Being alive

The other day I was walking Lucy in a neighborhood about two miles from our house when we walked by a yellow 1970’s Chevrolet Vega parked kittywampus in someone’s driveway. It was kind of dusty but in pretty good shape for a 45-year old car. I looked up and noticed that it had been pulled out of a garage that appeared very unstable and looked like a full-on hoarding situation was going on inside.

A day or two later the Vega was gone but the garage was as crazy as it had been the first time we walked by. This time I looked at the rest of the yard and house. The house was a cute little bungalow that had seen better days with the windows all covered in old plastic from the inside. Clearly this person had been a hoarder for decades. I got the feeling that maybe the hoarder had died. It was then that I noticed there were some potted plants along the front walk including a very healthy looking tomato plant with ripe fruit on it. This made me second-guess my death theory–given the health of the plant it must have been a sudden death if indeed the owner had passed away. Made me a bit sad to think that one minute someone has a nicely tended tomato plant and then next minute the tomato plant doesn’t have anyone to tend it.

The third time Lucy and I walked by the house there was a large dumpster out front which was being filled with trash. I also noticed a fair amount of organic material and quickly looked over to where the plants had been. All of them, including the healthy tomato plant, had been removed and chucked into the bin. This made me infinitely sad. First, because it seemed to confirm my hunch that the owner had passed away–or I suppose moved to a home. And second, because more than any of the other stuff that was associated with this unknown owner the tomato plant seemed the most personal. Here was a living thing that had been planned for, brought to life, and tended to by this person. He or she used that fruit to nourish themselves and probably took joy from gardening. The plant had seemed almost like a loved one left behind. And now the plant was presumably somewhere in the pile of green stuff in the dumpster. Did the person cleaning the property at least pick off the ripe red tomatoes on the plant before throwing it away? The whole thing was heartbreaking to me and not unlike a novel I read while we were in Maine.

being deadBeing Dead by Jim Crace
After two short introductory chapters, Being Dead starts from the moment of death for Celice and her husband Joseph a few seconds later. Brutally murdered on a beach Celice was in mid-sentence when she was killed (“It’s not as if…”). Crace describes the physical processes overtaking their bodies and the various parts of the natural world that do their bit to help the couple return to the earth. Rather than find this disturbing I think it is one of the more comforting aspects of both the book and my thoughts of dying.

From there Crace uses a couple of different time lines to tell the story of Celice and Joseph’s life and death. I can sometimes get a little put off by clever chronologies in books, but this one was never confusing and worked really well. One timeline follows the couple backwards from the moment of their deaths to the moment they woke up that morning completely unaware of what the day would bring. This timeline shows how differently the long-married couple viewed the progression of that day and the meaning of their interactions and the emotions they experienced. Two people on close but separate tracks that sometimes intersect but more often just run side by side.

Other timelines–moving forward–describe the couple’s early life and courtship and nature of their life together, and another much shorter timeline covers the time between their death and when their bodies are discovered.

I liked everything about this book.

I liked its omniscience, we know what is going on in everyone’s heads including the murderer.

I liked the exploration of lives interrupted and what it means to die a sudden death. I don’t want to suffer pain when I check out. But I would like some time to mentally prepare for it. I know, when you are dead you are dead, but the thought of leaving things unfinished makes me crazy. I’m not stupid, I know that every death leaves things unfinished. But my God, Celice didn’t even get to finish her last sentence.

I liked the exploration of the natural world and death and how the couple’s professional lives were tied into those processes.

I liked the way Crace lays out scientific facts so that they are not only fascinating but compelling as part of the story.

I liked how Crace describes the ways the couples’ deaths effect different people in emotional and practical terms, from their daughter and colleagues to the police, to the people who have to take away their rotting corpses.

For some, the subject matter will keep them from fully embracing the beauty of this book. I know my efforts to explain it to John as I read it left him thinking I was a little morbid. But for me, I think it may be my favorite book of the year so far.

Post-script: When was the last time you did a Google search and only got one hit? How precise and esoteric does something have to be to only get one hit these days? But that is what happens when you Google ‘Negrita gleewater’. When I came across it in Being Dead, I wrote it down because I was reading the book during the two weeks I had decided to stay off the internet. I just looked it up to see what it was exactly and the only hit is the appearance of the term in the text of the novel itself. Is it not a real thing? Since 1999 no one has bothered to post a question on some forum somewhere online wondering about it? It’s time it got a larger digital footprint.

Return to Snug Harbor Farm

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[Tell me that isn’t a perfect title for a book.]

Our drive up to Maine this year was more complicated than usual. It involved Lucy and me meeting John via Bucks Country, PA, at a hotel near the airport in Hartford, CT directly off of his business trip to Albuquerque, and an overnight in Concord, NH. Still, I managed to work our itinerary so John would have a chance to visit one of his favorite nurseries, Snug Harbor Farm near Kennebunkport, ME. Because the car was fairly well packed to the gills, he had to settle for buying non-perishable terracotta, but he enjoyed himself nonetheless. We stopped here four years ago on our way up as well. It was interesting to see how it has changed (only for the better). If you want to see more pictures of it from 2012, click here.

As we finish up our own garden project at home things look promising, but the late planting of perennials in a hot DC summer means there isn’t much to look at until next spring. So nice to be up in cool Maine with so many things blooming.

 

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I think he is going to cross it. I don’t know why.

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The vacation from hell (thankfully not mine)

PrintThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida
I bought this last weekend totally on whim. I had never heard of it or Vendela Vida (great name). I wasn’t particularly attracted to the cover. I really don’t know why I picked it up. I guess I was attracted to the notion of a character losing her passport in Casablanca and deciding to become someone else. (I know I wasn’t drawn to the second-person singular narration, but eventually I got over that.)

What did eventually pull me in was how perfectly Vida captured the lead up and immediate aftermath of the theft of the unnamed narrator’s backpack with every important bit of paper, identity, and money in it. I could feel the panic rising in me as she tried in vain to get her belongings back. (Maybe the second-person singular “You” do this and feel that set-up helps us feel more in her shoes.) The stuff of my nightmares, I kind of reveled in her descent into chaos and despair–both of which aren’t fully appreciated by those around her. How many times have you been in a tough spot and found yourself upset that the world continues despite your troubles and that most people–even the nice ones–do just enough to assure themselves that they have done as much as could be reasonably expected. Which is to say, not enough.

Once I knew she was in for a crap-storm of trouble I was fascinated to see where it would take her. An act of survival puts her on the wrong side of the law resulting in the inability to resolve her situation with the help of the U.S. Embassy. Then she lucks into a situation that seems to solve her problem at least in the short term, but then she is back in trouble, and eventually…well that’s left up to the reader to decide.

Against this travel nightmare backdrop we find our heroine’s current situation might be preferable to the one she left behind in Florida. Part of her home situation I guessed early on. Its eventual unveiling in the story made it seem a little more one dimensional than the character’s present predicament, but it certainly attested to motive and state of mind.

Not a perfect book, but kind of a thrilling, quick read. Plenty left to think about. Plenty to worry about. Plenty to be happy it wasn’t you about. There is a tiny part of me that is reminded, at least superficially, of The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. Single woman, foreign adventure, caution and good sense thrown to the wind, something dark in the background. But don’t read too much into that I guess.

Rounding the bend to the end of the year

AmblerWith just over four months left until the end of the year, and fall approaching, I am just 34 books shy of my 104-book goal for 2016. That seems eminently doable. Particularly since I have cut way back on my Twitter, Facebook, and any other media that purports to show me news. I just want to wake up to good news on November 9th.

It’s been awhile since I posted mini-reviews in the order of how much I liked them. Today, I start with the best first and the worst last. And when I say best and worst what I really mean is how much I liked them. I rarely vouch for literary merit.

The Light of Day by Eric Ambler
Not only am I am big fan of Ambler, but this one is definitely one of my favorites, and it was the perfect thing to read on a lazy day on our recent trip to Maine. A petty thief in Athens gets caught up in high stakes international tomfoolery that takes him to Istanbul. All the Ambler hallmarks I love. I need to come up with a better way of describing this kind of thriller. Pre-computer, analog, Interpol, international borders, pieces of paper, time tables, pre-globalization, all that kind of stuff. I think this one is meant to be a bit comical, which it is, but not so much that you can’t easily ignore it. Also the basis for the film Topkapi, which I must rent.

220px-RainbowAndRoseThe Rainbow and the Rose by Nevil Shute
Highly possible this one is tied for first with the Ambler–they definitely share much of the analog, vintage world that I seem to crave more and more, but Ambler is clearly a much better writer. Sorry Nevil. I still love your books to bits. A 1950s story of a daring rescue mission to a remote area of Tasmania. But really the bulk of the novel is the story of the pilot being rescued and his life in England between the world wars. As usual with Shute, I love that his characters are can do, competent, smart people who always do the right thing. And instead of lots of tomato juice (like in In the Wet), this one seemed to have lots of cold milk. That’s good stuff.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
I sometimes bristle at how fashionable it is to disparage Hemingway’s writing style and testosterone laced personality. Well, A Moveable Feast gives the haters all the ammunition they need. Lots of very short sentences and he-man attitude. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy it and particularly liked the road trip he took with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Either Hemingway defamed Fitzgerald’s character or Fitzgerald was a whiny bitch. Perhaps both.

dribbling-cover-xlargeThe Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson
Normally I’m a big fan of Bryson and I liked much about this book. But overall I felt like Bryson might have crossed over from lighthearted irascibility to cranky old man. Dribbling is a sequel of sorts to Bryson’s earlier take on Britain in Notes From a Small Island which I really liked when I read it a million years ago. I found not much new or fresh in Dribbling and found some of his cranky humor to feel just cranky and not particularly original. Where Bryson does shine is in pointing out that with so much money flying around these days do we really need to reduce our physical world to the cheapest, ugliest options available.

Leap Year by Peter Cameron
You know that I am a HUGE fan of Peter Cameron’s most recent novel Coral Glynn. I think it is extremely well-written, well-plotted, and well-paced. I was also a big fan of his novel Andorra.  And to a lesser degree I also liked his novel The Weekend.  But Leap Year? It felt dated and much, much less accomplished or even interesting. Based on the four Cameron novels I have read, I think he is a writer who has gotten better with practice. Leap Year was published in 1990 and his first novel. The Weekend was five years later and was markedly better. Andorra was another two years after that and was two years better than The Weekend. Published in 2012 Coral Glynn was 15 years after that and easily 15 years better. If my theory holds, the two books published between Andorra and Coral Glynn should be pretty darn good. Here’s hoping.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Sigh. Unfortunately, I think this is another case of the emperor having no clothes. Or at least clothes she does have are insipid and one-dimensional. After a while I began speed reading just to get to the end.

I’m done with David Lodge

ParadiseNewsBack in the day I loved me some David Lodge, especially his academic oriented novels like Nice Work and Changing Places. But I just read my sixth Lodge–the first in over ten years–and, well, I think I am done with him.

Paradise News by David Lodge
Perhaps Paradise News is particularly weak and one-dimensional and I shouldn’t give up on Lodge’s work. He is kind of the thinking man’s Peter Mayle. More substance than Mayle for sure but both kind of tedious in a light-hearted way.

I really don’t want to discourage folks from trying his Campus Trilogy which, based on my memory at least, is much more interesting. But, the two Lodges that are still unread on my shelves are being put into the ‘donate’ pile.

Reading 17 books in 14 days

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Remember that stack of 17 books I was planning on reading while I was in Maine? Well, let’s just say I didn’t quite make it to 17. BUT, I only missed it by 12 books. Yes, that’s right, I only read five books. Bookertalk was my first commenter on that post and she was right with her guess of five. Like most of the rest of you who commented, I expected to read more like 7 books during the two weeks Maine. And for the first week I was on track to do better than that. By the time the first seven days were over I had read 4.75 books. So what happened the second week that I only managed to read a quarter of a book? I can sum it up in two words: people and puzzles.

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The first week there were a total of nine of us in the house with four oldies, two 21-year olds, and then one each at 15, 13, and 11. How in the world did I manage to read 4.75 books, do two 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, learn how to play backgammon, and kayak almost every day? Looking back I am not entirely sure, but the rest of the house went on a fair number of excursions which allowed me totally uninterrupted reading time.

 

Puzzling with John's brother and his fiancee.
Puzzling with John’s brother and his fiancee.

I would like to say that staying completely off of social media for  14 days also helped with my book count, but that had no effect the second week, so maybe that wasn’t as much of a factor as I think. I may have spent more time at the puzzle table than the first week, but the real reason was lots more visiting and sightseeing with guests and a four-day saga of trying to get a hold of my Dad’s luggage that decided to vacation in Tampa rather than Maine thanks to Delta.

Before you go nutty, here are the five books I read on vacation:

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland (8/1/16)
Being Dead
by Jim Crace (8/3/16)
Light of Day by Eric Ambler (8/4/16)
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (8/8/16)

Oh dear. That’s only four books. I guess some of the partially read books (Paradise News and The Woman Upstairs) and one DNF (Leaving Atocha Station) clouded my memory on this front. I can say unequivocally that the four books that I did finish were all pretty spectacular. In fact, Being Dead has ascended into being one of my favorite books for the year, but more on that another day.

Why post a picture of a book I did not finish (and won't be finishing)? Because the cover is what got me to buy it in the first place.
Why post a picture of a book I did not finish (and won’t be finishing)? Because the cover is what got me to buy it in the first place.

But surely I must have spent so much time in the many used bookshops I visited over the two weeks, right? I popped into a few, but for the most part I wasn’t really in the mood to look for anything other than books by Cecil Roberts. Remember he was the one who wrote that delightful surprise Victoria Four-Thirty that I loved so much. And his books are of a vintage and (lack of) popularity that I knew only a certain kind of dusty old bookshop would give me a chance in hell of finding anything by Roberts.

I could tell with most bookstores along the way that their stock was going to be too new and or too curated to customers’ tastes. But I also knew there was one bookshop close to the house we stayed at the second week that would fit the bill. When we went to Dooryard Books in Rockland, Maine four years ago, I spent a lot of time combing shelves, dust, and even some musty boxes in the basement. But my overall feeling that time was that I only bought some mildly interesting things because I didn’t find anything that really excited me. This time I thought that the fusty, seemingly neglected stock, would work in my favor. And it did. But some of it wasn’t so neglected.

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I have no idea what this about, haven’t taken the time to read the tattered flap even two weeks later, but I am as excited as hell to have found another Cecil Roberts. Found this within the first 3 minutes of being in the shop which kind of opened up the flood gates a bit as you will see in the following pictures.


Although the shop seems like nothing ever leaves and nothing new ever comes in, the presence of these six Shute first editions in really good shape disprove that notion. They sure weren't there four years ago. And did I mention that all fiction was 50% off?

Although the shop seems like nothing ever leaves and nothing new ever comes in, the presence of these six Shute first editions in really good shape disprove that notion. They sure weren’t there four years ago. And did I mention that all fiction was 50% off? (You may recall from the photo in my last post that I brought an old mass market paperback of The Rainbow and the Rose as part of my stack of books to read. Glad to have found this copy because that brittle paperback probably would not have survived being read.

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These all represent taking a chance based on cover and a very slight inkling that I might find another gem like Victoria Four-Thirty.

 

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The Keyes novel has floor plans!

 

The two Auchincloss novels I have read so far have been wonderfully satisfying. This one was in the dusty basement, but there was another one on the main floor that was an expensive first edition ($60) that I thought I could probably find cheaper somewhere. I kind of wish I had gotten it. Especially at 50% off.
The two Auchincloss novels I have read so far have been wonderfully satisfying. This one was in the dusty basement, but there was another one on the main floor that was an expensive first edition ($60) that I thought I could probably find cheaper somewhere. I kind of wish I had gotten it. Especially at 50% off.

 

Unless they were published under different titles, I don't have any of the Ambler.
Unless they were published under different titles, I don’t have any of the Ambler.

 

I was trying to get clever and include Maine in the background but the lighting wasn't good.
I was trying to get clever and include Maine in the background but the lighting wasn’t good.

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Kindle Shmindle

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Later this summer we are headed to Maine. Typically our trips to Maine are all about reading, eating, scrabble, and jigsaw puzzles. But this year we are going to have 7 house guests one week and 5 the second week. How the hell am I going to have time to read anything? Really looking forward to seeing friends and family, but more often then not, it is just the two of us and Lucy.

So how many books do I need for such a vacation? Seventeen apparently. I went alphabetically through my shelves and picked out things that provided a lot of variety and seemed like something I was in the mood for. I happened to be in one of those “I want to read everything” kind of moods, so I was in the mood for everything.

I know I have picked way too many and I know I will by plying the used bookstores of mid-coast Maine–and there is always the chance of good books in the rental house–but hey, better safe than sorry. If I manage to get through at least seven of these in two weeks I will be very pleased. Anyone want to place any bets?