Monthly Archives: July 2011

Teaser Tuesday: Claudine at School

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme,  hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.


My teaser is from my current read, Claudine at School, by Colette. The context for the following quote is that Claudine is at home with a bad cold and only her beloved cat Fanchette for company. This quote is part of a general ode to Fanchette.

You amused me from the moment you came into the world; you’d only got one eye open when you were already attempting warlike steps in your basket, though you were still incapable of standing up on your four matchsticks. Ever since, you’ve lived joyously, making me laugh with your bellydances in honour of cockchafers and butterflies, your clumsy calls to the birds you’re stalking, your way of quarrelling with me and giving me sharp taps that re-echo on my hands.

p. 105

(A cockchafer is a type of beetle – I had to look it up as I’d never seen the word before.)



Filed under Teaser Tuesday

Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon

  1984. Vintage Books. Paperback. 183 pages.


Bought this at Books Inc, an independent bookseller, at their location on Chestnut St. in San Francisco.

In a nutshell:

Naturalist O’Hanlon and his fellow scholar-adventurer, James Fenton embark on a river journey deep into the forests of Borneo. They are guided by three Iban men: authoritative Headman Dana, small and quiet Inghai, and their main translator, the lively lothario, Leon.


As one can buy most books anywhere in the country, books aren’t my usual souvenirs. However, the Chestnut St. location of Books Inc. was near the motel where my friends and I were staying in San Francisco. I wandered in one night while my friends trekked further on a fervent quest for dessert. The bookshelves were dotted with recommendation notes from the staff. Into the Heart of Borneo had a few particularly convincing words of praise and I’d never heard of it before. When I brought it up to the cash register, it turned out that the guy behind the counter was the one who wrote the recommendation. So, very cool.

Travel narratives set in remote places like Borneo are intrinsically interesting to me, because I’m bound to learn something new about other people and cultures. This is certainly true of O’Hanlon’s book. Before reading Into the Heart of Borneo, I couldn’t name any of the peoples that call that island home or much about their way of life. And while this small book is by no means a primer on those subjects, new historical and cultural information is easily set side by side with the events of O’Hanlon’s trip.

O’Hanlon’s storytelling style is witty, self-deprecating and observant. The two British guys are definitely out of their element and entrust themselves to the skillful, good-humored guidance of Dana, Leon and Inghai. O’Hanlon has a number of things which cause him trepidation both before and during the trip. There are the tales of cannibalism and headhunters and death-by-blowpipe that officials and old books regale to him. The extraordinary diversity of fauna in Borneo includes poisonous snakes and a number of parasites, including threadlike worms that are barely perceptible when one goes to drink freshwater. O’Hanlon is also vicariously horrified and intrigued by the use of the palang by some of the men in Borneo. A palang is a tube that is inserted in a pierced hole of a man’s, um, instrument, apparently for the enhancement of pleasure.

I liked how O’Hanlon and Fenton both insisted on bringing a number of books with them on the journey. O’Hanlon’s illustrated natural history books provide some wonderful moments of cross-cultural connection when people from the Iban, Kenyah and Ukit tribes recognize the pictured animals and birds of their homeland. He also quotes liberally from these books in his narrative, but is judicious in his choice of quotes. Fenton hauls along Les Miserables.

I have observed in other travelogues and even in my own trips that there will be at least one or two recurring themes or motifs. It may be something explicitly sought out, like O’Hanlon’s desire to see evidence of a Borneo rhinocerous or find someone who has seen one. Or it may be a combination of the observer and the place: as O’Hanlon is a naturalist, the trip is punctuated by bird sightings. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a bird enthusiast to appreciate the avian-themed events, as O’Hanlon does  a good job of explaining his enthusiasm. He doesn’t assume that the reader will automatically feel as excited as he did in seeing such birds as a pair of hornbills or a Crested serpent eagle.

There are a number of times where O’Hanlon and Fenton are made uneasy by cultural differences. For example, O’Hanlon experiences some consternation when Leon sets his amorous sights on a very young teenage Kenyah girl. Also, when a Malay woman is injured during a party near the end of the book, O’Hanlon and Fenton clash with one of their hosts who is indifferent to the woman’s plight.

I’d been disappointed by some of the travel books that I’ve read this year, so I’m really glad to have picked up Into the Heart of Borneo which captures some of my favorite elements of the genre: fascinating locale, a gift for storytelling, memorable travel companions, and stuff actually happens. (I get impatient when the main purpose of the travelogue is the author ‘finding him or herself’.)

A couple of excerpts in conclusion to give a taste:

I looked at my legs. And then I looked again. They were undulating with leeches . . . They were all over my boots, too, and three particularly brave individuals were trying to make their way in via the air-holes. There were more on the way – in fact they were moving towards us across the jungle floor from every angle, their damp brown bodies half-camouflaged against the rotting leaves.

“Oh God,” said James, “they are really pleased to see us.

p. 117

. . . I sat down by the central tallow lamp as night came down, and began to look again with delighted disbelief at all the montane and submontane species which Smythies illustrates in The Birds of Borneo. The resident old woman, stopping her weaving of small pieces of fishing net, came and squatted down beside me on her haunches. I turned over the plates, very slowly. She bent forward, intrigued, and her distended, looped earlobes, weighted with some twenty brass rings apiece, cast two ellipses of shadow across the rough planks of the floor. It seemed to take her some time to realise that the pictures were images of birds, birds that she knew; and then she uncurled a thin arm from around herself and pointed with a creaky finger on which all the joints were swollen. It was Plate III, the Borneo raptors, and she pointed at the Brahminy kite, Haliastur indus intermedius. Tentatively, she stroked its red-brown back; and then she turned, her old eyes alight, and she smiled at me with one set of lips and one set of gums.

p. 85

Other reviews:

Are you sitting comfortably . . . ? – “This book will make you laugh, and in some parts wince, but mostly laugh.  It will also make you want to go to Borneo.  The way he incorporates the wildlife and nature into the books makes you realise just how fascinating nature really is . . .”

John Bokma – “The book is simply fantastic. It has a lot of humor, enough to make me laugh out loud plenty of times . . . The two things that bothered me about “Into the heart of Borneo” is that I would love to have seen some of the photos Redmond O’Hanlon took, and the book ends rather abruptly.”

Please click on photo for attribution.


Filed under Travel Writing

River Marked by Patricia Briggs

2011. Ace Books. Hardcover. 326 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell (slight spoilers if you’ve never read the series):

River Marked is #6 in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Mercy Thompson is a shapeshifter who can turn into a coyote. This ability was presumably passed to her from her Native American father who died before she was born. In this book Adam (the Alpha werewolf of the local pack) and Mercy get married and go on a honeymoon on the banks of the Columbia River. While there, Mercy sees the ghost of her father. This vision is the harbinger for her reconnection to her Native American heritage, from which she has always felt estranged. In addition, Adam and Mercy must deal with an ancient murderous evil that has awakened in the river.


The Mercy Thompson series was my introduction to the urban fantasy genre, and while my interest in that genre has faded over the past year, my interest in the series remained firm. I love the character of Mercy for her abilities, her down-to-earth vibe, and her love for her friends and family.

The book just before this one – the fifth book of this series, Silver Borne – had been a minor disappointment for me. The plot was convoluted and featured too much of the werewolf-pack politics, at least for my tastes. River Marked really hit the spot for me because it focused on Mercy’s supernatural lineage.

One of the main fascinations for me with this series has been Mercy’s loner status. Partly because Mercy has kept her powers a secret, she has been able to surprise and elude many villains and other morally ambiguous types throughout the novels. It is so much fun to read when Mercy turns into a coyote and I miss it when a book skimps on Mercy’s shapeshifting scenes.

As explained in prior books, Mercy’s mother sent Mercy to be raised by werewolves, as their shapeshifting nature was the most similar to Mercy’s own power. However, werewolves are European in origin, just like the fae and the vampires. Mercy’s Native American supernatural forebears were presumably hunted down and scattered by these European brands of magical beings. Up until now, Mercy has never known another of her kind or even the history of shapeshifters like her. That all changes in River Marked.

I don’t want to give away too much about what Mercy discovers about her heritage, but I will say that this discovery goes hand-in-hand with meeting some of notable mythological figures from Native American folklore and it is pretty cool.

Alongside this personal journey for Mercy, she and Adam also face a continuous series of threats. It starts with the rescue of a badly injured man in a boat one night and reaches its climax in a desperate battle in the river. There is also an exciting and a bit funny hand-to-hand combat between Mercy and a surprise opponent in a Wal-Mart changing room.

The book starts a little slow and clunky, due to the massive amount of background exposition that Briggs has to try and work into the beginning. I definitely needed the exposition to review what had happened in the previous books, but it was still awkward in spots. However, once Mercy and Adam are on their way to the honeymoon, the writing smooths out.

So, fans of the series, there’s a lot to like in River Marked. And if you’ve never read the series before, the first one is called Moon Called. Ignore the trashy-looking cover and dive in!

Other reviews:

Janicu’s Book Blog – “I’d call this a solid, maybe a bit muted installment of the Mercy Thompson series. With 5 books of non-stop action, there had to be a bit of a breather where Mercy could pull back a little and have the focus on herself and this was it.”

Love Vampires – “Briggs adds Native American mythology into her already bulging bag of fantasy beasties and manages to seamlessly incorporate them into her fantasy world without getting caught up on the different mythological ideologies.”

Spaz Reviews – “The Mercy Thompson series is one beautiful example of how the heroine in a series can find love and yet the series continues to grow and remain as entertaining and interesting, if not more so.”

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Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

  1932. Penguin. Paperback. 240 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: Vintage Reads & things mean a lot

In a nutshell:

After the death of her parents, 20-year-old Flora Poste is left highly-educated but without any financial cushion to fall upon. Dismissing ideas of getting a job, she determines to mooch off relatives for the time being. When she receives a letter from her cousin Judith of the Starkadder family at Cold Comfort Farm, she is intrigued by hinted at secrets and the possibility for making over the gloomy Starkadder family. Her efforts are chronicled in this comic novel.


The comedy of Cold Comfort Farm derives mostly by the use of contrasting writing styles. Stella Gibbons was poking fun at novels where rural country life was over-dramatized and romanticized. The first description of Cold Comfort Farm is written in florid, melodramatic prose for example, and passages like that one continue to appear throughout the novel. Whenever Flora Poste is in charge of the narrative, however, the writing is breezy and light.

Although I may not be familiar with all the particular books that Gibbons was parodying with Cold Comfort Farm, I am familiar with the type of writing she is mimicking. I have definitely read books that take themselves too seriously, where a secret from the past is alluded to ad nauseum, or where girls run around in the landscapes with hooded capes for no reason except to be romantic figures. So to see Flora Poste’s irrepressible and practical nature cut through the unnecessary gloom of the Starkadders hit the right spot of amusement for me.

As the protagonist, Flora Poste is an agent for change without having a substantial change occur in herself. And I was okay with that. In fact, it can be refreshing to have a novel that’s just having fun and not trying to embed a lesson in its story. For the changes wrought in the Starkadders aren’t meant to be lessons either. Flora isn’t so much intent on making them better people, as much as freeing them from their miserable microcosm and the rule of Aunt Ada Doom. And for most of the Starkadder family, that means they leave Cold Comfort Farm for good.

I thought the time setting of Cold Comfort Farm was delightful in itself. Although the story definitely has a 1930’s feel to it, Gibbons was actually setting the novel into the future. There are references to inventions that didn’t exist in Gibbons’ time, and world conflicts that have never happened.

I saw the film adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm after reading the novel, and it stays pretty true to the book. It improved upon the book in one area and that was Flora’s confrontation of Aunt Ada Doom. The resolution to the problem of Ada Doom came too suddenly in the book, I thought, and the film plants more seeds to make the viewer ready for what happens in the end.

So if you’re looking for a fun classic novel to while away a summer day, this is a good choice.

Others’ reviews:

Fizzy Thoughts – “Sure, the end result was that most of the family was (apparently) happier, but good lord, could the woman be any more interfering and “I know what’s best for you even if you don’t?” It was annoying, even if it was meant to be funny.”

things mean a lot“Cold Comfort Farm is my favourite kind of parody: it’s incisive, but it never really belittles its target.”

Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover – “Flora arrives and decides that the entire family needs sorting out and marrying off and tackles the task with gusto.  She is very Emma like in her absolute certainty that she knows best and, in this case, there is no Mr Knightley  to rein her in . . .”


Filed under Uncategorized

The New York Regional Mormons Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker

2009. Dutton. Hardcover. 272 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: The Captive Reader

In a nutshell:

Elna Baker is a Mormon and a virgin and a comedian, aspects about herself that influence how her young adulthood plays out in New York City. The book chronicles her tottering love life, weight loss, family relations, and unusual jobs – including a stint as a toy demonstrator at FAO Schwartz.


When I was describing the premise of the book to my roommate, she said “It sounds like that story from the Moth”, referring to the storytelling radio show that we marathon-listened to online for a couple of nights. And my roommate was absolutely correct: Elna Baker has apparently performed on the Moth a couple of times, though we only heard her once. That story – about her brief dating relationship with an atheist – actually appears in the book as well, although I think I liked listening to it better.

I read Baker’s book while on my way to San Francisco. I laughed out loud several times, especially near the beginning of the book. My two favorite stories were the one with her father and the Dilly Bars and her story about working as a toy demonstrator for FAO Schwartz.

Baker’s book (the title is too long to retype) can get too naval-gazing at times, and too intent on discussing her identity crises and her romantic trials. It could have been my own travel-weariness, but by the end of the book, I was tired of Elna Baker.

In thinking about Elna Baker’s book, a scrap of song lyric comes to mind: “the faint aroma of performing seals.” Because Elna Baker is a performer and it’s her job to over-dramatize everything, her life increasingly felt less real as I continued reading. This was especially true about the last section of the book, where she travels far to reconnect with an old flame. At that point, she knew she had a book deal. It was the book deal money that funded the trip. And after that point, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Elna was trying to force a story to happen in her own life. It struck a false emotional note.

The book definitely had me thinking, if not for the first time, about how tricky it is to turn your life story into the basis of your career. What if Elna decides to stop being a Mormon after all? It’s that identity that has undoubtedly won her gigs. And how does it change your life if you are constantly assessing it for possible story material? It sounds exhausting.

If your curiosity has been kindled despite my lack of enthusiasm about the book, I recommend you start by listening to Elna Baker (and others) on the Moth radio program.

Others’ reviews:

Book Nut – “… there was something in her story, in her journey that I found fascinating. Not just because I’m Mormon, though that’s part of it, partially because I can empathize with her inner spiritual life, her doubts and questions. And, yes, partly because Elna’s is an interesting, if pretentious and self-absorbed, journey.”

A Bookworm’s World – “Baker’s zest for life is infectious and it shines through in her storytelling and writing.”

The Captive Reader – “Amusing, thoughtful, and honest, Elna’s story is easy to read and I came out of it both liking and respecting her – an outcome I’m not all that used to when it comes to the coming-of-age memoir.”

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Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays