Tannie Maria and Nelly Dean: best books of the last year (1 of 4)

I’ve read a ton since the last time I posted here. I should know– I’m packing right now, and I believe my book boxes are at least that heavy. It’s not unusual for me to rave about a book: I generally think most of the books that I read are amazing. If the ending wasn’t wretched, and the dog didn’t die… hey, I liked it enough to finish it, it’s probably still a little bit alive for me, so I’m going to have something good to say. Six months later? I’m all “I think there was a boat in that, right?” and couldn’t pick the lead character out of a lineup.

But these books. These do not present that problem. These are the books that have stuck with me, that I’ll read again. So without further ado:

1. Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery, Sally Andrew

Tannie Maria is a 50-something newspaper columnist in a small town in South Africa. (Tannie is a term of respect for a woman in Afrikaans.) Her column used to be all recipes, but the newspaper owners demanded an advice column, and so now she does both. Or rather, since she doesn’t think she has much to say about love or relationships, she gives people recipes that help with their problems. But sometimes that’s not quite enough….

From the back cover:

Recipe for Murder
1 stocky man who abuses his wife
1 small tender wife
1 medium-sized tough woman in love with the wife
1 double-barrelled shotgun
1 small Karoo town marinated in secrets
3 bottles of Klipdrift brandy
3 little ducks
1 bottle of pomegranate juice
1 handful of chilli peppers
1 mild gardener
1 fire poker
1 red-hot New Yorker
7 Seventh-day Adventists (prepared for The End of the World)
1 hard-boiled investigative journalist
1 soft amateur detective
2 cool policemen
1 lamb
1 handful of red herrings and suspects mixed together
Pinch of greed
Throw all the ingredients into a big pot and simmer slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon for a few years. Add the ducks, chillies and brandy towards the end and turn up the heat!”

This was one of my Christmas books, and I loved the cover so much that I read it first. And then I bought the audiobook and I’ve listened to it three or four more times since then. Maria is smart and lonely and hopeful and I just loved her and her world more than I can say. A bunch of Tannie Maria’s recipes are included in the back– they sound delicious, and once I’m settled into my new kitchen, I’ll let you know! And I highly recommend the audiobook– Sandra Prinsloo’s voice is perfect for the book. Only downside to the audiobook is that you can’t immediately look up the Africaans words in the glossary in the back, but I think the context makes it clear enough. And while the book certainly stands alone, happy days, it’s the first in a series! The second  comes out on July 7, and you can bet it’s on my calendar.

2. Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights, Alison Case

Nelly Dean has been taking care of Wuthering Heights and the Grange since she was a girl. She told Lockwood the story of Wuthering Heights when he asked, but now she’s filling out the story with all of the things she left out the last time. And she left out almost everything.

I read Wuthering Heights for the first time when I was about 12, long before I cared about or even noticed unreliable narrators, or even narration as a thing to be concerned with. It was all about the story, and who did what and who loved who. or whom. whatever. Long before I cared about that, too. It was one of a few books that basically made my teenage years: Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Phantom of the Opera… overblown romance, a little hidden passion, and I’m there. Always a bit more Marianne than Elinor. Loved that one, too, but basically because the older sister is the smartest. Obviously.

But I’ve been thinking a bit more about narration lately, (taught Nella Larson’s Passing, and so introduced my class to the wonderful cacophony of an unreliable narrator; I rewrote a paper that had been giving me fits to focus on the narrator) and when I did my annual re-read of Wuthering Heights (usually in February), I was very aware of Nelly Dean’s pauses and gaps and linguistic stumbles. And then I was given Nelly Dean for Valentine’s Day, and was completely swept away. I did some research after– apparently I’m an idiot and people have been talking about the unreliable narration of Wuthering Heights for ages… oh well.

(In a completely random full-circle moment, one of the books that I used to frame my thinking about the narration in that paper I rewrote was Alison Case’s Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the 18th and 19th-Century British Novel. And I only knew her name sounded familiar until I finished the book and was gobsmacked by how good it was and looked her up, and lo and behold, she’s in my library “borrow list.” And the worlds collide.)

Queer Time: Alberto Manguel’s “The Library at Night”

 The starting point is a question.

Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose. And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are doomed to failure.

Why then do we do it?

For the past several years, Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night has been my bedtime book. I don’t read it every night, I’m often either too busy or deep in a book that I can’t possibly put down. Months pass in which I don’t  pick it up, but it’s always within arm’s reach for the odd wakeful moment.

I’ve never been much of a sleeper. I’m basically still a toddler when it comes to bedtime–I know I have to go, but I’m going to resist it as long as possible. There are chapters to read. There are sequels to start. Hell, there are websites to browse. Something is always going on in the world, and if I’m sleeping, I’m going to miss it. Also, in a weird way, being exhausted is kind of proof that you’re working hard enough, that you’re doing enough with your life, that you’re sucking the pith and marrow. Millay’s candle, burning at both ends. Let me be clear, this isn’t about insomnia. I imagine insomnia as a sense of powerlessness–you can’t make your body do what it needs to do. Staying up all night is more about a sense of power. It’s a choice, my choice, a privileging of the private over the public, of queer time over straight time, of immediate gratification over tomorrow’s practicalities.

I’ve gotten afield of my starting point, which, as Manguel points out, is a question. His book tackles subjects as diverse as why we categorize our books the way we do, why we store them the way we do, and what those decisions entail; great libraries in the past and what they contained and how they were housed; libraries with organizing principles and magpie libraries; and the difference that the time of day makes to his conception of his own library.

Manguel talks about his library during the day and at night: during the day, his library is ordered and methodical, each in its category, each in its space. At night, though, in the dim light and quiet, he says that his library comes alive in a different way, as story calls to story and idea to idea, across genre and shelf and period.  The established categories disappear with the day and new groupings–and so new ideas–are possible.

Love it.

An unaccustomed joy

Levin had been married for three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected. At every step he found disenchantment with his old dream and a new, unexpected enchantment. He was happy, but, having entered upon family life, he saw at every step that it was not what he had imagined. At every step he felt like a man who, after having admired a little boat going smoothly and happily on a lake, then got into this boat. He was that it was not enough to sit straight without rocking he also had to keep in mind, not forgetting for a minute, where he was going, that there was water underneath, that he had to row and his unaccustomed hands hurt, that it was easy only to look at, but doing it, while very joyful, was also very difficult.

Plot Junkie: Entwined, Lighthousekeeping, and American Gods

Today’s the day that the boyfriend, who’s been in town this week on fall break, goes back to school. So, since I’m focusing much too hard on acting like an adult (you know, not wailing in the middle of the floor or anything too terribly revolting) to get anything accomplished at the moment, here’s a bit of what I’ve been reading lately:

88. Entwined, Heather Dixon. Total fluff, but holy mother, very excellent fluff. (And it just might be found in the YA section. Don’t judge me. I’m studying for the GRE and writing lots of very intelligent and insightful papers. And if I weren’t, I’d have another excuse. Except I don’t need one because I’m an adult and can read what I want, dammit. Back off.) (Also: this cover is a little deceiving. Deceiving along the lines of that god-awful red satin Rebecca cover, or some of the recent “teen edition” Dickens and Austen novels. This one is especially, um, special. I don’t even know which character in the book this is supposed to be—perhaps Tiny Tim?)

AnywayEntwined is a straight-up fairy tale, reminiscent of Robin McKinley’s Beauty or M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess, both of which are absolutely fabulous (and also to be found in the YA section). I got it solely because of this review by the absolutely hilarious Raych at Books I Done Read, whose blog has quickly become one of my favorites.

So. Princess Azalea is the eldest of twelve sisters; she swore to her mother (on her deathbed, natch) that she would take care of her sisters. And this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill deathbed promise: Azalea swore on silver, an old family magic that compels the following-through bit. And follow through she does, in spite of all the other drama… 

Like a dead queen who has to be rescued (and whose fate will turn you off hand sewing forever. You know, if you are part of the 1% of the population that sews), the king kinda sucks at being a father (mmhmm… surprised, are we?), the dancing princesses are mucho in hock to the master of ceremonies—who might just be a little more sinister than previously known , and the dashing prime minister keeps mistaking Azalea for her sister. And the silver sugar tongs just keep attacking. Gotta hate that.

It’s a fluffy read. But it’s good fluff.

89. Lighthousekeeping, Jeanette Winterson. Definitely not fluff. I always enjoy Winterson’s novels, primarily for the imagery and the beautiful word choices and rhythms (she writes like a poet), but I always forget how easy it is to lose the direction of the plot amongst all the wordplay. She doesn’t tell stories in a straightforward manner—she approaches events sideways and through dreams that just might have been real and memories that happen before the events they supposedly mirror and everything gets complicated and dense and so very richly textured that you finish knowing you loved it, but completely unable to tell the story to someone else.

Due to my complete inability to adequately introduce the plot, I offer the first few lines:

My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

I have no father. There’s nothing unusual about that – even children who do have fathers are often surprised to see them. My own father came out of the sea and went back that way. He was crew on a fishing boat that harboured with us one night when the waves were crashing like dark glass.
His splintered hull shored him for long enough to drop anchor inside my mother.

Shoals of babies vied for life.

I won.

I so love the way she writes. The story follows Silver after her mother dies to the lighthouse, where the ancient lighthouse-keeper needs a successor to his craft. Every night he tells stories that never quite conclude and always fit together in the most unexpected ways. The past and the present, and the young girl and the old man, are transformed by the stories and the act of telling them. (The power of telling a story in a certain way seems to be a theme of Winterson’s: it’s prevalent in The Passion  and Sexing the Cherry too. And random point of connection—she tells a version of the fairytale of the 12 dancing princesses in Sexing the Cherry… though hers is perhaps a bit more grim.)

90. American Gods, Neil Gaiman. This is one of those books that got a lot of hype, won a zillion awards, and deserved absolutely all of it. A-freaking-mazing. If you haven’t read it, order it immediately. Go. I’ll wait.

The gods all exist. And not just one version of them—when immigrants came to America, they brought versions of their gods with them, who are distinct from the original versions. And in America, well, belief in the gods is on a downward swing—at least, belief in the traditional gods. Belief in the gods of technology and war and drugs and television is keeping those gods quite healthy. It’s just the older gods that are being forgotten. And when a god is forgotten, it ceases to exist.

Shadow, an ex-convict with a dead wife who keeps visiting, gets pulled into the war between the old gods and the new gods. He’s supposed to just be acting as the bodyguard of the oddly powerful Mr. Wednesday… but somehow he has a bit more to do with everything that is going on than anyone has explained.  

And that’s what I’ve been reading lately—anybody else have something fabulous on their shelf? Do tell!