Reading

We spent a week at Downtown Abbey in mid-January, a week of snowstorms, skiing for the young family – and much reading. Lady Baby told me when we arrived that she and her dad had begun to read “The Mountain of Adventure.”

I was excited, because from the fourth to the ninth grade I lived mostly in a cabin in the frigid interior of British Colombia, a long way from any place. Reading saved me. And I best remember English author Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series about four children who, in the way of most memorable children’s books, have little parental interference and many exploits.

The children in the books stair step in age: the oldest, Philip, has a magic touch with animals, Dinah is clever, Jack loves birds, and Lucy Ann is littlest (but also brave). Whether you read or are read to, always there is a child to identify with. And Jack’s parrot, Kiki, looms large.

Long before I’d seen either seacoast or mountain valley, I had traveled them in this series. Even now, when in the mountains with our sons, we acknowledge a certain geography – a cave, a waterfall, tents pitched in the saddle of a mountain – as an “Adventure” book moment.

In this book the children are in Wales on their “hols,” and a planned trip with parents on donkeys into the mountains to the Vale of Butterflies, becomes a trip with just a Welsh guide and the children – a recipe for adventure.

Walking in mountain valleys is familiar to an Alaska child – Lady Baby and I talked about last summer, when we hiked together and dipped our feet in that “cold, cold creek.” She loves animals of all kinds and picnics and camping – tents and sleeping bags. She can easily imagine unfamiliar food like peaches in tins and “tongue sandwiches” eaten outdoors in all weather.

Her parents were rightly concerned about reading books where children encounter danger. As we kept reading, I told her that the kids are always safe at the end (she’s been known to reassure me about endings in picture books). And she said she’d looked already at the illustrations (a sprinkling of old-fashioned line drawings I love), and said, “Maybe the children get kidnapped. Let’s read.”

I admit to being as caught up as Lady Baby, a great escape from reality always. “Let’s read that book we are really into,” she’d say. And dear Baby Brother – perfect, chubby, smiling bundle, so good-natured – sat with us often to read.

When you are a smart five and read these books, Kiki is the greatest delight, using a human voice to make fun of various authority figures, screeching like a train or a lawn mower at just the right moment, and delivering giggle worthy commands, “wipe your feet” or “shut the door.” (And Kiki always plays a part in the children’s escape from danger.)

We had a good time with Englishisms like “high tea” and “jumper,” and vocabulary – did she know what a “sheer wall” is? “Like the climbing wall where I go with my dad.” But she really is a narrative absorber, just lets the words flow, getting the gist.

This isn’t exactly an “oh you must read this book” post. Even when we read them with our boys, the books (published in the 1940s and 50s) required editing. For Blyton’s sometimes troublesome identifying characteristics of antagonists, we substituted plain old “bad guys.”

This time I wondered if the girls would seem wimpy, but no. Dinah isn’t fond of the snakes or mice that often peek out from Phillips’s pockets, but she’s very resourceful. The other three all protect Lucy Ann – but because of her youth not because she’s a girl. And, anyway, I don’t think you could convince Lady Baby that girls can’t star in an adventure as well as boys.

The morning we left, Lady Baby told her mom the highlights, describing the inside of the mountain where the children find themselves, the baby goat who attaches itself to Phillip and comes along, and about Kiki.

What a joy to share walking and mountains and reading with this little person. So lucky.

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Secrets and the Novels of Tana French

In the last few years TV detective series have often filled our evenings – “The Fall,” The Killing,” “Jack Taylor,” “Happy Valley.” There is something silent about these procedurals – you have to guess what’s going on in the minds of complicated detectives with craggy or beautiful, always expressive faces.

But we get inner narration by observant detectives in Tana French’s “The Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries.” These books are mysteries for sure, but even more they tell of place (Ireland) and the doings of complex characters.

In the first book, “In The Woods,” murder detective, Rob Ryan, investigates a crime that takes place near the woods where, when he was 12, he was traumatized and his two best friends disappeared forever. Memories and secrets from that mystery impinge on the present.

The woods are central, “I remembered, too, the three of us finding a secret garden, somewhere in the heart of the wood. Behind some hidden wall or doorway, it had been. Fruit trees run wild, apple, cherry pear: broken marble fountains, trickles of water still bubbling along tracks green with moss and worn deep into the stone; great ivy-draped statues in every corner feet wild with weeds, arms and heads cracked away and scattered among long grass and Queen Anne’s lace. Gray dawn light, the swish of our feet and dew on our bare legs.”

Characters appear in one book and float into the next (six so far). Cassie Maddox, Rob’s partner, becomes the protagonist of the second book, “The Likeness.” She goes undercover to join a group of students living in an old house – the house nearly a character in the book. Years later Cassie still dreams of it: “The house is always empty. The bedrooms are bare and bright, only my footsteps echoing off the floorboards, circling up through the sun and the dust motes to the high ceilings. Smell of wild hyacinths, drifting through the wide-open windows, and of beeswax polish. Chips of white paint flaking off the window sashes and a tendril of ivy swaying in over the sill. Wood doves, lazy somewhere outside.”

And it’s Ireland – where wind blows “rain-spatter in your face…,” the economic bubble has burst, but the language is still rich. French gives us bucolic rural settings and Dublin’s police headquarters, all modern garish office spaces inside, and then outside: “…old, ornate red brick and marble with battlements and turrets and worn carvings of saints in unexpected places. In winter, on foggy evenings, crossing the cobblestones is like walking through Dickens – hazy old streetlamps throwing odd-angled shadows, bells pealing in the cathedrals nearby, every footstep ricocheting into darkness….”

Coincidences and narratives of friendships that mightn’t ring true for every reader occur in these books, but I’ll accept those improbabilities in exchange for the descriptions and the action. And it’s rare to have books both so literate and so deliciously moreish.

Here is winter reading!

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“The Past”

A friend who reads for her day job as an editor, but reads much for pleasure as well, spent a spring-hinting-at-summer afternoon lying on her couch in sunshine reading Tessa Hadley’s new book, “The Past.” That would be a delicious way to read this book, but any way would be good to read this or another of Hadley’s fine books.

“The Past” is about four grown up siblings returning to a family home for one last summer holiday. Hadley’s plots and characters are convincing in their complexities and motivations, but I love Hadley for the precise descriptions of ordinary things she uses to build her novels.

Hadley’s word choices sometimes remain just out of reach in my internal dictionary, so I’m glad I read her latest book on my Kindle. Touching the screen enabled me to instantly define: “hieratic,” (of or concerning priests), “propitiate,” (to win or regain the favor of a god, spirit or person by doing something that pleases them), “louche,” (disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way), and “anodyne,” (not likely to provoke dissent or offense). In a paper book I might have guessed at meanings and kept going – and missed out.

Hadley describes a character reading a book: “She kicked off her shoes and after a while she would slip for warmth into that consoling space between the eiderdown and the top blanket.” “Consoling space” seems just right, not in bed or on the bed, but in a space slightly illicit – and so pleasurable.

And this, when a character tries to get a nasty image out of her mind: “The real evening was brimming and steady around her like a counter-argument to horror, its midges swarming and multiplying in the last nooks of yellow sunshine.”

Just as “nooks of yellow sunshine” comfort, ordinary beauty often provides solace. Here in the old garden: “At least it was an afternoon of balmy warmth, its sunlight diffused because the air was dense with seed floss, transparent-winged midges, pollen; light flickered on the grass, and under the silver birch leaf-shadows shifted, blotting their penny-shapes upon one another.

And the old house itself is a strong presence: “…something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.”

Hadley gets the three sisters and their brother as they reunite, “All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.”

Hadley’s words fill this post about her book – and that’s as it should be – they’re terrific.

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Gertrude Bell

Lately I’ve been longing for another Ferrante or Knausgaard experience, that long abandonment of present to the narrative world. A hefty and engrossing biography, Georgina Howell’s “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,” satisfied.

Born in 1868 into a wealthy family from the north of England and one of the first women educated at Oxford, Bell – mountain climber, explorer, historian, archaeologist, writer, linguist – became one of those redoubtable English women of the 19th Century who broke with convention. The Victorian era began to crumble in her lifetime, spurred in part by women who, in spite of still wearing long, tiny-waisted dresses and big hats, began to agitate for education and freedom from male supervision.

Bell’s greatest renown comes from her journeys in Arabia, adventurous by any measure as she crossed empty deserts, explored ancient historical sites, and got to know chieftains of nomadic tribes. Her travels ring with names now sadly familiar in a modern context.

Because of her deep knowledge of the Middle East, Bell took part in the historic negotiations after World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, which imposed borders on ancient peoples and lands (a contribution not without controversy). Part of the fascination of the book is to read now about a time before these nation states.

To people back in England Bell probably seemed just a spinster, but Howell uses Bell’s rich letters to weave into her story the two, ultimately sad, but passionate romances of Bell’s life.

We travel so lightly nowadays with our easy outfits, roller bags, and airplanes – the two-page listing of what Bell took on one of her expeditions boggles the mind. Howell writes of a 1913 expedition: “She would take plenty of luggage this time and be ready for anything. First, there were her two English-made tents, one for bathing and sleeping in, one for eating and writing, both with a loose flap that could be tied back, laced shut, or used as a shady canopy. She ordered more of the skirts that she had designed with her tailor for riding horses in the Middle East: neither side-saddle habit nor breeches, but an ankle-length divided skirt with an apron panel. In the saddle, she would sweep this backward and gather the surplus material behind her and to one side, where it looked in profile like a bustle. When she dismounted, the panel fell around her like an apron and concealed the division. She bought lace and tucked-lawn evening gowns for dinners with consuls and sheikhs, for sitting at a dining-table at an embassy or cross-legged on a carpet in a tent.”

There’s more, lots more on her list, from a caseful of shoes and boots, candlesticks and linen sheets to a crate of revolvers.

What a life she lived – and what a great pleasure to read Howell’s book about it.

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Short and Dark

“Such a short time you were here,” said Lady Baby, the night before we flew home from our December visit. But we made merry!

On the first day we selected a tree – the tallest ever at Downtown Abbey – and Lady Baby, studying each ornament and determining careful placement, hung hearts, stars, and fluffy owls. We cut out cats, angels, and gingerbread folk to bake and frost and eat. At a lively high school production of a hip-hop “Nutcracker,” Lady Baby might have liked more plot and fewer dance numbers, but she eyed the Mouse King’s every move.

For two days I took her to preschool, and we’d arrive at the little schoolroom in morning darkness to find candle glow, fragrant greenery, and quiet children in a circle around their teacher. In a snow globe moment at pickup time, bundled-up children sledded, squealed, and chased snowflakes to catch on their tongues.

But I treasure most the glimpsed bits of Lady Baby’s thinking: I wouldn’t have known, or ever guessed, that Prudhoe Bay is the best place to get a vegan sandwich (you will remember that Nick, the father of Baby Boy, spends a lot of time in Prudhoe Bay – though he prefers a sausage sandwich).

At the nearby elementary school, Lady Baby climbed the frosty equipment, watched the school’s hardy chickens standing about on one leg (the other tucked into their feathers), and observed “they’d be warmer in their little hut, because they have a light to warm it up.”

Walking home she spotted a dog and its master starting out for a walk. She stopped and stared a minute, then told me “Somebody must really love that sweet puppy.”

We read an animal character version of “A Christmas Carol,” identifying all the animals placed in the familiar Dickens tale, and revisited old favorites like “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Beginning “The Dog Who Found Christmas, a book new to us and discovering Buster abandoned by heartless owners, I said, “Uh oh, this might be sad.” Lady Baby quickly reassured me, “Don’t worry Granna Katy, he’ll find a home by the end.” And so he did.

While Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson had a night away, we spent an overnight with Lady Baby – and it seemed a privilege that everything was so normal. Dinner, bath, books, bed – sleeping tight all night – waking up to “Pretend you are the baby tiger and I am the mama, or no I am the baby and you are the mama.”

Her parents, on the other hand, did that thing I remember so well – looking forward to a break and a chance to ski and eat with grown ups – then spending the whole time talking about the almost four-year old at home.

This visit was short – and winter solstice dark – but rich with Christmas magic (“I think Santa might really be a mouse, so he can fit in all the chimneys”), candle light, tree lights, and music – days to savor.

Is everything ready at your house? I wish you such a happy Christmas, abrim with peace, joy, and love!

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“All The Light We Cannot See – and Dark

Reality kept intruding into my re-reading of Anthony Doerr’s novel, “All The Light We Cannot See,” a book I initially avoided out of fear but read this summer with great pleasure.

The book is about Werner, a small, white-haired German orphan boy who “likes to interrogate the world,” and Marie-Laure, blinded by cataracts at the age of six, daughter of the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Chapters within the book’s complicated structure slide open the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure during the years from 1934 to 1944 and beyond, as smoothly as the intricate puzzle boxes Marie-Laure’s father constructs for her. He also builds a detailed miniature model of their Paris neighborhood to help her learn to navigate the real one by herself.

Smell, touch, and sound describe Marie-Laure’s reality. At the museum, “Botany smells like glue and blotter paper and pressed flowers. Paleontology smells like rock dust, bone dust.” “The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle. The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil.” “Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture.”

Werner and his sister Jutta find a primitive radio, take it apart, put it back together and hear music and broadcasts from far away in France – magic, a miracle. Werner’s gift with electronics provides his escape from work in the coal mine where his father died. He’s trained and then assigned to a special unit in the German army, searching out and destroying unauthorized transmitters.

When the Germans arrive to occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee, clutching the priceless and cursed diamond (or a copy), which is at the heart of the book’s mystery . After walking through war-ravaged countryside, they arrive at Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast to live with Marie-Laure’s great uncle Etienne. He resides in a skinny four-story house that hides a transmitter in the attic.

The woman who cares for Etienne, Madam Manec, greets the famished Marie-Laure with the fragrance and sizzle of “egg, spinach, melting cheese.” Madam Manec is 76-years old, and brave in the way of French resistance fighters – who have always seemed the bravest possible people to me.

Last week during a long day in Seattle of reading the book on ferries and in waiting rooms, we drove home through a wind and rain storm to find the driveway littered with tree debris and our house lightless on the dark bluff. A scramble for flashlights and candles restored a dimmer familiarity.

After snuffing candles and going upstairs, curious about Marie-Laure’s world, I crept back down without my headlamp to get an extra blanket. I grasped the stair rail and felt for each step, suddenly uncertain about depth and number. I thought how limited my perception in the dark and how rich Doerr makes Marie-Laure’s world.

But it’s Madame Manec I think of today, my heart aching, after a friendly soccer game between old enemies, a rock concert, and cafes in Paris became scenes of devastation and sorrow. I wish Parisians her courage, wish for light in the City of Light.

 

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The Fourth Ferrante Neapolitan Novel

The fourth and final (I suppose, though one can always hope) book in the Neapolitan series – partly fevered nightmare and partly perfect resolution – delivers what we have come to expect, and more.

If you inhaled the first three, one after the other (and I know several of you did) – now you can read the newly released fourth volume, “The Story of the Lost Child.” (I read the third again to get primed, but you don’t need to.)

Bereft, because of the end of the series, I found solace in a Paris Review interview between Ferrante and her publishers. She discusses her decision to offer herself “to the public purely and simply through an act of writing – which is all that really counts.” She makes perfect sense, and makes one realize how different Elena Ferrante is from Elena Greco, and how different life is from art.   (Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 228: Elena Ferrante)

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