Tag Archives: books

The Tortoise and the Hare

cover illustration by Florence Broadhurst, image via Goodreads

cover illustration by Florence Broadhurst, image via Goodreads

I’d just been through a spell of reading a bunch of books in a row that were all the same, with a few exceptions here and there, but finding myself without anything to say. I wanted to read something that was different from what I had been reading, something that would challenge me, other than Middlemarch (progress since last Middlemarch mention being more or less exactly equal to zero). So I turned to a book that I’ve had for a while which I was a little afraid to read, because when I first picked it up and read the first chapter, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that the book was going to be sad, and set it aside.

I wasn’t wrong. Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the saddest beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Set in the early 1950s, The Tortoise and the Hare is the story of an unhappy marriage – the story of its slow but (to my mind) certain disintegration.

Evelyn Gresham is a successful barrister working in London, who at each weekend comes out to the country to his young, beautiful wife, Imogen, and their son. Imogen is some years younger than Evelyn, and her whole married life has been consumed with ensuring her husband’s happiness – or if not his happiness, at least the absence of disruption in his limited leisure time.

We soon see that Evelyn seems not to appreciate Imogen, or any of her efforts on his behalf. Their son, also, does not respect Imogen, and Evelyn, who never respected his own mother, instead of standing up for Imogen, rather undermines her with their son.

The Greshams’ nearest neighbor is Blanche Silcox, a sturdy, tweed-wearing, country woman who fishes, and rides, and shoots, and drives a car. Blanche is someone of whom it is said that “the Chinese do not make many ugly carpets, but one of their very few had been unerringly chosen” by her. No one could be more different than Imogen, who is excessively feminine, and beautiful, and whose appreciation of beauty is intense.

As Imogen learns of Evelyn’s spending increasing amounts of time at Blanche’s home and in Blanche’s company, our sense of fear and dread grows with hers. At one point, when Imogen has been questioning the amount of time he spends with Blanche, Evelyn responds with a typical absence of grace:

“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”

One reviewer said on Goodreads, “This is domestic fiction of the early 20th century at its best, but only for the most steely hearted.” I don’t consider myself entirely steely-hearted, and although I essentially read the book over the course of three evenings, sometimes fortified with Skittles, I had to take short breaks and read something else in between those evenings.

Really it is a beautifully-written story. For me, it wasn’t beautiful writing in the sense that single sentences strike you almost with the force of a prose poem, something you’d want to write down and read over and over again, savoring the texture and the sound and the feeling of the words in your mind and maybe even saying them aloud. But the writing was beautiful: beautiful in its economy, its intelligence, and its sharpening to an almost painful clarity the emotions of a scene and the essence of each character.

I finished the book yesterday evening, and I can’t stop thinking about the characters, or the many questions the story left with me that I’m eager to discuss with someone. Questions that might be considered spoilers, if unlike me, you don’t view the ending of this story as a foregone conclusion, questions like:

  • Who was the tortoise and who was the hare? I think a case could be made for Imogen, for Blanche, and even for Cecil. (My apologies for dropping a character-name otherwise unmentioned, but Cecil was my favorite person in this story and I may have to do a whole other separate post about how she could be the tortoise.)
  • Did Evelyn ever really love Imogen? Does he love Blanche? Does he maybe love no one but himself?
  • Knowing of Ms. Jenkins’s dislike of Virginia Woolf (and perhaps all of the Bloomsbury Group), did anyone else read the Leepers and Zenobia as possibly a critique of that set?

But most of all, what I would like to know is, was the ending happy? I can’t help being reminded of something Barbara Pym wrote in one of my favorite novels, about a book that was “well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life.”

If you’ve read the book, I hope you’ll weigh in with some thoughts! For my part, I would like to think the ending was on the happy side of indefinite, that most of all, there was hope for Imogen to achieve the happiness she tried to create for others.


A Radio Play of Neverwhere

This morning, I discovered through a friend’s Facebook feed that BBC Radio 4 is producing a radio play version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I just about jumped out of my seat with excitement: James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sir Christopher Lee?

In point of fact, I tried to come up with something coherent and clever, and bearing at least a partial resemblance to something an adult would say about this, but after listening to the preview, all I can do is giggle excitedly.


Image via BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4’s production of Neverwhere starts airing in the UK on March 16, and I understand it will be available internationally online and as a podcast. I’m super excited — I think it’s going to be great! Who’s with me?

In Which I Venture Into Space

You guys! An asteroid almost hit Earth last week! Separately-but-relatedly, a meteorite did explode and hit Earth last week!

And it all makes the perfect introduction to the book I finished reading a few weeks ago…because, that book was set in space!! Maybe that seems like a reach…bear with me! The characters were frequently reminding the reader that one didn’t even need bombs – all that would be necessary to wage war from space on planetary life was dropping rocks. The meteorite last week brought this powerfully to mind.


Cover image via GoodReads

One of the books I included in my dad’s Christmas booklist was an adventuresome-sounding space tale called Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (pseudonym for a writing team composed of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who is George R. R. Martin’s assistant). It was one of those situations where I read the book description and instantly thought of someone, in this case, my dad.

I was speaking to my mother on the phone last month when I heard my dad laughing in the background. “He’s really enjoying his January book,” my mom says. “He’s been laughing a lot.” My curiosity had been piqued by this story, too, and as part of my ongoing efforts to broaden my reading horizons, I decided to read this book “with” my dad.

Although I’m a huge fantasy nerd, I’ve never really been a huge reader of science fiction. I watch science fiction movies happily, but when it comes to going to other worlds entirely inside my own head through a book, I’ve gravitated away from the spaceships and lasers of science fiction and toward the magic wardrobes and wands of fantasy. (I realize that my describing science fiction in terms of spaceships and lasers will be offensive to some readers of science fiction, and I apologize. I agree, it’s a gross generalization.)

Leviathan Wakes is set in the indeterminate future: the human race has colonized Mars and many moons and the Asteroid Belt, but hasn’t ventured any further. Tensions abound between Earth and Mars (the inner planets) and between Earth, Mars, and the “Belters”, represented by the Outer Planets Alliance (or the OPA). Told in the alternating viewpoints of James Holden, the XO of an ice mining ship, and a detective named Miller who works on a space station, the action starts pretty much right away, and doesn’t really stop until the story closes.

This is a story about a search for a missing girl, a search for truth and justice, and about an alien particle; but maybe all you really need to know is that it is very similar in a lot of ways to Joss Whedon’s television show Firefly – and I think can safely say that if you enjoyed Firefly, you should definitely check out Leviathan Wakes. There was not a lot of science, but there was action, mild horror (one reviewer cited the Amazon-identified statistically-improbable-phrase “vomit zombies”), character development, and lots of suspense…cf. this conversation with my dad:

For the record, he didn’t tell me anything. He can be so irritating.

It was super-exciting, y’all, and really a lot of fun imagining a life in a time and place so different from my own. Reading outside your comfort zone can be really rewarding. If you haven’t tried it lately, there’s no time like the present!

A Quote I Had to Share

I stumbled across an article on the internet today about a book called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. It was a fascinating article, and it made me want to check out Mr. Bayard’s book at some point. The article used a few quotes that I just had to share:

For we are more than simple shelters for our inner libraries; we are the sum of these accumulated books. Little by little, these books have made us who we are, and they cannot be separated from us without causing us suffering…

The books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit…

Happy reading, everyone.

Me, last summer.

Me, last summer.

The Enchanted April

Image via NYRB Classics

Image via NYRB Classics

There’s nothing like getting to the approximate middle of winter in the Pacific Northwest to make you long for a sight of the sun. And by all accounts, this is a characteristic the Pacific Northwest has in common with London. Nothing sounds better, frankly, than getting away from the gloom for a while and into some warm sunshine.

But in lieu of the Mediterranean vacation currently outside the reach of my budget, and perhaps yours, too, I suggest that you might cast an eye over Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, and be really glad in the end that you did.

It is just such a fortuitous glance that opens Von Arnim’s tale, when Mrs. Wilkins, taking shelter from the “sooty rain” in her club one afternoon in Hampstead, casts her eye over the newspaper and sees an advertisement for a medieval castle, wisteria, and sunshine, available for rent for the month of April. Even if it’s not gray from where you sit currently, that has to sound like a good idea.

Timid Mrs. Wilkins is so taken with this vision of an April spent in a medieval Italian castle among wisteria and sunshine that she approaches a stranger, one Mrs. Arbuthnot, at her club and broaches the idea of splitting the cost, and the castle: the two of them, getting away from their lives in London, from the gloom and the gray, from their husbands and responsibilities, for a beautiful month. Due to the cost of the trip, Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot are joined by a crotchety elderly widow named Mrs. Fisher and the young and very beautiful Lady Caroline Dester.

And so four unhappy women set off to spend a month in something like an earthly paradise, each in her own way looking for something to be found at sunny San Salvatore. A book about four unhappy Englishwomen taking a vacation together may sound unappealing, but let me assure you that it makes for some amount of humor not entirely unlike a Barbara Pym novel.

I don’t suggest this book entirely in lieu of a Mediterranean vacation, because really the book will make you want to see San Salvatore for yourself. This is a book as much about a place as any of the people who go to visit there:

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it.

But mostly this book is about happiness; about how we interact with each other; the things we hang onto, and the things we should let go of. A book about giving, and forgiving. Making it suitable, really, for all times and seasons, not just when I might most need reminding.