Cariola's 2019 Quest for Excellent Books
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So how many of you glanced at the portrait above and thought it was Queen Elizabeth I? Nope, it's her cousin, once removed, Lettice Knollys. Lettice's grandmother, Mary Boleyn, was the sister of Elizabeth's mother, the notorious Anne Boleyn. While the two of them may look alike, they were far from "kissing cousins." It's said that Elizabeth was jealous of Lettice's superior beauty--and then there were complications due to the men in their lives. When Amy Robsart, wife of Elizabeth's longtime favorite, Robert Dudley, broke her neck falling down a staircase, the queen and just about everyone else expected that she would marry the handsome widower, but the opposition of Dudley's political rivals--not to mention suspicions that Amy's fall might not have been accidental--dissuaded Elizabeth, although she kept him dangling for decades. At one point, he had a brief flirtation with a married and pregnant Lettice, now Countess of Essex, which further enraged the queen. In 1565, Elizabeth made a deal made a deal with another royal cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots: marry Robert Dudley, and I'll name you as my heir. No one really expected Mary to accept, but when she did, Dudley backed out, much to his queen's displeasure. Once he realized that marriage to Elizabeth would never come about, he secretly married the widowed Countess of Essex--Lettice Knollys--and the couple was banished from court for a time. Dudley proved to be an affectionate and supportive stepfather to her four children, presenting her eldest son, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, at court. Young Robin succeeded his stepfather as the queen's favorite, but his ambition and pride overstepped any privilege and authority that Elizabeth extended to him. Ultimately, after leading a rebellion in 1600, he was tried for treason and beheaded. Lettice had married for a third time seven months after Dudley's death. Sir Christopher Blount, a handsome soldier 13 years her junior, joined Essex and his rebels and consequently lost his head.
Wikipedia sums up Lettice Knollys's later years as follows: "Throughout her life, Lettice Knollys cared for her siblings, children, and grandchildren. Until their respective deaths in 1607 and 1619, her daughters Penelope and Dorothy were her closest companions. The young third Earl of Essex, also called Robert, shared much of his life with the old Countess at Chartley and Drayton Bassett. Still walking a mile a day at nearly 90, she died in her chair in the morning of 25 December 1634, aged 91. Widely mourned as a symbol of a by-gone age, she wished to be buried 'at Warwick by my dear lord and husband the Earl of Leicester with whom I desire to be entombed.' Her request was respected and she came to rest in the Beauchamp Chapel of Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick, opposite the tomb of her son, young Lord Denbigh."
Best of 2019 (so far):
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
I, Hogarth by Michael Dean
The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M Graff
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan
Spring by Ali Smith
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent
Little by Edward Carey
The Welsh Fasting Girl by Varley O'Connor
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
River Thieves by Michael Crummy
Best of 2018:
Circe by Madeline Miller
Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Transit by Rachel Cusk
A Slant of Light by Jeffrey Lent
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Florida by Lauren Groff
Improvement by Joan Silber
The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam
Winter by Ali Smith
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mizra
Lighthousekeeping by Janette Winterson
Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao
1. Melmoth by Sarah Perry
2. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
3. Little by Edward Carey
4. The Danish Queen by Lynda M. Andrews
5. In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent
6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
7. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
8. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
9. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
10. The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau
11. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
12. River Thieves by Michael Crummy
13. As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner
14. The Glovemaker by Ann Weisgarber
15. The Welsh Fasting Girl by Varley O'Connor
16. The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin
17. Anne Vavasour and Sir Henry Lee: Discovering a Tudor Love Story by Bart Casey
18. The Brothers Boswell by Philip Baruth
19. The White Book by Han Kang
20. The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz
21. The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks
22. Spring by Ali Smith
23. The Pioneers by David McCullough
24. A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan
25. True West by Sam Shepard
26. The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
27. Harry Clarke by David Cale
28. Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan
29. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
30. The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
31, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
32. Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
33. Antarctica by Claire Keegan
34. Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard
35. American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper
36. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
37. Underground: Tales for London by various authors
38. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
39. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
40. Monster: The Story of Young Mary Shelley by Mark Arnold
41. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Ziji
42. Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton
43. Managing Type 2 Diabetes by American Diabetic Association
44. The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter by Hazel Gaynor
45. Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent
46. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea by Melissa Fleming
47. The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
48. Normal People by Sally Rooney
49. The Sea and the Silence by Peter Cunningham
50. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
51. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff
52. The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories by Ayse Bucak
53. The Vagrants by Yijun Li
54. The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
55. I, Hogarth by Michael Dean
56. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
57. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
58. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
59. Winter by Christopher Nicholson
60. The Innocents by Michael Crummy
61. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
62. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
63. Marley by Jon Clinch
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
I always hate starting off the year with a disappointing read. I loved Sarah Perry's last book, The Essex Serpent, and was really looking forward to Melmoth. There were elements of the supernatural in The Essex Serpent, but it was, to me, much more a story about characters, their relationships, and the struggles they faced in Victorian England. Here, although there is a psychological element, Perry seems overwhelmed by the creepy and the desire to write a book that would appeal to readers who love both literary and creepy books. Unfortunately, she failed. The result is a book that seems to have been based on a lot of research that the author didn't quite know what to do with. To a great extent, she just shoves that research into the book as research done by her characters, surrounded by a rather week plot.
The legend of Melmoth the Wanderer (known variously by other names) exists in many countries. One of the women who found Christ's tomb empty on the third day, Melmoth later denied that anything miraculous had happened and was condemned to wander the earth looking for a companion. She's depicted as the typical wraith: draped in swirling, filmy black cloth, her eyes hollow, her feet bloody from centuries of walking. Helen Franklin, the novel's main character, has lived in Prague for over 20 years. A quiet, solitary, mousy woman who translates equipment manuals for a living, she has befriended Karel, a professor, and his English wife, Thea, recently wheelchair-bound by a stroke. One day Karel calls her, frantic to set up a meeting, at which he thrusts into her hands half of a manuscript. It contains the research of Josef Hoffman, an elderly man who has recently died; the focus is reported sightings of Melmoth, who has a history of appearing to people in desperate situations or consumed with guilt. Shortly thereafter, Karel disappears, leaving Helen to watch over Thea and to continue reading the documents he has left her. The more she reads, the more she has a sense of being followed. Is it Melmoth? Or is it a secret from her past? Things start to both fall into place and get crazier when Thea gives Helen the second half of Hoffman's manuscript.
All I can say, in conclusion, is that I was mightily disappointed. The plot is transparent, the "surprises" not very surprising, and the structure weak. I would have given the book a lower rating if it hadn't been for Perry's fine writing. And I suppose one could read it as a study of human cruelty and selfishness, something we should all be attuned to these days.
Looking forward to all the books you'll read that I'll subsequently read and love too.
I wonder if I liked it more because the story of Melmoth was new to me? Maybe if you're very familiar with that legend it wasn't an interesting enough use of it to suffice.
Looking forward to your 2019 reading, duds and all.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
I almost gave up on this one as I was nearing the halfway point but stuck with it to the end. Overall, my opinion did not change much. For one thing, I found the book's structure annoyingly random. It started out in the first few chapters retelling the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Library's central building, but this is interspersed with a history of the museum and biographies of key figures, the author's investigation, interviews with various library personnel and patrons, and chapters that are little more than lists put into narrative form. The chapter that nearly made me abandon the book, for example, consists of sentences strung together that are nothing more than names of cities or or libraries and the number of books burned in each, either intentionally or in a fire, with little or no development--just a list of data. There are several similar chapters throughout, and I found them really bothersome. If I wanted to read a list of facts, I could have gone to Wikipedia. As another reader wrote in his/her review, it's as though the author couldn't bear to leave out a single research note card.
When I read fiction, character is extremely important to me, so it's no surprise that I found the chapters telling human stories were the best part of the book. But honestly, I'm not sure what all the hype is over this book. As someone who loves to read and therefore loves books, I guess I should be hanging my head when I say that I thought The Library Book was just OK. But when I find myself skimming as much as I did with this one, a three-star rating is fairly generous.
FYI, your touchstone for Melmoth goes to a different book.
Little by Edward Carey
What an entertaining, imaginative novel! Carey's narrator/protagonist is Marie Grosholtz,better known today as Madame Toussaud. The story begins as Marie, an unattractive, tiny seven-year old who loves to draw, describes her parents. Marie embellishes the pages of her tale with pencil drawings: when she describes her mother's large nose (which Marie inherited) and her father's upwards-thrust jaw (which she also inherited), she draws these body parts in the margins. Little Marie has two treasured belongings: a faceless doll that her mother made and her father's silver jawbone (a soldier, he lost the original in a battle). When double tragedies befall the family, Marie becomes apprenticed to Dr. Curtius, a reclusive anatomist whose job it is to make wax replicas of human organs for the local hospital's training purposes. Together, they begin the business of taking wax impressions of heads. As things prosper, they are convinced that they must move to Paris, where famous heads are more plentiful. The two take lodging with a tailor's widow and her odd (perhaps autistic) son. When the business prospers, they purchase The Monkey House, the former site of a simian exhibition, and it soon becomes the rage for the rich, famous, and powerful to have their heads cast in wax.
This is only the beginning, but I don't want to give too much away. Little (the derogatory nickname she is given by the widow) is not only a fictional biography of Marie, it is her first-person account of the court of Louis XVI and of the French Revolution--and a fascinating account it is. From Versailles to the streets of Paris to prison, Marie takes us along on a journey that is both glorious and harrowing, and her encounters with a wide cast of characters, from a feral boy to the king himself to Napoleon, opening a window onto the Reign of Terror and beyond. Throughout, her account is accompanied by her marginal drawings, making it all the more believable that this is Marie's own journal. However great the events and personages, we never forget that this is, indeed, her story.
Carey has given his protagonist a unique viewpoint into history and a compelling voice. I loved Marie, and I loved her story of hardships, successes, and survival. I will definitely be looking for other works by this author.
Little looks fantastic! I'm a sucker for novels set during the French Revolution, but so many are so very bad. I'm glad this one is a good one and I look forward to reading it. Unless our tastes have suddenly diverged. I'll let you know what I think about the next book I read because you loved it.
The Danish Queen by Lynda M. Andrews
This was a real stinker. I picked it up because one of my interests is the Stuart court, and because there isn't much written about Anne of Denmark. It was a total bore, and the dialogue was horrible. It started out almost as a sappy romance as James, king of Scotland, meets his new bride, but, of course, Anne soon learns that her husband prefers his male lovers. At this point, the author abandons any attempt at character and plot development and just walks us through a check list of historical events. I only finished it to see how she would handle particular events. She just didn't. This read like a novel written by a ninth grader who got bored with her project but was determined to "wrap it up."
This read like a novel written by a ninth grader who got bored with her project but was determined to "wrap it up."
Definitely a stumble on the quest for excellent books.
In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent
Another great book by Jeffrey Lent. If I have a single criticism, it's that this one could have used a little editing; it's really, really long, and heavy on description. Then again, description is one of Lent's strong points, and this is a sprawling family saga that runs through three generations. Besides, despite it's length, this is a real page-turner overall.
The novel opens with Norman Pelham, a twice-wounded veteran of the Civil War, making his way back home to Vermont after being released from service. He's accompanied by Leah, a beautiful runaway slave. Instead of taking a fast train home, Norman decided to walk home from Washington "to see the country"--much to his mother's dismay. And she is even more dismayed to learn that Leah is her son's new wife. It's the late 1860s, and even an abolitionist sympathizer like Mrs. Pelham feels this is taking things a bit too far. She moves into town, leaving the family farm to the young couple, with Norman's younger sister Connie stopping by every day to help out. Part I follows the Norman and Leah, along with their children, through the hard times and the good, their love overcoming every challenge and sorrow until a final blow and secrets from the past tear the family apart.
I really don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Part II focuses on the youngest child, Jamie, now an adult making his own way not too far from home. Something seems to haunt him; he's a quiet, overly cautious man but, like his mother, clever and resourceful. Jamie's sixteen-year old son, Foster, who is determined to uncover the truth about his father's past, brings the novel full circle in Part III. The novel explores issues of identity--the idea that we can never escape what made us who we are, and that running away from the past is never a clear-cut solution. Of course, it also examines attitudes towards race in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a beautiful story of hope, perseverance, forgiveness, and self-acceptance. Highly recommended.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
The Great Believers tells two interrelated stories told in alternate chapters, one set in Chicago in the mid-1980s, the other in Paris in 2015. The first centers around Yale Tishman, development director for a new gallery set to open at Northwestern university. As a gay man, Yale has seen the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic on his group of friends; in fact, the novel opens at a memorial party for his friend Nico. He is in a relationship with Charlie, a jealous partner who seems to almost be looking for Yale to be unfaithful. Makkai draws us into Yale's personal and professional worlds as he watches so many young men fade away, and as he attempts to secure an endowment of paintings that will give the new museum the boost it needs to attract more donors.
Fiona, Nico's sister, is the character that bridges the two stories. She supported her brother when he came out and was there for him and many of his friends as they succumbed to AIDS. In between the stories, Fiona has tried to get her life back together, attending college, marrying, having a daughter, divorcing, and starting a retail business. But the main regret of her life is that she became estranged from her daughter, Claire, who left home to join a cult. After abandoning the cult, Claire has disappeared, and Fiona is in Paris trying to find her.
If this sounds like two very disjointed stories, that's only because I don't want to give away too much. Trust me, there are many, many connections between the two--characters who appear in both; memories that resurface; resentments, fears, loves, and hopes that underlie Yale's and Fiona's stories. What could have been a painful novel about loss becomes one instead of resiliency and the persistence of love. Highly recommended.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
I found this book both strange and strangely engaging. A man wakes in the middle of the night to find his wife frantically pulling meat, seafood, and dairy items out of the refrigerator and freezer and stuffing them into trash bags. When he asks her why she is doing this, she replies only, "I had a dream." From that moment, Yeong-hye refuses to eat meat products, a refusal that distresses everyone around her. Her husband mocks her and claims that she will become ill; her sister thinks she has fallen for a trendy diet and can be tempted out of it; her father tries to physically force meat into her mouth. As the story progresses, Yeong-hye turns away not only from meat but from all food, and it seems she is becoming mentally unbalanced. At the same time, the reader wonders whether it is only her or also the people around her--the ones made so angry by her refusal of meat--who are mentally ill.
Kang tells the story in three sections, narrated by three characters. The first is Yeong-hye's husband, the second her brother-in-law, and the third her sister. Each descends into his or her own kind of madness, prompted by Yeong-hye's decision to refuse meat products. In some ways, it is the story of individuals trapped by their own neuroses; in another, it is a critique of a society that forces behavioral conformity on its citizens. It is a deep study of the human psyche and the way in which perceptions of the same events vary widely from one person to another.
When it was first released, The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize and made 10 Best Books lists. Last year I read Human Acts, Kang's devastating novel (or, in truth, a series of interconnected stories) about the effects of the South Korean government's brutal response to a student uprising, and I am about to begin her latest, The White Book, a meditation on the color itself and a journey into the depths of grief that has haunted her family for years. Han Kang is truly a unique voice, not to be missed.
This one has intrigued me on and off since people started reviewing it here at LT, but yours is the most intriguing review yet. That first part reminds me of being ill as a teenager (don't remember what it was) and I had a delirium fever of smelling raw meat that put me off eating meat for ages after I recovered. I think I really do have to read this one.
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
Let me start by saying that I might have enjoyed this one more in print than on audio. It wasn't the reader's fault, it was just that this story starts to get very complex, and I was having a difficult time keeping the many characters and their relationships sorted out. Now that I'm retired and no longer listening on my work commute, I find that I am just not enjoying audio books as much. I would rather read at my own pace and hear the characters' voices in my own mind. My annual "reading" has been slowing down as I've moved more and more to print, but I'm enjoying it much more. My days as an Audible member may be limited.
Bowlaway is a saga--more the saga of a community than, as usual, a family, although it follows one through three generations. It begins around 1900 when a woman, Bertha Truitt, is found unconscious in the cemetery of a small Massachusetts town. On her person is a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold. Bertha decides to marry the African-American doctor who revives her--the first, perhaps, of the actions that shock her new neighbors. A bit of an entrepreneur, she opens a candlepin bowling alley and--even more shocking--allows women to bowl alongside the men. Despite her age, Bertha gives birth to a daughter, Mina, who suddenly finds herself packed off to the home of an uncle she has never met when her mother dies in a freak (and freakish) accident and her father, alcoholic and despairing, disappears (apparently a victim of spontaneous combustion). She leaves behind Maggie, an orphan girl who was hired to take care of Mina and who spends the rest of her life grieving their separation.
This is where the story started to get away from me. Bertha had promised to leave the bowling alley to Joe Wear, a retiring and rather slow young man who discovered her in the cemetery and who has been a loyal employee. But a man appears who claims to be her son from an earlier life. He takes over the successful bowling alley, kicks out the women, and generally upsets the town.
Bowlaway is loaded with many--perhaps too many--quirky characters, and each of them has a past full of mysteries, myths, and secrets that are gradually unfolded. Many reviewers have loved the novel's weirdness, but I just felt annoyed and confused by it. I've enjoyed earlier work by the author and might be willing to give this one another try in print--but not for a while.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
I'm not sure just why I wanted to read this book. Maybe I thought it would do me good to try a genre that I don't often read. Unfortunately, it validated all the reasons that I don't really care for mysteries/psychological thriller or whatever category this would fall into. A psychotherapist takes a job at a clinic mainly because he is fascinated by the story of a female patient there and believes that he can heal her. Alicia Berenson, a successful painter, has been incarcerated for killing her husband. When the police arrived, she had also slashed her wrists, and she hasn't spoken a word since. Theo Faber is determined to get her to talk. Having been in therapy himself, he believes that he can empathize with whatever early experiences have damaged her psyche.
The problem I had with this book (and with similar books) is that while there are some twists and turns, nothing really surprised me. Ask yourself: Why would a psychiatrist quit a good job at a prominent hospital to take a job at a small, failing asylum to work with one particular patient? Sounded kind of suspicious and stalker-ish to me from the beginning, so the rest of the novel was really ho-hum for me. On top of that, the writing itself was sophomoric. I skimmed a lot and finished the thing in less than a day. Sorry, but I like my books to be a good deal meatier. The only thing of interest was Alicia's fascination with a Greek myth--a woman who dies in her husband's place and is brought back from Hell but never speaks again.
The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau
Genevieve Planché is a young Huguenot employed to paint flowers on silk intended for ladies dresses, but she longs to become a real artist, painting in oil under the guidance of a great master. Alas, the cards are doubly stacked against her as a woman of French heritage (England is at war with France). She longs to paint the lives of the common people. After a disappointing meeting with William Hogarth, Genevieve is almost resigned to take the position her grandfather has secured for her as a porcelain painter in Derby and be miserable for the rest of her life. A mysterious nobleman appears, offering her the opportunity she dreams of in Venice, where women artists are fully accepted--if she will agree to go to Derby as his spy. What he wants is the secret formula for a new shade of blue.
What follows is more of a mystery than I expected, and the story is full of adventures, twists, and strange characters. Thankfully, the romance element is rather downplayed (although it does get a bit heavier towards the end). Who knew that the international porcelain market in the 18th century was as crazy and full of intrigue as the Tulip Wars of the previous century? Or that Madame de Pompadour was one of the chief investors? Bilyeau gives her readers a full and captivating picture of life in London, Derby, and Versailles through the eyes of her Huguenot heroine. This novel should appeal to lovers of mystery as well as of historical fiction.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
In 1972, Northern Ireland was in the throes of The Troubles. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants were high, and the IRA clamoured for a united, independent Ireland, free of British rule. Jean McConville, a 38-year old mother of 10 who had recently been widowed, was depressed and reclusive. Although she had married a Catholic and lived in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, she herself was Protestant and therefore not on the best of terms with her neighbors. One night, following a skirmish in the street outside her home, Jean heard a wounded British soldier calling for help. She crept out of her house to place a pillow under his head; when asked why she had helped him, she replied, "He's somebody's son." The next morning, the words "BRIT LOVER" were scrawled on her front door. Depending on whose story you listen to, it was either the next day or a few days later that a car pulled up with three young IRA members in it. As the neighbors watched--but said nothing--they pulled Jean away from her crying children, shoved her in the back seat, and drove away. She was never heard from again. Jean McConville has become one of "the disappeared."
While Keefe's book would seem to be a true crime story, it's really more the story of politics within the IRA, the resistance movement and the British efforts to quell it. In fact, we hear little about Jean again until near the end of the book. The focus shifts to the leaders and agents of the IRA--Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes, Bobby Sands, and two sisters, Dolours and Marian Price, among others. The Price sisters were convicted of setting a bomb that exploded in front of Old Bailey in London, injuring more than 200 people, but after an extended hunger strike threatened their lives, Marian was released and Dolours granted her request to be sent to a prison in Northern Ireland. She was also released soon after due to critical health issues. Dolours had been close to Gerry Adams, but once he won a seat in the Irish parliament and helped to engineer a peace treaty, she became outraged at what she saw as his personal opportunism and backing down from the goals of a united, independent Ireland; she felt that the peace treaty meant all of the deaths and sacrifices had been for nothing. Worse still, Adams publicly denied, over and over again, any connection to the IRA. Leaning heavily on Dolours's various interviews, lectures, and published writing, Keefe not only gives us a view of the initial solidarity and ultimate infighting in the IRA but teases out what might have happened to Jean McConville and fifteen others of the disappeared.
If you're looking for an exciting true crime story, this probably isn't it; you'll get too bogged down in the politics and footnotes. But if you are interested in Irish resistance movement of the 1970s and beyond, Say Nothing is a fascinating read.
If you can bear to watch it, the short interview is on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n19IgTegEg8
Such terrible things happened during the Troubles here, which is why the country is still very much struggling to get itself together. Whilst the bombing and shootings have stopped, the memories of so many atrocities are still so raw in many people's minds that we seem to be constantly living in our past. People largely vote for who they don't want to get in rather than who they do, and we are now over 2 years without our local political assembly in operation as the two main political parties (which largely represent the two sides of the community) are in a deadlock which they refuse to resolve. My only hope is that my children's generation are now a generation removed from it, and will work together for a positive future in the country rather than us festering in the divisions of our past.
One of the things I found really interesting was the story of the Boston College oral history project from which much of the book was taken:
>60 AlisonY: One of the things that always amazes me about the Troubles is how little known the history is in some places. When I tell people that there was a time you couldn't hear Gerry Adams's voice on the BBC, they look at me as if I am crazy. In one part of Canada, the events were part of the daily news, there was fund raising done quietly for one faction, much newspaper space was taken up and the university incorporated modern Irish history into many courses. In another part of the country, thousands of kilometres away, I remember opening a newspaper the day Bobby Sands died and finding it in a small column on page 22. When I asked those around me about this, some did not even know who he was.
It makes me wonder what other stories, so much a part of history in one place, get this uneven treatment outside their own borders.
I worry what will happen to the Good Friday Agreement with Brexit, and with the case of Soldier F.
I think generally there is a huge unevenness of press reporting around the world. My colleague in work says that he'd love to see a news channel that gives itself 2 or 3 days to find out the true facts about news events without any spin, and then reports the actual bonafide news with no political bias. Doubt we'll ever see such a thing, but wouldn't it be nice.
I used to listen to audio books when I did semi-mindless chores -- anything where I didn't need to read instructions, measure or make decisions (so not good while doing crafts). But perfect for working in the garden, painting, cleaning, cooking where you don't need to focus on the recipe, that sort of thing.
River Thieves by Michael Crummy
Crummy's first novel is set in Newfoundland in 1810, when Captain David Buchan arrives with orders from the English king to make contact with Beothuk, also known as the Red Indians because of the ochre they smear on their skins. The local settlers are less than enthusiastic; the Beothuk are reclusive, they claim, moving about with the seasons, and the evidence of their presence is usually in the form of stolen goods or killings. Nevertheless, John Peyton agrees to recruit a few of his fellow trappers and take the marines north. Peyton's father, known as John Senior, warns that the journey will be futile and perhaps even tragic. It ends when two marines are brutally slaughtered.
But Buchan returns a few years later with orders not only to establish relations with the Beothuk but to find out the truth behind an incident that left two Indian men dead on an icy lake. The truth unravels slowly, thwarted by lies, rivalries, secrets, and loyalties. Crummy's tale, set against the unforgiving winter landscape, is a study of human survival, its violence, passion, and revenge. At the heart of it all are the conflicts and loyalties within the Peyton household, among the father, his son, and and Cassie, an independent woman brought home years earlier by John Senior as a teacher, a housekeeper, and possibly a lover. The main characters are complex, forced by circumstances to trust one another despite their basic distrust. Buchan's arrival sets the stage for secrets of the past to start unraveling.
Crummy brings this eerie, melancholy world to life, particularly through his brilliant descriptions of the hostile Newfoundland landscape. His cast of characters, in addition to those mentioned above, are intriguing and original. There's Joseph Reilly, branded and expatriated as a boy for picking pockets, and his Christian Mikmuk wife, Annie Boss, the local healer and midwife. Richmond and Taylor, rough trappers who have known one another since childhood. Mary, a young Beothuk woman kidnapped by John Peyton in an act of government-sanctioned reparation for stolen goods. Governor Hamilton, the ineffective overseer of the colony. And many lesser but still significant characters, some long dead yet still wielding influence over the settlers.
This is the second novel by Michael Crummy that I have read and enjoyed, and I look forward to catching up with the rest.
I think Crummey is one of the most underrated novelists around, possibly because he isn't that well known. His poetry is also excellent.
Also, I was just reading about the Good Friday Agreement and the consequences if Brexit succeeds and just want to say: what is wrong with all these politicians who act without thinking of the consequences? What a mess. (Not that we in the U.S. have any excuse for the goings-on here.)
>72 lisapeet: I didn't find an excess of animal brutality in this one. Yes, they are trappers, but I only recall one incident involving a fox that was cringe-inducing. The others, including a seal kill, are not described in gory detail. And the occupation of trapping plays a very minor role in the story overall.
As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner
I got caught up in the early parts of this novel, when the Bright family, grieving for the death of an infant son and having financial troubles, leaves their farm for Philadelphia, where the father will partner in his uncle's funeral home. Each female in the family--mother Pauline and daughters Evie, Maggie, and Willa--tell their stories in individual, alternating chapters as they adapt to living and working in a funeral home. The details of the mortician's occupation were something I could have done without yet important to the story. When the 1918 influenza epidemic hits the city, business, sadly, is booming, and everyone is touched by tragedy, including the Brights. The only spark of joy for them is Alex, a baby brought home by middle sister Maggie. While helping her mother, who had been tending to the ill, Maggie entered a home to find a young mother dead, her daughter apparently near death, and her infant son alone. Maggie's thought is that a new baby boy will make the family happy once again.
But the war ends, time passes, and this novel starts going downhill, at least for me. The daughters all fall into sappy, ridiculous, and predictable romances, and, one after another, a series of impossible coincidences drives the plot to the expected ending. Other reviewers have said that they wished the author had stayed focused on the war years and the flu epidemic, and I totally agree. We didn't really need speakeasies and insane asylums and broken engagements. Since I'm not a fan of either coming of age stories or romances, I doubt that I will seek out other books by this author.
The Glovemaker by Ann Weisgarber
The Glovemaker is set into motion when Deborah, a Mormon wife living in Junction, Utah in 1888, opens her door to a stranger's knock. Junction was settled by a group of Mormon families who strayed from the norms of their church in that they did not build a wardhouse, nor did they appoint a bishop Only one homesteader is polygamous, but the residents are sympathetic to the Saints--men who chose to have multiple wives and believed that this brought them closer to God. Deborah's wheelwright husband, Samuel, has been travelling to outlying towns for work for months but is due home soon. In the past, he has aided Mormons fleeing from the law, helping them find their way to a sanctuary called Floral Ranch. Despite qualms about opening her home to a stranger, Deborah believes that it is her duty to help a fellow Mormon, as Samuel would have done. She feeds the man and lets him sleep in her barn overnight, and after he leaves in the morning, she sends him off to her nearest neighbor, Samuel's best friend Nels, who will take him on to Floral Ranch. She takes pains to conceal the fact that he was ever there. Deborah knows that if he is running, there will be lawmen behind him, and the last thing she wants is to be charged with aiding a criminal. And indeed, a federal marshall soon arrives. He is bent on finding Braden, claiming the man kidnapped a 16-year old girl and made her his third wife. Deborah denies ever seeing him and directs the marshall to Nels's house, hoping the two men have already left. Soon, the situation takes a turn for the worst.
There was a lot to like about this book. For one thing, I didn't know a lot about the early Mormon church and its offshoots, nor did I know the extent of the persecution the Mormons endured. One striking event that I had never heard of was a raid on a wagon train of settlers that left all but a handful of children dead--men, women, children, the elderly all slain. While Native Americans were initially blamed, it came out that Mormons had also participated, presumably to avenge the murders of Joseph Smith and his brother. I also appreciated Weisgarber's descriptions of the ominous territory in the deep of winter. Overall, the characters were individualized and well-drawn, and Deborah's internal conflicts--her fears v. her sense of duty, her concern for her sister and her family, her growing dependence on Nels and his apparent attraction to her, and her concern that Samuel should have returned weeks earlier--were handled believably and added to the tension. Overall, this was an enjoyable historical novel.
One note: Despite the title, glovemaking had little to do with the story. There is no glovemaking shop, no customers stopping by, no gloves being made. Yes, Deborah does make gloves, mostly as gifts for family and friends. There is a description of the gloves given to Nels the previous Christmas, Deborah twice pages the through the book where she has recorded people's measurements, and she mentions a few times that it makes her happy to know that Samuel must be wearing the gloves she made for him. That's it. I looked for a symbolic meaning but found none. Not exactly false advertising, but the title really doesn't measure up to the story that Weisgarber tells.
Anyway, that was fun. Enjoyed your review.
The Welsh Fasting Girl by Varley O'Connor
In the late 19th century, several cases of "fasting girls" occurred in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. One of the best known was 12-year old Sarah Jacob, who was rumored not to have ingested food or water for almost two years yet was seemingly in good health. The religious (or superstitious) locals began to flock to her bedside, believing that they were witnessing a miracle. As word spread, visitors from further afield, including journalists, scientists, and medical experts, arrived in the small Welsh town. Ultimately, a commission comprised of five doctors and four nurses convened to "watch" over Sarah to determine the truth. After two weeks, her health took a sharp turn for the worst, yet no one--not the nurses, the doctors, the vicar, nor Sarah's parents--offered her food or water. When the subject came up, as it did when a distraught uncle begged Sarah's father to allow her to be fed, Evan Jacob refused. When Sarah died, her parents were put on trial for manslaughter. The assumption was that the gifts and money left by visitors were such a temptation that they were willing to risk their daughter's life, hoping she would live until the end of the watch so that these 'holy visitations' could continue, to their profit.
Varley O'Connor's key character is not the fasting girl herself but a character she invents: Christine Thomas, a budding American journalist whose husband, James, was lost in the Civil War and presumed dead. Christine accepts a commission from a large newspaper to investigate the case at first hand, leaving her adult children behind. Dispersed throughout the novel are letters written to her absent husband as a way to make sense of the events she witnesses. She finds Sarah to be an extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent child, yet senses an undercurrent of fear, if not evil, in the household. As she befriends Sarah, her mother Hannah, and her strange younger sister Margaret, Christine's suspicions grow. The Welsh Fasting Girl focuses on Christine's investigative work, from her initial arrival in Carmarthen through the the watch, Sarah's death, the trial, and beyond. The people she interviews form a large part of the story: what did they know, when did they know it, and why didn't they step in at some point?
It was difficult to read this novel without bringing to mind Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, which centers on an Irish fasting girl. But by bringing in an investigative journalist, The Welsh Fasting Girl goes beyond the simple question of whether or not the girl was sneaking food to the possible psychological reasons behind Sarah's initial refusal of food and the actions of those around her, and the added depth is a big plus. It also reflects on the conflicts of Christine herself: her strained relationships with her children, her difficulty adjusting to the loss of her husband, her need to claim a life of her own and a sense of personal value outside of her family. Today, Sarah Jacob is considered one of the first victims of a newly defined psychological condition, anorexia nervosa. O'Connor has done her research, both on the facts of the actual case and the persons involved, and its psychological underpinnings. Overall, a very fine historical novel.
The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin
When dentist Ellis Skinner suddenly dies at the age of 34, his wife, Noni, goes into a depression and pretty much stays in her bedroom for three years--a period that her four children refer to as The Pause. Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona are left to their own devices and learn to take care of one another. But as adults, things start to fall apart. Renee, psychologically wounded by a near-rape experience, avoids men and motherhood while second sister Caroline drops out of college to marry her high school sweetheart. Joe, the only boy, seems to be a golden child, winning a baseball scholarship to a prestigious school--until alcohol and drugs get him expelled. Fiona, the youngest, writes a popular blog, The Last Romantic, that details the failings of the many men she sleeps with, but in time she becomes a renowned poet. They go through the usual love/hate phases that most siblings do, often spurred by jealousy but sometimes just by being disappointed in one another. In other words, the story is what I would consider a soap opera, plain and simple.
For some reason, Conklin chooses to start the book in 2079, when the only one left is Fiona--and there is some kind of climate crisis shaking the world. When I started reading, my first thought was, "Oh, no, not another dystopian novel!" (I am not a fan. of the genre.) But no, this seems to have been thrown in for little to no reason and has little or nothing to do with the story. The power grid goes down while the aged Fiona is giving a poetry reading--a device that seems stuck in as a way of allowing a young woman in the audience named Luna to come to her aid. Oh, there was another Luna, years ago, who looked just like this Luna, down to the mole on her cheek. That Luna apparently inspired Fiona's first successful poetry collection, and this Luna was apparently named for her by a mother who loved the book. None of this makes much sense until much, much later, and even in retrospect, it's still an awkward beginning. We keep hearing about Fiona the Famous Poet, yet we never get a glimpse of her poetry in the entire novel. And I'm still left wondering why Conklin inserted the environmental business, which really had nothing to do with the story. Fiona works for an environmental group--but we never hear anything about her work or the group's mission.
Overall, this plot is clunky, and at times it's overly contrived, especially in the last quarter, when each of the Skinners' lives (including mom Noni) makes a 180 for no apparent reason at all. Then they all die. The plot moves back and forth through time--sometimes confusingly--and from one character's point of view to another's. There's also considerable sloppiness in facts and research. Just to mention one: in 1982, teenaged Fiona has a job cutting up veggies at a diner, for which she is paid $8/hour. What? It's 2019, and many Americans are still fighting for an $8/hour wage!
I finished this novel in about three days--not because I was engrossed in the story, but because I was bored and began to skim it. I doubt that I will seek out another book by this author.
Anne Vavasour and Sir Henry Lee: Discovering a Tudor Love Story by Bart Casey--no touchstone for this book
As a scholar of the period, I didn't learn much from this book (which is pretty much a longish summary of a few biographies). For those who want to know more about love and life at the Elizabethan court, this will give you a good idea through one example. Anne Vavasour, a young woman privileged to serve as a Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber, was seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by the married Earl of Oxford; both spent some months in the Tower of London and were banished from court for a time. Vavasour was later taken as mistress by the much older, widowed Sir Henry Lee, the queen's longtime Champion at the annual birthday jousts and Master of the Armory, with whom she had another illegitimate son. She lived with him until his death--almost 30 years. Vavasour suffered yet another scandal when she married seven years later, the problem being that she apparently assumed that her first husband, a sea captain was dead (he wasn't). Nevertheless, she is buried alongside Sir Henry, with an impressive monument; his wife Anne Paget lies in a chapel in a nearby town.
Casey was working on a novel at the time he did this research, and he personalizes this piece by injecting accounts of his travels in England, his research efforts, and his discoveries. While there's not a lot new here for scholars of the period, it makes for an interesting afternoon's reading for Tudor junkies who may not be familiar with Vavasour and Lee.
The Brothers Boswell by Philip Baruth
Baruth's narrator is John Boswell,younger brother of the famous diarist/biographer. He has come to London with revenge on his mind--although it's not quite clear what he holds against his brother and his new friend, Samuel Johnson. On an earlier visit, he convinced James to give him a key to his rooms, and he has been sneaking in, reading his brother's journal to find out his plans for the day do that he can follow Boswell and Johnson. The novel opens as he dogs the two on a day trip to Greenwich.
John is an unreliable narrator, at best. We learn that he envies his brother's friendship with Johnson, his good looks, and his general popularity, and that it seems he himself has had an intimate relationship with the dictionary author--or has he? And of course, he resents the usual fate of being a younger son in an aristocratic family. The novel tracks his efforts at spying on James and Johnson and his ultimate plan for revenge.
While this was an interesting premise, I found it fell a bit short. Generally, I'm fond of unreliable narrators, but this one was a bit too transparent and the conclusion a bit too facilely happily-ever-after. I gave it three stars for the premise and for the fine descriptions of London and society in the 18th century.
The White Book by Han Kang
It has taken me a while to finish. Rather like a good book of poetry, each piece needs to be savored before one moves on. Written while the author was at a writer's retreat in Warsaw, it has been described as a meditation on white, and that is as good a description as any. Looking at it from this angle, it seems very much like a writing exercise. Each short piece--some only a paragraph, the longest a few pages--observes and reflects on something white: a dog, snow, wings, breast milk, lace curtains, a shroud, paper, etc. Underlying many of these meditations is a sense of loss, of mourning for the older sister who died only a few hours after her premature birth.
It was useful to look up the symbolism of the color white in Korean culture: "White is the most commonly used color in Korea. Koreans were sometimes referred to as the white clad people. Historically, commoners wore white hanboks, a traditional Korean form of attire. Only royalty and the upper class were permitted to wear colorful hanboks. White is still worn for weddings, new years celebrations and funerals to celebrate the journey to the afterlife, the color white symbolizes purity, innocence, peace and patriotism. Traditionally, white represents the element metal and the direction West." (I expected that, as in Japanese culture, white was the color of death; it is not.) There are some obvious connections to the meditations as Han Kang reflects on the innocent life lost, on mourning, and on healing.
If you are familiar this author's other books, The Vegetarian and Human Acts, expect the same beautiful writing, minus the violence, in condensed form. Don't expect a strong linear plot or a political message, and give each piece time to do its work. Accept the book for what it is, a meditation and an opening of the heart and mind.
The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz
I've read Schwartz's earlier historical novel The Commoner and was eager to see what he would do with this one, based on the life of Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, who defected to the US in 1967. He gives us two narrators, Svetlana herself and Peter Horvath, a young lawyer sent by the CIA to escort her to freedom. Interestingly, Schwartz's own father was the real-life lawyer on whom the character is based, and he had access to letters and documents that help to flesh out the story. His father (and his character) maintained a lifelong relationship with Svetlana, despite her demanding and sometimes irrational behavior. In the novel, she reminisces about her father, whose behavior towards his children was domineering and cruel, and about the son and daughter she left behind in the USSR. She struggles through a series of relationships and marriages, including one to Frank Lloyd Wright's former son-in-law, a marriage that resulted in a lengthy tenancy at Taliesin West and her only American-born child. Svetlana comes across as both a lonely woman looking for a place to belong in her new country and a selfish, headstrong, domineering woman who can't seem to break from her privileged yet tyrannical past. In any case, hers is a sad but fascinating story. Peter Horvath is the perfect foil: patient, reasonable, yet not afraid to speak his mind.
The Red Daughter is well written and well researched, and it has made me want to learn more about Svetlana and the struggles she faced as the daughter of one of history's most brutal dictators.
The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks
Eleven-year old Harriet, an orphan, is retrieved from the train station by her new father, Clem Wrathmell, who decides that they will make the long walk to her new home, a house known as Salt Winds that stands on the verge of a dangerous marsh. Along the way, they are offered a ride by an acquaintance, Max Deering, but Clem declines. A perceptive girl, Harriet sense some tension between the two men, and that becomes even more apparent when Clem mentions Max to her new mother, Lorna. The strained relationships between these characters form the core of the novel.
Brooks employs a framework that, personally, I am getting really tired of: moving back and forth between two time periods. (At least she sticks with Harriet in both the 1940 and 2015 chapters instead of having some scholar or descendant find a mysterious packet of letters or diary from the past . . . ) In the modern-day chapters, Harriet is an old woman who has decided that her time has come, and she plans to walk out into the marsh to die. Her plans are interrupted by the arrival of a young girl, who just happens to be Max Deering's great-granddaughter. Will Harriet finally have the chance to enact revenge on the descendant of the man she blames for all the loss and misery in her life?
My feelings on this one are mixed. I think the author did a good job of getting inside of the mind of eleven-year old Harriet, but most of the other characters came across as stereotypes: the patient, loving father; the distant, beautiful mother; the evil, arrogant rich man; etc. As to the elderly Harriet, if what Brooks wanted was a one-dimensional character whose entire life was shaped by the incidents of one year, she did that well, too, because I got no sense whatsoever of her personality or what had happened to her in the last 70+ years. I found the ending pat and disappointing.
Spring by Ali Smith
I started reading this book a few weeks ago. After reading the first chapter--a full-on rant in the voice of a member of the so-called "populist" right--I put it aside. I mean, I have to hear about Trump's tweets and rallies and rants and actively avoid his supporters' facebook posts every day, so did I want to read more of the same? Nope. So I put it aside. Fortunately, I liked Autumn and Winter enough that I went back to it. And fortunately, that is the only full-on rant. Maybe Smith had to get it out of her system before she got to her characters. Or maybe she wanted to make sure that she had set the stage for her novel. If you pick up this book, just keep reading. I promise, it's not all misery and hate.
Richard Lease is a director best known for his 1970's TV plays. Now in his 60s, he's mourning the death of his writing partner and trying to work on a film adaptation of 'April,' a popular novel spun off the fact that the writers Katherine Mansfield and Rainier Maria Rilke stayed in a Swiss resort town at the same time but never met. It's a premise that he initially detested, but his partner, Paddy, convinced him that it could be wonderful, and after reading some of each writer's work and doing research on their lives, he is seeing new possibilities. The problem is that the director has other ideas--in short, a romance with (of course) hot sex scenes in every conceivable (and inconceivable) location. After several conversations with his imaginary daughter (who at Paddy's suggestion replaced the real one he hasn't seen in 27 years), he decides to end it all by laying on the underground tracks.
Brit is a young DCO in an IRC for the HO--in other words, she works in a detention center for newly arrived immigrants. She's torn by empathy for some of the detainees, considering the filthy, crowded conditions in which they are living and the fact that most have stayed far longer than the law dictates, and by the necessity of developing a hard shell to survive in her job. The DCOs have been exchanging stories about a girl who somehow got past security and into the director's office, where she convinced him to bring in professionals to steam clean the toilets. And it is rumored that the girl went into a brothel and freed all of the trafficked sex workers. On her way to work one day, Brit sees a young girl heading towards the underground and is convinced that this is the magical child of the stories. Coincidence upon coincidence brings them to the platform where young Florence notices Richard on the tracks.
And so begins an unlikely adventure and an unlikely partnership. Florence is, on one hand, an extremely precocious child, but on the other, as she says, "I'm just a twelve-year old girl." She is fascinated by an old post card depicting a lake in Scotland and convinces first Brit and then Richard to join her. Once they arrive as far as they can go by train, they persuade Alda, an immigrant food truck owner, to drive them the rest of the way. In her food truck.
Spring is marked by all of the characteristics of an Ali Smith novel: a literary and artistic intelligence (Mansfield, Rilke, Shelley, Shakespeare, Charlie Chaplin, Nina Simone, and a little known photographer, Tacita Dean), politics (Brexit, racism, anti-immigration, global warming, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, etc.), plenty of humor, and brilliant writing. It's structure loosely re-imagines Shakespeare's Pericles, one of the late romances in which a young girl brings redemption to the older generation--Smith's stab at bringing hope into today's challenging and often ugly world. It's a wonderful story, not one that whisks away all the world's problems in the end but that at least presents the possibility of optimism.
Each novel in this planned quartet has been better than the last. I can't wait to see what Summer will bring.
The Pioneers: The Story of the Heroic Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough
When Britain recognized the United States as an independent country, it gave up its rights to the territory north of the Ohio River--what would later become Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Mannaseh Cutler, a Massachusetts minister, and Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War general, gathered together a number of veterans and set out to establish the first settlement in what was known as the Northwest Territory: Marietta, Ohio. It wasn't an easy passage, nor was the settlement easy. McCullough details a series of brutal raids by Native Americans and equally brutal retaliations by the settlers. In addition, they faced a lack of roads and bridges, dwindling supplies, wild animals, floods, illness, and more, yet they persisted. At the heart of their new American ideal were three tenets: freedom of religion, free schooling for all, and freedom from slavery. And there were struggles among themselves to achieve these goals as not all of the settlers agreed upon them.
As usual, McCullough creates a readable story by focusing on a few key persons and their families: Manasseh Cutler, his son Ephraim, General Cutler, an architect who helped to build the great cities of the territory, and a doctor who became a scientific ground breaker. Several better known figures in American history make appearances, including Washington, Jefferson, Burr, and John Quincy Adams. McCullough bases his work on a recently discovered collection of diaries and letters, as well as legal and government documents. The tale gets somewhat repetitive at times, yet the reader never loses sight of the perseverance, ingenuity, faith, and sacrifices of these pioneers.
A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan
If you always look for happily ever after stories, best skip Donal Ryan. Having read The Spinning Heart, a 2014 Booker Prize finalist, I knew what to expect, mainly poverty, loneliness, and violence set in contemporary rural Ireland, with hints of hope and love thrown in. And that's what we find in this collection of short stories. A young man falls into an almost-friendship with the boy assigned to guard him while his brother is beaten to death. A boy is both stuck in a group of Travelers and ostracized because of it. An old man in a nursing home confronts his memories, most of which lead to regrets that are too late to remedy. A priest sent to Syria tries to unite the community by arranging hurling games, but the peace is short-lived. Vigilantes go in search of a rapist. So yes, lots of downers here. Nevertheless, Ryan's stories crawl inside the hearts and minds of his characters, many of them caught in situations and social pressures from which they can't escape, and often reveal a glimpse of goodness that, sadly, is either suppressed or eats away at their consciences. Beautifully written and very moving, Ryan's stories gave me a fascinating look at a world quite different from my own and an exploration of the brutal side of human nature.
True West by Sam Shepard
This audio version of one of Shepard's best known plays stars Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn, who performed the play earlier this year at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. It's a dark comedy about two long-estranged brothers--Austin, a successful screenwriter, and Lee, a grifter--who clash when they meet again in the family home on the edge of the California desert. Lee is a master manipulator who lays the guilt on Austin for abandoning their alcoholic father and even persuades Austin's producer that he has a better story for his upcoming movie than his brother. Each brother knows just which buttons to push to goad the other in this modern day tale of sibling rivalry.
I've seen the play on film and in performance, and I don't feel this version really stands up to the script. (It's pretty hard to compete with John Malkovich and Gary Sinese.) The American accents were a bit overdone, and the acting style might have played better on stage but seems exaggerated in this format. But hey, it was free.
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
I have extremely mixed feelings about this book, and I see that many other readers share the same reaction. One the plus side are the beautiful, detailed descriptions of the Kashmiri landscape and the struggles of the people living there. On the downside: the ending, which left me frustrated, with no sense of closure, and not particularly liking the protagonist.
The novel begins with Shalini, a 20-something living with her widowed father in Bangalore, trying to figure out her life—especially her conflicted relationship with the mother who randomly doted on and ignored her. Despite this, Shalini always felt close to her mother, in large part due to a secret in which she was forced to share. When she was a child, a Kashmiri clothes salesman appeared at the door, and for some reason, her mother took a liking to him and invited him in for tea and conversation. Bashir Ahmed told magical stories that delighted both mother and daughter, and over the years, he would return many times between his visits to see his family in Kashmir. Although Shalini never understood why, her father was never told about Bashir’s visits—until the day he answered the salesman’s knock. A kind and generous man who was intrigued by a conversations about the ongoing war in Kashmir, he invites Bashir to stay in the family guest room. This decision ultimately leads to Bashir’s sudden, final disappearance.
Years later, after her mother’s death, Shalini becomes obsessed with a desire to find Bashir, but the only clue she has to his whereabouts is the name of a district—Kishtwar—mentioned in one of his stories. Her journey begins the larger, more active, and more interesting part of the novel. As she journeys deeper into the heart of Kashmir, the lives of its people, and even Bashir’s family, she learns more about the effects of the ongoing conflicts between the militants and the Indian army. Although it starts to feel like a coming of age story, unfortunately, at least for this reader, the anticipated moment of self-realization and change never quite comes, and I found her naiveté, thoughtlessness, and selfishness rather repellent.
Still, those descriptions of Kashmir and the struggles of its people are a saving grace, leading me to give this novel four stars.
Harry Clarke by David Cale
Billy Crudup gives an outstanding performance in this audio version of the play in which he starred at the Vineyard Theatre off-Broadway. A shy man from the American Midwest, ridiculed by his father because he shows gay tendencies, Philip Brugglestein adopts a British accent and a new identity as Harry Clarke and moves to New York after his parents die. Harry is an expert at finding out what it is that his new acquaintances most desire. For one wealthy family, it's brushes with celebrities, and they fall line, hook, and sinker for his claim that he was personal assistant to the singer Sade. Harry seduces their son, Mark, causing him to break off his engagement. And he has flings with both Mark's mother and sister as well.
It might be easy to hate Harry Clarke, a self-centered manipulator. Listen to him standing before the mirror, practicing the various ways he might profess his love to Mark, and you know that the only person he really loves--but also loathes--is himself. There's a lot of pain behind the pain he creates for others. Crudup masters the shifts between the personalities of Harry and Philip, making his character both despicable and empathetic--and incredibly fascinating.
The audio version includes 'Lillian,' a second play by Cale, and an interview with the author.
Walk the Bluoe Fields by Claire Keegan
I've found a new Irish writer to follow in Claire Keegan. This is a lovely collection of seven melancholy stories, most of them set in rural Ireland. The main character in each story is haunted by tragedy--a lost love, a missed opportunity, a broken family, a dead child, a loveless marriage--and all but one (Margaret, in the final story, "Night of the Quicken Trees") seems stuck in that thin space between hope and despair, wanting to change the future but afraid to take that necessary step forward. A priest officiates at the marriage of the girl he loved (loves?) and for whom he began to question his vows. A man brings home a found dog in hopes of selling it--until his daughter assumes it is her birthday gift. A wild, outcast woman settles into a home she inherited from her cousin-lover-priest, haunted by a tragic affair that ended in crib death and wondering if she has enough time left for a second chance. A drunk remembers the girl he might have married. A gay man visits his mother and stepmother in Florida and leaves on his own terms. While the stories are all somewhat "blue," there is also enough humor to keep the melancholy from slipping over into the maudlin. And the writing is just exquisite. While the stories are decidedly Irish in nature, they are also universal.
Highly recommended for lovers of Ireland, lovers of short stories, and lovers of beautiful writing. A pitch perfect collection that will do it's magic on your emotions.
Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
In her latest novel, Goldberg tries something new: writing the entire book in the form of a photography exhibition catalog--yet we never see a single photograph. The gallery number, title, and date of each photo appear, followed by commentary by the artist's daughter, friends and ex-lovers, and letters and journal entries written by the artist herself. The works range from the 1950s, when Lillian Preston rejects her parents' plan for her college education and moves to New York to pursue her passion in photography, to her death from leukemia in 1977. A quiet woman, Lillian nevertheless manages to choose her own path. When she finds herself pregnant at 19, she declines an abortion at the last minute and rejects her parents' offer to "help" (by sending her off to a distant relative to have the child and give it up for adoption). She struggles to keep herself and her daughter Samantha afloat financially, even rejecting another offer of marriage, but she never stops taking photos. A breaking point almost comes when a small gallery show results in arrest and obscenity charges over "the Samantha series" that depicts Lillian's daughter in semi-undress. These include what becomes an infamous photo, "Mommy Is Sick," in which Samantha offers a glass of milk to her bedridden, bloodstained mother who has just had an abortion. (No spoilers here--the photo and the incident are described in the novel's first pages.) The incident caused changes in the mother-daughter relationship that are the focus of most of the novel. In that sense, it is a coming of age novel, but it also tackles questions about parenting, art, friendship, and morality. Mann draws on cultural keystones throughout: the Beats, Sputnik, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War protests, punk rock, Saturday Night Live. The structure provides a means of presenting multiple points of view without the usual practice of ascribing alternating chapters to different narrators. As a result, the conflicts between and feelings of each character are more immediate.
It has been almost a decade since Goldberg's last book, but Feast Your Eyes is well worth the wait.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
Tragedy strikes the Guarroaui family when the father is killed by a hit-and-run driver. Lalami unfolds the story through chapters narrated by those involved: Nora, the youngest daughter, who is the novel's primary focus; her mother Maryam and her deceased father, Driss; older sister Salma; Efrain, an illegal immigrant who witnessed the accident and is reluctant to come forward; Coleman, the female officer in charge of the investigation; Jeremy, another policeman, high school friend and soon-to-be lover of Nora; and, towards the end, two men suspected of being the driver. Was Driss's death an accident--or may it have been intentional?
Within the framework of what could be called a detective story, a number of themes are explored. Driss and Maryam are natives of Morocco who fled political persecution, bringing their baby daughter Salma with them to California. Now, post-9/11, they have felt the sting of anti-Muslim prejudice, and this theme resurfaces many times--as does the prejudice directed at Coleman, an African-American female police officer. There is sibling rivalry between Nora, who dropped out of med school to pursue her passion for music, and Salma, a dentist, wife, and mother to whom Nora feels Maryam constantly compares her. Nora is hit especially hard by her father's death as he is the parent who supported her dreams. Jeremy and his old army buddy suffer from PTSD but respond in different ways. Nora uncovers secrets about her father that threaten her idealization while Salma manages, for now, to keep her own secrets. It started to feel like the author was ticking off a list of potential crises: alcoholism, drug abuse, racism, sexism, bad parenting, etc.
So--lots going on. Maybe a little too much. In addition, I found it rather hard to empathize with Nora, who seemed to suffer a terminal case of "poor me." Granted, the novel is in some ways her coming-of-age story (perhaps a little late at 29), but still . . . Anyway, I was engaged enough with the story to finish the book and don't regret reading it. But on to (hopefully) better things.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Despite having been a professor of literature, I haven't read much by James Joyce. I loved his story collection, Dubliners, but I've never tackled what are considered his great novels--and I'm not really sure that I want to. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a short novel that showcases Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style in an accessible way. It's the story of his later hero, Stephen Daedalus, from childhood through his university years. I would agree with those who say that it's tied to a particular time and place (Ireland in the early 20th century); note, for example, Stephen's idolization of Parnell and the overwhelming influence of the Catholic church. Yet many of the struggles young Stephen goes through, such as breaking out from under his parents' wings and finding his own place in the world, are still prevalent for the youth of today. There's a lot of humor in the novel that helps it to rise above the usual coming of age story.
I listened to the book on audio, wonderfully read by Colin Farrell, an actor of whom I'm not usually fond. One rather funny note: When I originally downloaded the book, the cover title appears as 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman"! I see that someone must have reported the error and a correction has been made. I usually delete books once I've read them, but this one will stay on my iTunes for the novelty factor.
Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
The Civil War has ended, and three very different people make their way to the booming prairie city of Chicago in hopes of finding a better life. Sadie has arrived from York, Pennsylvania, to join the much older husband chosen by her father, only to find Samuel's body in the parlor, one of the victims of a train derailment. For Sadie, his death brings freedom: she didn't love him, is happy to leave the parent who would marry her off for money to save his book-binding business, and has become heir to a sizable fortune. But what she lacks is a purpose--until she begins to hear a voice. Not just any voice, but that of James Heil, a young man who was killed in the war. James is able to put Sadie in touch with others who have crossed over, and with the help of his brother, a doctor, she establishes herself as a successful medium.
Madge, a free black woman from Tennessee, was raised by her mother and aunts to be a healer, but life there is hard (and so are the sisters), so she decides to try her luck in the city. Madge not only has herbal knowledge but a healing touch. After a chance encounter, she is hired as a housemaid by Sadie and secretly runs a medicinal business out of the kitchen. She falls in love with Hemp, a freed slave who is looking for the wife and stepdaughter that were sold in the waning days of the war. After Sadie fails to reach Annie on the other side, Madge feels sure that she is still alive and that any feelings she herself has for Hemp are doomed.
The author does a fine job of creating the environment of a burgeoning Chicago, the aftereffects of the Civil War, and the limitations of these three characters as second class citizens due to race and/or gender. The stories of Sadie, Madge, and Hemp are interesting on their own but gain greater significance as they are interwoven. Secondary characters--including Dr. Heil; Madge's family; Sadie's father, her German cook, Olga, and her kindly black driver, Richard; the minister who take in Hemp; and more--are all individualized and believable. Overall, a very rewarding historical novel.
Antarctica by Claire Keegan
I really enjoyed Claire Keegan's latest collection of stories, Walk the Blue Fields,' and was eager to read her first collection, Antarctica which had received stunning reviews. I found it disappointing and depressing. Of course, one expects depressing of Irish writing, right? But there was also a lot of ick factor here. A wife who tells her husband she is spending the weekend in the city to do Christmas shopping but is really only going to satisfy her curiosity about what it would be like to have sex with another man. (She chooses the wrong guy, deservedly.) A 13-year old who tries to seduce an older man who works with her father and then ends up in bed with her brother. Families who thrive on being cruel to one another. The writing is fine enough, but it would have been nice to have an occasional break from the downers and nastiness.
I've been eyeing that author and in particular that book for a while now: dour and dismal stories appeal to me. Thanks for the bump!
>134 AlisonY: Balm was quite original, especially for historical fiction.
>135 Petroglyph: See post 109. I liked Donal Ryan's stories, although they are also very dark and depressing. Give him a try!
Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard
For the most part, this is a pretty conventional novel about Lincoln's on-again/off-again courtship of Mary Todd. Here's the twist: Lincoln is also being courted by his roommate, Joshua Speed. I remember reading a few years ago a claim that Lincoln was probably bisexual and involved in a love relationship with Speed, a shop owner who lodged above his store with the young lawyer; of necessity, the two shared a bed. While this novel doesn't full-out into claim that the two had a physical relationship, it does at least give the impression that there was a deep bond between them and perhaps (especially on Speed's part) a desire for more. And Mary Todd becomes the disrupting factor. Lincoln is attracted to her, primarily for her outspokenness and interest in politics, and he is aware of the fact that he will need a wife to rise in the political arena. But Speed carries out some rather extreme machinations to ensure that the two will never tie the knot and to make it difficult for Lincoln to put aside his obligations to him. What's interesting here is that Mary never realizes that she has a rival for Lincoln's attention.
The story is told in chapters alternating between Speed's and Mary's point of view. Another reader-reviewer complained that there is too much repetition in this structure, since the two narrators go over the same events. She missed the point. What Bayard wants us to recognize is that as different as they are, Speed and Mary are quite similar in their devotion to Lincoln and in their efforts to snare him as much through guilt and jealousy as through love. In that regard, I found them both annoying. Also annoying after a while: Lincoln's naiveté and a humility that often crosses the line into self-denigration. It had gotten old--very old--by the book's midpoint. He becomes a pawn in his own story, which is not a position that I would have expected to find him in.
American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper
This is a first-person narrative based on the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, a young American heiress known as one of the "Dollar Brides"--girls whose families paid a huge settlement to marry them off to titled Brits. Consuelo has always been a sympathetic figure with a domineering mother who forced her into a loveless marriage with "Sunny" Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. It was well known that she was late for her wedding because her maid was trying to repair her tear-stained face. Harper tries to make her even more pathetic by having her leave behind a man she truly loved. The novel details her difficult marriage, childbirth, separation and later divorce; her remarriage and her philanthropic work; her friendship with Winston Churchill, Sunny's cousin; and her difficult but sometimes surprising relationship with her mother. Hers becomes a typical story of the weak woman who finds true love and her own voice.
One of the things I missed hearing more about was Consuelo's part in the restoration of Blenheim Palace, the Marlborouogh family estate. I've heard bits and pieces in tours of both Blenheim and, here in America, Biltmore, but Harper makes this strictly Sunny's project. While it's true that Vanderbilt money funded the restoration, Consuelo was instrumental in the choices made, but here she focuses on charity work for the locals instead. I assume the author felt this would be a better set-up for her eventual founding of a children's hospital as well as her departure from Blenheim.
It took me a long time to get through this book, not because it was bad, but because other, more interesting books kept grabbing me. If you like happily-ever-after endings for oppressed heroines, you will enjoy American Duchess.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
This book has gotten a lot of positive buzz. Vuong is a poet, and this, his first novel, is written in very poetic prose. That's a plus and really helps to develop atmosphere; it also bumped up my rating from 2 star to 2.5. The novel takes the form of a young man writing a letter to his mother, a refugee from Vietnam. The war obviously left her a victim of PTSD, and her son is often a victim of it too, in the form of his mother's physical abuse. Much of the "letter" is an attempt to understand her and to make sense of their relationship. It's also, in some ways, a meditation on growing up "different" in America as Little Dog is both mixed race and gay. The saving grace of the family is his grandmother, Lan, who is both a practical woman and a wonderful storyteller.
So why didn't I like this book more? 1) Graphic scenes of abuse, both of people and animals. Near the beginning, there's a horrific scene of Vietnamese men sitting around a table with a hole cut in the center, out of which rises a monkey's head; they proceed to spoon out his brains and eat them, the monkey screaming as long as he is able. That just about did me in, but I pushed on . . . 2) Very graphic scenes of gay sex. I'm just not big on graphic sex scenes of any kind--straight, gay, with animals, whatever. 3) Heavy focus on drug abuse and the behavior of addicts when high. I know it's a problem in our society, and I hope something can be done about it, but I just don't want to read the depressing down and dirty about drug addiction. I would rather read about people trying to do something positive with their lives rather than about people destroying themselves. Obviously, for whatever reason, other people don't mind reading about these things, since the book has gotten such high ratings. So if you are still interested in it despite my own misgivings, be my guest. You might love and/or admire the book. I will say that Vuong's poetic background has given him mastery over the senses--you will vividly see, hear, smell, taste, and touch whatever he is describing--and his skill at creating atmosphere will work on your emotions as well.
Underground: Tales for London by various authors, the only one I had heard of being Lionel Shriver
This collection of twelve short stories all take place at least in part on the tube (or Underground). If you've ever ridden on it, the characters will seem familiar, as will the unspoken rules of etiquette for tube riders: Never make eye contact. Don't hold open the door to your car. Don't speak to anyone you don't know. Be on the watch for suspicious packages. Most of the stories are on the sad side: people visiting dying parents in the hospital, a young woman trying to break out of a bad relationship, and, in general, people who feel that they don't belong, are fearful of terrorist attacks and suspicious of their fellow riders, are at a point of indecision. In most, they break out of their self-imposed isolation and, often of necessity, reach out to those around them. Overall, I enjoyed the stories but didn't find them especially memorable.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
It may be Tallahassee in 1962, but Elwood Curtis, an African-American teenager, has a dream. He believes that if he works hard, follows the rules, and stays out of trouble, he can make a success of his life. Elwood is an excellent student and when his high school English teacher helps him to apply for a program that allows worthy scholars to enroll in classes at a nearby college, he feels that his dream is within his grasp. But an innocent mistake puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Elwood finds himself sentenced to serve time at The Nickel Academy, a “reform” school for juvenile offenders. Even here, he believes that he will earn an education and, by following the rules, an early release, but he soon learns the brutal reality. Boys at Nickel are sexually abused by staff members; those taken to “the White House” are severely beaten, and some of them disappear, their families told that they have run away. The only education Elwood receives is in cheating and grifting as he and other boys are forced to help corrupt staff members deliver food and supplies stolen from the school to local store owners. Still, Elwood believes in the teachings of his role model, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., especially in the power of love to defeat hate over time.
Whitehead divides his novel into three parts. Part One tells Elwood’s story up until the time of his arrest, and Part Two focuses on his life at The Nickel Academy. I have to admit that, initially, I was a bit confused by Part Three, which spans decades from the 1960s to the early 20th century, jumping back and forth and with secondary characters moving in and out of the narrative. But Whitehead sorts everything out near the end. (I can’t really say more about this without giving away too much—just trust me.) As usual, the writing is powerful, and the characters are both unique and realistic. This is an important book, not only for the history of the Jim Crow South that it portrays but for its relevance to our own time. It’s hard to read Elwood’s story without bringing to mind recent episodes of racial profiling, particularly in the law enforcement community, and the fact that racism is alive and thriving in the US today.
Overall, for me, The Nickel Boys doesn’t quite reach the level of The Underground Railroad, but it is an important and engaging novel, and I highly recommend it.
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
English Quaker Honor Bright has been jilted by her fiancé. Feeling embarrassed and out of place in her community, she jumps at the chance to accompany her sister Grace, who is sailing for America to join and marry Adam Cox, a dry goods owner in a small Ohio settlement. The voyage is difficult for Honor, so rough that when,shortly after disembarking, Grace dies of yellow fever, she can't bear the thought of recrossing the Atlantic and decides to continue on to Wellington. Adam has been living with his ailing brother and his sister-in-law, but by the time Honor arrives, his sibling has died of consumption. Abigail is now the householder, and it's clear that she doesn't welcome another woman in the home. Within a few months, Adam and Abigail marry, and Honor knows that she must find her own place in her new community--most likely through marriage.
Honor is curious about the runaway slaves that she encounters now and then. Quakers, of course, oppose abolition, but the new Fugitive Slave Law makes it more difficult for anyone to aid them. Before she reaches her first destination, the wagon she is riding ini s stopped and searched by a bounty hunter--the brother of a milliner named Belle who becomes a close friend. Despite his drinking and slave hunting, Honor feels attracted to Donovan--an attraction that doesn't stop when she marries a dairy farmer, Jack Haymaker. Though she is warned of the severe penalties that can be brought on those who assist runaway slaves, Honor feels bound to provide food and water to those on their way north. Out of tune with her family and her community, she reaches--and crosses--a breaking point.
A lot is going on in this fairly short novel. There's Honor's dilemma of trying to find a place in a Quaker community so different from the one she knew in England and the choices she has to make between moral and practical actions. Set in 1850, the slavery debate is in full swing, and even those who oppose the practice believe that freeing the slaves would bring economic ruin to the entire nation. And Honor is torn between two men who are total opposites.
I enjoyed Chevalier's depiction of the Quaker communities surrounding Oberlin, and she created two intriguing characters in Belle, the milliner, and Mrs. Reed, a black resident. Unfortunately, many of the other characters felt like stereotypes, and Honor herself was inconsistent and sometimes even annoying. So overall, this was just an OK read for me, and not the best of Tracy Chevalier's novels that I have read.
What other Chevalier novels would you recommend?
So what I'm actually saying, great reviews, thank you!
>157 laytonwoman3rd: I totally agree. It seems that Chevalier has passed her peak. I'm not even sure I want to read her latest.
Monster: The Story of Young Mary Shelley by Mark Arnold
This was quite a disappointment. Or maybe I've just read too many novels based on Mary Shelley's life and/or the creation of her novel. The author posits that Mary was sexually abused as a young girl, first by her stepbrother's "games" (that she inevitably lost and had to pay penalties of increasing sexual intimacy) and also by her overly affectionate father, who frequently comments on her resemblance to his dead wife. When her stepmother blames her for her "filthy" behavior, she is sent to live with a family in Scotland, the Baxters, where the widowed father will serve as her tutor and his two daughters as her friends and role models. The high point of Baxter's education is taking Mary to see the birth of a two-headed calf, born from the union of mother and son, as a warning to Mary that her relations with her own father could be disastrous, both biologically and socially. Ashamed, Mary returns home but repulses her father's kisses and offers to sit on his lap. It is as much this breech as her own passion that causes her to run off to the Continent with Percy Shelley. Her stepsister Claire and threatens to reveal her plans if she is not taken along. And thus begins the famous menage a trois.
This was all new info to me, and it's unclear whether this was based on fact or mere speculation by the author. But from this point out, I got even more bored than I already was. The travels through France, Italy, and Switzerland were old hat, and the tedious pages and pages of philosophical discussions (intended, I am sure, to show their brilliance) came off as silly and insignificant. The visit to Byron's villa was, again, old hat, and the story of how Mary came to write Frankenstein was what you already know if you've read any introductions to the novel.
If you want to read a really good, original novel on this subject, I recommend Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets and the Women Who Loved Them by Jude Morgan. Skip this one.
An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet Van der Ziji
I'm afraid that I just didn't find this woman's life very compelling. Allene Tew's extended family were founders of Jamestown, New York. Her own parents were not quite in high society, although they had ambitions. Allene got pregnant at 18 and eloped with Tod Hochstetter, heir to a Pittsburgh elixir fortune. It wasn't a happy marriage as her husband was a gambler and boozer. They had three children, all of whom died young (Verna at age two, Greta and Teddy both in 1918; he was a pilot shot down by the Germans and Greta, a pregnant young wife, contracted Spanish Flu). Following a "Paris divorce," Allene married another boozer/gambler and divorced again. Her third husband, Anson Burchard, head of the new General Electric Company, was the only husband who seemed to marry her for love instead of for her beauty or money. The next two husbands, both younger, were minor European aristocrats. She used some of her fortune for philanthropic projects, but it seemed like most of it went to her habit of buying houses (including one in Newport owned by the Astors); she picked up houses like some women pick up lipsticks or scarves. She also supported a lot of lazy extended family members, including her fourth husband's son, who never worked in his life but preferred to live in one of her many houses, waited upon by her servants.
Allene was in the society pages most of her life, for her marriages, divorces, and the controversy over her will. But why any of this makes her worthy of a biography is beyond me, and in fact, this is a rather short one as the last 25% of the book is devoted to the author's acknowledgements, bibliography, and notes. In her epilogue, she states that what fascinated her was Allene's persistent focus on the positive, which she admires as a wonderful Victorian approach to life. In many of her letters to her stepson, Allene advises him not to blame others for his problems and to looks for the good in everyone. Personally, I'm finding that a lot harder to do in the Age of Trump. I just didn't see that much to admire here, let alone much of interest. Unlike other philanthropists, Allene didn't even leave her fortune to serve the public good but left it to friends, servants, and extended family members, many of whom had been living off her wealth and quarreling over her will for years.
Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton
An interesting tale set in the Huguenot silk weaving community of London in the 18th century. Sara Kemp arrives in the city with a reference address in hand, but confused by the hustle and bustle of the city, she allows herself to be taken in by a sympathetic older woman. Mrs. Swann is a brothel keeper who drugs the innocent girl and sets her to work. After a customer leaves her near death, Sara runs away, seeking help from Esther Tholer, a master weaver's wife who had spoken kindly to her in the street and sent a Bible to Sara in the brothel. Although she keeps it a secret, Esther's own mother was a reformed prostitute, and she hopes to redeem the girl by offering her a position as her lady's maid. Her only conditions are that Sara remain virtuous and repay the money she was given to purchase her freedom from the brothel.
Esther's other secret is her dream of designing silk patterns for her husband's business. She is a skilled artist, but Elias scoffs at her endeavors and urges her to stick to managing the household. But she persuades Bisby Lambert, a weaver working on his master submission in their garret, to weave her design. As their mutual admiration blossoms, so does Sara's relationship with another weaver, John Barnstable, a rabble rouser inciting the weavers to join in making demands on silk dealers like Elias Tholer. Rebellion, for all involved, has its consequences, changing even the women's lives forever.
I enjoyed Velton's detailed descriptions of the everyday lives of women, households, and the weaver's trade, and her characters were engaging and believable.
The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter by Hazel Gaynor
This fairly interesting story alternates between 1838 and 1938. It opens during a violent storm near Longstone Lighthouse in Northumberland, England. Nineteen-year old Grace Darling rows out in a small boat with her father to rescue survivors of a shipwreck. One of them, Sara Dawson, is a widow who was taking her two children on holiday to visit her brother; the children are among those who perished. Grace's heroism captures the imagination of the British press and sets her world on end as reporters, portrait artists, and the curious descend on her home and admirers send her letters asking for a lock of hair or a clipping from the dress she was wearing during the rescue mission. Grace neither wants this celebrity nor feels that she deserves it. She feels that her father and Sara Dawson are the true heroes.
The later story involves Matilda Emmerson, a 19-year old who has gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Her parent shuttle her off to the US to stay with a distant relative until her child is born and given up for adoption. Harriet Flaherty, a rather taciturn and private woman, has a house in town but leaves every day to tend to her job as a lighthouse keeper. Matilda has a lot of questions about Harriet, but she isn't getting any answers. She wants especially to know about Cora whose name is painted on the conch shells lining the widow sill. And almost every night, Matilda hears Harriet calling out for Cora in her sleep.
This is just the bare bones of a story that seems simple yet is actually quite complex. There are longstanding ties between many of the characters that are only gradually revealed, and Gaynor touches on a number of themes: woman's lives and women's work, motherhood, art, celebrity, societal expectations for both men and women, and the human longing for a place to call home. It gets a little too romance-y for my taste towards the end, and both strand of the story rather rush towards conclusion, but overall, I enjoyed this book, as I have others by this author.
Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent
I'm a big fan of Jeffrey Lent, but this book really didn't cut it with me. For the most part, it's a glorified coming-of-age story, and I'm not fond of teenage angst. Katey Snow adores her father, but he has grown increasingly distant, and Katey and her mother don't get along. When she finds affectionate letters sent by her father's war buddy to her mother, she takes off in search of the man she believes may be her biological father. She encounters good people and bad, hippies and farmers, small town folk and smaller town folk, and encounters everything from kindness to rape. Her story alternates with that of her mother Ruth, who married her high school sweetheart, a man who was never the same after World War II experiences. I thought the novel really dragged, and the characters were dull compared to those in Lost Nation or In the Fall.
A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming
Doaa was just a teenager when war broke out in her native Syria. When Bashar's army took over her town with tanks to put down demonstrations, things got so bad that homes and people were routinely searched and girls walking to school and mothers to the grocery were at constant risk of being kidnapped and raped, her family took refuge in Egypt. The Syrians were welcomed at first, but things soon changed. They were blamed for economic stress and treated much as we see Central American refugees being treated in the U.S. today. Harassment and threats caused the family to fear for their safety. Finally, Doaa's fiance convinces her that the two of them should pay smugglers to get them to Europe, hopefully in time to Sweden, where she had relatives, and apply for legal entry for the rest of her family. It was a harrowing journey that ended when a boat deliberately rammed their rickety vessel, casting over 500 desperate people into the sea. Doaa was one of only 12 survivors.
Dosa's story is a tragic example of the suffering of the Syrian people and other refugees fleeing violence, starvation, and the loss of freedom. It reminded me of the current administration's cruelty in the form of a Muslim ban, determination to build a border wall, roundups of illegal immigrants, the family separation policy, and children locked in cages. Just yesterday it was reported that a child who accidentally spilled her soup was forced to lick it off the floor. This week, aliens who have been here legally for years to receive lifesaving medical care received letters telling them that they face deportation if they don't leave the country of their own accord within 30 days. Children with cancer, cystic fibrosis, and rare diseases are being deported and will die. Surely, we are better than this. Yet too many seem to be asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?" And too many put aside Christ's answer.
After so much suffering, Doaa and her family settled safely in Sweden. Finally, instead of living moment to moment in fear and anxiety, they can begin to plan for the future. Her story should remind us all of the human rights to which we all are entitled, regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
When Nuri was young, his cousin Mustafa taught him the ins and outs of beekeeping, and the two men joined to form a successful business. But civil war tore apart their country, Syria, the bombs destroying their homes and their hives, killing Nuri's son Sami and blinding his wife Afra, an artist. Mustafa fled to the UK, and now Nuri has decided that he and Afra should join him there. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the heart-wrenching story of their struggle, a struggle that tests their minds and bodies, their love for each other, their belief in their fellow human beings, and their will to live. Nuri is the narrator, and I was grabbed from the first page, when he watches his blind wife rising in the morning:
I am scared of my wife's eyes. She can't see out and no one can see in. Look, they are like stones, grey stones, sea stones. Look at her. Look at how she is sitting on the bed, her nightgown on the floor, rolling Mohammed's marble around in her fingers and waiting for me to dress her. I take my time putting on my shirt and trousers, because I am so tired of dressing her. Look at the folds of her stomach, the color of desert honey, darker in the creases, and the fine, fine silver lines on the skin of her breasts, and the tips of her fingers with the tiny cuts, where the ridges and valley patterns once were stained with blue and yellow, and red paint. Her laughter was gold once, you would have seen it as well as heard it. Look at her, because I think she is disappearing,
At this point, they have made it to England and are living in a B&B while waiting for their asylum application to be processed. Knowing that they have arrived makes it a little easier to read the flashbacks to darker days in Syria and their difficult journey through Turkey and Greece. Nuri's happier memories and strange dreams also provide moments of strength and hope. The people they meet in the refugee camps have their own stories. There is the Afghan musician, a likable man who is hiding a brutal secret; an African woman whose tiny baby is not thriving; social workers who are willing to stretch the rules and others who have no empathy for the refugees; and Mohammed, the boy with black eyes who appears as suddenly as he disappears, rolling his marble and looking for a key.
Yes, this is a sad novel, but it's also a beautiful one and a necessary one. I listened to the entire audio version in a single day, and I want to listen to it again (and read it in print). Art Malick is the perfect narrator; I can't imagine anyone giving voice to Nuri with more sensitivity and truth.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
I liked this book but was not as enthralled as the Booker Prize judges apparently were. It's an in-depth look at the changes in a relationship between Connell, a brilliant and popular high school student, and Marianne, a brilliant and unpopular classmate. The two come from different walks of life: Denise, Marianne's mother, employs Connell's mom, Lorraine, as a cleaner. Although Connell ignores her in school, he enjoys his conversations with Marianne as he waits at her house for his mom to drive him home. The two soon fall into a sexual relationship that both enjoy, but while it's pretty clear that Marianne is in love, it's less certain whether Connell feels the same. But when they both start at Trinity University, both change. Suddenly, Marianne is the confident, admired one, and it's Connell who feels like he doesn't belong. Although they part ways in different social groups, with different lovers, and in different geographical locales, the bond between them is never completely broken. It's love, but what kind of love? Are they better off as lovers, friends, or friends with benefits?
The close study of the characters as well as their relationships is very well done. Connell, raised by a single mother, is close to Lorraine, and it's clear that her parenting has made him into the confident, sensitive young man he has become. Still, his desire to be like everyone else--to be a "normal person"--eats away at his authentic self. While Marianne has the benefit of family wealth, her father died when she was younger, her mother is indifferent, and he older brother is abusive. She, too, wants nothing more than to be a "normal person." We watch as the past and things beyond their control changes they way they see themselves and the way the world sees them, as well as their own relationship.
The writing is fine overall, but there are some awkward similes. For example: "He holds her tightly, his body adjusting itself to hers like the kind of mattress that's supposedly good for you." I guess the last phrase kind of makes it work because it questions whether these two are really good for one another; but bodies as Memory Foam mattresses? That one hit me hard.
Normal People is an interesting and complicated story, but it won't be on the top of my list of books read this year.
The Sea and the Silence by Peter Cunningham
This novel opens as an attorney is settling the affairs of a recently deceased client. She has left two envelopes, requesting that he open and read the contents and then destroy them. One bears the name of her son, "Hector," and the other "Iz"--the nickname of Ismay, the deceased. The setting is Ireland, starting in the early 1940s and working through several decades. Ireland is staying out of the war on the Continent, but many of the Anglo-Irish young men are signing up for service in the British armed forces. Although Iz's family is in financial distress, due to her father's disability and neglect of their land, she is still included in the social calendar. "Hector" tells the story of her early marriage to Ronnie, a member of the horsey set, and their life in the fictional sea coast town of Monument. Initially happy, things begin to fall apart as Ronnie's weaknesses--drinking, speculating in land deals that inevitably fall through, and womanizing--are revealed. Iz's life and happiness become centered around her son. In "Iz," she begins with a cricket game and a dance where she meets two men that will change her life: Ronnie and Frank, a dock worker. Iz is also being pressured by her family to marry Norman, a wealthy landowner's son.
Cunningham's book gave me a new take on World War II and on the continuing conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. It also documents the life of a woman who was pressured by the expectations of her social status. And in many ways it's a quintuple love story--of Iz and Frank, Iz and Ronnie, Iz and Hector, Iz and the sea, Iz and the Dublin house she inherits. The characters are intriguing, if sometimes a bit cliché; thankfully Iz is the center of it all. It wasn't a five-star read for me, but I did enjoy it.
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
I haven't read a generational novel in quite a while, and I enjoyed this one. It starts out in the 1970s. Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are rookie NYC cops who partner for their first six weeks on the streets. Both have girlfriends they hope to marry soon. Francis was born in the US, taken back to Ireland, and returned to America at age 19. Brian's family came from Ireland "way back," but his girlfriend Anne is a more recent immigrant. Brian tells Francis that he hopes to buy a house in Gillam and raise his family away from the city. Fast forward: both are married and live next door to one another in Gillam. Francis and Lena have two girls and a third is on the way; Anne had a stillbirth and is expecting again. There's something not quite right about Anne. She rebuffs her neighbors' attempts to be friendly. After Lena drops off a baby swing and a loaf of bread that she baked, Anne bangs on the door and returns them, saying that if her baby needs anything, she can afford to buy it, and she can feed her family herself. After that, and after Brian is caught drinking on the job and is first demoted and then forced to retire early, the Gleesons pretty much ignore the family--except for their daughter Kate, who forms a strong bond with Peter Stanhope that never fades, even after a violent act separates the two families for years (and in the case of the parents, decades).
I don't want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that the rest of the book follows the effects of violence, mental illness, parenting, marriage, and parental models--both good and bad--on the two families. Kate and Peter become the main focus, and Keane does a fine job of portraying their lives both with and without one another. I whisked through this book in just a few days, which is a testament to how engaging it was.
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral history of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff
If you only read one book about 9/11 in your lifetime, this should be the one. Working with oral historians, Graff has cobbled together a remarkable narrative of the events of the day and the day after, as well as an epilogue that follows up on the US response and the lives of some of the speakers. Hundreds of people's stories are included, from the obvious (the president, Veep, Secretary of Defense, and Mayor Giuliani and, of course, first responders and survivors) to the unexpected. There's the airport worker who checked in Mohammed Atta and encouraged him to hurry so as not to miss his flight; students in a nearby school; reporters who were travelling on Air Force One; the victim's family members, including a woman who gave birth during the tragedy; taped calls from personnel on the doomed planes; and many, many more. It's a sad, horrifying, but riveting narrative of the greatest attack ever on American soil. Particularly moving are the stories of people helping strangers and looking for friends, coworkers, and family. Some of these stories are told in short pieces as the day progresses. Particularly moving is that of a married couple--he a fireman, she a police officer; this one has a happy ending amidst all the stories of loss. The narrative moves from Manhattan to the Pentagon to the site of the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania, traces the president's convoluted journey from Florida back to Washington, and details fears of additional attacks that cleared the skies and sent bombers up with orders to take down suspicious commercial airplanes.
Graff has taken on a monumental task here, but he has achieved his goal. I know that I relived the day--where I was, what I was doing, how I felt--as I listened to the narrative, and I feel that every reader or listener will have the same experience. As a side note: I haven't been listening to many audiobooks lately, but this one worked extremely well. It has a cast of over 40 actors, and their heartfelt performances made it easier to follow the various persons' stories. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to lock that day in memory, and for anyone too young to have a memory of the most ominous day in our history.
I don't think I could manage the whole book for this reason - I'd be engrossed by it, but I think it would put me under a cloud for too long afterwards. I think this would be incredibly difficult to read for anyone who was in NY on that day.
The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories by Ayse Bucak
I purchased this book on the strength of the opening story, which I read as an excerpt online. It's absolutely stunning. Set in a Turkish girl's school that has been demolished by a kitchen explosion in the middle of the night, it is a conversation among those buried in the rubble awaiting rescue, those who have died, and those who are in the midst of crossing over. The girls try to comfort one another as they wait, recall their happier memories, and recount their dreams for a future that may no longer exist. Unfortunately, most of the other stories in the collection don't come close to this one. A coed stops eating and talking while others try to assign a motive to her actions. A man's collection of supposedly pornographic paintings is discussed, including his memories of the artists, models, and former owners. An older girl bonds with a "little sister." The history of a series of Trojan War museums. Only the last story, "The Gathering of Desire," stands out. A young Quaker, recently widowed, is encouraged by her children to challenge a mechanical chess player. The narrative shifts between her and the hidden man who controls The Turk, both of them expressing regrets and desires. On the strength of the opening and closing stories, I rated this collection as four stars, but the stories in between are not particularly memorable.
The Vagrants by Yijun Li
It's 1979, Chairman Mao has been dead for a few years, and a counter-revolution is bubbling up. In the provincial city of Muddy River, the citizens are called to a ceremony to denounce one of their own, a young woman named Gu Shan, prior to her execution, for counter-revolutionary activities. Shan had already been tried once and sentenced to jail time, but her retrial several years later ended with a death sentence. Dragged onstage by two guards, she appears frail and almost catatonic, her throat covered with bloody bandages. We learn that her vocal cords have been cut to prevent her from making a public statement. Later we learn that this is not the only horror she experiences: her kidneys were harvested for transplant into a party leader (the actual reason for her retrial and death sentence), and her body is brutally desecrated after her execution.
Shan's life and death stand at the center of this novel as the author reveals the effect on the people of Muddy River. There are her parents, Teacher Gu and his wife; the Huas, a childless vagrant couple who has taken in abandoned girls, only to have them snatched away by government plans; Nini, a 12-year old born with a deformed face, hand, and leg, the unloved third daughter in a family of six girls; Bashi, a spoiled, socially awkward outcast teenager with a history of pestering little girls; Tong, a young boy who dreams of winning the red scarf and becoming a party hero; Wu Kai, beautiful former actress, now a news reader who is assigned to speak at the denunciation ceremony; and her adoring husband, Wu Han, a rising government official who has gotten a boost from his parents, prominent party members. All of these people are in some way touched by Gu Shan and her tragic ending, their individual stories all in some way overlapping. Her parents, of course, suffer the greatest loss, and their marriage is tested as Teacher Gu tries to get on with life and follow the rules while his wife's grief propels her towards reckless decisions. Others whose crimes may be as slight as having been in the wrong place at the wrong time suffer the same (or worse) consequences as those organizing a protest denouncing Gu Shan's fate.
This is not an easy read. Yijun Li does an incredible job of depicting the constant state of paranoia in which citizens of Communist China lived, never quite sure who to trust or what they could or could not say. It's a cruel reminder of the dehumanization of totalitarian regimes, and a reminder to us all of how lucky we are to live in a democracy and that we must be vigilant to preserve it in the face of radical political ideologies.
The Secrets We kept by Lara Prescott
While I'm not usually a fan of spy stories of any kind, I was intrigued by this novel that focuses on the women involved (at least in the author's imagination) in getting a manuscript version of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago out of the Soviet Union, published into various European countries and the US, then translated back into Russian so that copies could be smuggled back into the homeland. The book focuses on Pasternak's lover, the woman who inspired the character of Lara, and on Sally and Irina, members of an intelligence bureau "typing pool" who are also secret agents. Sally is a flashy, stylish, larger-than-life figure, the kind of 3--something woman men easily fell for in the 1950s and '60s. Irina, American-born daughter of a Russian immigrant, is surprised when she is chosen for the typing pool, since she is the slowest applicant, but the boss sees something in her that he'd like to develop, and soon she is being trained as a carrier. Her life is about to change--especially when Sally is assigned to take over her training.
While Olga is also involved, to a lesser extent, in the scheme, hers is mostly the story of her long devotion to Pasternak, despite his failure to divorce his wife and marry her. Olga is not only Pasternak's lover but his protector and defender; she even spends eight years in hard labor after refusing to become an informant. The poet himself comes off as a rather pathetic, unlikable character who stands up for his principles only to stand down and give in. Of course, with the full force of the Communist Party against him, his only other option would have been condemnation, persecution, and death.
Initially, the structure of the book is rather confusing, shifting between East and West and among the various main characters--who are identified by changing descriptives. Irina, for example, is described as The Typist, The Carrier, The Nun, The Student, and more. But this all starts to fall into place about halfway through.
While The Secrets We Kept won't make the top of my list, it was an engaging read.
I thoroughly enjoyed this fictionalization of the life of William Hogarth, the 18th-century English painter and engraver best known for his bawdy print series, "The Harlot's Progress" and "The Rake's Progress." Hogarth himself narrates and begins his story when he was injured during a violent storm as a boy. The Hogarth family lived in extreme poverty. His father had aspirations of becoming a writer never made it, and at one time, when he is jailed for debt, the family joins him in prison as they have nowhere else to live. Young William is apprenticed to an engraver, but his true love was always drawing. It was when he learned to combine the two skills that he became the toast of London society. And Dean gives us that society in a novel brimming with the details typical of a Hogarth print.
Dean not only takes us through key moments in Hogarth's life, but he fleshes him out as a living, breathing, feeling character. We see him as an admiring son, a friend to other artists, a young man in love, an older man with regrets. The depiction of his elopement with and marriage to Jane Thornhill is especially fine and believable. Dean portrays Hogarth as deeply in love with his wife, yet the marriage is troubled, perhaps, in Dean's view, because it failed to produce any children.
Overall, a fascinating portrait of the man and his times.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson tells the history of three generations of a middle class African-American family in this very short novel (I finished it in two days, and that was not constant reading). It begins at Melody's sixteenth birthday debut party. Waiting to make her entrance to Prince's "Daring Nikki," she's wearing a white dress originally made for her mother's debut but never worn as Iris became a mother at age 15. The narrative shifts not only chronologically but among a number of characters: Melody; her father Aubrey, who comes from a lower socioeconomic class; Iris; PoBoy ad Sabe, Iris's parents; and a third person narrator. It's the story of how history repeats itself--and how sometimes it doesn't. But even more, it's the story of one family's resilience. Iris's parents had high hopes for their academically smart and beautiful daughter, and neither their hopes nor hers would be extinguished by an unexpected pregnancy--a good thing, because clearly Iris clearly was not cut out to be a mother. After her Catholic school expelled her, she was tutored by Aubrey's mother, a nurse, and while Aubrey moves in with Sabe and Po'Boy to help raise Melody, Iris follows through on her plans to attend college, choosing Oberlin mainly because of its distance from the family home in New York.
In the course of this short novel, the family suffers many tragedies and some triumphs. Woodson addresses a number of significant questions and themes, including teenage pregnancy, racism, the meanings of motherhood and family in contemporary society, the role of education,gender and gender roles, personal freedom v. responsibility, and more. I admire Woodson's style but think the book might have benefited from fleshing out the characters a bit more. Iris is the most fully developed, but I empathized most with Aubrey and would have liked more background on the lives of Sabe and Po'Boy.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates is well known for his essays and two non-fiction works about race in America; this is his first novel. It takes place in the 1840s in Virginia. Young Hiram Walker, a slave, has a photographic memory, but can't remember his mother, who was sold off to a Natchez plantation. Traumatized, he is taken in by a reclusive slave woman whose family was also sold into "the coffin" of the Deep South. Hi's owner, who also happens to be his father, eventually assigns moves him to the main house and initially believes that he will be treated as a son when he joins his half-brother, Maynard, for lessons. But eventually he is pulled from the classroom and assigned to guard Maynard and keep him out of trouble. One night, as he is driving a trap with his brother and a "lady friend" over a bridge, Hi believes he sees the spirit of his mother doing the water dance, and they are all thrown into the speeding river. Miraculously, Hi escapes, and stories start to spread that he has supernatural powers. This draws the attention of members of the Underground Railroad who conscript him into their cause and help him to escape to Philadelphia where he learns, under the tutelage of Harriet Tubman, to control his gift for "Conduction,"a mystical process whereby he can transport slaves from one place to another. Even though he has escaped to the North, Hi is determined to return to Virginia and conduct his adoptive mother and the woman he loves to safety.
I found the story interesting, but I am not a big fan of magical realism, and I think it took something away from the struggle against slavery. As another reader mentioned, it seemed to diminish all that Tubman accomplished by making it reliant on magic. I would much rather have read about what really happened. Guess I will have to go see the new movie, "Harriet," to find out.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few days with my friend Olive Kitteridge and her family and neighbors. Reading this book made me want to reread Strout's first novel about this blunt, rather cranky and critical Mainer. 'Olive, Again' picks up where we left off, with the widowed heroine surprised to find herself in a developing relationship with retired Harvard professor Jack Kennison. Most of the chapters/stories focus on a geriatric Olive trying to understand her past and how it has affected the present, and to come to terms with own aging body. She struggles with feelings that her son Christopher, now married to a second wife who came with two kids and recently had a child of their own, even likes--let alone loves--her. She finds happiness in her new life with Jack yet reminisces about Henry Kitteridge and the house they built together. While she hasn't lost her edginess, Olive, like many older people, has become surprisingly tolerant of the quirks and failings of others (well, except for bratty kids and the current resident of the White House). Olive breezes in and out of her neighbors' stories, and some of them pass through hers. She visits a woman--not a close friend--who has a 50-50 chance of surviving cancer and finds herself privy to all the thoughts and fears that the woman can't share with her overly optimistic husband. She is a sounding board for former students' disappointments in life, including a well-known lawyer and a one-time Poet Laureate. She empathizes with members of the Somali community in the nearby town of Shirley Falls, including Halima, a visiting nurse, and with neighbors of French descent who, she now realizes, were discriminated against in Crosby. She takes for granted that her neighbor Fergus wears a kilt. (Fergus, his wife Ethel, and their two daughters are the subjects of one of the most unusual stories in this collection--but I'm not about to give anything away!) Characters familiar from Strout's other novels--Amy and Isabelle, the Burgess family, etc.--also make appearances. At the end of the book, Olive is quite old . . . I just hope she lasts long enough for Strout to pen another Crosby, Maine collection.
In short, 'Olive, Again' was wonderful, the perfect way to spend a grey November weekend. I rarely reread books, but I will be dipping into this one again, as well as reading 'Amy and Isabelle' and 'The Burgess Boys,' which somehow I have missed.
>198 RidgewayGirl: I loved it! Top of my list now, and I am going back to reread Olive Kitteridge and other of her books that I missed. I loved Anything Is Possible; not a huge fan of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
Winter by Christopher Nicholson
How disappointing! I was looking forward to this book about the later years of one of my favorite authors, Thomas Hardy, but the main characters were so unlikable and the narratives slow and repetitive that I almost gave up on this one (and probably should have). Hardy is 84 focusing on poetry. He lives in a country home with his second wife, Florence, who is roughly half his age. She is one of the most annoying, unpleasant characters I have ever encountered. And Hardy is not much better. The story is told by three narrators, the Hardys and Gertie, a young wife and mother who has played Tess in a local production and has dreams is introducing the role on the London stage.
Florence is a hypochondriac, and I would also consider her a hysterical. She had a small growth on her neck that she felt sure was cancerous and went to three doctors until she found one who agreed that it might be a concern and removed it. Now she is obsessed with her scar, continuously wearing a wrap with a Fox head and fussing to make sure her scar is covered. She has convinced herself that her health issues are caused by the large pines on the property and begs her husband relentlessly about cutting them down or cutting them back. When she isn't whining about the trees, she's whining, "You don't love me. You don't love me as much as you loved your first wife. Did you ever really love me?" Despite of all this whining, by the end of the book, she is calculating how much money she will have when Thomas dies and fantasizing about who she might choose for her next husband. Oh, and about removing the trees, of course.
Lest you feel sorry for Thomas, never fear, he is equally annoying. He has become obsessed with Gertie and spends his time writing love poems to her that are never sent, gazing at one of her hairs that he has preserved in a book, and fantasizing about eloping with her. Remember that Gertie is a married woman in her 20s, a new mother whose only interest in Hardy is that his influence might get her the role of Tess on the London stage. I guess we're supposed to see him as a man nearing death longing for one last stab at youth, but I found him foolish and annoying. He does either ignore Florence or treat her condescending, but I really can't blame him for that.
Gertie is the only somewhat likeable character. She loves her baby and is committed to her husband, but she does dream of acting in London and is thrilled when Hardy arranges a limited run of Tess in London. She and her husband have agreed that they will work things out so that she can leave for a month. But Florence suspects that Thomas has designs on Gertie and then finds the love letters. She feels threatened by the fact that the two will be in London without her. Her first plan of attack is to nag Thomas to withdraw the role, claiming that Gertie should be with her baby, that the separation could ruin her marriage, and that the girl could be destroyed by negative reviews. When that doesn't work, she goes to Gertie's house and claims that "Mr. Hardy and I" think it best that she write to the producer and decline the role, citing the reasons above. When Gertie remains unconvinced, Florence become hysterical and confesses that Thomas is infatuated with her, and she agrees to withdraw from the play.
This review is more detailed than I usually like, but I want to give readers sufficient reason to avoid this plodding, annoying novel. Read Hardy's novels instead.
The Innocents by Michael Crummy
Evered Best and his sister Ada are living a hard life on the Newfoundland coast. Their baby sister Martha died of an unknown illness, and their mother and father soon followed her to the grave. Well, no the grave as it is the middle of winter and the ground is frozen, so both were buried at sea. The children figure they have enough supplies on hand to make it until spring when a ship called the Hope will arrive. Evered doesn't know exactly how it all works, but he knows that every spring his father rowed out to the Hope with the dried and salted fish he has processed in the past year, met with a man called the Beadle, and brought back enough supplies for the coming year. He and Ada are determined to keep the family business going and keep the property on which they live. When the Hope arrives, the Beadle rejects half of their fish as unusable and, as a result, gives them only half of the usual supplies. Brother and sister believe that they can stretch it out to survive the coming year and set about to improve the business.
Crummy's novel covers several years as Evered and Ada grow from pre-teens to teenagers. Much of the book focuses on descriptions of their hard life and the beautiful but unforgiving landscape. When the rare visitors (the Beadle, a minister and his "housekeeper," a small company of sailors) appear, they are both a welcome diversion from and a threat to their solitary but peaceful lives. The greatest threat, however, is their developing sexuality, for which there is no acceptable outlet. On occasion, Evered considers it might be best for Ada, at least, to move to the nearest settlement and find a husband. Instead, the inevitable happens.
I've enjoyed several of Crummy's other novels, all of which I liked better than this one. Still, no one is better at creating atmosphere, especially that surrounding early settlers in rugged Newfoundland, his preferred setting. This is a hard read and not one for the squeamish.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
I really enjoyed Olive, Again and thought I should catch up on other novels by this author that I haven't read. This one focuses on three siblings, twins Susan and Bob and their brother Jim, who is two years older. Susan, divorced with a teenage son, chose to stay in Shirley Falls, the Maine town in which they grew up. Bob and Jim both became lawyers and moved to New York, but while Jim became a successful defense attorney, Bob opted to work for Legal Aid. All of their lives, Jim has been the handsome one, the popular one, the successful one, the one who married into Connecticut money. Like Susan, Bob divorced, mainly because his wife wanted children and he couldn't have them, and he has become a pretty heavy drinker. The family is haunted by a tragedy in their past: while playing in the car in the driveway, one of them (it is assumed it was Bob) slipped the gears, and the car rolled over their father, killing him. Even though he was only four at the time, Bob has been haunted all his life by the belief that he had killed his own father.
The story kicks off when Bob gets a call from a hysterical Susan, saying that her son Zach is in trouble. He confessed to his mother that he is the culprit who tossed a pig's head into the local Somali mosque. Bob consults with Jim--who happens to be on a long overdue vacation with his wife Helen--and they decide that it would be best for Zach to turn himself in the next morning. With Jim out of town, the burden of accompanying them falls on Bob. But as the news of the incident spreads, the town plans a peace and love rally, rumors start to fly that Zach may be charged with a hate crime, and both brothers join to help their beleaguered sister and nephew.
As the plot develops, the strengths and weaknesses of the Burgess siblings become apparent, and old secrets and resentments start to emerge. Like so many of Strout's novels, this is a family's story, but it's also a community's story. Shirley Falls has become home to a large Somali community, and longtime residents are torn between empathy for the refugees and resentment at this "invasion" by people who seem so unlike themselves.
There's a lot more to The Burgess Boys than the bare-bones outline above. As always, Strout does a fine job of creating interesting, individualized characters, both major and minor: Mrs. Drinkwater, Susan's elderly tenant; Bob's ex-wife and Jim's current one; Margaret Estaver, a Unitarian minister; a Somali elder; Bob's downstairs neighbor, who seems to be in an abusive relationship; and many more. While I can't say that this is my favorite Strout novel, I did enjoy it.
>205 Cariola: your Crummey review interested me. I read my first Crummey recently (River Thieves), and I had a bit of a love / hate with it. It felt dense and slow at times, and although I enjoyed it to an extent I was equally glad to get to the end of it. Having said that, it's stuck in my head much more than other books I've enjoyed more this year, which is making me reevaluate my initial response to it.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
When narrator Danny Conroy was just a toddler, his father packed him, his mother, and his older sister into a borrowed car and drove them to a mansion that had belonged to Dutch family who had made a fortune in cigarettes. To their surprise, father Cyril announced that this was their new home. The children were thrilled with the space and its history; their mother, not so much. A novice nun before her marriage, Elna still devoted her spare time to helping the less fortunate, and to her, the opulence of the house (and the servants who came with it) felt obscene. Within a year, she abandoned the family. The children are more or less raised by the servants; Fluffy, the young nanny, is dismissed suddenly and somewhat mysteriously, but the two sisters who maintain the household stay on.
It's no surprise, then, as many readers have noted, that the house itself actually becomes a character in its own right. There are good memories for Danny and his sister Maeve, although most of them occur before his father's remarriage to Andrea, a domineering, money hungry, status conscious younger woman with two daughters of her own. One of her first demands is that Maeve give her bedroom to one of her daughters and be sent to live on the distant third floor; instead, she leaves home. Maeve becomes Danny's protector and almost a second mother, making sacrifices to ensure that he gets a good education. Within days of Cyril's sudden death, Andrea kicks Danny out, although he is only 14. They learn that their father has left them absolutely nothing but an educational trust for Danny that reverts to Andrea if at any time he leaves school. Maeve's plan is to keep her brother in school as long as possible, if for no other reason than to spite Andrea.
That's the bare bones of the story, but there is much more to come as the plot weaves through more than 30 additional years. The Dutch House continues to haunt both the past and the present, and every so often, Maeve and Danny drive to the familiar street, park across from the house, and share memories and curses. Danny can't help but wonder how different their lives would have been had they never moved there. He blames the house for Elna's abandonment, the beginning of a negative influence on their personal lives that he just can't seem to shake.
I enjoyed the book, which is saved from being simply an evil stepmom story by the loving sibling relationship between Danny and Maeve that spans decades. The resolution is a bit contrived, yet still satisfying as not everything falls happily into place.
4 out of 5 stars.
Marley by Jon Clinch
If you've read Dickens's A Christmas Carol, you know that Ebeneezer wasn't always a scrooge. Marley, too, shows him in his younger days, when he took care of his widowed mother, adored his sister Fan, and fell in love with Belle. What changed him? According to Clinch's novel, it was Jacob Marley. The two met at boarding school, where the headmaster was virtually absent, the teachers negligent, the boys pretty much self-educated, and bullies like Marley allowed to ride roughshod over the others. Marley was a schemer: by the time they matriculated, Ebeneezer was in so much debt to him that he couldn't refuse the offer of a partnership. Marley recognized not only that Scrooge was great with numbers but that he preferred to hide his head in the account books and leave everything else up to his devious partner. By setting up several dummy businesses through which he could cheat clients and invest in unscrupulous investments (like the slave trade), he made a fortune, lost half of the partnership's fortune (Scrooge's half, of course), and made a second fortune, which he stashed away in secret passages of his home and kept hidden from Scrooge, constantly insisting that they were on the verge of financial disaster. When Scrooge finds out about Marley's lies and crimes, instead of confronting him, he delves deeper into the accounts in hopes of finding ways to make the books balance. His single-mindedness comes between him and the ever-patient Belle (as well as the discovery that Marley had not, as he claimed, withdrawn his investments in the slave trade). Marley will stoop to anything--arson, theft, revenge, blackmail, murder--and glories in his success. He even ingratiates himself to the Scrooge family, first courting and then disappointing Fan, then courting her again with disastrous results.
If you've wondered what dark deeds Jacob Marley must have done to deserve an eternity of haunting the earth in chains, Clinch's re-imagining of the Dickens classic will be just your cuppa. You may end up a little less inclined to blame Scrooge for his own shortcomings (or maybe not!).
3 out of 5 stars.