French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy – Jeffrey Greene, 2002.

I’m trying to catch up on posts I left in draft. This is pretty pathetic because I started this one in September 2004 and it is now March 2010. Needless to say, I remember almost nothing about the book, but I made a number of notes and copied some quotations. My stubborn nature won’t let me abandon it. OK: Greene rehabs a presbytery into a house in rural France. Not the South—although one might have thought at some point that every single publisher needed to release a book about expats in Provence—in Rogny, a town in the Puisaye region of Burgundy. I do not need to read the book again to know that it costs more and takes longer than he thought. During the course of the rehab/book, he marries Mary, devoting an excessive 3 chapters to the wedding. They do get the best wedding present ever: a meteorite. We have the requisite colorful neighbors—Madame Savin, Coco, Pere Jo—and at least one pointed observation: “Nothing brightens French spirits more than explaining the right way to do something.”

A few jarring details: some of the French is translated, but some is not; we get a bit of sex with enough specifics to feel out of kilter with the rest of the book (“Mary had her bare bottom against the cold, dusty plastic”); when Greene’s mother comes to visit, we get strong foreshadowing of her death, which luckily doesn’t occur; we hear the details of furniture buying, which isn’t particularly interesting.

Finally, I copied off this quote:

…they went about their hard-core and undoubtedly hard-earned vacationing, setting lines and tossing balls of meal into the opaque water to attract carp, a Hungarian favorite in soup, with paprika.

I don’t remember who “they” are, but I do love the way that sentence falls into a heap at the end—especially the paprika.

Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby, 2009

Hornby is always thoroughly enjoyable, and a great premise makes his latest even more savory. Annie’s wasted 15 years with Duncan, a socially clueless middle-aged nerd who’s obsessed with reclusive American musician Tucker Crowe. Annie does love Tucker’s classic album, Juliet, and when the original demos are released as Juliet, Naked, she writes a counter-essay to Duncan’s rhapsodizing about this one new addition to the Crowe canon. Crowe emails Annie in appreciation, and the cascade of encounters begins. The showing-up of Duncan’s fanboy snobbishness is delicious, but Hornby never goes too far–all his characters remain human and sympathetic. He’s kind to them, which is one of the reasons I’m so fond of him; he’s also not-put-down-able, but without leaving the junk food aftertaste that some compelling novels do. Juliet, Naked doesn’t quite have the substance of About a Boy, but it made me very happy. Thank you, Mr. Hornby, and please keep writing!

The Blessing – Nancy Mitford, 1951

This has been one of my favorite novels since picking it up as a kid–I saw my parents laughing over it, and was drawn in by the child protagonist, raised alternately in Britain and France (just as my brother and I were raised in the US and France, with a British father and an Anglophilic mother). I happily re-read it every few years.

Normally I read too quickly, but this time I was tempted to create a guide for all the references, challenging myself to look up the ones I don’t know. For example, the treatment that keeps wealthy people young is presumably a reference to Victor Bogomoletz, who wrote The Secret of Keeping Young and prescribed Sérum de Bogomoletz. A character says of it: “The wonders it has done for me! Why my hair, which was quite red, has positively begun to go black at the roots.”

Even though the moral of the book is that Grace’s happiness comes from ignoring her husband’s infidelities, and Sigsimond is a little monster, it’s more light-hearted than some of Mitford’s books. There are so many wonderfully satirical characters: the odious Hector Dexter, whose speech captures something genuinely 50s American:

I am very very happy to be able to tell you, Madame Innouïs, that the young American male is brimming over with strong and lustful, but clean desire. He is not worn out, old, and complicated before his time, no ma’am, he does not need any education sentimentarl, it all comes to him naturally, as it ought to come, like some great force of nature.

And there are striking insights, like the comparison of idle people playing bridge to workers in a factory: “You sat by electric light at the same table hour after hour, going through the same motions, with music while you work thump thump thumping in the background, life passed by, the things of the mind neglected, the beautiful weather out of doors unfelt, unseen.”

This is a retrieved draft of an earlier post, so there was more I wanted to say that’s been lost. But I’ll be reading it again soon and presumably it will come back–and I can flesh out other references. I love the way the Internet’s expansion makes more of the past accessible even as it recedes further in time. When I first read The Blessing, I could have spoken to people who remembered Boglometz, if only I could have found them. Now they’re doubtless all dead, but I can discover more about it than ever.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman, 2008

Although I love a lot of fantasy, there’s much of it I don’t care for, and I’m one of those who never got into Gaiman. One comic book a year more than sates my appetite, so I didn’t read The Sandman; one chapter of American Gods was plenty; and I missed Stardust. But I saw Coraline and loved it. Then librarians everywhere raved about The Graveyard Book; it won the Newbery (an award that really means something, even though it can lead to as much head-scratching as the Oscars); and most of all Gaiman gave either a great Newbery acceptance speech or a great interview (or both) in The Horn Book, my favorite literature magazine. No head-scratching here–it’s a great book, a lot like Eva Ibbotsen book, but with more thought and heart.

Bod (short for Nobody) grows up in a graveyard, where the ghosts and other inhabitants shelter him from “the man Jack,” who killed his family when he was a baby. The ghosts speak and think in the ways that were natural to them when they were alive, so the different time periods give texture to the dialogue. They’re delightful, but the emotional center is the mysterious Silas, neither dead nor alive. He fetches Bod’s food, brings in the werewolf Miss Lupescu to teach him, and eventually lets the growing Bod go to an actual human school. Bod and his supernatural family deal with the tension between safety and growth, past and future, ordinary and remarkable, with lots of plot and twists along the way. I love books like this that work on multiple levels.

My only criticism is that the illustrations are truly ugly. David McKean is a comic book artist (among many other things), which fits with Gaiman’s background, but personally I don’t think the distorted, black-and-gray, bleeding-off-the-page look works at all with a novel.

Big Tree – Mary & Conrad Buff, 1946

I’ve managed to track down most of the children’s books I loved but for which I didn’t have author/title information, many with the help of the wonderful Loganberry Books’ Stump the Bookseller. But there is one I still can’t find. From the description, Big Tree seemed like a good match, but unless I conflated several books, this isn’t it. The big tree of the title is a giant sequoia named Wawona. He sprouts 2,500 years before the present time and we see him grow, observe the animals and birds around him, survive fire and lightning, and eventually survive even man, as a national park is made around him just in time. Unfortunately the style hasn’t aged well at all. The chipmunks are busy, the rabbits are timid, the eagles are cruel; everything has an adjective and no cliche is spared. The tree’s personality isn’t well-defined and there are some strange contradictions (“It seemed to Wanona that summer had not really come unless the two golden eagles perched in his crest… In many ways he preferred that the eagles did not nest in the old eyrie…” [two consecutive sentences])

Maybe I read this as a child, but I’m not sure. I think I would have remembered the name Wawona and the black and white illustrations. My favorite bit in this book is the trade rat who takes a prospector’s glasses and leaves him a dirty stick–that also would have stuck in my head, and I wouldn’t have been so surprised and delighted to discover trade/pack rats and their role in archeology when we lived in Tucson.

I also recently checked out The Tree in the Trail by Holling Clancy Holling (better known for Paddle-to-the-Sea) because I remember the tree being in the middle of a road. That was a much more colorful and entertaining book than Big Tree, and the illustrations are in color, but the tree is a cottonwood and it’s definitely not “the” book. Could I have read the two and mixed them up in my memory? Initially I thought so, but a few more details have crystallized. I’m quite sure the book I remember featured a “drive-through tree,” and interestingly enough the most famous of them was–Wawona! So maybe there was a book subsequent to Big Tree that also narrated Wawona’s life, didn’t use that name, and had color illustrations. Or maybe I mixed up three books! It niggles at me, and I’ll keep searching. As the online universe gets bigger, the chances of success get greater if there really is a book out there. My recollection of The Little House in the Fairy Wood was spot-on, so I’m betting on little Hilary’s memory.

The Inn at Lake Devine – Elinor Lipman, 1998

My mother sat next to Lipman at a conference and told me about her. Lipman recommended this novel as the one my mother would like best. So I read it “for her” in a way. I don’t know that Mummy would care for it much, but I loved it. When she’s twelve, Natalie and her family are told they can’t stay at the titular vacation resort because they’re Jewish. Natalie pursues the issue through her teenage years and ends up not only staying at the Inn, but becoming part of the family through a series of accidents and romantic entanglements. In both the Marx and Fife families, the generations and the sexes struggle to understand and tolerate each other. Each person is believable, and even Mrs. Fife’s anti-semitism is that of a real human being, not a cardboard monster. Plus it’s funny and touching, and it features mushroom hunting!