The Best Book for this period is Old Filth by Jane Gardam!
Premlata and the Festival of Lights is the first children’s book I’ve read in my mission to read all of Rumer Godden’s India novels.
Since seven-year-old Premlata’s Bapi died, her family is very poor. With all the village families preparing for Diwali, Premlata is shocked to find out that her mother has had to sell all their deepas, the little oil lamps that families put around their houses to help the goddess Kali battle the demons of darkness.
Premlata’s mother sends her up to the Big House to deliver some sweets to the housekeeper. While she is there, she goes to visit her friend Rajah the elephant and finds him being painted beautiful colors for the festival procession. This reminds her of the problem of the deepas, and she begins crying in front of Bijoy Rai, the kind owner of the Big House. Once she explains that her house will be the only dark one in the village for Diwali, Bijoy Rai gives her some money for her mother to buy deepas.
Premlata has a better idea, though. She will go to the town, three miles away, see Rajah in the procession, and buy the deepas herself.
This is a charming chapter book for children who are old enough to read. It introduces them to another culture and is a gentle story about good intentions gone slightly amiss. It includes a realistic adventure with elements of danger. I don’t know how easy it would be to find a copy, but I recommend it.
In Oh William! we meet again Elizabeth Strout’s alter ego, Lucy Barton. Lucy’s second husband David has recently died. She considers her own grief in addition to the state of mind of her first husband, William, who begins to experience some shocks in life.
First, William’s third wife, Estelle, leaves him abruptly. Then William begins to find out some family secrets, particularly about his mother, Catherine. Lucy, who has remained on good terms with William, reflects upon her relationships with him, Catherine, and her own family as she tries to help him.
As usual, the story, which is told as a series of apparently random recollections and incidents, is written in lovely prose. What stands out for me even more than that in the Lucy Barton books is Lucy’s gentleness and the loving, accepting way she approaches the world and the other characters. Although Strout’s novels are not strongly plot driven, once you start one, you just want to keep reading.
My final choice for the 1976 Club is this early novel by Margaret Atwood, her third. Up until now, the earliest novel I’ve read by her is The Handmaid’s Tale, published nine years later. Although her novels have mostly been totally unlike each other except for frequent forays into dystopia, Lady Oracle was surprising to me. For the most part, it is quite a silly romp.
When we first meet Joan, she has faked her own death and run away from her life to make a new start in Italy. Over the course of the novel, we learn why.
Joan grows up with a distant and disapproving mother and a mostly absent and ineffectual father. Her mother focuses on her weight, though, so as she gets older, Joan changes from trying to please her mother to defiantly trying to get fatter. It takes the death of her beloved aunt to bring her down to a normal size, because if she loses weight, she’ll inherit enough money to run away from Toronto to London. However, she is thereafter haunted by the spirit of the fat lady.
As a naïve teenager in London, she gets involved in the first of a series of odd relationships characterized by her eagerness to please—first an impoverished Polish Count to whom she loses her virginity simply because she doesn’t know what to do in an embarrassing situation; then her husband, a fervent and ascetic believer in some cause, if only he could figure out which one; then the Royal Porcupine, an artist who offers a bit of romance, albeit on the shabby side. All the while, she is hiding two secrets—that she used to be hugely fat and that she writes trashy romance novels for a living. To hide her past, she accumulates complex lies. However, her secrets are threatened when she almost inadvertently writes a best-selling book of poetry.
By and large, I enjoyed this novel, which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, and sillier and sillier. I was deeply disappointed in the ending, which read to me as if Atwood just got tired of writing the novel and wanted to get it over with. Although Joan seems to be finally developing some self-esteem by the last chapters, everything is left up in the air, and I fear she is doomed to repeat her past.
Meridian is another choice for the 1976 Club. It is about the life of a Southern black woman who becomes an activist during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement.
Meridian is hard to describe as a novel. Although it covers the teen and adult years of its heroine, Meridian Hill, it does so in a patchy, nonlinear way, at first seeming to be a series of nonsequential short stories. Meridian grows up with an uninvolved mother, who says things she doesn’t understand, like “Be nice,” as a code for her behavior with boys. So, it’s not surprising that she becomes pregnant at a young age and has to drop out of high school to get married.
However, the bulk of the story is about relationships formed after her marriage is over and she gives up her son so that she can accept a scholarship to a black girls’ college in Atlanta. She meets and falls for Truman Held, who encourages her to become more involved in the Civil Rights movement, demonstrating and signing up black adults to vote.
It is Meridian’s complex relationship with Truman and his white activitist wife from the North, Lynne, that is the focus of much of the novel. Truman and Lynne are involved in a black/white love/hate relationship that is familiar to me from reading other black authors of the time. At first, the Civil Rights movement is composed of a mixture of black and white activists. Then some of the groups shut out the white activists and then the women, so that only the black men have a voice. Meridian continues to adopt any cause she can find, but as Lynne is shut out, her relationship with Truman sours, as it does over his frequent infidelities.
Walker’s prose is lovely, although she seems detached from her characters. Meridian herself seems to have to remove herself from personal relationships before she can serve humanity. I had mixed feelings about this novel and wasn’t sure I understood everything.
The Classics Club has announced another spin. How do the spins work? I pick 20 books from my Classics Club list and number them. On October 17, the club picks a number, and that’s the book I will read before December 12, the deadline for this spin. So, here is my list for this spin. This time, I haven’t picked any of the difficult books on my list:
- The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
- The Mayor’s Wife by Anna Katherine Green
- The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp
- The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
- Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum
- Merkland, A Story of Scottish Life by Margaret Oliphant
- Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy Evelyn Smith
- Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare
- The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins
- Much Dithering by Dorothy Lambert
- A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
- Weatherley Parade by Richmal Crompton
- The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart
- Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo
- Music in the Hills by D. E. Stevenson
- Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford
- Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
- The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
- The Saga of Gosta Berling by Selma Lagerlof
When I was selecting a book to read for the 1976 Club, I realized I had read only one book by Gore Vidal and that so long ago I could barely remember it. So, I picked 1876.
Vidal’s sometime-narrator Charles Schuyler is returning to America after almost a lifetime in Europe, where he was documenting European events for the American press. He is accompanied by his daughter Emma, the widowed Princess d’Agrigente. Their circumstances are dire. Schuyler’s fortune was wiped out in the Panic of ’73, and when d’Agrigento died unexpectedly, Schuyler was shocked to find that the Prince’s debts exceeded his fortune. So, Schuyler has come back to America with two goals—to help get Governor Tilden elected as President in the next election so that he will be granted a post and to find a wealthy husband for his daughter.
They first return to New York. It is the Gilded Age, and they are at once drawn into the opulent but vulgar world of robber barons, the Astors and others, who now that they are loaded are trying to become the heads of society. Vidal uses this section to draw sketches and repeat gossip about many of these figures. The first section of the novel reminded me very much of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I recognized some characters, although here they go by their real names.
I was about 100 pages into this social whirl, observed with a great deal of snark, when I began to wonder where the plot of the novel was. It eventually emerged, with almost creaking slowness, as the events of the election of 1876, told with a great deal of bias.
Now, I’m not an expert on this period, but I recently read Ron Chernow’s biography of President Grant. In it, he made the point that Grant’s ruined reputation was partially a result of the number of Southern historians who predominated from the post-Civil War years up well past World War II. Well, Vidal has certainly read them, for he does his best to continue trashing Grant. Governor Tilden is running as a Democrat, but not once do his characters mention, for example, the dire results for the South if a Democrat was elected that year. At this time, Federal troops were still posted in the South because people—particularly black men—were still being murdered years after the war. Vidal glancingly mentions but shrugs off suggestions that people were being “discouraged” from voting Republican and says that Grant dispatched troops to some Southern cities to meddle with the vote. Grant sent troops to avoid more deaths and to allow people to vote the way they wanted to. In any case, the result of the election for the South was the same, because the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, promised the removal of troops from the South to get more votes, thus ending Reconstruction and setting the South back years in its recovery and in civil rights.
The 1876 election was stolen from Tilden, and the story of it might have been interesting if more impartially handled. Instead, Vidal makes Tilden the only honest politician in a country riddled with corruption (it was, but I doubt Tilden was the only honest man) and plays down the skullduggery engaged in by the Democrats.
Further, there are too many characters in this novel to keep track of and they are too lightly characterized. Vidal seems more interested in relating scandalous tidbits and making up epigrams.
Then there’s the description on the novel cover, which should have tipped me off about how I was going to feel about it. I know that authors don’t write the blurbs, but it’s he that calls his historical novels “Narratives of Empire.” Now there’s a guy who takes himself seriously. The cover says, “With their broad canvas and large cast of fictional and historical characters, the novels in this series present a panorama of the American political and imperial experience as interpreted by one of its most worldy, knowing, and ironic observers.” Oh, man.
With the 1976 Club looming, I picked out some books to read for October that were published in 1976. Sleeping Murder also qualifies for RIP XVI! As usual, on this first post I’m also listing anything else I’ve reviewed published in 1976. As far as I know, there are only two:
Newlywed Gwenda Reed is house hunting along the south coast of England for herself and her husband Giles, both newly arrived from New Zealand. When she comes across a house in Dillmouth, she immediately feels at home there, although she experiences a fleeting panic on the stairs. Nevertheless, she buys the home.
Gwenda is residing in it to oversee updates to the house when she begins to experience something odd. She expects the stairs down from the terrace to be in one place but they are in another. When workmen remove some bushes where she thinks the steps should be, they find the stairs used to be there. Similarly, she keeps trying to walk through the wall in the dining room where she thinks there should be a doorway. When the workmen examine the wall, they say it had a door there. She imagines a particular wallpaper in what used to be the nursery, and when a blocked cupboard in that room is opened, she sees that wallpaper inside.
Gwenda is most upset because she’s had a vision of a woman dead at the bottom of the stairs and realized it was Helen. But she has no idea who Helen is. Feeling confused, she decides to consult friends in London. Accompanying the group out for the evening is her friends’ aunt, Miss Jane Marple. After she explains what’s been happening, Miss Marple says she should find out if she ever lived in England as a child.
Inquiries find that Gwenda lived in the house when she was three. At the time, her father had a second wife named Helen. But Helen supposedly ran off with another man. Gwenda and Giles find that Helen’s half brother, Dr. Kennedy, still lives in the area. He has some letters that she sent right after she left but hasn’t heard from her since.
Gwenda and Giles begin to believe that Helen was murdered. Did Gwenda’s father kill his wife, or did someone else?
It was hard for me to judge whether this was a difficult mystery, because I vividly remembered a TV production of it. However, knowing the identity of the killer made me appreciate how skillfully Christie salts in the clues without giving too much away. The characters are clearly defined, and Miss Marple is at her cleverest.
Effi Briest is sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. It seems that the last half of the 19th century was a big time for novels about unfaithful wives. However, whereas Anna Karenina was a call for improvement in women’s rights on this issue, Effi Briest seems to accept the unfairness of the laws and societal mores. Nevertheless, I liked this novel more than Madame Bovary, which is more of a character study of a stupid woman.
Effi is only sixteen when the Baron von Instetten, an old suitor of her mother, comes calling. Within an hour, he proposes marriage and is accepted. The Baron is a civil servant, and after their marriage, he takes her home to a seaside village in upper Pomerania. The house is dark and depressing and reputedly haunted. Society is limited, and Effi, who is a gay person who likes to enjoy herself, finds only one congenial inhabitant, the local chemist. The women she has to socialize with are commonplace or spiteful. Effi feels neglected and unhappy.
After the birth of her daughter, the Crampases arrive. Major Crampas is an old schoolfriend of the Baron and a known womanizer. (I wonder if his name’s resemblance to Krampus is a coincidence, considering the Germanic origins of that character.) Although she tries to avoid it, Effi is drawn into an affair with him. When her husband gets a posting to Berlin, though, she is happy to leave and put it behind her. But it is not behind her at all.
I liked the character of Effi very much, but she is the only one in this novel who is fully drawn. The others just seem like placeholders for their actions, except for Rollo the dog. Also, the harsh reactions of everyone when they find out about the affair, even though it is long over with, seem even more extreme than Karenin’s in Anna Karenina.
Even though this novel is 20 years more recent than Anna Karenina, having been published in 1895, it has a much more rigid and judgmental message despite Effi being a sympathetic character. As a person, I liked Effi better than silly Emma Bovary or naïve Anna Karenina, but I found the novel a bit punitive. Fontane was reacting in it to a story he heard of a similar event in which he was struck by the lack of surprise or dismay expressed by society at the harsh treatment of the woman involved, so he is combining an approach to our sympathy with Realism in this novel.
Micah Mortimer grew up in chaotic conditions, so he structures his week carefully and keeps his basement apartment neat. He lives there rent-free in exchange for maintaining the building and has his own tech business.
He has been dating Cass for three years. When she is caught with a cat in her apartment, she worries that she’ll be evicted, but Micah does not understand her hints to invite her to live with him. The same day, Brink, the teenage son of his old girlfriend, comes by. His mother has never told him about his father, so Brink thinks he is Micah. Micah knows that isn’t possible, but he focuses on trying to get Brink to call his mother, who doesn’t know where he is.
Micah extends Brink an invitation to spend the night, but that backfires. For Cass interprets this invitation as a pre-emptive move to avoid having to invite her to move in, so she breaks up with him.
This novel is a touching character study about a man who is kind and thoughtful but needs to loosen up a bit and get a clue. I’ve recently rediscovered Anne Tyler and have been reading more of her.