Pearl's Picks for June
The Sisters Antipodes - by Jane Alison
Once there were two families, one Australian, one American: each family had a mother, a father who worked for his country's foreign service, and two little girls. The older two girls were the same age, while the younger two--one of them Jane Alison, whose memoir this is--shared the same birthday, although Jenny was a year older. In The Sisters Antipodes, Jane describes the events that followed when the adults got divorced in order to exchange spouses: Jane was four, and her older sister, Patricia, was seven. In less than a year, it was all over: the divorces and the remarriages, the new fathers, and the new lives. For Jane, this meant leaving her native Australia and moving to the U.S., always conscious of the fact that there was another family, almost identical, that was living a kind of mirror life to theirs. (One of the other almost uncanny similarities was that both couples had a third child, a boy, born two weeks apart, two years after the marriages.) Although Jane and Patricia got frequent letters from their father (and fabulous birthday presents), they didn't see or talk to him for seven years. (This was, of course, well before the days of Skype, or inexpensive long distance phone service, or even email.) During her difficult, wild adolescence, there was always Jenny's shadow, a few dozen steps ahead of her, the mirror sister who had somehow stolen Jane's father, Jane's grandparents, and even Australia from her. This gripping memoir is marked by writing that is searing in its honesty and pain, but never maudlin or over the top. And the question (never really answered) that will haunt readers, as it still haunts Jane, is this: which father decided first to abandon his daughters in favor of a new wife and a new life?
Narrow Dog to Indian River - by Terry Darlington
Suggest this title for purchase.
I found Terry Darlington's Narrow Dog to Indian River to be a simply delightful read, and I found something to laugh over on nearly every page. Despite their ages (70s), the author and his wife, Monica, decide to leave their home in Stone, England and take their narrowboat, Phyllis May (named for Terry's mother, who, though many years dead, makes an occasional appearance in the book) to the United States, where they intend to travel down the 1,150 mile Intracoastal Waterway from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico (something that had never been done before). And, of course, they can't leave their whippet, Jim, behind, despite his dislike of water. A narrowboat, as I learned, is also known as a canal boat; it's six feet, ten inches wide (Jim, the whippet, is about 6 inches wide) and 60 feet long, with a top speed of 6.2 miles per hour. (Whippets, according to dogster.com, can travel at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.) A narrowboat, designed for cruising the canals of Europe, is perhaps not so great for the open water that the Darlingtons will encounter on their journey. Nonetheless, the trio set out, encountering--as Terry relates in hilarious vignettes--ice storms, high seas, piranhas, chiggers, the introduction of Samuel Adams beer in their cocktail hours, the southern phenomena of sweet tea, grits, good ole boys and their good ole families, and lots of that hospitality the American South is known for. Weeks after reading the book, I am still chuckling about Terry's description of Jim's behavior at a Christmas party. And, while I don't think I'm brave enough ever to reproduce the trip the Darlingtons made, reading this did lead me to consider a) getting a whippet and b) taking a narrowboat trip on the canals of Europe.
Blueberry Girl - by Neil Gaiman
It will probably not surprise any of you, but when it comes to presents, I like to give books. Others can gift new and expectant parents with plush toys, clothes for the baby, and reams of advice or IOU's for future babysitting service, but I'll stick with books. And my current favorite for the parents (or parents-to-be) of daughters is Neil Gaiman's Blueberry Girl. Gaiman is multi-multi-MULTI talented: he also writes terrific fantasy novels for adults--my favorite is Neverwhere--and his children's novel The Graveyard Book recently won the Newbery Award, given by the American Library Association "to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Blueberry Girl is made up of a series of irresistible rhymes, offering parents a variety of warm and thoughtful prayers for their daughters (and, by implication, parenting advice, some of which is tongue-in-cheek, some not), ranging from "Keep her from spindles and sleeps at sixteen/Let her stay waking and wise./Nightmares at three or bad husbands at thirty,/these will not trouble her eyes" to "Words can be worrisome, people complex,/Motives and manners unclear,/Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right,/free from unkindness and fear." The one that rings most true for me, though, is: "Let her tell stories and dance in the rain, somersault, tumble and run,/Her joys must be high as her sorrows are deep/Let her grow like a weed in the sun." The swirly and colorful illustrations by Charles Vess will definitely appeal to children, while their parents will be taken with the book's message, which has just enough of Gaiman's clear-eyed realism ("bad husbands at thirty") to take any possible goopiness out of the whimsy: the book manages to be honestly sweet without leaving any saccharine aftertaste.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven - by Susan Jane Gilman
Quite honestly, had I judged Susan Jane Gilman's new book by its cover (or, for that matter, by its title, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven), I would never have read it. I didn't find either cover or title particularly appealing (perhaps it's aimed for a different demographic than the one I am in.) But if I hadn't decided to start reading it despite my misgivings, I would've missed an engrossing travel narrative/coming-of-age memoir. Like many others who are about to graduate from college, Susan had no real idea what she wanted to do next. Almost on the spur of the moment--the proximate cause being a paper placemat at an IHOP in Providence, Rhode Island that featured "Pancakes of Many Nations"--a slightly drunk Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Claire decide to spend the year after their 1986 graduation from Brown University traveling around the world. They want a "real life" experience: no first class hotels, no three star meals, no easy-to-maneuver English-speaking countries, and no travel agent itineraries for these two. They decide to begin their trip in the People's Republic of China, which has just opened its borders to foreign visitors. But right from the moment they start looking for a place to stay in Hong Kong (which is their jumping-off point for entering mainland China), they discover how unprepared they are for the journey they've undertaken. Homesickness is the least of it. As we discover in Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, little goes as they've planned, although in a sense we're fortunate--because of Susan and Claire's experiences, we get a look at a part of China far, far off the beaten track. And I learned, once again, that you can't judge a book by its cover (or, in this case, at least, by its title).
Chatter: A Novel - by Perrin Ireland
When I picked up Perrin Ireland's Chatter, I wasn't familiar with her writing. I hadn't read her first novel, Ana Imagined (although I imagine I will, now) and consequently had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn't expect to find a novel that I would end up not only enjoying enormously, but also one that I found extraordinarily affecting. Ireland is a smart and gifted writer, and it shows on every page of this story about a marriage in trouble. The title is both ironic and, at the same time, in a certain sense, totally straightforward. The plot is revealed almost entirely via dialogue, and, just like in real life, what people really mean to say often appears between the lines of what they actually manage to articulate. What narrative there is appears in short, sound-bite-like sentences. It may take a few pages to get used to Ireland's style, but trust me, just hang in there, because you're in for a treat. Eighteen years into their marriage (the second for both) Sarah learns that Michael, in addition to being the father of Lisa, who lived with the couple when she was a teenager, has another grown daughter, whom he's never met, from a part of his past that he's resolutely kept secret from her. Now, not only does he want to meet Camila, but he also wants to reconnect with her mother, his first love, who lives in Chile, where Michael was stationed as a Peace Corps volunteer. In response to this stunning and disturbing news, and Michael's refusal to discuss it, Sarah determines to find out the facts of Michael's past. But the details of the plot aren't the main point here. Instead, what matters is the dialogue, and the way the characters respond to one another and the situations they find themselves in. These include not only a deteriorating marriage and possible infidelity, but also Sarah's best friend, Rachel, who is dying of cancer and Sarah and Michael's beloved dog, Random (reading about him is such a treat for both dog and novel lovers), and, of course, the reality of a post 9/11 world in which people find themselves desperate for comfort and shelter from emotional and physical traumas.
A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms - by Paul B. Janeczko
Paul B. Janeczko's A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms should be required reading for literature classes from elementary school through college. It's the best way I know of to discover (and appreciate) the various forms of poetry, including, as it does memorable examples and joyful--there's no other word for it--illustrations by Chris Raschka. Janeczko covers 29 different forms of poetry, ranging from those likely to be familiar to most readers, such as couplets, haikus, sonnets, and quatrains, but also those less likely to have been encountered in casual reading, like concrete poetry, villanelles, the found poem, the pantoum, and more. The poets compose a satisfyingly diverse mix of writers of both the famous and the unknown (at least to me). The former includes everyone from Ogden Nash (and his couplet "In the world of mules/There are no rules"), to William Blake (and his quatrain that begins "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright."); as well as Edward Lear, followed by what I can only call an "anti-limerick" by Stephen Herrick on the opposite page; Gary Soto (an ode to a pair of sneakers); and an excerpt from one of Robert Service's most famous ballads, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." Don't miss the examples of epitaphs--I'm still smiling about the one for Pinocchio.
The Color of Lightning - by Paulette Jiles
In The Color of Lightning, her powerful and moving third novel, Paulette Jiles begins with a real person and, taking the little that is known from the historical record, creates a life for him that illuminates a morally complex time and place in American history--from the last years of the Civil War, when Texas was opening up its land for settlement and the Kiowa and Comanche Indians, losing their traditional hunting grounds, were kidnapping and/or murdering the settlers, until the early 1870s. During this same time, the U.S. government was trying to corral (almost literally) the Indians on reservations. The book's hero, Britt Johnson, is a black man, a freed slave, who, along with his wife and three children, accompanies his former owner and several other white families to homestead on the north Texas plains. One day, while Johnson and most of the other men are away, their settlement is raided, many are killed (including Johnson's oldest son), and the others, mainly women and children, are taken north with the Indians. (These are dreadfully vivid scenes of carnage, torture, and pain, not for the queasy of stomach.) Heartbroken and in an angry despair, Johnson rides to the Indian camps to rescue his family. Another major character (one wholly invented by Jiles) is idealistic Samuel Hammond, a member of the Society of Friends who is appointed as an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to use peaceful means to disarm the Indians and get them to agree to become farmers. Other characters for whom we grow to care deeply are Tissoyo, who was banished by his tribal leaders; Mary, Britt's wife, almost fatally damaged both physically and psychologically by her treatment in captivity; and Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a terrifically stubborn white woman taken in the same raid as Mary was. Along with her fully developed characters and vivid, brilliantly crafted writing, Jiles explores the conundrum at the heart of the America following the Civil War, as can be seen in this discussion between Hammond and another white man, Deaver, an itinerant painter. Deaver says:
"They [the Indians] are our great mystery. They are America's great otherwise. People fall back in the face of an impenetrable mystery and refuse it. Yes, they take captives. Sometimes they kill women and old people. But the settlers are people who shouldn't be where they are in the first place and they know it and take their chances."
"You are very cavalier about this."
"So are they, my friend. The Texans are cavalier as well. Perhaps we can regard this as a tragedy. Americans are not comfortable with tragedy. Because of its insolubility. Tragedy is not amenable to reason and we are fixers, aren't we? We can fix everything."
I was especially moved by the dilemma of the white children who were kidnapped at a young age and had little memory of their early years, as they grew up knowing nothing except their life on the plains. Here's how Jiles describes one little girl's feelings about being brought back to the white family she scarcely remembered:
".she was not afraid of going hungry, or starvation. She was afraid of the slow death of confinement. Of being trapped inside immovable houses and stiff clothing. Of the sky shuttered away from her sight, herself hidden from the operatic excitement of the constant wind and the high spirits that came when they struck out like cheerful vagabonds across the wide earth with all of life in front of them and unfolding and perpetually new. And now herself shut in a wooden cave. She could not go out at dawn alone and sing, she would not be seen and known by the rising sun."
Incidentally, Britt Johnson's adventures as an Indian hostage hunter became the inspiration for Alan Le May's 1954 novel, The Searchers
, which was turned into the 1956 John Ford film of the same name. In the movie, the character based (very loosely) on Johnson, through the vagaries of the creative process and Hollywood casting, is played by John Wayne.
Admission- by Jean Hanff Korelitz
In her novel Admission, Jean Hanff Korelitz tells two intertwining stories: one is an inside look at the world of the admissions process at an elite American university; the other is about what happens when we consciously try to erase a part of our past. Portia Nathan has something in her past that she's kept secret for almost two decades. She's never told Mark, her partner of 16 years, she's never confided in her close friend Rachel, or in her mother, the über-feminist Susannah, and she's certainly never shared it with her colleagues at Princeton University, where she works as an admissions officer. There's never been a real need to. Not until, that is, she runs into John Halsey, a fellow Dartmouth grad and a teacher at an experimental school in New Hampshire (where she's gone on a recruiting trip) and meets his brilliant but eccentric student, Jeremiah, whom she encourages to apply to Princeton. Her encounter with John and Jeremiah sets into motion a series of events that eventually forces Portia to acknowledge that choices she made years ago are about to influence how she's going to choose to live in the present. I've always enjoyed Korelitz's novels. She's written three before Admission, including A Jury of Her Peers, Sabbathday River, and her most light-hearted, The White Rose. They are each marked by her warmth and her ability to make her characters real to us, so that we forgive them their flaws and their often less-than-perfect decisions.
Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents - by Jim Malusa
I don't, personally, actually know any botanists, but I have to admit that I've never thought of it as an especially adventurous profession, so I certainly wouldn't have picked Jim Malusa, a scientist whose specialty is the biogeography of southern Arizona, as the-guy-most-likely to undertake (and write about) a series of very adventurous bike trips. Yet (to the good fortune of readers everywhere), he did. As described in Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents, he spent parts of six consecutive years riding his trusty bicycle to the lowest spots of all six continents, overcoming everything from extreme weather, extreme insects, and the very real possibility of land mines if he strayed off the road in Africa. His journey takes him from Darwin, in northernmost Australia, to Lake Eyre, deep in Australia's desert (my favorite part because I love reading about Australia) and, in Asia, from Cairo to the Dead Sea. In Europe he goes from Moscow to the Caspian Sea, while in South America he bikes from Puerto Montt in Patagonia (bemoaning the ever-present winds), to Salina Grande in Argentina. In Africa, he toured from Djibouti to Lake Assal, and finally, he went from Tucson (his home) to Death Valley. Malusa has a knack for meeting interesting people, hearing fascinating tales, and seeing unusual sights. (For example, there's an old state cafeteria in Volgograd, he tells us, "featuring perhaps the world's only aluminum bas-relief of dumplings.") Malusa's philosophy of travel is summed up in this super sentence: "Travel without surprises was merely an agenda." I'll try to keep that in mind on my own trips.
The Tourist - by Olen Steinhauer
I was lucky enough to have lunch with Olen Steinhauer when he came through Seattle a few months ago. I'm pleased to report that he's a totally nice guy and that I loved his new book, The Tourist. I'm happy about that for two reasons: one, of course, is that I'm always delighted to find a really good thriller, and two, it's hard to read a book with an open mind if you've met and didn't care for the author, which, sad to say, I've had happen more often than I'd like to remember or recount. During lunch Steinhauer mentioned that one of his favorite books is John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is the novel by le Carré that I like best. This didn't come as a total surprise, because while I was reading The Tourist I kept thinking that of all the contemporary thriller writers out there, Steinhauer is the one who comes closest to delivering the same pleasures that le Carré does: a tightly constructed, smartly complex plot played out in the morally ambiguous universe of spycraft, a healthy dose of cynicism, and a main character with many secrets and much pain in his life. And like le Carré, Steinhauer has come up with terminology for aspects of the espionage game that seem so natural it's hard to believe that it isn't used by spooks themselves. (Maybe it is. Who knows?) Milo Weaver is a field-based spy, a "tourist" in his agency's lingo (their counterparts who work in the home office are known as "travel agents"), whose assignment is to hunt down a wily, longtime foe known as "the Tiger." When Milo runs into an old friend, Angela, who, in fact, may be more of a Judas than a Peter, it turns out that Angela is also trying to get to the Tiger. For spy novels, uncertainty is the name of the game. Unlike le Carré, though, who's pretty pessimistic about the possibility of rewarding and happy personal relationships for his characters, Steinhauer gives Milo a happy home life, which points up all the more insistently the bleakness of his profession and the particular job he's been assigned to in this novel.