Friday, November 29, 2019

My Family and Other Animals

Ever since stumbling onto the PBS Durrells of Corfu series earlier in the year, I have been looking forward to reading My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell, on which the series is based.

It was as delightful as the series and was remarkably true to the book in tone, plot, and characters. My Family and Other Animals is the first book (1956) in a trilogy in which Durrell recounts his family’s life on the Greek island in the 1930s. Gerald is ten when his widowed mother moves with her four children from damp, dreary England to sun-soaked exuberant Corfu.

Gerald, who went on to become a world-famous naturalist and author of many books, is a delightful child in love with the natural world and eager to observe and explore the teeming, fertile world into which he is dropped. His older brother is Lawrence Durrell, or Larry in the book, and is 23 when the family moves, a struggling novelist, confident in his abilities and arrogant in his artistic sensibilities. The other brother, Leslie, while he is the antithesis of erudite Larry--he is love with guns and hunting--shares a swagger with Larry that has completely escaped their sister, Margo, who is a teenager and plagued by the traditional teen problems--acne, low self-esteem, and raging hormones. Rounding out the family is Mother--a curious and attractive mix of helplessness and capability, with a mamma bear's protective ferocity when it comes to her family.

The rest of the characters are the friends they make in Corfu, including the naturalists who befriend and mentor Gerald, or Gerry as his friends and family call him, the local doctor, a series of tutors for Gerry, and Spiro, a native of Corfu who loves and admires the English and takes the Durrell family under his wing and shepherds them devotedly.

I really loved this book--it is a perfect mixture of family anecdotes that remind me fondly of James Thurber's reminiscences (notably My Life and Hard Times) and descriptions of the birds, insects, fish, and plant life of Corfu. In particular, I loved Gerry's recounting of the time he watched two pairs of swallows build nests and raise their families--comedy writing that made me laugh out loud. Dry and witty but with a deep understanding and love for the animals being described.

Milo Parker plays Gerry Durrell

I am really looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. I also just put Corfu on the must-visit list.

This book counts for the Back to the Classics challenge in the humor category.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Tables Turned - Wordsworth

Who wants to go hiking near Windermere?
I found this on Twitter this morning, courtesy of the Keats-Shelly Blog, and liked it so much I wanted to share it.

The Tables Turned 
William Wordsworth (written in 1798)

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Brat Farrar

During my October mystery month, I managed to finally read Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. This is a wonderful, classic mystery, complete with doppelgangers, family fortunes, English countryside, extended family, and a pretty good mystery.

It reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier's The Scapegoat, which I read last year in that the protagonist, Brat Farrar, has to prove that he is really the person he is pretending to be, so it takes a lot of concentration on his part to remember all the details he has learned as well as anticipate or project how the other person would have behaved in a given situation.

In a nutshell, Brat is impersonating the older of a pair of twins who was presumed to have committed suicide was he was 13 but since the body was never found, only a suicide note, the family is open to the idea that he ran away after his parents died because he was grief stricken.

Although the book was fun to read, the entire plot is on pretty shaky ground--it's hard to really project how family members would really react when a lost boy shows up on the eve of turning 21 and inheriting the family estate, undercutting the expectations of his twin brother who didn't disappear, but this family seems to really take it all in stride and accept Brat pretty willingly, all things considered.

With DNA testing, this type of plot really can't work in the modern world, athough it might be fun to watch the plot gymnastics of an author trying to modernize the story.

There is a mini series from 1986, which maybe I'll try to watch this winter.

Mark Greenstreet as Brat Farrar

I'm counting this one for the Back to the Classics Challenge in the category of novella, as the edition I read was 240 pages, just under the 250 page cutoff.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Travels with Charley

I read this John Steinbeck memoir of a cross-country trip slowly and savored not only the language but Steinbeck's perspective of America in 1960. Starting from his home in Sag Harbor, New York in September, Steinbeck and his elderly poodle Charley traveled in a camper, named Rocinante (after Don Quixote's horse), across the upper part of the continental U.S., down California, and then across the lower part of the country, and then up the eastern seaboard.

I love traveling, road trips, and Steinbeck, and so this book was a joy to read, not only in terms of seeing the country unfold along a ribbon of highway but also in how Steinbeck seeks to understand and talk with people he meets along the way. I loved how he and Charley struck up conversations so that they could listen to people's stories. The subtitle of the book is "In Search of America," and I think this is a noble ambition--to hit the road and try to understand what common threads constitute the warp and weft of the American experience.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?
I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found...
Eventlessness collapses time.

I think my favorite part was when Steinbeck stopped in a redwood forest and wrote of the magic hush that these magnificent, ancient trees impose upon us mortals. Also, I absolutely, positively have to visit Deer Isle, Maine!

The hardest part to read was the part in Louisiana, where Steinbeck witnessed the shameful ugliness of racial hatred during the time of forced integration of schools. This part was hard to read but I'm glad that Steinbeck included it. Today, almost 60 years after Steinbeck hit the road with Charley, we are still struggling to be inclusive and sweeping the past under the rug is never wise or good.

John Steinbeck with Charley in Sag Harbor.

I'm counting this book as my classic from the Americas category in the Back to the Classics challenge.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Wrapping up RIP 14 - Peril the 1st it is!

I spent a happy October reading mysteries as part of the annual Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) reading challenge, and with six books read I easily accomplished the highest pinnacle, Peril the 1st (a four-book mark).

Here's what I read:
  • A Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows - birder murder series #1 - absolutely wonderful, Canadian detective in England, a birder, of course, and a good mystery, and a pun or at least a double meaning, which gratifies my love of the nuances of language.
  • Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey - at under 250 pages, I am counting this as my novella for the Back to the Classics challenge. About 3/4 of the way in, I had the feeling that I had read this book already, but I don't recall when or where or how...Enjoyed it immensely;
  • The Key to Rebecca, by Ken Follett - 3 solid stars - I think I like Follett's historical fiction more than his bread-and-butter spy thrillers, but this kept my interest almost until the end, and then it seemed a bit...silly?
  • In the Woods, by Tana French - riveting, Irish archaeology, Dublin, an exceptionally interesting double mystery, ambiguous ending, lots to like here, eager to read the second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and then watch the new TV series, airing in November, I think.
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay - excellent, review here.
  • Black Spirits and  White: A Book of Ghost Stories, by Ralph Adams Cram - reading this with the GoodReads True Book Talk group; written in late 19th century, fairly conventional ghost stories, but good, well-written and atmospheric.
I started Nathaniel Hawthorn'es Twice Told Tales, but found it unreadable - relentlessly grim and dull.

Reading mysteries in October is a tradition I have grown to love. 

Happy Halloween everyone!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Single Thread

I'm a long time fan of Tracy Chevalier, and have read about half of her books, beginning with Girl With a Pearl Earring, and I just finished A Single Thread. One of the things I like about Chevalier is that the subjects (settings, premise) of her novels vary widely. She really can never be accused of repeating herself.

A Single Thread is about Violet Speedwell, a thirty-something spinster who lost her fiance in the Great War and has just moved out of her mother's house in Southampton and is trying to build a life for herself in the cathedral town of Winchester.

The novel explored and examined a number of activities that I am absolutely fascinated by. Violet joins the cathedral embroidery society whose mission is to make kneelers and cushions for the cathedral, and she learns to embroider. It's been years since I did any embroidery or cross-stitch because I want to save my eyesight for reading, but hearing Violet's meditations on the relaxed focus that embroidery can impart made me want to pull out my floss and start a new project!

Violet meets a very nice older man with whom she develops a deep friendship, and he happens to be a bell-ringer, not only at Winchester Cathedral but also in his own village's parish church. Again, I loved hearing about the intricacies of bell ringing--from the mathematical construction of the patterns, to what a peal of bells actually involves, to the physical strength it takes to ring and well, to  the community and social structure of the bell-ringers themselves.

And then there's the cathedral itself. I love medieval architecture and reading about someone who is able to spend hours in the cathedral was wonderful. She finds Tudor era graffiti, goes up to the bell tower, and learns some of its secret passageways. Seriously good stuff!

In many ways, A Single Thread is a coming of age story. Despite Violet being 38, WWI essentially froze her in time and stunted her development as an adult. By breaking away from her domineering mother, supporting herself, finding friends, and building a life for herself that has meaning and purpose, she is finally able to shuffle out from under the oppressive weight of WWI and live fully.

Sadly, WWII is looming on the horizon--the story takes place in the early thirties, when Hitler was coming to power, and many people couldn't really believe he would survive long politically.

I really enjoyed A Single Thread and watching Violet grow into herself. There were suspenseful sections--Chevalier does a great job of introducing a physical threat to Violet that provides an undercurrent of unease that undercuts the seemingly mild life that Violet leads. I also really enjoyed the extended family that Violet creates for herself out of a medley of friends that are themselves on the fringes of society.

Oh, and yes, Violet does visit Jane Austen's grave at one point :)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Picnic at Hanging Rock

What a perfect first book for RIPXIV!

Picnic at Hanging Rock has been on my TBR list for decades, and I decided to make it my "Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania " for the Back to the Classics challenge this year.  Set outside Melbourne, Australia in 1900, written by Joan Lindsay (she was 70 years old) and published in 1967, it is an intriguing story about the disappearance of three school girls and their teacher on February 14, 1900 at the picnic grounds at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia.

Hanging Rock is a real place (although actually lots of places carry this name).

The girls attend the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, and the four girls who disappear are senior girls, about 16 years old, who get bored and decide to go have a look at the rock formation up close.  They are followed by one of the teachers who is chaperoning the picnic.

Mrs. Appleyard, the proprietress of the school for girls, has stayed behind at the school and is, of course, distraught when the party of picnickers return and she learns that some are missing.

The rest of the novel focuses on the efforts to find the girls and teacher--first by the police, and then by a young Englishman visiting relatives in the area who glimpsed the girls when they walked by his own picnicking party. He and the local groom take it upon themselves to search for the girls, with some luck.

The story of the novel is really about the effects of the stress that the disappearance of the girls and teacher have on the other girls and teachers and staff of the school, the two young men who were the last to see them, and Mrs. Appleyard, who must not only inform the parents of the missing girls but also face the prospect of closing the school due to negative publicity.

Be forewarned, the novel ends without any explanation of what happened to the girls and teacher. According to the foreword to the edition I read by Maile Meloy (who suggesting reading the novel before reading her foreword!), Lindsay did write a chapter that explained the disappearance but her "publisher told her to cut it, so she did." She did give the chapter to her agent with instructions to allow its publication after her death.

I agree with the publisher--the book is really good in setting the reader up to be engaged in wondering what could possibly have happened to the girls and teacher. Reading what the missing chapter contained was a bit of a letdown, so my advice is to read the book cold and then read about it after finishing it.

Other thoughts - I really liked how Lindsay showed how insignificant humans are in the world. Throughout, she talked about all the creatures who inhabit the landscape of Hanging Rock (the snakes, the insects, the animals, the vegetation), and how their worlds and ours coexist with little real interaction. I think Lindsay's vision is that sometimes these separate worlds collide and those collisions rip holes that cannot be mended.

A great spooky thriller with a grimness to it, set over 100 years ago in a mysterious, exotic setting.

With regards to adaptation...Peter Weir did a classic version in 1975 (which I have yet to watch), and then there is a 6 episode series from 2018 (also haven't seen).

Finally, here is a fascinating article about the writing of the novel and the making of the Weir movie.  Lindsay said many of the scenes came to her in dreams, she wrote the whole thing in a few weeks, and was inspired by this painting, "At the Hanging Rock," by William Ford.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Happy Equinox - To Autumn (Keats)

To Autumn

By John Keats (1795-1821)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Mid-Month Update

I am loving September - the days are warm, the nights are cool, the tomatoes are ripe, and the raspberries are abundant!

Travel - we did a quick weekend trip to Port Townsend, WA for the 43rd annual Wooden Boat Festival. It was wonderful. Flew into Seattle--drove to Gig Harbor for lunch at NetShed #9, then drove up to Port Townsend. Checked into the lovely Palace Hotel (I think we got the last hotel room in town--must have been a cancellation because it was only 3 blocks from the festival dock), and then enjoyed the afternoon and evening. Had a great day on Saturday attending events, walking the docks, talking pictures, and enjoying the beautiful day. Drove back to Gig Harbor--had a fabulous dinner at Brix 25. Flew home to Colorado Sunday morning.  So much fun!

Here's what I've been reading...

Lavinia - my first Ursula Le Guin, very similar to Circe by Madeline Miller in that Le Guin tells the story of Lavinia, last wife of Aeneas, and a creation of Virgil who merely mentioned her in his story of Aeneas fleeing the aftermath of Troy and founding Rome. I enjoy seeing the women who are tangential to the mythic stories finally getting their day. I loved the relationship between Lavinia and the poet, and found her story of pre-Roman life on the Italian peninsula to be fascinating. I'm not a sci-fi fan, so I don't anticipate reading much of Le Guin, but this one was good.

Educated - memoir by Tara Westover, who told the story of her life growing up in a uber conservative Mormon home in Idaho with an abusive older brother, controlling parents, and a mountain on which she could roam at will. It was compelling and inspiring. Westover ended up educating herself with the help of BYU, Oxford, and Harvard. She is also a talented singer and I really enjoyed listening to her sing in a YouTube video that I found.

Fall of Giants - book one of Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, covering WWI through the experiences of a Welsh mining family, German and British aristocrats, Russian peasants, American politicians and journalists and gangsters. I enjoyed it immensely. It helped me wrap my head around the places and battles as well as the politics and societal stresses the marked the beginning of the 20th century. Follett is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. First rate storytelling against a huge backdrop. Definitely my kind of book. I fully intend to read the rest of the trilogy.

Hope you are enjoying this bridge month - as we shift to fall in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

RIP14 - Readers Imbibing Peril - getting my books together

For the past couple of years, I have devoted the month of October to reading mysteries and the RIP (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge is always fun. I'm not really into horror, although I think I might join a Dr Sleep (Stephen King) read-along.

Here is my lineup, so far, for October and for RIPXIV. I know I won't get through them all, but I'll have fun trying.

In no particular order...

A Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows - birder murder series #1
Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon - #1 set in Venice, I want to reread the series as I love it so much
Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody - a Kate Shackleton mystery I picked up at a JASNA book exchange
A Monstrous Regiment of Women, by Laurie King - #2 in the Sherlock Holmes, Mary Russell series
Where Serpents Sleep, by C.S. Harris - #4 in the Sebastian St Cyr series, although I also have #3 on order, so will probably read that one first
Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey - a slender book, I may count this as my novella for Back to the Classics challenge
Anna's Book, by Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) - set in London, 1905; really enjoyed her Brimstone Wedding, which I read a few years ago
Murder on Astor Place, by Victoria Thompson - this has been on my TBR shelf  for ages; I need to read it or recycle it!
The Key to Rebecca, by Ken Follett - Nazis and Egypt - I'm intrigued - also, I have this notion it ties into Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, but the back cover is not confirming that...

Oh, and the Goodreads True Book Talk group will be doing a spooky read in October--the voting indicates one of two sets of short stories. Both look great--Twice Told Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Black Spirits and White, by Ralph Adams Cram.

And, I have Melmoth audio waiting in my library queue...same with Louise Penny's latest A Better Man, but who knows when my turn will be!