24 Hours by Margaret Mahy

October 12th, 2020

24 Hours follows Ellis, who’s 17 and just back from boarding school, over the course of a day-long period that turns out to have a lot more adventure and drama in it than expected. When Ellis runs into a former classmate (Jackie, who’s a little older, but isn’t a university student and doesn’t have a steady job) he figures they’ll just have a beer and go their separate ways. But Jackie talks Ellis into driving him to a party, where conflict ensues, which leads to a much bigger and more dramatic conflict that Ellis finds himself involved in as well. Meanwhile, Ellis (who wants to be an actor) finds himself thinking about Shakespeare and mortality (his best friend, Simon, killed himself a few months before) as the book’s events unfold.

For a pretty short book, there’s a lot going on in this one, plot-wise. After going to the party with Jackie, Ellis also meets three sisters (Ursa, Leona, and Fox) who all live in a rundown former motel with their former guardian; Jackie hangs out at the motel (which is called the Land of Smiles) too, and Ellis ends up at another party there, moving in adult social circles that are very different from the ones he knows from his financially-comfortable family. At the same time, it feels like for a lot of the book, we don’t know any of the characters that well: we’re thrust with Ellis from one odd situation to another, and I found the book’s pacing slightly strange.

That said, by the final portion of the book, I was cheering Ellis and Jackie and Leona and Ursa on, and eager to see how the ending of the book would unfold. And there are some satisfying moments and passages earlier in the book, too. I like how at the first party, there are musicians playing Vivaldi, and Ellis recognizes the tune from a car commercial while Jackie knows the composer and moans about how the music is “so beautiful” but is so over-played that it’s “become its own sort of joke” (25). And I like various descriptions: I like how Ellis takes in the neighborhood around the Land of Smiles like this: “All around him lay a country of rust and graffitied fences” (90). Later, Ellis finds himself on top of a building, “looking down on an expanse of roofs, a geography of corrugated iron” (168). And I like how Jackie describes a large portrait painted on a wall as being by an art student who “thought art should be out and about—everyone living with it whenever they walked to the shop to buy bread” (96).

Also pleasing: I learned that Margaret Mahy got a tattoo when she was 62 because a character in this book gets a tattoo and she wanted to write about it convincingly.

I’ve never read any of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels, and I basically only read this book because my boyfriend checked it out from the library and read enough passages from it to me to make me intrigued about the book as a whole. I am not at all sure that I want to read any of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels, and I’m not sure how much overlap there is between his taste in books and mine, but I nevertheless enjoyed this collection of essays that’s a very readable mix of memoir and writing advice, with stories of Palahniuk’s experiences from book tours interspersed with advice on technique and recommendations of fiction and nonfiction to read. “This book is, in a way, a scrapbook of my writing life,” Palahniuk writes in the introduction, and the way it combines lots of different things, scrapbook-style, is part of what I find appealing about it (xvi).

I was more reading this book for the memoir/personal history aspect than the writing advice aspect of it, though as a reader I can thoroughly get behind this recommendation: “To add new texture to any story never hesitate to insert a list” (22). Yes! Lists in fiction! I am so into them! I don’t share Palahniuk’s dislike of “unattributed speech,” though (12). And there are a few places in the book where he talks negatively about “gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive,” which I don’t have a problem with: there are definitely times I am happy to read for language, mood, or setting as much or more than for plot (192). I like his emphasis on paying attention, though: as he puts it, “You never know when you’ll encounter the remarkable idea, image, remark”—he talks about walking past a construction site and hearing a bricklayer call out to the guy delivering buckets of mortar, “Dude, I love the way you keep the mud alive,” which is totally great (130). And I appreciate his point that “our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental”—so you shouldn’t necessarily have to tone down fiction to make it “believable” (186).

Also: two stories near the end of the book about wild experiences, one in London and one in Paris, are so great that I couldn’t put the book down even though it was bedtime when I got to them. I brushed my teeth, started making my way toward the bedroom, then changed my mind and sat on the floor in the hallway to finish reading, because I couldn’t imagine waiting ’til morning. So I guess Palahniuk can give advice about engaging writing.

At the start of this book, which is set in the summer of 1968, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern Gaither (who are eleven, nine, and seven) are on their first airplane ride: they’re en route to visit their mother in California. Their mom, Cecile, left them when Delphine was only four and Fern was only a baby; she lives in Oakland now and the kids are going to spend four weeks with her. They have visions of an exciting summer vacation: trips to the beach, or to Disneyland. The reality of their trip is different: Cecile (who now goes by Nzila) is no more interested in motherhood now than she was before; she’s prickly and private and hardly wants to see her daughters. She initially won’t even let them in her kitchen (where she has a printing press); they eat take-out food off paper plates until Delphine insists on cooking proper meals. The day after the kids arrive, Nzila sends them to the People’s Center for breakfast, after which they stick around for the Black Panthers summer camp so they won’t be in her way. “We didn’t come for the revolution. We came for breakfast,” Vonetta says, that first day, but the girls keep going back, and they learn about Huey Newton and Bobby Hutton, about their “rights as citizens and how to protect those rights when dealing with the police,” about the Delano grape strike and solidarity with farm workers, and more.

Though Delphine initially feels like there’s “nothing and no one in all of Oakland to like,” the girls do end up making friends at the People’s Center, and they end up liking Oakland, too. After a day trip to San Francisco involving fun stuff (dumplings in Chinatown! a fortune cookie factory! a cable car ride!) and less fun stuff (being stared at by European tourists and glared at by a wary shopkeeper), Delphine thinks about how it feels good to be back in Oakland, where “no one stared, unless they were staring because they didn’t like your shoes or your hairstyle. Not because you were black or they thought you were stealing.”

The book is narrated by Delphine, and her voice and perspective carry the story: she’s the oldest sister and is used to keeping her sisters in line and everything in order: she knows how to make a chicken dinner from scratch and when and how to break up Vonetta and Fern’s squabbles. “I anchored myself and my sisters as best as I could to brace us for whatever came next,” she says, about the bumpy plane ride at the book’s beginning, but that’s her general approach to life. She’s so busy watching out for her sisters that she doesn’t much think about her own wants and needs—and part of the arc of the book is her realizing she actually has wants of her own, her starting to notice her needs and pay attention to her feelings.

Summer by Ali Smith

September 21st, 2020

“I wanted to send you an open horizon,” one character writes to another in this book (121). They’ve never met; they may never meet. The character doing the writing is a teenager who is 1) worried about climate change, 2) protective of and infuriated by her sometimes-difficult/provocative younger brother, and 3) dealing with life in England in 2020, with Brexit and COVID-19 and lockdown and remote schooling. The recipient of the letter is an immigrant, probably/possibly still in a detention center, though Sacha, the letter-writer, doesn’t know for sure. She writes, anyway: about the arrival of the swifts in England as the start of every summer, about how “if you were to open a swift, metaphorically of course, the rolled-up message they carry inside them is the unfurled word SUMMER” (119). Summer is that open horizon, at least in imagination or memory, though summer is also heat and stink; another character thinks about how “the whole season is like the smell round a garbage truck as it moves through the city and like you’re stuck on a bike behind it going way too slowly down a too-narrow street” (100). It’s “the briefest and slipperiest of the seasons,” the one that “won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called perfect or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed” (290).

In Summer, characters and themes from the prior three books in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet recur: there is a lot about family, and memory, and art; we get wordplay and arguments and news clips and politics. And connection, by chance or by choice. Late in the book, a different character talks about having “a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always the choice we’ve got” (364). So: summer, the sky wide, birds and stars overhead: possibility, even amidst everything.

Mudlark by Lara Maiklem

September 9th, 2020

When I read about Mudlark in the New Yorker, I immediately knew I wanted to read it: a memoir about finding stuff in the mud along the Thames foreshore? Yes please! And now that I’ve read it, I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it as much as I expected to, which is to say, a whole lot. In Mudlark Lara Maiklem writes about the tidal Thames from west to east, talking about her own experiences finding things along the Thames and also talking about her own personal history and family history, and about history more generally. She talks about things she’s found and things others have found, and about how those found objects are glimpses into the era in which they were made and used. Some of the riverine history in this book was familiar to me, but it was still enjoyable (I will always love reading about/thinking about the “frost fairs” held when the Thames in central London froze over completely), and there was some new-to-me stuff as well—I don’t think I knew there was a manmade beach by the Tower of London until 1971, and I didn’t know about the annual draw off of the river either, when one set of weirs/locks is left open while another set is closed, to “allow the stretch of water between them to rise and fall naturally with the tides,” which exposes a whole lot of riverbed. And it was cool to read the story of Doves Type, which I didn’t know at all.

I really like the way Maiklem writes, the way she captures the sounds/sights/smells of the landscapes she’s moving through, whether that’s the train ride she takes at the very beginning of the book (“There is an unwritten rule of silence on the early-morning London commute and barely a murmur can be heard, just the rustle of newspapers and the high-pitched squeal of the rails as we lurch and sway towards the city”) or the foreshore at Rotherhithe (“The bones of old ships, river-slimed and rotting, lie exposed on top of the mud and emerge from the shingle and sand”). The river, even in the middle of the city, is “a wild brooding place with a wide-open sky”, and Maiklem describes Tilbury like this: “This Essex stretch of the Thames is a strange, ugly-beautiful place of industrial sprawl and tangled electricity pylons against wide skies that can quickly lower and turn angry.”

Also pleasing are all the descriptions of the things Maiklem and others have found in the Thames: clay pipes, glass bottles, bottle stoppers, coins, rings, hazelnuts preserved in peat, bones, toys, pieces of terracotta “from a Roman central heating system”, Tudor money boxes from theatres, old leather shoes or pieces of them, a pocket sundial, pins, “pewter medieval pilgrim badges,” bricks, “a compressed lump of eighty-year-old newspaper, sodden and yellowed, but still readable,” and more.

I’ve made a point of walking along the Thames at least a little bit on most if not all of my trips to London, and it was super-fun to read about places I’ve been to or walked past, from the foreshore down the steps just next to the Tate Modern to the Thames Barrier to the hill by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the view from which Maiklem describes like this: “From the top of the hill, I could see the old and the new layered over each other, Wren’s Royal Naval College underlining the towers of Canary Wharf in the distance, and—just—the long, lazy loop of the river meandering its way around the Isle of Dogs.” Reading the book made me want to look back at pictures I’ve taken in London: the Thames foreshore, the Thames Barrier, some barrels, wet stones on the foreshore, Wapping Old Stairs, The Prospect of Whitby (which Maiklem mentions in the book), another foreshore view, the view from that hill in Greenwich.

Gone-Away Lake is such a great summer read, with the same kind of vacation-delight feeling as books like Jeanne Birdsall’s “Penderwicks” series, though Gone-Away Lake predates those by several decades. Portia and her younger brother Foster always go to visit their cousin Julian and their Aunt Hilda and Uncle Jake in the summertime, but the summer in which this book takes place is different: Hilda and Jake and Julian have moved from a rented house in a small town to their own place that’s deeper in the countryside. This is exciting for everyone, especially for Julian, who loves catching caterpillars and butterflies and exploring in the woods. One day while Portia and Julian are exploring together, they find a swamp that used to be a lake, lined with falling-down houses that used to be vacation homes. But not all of the houses are totally in disrepair, and two of them, it turns out, actually have people living in them: Portia and Julian meet Minnehaha (Min) and Pindar (Pin), a pair of elderly siblings whose family used to summer there back when it was a lake called Tarrigo, before the building of a dam in 1903 started turning it into a swamp. The book is about the everyday summer experiences of the kids and their new friends, with some stories of summers past (from when Min and Pin were children) thrown in for good measure; there isn’t a ton of conflict or excitement, though there are a few moments of adventure/danger, but it’s all beautifully described. I love how Elizabeth Enright describes the natural world—flowers and birds and summer light, and also how she describes the details of the houses and their contents (old rugs and old dolls, a moth-eaten stuffed moose head, and more): I love sentences and phrases like this:

The hedges are tree-high by now and all bound up with honeysuckle and poison ivy and wild grape. (46)

Or this:

So the month moved slowly in all its gold toward September. (213)

Or this:

The trees and thickets whistled with starlings, and swallows arranged themselves on telegraph wires like the notes in a stave of difficult music. (222)

I also love Beth and Joe Krush’s illustrations, whether they’re of an overstuffed living room or the lush plant-life of the swamp.

Although I went to a Quaker high school that had Silent Meeting every week, and although I’ve had a few periods of sporadically attending meeting for worship at Brooklyn Monthly Meeting as an adult, before reading this book I didn’t know much about the history of Quakerism, or about current Quaker practice in areas other than New York/New England/Pennsylvania. I could have told you that George Fox is considered Quakerism’s founder, and that Quakerism started in England, but I couldn’t have told you much beyond that. I didn’t even know that Friends today come in Evangelical, Conservative, and Liberal varieties, with the Evangelical ones being far more numerous globally. (Evangelical Quakers are Christian, with pastors and “programmed” worship that involves silence but also may involve preaching and singing; Conservative Quakers are Christian but with “unprogrammed” worship centered on silence, speaking if moved by God; Liberal Quakers, which are the kind I knew about, may or may not be Christian, and also have “unprogrammed” worship centered on silence, speaking if moved by what Dandelion at one point in the book calls “God, or ‘God’, or not-God-but” (107).)

This book is fairly dry, but it covers a lot of ground despite its short length and I definitely feel like I know more about Quakerism than I did before. I found the chapter on ecumenism less interesting than the others, but I like how Dandelion quotes from various primary sources, including George Fox’s journals and letters, and how he traces different strains of Quaker belief, theology, and practice from the 1600s through to the 21st century.

This second installment in the “Thursday Next” series is as fun and funny as the first, and I was delighted to read about Thursday’s continued adventures. In this one, there’s a found Shakespeare play, a lost husband, and several near-death experiences, as well as time travel, travel into various books, and an all-too-brief reappearance of Spike, Swindon’s SpecOps agent dealing with vampires, werewolves, and the undead in general. And in this one, Thursday learns about the world of Jurisfiction: agents focused on protecting literary integrity, much like her own LiteraTec SpecOps division, but from within books rather than outside them. There’s a lot of great detail to do with that side of the plot: Miss Havisham and the Cheshire Cat make appearances, and footnotes figure as a means of communication; Thursday even has an appointment in a Kafka work. There’s great detail in general, actually: at one point Thursday’s at an art exhibition and sees “a model of a matchstick made entirely out of bits of the houses of Parliament” (236), which totally cracks me up. Also: I love Thursday’s whole family, especially her dad but also her uncle and brother and grandma—the latter of whom is 108 years old and at one point explains that she “got mixed up with some oddness” when she was young and “can’t shuffle off this mortal coil” until she’s “read the ten most boring classics” (134)—the only problem being that she can’t figure out which ones they are.

Until recently I’d never heard of Johnny Gruelle (who created Raggedy Ann) or The Magical Land of Noom, but this kids’ book from 1922 was a cute/fun read. At the start, we meet Johnny and his sister Janey, who decide to use the boards left over from the chicken coop their grandfather just built to make themselves a Flying Machine so they can pretend to fly to the Moon. Except the machine somehow actually takes flight, and they somehow actually land on the Moon, which turns out to be a magical place with lemonade springs and giant mushrooms that taste like cake. The kids soon cross paths with a magician, though, and find themselves in a (literal) bind. Luckily their grandparents, having seen them fly off, decide to make a Flying Machine of their own to come after them, so they’re able to help the kids out. Except now they’re all on the Moon and the magician’s threatening to turn them all into animals. They proceed from one adventure/scrape to the next, meeting various characters as they try to make their way to the city of Nite, where they’ve heard there’s someone who can help them get home.

While the characters feel more slight to me than those in other kids’ books I like more, I did have fun reading this: the episodic nature of the story kept me interested in what was coming next. There are pleasing little details, like when the characters are attacked by flying boxing gloves, or when they catch fish that end up tasting like other foods entirely when they’re cooked, or when a storm turns out to be a rain of ink. And I like Gruelle’s illustrations a whole lot. (Here are four of my favorites: 1, 2, 3, 4)

Near the start of In the City, Colette Brooks wonders: “What kind of a person is a city person?” and then offers her own answer: “One possibility: the kind of person who doesn’t feel the need to finish a jigsaw puzzle, who relishes jagged edges and orphaned curves, stray bits of data, pieces of stories parsed from sentences half overheard on the street” (2). Well. I’m not so sure about the first part of that, but the end, yes. I think she offers another answer near the end of the book, when she says this: “I suspect that I could collect these strands forever, link one discrete element to another, and still it would seem incomplete. There would always be something else to remark upon, something else to say” (106). I mean: maybe anyone feels that way about the landscape they love best, but a city person is someone who feels that about the built urban environment and its history and all the many lives and stories and secrets it contains. Another answer, maybe: you know you’re a city person when you think about the city where you live and, as Brooks puts it, “you simply cannot conceive of your life having worked out in any other way” (9).

I really like the associative way this book proceeds from topic to topic, and the way it mixes the personal and the historical. It’s a little about cities in general and a lot about New York in particular and a little bit about other specific cities, too (there’s a trip to Brazil that figures in the narrative); not surprisingly, I especially like the bits of NYC history and descriptions of NYC moments and scenery. Early in the book Brooks talks about seeing the Statue of Liberty from what I’m pretty sure is the F train—not that she names either the statue or the train line, but I remember how much I loved that stretch of my commute for the ten years I lived off that train line, the moments between when the train comes aboveground after Carroll Street and when it goes back underground after 4th Avenue. Other NYC things in this book I love: a discussion of what people are reading on the subway, a section about lost & found posters, bits of overheard conversations, a description of the Panorama of the City of New York in the Queens Museum, a bit about the The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 that laid out the street grid. And, though this is from one of the sections in the book about Brazil, I love this: the idea that any city is many individual cities, all “constructed from scraps of memory and invention” (64).