Books of Summer #18–20: Alan Garner, Peter Matthiessen, Lorrie Moore

I’m sneaking in just in time here, on the very last day of the #20BooksofSummer challenge, with my final three reviews: two novellas, one of them a work of children’s fantasy; and a nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir.

The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967)

I’d heard of Garner, a British writer of classic children’s fantasy novels, but never read any of his work until I picked this up from the free bookshop where I volunteer on a Friday. My husband remembers reading Elidor (also a 1990s TV series) as a boy, but I’m not sure Garner was ever well known in America. Perhaps if I’d discovered this right after the Narnia series when I was a young child, I would have been captivated. I did enjoy the rural Welsh setting, and to start with I was intrigued by the setup: curious about knocking and scratching overhead, Alison and her stepbrother Roger find a complete dinner service up in the attic of this house Alison inherited from her late father. Alison becomes obsessed with tracing out the plates’ owl pattern – which disappears when anyone else, like Nancy the cook, looks at them.

I gather that Garner frequently draws on ancient legend for his plots. Here he takes inspiration from Welsh myths, but the background was so complex and unfamiliar that I could barely follow along. This meant that the climactic ‘spooky’ scenes failed to move me. Instead, I mostly noted the period slang and the class difference between the English children and Gwyn, Nancy’s son, who’s forbidden from speaking Welsh (Nancy says, “I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer”) and secretly takes elocution lessons to sound less ‘common’.

Can someone recommend a Garner book I might get on with better?

My rating:

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978)

For two months of 1973, from late September to late November, Matthiessen joined zoologist George Schaller on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau to study Himalayan blue sheep. Both also harbored a hope of spotting the elusive snow leopard.

Matthiessen had recently lost his partner, Deborah Love, to cancer, and left their children behind – at residential schools or with family friends – to go on this spirit-healing quest. Though he occasionally feels guilty, especially about the eight-year-old, his thoughts are usually on the practicalities of the mountain trek. They have sherpas to carry their gear, and they stop in at monasteries but also meet ordinary people. More memorable than the human encounters, though, are those with the natural world. Matthiessen watches foxes hunting and griffons soaring overhead; he marvels at alpine birds and flora.

The writing is stunning. No wonder this won a 1979 National Book Award (in the short-lived “Contemporary Thought” category, which has since been replaced by a general nonfiction award). It’s a nature and travel writing classic. However, it took me nearly EIGHTEEN MONTHS to read, in all kinds of fits and starts (see below), because I could rarely read more than part of one daily entry at a time. I struggle with travel narratives in general – perhaps I think it’s unfair to read them faster than the author lived through them? – but there’s also an aphoristic density to the book that requires unhurried, meditative engagement.

The mountains in their monolithic permanence remind the author that he will die. The question of whether he will ever see a snow leopard comes to matter less and less as he uses his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance (“not fatalism but a deep trust in life”) and transience: “In worrying about the future, I despoil the present”; what is this “forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day”? I’m fascinated by Buddhism, but anyone who ponders life’s deep questions should get something out of this.

My rating:

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore (1994)

Thanks to Cathy for reminding me about this one – I had intended to make it one of my novellas for November, but as I was scrambling around to find a last couple of short books to make up my 20 I thought, “Frog! hey, that fits”* and picked it up.

Oddly, given that Moore is so well known for short stories, I’ve only ever read two of her novels (the other was A Gate at the Stairs). Berie Carr lives just over the border from Quebec in Horsehearts, a fictional town in upstate New York. She and her best friend Sils are teenagers at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and work at Storyland amusement park on the weekends and during the summer. When Sils gets into trouble, Berie starts pocketing money from the cash register to help her out, but it will only be so long until she gets caught and the course of her life changes.

Berie is recounting these pivotal events from adulthood, when she’s traveling in Paris with her husband, Daniel. There are some troubling aspects to their relationship that don’t get fully explored, but that seems to be part of the point: we are always works in progress, and never as psychologically well as we try to appear. I most enjoyed the book’s tone of gentle nostalgia: “Despite all my curatorial impulses and training, my priestly harborings and professional, courtly suit of the past, I never knew what to do with all those years of one’s life: trot around in them forever like old boots – or sever them, let them fly free?”

Moore’s voice here reminds me of Amy Bloom’s and Elizabeth McCracken’s, though I’ve generally enjoyed those writers more.

*There are a few literal references to frogs (as well as the understood slang for French people). The title phrase comes from a drawing Sils makes about their mission to find and mend all the swamp frogs that boys shoot with BB guns. Berie also remarks on the sound of a frog chorus, and notes that two decades later frogs seem to be disappearing from the earth. In both these cases frogs are metaphors for a lost innocence. “She has eaten the frog” is also, in French, a slang term for taking from the cash box.

(I can’t resist mentioning Berie and Sils’ usual snack: raw, peeled potatoes cut into quarters and spread with margarine and salt!)

My rating:

A recap of my 20 Books of Summer:

  • I enjoyed my animal theme, which was broad enough to encompass straightforward nature books but also a wide variety of memoirs and fiction. In most cases there was a literal connection between the animal in the title and the book’s subject.
  • I read just nine of my original choices, plus two of the back-ups. The rest were a mixture of: books I brought back from America, review copies, books I’d started last year and set aside for ages, and ones I had lying around and had forgotten were relevant.
  • I accidentally split the total evenly between fiction and nonfiction: 10 of each.
  • I happened to read three novels by Canadian authors. The remainder were your usual British and American suspects.
  • The clear stand-out of the 20 was Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, followed closely by The Snow Leopard (see above) and The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt – all nonfiction!
  • In my second tier of favorites were three novels: Fifteen Dogs, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, and Crow Lake.

I also had three DNFs that I managed to replace in time.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton [a review copy – and one of my Most Anticipated titles]

(I managed the first 36 pages.) Do you have a friend who’s intimidatingly sharp, whose every spoken or written line leaps from wordplay to a joke to an allusion to a pun? That’s how I felt about Hollow Kingdom. It’s so clever it’s exhausting.

I wanted to read this because I’d heard it’s narrated by a crow. S.T. (Shit Turd) is an American Crow who lives with an electrician, Big Jim, in Seattle, along with Dennis the dumb bloodhound. One day Jim’s eyeball pops out and he starts acting crazy and spending all his time in the basement. On reconnaissance flights through the neighborhood, S.T. realizes that all the humans (aka “MoFos” or “Hollows”) are similarly deranged. He runs into a gang of zombies when he goes to the Walgreens pharmacy to loot medications. Some are even starting to eat their pets. (Uh oh.)

We get brief introductions to other animal narrators, including Winnie the Poodle and Genghis Cat. An Internet-like “Aura” allows animals of various species to communicate with each other about the crisis. I struggle with dystopian and zombie stuff, but I think I could make an exception for this. Although I do think it’s overwritten (one adverb and four adjectives in one sentence: “We left slowly to the gentle song of lugubrious paw pads and the viscous beat of crestfallen wings”), I’ll try it again someday.

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan: I read the first 164 pages last year before stalling; alas, I could make no more headway this summer. It’s an amusing historical pastiche in the voice of a notorious forger and counterfeiter who’s sentenced to 14 years in Van Diemen’s Land. I could bear only so much of this wordy brilliance, and no more.

Tisala by Richard Seward Newton: I guess I read the blurb and thought this was unmissable, but I should have tried to read a sample or some more reviews of it. I got to page 6 and found it so undistinguished and overblown that I couldn’t imagine reading another 560+ pages about a whale.

For next year, I’m toying with the idea of a food and drink theme. Once again, this would include fiction and nonfiction that is specifically about food but also slightly more cheaty selections that happen to have the word “eats” or “ate” or a potential foodstuff in the title, or have an author whose name brings food to mind. I perused my shelf and found exactly 20 suitable books, so that seems like a sign! (The eagle-eyed among you may note that two of these were on my piles of potential reads for this summer, and two others on last summer’s. When will they ever actually get read?!)

Alternatively, I could just let myself have completely free choice from my shelves. My only non-negotiable criterion is that all 20 books must be ones that I own, to force me to get through more from my shelves (even if that includes review copies).

How did you fare with your summer reading?

27 responses

  1. Aie I HATED Gould’s Book of Fish. I don’t recall how many pages I got into it, but not many. Anyway, you did really well and one of your favourites was one of my high spots of the year.

    My husband and I are both terrified of The Owl Service and get all antsy if we’re in a charity shop and there’s one of those 1960s dinner services with complicated patterns! I love the myth behind it – more Susan Cooper than C.S. Lewis, I suppose. But too scary! All that scritchiting in the roof!

    As I predicted, I made a massive error not including review and book challenge books in my 20Books. But also next year I’ll attempt not to have a nervous breakdown in the middle. That certainly stalled my reading (totally, for a few horrific days). I did ten and that’s fine, and I’m enjoying seeing everyone else’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Flanagan is a funny one: The Narrow Road to the Deep North is brilliant, but then books like Wanting and First Person are seriously subpar. I can’t put my finger on why I got on alright with Gould’s for 160 pages last spring … but then this summer could not advance one page more.

      I don’t think I ever settled into the Garner enough to be scared. It all felt too foreign and dated for me.

      Next year, make it as easy for yourself as possible 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I usually manage fine to do it as a TBR-reducing exercise, but hopefully I’ll be more mentally well next year! Currently on a diet of Angela Thirkell but gearing up to face my Murdoch of the month. Next year I’m doing a slightly “easier” author so that will help when it gets to 20 Books time.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. P.S. Did you know Stephen Rutt has ANOTHER book coming out this year? Also birdy.


      1. Oh, will watch out for that, thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I read The Owl Service as a child, didn’t get on with it, and can’t remember anything about it 🙂 The classic Garner is the Weirdstone of Brisingamen which I suspect will be more accessible for you and is also superbly creepy. I also liked Red Shift, but that’s much more experimental.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If another Garner comes into the shop I might give it a try, but I can’t say it’s a priority 😉

      If you’re wanting to read the Moore I’m happy to save my copy to give you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That would be great, thank you 🙂


    2. I’m building up a nice stack for you here 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve only read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, about which I felt much as you did about The Owl Service; I could see how I might have loved it as a child, but couldn’t engage as an adult (I think I was 21 when I read it). I do want to read Red Shift, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Are there any children’s authors you’ve found through your new role whose books DO work for adults?


  4. That copy of the Alan Garner book has been through several owners by the look of the cover. The extract mentions 3 characters all from The Mabinogion – a classic set of Welsh fables. Blodeuwedd was turned into an owl. Lleu is a warrior and magician. Gronw Pebr (Gronw the Radiant) is a warrior, hunter and lord who kills both of them.
    Putting them into your novel might appeal to people who have a knowledge of welsh culture but it’s limiting your potential audience


    1. (That was what was available for me to download as a cover image from Goodreads; the copy I have is actually in slightly better condition, though with very foxed pages.) I think I needed Garner to spell out all that Mabinogion history for me a bit more! And if that’s true for me at age 35, would kids get it? Or maybe they’d ignore the details of the legend and just be more open to the magic?


  5. I read most of Garner’s books as a child and was captivated – and yes, I’m sure the legend went over my head. I re-read the Weirdstone and its sequels a few years ago and really enjoyed it again as an adult.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remembered you were a big fan of his. I might read his memoir if nothing else.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The memoir was lovely and very accessible in comparison!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I read The Weirdstone and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, when I was eighteen and was so frightened by them that I couldn’t get out of bed to put the light out because it meant crossing acres of darkness to get back. However, I think The Owl Service is his best book. I love the way in which the very land itself, complete with its weather systems, becomes a potent character. Typical Garner, who believes that the land shapes the people who live in it. So, if you didn’t find you could engage with it possible Garner isn’t for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did like the Welsh setting of the Garner, but it wasn’t strong enough to counterbalance the plot for me. You may be right: some combination of my age and background means I won’t be able to fully engage with his work.


  7. You have two crows and two leopards among your favourites!
    I think food and drink would make a great theme – so many possibilities! (I especially like your pile with food-named authors.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point! I had the best luck with bird books, I guess, but dogs were pretty good too.

      I acquired another book today that would fit the theme: Cherry, a memoir by Mary Karr.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] into the wilderness and don’t mind a sudden ending, you may find this a worthwhile heir to Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton and The Road by Cormac […]


  9. […] the 20 pages on musk oxen that really did me in). For me, the reading experience was most akin to The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen in that both are about a literal journey in an extreme environment, yet what […]


  10. […] often hard to get a sense of scale. I think I expected more philosophical reflection in the vein of The Snow Leopard, and, while Nicholson does express anxiety over what happens if one day the summer snows are no […]


  11. […] is a beloved fantasy writer in the UK. Though I didn’t care for The Owl Service when I read it in 2019, given that this is just over 150 pages, there would be no harm in taking a […]


  12. […] Alongside Moby-Duck on my “uncategorizable” Goodreads shelf is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978), one of my Books of Summer from 2019. A nature/travel classic that […]


  13. […] Time) – I found little in the way of concrete detail to latch onto, and like with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, I felt out of my depth with the allusions to local legend. Good vs. evil battles are a mainstay of […]


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