Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The New Noah by Gerald Durrell

The New Noah
by Gerald Durrell
Viking Press, 1964 (originally published in 1955)
223 pages

This was an odd one, in that I started reading it and thought two things: first, I've read about these trips before, and not when I was a kid, but rather more recently; and second, the last time I read these, they were written better. It was weird. And then I read the dust jacket, and realized that the advertising was all right there -- these were, indeed, retellings of previous adventures, but primarily aimed at kids. Once I had that all sorted, I could enjoy the book for what it was. Sort of.

I believe I have mentioned before a number of things I like about Gerald Durrell's writing -- his enthusiasm for nature, his desire to share the quirks and amazing things about the animals he meets, and especially his eloquence when it comes to describing settings, and his sharp and self-deprecating sense of humour. Some of that was still in evidence here, but in taking his "best" stories from the earlier books and editing them for a younger audience, we really only got the first two, with rare glimpses of the third and fourth -- he's telling animal stories, and he's shortened them, and they're considerably less incisive and/or amusing than their counterparts written for adults. They don't sparkle in the same way. The language is simpler, the stories shorter, the sense of adventure and danger and occasionally sorrow or outrage just doesn't show up. Chumly the Chimp (remember him?) makes an appearance and gets most of a chapter -- an unusual thing for any single animal in this book -- but the sadness of the story has vanished. Chumly's ignoble and tragic end isn't mentioned, isn't even alluded to. Perhaps this was considered too distressing for children to hear? Durrell uses this volume as a bit of a platform for discussing the life of an animal collector, but doesn't quite hit the same note that the previous three do: the acknowledgement that collecting fauna for zoos is as much hard work, pain, disappointment, and frustration as it is excitement and success. The book is significantly poorer for the lack of balance and depth.

It is possible that this book would be a better entree to Durrell's oeuvre. I think because I am familiar with his better stuff -- his "real" books, as it were -- this was not a terribly good choice for me.

Complaints aside, it's still fun to read these stories, truncated and disjointed as they are, and it's a very fast read. The stories are short and amusing even without the sparkle of wit and vivid description, and the little bits on his trips to Guiana, Argentina, and Paraguay have certainly whet my appetite for the next book in my quest to read all his autobiographical animal tales. Though it also became clear to me that I've read The Drunken Forest before -- I remember the story about Amos the Anteater well, including the bit where the gaucho's wife rides out on the back of the draft bull to pick up the aforementioned creature. And the tale about the musical capybara was one of the better and funnier tales in the book.

Only recommended if you haven't got any other Durrell to read, and absolutely need a fix. I suppose if you wanted to get a kid an early Durrell book that didn't include any unpleasant colonial English white male overtones, you might do well with this, too. The stories focus on the animals almost exclusively, so some of the parts that are not so desirable about his earlier books are absent here. However, as an adult reader, too much of the wonder and beauty and balance of his first books is absent too; I won't feel the need to read this one again.

Other Durrell books reviewed here so far:
1. The Overloaded Ark
2. Three Singles to Adventure
3. The Bafut Beagles

Monday, July 29, 2013

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen, narrated by Nadia May
Blackstone Audio, 2005 (originally published in 1813)
10 discs, unabridged

What can one possibly say about Pride and Prejudice? Well, lots, but someone like me, a lightweight fan of Jane Austen with a particular love for this book, is highly unlikely to say anything new or exciting. I did realize, though, I've never talked about this book on my blog, despite it being one of my favourite books of all time. I'll ruminate instead on the experience of "rereading" something by listening to it, and some of the bits that struck me particularly forcefully this time around. I'm sure that most of what I say here has been hashed through in first year English Literature classes the world round -- forgive me, I never took one of those, and my reading of literary criticism of Jane Austen has been very sparse (I haven't even read the introduction to either of the editions of Pride and Prejudice I own, though I would like to). There will be spoilers for the entire book here, so watch yourself if you haven't read it and have managed to avoid knowing anything about it.

Though it seems a little ridiculous to attempt a summary, here we go: Pride and Prejudice follows the romance, among other adventures, of Elizabeth Bennet, second of five daughters born to a quiet, intelligent, and rather lazy nobleman and his loud, foolish, and rather hysterical wife. She becomes aware of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy near the beginning of the book, but not in a positive way -- he snubs her terribly at a ball, and she spends the greater part of the book quite disdainful of him. This is a rather unusual romance in that most of the falling in love takes place while the hero and heroine are separated, at least on the heroine's side. Also touched upon are the manners and conventions of the time, the status of women, education, morality, marriage, and female relationships -- both sisterhood and friendship.

Mrs. Bennet's prime goal in life is to see her daughters married; this is not as ridiculous as it sounds, given that we're talking Regency England here, and any unmarried daughters would be in a very perilous state indeed once Mr. Bennet died. Because has no male heirs, his estate, Longbourn, will be entailed to a distant male relative once he dies. The injustice of this is never commented on in much seriousness -- it is Mrs. Bennet who does most of the complaining, and she complains about pretty much everything -- but this is perhaps one of the better examples in the book of showing and not telling. The distant male relative is a buffoon and it does, in fact, seem rather awful that Mr. Bennet's generally (not universally) lovely daughters will become homeless, or at least entirely dependent on the goodwill of their brothers-in-law or, less likely still, the distant cousin, based solely on their sex if they do not marry.

And the book spends rather a large amount of time looking at what marriage can be. I am not sure if it was the mode of ingestion -- listening versus reading -- or whether it was that it's been quite a while since my last ingestion, but this seemed very clear to me this time around. Elizabeth explicitly thinks about the relationship her parents have in uncomplimentary terms, noting that the match has not been kind to either of them; her father has retreated into sarcasm and indolence; her mother, unrestrained by good sense (or the good sense of her husband), is more of a hindrance to her daughters than a help to them, and is also plagued by real or imaginary nervous ailments. She is determined she will make a better match than this, and in fact refuses a proposal relatively early on in the book that would have secured her future comfortably (and set her up to be mistress of Longbourn at her father's passing) but would have made her absolutely miserable otherwise. When Elizabeth's close friend Charlotte accepts the same man's proposal, it causes Elizabeth an enormous amount of turmoil, and she loses a great deal of respect for Charlotte.

This whole episode with Charlotte fascinates me, because Elizabeth Bennet is not stupid and must be able to see why Charlotte did what she did; and I've thought that perhaps she was just more of a romantic than she thinks she is. The idea of marrying someone to satisfy a financially stable future is completely abhorrent to her. Or at least, that's what I thought it was, but on listening to the book again I think I've got to modify my conclusion. It's not just that Charlotte is so mercenary -- though that does bother her -- it's that she knows Charlotte can have no respect for her husband, and I think that is what really bothers Elizabeth.

I think it is rather more than romanticism; Elizabeth moderates her own affection for Wickham based on his lack of prospects, despite the fact that she is indeed attracted to him. This is mercenary too, ignoring the desires of her heart because her head reminds her that marriage to Wickham wouldn't be a comfortable place for a lady who is used to a certain kind of status and society. It's the lack of respect for one's husband that bothers her -- and I think it must be at least partially because she's seen how that plays out in her own parents' life.

Austen never seems to condemn Charlotte in the same way that Elizabeth does; and indeed, she makes it quite clear that Charlotte, if not in raptures, is quite content with her lot. Her temperament is certainly much more suitable to the challenge than Elizabeth's, who doesn't have the patience to deal with either Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine de Burgh for the long haul. I have wished that Elizabeth could be a little more sensible about things, and understand that her friend still needs her, probably more than ever; but the relationship is never fleshed out fully either pre-Mr. Collins nor post-.

I've got lots more to say, but I'll spare you this time. The audiobook I listened to was quite serviceable, and I actually tried a couple before hitting on this one. I wish I could say that this book would be awesome no matter who reads it, but that is simply not the case. The first was abridged. (BAH.) The second had a narrator who was a little too excited about her role. This third was mostly good, though Nadia May doesn't distinguish between speakers maybe quite as much as she could (better than the over-distinguishing of one of the other narrators I tried.) Her smoky voice takes a bit of getting used to, but overall she's a great narrator for this tale. Highly enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Death at La Fenice (Commissario Guido Brunetti #1)
by Donna Leon
Grove Press, 1992
288 pages

Donna Leon is one of those authors that keeps cropping up in my life. Mostly due to Shelagh Rogers, who is a big fan. I kept hearing about the setting and the food. An interesting, unusual (to me) setting is something I quite like in a murder mystery, I am beginning to recognize. And I love books that use food wisely. This book didn't disappoint. The setting is delightful (though I have very romantic and vague notions of Venice, of course, and I must admit I still do.) The mystery very well-crafted, one of the more carefully crafted and methodical mystery plots I've encountered lately. The detective is solid and good, and also interesting enough to carry the story.

Summary: the book begins with an opera, La Traviata, opening at Venice's famed La Fenice. Or rather, it begins with the third act of the opera stalling -- rather than the actors and the maestro, as expected, the theatre's manager comes on stage to ask for a doctor. It turns out that the maestro, a German musical genius and extremely famous man, has taken ill. Actually, it turns out that he's quite dead, of cyanide poisoning. Enter Commissario Guido Brunetti, to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the performing arts world and the murky history of Maestro Wellauer.

First of all, I think this is a really excellent police procedural. Brunetti has to put in the time to solve the mystery, and though I suspected the solution I certainly didn't suspect the why. We follow Brunetti through the city, through his days, through the late nights (and the not-so-late nights -- the man has a family, and he spends time with them, wonder of wonders.) We follow him through the tedium of dealing with a foppish, useless supervisor, and through the careful piecework of interviewing and research. There is not a lot of action, but the book never feels slow. There may or may not be a few little leaps of logic that I didn't follow (not sure sometimes why Brunetti spent his time where he did, and a little suspicious that it was too convenient that he did happen to spend his time there) but overall I decided to take that as a detective's hunch rather than a plot device.

I enjoyed that the characters feel like they have lots of room to grow without feeling like they are just cutouts or placeholders. Mostly. There are a few who appear as though they were just introduced so that we know they exist for later books. Even in this, the first of a long series, Brunetti has a very distinct personality and some quirks that sometimes we are told about, but that sometimes we see.

I didn't love the twist at the end that led Brunetti to solve the mystery, not because it was out of place or poorly done, but because it was super disturbing and I unfortunately am blessed and cursed with a very good imagination. Hard to talk about this without spoilers, but let's just say I appreciated Brunetti's solution to the quandary he was in.

Glad to find the read as solid as I expected, given the love shown Leon by various people whose opinions I respect. Looking forward to the next; I have a feeling they get even better.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich

Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country
by Louise Erdrich
National Geographic, 2003
92 pages

Being among books is only half about actual reading, after all. The other part is talking about books with other people, a rich topic, and yet another is enjoying their presence.

Just to be clear about the labels on this post: I'm not claiming Louise Erdrich for Canada, as much as I'd love to do so. But a somewhat large chunk of the book takes place this side of the border so I've added the tag.

This was one of those serendipitous browsing things, though not in the sense of shelf grazing; more in the sense of I had looked up something in our library ebook catalogue and this popped up instead. I've always wanted to read Louise Erdrich (more so now) and I love the idea of the National Geographic Directions series, and ... well, I'm a little embarrassed to admit this: it was short. I wanted something short. Also, about books! So I downloaded this and here we are. A little ironic, as this book is at least partially about the love of books as physical objects. And rarely have I come across such a perfect defense of books as objects as the quote above. Hence, I'd love to have an actual physical copy of this.

The condensed version: as with all books in the Directions series, this is an extremely accomplished author taking a trip that investigates something dear to her heart, and then writing about it. In Erdrich's case, she's gone to do a tour of the rock paintings on the islands of Lake of the Woods, taking along her 18-month-old daughter, and then to visit the historic island home of Ernest Oberholtzer and his immense collection of rare books. Throughout the book we get discussions of books and their very personal appeal and importance to Erdrich, briefer discussions of islands and their importance, and lots of discussion of the meaning of the rock paintings and Ojibwe culture and especially the language, and occasional digressions into mothering.

I really loved this book. It's an important book, because of the notes on Ojibwe culture and language and because of the recognition that, in many ways, we're lucky either still exists -- she never harps on the role governments and the Catholic church (particularly the Canadian government) have played in the damage, but she doesn't shrink from pointing it out where necessary either. It's also a beautiful book, where it meditates on books and writing and language and the importance of all of these things, particularly to the author. And Louise Erdrich? Knows how to write.

The chapter on the language, Ojibwemowin, is intense, and it is beautiful, and fascinating. Six thousand different tenses of single verb are possible. Imagine the books you could write in that language. Imagine the poems! English is a fine language, never going to knock it except maybe an affectionate jab here and there. But imagine how much more precise, how much more vivid, a language like Ojibwemowin must be.

I also particularly enjoyed her description of Oberholtzer's island ("Ober's island") and its cabins and quirks of architecture, its library, the people and the food while she is staying there. Erdrich has an incredible grasp on descriptive language, and it shows to its best advantage here. I could visualize everything. And yet she is never purple in her prose, just perfectly eloquent. Makes for an absolutely delightful travel read.

More favourite bits:

We have a lot of books in our house. They are our primary decorative motif -- books in piles on the coffee table, framed book covers, books sorted into stacks on every available surface, and of course books on shelves along most walls. Besides the visible books, there are the boxes waiting in the wings, the basement books, the garage books, the storage locker books. They are a sort of insulation, soundproofing some walls. They function as furniture, they prop up sagging fixtures and disguised by quilts function as tables. The quantity and types of books are fluid, arriving like hysterical cousins in overnight shipping envelopes only to languish near the overflowing mail bench.

I want that house. I am working towards it. Yes, I work at a library. This is not enough.

Regarding summer trips, and don't I recognize this too:

Used to be, I'd pack six preteen girls, two dogs (large Aussies), and myself in along with a week of food, clothes, games, and drawing materials, for a trip to a whole other island in Lake Superior were I did research while the girls swam, screamed, ate, screamed, roasted marshmallows, screamed, read "Wonder Woman" and "Catwoman" comics, slept, screamed, and woke, screaming happily, for a week or two. I don't really know how I have accomplished anything, ever.

Lovely little book, well worth the time to find it and read it. Travel, culture, and lots of book talk. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti

The Secret Life of Prince Charming
by Deb Caletti
Simon Pulse, 2009
336 pages

Having been working on this book for ages (it was my "at work book" -- read during fifteen minute breaks, mostly, with the occasional half-hour lunch thrown in), once I finally finished it I put down in writing that I'd like to read pretty much everything else Deb Caletti has written. This is not my usual response to YA books, which generally get me all excited to read them and then end up disappointing me something fierce. It is even less my usual response to contemporary lit, and even less my usual response to reading a book targeted so squarely at females only (my fondness for romance novels notwithstanding). I mention that this was my at-work-book only because those books have to hit a particular, rather challenging niche: they have to be light enough that reading them in fifteen minute chunks is not a detriment to understanding the story and getting things out of the book, but engaging enough that I a) remember what happened last time, and b) want to use my precious break time to read it.

Quinn Hunt's parents are divorced, and she and her little sister Scout live with their mother, their mother's sister, and their mother's mother. After a significant period of time not seeing him at all, Quinn pushed her mother to allow her to reconnect with her father, a performer/manager/owner of a Vaudevillian stage act. The divorce was messy and the relationship between their parents continues to be acrimonious, but Quinn is desperate for a relationship with him, wants to know him and be known to him, so her mother allows it. Five years later, seventeen-year-old Quinn is generally happy with the way things are going -- she thinks. But then, during one visit, something happens. Something that changes everything, even though she desperately wants to ignore it. And suddenly Quinn finds herself on a mission with Scout and her estranged half-sister Frances Lee to meet the women of her father's past, and hopefully discover the truth of who her father is.

So we have here a tale generally about love and integrity. I've seen some people around the webs complain that it's "anti-male" and a bit heavy-handedly negative, and I find I can't quite agree. It's not even that obviously didactic in most places -- though it is didactic, and occasionally does slip a bit into blunt-force. But overall the story is so well done, and the characters so vivid, that the message(s) that Caletti wishes to convey are pretty well incorporated. That is, this is an Issues book that doesn't feel so much like an Issues book that I couldn't read it for the story and the characters. It's also the sort of Issues book I'd like every young woman in my life to read.

The topic of "love" doesn't just extend here to romantic love, though that is something of a focus, particularly of the didactic bits. But it's also a lot about familial love -- love between sisters, between parent and child, between absent parent and child. It has a lot to say about what constitutes a family. It has a fair bit to say about divorce (neither pro- nor con-, though it's clear that Caletti would like to encourage young women to avoid divorce by the dint of not letting a relationship that isn't working or isn't healthy get so far as marriage in the first place). As someone who has been extremely fortunate to grow up with an intact, generally very functional nuclear family, I learned -- grew to understand -- a lot about the challenges of kids of divorced parents. Granted, in this case, one of the parents is a tremendous asshole, and that's not always the case, but there are things I think must be common to kids who have two parents who split amicably, too. In particular the way Quinn describes the way children of divorce are expected to cope with their parents' new relationships and all that comes with them really struck me.

As to "anti-male," it's not terribly. There are a couple of examples of good, healthy, lovely relationships in the book, too -- each different from the other, but present. But anti-asshole this book definitely is. It's also very clear that while some guys are assholes, women need to take responsibility for their relationships, too. Not in a shaming sort of way, but in a way that recognizes that everyone makes mistakes -- it's about correcting that mistake, and not letting it define you or ruin your life out of some misplaced sense of obligation, fear, or shame. The book is pretty clear on the kind of damage a bad relationship can do, the consequences it can have, even when it's not technically "abusive" in the obvious meaning of the word. I wondered, as I read, where the line between just being a bad father or husband and being emotionally or psychologically abusive is. There is no answer to this in this book, but the damage done is clear and present.

Quinn is a great character; a bit of an every-girl, with a professed love of math (not explored nearly enough for my taste, barely makes a dent in the book proper) and a deep desire to do things right. She's also one of those people (I know this, because I am one) who desperately needs approval, even when its source isn't necessarily the right one. She wants people to like her, she wants to be a good daughter, she is absolutely a good sister. But she's also brave, in an accidental kind of way, and I like that it is accidental, and then she just goes along not necessarily for bravery's sake but because she's committed and doesn't want to back down. She is relatable, but not completely without her own personality; she has a strong voice, at times humourous, at times raw, always easy to read.

Not a perfect book, and not for everyone, but highly enjoyable if you enjoy contemporary women's fiction and don't mind a young adult narrator. Low-key romance, and occasionally a bit didactic, but never dull. Often funny, often touching, often thought-provoking. And both heavier, and lighter, than I've made it seem here. Looking forward to more Caletti in the future.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Zabime Sisters by Aristophane

The Zabime Sisters
by Aristophane
First Second, 2010
96 pages

One of the reasons I write this blog is to examine my own reactions to what I read. So, in the interests of examination, I'm going to write some stuff down about The Zabime Sisters, even though it's hard to come by anything that's not "well, it was there, and I read it." I'm sure everyone has experiences like this while reading; something doesn't catch, despite the feeling that it should have and clearly has for others, and one is not quite sure why.

This is one of those graphic novels that I really feel like I should like. I wanted badly to like it and I feel a little inadequate that I don't. It's serious art, it's different, it is a slice-of-life piece. It's a piece of work that is critically acclaimed and has lots to recommend it. And it's not that I thought I didn't "get" it... I got it. I am pretty sure. I just didn't fall in love with it, I didn't have raptures over it. I understand it, I ... just ... am not even ambivalent. I have no visceral reaction. I wasn't even bored by it. It just landed on my consciousness, stuck there for a bit, and then quietly moved on.

The Zabime Sisters follows three girls on the cusp of growing up through the course of one summer day. The inkwork is very heavy, the perspectives changeable and interesting, though the artwork didn't really do much for me. I am extremely aware of my own limitations here; I don't know enough about graphic novels, comics, art history, etc. to have any critical opinion on the panels in a graphic novel. I know what I tend to prefer, but I think I also have a fairly wide range of taste. There was something about the artwork that I found a bit alienating, and maybe that was part of the issue. It was deliberately distancing and disorienting, I think, in some places so full of movement as to be almost alarming.

(Okay, this is working! I am actually recognizing what went "wrong" for me with this book! And in thinking closely about the artwork, I'm developing the sort of reaction to it that I didn't have while actually reading the thing. Despite it's alienating feel, I actually rather like it better, in hindsight.)

The story itself is unsentimental to the extreme, in that again, there is a distance, and it picks up and leaves off very abruptly -- perhaps the best example of slice-of-life storytelling I've ever encountered. Except that there was a lot of writing that felt like it was trying to create some sort of connection with the reader, but failing miserably. The text reports a lot on the inner workings of the characters, but in a way that doesn't really feel authentic but seems like it is trying to be authentic. It felt awkward, unmoored in anything, and the turn of phrase was often strange enough to draw attention to itself. Which makes me wonder if it was a problem of translation, versus the original French text. Or maybe it was trying to do something that didn't work for me.

Which is what it comes down to, I think. I think for the right people, this is probably a wonderful reading experience. It's just not right for me, and instead of being something I disliked, it just fell flat. Disappointing, in that I wanted very much to like this book. Have any of you read it? What did you think? What am I missing? Or did I get it, and it just fell flat anyway?