Bullies, Priories, Poles, and Following: Whipple, Pilch, and Klute

Dear Reader:

Follow me Friday

Alison Can Read and Parajunkee are sponsoring Feature and Follow Friday which is featuring Omnom Books.  This is another meme that links up book bloggers and gets them following each other.  They also ask us to answer the following question:  Q: Define what characteristics your favorite books share. Do they all have a kickass heroine or is the hot love interest the Alpha Male?

I definitely enjoy books with strong women who are working through challenges. 

I like to read about how they think and relate to other people. 

Long, “chunksters” are particularly fun – I love entering into someone’s world and feeling sad when the book is over and the story is done.

Love interests are great – but I find sensitive, thoughtful men more intriguing than Alpha men – who needs them?

How about you?  Do you have a favorite type of book?

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

I finished #174 The Priory last night – at about 525 pages, it qualifies as a chunkster book.  This is the story of the Marwoods.  The Marwoods are a quintessential dysfunctional family living in a rapidly deteriorating “pile.”  The Saunby House sits on a lot of acres of gorgeous, declining grounds.  Major Marwood, the patriarch, is about as self-involved as a man can be – he comes awake once a year at cricket season and otherwise slumbers away focused on avoiding anyone and everything.

Aunt Victoria Marwood, an “artist,” holes herself up in a couple rooms sucking down meals and putting out mediocre paintings.  Christine and Penelope live in the former nursery on the third floor, although not twins (at the start, they are 19 and 20) they behave like them, creating their own world and only venturing down to gad about the grounds.

Things begin to shift when the Major decides he needs to acquire a wife who can better bring things into line in order to put on a more successful cricket season on the grounds.  And so he marries Anthea who is 37 and left behind.  At first Anthea approaches this like a conventional marriage but the honeymoon isn’t over before she begins to realize that this is not the case.  Anthea has been living with her condescending parents and reading books about how to be happy.  And at first, the book seems like an exploration of whether she can figure out how to be happy.  To some degree, it is, but it is also a book about men and women and babies and relationships and wealth and family.  It asks whether a disconnected family like the Marwoods can be happy.

Published in 1939 on the eve of World War II, the impending war enters in the last few chapters.  It is interesting to read about people awaiting the verdict – to war or not?  I wasn’t as swept away by this book as I have been by other Whipples.  I enjoyed it and I found it interesting to take so many unlikeable characters and watch them attempt to grow up.  I’m sure that it was a challenge writing them.  Whipple shows us how people carve out niches for themselves when the people around them are little to no help.  I suppose there are and were men around like Major Marwood, but I didn’t buy him – I found his obliviousness so extreme.  Maybe if I hung around more upper class Brits whose stars are in descendence I would learn that he is a definite type.  That said, I approached the story as – let’s see what she does with Anthea?  Will Anthea pull out of this?  Christine?  Penelope?  And I’ll just say that her answer is (I think) pretty accurate – some people do and some people don’t.  I think we’ve all seen this in our own lives.

Additional reviews are at: Thomas at My Porch (who seems like a sensitive guy given his many Whipple reviews!), A Girl Walks into a Bookstore, Books and Chocolate (yum), and Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog (who had a similar experience as I did).

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, Translated by David Frick from Polish, Open Letter Press

I decided to make another assault on my many Open Letter Press books in translation with #120 A Thousand Peaceful Cities (it was the shortest of the unread bunch at 150 pages).  And this time, I approached it a bit more strategically, using Susan Wise Bauer’s reading a novel method (taking notes in the book and in a notebook, about characters and summarizing all chapters).  Using her method helped, if only because it kept me focused and made it a bit more like work than “entertain me” play.  This last note comes from Jillian’s lit prof who said something to the effect of: “Don’t expect a book to entertain you.  As you read, put yourself in the place of the protagonist, imagine yourself in their shoes…”

All of this helped.  I tend to get distracted by anything other than rational, linear narratives.  Peaceful Cities is sort of straight foward, but it definitely ranges into allegories and myths – a bit of magical realism, if you will.  I had the note from Chad Post of Open Letter Books describing his reaction to the book (he was drinking while editing the translation – feeling that this was in the spirit of reading a Pilch book – Pilch treats alcohol like his current wife) that ran a couple pages – following Bauer’s advice, I chose not to re-read it before or while reading the book, this was good.

OK, so the key people in the book are Jerzy (a boy of about 12 or so), his father, and Mr. Traba.  They are living in 1963 Poland (the book was published in Poland in 2009).  Mr Traba and Jerzy’s father are living the life of committed alcoholics focused on their vodka bottles.  Mr Traba decides that he’s never been able to achieve anything, he’s likely near death, and so he needs to do something with his life.  He reckons that the most valuable service he can provide to humanity is to assassinate a tyrant.  He’d like to kill Mao or Kruschev, but can’t afford the trip to China and figures Kruschev is on his way out.  He likes Franco.  So, the Polish First Secretary (I gather this is a high ranking official) is his best bet – Warsaw is not that far away.  Without giving too much away, I’ll say that what they ultimately decide and do has quite unexpected consequences.  And actually, consequences of profundity – a reader has to chew on them a bit.

I read this book as a story of the absurdity of life under Soviet rule.  Politicians are cruel and stupid.  The Church (in this case, the Lutheran church, although the Catholic church is more established in the country) is corrupt and disconnected.  Nobody can do anything reasonable, so why not drink your life away and fantasize about murder?  I didn’t get too caught up in the magic and tried to read it in this way – sometimes thinking about Chinese novels, also written in an oppressive atmosphere, using ways of saying things without saying them (obviously, the book was written post-Soviet era, but I think Pilch is writing in this oppressed artist under authoritarian state genre).  Pilch can be quite funny.  So, I’m glad I read the book.  I think it enhanced my understanding of Poland in this era and artists in this world.

It was interesting to read Post’s discussion – he picked up on the sex, humor, and alcohol and made no mention about the oppression and life under Soviet rule.  Particularly interesting because he is the one who chose to translate it.  I think our differences, to some degree, come from being male and female.  And it is fascinating to learn how different people read something.  Knowing a Latvian and a Lithuanian pretty well, I know that it is a truism in those countries that for about forty years every problem had its roots in the Soviets.  I have a bit of an understanding of what it meant to make a life in a world controlled by people of a different culture and country.  (very hard) I guess what really surprises me is that minus the reading of a book written “as if” under Communist rule, I’m not sure there’s much of a book there.  Or I should say, not much of an important book.  Again, I want to emphasize that I do think this is an important book and I am glad I read it even though some of the style and topics weren’t my favorites, it expanded my worldview and understanding and that is always worthwhile.  I’m going to see my Lithuanian friend soon and plan to give him the book – if he has a chance to read it, I’d love to hear his view on it.

Winston: The Dog Who Changed my Life by Hilmar Klute, translated from German (translator is not credited)

Finally, and on a lighter note – #173 Winston is the story of a man and his wife and the bull terrier pup they adopt.  His wife finds Winston as a puppy tied up in a graveyard in the winter with some food, a note (saying his name is Winston and providing his shot records), and his bowls.

This book was lent to me by Christy of Saved by Dogs.  Christy is the proud owner of a bull terrier (or terrorist, as I gather some terrier owners fondly refer to their pets) Gracie.

Gracie the Bully

Katie, Gracie’s dominant sister. Source: Saved by Dogs.

Yes, bull terriers are those dogs with, IMHO, the most unusual heads in the canine kingdom.  I think they’re cool, but Christy says lots of people don’t share my appreciation of their heads.  So, at any rate, the Klutes are “non-dog” people.  They have never had a dog before and don’t plan to ever have one again after Winston.  They are ambivalent about keeping the pup, but eventually he wears them down.  (he is not the dog on the cover, but the dog on the cover is a “bully” or “bullie”)

Being a “non-dog” person, Hilmar is like an anthropologist reporting on his excursions into a new tribe (dog-nuts like me).  Dog-parks, doggy day care, vets, dog-walks, dog-carers, vets, pet stores, dog-kennels, etc.  it is all new to Hilmar.  And it is fun to read his wry descriptions of these nutty folk (of whom he becomes a reluctant tribal member).  Because slowly, but surely, he gets sucked in.  It is also fun that I live in the rural United States and know something about dog-folk culture here.  Hilmar lives in urban Germany.  Some things are different, but lots aren’t.  The tiny dog owners who grab up their jewels and cross to the other side of the street to avoid our big, mean retrievers and terriers.  The folks with, let’s just say, “magical realist” explanations of dogs.  The conflicts over off-leash and overly exuberant young dogs (Winston, sadly, gets ejected from doggy daycare for rowdiness).

I enjoyed this book – Klute writes with great humor and notices a lot that has become background to me given that my life revolves around my gang.  I enjoyed learning the perspective of someone with one foot in and one foot out of “dogworld.”  If you are looking for a dog book in the humorous memoir niche, this is a sure bet.  Two translated books done for my translated book challenge!   Thank you, Christy – I enjoyed this!

And since I haven’t subjected you to pictures of MY pets in awhile, here you go, another shot of Fred, my 17 year old cat doing his daily, very thorough cleaning of my young golden retriever, Gus’s head (which Gus, the dog who loves all forms of touch, adores).

Hold still, I tell you!  Hold still!

Happy Reading, Ruby



  1. chris

    I love the way Fred keeps Gus cleaned up – so very, very cute – and Gus does appear to enjoy the attention.

    I think I was in a bad mood when I read Klute – after a while he started to annoy me with his rather condescending tone. Of course, I think I read this just prior to or after surgery so I wasn’t in my happy place 🙂 I should give him another chance now that I’m feeling a little better.

    • Oh, NOW you tell me 🙂 I know what you mean – at first, I was concerned, I wanted to like the book cause I figured you did and I wasn’t thrilled with this guy. But I kept going and came to enjoy him. I think he was a dog-convert and had some funny insights. Ruby

  2. Great reviews! I like your approach to reading A Thousand Peaceful Cities…. I always regret that I don’t take notes while reading some of these more intricate books.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Sarah! Yes, I find it enriches my reading greatly – I just have to keep making the time and habit of doing it, thanks again, Ruby


  1. The List « A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books

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