Summer Reading List: Three Reviews

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen

White jacketed white men set up glass after glass of lemonade, forming pyramids of full glasses on the counters of their red and white striped concession stands. The air is filled with the scents of corn popping, peanuts roasting and the tangy undertone of animal.

Gruen’s Water for Elephants is the kind of book I like best: the type that strives to satiate the reader’s taste for quirky, kitschy, whimsical tales. It’s pure, unapologetic storytelling, with no ulterior motives. The writing isn’t  anything particularly praiseworthy; it was more an interest in circuses (candy apples and ice-cream and lemonade) and fauxtalgia for the 1930s and the vintage photographs that had me captivated. There is a delightful sort of exoticism – and Romanticism – in the combination of characters and setting that Gruen balances very well:

I peer inside. The tent is enormous, as tall as the sky and supported by long, straight poles jutting at various angles. The canvas is taut and nearly translucent – sunlight filters through the material and seams, illuminating the largest candy stand of all. It’s smack in the center of the menagerie, under rays of glorious light, surrounded by banners advertising sarsaparilla, Cracker Jack, and frozen custard.

Brilliantly painted red and gold animal dens line two of the four walls, their sides propped open to reveal lions, tigers, panthers, jaguars, bears, chimps, and spider monkeys – even an orangutan. Camels, llamas, zebras and horses stand behind low ropes slung between iron stakes, their heads buried in mounds of hay.

Gruen does inject some awareness of the treatment of animals, and the plight of those caught within the Great Depression into Water for Elephants, but at the end of the day, it’s her depiction of the elderly Jacob Janskowski that I appreciated most. There were some truly insightful passages, but I whizzed through the book so fast I didn’t have time to write down quotes or do any sort of note-taking.

Two cringeworthy things – one, the ending. Two, the erotica. The ending was rather cliche, but I forgave it because it was cute. The sex scenes? Maybe I’m being prudish, but it was a little in-your-face. The strip show? Yeah, understandable. It was a part of the circus. The orgy, not so much.

The Summer Book
Tove Jansson

If you … listened only to the insects, you could hear thousands of millions of them, and they filled the whole world with rising and falling waves of ecstasy and summer.

Jansson’s The Summer Book is a collection of vignettes which highlight the simple pleasures of life. It is a pleasure to read, and certainly comforting after the disorienting ordeal of Soul Mountain.

It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.

This is ‘slice of life’  writing at its best.  It is not avant-garde in any way at all, and the book’s merit lies in its quiet, unassuming tone. I love that it is nothing more than a conventional set of anecdotes, and I love the quirky observations:

Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you’re looking for. If you’re picking raspberries, you see only what’s red, and if you’re looking for bones you see only the white.

A Year in Provence
Peter Mayle

This is the first time I’m reading travel literature. I write in present tense because I still haven’t finished it. From memory, I’ve never provided a complete review – or served judgement, for that matter –  before finishing a book, but in this case, it’s different.

Like Jansson’s book, A Year in Provence is a documentation of a way of life.  There is simply nothing for me to comment on, except that Mayle addresses the three things we all love to read about in (escapist) travel writing:

1) Cuisine

The well-known food of Provence is summer food – the melons and peaches and asparagus, the courgettes and aubergines, the peppers and tomatoes, the aioli and bouillabaisse and monumental salads of olives and anchovies and tuna and hard-boiled eggs and sliced, earthy potatoes on beds of multicoloured lettuce glistening with oil, the fresh goats’ cheese.

A good part of what I’ve read thus far is lengthy descriptions of meals:

It started with home-made pizza – not one, but three; anchovy, mushroom and cheese, and it was obligatory to have a slice of each. Plates were then wiped with pieces torn from two-foot loaves in the middle of the table, and the next course came out. There was pates of rabbit, boar and thrush. There was a chunky pork-based terrine laced with marc. There were saucissons spotted with peppercorns. There were tiny sweet onions marinated in a fresh tomato sauce. Plates were wiped once more and duck was brought in. The slivers of magret that appear, arranged in fan formation and lapped by an elegant smear of sauce on the refined tables of nouvelle cousine – these were nowhere to be seen. We had entire breasts, entire legs, covered in a dark, savoury gravy and surrounded by wild mushrooms.

2) Language

The language spoken was French, but not the French we had studied in textbooks and on cassettes; it was rich, soupy patois, emanating from somewhere at the back of the throat and passing through a scrambling process in the nasal passage before coming out as speech. Half-familiar sounds could be dimly recognised as words through the swirls and eddies of Provencal: demain became demang, vin became vang, maison became mesong.

3) Local Flavour

I particularly liked this passage about the noise of the village:

Our valley hibernated, and I missed the sounds which marked the passing of each day almost as precisely as a clock: Faustin’s rooster having his morning cough; the demented clatter – like nuts and bolts trying to escape out of a biscuit tin – of the small Citroen van that every farmer drives home at lunchtime; the hopeful fusillade of a hunter on afternoon patrols in the vines on the opposite hillside; the distant whine of a chainsaw in the forest; the twilight serenade of farm dogs.

And this, about fox hunting:

“No, one doesn’t eat fox in England. One dresses up in a red coat and one chases after it on horseback with several dogs, and then one cuts off its tail.”

He cocked his head, astonished. ‘Ils sont bizarres, les Anglais.’ And then, with great gusto and some hideously explicit gestures, he described what civilised people did with a fox.

Civet de renard a la facon Massot:

Find a young fox, and becareful to shoot it cleanly in the head, which is of no culinary interest. Buckshot in the edible parts of the fox can cause chipped teeth – Massot showed me two of his – and indigestion.

Skin the fox and cut off its parties. Here, Massot made a chopping motion with his hand across his groin, and followed this with some elaborate twists and tugs of the hand to illustrate the gutting process …

What more can I say, but that I’m enjoying myself very much? These books are to be read purely for enjoyment, on a warm summer afternoon.


12 thoughts on “Summer Reading List: Three Reviews

  1. claire – I think you’d love the other two, so I encourage you to add them to your reading list! The best thing about reading lists is that they can be neverending, so why ever not?! :)

  2. I agree about Water for Elephants. It’s just good, old-fashioned storytelling, and sometimes that’s exactly the kind of book I’m looking for. (And I had the same criticisms you did.)

    1. Teresa – I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that way! It sort of cheapened the book – I’m reading a great novel; suddenly it’s turned into cheap pulp magazine material.

  3. I have Water for Elephants on my shelf here, and haven’t picked it up yet. I think part of that stemmed from me not knowing exactly what type of book it was (yet I bought it anyway), but now I have a much clearer idea of what to expect, so: thanks for the review!

  4. ‘The Summer Book’ is just wonderful. I love the ‘Dear Grandma, I hate you! Love, your granddaughter’ letter. Jansson is brilliant: I grew up on her Moomin books, and it’s great that her adult books are now trickling into English translation.

    1. JRSM – Sadly, I’ve never read real Moomin books; I’ve only seen pictures. And yes, I also loved the letter! Those two characters are so very endearing! My favourite piece of dialogue is when the grandmother is explaining something about her husband, and Sophia exclaims “YOU’RE MARRIED?!”

    1. JaneGS – it is so much fun. I love love love to travel and throughout the year when I’m marooned in Sydney I always feel the travel-itch, but now I’ve found the perfect remedy. Mayle’s got me hooked :)

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