Library book stack

February 5th, 2017

Library books

I went to the library yesterday to return one book, and ended up checking out four more – oops/yay! From top to bottom: 1) The Bone People by Keri Hulme – I already had this checked out, just took it out of my bag for the picture. This one’s another pre-New-Zealand-trip reading recommendation. I started it last night and it’s really satisfying so far, with lots of satisfyingly-rendered quirky inner monologue. 2) Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, because I’ve been meaning to read this for ages but haven’t yet. 3) Public Library by Ali Smith, because I generally love her playfulness/smarts/inventiveness. 4) The Chimes by Anna Smaill, because I’ve been vaguely meaning to check it out since this 2015 post by Teresa over at Shelf Love. 5) Crosstalk by Connie Willis, because I want to get lost in a story and in the past I’ve found her work really good for that.

Two things that are relevant to my reading of this book:
1) I’m going on vacation to New Zealand at the start of April! I’m very excited. One of my favorite people has lived in Auckland for several years now and has kept telling me I should come visit and I finally am going to. She gave me some NZ-centric book and movie recommendations and this comic, by NZ artist Dylan Horrocks, was one of them.
2) In general, I like graphic memoirs more than I like graphic novels or other kinds of comics. It’s hard for me to articulate why that is, but something about a personal narrative in words + pictures is really appealing to me. As such, possibly my favorite part of this book was the introduction to this new (2010) edition, in which Horrocks talks about his own childhood connections to comics, Tintin especially, and his subsequent work as an artist creating them. The drawings of Tintin panels are great, and so is the rest of the introduction – I especially like a bit where we see Horrocks looking out a window at a view of sea and sky and mountains, his own frowning reflection looking back at him.

Not that I didn’t like the book itself, too, which is about a journalist, Leonard Batts, who travels to Hicksville, a (fictional) tiny town in New Zealand, to learn more about his comic-book-writing hero, Dick Burger, who is from there. When he arrives, he finds that everyone in town really loves comics, and no one particularly seems to like Dick Burger: part of the story is Leonard (and us) finding out why. The book is full of comics quotes and references and in-jokes, and also full of comics itself—we get a mysterious strip about Captain Cook and the Māori leader Hōne Heke and the surveyor Charles Heaphy, plus a character’s weekly strip for a humor magazine, plus a character’s autobiographical mini-comic, and more. We also get the Māori story of how the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) came to be, and digressions on maps and map-making and navigating and art-making/storytelling, and a fair bit of tea, which Leonard, unfortunately, does not enjoy at all. Even outside of the comics within the book, the story jumps in location and time: we see one character, Grace, in the present/returning to Hicksville after time away; we also see some of her time away. There’s a lot going on, is I guess what I am trying to say, and it mostly works, though some of the comics references were lost on me (there is a helpful glossary at the back, which I wish I’d known about sooner)! I like both the writing and the art, which is good at both big wordless pages full of water and sky and light and at detailed panels that show things like, for example, one character having a copy of If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

I don’t generally read romance novels (semi-exception: I did have fun with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books, though after the first one they didn’t feel that romance-y) and when I started this one I wasn’t sure I was going to be into it. And I do sort of think that if I were to want to find a romance novel I would really really like, my best bet would be something more modern and less straight. But happily, Sprig Muslin isn’t actually that heavy on the romance: it’s more focused on a madcap series of (mis)adventures, with romance as a frame.

Early in the book we meet Sir Gareth Ludlow, who’s 35, rich, handsome, and single: the woman he loved died in a carriage accident seven years earlier, and he’s never loved anyone since. But as a sole surviving son, he feels like it’s his duty to marry and have a family so the Ludlow name/line won’t end with him. He’s therefore decided to propose to an old friend, Lady Hester Theale, who’s smart and kind but rather plain; she’s 29 and her (fairly horrid/overbearing) father, sisters, brother, and sister-in-law are sure she’ll never get any suitable marriage offers now. Gareth is pretty sure Hester will say yes: I mean, she’ll get out of her unpleasant home situation, he’ll provide for her, and they’re friends, right? But (I don’t feel it’s spoilery to say this, because it’s on the back cover) Hester refuses. And meanwhile, there’s Amanda to reckon with.

Gareth meets Amanda in an inn as he’s en route to propose to Hester: she’s arguing with the landlord (who won’t give her a room) and he’s shocked to see a clearly well-off young lady traveling without a chaperon. He doesn’t know what her story might be, but he feels that as a gentleman, it’s his duty to get her back home safely. Except she won’t tell him her last name. She’s sixteen, and she’s run off, she explains, because her grandfather won’t consent to her marrying her love, who’s a 24-year-old soldier named Neil. Neil won’t elope with her, which leaves her at an impasse: she’s decided that running off and being a governess or maid or something will show her grandfather that she can take care of herself, and that he should listen to what she wants. Gareth takes Amanda under his care as he tries to figure out how he can reunite her with her grandfather, but meanwhile she keeps trying to give him the slip because she’s set on seeing her plan of independence through. Hilarity ensues, not least in the interplay between Gareth’s amused and avuncular interactions with Amanda and her indignant /stubborn/scheming attempts to run off. And of course, Hester’s refusal of Gareth’s proposal ends up not being the last we see of her. This was a fun light read, full of entertaining dialogue and pleasing period slang and detail.

Empty Streets, which was originally published in Czech in 2004, is the third of Michal Ajvaz’s novels to be published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press, and the third that I’ve read and enjoyed. This one is set in Prague in the summer of 1999: when it opens we meet our unnamed narrator, a writer who’s working on a novella but is finding himself buried in paper and unable to tame the story he’s trying to write, which is a “mass of restless, elusive, metamorphosing, barely legible pages” that’s taken over his desk and is “turning into a monstrosity” (4). He takes a walk to take a break, and cuts through a dump on a construction site; he steps on a strange wooden double-trident, and finds himself dreaming up fantastical uses for it as he tries to figure out what it is/does/is for. And then he sees the symbol again, as a screensaver on the computer of a designer he knows, who tells him the story of how he rents a room in a villa from an old man, and saw the double trident appear and disappear again in a framed picture. After which the narrator gets a call from the designer’s landlord, Jakub Jonáš, who tells him the picture is a portrait of his 24-year-old daughter, Viola, who disappeared two years ago.

Despite his initial reluctance, the narrator finds himself agreeing to look for Jonáš’s daughter: as the novel progresses, he finds himself caught up in the search, crossing from one part of the city to another following different leads and hearing different stories that might be related to Viola and/or the strange symbol and/or other possible mysteries that surface along the way. I like the way the stories gradually unspool, the way one person leads the narrator to another and then the way that person leads him on to the next. I found myself thinking, a bit, of the TV show Search Party, with our narrator as analogous to Alia Shawkat’s Dory: they’re each at a point of being stuck in life/work, and for each of them, a mystery rouses them to action, though there’s rather less melodrama in Empty Streets. It’s hard to say more without getting into the lovely convolutions of this book’s plot, which I think are best experienced without knowing much beforehand.

So I’ll just close with an image I like a whole lot: Ajvaz’s narrator has been watching a TV show in which “people at a mansion in (probably) Scotland untangle problems in their love affairs” (26). He then looks out the window, to other apartments on his street, and notices that “In almost every window the light gained and lost intensity to the same rhythm, as the residents of the Scottish mansion moved from the darkness of the drawing room to the terrace and back again” (28).

The Luck Uglies is a pleasing middle-grade fantasy novel, the kind that starts with a charmingly-drawn map of the place where the book is set, which in this case is a village called Drowning, though really it’s “more of a sprawling town than a village, one built on a foundation of secrets, rules, and lies, but mostly just mud” (3). As the book opens, we meet eleven-year-old Rye O’Chanter and her friends Folly and Quinn, who are running across the town’s rooftops with an accidentally-stolen book, its owner in hot pursuit: it’s clear this is going to be a story with significant amounts of adventure.

The stolen book, though, isn’t really at the center of things, though it does feature a bit in the plot. Drowning has problems, and not just because of the Earl who governs it with heavy taxes, arbitrary fines, and repressive laws. Drowning has a river on one side and bogs on the other, and the bogs have historically been home to dangerous creatures called Bog Noblins—though they’re supposed to be extinct, vanquished by a quasi-criminal gang called the Luck Uglies who were then pushed out of town themselves. But what if the Bog Noblins are still out there? When Rye actually sees one, this becomes more than a theoretical question. If the Luck Uglies are gone, who will protect the town now? Or are the Luck Uglies still around, too?

Rye (who lives just outside the town walls, near the bogs, with her mom and her younger sister and their cat) learns rather more than she expects to over the course of the book, about Bog Noblins and Luck Uglies and also about her family, her friends, and herself. I appreciated the characters and the writing: Riley’s bookish friend Quinn, for example, lives alone with his dad, and we learn that at their house, with its piles of books and other things, there’s “a fine line between hidden and lost” (38). A description of the Bog Noblins, read out by the town crier, is this totally great sentence: “Typical Bog Noblin activities include clawing, biting, growling, consumption of humans and livestock, vandalism, and recreational dismemberment” (124). A library is described as having “a scent that was part mildew, part magic” (254). And I liked the excitement of the plot, even though a few of the revelations were obvious to me well before they become obvious to Rye: I was having enough fun that I didn’t particularly mind. This book is the first in a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to reading more about this world.

I wasn’t necessarily planning to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—I mean, I like the Harry Potter universe and I’ve read all the books but, eh, a play written by someone other than J.K. Rowling, based on a story that she co-wrote with him and another guy? I don’t know; I wasn’t convinced I’d be into it. But then my boyfriend borrowed it from a friend, and then, after he finished it, it somehow ended up on the top of my pile of books to read. And while there are things I didn’t like about it, I’m totally glad I read it.

A thing you should know about this play is that it’s quite plot-heavy, and I’m not sure how much I can actually say about the plot without giving away too much. It’s set 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts and it focuses partly on one of Harry’s kids, Albus Severus, who’s about to start his first year at Hogwarts when the play opens. Albus ends up being friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, and adventures ensue. Scorpius, for me, was the best thing about this play: he’s smart and charming and brave and kind and my only problem with his friendship with Albus is that it’s not more than a friendship. (Maybe I should just go re-read Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On?)

This was a really quick read and I was totally engrossed in it while reading, despite a few clunky/overwrought pieces of dialogue and some quibbles about characterization (Ron Weasley in particular, who felt much flatter than I think he should have, aside from a few choice moments in climactic scenes).

2016 Wrap-Up

December 31st, 2016

I read 52 books in 2016, which is not as many as I read last year or the year before, but that’s OK. The break-down:

Picture books for kids/middle-grade books/YA: 15. Highlights included Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which was gripping and made me cry; several of Luke Pearson’s charming “Hilda” books, and Brian Selznick’s beautiful Wonderstruck. I also listened to my first-ever audiobook, which was How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, narrated by David Tennant. I continued pleasantly working my way through Lois Lowry’s “Anastasia” books with Anastasia Has the Answers and am looking forward to the next in the series.

Fiction (for grown-ups): 21. I unexpectedly loved Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a werewolf novel in verse. I had way more fun with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age than I thought I would. I loved Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor even though alien-arrival stories are not normally exciting to me. I quite enjoyed re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, especially because I was in England for part of it and it felt really apt. And I finished the year really strongly with the delicious writing of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First and the unputdownable Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple and The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas.

Non-fiction: 16, including autobiographical comics. Hyperbole and a Half was as amazing and funny as I expected it to be. I liked the essays in Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, differently. And I had lots of fun with Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, not just because of the interactive/text-messaging element, though that was pretty neat.

I did about half of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, and am undecided as to whether I want to try the 2017 one or not particularly: I like the idea of these challenges, but I also like reading without a plan.

The Seed Collectors is the sort of book that starts with a family tree, which signals that it’s probably going to be a sprawling family drama, which is not generally my favorite kind of book. And it is a sprawling family drama, sort of, with emphasis on the drama and a darkly satirical mood, but it’s also about the self and desire and people looking for enlightenment and/or fulfillment and/or oblivion in the various ways that people do. I am a little conflicted about it: I found it a whole lot of fun to read, and very hard to put down, but there are ways in which it’s a bit of a mess (there’s a lot going on, a few loose plot threads, and I really don’t know how to feel about the ending). It definitely has not displaced Our Tragic Universe as my favorite Scarlett Thomas book, but it’s the sort of book where I finished reading and then kept mulling over it.

Early in the book we learn that Oleander Gardener has recently died: she ran a successful yoga/meditation/wellness retreat called Namaste House, and her relatives (largely her great-nieces and great-nephew) are wondering who’s going to inherit it. Much of the family has a botanical bent: Charlie works at Kew Gardens; his sister Clem (short for Clematis) makes documentaries about plants; their cousin Bryony isn’t particularly into nature, but is married to a nature-writer. We get snippets of these family members’ lives: Bryony and her husband James and the kids, Holly and Ash; Clem and her husband Ollie puttering about at home; Charlie going on a date. We also meet Fleur, who has lived and worked at Namaste House since she was young, and learn that her mother, Bryony’s mother, and Clem and Charlie’s mother were “famous botanists,” or “famous-ish” ones, or, rather, “famous-ish mainly for disappearing while on the trail of a miracle plant that never existed, or possibly killed them all” (5).

Also early in the book, we hear Clem being interviewed on the radio, talking about hapaxanthic plants and how they “put all their energy into flowering—or, in other words, attempting to reproduce—and there’s nothing left for anything else. Their roots wither and die.” (4). Hm. Are we only talking about flowers here?

The narration of The Seed Collectors jumps from character to character, shifting focus and letting us learn things about all of them. We see Bryony (who overindulges in food, wine, and shopping), Charlie (who is pretty insufferably self-centered), Ollie (who is a professor and distressed by his inability to have children), Fleur (who’s the most self-aware and likable of the bunch) and more: Bryony’s daughter Holly (who’s very good at tennis), a pop star client of Namaste House named Skye Turner, and even a robin in the garden (whose vocabulary is quite idiosyncratic). Interspersed with the character-focused bits there are also bits about mysticism and enlightenment and oh, the seed pods of that miracle plant, which does turn out to exist, and is indeed deadly, but has quite an interesting effect before it kills you. The mysticism is largely focused on the idea of a cosmic unity, everyone being the same/everyone just being different aspects of one another, which makes the narrative style make sense: if there is this unity, then of course the robin in the garden has a bit of the story, along with everyone else.

I like how this book mixes humor and loveliness in with everything else: there’s some satire-of-academia bits that are great, a passage about a malfunctioning electric toothbrush display that made me laugh out loud, a rant about how annoying the keyboard-effect noises on phones are, a magical book that’s on the edge of twee but isn’t, a description of Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern, and bits like this: “They walk around the end of the pier, where Bryony gets a text message welcoming her to Belgium. This happens all around the coast here. More often it’s France, which at least you can see from the end of the pier. This is usually funny enough to tell people, but she’s too hungover, and Granny won’d understand anyway” (190-191). Or this: “The doorway to Fleur’s cottage smells of lapsang souchong, black cardamom, and roses, which is a bit how Fleur herself smells, although with Fleur there are layers and layers of scents, each one more rare and strange than the last” (75).

Today Will Be Different was not quite, for me, the complete delight that Where’d You Go, Bernadette was, but that’s setting the bar pretty high: I still liked this a whole lot. It starts off really funny (the day I started reading it, I kept interrupting my boyfriend to read him passages I found hilarious) but moves into more emotional territory as the book progresses; the plot is made up largely of over-the-top mishaps, but it unfolds with a precision that I found really pleasing.

The book’s protagonist (and narrator, for much of the story) is Eleanor Flood, a (former) animator who’s working on a graphic memoir; she and her hand-surgeon-to-the-stars husband live in Seattle with their eight-year-old son, Timby. I would say Eleanor is meant to be unlikable, but I’m not sure that’s true: she certainly has some unlikable traits and does some unlikable things, but I was totally rooting for her, especially when the stakes start to feel higher. At the book’s opening, we get a paragraph of (funny/precious/clichéd) ways in which “today will be different”: Eleanor is going to “be present” and further pledges not to swear, not to talk about money, and only to wear yoga clothes when she actually goes to yoga (3). She knows her problems are, as she puts it, “white-people problems,” but that doesn’t mean they’re not problems (7). She’s distracted, rushed, “ghost-walking” through her days in a “hurried fog,” and she’s tired of it, so she vows to do things differently (ibid.). But it quickly becomes clear that the day’s differences are going to be not the kind Eleanor was expecting: she finds out (and I don’t think this is really a spoiler because it’s on the flap copy) that her husband told his office staff they were on vacation the whole week, while she had no idea he was doing anything other than going to work as normal. The question of what he’s been up to is not the only unexpected thing the day throws at Eleanor, but it’s hard to talk about the rest without getting into too much detail, spoiler territory, or both.

I like that this book includes visual art (some of it in color, no less) and also an annotated Robert Lowell poem, and also includes characters from Semple’s other work (Bernadette makes an appearance, and Eleanor used to work for Violet Parry, from This One Is Mine). I like that Eleanor is quick to judge (in a very relatable way) and cynical, but also maybe less cynical than she tries to appear. I wasn’t crazy about one particular revelation toward the end of the book, though that may be my own biases as much as anything; the actual very end of the book felt (interestingly) ambivalent to me, and I wonder how I would feel about it on a re-read.

As this New Yorker blog post by Lucy Ives points out, Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton is not exactly “conventional” historical fiction: it’s not full of “period intrigue,” to use Ives’s phrase, and it’s not particularly plot-driven or even, necessarily, character-driven, though the book does have a pretty tight focus on its title character, Margaret Cavendish, and there are historical events in it—Margaret finds herself in exile for chunks of her life/the book, since she and her family and her husband were all Royalists, and part of the book takes place during Cromwell’s rise. It felt more atmosphere-driven, which generally works for me, though here I found it worked better in the first-person narrative of the first half of the book.

I wasn’t familiar with Cavendish before picking this book up: she was born in 1623 and was a published writer in a time/place where women really weren’t, and this book gives the sense of her as a writer from childhood on, a sense of her as someone who couldn’t keep from writing, who was happiest writing and publishing, even when people around her didn’t necessarily think she should. Early in the book we hear Margaret’s mother: “you must not spend all your time writing little books” (14). Later, a doctor: “Her ladyship’s occupation in writing of books is absolutely bad for health!” (73). On the reception of her first book: “Some readers were cross a lady had published at all, others that she had written of vacuums and war, rather than poems of love” (69). “It seemed impossible to make myself be any way but wrong,” Margaret thinks to herself, as a teenager (17). But she seems to become, if not more comfortable with herself as she gets older, more comfortable doing what she wants/needs to.

There are so so many beautiful images and phrases and descriptions in this book: “A current of wet Parisians passed outside the glass,” or “In spring, at the ballet: a spectacle of satin” (34, 40). Houses “lit like lanterns,” or “lindens and canals and savage-looking orchards,” or “the barges on the Thames: onions going down to sea, timber coming up” (47, 50, 99). I want to know if Danielle Dutton’s other books are similarly lovely, because if yes, I definitely want to read them.