Review 1554: The Vanishing Futurist

Right before the start of World War I, Gerty Freely goes to Moscow to be a governess for the Kobelev family. There she falls in love with one of Pasha Kobelev’s friends, Nikita Slavkin, a brilliant, idealistic scientist and revolutionary. Although Gerty is not political, she eagerly embraces the life of a communard in a commune Slavkin founds in the Kobelev’s house after the revolution. With them are Pasha and his sister Sonya and a few other young people.

Slavkin’s mission becomes to invent a machine that will change people’s cellular structure making them perfect Communists. Eventually, he comes to believe that he can make a machine that will transport a person into another dimension where perfect Communism is possible. Certainly, it doesn’t seem possible in the present one.

Hobson’s novel skillfully depicts the idealist euphoria and immense creativity of the early days of the Russian revolution as well as the hardships, the inevitable disintegration of communal life, and the craziness of those days as the revolution begins to turn in on itself. It makes really interesting reading and seems to much more authentically depict the time than any of the recent novels I’ve read about it.

I read this book for my Walter Scott Prize project and really enjoyed it.

Related Posts

The Revolution of Marina M.

A Gentleman in Moscow

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

Review 1553: Whippoorwills

Full disclosure: Peggy Schimmelman is my cousin’s wife, although I have never met her.

Whippoorwills is primarily an epistolary novel set in the Missouri Ozarks and Northern California. The premise of the novel is that Leigh, in California, wants to write a novel about Rosie’s friend, Chrystal, who disappeared when the girls were in high school. The two women are also linked by Melody, Rosie’s friend and Leigh’s sister, who is now dead.

The story is told in a rambling, folksy way by Rosie in Missouri, as she tries to convey information for the novel to Leigh. Intermittently, we also get a slice of Leigh’s life in California as she struggles with a job she hates and tries to find time to write.

This novel is well written and full of local color, both in its eccentric but likable characters and its vivid colloquial style. For all its expressed premise, it is really about the life of Rosie, whose fundamentalist background and natural naiveté combined with several horrific experiences send her into periodic mental illness.

For patient readers, there is a certain amount of payoff, but you have to embrace its many circumlocutions in Rosie’s eccentric way of expressing herself and just go along for the ride. At first, I wondered if the story of what happened to Chrystal was ever going to get anywhere, but then I realized the story was really about Rosie.

I did feel, though, that the novel was a bit too long and wandering and that the sections about Leigh didn’t add much to it. I enjoyed much of it, though, and found some of it touching.

Related Posts

Winter’s Bone

Mercy Snow

Wit’s End

Review 1552: The Beadworkers

The Beadworkers is a collection of short stories but also some poems and a play about the experience of American indigenous peoples in the Northwest, past and present. These works provide insight into religion, thinking, and beliefs of these peoples. Most of the stories are set in Oregon.

Many of the stories center around feasts. The first entries, a poem called “Feast I” and a story called “Feast II,” are about the importance of water. “Feast III” is about Mae, a woman who has decided to become a migrant laborer after the death of her husband.

“The News of the Day” is set in 19th century Boston, where Charles and his roommate are studying. On the same day, they receive news of family deaths, Marcel’s father from illness in Paris, Charles’s family in a battle of the Indian Wars.

In “Fish Wars,” set in the 1970’s, a schoolgirl fears her parents are getting a divorce. In actuality, her father is fishing and getting arrested for it in hopes of winning rights to fish in ancestral waters.

One of my favorites was “Beading Lesson,” in which an aunt instructs her niece in how to make beaded earrings, all the while mildly regretting that her sister, the girl’s mother, never learned to bead. In “wIndin!” an artistic young woman designs a Native American version of monopoly and tells about her relationship with Trevor, a Yakama gay man. Another favorite is “Katydid,” about the relationship between two young women, one who has abandoned her family because of their brutality, the other who has been abandoned by them.

Many of the stories evoke a sense of loss, as in “Falling Crows,” about the family’s reaction to a young man returned maimed from war, but most of them end in affirmation of some kind.

These stories are powerful and sparely written. Except for the final play, a reworking of “Antigone,” I really enjoyed them.

Related Posts

There There

The Round House

Folktales of the Native American

Review 1551: The Grey Woman

Here’s another book for RIPXV.

This novel opens with an unnamed narrator, a traveler in Germany, who meets a pale woman known as The Grey Woman. When he asks for her story, she gives him a letter she wrote to her daughter. This letter contains her story.

As a young girl in 1778, Anna Scherer is very beautiful. A miller’s daughter, she is invited to visit a school friend in Karlsruhe, where she stays with the Rupprechts. She is a shy girl, but she makes a conquest of her social better, a Frenchman named Monsieur de la Tourelle. She is pushed by Frau Rupprecht into receiving him and accepting his gifts, and the next thing she knows, she is engaged to marry him even though he makes her feel uncomfortable.

After their marriage, de la Tourelle takes her to his castle in the Vosges Mountains, where she feels that the servants spy on her. He makes her cut all ties to her family and tries to control her every movement, not allowing her even to go for a walk. The saving grace is Amante, the servant he hired to be her lady’s maid.

Aside from being a stern and controlling husband, de la Tourelle has a fearsome secret, which Anna and her maid discover by accident.

This novel is typical of the gothic genre that was popular in its time, except that it is much more believable than most that I have read, not including any supernatural elements. I took it to be one of Gaskell’s earlier works, and it may have been, because it was published the year of her death, in 1865. It is very short, easy reading, although the antique-sounding dialogue is a bit cumbersome. Luckily, there’s not much of it.

Related Posts

Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

The Castle of Wolfenbach

The Mysteries of Udolpho

Review 1550: Literary Wives! Alternate Side

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

At first, I didn’t think I would be interested in the characters of Alternate Side, privileged and wealthy New Yorkers who live on a dead-end block on the West Side. Nora Nolan explains they are only wealthy because of the value of their homes, but their concerns are of private schools, servants, high-powered jobs, and other areas of privilege. However, I liked Nora and some of the other characters.

Nora loves New York and their little neighborhood. She is aware, though, that her husband, Charlie, is not as happy. His job in investments has not worked out as he hoped, and he is upset when he hears that his boss, Bob Harris, has approached Nora to run a new foundation he’s setting up. To avoid making Charlie upset, Nora takes a job for a woman who is opening a jewelry museum.

Charlie is also interested in the money they could make if they sold the house, and he often suggests other cities where they could live, but Nora, loving New York as she does, pays little attention.

Then things in the neighborhood are changed by an ugly incident. Charlie has scored a space in a small lot in the neighborhood. Before that, he engaged in the “alternate side” game of moving his car to another side of the street just in time to avoid a fine. But the lot proves to be a source of contention in which he is soon involved. People try to park there without permission, and occasionally the exit is blocked.

The hothead of the neighborhood is Jack, one of the two men on the block whom Nora doesn’t like. One day, Ricky, the neighborhood handyman, parks his van a little too close to the exit of the parking lot, although there is enough room to get out. Jack doesn’t think so, though, and becomes so angry that he takes out a golf club from his car and begins hitting the van. When Ricky runs up asking Jack to stop, he hits Ricky and breaks his leg.

The block begins to take sides. Nora, who thinks Jack is a horrible man, believes he is guilty of assault, while Charlie, who was there, says it was an accident. Then when Nora visits Ricky in the hospital, Jack’s wife Sherry—whom Nora likes—becomes angry with her. At the same time, Nora notices changes in the cleanliness of the area, and someone begins leaving little bags of dog poop on her front porch. She has a dog but always picks up his poop.

Quindlen makes the disintegration of the neighborhood a metaphor for the disintegration of Nora and Charlie’s marriage. She does this without too much drama, in a way that is interesting and well written. Still, I have to say as a minor caveat about the novel as a whole that I don’t have that much sympathy for someone whose biggest worry is whether her housekeeper will quit now that the kids have gone to college.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

This is a nuanced depiction of two people whose needs are no longer the same. Nora seems cynical about Charlie rather than loving and disdains his business ambitions. As I’ve mentioned, she loves New York, while Charlie has grown to hate it. Nora acknowledges that Charlie would be more successful in any other city, but she isn’t interested in moving. In effect, she isn’t willing to compromise her own life for Charlie’s happiness any more than she has already done by turning down the job for Charlie’s boss.

Charlie also disdains Nora’s career, and later we learn that he has always felt like Nora’s second choice in mates, because she was deeply in love with her college boyfriend, James, who turned out to be gay. In fact, it is his fresh and honest personality that she turned to then and that stands in his way at work (although, another caveat, I wasn’t persuaded by Quindlen’s depiction of this personality and in fact had only a vague notion of Charlie’s personality). Charlie himself is turning too often to drink.

I loved this novel for showing an undramatic parting of the ways, a story about people growing apart. There is no deceit, no affairs, no big fights, just a realization that parting needs to occur and the beginning of new lives.

Review 1549: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Readers Imbibing Peril XV was just announced for books in September and October, and just by coincidence, here is my first entry.

Theodora Goss must really like Victorian and earlier monster stories. In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, she brings together characters inspired from Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker, adding in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Nathaniel Hawthorne for good measure.

Mary Jekyll’s mother has just died, and Mary has been left in near poverty. While going through her father’s papers, she finds that her mother was paying monthly sums for the support of Hyde. Thinking that if Mr. Hyde was alive, he might be responsible for the series of grizzly Jack the Ripper murders, she goes to Sherlock Holmes to find out how she might investigate and claim the reward for solving the case.

Dr. Watson comes with her to the address on the invoices to what turns out to be a home for fallen women. There they find, not Mr. Hyde, but a teenage girl named Diana Hyde, who calls her sister.

When Mary and Diana continue to investigate their father’s papers, they take up with Beatrice Rappachini, whose father changed her to breathe poison; Catherine Moreau, half woman, half panther; and Justine Frankenstein. They all begin working with Holmes and Watson to try to solve the killings.

At first, this seemed like a fun book for light reading. It was written in a jaunty style, with characters interrupting as Catherine writes their story, and it seemed entertaining and clever. By 50 pages in, I felt I had figured out everything important, just not the details. By 100 pages in, the story was beginning to flag. The characters didn’t have discernible personalities. It struck me that Holmes, for example, is described as being full of himself when he hasn’t behaved that way.

I finally stopped about halfway through, because I still had 200 pages to read and I wasn’t enjoying myself. What had started out seeming a clever idea got old and was too over the top.

Related Posts

Dust and Shadow

The Bloody Chamber

The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham

Review 1548: Daddy: Stories

The description of Daddy says that its stories explore the balance of power between the sexes. I did not find that to be the theme of every story, although it is for some. The book does explore the psyche of some unlikable people, many of whom are privileged and belong to show business or to the edges of the business. This is a world I’m not much interested in, so I felt little connection to these stories.

In “What Can You Do with a General,” John, who used to have anger issues, struggles to connect with his grown children over the holidays. In “Los Angeles,” Alice, a sales girl for a small store that plays up sexy women in the dress of its employees and its decor, begins selling her own underwear to men. In “Menlo Park,” Ben, who was fired from his job in disgrace, runs into trouble again while editing the autobiography of a controlling millionaire. In “Son of Friedman,” a once-famous director attends the opening of his son’s abysmal film with his old best friend, a still-famous actor. In “Nanny,” Kayla deals with the fall-out of having been caught having an affair with her married employer, a movie star.

link to NetgalleyAnd so on. I can see that the stated theme works for most of these stories except “Son of Friedman,” which, as with some other stories, is about the relationship between fathers and children. I found this collection disappointing after Cline’s excellent novel, The Girls.

Related Posts

The Girls

Beautiful Ruins

A Circle of Wives

Review 1547: The Mistress of Husaby

In this second volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, Kristin has finally won through on her determination to marry Erlend Nikulaussön. The novel starts with them journeying to Erlend’s estate of Husaby to take up their residence. Kristin finds the estate poorly managed and the serving people slovenly and lazy, so she goes about setting all to rights.

To gain Erlend, though, Kristin has committed many sins, and much of the first part of the novel deals with her relationship to God. Although the preoccupations in this section certainly reflect the times, I found them to be heavy going. Later, though, the novel caught more of my imagination as it dealt with Erlend and Kristin’s marriage, her relationship to her father, and the political situation under first a regent, and then King Magnus.

This trilogy approaches its story by employing an old-time style of writing that does not seem forced and works for its subject. It is clear that Undset was an expert on 14th century Norway. Although at times I found it a little hard to follow, especially in the implications of the dialogue, the novel is very interesting.

Related Posts

The Bridal Wreath

The Greenlanders

The Last Hours

Review 1546: Murder in the Crooked House

I made several attempts to read Murder in the Crooked House, but it irritated me so much that I stopped even before the famed detective came on the scene. It was published in 1982, but it reminded me more of the super-complicated mysteries of 40 or 50 years earlier that concentrate mostly on the puzzle.

First, Shimada introduces the maze-like house built by the eccentric millionaire Kozaburo Hamamota, a house so absurdly unlikely that it is laughable. Then, he introduces us to a plethora of characters, barely bothering to differentiate them. By 100 pages in, I could only tell apart a handful of them.

Without further ado, including any explanation of the relationships between the characters, he has a strange phantom appear at an upper-floor window followed by the murder of the chauffeur. Two bumbling detectives arrive.

Even the way the characters are introduced, with one character giving an elaborate introduction of everyone else, seems totally contrived. I give up.

Related Posts

Number9Dream

1Q84

Thirteen Guests