Best Book of the Week!

30 Oct

Cover for The Watch TowerThis week’s Best Book is The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower!

Day 605: The Watch Tower

29 Oct

Cover for The Watch TowerThe Watch Tower opens when Laura and Clare Vaizey are abruptly pulled out of school after their father dies. They move with their mother Stella to an apartment in the Sydney suburbs. While Stella lounges around in bed, she has the girls do all the housework. Laura, who thought she might become a doctor or an opera singer, is made to leave school and take a secretarial course. Later, to keep Clare in a decent school, Laura has to turn over all her earnings from a secretarial job in a factory, for her mother would as soon see Clare in the local high school, which only teaches girls home economics.

When World War II breaks out, Stella decides to return to England, leaving her girls to fend for themselves. By then, Laura is in her early 20’s and Clare in high school. When Laura wonders what she can do to keep Clare in high school, her mother suggests she get her a job in the factory.

Laura confides her problems to her boss, Felix Shaw, whom she thinks of as a good man. Felix has an idea that will keep Clare out of the factory. Laura should marry him, and he will support both girls. Stella refuses to give her advice, but she obviously prefers any solution that will be less trouble for herself. Seeing Felix’s offer as a sort of business deal, Laura accepts.

Laura and Clare do not know it, but they have put themselves into the hands of an emotionally and sometimes physically abusive man. The resulting story is one of great psychological depth. While Laura becomes a woman who will do anything to keep peace in the house, Clare finds herself attempting to stay in some way true to herself.

The novel is an absorbing account of the need of one person for escape from an abusive and emotionally stifling situation while another attempts to close every avenue of escape. Felix is continually involved in shady business deals with proteges who disappear as soon as they’ve managed to cheat him. Felix then takes everything out on his wife, showing her contempt so that others treat her contemptuously, too. Laura will do anything to appease him, including preventing her sister from attempting to leave.

This story is a dark and compelling one.

Day 604: The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories

28 Oct

Cover for The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost StoriesIn honor of Halloween, I decided to read this collection of 35 ghost stories from Victorian times, when they were very popular. This collection contains stories by well-known writers of the time, such as Charles Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins, and Rudyard Kipling, as well as those by other less-known writers.

First, I’ll comment that modern audiences probably won’t find them very scary. But I’m not so sure this has anything to do with the period or the ability of the writers. I think it’s very difficult to handle genre fiction successfully in a short story. Short stories seem to me to be more suited for literary fiction somehow. A few years ago, for example, I read a collection of mystery short stories but felt that the form didn’t allow much space to really develop an interesting atmosphere or characters. It merely allowed the author to pose a puzzle and a solution.

The Victorian ghost stories seem to observe a few conventions. Unlike the gothic stories from the preceding years, Victorian ghost stories are more homey and less likely to include oddities, fantastic events, or exotic settings. Many of them are presented as a person telling a story to one or more other people, often as an evening entertainment before the fire. Almost all of them involve haunted houses, which often seem to be leased to unwary renters at a suspiciously low price. (But I shouldn’t mock. I actually have a friend who found himself in precisely this situation.) Another common theme is a haunted object. In most of the stories, the worst thing that happens is that someone sees a ghost, although there are a couple that are a little more gruesome.

I found the story-telling approach a little tiresome after awhile and was refreshed by the ebulliant characters writing the letters in the epistolary story “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth,” by Rhoda Broughton. “The Romance of Old Clothes” by Henry James and a few others also stood out. The collection even includes one vampire tale.

If you are looking for some chilling reading, you’re not really going to find it here. (Although I’ll suggest that any of these stories may be more successful if read out loud, preferably on a dark and stormy Halloween night.) However, if you are interested in the genre or the time period, you’ll probably find the collection worth dipping into.

Day 603: Stone Mattress

27 Oct

Cover for Stone MattressMargaret Atwood describes Stone Mattress as a collection of tales, and several of them are characteristic of wonder tales or amazing tales of decades ago. In the title story, for example, a woman meets a man on a cruise to the Antarctic who years ago ruined her life. When he does not recognize her much older self, she begins plotting his murder.

All of the stories are about characters in their older years. The first three are linked. In “Alphinland,” Constance, the author of a popular fantasy series, copes with the aftermath of an ice storm and listens to advice from her dead husband as she considers her earlier life, particularly Gavin, an old lover who was cruel to her. In “Revenant,” Gavin’s wife Reynolds tries to cope with her difficult poet husband. She has a bit of revenge by setting him up with an interview with a graduate student who only wants to know about his relationship with Constance. In “Dark Lady,” Jorrie, the woman who long ago was the cause of Constance and Gavin’s break-up, asks her twin brother to go along with her to Gavin’s funeral.

http://www.netgalley.comSome of the stories are more fantastic, such as “Lusus Naturae,” about a woman whose family has hidden her away for years because of her appearance and a thirst for blood. Many of them reflect a concern for the environment and a dark sense of humor. All are well written. This collection is a perfect one for people who want to experience a light and entertaining dose of Atwood.

Day 602: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

24 Oct

Cover for The Memory Keeper's DaughterI understand that Kim Edwards got the idea for The Memory Keeper’s Daughter from a true story told to her by her pastor. I can see why a novelist might think the story makes good fodder for a novel. I was not so sure how I would feel about reading it, though.

The blurb makes very clear what the novel is about. On a snowy Kentucky night in 1964, Dr. David Henry must deliver his children when the doctor he engaged is unable to reach the clinic. His wife has twins. The first born is a boy, and he is perfect. His twin is a girl, and the doctor and his nurse, Caroline Gill, immediately recognize the signs of Down’s syndrome. At that point, Henry makes a fateful decision. He asks his nurse to deliver his daughter to a home for the mentally deficient. When his wife awakens, he tells her the girl died.

Henry explains his actions to himself as an attempt to protect his family. He too had a Down’s syndrome sister, and he remembers the pain her early death caused him and his mother. But these memories are muddied by the feelings of resentment he had as a boy for the amount of attention that went to his sister.

Caroline Gill is shocked to the core by Dr. Henry’s decision, even though she is in love with him. She does what she is told until she gets a look at the facility. Then she turns around and takes the baby home. She waits for Henry to do the right thing, but when she sees a memorial notice for the little girl in the paper, she takes the baby and leaves town.

This lie that David Henry told continues to haunt his marriage, for it puts a barrier between himself and his wife and child. He comes to feel he made a bitter mistake, but cannot find a way to correct it. He puts his energies into his work and his hobby of photography instead of his family.

This novel reminded me of the attempts of some of the modernists to show ordinary people with all their flaws. Even Caroline, the most blameless of all the characters involved in the original act, leaves town after Henry asks her to do nothing without telling him first. Later, when he has an opportunity to meet his daughter, Caroline panics and leaves.

Norah Henry, who knows nothing of the original act, still handles her marriage poorly. I don’t think I’m being too judgmental when I say that everything is not all David Henry’s fault.

I feel that the novel becomes too diffuse somehow. I don’t require novels to wrap everything neatly up—often they’re more interesting if they do not and I give this book credit for not trying to—but I found the ending especially frustrating. I also did not see much point in bringing in the character of Rosemary. She is simply a convenience to cause a break.

All in all, I felt my initial hesitations about this book were justified. Despite the idea being based on a true story, the novel begins in 1964, not 1934, and Henry is a doctor, not the impoverished farmer his father was. So, there is no other way I can view his behavior except as unconscionable. I did not read this novel at the same time as My Father’s Eyes, which is in some ways a nonfiction counterpart to this book, but the similarities and differences are interesting to consider.

Day 601: The Talented Miss Highsmith

23 Oct

Cover for The Talented Miss HighsmithI became interested in reading this biography after hearing about interviews with Schenkar, who called Patricia Highsmith a sociopath. Patricia Highsmith is, of course, the author of many mid-20th century thrillers, the most famous being Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. After reading the biography, I don’t really think Highsmith was a sociopath. I think she was fascinated with certain dark themes, but she strikes me as more of a social inept, perhaps partially on the autistic spectrum.

Highsmith was certainly a complex person of many contradictions. She was a lesbian misogynist, as contradictory as that sounds, who was a great womanizer in her younger years and was seldom faithful to any of her lovers. She was an outspoken anti-Semite who had Jewish lovers and a lot of Jewish friends. Known in later years as a recluse, she visited her neighbors every evening and corresponded with many people, as well as making an appearance whenever invited.

She certainly was a damaged person. She had a love-hate relationship with her mother for her entire life, blaming her for abandoning her briefly when she was young and for not divorcing her stepfather. She was a woman who always thought she should actually have been a man. A heavy drinker and smoker, she barely ate any food for years and was probably anorexic.

Her life was an interesting one. She did not seem to be a likable person and frequently behaved very badly. Yet, she had many sincerely devoted friends.

I was interested in this book but had some issues with its structure. Schenkar explains at the beginning that a chronological approach wouldn’t do Highsmith justice, so she approaches Highsmith’s life sort of organically. The problem I found with this approach was that after awhile I could not figure out what organizing principle is holding some of the chapters together. Sometimes they just seem to follow a stream of consciousness approach. It makes the information conveyed very repetitive and chronologically impossible to follow. Schenkar helpfully provides a chronology at the back of the book, along with about 100 pages of supplementary material, but by then I was exhausted and had no interest in exploring any of it.

Finally—this is a small quibble—I got irritated by Schenkar’s chapter naming. The table of contents shows only nine chapters in this very long book, but there are really forty-nine. That is because she actually names them Les Girls Part 1, Les Girls Part 2, and so on. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I could just imagine Schenkar’s editor telling her she couldn’t have a 150-page chapter, which is the length of Les Girls, Parts 1–14. Such an approach does not strike me as being very imaginative.

Best Book of the Week!

22 Oct

Cover for NeverhomeThis week’s Best Book is Neverhome by Laird Hunt!

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