The Little Giant of Aberdeen County—Tiffany Baker


The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is one of those novels that begin at the end, or near the end.  Dr. Robert Morgan is being placed in the ground and Truly, the little giant, begins to lose mass as she walks away from  his grave.  Ok, you have me hooked. 

The story is limited third person from Truly’s perspective.  Truly’s mother dies while giving birth to her and, even though she was terminally ill with breast cancer, her father blames her for killing her mother.  Truly’s older sister, Serena Jane, is a perfectly proportioned porcelain doll whose smocked dresses contrast sharply with the rugged boy’s wear that soons adorns Truly.  A series of characters work to destroy Truly’s spirit, starting with her father; then Mrs. Pickerton, who takes care of Serena, but refuses to care for Truly; then the town’s teacher, Ms. Sparrow, who first labels Truly a giant; then Robert Morgan, who rapes and marries Serena Jane and for whom Truly keeps house once Serena Jane takes off.  Throughout the plot of Truly’s diminishing spirit and increasing size runs a subplot about a quilt and its curious design that soon intersects with Truly’s own story.

Few people show Truly kindness, themselves all outsiders.  Marcus, the tiniest boy in school.  The Dyersons, the poorest people in town, who take Truly in when Mrs. Pickerton refuses her.  Amelia, their daughter, who remains mute for years and laconic once she does speak.  Bobbie, her nephew, who is a beautiful girl trapped in a boy’s body.  Those who had been cruel to her show her kindness once they have also reached marginal status. 

This is not a complaint about the beautiful prospering and the ugly being neglected, however.  Serena James, who is so beautiful it almost hurts to look at her, is not seen for herself, but as an object and it’s possession of her beauty that motivates Robert Morgan to rape her and then emotionally reject her.  There is no true happy ending for beauty in this tale, or at least not one that is won by beauty alone.

Along the way, the issue of assisted suicide emerges as well as the question of how much power we should have over our own lives.  Truly muses about the way we treat horses (a common literary comparison–they shoot horses don’t they–All Quiet on the Western Front), but says the difference with people is they talk back at you.  I think for Baker this storyline is not political, but is more about the question of agency, as put so well in another of my favorite lines, this one from Rango, no man can walk out of his own story.  We have agency within the plot, but we are bound by the rules of plot, stuck within the pages of our own stories.  What do we choose to make of it? 

Love is a major theme.  It’s what gives our plots value.  Near the end of the novel, Truly reflects on her sister’s choice to leave her son, husband, and sister behind to chase glamour.  Truly says, “she never understood that love—especially that of a child—was the most necessary weight you can endure in life, even if it hurts, even if it tugs bags under the skin of your eyes.  Without it, the soul skitters to [the] edge of the world and teeters there, confused” (332).

Baker says in “Food for Thought” after the Reading Group Guide that this story began about the men of the Morgan family, but that Truly would not stay quiet.  Thank goodness she didn’t.

Finished 10/28/11


I’jaam: an iraqi rhapsody–Sinan Antoon


Antoon’s novel is written as the transcription of a manuscript found in a cabinet in a prison in Baghdad.  The manuscript’s author is a young Chaldean university student in love with a wealthy young woman, but more in love with poetry and the dream of freedom of expression.  He writes with bitter irony at times, an irony that is echoed by the “editor’s” attempts to make sense of his critiques of the regime.  For example, the author writes National Hemorrhage lecture , which is noted as *Heritage? in the footnotes.  The author is imprisoned near the beginning of the manuscript and the chronological narrative begins to break down as he is dehumanized within the narrative through verbal, physical and sexual abuse.  He then begins to flash back to the past at varying rates of speed and to record hallucinations that at time seem that they might be memories.  The reader becomes as uncertain what is reality and what is imagination as the author. 

It’s a small novel–less than 100 pages–but so powerful and beautifully written.  It brings you into the claustrophobic world in which words do not communicate reality, but can reshape it in a heartbeat.  The author is given paper by a guard in the prison, who may be his savior, but who, in the end, is the author of the report on the manuscript.  Perhaps he was not able to save the man in body, but, through his words, preserved some of his spirit.

There is one fantastic passage about writing that I read over and over.

“Why write?  Why should I not write?  To write or not to write.  Am I here because someone wrote of me?  I’ll gouge the eye of anyone who dares try to read me!

They wrote me in here, or I wrote myself here, and I will write my pain out.”

This book is so powerful, particularly given our current involvement in Iraq, but also beyond politics.  It’s so powerful I want to leave copies on benches and in mailboxes.  It should become part of the canon.

Finished 10/24/11

I’m not scared–Niccolo Ammaniti

Nine-year-old Michele lives in a village with only four houses.  He runs with three other children, one of whom is a bully, one of whom is the rich kid, and one of whom is the girl.  When Michele discovers a boy naked and chained in a hole during a day of adventure, he does nothing.  The sight of the boy begins to work on him, however, and he returns surreptitously to give him water, food, and to wash him and speak with him.  He tries to imagine how the boy got there and, one night overhears the adults in the village and his dad’s boss talking and realizes that his father is responsible for the boy being in the hole.  The boy is the son of a wealthy family from Pavia and Michele overhears a discussion about cutting his ears off if the ransom is not paid.  He vows to visit the boy again.  When the adults learn that he has found the boy, poor Michele is given a brand new bike and promises of a trip to the seashore if he will just stay away.  His father tells him that, if he returns to the hole, the adults will kill the boy.  So Michele stays away.

Until another day of adventure brings the small group of children back to the site of the hole and Michele realizes they’ve moved him.  That night, he hears that they are planning to kill him as they argue over who will do the crime and the time.  Michele makes a moral decision and flees the house to find and save the young boy.  The novel ends in a surprise and without a clear resolution. 

This book churns your guts and keeps them churning through its brief 200 pages.  Why would the boy not report having found another child chained in a hole?  Why would he be bought off with a bike?  Why would he not free him right away?  Why doesn’t he tell someone?  And would I have enough guts to act, especially at nine years old, as Michele does in the end? 

It’s a fast and interesting read, but be prepared to close the covers disturbed.

Finished 10/22/11

Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden–Reginald Arkell

Reginald Arkell creates a distinguished but loveable character in Mr. Pinnegar, aka Old Herbaceous.  Pinnegar begins life near the end of the nineteenth century having been left in a basket on the doorstep of a village household already occupied by six children.  One leg is shorter than the other and this, together with his unknown parentage, give Pinnegar a sense of inferiority that is dispatched through the kindnesses of his first love, Mrs. Charteris, who brings him to her household to work in the garden.   Pinnegar moves from boy in the garden to head gardener and continues to grow as he becomes known throughout England as a flower show judge.  Arkell does not take us to the end of Pinnegar’s life, but allows us to see him visiting Mrs. Charteris in her retirement home at the shore and to hear her reflections on his character and his life. 

I’m a sucker for anything  nineteenth century to begin with, but, even for someone without those tastes, Arkell’s drawing of his character is so expert and peppered with humor that I believe this book to be an unknown gem that deserves far greater attention.  It is part of the Modern Library Gardening series, but to say this is a book about gardens is to miss the point.  This is a book about a character who is placed in a garden.

Arkell begins one chapter with my favorite reflection:

“If you could peel the years from a man’s life, as you do the leaves from a globe artichoke, you would find him having his happiest time between the ages of fifty and sixty-five.  The awful anxieties of youth have resolves themselves–he no longer jumps at shadows…competitors are not treading upon his heels…achievement has not yet lost its glamour…ultimate success, glorious and satisfying, lies just around the corner….A golden, mellowing period which brings out all that is best in a man.  Kindliness creeps in; cheerfulness spreads its warming rays; even a little humor….”

Old Herbaceous was first published in 1950, when Arkell was seventy-eight.  It’s a highly focused reflection on an age gone by, but also on the ages of man.  A man who happens to love gardens.

The Exploits and Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy–Elizabeth Aston



I said, after reading Aston’s writing jane austen, that I would give her Austen books another try.  This was the title in our library.  It rides on the coattails of P&P by using the name of Darcy, but Fitzwilliam and Eliza play no real role in this story.  Their daughter, Alethea, has married a vile man while on the rebound from a spineless man and the tale begins with her flight from her marital home while in the guise of a young man.   Crazy adventures ensue as she and her similarly disguised maid reach Paris and then cross the Alps to Venice, where Alethea sings in Figaro as a castrato.  Along the way she runs into Titus Manningtree, who is fleeing heartbreak at the hands of his former mistress.  Manningtree recognizes her through her breeches and seeks to protect her while maintaining the pretense of her disguise. 

This is the kind of book I’m embarrassed to be caught reading, and yet am not too proud to read.  It was not a great story.  In a too-convenient plot turn, Alethea’s abusive husband is murdered just as she returns to England from her cross-dressing escapades.  Aston throws in the word ” haha” as she had in writing jane austen, to display her historical accuracy.   My curiosity has been satisfied.

Finished 10/20

What We Keep–Elizabeth Berg


Berg builds up a horrific incident that happened in the childhood of her protagonist, Ginny, in the summer she was 12.  The narrative flashes between a modern day flight to California and Ginny’s childhood.  Ginny reveals herself to be a highly involved, maybe overly involved, mother of two daughters and she reflects on her relationship with her mother and her older sister the summer that Jasmine, a single and exotic woman, moved in next to them.

Ginny is so angry with her mother and so bitter 35 years later that I assumed the incident was terrible.  The incident was mundane.  Ginny’s mother left her father.  She came back after a few weeks and wanted to establish shared parenting with their father, but the girls refused.  Ginny and her sister are only now visiting her for the first time in 35 years because Ginny’s older sister may be dying of cancer. 

Berg evokes the world of a 12-year-old girl with great realism but, perhaps because our world is full of tragedies so much more tragic than this one, when she finally reveals the “horrible crime” of Ginny’s mother, I was left saying to myself, “really?  That’s what all this drama was about?” 

It was the 50s and even today moms aren’t usually the ones to leave the house and the children, but still. 

The best part of the novel was Berg’s reflection on mothers and daughters and the expectations daughters have of their mothers that make the whole relationship so fraught and complicated.  Maybe that’s the story’s genius–that it reveals that what was an unforgiveable crime to a daughter is so thoroughly understandable and forgiveable to anyone else.

The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf–Stephanie Barron

I chose this book from the stack after reading writing jane austen because Aston includes a scene in Austen’s ancestral home in which her protagonist looks mournfully at the small table in the common room at which Austen wrote and wishes that she’d had a room of her own.  The contrast between Aston’s tale of literary fun and Barron’s literary mystery is stark and, unfortunately, Aston is left looking like an amateur.

Jo Bellamy, who runs her own landscaping business, is in England studying Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden for her financier/lady’s man client, Graydon Westlake and his third wife, Alicia.  Jo’s English gardener grandfather has recently committed suicide, just after Jo told him about her trip to England, in fact, and Jo hopes to find some answers to his death while she studies the garden.  The Sissinghurst head gardener, Imogen Cantwell, helps Jo look for documents relating to her grandfather, who worked at Sissinghurst as a teenager, and they find a notebook with his name on it, but in the handwriting of Virginia Woolf dated the day after her suicide.  Literary mystery ensues.  Is the notebook real?  Are the dates correct?  If so, how could that be?  What role did Jo’s grandfather play that put his name on Woolf’s notebook?

In her quest to answer these questions, Jo encounters Peter LLewellyn, a manuscript expert at Sotheby’s, as well as his ex-wife, Margaux Strand, Oxford don and Woolf expert.  When Margaux takes off with the notebook, Peter and Jo are led on a merry chase across England and through the pasts of Woolf, Sackville-West and the men who surrounded them.  The tale begins and ends in the White Garden and offers solutions to the unanswered question of suicide. 

Barron’s characters are lively and believable, even if the idea of a feminist femme fatale scholar does not meet with my own experience, and the plot is well-paced and satisfying.  Best of all, Barron’s dip into the lives of Woolf and Sackville-West made me want to pick up some of their writing and see who they were for myself. 

Having chosen this book because of a Woolf reference in the book about Jane Austen, it was surprising to see that Barron is well known for having written a series of Jane Austen mysteries.  Coincidence or a vital part of a bigger plot line? 

Finished 10/15