Some Thoughts on Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I don’t read a lot of bestselling mainstream novels. Very often, I don’t even hear about them. But from time to time there’s a book that sells so many copies that I’m interested to find out what the fuss is all about. Especially when the premise sounds intriguing like in the case of Where the Crawdads Sing. The premise of a girl growing up on her own in the swampy marsh of Northern Carolina and becoming one with the nature that surrounds her. Delia Owens is well known as a wildlife scientist and published three nonfiction books before writing her first novel. That, too, sounded intriguing. That was also pretty much all I knew about the book when I started to read. You can imagine how surprised I was, when I discovered that there’s a dead body in the swamp at the beginning of the book. It’s only then that I became aware that the book was called a blend between love story/crime/court room drama. And that brings us right to my biggest reservation – sometimes a blend works but in this case it doesn’t. It’s neither a proper crime story, nor is it purely a love story and the courtroom part, I’m sorry to say, is ludicrous.

I did like the beginning which was mostly set in the past, in the 50s, and told the very tragic story of a small child, Kya, who was first abandoned by her mother, then by her siblings and finally also by her father, an abusive drunk. She’s only ten and decides to survive on her own, knowing very well if the authorities found out she’s been abandoned, she’d land in the foster care system. These parts not only introduce us to an amazing ecosystem but also to a way of life. It seems like the marsh is a world of its own, with its own rules, outside of society. Because Kya is intelligent and observes the world around her, she’s able to survive. She also gets some outside help from a black family, pretty much outsiders too, in this small town. She also meets a boy who teaches her to read and write, which will have very surprising consequences.

While the beginning was strong, the descriptions of the landscape so detailed that I felt like I was visiting the marsh, the book quickly went downhill after that. I had a feeling that Delia Owens had an idea for a story, a very intriguing idea, and a love for a landscape but no plot. And, so, she decided to add a crime story that then turned into a courtroom drama à la To Kill a Mockingbird.

The crime idea might not have been a bad one. There are many novels about a crime that are very successful without being really crime novels. But for me, this one didn’t work. She should have written either proper crime or searched for a plot somewhere else. The result is full of inconsistencies and lacks realism. The character development is also rather dubious, and the use of vernacular is just terrible.

You’ll be surprised to hear that despite all these reservations, I didn’t mind reading the book. I loved the way this landscape was brought to life. I found the way Delia Owens conveyed how Kya fought against her loneliness by becoming one with the flora and fauna that surrounded her believable and well done.

It’s less a bad book than a missed opportunity. This could have been very good. The question that remains is – why did this become such a major bestseller? She sold over 4million copies of the book even though the publisher only printed 23,000 copies at first. The reason might be the choice of setting. I wasn’t surprised to find out that many people who loved this novel are very interested in ecological themes. I don’t know many books where nature plays such a significant role and where the intricacies of ecosystems are shown so well. I have no doubts that Delia Owens is a very good nonfiction writer.

I hope I was able to give you an idea, especially, if, like me, you were curious about this book. Maybe, now that you’re forewarned about the flaws, you might enjoy it more. Nature lovers, people who are interested in the marshes of North Carolina, those with in an interest in ecology and specific ecosystems, will still find a lot to like here.

Meetings with Remarkable Trees

The indifference towards old trees makes a mockery of our supposed new respect for the environment. (Thomas Pakenham)

There isn’t much that is as beautiful and majestic as a big old tree. Their huge crowns house birds and insects, the foliage gives shade in summer. In autumn they delight us with their changing colours. In winter the large naked branches look so eerie against the grey sky. Some are fragrant like the acacia or the lime trees that are in bloom right now. And nothing compares to the sound of a large tree. The rustling of the leaves in the wind; the drops on the foliage when it rains. And all those other sounds coming from trees— the buzz of the insects and bees; bird song and the chirping of the young ones in their nests.

Trees are some of the most remarkable living beings on this planet. Every time when we have a storm, I fear for them. It’s such a heart-breaking sight to see such an old living being destroyed. But what’s even more heart-breaking is when they are chopped down for commercial reasons, for their wood or to make room for a building. Some of you who follow me on Twitter saw me tweet about the loss of the Oak that was growing near my childhood home. It was such a massive tree, far over 200 years old. It was struck by lightning once but survived. It only lost a branch. To me, as child, looking up into the vastness of its branches and dense foliage it looked indestructible. There was a bench under that tree and my mother used to sit on that bench, smoking a cigarette, playing with her dogs and talking to passers-by. I stood under that tree, the last time I went out with my dog before she had to be put to sleep that afternoon. I have so many memories tied to that tree and, foolishly, I thought it would survive me. But it didn’t. It was felled at the beginning of the year to make room for a huge underground parking. The trunk was chopped up and placed in a nearby deer park.

I often go for walks in the deer park and had noticed the trunks. They appeared right after a storm so I assumed, naively, a tree had been knocked down by the storm. I had a bad feeling looking at it, as I’d never seen any tree as big as this one nearby. So I went to my old childhood home, not too far away from the deer park and saw the massive hole. At that time I still believed, it might have been knocked down by the storm. The Oaks here in Switzerland are slowly dying because of the hot summers. The climate change doesn’t agree with them. The heat weakens them and many have to be felled for safety reasons. I can’t really describe the mix of feelings when I finally found out that this one hadn’t been in danger at all, but that some real estate agency decided to have it chopped down.

Thomas Pakenham had similar experiences. One when some giant beech trees were uprooted by a storm in his native Ireland. The other when he noticed the lack of big trees in Tibet. All but one very big tree had been felled for its timber. These experineces made him look at big trees in a new way and appreciate their beauty and majesty even more. The result is Meetings with Remarkable Trees, a book about 60 giant trees that you can find in Britain.

The sixty trees Pakenham chose for his book are remarkable for their size, age, shape or history.

He looks at trees that have been imported. Trees that have become sacred. Trees that have been turned into dwellings.

The tree below is a massive Yew tree. It looks like the oldest trees in England are Yews.

The trees are mostly grouped by themes. The tree below is another Yew that stands at Much Marcle.

Here’s an example of a huge Oak. The tree near my childhood home looked very different. It didn’t have any low branches at all. It had a huge trunk and a massive crown.

The tree below is a massive Ash.

Thomas Pakenham writes about these trees like they were people with their own personalities. Looking at all the pictures in the book you can see how different trees are, even when they are from the same species. That makes it even more heart-breaking when they die or are felled. Something beautiful and irreplaceable is gone forever.

Looking Back on A Post a Day in May

It’s hard to believe the month is over. And I did it. I posted one post a day all through the month of May. Even though I had such a tough time blogging in the last two years, I never doubted I would make it. I somehow knew I would enjoy it and I really did. The first weeks went by very quickly, the third was a bit dragging but the fourth was gone before it even started. I didn’t follow a plan, I just picked something every day, read it or looked at it and wrote about it.

Before I’m going to look at some statistics, I’d like to thank everyone who followed me this month. All those who read my posts, liked them, and commented. Thank you very much. You all made this so much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. It almost felt like the early years of blogging. And gives me hope that I can celebrate my upcoming 10-year anniversary in style – posts and guest posts and maybe one or two themed weeks. We will see.

Some statistics:

I read 2 novels (which I didn’t review) and 18 novellas, short novels, longer stories, and nonfiction texts.

12 titles were written by women, 8 by men.

I read books from 11 different countries: UK, US, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Turkey, France, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, and Russia.

Week two was the week when I had the most visitors and also the most new subscribers.

The posts that had the most views were: The Daphne du Maurier Week post on The Birds, 100 Must-Read Life-Changing Books and The Intro post The Temptation of a Post a Day in May.

The day when I had the most views was the day when I published on Dickens.

The posts that received the most comments were The Intro Post, the Post on The Birds, and the post on Chandler’s Killer in the Rain.

This is quite interesting as it shows how many people look at posts without commenting or liking – The Life-Changing Books post for example.

New Followers – I did count for a while but then there were so many every day that I gave up. By week two, there were some 40 or 50 new followers.

Where do I go from here?

The question that I’ve been asking myself in the last couple of days—where do I go from here? I don’t want to go back to posting only once a month or every two months. Obviously, that wasn’t exactly my choice since I had pain issues. That was actually my biggest worry for this month – that the pain would return. And it did for a week or so, but luckily it wasn’t as unmanageable as before.

Before this month, I also had issues with reading. I picked one dud after the other that I really didn’t feel like reviewing. I was astonishingly lucky this month. There was one book I could have done without, Odd and the Frost Giants, but even that was not terrible at all. And those that were good like Love, Am Südhang, Once There Was A Family, Killer in the Rain, The Dog,The Testament of Mary, or The Calligraphers’ Night were just amazing. Several will be on my best of list at the end of the year.

This will sound weird, but it looks like I do best when I have a project that leaves me a lot of freedom. If I had chosen the books I was going to read and write about beforehand – this would have been an utter failure.

So, what now? It is entirely possible that I will do another month like this. Maybe in August, maybe in December. It might not even be about books. I might resuscitate my World Cinema Series and do A Movie a Day.

And I would like to begin a late Literature and War Readalong. Last year I had to skip it, the year before I had to stop before the end. So, this year, I’d like to just read two or three titles, but not decide in advance which ones I’ll be reading. I’ll let you know two months in advance, so you can join, if you feel like it.

For now, I hope I can stick to a three days per week posting schedule. One review type post, one coffee table book, and maybe something more like essays or musings.

Thanks again to everyone who read, commented, liked and shared. It meant and it means a lot. Without you, it wouldn’t have been so much fun.

Wild Women and Books by Brenda Knight – Bibliophiles, Bluestockings, and Prolific Pens – A Post a Day in May

I kept this one for last as it’s hands down one of my favourite books. Wild Women and Books – Bibliophiles, Bluestockings, and Prolific Pens contains entries that span from Aphra Ben to Zora Neale Hurston. Now this may sound like it’s similar to Literary Witches but it’s quite different. It’s a much bigger book and while it contains photos, illustrations, and pictures of artwork, there is a lot of text in each chapter and on each writer. Additionally, to the chapter texts, it has boxes that give information on where to find the authors online and themed lists.

There is a total of seven chapters.

Chapter 1 – First Ladies of Literature is on the precursors and pioneers like Anne Bradstreet, Aphra Behn, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lorraine Hansbury.

Chapter 2 – Ink in their Veins focusses on women who come from writing dynasties, like the Brontës or Mary Shelley.

Chapter 3 – Mystics and Madwomen explores authors like Hildegard von Bingen and Teresa of Avila.

Chapter 4 – Banned, Blacklisted and Arrested is particularly fascinating. Why do women get blacklisted and who are they? I’ve always been baffled when I saw these lists of books that have been banned in the US. You can find many of them above. There are a lot of children’s authors like Judy Blume on that list.

Chapter 5 – Prolific Pens explores those women who seem to be publishing nonstop or have published a lot like Margaret Mead, Joyce Carol Oates, and also Margaret Atwood, Edith Wharton, Danielle Steel, and Barbara Cartland.

Chapter 6 – Salonists and Culture Makers looks at authors like Dorothy Parker, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Getrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and many more.

Cahpter 7 – Women Whose Books are Loved too Much is interesting and diverse. These are the authors who have a large fanbase, fervent followers and admirers. Some of them are Agatha Christie, Alice Walker, Anne Rice, and Margaret Mitchell.

I’m sure it’s easy to see why this is such an appealing book. Anyone will stumble upon authors they hadn’t heard of before as it is so diverse. The high and the low and those in the middle, they are all there. The book has a handy index at the back, lists with online book groups and further reading on women and books. Wild Women was initially published in 2000 and then reissued and updated in 2006. The only bad thing – it looks like it’s currently out of stock but second hand copies are cheap and easily available and there’s a kindle version too.

Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland – Animal Cuteness -A Post a Day in May

I feel like we can all do with some cuteness these days and so I decided to share this book about animal friendships. Unlikely Friendships is such a lovely book. The stories are all so touching and the pictures that go with them are beyond cute. Some of these friendships aren’t that uncommon but some really make you look twice. There are 47 true stories in the book, most of them accompanied by three to four pictures.

Some of the stories like that about the gorilla Koko and the kitty are quite famous. Others are told by people who witnessed their pets suddenly being very friendly with an animal from another species. Other stories have been reported by visitors to parks or nature reserves like this one:

This young male Macaque found a stray kitten in the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest in Bali. Visitors saw the two together. They were inseparable. The kitty could have gotten away many times, people even tried to take him away, but he always ran back to his monkey friend.

The story between the gorilla Koko and his kitten is well known as Koko was famous. In the 80s she was taught sign language and was able to communicate with people. One day, she told her teacher that she wanted a kitten for her birthday. And that’s how these two became friends. The story didn’t have a happy-ending as the kitten was later run over by a car. Koko was inconsolable and grieved her kitten for a very long time.

The friendship between this lioness and the baby Oryx is another very unlikely friendship. The two were spotted together in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.

There are several friendships between cats and other animals in this book. Cats and rats, cats and cockatoos, cats and pigs, and this one between an Iguana and a house cat. The Iguana was found wandering the streets of New York and someone rescued him. He couldn’t keep the animal and gave him to a friend, a nurse, who was known for rescuing stray animals. The Iguana thrived and grew and soon stretched to four and a half feet. When the nurse adopted a rescue kitten, the most unlikely thing happened – they became friends and are always close together.

This might be one of my favourite pictures because they both look at the camera in such a cute way. This friendship lasted until the owl was grown up, then it was brought to an aviary. To this day, when the owner of the greyhound walks by the aviary, the owl and the dog greet each other.

This male pit bull belongs to an owner who lives in Texas. When her female dog had pups, she noticed that the dad was even keener and more affectionate than the mother. Whenever there are small chicken on her farm, they climb on his back and he seems to love them very much. The closest friendship he has though is with a Siamese cat.

I hope you enjoyed this little sneak peek at this wonderful book. There are many other friendships in here – To name but a few more: Black bear and cat, dog and Bobtail Cat, White Rhino and Billy goat, seeing eyed cat and a blind mutt and macaque and white dove.

While this is a cute book, it also proves that animals have deep feelings and are capable to form strong connections and friendships.

Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson – History, Recipes, Quotes – A Post a Day in May

It is entirely possible that many of you already know Tea with Jane Austen as it was a favourite with book bloggers when it came out. That wasn’t exactly yesterday but in 2011. This edition, that is. The original was published in 2004.

Tea with Jane Austen is a delightful and informative book that will charm Jane Austen and tea lovers alike. As the introduction states:

The book examines the role tea played in everyday life for Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) and her characters. Illustrated with extracts from her novels, her letters, and the writings of her contemporaries, each chapter looks at tea in a different context, from taking tea at various times of day to its function in particular aspects of their lives. I also include some recipes of the time, along with adaptations for the modern cook, for tasty fare that was served with tea.

I like that we learn a lot about Austen’s life and the history and importance of tea at the time. The extracts from the letters and the quotes from the books really transport you back in time.

It’s an ideal companion to read alongside the novels, an excellent introduction to her life and work, or a nice way to remember those we’ve already read. But it can also be used to recreate a breakfast, afternoon, or evening tea à la Jane Austen.

Kim Wilson has written other books about Jane Austen. At Home with Jane Austen looks particularly appealing.

 

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy – Classic Russian Literature – A Post a Day in May

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, roughly thirty years after War and Peace and twenty years after Anna Karenina.

I have read this before but felt it was time to reread it. I didn’t realize when starting it, what an excellent companion piece to Flaubert’s A Simple Heart this is. Both novellas tell the story of a life. One the story of a simple, uneducated woman, the other the story of a highly educated, successful man. Both stories are tragic.

The Death of Ivan Ilych starts with the discussion of a few lawyers, one of which just read their colleague, Ivan Ilych, has died. This intro chapter sets the tone. The reaction of the men tells us everything about them, their way of life, and Ivan Ilych’s life. Not one of them is saddened. They are only upset because it briefly reminds them of death. They soon console themselves though.

The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died, and they hadn’t.

Only one of the men feels he should pay the widow a visit. Seeing the dead man makes him feel uncomfortable. He’s glad when he can escape again and go back to his life, his “friends” and playing bridge, a game Ivan Ilych had enjoyed and been very good at.

After this intro chapter follows the story of Ilych’s life. This is how it begins:

Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.

This is so short and cruel and tells us in one sentence everything that we need to know about Ivan Ilych. It condenses what we will read in the next chapters in more detail.

Ivan Ilych was a successful lawyer. He made a stunning career, even though he wasn’t always happy with the developments, especially not after he got married. What at first looked like a good idea, settling down with someone who had a bit of money and was nice to look at, soon proved to have been a mistake. She was jealous and never happy with what they had, always pushing him to make more and more money. He did so, not only for her and domestic peace, but because he, too, measured success in terms of financial and professional success. And he also liked power.

In his work itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality.

After living in provincial towns for many years, he finally gets offered a very good position in St Petersburg. He buys a house and furnishes it the way he always wanted. In his eyes it is perfection. But the author tells us otherwise.

In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes — all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.

Ivan Ilych, who has never done any manual thing in his life, enjoys decorating his new home but then something happens. He has a minor accident and feels some pain in his side.

Soon after this, he notices that the pain won’t go and that he has other symptoms. He knows he’s seriously ill, even fears he might die.

Over the next months, Ivan Ilych deteriorates more and more, is misdiagnosed and misunderstood and dies a lonely painful death.

Ilych’s illness and death are slow and agonizing and give him time to think about his life. He realizes that something had been missing, that he had measured success in the wrong way.

‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.

The tragedy is that the doctors who are incapable of empathy, are just like he was with the criminals— pompous and condescending. His entire world, he discovers is full of falsehood.

What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that he only needs keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is an upsetting story. It’s dreadful to see how much he suffers and how nobody cares. I think one can also feel that Tolstoy didn’t like his character and that might be the biggest difference to Flaubert’s story. Flaubert didn’t judge Felicité. He felt compassion. Tolstoy doesnt feel compassion for Ilych as he seems to stand for everything Tolstoy abhors – bureaucracy, nepotism and arrivistes.

As I mentioned before, I read this twice and it feels like I’ve been reading two different stories just because my own life has changed so much. The first time, I’ve read it right after my dad’s death. This time around the sections on illness got to me more because the doctor’s reminded me so much of some of the doctor’s I’ve seen in the last couple of months. They just didn’t listen and had their idea about why I was in pain but very clearly they were wrong.

A lot has been speculated about Ivan Ilych’s illness. It’s never said what he has and might not be important. There are also many theories about the meaning of this story. To me, it is the story of a man who wanted only pleasant things in life, who hated change, and let himself drift until he hit a major obstacle, which he was incapable of overcoming. In that, and verything else, he is indeed mediocre.