Digging to America – Anne Tyler

I’m so glad I’ve read Digging to America. I’d been resisting reading it because when I first heard about I just didn’t like the sound of it; I think what put me off were the names of some of the characters, particularly Bitsy who came over to me as a know-it-all bossy woman. It just shows you shouldn’ make snap judgements like that.

This book had me captivated right from the start, with the description of two contrasting families waiting at Baltimore Airport for the arrival of two Korean babies they have adopted. The story develops as the two girls, Jo-Hin and Susan (originally Sooki) are integrated into their families – one American, the Donaldsons, outgoing and confident and the other the Yazdans, American/Iranian, reserved and restrained. Each year they have a party on ‘Arrival Day’- and it is through these parties as well as in their everyday lives that the contrast between the two families is revealed and how they are gradually brought to a greater understanding and appreciation.

There are a number of themes running through the book as well as the cultural differences between the families – what it means to be American, being one. But it’s not just specific to America. There are universal issues such as not being able to have a child; being an outsider or a foreigner, or being different; illness and death; growing old; family relationships between the generations, in-laws and the extended family; traditions, pride and independence; and in particular friendship. Even though it was a quick read, there is so much in this brilliant book, giving insight into human nature that I think it will stay with me for a long time. I shall certainly be looking for more books by Anne Tyler.

By the way, Baltimore is also, coincidentally, the setting for The Poe Shadow, which I had to stop reading once I started to read Digging to America.

May – Books of the Month Part 2

Time to continue my thoughts on the books I finished reading in May. But first I thought I’d write about today’s Alphapuzzle. This is rated 5 (which is out of 10, so an easy one) and the target time for completing it is 18 minutes. The clue is ‘Sane wanderer’, which I didn’t get – so no extra letters to help with the puzzle, but I was really pleased (I’m easily pleased!) that I finished it in 20 minutes, still with no idea about the answer to the clue. It was only when I read all the words that I realised – it was so easy really. Can you guess?

To get back to my other obsession – books – still to write about are The Woodlanders and Body Surfing. In what follows I do indicate what happens at the end of The Woodlanders, so if you don’t want to know, be wary.

The Woodlanders

I started reading The Woodlanders (a library book) a few weeks ago and at first I only read it in small chunks and it was only when I was well into it that I read it at more length. It certainly grew on me; so much so that I’ve now bought my own copy. The library book is a Penguin Classic publication (1981) with an introduction by Ian Gregor, a professor in English Literature. I’ve found before that it’s not a good idea to read an introduction before reading a book, as it often gives the plot away, which spoils it for me. So I don’t read it until I’ve finished the book itself. I think this intro is really good, I suppose because I agree with his analysis. My copy is an Oxford World’s Classic (2005 edition) with an introduction by Penny Boumelha, from the University of Adelaide, who has written widely on nineteenth century fiction. I look forward to reading her introduction to see how it compares.

What I particularly like about The Woodlanders is the way Hardy describes the landscape (the whole book is full of trees!) of Little Hintock in his fictional county of Wessex and integrates them with the characters. An example is his description of Giles Winterbourne as:

He looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him that atmospheres of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.

There are so many beautiful descriptions of the woods I could quote them all day. Here are some extracts:

… trees, in jackets of lichen and stockings of moss … At their roots were stemless yellow fungi like lemons and apricots … Next were more trees close together struggling for existence, their branches disfigured with wounds resulting from their mutual rubbings and blows … Beneath them were the rotting stumps of those of the group that had been vanquished long ago, rising from their mossy setting like black teeth from green gums.

And:

It was an exceptionally soft, balmy evening for the time of year, which was just that transient period in the May month when beech trees have suddenly unfolded large limp young leaves of the softness of butterflies’ wings. Boughs bearing such leaves hung low around and completely inclosed them, so that it was if they were in a great green vase, which had moss for its bottom and leaf sides. Here they sat down.

At the heart of the book is the story of Grace, who has been educated out of her social class, returning to the woodlands and the interaction between her, her family and the two male characters, Giles, the woodman and Fitzpiers, the doctor, from an aristocratic background. Also interesting, are the details of the matrimonial law of the time and the portrayal of Victorian conventions of emotional and sexual relationships, so different from today. As Ian Gregor writes, ‘Grace’s concern for her reputation as a married woman, Giles’s self-effacing loyalty, literally to the point of death, strains credulity to the point of irritation.’ I didn’t find it irritating but I did find myself thinking during the section where Grace and Giles keep apart that this was not realistic – but maybe it was.

Body Surfing

In complete contrast I was also reading Anita Shreve’s Body Surfing. I like Shreve’s books, but I didn’t think this was one of her best books. Interspersed with my reading of The Woodlanders, it provided a good illustration of how society has changed, both in attitudes to women and to social conventions. Sydney is a 29-year-old woman, who has been once widowed and once divorced. She spends a summer tutoring Julie, a teenage girl, in an ocean front cottage in New Hampshire. This location is the same setting as other Shreve novels – I feel now as though I know this house and its previous owners.

This is a book full of emotion as Julie’s brothers compete for Sydney’s affections and the tangle that follows, eventually unravels. Part of the reason I found this less satisfying than other books by Shreve is that it is written in the present tense, which I assume is supposed to make it more immediate and stream-of-consciousness stuff, as though you’re inside Julie’s thoughts maybe, but it just doesn’t work for me. Still, I do like the descriptions of the landscape in this book, so different from the Hardy landscape, for example:

On the porch, red geraniums are artfully arranged against the lime-green of the dune grass, the blue of the water. Not quite primary colours, hues only seen in nature.

Knife blades of grass pierce the wooden slats of the boardwalk. Sweet pea overtakes the thatch. Unwanted fists of thistle push upward from the sand. On the small deck at the end of the boardwalk are two white Adirondack chairs, difficult to get out of, and a faded umbrella lying behind them.

And finally, this is a book that kept my interest to the end and like The Woodlanders is a book that I’ll re-read one day.

May – Books of the Month

I’ve slowed down in my reading this month, partly because I’ve been blogging more, but also because some of the books have been long and detailed. So, I’ve read 6 books. The first one to be finished was The Giant’s House, which I’ve already written about. I read two non-fiction books – a biography Daphne by Margaret Forster and Alistair McGrath’s The Dawkin’s Delusion? which is a critique of Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion.

Daphne is an extremely well researched and informative account of Daphne Du Maurier’s life, taken from her letters and private papers, with personal memories of her from her children, grandchildren and friends. I didn’t realise until I started this that this year is the 100th anniversary of Daphne Du Maurier’s birth and my reading was enhanced by several broadcasts on the radio and television of dramatisations of her books, plus the excellent programme made by Rick Stein “In Du Maurier Country”, filming the locations of her books and interviews with her family. I’m also enthusiastic about Rick Stein’s books and programmes, (cookery for those who don’t know) – but I digress.

There is too much I could say about Daphne, not least that it is a candid account of her relationships, eg her troubled married life; wartime love affair; and friendships with Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday, as well as an excellent source of information on Du Maurier’s method of writing and views on life. She doesn’t sound an easy person to live with or be related to, but that doesn’t detract from her passion for writing and Cornwall. Of course there is Menabilly and the biography gives so much detail of her love for the house and how she renovated and restored it that made me realise all the more how poignant it was when she had to give it up. What makes this book unforgettable for me is Forster’s eloquent way of writing, including so much detail, but never being boring or stilted, leaving me wanting to read on and on. And the book is illustrated with lots of photos.

In complete contrast to this is The Dawkin’s Delusion, which I borrowed from the library. I read Dawkin’s book earlier this year and didn’t have it to hand when I read this one (I’ve lent it to my son), so I had to rely on my memory of The God Delusion. I was interested to read what an Evangelical Christian had made of Dawkin’s book and wasn’t surprised – he didn’t agree with Dawkins! For an excellent review of Dawkin’s book have a look at Bill Hanage’s article “Them’s fightin’ words”on LabLit’s blog . I think I got more out of this article than from McGrath’s book.

Turning to the fiction, I read Blessings, by Anna Quindlen, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Body Surfing by Anita Shreve and finally Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders.

 Anna Quindlen is a new author to me. I came across her whilst reading Danielle’s blog. Blessings is a satisfying read about a baby abandoned outside “Blessings”, a large house owned by Lydia Blessing. The baby is taken in by Skip, the caretaker cum handyman-gardener, who looks after her at first in secret. The past of all the characters is slowly revealed and the effect that the baby has on them all. It’s a sad book over all, with regrets for what has happened in the past. I shall look out for more books by her.

As for The Thirteenth Tale, I have resisted buying this book, after reading either how fantastic people have found it, or how disappointing it is. The copy I read is a BookCrossing book I found in our local coffee shop. It took me some time to get into this book and I found myself being both reluctant to read it and yet unable to stop. It was only with the appearance of the governess that I found myself actually enjoying the book – and that is the second section. I usually give up on a book before then. Part of the problem I have with this book is that I couldn’t really like the characters, even Margaret, the narrator irritated me somewhat, even though she loves books. Another problem is the ending, which I found to be contrived. All in all, it is not a book I’ll read again and I’m going to release it back to its travels.

Which brings me to The Woodlanders. I borrowed this book from the library to read before continuing with Tomalin’s The Time-Torn Man. I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought a copy for myself. I’ll post my thoughts in another post. This one has gone on long enough and the sun is shining!