Hard Times by Charles Dickens

December 19th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here, in contrast, is Corfu:

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

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

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

November 11th, 2020

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

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

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

Or this:

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

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

Emma by Jane Austen

November 1st, 2020

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

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

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

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.