I have just finished reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love). I have spoken with a few people who finished reading The Signature of All Things, and I find it interesting that there appears to be a wide range of opinions about the book. One reviewer said she loved it and found it endlessly fascinating, while another reader said it was boring and not worth finishing. I think the reason for the disparity of opinion about this book is that in some ways it is a book with a split personality!
On the one hand , The Signature of All Things is a story about love in all its forms, love between men and women, love between children and their parents, love among siblings, and love for dearly held principals or passions. The book’s protagonist Alma Whittaker participates with varying degrees of success in all these love relationships. Her intense search for love drives the story and generates our alternating feelings of compassion or impatience for her.
On the other hand, Alma’s primary passion, for science, observation, and classification brings an entirely different slant and depth to the book. Anyone interested in the history of science, or in botany, evolution, natural science, or the accomplishments of women in science would find this aspect of the story equally as compelling as Alma’s emotional struggles, if not more so. I am interested in all the subjects I just mentioned, so I loved reading about Alma’s painstaking, scientific observations and theories which eventually led her to a revolutionary insight. However, I can understand that not all readers would be willing to plow though pages of Alma’s close, not to say obsessive, observation of mosses, a study she devotes most of her life to and which occupies a major portion of her time, thought, and intelligence.
Yet it is Alma’s lifelong passion for mosses that defines her personality and determines her place in the world. It is her obsessive, perfectionist need to understand the natural world and her ability to extrapolate her findings to include the world of humans that leads to her astounding insights and ultimately prevents her from sharing her theories with the world.
The Signature of All Things is not an easy read; it is long and complex and at times too full of coincidences to be entirely believable. However, it is also quite thought-provoking. The character of Alma is fully developed and entirely believable in her many errors, misunderstandings, passions, and regrets. Throughout her long life ( a period that encompasses 1800 up through the early 1880’s), Alma never fails to be her own worst enemy; but she is also a woman of extraordinary ability, determination, courage, and ultimately, compassion and wisdom.
Library Director’s Notebook
While I am certainly a strong proponent of the belief that the book is always better than the movie , I have many times been pleasantly surprised by watching the movie first, and then following up by reading the book. This would seem counter-intuitive to some—if the book is always better, why not read the book first? Well, for one thing, I often will see a movie and not realize it is based on a book (rather than being an original screenplay) until after I have read the movie credits at the end! For another, all too often we are disappointed when we have loved a book only to find the movie adaptation leaves out our favorite characters, or our favorite scene, or the general flavor of the book. When you start with the movie, however, reading the book afterwards cannot help but be a richer, more complex, ultimately more satisfying experience.
While I’m really not trying to make any converts here; I will just give an example in this month’s column where reading the book after seeing the movie made for a very satisfying experience with both forms of media. Recently I read the book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach. I had thoroughly enjoyed the movie starring some of Britain’s best actors (Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson) nearly a year ago. To me the movie flowed very smoothly, with the proper balance of sweetness and sadness and a definite dash of good humor as well. I was completely satisfied with the movie, with no sense of dissatisfaction that any element was missing or had not been thoroughly explored.
What a surprise then to realize after reading the book that many of the characters had been changed, including their age, motivation, problems, and relationships from the book to the movie. There were many more characters in the book than in the movie (not surprising at all), and the relationships in the book were more complex and at the same time the various characters not always as engaging or likeable as in the movie (again not a surprise). However, because I saw the movie first, I was able to love it as it stands on its own and not consider it a pale shadow of the original book.
For those of you not familiar with the story The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel it is a tale of several retired men and women who for one reason or the other (poor health ,lack of money, or lack of loving family) are finding it untenable to continue living a comfortable life in the England of the 21st century. The in-law of one of them decides to go into business with his dubious, entrepreneurial relative to start a community for just such cash-strapped elders in Banglore, India. With the low cost of living in India and an abundance of supposedly well-trained staff, the English seniors hope to live a life of ease and luxury at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But the best laid plans of mice, pensioners, or over-reaching entrepreneurs often go astray!
Yet despite musty rooms, leaking plumbing, over-worked staff, ubiquitous beggars, and questionable food, the residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel find friendship, personal growth, and even love in unexpected places. As several people remark in the book, no one who visits India for any length of time can remain unchanged. Whether you choose the book, movie, or both, I think you will discover an engrossing and satisfying experience.
Library Director’s Notebook
I’ve written in my notebooks a few times about the Number 1 Ladies Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith. I enjoy that series not just for its unusual setting in modern day Botswana, and its likeable cast of characters, including Precious Ramotswe, the lady detective of the title, but also for the strong values and the humanity that inform the stories.
Those values and that humanity are also at the center of Alexander McCall Smith’s recent book Trains and Lovers. In format, Trains and Lovers is a series of linked conversations, confessions, and inner reflections between four strangers who meet for the first time on a train ride from Edinburgh to London. At first glance the four passengers would not seem to have much in common. Andrew and Hugh are two lively young men. David is a sedate middle aged man, and Kay is a kindly woman in late middle age. Andrew is a Scot, Hugh is English, David is American and Kay is Australian.
Andrew and Kay break the ice by commenting politely on the scenery racing past the train window. Soon Andrew is telling Kay the story of his recent and difficult love and work life, while Hugh and David listen, first politely and then intently. As Andrew’s story unfolds in the unexpected proximity of a railway carriage, each listener comments or reflects silently about his or her own life histories, choosing to share, or not, their successes or failures with love.
The nature of love, the importance of trust, the durability of affection, the unpredictability of fate, the well or ill meaning interference of others are all touched upon, as each of the train passengers recalls their various experiences. The love of parents for their children, of a husband for his wife, of a sister for a brother, or of unacknowledged love between young friends ; in short, love in its many forms is represented with tenderness and insight in the different stories.
Through it all, McCall Smith’s distinctive philosophy radiates in every story, every character, and every outcome. The belief in the power of generosity, kindness, compassion, and honesty and how such values and the actions help shape our fate and our world is what makes this book such a pleasing and resonating experience. A touch of mystery, a dash of humor, a tug at the heart, and the smile that comes whenever lovers overcome obstacles to find the courage to embrace—all these elements come together to make Trains and Lovers a wonderful ride!
Library Director’s Notebook
As someone who has been passionate about reading since she was a little girl, I do quite a bit of reading every day; yet it seems no matter how much I read, I still miss some important books along the way. The pleasure of finally “catching up” with those excellent books is similar to the enjoyment of finding money in your coat pocket that you hadn’t realized was there—in other words, the startled excitement of finding a small treasure!
This feeling of pleasurable discovery is what I experienced from the very first sentences of this 1986 novel An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. The narrator of this slender novel, is Masujo Ono a once famous and honored artist who seems to have lost his position in the world of post-World War II Japan. Little by little, in a series of wandering memories and imperfect recollections, we follow Ono’s early artistic struggles, his courageous decisions, his wartime honors, and his post-war fall from grace. Through all these reminiscences the reader has the sense that Ono has only a very imperfect understanding of the seismic social changes his own country is undergoing. He also does not seem to fully grasp why his own countrymen have turned against him and his fellow artists, who dedicated their careers to propagandist, chauvinist-inspired art. Indeed some of Ono’s colleagues in the arts and in politics have made the supreme decision to kill themselves for their part in stoking the Japanese war machine, as a way of offering appeasement to the survivors of catastrophes like Nagasaki.
Yet Ono is not in any way a militaristic or insensitive man. In nearly every sentence his compassion, his artistic sensitivity, and his love of the natural world shine through. It seems he can do nothing, whether sitting on a bench, or crossing a bridge, or walking in a park that leaves him unmoved in a quiet yet intense appreciation of the moment. His conversations with his daughters, his memories of his son and wife, both killed during the war, his encounters with old colleagues show him to be not bitter but bemused by the changes in his country.
Ono’s surviving daughters are more aware then he of his fall from grace. One daughter gently and the other impatiently tries to make her father understand that Japan has changed and that his place in the new Japan is no longer a place of honor. Barely heeding the words of his daughters, Ono instead lets his mind drift back to his youth and his encounters in “the floating world”, that world of bars, nightclubs, geishas, and merriment that served as a backdrop to his artistic youth and an inspiration for his early work.
By the end of the novel, Ono seems to have come some distance in his understanding of the war, his country’s shame and defeat, and his part in it. Yet, he does not feel guilty about his actions, believing that he at least took an authentic stand in what he believed. Nonetheless, despite his fall from grace, he has the innate generosity to look with a kind of tolerance and appreciation upon the younger generation who no longer venerate him, including his own grandson. The floating world, his dreams, and his achievements, like so much of Japan has drifted past Ono; but the elusive ,delicate memories still linger like a sweet, but faded perfume.
Library Director’s Notebook
Recently there has been a spate of imaginative writing about Queen Elizabeth II. The film The Queen with Helen Mirren as well as the book The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett come to mind, as does the recent telecast of the successful London production of The Audience, also staring Helen Mirren as the Queen. Remarkably, for such a very public and therefore possibly divisive figure, all of these fictional takes on the Queen have been for the most part positive, and at times even affectionate.
The recent novel by William Kuhn entitled Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is no exception to this trend. In this novel Queen Elizabeth, well in her ‘80’s, appears, as do many of her contemporaries , to be suffering from a mild bout of depression, perhaps even the forerunner of mild dementia. She reflects on her life and her role in British society, wondering if she is indeed a useless antiquity and if the whole idea of monarchy is a waste of time and money.
With these thoughts roiling around in her brain, the Queen takes an unprecedented, certainly unplanned step. She takes off from Buckingham Palace disguised in a borrowed “hoodie” to try to make her way to The Britannia, the royal yacht she once loved, that has been decommissioned and turned into a tourist attraction. In her flight she seems to be channeling Audrey Hepburn in the movie Roman Holiday when Audrey, as the frustrated princess, runs away for a night from her royal life to see what “real” people are like.
The Queen is often confused and startled by the life going on around her. Yet she does not falter or fail and instead comes to form several brief but touching friendships with the people she meets, all of whom fail to recognize her. Meanwhile her personal staff at the palace, discovering her disappearance, are in a total frenzy trying to find her. Her trusted dresser, lady-in-waiting, equerry, butler, and even a young girl from her stables try to find the Queen before the rest of the nation knows she is missing. Along the way the Queen reflects on her own life and her own prejudices and lack of knowledge about the problems of others; while those who pursue her come to their own life changing conclusions about forgiveness, duty, and love.
Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is a delightful book and one that brings real pleasure while perhaps raising a few tentative theories about the role of royalty and the importance of compassion and self-acceptance. Although a work of fiction, I imagine even the Queen herself if she read this book would not be displeased.
Library Director’s Notebook
Maeve Binchy, one of modern day Ireland’s most beloved writers died in 2012, leaving behind countless readers and friends to mourn her passing. Her last novel A Week in Winter was published posthumously and will no doubt be read with a certain bitter sweetness by her fans, who have come to rely on a new Binchy to read with pleasurable regularity.
Maeve Binchy was a storyteller who loved people, wanted them to be happy and fulfilled, and tried whenever she could to find a happy ending for her characters. Most of the people in Binchy novels are good people with good intentions who might blunder and sometimes bluster but who are nearly always responsive to kindness and compassion. Binchy knew people could be cruel, vengeful, abusive, manipulative, and destructive, but she gave short shrift to theories of absolute evil, nihilism, or existentialism. Her characters are imperfect but perfectible; when offered a solution or shown the way to live a happier life, most of Binchy’s people go for it.
In A Week In Winter we have the familiar and endearing Binchy elements of a warm, loving description of a small Irish town, peopled with a cast of characters who are eccentric, eager, and wise in their own ways. The novel centers around the early life and misadventures of Chicky who leaves Ireland and her family at a very young age to take off with a good looking American hippie, despite her parents’ warnings. Abandoned by her handsome hippy, Chicky decides to face life alone in America, and more importantly, to build a better, independent life before returning to Ireland. Telling her surviving relatives that her “husband” was killed in a car accident, Chicky builds another life for herself, resurrecting a beautiful but decaying manor house, turning it into a charming, one-of-a -kind Inn for travelers looking for respite from their own demanding and damaging lives.
One by one her visitors arrive, each with his tale to share. There is an American movie star, jaded with his life of empty fame and fortune, a young Swedish accountant wearied by having to follow his imperious father in the family business, a librarian recovering from a disastrous love affair, a prospective daughter-in-law who must try to overcome the jealous machinations of her soon-to-be mother-in-law, and several other guests, each with their secrets, their worries, and their fears.
Little by little, with the combination of tentative but honest exchanges between strangers that quickly blossom into trusting friendships, the good food, the wild beautiful scenery, and the all encompassing compassion of Chicky, their host, each guest learns something of great value to take back with them to their “real” lives. All except one guest, who resists every attempt to find joy in her life or be open to life’s blessings. Well, I guess there’s always one in every crowd!
Reading Maeve Binchy is a dependable delight. There is an absence of malice towards her characters and towards the world that makes her books feel as refreshing as a cool, crisp salad on a hot and humid day. Yes, we need more than salad in our lives, and we need more than Binchy on our reading lists; but it feels great to find a writer who can make you believe, even for just a little while, that nearly all of life’s problems can be solved, with patience, compassion, love … and perhaps a trip to Ireland!
Library Director’s Notebook
The Yard by Alex Grecian is a vivid tale of fiction firmly anchored in fact. Reading The Yard with its detailed descriptions of vermin-infested slums, manure-slicked streets, and riversides roiling with sewage and not infrequently with dead bodies, you wonder how anyone would dare venture out into the London streets at night!
Jack the Ripper known as Saucy Jack was only one boogie man titillating the public imagination and taunting the efforts of the ham strung police newly located in Scotland Yard. Indeed, while the public was terrified of murderers like Jack, they seemed to have nothing but contempt for their overworked, underpaid police force.
Sir Edward Bradford the commissioner of police tries a new crime fighting tactic. He appoints a dozen police officers to a new unit called The Murder Squad. The task of the squad is to focus on murder investigations, of which there is no dearth, while leaving other officers to investigate less heinous crimes.
The first assignment for newly appointed Detective Inspector Walter Day, fresh from his former police work in pastoral Devon is the gruesome discovery of a fellow detective whose mutilated body has been stuffed into a trunk and left at a train station. Could this be the work of Saucy Jack or of some copycat murderer? If even trained police detectives can be trapped and murdered, how can any member of the public be safe?
Meanwhile Constable Neville Hammersmith makes his own gruesome discovery of a five year old chimney “climber”, i.e. chimney swift’s helper, whose small body has been stuffed up the chimney of an elegant doctor’s home. The doctor denies all knowledge of the crime, but his wife seems to be hiding a secret. As if that were not enough, several men with fine, bushy beards are also turning up murdered; and a young boy has been kidnapped from his front yard, one of many such children who disappear from their homes ,never to be found. Are these crimes related, or are they all random acts of violence in a tormented and dangerous city?
Detective Inspector Day is in over his head, so he turns to Dr. Bernard Kingsley, a coroner at University College Hospital for help. Kingsley believes in the untested science of criminology and uses the study of fingerprinting and other delicate forensic clues to try to help the Murder Squad. Yet few detectives in Scotland Yard acknowledge Kingsley’s work , and even Detective Inspector Day is skeptical at first.
The Yard is an engrossing tale that deftly weaves all these disparate acts of violence and detection into a blood-stained pattern that makes a kind of gruesome sense. If appears that a new detective series featuring Day, Kingsley, and Hammersmith has been launched with this book; if so, readers can look forward to more Victorian crime stories that race along with gripping tension, psychological insight, and authentic period detail.
Library Director’s Notebook
The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb is about many things: love, freedom, courage, forgiveness, and food!
First, let’s talk about the food. This book, more than any other I’ve read lately ,is one that you cannot read without getting very, very hungry. The Beauty of Humanity Movement is primarily the story of Hung, a poor man who is rich in compassion, friends, and talent, especially the talent for good, satisfying cooking.
For many years Hung has made a hard-scrabble living selling pho, a kind of broth with noodles with other flavorings that is a staple in Vietnamese cooking. Primarily pho is a peasant food. Like all peasant foods it is simple and satisfying and not easy to make well. Pho’s very simplicity and its centuries-old link to Vietnam makes it a kind of cultural icon, loaded with symbolism and emotion.
In his life of poverty and struggle, Hung had known many artists, writers, and revolutionaries, cooking for them, learning from them, and ultimately preserving their legacies in his own simple ways. In fact his small pho shop had served as a kind of home base for many earnest and creative countrymen who sought artist freedom for what they labeled “the beauty of humanity movement”, a kind of counter balance to the rigid, state-dictated “art” of the communist party.
Hung himself, neither revolutionary nor artist, is a soft spoken man who has made a quiet impact on the lives of countless of his customers, friends, and neighbors. Like many, he has suffered terribly under the communist regime for decades, so when a young woman arrives to buy a cup of his pho, Hung is at first suspicious of her motives. She is a lovely Viet Kieu , i.e. a person born in Viet Nam but who now lives outside of the country. Her name is Maggie, and she is hoping Hung remembers her father, the artist Ly Van Hai who was part of the Beauty of Humanity Movement.
Hung is an old man and his memories are clouded. Still he tries hard to help Maggie, and in helping her, he ultimately finds his own way to redemption and forgiveness .
The language of this slender novel is as fresh and vibrant as the most clear-sighted poetry. Although heartbreaking at times, the story ends on a note of quiet triumph, as lovers reunite, a new romance begins to blossom, and two young men discover how they might make lives that are satisfying and successful, the type of lives their fathers and grandfathers could only dream about.
Library Director’s Notebook
Today we take for granted that the person elected to serve as the President of the United States will be surrounded at all times by highly trained, ever-vigilant professionals , willing to put their bodies on the line to protect the nation’s chief executive. Yet when Abraham Lincoln, newly elected president, made his way by railway across the country in February, 1861, a trip that was supposed to be triumphant, but which from its very beginning was fraught with danger and murderous intentions, he had no cadre of protective professionals assuring his safety every step of the way.
What Lincoln did have was a small group of trusted friends and advisors, several of whom had military training, but most of whom were just good friends, concerned about his safety and well-being, but not fully convinced that Lincoln’s life was in serious danger. One man was an exception, however, although his knowledge of the plot to kill Lincoln came to his attention while he was investigating another matter. That man was Allan Pinkerton.
Yes, that Pinkerton: the one whose name is synonymous with his famous detective agency, one of the earliest agencies in the United States doing undercover detective work in a professional way. Pinkerton’s careful work, his challenges, his mistakes, and his successes are carefully and intriguingly noted in the book The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower. Pinkerton was not alone in uncovering the plot to assassinate Lincoln as he made a stop in the tumultuous pro-slavery city of Baltimore, Maryland. Instead, Pinkerton relied on the level-headed, quick-witted actions of his operatives, including a female operative named Kate Warne, who used her impressive skills to infiltrate many gatherings, where she appeared in the role of a Southern rights sympathizer, to glean vital information about plans for the presidential assassination.
Yet even after weeks of painstaking detection work, work that often put the undercover operatives at great peril, the biggest task lay ahead—convincing Lincoln to change his itinerary and not make a train stop in Baltimore. Although the facts and the detective work proved without doubt that a large group of bitter secessionists (some reports alleged there were thousands in the plot) planned a deadly attack on Lincoln during his public appearance in Baltimore, Lincoln himself was extremely loathe to change his plans.
His reluctance is understandable. His itinerary of public appearances had been published in all the newspapers for weeks. He had used his frequent railway stops to greet his hoards of supporters and to offer conciliatory words to his detractors. To pass ahead of time through Baltimore, to use subterfuge to escape on a different train with no one knowing of his flight, could not help but look cowardly, according to Lincoln.
He was right. Although finally persuaded to change his plans and slip secretly by night through Baltimore into Washington, DC, Lincoln’s actions were harshly condemned as cowardice, not only by opposing Democrats and Southerners, but by pretty much all of his fellow Republicans, including some of his most stalwart supporters. The papers had a field day chiding and de-riding the President-elect. It would take the start of the bloody Civil war to finally draw attention away from Lincoln’s flight from Baltimore.
What if Pinkerton had not been able to persuade Lincoln to change his plans? Most historians, studying the documentation of the time, including Daniel Stashower, believe that assassination and the bitter national pandemonium that would have followed would have been inevitable. It is impossible for us at the distance of more than 150 years to imagine the Civil War period without the visionary leadership of Abraham Lincoln. Assassination would come inevitably, as Lincoln himself was all too well aware; but the efforts of Pinkerton, his operatives and other military and elected leaders and close friends helped to prevent the assassination of President Lincoln, for at least a few years.
To his dying day, Allan Pinkerton regretted that he had not been at Lincoln’s side at Ford‘s Theater that fateful evening of April 14, 1865. Yet the triumph of Pinkerton’s life was in 1861 when through his untiring efforts he was able to save President Lincoln. The Hour of Peril is a gripping, eye-opening exploration of the dangers of the presidency, which surely apply as much today as they did 150 years ago.
“Some will tell you to endure. You tell them you had rather prevail”.
Dedication to her daughters from Divining Women by Kaye Gibbons
Library Director’s Notebook
If there happens to be anyone around today who does not believe that “mental cruelty” is a reasonable grounds for divorce, they should read Divining Women by Kaye Gibbons as an irrefutable means of changing their minds.
In some ways, it does not matter that the book is set at the very end of World War I when women in America did not have the vote, and married women could be committed to hospitals and mental institutions, pretty much on the whim of their discontented husbands. The cruel use of brutal threats, insinuation, insults, and sneers is not limited by country, century, race, sex, or age. Yet the setting of this novel as the world war ends and the flu pandemic begins is surely not just happenstance.
Young Mary Oliver ,the narrator of Divining Women, was raised in a well-to-do family of strong women and loving men. Mary is therefore totally unprepared for the abuse she witnesses when she arrives in Elm City, North Carolina to help her Aunt Maureen safely through a risky childbirth. Mary soon learns that her uncle Troop exercises an unhealthy at times sadistic power over Maureen that threatens her very sanity and the life of her unborn child.
Troop himself has had a bizarre upbringing. Early in his life his mother, Nora, married to Mary’s grandfather, Tobias, left her husband in high moral dudgeon , furious that he had taken a sudden yen for unconventional ideas, including nudism! For the rest of her life, Nora wrote regular, scathing letters to her ex-husband, demanding ever-increasing amounts of money to support her lavish lifestyle and accusing him and his new wife and family of ruining Troop’s life and depriving him of his birthright .
As a result, her son Troop is indeed bankrupt, not in funds but in feelings. Brought up to believe himself grossly slighted and unloved, Troop has decided to withhold love from the world, and from none more ruthlessly than his tender and loving wife Maureen, whom he mentally tortures in various subtle and unsubtle ways.
The stage is set for death, whether through war, plague, or severe mental duress. Divining Women is about damaged women who manage to remake their lives even in the face of overwhelming odds.