Heywood you look at this…

Who can resist a brown paper package tied up with string? Okay, so the string is actually a lovely, blue, Heywood Hill ribbon, but you get the idea. Was the packaging the only reason I signed up for one of the bookshop’s subscriptions services? Being a reader, the answer is no. But it sure didn’t hurt. In fact the aesthetic experience of a Heywood Hill subscription is a delight from start to finish. Take a look at their webpage, it’s a perfect blend of old and new. And it just gets better from there.

Not only are these various book subscriptions fascinating in their own right, but the label-like graphics in lovely colors, wonderfully designed with the perfect use of typeface are too enticing to resist.

For those who don’t know, Heywood Hill is an independent bookstore in Mayfair in London that opened in 1936–back when one didn’t need to insert the word independent to describe it. From 1942 to 1945 Nancy Mitford worked there (a writer whose letters I like more than I like her fiction). With all the time I have spent in London over the years I have never actually made it to the shop. I thought I was going to get there at the end of August, but I had so little time I only managed about an hour at the original Daunt Books which was near our hotel.

When I got back to the U.S. I decided to take the plunge and sign up for Heywood Hill’s “A Year in Books”. One book a month for 12 months. I chose the paperback option because I prefer to read paperbacks and it was less expensive. The store claims to offer a bespoke service, choosing books specifically for you based on a “consultation” with one of their booksellers. But would they really get me and my reading tastes? Since I didn’t manage an in-person visit, my consultation happened via a web form. There were 8 questions in total:

  1. Would you like to receive fiction, non-fiction or a mix of both?
  2. Which three books have you loved?
  3. Do you have a favourite author(s)? If so who?
  4. Is there a particular genre or area of interest you would like to explore?
  5. What are some of your interests beyond reading?
  6. Is there any genre/author that you really don’t like?
  7. Are there any particular books that you know you would like to receive during the course of the year?
  8. Is there any other information that you would like us to know about your reading?

I wish to heck I had saved a copy of my answers. I mean, I know in general how I answered, but I wish I had the details at hand. I’m pretty sure I threw Ali Smith under the bus and indicated that I really didn’t want something that was too clever with hard-to-follow narratives.

First came the lovely announcement on the thickest card stock known to man.

On the positive side, I said that I wanted to get UK published novels that were on the newish side that would be harder for me to get in the US. Since I asked for paperbacks I knew I wouldn’t be getting things hot off the press, but I’m okay with that. Gives a chance for the wheat to separate from the publicity chaff.

The first book arrives. I’m having these delivered to work. Nice way to brighten up the day.

When I got the first of my 12 books this month, after being delighted with the packaging, I was a little put off by the cover of the book itself. Stock-photo covers are close to my least favorite type of cover. Couple that with the title and I was more than a little worried that I had been given a fluffy clunker that misinterpreted my predilection for books by and about women. However, I knew I could never write this blog post and share these great pictures without being able to comment on the book that was specially chosen for me. So, unlike my usual modus operandi of not reading anything that was purchased recently, I sat down to read it as soon as I finished the book I had been reading at the time.

I love to wrap books myself so I appreciated the beautifully crisp folds and corners.

Much to my surprise, I ended up loving Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak, proving the adage about book covers. It had time shifts in the narrative–which can really trip me up and which I am pretty sure I warned them about–but the shifts were the kind I like, clearly labeled and easy to follow. The story itself was right up my alley. It was kind of a retrospective coming of age tale about a non-practicing Muslim woman in Istanbul who had gone to Oxford to study. It wasn’t a work of art necessarily–probably why I liked it–but it was smart and well-written, and improved my limited understanding of life in Turkey and the Muslim world in general.

Each month has its own bookmark.

So what is my verdict on the capabilities of Heywood Hill’s book whisperers? I would have to say that I am cautiously delighted. They definitely hit the nail on the head with their first selection, but was it just a fluke? It was newish (2016), unknown to me, took me out of my typical reading milieu but in a way that was totally enjoyable and in a way that I asked for. But will they be able to follow it up 11 more times? We shall see. Stay tuned for the monthly updates.

You can see why this cover put me off. It proves that a good bookseller knows helpful things. I never would have picked this up to find out what it was about. And then reading the synopsis, I still would have thought it was going to be fluffy and bad. Instead it was substantive and good–and totally enjoyable.

(Hi Eleanor!)

This review deserves four titles

My thoughts PRIOR to reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

1. I’m a little surprised this is on the Booker shortlist. Not because I know anything about it or the other long- and shortlisters, but because I’m still not used to the Booker being open to Americans.

2. In my experience Auster writes two general kinds of books, ones that are totally straightforward, readable narratives (e.g., Brooklyn Follies, Sunset Park), and ones that twist things a bit on their edge (e.g., Man in the Dark, Travels in the Scriptorium).

3. I’ve not yet been able to get into his early work The New York Trilogy.

4. Auster is married to Siri Hustvedt.

My thoughts AFTER reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4. This is a brilliant, enjoyable, touching, epic, coming of age story.

4 3 2 1 takes a close look at one boy’s life told four different ways. All four Archie Fergusons start off with the same genetic material, but from there his life heads down four different paths. The first chapter headed ‘1.0’ outlines Archie’s lineage and introduces us to his parents and grand parents, his uncles and aunt, and even his mother’s employer–all of whom will weave in and out of all four of the Archie story arcs in ways that are both familiar and surprising. This first chapter ends with the birth of Archie and it gives the reader a hint of how Auster infuses Archie Ferguson’s story with a sense that in each human there is an inextricable connection between the mundane and the cosmic.

Thus Ferguson was born, and for several seconds after he emerged from his mother’s body, he was the youngest human being on the face of the earth.

What happens next is where the epic begins. Instead of tracing one family through multiple generations from beginning to end, Auster limits his epic to about a 25-year period focusing on how the life of one boy could have gone four different ways. So chapter 1.1 begins the tale of one version of Archie’s life. Chapter 1.2 is the tale of Archie’s life continuing on a similar but different trajectory. Same for Chapters 1.3 and 1.4. Then Chapter 2.1 goes back to continue the tale of Archie number 1, Chapter 2.2 continues Archie number 2 and so on. Normally this kind of disjointedness can really trip me up and make me run from the room, but I was quickly caught up in the all the Archies and decided that trying to keep it all straight would be worth the effort.

And, although it wasn’t really all that hard to follow, I gave in to my burning desire to map it all out on a spreadsheet. Some characteristics that were easiest to distinguish had to do with his parents’ occupations, his Aunt Mildred’s academic posts (Stanford, Berkeley, Smith, U of Chicago, Brooklyn College, etc.), his uncles various forms of malfeasance, and eventually the Archies’ choices of college. As much as I loved my spreadsheet, after about four of the seven cycles, I no longer felt the need to keep it updated. (There is a part of me, however, that would really like to go back and re-read it keeping track of every single character and what happens to them in each of the four versions.)

3. It’s hard not to love all the Archies.

There is much that differentiates each of the four Archies and each version would quite easily stand on its own. But there were common elements to each of the stories that make it clear that each of the four Archies are four different versions of the same person rather than four different people. These similarities also imply Auster’s belief in the innateness of certain fundamental elements of who we are, what we like and dislike.  And Archie is a guy that I like: he likes to read and write and has a passion for music and film. Each of the Archies take us on a ride of discovery that had me Googling book titles, films, pieces of music, artists, and other cultural figures and movements. He also likes sports, but as a non-sports lover who usually hates reading about sports, Auster never focuses too much on this and it generally enhances rather than delays the story. In essence Archie is a sponge for knowledge and experience. He is the kind of kid I wish I could have.

There is plenty of plot in 4 3 2 1 but Auster definitely takes some time and pages to luxuriate in intellectual development of each of the Archies. For someone who just wants it all to plug along to the next thing this could be annoying I suppose, but I found it immensely enjoyable on two levels. The first being that they were fascinating on their face value: scraps of verse, essays, short stories, book outlines, jokes, newspaper articles, word games, films watched, books read, etc. The second being amazement that Auster has so much of this stuff bouncing around his head that he had to split a character into four to justify using it all. I enjoyed every minute of it. In particular I was taken with Archie number 4’s early attempt at short fiction which Auster spends about 11 pages describing. It’s called Sole Mates and it’s about Hank and Frank, who just happen to be a pair of shoes in addition to being best friends. I found it charming and funny and rather than being a blip in the overall tale, I felt it drew me even closer to Archie number 4.

2. It’s like a really enjoyable history lesson.

Like William Boyd’s Any Human Heart and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Auster’s 4 3 2 1 takes the reader on a ride through history. So many things I knew about in passing, pieces of stuff I kind of remember from high school and college, things I have forgotten, details I didn’t know…Vietnam, the civil rights movement, race riots, student takeovers of college campuses, and any number of other political and historical moments. Auster brings life to many moments that for most of us are not much more than a sentence or two in our school history books. And he does it in a way that is never pedantic or intrusive. One fully understands that it was all a part of the existence and consciousness of the characters. When you add in all of the high, low, and pop culture that Auster weaves into the story it is like a undergraduate seminar in American Studies.

1. This is a memorable book that packs an emotional wallop.

There is so much I want to tell you about this book, but I don’t want to spoil one single surprise. Let me just say that there are surprises. And they sneak up on you in terms of timing and content. Having four Archies gives Auster the opportunity to really (to use a word Auster/Archie would use) fuck the story arc up in ways that a single Archie wouldn’t have been able to convey.

There is so much joy in this book. Despite all the trauma and tragedy there is so much flippin’ joy. I found it life affirming to follow all of the Archies as they discovered passions, and friends, and sex, and freedom, and life in general. Some would (and have) reduced it to nostalgia, but for me, whose undergraduate days ended almost 30 years ago, it is less about nostalgia and more of an inspiration to be the kind of person that can forever be taking on new and exciting information and making new friends. Man I would like to inject some of that into my life.

And then there are the moments of pure upheaval and tragedy. Just as Archie is different in each of the four stories and meets a different fate in each of them, so too do the rest of the supporting characters. The fates of his parents and grandparents and uncles and aunt–times four!–all pack a punch and often have a profound impact on our hero. There is much that left me sad about the characters, about the arc of history, about the plight of the human race, and about this stinking bullshit mess we are in now that is both similar, better, and worse than it was 40 years ago.

Since finishing 4 3 2 1, I have really been missing the Archies. Part of it is a function of the length of the book–you just end up spending a lot of time with these characters. But more than that, it is the affection I have for each of these Archies that makes me want to spend more time with them. It’s not like I think we would necessarily get along in real life, there were times where  I wanted to bop one or two of them on the head, but they are fascinating, charming, complex individuals and I want to know more.

Africa 6 : The Masai Mara

[It has been so long since I’ve blogged because I have had these Africa pictures hanging over my head. John took over 6,000 photos and that is an insane amount of pictures to  weed through. I think I may have gotten it down to a manageable (and interesting) few.]

When we went on safari in 2008 we spent the whole time in Kenya. This time we knew we wanted to go to Tanzania, but we also really wanted to revisit the Masai Mara. Even though the Serengeti is contiguous with the Masai Mara, one can’t just drive over to the other side–at least not legally. To get there we had to take one plane to a Tanzanian airstrip close to the border crossing at Tarime, get into a van, go through immigration on the Tanzanian side, get back in the van, go through immigration on the Kenyan side, get back in the van, and take another plane to the Kichewa Tembo airstrip in the Masai Mara. Happily, Abercrombie and Kent took care of all the details so all we had to do was follow very helpful people from one place to the next. And we were to our lodge on the Mara River by lunch time.

Click on the pictures to really get a good look.

That was one of the best naps of my life. That’s Rachel Ray open face down on the day bed. (This photo was taken on a phone so resolution isn’t as good as the others.)
This is what I was not looking at while I napped. (This photo was taken on a phone so resolution isn’t as good as the others.)
Mom and son waited near the airstrip to welcome us.
Elands are the largest of the antelope.
That would be a lot of lawn to mow. Just have a few thousand herbivores have at it.
Stood watching these two while they change a flat tire.
Young ladies enjoying the view.
These wildebeest were protesting cuts to bus routes.
How cute is that?
Baby going…
…in for…
…a little snack. At least I assume that is what is going on. I haven’t Googled elephant anatomy to see if that is all happening in the right place.
Sticking close to mom.
Hours-old, we were told.
Contemplating life over breakfast. (More like wondering where the hell John had gotten to.)
The Mara River.
Masai woman.
A hyena doing its best to look like a cute dog playing with a stick.
Enjoying the sunshine.
When one of these looks into your eyes–or it looks like they are looking right at you–it is breathtaking and a little scary.
One of these in Dupont Circle would take care of the rat problem.
Another Lucy moment.
Baby hippo right across from our tent.
Lookin’ good Sammy.
Giraffe are probably my favorite animals to just quietly watch.
I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for some Acacia leaves today.
We took a hot air balloon ride. But that ain’t us. We were already off the ground ourselves.
It was actually kind of underwhelming. This bit where we were higher up only happened toward the end and it was the most interesting part. For most of the ride they kept us really low to the ground to spot animals. Since it was our 12th and last day on safari we had seen tons of wildlife and didn’t feel the need to spot more. Plus, there wasn’t much wildlife around to see.
A large group of elephants literally almost crashed our post-balloon breakfast.
Youngsters playing around.
I am hippo hear me roar.
Move that ass. My feet are getting wet.
This was the family of hippos who hung out just across from our tent all day. They go out at night to graze. During the day they hang out in and near water.
Hippo naps are the best naps.
Our final game drive.
Commence mom snuggle sequence in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
You okay pumpkin?
So cute
That’s gotta be cozy.
Looks like mom still wants to nap.
I feel like this one needs a soundtrack.
So lovely
The infamous eland uber for birds.
Goodnight Kenya. Sleep tight.

Africa 5 : The Serengeti

[It has been so long since I’ve blogged because I have had these Africa pictures hanging over my head. John took over 6,000 photos and that is an insane amount of pictures to  weed through. I think I may have gotten it down to a manageable (and interesting) few.]

Although there wasn’t a moment of our trip that wasn’t amazing, the wide open spaces and the golden grass of the Serengeti is really something special. We were also lucky enough to be there for the great migration. For those who don’t know, the great migration consists of about 700,000 zebra followed by 1.5 million wildebeest, and then about 500,000 gazelle. Essentially they are on a continuous, clockwise, year long migration following good grazing conditions. Around about August the wildebeest are in the Serengeti crossing over the Mara River into the Masai Mara in Kenya.

Click on the pictures to really get a good look.

The Lake Manyara airstrip was short and went right up to a cliff. Suddenly the ground wasn’t there. All the the little planes we took to various little airstrips made me think of a Nevil Shute novel.
Those extra tires aren’t just for show.
Right near our camp a line of wildebeest pass in a seemingly endless stream.
Sitting here at night offered a great view of the stars. There was also staff with crossbows to make sure nothing wild ate us.
On the way to our tent.
The view from our tent.
Yes, that is right, our tent. It had a flushing toilet.
Nice spot in the shade.
I love the wide open spaces.
The wildebeest were everywhere.
We saw large groups of elephants but I like these shots.
So amazing.
Mom and baby.
A marker for the Tanzania/Kenya border.
Afternoon game drive.
A fresh wildebeest lunch.
Looking for a better bite.
No doubt he enjoyed his scones with strawberry jam.
Sunset on the first night.
Love the golden grass.
Toward the start of a wildebeest crossing. They start to congregate along the edge of the river and eventually one of them gives it a go, then the rest of them follow.
They will follow each other but then one or two start another line.
Always a few zebra mixed in.
Getting to the tail end of this crossing. You can see off into the distance how those further back are like “hey they’re going, let’s not miss it…”
What it looks like on the other side.
Look at that baby. Happily the crocs were full and didn’t try to eat anything.
The start of a second, much larger crossing downstream about 30 minutes after the first one.
Reminds me of those terracotta warriors in China.
I love how the zebra is a neck above the wildebeest.
The sound was a bit like buzzing bees with the occasional cow-like sound.
The zebras tended to drink a bit before they crossed over.
Defying gravity.
Keeping my eye out for predators.
Seriously click on this. They go on for ever.
Afternoon snooze.
Youngish boy.
We were on our way to the airstrip to head off to Kenya when we ran into his leopard.


Africa 4 : Ngorongoro Crater

[It has been so long since I’ve blogged because I have had these Africa pictures hanging over my head. John took over 6,000 photos and that is an insane amount of pictures to  weed through. I think I may have gotten it down to a manageable (and interesting) few.]

Staying on the ridge of Ngorongoro Crater was different from what came before and what would come after. Even though the weather for the whole trip was really pleasant, it was really cozy up on the crater ridge. Got down into the 40s at night. Made for really nice sleeping. The floor of the crater is like a giant zoo–if there was a zoo that was 100 square miles and had no fences.

Click on the pictures to really get a good look.

Looking down into Ngorongoro Crater.
Those blankets and the campfire came in handy after dark.
Our address.
Our home for two nights.
Very cozy.
On the bed: The Octopus by Frank Norris. After 100 pages I gave it up.
Getting ready for our day on the floor of the crater.
They are as mean as they are scruffy.
Damn I forgot what these are called. Something about a crown I think.
Wally Warthog.
Some tame gazelle.
We were up high and the clouds were down low.
The terrain was beautiful.
I don’t think I had every seen flamingos fly.
A zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest walk into a bar…
Moon tiger. (Except it’s a lion and it’s not the moon.)
We were hoping for some action.
The ladies were keeping an eye on things.
Zebra soup.
I think these are weavers’ nests.
A waterbuck *in* the water.
Another mammal salad, this time with avian croutons.
Hippo nap.
Cute little killer.
Who knew jackals were so cute.
Our lunch spot.
No ants at this picnic.
This is John’s plate. I would never eat beets.
The one on the left was still mad.
And speaking of mad, I was a little worried this cape buffalo was going to charge us.

Africa 3 : Lake Manyara

[It has been so long since I’ve blogged because I have had these Africa pictures hanging over my head. John took over 6,000 photos and that is an insane amount of pictures to  weed through. I think I may have gotten it down to a manageable (and interesting) few.]

On our way from Tarangire to Ngorongoro Crater we made a stop near Lake Manyara where we visited a local market on tuk-tuks. The availability of water in the area means that there is a lot of farming.

Click on the pictures to really get a good look.

Leaving Tarangire on our way to Ngorongoro Crater via Lake Manyara.
Yes, I wore a safari hat.
Lined up in the tuk-tuks ready to go.
Rice paddies.
Entrance to the market.
Black-eyed peas.
One of our guides told us that Coke has cornered the market in the cities in Tanzania so Pepsi was focusing on more rural areas.
Our guide.
I want to try those white eggplant.
Love the pop of color in her shirt.
I’m a sucker for market photos. Visually pleasing and they make me hungry.
Dried fish from Lake Manyara.
Some sort of bark basket brought these tomatoes to market.
That’s millet in the lower right corner.
Rice from the paddy we visited.
You buy meat by weight. And you don’t get a cut, you get all the stuff attached to to the meat as well–and it all counts toward the sale weight.
When I was a kid my bike had a banana seat as well.
We had lunch at Gibbs Farm.
The view from the washroom.
The organic farm.
The food was so good.
The basket was full of cobras. (Actually I’m joking. It was full of Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls.) (Okay that was a joke too.)





Africa 2 : Tarangire

[It has been so long since I’ve blogged because I have had these Africa pictures hanging over my head. John took over 6,000 photos and that is an insane amount of pictures to  weed through. I think I may have gotten it down to a manageable (and interesting) few.]

After a night in a lodge in Arusha, Tanzania we headed off by road to Tarangire National Park. We did a game drive along the way and were surprised to see just how close the wildlife was to our lodge. In some cases actually in the camp itself.

Click on the pictures to really get a good look.

I wouldn’t dream of it.
At the entrance of the park. Thankfully it’s huge.
Our chariot.
Mammals hanging out by the river. Or in the case of the zebras, in the river.
One of the amazing things about seeing animals in their natural habitat is that they hang out together in ways you never get to see in a zoo. I call this mammal salad.
Zebras do this move so they can keep an eye on predators from all directions.
Impala with a giant termite mound in the background.
Baby impala is proud of his new horns.
Everything reminds of us Lucy.
How is this a real animal?
Tarangire has some of the largest numbers of elephants in Tanzania.
Oh, hello.
We have much better leopard photos coming up. They are one of the rarer sightings on safari so we were quite surprised to see one on our first afternoon.
We didn’t have the heart to tell him we could still see him.
The ladies are light colored because they sit on the eggs during the day and need to blend in. The gentleman are black because they sit on the eggs at night.
Pictures never quite do the landscape justice. If you click on this one you will notice the kind of muddy looking stripe in the foreground is chock full of zebras.
The golden grass really sets off the zebra.
Cape buffalo with bird friends feasting on ticks.
The view from the veranda at our lodge.
The monkeys got more use out of the pool than we did.
John took 99.9% of all the photos you will see.