First, a few words of explanation.
My usual habit is to read disparate books, to shift gears. Because I’m so dazzled and heartened by the diversity in this world. It’s one way of participating in the diversity…I also like and appreciate that this habit is mind- and heart-expanding.
I’ve been posting my thoughts on amazon and I flirted with Goodreads, but I think maybe it’s better to tuck my reviews here with all my other stuff. Enjoy, comment if you wish. Yes, of course, spoilers…can’t be avoided.
Being a reader has made me a writer, and also a better, and braver, writer. I would also like to add: for many years, first as a young bookworm and continuing into my college career as a lit major, I hesitated to have or share opinions about books. Part of that may have been my respect for the authors, but in looking back I also think it had to do with lacking confidence or not trusting myself. How should I presume? Well. Now I’m older, I’ve done some living, I’ve done some writing of my own, and I’ve never stopped reading–and my responses and opinions are more evident to me. I understand that they are mine. Your mileage may vary, etc. We all each of us have a voice, a mind, and a heart. Here I am, finding mine, better late than never.
Jack London, To Build a Fire
“The stars leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky.”
I shared this famous short story recently at a “Story Hour for Grownups” event, on a winter’s day. Originally I had thought to read aloud from a small chapbook someone gifted me that had just this story and one other, both set in the early 1900s in the Yukon Territory/Alaska region. London traveled there and participated in the famous Klondike Gold Rush, we know; indeed many of his stories, from this one to the full-size novel Call of the Wild share this setting and benefit from his authentic experience and excellent story-telling abilities. London is a type of writer Americans, in particular, have traditionally produced and admired (I think of everyone from Herman Melville to Edward Abbey to Jon Krakauer to Cheryl Strayed). True wilderness experience.
Well, imagine my surprise when I cracked open the chapbook and found an unfamiliar story, much shorter than the one I’d remembered. A little internet research cleared up the confusion. Jack London first issued “To Build a Fire” in 1902, and the more widely read revision came out in 1908. I tracked down the longer one, and that is the one I read aloud. (I’ll address the interesting differences between the two versions shortly.)
Reading it aloud, I found, really offered me and hopefully my audience an opportunity to witness London’s skill in telling what is essentially a very simple story: a man sets out alone on a trail on an extremely cold day (75 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), disregarding advice to never undertake this sort of thing in these sorts of conditions without at least one companion. He doesn’t survive.
His ill-fated journey is not completely solo. His companion is a big native husky. London does not–takes care not to–sentimentalize or anthropomorphize the dog. It travels along obediently though with obvious misgiving, tail low. Their relationship is traditional: when the dog’s paws get wet and ice sets in instantly, the dog halts to lick and the man assists by prying ice crystals out from between the dog’s toes, not out of compassion for a pet but simply because that is what you do when your husky’s paws get wet. London reminds us that the dog was the “toil-slave” of the man, and the dog responded to the “menacing throat sounds” that the man made. At one treacherous point in the trail, the man shoves the dog on ahead of him and the dog (though not eagerly) obeys. When the man tries fruitlessly to start a fire, “the dog watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness in his eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire-provider, and the fire was slow in coming.”
Later, when the man’s condition becomes quite desperate–no success with starting a fire, and now his fingers and feet are truly freezing–the man thinks to grab the dog, kill him, and warm up his hands in the entrails. The dog distrusts the “strange note of fear” in his command to come here. What happens then? The man lunges and hangs onto the reluctant dog but is unable to do more, so soon the dog plunges away, snarling.
When the man finally slips into death, London conveys it at such a measured pace that the tale transitions from the actions, sensations and thoughts of the man to those of the dog. We leave the man as he leaves his body and witness the “long, slow twilight,” then the inevitable ascendance of the stars that “leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky” (far-off fire, come to think of it). The dog, finally, turns and leaves “in the direction of the camp it knew, where there were other food-providers and fire-providers.” Devastating and masterful, I thought: wow, whew. Cinematic, if such a scene could ever truly be filmed successfully.
The story is also, of course, a lesson on hypothermia. London lays out the classic, cascading symptoms as they happen. Heat loss starts it off (from unprotected body surfaces, direct contact with cold water, wind). “The blood was alive,” London explains, “it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold…it now ebbed away and sank into the recesses of his body…his extremities were the first to feel its absence.” Clumsiness, lack of coordination, confusion commence. Accordingly, the man loses use of his fingers and hands, he panics and runs and stumbles, he eventually falls down and drowses off. A nurse in my audience pointed out that, as cold gradually overtook the man, his awareness of his body went from indifference to acute awareness–sadly, too little too late. She’s seen this in patients with other conditions. Interesting.
In the first version of this story, the man had a name and no dog and it wasn’t as brutally cold. And, he survived! A little frostbite and “never travel alone!” duly absorbed. What can we make of this dramatic revision? No name makes him you or me or anybody, or, we have less sympathy for his hubris. The dog is an appropriate addition, because those places at that time had plenty of non-human protagonists and the men couldn’t have done what they did without dogs. As for never making it to the the warmth and welcome of the camp up the trail, London’s experiences in the intervening years must have convinced him that a harsher tale and ending was entirely possible, indeed more realistic.
Richard Fortey, Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum
“The world is a lot more richer than one might imagine.”
Oh boy, oh boy, is this a wonderful book! It’s not a thick one, though the topic of natural history is immense. It’s not hard to understand, though it covers complex topics. It’s a tour, a personal, idiosyncratic tour. I read it with attention and delight.
Our guide is a retired senior paleontologist at London’s venerable Natural History Museum. His specialty is trilobites, now-extinct crustacean-like creatures. I’ve seen fossils of them and you probably have, too. They were once as diverse and common as beetles are now. But he doesn’t dwell on them here (I later note that he’s written another book all about them).
Instead, he takes us into the history of natural history and of his museum in particular. We get to go behind the scenes, behind the crowd-pleasing and interactive exhibits, and into the collections and research halls and labs and, well, labyrinths. We get a sampling of what’s in the file cabinets and drawers (and what a type specimen is), what’s in the jars, what’s in the leather-bound volumes on the shelves. We learn what he and his colleagues* do, in their burrowlike “offices” and increasingly computerized labs, as well as out in the field in remote places–Lake Ural, African’s Great Rift Valley, the Kola Peninsula, tropical islands, deep in the sea and high in the mountains. As we go, he explains things as diverse as truffle mushrooms (taxonomically vexing!), flesh-eating insects, and rare-earth minerals, carefully and clearly, sharing anecdotes and descriptions. He offers his own ongoing surprise “that there [is] so much hidden in the world and that almost everything in a landscape is alive.”
* he tucks in entertaining internal gossip and revelations of truly eccentric people in the chapter on Animals–ha ha! (but, fair enough, as he does love to describe and study all the rich variety of life)
Slow and inexorably it dawns on the reader the vastness that is “the parade of diversity”–the prodigious and impressive work that has been done in inventorying the biosphere and the immense amount of work that yet remains to be done. He ably reviews why we should care about and support science in this era of climate change, medical challenges, and so on. For an old white British guy, he is gratifyingly generous and respectful towards women researchers, and rather that dragging his feet about globalism and technology, he makes an urgent case for bringing online more Third World scientists and the beneficial “democracy” avid amateurs and specialists can share thanks to the ascendancy of the internet.
But what will stay with me most is his profound appreciation for the wonder and beauty of everything on our home planet….for its own sake. “The real joy of discovery,” he confides, “is to see the exuberance of life.” On this tour, he didn’t just tell us that, he showed.
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
“When a child is lost…”
As a mother, I recoil at imagining the pain a parent feels when their child dies. I know two families who have recently experienced this horror, shock, anguish, “so wrong,” one parent keened. Nothing will ever be the same. Saunders explores the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, while his father was President and, in fact, only one year into a war that would see the deaths of many, many young men—a context that matters.
So, with this unique book, we explore death obliquely and tremulously. We’re in the graveyard, in the “bardo.” The dead are distorted and distressed, they talk at and to one another, they rage, they question, they hide, they fool around. And they come to swirl around the stone house where little Willie’s body was interred and his father came by night to grieve. Many voices, many views, sometimes conflicting of course. And gradually the circuitous circling, the multitude of voices, confronts this death plainly and baldly:
When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict. When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be? None. Doubt will fester as long as we live…
Then we dance away from the anguish. In the bardo, in this tale, we witness, all directions are explored. The part where the shade of Willie imagines his recovery was, to me, so poignant. He died the night of a White House party (his father had extracted from the doctor that the boy would recover, else he would’ve canceled the event…here is a place for doubt to fester and others to judge, of course). When he doesn’t die, the child exults, “all is allowed me now!…getting up out of bed and going down to the party, allowed!…chunks of cake, allowed! punch (even rum punch), allowed!” And then we move on from this fantasy to more threads, mishaps, hopes, woes, speculations, processing.
When Lincoln extracts himself from the graveyard, still night, and returns to the White House, what he carries with him now is not exactly resolution or hope, but, it is the future. An utterly remarkable journey, as fraught and varied as any life. This is a dazzling, heartbreaking book.
James De Mille, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder
“What else can you believe or feel?”
Of course, it was the title. A strange book beckoning from a strange bookcase (a little cafe in a small town–“Books! Your Choice! $1-2”). I did not feel it was my choice, being a romantic at heart. I paid the $1 and brought the little book home and soon curled up on a sofa before a fire to go on a strange journey.
The conceit was quickly established. Four British gentlemen were on a becalmed yacht between the Madeiras and the Canaries in the winter of 1850. One day, bored, they decided to race and bet on paper boats. They chose a random distant spar floating on the water as the goalpost. The spar turned out to be a copper cylinder, encrusted with barnacles. They brought it back to the ship and broke it open to find the preserved contents: a manuscript written on papyrus (exotic and antiquated even then) and an accompanying letter. The letter, by the author, beseeched them to deliver the manuscript or at least its news to his father in England. Aha, a desperate, shipwrecked countryman. Several years back, at least, they judged by the condition of the cylinder.
They take turns reading aloud from the manuscript, an incredible tale that does indeed begin with being cast off in these latitudes. Interceding chapters allow for meals and discussions of the revealed story’s details and progress. One fellow is simply and relentlessly skeptical, suggesting that this is a hoax or a ruse. One is well-versed in natural history and analyzes and often finds cause to validate the creatures (birds, reptiles, animals) the author encounters. One is good at geography (the captain, whew) and feels many details are plausible or correct. Another is good at languages and forms and defends a theory that the civilization our hero eventually finds himself among is of Semitic origin. At Antarctica…hmm. These discussions are part of the book’s charm, giving a Jules-Verne-ish quality to the tale and the tale-within-the-tale. I wish there’d been more of these intervening chapters.
Yes, the castaway, once parted from his ship in series of mishaps and bad weather, has wild adventures that beggar belief. In a small boat on a strong current, he sees erupting volcanoes up close, encounters and flees cannibals, and travels through a channel in an underground cavern, of course fending off a sea serpent in the darkness, to finally find himself in another land. Oh, the Victorian imagination! So entertaining! When he gets to ride from place to place with his new companions on the back of a large flying reptile, I immediately thought of the Dinotopia books (which also posit a developed civilization sealed off from the modern world); checking the date, I see this book was written in 1888, long before Dinotopia. (In the end? I have to say I prefer the Dinotopia books, which are not only wonderfully and thoughtfully illustrated, but contain far more rigorous and plausible details.)
I see not only by some of the comments of the fictional audience, but by reviews on the book’s back cover, that the civilization our hero finds himself in is meant to be an “almost Swiftian satire on human piety and vanity.” Meh. Our hero has guns–and bullets–that still function through all the years and scene shifts and travels. Our hero has not one, but two beautiful woman vying for him (women take the lead in courtship in this culture; but don’t think for a moment this an early piece of feminism, it’s pure male fantasy). In the end, though trapped in this place–heaven knows how his copper cylinder made it back to the known world–he gets a princess, and a luxurious life in a palace, not nearly the horrible fate he often thought he was bound for. To achieve that, they and his rifle had to outwit and manipulate the natives. Now if that’s not an annoying Western plot turn, I don’t know what is. Sigh. It all felt like an exercise. I’d been hoping for an adventure.
The only saving grace is some conversations between our hero and one of his native captors/hosts. The author of the book does show how two people, coming from completely different cultures, simply could not understand one another. The quote above is an excerpt from one of their fruitless, frustrating conversations.
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
“You can love completely without completely understanding.”
Set in rural Montana long ago, and taking place mostly along the Blackfoot River, three men–an elderly father who is a retired minister, and his two grown sons–fly fish. But this tale isn’t really about fly fishing, though there are exquisite details and analyses of the process, the fish, the water, the flies, the equipment, the approaches, the getaways, the catches. Or perhaps the author, an elderly Montana man when he wrote it (it seems semi-autobiographical), would correct me: fly fishing IS about life and about everything in it.
There are no chapters, just one long and continuous course. It occurred to me as I went along that the telling moves like the river. Fast and torrential in places, a bit frightening and sometimes exciting, and slowing to great pools of reflection. Eddying. Responding to the terrain and geology and the seasons. Buckle up! and pay attention!
This is a tale written by a man about men, and their relationships to one another and their world. The women characters are tangential (after a while I began to suspect this wasn’t a flaw in the author or the tale but rather a choice he made in order to focus). Accepting those terms, I set out to explore how these men thought, acted, and felt. It was illuminating and moving.
Two of the best moments, in my reading:
Sunrise is the time when you feel you will be able to find out how to help somebody close to you who you think needs help even if he doesn’t think so. At sunrise, everything is luminous but not clear.
It those we live with and love and should know who elude us.
Without giving away what happens to whom, I will just say that time on this river was time well spent.
Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls
I read this book with increasing woe and anguish, so much so that when I set it down at the end of a particularly grim chapter and came downstairs, my husband looked at my drawn face and cried, “What’s wrong?”
What’s wrong: war. The damage humans do to other humans.
This is a novel set during WWII that follows three very different women through—and after—those turbulent, terrible years: Caroline, a rich philanthropist in New York City; Kasia, a young blue-collar Polish girl; and Herta, an aspiring German doctor. Kasia ends up in a women-only Nazi “re-education” (concentration) camp, with her beloved sister and mother and a few friends swept along–the rounding up was undiscriminating, so part of her distress is guilt that she put her loved ones in danger and ultimately this situation. In addition to the expected miseries, such as malnutrition, lice, filthy and cold “living conditions,” not to mention fear of the camp’s cruel and arbitrary staff, an additional layer is added. Kasia is subjected to medical experiments (that Herta participates in) that cause her horrible pain and disfigurement. She lives, she survives, but her “heart is black with rage” and everything is not alright once restored to her hometown in Poland. Not personally, not politically.
A novel, yes, but based on real people, places, and events. The author did a ton of historical research, visited all the significant settings, and is a natural, vivid storyteller. It feels real because it was real. I felt Caroline’s compassion and frustration, I queasily witnessed Herta’s racism, compromises, and rationalizations, but mostly I entered Kasia’s excruciating, heartbreaking journey. What redemption she gains comes at great cost, and why? why? why did this young woman have to suffer so much? Why did so many others, the living and the dead…Why?
Lacking any answers, I then thought of the lyrics from a Bruce Cockburn song “Get Up, Jonah”:
“The high vault of heaven
looks far away and cold
There’s a howling in the factory yard
There’s a pounding in my head
I’m swollen up with unshed tears…”
Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop
Right out of the gate, this is a quirky little novel because I am reading it in English, but it was originally written in German…and it takes place in France. Despite the title, not a lot of it takes place in Paris itself. So there is some awkwardness in the storytelling, in the language, as well as in the marketing (‘NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER’ shouts from the cover as does a Oprah.com review letting me know it is a “wise and winsome” novel). Calm down, everybody, I’ll be the judge of my reading experience!
Even taking into account these–for me–impediments, the story didn’t always ring true. It wants to ring true! Who among us hasn’t known the demise of a relationship and been left hurt, mad at the other person, mad at yourself, and trying to balance good memories with regrets? Our hero, Jean Perdu (seriously) (in French, for those who don’t speak French, he’s “Lost John”) loved and lost and closed off his heart. Years after the girl leaves him, he reads a letter from her that he did not open at the time, expecting the usual “It’s me, not you,” and “so long, thanks for the memories,” and instead finds out that she was begging him to come say goodbye at her deathbed. Luc, her husband, “is expecting you.” Not reading the letter and acting to grant her wish fills him with understandable distress; meanwhile, I’m waving my hand and muttering at Lost John, “Well! And SHE never shared with you that she was dying of cancer!” The fact that she was married to someone else, ehh, trust me, this is not a shocking plot twist in France.
Now comes the journey of healing and reckoning. The book is so predictable. Even meeting Luc at last and getting the obligatory punch in the face didn’t satisfy anyone, perhaps not even Luc. Visiting her grave and not finding her there…until a radiant sunset and Jean realizes she is “all around” was carefully rendered but, again, so predictable as to lose emotional punch for this reader.
Jean also learns to love again and we have a happy ending. Tears, cheers, and gratitude. I dunno. Meh.
There was one tangential moment that made me laugh out loud and will stay with me long after I forget the rest of this forgettable tale. Jean has fled Paris on his funky bookshop barge, with a stowaway who becomes a valued friend/son figure, Max the young writer with writer’s block (don’t worry, the journey will help him get his mojo back and of course also he’ll find true love). It’s a French-English thing. Je pensais que c’était drôle!
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Last Interview and Other Conversations, edited and with an introduction by David Streitfeld
“True voyage is return.”
Well, of course I bought this book because I am a fan. A long, longtime fan. “True voyage is return,” she would and did say. I was a precocious 11 year old bookworm in Santa Barbara, California, spending my babysitting money on A Wizard of Earthsea. Fast forward to age 58, and I spy this book in an independent bookstore, my favorite kind, on a pedestrian mall in Charlottesville, Virginia (I was there to give a talk based on one of my own books *). I’m now hunkering down to read the book with more care and concentration on in a small house on an island in the North Atlantic, just off southwest Nova Scotia. My point is, all the travels, all the changes, she’s still with me.
Finding out what a beloved fiction writer thinks, is that an indulgent exercise? I mean, I have a sense of Le Guin’s beliefs and ideas from reading many (but not all) of her books…novels, short stories, novellas. Why go straight into her living room, take up a chair, and chat or interrogate (there are a variety of interviewers here)? Isn’t it invasive? Is it necessary?
She has such a broad range of books and ideas, I’ve always found her a bit intimidating. And as she got older, she got more blunt and sassy like some older folks do (my own fate, I figure!). I learned in this book’s introduction that she has never really traveled much and for most of her adult life considered herself “a mommy.” Referring to her writing, she said she was a “late bloomer.” Huh. So that rich, wild, scary-smart imagination…came mostly from…within…?
If you’re a fan, too, you can glean insights and information you might enjoy from dipping into this collection. My favorite tidbit was hearing that Havnor, the capital of Earthsea, was inspired by San Francisco.
But I remain so daunted by her. I remember when she made that incredible, brash, sensible speech at the National Book Awards back in 2014 (you can find it easily on YouTube): “we live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” People who’d never heard of LeGuin or never read anything by her were KNOCKED OUT; the clip went viral. I watched it and smirked, thinking of her towering, righteous mind, kvelling, that’s our girl! Thrilling me all over again, little fan that I am.
When I say that, I don’t mean to denigrate myself or any other fan, or visiting journalist for that matter. What I mean is, to be equal to LeGuin would be to have the ability and the courage to sail into our imaginations and hearts more boldly and flexibly than we ever have and to truly engage powerful ideas. She’d tell me, she’d tell us, that it can be done. Yet I think she was a remarkable, confident, broadly open and educated creature (she was a Fulbright scholar before the “mommy” phase), and nothing in this slim volume of interviews changes that. “As we talked,” one of these interviewers notes with bewilderment, “she smoked a briar pipe.” She had a cat named Pard (as opposed to, say, Fluffy or George). She said things like,”You can’t imitate Proust…Nabokov means nothing to me…Doris Lessing drives me up a wall.” Lao Tzu, however, is a major influence. “All ideals are positively dangerous,” she declares, “All idealists are dangerous,” and then she launches into examples while my head spins…see?
A couple other details stand out from my foray into these chats. Her mother! I knew that her parents were smart folks and correctly imagined that her childhood was intellectually fertile. Her father was a renowned anthropologist; her mother was a writer best known for her biography of Ishi, the last surviving Native American of his tribe. Her mother gave her 14-year-old daughter a copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own—heady stuff for someone that young. After this mom was widowed (Ursula was grown and married by then, with kids of her own), her mom married a man half her age. Ursula recalls, “She had a terrific time. He just spoiled her rotten. He did it with a certain class. She had a good time.” Now THERE’S an entertaining story…!
Interviewers always seem to want to talk to LeGuin about genre, science fiction and fantasy. You can imagine her tart opinions, and find them in these pages if you want—how it was to be a woman in that field, why she believes it is important and expansive, not restrictive, etc. I was not surprised to learn that she disliked Star Wars, “it’s really abominable, it’s all violence, and there are only three women in the known universe.” Of Neil Gaiman, she allows “he’s truly generous, I just wish I liked his writing more.” Ouch. Warm praise is reserved for Tolkein, though: “I adore him. He always tells you what the weather is. Always!”
- I realized belatedly that Le Guin came to me in Charlottesville because she was on my mind that weekend; the book I was presenting at a convention included a quote from one of her short stories (why I used a quote by her in a botany book, how I got permission, and the fan letter I got from her later—a possession so prized I can scarcely look at it without trembling—is a story for another day).
Amy Tan, The Kitchen God’s Wife
“Without hope, I no longer despaired.”
Amy Tan is a wonderfully descriptive and confiding writer and, I had the sense from The Joy Luck Club, provides a front-row seat to the lives of certain Chinese women who endured trials in the old country before immigrating to the United States and starting anew. So when I began the book, I felt on familiar territory and was trustful of my guide.
But the book became grueling. Narrated by an older Chinese woman, Jiang Weili Winnie Louie, as though talking (for a very long time, or over a period of time) to her American daughter Pearl, it relates what her life was like back in China. During World War II. The war is a backdrop–we get bits about how the Chinese public responded and was affected (rich and poor, city and country). We get mundane details of daily life, such as food and clothing and housing, which paint a vivid picture. Our narrator was married young to a war-pilot-in-training, Wen Fu. To say Wen Fu abuses his wife is an understatement. He torments her emotionally at every turn, cuts her off from family and friends, rapes and humiliates her repeatedly and brutally, steals from her, lies, cheats on her, controls her, neglects her, abuses their children (one unto death as a toddler). She wonders for the longest time why nobody can see and nobody helps her or believes her, even people living under the same roof with them. She is beaten down in every way.
Reading this, I shuddered, I gaped, I flinched, I wept. Wen Fu is the classic abuser. She doesn’t tell how she got free from him until the penultimate pages. There was a point about 3/4 of the way through, when I just set the book down because I couldn’t bear her suffering (of course, it must be admitted that my mind went to the emotional abuse I suffered in my own first marriage, nowhere near as bad as this, but the story certainly resonated). Perhaps the author understood that readers would find this a slog–as it was, in fact, a slog for Weili.
As this mother passes her painful story on to her listening daughter, it humanizes and explains her, and brings them closer. The lessons are less clear. “I am not asking you to admire me. This was not harmony with nature, no such thing. I am saying this only so you will know how it is to become like a chicken in a cage, mindless, never dreaming of freedom, but never worrying when your neck might be chopped off.” She did get away, her life did get better. She’s now safely in America; her second (kind, loving) husband died years ago. She has a house and, more importantly, this daughter, and a son, and grandchildren, plus a community of friends and “relatives.” But her long and excruciating journey weighs heavily.
Per Petterson (translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born), Out Stealing Horses
What do you do, if you find yourself alone?
This was one of those inexpensive and worn books that grabbed me in a used bookshop, for no particular reason. I brought it home and left it alone for a while, but one late-winter evening, it demanded and got my attention. Then I galloped though it and now sit here feeling broken-hearted.
Narrated by a man who finds himself alone in his late 60s, after two marriages (one that ends, we learn in passing, in a fatal car accident–he survived, the second wife did not) and a few children, he wants to see himself as steady and purposeful. So did I. I was on board with him retreating after a full life in Oslo to a small lakeside house in the far east of Norway. The house needs a bit of work, but he has tools and know-how. He has a dog, books, basic supplies, and sufficient money. Retirement. Time and space to process. Peace?
However, it turns out he is circling back, whether he is conscious of this or not. When he was a teenager, his father brought him to a small cabin on a river in the woods (not these woods; elsewhere, near the Swedish border) and they spent summers fishing, boating, hiking around, working on the cabin, and doing a logging project on their land. Those were happy, companionable times, with adventure and comfort in equal measure for his younger self. This retirement place also has a nearby village, helpful not-overly-near neighbors, and beautiful scenery. Now he is a self-reliant adult, yet he is more vulnerable than he wants to admit. His body and mind are not as strong as they once were and winter is looming.
His new chapter becomes a journey through the past. A coincidental reunion with someone who knew him and his father back then is (awkwardly, I thought, though perhaps cleverly?) dealt with:
…if this had been something in a novel [running into this fellow here and now] would have just been irritating. I have in fact done a lot of reading particularly during the last few years, but earlier too, by all means, and I have thought about what I have read, and that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again…
The fullness of his pain slowly reveals like a growing stain. The fullness of his father’s pain, the other guy’s pain, a visiting daughter’s pain, even his late mother’s pain, is not developed. That which was once disturbed is not restored, not healed, in fact not comprehended–more like real life than a novel? My mind flits to an album by Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s widow. Her band was called Hole and the album was called “live through this.”
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time
“too good to be true?”
Published back in 2006 and—the cover emphasizes—a New York Times bestseller, this book does radiate. It takes place mostly in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan and even with my limited knowledge of those places, I had to wince at occasional references to war and the Taliban in the past tense, like the upheaval, damage, and dying was mostly over as of this writing.
And yet this is a compelling “boots on the ground” account of mountaineer-turned-humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s efforts to bring schools to rural villages in remote, rugged, impoverished areas. The premise is that terrorism can be neutralized by education, which is not unreasonable. However the focus is usually mentioned as schools for girls and it is the boys who are pulled into the Taliban’s orbit, so, I dunno.
The double-author thing is a bit baffling. Relin is the author, clearly—and a hardworking, evocative journalist is he, taking down and relating this incredible tale both stylishly and with great care. The book is cast as based on interviews with the great Mortenson. And here is where (I feel churlish) I run into trouble. I don’t have a problem with most of Relin’s writing, which is vivid and detailed and moves along briskly. But occasional editorializing (utter lack of objectivity, to be blunt) makes it clear Relin not only believes every detail he relates, but rather worships his subject.
Mortenson tried to climb K2, failed, and got lost coming back down, stumbling into a poor village where the residents generously nursed him. Touched and grateful, he promised to return and build them a school–an extravagant promise, to be sure, but based on a great need. Predictably Mortenson experiences a learning curve in realizing this, but eventually the school really did happen, as did many others. Along the way, he got rich philanthropic-minded Americans to help fund these endeavors (eventually setting up a foundation dubbed CAI, Central Asia Institute, with board members and a staff). He gained the loyalty of local people, where he was “like a son” to one elder, and another man attaches himself to Mortenson as a bodyguard, willing to lay down his life for the American.
He also survives a frightening kidnapping by the Taliban, learns and respectfully participates in Muslim prayers (and is not merely tolerated but accepted), escapes a gunfight between rival opium dealers by hiding under freshly skinned, smelly goat hides in a rickety truck, navigates Kabul in dangerous times, sits vigil with Mother Teresa’s body because he happened to be in Calcutta the day she passed and the nuns let him in, and saves the life of a mountain-village woman who gave birth but appeared to be dying (after gaining permission from the men, he goes to her hut, reaches up inside her, and pulls out the placenta in pieces and then all is well for her and her baby after that). He learns local languages and dialects with ease. Back in the States, he gives a poorly attended fundraising talk on his efforts and, cleaning up, finds that one of the handful of attendees left a $20,000 donation check in an envelope on a chair in the back of the empty room. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, he is consistently welcomed by villagers and warlords alike, because he is the man who gets schools built. He leaps tall buildings with a single bound?
Oh, Relin works to humanize this remarkable humanitarian. Mortenson falls in love, gets married, and fathers two children. He gains weight (well, one can’t be a lean mountaineer indefinitely). He sleeps on floors and goes spells without bathing or food, in America and in Asia. Though broke most of the time, he manages to travel again and again between here and there, often more than once a year. He is notoriously not punctual, and his office in the basement of his Bozeman, Montana home is a mess. Yet not only does he not die of exposure or avalanche or disease or food poisoning or starvation, he is never beaten, robbed, shot by snipers, or in a car accident (according to him, the greatest danger in that region), and on he goes. The book ends with our hero contemplating a whole new area of projects. He’ll find the money. His wife and children will understand. The local people will pitch in. Inshallah.
Mortenson’s struggles and triumphs and bulldog determination are relentlessly admirable. The landscapes and the people come alive in Relin’s writing. I appreciated all that. I just…well, it just all beggared belief at times.
I had a vague notion that Mortenson has received bad press in the years after this book was published, but I waited to finish the book before investigating. Oh, dear. The redoubtable Jon Krakauer wrote something called Three Cups of Deceit, marketed as “the tragic tale of good intentions gone wrong.” A little more googling reveals Mortensen, ah, misspent CAI money, bought many copies of his own books in order to boost its numbers and his royalties (ha! That thought never crossed my own mind, who could afford such a tactic?!), alienated CAI board members, was investigated and fined, was compelled to step down, is “a sociopath,” made up or exaggerated parts of his story, etc. etc. He was “unmasked” on an episode of 60 Minutes as “a self-aggrandizing sociopath who used his charity as a personal ATM.” I also uncover some detailed back-and-forth between Mortenson and his fans and Krakauer’s relentless refutations, complete with diagrams and photos proving that Mortenson “is a liar.”
That’s enough; I don’t want to read more or go through Krakauer’s tit-for-tat and indignation. The book is as I feared—too good to be true. I hope SOME of it was true, though, and at the very least, that some valuable and lasting help came to the areas and people in which Mortenson and his helpers labored. No matter how false and flawed the book may be, it did bring a unique up-close portrait for readers in far-off places, readers who previously knew little about that part of the world. Like me. Sigh.
Ann Hood, The Obituary Writer
“what it was like”
This was a nice, easy read, elevated, really, on the final page to something finer. Alternating chapters follow two women characters as they navigate their daily lives. The two time periods are brought to life, with plenty of authentic, vivid detail. Vivien lives in Northern California and we pick up her story around 1919. Claire lives in suburban Washington D.C. in 1960. It only occasionally occurred to me to wonder if their stories would ever interweave or meet, but as I read, I began to decide I didn’t really care…their tales were sufficiently individually interesting.
Vivien, the obituary writer of the title, is a single woman living in a small-town apartment in California’s wine country after fleeing the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906. She came there because her best friend Lotte, married to a farmer and with three children, is nearby. “Aunt Viv” fell into writing obituaries for the local newspaper, and her thoughts on grief and those grieving as they visit her, receive her comfort and empathy, and ask for her services are touching. She harbors a sorrow of her own; her lover went missing in the catastrophe and even after all these years, she feels he must still be alive, “I would feel it if he were gone; I would know.”
Claire is a young housewife with one child and, as the story proceeds, another on the way. She had been a flight attendant and had some adventures, and eventually met and married a handsome, successful man who expects her to be “a good wife.” She’s soon bored senseless, as are her neighborhood girlfriends, who occasionally discuss and redo their decor, crochet decorative toilet-roll covers, and host parties with plentiful cocktails and hors d’oeuvres such as <cringe, gak> Ritz crackers with sprayable cheese in clever patterns, little sausages with toothpicks, Jell-O salad. They’re all enchanted with the Jackie Kennedy’s outfits and the inauguration. To be clear, these suburban wives are not utterly shallow; the message and hope of that moment also captivates them. In fact, before the election, Claire volunteers at a Democratic “get out the vote” phone bank, which is where she meets her lover.
Vivien ends up having to deal with and eventually write the obituary of someone she adores, and Claire, with the nudge of an affair (the man “listens to her like he’s interested, even asks questions, wants to know her thoughts”) chafes at her unhappiness. Spoiler: the two women do meet, and their last-chapter conversation filled my heart like a sail.
That scene made me think of a woman I once spent a lot of time with, my former mother-in-law. That relationship never achieved that concord, and I shed a little tear of self-pity or regret as I closed the book.
Louise Penny, Dead Cold (also published as A Fatal Grace)
“More than the mystery”
Fans of Canadian author Louise Penny don’t need to be persuaded to read this book, or any other title in her (now, what…?) 14-book Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Sûreté du Québec series. These are always a good read. I haven’t read them all and, perhaps regrettably (ensuing confusion about subtle subplots), I haven’t read them in order. This is the second one, after Still Life, which I also relished.
The pleasure of a mystery novel is trying to solve who did it before you reach the end of the book. Because, like any good mystery writer, Penny leaves bits of evidence and hints. I haven’t always, but I did figure out this one. Taking Gamache’s own primary advice, I listened with ears and heart.
For me, what makes books in this series such a different and rewarding experience is that, unlike, say, a Sue Grafton or a Tony Hillerman (two others I enjoy in this genre), I don’t feel like staying up all night rushing to the end or even peeking ahead. In fact, even with building tension, I don’t want the book to end.
In lesser hands, the evocative details of the settings and the passing days would be a distraction or, to an anxious reader, too many “red herrings.” Penny’s style makes me slow down and savor. Particularly the food and drink. C’mon, who wouldn’t want to sit by the fireplace in Gabri and Olivier’s country bistro and sip a brandy? Or better yet, enjoy “a rack of lamb, sending out an aroma of garlic and rosemary…tiny potatoes and steamed green beans rounding out the plate, [along with] a basket of steaming rolls and a small dish of butter balls.” I’d swirl my fine red wine in my glass and sigh happily, too. Don’t even get me started on the breakfast offerings (of course, fresh hot croissants) or the scene with the rich homemade chocolate cake and dark-roast coffee. I’m so there!
And the weather. As the title suggests, this one takes place in amid snow and ice. “Everyone looked alike in the Quebec winter. Like colorful marshmallows. It was hard even to distinguish men from women. Faces, hair, hands, feet, bodies, all covered against the cold.” This is exactly so. Does it advance the plot? No. It just…puts the reader there.
Penny’s also generous with her characters, sharing bits of their backstories, vulnerable emotions, and hidden thoughts. All are so human, even the bad guy(s). “I often think,” Gamache confides to a subordinate, “we should have tattooed to the back of whatever hand we use to shoot or write, ‘I might be wrong.'”
Words to live by, really. At the heart of this and her other tales is an abiding belief that bad or criminal humans aren’t evil, they’re hurting. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s naive. There is a deep strength in her Gamache that allows him to explore and solve homicides, to go into the darkness, then return to the light, the good world, “grateful” and savoring people and places he cares about, not to mention those occasional bistro visits. What is that deep strength? I have known a few people who work with the bad in this world (jail guards, cops, politicians, social workers, even teachers), and they get so depleted, discouraged, bitter, and in the worst times, poisoned. What is that deep strength? For me, that’s the main mystery of this and her other titles.
Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
“All the feels!!”
Oh, I do so look forward to a new Anne Lamott book, which is usually a gift from another fan, one of my dear sisters or one of my dear friends. I want to settle down with it in a cozy, quiet room and read it with attention, and savor it. Like a special box of See’s Candy chocolate! But also like excellent chocolate, an Anne Lamott book brings me some mixed feelings, including but not limited to hope, woe, misgivings, inadequacy, ambition, and grace. Not to mention annoyance that she has the know-it-all niche in the book marketplace and a teensy tiny bit of jealousy that I seem to have no niche in the book marketplace. Also she makes me laugh out loud sometimes, and cry other times. All the f-ing feels.
First of all, no matter how ideal the reading conditions are, there is just no way I can read a book by this wise woman quickly. I pause when she tosses a piquant thought–“Besides, I have known hell, and I have also known love. Love was bigger” or “As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves”–and have to digest, while my mind sparks off like a pinball, yes, just as noisy and chaotic as a pinball. How true is it? What moment or whom does it remind me of? So many memories, old and new pains and pangs and loves and fears and hopes. Okay, on one level, this is great, successful writing because it is engendering rich responses in the reader. On the other hand, it’s damned distracting.
I appreciate her, though, really. Her messages (for all her books are variations on a theme) of humor and forgiveness and awe and helping are utterly reasonable and bear repeating. Because life is hard and messy, absolutely, and as long as we live and breathe we damn sure should live and breathe.
Paul Gallico, The Snow Goose
This is a very slender, short book, a story. It was given to me long ago by my maternal grandmother; I see that she dated it 1971, so, my 10th birthday. What a book to give a child! Did I read it then? I can’t remember. I read it now, many decades and miles away.
It’s set in the marshes on the Essex coast, England, in the 1930s and ’40s. Marshes where fresh water meets the sea, with their beaches and channels and muck and grasses and migrating birds, would have meant nothing to me as a child growing up in suburban southern California, but Gallico paints a vivid picture. He gives us the “grey and blues and soft greens,” “under sombre skies,” conjuring up painterly images. He includes the constancy of the tides and seasons, the commotion of the birds, the brackish smells. There is also a ruin of a lighthouse and remains of what was once fencing poking out of where the sea has washed in past a breach in an old sea wall. How that spot came to be that way is the story.
This lonely site was once inhabited by a man named Philip Rhayader, who was a hunchback and also had a deformed hand. He retreated from the world that shunned him and had no place for him. The lighthouse had been abandoned, but there he was able to make a home. Great flocks came through and wintered over; he ended up making fenced enclosures and, if not befriending the wild creatures, at least providing them sanctuary/protection from the hunters who did not trespass on his domain, and offering them some shelter and food. Despite his handicaps, he had a good and busy life, using a small boat adeptly to run errands, explore, and observe the bird life, creating the pens, and painting his surroundings and the birds.
Into this spot came a girl from the village, Frith or Fritha (why the uncertainty, Mr. Gallico? to keep her at an emotional distance?), bearing a bird wounded by the local hunters. She was afraid of Rhayader because of the way he looked but determined to help the bird. It was a snow goose–a Canadian bird, very far indeed from its native lands. He was able to patch it up, and he shared with her his theory of how a big storm must have cast it far off its natural course. They began a sort of a friendship. The snow goose ended up leaving each spring with the native wildfowl, heading far north to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Spitzbergen. When it returned with the rest in the fall, he would joyously leave word with the postmistress in the village and Frith would come out to visit. It was a distinctive and beautiful bird, like no other. It returned most years.
Then, Dunkirk. Here again, reading this book as a child, I would have had no clue at all about WWII or the Dunkirk evacuation, but the grandmother who gave me this book surely did. Rhayader took his boat, bid a dismayed Frith goodbye after explaining how the help of all small boats was needed, and headed out. The snow goose elected to accompany him and that’s the last she ever saw of them together. The story goes that he saved many of the trapped soldiers in those desperate days, and some veterans later told tales of seeing the strange white bird and considering it an omen that they were going to live. Frith waited in vain for his return, now realizing that she loved him. The bird did return briefly to offer a farewell. She then went into his living space and found a painting she’d never seen of herself as a child, standing in his doorway with the wounded goose in her arms. She took it and left. Not long after “a German pilot on a dawn raid mistook the old abandoned light for an active military target, dived on it like a screaming steel hawk, and blew it and all it contained into oblivion.”
I sat stunned at story’s end, tears rolling down my face. I thought briefly of another war story I read last year, All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and how so many, many people and places were damaged and destroyed…throughout Europe. What made this “war sucks” story hurt more was that it was so small and so delicate. Nor are we to believe that nature really recovers from the doings of men.
Why did my grandmother give this story to a 10-year-old kid? She perhaps wanted to show me a truth of the world and of her lifetime. Though I’m an adult now, the vulnerability of the world seems sharper than ever to me.
I’ve always really kind of hated stories where something good and noble is obliterated and love is denied until it is too late. In addition to “war is hell,” my tears came for these reasons. So I imagined a conversation with Granny, and now I’m 10 again, stamping my feet and sobbing, “why???” or even “it’s not fair!” But the answers are already in the story, aren’t they? The bird survived an ordeal and lived, and adapted to new landscapes, and found a new home. It came back almost every year. Rhayader actually had a good and satisfying life. He made beautiful paintings that outlived him, especially one. He and Frith shared a friendship and yes, a love, before it was too late. He died “being a man” and contributing to something important. He died so others could live. “Almost” is often the way of the world, and something is better than nothing at all and maybe even a lot. Perhaps that is also the wisdom of this sad little story, something my grandmother thought I should know.
David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice
“Is this guy funny?”
I heard this guy was funny. “A master of humor.” “Sardonic wit.” This book perennially appears in holiday displays in bookstores. I read his candid account of being a Macy’s Elf (“SantaLand Diaries”) in some other context and was both horrified and amused as he skewered the store’s training and policies, the management, his colleague elves and Santas, and especially the vain, ridiculous, greedy, hapless visitors. This year <sigh> somebody gave me a copy, touting it as “hilarious!!!” Reluctantly, I sat down to reread that essay and dive into the others that follow it in this slim volume.
My impression of the Macy’s SantaLand essay hasn’t changed because, well, people haven’t changed. The camcorders and film cameras he alludes to have been replaced by cell phones and posting to Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc., but other than that, it holds up. Elves aren’t always merry, some Santas are nutty or horndogs, and children are still bullied into “holiday cheer” by helicopter parents. Did I really need to be reminded of how small we all are, at the most wonderful time of the year? But seriously, this famous essay is no fun.
Onward to “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!,” lampooning a suburban family holiday newsletter that predictably reveals the writer and her family to be utterly dysfunctional. The punch line comes when a Vietnamese girl who moved into their home (the dad’s Vietnam-war love child) evidently misunderstands “watch the baby” (born to their drug-addicted daughter and her tattooed boyfriend and now being raised by the grandmother who is narrating) as “wash the baby.” A vigorous run through the laundry machine kills the infant. Nice. Ha. Ha. Ha. Perhaps we are meant to conclude that our narrator is vapid and racist and their lives richly deserve this nasty satirization and tragedy (I am trying not to type “tragedy”). Struck me as frat-boy humor. Meh. Same with a subsequent piece reviewing elementary-school holiday plays in the pretentious tones of a churlish theater critic. It didn’t work for me. Sure these shows are amateurish, but nobody (not the kids, not the adoring and enduring parents, not the schools) emerged unscathed from Sedaris’s lavish ridicule. Umm, why? Does this fellow have no sense of humor? Can’t he lighten up?
Happy to report he can. “Jesus Shaves,” an account of the students in a beginning French class trying to explain Easter–from Jesus’s resurrection to the Easter Bunny–to one of their classmates (a baffled Muslim woman from Morocco) is indeed hilarious. No humans were sneered at in the making of this particular essay. Well, not overmuch.
But most of the book is truly dreary and unfunny, even if he does have a way with words. At the root of these essays and stories is his general contempt for people. Snark for its own sake just doesn’t do it for me, sorry. Should I lighten up?
Jane Austen, Emma
“Jane Austen’s Control-Freak Heroine”
So, I was persuaded to the couch for the purpose of checking out an episode of “Downton Abbey.” I’m a middle-class American, why do I want to view the trials and tribulations of some fabulously wealthy turn-of-the-century Brits in their swanky home? I’d glimpsed a trailer wherein a lovely young woman was fretting because her Lady’s Maid was unavailable: how on earth was she going to dress herself for the ball? Sulkily, I sat and watched. And despite myself, I became captivated—not by the ‘who will dress me?’ dilemma but by the dignity of the head chef and the struggles of the closeted gay butler. And Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was, it must be admitted, irresistible, even when she didn’t speak but arched an eyebrow or departed a room in a huff.
But I checked out of the series after a while. It wasn’t just the rape of one of the downstairs girls, it was the fussy woes and relentless disasters. You wish people could just live and work, but I guess that’s not a television script.
But boring rich English people can certainly be found in other entertainments. The PBS series of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice showed the young women posed on divans in dim sitting rooms, holding open books in front of their faces and trying not to keel over from the tedium. While some may tell us that Jane Austen profiled the aristocracy of Edwardian England with documentary accuracy, the whiff of feminism is present: some of these young women were smart and curious and chafing against a confining social system. Never mind spending hours pretending to read. Though it looked like they were marking time until they scored a suitable suitor (preferably a rich neighbor), they longed for meaningful dialogue or a life that mattered.
Remembering those women, I decided one snowy winter weekend to try another Austen tale, Emma. This time, I read the book, Austen’s own words. Well, my goodness! Once again, our heroine is rich and has a fine house and endures moments of boredom with her equally fancy friends. In one scene they are so bored that bossy Emma is able to talk everyone into a clumsy game of charades. <Yawn.>
I plowed on, remembering the gay butler and the wry Dowager of Downton Abbey, muttering to myself, “these are meant to be humans.” I did not expect more than to be diverted while stuck indoors in inclement weather. Lucky for me, my drawing room is comfy and I wasn’t awaiting any callers.
Imagine my surprise when an element of Emma’s story began to resonate. If you don’t know the plot, it is essentially the story of a young lady who meddles in the lives of her friends, playing matchmaker, making “suggestions” subtle and overt, planning and fulminating over dramas of her own contrivance. In short, Emma is not merely bossy, she is a control freak.
Again and again, Emma is shown to be dead wrong. She misreads a situation, she underestimates somebody, she sets events in motion that turn out differently than she meant them to, she blunderingly thwarts the natural order of things.
I sat up on the couch to keep reading. This had my attention. Because the narrative still followed the heroine’s thoughts, rather than stepping outside and judging. Jane Austen was basically addressing “what if what I think turns out to be quite wrong?” Haven’t we all been there?
Emma’s responses were more nuanced than I would have expected.
Emma was riding high until she wasn’t. She was ignoring the red flags and hurtling onward till her moment of humbling. And when it comes—a ruh-roh moment—our heroine does not cling ferociously to her illusions. Which, having been a control freak myself upon occasion <cough>, I found intriguing. She stops. She laments, and grieves. She thinks back, ruefully reviewing the signs she missed. Also, she now notices and ponders the gaps—the things she did not know and could not know.
So to say Emma is repeatedly humbled is not quite right. I think she is a good thinker. Her strong self esteem becomes an asset. Learning to admit when you are wrong is a universal struggle few of us escape. Learning how to move past admitting you were in error—to fresh thinking, to humility, to making amends, to shutting the hell up, to learning to “live and let live,” to gaining a new understanding of what friendship really can be—well, those are concepts worth exploring.
Richard Wright, Native Son
“Remarkable and disturbing”
This is a remarkable and disturbing novel, all the more so when I am reading it in 2018 and it was published back in 1940. There are still Bigger Thomases, and ignorant and cruel white racists, what has changed? This is *not* a hyperbolic or rhetorical question: look around you, follow the news, listen.
Some may criticize the book for its theoretical/archetypal nature and themes (did Bigger truly think and feel such things? is Max for real?) but I perceive those things as strengths. It is always hard to dig down and relay truth. It’s hard to even know what truth is when one is sorely oppressed; you get divorced from reality and have no bearings, are not in touch with/have no words for your feelings. Wright’s impressive achievement is that he went there, and came back and told the tale.
As the book proceeded, I feared it was going to be a bit like Lolita, in that the author was taking us inside a depraved mind and making it hard for us to stand outside and have perspective on the heinous crimes he committed. Let’s just say this character and this author are much more complicated.
The character of Besse broke my heart and almost made me stop reading altogether, her situation was so painful and hopeless (who cares about a black woman in this story?). We know he is not tried for her death; it was more horrific that her dead and battered body was used as evidence/an exhibit (would it have been still worse if nobody had ever found her and her life and her death were forgotten?). Ugh. Tears.
Wright pulled off an ambitious, brave, heart-rending, and righteous story. Respect!
Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse
“Delicious little fantasy”
Now, to sit down and read this book, and finish it, especially in this day and age, definitely requires a suspension of disbelief. On one level is the classic plot of a plain girl (an orphan!) who not only finds out that she is in fact a princess but also discovers her own courage and powers. Along the way–Little Princess style–she finds beautiful clothing, a cozy fire, and sugar cookies laid out in her pretty little new bedroom, a fantasy friend who turns out to be real, and a mother figure who instantly loves and embraces her.
Also the birds, pets, and flowers of garden and field are abundantly beautiful and precious. A bit over the top even. Perhaps not unlike facing a tea prepared by Marmaduke: “Plum cake. Saffron cake. Cherry cake. Iced fairy cakes. Eclairs. Gingerbread. Meringues. Syllabub. Almond fingers. Rock cakes. Chocolate drops…”
And then there are the names! A perfect happy little British village called Silverydew. Marmaduke Scarlet. Jane Heliotrope. Loveday Minette. Prudence Honeybun. Peterkin Pepper. Goudge has out-cuted Beatrix Potter.
Also: scrolling through the reviews here I also notice a reader remarking, “Some of the plot hinges on aspects of Britain’s de facto caste system that I don’t respect…” Right.
Never mind all that, dearies. Let’s go for a ride.
Lodged in all this fantastic and endearing-to-treacly sweetness and adventure, you will also find piquant moments that elevate the book. Having read other books by Goudge, I was watching for such moments and I was not disappointed. I loved when our heroine, confronting her stout, rich uncle to tell him the news that he would have to stop profiting from some grazing sheep: ‘My income will be considerably depleted,’ said Sir Benjamin in rather dry tones. ‘You could eat less,’ suggested Maria helpfully. LOL!
Or how about the explanation for how Robin was able to visit far-off London? “We are really all of us two people, a body person and a spirit person, and when the body person is asleep the spirit person, who lives inside it like a letter inside an envelope, can come out and go on journeys.” The stuff dreams are made of. I stopped reading the book for a while and sat with that and found it to be insightful and, so very Elizabeth Goudge.
And last but not least, this thought on wickedness and evil: “Wicked men do suffer from fatigue a great deal, for wickedness is a very fatiguing thing.” Maybe Dick Cheney and Donald Trump are exhausted and will die in their fitful sleep? I dared to interject for a moment…
Like other readers, a reason I picked up this book was because it was endorsed by J.K. Rowling (“I absolutely adored”). Why did she adore it? Maybe for some of the same reasons I ended up enjoying it. It’s charming and occasionally, like a glimpse of light from another world or a parallel universe, wise.