Saturday, February 19, 2011

books from strangers / whistling for elephants

i am reading. a novel. and loving it. i got this book from a complete stranger, via the public bookshelf the mercator foundation set up downtown. the whole thing is simple enough:

it's a simple construction that keeps the books safe from wind and rain, while still letting you see what's there.  people can just take what they're interested in and / or drop of books they no longer need or want to share. of course a fair share of the books are lame old things but i continue to be surprised by some of what i find there. i stop by there at least once a week, have a look and tidy up the shelves a bit. i think every city, every town should have one of these! what a brilliant idea!

anyway, this is what i found on the public bookshelf yesterday:

1967 ladybird book, good shape
which, while fiction, is not the book i was talking about in the introductory sentence of this post. :) but i did want to mention this, because it is a neat little item - i remember when i volunteered at the reading oxfam bookshop we had a number of customers who came in for these little books especially; collectors who were looking for specific editions and many of whom found at least some of what they were looking for on our shelves. finding this on the public bookshelf was a big surprise for me - sure, i can see where the english-language romance novels, thrillers, and chick lit might come from, but to my knowledge these old ladybird books would have come from - a british / anglophile family or collector (more likely a collector, since it is in such good shape). 

anyway, this is the "real" find for this week:

whistling for the elephants
by sandi toksvig

part of what piqued my curiosity here was that i had heard neither the title nor the name of the author before, and it did not look like chick-lit. i opened the book at the beginning and ran into the main character, a girl named dorothy:

I was ten. Almost certainly I was wearing a short tartan kilt (Clan McLadybird), a white shirt, a very neatly tied tie, a blue blazer and a peaked sailor's cap which hid my long curly ginger hair. No-one made me dress like that. It was a kind of school uniform I had invented for myself. In the photos the combination tie and skirt made me look a strange boy / girl hybrid. My face, born with a frown, was obscured by the peak of my hat. I had spent most of my early childhood shielded from a full view of anything. The cap and I were inseparable. I was, even in my tender years, trying to develop a rakish look. I spent many hours trying to persuade people to call me Cap'n instead of Dorothy. It didn't work. Not a popular child. Not even with my parents. 

by then i knew dorothy and i would be fast friends. :) she is a truly intriguing girl who is not so much raised as she just sort of grows and raises herself. her most prized possession is a "piece of illuminated manuscript" that illustrates the structure of the animal kingdom according to (supposedly) 10th century chinese thought. reading up on this just now, i found this is a direct quote also cited by borges (see's_Taxonomy to read this thing - quite poetic really!) first it seems that the reason dorothy (never dottie!) sees this item as a treasure is because it was the only gift she ever received that was unasked for, even unexpected, but this whole theme of animals is deeply woven into the fabric of this novel and no doubt will play a vital role in her story. the "real" relationships, actual rapport, happens only between humans and animals here, among people who are just figuring out how to live after WW2.

dorothy's british family move much and, as we join her, have just moved to america, and for the first time, they could become a real family in a real home - maybe. probably not. the relationship between her and her parents is somewhat... antiseptic.

the book is full of great character descriptions and little observations dorothy makes concerning those around her, such as this when she has entered an (assumedly) abandoned grand house and admires a large painting full of animals:

"We shall have a Chinese Garden of Intelligence." I jumped as a voice spoke behind me. I thought for a second it came from the picture. "A Great Menagerie. Like King George at Windsor or the Duke of Bedford. Tropical princes shall come and bring us barbaric offerings of tigers, leopards and creatures no man has ever seen before. We shall have such a collection that the Emperor of Abyssinia will hear of it and wish to come." 
I turned but couldn't see anyone. Then, amongst the great drapes which covered the walls, something moved. A giant insect woman. All in brown. Its wings closed about itself. It spoke to me. 
"No one, not even in Egypt, China, India or Rome, will be able to boast of such exotica."
The huge bug shimmered toward me. She was maybe in her late thirties but when you're a kid everyone just looks old. She was probably as old as Mother, just less set in aspic. 

in any case, since i got the book yesterday i've read almost half of it and can't wait to read on. i am glad i checked the bookshelf yesterday, and - thanks, stranger, for sharing this book with me!

1 comment:

  1. I love the free library concept and this book, Whistling for the Elephants, is one of my all time favorites - very beautifully written, very moving - I've recommended it to every reader I know