20 Books of Summer, 1–3: Hargrave, Powles & Stewart
Plants mirror minds,
Healing, harming powers
Growing green thoughts.
(First stanza of “Plants Mirror Minds” from The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws)
Here are my first three selections for my flora-themed summer reading. I hope to get through more of my own books, as opposed to library books and review copies, as the months go on. Today I have one of each from fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with the settings ranging from 16th-century Alsace to late-20th-century Spain.
The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022)
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is one of my favourite new voices in historical fiction (she had written fiction for children and young adults before 2020’s The Mercies). Both novels hit the absolute sweet spot between the literary and women’s fiction camps, choosing a lesser-known time period and incident and filling in the background with sumptuous detail and language. Both also consider situations in which women, queer people and other cultural minorities were oppressed, and imagine characters pushing against those boundaries in affirming but authentic-feeling ways.
The setting is Strasbourg in the sweltering summer of 1518, when a dancing plague (choreomania) hit and hundreds of women engaged in frenzied public dancing, often until their feet bled or even, allegedly, until 15 per day dropped dead. Lisbet observes this all at close hand through her sister-in-law and best friend, who get caught up in the dancing. In the final trimester of pregnancy at last after the loss of many pregnancies and babies, Lisbet tends to the family beekeeping enterprise while her husband is away, but gets distracted when two musicians (brought in to accompany the dancers; an early strategy before the council cracked down), one a Turk, lodge with her and her mother-in-law. The dance tree, where she commemorates her lost children, is her refuge away from the chaos enveloping the city. She’s a naive point-of-view character who quickly has her eyes opened about different ways of living. “It takes courage, to love beyond what others deem the right boundaries.”
This is likely to attract readers of Hamnet; I was also reminded of The Sleeping Beauties, in that the author’s note discusses the possibility that the dancing plagues were an example of a mass hysteria that arose in response to religious restrictions. (Public library)
Magnolia by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)
(Powles also kicked off my 2020 food-themed summer reading.) This came out from Nine Arches Press and a small New Zealand press two years ago but is being published in the USA by Tin House in August. I’ve reviewed it for Shelf Awareness in advance of that release. Those who are new to Powles’s work should enjoy her trademark blend of themes in this poetry collection. She’s mixed race and writes about crossing cultural and language boundaries – especially trying to express herself in Chinese and Hakka. Often, food is her way of embodying split loyalties and love for her heritage. I noted the alliteration in “Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly opening under swirls of soy sauce.” Magnolia is the literal translation of “Mulan,” and that Disney movie and a few other films play a major role here, as do writers Eileen Chang and Robin Hyde. My issue with the book is that it doesn’t feel sufficiently different from her essay collections that I’ve read – the other is Small Bodies of Water – especially given that many of the poems are in prose paragraphs. [Update: I dug out my copy of Small Bodies of Water from a box and found that, indeed, one piece had felt awfully familiar for a reason: that book contains a revised version of “Falling City” (about Eileen Chang’s Shanghai apartment), which first appeared here.] (Read via Edelweiss)
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart (2002)
It’s at least 10 years ago, probably nearer 15, that I read Driving over Lemons, the first in Stewart’s eventual trilogy about buying a remote farm in Andalusia. His books are in the Peter Mayle vein, low-key and humorous: an Englishman finds the good life abroad and tells amusing anecdotes about the locals and his own mishaps.
This sequel stood out for me a little more than the previous book, if only because I mostly read it in Spain. It’s in discrete essays, some of which look back on his earlier life. He was a founding member of Genesis and very briefly the band’s drummer; and to make some cash for the farm he used to rent himself out as a sheep shearer, including during winters in Sweden.
To start with, they were really very isolated, such that getting a telephone line put in revolutionized their lives. By this time, his first book had become something of a literary sensation, so he reflects on its composition and early reception, remembering when the Mail sent a clueless reporter out to find him. Spanish bureaucracy becomes a key element, especially when it looks like their land might be flooded by the building of a dam. Despite that vague sense of dread, this was good fun. (Public library)
Five Books about Cats
I always used to be more of a dog person than a cat person, even though we had both while I was growing up, but now I’m a dedicated cat owner and have tried out some related reading. You’ll notice I don’t rate any of these five books about cats particularly highly, whereas there have been a number of dog books I’ve given 4 stars (Dog Years by Mark Doty, Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby, A Dog’s Life by Peter Mayle; even books that aren’t necessarily about dogs but reference life with them, like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck). What’s with that? Maybe dog lovers don’t have to worry so much about striking a balance between a pet’s standoffishness and affection. Maybe dogs play a larger role in everyday human life and leave a more gaping hole when they shuffle off the canine coil. Still, I enjoyed aspects of or specific passages from each of the following.
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
As a cat-loving freelance writer who aspires to read more literature in translation, I thought from the blurb that this book could not be more perfect for me. I bought it in a charity shop one afternoon and started reading right away. It’s only 140 pages, so I finished within 24 hours, but felt at a distance from the story the whole time. Part of it might be the translation – the translator’s notes at the end explain some useful context about the late 1980s setting, but also conflate the narrator and the author in such a way that the book seems like an artless memoir rather than a novella. But the more basic problem for me is that there’s simply not enough about the cat. There’s plenty of architectural detail about the guesthouse the narrator and his wife rent on the grounds of a mansion, plenty of economic detail about the housing market…but the cat just doesn’t make enough of an impression. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why this has been such a bestseller. Quite the disappointment.
The Fur Person by May Sarton
I’m a huge fan of May Sarton’s journals – in which various cats play supporting roles – so for a while I’d been hoping to come across a copy of this little novelty book from 1957, a childish fable about a tomcat who transforms from a malnourished Cat-About-Town to a spoiled Gentleman Cat. Luckily I managed to find a copy of this one plus the Lessing (see below) in the Nature section at Book Thing of Baltimore. In a preface to the 1978 edition Sarton reveals that Tom Jones was, indeed, a real cat, a stray she and her partner Judy Matlack adopted when they lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wonderful coincidence: when they were on sabbatical in the early 1950s, they sublet the place to the Nabokovs, who looked after Tom while they were away!
I found this a bit lightweight overall, and the whole idea of a ‘fur person’ is a little strange – don’t we love cats precisely because they’re not people? Still, I enjoyed the proud cat’s Ten Commandments (e.g. “II. A Gentleman Cat allows no constraint of his person … III. A Gentleman Cat does not mew except in extremity”) and spotted my own domestic situation in this description: “while she [‘Gentle Voice’ = Judy] was away the other housekeeper [= Sarton] was sometimes quite absent-minded and even forgot his lunch once or twice because she sat for hours and hours in front of a typewriter, tapping out messages with her fingers.” The black-and-white illustrations by David Canright are a highlight.
Particularly Cats…And Rufus by Doris Lessing
A book about cats that I would almost hesitate to recommend to cat lovers: it contains many a scene of kitty carnage, as well as some unenlightened resistance to spaying and neutering. Lessing grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe that was at one point overrun with about 40 cats. Her mother went away, expecting her father to have ‘taken care of them’ by the time she got back. He tried chloroform to start with, but it was too slow and ineffective; in the end he rounded them all up in a room and got out his WWI revolver. And that’s not the end of it; even into her adulthood in England Lessing balked at taking female cats in for surgery so would find occasionally herself saddled with unwanted litters of kittens that they decided had to be drowned. It’s really a remarkably unsentimental record of her dealings with cats.
That’s not to say there weren’t some cats she willingly and lovingly kept as pets, particularly a pair of rival females known simply as “black cat” and “grey cat,” and later a stray named Rufus who adopted her. But even with cherished felines she comes across as tough: “Anyway, she had to be killed and I decided that to keep cats in London was a mistake” or “I smacked grey cat” for bullying the black one. The very fact of not giving the pair names certainly quashes any notion of her as some cuddly cat lady. All the same, she was a dutiful nurse when black cat and Rufus fell ill. The book ends on a repentant note: “Knowing cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”
My favorite thing about the book is the watercolor illustrations by James McMullan.
The Unadulterated Cat: A Campaign for Real Cats by Terry Pratchett
Like Douglas Adams or Monty Python, Terry Pratchett is, alas, a representative of the kind of British humor I just don’t get. But I rather enjoyed this small novelty book (bought for my husband for Christmas) all the same. For Pratchett, a “Real” cat is a non-pampered, tough-as-nails outdoor creature that hunts and generally does its own thing but also knows how to wrap its human servants around its paws. I like his idea of “cat chess” as a neighborhood-wide feline game of strategy, moving between carefully selected vantage points to keep an eye on the whole road yet avoid confrontation with other cats. It’s certainly true on our street. And this is quite a good summary of what cats do and why we put up with them:
What other animal gets fed, not because it’s useful, or guards the house, or sings, but because when it does get fed it looks pleased? And purrs. The purr is very important. It’s the purr that makes up for the Things Under the Bed, the occasional pungency, the 4 a.m. yowl.
On Cats by Charles Bukowski
“In my next life I want to be a cat. To sleep 20 hours a day and wait to be fed. To sit around licking my ass.” I’d never read anything else by Bukowski, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from this book, which is mostly composed of previously unpublished poems and short prose pieces about the author’s multiple cats. The tone is an odd mixture of gruff and sentimental. Make no mistake: his cats were all Real cats, in line with the Pratchett model. A white Manx cat, for instance, had been shot, run over, and had his tail cut off. Another was named Butch Van Gogh Artaud Bukowski. You wouldn’t mess with a cat with a macho name like that, would you? My favorite passage is from “War Surplus,” about an exchange he and his wife had with a store clerk:
“what will the cats do if there is an explosion?”
“lady, cats are different than we are, they are of a lower order.”
“I think cats are better than we are,” I said.
the clerk looked at me. “we don’t have gas masks for cats.”