Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975)

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of this title (someone out there in Blogland), but whoever you are/were – thank you! This was a surprisingly good emotive read – and ended up being much more than I had initially thought it was going to be. 

Written as an epistolary novel (be still my heart), this wry but thoughtful narrative features alternating diary entries from two middle-aged Londoners, one divorced, one who “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian”, but both leading pretty lonely lives. (It’s rather Muriel Spark-like in some ways.)

The overlap between these two characters occurs at the aquarium at London Zoo with the turtle enclosure. Although visiting at different times, William G. (the divorced person) and Neaera both have the same idea of freeing the trapped turtles in their too-small cage and it’s this, along with other overlaps, that leads them to come into contact with each other. 

It’s not a simple love story though (although at first blush, it might read as though it’s being set up like that). It’s also not completely filled with middle-aged glumness and angst. (It has some good humor in places.) It’s actually much more complex and layered so what, at first, reads like a fairly straightforward read actually ends up giving you lots to think about. Kudos to Hoban to not taking the easy route with this plot. 

William, now divorced (although why remains a mystery), works in a bookshop and lives in a slightly rundown boarding house. The divorce has meant he has lost his house, his mortgage, daily access to his children, and now he is forced to share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with his irksome (but distant) housemates. Neaera, OTOH, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator although faced with a serious writer’s block at the moment. Both can be a little prickly and difficult, but there’s enough cheer to make it believable. 

The free-the-turtle plan, although hatched independently from each other, is the point at which these two people interact but through Hoban’s use of diary entries, the reader can see how each person has his/her own reasons for this idea. Generally, both feel trapped in their own lives as well, so it’s a metaphorical idea of freedom at the same time. 

The writing itself is reflective of its times (the mid-1970s) so there was a patch in the middle when I thought I was going to stop reading the book (Gendered expectations. Hippy groups that simulate your own birth! Gaaah.) However, soldier on and you’ll find that the remainder of the narrative picks up again and maintains its pace until you turn that last page with a sigh of satisfaction at both a solidly good read and a big unexpected twist which saves the plot from stereotype. 

Overall, this ended up being a really thoughtful read and I’m glad that I tracked it down. Thanks again to whoever it was who first mentioned it. I’d never heard of it but it was a worthwhile use of time. (It’s been republished by the NYRB back in 2013 so it might be easier to find for you. I found an earlier edition at a book sale.) And interestingly, it’s also come out as a 1985 British film of the same name.

January 2020 – Reading Review

January has come and January has gone, and what do I have to show for it? Not a bad turnout for reading, as it happens. I’m particularly chuffed about the number of titles that have been picked from the TBR, a trend I am planning on continuing since I’m on a book-buying ban until May. (We’ll see how that goes, yes?) Additionally, five titles meet the criteria for being POC-related. Here are the deets:

  • The Stationery Shop – Marjan Kamali (F) POC
  • Me – Elton John (NF) (TBR)
  • Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjej-Brenyah (F-short stories) (TBR) – no blog post
  • English Country House Murders – Thomas Godfrey (ed.) – F anthology (TBR) – no blog post
  • Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo (F) (TBR) POC
  • Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (F) (TBR)
  • Home – Ellen Degeneres (NF) (TBR) – no blog post
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (NF-auto)
  • Living Earth – DK Eyewitness Books – Miranda Smith (ed.) (TBR) – no blog post
  • Bop – Maxine Chernoff (F- short stories) (TBR) – this was a DNF. – no blog post
  • 101 Things I Learned in Culinary School – Louis Eguaras and Matthew Frederick (NF) (TBR) – no blog post

A slight lack of blog posts about a lot of these reads, but this was a combination of being busy, going on vacation, going back to school and procrastination/not that much to say, so it’s all good.

Moving on to February, it’s one of my favorite celebratory occasions – Black History Month – so expect some focused reading on that. Right now, I’m fully immersed in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947) which is an amazing read. It’s a large book (Scary Big Book in terms of page numbers) – 580 pp – so it’s taking a little while. But whoo-whee — it’s good.

February 2020: Black History Month TBR Pile

Some of the reading suggestions for BHM…

As I’ve done for the past few years, I’m choosing to recognize and celebrate the U.S. Black History Month for February, which means that I step up my ongoing focus on reading POC authors and related topics. (It’s become more of a year-long focus now, but I specifically make an effort to bring attention to POC authors/topics during these weeks.)

I’ve pulled the pile (above) as a collection of titles which fit the bill from my own TBR (plus a couple from the library), and I’m excited to see which ones appeal to me as I go on to read some of them. What’s in the pile? Let’s take a looksie.

(Top to bottom in picture):

  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African – Olaudah Equiano/ Gustavus Vassa (NF/auto) 1789
  • The Free People of Color of New Orleans – Mary Gehman (NF/history)
  • Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (F) 2014
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (F) 1952 (?). (Read this. Wow.)
  • Colour Bar: A United Kingdom – Susan Williams (NF/bio) 2017
  • They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky – Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng et al. (NF/auto) 2015
  • The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts – William Still (NF/history/bio) 2011
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne: The First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF/bio) 2015. In progress.
  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (F) 2008. Post to come.
  • BlackkKlansman: Race, Hate and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime – Ron Stallworth (NF/auto) 2018. Meh.
  • I was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas – Andrew Waters (ed.) (NF/history/auto)
  • Days of Grace: A Memoir – Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (NF/auto) (1993)

The side pile:

  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander (NF/history/socio)
  • Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America – Charisse Jones and Kumea Short-Gooden (NF/socio)
  • The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium – Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson (NF/socio) 2013
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism – Robin Diangelo and Michael Eric Dyson (NF/socio/history) 2018
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (1970)

As always, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to read ALL of these, but certainly a nice pile to start with. Any titles that you’d recommend?

Incoming Titles: Update

The lovely FoL group had a half-price book sale a weekend or two ago, and who am I to turn down such a kind invitation to see what new titles I could find? So, I went and I found. 🙂

I really tried to stay on target and not fill up my shopping bag (since the December FoL Book Sale was still so recent), but I did find one or two titles to fit my needs!

Bottom to Top:

  • The Not so Big House – Susanka (really good interior decorating/design book).
  • Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975) – epistolary novel that I saw somewhere that looked good and the library didn’t have its own copy. ETA: Read. Post to come.
  • Olive Kitteredge – Elizabeth Strout (2008) – the first novel introducing an interesting character – there’s been a recent release of a follow-up title, but since I couldn’t remember the original story, thought I’d better reread this before picking up that new one!
  • Bettyville: A Memoir – George Hodgman (2015, NF/auto).

And then I had briefly mentioned that quick visit to the bookshop on Venice Beach but didn’t give the deets on the title that I bought there? Here it is: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)… I’ve heard a lot about it from the British bloggers and I was waiting for it to come out in paperback. Very looking forward to that read!

ETA: I’m already reading the Evaristo book. Wow. It’s good. Here’s my review.

Me – Elton John (2019)

Whatever you might think about (Sir) Elton John, he’s not boring and this autobiography (written with help from Alexis Petridis, a British music critic) brings descriptions, one after the other, of how Elton’s life was so far from normal in so many ways. And yet, this well-written book also brings to the surface how pretty typical Elton is himself as a person. It’s fascinating. It’s intriguing. It’s utterly hilarious in places. (I adored Elton’s self-deprecating comments.)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to buy some tickets to see Elton John on tour locally when he came through our particular city. I wasn’t that jazzed to see him: “…but come on – it’s SIR Elton John and I bet it’ll be a laugh” sort of thing. As it turned out, my mum was also in town for this so we took her for her first rock concert.

And I have to admit that Elton John was superb in his performance that night. He plays for a long time – much longer than others have – but you look forward to every song since he’s got such an impressive songwriting collection (along with Bernie Taupin) that the odds that you’ll hear the same song twice is remote – and he was an excellent performer. My mum was thrilled to this day.   

So, I was already predisposed to liking this autobiography since Elton had given us such a professional concert performance and thus, you may not be surprised that I loved this read.

I’m not an Elton John superfan. I don’t have every song on vinyl, I don’t know his music history particularly (outside the typical Top 40 stuff)… so the fact that I really enjoyed this read just underscores how interesting and superbly-written this autobiography was. There was no need for any grammatical nit-picking of any kind, so it was a well-crafted book.

I think what really pulled me into this read was my perception that Elton (in the voice/perspective used in this book) comes across as a pretty decent guy who is an experienced musician who has trodden down some (self-made, at times) hard roads and has learned something along the way. It’s an education that I trusted because, from his recollections in this book, his life has had such twists and turns that it would be impossible to continue being untouched by it all.

And there seems to be everything in this book, from his pretty awful parents and his mum’s (must be) mental illness to his search for love to addiction troubles to where he is now, and the logical and well-organized content flows from one incident to the next. It’s very well done. There’s a lot of content – it must have been exhausting to actually live it! – but it’s never overwhelming and although some of these situations are really negative, it’s presented in a manner by Elton so that you know he knows (and recognizes) how OTT some of this is and that’s how he is. (He’s not arrogant about it, but more as though he rolls his eyes and looks skyward with chagrin when he thinks about his earlier life.)

I just loved this read, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this, early days though it may be, on the Favorites List at the end of the year.

And I’m not the only one who enjoyed this. Here is the NYT’s book review columnist Janet Maslin’s review. And here’s Joe Lynch from the Guardian. Heady stuff.)

The Stationery Shop – Marjan Kamali (2019)

Wandering around the library stacks the other day, I ended up in K’s in Fiction and, in trying to find another book, came across this one and its really lovely book cover. (Gorgeous colors! It mentions stationery!) Not being familiar with either the title or the name of the author, I read the cover copy and was intrigued. It was a library book. It was by a person other than a white one. And I was in the mood for something from another country, regardless which country that was. So – with nowt to lose, I checked this copy out.

So what’s it about? It’s fiction set in Iran in both 1953 and present day (2013), and focuses on the lives of two characters in particular: two young people (in 1953) whose lives were impacted and interrupted by both Iran’s revolution and its cultural mores.

Kamali’s plot revolves around the stationery shop in the title and its bookseller owner as he comes into contact with his customers. It’s quite a clever structure to make the whole plot revolve around this handful of characters who overlap with this bookkeeper in some way, so it was an effective approach.

Two young Iranian lovers arrange to meet and get married at a certain time and at a certain place. To their dismay, their meeting location also turns out to be the same place as where a large political demonstration occurs at that very same time. Chaos ensues, the couple miss each other, wonder what happen but go on to live their lives apart anyway. Much regret of each about the lost opportunity but life sorts itself out – until…. Pivot. Then comes the twist.

Structurally, the book has some jumping around in it, flipping (as it does) from the chaos of the ongoing revolution in 1953 to modern-day Iran and the US, and at first, I had it fairly sorted out but, as the book continued (and I must admit, I let some days pass in between readings), the time jumps were a little disorienting for me. Linked with that, it seemed as though there were an inordinate number of intimately-related characters who kept popping up.

I admit. It could have been my fault for having a Monkey Mind and for letting a few days pass (and brain cells live and die) between the reading. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well written or anything bad like that because when I finished the read, it was as a satisfied reader. So no doubt it’s a good book, but I think I had to sort of gear myself up a bit to refocus on all the strands of the plot and to try and weave some unity out of it all.

Although this might sound like rather a lukewarm review, this was a book that I ended up enjoying after I’d read it all, as opposed to during the actual reading process. I would certainly pick up another of Kamali’s books if that tells you something! 🙂

Top Book Titles for 2019

Like so many others in the book-blog sphere, I enjoy taking a look back at what I’ve read over the past twelve months of 2019 – some have been complete winners and some not, but overall, I’ve been happy with what I’ve read.

Big trends in choosing my titles have been mostly in choosing POC titles and topics and preferably the combo of both titles/authors of color. This has been eye-opening for me, and is a trend that will definitely continue over the future. I’d like to get to the point where I don’t really have to search out names and topics… Until then, I’m going to carry on this special effort to continue that focus until it’s a habit. It’s up to me to educate me, after all.

To the Top Ten Reads of 2019 (in no particular order):

The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe (2001) (F). A novel written around the time that I grew up in England so brought back many happy memories. Plus written in a very creative structure and approach. I have the sequel on the TBR. <rubs hands with anticipatory delight>

Barracoon: The Story of the “Last Cargo” – Zora Neale Hurston (1931) (NF/African-American/History). Just an amazing piece of historical lit… Should be required reading.

There, There – Tommy Orange (2018) (F). An excellent fictional read written about Native Americans in the modern world by a young Native American writer.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann (2017) (NF/history/Native American). True tale of a series of early 20th century murders in a First Peoples tribe which happened to own large swathes of land with oil reserves on it…

Greengates – R.C. Sheriff (1936) (F). A lovely straightforward mid-century British novel.

Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women – Nina Burleigh (2018) (NF/biography). Very useful in trying to understand (if I can) our perplexing president. If this is how he treats his spouse(s)… <smh>.

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddartha Muhkerjee (2010) (NF/Science/Medical). Fascinating history and biography of cancer.

Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) (NF/sociology/African-American/race). (No blog post [only due to job busy] but you might check out this list of related AfAm NF titles I’ve read…) A timely NF that looks at race and how it plays out in the country today. Valuable on so many levels. We also saw the author speak – wonderful as well.

The October Country – Ray Bradbury (1955) (F/short stories/spec pic). A collection of different spec fiction stories written by a master writer.

The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015) (F). I know the author for his amazing NF book about a Siberian tiger, but here, he’s writing fiction about the plight of Mexican immigrants… (Interesting to compare this work with the recent palavar about American Dirt/Jeanine Cummins [2020]. See here for an article from Slate about it all.)

The Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993) (F/spec fiction/sci fi). Really good sci fi novel by one of the first (and best) sci fi authors of color (also a woman). Try it even if you’re “not into sci fi”. It’s a good read, however you categorize it.

Other annual reading-related statistics:

  • Total pages read: 25,253 (average: 275 pp).
  • Total number of titles read: 94. (Compare with 2018: 77.)
  • DNFs for the year: 4.
  • Male: 42.
  • Female: 41.
  • Mixed gender (e.g. an anthology etc.): 11.
  • POC: 30 (for a total of 32%). Close to one in every three titles. Go me. 🙂
  • NF: 54 (57%)
  • F: 40.
  • TBR Titles: 60 off the TBR (of 64% of the total read).
  • Oldest title: 1836 (Charles Dickens/The Pickwick Papers).
  • Longest page number: The Thornbirds/McCullough: 692 pages.
  • Shortest page number: 32 pages (The Snowman/Raymond Briggs).

Happy new year (and happy reading ahead) to all!

December 2019 Monthly Reading Review

Artist: Nikolai Antonov.

December is wrapping up. It was a busy month but mostly fun, having Christmas and end-of-the-semester in there plus a great trip to New Orleans. (More to come on that trip.)

The reading was pretty good as well:

  • All-American Murder: The Aaron Hernandez Story – Alex Patterson (NF Sports). I know – a book about American football and me? But strangely interesting…
  • London and the South-East – David Szalay (F) Random pick of library shelves. Not bad…
  • Home-Fires: The Story of the WI in WW2 – Julie Summers (NF/History) Very good history of the Women’s Institute in England…
  • New Orleans: DK Guide. Travel guide.
  • Catchphrase, Slogan and Cliche – History – Judy Parkinson (NF/history)
  • Paddington Goes to Town – Michael Bond (F) Really needed something fairly easy and straightforward to read immediately post-semester!
  • The Snowman – Raymond Briggs (F/GN). See above.
  • English Country House Murders: an Anthology – Thomas Godfrey (F). See above.
  • Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjej-Brenyah (F-Short stories). Challenging but in a good way.
  • Total books read:  9
  • Total pages read:   2511 pp. (av. 279 pp.)
  • NF4 (44% of monthly total)      
  • F: 5 (56% of monthly total)
  • TBR: 8 (89% of monthly total read). Go me.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 64%. (Happy with this number.)
  • Library:  
  • POC author/topic(s): 2 (22% of monthly total). Will. Do. Better.
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 2 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs: 0
  • Oldest title: 1969 (Paddington Goes to Town/Michael Bond…) . 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 533 pp. 
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 32 pp.

And – strangely enough, no relevant book review posts either. (There were some other posts but not about the actual books, which is weird for a book blog, yes?) I can only attribute this aberration to running out of time and energy at the end of the semester, but trust you’ll forgive me. 🙂

There was a lovely visit with my mum and, naturally, we completed a jigsaw or two, the large one was only completed with super-human effort by us both in an effort to finish it before she left early the next day. Completely fun and very worth it.

Just a fun little holiday puzzle… (500 pieces)
This was the puzzle that we needed to speed-complete. It was also the largest one (1000) — of course. 🙂

Moving into the new year, I don’t really have any complicated reading plans. I’m definitely going to partake in the Non-Fiction November when it comes around, but apart from that, I’ll take it as it comes. I might do Simon and Kaggsy’s Year Project but again, pretty open-ended on that right now.

I’m collecting info for the Best-of-Year blog post, but might skip the Best-of-Decade post that is traveling around the blogosphere right now. Depends on time…

Whatever your plans, wherever you may be – here’s to a year of peace and plenty for you. (Oh, and some good reads as well.) 🙂

FoL Winter Sale Goodies…

We had the annual winter sale for our local FoL and as usual, there was an abundance of goodies for all… (I know. It’s not that I *needed* some new titles, but who am I to turn down unfettered access to tons of good new-to-me titles?)

So, let’s go through which titles made it through my marketing filter (with rather big holes!). At the top pic, from L-R (vertical titles):

  • The Pottery Barn: Bathrooms (NF)
  • The Pottery Barn: Living Rooms (NF)
  • Workspace (another interior design book)

Moving to the horizontal pile, from the bottom up:

  • When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals – Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy (NF)
  • On Doctoring: Stories, Poems, Essays – John Stone and Richard Reynolds (eds.)
  • Essays of E.B. White – E.B. White (love me some E.B.) (NF)
  • The Rosie Effect – Grahame Simpson (F) – continuation from The Rosie Project
  • The Barrytown Trilogy – Roddy Doyle (F)
  • Old New York – Edith Wharton (F)
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful – James Herriot (NF? F?)

And then this pile as well above (<smh>) bottom to top:

  • “Dress Your Best” – Clinton Kelly and Stacy London (NF). ETA: Read. Meh.
  • “What Not to Wear” – Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine (NF). ETA: Read. Meh.
  • “If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home” – Lucy Worsley (NF – social history)
  • “Lost Country Life” – Dorothy Harley (NF)
  • “Days of Grace” – Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (autobio)
  • “Great Tales of English History 2” – Robert Lacey (really interesting historian about UK history)
  • “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African” – Allison, ed. (NF/bio) 1798
  • “The Free People of Color of New Orleans” – Martha Gehman (NF/history)

And then this with the most gorgeous cover pic: “Living Earth” by DK Eye Witness (just love this series of books):

<rubs hands together with glee at glorious reading ahead>