Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reading: Envying Gerald Durrell

If you’d like to take a break from dark and heavy memoirs and read one that is light yet literary; or if you wouldn’t mind spending time on a sun-drenched Greek island but don’t have the time or means, then read Gerald Durrell’s memoirs about his childhood in Corfu.
My Family and Other AnimalsMy memoir group and I were in exactly that mood last spring. Bogged down by reading memoirs about death, depression and illness, we resolved to read funnier, upbeat books over the summer, and of all the books we read last year, including the darker ones, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals was my favorite.

This surprised me because I am not a big animal lover, and this book is all about 10-year-old Gerry discovering the wild life of Corfu. However, his accounts are so whimsical, comical and light-handed, and his prose so gorgeous that I loved the book. Anyone who can come up with a phrase like “the headlight raked along the veranda briefly” to describe the sweep of a car’s lights at night is a prose genius, and a master of the strong verb.
Birds, Beasts, and RelativesI went on to read the sequel Birds, Beasts and Relatives, dog-earing many pages for their gems of prose. Here is one: “The first course that Demetrious-Mustapha set before us was a fine, clear soup, sequined with tiny golden bubbles of fat…” Who would think of sequins when describing fat droplets on a soup’s surface? It makes me drool with envy!
Durrel’s Corfu Trilogy (I’m currently reading Garden of the Gods which is only available second hand) is ideal bedtime reading (which is where I read most of the time) because it is written in episodes. You can pick it up anytime, and read a page or two without having to recover where you were at. And yet I got invested enough in the cast of characters of his family to want to read on, to find out what adventures befell them, or how they extracted themselves from a mishap.
As one of my students confirmed, My Family and Other Animals also gave us a whole new appreciation for the natural world. Due to this book, she was, all of a sudden, amused by the web one spider was spinning outside of her high rise office window, and she got really worried when the window washers came by (the spider survived). Just this morning, as I was walking to work, I spotted an earthworm and was reminded how little Gerry would have collected it to feed it to one of the birds he was keeping.
One interesting tidbit as we come off the Greg Mortenson memoir scandal: Gerald Durrell didn’t take the truth too literally himself. When you check out his bio on Wikipedia, you’ll find that his famous novelist brother Larry didn’t live with the family in the villa as in the story, but was married and living in town. I expect Durrell would have been roasted for that in our day and age, and given the charm of this book, I wonder whether we are taking it all too seriously these days.


  1. Beautiful review. I love animals. I hope I remember that book. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for the wonderful review and suggestion.

  3. You've done a marvelous job reviewing the two books- they are two of my favorite! I need to go back and read the first coz it has been ages since I've read it - and as I read your review, it made me want to re read it!

  4. This post made me made smile this morning - My Family and Other Animals is among my favorites of all of the memoirs we've read for class. Now you've inspired me to dig in to the rest of the triology. Plus, I'm happy to report, I'm still watching the spiders spin their wonderful webs outside of my window. Really love your blog, Annette!

  5. The Desert Rocks - you should definitely read it if you love animals!
    Shelly - same for you - it's a wonderful summer read.
    Anjuli - read it again if just for the stunning prose.
    Diane - glad to hear you're still watching those spiders. Maybe a piece will come out of that?

  6. Love Gerald Durrell, only author to make me laugh out loud in the days when you spelt it properly before lol. Lol. I still think of Ursula each time I visit strange loos. (keep reading Fillets of Plaice)