Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (audio)

tortillaTortilla Flat is set in the neighborhood by that name in post-WWI Monterey, California, and involves a group of paisano friends. Perhaps I am just being lazy, but I do think that Steinbeck himself can tell you best what the book undertakes. I give you the first paragraph of his Preface:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

And that is, very much, what the book is about.

Danny inherits two houses from his grumpy grandfather upon returning from the war. He is astonished by his good fortune and newfound riches, but also dismayed at the great responsibility of owning property. He takes in friends, one by one by one, and they become a strange, disordered household. It is true that critical readings of this book treat it as an interpretation of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; but I think it’s worth pointing out that these men are a rather dirty, devious, and intermittently disloyal version thereof. They steal from each other on occasion; and their main purpose in life is to obtain wine, and drink it. Not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbeck writes as impressively as ever about the wine:

Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.

You might also call it a picaresque, being full of minor adventures that often run to humor and pathos by turns.

My audio version is narrated by John McDonough, and I like his interpretation very much. The Spanish-in-translation word order and sentence structure gives an accurate paisano feel, and McDonough reflects that in the lilt and rhythm of his speech. (Note that I did not say he puts on an accent.) I enjoyed hearing this story told. I did not always like the players, but that’s not a requirement for liking a book.

I won’t rate this one above the best of the Steinbeck I have read, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. But it is recognizably Steinbeck, and worth the time.


Rating: 7 jugs of wine, naturally.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

The self-made girl of Caitlin Moran’s debut novel is irreverent, painfully self-conscious, triumphant and very funny.

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The wise and hilarious Caitlin Moran (How to Be a Woman; Moranthology) makes her first foray into fiction with How to Build a Girl, and this novel is everything her fans will expect it to be.

It is the early 1990s. Johanna Morrigan is 14 years old and lives in Wolverhampton, England, with her parents and four siblings: an older brother, a younger brother and two babies without names (known long-term as the Unexpected Twins). They are all on government assistance, or benefits. Her mother is depressed and her father is still distributing the demo tapes of his youth, sure that one day he’ll be a rock star. Johanna is desperate to leave behind Wolverhampton, benefits and her virginity.

Her big chance comes when she scores a television appearance during which she will read aloud her prize-winning poem on the theme of “Friendship.” However, she fails to make her family proud, instead surprising even herself with a shameful impromptu Scooby-Doo impression. Deciding that being Johanna Morrigan is a losing proposition, she sets about methodically building the girl she wants to be: she christens herself Dolly Wilde (after Oscar’s niece), and decides to become a music critic. With no money to acquire the latest albums, however, she is resigned to ordering them through the local library.

Dolly Wilde is constructed on the music of Hole, Bikini Kill, David Bowie and Kate Bush; the writing of Dorothy Parker, Orwell and Kerouac; and a blind ambition to reach London. She sends in one album review per day for 27 days until, amazingly, she is hired to review albums and performances for Disc and Music Echo. From Dolly’s very first encounter with live music, this gig ushers in an era of drink, sex and eventually drugs; she happily pursues the lifestyle of the rock stars she admires, but is challenged to reconcile this new life with her household of seven back at home in Wolverhampton.

In order to fall in love with the clumsily charming and often heartbreaking Johanna, readers will want to check their inhibitions regarding four-letter words and copious masturbation. Puzzles as stale as the difference between love and a casual hookup become fresh in this young woman’s vigorous, enthusiastic and ever-misguided perspective. Moran is cheeky, intelligent, thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, and reminds us that we are always learning and rebuilding, no matter our origins.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 cigarettes.

De Potter’s Grand Tour by Joanna Scott

A fantastical mystery of historical fiction, peopled by amiable eccentrics.

de potter

Joanna Scott (The Manikin) spins a mysterious, slightly fanciful historical yarn in De Potter’s Grand Tour. The titular character is variously called Armand de Potter, Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Elseghem or (to the immigration authorities) Pierce L.A. Depotter Elsegern; his personal history is as amorphous and changeable as his name. De Potter lives a legend of his own design, beginning with his immigration to New York from Belgium in the early 1870s, determined to become a person of note. He joins a local society in dredging up oddities from the harbor, which sparks his interest in antiquities. With a few astute investments, he soon becomes an accomplished collector specializing in Egyptian artifacts. He simultaneously works as a teacher (educating aristocratic young ladies in multiple languages), and eventually channels all his skills and interests into a travel and touring company, which has great success. Years later, his wife, Aimée (a former student, born Amy), is devastated when he is lost at sea.

The grieving Aimée finds herself unexpectedly debt-ridden and receives a disturbing final letter from her late husband, which prompts her to examine his past more closely. It now appears that Armand looked to The Count of Monte Cristo as a model for the building of his myth. As Aimée ages, she yearns for her husband, and wonders what really happened on that ship that sailed from Constantinople.

Scott’s tone is whimsical, and her characters are idiosyncratic and appealing. De Potter’s charming tale, told in split chronology both before and after Armand’s disappearance, will please readers seeking a playful trip back in time.


This review originally ran in the September 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 gold watch charms.

Teaser Tuesdays: Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

tortilla

I am pleased to return to old standbys from time to time. It has been too long since I’ve read any Hemingway. And Steinbeck is another love, one I’ve not explored enough. This audio production of Tortilla Flat, an early novel of his, is going well for me so far. I wanted to share a few lines that I think show what he can do with simple language. Tell me this doesn’t paint a scene – one you’d be happy to inhabit, in fact.

The grace was not quite so sharp to Pilon when he could not tell Big Joe about it, but he sat and watched the treasure place while the sky grayed and the dawn came behind the fog. He saw the pine trees take shape and emerge out of obscurity. The wind died down and the little blue rabbits came out of the brush and hopped about on the pine needles. Pilon was heavy-eyed but happy.

This makes me feel peaceful.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), finished

rathbonesSee also my review of the first half.

The Rathbones finished, as it started, an odd and unusual book; which is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, and in this case worked out nicely. It was certainly memorable. I don’t want to give away any more plot than I already have (not much), because I think this unique reading experience does best when the reader goes in blind, as I did. So this review will be brief.

In regards to an earlier stated concern, I will say that the threads were pulled together in the end, but only in a loose weave. All the stories connect, but aren’t tied up with great neatness. I’m fine with this. It’s a dreamy tale, with vaguely supernatural elements. It nods to the Odyssey and Moby-Dick – or maybe more than nods. I liked the characters very much, by which I mean both that they are well crafted (with some complexities), and also likeable; they are not drawn in firm black lines, but a little blurrily, which is true of the book as a whole, and part of its charm.

The story of the Rathbone family is centered around the sea, with notes on the whaling industry that shaped the New England coast for a time. There are elements of a bildungsroman, a literal journey as well as a journey toward adulthood, the uncovering of family legacy and forming of new bonds. Travel and adventure on the sea are only part of what brings the Odyssey into play; more explicit references are made with The Rathbones‘ own Circe character, for example. But I’m going to stop there.

My experience in listening to this audiobook was excellent, even if I was perplexed halfway through. The reading is grand. The story is fanciful, and the narration fits it well. For those who enjoy relinquishing control and floating along with a fine author’s imagination, I think The Rathbones is an engaging and entertaining adventure.


Rating: 7 sons.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), first half

rathbonesI am not quite halfway through The Rathbones, and I am at no proper stopping point – nor am I stopping – but I do feel the need to pause and report back to you. I am intrigued and bemused by this book. I don’t love it, although I might in the end; but I don’t dislike it either. I’m just a little perplexed.

The Rathbones is told mostly from the perspective of 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone, the last of that clan. She lives in the large, old Rathbone mansion on the Connecticut coast with her rather crazy mother and her reclusive tutor & cousin Mordecai. She wonders about the fate of her father, gone to sea many years ago now, and her little brother, whose existence is denied by mother and cousin. An unpleasant visitor sends Mercy and Mordecai fleeing in a little boat… into strange seas. They light upon one island and then another, meeting strange people who reflect in different ways on the paired mysteries of Mercy’s missing father, and the Rathbone family legacy. As I pause to write this, we are mid-journey, and I don’t know appreciably more about these mysteries than I did at page 1; and in a way I am worse off, in terms of knowing where the heck we are going, because I still haven’t figured out which thread of this story is the lead.

The writing and language are lovely, and well read by four narrators in turn: Erin Spencer, Cassandra Campbell, Malcolm Campbell, and Gabrielle De Cuir (itself an unusual convention, though I approve). The imagery is impressive as well. Moment to moment, this book is engrossing – sentence to sentence, scene to scene. But as for the overall story, I’m still baffled. Are we concerned about finding Mercy’s father (who is not, by the way, a Rathbone)? Or about unraveling the sinister, and apparently supernatural, history of the Rathbone family? Are we going to deal with the worn-out wives again, or is their episode past? Where are we going??

I’ve chosen a somewhat random example of Clark’s descriptive stylings for you here. Perhaps you can hear the dreamy, fantastical, and outlandish tone that draws me in…

Though the man was not Oriental, he wore wide scarlet silken trousers beneath the jade robe and pointed slippers of embroidered silk whose long tips quivered at each step. Mordecai stood beside me as the man approached. They were of a similar size and bearing, and each boasted a pigtail, one pale, one dark. The man bowed first to Mordecai, pausing for a moment with a troubled look. They might have been two sides to a single coin. He then bowed to me, sweeping off his pointed hat. The pigtail came away with it. Beneath the hat curled a powdered wig. Beneath the wig, a face that made Mordecai seem the fairest of men. It was all sharp angles and harsh planes, the skin rough and pale and faintly gray, though he was a young man. I judged him to be near Mordecai’s true age. It was a face that might have been hewn from the granite on the islands that the Starks had worked so hard to smooth. I thought that if I touched his cheek I might slice my finger open.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to criticize. I think I am charmed by this work. But so far it is working on me more like a series of vaguely connected short stories than as a coherent novel. We’ll see; maybe she will pull it all together soon. Mystery and obscured connections seem to be a theme, so I am hopeful that this is the case.

I also want to note that there are clear influences here of the whale-obsessed culture of Moby-Dick, as well as the fantastic interconnected adventures-at-sea of the Odyssey. The latter is one of my all-time favorites (although Moby-Dick, not so much. maybe I just need another seminar course on it), so that’s a good thing.

I am having no doubts about sticking around for the second half of this odd novel, so stick around for the next review to come. I am (at least) as curious as you are.

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

A novel of family history, passion and menace, based on historical events in eastern Canada.

alone
In her fourth novel, Alone in the Classroom, Elizabeth Hay (Late Nights on Air) awakens the hidden histories of Saskatchewan and the small-town Ottawa Valley, as her narrator Anne Flood researches the life of her aunt, Connie.

Connie Flood taught for one year, 1929, at a small prairie school in the town of Jewel. Among her students, she worked closely with one challenged boy, Michael Graves. The strikingly portrayed principal, Mr. Burns, surveyed them with an ominous air. One of Connie’s students died a tragic and mysterious death; some 80 years later, the repercussions of that death still swirl through Anne’s life. Likewise, the unrelated murder of another child shortly thereafter haunts Connie, Mr. Burns and Michael Graves for years to come.

Alone in the Classroom is not really a murder mystery (although no slack is permitted in the plot); it’s a lyrical, thoughtful exploration of a town’s secrets. The Flood family’s history and the legacy of Mr. Burns make for a taut, suspenseful and compelling tale. There are threads of romance intertwined with obsession, sensuality paired with threat. Anne’s relationships with mother, aunt and grandmother–both sinister and everyday–form a central theme as well. Though it’s a slim book, at just over 200 pages, Alone in the Classroom begs to be read slowly; at the novel’s close, it’s easy to feel an intimate connection with Anne and her forebears and, having come so far with her, be strangely refreshed by the journey.


This review originally ran in the August 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 lakes.
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