Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise: Review

The Tower, the Zoo and, the Tortoise: A Novel
By Julia Stuart
Published by Doubleday
Published in 2010
ISBN: 978-0-385-53328-7
(Originally published in Great Britain in paperback as Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo)

I own this copy which, incidentally, is a First American Edition. I wasn't paid for this review but owning a kind-of-first-edition makes up for that. Also it's September's book club book.

None of us know what life will hold for us. When we're young and invincible, we have no clue what curve balls life will throw at us. This was certainly true for Hebe and Balthazar Jones, whose once intense love for each other has been torn to shreds by the loss of their only son, Milo. Thrown apart by their grief, they mourn separately in the same dank tower within the Tower of London where Balthazar is a Beefeater (the official guardian of the Tower of London sort, not the steak-scoffing variety). Hebe is unable to comprehend her husband's apparent lack of grief for the son he had loved so dearly and the obsession he has harboured ever since that terrible day that Milo passed away with collecting various types of rainfall in Egyptian perfume bottles.

When Balthazar is asked to take charge of the relocation of animals that were gifts from various heads of state to HRH Queen Elizabeth on account of his owning the oldest tortoise in the world, he is initially reluctant. He already has enough trouble making it through each day as it is but takes on the responsibilities as he believes it will ensure he won't be fired for his recent appalling record with catching pickpockets. As time passes, he relearns his ability to love through his connection with the animals, including a bearded pig that was not supposed to be taken to the Tower, and the heart that had been frozen with grief starts to thaw.

The drama of at the Tower of London is not limited to the Joneses alone. Ruby Dore, landlady of the Rack and Ruin, the pub within the Tower walls has just discovered she has returned from a holiday to Psain with a little more baggage than she had hoped for. Meanwhile, Reverend Septimus Drew, who is madly in love with Ruby, is living out a secret life in his spare time between preaching and exorcising the various residential areas of the Towers. Outside of the Tower walls there is Valerie Jennings, a woman of 'considerable girth' who works alongside Hebe at the London Underground Lost and Found office, meticulously logging all found items and attempting to reconnect them with their owners. Pursuing her is the tattooed ticket inspector, Arthur Catnip, who only gets the nerve up to ask her out when he comes to the counter to find her stuck in the front end of a pantomime horse's costume.

This novel is a charming blend of mad-cap characters, their messy lives, British history, and a bit of romance. It's a book that will draw you in and create a world that you won't want to leave. I absolutely adored this book from beginning to end, even though I did sometimes find the descriptions a little heavy-handed or repetitive in parts (the phrase 'fulsome buttocks' should never be used more than once within a novel, it ruins its effectiveness). If you're looking for something that is a bit mad that's fun but still has emotional resonance then this is the book for you. It's a gem to rival the crown jewels themselves.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Sunday Salon: 9/11 and its literature

Ground Zero
Image Source: Here
Ten years ago today I was dragged out of my bed by my mother. She was saying something about "You have to see this!" and "Oh my God!" Through the haze of my attempts to wake up, I saw on the television the footage of a plane flying into the side of a building and then, horrifyingly, its collapse with people still inside. Immediately, I was awake. All of the questions that everyone else who was seeing this for the first time came falling out of my mouth. I was rooted to the spot for the next half an hour taking all of the information in. 

I was in my first year of studying at university, a couple of months shy of my 19th birthday. My abiding memory of that day was sitting around in the quad with my friends, all of us trying to comprehend what had happened and what kind of effects it would have on our lives. We had a Statistics exam that evening. I remember that the majority of the class bombed and I always wondered if our lecturer realised why that probably was. 

Ten years later I'm still transfixed by the events of that day as post-9/11 literature is the focus of my thesis. I've read a raft of novels that I consider to be post-9/11 - that is, literature that directly represents the events of the day or the effects on society after the events. I'm more interested in reading novels that register the after-shocks as I always think that seeing what happens after is far more informative than the fiction that tries to re-create what was undeniably a terrible event. So since this is my "Special Topic" of interest, I thought I would create a post-9/11 reading list. To honour the memory of those who perished in the collapse of the towers, the attack on the Pentagon and in the flight that went down in Pennsylvania, I believe it is best to keep on thinking and keep on asking questions. 

Falling Man by Don DeLillo
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
The Zero by Jess Walter
Ghost Town by Patrick McGrath
Saturday by Ian McEwan
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I haven't read these yet but I hear they're worth a look - 
Terrorist by John Updike
Submission by Amy Waldman
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer.

Also, go over to The New Dork Review of Books for this thoughtful and interesting post about what we should expect from fiction about this subject. 

What is your favourite post-9/11 novel?