Main characters: Billy Webb, Mona Minot
Time and place:2002; Claxton, Massachusetts
First sentence:“I lifted my head when I heard her knocking.”
Verdict: Interesting but not outstandingly so.
Billy, fresh out of college, has landed his first job: he works at Samuelson, a prestigious dictionary editing firm. The office seems such a quiet, quaint place — yet buried in their files lie hints that some of them may have committed murder.
The whole idea behind it was great in theory. People who little by little find puzzle pieces that they need to put together to discover a big picture is one of my favorite tropes. Unfortunately everything felt too easy in this book, and I ended up a tad disappointed.
Most of the story takes place in the Samuelson offices (Samuelson being ‘the oldest and most revered name in American dictionaries‘). For a new word to be acknowledged as official (and thus added to the lexicon), it has to have appeared in enough places so that its meaning can be inferred without a doubt. Which is why the people at Samuelson spend their days reading newly written stuff, collecting citations where any new words appear. They have a huge file of these things, going back decades, and is in this trove of wordsmithing that the excerpts from The Broken Teaglass lie innocuously among others.
To put it bluntly, the characters are one of my sources of disappointment with the book. For starters, I cannot pinpoint exactly why but I didn’t really like Mona. Perhaps because I found her reactions blown out of proportion now and then? Or maybe just because I didn’t like the way she talked sometimes.
As for Billy, he is a very nice guy, the kind that as a child was always assigned with the task of making other children feel at ease. He is intelligent, reliable, likes words well enough to work with them all day, has majored in philosophy, he loves to cook — what’s there not to like, right? And yet there were times I couldn’t quite ‘get’ him, couldn’t understand his motivations (his lonely car rides at night for example) so I wasn’t particularly fond of him either.
I did like some of the supporting cast though. Billy’s father for example, a former dentist who went to culinary school and now is very much into deserts. Or Dan, the senior editor of the office where Billy and Mona work. He was such a quiet, dignified guy, with an understated sense of humor and never prone to exaggerations (unlike Mona, yuck). He may well be my favorite character, I think.
A thing that I am not sure what to make of is how characters share the same obsessions.
While there’s nothing wrong with the idea of more than one person having thought of an idea, or concept, each doing so independently of the others, I am not sure whether I like it or not in this particular book. It made everyone’s personalities simply overlap, and, since they don’t otherwise have much in common, nor is the similarity relevant, or even noted, I do think the book could have done without it.
Interesting. Different than expected, in a good way :)
Although the two main characters happen to be a guy and a gal, both single, they defeat cliches and are not attracted to one another. They’re just friends, that’s all (the girl is attracted to someone else), and I think it was a welcome departure from the usual trope (and yes, I know that now and then Billy contemplates the possibility of his getting together with Mona, but it never gets more serious than that).
I have very much loved the starting point of the plot, finding a mysterious quote and trying to find some more, in order to piece out a mystery. Thing is, in this type of stories most of the fun isn’t finding out who did it (although or course this matters too), but the hunt for clues in itself. And it is here that the book fails the most: everything is way, way too easy for our characters; they end up knowing exactly where to search for the quotes, and then it all becomes a matter of time. As time is of no consequence (they have all the time in the world, there is nothing rushing their search) there ends up being no suspense at all. The reader knows that if he/she waits patiently the mystery will be revealed. And… it depends whether this is your cup of tea or not (I would have preferred to find it a wilder ride).
Thoughts on the title
The title mirrors the one of the mysterious book that sits at the center of the novel and holds the key to Billy and Mona’s search. Yes, I would say it’s a good one. Especially as the said teaglass (is that even a word? :) ) plays an important role in the events of the mysterious book too :)
Thoughts on the ending
What I liked most
Everything related to lexicography, and words, and getting to find out more about dictionaries and people who make them. The author herself has worked at Merriam-Webster, and it shows. I am very glad I read this book because of that, as it showed me the inner workings of an industry I have never actually thought about.
For example, this:
Turns out dictionary editors rarely start with “A.” Who knew? It’s because supposedly reviewers usually just lazily look up “A” words when they’re assessing the quality of a reference book, and you don’t want reviewers looking only at the work produced while your lexicographers are still a little rusty.
What I liked least
I’m having trouble deciding whether it was the lack of suspense or the lack of satisfying ending. Either way, I get that this is the author’s first book so I am not judging her harshly.
A quote I liked
It was pretty naive, this notion of hers—that a disaster needs to announce itself in grand fashion, with a deafening rumble or a crack in the earth. I knew from experience that she was wrong. A disaster can just as easily be a slow, silent rot. A disaster can creep in without much fanfare, and quietly stay.
Recommend it to?
People who like reading stories about words :)
This isn’t a bad book at all, just a rather unsuspenseful one; if you don’t need a dose of suspense in your books, by all means give it a try :)
Genre: “Coming of age”
Main characters: Sybillla and her son, Ludovic/”Ludo”
Time and place: the eighties and nineties; London, UK
First sentence: “My father’s father was a Methodist minister.”
This is the story of Sybilla and her boy Ludo. An American who has come to study languages at Oxford, Sybilla accidentally becomes pregnant after a one night stand spent out of pity with a guy she rather despised.
Alone in a foreign country and terrified by the perspective of having the boy grow up without a male role model in his life (especially after having once read “that Argentine soldiers tied up dissidents and took them up in planes over the sea and threw them out“, and wanting Ludo not tempted by “whatever it is that makes a man when told to toss a person from a plane do as told“), Sybilla’s solution is to have him watch Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as often as possible (mother and son even learn Japanese in order to better understand the said masterpiece).
However, Ludo is too curious about his actual father to care about the movie after a certain age. His mother won’t reveal his identity, in order not to disappoint him — but Ludo finds out nevertheless, and is, indeed, disappointed. Just as well he remembers about the movie, and starts on a quest of his own, to find himself the worthy father his biological one turned out not to be.
A rather surprising book. I don’t remember how it got on my TBR pile, and as such I had close to no expectations from it (although it is worth noting its Goodreads score is currently 4.09). I soon discovered I was in for a treat, especially when it came to the mosaic-like way the story was set out in. Furthermore, our two main characters are both very smart, and their conversations show it. This is most obvious when it comes to languages, as both mother and son share a common love for verbs, and complicated grammar. Sure, most of this “exotic talk” went straight over my head (there are many pages dedicated to Greek, or Japanese), but it gave the book a special kind of charm, nevertheless. The fact that all male characters are interesting people, with very interesting lives didn’t hurt either :)
The story takes place in the city of London, where Sybilla chose to reside in order to escape the constraints of her small town childhood. Here however Sybilla has met with a new set of constraints: she only has a work permit that allows her to work as a typist, so her intellect and her passion for languages go vastly unused. The city also becomes young Ludo’s classroom, as in the winter their flat was so cold that they had to go somewhere else to escape it; which is why they spent many hours on the tube, going round and round the same stations, or in the museums, with passers-by wondering about how precocious the little one is. I loved the fact that the story took place in London (being my favorite city and all), but I do believe any large city could have replaced it and the story would have been just the same.
First of all, I have adored Sybilla — perhaps because I found a bit of myself in her (she is a lot smarter though), or perhaps the fact that she seems quite similar to the author in some regards also helped (I for one have no doubt that the author enjoyed writing Sybilla very much). I loved the way she held on to her principles (while I don’t quite agree with all of them, I very much admired her constancy on the matter), such as when Ludo calls her to tell her that he will not come home that night she, adhering to her opinion that a mere difference of age should not give a person the right to decide over another, let him do whatever he pleased, although she was naturally worried and would have rather had him safe and sound at home.
I have very much enjoyed the way she talks (although admittedly it has the potential to get a bit tiring in real life). Here’s an example:
[Ludo] said: Aren’t you supposed to be typing The Modern Knitter?
Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure; all take their turns of retardation, said Sib. I’m up to 1965.
[Ludo] said: I thought you were going to finish it by the end of the week.
Perhaps no extensive and multifarious performance, said Sib, was ever effected within the term originally fixed in the undertaker’s mind. He that runs against Time, has an antagonist not subject to casualties.
Although Sybilla’s parents are mentioned only in a few pages at the beginning,it is very easy to see how she takes up after both of them: she is very intelligent, just like her father (and like Ludo in his turn), and she also has a slight obsessive compulsive component, just like her mother (a mother that, when angry, sat at the piano and played a piece over and over again; Sybilla does not play the piano, but when upset she sits down and watches The Seven Samurai, although she must have lost count of the hundreds of time she saw the movie before).
As for young Ludo, he is so precocious (not only he read by the time he was four, but he also knew Greek and Latin and a bit of math IIRC) that it borders on implausible, despite the fact that the way he ended up achieving so much is rather plausibly explained (Sybilla tried to teach him one new thing per day but he was so thirsty for knowledge he didn’t let her stop at just one). Thing is, he learns and learns and learns and gets to know so much, in so many various fields, that it’s very easy to forget he’s just a kid, longing for a father figure (an interesting scene I thought was when one of his not-quite-fathers asked about school and he was almost worried that his knowledge won’t be considered up to par for his age, when he was in fact A LOT smarter than the said father ever was:
Well, and so tell me about yourself, he said heartily. Where do you go to school? What are your interests?
I don’t go to school, I said. I study at home.
I was about to explain that I already knew Greek, French, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, Russian and some Latin (in no particular order), plus a smattering of 17 or 18 others, when he exploded.
Oh my GOD! he exclaimed in horror. What is the stupid woman thinking of? Do you know ANYTHING? What’s 6 X 7?
What do you mean? I asked cautiously. I hadn’t done much on philosophy of number yet.
He began pacing up and down the room, [...] He said: We’ve got to get you into a school pronto, my young friend. [...] He said: My God, I knew the whole times table up to 12 by the time I was 6.
I’d known the times table up to 20 by the time I was 4, but I was too disgusted to say so.
Last but not least, Ludo’s fathers are all impressive people, having gone through out of ordinary experiences, often because they were in search of something special. There was for example a painter who travelled the globe in search of the perfect blue, and then of the perfect white; a pianist who travelled to Africa to hear a certain echo of a particular drum beat; a linguist who went in search of a silent tribe, and so on. There was also Sorabji, a Nobel prize winner who managed to teach mathematics to a boy from an Amazonian tribe, without either of them speaking the other’s language (a quote I liked regarding that:
One day a boy from the tribe stood by him and seemed interested.
Sorabji thought: But how terrible! Suppose he is a natural mathematician, born into a society without mathematics! He had not bothered to learn the language but he had a sneaking suspicion you couldn’t count in it much past four. Imagine a mathematical genius born to a language where you went one fried ant, two fried ants, three fried ants, four fried ants, lots of fried ants, lots and lots of fried ants, lots and lots and lots of—The prospect was too frightful to contemplate.
). And let’s not forget my personal favorite, a guy named Mustafa Szegeti, famous for impersonating officials and forge papers (“He had been arrested in Burma when I was six for claiming to be a delegate from the United Nations, and in Brazil when I was seven he had passed himself off as an American commercial attache, and he had been self-appointed deputy director of the World Bank in Uganda and Bhutanese ambassador extraordinary to Mozambique. He had helped large numbers of people to escape death and torture and flee to reluctant asylums with imaginative documentation.“). It all started when he was in Guatemala, a guest of the British consul there, and he accidentally rode to a plantation where soldiers were shooting & killing some peasants. Inspired by Raoul Wallenberg‘s story he managed to forge about 50 or 60 British passports and distributed them to the peasants (thus securing them political protection). The trick worked like a charm and Szegeti developed a taste for this kind of thing, and thus his “career” was born.
The central relationship in the book is, of course, the one between Syb and Ludo. Given Sybilla’s revolutionary opinions on the matter of child-rearing, and Ludo’s precociousness, the two are very close, acting more like sister & brother than mother & son. Since the story is mostly narrated from Ludo’s point of view, we get to know his side of the relationship, and his feelings more. One can tell that he loves his mother and wants to protect her at best he can, and I found that very endearing.
Thoughts on the title
I have to say that I am not sure who this last samurai in the title is meant to be. Okay, so young Ludo, inspired by The Seven Samurai, goes in search of an “alternate” father, testing each candidate in turn, just like the movie taught him.
However, is the last samurai show spoiler
Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the title, quite the opposite actually :)
(as a bit of trivia, initially the title of the book was The Seventh Samurai; however, while this may make it easier for the reader to determine who exactly the title is referring to I must admit that I didn’t count the potential samurais so I am still totally clueless about the matter).
Thoughts on the ending
I truly adored it.
What I liked most
The fact that it felt like a really smart book, in a natural way, without forcing anything on the reader. I even learned some new things (well, not quite, since I seem to have already forgotten the details, but I loved the part where Sybilla teaches Ludo how to read Greek)(and did you know that Cezanne worked so slowly he had to use wax fruits as models ’cause real fruit rotted before he was done?)
Also, I have completely adored the very first story of the book: the story of how Syb’s father and mother have met.
You see, Syb’s father was also a child prodigy in his day. Son of a minister yet a declared atheist and firm believer in Darwin, he has been accepted at Harvard at 15. His father though told him that in his opinion he probably “should not reject God for secularism just because he won arguments with uneducated people. He should go to a theological college and give the other side a fair chance; if he was still of the same mind at the end he would still be only 19, a perfectly good age to start college.“.
And so Sybilla’s father “enrolled at a theological college & went every Saturday to synagogue out of interest because there was no rule to say you couldn’t“. In the evenings he played pool, and he was so good at it that he earned himself a little fortune. A stranger told him he would do well to invest in a motel, but the father did not care about the advice as he was getting ready to go to Harvard. However by the time he finished his current college the Harvard people denied him the scholarship because his results at theological school were not that good.
Angry that his father’s idea has made him lose his chance at Harvard, Syb’s father (still unnamed) drove 1300 miles to visit a friend in Philadelphia. The friend’s family were going through a crisis of their own, as the friend’s youngest sister, 17, refused to go to college because she wanted to study music. Her father refused to let her do that and “Linda had gone to the piano and begun to play Chopin’s Prelude No. 24 in D minor, a bitter piece of music which gains in tragic intensity when played 40 times in a row.”
Just as she was going through her 41st rendition of the song Syb’s father entered the room. He saw Linda and his ideas on life and the world changed then and there.
“My father stood by the piano and he suddenly thought What would be the odds against going to a seminary and going to synagogue and learning to play pool, just suppose he fell in love with a Jewish girl from Philadelphia and made a fortune in motels and lived happily ever after, say the odds were a billion to one that was still not the same as impossible so it was not actually impossible that his father had not, in fact—[ruined his life]”
“Linda plunged down to the bass and hammered out three bitter low notes. Doom. Doom. Doom.
The piece was over. She looked up before starting again.
Who are you? she said.
Buddy introduced my father.
Oh, the atheist, said my mother.”
I absolutely adore these last few lines :) (the way it is all Linda this and Linda that, and then, the moment they are introduced, she turns into “my mother” — like all their common future, including Syb, become reality in the moment the two set eyes on one another :) )
What I liked least
The novel has a very interesting structure (definitely not a flaw), and sometimes this was a bit pushed to the extreme by alternating moments in time (sometimes going so far as to insert a few sentences from one scene right into a sentence of another’s). Most of the times I actually liked the idea, but it did have the potential to confuse things at times (the first time I saw something like that I thought there was something wrong with my copy of the book).
And now for other bits that I have liked but I have no idea where to place :)
First stop, a quote from an interview of the author’s that makes her sound just like Sybilla & Ludo in the book:
I went to Oxford in 1979 to study classics and philosophy; I wanted the kind of formation that lunatic Pound had had, I also wanted to be able to tell a good argument from bad. So I spent an unconscionable amount of time reading the whole of Homer in Greek, the whole of Virgil in Latin (among many others); I decided at one point that I could not know anything about Greek tragedy unless I had read all extant texts, so I read the whole of Greek tragedy one summer. I didn’t have much money; I didn’t have much of a social life.
Quite a novel idea, methinks:
His head lay on the pillow, face as I had seen it, skull encasing a sleeping brain; how cruel that we must wake each time to answer to the same name, revive the same memories, take up the same habits and stupidities that we shouldered the day before and lay down to sleep.
I’ve never though about it that way, nor do I think I agree with the idea, but I like its novelty nevertheless.
Ludo, sort of inspired to lie his way through the world after his meeting with Szegeti (who was a great man and has done a world of good, but didn’t care for respecting the truth at all):
I had started by picking the wrong kind of father, but now I knew what to look for I could build up a collection of 20 or so. I felt ashamed, really ashamed of all the years I’d spent trying to identify the father who happened to be mine, instead of simply claiming the best on offer.
Also quite a novel point of view, don’t you think? :)
Recommend it to? I am told this book is similar to David Foster Wallace’s, or Thomas Pynchon’s (I have yet to discover them both). So if you read and liked one of these authors, or if you like convoluted stories and out of ordinary books you might want to give this one a try too :)