This had been on my radar for ages (so much praise for this book!), so I was happy the Second Monday group chose it (and I volunteered to lead the discussion, with questions mostly pulled from BookCompanion). A very interesting book technically, which I admired but didn’t exactly enjoy – as a novel it’s very weird. It’s famous as a showcase for one of the most (and earliest?) unreliable narrators in fiction, who contradicts himself constantly and appears to be unbelievably naïve. Ford repeats certain phrases like “the carefully calculated” or “normal, virtuous, and slightly deceitful” which has a kind of hypnotizing effect. I only have one “in this book I learned”: pococurantism – indifference, nonchalance. Only short quotes, also – which I think is a result of the style of the writing.
- “the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars”
- “you, silent listener beyond the hearth-stone” (the reader)
- “God knows what they wanted with a winter garden in an hotel that is only open from May till October. But there it was.”
- Doctors who advise that Florence not travel because it “might have effects on Florence’s nerves. That would be enough, that and a conscientious desire to keep our money on the Continent.” (as in The Magic Mountain)
- “The fellow talked like a cheap novelist. Or like a very good novelist for the matter of that, if it’s the business of a novelist to make you see things clearly.”
- “In all matrimonial associations there is, I believe, one constant factor—a desire to deceive the person with whom one lives as to some weak spot in one’s character or in one’s career. For it is intolerable to live constantly with one human being who perceives one’s small meannesses.”
- “Florence was a personality of paper … she represented a real human being with a heart, with feelings, with sympathies and with emotions only as a bank-note represents a certain quantity of gold.”
- “Here, then, were two noble natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heart-aches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorated. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all a darkness.”
- “You see, Leonora and Edward had to talk about something during all these years. You cannot be absolutely dumb when you live with a person unless you are an inhabitant of the North of England or the State of Maine.”
- “The Hurlbirds were an exceedingly united family—exceedingly united except on one set of points. Each of the three of them had a separate doctor, whom they trusted implicitly—and each had a separate attorney. And each of them distrusted the other’s doctor and the other’s attorney. And, naturally, the doctors and the attorneys warned one all the time—against each other.”
- “There was upon those people’s faces no expression of any kind whatever. The signal for the train’s departure was a very bright red; that is about as passionate a statement as I can get into that scene.”
Read for Second Monday book group. I loved the Christmas Carol echoes – it starts with “God was dead: to begin with” – but hated the Trumpish end: “You’re going to be saying Merry Christmas again, folks.” And the protagonist Art who writes a column “Art in Nature”… it’s a little on-the-nose. Nonetheless, Smith is always a beautiful writer.
- “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.”
- “Then his mother stops speaking and starts humming a tune and Art knows the doors of the reminiscence have closed, as surely as if the Reminiscence is a cinema or a theatre and the show is over, the rows of seats empty, the audience gone home.”
Well, imagine it like this, the optician says. Imagine I’m a car mechanic and someone brings me in a car for a service, and it’s a car from the 1940s, and I lift the lid and find the engine still nearly as clean as when it left the factory floor in (the optician checks her form) 1946, just amazing, a triumph.
You’re saying I’m like an old Triumph, Sophia says.
Good as new, the optician (who clearly has no idea that a Triumph has ever been a car) says.
Those green things, white things, polystyrene. You’re wrong, they’re recyclable. They’re free of whatever it is that’s bad for it. It’s not as bad as you’d think. I quite like them. I do! No, it’s interesting, because, because they’re so amazingly light, so that when you pick them up it’s surprising every time. You always expect them to be heavier. Even if you tell yourself, even though you know they’re light, you think you already know, you pick one up and it’s like, wow that’s so light, it’s like holding actual lightness. It’s, like, the weight of your own hand just somehow got lighter. Like a bird’s bones kind of light. If you pick up several, hold several so your hand’s full of them, you look at your hand loaded with things and your eye can’t understand it because although you can see that your hand’s full of something it feels like almost nothing’s in your hand.
None of these things is happening here. They are all happening far away, elsewhere.
But they may as well be, Iris says. What does here mean anyway, I’d like to know. Everywhere’s a here, isn’t it?
In this book I learned
I read this in September 2019 and again in September 2022. Posting it as a “quote dump” in November 2022 (backdated to September since that’s when I finished it), part of a new push to get my gazillion draft posts up so they are at least searchable. I may or may not ever come back to turn them into a proper “review,” which isn’t even exactly what I do here… more like an impression?
September 2019: Common Read for Amherst College. Min Jin Lee is the new Writer-in-Residence so I got to attend her talk for the incoming freshmen, which I enjoyed tremendously—more than the novel. I did find it engrossing and interesting, but the writing is a little clunky in parts. My favorite aspect was all the Korean food and culture I got to look up:
- ponytail radishes – omg there are so many kinds of radishes, but not as diverse as the types of Brassica oleraceae
- mompei – baggy Japanese work pants often dyed with indigo
- Koreans having to adopt Japanese surnames
- We use (store-bought) gochujang to make our own version of bibimbap, but I didn’t know about doenjang
- jesa – ceremonies honoring deceased ancestors
- tayaki – fish-shaped waffles – in the US there’s a chain that uses them for soft-serve ice cream, and I’d love to try it! I did, summer 2022 in Boston – more fun than delicious, but glad I had it once
- gimbap – like Korean sushi
- noonchi – emotional intelligence, literally “eye-measure” – such a useful term!
- chima – long billowy skirt
- “cha color” – I guess this is brown, based on this amazing list? Some of those remind me of the neural net color names – a comedy classic!
- unagiya – eel restaurant – I recently read something about a famous eel restaurant, I think M. Manze, and wish I could remember where I saw the article. It was about how most people who ordered eel didn’t really like it.
Yes, life in Osaka would be difficult, but things would change for the better. They’d make a tasty broth from stones and bitterness.
She would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.
However, she didn’t believe her son had come from a bad seed. The Japanese said the Koreans had too much anger and heat in their blood. Seeds, blood, how could you fight such hopeless ideas? Noa had been a sensitive child who had believed that if he followed all the rules and was the best, then somehow the hostile world would change its mind. His death may have been her fault for having allowed him to believe in such cruel ideals.
Re-read for Second Monday in September, 2022. The last quote above is the only one I marked both times!
- “For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life.”
- “You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination.”
- “Now that he was gone, Sunja held on to her father’s warmth and kind words like polished gems.”
- “Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.”
- “At lunchtime, Haruki sat at the end of the long table with two seat gaps around him like an invisible parenthesis while the other boys in their dark woolen uniforms stuck together like a tight row of black corn kernels.”
- “The fools here have pumpkins for heads, and seeds are not brains.”
- “Her wet, shining eyes blinked, lit up like lanterns. Her young face shone through the old one.”
- “It had been eleven years since he’d died; the pain didn’t go away, but its sharp edge had dulled and softened like sea glass.”
Read for Second Monday group. I had heard a lot about this book… I did not love it, but it was both interesting and funny (very dark, though). I very much appreciated that it centered the trans viewpoint, but the behavior of the one cis character wasn’t believable at all.
- “Danny was a good boyfriend to have when I was younger, when we were in college. Like, in the same way that a Saint Bernard would be a good dog to have if you were lost in the mountains. A big amiable body that a girl could shelter behind.”
- Ugh but I understand what she’s saying: “His controlling behavior confirmed how badly he wanted her. Anyone who needed her so close, who assumed the right to know where she was at all times, whom she saw, what she wore, was someone who wasn’t going away, someone who could be counted upon, not just despite her trans-ness, but for it.”
- “the guillotine of sadness would slam down upon her, severing her from her pride”
- “All my white girlfriends just automatically assume that reproductive rights are about the right to not have children, as if the right and naturalness of motherhood is presumptive. But for lots of other women in this country, the opposite is true. Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term ‘welfare queens,’ or ‘anchor babies.’ All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate.”
- “According to Reese, units of disappointment should be measured in the difference between a good mango and a bad mango.”
- “Cream is even less forgiving than white; a single stain on cream and the whole skirt looks vaguely dirty, whereas a single stain on white just looks like a single stain.”
- “Not a windowpane remains unbroken in the facade, already so vandalized and graffitied that to deface it further would only waste effort, the delinquent equivalent of pissing in the ocean.”
- Beyond dark to pitch black: “Q: What do you call a remake of a nineties romantic comedy where you cast trans women in all the roles? A: Four Funerals and a Funeral.”
“What’s a dōTERRA?” Reese asked.
“It’s an essential oil company,” Katrina said. “We’ll have to sit through a presentation, but at the end, I think we make face scrubs.”
This information did not illuminate the situation for Reese. Making face scrubs with a real estate agent? Is this cis culture? What’s next week? Nail art with your financial planner?
…[dōTERRA] targets, with its upscale essential oils, the anxiety of those wellness-obsessed women who are just a little too beholden to middle-class propriety to permit themselves to take up crystals and anti-vaxxing screeds.
How is it, Reese wonders, that a bunch of New York men wearing flannel and slamming whiskey in a cabin is seen as a sorely needed release of their barely tamed and authentic manliness, but when she, a trans, delights in dolling up, she’s trying too hard? It’s not that Reese thinks her desire to dress up reflects some authentic self. It’s just that, unlike bros, she’s willing to call dress-up time what it is.
In this book I learned about
Read for Second Monday book group. I loved it, not surprisingly as I find Patchett’s writing enchanting (although I threw Bel Canto across the room after reading it because I was so upset by the ending!).
- “[My sister’s] hair was long and black and as thick as ten horse tails tied together. No amount of brushing ever made it look brushed.”
- “The linden trees kept us from seeing anything except the linden trees.”
- “To list the things I didn’t ask my father about would be to list the stars in heaven.”
- “I thought of them as a single unit: Norma-and-Bright, like an advertising agency consisting of two small girls.”
- Fluffy, prone to blushing: “This was a woman whose biology betrayed her at every turn. Emotions stormed across her face with a flag.”
- “Fluffy, who had not stopped talking since I walked in the door, shut down like a mechanical horse in need of another nickel.”
- “When she walked away, she turned back to look at me so many times she appeared to be going up the sidewalk in a loose series of concentric circles.”
- “‘You’re picking the woman you like the best from a group of women you don’t like,’ Maeve said. “Your control group is fundamentally flawed.'”
- “She had so much energy. I had forgotten the way she was in the morning, like each new day came in on a wave she had managed to catch.”
- “Her wrist looked like ten pencils bundled together.”
- “Though I had been a doctor for only a short time, I knew the havoc the well could unleash upon the sick.”
- “Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it. The Buddha left and Odysseus left and no one gave a shit about their sons. They set out on their noble journeys to do whatever the hell they wanted to do and thousands of years later we’re still singing about it.”
Read for Second Monday book group. I was a huge Gerald Durrell fan as a kid, so I knew that his brother Larry was a writer, and as an adult I suppose the Alexandria Quartet has been on my (very long) TBR list for ages, so I was glad to be pushed to read this, which is the first of the series. But I didn’t much care for it and I will cross the other 3 off my list!
- “…the graceful curtain breathing softly in that breathless afternoon air like the sail of a ship. How often had we not lain in one another’s arms watching the slow intake and recoil of that transparent piece of bright linen?”
- “We turned to each other, closing like the two leaves of a door upon the past, shutting out everything”
- Balthazar says: “when all is said and done, [man is] just a passage for liquids and solids, a pipe of flesh”
- “Most people lie and let life play upon them like the tepid discharges of a douche-bag.”
- “a sweetness which a woman can always afford to spend upon the man she does not love”
- “Father Paul … seemed so profoundly happy a man, folded into his religion like a razor into its case”
- “the green figs … offer a shade so deep as to be like a wet cloth pressed to the skull”
- “in the moist gathering darkness the fireflies had begun to snatch fitfully”
- “Here at least, thought Nessim, building something with my own hands will keep me stable and unreflective — and he studied the horny old hands of the Greek with admiring envy as he thought of the time they had killed for him, of the thinking they had saved him. He read into them years of healthy bodily activity which imprisoned thought, neutralized reflection.”
- “a thin crust of thunder formed like a scab upon the melodious silence”
- “carrying her fatigue like a heavy pack”
- “the pressure of the headlights now peeled off layer after layer of the darkness”
Only long quote is from Nessim’s attack of dreams/illusions:
One afternoon a crumpled sheet began breathing and continued for a space of about half an hour, assuming the shape of the body it covered. One night he woke to the soughing of great wings and saw a bat-like creature with the head of a violin resting upon the bedrail.
Then the counter-agency of the powers of good — a message brought by a ladybird which settled on the notebook in which he was writing; the music of Weber’s Pan played every day between three and four on a piano in an adjoining house. He felt that his mind had become a battle-ground for the forces of good and evil and that his task was to strain every nerve to recognize them, but it was not easy. The phenomenal world had begun to play tricks on him so that his senses were beginning to accuse reality itself of inconsistency. He was in peril of a mental overthrow.
Once his waistcoat started ticking as it hung on the back of a chair, as if inhabited by a colony of foreign heartbeats. …
As he walked the length of the Rue Fuad he felt the entire pavement turn to sponge beneath his feet; he was foundering waist-deep in it before the illusion vanished.
In this book I learned
- banausic: mundane
- I couldn’t find the meaning of “conklin-coloured yams.” A Harold Conklin wrote an interesting paper about color categories in a Philippine culture – I was happy to stumble on it, but it was published in 1986 so no possible connection. But Jonathan did some research and this is plausible: Conklin Shows, founded in 1916, used a distinctive bright orange for their railcars and logo. This assumes that Durrell is actually describing sweet potatoes (not yams!), which is also very plausible.