Day 1294: Birds, Beasts, and Relatives

Cover for Birds, Beasts, and RelativesWhen I began reading this sequel to Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, I assumed it would begin sometime after the first book, which ended with the Durrells leaving Corfu and heading back to England. Instead, it seemed to be about to cover the same ground, starting with an abbreviated account of their arrival.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyAlthough this novel is slightly repetitious of the previous one, briefly reintroducing some characters and summarizing important events, for the most part it covers different events and introduces new characters. We meet Larry’s friends Max and Donald when they arrive at the house, drunk, at 2 AM. We also meet the disreputable Captain Creech, and Sven, the accordian-playing sculptor. There are also old friends like Theodore and Spiro.

The book relates memorable events, such as what happens when Margo agrees to take care of Gerry’s baby hedgehogs and how the family receive a performing bear that follows Gerry home one day. Although I began the book worried that this memoir would cover too much of the same material, I ended up charmed again by the stories of this eccentric family and their stay in Corfu.

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Day 1291: Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature

Cover for Through the Looking GlassThis book sounded interesting to me, but I did not realize it was a collection of Selma G. Lanes’s essays on various topics related to children’s literature. Lanes herself was a writer about children’s literature, as well as an editor, critic, and essayist. Although Lanes writes in the introduction about the tendency for publishers to look for marketable books rather than good ones, the essays largely deal with a more congenial time for children’s literature, the 1970’s.

This collection includes reviews, obituaries, and opinion pieces on such topics as whether children’s books are literature, what constitutes a great children’s book, and whether the pursuit of political correctness can go too far. These topics are interesting, but because most of the essays are from the 1970’s, some of them seem dated. Lanes also is nostalgic for the works of an earlier time, many of which I’m not familiar with.

A final essay about J. K. Rowling written in 2004 brings us more up to date as does the introduction. Still, a reader looking for good reading for a child (and sometimes an adult) can get some ideas, albeit older ones, from this book.

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Day 1281: My Family and Other Animals

Cover for My Family and Other AnimalsI first was charmed by My Family and Other Animals many years ago, but it is only recently that I learned it was part of a trilogy. So, I am reading it again to kick off the trilogy.

Gerald Durrell was a boy in 1935 when an impulsive decision on a dreary summer day lead to his family deciding to move to Corfu. This book is an account of the indefinite period of their life there before Mrs. Durrell decides they must move back to England for Gerry’s continued education.

The Durrell family members are all the types of people who know their own interests from an early age. Larry, who becomes the well-known literary novelist Lawrence Durrell, fills the house with his literary and artistic friends. In fact, the family is forced to move to a larger villa to accommodate them. Leslie is interested in hunting and is constantly shooting things. Margo likes sunbathing and clothes and has an atrocious taste in young men. With Gerry, it’s animals, and he proceeds to fill the house with them.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyThis memoir is very funny, with a humor that derives from the family just being themselves and the eccentric friends they make. It also has lush, gorgeous, and sometimes stunning descriptions of the setting and flora. Durrell says that he intended to write a book about Corfu’s flora and fauna, but his family kept intruding.

Whether the family decides to give a small party and just invite ten people—at which point each of them invites ten—journey off on an outing in a perfectly round boat, or give another party when the dog is in heat and snakes are in the bathtub, I assure you, you’ll be laughing.

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Day 1249: Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957

Cover for Wild BeautyAlthough we live in Washington, one of the most beautiful wild areas nearby is the Columbia River Gorge between Washington and Oregon. That’s why, when we saw a program about Wild Beauty on television, we had to have a copy of the book.

Wild Beauty is a collection of stunning photos of the Gorge, taken between 1867 and 1957. The introduction explains how the Gorge was formed geologically and tells about advances in the field of photography during the time these pictures were being taken. Then, the book is divided into five sections, roughly chronological.

Section I features the photography of Carleton Watkins, who made several trips up the Gorge between 1867 and 1885. The introduction explains that the state of photography at the time required him to cart along large panes of glass and a portable darkroom, because the photos had to be developed immediately. Each picture is accompanied by a short caption telling what is known of the photo. This section contains the first known photo of the famous Multnomah Falls.

Section II shows photos by a variety of photographers between 1885 and 1910, when advances in both transportation and photography made it easier to take photos in the Gorge.

Section III is devoted to the work of Lily White and Sarah Hall, whose photographs tended more toward the artistic than the historical. The two women traveled up and down the Gorge on a houseboat between 1903 and 1905.

Section IV features photography along the Gorge’s new scenic highway between 1911 and 1929, including some photos that are hand tinted.

Section V features photos between 1930 and 1957 after dams were built along the river. Many of these are also hand tinted.

This book is full of stunning photographs that provide a historical record of the Gorge. This is an interesting book for people interested in the beauty or history of Oregon and Washington or the history of photography.

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Day 1228: The Great Railway Bazaar

Cover for The Great Railway BazaarBest of Five!
Although it was not his first published book, The Great Railway Bazaar was Paul Theroux’s first to be profitable. Written in 1975, it describes the journey he took from England through Europe and southern Asia to Japan and then back through Russia almost all the time on railroads. On the journey, he travels on some fabled railways, such as the Orient Express when it still went to Istanbul and the Trans-Siberian Express.

This isn’t a traditional travel book. For the most part, Theroux isn’t interested in describing tourist destinations. There is some description, but Theroux is mostly interested in the people he meets on the train and the glimpses of life beyond.

The book is interesting but especially for me in describing countries as they no longer are but were during my lifetime. He describes a Middle East not torn by war, as it has been since the 1980’s, an Iran ruled by the Shah, a Vietnam abandoned by Americans but still at war. He dismisses Afghanistan as a country to be avoided in future but not because of war.

His descriptions of conditions he finds are graphic, and his conversations on the train are sometimes funny. He is a keen observer of human behavior.

This book just zipped by for me, I was so interested. I was surprised to find that at that time, the Orient Express was one of the least luxurious trains he takes. It is more luxurious now, but sadly it no longer goes to Istanbul.

The Folio Society edition I have is full of beautiful photos of people traveling on trains. Unfortunately, none of them were taken by Theroux on his journey.

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Day 1205: The 1977 Club! Coming into the Country

Cover for Coming into the CountryBest of Five!
I was so impressed with John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World that when I found Coming into the Country during a trip to Powell’s, I snapped it up. Just incidentally, I found it fit into the 1977 Club.

McPhee is recognized as one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. His Wikipedia entry, in comparing him to Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, says he “produced a gentler, more literary style of journalism that more thoroughly incorporates techniques from fiction.”

Coming into the Country is about Alaska, as it was in the mid-1970’s. The book is divided into three parts, focusing on different visits he made there. “The Encircled River” describes a trip he took within the Arctic Circle with a group of scientists. In “What They Were Hunting For,” McPhee travels around with a state-appointed committee that has been tasked with finding a new location for the state capital and explains the political situation in Alaska at the time. It was ironic to reflect that the capital never moved. “Coming into the Country,” the longest section, is about the life, people, and politics along the Yukon River, still at the time one of the most rugged areas of the state.

1977 club logoThese reports all feature McPhee’s trademark details of person and place that make his writing so interesting. I was also pleased, in googling some information, to discover the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve website, which had photographs of some of the people and places McPhee talks about.

I found Annals of the Former World, which explored the geological formation of different parts of the United States, to be profound. Oddly, the subject of Coming into the Country seems more removed, yet McPhee makes it compelling reading.

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Day 1189: Speak, Memory

Cover for Speak, MemoryAlthough I admire Lolita, I went into Nabokov’s memoir with some trepidation. The three of his novels I read showed such a preoccupation with what he calls “nymphets”—beautiful preteen girls—that it was disturbing. It’s one thing to write a novel about a sexual predator and quite another to have the theme recur in all of your works. So, even though I knew that his partially autobiographical novel, Look at the Harlequins!, was ironically meant—that is, he depicted himself as people thought he was, not as he was, I’m wasn’t sure what to expect from Speak, Memory.

And it is unusual. Instead of narrating his life in a linear fashion, as you might expect, it instead explores themes in his life. So, there are earlier chapters listing the accomplishments of his ancestors, describing his governesses and tutors, later ones about his obsession with butterfly collecting, his efforts to write his first poem, and so on. The result is an odd dichotomy—for we still understand little of the day-to-day of his life while gleaning lots of details about the things he loved best and a vague understanding of the larger arc. I think he truly doesn’t want to tell much that is personal.

I most enjoyed the earlier chapters about life on his family estate outside St. Petersburg. His life there is depicted as idyllic, and it’s hard to know if it actually was or if it is in memory because he can’t return to it. Because of course his wealthy, elite family had to flee Russia after the Russian revolution.

As in Look at the Harlequins!,  he tells nothing about his wife, Véra, although he addresses her directly at times. He does tell about his feeling for his son and about the parks in Europe they visited when his son was small.

So, I found large portions of this book interesting and beautifully written. The man has the largest vocabulary of any writer I’ve ever encountered. Other chapters, like the one about the butterflies, where I would have had to look up every other word to understand it, or the one about chess puzzles, were not so compelling. Still, I started another book before this one and set it aside to finish this. Such is the power of a great writer even when you’re not always interested in the subject matter.

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