Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975)

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of this title (someone out there in Blogland), but whoever you are/were – thank you! This was a surprisingly good emotive read – and ended up being much more than I had initially thought it was going to be. 

Written as an epistolary novel (be still my heart), this wry but thoughtful narrative features alternating diary entries from two middle-aged Londoners, one divorced, one who “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian”, but both leading pretty lonely lives. (It’s rather Muriel Spark-like in some ways.)

The overlap between these two characters occurs at the aquarium at London Zoo with the turtle enclosure. Although visiting at different times, William G. (the divorced person) and Neaera both have the same idea of freeing the trapped turtles in their too-small cage and it’s this, along with other overlaps, that leads them to come into contact with each other. 

It’s not a simple love story though (although at first blush, it might read as though it’s being set up like that). It’s also not completely filled with middle-aged glumness and angst. (It has some good humor in places.) It’s actually much more complex and layered so what, at first, reads like a fairly straightforward read actually ends up giving you lots to think about. Kudos to Hoban to not taking the easy route with this plot. 

William, now divorced (although why remains a mystery), works in a bookshop and lives in a slightly rundown boarding house. The divorce has meant he has lost his house, his mortgage, daily access to his children, and now he is forced to share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with his irksome (but distant) housemates. Neaera, OTOH, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator although faced with a serious writer’s block at the moment. Both can be a little prickly and difficult, but there’s enough cheer to make it believable. 

The free-the-turtle plan, although hatched independently from each other, is the point at which these two people interact but through Hoban’s use of diary entries, the reader can see how each person has his/her own reasons for this idea. Generally, both feel trapped in their own lives as well, so it’s a metaphorical idea of freedom at the same time. 

The writing itself is reflective of its times (the mid-1970s) so there was a patch in the middle when I thought I was going to stop reading the book (Gendered expectations. Hippy groups that simulate your own birth! Gaaah.) However, soldier on and you’ll find that the remainder of the narrative picks up again and maintains its pace until you turn that last page with a sigh of satisfaction at both a solidly good read and a big unexpected twist which saves the plot from stereotype. 

Overall, this ended up being a really thoughtful read and I’m glad that I tracked it down. Thanks again to whoever it was who first mentioned it. I’d never heard of it but it was a worthwhile use of time. (It’s been republished by the NYRB back in 2013 so it might be easier to find for you. I found an earlier edition at a book sale.) And interestingly, it’s also come out as a 1985 British film of the same name.

Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home – Nina Stibbe (2013)


Coming of age as I did in 1980’s England, I always look back with plenty of nostalgia at that time: few responsibilities, lots of free time, great fashion (!), fantastic music, the belief that the world was our oyster… I just loved the whole thing, and so when I found a book that was about that time by someone who’d been around the same age and was English, I leaped at it. Not only was this by a peer from that time and in England, she had been as lost (future-plan-wise) as I had been, it was funny, and then — delirious joy — it was epistolary to boot.

“Love, Nina” follows the true story of a new nanny who has been employed by the then-editor of the London Review of Books who lived smack in the middle of London. The family was small, but the foot traffic and visitors through the house whilst she was nannying was chockfull of literary and arty superstars: authors, screenwriters, and all manner of other creative types would regularly come for a cup of tea, and all recounted in a series of letters sent by author Nina Stibbes to her sister in Leicester.

Author Deborah Moggach (who was also a neighbor up the street from the family) described this read as “Adrian Mole meets Mary Poppins mashed up in literary London…” and I think this analogy hits the nail on the head. As the book is written from Nina’s own POV, the reader goes through some of what Nina experiences and thinks, and TBH, it was hilarious in places.

(Note: There were quite a lot of names of people who I had no idea who they were, but once you get used to this and realize that this lack of knowledge doesn’t actually affect the story in any big way, you can move along. Don’t fret about not knowing who these literati are. Just jump over the names you don’t know. The book is still really enjoyable.)

So, nothing heavy in this read, but it was a very funny nostalgic visit to UK in the 80’s. I really enjoyed this book, and gobbled it down over one weekend. Highly recommended for anyone who lived firsthand through that fabulous decade and who is looking for a good solid read that makes you snigger with recognition on a hot summer day.

(P.S. Don’t be put off by the cover art. The read is better than it looks.)

February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up



So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.

Letter from New York – Helene Hanff (1992)


What a complete joy this little read was. It almost popped my socks off in its charming-ness, and I’d like everyone who reads this blog post to leave right now and get yourselves a copy somehow. It’s that lovely.

It’s a very quick read, understandable as it’s a collection of some five minute radio broadcasts that Hanff did on the BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour during the 1980’s (after the publishing success of her earlier book, 84 Charing Cross Road. (Again, if you haven’t read the Charing Cross Road book, this epistolary true story of the friendship between Hanff and an English bookseller is super, and I highly recommend that you do.)

Anyway, each of these brief radio broadcasts tells about Hanff’s life in New York City, where she lived in a block of apartments, a place that she calls “community living” as many of the other tenants were also her friends and make appearances in her columns here. (Oh, and don’t forget the friends’ dogs. There are lots of dog stories in here, but not enough to cross it over into Crazy Dog Person Land.)

If you’re familiar with any of Hanff’s writing, you’ll know that she writes in a breezy optimistic style about the minutiae of living in New York as a self-employed writer. (Interestingly, there is not a lot of talk about her actual writing. Lots more focus on her life and what Hanff notices around her, which to me is a lot more fascinating in this particular case.) She’s very down-to-earth, has an interesting group of friends (with their dogs), and lives a full life of museum visits, concerts, and stories about her own particular neighborhood.

The columns are organized month by month and cover about three or four years, so the reader is taken through the seasons. She is such a good writer and really engages her reader in her slice-of-life descriptions as she recalls them here. I bet that this could fall into the epistolary category as well, as each column reads as though it is a letter from a favorite auntie (or similar) just to you. As you can probably surmise, I adored this quick read and think others of you might as well.

Seriously – one of my favorite reads so far this year.

The Diary of a Nobody – Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith (1888)


“Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see—because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’—why my diary should not be interesting.”

Although this was a reread, it was a reread from A Long Time Ago and so it ended up being more or less a New Read in the end. And this was fine, as I loved this book. I know it was written in the late Victorian era, but it was so funny that I burst out laughing at times which led to some strange looks when I was on the elliptical at the gym. I couldn’t help myself though, and TBH, it was that funny to me that I can neither confirm nor deny that snorting out loud did occur in public.

Laurels House - the home of the Pooter family.

Laurels House – the home of the Pooter family.

This is a fictional diary of a lower middle-class man living on the outskirts of London, married with a grown-up son and a wife who loves him despite his flaws. (He doesn’t acknowledge these flaws though…) Charles Pooter is the diarist, and he lives a modest existence as a city clerk in an office where he’s been working for the past 20 years without much professional recognition, and he begins journaling as he secretly thinks that someone somewhere will publish his diary for its literary worth. He’s a nice guy, basically, but has some insufferable snobbish airs which stem only from his own personal social insecurity and not from malice.

Adult son William (and then later called Lupin) is rather a gadabout creature who drinks, gambles and makes somewhat brash decisions, but who receives the general adoration from his parents (which becomes somewhat tempered after Lupin movies in to his childhood home due to losing his job). Wife Carrie is portrayed as a sweet Victorian wife, but readers can see (through Mr. Pooter’s diary descriptions) that perhaps she is not quite as quiet and adoring of her husband as he writes. It’s all very farcical, but done in such a way that it’s fresh and still very very funny in parts.

Mr. Pooter’s diary chronicles about 15 months of his life and details his thinking about his life in London as a clerk and the sometimes hilarious social misfortunes that occur to him, typical things that happen to anyone but which, when they happen to Mr. Pooter, can completely shape his day and how he sees it. It’s a little bit like reading Basil Fawlty’s diary (if you remember that TV series). He does his best, but things consistently go wrong for him. Despite this, his family still loves him all the same.

(L-R) George and Weedom Grossmith, authors.

(L-R) George and Weedon Grossmith, authors.

Written by brothers and stage performers, Weedon and George Grossmith, this book was first published as a series of excerpts in Punch, and was popular precisely it skewered most of the typical routines of its audience and the increasing social expectations of a booming lower-middle and middle class. However, it wasn’t an instant hit, but its popularity grew over time and since it was first published, this title has never been out of print. It’s also been the influence of other fictional diaries that have since been published: Diary of Adrian Mole series (by Sue Townsend), Bridget Jones’ Diary series (by Helen Fielding) and in other media forms, there’s a clear influence of Mr. Pooter’s ilk on TV shows such as Fawlty Towers. Interestingly enough, Hugh Bonneville (who plays Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) was given rave reviews for his time as Mr. Pooter in a 2007 BBC dramatization on BBC Four. I wonder if that’s available on-line somewhere… I’ll check in the future.

Suffice to say, this was a very fun read and I’m really glad that I picked it off the TBR shelf. Highly recommended. This will be added to my Epistolary Novels post for certain.

Random note: Speaking of Hugh Bonneville, anyone going to see the new Paddington movie?


General Catch-Up Time (again!)


So – you know how it is… When you’re having people to stay AND go out of town AND reach a stopping point at work, that’s when things pile up. And thus it was with me, so in order to clear the decks a bit, I thought I’d do some mini-reviews on some of my reading lately.

book313A lot of my reading time was recently spent on finishing up Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone”, a Victorian sensation novel which was brilliant. One of the first recognized detective novels of the time, I’ve enjoyed some of Collins’ earlier work and this was another enjoyable read. (And a monster read, page-count wise, but as it was an e-copy it was ok.)

It’s written in an epistolary style and is structured from several different viewpoints of various characters, all of whom have been involved with the mystery of the disappearing Moonstone, a valuable jewel with a long history starting in ancient India. It’s such a good read (shaggy dog story though it is), that I loved it and despite the never-ending page count (and my aversion to such), as it was on Kindle, it worked out fine.

If you’re in for a gothic sensation novel full of mystery and suspense, this will be a good read for you.

christieAnd then I blitzed through another Agatha Christie – “The ABC Murders”. Not much to say about this, except it was the usual quick read with the expected red herrings etc. Good though and how Dame Christie managed to churn out the amount of writing (and most of it well done) continues to amaze me.

All in all, some good reading going on. Just been rather too busy to make any detailed posts. However, I think I’m back on schedule now. Hooray!~

Catch-Up Time…


This is one of those general catch-all blog posts to round up all the other parts of my life which have been happening at the same time as my reading. (And some of this will be reading-related, but I’m afraid it’s been a bit slow going lately.)

I’m reading a Victorian read – The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – which I am loving and seems perfect for this time of year. Each chapter is written from the perspective of one of the characters, and some of them are hilarious in how awful they are. (Not the actual writing itself, but how the characters each present themselves through telling their story.)

It all revolves around the disappearance of a huge diamond (the Moonstone of the title), and Collins has done a really good job of presenting those involved as they give their version of events. I think this could count as an epistolary novel in some ways, but whether it does or not, I am really enjoying it. Just a bit dense and not a book to fly through. It’s also 528 pages (which I’ve only just found out), but as I’m reading it on-line, I’m not too freaked out by that. (I have a history of slightly freaking out at large page numbers in books. See Scary Big Books (SBB) for details of a project that tried to address that.)

Tea in the garden circa 1905

Tea in the garden in some tropical clime. (Source: ??)

I’ve also been reading a coffee table non-fiction book called “Out in the Noonday Sun” by Valerie Pakenham. Having a title taken from the old Kipling verse – “Mad dogs and English men out in the noon day sun” – this book is a readable delve into the lives of those Edwardians (mostly men of course) who chose (or were forced) to join the diplomatic and other services to support and move forward the ongoing territorial “Scramble” for Africa, India and the East. (I say “were forced” to go because some of these men had done some bad behavior at their school or home (like debts, drinking, etc.) and their families pushed them into the foreign service to get rid of them mostly. If their hijinks continued, at least it wouldn’t make the London papers.)

So, again, this book is another slow reader, but mostly interesting. (It’s hard to understand how entitled a lot of these people were, but them were the times, I suppose.)

Outside reading, life has been very damp and wet which is remarkably unusual for this semi-arid region. It was cool and rainy for about three weeks and probably rained almost every day. People were calling our region the “Seattle of the South” because there was so much rain, and I really enjoyed the change from the summer heat. We even had a mushroom growing in the garden. (That wet.)

Credit: KCBD-TV.

Flooding in Lubbock, TX, recently. Credit: KCBD-TV.

Having been born and raised in England, I love rain, and so got to thinking about how the rain in UK and the rain here in Texas compare. I boiled it down to the idea that the rain in England is much more “polite” – it’s a gentle rain (with a bit of heavy in between) and sort of coughs and says “Excuse me, I’m going to rain all day if that’s all right with you…” Here in Texas, the rain is much more “rude”, if you will. It comes down hard (flooding is pretty common), it comes down loudly (hard and big rain drops), and it’s very in-your-face for the (mostly) short time that it’s falling. It seems quite rare that Texas gets a nice polite steady gentle rainfall compared to England. (Now the rain might be quite different in other parts of the state, but around here, I think this metaphor is pretty accurate.)

balloon-fiestaSpeaking of weather, I’m getting ready for a trip to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival taking my English mum along with me for the ride.  Looking forward to some lovely times and some fantastic photo-taking of the balloons. The colors can be fantastic in the mornings when the balloons first take off and at dusk when the balloons glow.

And, music-wise, I’m counting down to the upcoming Cher concert! I know – Cher’s old, blah blah blah – I get it. However, Cher is a consummate concert-giver and the last concert I saw her is definitely in my Top Five Favorite Concerts Ever. Her costumes (and the number of different ones) are amazing. Plus her voice is still spectacular. Looking forward to it.




Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther – Elizabeth von Arnim (1907)


Being an ongoing fan of Elizabeth von Arnim’s writing, I had read quite a few reviews of this epistolary novel on-line, and thought it’d be a fun read. It was – it was also quite a bit more serious overall than I had been expecting, but that’s not a criticism at all. Now, having completed it, my overall opinion of this novel was that it was a perfect balance of emotions and a very real consideration of how relationships can evolve over time, whether you want them to or not. (Plus – there are occasional sharp instances of wit sprinkled throughout the book.)

As mentioned, this is an epistolary novel but only from one perspective. It’s a collection of letters from the forthright Rose-Marie Schmidt, a young German woman with whose family Roger Anstruther, a fairly well-off English young man stays as he completes language lessons from Rose-Marie’s grumpy father. Rose-Marie’s mother, now dead, has been English and so in many ways, Rose-Marie considers herself English. (She’s a little too emotionally honest to be a true English person though. ) 

I know no mood of Nature’s that I do not love—or think I do when it is over—but for keenness of feeling, for stinging pleasure, for overflowing life, give me a winter’s day with the first snow, a clear sky, and the thermometer ten degrees Réaumur below zero.

Just before Roger leaves their house to return to England, the reader learns that the pair had confessed their love for each other, but due to class differences et al., they had sworn to keep their love secret until Roger has told his father. The structure used by von Arnim to only show the letters of Rose-Marie to Roger (and not his replies) works extremely well as you, as the reader, become much more aware of how one-sided the relationship is at times.

Rose-Marie is a literate and eloquent writer, who has been raised in a small town in Germany to be honest and plain-spoken. Her mother has died, her father is a grumpy SOB and together, they have a good-natured housekeeper with a boyfriend who is a keen (but poor) trumpet player. (One of the strands of the plot reveals that the family ends up having to ask the boyfriend to leave the trumpet at home when he visits his girlfriend, the maid. The trumpet playing had turned into a very loud reflection of how their romance was going, and when it was going downhill, it got very noisy!)

Just like the protagonist of “Elizabeth and her German Garden” (1898) and the women in “Enchanted April” (1922), Rose-Marie is witty and clever academically (although with little chance for continuing education apart from books). Although she is portrayed as something of a rural outsider, she is emotionally intelligent, much more so than Roger, and it is she who really holds the reins of their friendship right from the beginning (once the blossom of young love has faded).

She is a few years older than Roger, and once their engagement fades, she takes on the mantle of being an older sister type for him, telling him details of village life and proffering him advice about life. (As we are not privy to Roger’s perspective, we don’t know how he receives this, but the correspondence continues so it must have been acceptable.)

Papa was delighted, I must say, to have had at last, as he told me with disconcerting warmth, at last after all these months an intelligent conversation… (when Mr. Anstruther pays surprise visit to house in Jena)

Rose-Marie is not the traditional wilting heroine of the literary world. She is independent, she designs her own life in her own way (only limited by money, really), and she has a caustic wit which surfaces frequently throughout the novel. I really admired her no-nonsense approach to the impractical Roger and his roller-coaster emotions, and so when I came to the end of the book, the ending was perfect for how the story and the characters had been built. I turned the last page and sighed with satisfaction. That good.

Just loved this one, and it’s available on girlebooks if you’d like to read it.

The Ginger Tree – Oswald Wynd (1977)


The Ginger Tree - Wynd

Poking around the older interwebs, I came across this title (The Ginger Tree) from another discussion with some fellow book readers, and remembering it was in the forgotten depths of my TBR shelves, I pulled it out. What a treat.

One. This is epistolary and you know I likes me some epistolary novel every now and then.
Two. It has a Feminist-Lite slant to it (despite of it being authored by a man – not that guys can’t relate to female characters, but this was really well done). I like some good Feminist reads.
Three. It was set in a time and country very different to where I am right now. (I wanted to armchair-travel a bit. Going back in time was a nice extra touch.)

This is the tale of Mary MacKenzie, a young Scottish lass who travels with her chaperone to the Far East and China to marry an only vaguely known fiancé who is working out there as a military attaché. Mary is young on many levels, just not with years, and so there is a lot of learning that goes on as the narrative progresses. Mary learns to discard the old manners and expectations of her bossy mother in Scotland, a freedom initially symbolized by Mary refusing to wear her corsets as her voyage takes her into hotter and hotter climes. Her freedom is also exponentially increased when her chaperone unexpectedly dies during the crossing, leaving Mary free to make her own friends. This was her first real taste of independence and she loved it.

So – this is a love story – girl meets boy type – but this has a big twist in it. Mary marries her fiancé but ends up having a relationship with a Japanese nobleman – a move which affects her for the rest of her (and his) life. Being so far from home can be exhilarating freeing at first, but when you are alone, divorced, and pregnant from a high class wealthy man who is already married, things start to get complicated.
It would have been very easy for Wynd to just write Mary as having an epiphany from her experience and turning it around into some other transformative experience, but he doesn’t take the obvious route. Mary is difficult as a person – she wants to fit in with the Chinese and Japanese cultures, but can’t seem to find a place to settle between her Western upbringing and her Far Eastern present, and so frequently is stuck in the Outsider position of both cultures.

The author, Oswald Wynd, had lived in China and Japan for many years, some as a POW in a camp in Malaya in WWII, and you can tell that he loves and respects the cultural differences whilst also acknowledging that these cultural differences can provide long-term barriers to both the Westerners and the Easterners.

This is a far-ranging book, time-wise, covering the beginning of the twentieth century through to WWII, as the world grows and changes so does Mary. Another reviewer pointed out that although The Ginger Tree presents itself as a Feminist-Lite narrative (and the protagonist recognizes the lack of gender equality in the different cultures), she still allows herself to get treated as a doormat. I suppose her lack of assertiveness, in this situation, was that she may have felt that she didn’t have many choices: she was divorced, with two children (one of whom had been taken away from her and one of whom was obviously of mixed parentage), she had had a romantic relationship with a nobleman, and she had no money, no job and nowhere to live. Going back to Scotland was not really an option when there is no communication with her family, and with no money, how would she get there? When one reviews her life in those terms, then it’s easier to empathize with why she did what she did. She’s not the most likeable character in the world, but she is humanly understandable.

PBS Masterpiece has the TV adaptation of this on-line – wonder how good that is…?

Ten Days in the Madhouse – Nellie Bly (1887)

book239In the late 1880’s, a young journalist called Nellie Bly wanted to make her mark outside the usual writing restrictions accorded to most women journalists back then. (They were usually limited to the Society page and rarely given any hard news to cover.) Her editors at the New York paper The World agreed with her and so she got herself admitted to Blackwell Island (also called Welfare Island, and now called Roosevelt Island) which was America’s first municipal mental hospital. Bly wanted to prove her worth as a journalist and decided to do an expose on the conditions at the hospital and believed only by becoming admitted as a patient could the truth come out.

Charles Dickens had already previously covered conditions here in his American Notes (published in 1842) but they were from the perspective of an outsider and of a foreign traveler. This was the first time that an actual US journalist has been on the inside of the institution. (Blackwell Island has a fascinating history by the way: it was a penitentiary, a workhouse, a smallpox hospital…)

Nellie_BlyPrinted as a series of first-person narrative articles, the resulting coverage was explosive for that time and for Blackwell. Originally intended as a state-of-the-art mental institution “devoted to humane and moral rehabilitation of its patients”, funding had been cut and care had been reduced to bitter and sadistic staff and unsympathetic doctors who simply ascribed any patient claims to sanity (and thus release) as delusional. A very Catch-22 situation for all the female patients who were imprisoned there and with little hope of freedom in their future.

Bly took her project very seriously and prepared deeply for her role as a mental patient: she practiced “looking like a lunatic” in the mirror, she dressed in tattered clothing, and posing as a Cuban immigrant who could not remember her history, Bly checked into a temporary boarding house for poorer women. Within twenty-four hours of pretend irrational behavior, Bly was taken by police to Bellevue Hospital for an evaluation, and then from there, pronounced “delusional and undoubtedly insane”, taken to Blackwell. (Testing was minimal at the time and was subjective and very quick.)

Bly’s detailed account of her time at Blackwell as a mental patient are harrowing to read about – patients were stripped of clothing in corridors and publicly humiliated by the nursing staff, mandatory cold baths in dirty bath water, and appalling living conditions (little heat, poor nutrition, no activities).

“I looked at the pretty lawns, which I had once thought was such a comfort to the poor creatures confined on the Island, and laughed at my own notions. What enjoyment is it to them? They are not allowed on the grass – it is only to look at. I saw some patients eagerly…lift a nut or a colored leaf on the path. But they were not permitted to keep them. The nurses would always compel them to throw their little bit of God’s comfort away…”

It’s also notable that all the patients were female and mostly poor (some couldn’t speak English) and so were powerless in this system of neglect.

“I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further than hell.”

Any patient who stood up for herself (and the other patients) or who proclaimed her sanity was invariably labeled delusional and so hospital stays to Blackwell became hamster wheels of no release for nearly all the patients imprisoned there.

Once Bly’s stay was over and she had been formally released by the newspaper’s attorney, the story went public, and one month later, Bly was giving details of her experience to a Grand Jury who then visited the hospital themselves. Prior warnings to the staff had helped to clean up the place and the patients, but Bly’s report lead to recriminations from the hospital doctors and to a fast-tracked funding increase of $1 million (enormous at the time).

This was a fascinating read, and was nicely complimented by my earlier reading of “Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors” by Lisa Appignanesi. (No post on that, but definitely not a reflection on the quality of the book or the author.) The treatment of mental health has come a long way in the past one hundred years or so, and Bly’s work helped to propel some of that change.