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Seeds by Richard Horan

This was my last week off before grad school starts back up again, and coming off a stack of thick novels I decided to read some nonfiction. I picked up Seeds at the Five Colleges Booksale last spring. I love trees, and this book is about Richard Horan‘s travels to various writers’ (and a few other important cultural figures’) homes to gather seeds from trees that would have been around at the time the person lived there (witness trees). His longer term plan was to plant them and grow new trees.

It was a pleasant read for a stressful week — those of you who work in higher ed know that the weeks between semesters are crammed — and I enjoyed it, although by the end I was ready to move on. Horan is passionate about his project and meets interesting people along the way. He strikes a good balance between talking about his travels and seed gathering and sharing interesting information about both the trees and the people whose homes he visits. His project is interesting, although the website he set up to tell the continuing adventures of the trees doesn’t seem to be around anymore, so I’m not sure how things turned out.

In the “extras” section in the back of the book there are some anecdotes he heard about Betty Smith (yes, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) from people who knew her, and that was a real gem that I wish wasn’t hidden past the end of the book. Horan’s writing is at its best when he is enthusing about something that had a lasting impact on him, whether a book he read when he was young or a person he met on the trips for this book. I also enjoyed his willingness to engage in unvarnished and deserved critique here and there, whether about the white-washing of historical sites (example: there are no slave cabins at Mount Vernon and white people hoe the garden when Horan visits; I think shortly after, a slave quarters did open), the devastating tree cutting at Gettysburg National Military Park (which took out witness trees along with those the park service wanted to be rid of), or our one size fits all education system. That said, he’s a little hard on docents. They’re just volunteers, man, they are probably doing the best they can.

Seeds is more than what my Dad calls a “palate cleanser,” but is still easy to dip into if you don’t have the bandwidth for something heavier. It made me want to read Eudora Welty immediately. I admit to cringing here and there at some lines that clanked for me, but then I’d come across something like this description of Welty’s eyes, “scattering thoughts and sucking air out of every head and chest they made contact with.” Or his Bill Bryson-like description of yelling back and forth to be heard over construction machinery with the Yaddo publicist about the famous literary retreat’s noise mitigation efforts.

Recommended for anyone who likes trees, books, and/or travel narratives.

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In my last post I wrote about The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, and over the last week I finished the trilogy, reading A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory. These books are the continuing story of Liz Headland, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, friends since their late teens when they arrived at Cambridge, in their fifties by the end of The Gates of Ivory.

A Natural Curiosity also focuses on a few other characters who are introduced in The Radiant Way but don’t play a large part in the first book. For example, Shirley, Liz’s sister, and others who live in in Northam, where Alix has moved. Drabble also discusses one of her signature topics in this book — marriages, and how they work or don’t. We watch Shirley and her husband Clive as his business implodes and Esther, faced with a proposal after being single and mainly living alone her entire adult life. We see a middle aged lawyer in Northam whose wife starts a torrid affair, trying to carry on. And her girlhood friend, who is married to a famous archeologist, who are happily married even though they don’t seem to be at all suited. And Liz, seeming to grow closer to her ex-husband, Charles, who left her so dramatically in The Radiant Way but has come home from Washington and is in the process of a divorce.

There’s also a fair bit of politics in these books, which is one of the critiques of them that I’ve seen in reviews. Personally, I don’t mind. I also empathize with the characters, who find that their views shift a bit as they mature, but who are also disappointed, even disillusioned to see the world as it’s evolving. Unlike Liz and her friends I was never an apologist for communism, and as a young person I didn’t really have well thought out views. I parroted the views I’d heard as a child from adults, and it wasn’t until I had children that I began to think for myself about what I valued, and to try to understand what various political views meant practically in the world and whether any politicians or parties actually represented my views.

Drabble’s characters are surer from the start, and a few really live their views in accordance with their views — like Alix and her husband Brian, and Brian’s best friend Stephen Cox. In the second book, Alix is trying to help Paul, the serial killer, now jailed near her home in the north, who lived above Esther’s flat and killed one of Alix’s students in The Radiant Way. And almost the entire third book is about Stephen Cox trying to get to Khmer Rouge territory (which in the early 80s were officially out of power and not in charge in the cities, but still controlled parts of the Cambodian countryside).

Cox is a Booker winning novelist and we watched him grow closer to Liz in the second book. In fact it is at dinner with her that he says he’s going to go and see what happened, and why the communist ideal didn’t work in Kampuchea, and write a play about Pol Pot. Liz is a little alarmed, but doesn’t stop him. In the beginning of the third book she receives a package containing some finger bones and packet of fragmented writing — notes, sketches, journals. The novel bounces between scenes of Stephen making his way to Cambodia and meeting various people along the way (including the wonderful Thai business woman Mrs. Porntip), and Liz and others back in England.

She and Stephen’s other friends decide they have to determine what happened to him. Drabble introduces a character who narrates bits of The Gates of Ivoryat times addressing the reader directly, Hattie Osborne. She is Stephen’s agent and a former actress, and the night before he leaves they attend a friend’s 70th birthday dinner and a party and in the wee hours he suggests she stay in his apartment while he’s away. Hattie, it turns out, was also at the party at the very beginning of The Radiant Way, and is additionally an acquaintance of Polly Piper, Alix’s former boss.

It’s this social network — the myriad ways Drabble’s characters’ lives interweave — that made me think last night as I finished The Gates of Ivory that these books would make great television. I can see them adapted for a multi-season drama. These books together tell not only the story of three women and their friends and relations, but also of England, through the post-war years, the Thatcher years, the massive social, economic, and political changes. of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and the art, theater, music, and media that Liz and Alix and Esther and their friends enjoy. In this way, Drabble’s books are like Jane Austen’s, social in more than one way — they examine the lives of particular families but also the life of a society, with all the layers that entails.

 

 

I started The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble in Maine last Saturday, and then came back to the last minute cleaning, cooking, etc. and the Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities, and went back to work on Boxing Day, so it took me several days to finish. This is actually part of a trilogy about the same group of characters, centered around three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. When the book opens, one of them, Liz Headleand, a London psychiatrist, is preparing to host a huge New Year’s bash on the last day of 1979. It ends in June 1985, on her friend Esther Breuer’s fiftieth birthday. Which they spend together, along with their third university friend, Alix Bowen.

In the nearly 400 pages between, Drabble spins the story of these women’s adult lives, occasionally dipping into their childhoods, describing the society they live in (mainly well educated but not posh London, and the north of England, where Alix and Liz are from), the disciplines they devote themselves to (psychiatric medicine for Liz, art history and especially the Italian Renaissance painter Crivelli for Esther, literature and teaching it to under-served people, like women prisoners, for Alix), the men they love, and the children they bear.

As I’ve written here before, I love the way Drabble writes about people as they relate to each other — friends, relatives, lovers — and the way those relationships knit together create society. She works into the story politics and culture, literature and art, anthropology and history and myth, but always returns to the relationships. And these not only populate society but also Drabble’s fictional world. Kate Armstrong, the main character of The Middle Ground appears on the edges of The Radiant Way, for example. As in other Drabble books the women here are serious, thinking people no matter how they spend their days, and she captures the way they manage their own needs, goals, ambitions, work with the care of others in a way that really resonates with me.

I’ve read some criticism of Drabble — she gets too caught up in description and explanation, she injects too much (read too liberal) political commentary into her fiction, she writes about privileged people, her novels are uninteresting for all of the above reasons. But I love her lens, I love vicariously living in her England for a few days, and I love her writing, and I’ve started the second book in the trilogy, A Natural Curiosity.

The Computer Scientist and I went away for a short winter vacation in Maine. Before I left I packed a few books, of course, but we ended up visiting two libraries with ongoing book sales (in Cape Porpoise and Kennebunkport) and I added to my stash. I ended up reading two books I brought with me and one I bought.

First, I have been telling my elder offspring for years that I would read Tolkien. He read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy around age 12 or 13 or so, and pretty much swore off all other fiction because he said nothing else could ever live up to those books. He’s read all four books a few times. I can certainly see why he likes them. I was so wrapped up in the story that I read in the car a bit, which I don’t usually do.

I do wish I hadn’t seen the first part of the movie, because it colored the way I imagined various scenes, but I absolutely enjoyed the story and the writing and can see the many ways Tolkien has influenced other writers. I finished late Thursday evening and couldn’t get to sleep at first, thinking over what I’d read and all the details Tolkien works in. And also that there are absolutely no female characters except some vague references to “wives and children.” Interesting. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit.

On Friday I read Appointment In Samarra by John O’Hara. Other than some short stories, I don’t think I’ve ever read O’Hara. I purchased it at the Five Colleges Book Sale in part because the cover caught my eye — it’s the Penguin Classics paperback — and partly because there were two and my friend bought the other copy. Plus, I thought, here was an Important Author I hadn’t read, so I’d remedy that. I grabbed it to read on the trip because I knew it starts on Christmas.

I told the Computer Scientist I should have known from the title — a reference to a story about a man’s appointment with death, a folktale retold by W. Somerset Maugham — that it wasn’t going to be a cheery holiday read. What I didn’t realize is exactly how sad it is. O’Hara wrote about a fictionalized version of his own small city in Pennsylvania, and this book, set in 1930, captures all the social ills of the time, many of which are really still with us. Objectification of women, prejudice, classism, the power of money and influence, organized crime, addiction, corruption, social pettiness — pretty much everything ugly about society is in Appointment In Samarra. If there is a character to admire it’s Caroline, who is at least somewhat loyal, but even she seems to stubbornly avoid thinking most of the time. I found myself thinking “come on, can’t you do better than that” several times and in reference to several characters.

This novel is sort of like The Great Gatsby set in a smaller town with characters a little less rich. But at least in Gatsby there is an unrequited love that drives the excessive behavior. In Appointment in Samarra, the driving forces seem to just be greed, prejudice, and a need to prove oneself to friends and relatives, and the concomitant fear of falling short. When my reading friend who attended the book sale with me asked if I liked it, I said I was glad I read it; it’s part of the American literary canon, I admire the writing and the risk O’Hara took (he addresses “nice” women’s sexuality very directly, which shocked some reviews). But it’s a really tough story.

Along the same lines, I picked up A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge, another new-to-me Important Author. It’s a tough story too — the main characters are a couple whose marriage is strained by jealousy, financial worry, and snobbishness, and their teenagers, Madge, a young woman desperate to break away and willing to break rules to do so, and Alan, a young man trying to hold things together and at the same time, venture out on his own path as well. Bainbridge is a great observer of human nature and captures both the fears and disappointments of late middle age and the hopes and tangled feelings of youth beautifully. A Quiet Life is also a post-war story; England is still dark and damaged. The novel opens and ends with scenes taking place years after the main part of the novel, and those somewhat soften the dismal view of the family she paints. That seemed, by comparison, a bit hopeful.

A solid few days of reading, and for that, I’m glad! There is nothing like the sound of the sea and the rain and wind when you’re tucked up, cozy, with a glass of wine and a nice stack of books!

 

Norah Lofts was not an author I knew of when I picked up How Far to Bethlehem at the Five Colleges Book Sale last spring. Last week, after finishing a book for Kirkus and turning in my final paper before the winter break, I decided it would make a good Advent read. And it did.

I have since learned that Lofts was known for the detail in her historical novels and that was one thing I enjoyed about How Far to Bethlehem. It’s the story of all the people converging on the nativity — Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, one of the shepherds, even the innkeeper. Lofts imagines a backstory for the lesser known characters and fills out the lives of those you may be more familiar with. She imagines the wise men as an astronomer from Korea (Melchior), a Mongolian military leader (Gaspar) and a learned eunuch slave from Africa (Balthazar). The innkeeper she imagines to be a former sailor. The shepherd, a grieving father whose son fell in with Jewish rebels and ended up crucified.

The way Mary and Joseph each receive the news of their holy son’s impending birth is beautifully written, as is the miracle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and Mary’s visit to her cousin. Anne, Mary’s mother, also comes alive for Lofts, worried about Mary and convinced her son in law is a fool for taking her on a donkey to Bethlehem. But the really interesting parts for me were the stories of Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar and the way their lives come together on the quest to follow the star and find the child.

When my kids were kids, I used to read Jostein Gaarder’s  The Christmas Mystery to them every advent, one part a day until Christmas. How Far to Bethlehem reminded me a little of that book. It’s a good little advent read.

Around ten years ago I read Anne Fadiman‘s wonderful books of essays, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small. Those are both so delightful that I still recommend them to people — they make wonderful gifts for people who love reading and books, and they are smart, interesting, and won’t keep you up at night like so many contemporary nonfiction books might. I’ve also always meant to read her book about a Hmong family dealing with the American medical system The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. But I was in a bookstore in Vermont on Columbus Day and saw her 2017 memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, on a staff pick display and serendipitously, discovered it is in Overdrive (library eBooks).

This memoir is as much a book about Fadiman’s father, Clifton Fadiman, as it is about her and the rest of her family. She talks about what it was like to have a well-known father, to both be writers, and to try to share his love of wine. In fact, much of the book is about the fact that Fadiman doesn’t really like wine, something she feels badly about and suspects her father knows even though she politely fakes it. Towards the end of the book, Fadiman looks into the physiological reason some people don’t like certain tastes, and that section is reminiscent of her earlier work.

I enjoyed both the personal reflections and the more straightforward nonfiction sections. It’s interesting to read about Clifton Fadiman, and his desire to make himself over from a Jewish child of immigrants into a man of letters. My own great-uncle, a chemist, changed his name to sound less Jewish, so the phenomena of distancing oneself from family history is familiar to me. And there is a good bit of information about wine in this book, especially French wines of certain areas and vintages that I didn’t know much about before reading it.  Mainly Fadiman’s writing is a pleasure, smart and clear and evocative.

This was a good read, but I admit I am a little tired of eBooks. There are a few more I’d like to read that are available on Hoopla and Overdrive but I may take a print break before reading those.

 

Trick by Domenico Starnone

I was a little skeptical of the praise Trick received (it’s on at least one list of best translated books of 2018) because I wondered if the star power of Jhumpa Lahiri as the translator turned reviewers’ heads. I was wrong: this is just a good book, deserving of praise. It’s the story of an artist in his seventies, recovering from poor health, a widower. He is called to his daughter’s house — the house he grew up in — in Naples, to care for his four year old grandson while she and her husband, both mathematicians and professors, go to a conference. He quickly ascertains that they are fighting, and that the boy, Mario, is both ” well behaved and out of control.”

I have to say Starnone does a terrific job of writing Mario — he is precocious in his family’s eyes, as all children are, and yet ordinary, well spoken as children of the well educated often are, and yet fully a four year old. He also writes Daniele Mallarico, the elderly artist, very well. He has recently been commissioned to illustrate a deluxe edition of Henry James’ story, “The Jolly Corner.” Which I plan to read.  He is struggling to send off a few plates to his editor before he goes to Naples when the book opens.

As he cares for the child, he reflects on his own childhood and especially, his adolescence in Naples, and on what he became, and whether he is who he wanted to be. He also reflects on his body of work and as is so often the case with creative people, doubts himself. It’s an incredibly poignant, but also incredibly realistic, examination of identity, creativity, and growing up — and old. Mario represents what childhood is but also what childhood means at the end of life; his actions and his contrary, slightly crazed little self bring out both love and doubt in Daniele, and create both a tension and a source of introspection and examination. Is Daniele a talented, important artist or did he simply believe those who saw talent in him, regardless of what he was actually capable of? It’s a good question and this novel really drills down on what is talent and what is human nature, and it desire for influence and importance?

There’s also an amazing appendix of “notes and sketches” for the illustration project. A good read.