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Sunday Salon: the Gobsmacked Post

April 10, 2011

The Sunday Salon.comI seem to have got my reading mo-jo back! Between that, and a proliferation of shorter works, I’ve managed to read eighteen books this month. I know, I can’t believe it either. Now, I’m not usually a big numbers person, so I’m mentioning this only because it’s relevant to blogging; last week’s TSS covered my March backlog, and now suddenly in the intervening week I seem to have acquired an April backlog. Yet another point for me to add to my list of reasons I love huge books; they take me longer to read and thus give me more breathing space here. As it is, fifteen of those books were read in the last week; even if I posted nothing but book ‘reviews’ all week (which I don’t and which y’all informed me via polls you wouldn’t want anyway), I’d end up way behind. Sometimes, my blog feels like one huge exercise in the Red Queen theory.

But at least it’s a fun exercise! ;) And no, despite my lofty goals, I didn’t remember to write up little reviews as I finished each book (let’s hope I start remembering to do so soon), so I shall be writing this post all in one go until my energy runs out.

Journey of the Pink Dolphins was my second and a half experience with Sy Montgomery (I ended up abandoning her group biography of Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas because it was too adulatory for my tastes), and I loved this one as much as I did Spell of the Tiger (which I gushed about two years ago). She manages to weave together science, travel, culture, and characters perfectly; I felt as if I was actually in the Amazon with her. She brought both the towns within the region and the more remote areas to life, and while she was setting the backdrop she also vividly sketched the people she meets (and there are photographs sprinkled throughout). The book opened with a line drawing map of the areas she travelled in (four separate trips, primarily in Brazil and Peru) and proceeds to this evocative scene:

The days re full of water. The wet season has drowned the village soccer fields and banana groves and manioc gardens, even flooded some of the less carefully placed stilt houses along the river. Young saplings are submerged completely, and fish fly like birds through their branches. Huge muscular trees stand like people up to their torsos in water; epiphytic orchids and the tree-hollow nests of parrots and bamboo rats are at eye level when you stand in your canoe. On the wide branches, tank bromeliads, plants related to pineapples with spiked, succulent leaves, are themselves tiny lakes. The leaves mesh to form an overflowing bowl. Some five hundred different species-centipedes, scorpions, tree frogs, ants, spiders, mosquitoes, salamanders, lizards-have been recorded living in a bromeliad’s bowl, a miniworld of rainwater. 

Told you she could write. ;) She’s also a master of anecdotes; at several points in the book, I was laughing hysterically because of some story or another. In fact, a couple of times I tracked down my mom so I could read a part aloud; it was good stuff. And she’s incredibly respectful of the native people’s myths and legends around the pink dolphins (these share a similarity to selkie stories, a favourite of mine), evoking the magic and the mystery without ever trivialising their beliefs. Travelogue lovers , go get this immediately! Science lovers, there’s stuff in here for you too; I found the difficulties they faced studying the pink dolphins to be eye-opening. During most of her trips, they never see the whole dolphin, just pieces emerging from the muddy river, and thus aren’t even sure how many there are. And if you are a lover of the creepy crawlies, Montgomery chronicles her many meetings with them. Not to mention all of the incredible plants the Amazon holds! Basically, any kind of amateur naturalist should also love this. I enjoyed every page of it, and I’ll definitely be seeking out Montgomery’s other travel/science books.

Castle Rackrent was also my second go with an author; in this case, late eighteenth/early nineteenth century Maria Edgeworth. This is very slim, probably more of a novella than a novel, and quite different from Belinda (my first read of hers). It’s written in a kind of Irish dialect, from the point of view of a loyal Irish servant about three generations of Anglo-Irish lords of the estate; and let’s just say the picture Edgeworth paints is not a flattering one. It’s a good little read, and also a good reminder that British economic exploitation of virtually enslaved natives wasn’t limited to their overseas empire. Edgeworth is a good writer, and I’m glad to have read this one. It didn’t have the magic of Belinda, though; I appreciated it more for its political message and literary devices (first British work written in dialect) than anything else. Also, the introduction (from the 1960s OUP edition) was rather offensive; it was written by a man and seems to imply that Edgeworth’s father virtually wrote many of her novels. Plus, half of the introduction is instead of Sir Walter Scott (who was greatly inspired by Edgeworth) instead of the author at hand, who is referred to as an Anglo-Irish spinster. Hmph.

I already wrote about Sonia Shah’s The Fever, so I’ll move on to my next read: Life isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syal. I’ve decided to try reading more Anglo Asian authors this year (is that the correct term?), and since I enjoyed the film Anita and Me, I thought I’d give Syal’s second novel a try. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me; the writing felt a bit flat (it was done in alternating limited third person narrators, and each narrator had the same ‘voice,’ which is one of my pet peeves), the characters seemed like items on a checklist (the rebellious one, the dutiful one, etc.), and even their journeys felt ‘expected’. Honestly, though, I think a different type of reader would enjoy it. The writing is quite modern and moves quickly, and the women were facing universal problems of the modern Western female experience, so that I identified with them easily. There were moments when I connected with it, but they were few and far between.

I didn’t connect with Prayer: a History by Carol and Philip Zaleski either (despite its lovely cover). While it purported to be a world history of prayer, really it was primarily Judeo-Christian with a sprinkling of Hinduism for spice. The authors seemed to assume that the book’s reader would be American too, using words like ‘us’ in places I found inappropriate. This in and of itself annoyed me, but at least the earlier sections were interesting. The first one looks at prayer in deep history, and the ongoing connections between prayer and magic, while the second defined four ‘types’ of prayer and described the lives of people (mainly Christians) who exemplified it. But then, the authors plunged into, essentially, art history with some thin connections to prayer pasted over it that bored me to death (and I’m naturally interested in art history), followed by an attempt at analysing prayer in post-9/11 US that left me fuming and felt jarringly modern. If the book had consisted of just the earlier sections, it would have been much stronger. At the end of the day, I felt misled by the summary (which is far more important, in my opinion, in nonfiction) and resentful of the time I’d put in (the book is over four hundred pages of reading text). If you’re mainly interested in Judeo-Christian prayer, it would be worth reading for the earlier sections.

Clotel by William Wells Brown is a free classic that I downloaded on to Althie, my Nook, and then promptly forgot about. It was written in 1853 by an African American and follows the lives of three slave women connected with Thomas Jefferson (one his mistress, two his daughters). Each ends up in a different place, and the various people in each location also become characters in the story. Interspersed with plot scenes are polemics against slavery; this is quite definitely a political novel. I very much enjoyed watching Brown interweave fictional lives with philosophy, and I felt like his techniques were quite strong, especially for the time period (for instance, one of the subplots is about a young white woman who is strongly antislavery and a devoted Christian; her piety and modesty, coupled with a willingness to articulate her arguments, made her seem a textbook nineteenth century ideal woman). Brown makes it clear that Clotel’s daughters both look completely white, and yet they are enslaved. I find it interesting that he did this; was he trying to provoke sympathy in his white audience by showing what could happen to one who looked like them (at one point, there is a cameo by an actual white woman, a German immigrant, who was sold into slavery due to mistaken identity)? Most likely, and I think this is also why he focused on women slaves rather than men, appealing to his readership’s sense of chivalry. While the book raised a lot of questions for me, and could easily inspire a rigorous analysis, it was also quite readable. The pages went by quickly, and I was surprised to find myself at the end so soon (it’s only about two hundred pages long, in the electronic version at least). I’m quite happy to have read this, and I’ve downloaded quite a few more nineteenth century African American works to deepen my experience. (For other ebook aficionados, one of the categories on is African American, which makes it easy to explore those classics!)

I really hoped I would fall into the group of book bloggers who love Howards End is On the Landing by Susan Hill, but despite my love of nonfiction by and about bibliophiles, it was not to be. Usually, when I finish a book about books, I end up with a mile-long list of titles and authors I want to read and pages of quotations about reading and books that I love and copy out. At the end of Hill’s memoir, I had precisely two new authors and a mere one excerpt to show for it; that about sums up my feelings. Quite early, I realised that Hill is a different type of reader than me; while I love to read diversely, she’s quite insular. The vast majority of books she talks about are British and ‘non-genre’ at that; it goes without saying they are by white authors. She says she can’t understand Canadian or Australian books; other than the US, no other countries even rate a mention. But this wouldn’t have necessarily been a problem (I appreciate how deep her knowledge of her chosen focus is; I often find myself choosing breadth over depth) if she had just stuck to her love of reading and her favourite older British authors, since I happen to know and love quite a few of them. Unfortunately, much of the book is taken up with her descriptions of how she met so-and-so, who might be well-known in the British literary world of the 60s and 70s but who I’ve barely heard of, certainly not enough to care what a kind letter they once wrote to Hill. To be fair, I loved her stories about life as a college student in an ‘earlier’ London, even when they were mixed with meetings of famous authors. ;) I think the problem is the way it’s marketed; it should be done as a memoir of a successful British literary author. Then, I would have known to avoid it! ;) As it is, the more I read the more disillusioned I felt, and by the end I found myself questioning whether I should even read more of Hill’s fiction in future (I’ve only read two of her novels; I enjoyed The Woman in Black and found The Man in the Picture a bit underwhelming). So yes, not quite a success for me. When she writes about her love of a certain author’s books or about reading in general, it’s wonderful; it’s a shame so little of the already slim book is actually devoted to that.

Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest by Amos Oz was my first experience with Oz, who is a well-known Israeli author. I requested it from NetGalley (why yes, I have ventured back into the world of review copies; I shall be discussing this more soon) due to the publisher’s description of it as “a fable for all ages.” Oz’s writing is lovely and evocative, and for most of the novella I was quite happy. He creates the world of a village, in which no one talks about why the animals have gone, and in which many of the children believe animals are just fairy tales, perfectly. I loved how empty he made their world, bereft of animals (personally, I can’t imagine a life without them). The conspiracy of silence is disturbing, and as the two protagonists set off into the forest, I was on their adventure right beside them. But then, towards the end, things got quite pedantic and obvious; I was disappointed that Oz didn’t trust his reader enough to leave some things unspoken. Perhaps he was worried that children wouldn’t understand? But really, it rivals the final scene in The Magician’s Nephew with Diggory in the garden as far as ‘hitting-one-over-the-head-with-morals’ goes! If so, I think he’s underestimating his audience; I remember being a child, and I was quite smart. ;) I definitely will be trying another Oz novel, due to his wonderful writing style, but I’ll be holding my breath when I get to the end. I would still recommend this, because most of the book is lovely; just be prepared for a less-than-stellar ending. Does anyone well acquainted with Oz have a suggestion for my second venture?

Ok, my hand/arm is feeling quite sore (it’s been acting up all week to a greater or lesser extent), so I’m going to wrap things up. And I’m off to read more, and thus contribute further to my backlist. At least I’m starting Vanity Fair: that should slow things down!

27 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2011 3:48 pm

    You know, I’ ve seen several people make the same complaints you did about Howard’s End Is on the Landing, which is why it was crossed off my list a while ago.

    I actually have a different Amos Oz from NetGalley–a “novel in stories” called Scenes from Village Life. I haven’t read it yet and will probably wait until closer to the publication date in October, but I’m glad to hear that you liked the writing. The one I have looks to be written specifically for adults, so perhaps it won’t have that pedantic tone.

  2. April 10, 2011 3:51 pm

    I’m so glad you got your reading mojo back! I will get to Spell of the Tiger eventually!

  3. April 10, 2011 4:11 pm

    This is the first I’ve heard of Clotel, but that piques my interest. I’m really not familiar with literature by 19th century African-Americans, outside of Frederick Douglass, but I am interested in learning more.

  4. April 10, 2011 4:45 pm

    I want to love Susan Hill but she keeps saying things that really annoy me — I’ve seen loads of excerpts from her book where she hated on books I loved (specifics now forgotten but the feelings of resentment remain). Also, this: (puke) So, I am sort of pleased you weren’t crazy about HEotL.

    Hope your hand and arm start feeling better!

  5. April 10, 2011 4:48 pm

    I tried to read Howards End Is on the Landing, but there was something that bothered me from page one, cannot quite put my finger on what it was. Somehow I just did not like how the book was written. I gave up after a few pages.
    Clotel sounds very interesting.

  6. Sarah permalink
    April 10, 2011 5:08 pm

    As an Australian with many favourite Candain authors (most of all Alice Munro), I’ve avoided Howard’s End is on the Landing given Hill’s dismissal of books from both those places. It doesn’t sound like the book about books for me, but not everyone can be Anne Fadiman I guess!

    I haven’t read Amos Oz’s fiction but was very impressed by his memoir A tale of love and darkness. It’s a lengthy and sometimes difficult read, but always beautifully written, candid and wise.

  7. April 10, 2011 6:34 pm

    Last month I read Maria Edgeworth’s most famous short sty ory, “The Purple Jar” for Irish Short Story Week-it was a strange story open to several readings-I liked it lot-good to learn about some of her other work.

  8. April 10, 2011 6:46 pm

    I loved howards end but I am older and british Eva I think if your not aware of some off the people it could make it a boring book ,I would recommend a tale of love and darkness his best known book but a great read ,I ve don’t call it night next on shelf from him ,all the best stu

  9. April 10, 2011 7:28 pm

    Sy Montgomery is going to become one of my favorite authors I think. I’ve read her book about the hog and another about the golden moon bear in Asia. Have had the tiger and pink dolphins on my list for a while now, and I’m eager to find what else she’s written!

  10. April 10, 2011 8:50 pm

    I read Sud­denly in the Depths of the For­est (my thoughts: from NetGalley as well. I’ve read other works by Oz, while I really liked the book (considering the target) I thought his other works are better.

  11. April 10, 2011 9:22 pm

    Like Sarah (though reversed scenario: Canadian, who enjoys many Australian (as well as Canadian!) authors, I’ve avoided the Hill memoir and will continue to do so. I just can’t get behind someone who is so dismissive of an entire country’s novelists, which I think is absurd. There is so much diversity in Canadian fiction, that I simply can’t see how someone could say they don’t understand it. I’d be curious to know what examples she’s read of Canadian and Australian authors, but overall, her blanket statement makes me so mad that I’d never read anything by her!

  12. April 10, 2011 9:38 pm

    I’m so conflicted about reading Howard’s End is on the Landing! I know a lot of bloggers have loved it but from what I’ve seen I think I’m going to end up feeling more as you do. I have it on my hold list at the library so, for better or for worse, I suppose I’ll soon find out for myself!

  13. April 10, 2011 9:52 pm

    HEIOTL – one to avoid by all accounts, especially for bloggers whose mission is to explore world literature…

  14. April 11, 2011 4:18 am

    I’ve been ambivalent about HEiotL until now, and you’ve just confirmed what I suspected: that it would be too insular and self-righteous for me. I’ve tried to admire Susan Hill because I too enjoyed The Woman in Black and other people see a lot in her; but I used to find her blog incredibly annoying and occasionally offensive. And Jenny has already pointed out the opinion piece in the Spectator that broke the camel’s back – her philosophy of writing is just not for me.

    Clotel sounds very interesting – I’ve never even heard of it, and you’ve convinced me to give Sy Montgomery a try. :-)

  15. April 11, 2011 8:19 am

    While I don’t think numbers really matter either, it certainly feels good when you read more than you expect, doesn’t it!

    This is the first I’ve heard of a lot of these books, I need to take a closer look.

  16. April 11, 2011 11:33 am

    I’ve been curious about Castle Rackrent since I saw that Colm Toibin included it in a list of “three books that define your country in your eyes” (in this case obviously Ireland). Not a choice I was expecting, although given yours and Toibin’s commentary, I can understand its inclusion. In any case the historical interest of “first British novel written in dialect” is enough to persuade me to pick it up someday.

    And I must say, the idea of claiming “not to understand” Australian or Canadian writers, let alone anything more diverse, is pretty mind-boggling to me. Is Alice Munro really so different from EM Forster? To the extent that you literally CANNOT UNDERSTAND Munro?? That seems like a seriously silly claim.

  17. April 11, 2011 9:28 pm

    I have really got to give Edgeworth a read. And I’d never heard of William Wells Brown before! Thanks for the heads up. And I’d heard the same thing about that book about books. But I never read the author before anyway, so it wasn’t on my list to begin with…

  18. April 12, 2011 2:35 am

    You hit the Susan Hill nail on the head and you’re absolutely right that her insularity was the big problem of the book. At least those college bits were briefly redeeming; they were my lone favorite part, too!

  19. April 13, 2011 8:23 am

    Hooray for the return of the reading mo-jo!! I’m always intrigued by your lists of books. You read so diversely…it’s inspiring!

  20. April 13, 2011 12:34 pm

    I love books about books, and I remember being quite disappointed in Howard’s End is On the Landing. It did read more like a “I met this famous author” and “I had lunch with this other famous person” type of book.

  21. April 14, 2011 7:33 pm

    As always, you add too much to my wish list :)

  22. April 16, 2011 6:24 am

    I really enjoyed Life isn’t all Ha Ha, Hee Hee. Then again, I love Meera Syal. I love her as a comedienne and I love the charity work she does here in the UK. (She’s a spokesperson for women’s aid charities that protect young runaways who’ve come from Muslim families where marriages have been forced upon them.) :) The fact that I like Syal probably biased my opinion.

  23. April 21, 2011 6:14 pm

    I LOVED “Journey of the Pink Dolphins”, it was magic made paper and binding for me. I was so glad to see your positive review. I was in the Ecuadorian Amazon two years ago and was lucky enough to see a pod of pink dolphins in the river just feet away from the Equator line. Just. So. Magical.

  24. April 23, 2011 11:05 pm

    Definitely Castle Rackrent struck me as a novella to be appreciated but not loved. That introduction sounds really annoying! I was thrown off by the end-notes at first, because I didn’t know who wrote them, and I was going to skip them, but then I realized that Edgeworth wrote them, and that reading them was part of the experience.


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