Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

Farther On

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Pantheon; 268 pages; $24.95)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960’s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing…

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made her best career out of avoiding her father.   Now the time for avoidance is gone.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, and his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate, to have people leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hard-backed and wooden…”

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when this novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora so hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nonetheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mom’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mother suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist Flora is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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A Cat Named Darwin

I was born a Homo Sapiens./ Then I became a biologist./ Then I became a cat.

You have no idea./ Read on, friends.

Many years ago I finished reading a book about a cat that I was quite sure would never be surpassed.   That book was The Best Cat Ever by the late Cleveland Amory.   Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across a paperback by someone named William Jordan…   The book was A Cat Named Darwin: Embracing the Bond Between Man and Pet.   This is the best cat story ever!

Jordan’s tale is perhaps best expressed by this book’s original sub-title:  How a Stray Cat Changed a Man into a Human Being.   As he so nicely explains, “…it was during my forty-fifth year on this glowing blue Earth that a cat entered my house and stole my heart.”   Yes, the then-unnamed cat was a “home invader” who instead of being chased away, entered writer Jordan’s home and office flat in Long Beach, California.   It seems that the more Jordan attempts to get rid of the cat he  named after Charles Darwin, the more the cat embeds itself into his home/heart.

Eventually Jordan realizes that the more time he spends around the wily Darwin the more he enjoys himself; Darwin helps the author to re-create himself as a better person.   “…because I had come to love this small creature, whatever happened to him happened to me.”   Sadly, Darwin is a very sick cat but this makes the time he spends with the author all the more precious.

Yes, every cat – if not pet – owner will identify with Darwin’s antics and activities.   Like our own retired cat, he was first and foremost a fighter in his prime:   “…he loved the slings and arrows of the feline military existence.   Combat gave meaning to his life.   Danger was what he lived for.”

Jordan, trained as a biologist, does an excellent job of explaining why cats – whose ancestors have occupied the planet for 60 million years or so – are so intelligent and why they are able to co-exist with their human owners in a way that is distinct from dogs.   The one caution about this book is that it would certainly be a difficult read for anyone who has recently lost a pet; contra, some would find it the best time to read this true story of love and loss.

Yes, this is a love story, now available in trade paperback form for $14.95 (Mariner Books).   In the author’s words, “I thanked Darwin for giving me life.”   At the end of this furry tail (tale), you will thank the author and Darwin and Hoover the cat for giving us this story.   Highly, highly recommended!

In the end,/ Because I became a cat,/ I became a human being.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   “A gripping and powerful book…  shot through with a kind of elation.”   San Diego Union-TribuneDarwin (lg.)

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