Day 1190: LaRose

Cover for LaRoseSet in 1999 on a North Dakota reservation, LaRose is about how a community, but in particular two families, are affected by a horrible accident. Out hunting a deer on his property, Landreaux Iron kills Dusty, the young son of his best friend, Peter Ravich, when Dusty falls out of a tree as Landreaux takes his shot.

To try to make amends, Landreaux, who has turned to the old ways to throw off addiction and straighten out his life, offers the Ravich family his own young son, LaRose, to raise. Nola Ravich, Dusty’s mother, is eaten up with hatred against the Irons, even Emmaline, who is her half sister. But having LaRose helps. Emmaline, however, can’t be expected to give up her son forever.

LaRose is the latest in a long line of LaRoses, all of whom had a special connection with the spirit world. LaRose finds himself able to help Nola and her neglected daughter, Maggie, even though he is only a small boy.

Another significant character is Romeo, who long ago was Landreaux’s best friend. He bears Landreaux a grudge because of an incident years before. Slowly, he works at his resentment despite the Irons having taken in his son Julius to raise.

Although I occasionally got distracted by how diffuse the plot is and how many directions it goes, in the main I enjoyed this novel. It isn’t nearly as depressing as a lot of Erdrich’s work, and it paints a powerful portrait of these two families. Dealing with forgiveness, of oneself and others, grief, guilt, and other human complexities, it is a strong novel.

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Day 1189: Speak, Memory

Cover for Speak, MemoryAlthough I admire Lolita, I went into Nabokov’s memoir with some trepidation. The three of his novels I read showed such a preoccupation with what he calls “nymphets”—beautiful preteen girls—that it was disturbing. It’s one thing to write a novel about a sexual predator and quite another to have the theme recur in all of your works. So, even though I knew that his partially autobiographical novel, Look at the Harlequins!, was ironically meant—that is, he depicted himself as people thought he was, not as he was, I’m wasn’t sure what to expect from Speak, Memory.

And it is unusual. Instead of narrating his life in a linear fashion, as you might expect, it instead explores themes in his life. So, there are earlier chapters listing the accomplishments of his ancestors, describing his governesses and tutors, later ones about his obsession with butterfly collecting, his efforts to write his first poem, and so on. The result is an odd dichotomy—for we still understand little of the day-to-day of his life while gleaning lots of details about the things he loved best and a vague understanding of the larger arc. I think he truly doesn’t want to tell much that is personal.

I most enjoyed the earlier chapters about life on his family estate outside St. Petersburg. His life there is depicted as idyllic, and it’s hard to know if it actually was or if it is in memory because he can’t return to it. Because of course his wealthy, elite family had to flee Russia after the Russian revolution.

As in Look at the Harlequins!,  he tells nothing about his wife, Véra, although he addresses her directly at times. He does tell about his feeling for his son and about the parks in Europe they visited when his son was small.

So, I found large portions of this book interesting and beautifully written. The man has the largest vocabulary of any writer I’ve ever encountered. Other chapters, like the one about the butterflies, where I would have had to look up every other word to understand it, or the one about chess puzzles, were not so compelling. Still, I started another book before this one and set it aside to finish this. Such is the power of a great writer even when you’re not always interested in the subject matter.

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Day 1188: Horse Heaven

Cover for Horse HeavenFor me, Jane Smiley’s work is a little unpredictable. While I consider her A Thousand Acres to be one of the best books I’ve read, I haven’t liked others as much. To my surprise, though, I really enjoyed Horse Heaven.

In this novel, Smiley attempts a difficult feat—she wants to show all the nooks and crannies of horse racing by depicting quite a number of characters. There are owners, trainers, riders, jockeys, bettors, and veterinarians. There are also horses, a handful of which are important to the plot.

The novel isn’t plot heavy. We’re not headed toward a showdown among the major players at the races. Instead, each character has his or her own plot trajectory. The shifty trainer Buddy will do anything to win a race but suddenly finds Jesus. Elegant owner Rosalind is married to loud and gauche Al and has an affair with her trainer, Dick. Irish trainer Deidre thinks of herself as bitter and brusque but is adored by the people who work for her. Zen horse trainer Farley falls madly in love with rider Joy, who feels most comfortable alone. Elizabeth is an animal psychic who gets tips on the races from a retired racehorse.

I complained in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy that there were too many characters to get to know. But here, even though you see them in little vignettes, you do begin to care about them.

And I cared even more about some of the horses. Without actually anthropomorphizing them, Smiley gives them discernible characters. I was particularly captured by Justa Bob, an intelligent, reliable horse who begins a downhill slide mostly because of the carelessness of his owners. Smiley does’t focus just on champions. There is Mr. T., the retired horse; Froney’s Sis, a young filly who is timid and a slow learner; and Epic Storm, a horse who is fast but dangerous and mean.

If you like horses, I think you will love this book, but even if you don’t, Smiley shows us a fascinating, complex world. The novel is written in a breezy style with quite a bit of humor.

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Day 1187: Edgar & Lucy

Cover for Edgar & LucyBefore I start my review, I realized I forgot to check the spin number on Friday morning. It seems as if Classics Club always picks the number for the most obscure book on my list. This time, I get to read Le Morte D’Arthur.

* * *

Eight-year-old Edgar has no idea about the terrible events that took place when he was a baby. He lives with his mother, Lucy, and his grandmother Florence, who tells him innocuous lies about Frank, his father and her son.

Lucy and Florence have not been getting along lately. Lucy, still traumatized by her husband’s death, has been drinking too much and seeing men, when old-fashioned Florence would like her to be a perpetual widow. But Florence dies, and a series of misunderstandings and accidents at the time of her death place Edgar in danger.

Although I wouldn’t describe Edgar & Lucy as a thriller, it kept me pinned to the page much like a good thriller would, and the novel has some thriller-like plot characteristics. But really, it is a thorough examination of several characters under trying circumstances. And one of them is a ghost.

This novel is highly unusual. At times, it is almost meditative while at other times it reveals its characters’ minds as almost hallucinogenically original. If you decide to read it, I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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Day 1186: Toby’s Room

Cover for Toby's RoomI know I’ve talked about this before, but I find it interesting to see what the blurb writer finds to comment about a book versus the book itself. In the case of Toby’s Room, the blurb says something about a family torn apart by war. Well, World War I begins well into the novel, and the family is fairly well torn apart already.

The novel begins in 1912 when, in a weekend break from Slade, where Elinor is an art student, her relationship with her older brother Toby undergoes a shocking change. She and Toby have always been close, but they have difficulty closing the gap after this incident.

Later, shortly after the war begins, the family receives a telegram stating that Toby is missing, presumed dead. Elinor feels there is something not right about the letters she receives from his commanding officer and the chaplain. Letters to her friend Kip, who served with Toby, receive no answer. Elinor asks her friend Paul, who is home wounded, to help her find out what happened.

That makes the book sound like a mystery, but it isn’t. It is more about Elinor’s unresolved feelings for her brother, and latterly about the horrors of war.

Although Toby’s Room is a sequel to Barker’s Life Studies, and I have not read the first book, I felt myself immersed in this fully realized world. This is another situation, like with The Quality of Mercy, where I was reading the novel for my Walter Scott prize project and chose not to read the first one. Unlike The Quality of Mercy, though, I don’t think my not having read the first book affected my appreciation of the second. Although I do wish the Walter Scott prize judges would stop putting sequels on their short list, I enjoyed Toby’s Room. It examines serious issues while still capturing our attention.

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Day 1185: Landscape in Sunlight

Cover for Landscape in SunlightMrs. Custance, the vicar’s wife, is planning the annual church fête, but she is also wondering what will happen to her daughter. Cassie is currently tutoring Leonard Templar, but Mrs. Custance knows she is contemplating taking a caravan with her bouncing friend Joan and perhaps working at Joan’s school. Mrs. Custance once hoped that Cassie would marry George Brigham, Cassie’s childhood friend, but after the war George got engaged to an Italian countess. The engagement was short-lived, but Mrs. Custance has never forgiven George. George’s father, Sir James, also complains that George is an unsatisfactory son.

George has done nothing worse than go into partnership with a tradesman. Any income in the house belongs to him, but it’s not keeping the house from going to bits under the care of two lazy old servants.

In the meantime, Eustace Templar is trying to think of a way to get the Midges out of Prospect Cottage, his rental home. Eustace thinks it is the perfect home for his brother-in-law, Colonel Ashford, if only the Midges could be persuaded to move.

Landscape in Sunlight is another enjoyable domestic comedy by Elizabeth Fair. It follows the village people through their everyday lives, with just a touch of romance.

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