claims that it was a hotel employee who assaulted her. Veronica is hired by the hotel’s insurance company, who clearly want the victim’s story not to be true. There’s DNA evidence, but the hotel employee has since been deported (the victim had brain trauma and claimed not to remember anything about her assault, but later claimed to have regained some memories, and the accused was an undocumented immigrant), so it’s not as simple as just getting a sample from him to prove his innocence or guilt. And despite the hotel’s many security cameras, there’s no footage of the victim leaving the hotel. So who was her attacker, and what happened, exactly? Meanwhile, subplots: after his criminal trial concludes, Keith encourages Weevil to bring a civil suit against the sheriff’s department about the planted evidence, and a new contender appears in the previously-uncontested sheriff’s race, meaning that maybe the corruption in the Neptune police department has a chance of getting cleaned up. And oh, Veronica and her boyfriend get a puppy, aww.
Coffin Castle, the setting of this fairy-tale-like book, is not a happy place: it’s cold, and the thirteen clocks of the book’s title have all stopped, and the Duke who lives there with his “niece” (she’s not really his niece: she’s a princess he stole away from her family when she was a baby) is fond of killing people and feeding them to his geese. He relishes telling knights they can marry Princess Saralinda as soon as they finish some impossible task; meanwhile, he’s biding his time and planning to marry her himself as soon as she turns twenty-one. But you know how stories like this go: there’s one prince who’s clever enough to do the seemingly-impossible task set for him. Except actually, he’s not: the prince in this story (who’s disguised as a minstrel, but not for long) succeeds only because of the help of a kindly double-agent called the Golux, and really only because his success has already been foretold. Which makes this kind of a funny book: you know the shape the plot will be, because of what kind of story it is, and the characters don’t particularly feel like real people so much as types, so what’s left is the way the story’s told, the rhythm and humor and language of it.
In the introduction to this edition, Neil Gaiman talks about how he read this book when he was a child and noticed the language, how it “slipped into poetry and out of it again in a way that made you want to read it aloud, just to see how it sounded” (8). He writes about how Thurber “wrap[s] his story tightly in words, while at the same time juggling fabulous words that glitter and gleam, tossing them out like a happy madman, all the time explaining and revealing and baffling with words” (9). Which is a pretty excellent way of putting it. Thurber plays with rhyme and meter, but I think what I liked best was the humor. One character tells the disguised prince that the duke “breaks up minstrels in his soup, like crackers” (24). The Golux, talking about how his mother was a mediocre witch, says that “when she changed her rivals into fish, all she ever got was mermaids” (43). And there’s a great moment when the Duke says, “We all have flaws,” followed by, “and mine is being wicked” (114).
April 7th, 2015
Last week the Fitbit Charge HR my boyfriend got me for Christmas finally arrived, and I’ve been loving it. It tells me how long I slept and how restless or not I was. If I go for a run, I can see a graph of my heart rate. It tells me how many flights of stairs I climb in a day (though sometimes that’s wildly inaccurate and I haven’t yet figured out why). It has a vibrating alarm, which wakes me up without generally waking up my boyfriend. And it tells me how many steps I’ve taken a day, and buzzes when I hit the default goal of 10,000. None of which has anything to do with the first Veronica Mars book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, except to say that I started reading it on the train home from Pennsylvania on Sunday and was so into it that I finished it yesterday evening, choosing to curl up on the couch with it despite the fact that I hadn’t even hit 6500 steps for the day.
That said, I don’t think I would have been so into this book if I weren’t already a fan of Veronica Mars and her world: my boyfriend introduced me to the television show (which he’d already watched in its entirety) and we watched the three seasons of the show, plus the movie, together over the past few years. The show/movie/book are all set in the fictional beachside town of Neptune, California, where the very rich party in their mansions, and where Veronica, in high school, found herself transformed from popular girl to pariah when her dad, as sheriff, went after one of the most powerful families in town. The show is set when Veronica’s in high school and in her first year of college, helping her dad (who’s now a private investigator) with cases, and solving crimes on her own, too. The movie’s set ten years after Veronica’s high school graduation, when she finds herself back in Neptune/investigating another crime, despite having left and being on the verge of a high-powered law career in New York. The book picks up two months after the movie left off, with Veronica in Neptune, trying to make a go of it as a PI.
At the start of the book, three college girls visiting Neptune for spring break (lots of parties, lots of drinking) realize they haven’t seen or heard from the fourth girl in their group for two days. They all went to a wild party in a mansion, but one of them didn’t come back to their motel room afterwards. Veronica ends up being hired by the Chamber of Commerce to find her: they’re losing money on cancelled spring break trips. As Veronica looks for the missing girl, Hayley, she finds herself in possession of possibly dangerous knowledge about the criminal connections of the owners of the house where that wild party was held. As the plot progresses, there are new developments and twists, but it’s hard to say more without spoilers, and this is, after all, a mystery. The plot is most of the appeal here: the writing is not amazing. It’s not bad (though at the end I wished I’d kept track of every time the word “instinctively” was used, because it felt like a lot), but it’s not what kept me turning pages. I did appreciate certain moments of dialogue or passages that read like Veronica’s thoughts: I found myself imagining them spoken by Kristen Bell or other actors from the show, and feeling pleased by the humor or pacing of them.
The seven sections of Oranges don’t feel like they necessarily have to be in the order they’re in, which is maybe the only thing I didn’t like about this book: it sometimes felt a little disjointed. Still, this was a really interesting read and I kept telling my boyfriend various things I was learning about oranges in general, and about the Florida orange industry (up to 1965) in particular. I learned that Florida oranges are (or were?) juicier than California oranges. I learned that ripe oranges aren’t necessarily orange: as McPhee puts it:
An orange can be as sweet and ripe as it will ever be and still glisten like an emerald in the tree. Cold—coolness, rather—is what makes an orange orange. In some parts of the world, the weather never gets cold enough to change the color; in Thailand, for example, an orange is a green fruit, and traveling Thais often blink with wonder at the sight of oranges the color of flame. (10)
(Related to the above, I learned that as of the time of McPhee’s writing, early-season Florida oranges were turned from green to orange, either by exposing them to ethylene gas, or by applying a dye to them. I’m unclear whether the latter is still done—McPhee says the dyed oranges were a hit in the Midwest.) I learned that orange trees can be very old: there was one in Europe that lived for 473 years. I learned that Harriet Beecher Stowe ran an orange grove in Florida for 17 years, and that as of 1965, “Oranges that happen to be going to New York cross the Hudson River on barges and enter the city at Pier 28 at the western end of Canal Street,” where “all fresh fruit of any kind that is shipped to New York City for auction is sold” (116). This book has some great vivid images: talking about those fruit auctions, McPhee writes about a wooden-walled room thick with cigar smoke; elsewhere he writes about a low-riding white Cadillac in Florida that was full of stolen oranges—3500 of them.
McPhee writes about his travels in orange-growing parts of Florida in 1965, and it’s interesting to see the state of the orange industry at that time: the big growth area was frozen concentrate. McPhee looks down on groves from helicopters, watches buds being put onto root stock, visits the University of Florida Citrus Experiment Station, and learns, among other things, about the various ways orange-growers have of fighting frost/hard freezes. He also writes about the introduction of the orange to Europe, and orangeries in France, and the Indian River orange boom in the 1800s, and in addition to all the orange-related stuff there are some great character-based snippets here, including one awful/hilarious story about someone who was convinced he had gangrene, though he didn’t. This is a short book, but a very full one, and I’m pleased to have read it.
April 1st, 2015
It’s April 1, which means the TBR Double Dog Dare is over, which means I’m allowing myself to put holds on library books again! (I haven’t yet, but I suspect I will do so pretty soon.)
Because I sort of padded my library hold list in late December (and also checked a whole bunch of library books out in December), my early-2015 reading was not entirely from my own shelves: the eight books I read in January were all library books, and so were three of the seven books I read in February. In March, though, I only read one library book, and it doesn’t really count because my boyfriend checked it out and we read it together. (It was a Calvin and Hobbes book). Thanks to the motivation of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I’ve read ten books from my own shelves so far this year, and am in the middle of another. Some of those books (like Conundrum, which I bought in 2004 for a college class on autobiographical writing that I didn’t actually end up taking, and Ten Walks/Two Talks, which I bought after seeing the authors read from it in 2005) were ones I’d bought a decade or more ago but somehow hadn’t read yet; others were more recent acquisitions (like Ibid, which I bought at Books for Amnesty in Cambridge last November).
I’ve missed the library and all its shiny new and new-to-me books, but it’s been pleasing to read books without the deadline of a due date, and to pick at whim from my own shelves. When I go to the library I often browse in the “New Books” area, which skews my reading towards what’s been published recently, whereas what I have on my shelves is a mix of old and new. And it’s been pleasing to free up some shelf space by giving away books I’ve finished, if I don’t think I’ll read them again. I’m almost tempted to carry on only reading books from my shelves for another month, but I doubt I’ll resist the lure of the library (which I literally walk by every weekday on my way to and from the subway) for that long*. I do, though, want to try to find a balance between library books and books I own, and not neglect the books I own quite as much as I have in the past.
* Edited to add: OK, yeah: after posting this entry, I … went to the library and checked out three books. See, my boyfriend and I recently finished watching the entirety of the Veronica Mars TV show, after which we watched the movie, and I remembered that I wanted to see if the library had the two Veronica Mars mysteries by Rob Thomas. So I checked online and found that the first one was on the shelf at my local branch. And then I couldn’t help looking at the New Books shelves, where I found the second Veronica Mars book. And also I picked up The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam, because it was there and I liked the two other books by her that I’ve read.
In the acknowledgments at the end of Ibid: A Life (A Novel in Footnotes), Mark Dunn thanks his publisher “for allowing this most recent, brazen attempt at redefining the American novel,” and his readers for “giving [him] the chance to convince [them] that history can be more than dry facts and dates. And that naughty can be mighty fun.” Well. I found this book pretty fun, but alas, I liked it less than I liked either of the other two books by Dunn I’ve read (Ella Minnow Pea and Under the Harrow). Dunn’s style, tends toward quirky/over-the-top premises and humor, and this book is no exception, but in this one, I felt like the jokes couldn’t quite carry the book.
The premise of Ibid, introduced by a series of letters at the start of the book, is this: fictional author “Mark Dunn” has written a biography of fictional three-legged circus performer/deodorant magnate Jonathan Blashette. The only copy of the manuscript, unfortunately, is destroyed in an accident involving his editor’s bathtub (and his editor’s three-year-old son). Dunn has a separate manuscript of the notes (they’re really endnotes, not footnotes, but whatever), and his editor decides to publish them anyway, without the main text. Ibid, then, is the result.
So what does a novel told in endnotes look like? The structure, I think, works, in part because these are some voluminous notes, often reproducing entire fictional letters or diary entries in full, so that the book ends up containing things like: a note from Jonathan’s mother to his father about letting the young Jonathan do their weekly shopping, a letter from the historian of the town next to the town where Jonathan grew up, letters from Jonathan to Buffalo Bill Cody (chiding him for killing buffalos) and L. Frank Baum (chiding him for being such a horrible racist/terrible person who wanted to exterminate Native Americans), and so on. The letters and diary entries, combined with shorter notes, give you a sense of the outline of Jonathan’s life: he’s born in 1888 in a small town in Arkansas, spends some time in a circus sideshow, comes back home and goes to high school then college, fights in WWI, gets engaged, moves to New York after his bride-to-be dies, eventually marries another woman, starts a deodorant company, and later in life, hands over the deodorant company to his son/devotes himself to philanthropy. The notes also give a sense of the difficulties of writing history or biography: there are numerous moments where the imagined primary sources disagree wildly about something, like when Jonathan’s grandfather dies and there are nine entirely different reports of what his last words were, or when the roof of the Blashette barn blows off in a tornado, and everyone in the family, plus various neighbors, has a different story about who was actually in the barn/who was just nearby, and what everyone involved was actually doing at the moment the roof lifted.
Dunn’s style and humor is simultaneously great and somewhat distancing, because it’s so absurd. I was amused by the various fictional books he quotes from, along with their hilariously-named fictional publishers: a book by little people (including one of Jonathan’s circus friends) is called “Tiny Writings by Tiny People” and is published by “Really Little, Brown and Company” (30). A book of Helen Keller’s reminiscences is published by “Three Senses Press” (67). And passages like this made me laugh, but there are only so many similarly ridiculous passages I really want to read in one book:
Oronwaggee was originally a shipbuilding center. It flourished for approximately six months in 1877. Situated nearly 150 miles from the nearest navigable waterway, the town’s location quickly became problematic for its numerous ship construction outfits, lured to the area by cheap labor and a surfeit of whores. Upon the completion of each new ship, attempts would be made to transport the vessel overland, each craft ultimately left to die a slow, weather-assaulted death in one of the area’s corn and wheat fields, except for those few upon which salvage rights by local farmers were successfully exercised. (45)
So, yeah: will I read other things by Mark Dunn? Maybe, or maybe I’ll just re-read Ella Minnow Pea. Will I be re-reading this book? Probably not. I did, however, enjoy the mention of the Boston Molasses Disaster.
An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec
Translated by Marc Lowenthal
Wakefield Press, 2010
March 24th, 2015
In October 1974, Georges Perec spent many hours over the course of three days (a Friday/Saturday/Sunday) sitting in cafés on the place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. This book, which was originally published in French in 1975, is the result. It’s divided into days, and into numbered sections within each day. Each day starts with the date, time, location, and weather, and then Perec goes on to write about what’s around him, focusing on “that which is not generally taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds” (3). The results are largely list-like, with some slightly more narrative passages interspersed; on my first reading of the book I found it choppy, but on a second read-through I somehow imagined the rhythm of this Parisian square better, and liked the book more. Perec starts writing about the things he sees, some of which are whole categories of things: letters/words (on signs, vehicles, clothing), symbols (the arrows on one-way signs), vehicles, people, trees, pigeons; he also notes things like the sky, and specifics like “lettuce (curly endive?) partially emerging from a shopping bag” (6).
He notes down buses and where they go and whether they’re full or empty; he notes down colors he sees (on people’s clothes, cars, umbrellas). He notes down the kinds of things people are holding (“a bag, a briefcase, a shopping bag, a cane, a leash with a dog at the end, a child’s hand”) and the “degrees of determination” with which people move (“waiting, sauntering, dawdling, wandering, going, running toward, rushing (toward a free taxi, for instance), seeking, idling about, hesitating, walking with determination”) (8, 10). He’s aware, of course, of the futility of trying to notice everything, but he still notes down what he’s failed to notice, like when he realizes that there are now two mopeds on the sidewalk where previously there were three. He writes about the differences between one day and the next, one moment and the next, one scene he observes and another: he writes about “micro-events” and “micro-accidents.” He writes about order and disorder, the buses with their schedules and routes as opposed to the people moving through the square who are following trajectories and logic of their own but who give an effect, to an outside observer, of the “random, improbable, anarchic” (22). There are flashes of humor (though this is also I suppose a statement about how little an observer can know about the scene being observed): “A little girl, flanked by her parents (or by her kidnappers) is weeping” (36).
I’ve been meaning to read this book for several years now, and was prompted to pick it up because someone else’s Goodreads review of another book I recently read said that other book was “like an ambulatory version” of this one. The other book (Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks/Two Talks) is set in New York, not Paris, and is more prose than list, and focuses on slightly different things than this book does, but there’s definitely a similar exploration of the everyday. (As Marc Lowenthal writes in his translator’s afterword, this book “was one of Perec’s clearer efforts to grapple with what he termed the “infraordinary”: the markings and manifestations of the everyday that consistently escape our attention as they compose the essence of our lives” (51).) So yes: a pleasing juxtaposition.
March 21st, 2015
My boyfriend checked this book, which is a catalog that accompanied a 2001/2002 Bill Watterson show at The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library, out of the library and thought it’d be fun to read together. I think he was a little surprised that I didn’t have a strong connection to Calvin and Hobbes from my childhood. I don’t know: I read the Sunday comics at my grandparents’ house, including Calvin and Hobbes, but Calvin was such a boy, and so active, and I was a girl, and bookish, and I wasn’t really into any comics, except for The Far Side. But reading comics together sounded like fun, so I agreed to make an exception to the TBR Double Dog Dare rules for this, and I’m glad I did. The book contains 36 Sunday Calvin and Hobbes strips from between 1985 and 1995, chosen by Bill Watterson, preceded by a short preface by the show’s curator and an introduction by Watterson himself. Each strip is presented twice on facing pages, once in the original black and white and once in the final colored version. Some strips include more commentary from Watterson, and it’s fun to see his thoughts on either individual comics or other things, like the challenge of making a Sunday comic that will be run in different sizes/formats by different papers. My favorite thing in the book is the “homicidal psycho jungle cat” strip from 1993, but I liked the whole thing. And oh, the neo-Cubist strip is also pretty great!