Day 1233: History of Wolves

Cover for History of WolvesOne of the themes of History of Wolves is the horror that can result from a belief taken too far and the subservience of one person to another. This theme resonated with me very particularly because of the history of my family.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. She and her mother were very active in the church, and I know from reading her diary from her college years that she took it seriously. My grandfather was an Irish-American Catholic who converted to marry her.

When my mother was a baby, she got very sick. The story goes that her parents prayed over her, but her fever did not go down. Finally, according to my mother, her father said, “Bill (her name was Beulah, but he always called her Bill or Billie), we have to call a doctor.” Christian Science went out the window, and if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. The main character of History of Wolves, Linda, witnesses what happens in a similar situation.

Linda is a sophomore in high school during what becomes for her a life-changing year. Several things happen that she finds sexually confusing. A teacher, Mr. Grierson, is accused of being a pedophile. Another girl accuses him of molesting her but then retracts her accusation. Linda is attracted to this girl.

Linda herself has had an unusual upbringing. When she was a child, the property where she lives in the woods of Minnesota was a commune. Linda isn’t really sure whether her parents are her parents or just two adults who were left when the commune broke up. She has a distant relationship with her mother, who pays her little attention.

Across the lake, a family moves in. When Linda makes their acquaintance, only Patra, the young mother, and her son Paul are living there. Leo, Patra’s husband, is away in Hawaii working.

Linda begins babysitting Paul. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul will die and that there will be a trial. It takes quite a bit of the book to get to this event, and I think readers will understand what is going on before Linda does.

Even for a teenager, Linda is damaged and needy. She gets a crush on Patra, and that is partially what keeps her from seeing clearly.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and it doesn’t all pan out. Still, I think the novel effectively depicts traumatic events that shape the main character’s future life. I thought the novel was sometimes confusing but also thought-provoking. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1232: Laura

Cover for LauraLaura is the first of eight mystery novels included in a two-volume set, beautifully bound, called Women Crime Writers, published by the Library of America. This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the best American literature in print, and I have ordered its catalog. (I received it after I wrote this, and I have to report that it publishes relatively few works by women. I am disappointed.)

Laura is a doozy of a mystery. I think it was made into a movie, and I believe I’ve seen parts of it, but I didn’t know the solution.

A young woman is murdered one Friday night by a shot in the face with a shotgun. Her body isn’t discovered until Sunday morning when the maid arrives. The apartment belongs to Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive who is to be married the next week.

The first section of the novel is narrated by Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s long-time friend. He is an older man, a writer who considers himself an expert on crime. Mark McPherson, the detective in the case, calls to interview him about Laura.

Laura seems not to have an enemy in the world, but she was about to marry Shelby Carpenter, a man with a need to feel superior, which it was difficult to do with a woman like Laura. But Shelby was about to marry the golden goose, as Laura was much more successful than he was. Would he have killed her? To his dismay, Mark feels himself falling in love with a dead girl.

Laura has a couple of twists, one that I think I should have anticipated but did not. It packs quite an emotional punch, especially for a novel written in the 40’s, the era of the hard-boiled detective.

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Day 1231: The Tiger Rising

Last year I gave my ten-year-old niece three books by Kate Di Camillo, and her face lit right up. This year, I got her The Tiger Rises and read it to see what was so great about Di Camillo.

Rob is an unhappy 12-year-old, used to being bullied on the bus and not allowed by his father to mention his dead mother. One day when he is exploring the woods near the motel where he lives, he finds a tiger in a cage.

The next day, he meets Sistine, a new girl in school. Sistine is angry since the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Rob takes her to see the tiger, and she immediately decides they should let it loose.

I am sure there are elements in this novel that would interest children, but it doesn’t have much to offer adults. It provides a shocking but unconvincingly easy solution to the characters’ problems. And really, what kind of a good solution is going to come from a tiger in a cage?

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Day 1230: The Horizontal Man

Cover for The Horizontal ManThe Horizontal Man is the second novel included in my Women Crime Writers set of crime novels from the 1940’s and 50’s. I have only read one of them before, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes.

The Horizontal Man begins with a murder. Kevin Boyle, a popular professor at a women’s college, turns away from a woman who is furiously protesting her love, only to be hit fatally over the head with a poker. Who is this woman?

Kevin’s student, Molly Morrison, becomes hysterical when she hears of his death and seems to be taking responsibility for it. College President Bainbridge asks a psychiatrist, Dr. Forstmann, to evaluate Molly. Also investigating are college senior Kate Innes and reporter Jack Donelly.

The college seems to be a haven for neurotics. Leonard Marks, the professor who lives across the hall from Kevin, has been squeamishly privy to Kevin’s bragging about romantic conquests and is achingly aware of how poorly he fits into academic life himself. George Hungerford is an eminent professor who recently had a nervous breakdown. And there’s something odd about Freda Cramm.

Although we get to the answer before the characters do, this novel is truly chilling. I am really enjoying the novels in this series.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsHaving posted my last review of the shortlisted books for the 2013 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, it is time for my feature in which I give my opinion of the books on the shortlist. I have to say that 2013 is another difficult year with several excellent historical novels on the list.

Let’s begin with the ones I didn’t like as well. Although The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Kenneally tells an interesting story about nurses in World War I, it keeps such a distance from its characters that you lose some interest in what happens to them. Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain accomplishes the same thing with its semi-comic, mocking tone.

I became more involved in Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. An important consideration for this prize is how fully realized the period and place seem to be, and in this novel that goal was accomplished. It was also accomplished in The Streets by Anthony Quinn. These were both good, solid, and interesting historical novels.

Cover for Bring Up the BodiesBy far the two best novels, though, were the winning book, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. They both created an entrancing world for their characters and were beautifully written. When I sat down to write this feature, my intention was to choose The Garden of Evening Mists, probably because I had read it more recently. I posted my review of that book a few months ago and of Bring Up the Bodies way back in 2012. However, rereading my original review of that book made me remember how much I was impressed by it. Therefore, I find myself unable to choose between these two books. For this year, with quite a few good books to chose from on the list, I find that the most impressive were The Garden of Evening Mists and Bring Up the Bodies.

Day 1229: The Streets

Cover for The StreetsIt is Victorian London. David Wildeblood has obtained a job as a gatherer of information for “The Labouring Classes of London,” a weekly paper owned by Mr. Marchmont. He is assigned the neighborhood of Somers Town, where he observes what is going on and makes calls to gather information about the households.

David doesn’t do well at first, because he doesn’t understand the dialect spoken in Somers Town. He is also robbed twice and almost killed when he tries to pursue the second robber. But an encounter with a young coster, Jo, saves him.

Slowly, David begins to realize that something is going on in the neighborhood. First, he helps protest against the landlords, who are charging the poor exhorbitant rents for ruinous quarters, by finding out who the owners are. As it turns out that the owners are on the council in charge of taking tenant complaints, that raises the storm. But eventually, David learns that something even more corrupt and disturbing is going on.

The blurb of this book compares it to Dickens, and that comparison has some validity. Although this novel doesn’t teem with humor and colorful characters, it does contain effective descriptions of London neighborhoods and the city’s poor. It is well written and nicely paced, and I enjoyed reading it. This book was another one I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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