Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
Gideon Defoe

The Pirate Captain, a dashing man very fond of ham, attacks The Beagle-thanks to a false tip from Black Bellamy, the pirate with a knife between his teeth-and, finding no treasure, becomes involved in an adventure with the not-yet-famous Darwin. Darwin's brother, Erasmus, has been kidnapped by the "blackhearted Bishop of Oxford" to keep Darwin from exhibiting Mister Bobo, who he (Darwin) has trained to communicate with word cards. The Pirate Captain and his crew return to London to assist Darwin in rescuing Erasmus, a feat which forces all the pirates to pretend to be scientists, and some of them to pretend to be scientists pretending to be women.

What do you mean it doesn't make any sense? It's not supposed to! That's the beauty of this little gem: with one outrageous chapter after another, The Pirates! is full of puns, jokes and allusions. It's purposefully written with no sense of historical accuracy, adding an extra layer of fun, and uses every piratical cliché and stereotype to the fullest humorous advantage. Scurvy, a hot air balloon, ham, a grisly murder machine, swashbuckling, an exciting chase scene in the Museum of Natural History, talking primates, breakfast cereal and pirates! What's not to love?

The Pirates! is Defoe's first novel and, for me, is the best comic novel debut I have ever had to fortune to read. Not only was it hard to put down, but it demanded to be read aloud, first by me to my husband, and then by him back to me as he read it! The book cover says that he "wrote the Pirates! to convince a woman to leave her boyfriend for him. She didn't". I just hope that her failure to follow through won't stop him from writing another Pirate Adventure.

(originally read and reviewed in 2005.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Five Quarters of the Orange

Five Quarters of the Orange
Joann Harris
4/5 stars

Framboise returns to the village of her youth as an old woman, unrecognizable because of her age and using a different first name along with her married name. None of the villagers connect her, a 65 year old widow, respectable though peculiar, with the skinny kid that was run out of the village with her mother and two siblings some fifty years prior. She's Mirabelle Dartigen's daughter. . . if they only knew.

In her return "home" Boise must face the past and sort out what happened to her enigmatic mother. The album, with it's clippings and cryptic writing, leads her to discoveries about her mother that shock her and change her whole view of who her mother was.

At the same time, Boise relives her own life, especially that pivotal summer. This, side by side with her discoveries from the album, form a full picture of what did happen, answer some of her questions and give the reader a story told in patchwork that, when fit together, makes a lovely quilt of story.

The story is told in the first person, going back and forth from Boise's childhood to her current struggle with first the village and then her relatives. It transitions smoothly, the story is firm and real--and like the oranges that play such a crucial role, the scent of the story lingers for some time after the reading.

The main plot was a well-used one, and as such disappointed me a bit. Harris managed to make up for that, though, with her style which kept me intrigued even during the most obvious bits. Over all the novel was a good one and I look forward to reading for her other two novels.

(Originally read/reviewed in 2005.)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sky Burial by Xinran

Sky Burial
5/5 stars

Sky Burial is based on a true story as it was told to the author, Xinran, by the principal character, Shu Wen. Wen's young idealist husband is an Army doctor in 1950's China, sent to Tibet during the time of China's "liberation" of Tibet. They had only been married three weeks when he left, and around 100 days after his departure she received a letter stating he was dead. The lack of explanation of death gave her a hope that perhaps he really wasn't dead, just lost, and she joined the Army as well, in her husband's unit. Herself a dermatologist, they were only too glad to of her request to be sent to Tibet--doctors were much needed on the front. Shortly after reaching Tibet, however, Wen is separated from her unit and spends the next thirty years wandering with a family of nomadic Tibetans, never giving up hope that she will find the answer to her husband's disappearance.

The writing is sparse and without a lot of descriptions, and whether it is intentional or because Xinran is in fact a journalist and not a novelist, it works wonderfully for both the untamed Tibetan landscape and the slowly unfolding, sometimes bleak but always beautiful, story.

The reader follows Wen, amazed at her tenacity as the years go by, at her unwillingness to give up against such odds. As she becomes more and more comfortable in her Tibetan ways, the reader sees Wen falling in love, unknowingly, with Tibet--and does the same, openly embracing this wild country. Like Wen, the reader can not give up hope, knowing there will be an answer to Wen's search, because such determination and love does not go unrewarded.

Subtitled "an epic love story of Tibet", Sky Burial is just that--a love story of a woman for a country as well as her husband; a love story of the reader for Tibet, for Wen, and for Xinran for giving such a gift.

(originally read/reviewed in 2008)

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Dud Avacado

The Dud Avocado
Elaine Dundy
5/5 stars

The Dud Avocado tells the story of Sally Jay Groce, fresh out of college and ready to live life to it's fullest in Paris. Once in Paris, she goes "more native than the natives" trying to cram as much "living" as she can in two short years. Sally Jay's attempts to live it up lead her into many roles, from mistress to actress to homebody, and she embraces every role with gusto--usually with disastrous results.

Dundy's fifty-year-old classic is fresh and witty, and sometimes a bit racy, and her prose is as close to perfection as one can find. Add this to Sally Jay, a protagonist so alive and real, and it is easy to see why this book gained such a following upon publication.

Here is an excerpt from chapter 3, one of my favorite bits, to give an example of the delicious flavor of the Dud Avocado:

"At eleven o'clock that night, in one of my dangerous moods--midnight-black, excited and deeply dreading (as opposed to one of my beautiful midnight-blue ones, calm but deeply excited), my nerves strung taut to singing, I arrived at the Ritz, only to discover all over again what a difficult thing this was to do. I tended to loose my balance at the exact moment that the doorman opened the cab door and stood by in his respectful attitude o f"waiting." I have even been known to fall out of the cab by reaching and pushing against the handle at the same time that he did. But this time, however, I had disciplined myself to remain quite, quite still, sitting on my hands until the door was opened for me. Then, burrowing into my handbag, which suddenly looked like the Black Hole of Cacutgta, to find the fare, I discovered that I needed a light. A light was switched on. I needed more than a light, I needed a match or a flashlight or special glasses, for I simply couldn't find my change purse, and when I did (lipstick rolling on the floor, compact open and everything spilled--passport,m mirror, the works) I couldn't find the right change. We were now all three of us, driver, doorman and I, waiting to see what I was going to do next. I took out some bills, counted them three times in the dark until I was absolutely certain that I had double the amount necessary, and then pressed it on the driver, eagerly apologizing for overtipping. Overcome with shyness I nodded briefly in the direction of the doorman and raced him to the entrance. I just won. Panting and by now in an absolute ecstasy of panic I flung myself at the revolving doors and let them spin me through. Thus I gained access to the Ritz."

I guffawed out loud so often throughout the Dud Avocado; I read parts aloud to my husband; I laughed at and cried with Sally Jay. . . in short, I lived this book. It was pure joy to read, and one that I will certainly read a second time.

(originally read/reviewed in 2009)