A Slightly Foxed Summer

Issue-50-Print-App-ImageIn a world that seems to be growing ruder, stupider, and more contentious every day, what a pleasure it is to come home to find a parcel from Slightly Foxed in the post. Publishers of what is surely one of the most civilized periodicals on earth, their eponymous journal subtitled “The Real Reader’s Quarterly,” they exist to unite readers in a joyous celebration of the pleasures of the written word. As I enter upon the creamy pages of the summer issue, I can breathe a sigh of relief and slip into a world where humility, thoughtfulness, and good humor are actually honored qualities.

This issue begins with a taste of a delicious-sounding cookbook-slash-travelogue, Around the World in Eighty Dishes, and ends with a description of a delightfully eccentric British institution, the Royal Society of Literature. In between there’s a reassessment of Gulliver’s Travels, a moving personal essay about the impact E. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain had upon a troubled friendship, a vivid appreciation of The Siege of Krishnapur, and much more. With each piece I get a glimpse not just of the books under discussion, but at the very individual tastes and personalities of the writers, as they share where, when, and how they met these books that they love, and why they matter so much to them. Books that had just been names to me spring to life, titles I had never heard of become must-find-now objects of desire.

This latest issue is number 50, and it’s no small achievement to have reached that “middle-aged” milestone. In celebration, Slightly Foxed is offering US subscribers the same rate as other overseas customers, and all subscribers receive online access to the digital edition, including the archive of 50 back issues. It’s a characteristically generous gesture, a way to spread the love. Though economic necessity obviously must be acknowledged, books and periodicals printed and paid for, there’s never a doubt that sharing our mutual enthusiasm (not to say obsession) is at the core of the Slightly Foxed mission.

SFE-brensham-village-494x741Along with SF50, my parcel included the latest classic reprint in the series of Slightly Foxed Editions: Brensham Village by John Moore. It’s a sequel (to Portrait of Elmbury) but I didn’t find that not having read the first volume hampered my enjoyment of this memoir about life in an English village between the wars. I haven’t finished it yet, but already I’ve been introduced to a wonderful array of characters, including a “mad lord” whose madness seems mainly to consist of not minding being poor, a schoolmaster who inspires his boys with an equal passion for Latin and butterfly hunting, and a nature-loving vicar who blithely ignores complaints about nesting boxes in the church porch and live bait in the font. It’s a lovely place to inhabit, though bittersweet, for one knows — as did the author — that this world has vanished, never to return. At least through Moore’s finely crafted prose we can revisit it for a time.

So thank you, Slightly Foxed, for helping to remind me of what really matters: Interest in other people and their ways of life. Striving for discernment and clarity in our judgments and attitudes. An undiminished capacity for wonder. Here’s to another fifty issues, and to all the further reading — and learning and laughter and thinking — they will inspire.

For more about Slightly Foxed Quarterly and Slightly Foxed Editions, visit the website.

A copy was received for review consideration from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.





The Reluctant Romantic: Relationship Status

TheReluctantRomantic-300x300For Doing Dewey’s Reluctant Romantic challenge, I decided it was a good time to read some graphic…something. I don’t actually have a good name for this genre, because “graphic novels” doesn’t quite cut it. Many of the books that often get lumped into this category are memoirs or nonfiction, and even the fiction books are not what I could call “novels.” In their length and substance, they’re more like short stories or novellas.

Leaving that question aside, let’s just say that I read a selection of books in which the pictures help to tell the story, generally drawing on the “comic strip” tradition, with multiple panels on a page and characters speaking in speech bubbles. I was reminded that one reason I don’t usually gravitate to this type of book is that they go by so quickly for me! Most can be read in an hour or two, and I miss the extended reading experience I usually am seeking. But I absolutely loved their creativity and visual energy, and will definitely seek out more in the future, probably more as a break between “regular” books than in a block on their own.

LovelaceBabbage  Persepolis  Stitches  Maus  Relish

My favorite find was The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua. I want Padua to quit her day job (she’s an animator for the film industry) and write more books like this! For one thing, it had a bit more heft than some of the others, so it wasn’t over quite so quickly. But mainly I loved that it was funny and informative and silly and serious and played around with the people and ideas and literary traditions of the Victorian era in a totally original way, while shedding light on some of our modern technology. This may not be a book for absolutely everyone, but for me it was perfect.

Also high on my list was Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. This author was born in the same year as I was, yet because she grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution she had a dramatically different childhood. It was moving and thought-provoking to see events I only heard of in school, and mostly ignored, experienced as they were happening by a girl who was in many ways just like me, yet in other ways so different. Each panel was carefully constructed with deceptive simplicity, reflecting the “child’s-eye” perspective yet showing a very adult sensitivity to composition and line.

I also need to mention Stitches by David Small. A renowned illustrator of children’s picture books, he turns his artistic talents here to the harrowing story of his own horrifically mismanaged childhood — unwise medical treatments leave him terribly disfigured, while his strangely distant parents offer little in the way of support or understanding. Small’s fluid and expressive drawing style brings painful scenes before us with cinematic intensity, awakening our compassion for a boy who turned suffering into art.

BoxersSaints  EthelErnest  Arrival

I also enjoyed all of the other books that I “speed dated” for this challenge:

  • Maus by Art Spiegelman
  • Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
  • Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
  • Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan

…so I think our relationship will be continuing! Do you have any other suggestions for me?

In Brief: Three from the Theatre

As I was in search of light reading over the holidays, I grabbed a few random books off my shelf that turned out to share a common theatrical theme. I’m always fascinated by backstage stories, and for a few days it was a pleasure to get to vicariously share in the thrill of putting on a show. Though uneven in their quality, each of these books has something to offer for those of us who are enticed by “the swish of the curtain.”


The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith
None of Smith’s other adult novels quite measure up to I Capture the Castle, but they offer certain pleasures of their own. In this one, narrator Mouse (we never learn her real name) is prompted by a reunion with old friends to reminisce about how she met them. Her brashly naive attempts to break into the London theatre of the twenties — undeterred by a total lack of talent — give us a priceless glimpse into that bygone era, of which Smith had ample knowledge through her career as an unsuccessful actress and successful playwright. It’s when the plot veers from theatre to romance that things go awry, and Mouse’s naivete begins to pall; I wished she would mature through her experiences, but it became evident that even forty years later she never had. With a different ending this could have been a gem, but even with its flaws it’s worth a look.
• Corsair, 2012 (originally 1965)


The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown
This book about seven theatre-mad English children who start their own company and put on elaborate shows sounded like more fun than it was to actually read. Somehow it had escaped me that the author — who went on to write several sequels and other books — was only a teenager when this was first written, and it definitely shows in the flat style and cardboard characters. There’s very little plot structure, conflict, or tension; the children effortlessly and somewhat incredibly produce everything from original musical comedies to contemporary drama to Shakespeare, fiercely opposed by their cartoon-ogre parents but triumphing (of course) in the end. Noel Streatfeild did this sort of thing much better, so I’m not sure how much effort I’ll make to seek out Brown’s other writings. An interesting if immature curiosity.
• Hodder, 1998 (Originally 1941, revised 1971)

UnderfootShowUnderfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff
Now for one that didn’t disappoint: After recently rereading 84, Charing Cross Road I was curious to look again at Helene Hanff’s earlier memoir and see if it was as good as I remembered. It certainly was, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who is interested in a humorous take on Broadway history, the New York literary scene, summer stock, artists’ colonies, or even early television; Hanff gives us her sideline impressions of all of them, from the time when she was trying to make it as a playwright but having to earn a living in multiple other ways. You’ll cheer for her even as you know her efforts are doomed to failure; she’s so funny and unpretentious you can’t help but adore her.
• Harper and Row, 1962

Escape into Summer: My Family and Other Animals

Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956)

SFE-durrell-3If cold and darkness are getting you down, I have a prescription for you: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, an excellent antidote for the winter doldrums. The third of the delightful Slightly Foxed Editions that I’ve been pleased to review recently, it’s an artfully crafted, lightly fictionalized memoir of the author’s childhood years spent on the magical Greek island of Corfu. As he tells it, his family (which consists of Gerry, his three quite-a-bit-older siblings, and their much-enduring, widowed mother) simply couldn’t endure the bleak British weather for one more moment, and decamped forthwith to a sunnier clime.

There, for a few short years their dreams came true, whether those were to potter in the garden, sunbathe and swim, or be left in peace to write novels. (You might recognize eldest brother Larry’s name — he’s best known for the Alexandria Quartet.) Young Gerry was able to indulge his fascination with the natural world, getting up close and personal with a number of exotic pets as well as roaming freely through the countryside. This self-education had unfortunately to be interrupted by a number of tutors — whose idiosyncrasies he affectionately but ruthlessly lampoons — but nothing could dampen the passion for nature and its wonders that made him, in adulthood, a prominent conservationist. Fortunately, he found one genuine naturalist and educator who became his friend and guide, and through him ours as well.

Angelokastro in Corfu. Source: Wikimedia
Angelokastro in Corfu. Source: Wikimedia

As I read it was sometimes difficult for me to reconcile Gerry’s obvious love for nature and its creatures with his unthinking, casual cruelty. For example, he tore two baby magpies from their mother, then put them in a cage when their thieving habits became inconvenient; he transferred an enormous tortoise from its proper habitat to a tiny tub in the backyard. He also was not at all bothered by his brother’s bloodthirsty hunting for sport. Perhaps in adulthood his attitude changed, or perhaps at the time sensitivity to animal rights was very different from today’s. I had to accept that he was attempting to give his experiences as they were at the time, without interrupting them with political or ideological commentary.

Gerry’s family, though occasionally objecting to finding snakes in the bath and having their ankles nipped by seagulls under the dining table, are on the whole a wonderfully tolerant bunch, and amusing in their own right. Scenes detailing their “natural behavior” are placed alongside those describing the flora and fauna of the island, a sly and subtle reminder of our kinship with all creatures.

This is in fact a remarkably many-faceted book, in equal measure comic and serious, firmly anchored in a child’s perspective yet mature in the artistry of its language. It’s buoyant and sometimes flippant in tone, but underlying all the absurdity is a sharply observant naturalist’s eye. Durrell brings the island and its inhabitants before us with grace and precision, making them as unforgettable as they clearly were for him. And so from the depths of our dull, colorless lives, we are transported to an island of vivid, vital sensations, one that may help awaken us to the wonders that surround us all every day.

Cheerfully bound in cobalt cloth with lemon endpapers, the limited-edition volume from Slightly Foxed is, as usual, a treat to hold and to read. I hope it might take its place on your shelf, and provide for you, as it does for me, a window into a sunnier world.


Pictures in the Mind: Country Boy

Richard Hillyer, Country Boy (1966)

SFE-country-boyWith their small size and brightly colored cloth covers, Slightly Foxed Editions resemble jewels in book form, a literary treasure chest. And here is treasure indeed. Each book contains a memoir of a singular individual, revealing many facets of human nature in all its richness and complexity. Most are reprints, revived from the archives of the past for a new generation of discerning readers. While some are attached to well-known names like Rosemary Sutcliff and Graham Greene, many are from authors who have lapsed into obscurity.

In the latter category is Country Boy, a moving yet supremely unsentimental account of a boy’s life within an English farm laborer’s family just over a century ago. Deep feeling and clear-eyed observation merge to create a memorable, distinct picture of that vanished world and of the brave, struggling souls who inhabited it. The country life is neither idealized as a pastoral Arcadia, as we tend to see it today, nor demonized as a hotbed of vice and squalor, as certain novelists would have it. Both the beauties and the drawbacks of traditional rural life are described in calm, measured prose that brings a place and people vividly before us, with few judgments but many telling details.

The Hop Gardens of England – Source

Most memorable to me were the passages in which the author describes his longing for something different, a way into the wider world revealed to him by the scraps of literature he was able to pick up within his outwardly impoverished existence. How he treasured and sought and ultimately used these to grow into something more than the fate he was born to forms a narrative as gripping as that as any novel. For those of us who value reading above nearly all other pleasures and benefits of life, he articulates experiences and feelings that we can share no matter what the circumstances of our birth or upbringing.

The coloured words flashed out and entranced my fancy. They drew pictures in my mind. Words became magical, incantations, abracadabra which called up spirits. My dormant imagination opened like a flower in the sun. Life at home was drab and colorless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days. Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own. It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.

Country Boy is a real gem, one I’m sure I’ll return to often for its wisdom, insight, and compassion. I do wish that the story could have been continued; this was the author’s only memoir, and it breaks off at a very exciting point. But he didn’t set out to chronicle his whole life, only to capture a certain bygone time, and that he does to perfection.


Teaching Lessons: Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?

Ilana Garon, Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens? Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (2014)

WhyDoOnlyAfter receiving Ilana Garon’s book in a giveaway courtesy of the author and River City Reading earlier this year, I flipped through it and then put it back on the shelf. When I finally picked it up again, I raced through it in less than 24 hours. Do yourself a favor and don’t wait so long to read this memoir of four years spent in two tough high schools in one of the toughest areas of the country. It will open your eyes to some of the painful realities of our broken educational system, yet it’s also a joyful testament to the bond between teacher and student that is one of our most universal human experiences.

Ilana (I can’t think of her as “Miss Garon”) writes in a voice that is honest and searching and real. She focuses each chapter on one or two of her students, portraying them with all their endearing and infuriating qualities intact. Her love for them is powerful but unsentimental, and she doesn’t paint herself as their savior. As she makes clear, the lessons of teaching go both ways. There are big problems in her school and its neighborhood — drugs, gangs, abuse, teen pregnancy — and her achievements may seem tiny in comparison. But even small victories, for both teacher and student, gain significance when the stakes are so high. The failures are also real, and discouraging, but no teacher can survive long without finding a way to move through through them, and it is these lessons that have the most impact.

Interspersed with these fairly traditional character/relationship studies are journal entries that Ilana sent to her friends and family while undergoing some of her most harrowing and frustrating teaching moments. These are presented in email format, complete with subject lines like “Weapons of mass destruction” and “Can’t we please get through ninth period without a race riot?” It’s an unusual and effective way to bring some immediate, raw experiences into the more consciously crafted and reflective chapters. (I’m including this review in the “Nontraditional Nonfiction” category of Nonfiction November for this reason.) Frequently dealing with violent and explosive situations, they don’t necessarily try to impose order or meaning upon them, but just tell us “this is what is happening to me right now,” giving an intimate window into the writer’s world.

Ilana is modest about her own qualities, but clearly she has a core of strength and enthusiasm that’s enabled her to carry on with a task that has felled many lesser mortals. (After taking two years off to do a graduate degree, she returned to teaching and also writes an “Urban Teacher” blog for Education Week.) I hope she’ll share more of her experiences with us, as I for one would welcome more “teaching lessons” from this talented writer and dedicated teacher.


In Brief: New and Noteworthy

It’s time again to play some catch-up, with quick reviews of recent releases that have come my way. All are heartily recommended!


Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I don’t have much to add to others’ reviews of this stellar new fantasy. If you like immersive, otherworld fantasy, you will want to read it; if you think you don’t, give it a try and you might change your mind. Note that it’s on the dark and mature side, but while I’m usually not a fan of that genre, here I found it worked beautifully in service of a complex and humanly rich story.
May 19, 2015 from Del Rey

Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker
George Eliot seems to be a hot author right now. I enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s literary memoir The Road to Middlemarch last year, which gave me a new perspective on Eliot, and was eager to read this fictional take on the same subject. I was quickly engaged by the characters, both real and invented, and absorbed by their saga of love and publishing in Berlin during the period of Eliot’s great late works, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. I found Duncker’s metafictional touches only mildly amusing, though she seemed to be having great fun with them, and the story also petered out at the end in a somewhat odd way. Still, lovers of Victorian fiction who can tolerate some postmodern posturings will find much to savor. And now I have to reread Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and am newly inspired to try Romola again…
August 4, 2015 from Bloomsbury
Source: ARC from publisher

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
Written out of generations of experience of traditional Cumbrian sheep farming, this is a celebration of an ancient and endangered way of life, as well as a moving personal story of family, change, and reconnection. I’ve never been a tourist in the Lake District, but if I am lucky enough to go there someday, I will look at it with new eyes.
May 12, 2015 from Flatiron
Source: Hardcover from library

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books by Cara Nicoletti
A young Brooklyn butcher, former pastry chef, and author of the Yummy Books blog serves up a delicious assortment of literary recipes in this memoir-cum-cookbook. Many of the recipes are quite simple (a soft-boiled egg inspired by Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, parmesan pasta for Strega Nona), but seeing them in context with their literary associations gives them special interest. And then there are the elaborate and out-there choices (most notably a whole pig’s head for Lord of the Flies), which I would never actually prepare, but that are fun to read about. Nicoletti’s memories of reading, cooking, and eating throughout her life are pleasantly mixed with brief musings on the role of food in literature and life, and it all goes down as smoothly as her perfect chocolate pudding.
August 18, 2015 from Little, Brown
Source: ARC from publisher

Aside from ARCs, no other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

New Release Review: In a Dark Wood

Joseph Luzzi, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love (2015)

Midway through his life’s journey, Joseph Luzzi found himself in a forest of seemingly impenetrable darkness. His pregnant wife, Katherine, had died as the result of a car accident, shortly after delivering their daughter Isabel by emergency caesarean. Unprepared for sudden single fatherhood, Luzzi wrapped himself in grief and in his work as a professor of Italian at Bard College, largely leaving the raising of Isabel to his close-knit Calabrian family. But as he shuttled back and forth between Bard and the childhood home in Rhode Island that he thought he’d left behind for academia, he found that his lifelong study of Dante’s Divine Comedy was speaking to the most urgent questions of his life. Heeding its message, he struggled to lift himself out of hell and into a new understanding of the real meaning of love.

In this memoir of his years of struggling through darkness into the light, structured around the three parts of Dante’s masterpiece (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso), Luzzi writes with honesty and hard-gained self knowledge. He takes us along on his journey from the self-absorption of hell, through the purgatory of learning to forgive and trust again, and into the acceptance of responsibility that is the gateway to heaven and the only sure foundation for healthy relationships. His style is simple and direct, never pretentious or preachy, and allows us to enter into his story as if hearing it from a close friend. Without attempting to approach the artistic summits of his literary guide, Luzzi adds a humble footnote to the truths of the great epic: yes, this is part of what it means to be human.

Luzzi doesn’t spend as much time on Dante as I expected, based on his title. He chooses a few key moments and characters that provided him with illumination, as well as some aspects of the poet’s life, but most of the narrative has to do with his own experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Given that these do fall into the archetypal pattern of the Commedia, descending into the ultimate pit of suffering as a necessary step toward true integration, the connection is valid enough.

I feel that my own experience has been enlarged through Luzzi’s willingness to articulate both his suffering and his joy, and am grateful that he opened his heart to share these difficult lessons with us.

This is the final stop on the TLC Book Tour for In a Dark Wood. Click on the link for more information on the tour.


In Brief: New releases for spring and summer

This holiday weekend seemed an appropriate time to mention some new releases that I haven’t had a chance to review in full, but recommend as summer reading. What are you looking forward to this season?

Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard
This is a follow-up to the bestselling memoir Lunch in Paris, but can definitely be read on its own. In this installment, the transplanted American author and her French husband leave the bustle of their beloved Paris for an atmospheric Provencal town. The trials of new motherhood and of being a foreigner in a proudly insular society provide some drama, but mostly this is merely an excuse to do some armchair traveling to one of the most beautiful places in the world. Each chapter concludes with several appropriate recipes; I haven’t tried them yet but they look doable and delicious.  
Release date: April 7, 2015 by Little, Brown

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude
A “golden age” murder mystery from the beautifully produced British Library Crime Classics series, which is being published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press. It was highly readable, and made good use of its Sussex chalklands setting, though I found the style somewhat creaky. Recommended for enthusiasts or collectors of the genre, if not a patch on Dorothy Sayers or Josephine Tey in my opinion.  
US reprint release date: May 5, 2015 from Poisoned Pen Press

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck
The era of “American Romanticism” is a fascinating chapter in literary history. This historical novel, written in the voice of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, the artist Sophia Peabody, brings it to life through one of the often-overlooked but essential women of the age. I enjoyed that aspect, though the overheated prose surrounding Nathaniel and Sophia’s love affair made me want to seek out some of the primary sources the author consulted to find out whether they really did think and talk like that.
Release date: May 5, 2015 from New American Library

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Rakoff’s memoir made me wonder what might have been … if I had taken the plunge into the New York publishing world after college as she did, only a few years after I graduated. It was fun to have the vicarious experience of life at an old-school literary agent, on the cusp of the technological revolution (they have only one computer for the whole office). On the other hand, I was glad that the experience of an incredibly horrible literary boyfriend was only vicarious.  
Paperback release date: May 12, 2015 from Vintage

Review copy source: ARCs and early finished copies from publishers. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

New Release Review: H Is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk (2015)


H Is for Hawk does what many of my favorite non-fiction books do: it makes connections between things and ideas that are surprising and genuine and painful, enriching us by raising our experience of life to a new level of consciousness. It reminds us what it means to be human, and stretches the limits of that definition.

The primary connection here is between Macdonald’s grief following the death of her father, and her decision to take on the training of a goshawk, a notoriously difficult task. Many other threads come into play, too, notably a reconsideration of T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, and of its brilliant, wounded author. There’s a unique angle on history, too; the practice of falconry goes back to the dawn of civilization, and speaks to many of our most primal impulses and fears, casting light both on our hunger to survive, and on our impulse toward warfare and destruction.

Part of the fascination of falconry is that it evokes the age-old ritual magic of the hunter, who would put on skins or draw an animal over and over to try to become one with its essence. In her intense, grief-spurred communion with Mabel, her goshawk, Macdonald experiences the pull of this totemic magic. In vivid, striking prose she makes us feel what it is like to dissolve some of one’s humanity into the vastness of nature. But that is not, and cannot be the whole story, as she concludes: “In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” Her words enable us to go on that journey as well, and to emerge with a new perspective on grass, stones, trees, the complex web of all living and breathing things.

And as in her sorrow Helen lives and identifies with this alien creature, she finds her way back to who she is and how she can re-enter a life that seemed altogether broken. It’s an intimate, tender, fierce story, as beautiful and dangerous as the hawk that glows at its center.

Release date: March 3, 2015; originally published in Britain by Jonathan Cape in 2014