Right before my recent vacation I had about five hours of car commute for which I needed an audio book. I didn’t want one longer than five hours because I would have had to put off the end for almost three weeks. I used the filter on Audible to find a book of suitable length and stumbled across Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. I blow a little hot and cold on McEwan. Or I should say I find some of his work to be okay and I find some of his work to be absolutely brilliant. McEwan also alternates between what could be called normal kind of stories (Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Sweet Tooth, etc.) and those that can be a little freaky and macabre (The Cement Garden, Enduring Love, Amsterdam, etc.). If On Chesil Beach is my favorite “normal” McEwan (and one of my favorite books of all time), Nutshell is my favorite freaky McEwan (and probably my favorite book of the year).
Being less literate than many of you, I didn’t catch the allusion to Hamlet until I finished the book and read about it online. Even though I read Hamlet back in high school, I didn’t make the connection. In Nutshell we have an unnamed narrator, who just happens to be a fetus, overhearing his mother and her lover/his uncle plotting the death of his father. I thought this book was brilliant on so many levels. I love the way McEwan describes the physiological aspects of fetushood and how it apprehends information from both outside stimulus and internal processes. Although many of those processes are probably scientifically accurate, what it may convey to a fetus is purely fictional and pretty damn clever and funny. This is a fetus that vacillates between being very sophisticated and knowledgeable (and a bit of an expert on the terroir of fine wines) and not knowing much more basic concepts/ideas/emotions. He reminded me more than a bit of Stewie from the animated show Family Guy. Stewie is a baby with a posh British accent (despite his family being American) who knows how to build a time machine but is sometimes clueless about the very basics of life. (Seth McFarland recording this audio book as Stewie is something I would commission if I was Warren Buffet-rich.)
Aside from the brilliance of the setting and narrator, Nutshell stands on its own as a will-they-succeed, will-they-get-away-with-it kind of murder mystery. McEwan had me completely wrapped up in the tension and had me rooting for just about everyone, except for the d-bag uncle, at one point or the other. There were so many possible outcomes that could have been fascinating. To keep the spoilers at bay, I won’t go into some of the many endings I falsely predicted along the way.
McEwan also packs the short novel with so many brilliant observations, but they never get in the way of the story. They all feel right.
Although I listened to this audio book I can totally see myself reading the print version next time around. High marks. Favorite book of my year so far.
Regular readers know that I am a big Trollope fan. When people ask where they should start with his novels I never know quite what to say. My first Trollope was the The Warden the first of the Barchester series, but I like all of the Church of England detail and intrigue peppered throughout those novels. The Pallisers series to me is less accessible with the amount of political detail included–although The Eustace Diamonds stands really well on its own, but then again, it is in the middle of the series and I know people usually like to start at the beginning. I have also enjoyed other good stand alones as well like Dr. Wortle’s School and Three Clerks.
And then came Rachel Ray. It might be my new favorite Trollope and I think certainly his most accessible that I have read. This would be the perfect book for someone wanting to give Anthony Trollope a try. It has a bit of the church thing, a bit of the political thing, romance, thwarted romance, nosy widows, greedy clergy, curmudgeons, and the virtuous. And, of course, lots of talk about how much money everyone makes. That is always my favorite part of any Trollope novel.
Rachel Ray is as goodhearted as a human can be with a loving but weak widowed mother and an overly pious widowed sister. And then Luke Rowan comes along, handsome, with a comfortable income and great future prospects…but is he all that he seems? YES, of course he is. You know from the start what is going to happen, but you don’t know how it will happen or how complicated things will get before they work themselves out. I really did find this to be a delightful page turner.
Something needs to be said, however, about the level of anti-Semitic content in Rachel Ray. Much Victorian literature is antisemitic to a certain degree, in fact there is much English fiction well into the 1950s that has flashes of antisemitism. Usually in Trollope it pops up here or there in passing without being an actual part of the story line. In Rachel Ray it is, however, part of the story. A candidate for Parliament is considered completely inappropriate for office based on the fact that he is Jewish, and much is made of that fact. And it isn’t like Trollope includes it to make a critique of antisemitism, because all of the heroes in the book are the ones advocating against electing a Jew to Parliament. Given how progressive Trollope is on other ways, I choose to believe that if Anthony Trollope were alive today, he wouldn’t be antisemitic and write such stupid scenes. Why do people have to be assholes? Sigh. Have I mentioned recently how much I hate Donald Trump? Big sigh.
When I was a kid I used to play office, school, or library. For me this didn’t really equate to having pupils or play acting an office or library situation. What it essentially boiled down to was playing with paper. But not just any paper, you couldn’t give me some scratch paper, or a pad of paper or a fresh envelope or anything like that. To have any sort of value to me it had to be something that had once had a real, adult, purpose.
And I wasn’t the only one, my older sister and even some neighbor kids got in on the act as well. We would go dumpster diving at the school near our house and pull out anything that looked official. One time we found the holy grail of school-related paper: A grade book. A red, hardcover, spiral-bound, grade book with lots of ruled rows and columns and cut-out tabs. We would also collect unwanted mail from our parents and trade the best pieces back and forth as if they were baseball cards. Our favorites were envelopes with windows and things that were, or looked like, bills. Junk mail was not our thing. I’m guessing the 2 or 3 others in that small social circle grew out of their interest in playing with mail and other sorts of papers, but for me it went the opposite direction. My fascination wasn’t just with paper, pretty much any office supply or equipment could hold me in thrall. In the early 1980s I even cut out and pasted pictures of the earliest home computers and taped them to my nightstand. I didn’t care what computers could do, I just liked the way they looked.
Flash forward 35 years and I have worked in lots of offices with lots of paper, typewriters, and computers, and I have to say, I still kind of love it. For sure office work can be mundane and soul-crushingly boring, but I do still love the trappings of an office–at least an office of a certain era. Not much interesting to me about the sleek, nearly paperless, offices of today. Give me something pre-1980s with typewriters and real phones, and paper, and rubber stamps, and perforations, and carbons, and files, and index cards, and tape, and staples…
What has me thinking about all of this? I’m currently reading The Intercom Conspiracy by Eric Ambler. A spy thriller from 1969 that centers around a right-wing newsletter called Intercom. There is plenty of nail-biting intrigue involved but there is also lots of paper. Reference books and libraries and mimeographs, mailing lists, telegrams. I could read about that stuff all time.
I would love these books for other reasons but the paper/office details in other literature also pleases me. Wilkie Collins’s The Woman and White, so much letter writing. The scenes in Howard’s End (movie version) where Leonard Bast works in the Porphyrion. Many of Barbara Pym’s characters, indexers and what not. Fanny in Look at Me by Anita Brookner works in a medical reference library.
You really need to follow this link to see the entire Marks and Co in LEGO created by someone who loves the book.
I keep thinking of books and movies where I can indulge this fetish. When Emma Thompson breaks the case in In The Name of the Father by getting a big old file in the police archives. Even the directory research in the the movie Spotlight. I could go on and on…
Later this summer John and I are spending 12 days on safari in Tanzania and Kenya. I’m not entirely sure how much time I will have for reading while we are there. The last time we were in Kenya I was in the travel business and we were on familiarization trip with a bunch of other travel agents and their spouses. Sometimes “fam trips” are deeply discounted, sometimes they are free, but they all require that the agent attendees participate in property visits, etc. so they can go home and better sell the product. The point of bringing all of this up is that on that fam trip we did game drives each morning and afternoon as well as some other activities, but the rest of the time we were carted around to look at other camps and resorts. My thought is that if you subtract out all of the travel agenty stuff there might end up being some time to read. There certainly won’t be any internet to distract me, although I will have to keep my eyes open for rogue snakes and such.
One of the quirks of a trip like this is that each person is strictly limited to 33 pounds (about 15 kg) of luggage. That means everything: clothes, shoes, toiletries, camera, binoculars, and yes, even books. For once the problem is not how many books I can fit in my luggage, but how much those books weigh. For those of you out there thinking “get a Kindle, dumbass”, well I really don’t know what to say to you except, that’s really not my thing.
Without having any idea of what a book might actually weigh I decided I would allow myself 2 pounds (or about 907 grams) of books. Then I got out my kitchen scale (which I noticed was kind of smudged up with cocoa of recipes past) and saw what a book actually weighed. Two pounds of books was going to be harder to figure out than I thought.
My first approach was gather up as many mass market editions as you own to see what might be worth taking. It turned out to be a rather odd mixture of older books.
Sometimes I like to take a chunkster on vacation. Like over a 1,000 pages kind of chunkster. But that seemed dangerous. What if I found myself desperately bored with whatever giant book I chose? That is one of my biggest bookish fears, best not to risk it. But what if I took along a chunkette rather than a chunkster. So I went back and combed my shelves for something in the 500-page range.
I started to think about the many possible combinations of books I could take but my scale battery was dying and I didn’t know how long it would last. It was clear I was going to have to get Excel involved. First step was to log the known data in terms of weight and number of pages. Next I calculated grams per page (gpp) and pages per gram (ppg) so I could see which books gave me the best bang for my buck. Then I used the sort function on the ppg column to see which books were most efficient in delivering pages at the least possible weight.
My first idea was to delete the weights of books starting at the bottom of the efficiency scale until I got close to 907 grams. The result was that I could take about seven books totaling 1,817 pages (see ‘Most Efficient’ column). While taking those seven books would not be a bad thing, they just didn’t represent the variety I was hoping to have with me.
My second approach was to delete some of the top seven most efficient books that just weren’t speaking to me. I got rid of one of the Dickens’ novels so as not to have more than one by a single author. Next I got rid of The Ladies by Doris Grumbach because I think I have another book about the subject characters and thought I might want to do a more direct comparison of the two. And I got rid of the Bainbridge because I have never been successful getting into one of her books. I haven’t really tried all that hard so it’s not like I don’t think I would like them, but who wants to take a chance in this situation? Choosing which books might replace those three was pretty easy. It’s been a while since I have read some Trollope and at 403 pages Rachel Ray is almost a chunkette. One of the Graham Greenes also felt like an easy choice. I really like his work and there is still so much of it I haven’t read.
Even after I came up with a good pile, the chunkettes were still talking to me. Wouldn’t this long journey without social media be perfect for a big book? Maybe I needed to come up an option that included one of the big ones. The Beth Book was the least efficient of all the books so that was an easy deletion. Although I will read Crime and Punishment one day, I’m not really in the mood for Russians right now. I know almost nothing about the Frank Norris but I think it will be my choice if I do take a chunkette with me.
I think I am leaning toward the pile of six mass market paperbacks. It seems the safest bet. Although maybe I will be able to sneak another 470 grams and take The Octopus with me as well.
I should also mention that I have a total of three flights at 7, 7, and 6 hours a piece, and 24 hours at a country house in England before we land in Tanzania so chances are I will finish up one or two things before arriving in Africa. If I run out of things to read, I have 48 hours in the UK on the way home and will have time to replenish my stock for the flight home.
One final comment, I am not going to let Africa pass me by. When I went to Kenya in 2008 it felt like the trip of a lifetime. I am incredibly lucky to be going back to East Africa and have no idea if I will ever make it back. So if I don’t read one single page while I am there, I won’t be upset.
I don’t have to explain the giant orange reason my soul is weary, but I will explain to you why Giant of the Senate by Al Franken is like a balm.
1. It’s funny. Especially the audio book read by Franken. I’m guessing it must be funny on the page, but hearing Franken read it with his brilliant comedic timing makes it a real joy. I also noticed something I hadn’t before. He sounds like a Minnesotan. A bit like my uncle Roy actually. I guess that is a hard accent to lose. Although 2 years in DC and 2 years in Hawaii in my 20s did the trick for me–mostly.
2. It’s uplifting. Franken’s story about his time in the U.S. Senate and the personal and political lead-up to being elected, gives one a lot of hope that political discourse, and kindness are not things of the past. It made me less apt to throw myself off a bridge when thinking about, or reading about President 45. It is one thing to be unhappy about a politician with opposing view points (on everything), but it is another thing when that politician is a verifiable serial liar of the highest order with a 5th grade vocabulary and a propensity to act like a 5th grader as well. Franken not only hearkens back to sunnier days, but provides a real pep talk for our path out of this.
I can’t say whether or not a “normal” Republican would find his pep talk equally inspiring as a lefty like myself. In some ways I think they could, because I hope against hope that they realize the abomination running our country, but also because Franken has plenty of nice things to say about Republicans and particularly the Republicans he works with in the Senate. (Unless you are Ted Cruz. He doesn’t really let up on Ted Cruz.)
3. It’s informative. I am continually amazed by how little Americans understand about how their government works. I find myself cringing on Facebook when a friend posts a meme or makes a statement that makes it clear they don’t remember much about junior high civics. This book would go a long way to making them far less ignorant about the basic workings of government. And Franken definitely gets in the weeds when talking about congressional process and maneuvering, getting elected to national office, policy, and politics in general. I may be a bit of a politics and policy nerd, so I am not sure how well I can judge how a general reader might find some of his discussions. For my part, I thought it was great. I learned more than a bit about ag policy, Native American issues, and the ACA.
4. It’s uplifting. I know I said that already, but it bears repeating. The book reminds me that the political ideals of my formative years in Minnesota are not the politics of Michele Bachmann and her ilk. It’s traditionally been the home of sensible Democrats and sensible Republicans for that matter. I would not be embarrassed to be represented by the Minnesota Republicans of my youth. It also reminds me, and makes me proud that even today Minnesota has the highest voter turnout of any state (narrowly beating out Wisconsin).
5. It’s unputdownable. If you think you may enjoy this book, you probably will enjoy this book. And even if you think audio books aren’t your thing, this might be a really good time to listen to one. Franken had me laughing out loud and sitting in my drive way at the end of my commute because I didn’t want to stop listening.
After all of those posts of Seattle/Tacoma bookstores I feel like maybe you all are tired of those posts. But that is probably a silly notion. Plus I was in Minneapolis this past weekend and spent some time in Magers and Quinn. Believe it or not, I really did have no intention of buying anything. But then there was this whole NYRB Classics section with everything close to half price.
The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden is over 100 years old. Despite 25 years living in Minnesota, I didn’t even know this existed.
Just when I thought my luggage was already too full of books, I discovered a great bookstore in Tacoma where I was attending a meeting. The gorgeous weather had me out on the streets walking, walking, walking and it didn’t take me long to find King’s Books. I had plenty of time to browse so I decided to do a slow troll from A to Z. (I’ve tried going Z to A in the past, but it never seems to work.)
As I browsed I read the shelf talkers describing various staff members’ favorite books. I soon realized that some guy named Kenny had reading tastes that are diametrically opposed to mine. You know, the kind of books that I find too complex and non-linear to be able to enjoy. And then the store’s phone rang and the guy at the desk said “King’s Books, this is Kenny”.
So that’s Kenny.
Always in the mood to have a book natter, I decided to strike up a conversation. Unfortunately, my opening line was about how we didn’t like the same kind of books. Kenny was extremely friendly but I could tell I was one ill-chosen word away from going down in his bookseller’s diary as being one of the annoying ones. When I went up to make my purchases I thought I would give it another go. I think I said something lame about my blog (this was harder than a blind date) but we eventually turned the corner from wary bookseller/boring customer to novelist-bookseller/not-as-boring-as-he-may-have-originally-thought-at-least-it-beats-staring-into-space, customer.
We even talked about, wait for it, A Little Life. He took my measured ranting in stride conceding a point here and there but never once waning in his love of the book. Simon Savidge may have to up his game as Kenny loves the book so much he has read it 3 or 4 times.