Day 1140: Diaries 1907-1914: Prodigious Youth

Cover for Diaries 1907-1914I am not really a diary reader. Even Samuel Pepys was boring to me. So, when my good friend recommended Sergey Prokofiev’s diairies, I wasn’t buying it. As a historian, she finds diaries a lot more enthralling than I do. In any case, she bought me the book, a whopping 800 pages long, and I made a serious attempt to read it.

Let me first say that if you enjoy reading diaries, you will probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did. Prokofiev was a prolific diarist, as is obvious when you consider that this volume only covers seven years. He also wrote very well. But in 1907, he is only sixteen years old. Although he is a prodigy in music and extremely intelligent, he is a teenager. His diaries are concerned with his triumphs in school, music, and chess; his preferences for his female schoolmates, which change daily; and his verbal scoring against his friends and instructors. All of his enthusiasms center around how well he did, how much better than others. He comes off as a competitive little jerk at worst (I wanted to use a different word) and an immature boy at best.

Half of the book covers 1913, which should be a momentous year because of Russia’s slide toward war, but I only made it to 1909. This is probably a great book for someone else, and maybe I’ll try it again later. I would have skipped a few years, but he constantly mentions people, and I was sure I wouldn’t know who half of them were if I skipped ahead.

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Day 1139: Framley Parsonage

Cover for Framley ParsonageIn the fourth of the Barsetshire Chronicles, we meet some old friends and make some new ones. Of particular interest to Framley Parsonage are two occupants of the parsonage, Mark Robarts and his sister, Lucy.

Mark Robarts is a young clergyman who has been remarkably lucky and successful because of his friendship with Lord Lufton and his patronage by Lord Lufton’s mother, Lady Lufton. Instead of slaving away at a curacy like most clergymen of his age, he has the living at Framley, given to him by Lady Lufton, at a very good income. His lovely wife, Fanny, was chosen for him by Lady Lufton and makes him very happy.

Perhaps Mark has been too lucky, for he begins to think that his good fortune is due to his own efforts. He is a good man, but he is still only twenty-six. In any case, he ignores Lady Lufton’s prejudices against a set of people headed by Lord Omnium, her particular enemy, and accepts an invitation to Gatherum Hall. He believes he can better himself through acquaintance with the politicians he will meet there.

At this gathering, he is befriended by Mr. Sowerby, an insolvent member of parliament. Mr. Sowerby talks him into signing a bill for him for 500 pounds, promising repayment (reminding us of a similar subplot in Middlemarch). But Sowerby has no means by which to pay. Later, Sowerby talks Mark into compounding his error by signing another bill for £400. Mark is now in debt for his entire yearly salary.

Lucy Robarts, Mark’s sister, comes to live at Framley Parsonage after her father’s death. Lady Lufton has been trying to match her son with the beautiful Griselda Grantly, daughter of archdeacon Grantly, but Lord Lufton falls in love with Lucy. Lady Lufton is not at all in favor of the match.

Among these new acquaintances are old friends and acquaintances. The wealthy Miss Dunstable, whom Frank Gresham’s family wanted him to court in Doctor Thorne, is now being sought in matrimony by Mr. Sowerby. Doctor Thorne and his niece, Mary, also make an appearance. And the Grantly’s were, of course, prominent characters in the first two novels. We also see a lot more of Bishop and Mrs. Proudie than we have since The Warden.

I am really enjoying this series, and I like how Trollope ties in all of the characters so that some who are important to one book appear as minor characters in another. Trollope examines in this novel the standards of behavior expected of a gentleman, particularly a clergyman. Mark Robarts has broken with those standards, and as slight as his offence may seem, is forced to pay the consequences.

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Day 1138: The Vengeance of Mothers

Cover for The Vengeance of MothersThe Vengeance of Mothers is Jim Fergus’s sequel to One Thousand White Women, and telling about it faces me with a problem. If you are at all interested in reading either of these books, this is your warning that it’s impossible to tell anything about this one without mentioning the events at the end of the other.

One Thousand White Women was presented as the journals of Mary Dodd, who participated in a (fictional) U.S. government exchange of white women as wives for the Cheyenne for horses. In the 1990’s, the son of the journal’s publisher receives a visitor in his office, Molly Standing Bear, who gives him another set of journals, the basis for The Vengeance of Mothers.

These journals are those of three women—Meggie and Susie Kelly, the wild Irish twins who appeared in the previous novel, and Molly McGill, a young woman participating in the second program of brides for horses. Meggie and Susie are determined to wreak vengeance for the events at the closing of the last novel, which resulted in the deaths of their children. Molly’s group is captured by the Lakota when their train is massacred, but the Lakota give the survivors to the Cheyenne.

link to NetgalleyThe women’s adventures include the return of the dastardly Jules Seminole, who led the army to attack the Cheyenne instead of the group of Native Americans they were supposed to attack; the reappearance of a few of the women from the first book; and a romance between Molly and Hawk, a young warrior.

I found the same things interesting in this novel that I liked in the other, particularly the details of life among the Cheyenne, but Fergus doesn’t give us much of anything new here, except a strange turn to the spiritual. In particular, I found the ending unsatisfying. Still, I enjoyed most of the journey to a limited extent.

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Day 1137: The Rehearsal

Cover for The RehearsalThe Luminaries was one of my favorite books several years ago, so when I ran across a copy of The Rehearsal at Powell’s a few months ago, I snapped it up. The Rehearsal is Eleanor Catton’s first novel.

The novel focuses obliquely on an affair between a high school student and her teacher. Although those two characters hardly appear in the novel, it is about how the discovery of the affair affects the girl’s younger sister, Isolde, and others in the all-girls’ school the two sisters attend.

At the nearby drama institute, the freshman students decide to design a play around the affair for their first-year project. This conceit and the nonlinear organization of this portion of the narrative have the effect of blurring reality, making it hard to tell which scenes are part of the novel’s “real life” and which are part of the play rehearsal. I had to admit to being confused about whole story lines.

There are clues. Characters sometimes break out into astounding monologues or remarks that people would not make in real life. The saxophone teacher, an unnamed character, is very important in the novel but often makes these kinds of remarks. I took this to mean that the teacher was often in the play—and in fact that is signaled at times by references to who is playing her or lighting changes and so on. Sometimes I wondered if in terms of this novel she was entirely fictional, that is, just a character in the play.

The afterward tells how Catton originally wrote a monologue for the saxophone teacher, using the position of her sax as body language. I did note as I read that the positioning of the sax seemed to be important, but either I have little visual imagination or this is something you have to see, because I could make nothing of it.

Dealing with themes like sexual identity, victim and perpetrator, and coming of age, the novel is brilliantly written and very inventive. But sometimes I felt as if it was not altogether successful, perhaps its originality being pushed too far and getting in the way of itself.

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Day 1136: The Wonder

Cover for The WonderLib Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, journeys to a small village in Ireland to take on a two-week case. Her assumption that she is being hired by a wealthy family that can afford to bring a nurse out from England turns out to be false. She has been hired by a committee to observe Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who has reportedly not eaten for months. Her job is to make sure whether the girl is actually eating or not.

At first, Lib suspects that Anna is perpetrating a hoax, but slowly she realizes that the deeply religious girl believes she is living on manna from heaven. Still, she finds the people of the village steeped in ignorance and superstition, the local doctor incompetent, and her employers with a vested interest in a miracle. Her only confidante becomes someone she shouldn’t even be talking to—William Byrne, a journalist.

link to NetgalleyAs Anna shows unmistakable signs of starvation and imminent death, Lib eventually finds out what is going on, but no one believes her. Suspense builds as you wonder whether and how Lib will be able to save Anna.

For me, this was a surprisingly good book. I didn’t think I would enjoy it based on the subject matter, and later, I could not imagine how it would end. It has a great deal of psychological depth and often feels like a mystery.

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A New Project, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize Shortlist

In the most recent Tea or Books? podcast, Simon and Rachel discussed whether they were less or more likely to read a book because it had won a literary prize. This was an interesting topic to me, because as you may know, I am working on two projects to read the shortlists of the Man Booker prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction starting in 2010. Although I never used to read a book because it won a prize, I personally have found, despite some disappointments, that reading the shortlisted books has helped me by raising the quality of the books I read in general. I agree with Simon and Rachel, though, that the book winning the prize is not necessarily the best one in the shortlist.

During the course of this conversation, Simon mentioned the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which is one of the oldest literary prizes in Britain and is given by the University of Edinburgh. (I hadn’t heard of it.) He said that he felt as if the books chosen for that shortlist more adequately represented what people were actually reading. That led me to take a look at the shortlist for that prize, and I decided that, nuts as it may seem, I would add the shortlist for that prize, just the fiction portion of it, to my projects, beginning in 2010 as I have done with the others.

So, here are the books that I have challenged myself to read. The winners are indicated in red (or purple, if there is a link to my review). It helps that I have already read half a dozen of them. I will transfer this information to a page where I can keep track of my progress. (Note that, depending on where you look for a list, there is some difference of opinion on the numbering of the years. I have chosen to follow the numbering that the prize itself uses.)

Cover for Wolf Hall2010

Strangers by Anita Brookner
The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt
Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivett by Reif Larsen
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Cover for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
La Rochelle by Michael Nath
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

2012

Solace by Belinda McKeon
Snowdrops by A. D. Miller
You and I by Padgett Powell
There But For The by Ali Smith

2013

The Panopticon by Jenny Fagan
The Big Music by Kirsty Gun
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warren

Cover for Harvest2014

Harvest by Jim Crace
Benediction by Kent Haruf
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Cover for We Are Not Ourselves2015

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

2016

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits

2017

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimer McBridge
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan