Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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Day 1003: Classics Club Spin! Look at the Harlequins!

Cover for Look at the HarlequinsI was supposed to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada for the latest Classics Club spin, but after attempting to read it, I substituted Look at the Harlequins!, the last novel published before Nabokov’s death. Sometimes I encounter a novel that really makes me feel stupid, or perhaps intellectually lazy, and such was the case with Ada. It was so full of literary allusions and wordplay that I felt I didn’t know what was going on half the time. In addition, it focuses on some of the same themes as Lolita, and while I found Lolita fascinating, the delights of prepubescent girls are not really what I want to read about.

Look at the Harlequins! is a more straightforward fictional autobiography. Many critics consider it a parodic biography, in which Nabokov twists the events of his life to make them meet public expectations of his character. For example, his family’s exit from Russia after the Revolution was relatively uneventful, while Nabokov has his alter ego, V. V., shoot a Red soldier on the way out. Similarly, although in life Nabokov was monogamous, he gives V. V. four wives and a salacious extra-marital career.

His literary career, however, is reflected in the novel, as is, to some extent, his academic career. I believe he transfers events involving his wife Véra to characters such as his fictional daughter Bel and a briefly mentioned assistant. In any event, he addresses his novel to an unnamed “you,” who we may assume is Véra’s alter ego.

We still don’t avoid the theme of prepubescent girls, though, as V. V. fondles an 11-year-old daughter of friends (whom he has an affair with when she is in her 20’s and he is in his 70’s), has such a questionable relationship with his daughter Bel that friends advise him to send her away to school (he fatefully decides to remarry instead), and ultimately marries a woman his daughter’s age. Obviously, this sexual focus on girls was a motif for Nabokov, but I find it disturbing.

It’s hard to evaluate this novel on a literary level. It has none of the beautiful language of Lolita. It is told in a facetious manner and focuses several times on what the narrator considers a mental aberration. Each time we have to endure a description of the problem, which actually seems like a silly one that obsesses the narrator more than it should. V. V. opens the subject each time he decides to marry but describes the problem over and over. I’m not sure what the point of it was.

Because of its facetious tone, however, the novel lacks highs and lows. Instead, it is full of puzzles, anagrams, and self-references. It is entertaining enough but ultimately unsatisfying.

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Day 1002: The Crowded Street

Cover for The Crowded StreetThe Crowded Street was Winifred Holtby’s second book, and like her others, one of its themes is a woman’s duty to herself and to a larger society than her local community. The novel’s main character is Muriel, who always tries to do what is right and good.

We first meet Muriel when she is nine and follow her for the next twenty years. In the first scenes of the novel, Muriel is excited to be attending a party. But her desire to enjoy the party by watching the others conflicts with the ideas of her mother, who thinks she should be dancing and socializing.

During the party, she dances with Godfrey Neale, who becomes important to her later in the novel. But in trying to escape her mother, Muriel falls into a situation where her behavior is misunderstood and the party is ruined for her.

Muriel begins a pattern of always trying to please her mother. Mrs. Hammond, though, has married beneath her and has spent her career social climbing to make up for it. Although Muriel would like to learn about astronomy and is interested in math, the only way she can please her mother is by marrying well. Unfortunately, she is shy and only moderately attractive. Still she decides fairly early on to devote herself to her mother.

Only one friend, Delia, urges her to do more. She tries to get Muriel to go to college, but Muriel is naive and for a long time believes what her mother tells her, which is that men do and women wait for them to act.

It took me a while to relate to Muriel, probably because she is so naive. But eventually I became engrossed in her story, as she learns to view her world and her mother with a more skeptical eye. Having grown up in the 50’s and 60’s, I remember my own mother coming out with some of the things implied or said in Holtby’s novel, only my own reaction was one of indignation. But that was 30 years after the setting of this novel.

I very much enjoyed this novel about Muriel and her slow turning toward a more feminist outlook.

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Day 1001: The Story of My Teeth

Cover for The Story of My TeethHi, all, apparently I actually published this article by mistake last week. It was supposed to come out today. So here it is again.

* * *

I enjoy the occasional experimental novel, especially one that plays with structure, but The Story of My Teeth was a bit too much for me. It begins with a fairly straightforward narrative, although a whimsical plot, but at each section does something different.

Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez claims to be the world’s best auctioneer. He has accumulated a collection of teeth belonging to famous people and agrees to auction them off for the church. But his long-lost son Siddhartha shows up at the auction and things begin to get strange.

Perhaps I should have had more patience with this novel, because I quit reading it just before the New York Times review claimed it got really interesting. I stopped reading in “The Allegories,” and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. I just got a feeling of terrific impatience and realized I wasn’t enjoying the novel. So, I stopped.

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Day 1000: High Dive

Cover for High DiveWell, today I post my thousandth review, so I guess it’s sort of a red letter day. I thought I’d celebrate by reviewing a book recommended to me by John Warner, the Biblioracle. If you send him a list of the last five books you read, he’ll recommend a book to you. I thought it sounded fun and got this recommendation.

As it is about an attempted assassination of Margaret Thatcher in 1984, an actual event, High Dive didn’t seem like the type of novel that would appeal to me. Yet it is full of empathy as it examines the lives of several people affected by the bombing. Jonathan Lee was inspired by the rumors that a second man, besides Patrick McGee, who was arrested for the bombing, was involved.

That man is Dan, a young member of the IRA who specializes in explosives. We first meet him on his initiation at the age of 19, when he refuses to kill some dogs just because the IRA members tell him to. He volunteers for the big job years later without knowing exactly what it is and is taken aback when he learns it will probably involve the death of civilians.

The plot is to plant a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton days before the start of a conference that Thatcher will attend. The bomb will be set to go off after she is in the building.

Moose Finch, the assistant general manager of the hotel, is proud that he managed to attract the conference away from the Metropole. His boss is retiring, and he hopes to be promoted to general manager if the conference goes well. Moose is an ex-athlete who seemed as a young man to have a brighter future. He blames his lack of opportunities on not being able to attend university, and he wants his daughter Freya to have the advantages he feels he missed.

Freya isn’t sure what she wants to do. She knows her summer job at the hotel bores her stiff. She is still trying to figure out her goals, learn who are her true friends, and work out her relationship to boys.

The tension of the novel comes from wondering what will happen when the bomb goes off, but we spend a lot of time getting to know the characters, including Dan, the bomber. The insights into the characters are subtle, their personalities interesting. I found this a compelling novel.

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Day 999: Beloved

Cover for BelovedOn some occasions after reading a novel, I find my thoughts about it are not clear. Did I enjoy it? Did I completely understand it? Did I think it was powerful or overpowering? This doesn’t happen very often, but these are my thoughts after reading Beloved.

The novel, when looked at straightforwardly, is a ghost story. Sethe escaped from slavery with her children, although the plan went wrong. Most of the other escaping slaves were killed or captured, including her husband, and Sethe had to come later, giving birth to her daughter Denver on the way.

These events happened 16 years ago, but shortly after Sethe made it across the Ohio River, Schoolteacher, the despotic overseer, came after her. To keep her children from being dragged back into slavery, Sethe decided to kill them. She was stopped, but not before she slit the throat of her daughter, Beloved. (Her name isn’t really Beloved, but that’s what’s on her tombstone; we don’t know her name.)

Sixteen years later, Sethe’s house in Cincinnati, referred to as 124, is haunted. Sethe lives there with Denver, her mother-in-law having died and her sons having left. Denver is a sulky, needy young woman who craves her mother’s attention, but that is all for the ghost of her baby.

The action begins when Paul D. arrives. Paul D. had been one of the young male slaves at Sweet Home, where Sethe was a slave. He has been wandering since the war. When he realizes the house is haunted, he drives the ghost out and lives with Sethe as her lover.

But Beloved comes back, now embodied as a girl the age she would have been if she’d lived. Denver and then Sethe become enslaved to her.

But is Beloved a ghost or just a young girl damaged by slavery? Someone in the text makes a reference to a lost girl enslaved since a child, and I think that’s who Beloved is meant to be. Denver and Sethe have just mistaken her from their own needs. There is only one chapter where we see things from Beloved’s point of view, and it is incoherent.

That is what I think, but I was confused because everyone else seems to take the novel as a straight ghost story and of course, an indictment of slavery. I finally ran across a reference to an article by an academic who believes the same thing, but I never found the original paper.

In any case, Beloved is an unusual work. It uses an unusual combination of storytelling techniques, some of which I enjoyed and some I did not. It is powerful, depicting emotions and events that we can barely comprehend. Did I like it? I don’t know. Does it make me think? Yes. Do I understand it? Not completely.

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