I vividly remember the cover of the 1989 Puffin paperback edition of this book, which I suspect I checked out of the library multiple times. I’m not sure what made me think of it recently, but I decided it might be fun to re-read, and it was: I remembered parts of the story but had forgotten others, and there are definitely some things in this book that I find funny now that I wouldn’t have noticed as a kid. (Like this exchange: “If Mr. Kunkel’s father worked so hard for the business, he should have owned part of it, too,” “Tony said. “Young man, you know nothing about business,” Mr. Banks said uneasily. “What do they teach you at that school, anyway? Socialism?”)

Anyway: this is a silly/bonkers mystery where you very much have to suspend disbelief (there are so many coincidences in the way the paths of characters cross!) but if you aren’t looking for realism, it’s a fun romp. When the book opens we meet Caroline Carillon, née Fish, and her next-door neighbor, Leon. Her parents are tomato farmers; his are potato farmers; together they hit on the idea of “pomato soup,” which ends up making them a fortune. Caroline and Leon’s parents make them get married when she’s 5 and he’s 7 (because it’s the only way they can think of to settle their argument about what their soup should be called), but then Leon is sent to boarding school because their parents have decided to keep them apart until Leon is 21. Leon writes to Caroline every year on their wedding anniversary, then tells her to meet him at a hotel, once he’s 21. Things happen, and the reunion doesn’t go as Caroline was thinking it would. At the end of it, she wakes up in a hospital after a boat accident, and Leon—or rather, Noel (he changed his name while he was at school) is nowhere to be found.

Caroline’s quest to find Noel becomes all-consuming and decade-spanning, though she doesn’t have very much to go on. She decides, for example, to eat only at Chinese restaurants, because one of his anniversary messages said that he liked wonton soup. Along the way, she ends up adopting two eleven-year-old twins named Tina and Tony, and all of them try to figure out the mystery of the “glub-blubs” – which is the last thing she heard in the midst of the boat accident. I definitely liked the word game/puzzle aspect of this when I was a kid, and I still do—and I probably appreciate the now-vintage NYC setting for a big chunk of the book more than I ever did back then.

I’d been meaning to read this book since it came out in 2015, so when I found out that someone I know from work had chosen this for the first read of the new nonfiction book club he’s starting, I immediately put a hold on it at the library. (I love book clubs for either prompting me to try a book or genre I never would have picked up on my own, or else for pushing something I’d been vaguely meaning to check out to the top of my TBR list.) Though the book’s subtitle is “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” (and though consciousness is definitely touched on a bit), this is less a deep dive (ha ha) into philosophical or scientific questions of consciousness and more a story about the author’s experiences interacting with octopuses at the New England Aquarium and on dive trips to Cozumel and Mooréa. Not that I minded that: I loved the behind-the-scenes-at-the-aquarium aspect of this book, perhaps especially because the aquarium in question was probably the first aquarium I went to as a child: I definitely have fond memories of the Giant Ocean Tank and Myrtle the turtle.

There are octopus facts aplenty throughout the book: I didn’t know that octopuses have three hearts, or that “octopuses have a dominant eye, as people have dominant hands,” or that “octopuses can taste with their entire bodies” (though their sense of taste is “most exquisitely developed in their suckers”), or that “three fifths of octopuses’ neurons are not in the brain but in the arms,” or that octopus “chemoreceptors can pick up chemical information from a distance of at least 30 yards.” I hadn’t really thought about the texture of octopuses before (slimey: the author describes their slime as “sort of a cross between drool and snot. But in a nice way”); I knew they could change shape, color, and texture, but it was cool to read more about the details of that.

Over the course of the book, the author spends time with four different octopuses at the New England Aquarium (Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma) and with the aquarists and volunteers who take care of them. I liked reading about the efforts by staff and volunteers to keep octopuses stimulated/appropriately occupied, and the human-octopus interactions are often sweet and sometimes funny, like when Montgomery writes about a keeper dousing an octopus with fresh water to get her back in her tank, after which the octopus promptly douses the keeper with salt water in apparent retaliation. And I liked reading about the aquarium’s other creatures, from electric eels to arowanas to penguins to morays. The way that Montgomery writes about the many details of the aquarium—including some that the public doesn’t normally see—made me think of a Frederick Wiseman film, in a good way. I’d never really thought about all the tanks and spaces that are out of public view, or the logistical challenges of figuring out which creatures will live in which tanks, or what to do with new arrivals (speaking of new arrivals, the part where the author goes to the airport with aquarium staff to pick up one new arrival, which touches on the challenges of shipping live aquatic animals, was super interesting). And it was wild to think about the complexity of something like the Giant Ocean Tank renovation, which required temporarily relocating “four hundred and fifty animals of one hundred species,” amounting to “more than half the animals in the aquarium.” This book did not make me want to take up scuba diving, but it definitely made me want to visit the New England Aquarium again when I’m next in Boston, to revisit my childhood memories of that spiral ramp and to spend some time watching an octopus.

Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis

September 6th, 2023

I found Dykette an extremely cringe-inducing read, which I think is intentional. So do I think the book is successful as a novel? Yes. Did I enjoy reading it? Sometimes. Would I recommend it? I guess it depends on your feelings about gross-out performance art and “High-Femme Camp Antics.” (Personally, I think my tolerance for “High-Femme Camp Antics” in actual life is extremely low; my tolerance for them in fiction is only a little higher.)

But let me back up: I really like the premise of Dykette, which is mostly set over a ten-day period in late December 2019/early January 2020, with occasional flashbacks to earlier moments. The book centers around three butch/femme couples: Jesse and Sasha (who have been dating for a year), and Jesse’s best friend Lou and their girlfriend Darcy (whose relationship is newer) are in Hudson, NY, spending the holidays with Jules and Miranda, “their queer elders” (who have been together for five years). Jules is a Rachel Maddow-esque newscaster; Miranda is a licensed social worker. Jesse works as a set decorator for movies and TV shows; Sasha is getting her PhD in literature/gender studies. Lou runs a “design-oriented home goods shop in Bushwick”; Darcy is internet-famous and works “at a Lower East Side atelier called waïfhewn,” selling “waif-hewn pants and beaded purses for a couple hundred dollars apiece.” While they’re in Hudson, Jesse and Darcy are going to live-stream a performance piece from the backyard sauna; the performance piece is based on an essay Sasha wrote that made her mildly internet-famous, and Sasha is very jealous about this artistic collaboration. Oh, and Sasha’s emotional support pug, Vivienne, is spending the holidays in Hudson with them too.

All of which sounds like it could be super-funny—and sometimes it is. But also, Sasha is pretty insufferable in her bitchiness and neediness and jealousy, and the whole milieu of all these characters is very much not my scene. I don’t care about the suitcase of clothes Sasha has brought upstate, or the very impractical boots Darcy wears for a walk by Kaaterskill Falls, or Sasha’s skincare and make-up routine (which is described for almost a whole page); I have never watched an episode of Vanderpump Rules or Gossip Girl. At one point Sasha is described as someone who doesn’t “notice things like birds singing or the moon changing shape in the sky,” which I think is part of why I find her so unrelatable. Not that the point of a novel is necessarily to have relatable characters. But as far as friends-at-a-country-house books go, I liked Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends much more than I liked this one (and it was also filled with characters I didn’t relate to in various ways).

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

August 27th, 2023

The last two books I read before Pitch Dark were both narratively-straightforward romances—very different in style and from very different times, but they were both the kind of book where the central couple gets a happily-ever-after ending and the reader gets warm and fuzzy feelings. Pitch Dark is not that kind of book at all. Its narrator has been having a multi-year affair with a married man; the affair is ending, or has ended. We don’t really get the story of the affair but we get a sense of how it feels, to the narrator, to be the one who isn’t the wife, the one who spends holidays alone, the one who is tired of how her lover consumes her thoughts, the one who is thinking of “all the little steps and phases and maneuvers, stratagems, of trying to leave him now, without breaking my own heart, or maybe his, or scaring myself to death, or bounding back.”

The narrator thinks maybe travel is the thing: some time alone, somewhere by the sea. Orcas Island, or Ireland, or, as it turns out, both. But a change of scenery doesn’t always change one’s mental scenery, and in Ireland, in particular, the narrator has a weird time. She’s staying at a big old house that belongs to an ambassador she knows; no one on the house’s staff is particularly friendly or helpful; everything is a bit off.

Throughout the book there are bits of other stories and other moments, some repeated and elaborated, others not. I liked a lot of these fragments and vignettes, especially the ones with some humor. There’s this, about a literature class the narrator took in grad school: “Fairly late in the semester, when we were asked what our papers were going to be about, this young man said he wanted to write about the sound of corpses floating through literature. Oh, the professor said with some enthusiasm, after just a moment’s hesitation, you mean Ophelia. No, the young man replied, I want the sound of the sea.” Or this, from just after a story about a political figure who said “Clamsmen” instead of “Klansmen”: “I remember a young radical, in the sixties, denouncing her roommates as prawns of imperialism.”

I liked the last section of the book a lot, the way the narrator talks about law and the whole thing of legal precedent, and how in a trial, both lawyers are generally making the argument that the case before the court now is like some other case (and therefore should be decided in the same way), and how that’s different from fiction, where writers are often telling readers that this story is a new one, different from the rest (though of course there are literary precedents, too). But then what about the stories we tell about our own lives, to ourselves or to others? Earlier in the book there’s this: “Is it always the same story, then? Somebody loves and somebody doesn’t, or loves less, or loves someone else.”

I’m glad to have read Pitch Dark at last, having been meaning to read it for, um, ten years now. I found the actual reading experience alternately a delight and a slog, but I also find myself, two days after having finished the book, thinking about it a bunch, and wondering if I’ll re-read it in the future.

The Nanny by Lana Ferguson

August 19th, 2023

This was a book club read for me, and I wasn’t necessarily expecting to like it as much as I did. I mean – bonking the nanny is such a stereotypical trope, and even with the twist (this nanny used to perform on OnlyFans, and her new employer turns out to have been someone she interacted with there—a lot) I wasn’t sure the DILF trope was going to be my thing. But the combination of sweetness and spice in the story worked for me. Cassie, the nanny, is working her way through grad school; Aiden, the dad, is an executive chef who’s new to full-time parenthood (his daughter is nine, but she’d spent more time with her mom and aunt – until her mom’s sudden death the year before the book opens). Cassie and Aiden are both immediately attracted to each other but try to tamp their attraction down—neither wants the other to see them as creepy—but there’s a lot of tension, which only gets worse when Cassie realizes that Aiden was one of her OnlyFans subscribers. And not just any subscriber, but one she’d done private shows for, and one she was falling for … until he ghosted her at a planned in-person meeting. Cassie freaks out and decides she can’t let him find out who she is, but this gets harder once they confess their mutual attraction and start getting it on. Drama of various kinds ensues, until Cassie gets some sense talked into her by Wanda (her 72-year-old friend/former neighbor/mom figure—she’s estranged from her own parents).

I like the way we get some chapters from Aiden’s POV interspersed with the chapters from Cassie’s, and I like the way their OnlyFans history is worked into the book in the form of screenshots showing their past exchanges on the site. There were a few typos and some clunky spots that could have benefited from closer attention from a copy editor, but overall this was a really quick and fun read for me.

At the start of The Blue Castle we meet Valancy Stirling, who’s 29 and single, in a time and place “where the unmarried are simply those who have failed to get a man.” Her family looks down on her because of her timid nature and her “hopeless old maidenhood” and her lack of conventional good looks; her home life is rigid and dull, thanks to her strict mother and cousin, neither of whom has any conception of Valancy’s inner life. (Representative sentiment: “People who wanted to be alone, so Mrs. Frederick Stirling and Cousin Stickles believed, could only want to be alone for some sinister purpose.”) Valancy isn’t allowed to read novels, and the nature books she loves by her favorite author, John Foster, are only just barely allowed. But then Valancy gets some news that changes how she feels and how she acts, much to her family’s shock and dismay.

Without getting too much into the plot and its twists (some of which I saw coming, and others of which I did not) I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I like Valancy’s late-blooming determination, and I like the moments of humor (especially the ones involving Valancy’s many horrible/annoying relatives), and I like the romantic elements, and I especially like the descriptions of the natural world and the way the landscape changes with the seasons: I like that Valancy gets to have boat rides and snow-shoes and ice skates. “December. Early snows and Orion. The pale fires of the Milky Way.” Or: “the evanescent beauty of wild young trees in early leaf; frost-like loveliness of the new foliage of juniper trees; the woods putting on a fashion of spring flowers, dainty, spiritual things akin to the soul of the wilderness; red mist on the maples.”

Roger Gard’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Red and the Black describes the book as “a thrilling double love story” and also as “satirical and sharp,” a “picture of corruption, grossness, illiberality and deceit in municipality, Church and state” and of “a tottering reactionary monarchy.” All of which I maybe would have appreciated more if I knew more about the politics of the era. I mean, I get it: our young peasant hero/anti-hero, Julien Sorel, reveres Napoleon; his employers, first in the countryside and then in Paris, do not. Meanwhile, two very different rich ladies are bored by the men of their own class and attracted to Julien’s delicate good looks. Julien, who is ambitious, laments the fact that it’s no longer the time of Napoleon: he thinks he would have been a soldier and made his fortune that way; now the path to success seems to be through priesthood, despite “his perfect lack of belief,” and with some echoes of/references to Tartuffe.

Honestly, I found this to be slow-going, though maybe I read it at the wrong time: I would say any book with end-notes is probably not a beach read, and yet the beach is where I found myself reading a whole lot of The Red and the Black. I liked certain things about the book, especially the humorous parts, like the descriptions of small-town life and small-town politics near the beginning, or the part where Julien sends love letters that are just copied from someone else but forgets to change a reference to “London” to “Paris,” leaving the recipient a little confused. And I liked aspects of the “double love story” mentioned in the introduction, though other aspects (like the misalignment in affection between Julien and his second love interest, where he’s most interested when she’s not and vice versa) got a bit tedious.

This book, which is the sequel to Keeper of Enchanted Rooms, was perfect for my current reading mood: I wanted something plot-driven that would keep my attention and distract me from some minor physical annoyances (the end of a case of poison sumac, plus some kind of blepharitis) and it did its job admirably. We pick up in early November, 1846, with Hulda Larkin and Merritt Fernsby both having to deal with the aftermath of various events from the last book. It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers for that one, so maybe stop reading if you haven’t read that one yet and think you might.

Anyway: Merritt is overwhelmed and exhausted by his experience of his newfound magical powers, and Hulda is worried about the future of her workplace, BIKER (the Boston Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms) since its former director/her former supervisor has resigned and disappeared. When three staff members arrive from LIKER (which is BIKER’s London equivalent), things get more complicated still: Hulda is trying to find her old boss and also keep her old boss’s secrets, while also hoping she’ll get tapped to be BIKER’s next director. Meanwhile, back at Whimbrel House with Merritt, Owein (the dead boy-wizard whose spirit was in the house itself in the last book) is now inhabiting the body of a dog, which has its challenges as well as its delights. Oh, and Merritt is also coming to terms with some new knowledge about his family, which prompts him to take a trip back to his hometown. And, as in the last book, Merritt and Hulda are also in the midst of a growing romance, so there’s that plot thread too.

Highlights of the book for me: the romance, which is pretty sweet, and Owein, who is even more excellent in dog form than he was in house form.

Minor quibbles: there’s a whole scene where Hulda uses her “dousing rods”—surely that should be “dowsing”? And at the end of the book, when Merritt gets a letter with his sisters’ mailing addresses in it, the addresses are given with ZIP codes … which weren’t introduced until 1963 in our world, and it’s 1846 here, and I see no reason that they would have been introduced sooner in this world.

At the start of Journey to the Centre of the Earth we meet Axel, our narrator, who’s in his late teens at the point when the story opens in Hamburg in May 1863. His parents are dead, and in the “dual capacity of nephew and orphan” he lives with his uncle, one Professor Lidenbrock, and works as his lab assistant. Lidenbrock, who is described on the first page of the book as “the most impatient of men,” is a mineralogist who also collects old books, and it’s from one of those old books that the plot arises. Lidenbrock shows Axel a Runic manuscript he’s just bought, a book from Iceland that’s seven hundred years old, and while they’re looking at it, a piece of parchment—also in runes, and apparently in code—falls to the floor. It’s this piece of parchment and what it says that prompts Lidenbrock to start preparing, with the greatest haste, for a trip to Iceland. But Iceland isn’t the point of the trip, as Axel tries to explain to Martha (his uncle’s long-suffering cook/maid) in this hilarious passage:

‘Is the Master out of his mind?’ she asked me.
I nodded.
‘And he’s taking you with him?’
I nodded again.
‘Where?’ she asked.
I pointed towards the centre of the earth.
‘Into the cellar?’ exclaimed the old servant.
‘No,’ I said, ‘farther down than that.’

So, right: Axel and his uncle set off to Reykjavik by way of Copenhagen, and Axel is convinced that they’ll never make it home alive: isn’t the center of the earth much too hot to visit? And won’t it be terribly perilous even to try? Indeed, Axel and his uncle both have their trials before they even get to Iceland: Axel is afraid of heights, so his uncle makes him climb the narrow stairs up the outside of a church spire, one day after the next. “You must take lessons in abysses,” Lidenbrock says, and Axel doesn’t really have a choice. Lidenbrock, meanwhile, gets terribly seasick, which makes the ten-day boat-ride to Iceland extremely unpleasant for him. But they get to Iceland, and get themselves a guide, and set off. Axel describes the landscape as they approach their destination as “profoundly dismal” and worries that the volcano into whose cone they’re planning to descend might not be extinct at all. His uncle assures him that the volcano is definitely not going to explode imminently, and Axel lets himself be convinced.

Without going into the details of the rest of the journey, it is rather perilous, but it’s also, as Diana Wynne Jones puts it in the introduction to the edition I read, “a thoroughly exciting adventure story.” And while some aspects of the plot feel silly now, I’m still glad I read this—though I kind of wish I’d read it in French rather than in an English translation.

At Home by Bill Bryson

June 3rd, 2023

At Home feels much more sprawling than the title might suggest—more sprawling, even, than the old parsonage in which Bill Bryson lives and from which the book takes its structure. Bryson is theoretically going room by room through the parsonage and describing the history of that sort of room (the kitchen, or the drawing room, or the dining room) or some of the objects it contains, but really he’s looking at the “history of private life,” as the subtitle puts it—though even that is a bit misleadingly narrow, as lots of interesting history of various public spheres finds its way into the book too. I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s conversational tone and its humor, and had lots of fun relating interesting facts and anecdotes from just about every chapter to my husband and various friends. Though Bryson says that the book “mostly concentrates on the events of the last 150 years or so,” i.e. the mid-1800s on (partly because that’s when the parsonage was built), it reaches much farther back than that in multiple chapters, for example in in discussions of the Neolithic houses of Skara Brae (which were unearthed by a storm in 1850) or the clothes worn by Ötzi, a man from the late Neolithic whose body was found by hikers in 1991. There were some things I knew about already (like cholera epidemics and how Joseph Bazalgette rebuilt London’s sewer system) but a lot of things I had never really considered (like: how dining tables were originally boards that were “perched on the diners’ knees when food was served”, or how smoky the upper reaches of people’s houses in England would have been in the days before chimneys/when homes just had a central open hearth—Bryson points out that once chimneys were in the picture, people could then “lay boards across the beams and create a whole new world upstairs”). There were so many interesting parts of this book that I can’t list them all, but other highlights for me included the part about laundry (which was a whole lot of work for a whole lot of servants) and the part about electricity and various forms of illumination used before electricity and the incandescent light bulb were widespread.