Lois Lowry’s “Anastasia” books are always solidly fun for me to read (or re-read): humorous realistic middle-grade fiction with some moments of nostalgia for late-twentieth-century New England. (In this one, Anastasia and her friends drink milkshakes at Friendly’s, and Anastasia gets her ears pierced at Jordan Marsh.) Anyway: this is also the one where Anastasia (who is 13) answers a personals ad in the New York Review of Books placed by a “SWM, 28” who has “boyish charm” and “inherited wealth” and is ” looking for tall young woman, nonsmoker, to share Caribbean vacations, reruns of Casablanca, and romance.” All of this sounds pretty good to Anastasia, though clearly she isn’t entirely thinking things through. As you can imagine, her (repeated) letters to this guy are quite funny, and have humorous/awkward consequences.

Meanwhile, Anastasia and her best friends have all decided to give up the “pursuit of boys” because surely there are better things they could be doing with their time. Anastasia feels guilty for not telling her friends that she is still pursuing a man, but she doesn’t have too long to feel bad: they’re all soon caught up in preparations for her friend Meredith’s sister’s wedding, at which Meredith, Anastasia, and their friends Daphne and Sonya are all going to be “junior bridesmaids”.

The two plot lines come together in a way that Anastasia definitely does not anticipate, and the whole thing is quite an entertaining romp. And it’s always fun to read about the interactions between Anastasia and her parents and her little brother Sam: at one point in this one Anastasia is dismayed at seeing her dad, an accomplished literature professor, “helping a three-year-old dig a tunnel through a potato as if it were the most important enterprise in the world.” (Another funny moment of dismay: Anastasia’s dad is appalled when her mom says this about War and Peace: “I only read the peace parts. I jumped from one peace part to the next. I never read the war parts.”)

A Tale for the Time Being is about lots of things: stories, and families, and memory, and history, and secrets, and time, and moments (zen and otherwise). It’s sometimes very heavy, but often very beautiful. Part of the novel is the diary of Nao, a teenage girl in Japan whose family lived in California when she was a kid but had to move back to Japan when her dad lost his job. And part of the novel is a narrative about Ruth, a writer living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, who finds Nao’s diary on the beach and is reading it and wondering how it ended up where it did. Nao is bullied in her Japanese school, and her dad is suicidal, and Ruth is mourning her own mother and dealing with writer’s block and wondering if Nao might have been killed in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, hence the heaviness. But also, Nao’s great-grandmother, Jiko, is a hundred-and-four-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who adds a lot of sweetness and light to the story (and to Nao’s life, when Nao spends a summer with her at the temple where she lives).

At the start of the book/the start of her diary, Nao, who’s sixteen when she’s writing, says she is a “time being,” which “is someone who lives in time,” which is to say “you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be” are all time beings (3). Throughout the book, Nao and Ruth both consider time: time passing, the perception of time passing, how much time is in a life. “I’m going to graduate from time,” Nao says, when she’s considering suicide herself (6). Then she amends it: “I’m going to drop out of time” (7). Nao considers what it means to waste time, and later learns about Proust and thinks about time lost, time regained. She describes Jiko as the only person she knows “who really understands time” (24). But she herself keeps moving through time, as we do, and meanwhile, comes into contact with pieces of the past: her great-grandmother’s story, and the story of her great-uncle Haruki, and, eventually, her dad’s story.

I like the way all these stories intersect, Nao’s stories and the stories of her family members and Ruth’s stories. “Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories,” Jiko says to Nao, at one point (246). I like the way the novel includes stories—continued narratives—and also moments. At one point there’s a discussion of how many moments are in a day, how many moments are in each snap of one’s fingers, per Dōgen Zenji, who lived in the 1200s. And in different ways, Nao and Ruth both end up thinking about all the little moments and all the little choices and all the little observations that make up an hour, a day, a life.

There’s so much good writing in this book—I really like Ozeki’s style. I like how Nao talks about telling Jiko about “all the little sounds and smells and colors and lights and advertising and people and fashions and newspaper headlines that make up the noisy ocean of Tokyo” (18), and how Ozeki captures some of that busy-city mood. And I love passages like the one where Nao talks about “the beauty of the plum and cherry blossoms along the avenues in Ueno Park”:

I spent whole days there, wandering up and down these long, soft tunnels of pink clouds and gazing overhead at the fluffy blossoms, all puffy and pink with little sparkles of sunlight and blue sky glinting between the bright green leaves. Time disappeared and it was like being born into the world all over again. Everything was perfect. When a breeze blew, petals rained down on my upturned face, and I stopped and gasped, stunned by the beauty and sadness. (332)

2020 Reading

January 3rd, 2021

Despite 2020 being a dumpster fire of a year, in general, it was not a bad reading year for me. I worked from home from mid-March onward, which meant I no longer had my normal subway commute as reading time. But I had time at home to read, and when libraries in NYC were closed I made the discovery that I actually enjoy reading ebooks on my phone. I also probably read more books from my own shelves than I otherwise would have, which is nice.

I read 38 books in total, with the breakdown as follows:

Middle-grade and YA: 11. Highlights: re-reading Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit: these are such comfort reads for me. Discovering Terrible, Horrible Edie by E.C. Spykman, which I loved in the same way I love Elizabeth Enright’s “Melendy” books or Jeanne Birdsall’s “Penderwicks” series. And speaking of Elizabeth Enright, I’m glad I finally read Gone-Away Lake: her writing is so so lovely. Oh, and I was totally engrossed by A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Non-fiction: 12, my favorites of which were definitely Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh; My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, and Mudlark by Lara Meiklem. I always love Brosh’s work, and the Durrell was very very funny and engaging, and I was totally into both the style and subject matter of Meiklem’s book.

Fiction for grown-ups: 13. I read some classics I’d been meaning to read (my favorite of which was Howards End by E.M. Forster) but my overall highlights of the year were all newer books: I loved the setting and strangeness of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and I really liked Summer by Ali Smith (both as a satisfying conclusion to her seasonal quartet, and also because I like Ali Smith a whole lot in general). I really liked Normal People by Sally Rooney, though not quite as much as I liked Conversations with Friends—but the immediacy and grace of Rooney’s prose is always excellent. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern was a great book to get lost in during an anxious springtime. And I thought Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor was very smart and a ton of fun.

Poetry: 2, both of which I liked, though I really liked Dime-Story Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic, for reasons of both style and substance.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

December 27th, 2020

When King of Shadows opens, it’s 1999 and we’re introduced to Nat Field, who’s in a company of all-male actors, ages 11-18, who are preparing to travel from the US to the UK to perform two Shakespeare plays in the newly-rebuilt Globe theatre. “We were going into a kind of time warp,” Nat thinks (6). Since this is a time-slip book, that turns out to be 100% true, though Nat doesn’t know it yet. Nat, whose parents are both dead, is a good actor, and theater is an escape for him: the company is a family, and he thinks of backstage as “our space, my space, a kind of home” (12). I like Nat’s first glimpse of 20th-century London: “Looking down from the airplane, you saw a sprawling city of red roofs and grey stone, scattered with green trees, with the River Thames winding through the middle crisscrossed by bridge after bridge.” (14). But en route to the Globe, things start to get weird: Nat has a “giddy feeling,” like the buildings are “moving, circling”; he hears “a snatch of bright music” and smells “the sweet scent of lilies” and then something else, something “that was not sweet at all but awful, disgusting, like a sewer” (21).

Later that night, Nat feels sick and falls into a feverish sleep; when he wakes the next morning he finds himself on a straw mattress in “another London, a London hundreds of years ago” (34). As it turns out, Nat is in 1599 in the place of another Nat Field—a boy who, like him, is to play Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe. (In this production, Nat soon learns, the part of Oberon will be played by Shakespeare himself!)

I found the scene-setting/Nat’s adjustments to his new situation to be alternately fun and clunky: it was fun to read about Nat getting a tumbling lesson and a fencing lesson in 1599, but some of the descriptions of Elizabethan London felt heavy-handed. Nat’s interactions with Shakespeare, though, are great: Nat is still reeling with grief from his father’s death, and Shakespeare comforts him, and it’s just the sweetest dynamic/I nearly cried several times. I also enjoyed the description of the 1599 performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—the costumes, the audience, and even the presence (unknown to most of the crowd) of the Queen herself.

Nat’s eventual return to the 20th century is hard for him, but I like that he’s consoled by poetry and by place—by reading a Shakespeare sonnet and by looking at “the River Thames, which flowed on fast and grey-green and unchanging, just as it had last week, just as it had four or forty centuries ago” (163).

The reading/event for this book that Allie Brosh did with Powell’s Books on Zoom was one of the best things that happened in September, but it took me until now to actually read the copy of the book that I’d purchased—I think I was saving it for Christmas vacation reading? Anyway: I am delighted to have read this and delighted that I bought a copy; I’m sure I will be rereading it in the future. It’s a mix of very funny life stuff and very serious life stuff (Brosh had a health crisis, lost her sister to suicide, and got divorced)—and while I didn’t love every single piece in the book, I really liked a lot of them. On the humorous side, Brosh’s childhood stories never fail to crack me up—the piece at the start of the book where she gets herself stuck in a bucket at age three made me laugh a lot, as did the second piece, “Richard,” which was just as good when I read it for myself as it was when she read it at the Zoom event. And, as always, one of the things I like best about Brosh’s work is how she writes about and draws animals—dogs especially, but cats and other animals too. There’s a great piece in which Brosh imagines how confused pets must be by human behavior, and multiple great pieces about particular pets, including a dog described as a “brown pile with no eyes” and a cat who has a complicated relationship with his favorite toy. Another highlight of the book for me was the piece called “Bananas,” about a particular fight that Brosh had with her now-ex husband, which perfectly captures the feeling of “that infinite loop where everything the other person does—no matter how innocuous it is—seems inflammatory.” And I really liked the last piece, about becoming friends with oneself.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

December 19th, 2020

Hard Times is about what happens when, as one character puts it, a person (or a society, for that matter) thinks that “the wisdom of the Head” is “all-sufficient” and doesn’t think at all about “the wisdom of the Heart” (222). The lesson—that trying to live by rational self-interest alone is not the best path to happiness— is not much of a surprise; the pleasure of the book is seeing how different characters arrive at that conclusion, or fail to arrive at it. At the start of the book we see Mr. Gradgrind and his children and the school where they’re educated: “Facts alone are wanted in life,” Gradgrind says. “Plant nothing else, and root out everything else” (11). This is quickly carried to absurd conclusions: you shouldn’t have wallpaper with horses on it, or carpets with flowers on them, because you shouldn’t “have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets” (16). Gradgrind won’t let his children read fairy tales or go to the circus; there’s no room in his life for anything fanciful, and there shouldn’t be any room for anything fanciful in anyone else’s life, either. And yet: he ends up taking a girl from the circus, Sissy, into his household; she helps his wife and becomes part of the family—and when things get difficult, it’s Sissy, of course, who’s capable of being both loving and practical, showing that the wisdom of the heart and the wisdom of the head can work together, even without an abundance of facts and figures.

Much of the book focuses on two of Gradgrind’s children, Tom and Louisa, both of whom have been educated to value reason above everything else, and neither of whom is particularly happy. Their stories intersect with the story of Stephen Blackpool, a mill-worker who ends up having professional troubles added to personal ones. There are melodramatic moments and heavy-handed moments, and I could have done without the phonetic representations of Stephen’s accent and another character’s lisp, but I was engaged enough with the story and setting that I didn’t mind too much. (The book is set in a fictional town called Coketown—”a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled” (30). The descriptions of the travails of the mill-owners there cracked me up but also seems far too relevant, still: “they were ruined when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.” (115-116))

Also too relevant: a schoolroom exchange from early in the book where a teacher says this: “Now this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this a prosperous nation, and an’t you in a thriving state?” (64) and a child later tells of her reply like this: “I thought I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine” (ibid.)

Continuing with the theme of “books I bought while traveling but hadn’t read yet”: when I opened my copy of Dime-Store Alchemy, I found the receipt and was reminded that I bought this at Dog Eared Books in San Francisco in December 2012. Nearly eight years after having bought it, I can say that I have now read it and am happy with my purchase. This slim volume consists of short pieces/prose poems about Joseph Cornell and his art and the larger context of his work. Some pieces of Simic’s writing are about specific pieces by Cornell, and the book contains color photos of those works, some of which I’ve seen in person and others of which I haven’t. Images and themes recur: dreams and daydreams and memories; labyrinths in general and New York City as a labyrinth in particular; secrets; chance juxtapositions, especially the chance juxtapositions of the city. “The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognized,” Simic writes (19), and the book proceeds by that logic. There are so many good images: “A white pigeon pecking on the marble steps of the library watched over by two stone lions” (5); “the chalk lines of hopscotch in the late afternoon sunlight and shadow” (36); “A phantom palace in a forest of bare trees, hoar frost and night” (54). (That last phrase is about one of Cornell’s boxes – “Untitled (Pink Palace)”.)

Simic writes about Cornell’s art and practice as being “divination by contemplation of surfaces” (26): it’s about finding “objects that belong together”; about walking (through the city) and looking to find those objects (14). I love this:

Early Sunday morning in June. It had rained after midnight, and the air and sky have miraculously cleared. The avenues are empty and the stores closed. A glimpse of things before anyone has seen them. (22)

And this, from a piece that also talks about “The Man of the Crowd” by Poe and the allure of people-watching, the mysteries of strangers:

I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind. (10)

And this, which Simic quotes from a journal entry of Cornell’s from January 24, 1947, about the view from the train to Penn Station from Queens:

Just before going under tunnel looked up at freight cars—the word Jane scrawled on a box-car in large letters, red with a touch of pink, then touches of primary colors mingling with a scene of men working on the tracks with a long crane mounted on a car. (8)

In that same journal entry, Cornell talks about taking the bus to 11th Avenue and 42nd Street: here is that intersection in 1940:, eighty years ago, seven years before that journal entry of Cornell’s. I walked through that intersection just this morning; in 1947 Cornell wrote about a cafeteria there, coffee and apple pie. He walked up 11th Avenue that day, like I did this morning; later today, I’ll walk to MoMA and pay a visit to Taglioni’s Jewel Casket and Untitled (Bébé Marie).

I bought a copy of My Family and Other Animals at Brattleboro Books in Vermont years ago, based (I think) on nothing more than the colorful cover. As is often the case with books I buy, it took me longer than intended to actually get around to reading it, but wow I’m glad I finally did. The book is set in Corfu, where the Durrells moved in the 1930s; it’s a mix of Gerald’s adventures observing the local flora and fauna and the family’s adventures in general, and it has a lot of laugh-out-loud funny moments. (So far I’ve only watched one episode of the PBS series “The Durrells in Corfu”, which seems fun in its own way, but very different from the book.) When the book isn’t funny, it’s often quite beautiful, with the kind of descriptive language about nature that’s on the edge of being too much but that really works for me. Here’s a description of summer in Bournemouth, just before the Durrells leave England:

July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. (3)

And here, in contrast, is Corfu:

The magnolia tree loomed vast over the house, its branches full of white blooms, like a hundred miniature reflections of the moon, and their thick, sweet scent hung over the veranda languorously, the scent that was an enchantment luring you out into the mysterious, moonlit countryside. (270)

Gerald, who’s ten when his family moves to Corfu, is fascinated by plants and animals, especially animals: he’s the kind of kid who can spend hours in the garden looking at insects, noticing how the spiders in the roses change color to match the flowers they’re on; he’s the kind of kind for whom finding an earwig’s nest is like “suddenly being given a wonderful present” (24). I loved reading about Gerald’s explorations of the island and its beaches and olive groves, and all the pets he acquires (starting with a tortoise who loves being fed grapes and a baby pigeon who moves differently to the waltzes and marches the family plays on the gramophone), and also about the general amusement of the family’s island life, from the Belgian consulate who keeps trying to speak to Gerald’s mother in French (she doesn’t speak French) to the giant party the family throws that’s disrupted by stray dogs trying to mate with Gerald’s mother’s dog, Dodo.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

November 11th, 2020

Piranesi (not his actual name) thinks of himself as the “Beloved Child of the House” where he lives: a house that is, as far as he can see, the entire world (163). It’s a strange world: Piranesi can walk from one gigantic room to another for miles upon miles and still only have traversed a small fraction of the space; the lower floors of the House are flooded, and the sound of the tides against the walls and staircases is a constant; aside from Piranesi and a man he calls “the Other,” the House is populated only by fish and birds and statues. But for Piranesi, it’s home: he gathers seaweed for snacks and for fuel; he catches fish for his meals; he records the tides and catalogs the statues and also helps the Other with his pet project: as Piranesi explains early in the book, “The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World” and he thinks that if they can only somehow find and unlock it, they’ll have “enormous powers” (8). Piranesi isn’t particularly interested in those theoretical powers, though, and it becomes clear pretty early on that there is more going on than the Other is telling Piranesi. The book, which unfolds as a series of entries from Piranesi’s journal, is the story of Piranesi’s days and also the story of the knowledge that he uncovers, quite separate from what the Other is trying to find.

I was pretty sure from the start that I was going to like this book a whole lot, and I was correct. I love that we’re reading Piranesi’s journal, and the way that things start slow and pick up in intensity as Piranesi learns new things about himself and the Other really works for me. And the writing is lush. I love passages like this:

It was the very depths of Winter. Snow was piled on the Steps of the Staircases. Every Statue in the Vestibules wore a cloak or hat or shroud of snow. Every Statue with an outstretched Arm (of which there are many) held an icicle like a dangling sword or else a fine line of icicles hung from the Arm as if it were sprouting feathers. (26)

Or this:

A lattice of wire was strung across the courtyard. Paper lanterns were hanging from the wires, spheres of vivid orange that blew and trembled in the snow and the thin wind; the sea-grey clouds raced across the sky and the orange lanterns shivered against them. (245)

There are so many lovely images and phrases throughout the book: “a Staircase that had become one vast bed of mussels”, or “a Wall ablaze with so much golden Light that the Statues appeared to be dissolving into it”, or someone who “wanted to go to university to study Death, Stars and Mathematics” (55, 56, 114).

Emma by Jane Austen

November 1st, 2020

I’m pretty sure I tried to read Emma in high school and didn’t get very far: I think I found it dull and put it down in a hurry. This second attempt at reading it was much more enjoyable, maybe in part because I saw Autumn de Wilde’s film adaptation of it earlier this year and felt better able to keep the characters straight because they were fairly fresh in my mind.

You probably already know the story: Emma is 21 and sheltered, and likes to think of herself as good at matchmaking. But as she tries to get people together, she oversteps in various ways, and learns the danger of trying to meddle with affairs of the heart, especially when you don’t even know your own desires.

What I like about Emma is how excellent the dialogue is, throughout, and how many very funny moments there are—especially around poor Miss Bates, someone’s spinster aunt who is forever rambling whenever she opens her mouth. Austen clearly had a keen eye for social interactions, and the way she captures moments between people—and the gaps between what people think and what they say/do—is great. Overall, though, Emma is not the kind of book I love best: I often read for setting and mood as much as for character and plot, and I’m a sucker for beautiful descriptive writing, which isn’t really Austen’s style.