Day 708: At the Water’s Edge

Cover for At the Water's EdgeMaddy, Ellis, and Hank make a riotous threesome as they party and caper their way through Philadelphia high society. It is World War II, but both Ellis and Hank are classified 4F. In any case, taking upon any adult responsibility doesn’t seem to be in their plans. Maddy and Ellis Hyde are married, but they live with Ellis’ parents. Hank has a girlfriend but has shown no interest in marrying Violet.

After a particularly drunken New Year’s Eve, Ellis’ father throws Ellis and Maddy out of the house to fend for themselves and cuts Ellis’ allowance. To get back into the good graces of Mr. Hyde, Ellis and Hank come up with a hare-brained scheme. Long ago, Mr. Hyde went to Loch Ness to look for the monster. He claimed to have found it and circulated photos. But they were revealed as fakes. Ellis thinks if they can find the monster and take legitimate pictures of it, he can revive the family name and make his family proud.

But getting to Scotland during wartime poses problems. Hank finally gets them on a freighter, but when their ship rescues some men whose vessel was torpedoed, Maddy begins to understand the horrors of war. Arriving at their destination, she is the only one of the three who seems to understand how ridiculous their presence as tourists is during this difficult time. The three know nothing of ration cards, air raids, or war casualties. And the men’s boorish attitude about the lack of conveniences at the inn doesn’t help.

Maddy settles in and gets to know the villagers, but she is soon disturbed by how much Ellis and Hank are drinking and how many of Maddy’s “nerve pills” Ellis takes. Maddy herself has only ever taken one.

link to NetgalleyAlthough dealing with another period and setting, Gruen is covering some of the same ground as in Water for Elephants. She clearly enjoys the wives in distress theme. Still, after I experienced an initial distaste for all three main characters, Maddy grew on me with her evolving sensitivity and efforts to help the villagers. I enjoyed this novel and think it makes a good light historical romance. Gruen periodically gives us details of the war and does a fair job of evoking the atmosphere of a small pub, where everyone nightly listens to the war news.

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Day 707: Don Quijote

Cover for Don QuijoteI know. This is not the spelling of “Quixote” most people are accustomed to seeing, but it is the one used in my Norton Critical Edition, translated by Burton Raffel. And a sprightly translation it is.

Don Quijote is the story of an old man who has studied the popular chivalric romances so much that they have addled his brain. He declares himself a knight errant and takes to the road seeking adventure. Accompanying him is a neighboring farmer, Sancho Panza, who he has convinced to come with him as his squire in exchange for a share in certain rewards. In particular, Sancho has his heart set on the governorship of an island.

Don Quijote doesn’t just look for adventure. In the first book, he hurls himself at every passer by, convincing himself that windmills are giants, a barber is a knight, an inn is a castle. Above all else, he worships his lady, the beautiful Dulcinea, whom he has never met but whom Sancho remembers as a muscular peasant girl.

Don Quijote is both a parody of the chivalric romances and a satire against the Spanish conquistadores. Its most important distinction is that it is considered the first modern novel. I found volume one to be amusing in a sort of slapstick style, as Don Quijote’s adventures always go wrong and end up with him and Sancho Panza being beaten up.

Volume two was a little too much of the same, though. In a bit of metafiction, Cervantes lists some of the things readers criticized from the first volume and then attempts to avoid them. So, for example, the two adventurers are not beaten up as often. However, both volumes contain long disquisitions on such topics as marriage, poetry, chivalry that don’t all translate well into modern times.

Finally, after Don Quijote had himself lowered into Montesino’s Cave to see its wonders and then fell asleep and dreamt a bunch of nonsense and never even saw the cave, I had to stop. Quijote was in the midst of recounting his ridiculous dream, which he took for reality, and it seemed to go on and on. I leafed ahead, looking for the end of it, never found the end, and finally lost patience. I fully believe, since apparently someone else published a book about our hero after the first volume came out, that Cervantes only brought Quijote back out on the road so that he could kill him off at the end.

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Day 706: The Devil’s Backbone

Cover for The Devil's BackboneThe Devil’s Backbone is a western adventure tale related in an unsophisticated vernacular style in both first person and third person. It is an unusual novel but reminds me most of, perhaps, True Grit or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The third person narrator is barely there but relates the first person story his father told him. The book is illustrated by Jack Unruh.

Papa, as the third-person narrator calls him, is a young boy growing up in the Texas Hill Country when his father Karl kills a horse after a dispute about it with his wife Amanda. Amanda saddles up her horse Precious with the concho-decorated saddle her father gave her and leaves. After Karl has gone off for a few days and returned, a neighbor, Miz Choat, arrives to tell Karl that she has promised Amanda to send the boys to school, so she takes Papa and his older brother Herman back with her. But after Herman has attended school awhile, he takes off.

Papa enjoys his time with the Choats, but after a few months his father arrives to take him back. At home he has installed another woman, Miss Gusa, who is pregnant.

Papa has clearly been brought home as a cheap source of labor. Eventually, Karl’s brutality makes Papa decide to leave and look for his Mama. On his journey he encounters outlaws, a dying Indian, a prematurely born baby, a family of Mexican migrant workers, and several loyal friends, including the cowboy Calley Pearsall.

I enjoyed this tale. At first, I thought it might become a series of tall tales, but nothing happens in it that seems wildly exaggerated. However, it does have the flavor of a folk tale. The only thing I found a little irritating was the double narration. We learn nothing at all about the narrator, so I don’t really see the purpose of that approach, which leads occasionally to such confusing constructions as “I said, Papa said.”

Although this novel may sound like children’s fiction, I don’t think I would recommend it for younger children because of some of the events. Older children would probably like it, as it has lots of adventure. Some of the subject matter may be inappropriate, however, as there are events such as murders and death in childbirth, so use your discretion. This book was a choice of my book club, all adults, and we all enjoyed it.

I have been on the Devil’s Backbone (pictured on the cover). These days it is a narrow two-lane highway across a ridge with spectacular views on each side. I heard it had been widened, but to think it was once so narrow is amazing.

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Day 705: The Spinning Heart

Cover for The Spinning HeartDonal Ryan achieves a remarkable feat in The Spinning Heart. In this very short novel, he manages to depict the effects of the recent Irish financial collapse from the viewpoints of 21 different small town residents. (My caveat: I didn’t actually count them. I am relying for the number on an article about the novel.)

First we hear from Bobby Mahon, who is absorbed in his contempt for his father Frank and his betrayal by his employer. Frank drank away his own inheritance, his father’s farm, and as soon as it was gone, stopped drinking. This all because Bobby’s grandfather said that at least Frank, at that time a teetotaler, wouldn’t drink away the farm. Frank himself was so verbally abusive that Bobby and his beloved mother stopped talking to each other to avert his wrath. That pretense eventually grew into an actual estrangement.

Bobby was the foreman of a crew for a successful construction company until the downturn, when the company folded and the boss, Pokey, disappeared. Now, Bobby and the other men have found out that Pokey did not pay in for their government benefits, instead pocketing the money, so none of them will get unemployment or their pensions.

Josie, Pokey’s father, laments his decision to turn his company over to Pokey and feels sorry for the men left without an income. He blames himself for loving Pokey’s other brother more than Pokey.

Vasya, a contract construction worker from the Caucasus, has even fewer options than Bobby and his men. He relates how Pokey gave him a ride and lied to him about work the last time he saw him, on Pokey’s way out of town.

And so the novel goes, written in many different voices in Irish slang. As the novel moves forward, tensions rise, finally ending in violence. A well-regarded young man is accused of murder. A small child is kidnapped.

Using an unusual technique, this novel conveys the perspective of an entire small community and the impact the economic calamity has had on all their lives. Surprisingly, considering the subject matter, the book is rough and funny, as well as poignant.

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Day 704: Henry VI, Part I

Cover for Henry VI, Part 1Henry VI Part I is my book for the latest Classics Club Spin! Enjoy the review.

The only one of Shakespeare’s history plays I’ve ever read previously is Richard III, although I once saw Peter MacNicol perform Richard II in Central Park (with Martin and Charlie Sheen two rows down in the audience). Henry VI Part I is Shakespeare’s first play as well as one of his Wars of the Roses plays, of which Richard III is the last.

As a history play, Henry VI Part I is more about the events at the beginning of Henry’s reign than about Henry’s life. In fact, he is very young through much of the play and only appears occasionally. The play depicts the discord among the powerful men surrounding Henry, culminating in the Wars of the Roses (although the seeds of the discord can be traced back earlier, to when Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) deposed Richard II). Henry IV and Henry V, in their turns, have held the country together, but Henry V’s young son shows no such ability. Although Shakespeare himself (and many historians) seems to be disposed toward the Yorkists, it is clear by the end of the play that the Lancastrians will prevail during Henry’s reign.

Painting of scene
The choosing of red and white roses, a scene from the play

The other main event of the play is the war in France. I should not have been surprised to find Joan of Arc (referred to in the play as Jean La Pucelle) the villain of this plot, since the English burned her, but it was a shock nonetheless. The gallant Lord Talbot is the hero, while Jean fights with the aids of demons.

The play is not as dramatic as some others, but it has its moments. I thought it was most interesting as showing the Tudor view of this great series of conflicts.

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Day 703: The Tilted World

Cover for The Tilted WorldOn Good Friday 1927 after months of rain, the levee on the Mississippi near Greenville, Mississippi, collapsed, causing a gigantic flood that swamped 27,000 square acres of land in the Delta, made many people homeless, and killed an untold number of people. The Tilted World is a fictional account of the days before and after the flood.

Dixie Clay has been married for six years. Although her husband Jesse was a fur trader when she married him, it has taken years for her to realize he’s a bootlegger or to see him for the kind of person he is. After her baby died, she started making liquor herself, but she has come to hate her husband. At the beginning of the novel she helps him capture two revenue officers, thinking he will bribe them to make them go away. But she hasn’t heard of them since and is worried that he killed them.

Ingersoll and his partner Ham Johnson are revenuers who have been dispatched by Secretary Herbert Hoover to Hobnob to find out what happened to the other two officers. On their way, in the sodden territory along the river, they find a dying store clerk who has shot two looters. The looters were a couple with a baby, and Ingersoll can’t bring himself to leave the baby there alone. So, Ham goes on ahead to Hobnob while Ingersoll takes the baby to the orphanage in Greenville. But he is an orphan himself, so he turns around and brings the baby back to Hobnob to inquire for someone who would like to take him. He ends up giving the baby to Dixie Clay.

Later, he is disturbed to realize that Dixie’s husband is probably the bootlegger. But he and Ham don’t have time to look for the bootleggers. They have represented themselves as engineers and find that the levee needs to be guarded. There are rumors that rich bankers are planning to sabotage the levee at Hobnob so that the flood will be lessened in urban areas.

This novel is full of energy and action. There is a growing attraction between Dixie and Ingersoll, but their differences seem too large to overcome. I really enjoyed the characters and setting as well as learning about this massive flood that we have all forgotten.

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