March 2, 2011 § 3 Comments
It seems the North American teenager is a truly resilient creature. Even when taken out of their natural environment and dropped into an exotic locale they maintain their normal behavior patterns – angry moping. The quick summary of Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War goes like this – Girl meets Boy. Girl falls for Boy. Girl and Boy go looking for a Revolution. Girl and Boy hang out, bored.
Or, as Unferth much more eloquently puts it…
My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area – there were several – but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.
Lucky for us, it’s not. Much more than another coming of age story, Revolution is a Dummy’s Guide to Central American politics in the 80’s. The world is upside down, and while Unferth travels to El Salvador with the best intentions of helping out the revolution (o.k., not exactly), in truth she’s really nothing more than a tourist. One among many. People come from all over the world to support revolutions (who knew?). It’s common enough that the Nicaraguan locals had a name for them. Internationalistas: Westerners who come and go in waves, following revolutions like the Grateful Dead, with no real personal stake in their outcomes. Around them uprisings become inappropriately festive.
A group of jugglers had come from Canada. They’d gone to the northern mountains of Nicaragua, to the war zone. “We walk from town to town,” one told me, “juggling.”
Imagine. We were walking across their war, juggling. We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet. We weren’t a revolution. We were an armed circus.
Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love & Went to Join the War is told with a large font in a slim book. The chapters are anecdotal, clustered around a common theme and organized in loose chronological order. You are reading a series of impressions written down years after the actual events took place. Unferth readily admits that her memory for details is shaky and her insights recent. She second guesses herself frequently. But while dates and times may be estimates, there is no arguing with the raw emotional honesty or the self-deprecating humor. No one could be harder on Unferth then she is on herself, though I couldn’t help but feel that some things were being deliberately glossed over – particularly her history with her family.
This isn’t a comfortable book. But being a teenager isn’t comfortable. Frequently I found myself squirming self-consciously for a clueless girl I completely identified with. I think most readers will. All of us have been young, delusional and in love at one time or another… usually with a much less interesting story when it’s all over.
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 8050 9323 0
February 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
I’m embarrassed to say that I picked up my copy of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s memoir at last years Book Expo, and waited until now to read it. It seems to have become something of a sleeper hit. First, I heard Michael Kindness review it on the podcast Books On the Nightstand. Then there was a write-up in the NYRB. And then I saw it featured at the local Barnes & Noble. Memoirs are not my usual choice in reading material. But this isn’t the typical memoir. What is unusual about The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is Bailey’s decision to turn the focus away from herself and the illness that kept her bedridden. Instead she focuses on the moment-to-moment existence of a small, wild snail brought to her in a pot of violets by a friend.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is how I imagine the journals of a 19th century amateur Naturalist would read. Bailey has no scientific training, at least none she thinks worth mentioning. She first takes note of her snail when she finds small, square holes in the corner of a letter on her bedside table. Realizing that the snail has been eating the paper at night she experiments with feeding it flower petals. Through trial and error Bailey learns how to care for her new companion. The snail moves from a flower pot to a full terrarium, graduates from being fed decayed petals to Portobello mushroom slices – and Bailey’s observations begin in earnest (the serious research would begin years later). Eating habits, slime, reproduction, predators – there is much more to a snail’s life than you have ever cared to imagine. Even snail sex is unexpectedly intriguing.
During the summer months, if conditions become too dry, windy, or hot, or if food supplies are limited, a snail will go into a kind of dormancy called estivation. It climbs up a plant, tree, or wall to be away from the earth’s heat and beyond reach of predators or floodwaters. Finding a safe place, it attaches itself firmly with mucus, usually with the shell opening facing upward, which may alert it to weather changes. Then it seals up its entrance with a temporary door made of mucus. This storm door, called an epiphragm, protects it from shifts in temperature and humidity. A snail may estivate for weeks or months, or even several years.
… Their [an epiphragm’s] design is specific to a snail’s species and to its local climate conditions. They may be thin and simple or thick and elaborate. Strategically located breathing holes may be incorporated, or they may be permeable to air. There is quite n art to the construction of these little doors, and justly so. Despite their temporary nature, a good door in severe weather makes the difference between life and death for a snail. An epiphragm is also personal, and its statement is definitive: the snail is home but is not accepting visitors.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book is distinguished by a complete absence of background noise. Her prose is built on silence. She transports the reader into her recovery room, – where there is no television, computer or cellphone. Visitors feel like an intrusion on our solitude, interrupting the rhythm of our day-to-day routine. I felt somewhat resentful towards anything that took my attention away from what was happening inside the terrarium.
Completely engrossing, and often soothing, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a monument to restraint. Equally intriguing as what Bailey tells us is what she chooses not to. Her illness is left unidentified until the epilogue, when it could easily have carried the narrative. It is the reason she was bedridden, unable to tolerate bright lights or loud noises, or to sit up for even short periods of time. But that was not the story she decided to tell. Instead she focused on another life which she came to see as a kindred spirit. The result is beautiful and evocative, the rare book written with scientific precision and a touch of poetry.
Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself he chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
– William Cowper, from “The Snail”, 1731
(Wonderful quotes like this one are used as chapter headings throughout the book).
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 56512 606 0
January 30, 2011 § 2 Comments
The book trailer REVOLUTION continues!
I’m still trying to get into this book trailer thing. On the whole – not going so well. But this landed in my Gmail the other day and I found myself intrigued…
The book is Revolution: The Year I Fell In Love & Went To Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth. It’s not every day a girl finds God, a husband and her inner Sandinista. Probably for the best. And yet, it could make for good reading.
What do you think? Is your interest piqued?
June 29, 2010 § 2 Comments
The Guardian Books Podcast likes to torment me with books I can’t have. The June 24th episode has a fantastic interview with Edmund de Waal, a British potter whose memoir follows the journey of a family heirloom – a Japanese Netsuke collection – through history. In the process, he tells the stories of the members of the family who were in possession of the collection. All were fascinating people in their own right.
The Guardian website has a review here.
The good news is: no need to send your money to Amazon UK (conversion rate is currently at $1.50 to 1 British Pound), The Hare with Amber Eyes is being released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. The bad news? It doesn’t come out until the Fall.
O well, I hear patience is a virtue.
June 16, 2010 § 17 Comments
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened up The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers (An Unconventional Memoir) by Josh Kilmer-purcell. My gut reaction was Green Acres in drag, and I suppose I wasn’t that far off. The author was a drag queen in a former life. Life changes though. Josh Kilmer-purcell (who from now on I will refer to affectionately as Josh, despite our having never met) was approaching middle age and ready for the “next stage” when he and his partner stumbled upon the Beekman Property during an apple picking trip upstate. It was love at first sight. The Bucolic Plague tells the story of the purchase of that historic 60 acre property, the couple’s life in Sharon Springs, N.Y. and their attempts to make Beekman a profitable enterprise. What began as weekends spent playing at gentlemen farmers quickly became a complete lifestyle change for the couple – in more ways than one.
Josh’s partner is Dr. Brent – beloved by millions as Martha Stewart’s wellness advisor. Martha, who plays a larger part in this book than probably even she knows, is Josh & Brent’s inspiration and torment. It quickly becomes apparent to them, and everyone reading the book, that running the Beekman as a small farm is the surest route to failure. Small, family-owned farms are failing across the country. It’s become a basic fact of rural life. And so – using Brent’s lifestyle knowledge, Josh’s ad exec experience, the help of friends and neighbors in Sharon Springs, even the assistance of Martha herself – Beekman 1802 was launched. A lifestyle company begun on a line of soaps made from goat milk (provided by goats kept on the farm). It quickly expanded to include an heirloom seed company owned by neighbors (featuring seeds planted in Josh’s garden), a baby line, quality stationary, heirloom linens, artisan goat milk cheese and a haberdashery section featuring a silk scarf which I will be ordering in the near future. Everything is the work of local artisans. The entire enterprise can be viewed, complete with blogs by both Josh and Brent, at the Beekman 1802 website.
It’s a great story, but the characters are what make this book stand out. For example: to say that Dr. Brent drank the Kool-aid over at Living is putting it lightly. He spearheads the project of making Beekman 1802 – the website, blog and now television show – a lifestyle brand every bit as powerful as MS. Brent’s OCD tendencies and laser focussed desire to emulate Martha should be irritating, even creepy, yet somehow it’s not. Mainly because for him it is all about fulfilling Josh’s dream to quit their day jobs and live at Beekman full-time. His desire to make Josh’s dream come true makes the mayhem that follows endearing rather than just manic. He is endearingly manic. And yes, it’s a good thing! (you should have seen that coming). Their relationship comes across as funny and sweet in all the right places.
It’s difficult to convey how funny The Bucolic Plague actually is without including an excerpt. Sadly, this one is much too short.
The rest of our first weekend in our new country home was spent exploring the sixty acres surrounding the Beekman, greeting neighbors who stopped by to tell us their stories of the mansion, and sweeping up dead flies. It was impossible to tell where they were coming from. They just appeared at the windows, carpeting the sills and floor with their slow-motion death throes. We had yet to see a fly that was actually flying. They just kept coming and coming, like a buzzing Night of the Living Dead.
Josh’s over the top personality comes through in every sentence . His view of the world is funny in a sharp and witty way. He sees the ridiculous in the individual. But the people he portrays are all in on the joke. He doesn’t laugh at his friends, he laughs with them. And as funny as the book is, it would be a disservice to classify The Bucolic Plague as another version of “a city slicker moves to the country and hilarity ensues”. This isn’t just a story of two gay men who try their hand at farming. The book starkly, if humorously, depicts the huge amount of work that goes into developing a lifestyle brand, revitalizing a town… and following a dream.
The boys have had some success at that. Beekman 1802 has expanded into a reality television series The Fabulous Beekman Boys which premieres Wednesday, June 16th (that’s tonight folks!) on Planet Green. I’ve had the opportunity to preview the first two episodes, with mixed feelings. In the interest of full disclosure I’m not a fan of reality shows. That said, I was bothered by the disconnect between the book and the show. The characters you meet in The Bucolic Plague are likable, lovable even. By the last page I was ready to pack up and move to Sharon Springs myself. But the charisma these people have in print didn’t always successfully transfer onto the screen for me. What The Fabulous Beekman Boys is missing is Josh-Goggles: his gift of making people sparkle. Even worse, the show seems to be taking the tack of “will their relationship survive!??” pretty early on – which seems like a weak place to start a series.
The reoccurring theme in The Bucolic Plague is Josh’s desire to get down in the dirt at Beekman Place vs. Brent’s need put it up on the Martha pedestal. I would have enjoyed a show that met someplace in the middle. After two episodes I’m not sure that The Fabulous Beekman Boys is it. Eventually, though, it might be.
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers, New York (2010).
ISBN: 978 0 06 133698 0