Day 730: The Sea Captain’s Wife

Cover for The Sea Captain's WifeSince she was a little girl, Azuba has wanted to marry a sea captain and leave her home on the Bay of Fundy to live with him at sea. Although such arrangements are not usual, they are also not unheard of. She envisions a life of romance and adventure, traveling to the distant realms of the earth.

This is the life she plans with her suitor Nathaniel Bradstock, but once they are married, he changes his mind. Azuba is bored and discontented at home for years alone and feels he will be a stranger to their daughter Carrie. After a traumatic miscarriage, she decides to insist he take them with him on his next voyage.

In her loneliness, Azuba has befriended the young Reverend Walton. Just before Nathaniel is due to return, carelessness and misjudgment result in a scandal for the two of them. When Nathaniel learns about it, he decides she cannot be trusted home alone and makes immediate plans to leave instead of staying ashore awhile as planned, taking along Azuba and Carrie.

Azuba has got her way, but she is not happy. Aside from the misunderstanding with her husband, she has not realized the dangers and inconveniences of the voyage. To make matters worse, Nathaniel sees her and Carrie as more burdens among the many he must juggle as captain. The terrifying voyage around the Horn is the first in a series of mishaps that endanger them all.

I found this a fascinating book in its knowledge of sea lore and the ports of the time. The main characters are complex, the novel focused on Azuba and Nathaniel’s struggle to design the conditions of their marriage. I have one plot quibble when Mr. Walton reappears in Belgium, where he is studying to be a photographer. After booking Azuba and Carrie on a relatively safe journey home by steamship, Nathaniel suddenly decides to keep them with him. There is no explanation of this decision, and we don’t even see the scene where it is made. It seems awkward, as if Powning made the decision just to further the plot.

Finally, Nathaniel and Azuba don’t actually work out their conflict. Instead, the decision that resolves it is forced on Nathaniel. Still, I found this novel of absorbing interest. But one more quibble. Sometimes stopping to explain what Azuba or other female characters are wearing actually interferes with the story-telling.

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Day 729: The Great Texas Wind Rush

Cover for The Great Texas Wind RushThe Great Texas Wind Rush is a history of the wind energy business written by Kate Galbraith and Asher Price, a couple of reporters. It begins with the building of wind turbines to pump water and then covers a few pioneers who tried to use turbines to produce electricity, with mixed results.

Finally, it follows the various attempts to do this as a business and the legislation that made it possible to make wind farming a serious business. These efforts finally culminated in the 2000’s with the establishment of many successful wind farms across Texas.

I have nothing against wind power. In fact, I am for green energy. But the book at times seems to be biased both for Texas and for wind power. I live in Texas, so I am used to the ridiculous pro-Texas bias that creeps into everything, but I felt that the cons of wind power were glossed over. The problems of migratory birds are mentioned, for example, several times, but there are no facts or figures even estimating the number of birds killed. This is disturbing, especially in discussions about wind farms off the coast, where there are many bird sanctuaries, including for the whooping crane, which already almost went extinct. And the admiring tone the book occasionally takes is not good journalism.

Books about business do not fall within my interests, and the only reason I read this one was because it was chosen for my book club. At first I found it more interesting than I expected, but eventually it seemed to become just one story after another about one company after another. I kept falling asleep. Unless you are really interested in wind power or business history, the book, although clearly written for a general audience, has limited appeal.

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Day 728: The Wake

Cover for The WakeThe Wake was one of the most unusual reading experiences I have ever had. The closest I can come to it is the revelation of reading Benjy’s sections of The Sound and the Fury. What Paul Kingsnorth has done is write a novel about the aftermath of the Norman Conquest entirely in a “shadow language” that approximates and gives the flavor of Old English while being understandable to the modern reader.

Buccmaster is a socman of Holland in the Lincolnshire fens. A socman, Kingsnorth’s glossary explains, owns his land and owes allegiance only to the king under Danelaw. At the beginning of the novel, Buccmaster is a well-off man who has a large house and about 90 acres of land, servants, and a seat on the Wapentec, the local court of justice. Buccmaster is a proud and angry man, and we find, not always a reliable narrator.

Soon word comes that King Harald is calling up the army against the invasion of Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway. Buccmaster owes King Harald six weeks’ service a year, but he refuses to go. His sons do, however. Of course, while Harald and his army are repelling Hardrada, William the Bastard (William the Conqueror) attacks.

Buccmaster soon finds his world destroyed. His sons never return from Hastings. The Normans arrive claiming all of the hamlet’s land. Buccmaster’s home is burned to the ground and his wife murdered one day while he is out eeling.

Buccmaster was raised by his grandfather to believe in the old ways, not the newer ones of the White Christ. He decides to take his great sword, which his grandfather told him was given to him by Welland the Smith, and raise a troop of Green Men, essentially guerilla fighters, to ambush the Normans.

This novel is as much about the conflict between the old Germanic-Norse ways of the English and Christianity as it is about the little-known war of resistance against the Normans after the conquest. Buccmaster makes a complex and troubled main character.

Kingsnorth has said that he chose his approach for the novel because he doesn’t like historical novels written in modern language. I am torn about that, because I would rather see modern language than clunky fake archaic language. But Kingsnorth has done a fantastic job of steeping himself in the time, and his goal of conveying the alienness of the 11th century English through language is certainly achieved.

The Wake is an enormously powerful novel. It is probably not for everyone. You have to be willing to invest yourself in it enough to tolerate some early slow going. There is a glossary, but it doesn’t include all the words. You can figure most of them out by sound or context. Still, I strongly believe it is worth the effort, and after awhile, I think I was reading almost as quickly as usual.

It may be hard to find this book. I had to order it from England. But if you are interested, you’ll find it very much worth the effort. I read it because it was long-listed for the Booker Prize. Frankly, I think it was better than the winner.

I’ll end with this quote, which begins the book:

I have persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason.
Whether gentle or simple I have cruelly oppressed them.
Many I unjustly disinherited, innumerable multitudes perished through me by famine or the sword.

Having gained the throne of that kingdom by so many crimes,
I dare not leave it to anyone but God.

Deathbed confession of Guillaume le Bâtard, 1087

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Day 727: I Know This Much Is True

Cover for I Know This Much Is TrueI have only read one other book by Wally Lamb, the more recent The Hour I First Believed, and when I began reading I Know This Much Is True, it was like deja vu all over again. In a very long novel, crass, belligerent, macho protagonist with anger issues ignores his own problems in attempting to cope with a family member with serious mental health difficulties.

In this case, Dominick Tempesta has a twin brother Thomas who is a paranoid schizophreniac. Thomas has seemed to do very well lately, so Dominick is shattered when Thomas goes to the public library one day and chops off his own hand in an effort to halt Operation Desert Storm. When Thomas is sent to Hatch, the high-security facility for the most dangerous patients, instead of Settle, where he usually goes, Dominick is convinced there is some mistake. His misgivings are confirmed when Dominick himself is severely beaten by one of Hatch’s security guards while he’s trying to get someone to call Thomas’ doctor. He begins trying to get Thomas out of there.

In his efforts, he meets with Thomas’ social worker Ms. Scheffer and with Dr. Patel, one of the therapists who is supposed to evaluate Thomas. Dr. Patel asks Dominick to discuss his and Thomas’ past with her so that she can gain more insight about Thomas. But eventually she begins treating Dominick.

So, the present-day chapters of the novel, set in the early 90s, are interspersed with chapters describing incidents from Dominick’s childhood and adolescence. These incidents include upbringing by a mild-mannered mother and abusive stepfather Ray, Dominick’s constant curiosity about the identity of his real father, Dominick’s jealousy at their mother’s favoritism for Thomas.

In the end, you get to understand and feel for Dominick, if not actively like him. His insight about himself is helped along by finding a manuscript written by his grandfather, another similarity with his other novel. This novel explores issues such as bullying and abuse, mental illness, the way Americans raise boys, the closeness of twins, the way our own history flows from the history of our parents.

As with the other book, I liked it well enough but perhaps not well enough to subject myself to another 1000 pages of Wally Lamb.

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Day 726: The Other Daughter

Cover for The Other DaughterRachel Woodley has been working in France as a governess when she receives a telegram informing her that her mother is ill. Although she returns home immediately, the telegram was delayed, and she finds her mother dead, the funeral over, and the landlord giving her two weeks to vacate her home.

While she is going through her mother’s things, she finds a recent newspaper photo of the Earl of Ardmore with his daughter, Lady Olivia Standish. The Earl looks exactly like her father would have looked had he not died on a botanical expedition when she was four. But it’s not just a resemblance. He is the same man, with the same scar on his face.

Rachel goes to Oxford to see her Cousin David, who she’s sure would know the truth. David explains that her father was the second son and that he and her mother were forced to part after her father’s older brother died and her father became heir to the estate.

Rachel is furious to hear that her father left them, that she has been lied to, and that she is illegitimate. The thought of all the times she missed her father also makes her angry. She is expressing her displeasure when they are interrupted by Simon Montfort, Cousin David’s neighbor in rooms. He takes Rachel away to calm her down.

link to NetgalleyAlthough Simon is a social columnist for the Daily Yell, he promises to keep private what he has overheard. Soon, he is helping her get an opportunity to meet her father. After a makeover of a new haircut and his sister’s fashionable clothes, he lends her his mother’s apartment and presents her to young London society as the chic Vera Merton, his cousin. Rachel is not entirely sure of her own motives but is soon positive that Simon is doing this for his own purposes, especially when she learns her sister Olivia was once his fiancée.

This novel is sheer frivolity, set as it is in the 1920s among the wild young things. It is certainly a bit predictable—soon we guess Rachel will end up with either her sister’s current fiancé or her previous one. But it has lots of snappy dialogue and enough twists to keep things interesting. Although I’m not generally fond of this genre, I enjoyed The Other Daughter.

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Day 725: The Warden

Cover for The WardenThe Warden was the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, inspired by a setting and a series of Church of England preferment scandals. A chronicler of 19th century life, Trollope was interested in the intersections between practical and emotional considerations. He was a prolific writer known for complex, realistic novels.

The main character of The Warden is Mr. Harding, a kindly, well-meaning canon who is warden of a charitable hospital, sort of a retirement home for poor old men. For his care of the twelve old men’s spiritual well-being, he receives a salary of £800 a year. It is a position that involves little work and also includes a comfortable house, where he lives with his younger daughter Eleanor.

John Bold has been a friend of this house since a young boy, and Eleanor’s friends are expecting to hear of their engagement. John is a wealthy young man who doesn’t have to work for a living, so he has turned his attentions to reform. After a preferment scandal in another town, he decides to look into the will of the man who endowed the hospital. He finds that the pay of the warden has increased 25 times since the endowment 400 years ago, while the residents’ stipends have not increased, although of course the cost of their food and lodging and medical care has increased and is taken care of by the trust. In fact, the only increase the residents have had has come out of Mr. Harding’s own pocket.

Despite his sister’s advice, instead of taking this issue up with the church or the trust, John Bold brings a lawsuit on behalf of the hospital residents and takes the issue to The Jupiter, a powerful newspaper. His lawyer gets most of the elderly residents to sign a petition, rashly promising them £100 a year each. (Note how well the math works here. Even if they took all of Mr. Hardings’ salary, they wouldn’t have enough money to pay each of the residents £100 a year.)

It is Mr. Hardings’ reaction that forms the core of the novel, for he is not interested, like the lawyers and his son-in-law the archbishop, in whether the case will be won or lost but in whether the plaintiff’s point is morally correct. Although he has never given his position any thought, in fact is simply an employee of the trust, he is concerned that the intent of the original will might have been that the recipients of the charity should receive a larger share of it.

Except for his mild-mannered friend, the bishop, he cannot find anyone who will even enter into a discussion with him on this topic. And the bishop is completely dominated by his son, the archbishop Dr. Grantly. Dr. Grantly pushes aside Mr. Hardings’ concerns, which he considers weak, disregarding his wife’s ascerbic comments on how poorly he is handling her father. Soon, a newspaper article has appeared that makes poor Mr. Harding look greedy and grasping.

Not only is Trollope interested in exploring the differences between the reactions of Mr. Hardy, high-minded and feeling, and the lawyers and Dr. Grantly, all business and practicality, but he is also interested in the ramifications of reform. Although he shows there is corruption, this corruption is more of the institutional kind that has evolved over time. No one is purposefully trying to cheat anyone. On the other hand, he wants to point out that the alternatives to these entrenched systems might actually be worse.

We can predict that Mr. Harding ends up financially worse off than he started but that the hospital inhabitants do, too. Trollope’s first Barsetshire novel is quiet and slyly ironic. Trollope is not as often read these days, but he is certainly worth reading.

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