Category Archives: armchair travel

When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) 5*

when you reach meI’d heard it was about some time-traveling kids, so I was expecting light adventure fare, not an emotional undertow that takes you out to sea.  In real life, I’ve shelved this next to The Westing Game.

Miranda is a kid in New York in the 1970’s.  Public schools had kids from different economic backgrounds back then, and sixth graders were allowed to leave school grounds for lunch.  It’s true that there are time travel shenanigans, but for the most part, time’s arrow moves only forward: Miranda is growing up.

Like The Hunger Games (where the outermost ring of the story is that readers will inevitably swoon over the love story instead of the social message), time travel in When You Reach Me reaches beyond the page. Miranda’s world — the walks up and down Amsterdam Ave., the lady at the corner store who lets Miranda help after school, the crazy sandwich shop guy, her friend’s yuppie parents, and her best best best friend who has mysteriously rejected her — is the real time travel.  Stead folds space and time and takes us to old New York, and then she folds space and time and makes us twelve years old.

Which means Rebecca Stead has discovered the tesseract.


Rilla of Ingleside (L.M. Montgomery) 4*

This is an unusual book — a little piece of history, really. It’s one of the only contemporary accounts of World War I published by a woman.  In many ways, the story in and around this book is sad.

L.M. Montgomery’s real life was an unhappy one.  Like Anne, she was raised by old folks on a farm.  Unlike Anne, her life sucked (hence the escapism of her novels).  When Anne of Green Gables became an international hit in 1908, you’d think that Montgomery would have been on velvet forever, but she was an old maid for a good long time despite being rich and famous…and then marriage was even worse.  And then, there was a world war that consumed the lives of millions.

Not even Anne’s life could be untouched by the Great War.  Following the great narrative rule that Only Unmarried Girls Can Be Heroines, Rilla of Ingleside (full text) tells the family story from the perspective of Anne’s youngest child, Rilla.  The story starts on the day a newspaper carries the seemingly irrelevant news that Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated.

First one brother enlists, then another, then another.  This is a story about the home front, and there is nothing escapist about it.  The wheel of the year will turn 5 grueling times before Rilla comes out the other side.  Day after day, Rilla waits for news of Paris and Verdun, Sommes and mustard gas.  The war is as exhausting on the home front as it is in the trenches of Europe.  It’s just Canada, but able-bodied men who don’t enlist are sent white feathers in the mail.  Women knit socks for the soldiers and help bring in the harvest.  People have scathing things to say about Woodrow Wilson, sitting it out in the U.S. (“with its mixed population”).  There’s a political referendum on conscription, and although Canadian women do not yet have suffrage, every woman who has a husband or brother or son overseas can vote in the election.

Every day for 5 years, there is nothing but war.  It’s shaming to read about the intensity with which civilians committed to WWI, when we are in Iraq and Afghanistan and you’d never know the difference.

The truly sad part is that Montgomery lived to see the beginning of WWII.  She died in 1942, which one granddaughter described as suicide.  In Rilla, there is much discussion about why the war is happening.  In letters home, the boys say that they are fighting for Rilla and their own sweet childhoods — they are fighting to keep the future safe for innocence.  People talk about how everything that matters has always been paid for in blood, and that this generation is paying for a great gift in the next generation.  It must have cut to the core when Germany took Belgium a second time.

Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery) 5*

A September day on Prince Edward Island hills; a crisp wind blowing up over the sand dunes from the sea; a long red road, winding through fields and woods, now looping itself about a corner of thick set spruces, now threading a plantation of young maples with great feathery sheets of ferns beneath them, now dipping down into a hollow where a brook flashed out of the woods and into them again, now basking in open sunshine between ribbons of golden-rod and smoke-blue asters; air athrill with the pipings of myriads of crickets, those glad little pensioners of the summer hills; a plump brown pony ambling along the road; two girls behind him, full to the lips with the simple, priceless joy of youth and life.

“Oh, this is a day left over from Eden, isn’t it, Diana?” . . . and Anne sighed for sheer happiness. “The air has magic in it. Look at the purple in the cup of the harvest valley, Diana. And oh, do smell the dying fir! It’s coming up from that little sunny hollow where Mr. Eben Wright has been cutting fence poles. Bliss is it on such a day to be alive; but to smell dying fir is very heaven. That’s two thirds Wordsworth and one third Anne Shirley. It doesn’t seem possible that there should be dying fir in heaven, does it? And yet it doesn’t seem to me that heaven would be quite perfect if you couldn’t get a whiff of dead fir as you went through its woods. Perhaps we’ll have the odor there without the death. Yes, I think that will be the way. That delicious aroma must be the souls of the firs . . . and of course it will be just souls in heaven.”

Anne of Avonlea

What does dying fir smell like?  My skin wants to know.

The tale of Anne-with-an-“e” is so deeply rooted in Prince Edward Island that I’m sure I’ve been there in dreams.  It’s never “trees” in these books; it’s birches, poplars, fir, beech woods, cherries in bloom, maples on fire… Never flowers but mayflowers and violets.  The wheel of the year turns six times in Anne of Green Gables (full-text) and twice in Anne of Avonlea (full-text), and with each season Anne sees and touches rapturous beauty.  Even when she is in a “city” for college, Anne’s everyday life bursts with flowers and trees — and of course she knows the names of them all.

Anne and her rustic friends casually quote Tennyson and Whitman, as if having silver poetry at your fingertips is as natural as knowing how to bake biscuits from scratch.  They walk to each others’ farms, and sometimes they “drive” (meaning, a horse and buggy).  They sew their own dresses, though hats come readymade from the village milliner.  Some girls sing and some girls play, but Anne’s concert talent is reciting.

Come for the fairy tale, stay for the self-sufficiency.  Avonlea is more genuinely Walden than Thoreau ever managed.  Although central heating and jets and microwaves are so nice to have, dipping into Anne of Green Gables highlights the price we’ve paid — “an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms,” as Harper Lee said so eloquently.

Baroque Cycle (Neal Stephenson) 3.5*

Very large and chewy.  I’m two-thirds of the way through these books and have paused to digest.  There’s a lot to digest.  Neal Stephenson has gotten more coherent with age, but his scope just gets bigger and bigger.  These are 8 books collected in 3 mega-books.


1. Quicksilver: Isaac Newton! Alchemy! The scientific method! A boring guy called Daniel Waterhouse!
2. King of the Vagabonds: JACK SHAFTOE!!! Awesomeness!  (Read my review)
3. Odalisque: We’re all pen pals! Cryptography! Spies! Finance!

The Confusion (“Confusion” refers to an obsolete pun about how things have been conned and fused.)

4. Bonanza: Pirates! Pirates! Pirates!
5. The Juncto: Complex financial maneuvers! Clever women! Aristocracy!

The System of the World

6-9. To be read! Later!

Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden) 2*

Memoirs of a Geisha is about as cheesy as you’d expect of a book where the main character is a beautiful Japanese girl with blue-gray eyes.  I mean, for serious.  It’s like Big Trouble in Little Kyoto without any kung fu.

In all seriousness, the Japanese economy is the best developed character in this book.  Handwoven kimonos cost more than a policeman’s annual salary, and our blue-eyed girl wears them every day even though she’s dirt poor and enslaved by debt.  Golden is at his best when he describes kimonos: the way they look, the way they feel, how much they cost, and what relationship they create between the giver and the receiver.

The overall feel is of a stylish anime film where every character can be summed up in 5 words.  In any case, when I get a house, I’m going to invite my friends to dress their finest, bring a poem, and come to my moon viewing party.

Warning: The ending is among the worst endings I’ve ever read.  Ever.  Readers are strongly advised to abandon ship at least 100 pages before the end.

King of the Vagabonds (Neal Stephenson) 4*

A rollicking good ride.

Usually, reading a Neal Stephenson book is like stumbling around a mad scientist’s laboratory: the place is dangerously alive.  The uneven floors are strewn with odd-looking bones, machines from the future, and loquacious imps arguing over semiotics.  Strange-colored fires explode out of nowhere.

King of the Vagabonds is unusual because, in its episodic way, it has a plot.  For instance, it has a beginning, in which Jack Shaftoe (King of the Vagabonds and L’Emmerdeur*) accidentally rescues a harem slave whilst chasing an ostrich.  It has a middle, in which said harem slave (Eliza of Qwghlm**) becomes one of the cleverest commodity traders in Amsterdam.  It has an end, in which a ceiling collapses under the weight of a thousand rats and Eliza throws a harpoon with impressive accuracy.

Without having read any of the other books in the Baroque Cycle, I’ll wager that this is the best of the lot due to copious quantities of Jack Shaftoe.  He’s an up-from-the-slums illiterate who’s clever as a fox and prudent as a 2-year-old.  When pressed to prove his identity, Half-Cocked Jack pulls down his pants to show his Credential.  Perpetually getting out of scrapes just a hair faster than he gets into them, Jack’s headlong rush through life (plus syphilis-fueled hallucinations) creates a wickedly funny fever dream.

Note that although the Baroque Cycle is set in the 1600s and 1700s (the first book is almost entirely about Principia Mathematica), Stephenson aptly classifies the books as science fiction.  Instead of speculating on future technology, the Baroque Cycle zeroes in on game-changing technologies that have already occurred, such as stock exchanges, mathematics, cryptography, separation of church and state, and steam engines.  Most of the world is real, but Stephenson never hesitates to take liberties.  Jack and Eliza exchange dry wit as if they’d grown up watching Seinfeld, and Wikipedia notes that the yo-yo has never existed as a bladed weapon.

* French for “he who covers everything in shit”
** Qwghlm is a fictional British island whose language is a parody of Welsh

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Julie Phillips) 5*

Author crush!  I’ve read one Tiptree novel and one Tiptree short story, and halfway through the biography I’m totally in love.  I haven’t even gotten to the point where Tiptree writes anything. This is the first biography I’ve read in years, and the most stunning that I’ve read ever. Everybody, everybody, everybody agrees.

I’d heard there was something about the CIA and chicken farming, so I was surprised to learn that Alice’s life starts in Chicago high society.  Her parents were wealthy, and her mother was Famous.  When Alice was 6, her parents took her on a 1000-mile walking trek through the Congo in order to shoot and stuff silverback gorillas for the museum of natural history.

The newspapers proclaimed little blonde Alice to be the first white child to ever step foot in Africa.  The whole thing is insane — 200 porters, encounters with cannibals, a pre-war Congo with high-elevation lakes resembling Switzerland, walking 1000 miles and then changing into dress whites to have dinner with the Belgian governor… Alice’s family would make three such African tours, and during the last one they decided, “Oh what the hell, let’s go back the other way around via India and China.” The family found India and China rather dull in comparison.

Biographies often spend a lot of time on the parents, which I usually skip/skim, but not this time.  Mary Bradley was a very popular author and speaker, and also a dead shot with an elephant gun.  On one of the hunts, Mary shot a young male lion and the creature, merely stunned, roared back to life as she was posing with its head on her lap.  Mary leaped up and shot it through the heart.  Back in America, however, Mary was all white dresses and perfect hair, always the life of every party.  She was “so unimpeachably feminine she could be herself.”  She was loving and charming and publicly joyous and every damn visitor to the house told Alice, “If you grow up half as _____ as your mother, you’ll have done well, young lady!”

Alice grew from a shy girl-child raised among the glitterati to a lost teenager at Swiss boarding school to a rebellious genius at college.  She grew up beautiful, inflamed with unconsummated crushes on lost girls (wistfully sketched later in Tiptree’s Dead Birds, one of the reasons everyone was so sure Tip was a man).  I could put together the best gender studies class ever out of Alice’s life and work.  Hell, I could structure a history/literature/art/geography/politics/everything class out of this one book.  Alice’s headmistress once reassured her parents about their genius daughter: “very often the most disorderly girls become the most punctilious housewives.”

She eloped with a boy five days after she met him at her debutante ball.  They “got on like Kilkenny cats, with magnificent reconciliations, until I came to.  Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature.”

Alice declared theirs an open marriage and did some drugs and brothels, “perhaps three I recall.  One I went to play whore, another to play man, I mean I dressed as a boy and went with some men and had to pay for having bitten a woman’s breast.  Most confusing.”  While they were married, her husband novelized their marriage as Dawn Breaks the Heart, which would obviously have to be part of the course syllabus.

Divorced at 27, Alice sobered up and enlisted for WWII.  This is where I am now: one-third of the way into the book and science fiction has crossed young Alice’s field of vision exactly once.

at 6:

at 16:

at 29:

Everybody, run out and read it so you can tell me: for you, what is the most astonishing thing about this book?  For me, it’s the sheer beauty of the letters that Alice writes.