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Archive for January, 2019

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.

 

 

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