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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring by Ali Smith

May 20th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At first, I was worried that Conversations with Friends was going to be the kind of novel where a) cheating is a plot point but b) no one ever considers the possibility of non-monogamy. I’m happy to report that it is not that kind of novel, and also happy to report that it’s really really good. This book was a delight to read from the start, even with my initial misgivings about cheating-as-plot-point. It’s narrated in the first person by Frances, a 21-year-old university student in Dublin, and it’s about her best friend Bobbi (who’s also her ex-girlfriend), their new mutual friend Melissa (a writer and photographer who sees them perform spoken-word poetry together and says she wants to do a profile of them), and Melissa’s husband, Nick, an actor who’s been having a tough time with himself/in his marriage. Melissa and Nick are a bit older than Frances and Bobbi (Melissa is 37; Nick is 32), and their moneyed/married life is something that both attracts and repels Frances (whom Bobbi describes as a communist, and who talks about not wanting to work for money). Frances’s voice is a lot of what carries the book, but it’s not just her voice: I like the way that the narrative includes IM conversations or texts and emails, the way that it’s full of the exchanges of Frances’s daily life, in whatever format, as well as her thoughts and feelings. I like the book’s sense of humor, too, and the way that it captures things people do—looking at Facebook videos, looking for more information about new friends/acquaintances, looking back at past conversations. (About Melissa, shortly after meeting her and Nick, Frances thinks this: “I didn’t know how long she had been married to Nick. Neither of them was famous enough for that kind of information to be online” (12).)

A lot of the book ends up being about Frances’s feelings for/relationship with Nick, though it’s also about her friendship/relationship with Bobbi, and her identity as a writer, and her family, and families/relationships/friendships in general, and being young and not knowing what to do and figuring things out as you go along. Frances is difficult/prickly/endearing: she’s smart and independent and uncomfortable with emotion and vulnerability, and I love her voice/the tone of the narration, the way there are lyrical moments that are beautiful without being too ostentatious. I love sentences like this: “A bumblebee flew through the open window and cast a comma of a shadow on the wallpaper before flying out again” (98). Or this: “We were driving along by the harbor, where the ships implied themselves as concepts behind the fog” (132). Or this: “I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document that we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke that nobody else could understand” (178). Or this: “Lights sparkled on the river and buses ran past like boxes of light, carrying faces in the windows” (252).

In an Absent Dream is the fourth book in Seanan McGuire’s “Wayward Children” series, and gives us the backstory of Lundy, a character from the first book. Lundy, like the other characters in this series, goes through a magic portal to another world when she’s a child. The world she goes to is the Goblin Market, and she can actually keep going back and forth between it and our world—until she turns eighteen. When the book opens, it’s 1964 and Lundy (full name: Katherine Victoria Lundy) is eight, though we also see a scene from a few years earlier, when she turned six. She has an older brother and a younger sister, and her parents are fine, though her dad’s job as the principal of the elementary school she attends makes things hard for her: no one wants to be friends with the principal’s daughter. But Lundy is happy to entertain herself: she’s a bookish kid, fine with her own company or that of adults. At the start of summer vacation when she’s in second grade, though, something happens: she’s walking home, lost in a book, and ends up in the woods instead of in her neighborhood. She knows where she is/it’s a path she’s been on before—but now there’s a tree in the middle of the path that definitely wasn’t there before. And in the tree is a door, carved with images of fruit and the words “Be Sure.” When she goes through the door, there’s a hallway, which introduces her to the Goblin Market’s rules, and then she emerges into the Market itself, a place full of human and non-human creatures that feels like “a carnival and a farmer’s market and a craft fair” all at once (41).

At the Market, Lundy meets a girl her age, who says to call her Moon, and who says she’ll take her to the Archivist, who will explain the Market’s rules. The Market, it turns out, is based on barter and the idea of “fair value,” which the Market itself magically enforces: if you don’t give fair value, you’ll go into debt, and if you go into debt, you can lose yourself in a way I won’t describe because it’s impossible to do so without being spoilery.

I liked reading about the Market, which the Archivist describes as “a place where dreamers go when they don’t fit in with the dreams their homes think worth dreaming” (56-57). But if the last book in this series felt too plot-driven to me, this one was the opposite: Lundy has adventures in the Market but they’re described in asides; most of what we see is her daily life in the Market, or at home, as she travels back and forth between the two worlds. Daily life in the Market is interesting, though: I mean, I love this:

There was a woman in a wheelchair with a shaggy golden dog whose fur flickered around the edges, like it was burning without being consumed. There was a man with four arms, weaving ribbons into beautiful ropes with the speed and ease of a lifetime spent in long practice. There was a centaur of a sort, half human and half unicorn, a single spiraling horn rising from his forehead, taking a tray of meat pies out of an oven large enough to hold an entire bakery. (64)

And of course, the traveling back and forth has its drama too. The first time Lundy goes to the Market she’s an eight-year-old kid who has disappeared on her way home from school: her mom thinks she’s been kidnapped. After she disappears again, when she’s 10, she’s sent to boarding school when she comes back, but she’s determined to go back to the Market, to be with Moon and the Archivist again (and she does, though if you’ve read Every Heart a Doorway you may remember how things end up). The later part of the book, when Lundy’s older and wrestling more with the tension between what she wants and what others want from her, was more compelling to me than the beginning, and this definitely isn’t my favorite book in the series—but I’m glad I read it and I’m sure I’ll pick up the next one when it comes out.

I read and loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a kid, and I’m happy to report that it definitely stands up to an adult re-read, one in which I feel like the things that stuck out to me are different from the ones that stuck out when I read it as a child. The book starts with a letter from one Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, of Farmington, Connecticut, to her lawyer, to explain a change she wants made to her will. But then the story shifts to Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, a pair of siblings from Greenwich. Claudia, who is nearly twelve and is the oldest of four kids (and the only girl) has decided she’s fed up of her ordinary home and school life, and particularly of the way she feels like she’s taken for granted. She’s decided she wants an adventure, so she’s decided to run away, and to invite her brother Jamie, who’s nine, to come along. But she doesn’t like being cold or uncomfortable, so she’s chosen to run to someplace warm and dry: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

I’d forgotten just how sweet and smart and funny this book is. The pieces I remembered most, from reading it as a kid, were the parts about the running away itself, and the museum mystery that ensues: I remembered Claudia’s preparations, and how she and Jamie hid at the museum, and how they found themselves trying to figure out if a newly-acquired statue, which might have been carved by Michelangelo, actually was done by him. (It’s the statue that brings them to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: the statue used to be hers, until she sold it at an auction and the museum acquired it for a bargain price.) But I’d forgotten, or never fully appreciated, the parts about how Claudia and Jamie come to feel like a team, or about how Claudia is starting to figure out who she is and what interests and motivates her, outside of her role as her parents’ dutiful daughter. (I love this: “Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats” (39).) Also, I definitely have more of an appreciation for the bits of humor and observation about NYC. Like this: “Her mother’s Mah-Jong club ladies called it the city. Most of them never ventured there; it was exhausting and it made them nervous” (7). Or this: “If you think of doing something in New York City, you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have that same thought. And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it” (50). There’s also a great passage that talks about the different kinds of people that Claudia and Jamie see at the Met on a Wednesday afternoon, from art students to older women passing time before a Broadway matinee.

I also love this bit of wisdom from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself, when she’s telling Claudia that at the age of 82, she doesn’t feel a need to learn something new every day, and that she actually isn’t sure that’s such a good idea in general:

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow. (153)