Day 691: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Cover for The Shadow of the Crescent MoonI have to admit right away that I found this novel about modern-day Pakistan confusing. I think it’s because I don’t understand enough about the history of the area.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is set in Mir Ali in northern Pakistan. To help figure out what was going on, I did a little googling and found out that this area is known for jihadist insurgency. but it wasn’t clear to me that this is what the novel is about, exactly, although it certainly is about the complexities of life in an unstable area.

Set in one morning during Eid, the novel is about three brothers. The oldest, Aman Erum, has just returned from studying and starting a business in America. All his life, he has only wanted to leave Mir Ali and become a successful businessman. His tie to Mir Ali has been Samarra, the woman he has loved since they were children. But his price for leaving Mir Ali was a betrayal, even of her.

The youngest brother Hayat was the one who listened to his father’s stories of the past, when the region was free. Here is one source of my confusion, because Hayat has joined the insurgents working for the region’s freedom from Pakistan. It was not until late in the novel that I discovered they wanted to belong to Afghanistan instead, and it was not clear to me whether these insurgents were also jihadists. I think not, because the family is Shia and the jihadists seem to be Sunni. The actual term is never used in the novel. In any case, Hayat is plotting with Samarra an event to take place that day. In fact, Samarra, whose father disappeared years ago on a mission for the separatists, is in charge of their group.

Sikander, the middle brother, is a doctor whose son has recently been killed when a different group, apparently the Taliban, blew up the hospital where the boy was waiting for his father. Sikander’s wife Mina has taken to attending funerals of other children and behaving in a way that is slightly deranged. Sikander is taking Mina home from yet another funeral when he is summoned for a medical emergency so he brings her along. On their way, they are stopped at a Taliban roadblock. Sikander cravenly pretends that Mina is the doctor and he is simply her driver.

link to NetgalleyI don’t think we get to know any of these people well enough to become very involved in this novel. Further, more complete background on the history of the area, as opposed to allusions that assume we already know about it, would have helped me understand better what the issues are and who is who. It is clear that the residents of the area feel that Pakistan’s leaders have pilfered it and left them with little hope. The novel held a certain amount of drama but could have been more effective.

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Day 690: Wylding Hall

Cover for Wylding HallElizabeth Hand’s earlier novel Mortal Love showed she was interested in a connection between inspiration and folklore. Wylding Hall is also an unusual exploration of this theme.

The novel is told as a series of possible interviews, maybe for a documentary, about a 70’s folk group called Windhollow Faire. The group released two albums, but a mystery surrounds the second one, which 20 years later has been re-released as a smashing success.

The novel is narrated by the band members, their manager, and a couple of other people who visited the band during the fateful summer the album was recorded. The band’s manager Tom Haring sets off the action of the novel by renting an old Tudor mansion in a remote rural area for the band to live and work in during the summer. Part of the house has been restored but the rest of it is a rambling wreck. The band works but in a party atmosphere of drugs and booze.

The novel builds up some suspense with the hints of something unusual happening that summer involving Julian Blake, the band’s lead singer and songwriter. He is the only member of the band who is not heard from in the novel. The house is described in a way that is both beautiful and creepy, featuring an old library that cannot always be located and is full of feathers. The local inn also features some folklore and is named after an old song about killing wrens on St. Stephen’s Day.

link to NetgalleyThe locals warn the band members away from the woods around the house, and their superstitious comments add to the hints of darkness in the book. For a short novel in which little actually happens, it creates quite a mood of creepiness.

My only criticism is that most of the band members blurred together for me, because I couldn’t keep them straight. A couple stand out, but most of them are too undefined to be successful characters.

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Day 689: Wild

Cover for WildI didn’t actually become interested in reading Wild until I saw the terrific movie adaptation. That and a few excellent reviews changed my mind about reading it. There was just something about the author having changed her name to Cheryl Strayed that annoyed me, to be honest, and was keeping me away from the book.

If you have seen the movie, it is amazingly similar to the book, only changing the sequence of some events and leaving a few things out.

This memoir is about Cheryl Strayed’s attempt to get her life back on track by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to near Portland, Oregon. After Cheryl’s mother’s death from cancer several years before, her life fell apart. She became promiscuous and eventually began using heroin. After she and her husband divorced, she decided to hike the trail alone in an attempt to return to her true self.

Although Cheryl views herself as an outdoorsy girl, she soon finds that she is unprepared for the rigors of the journey. Her pack is so heavy that she can barely lift it, her boots uncomfortable, she herself not in condition and not understanding that such an endeavor is painful even for an experienced hiker. She originally planned to hike about 20 miles a day but finds herself only making 6 to 8 miles, less at the beginning.

This memoir is vividly written and quite harrowing at times as it follows Strayed’s journey. She encounters snow and landslides, wild animals, friendly as well as scary people, and her own truth. Wild is an interesting journey into the wild and into self-awareness.

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Day 688: The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of InnocenceI have certainly read The Age of Innocence before, but it was not until this rereading that I gained a full appreciation for its subtlety and complexity. I may have read it years ago, but I became really interested in it after an interview with Martin Scorsese about his movie adaptation (my favorite film ever) where he commented on “the brutality under the manners” of the upper class New Yorkers in the novel, set in the 1870’s, and likened them to gangsters.

This novel is about the tension between individual desires and the expectations of a rigid society. However, it is also about the two main characters trying to do the right thing in the face of yearning and passion.

Newland Archer is an intellectually inclined young man interested in art and travel who thinks he understands but sometimes is a little impatient of the rigid and insular customs of his time and social class. He has just become engaged to May Welland during a difficult time for the Welland family. May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, has returned to New York to her family, having left her husband, and society is shocked to see them bringing her to parties and the theatre. Archer decides to show solidarity with the Wellands and soon finds himself drawn into the Countess’ affairs in his professional capacity as a lawyer. Countess Olenska wants to divorce her husband, and the family is horrified, asking Newland to convince her not to.

Newland succeeds, but he soon realizes that he is in love with Ellen Olenska himself. Ellen is determined not to betray her cousin.  When she admits she loves Newland, she comments that by getting her to drop her divorce, he has assured that they can never be together. A disappointed Newland marries May.

Within a short time, Newland regrets his marriage and foresees a gray existence of doing the same things with the same people year after year. The innocence and purity he saw in May is actually an incuriosity and inability to grow or change. Although Newland doesn’t see Ellen, who has moved to Washington, he has begun to think of her as the only real corner of his life. All these feelings are brought to a climax when the Countess returns to New York and her family decides she should reunite with her husband.

This novel is vivid with carefully observed descriptions. Underlying it all is an understated yet savage critique of petty and provincial New York society of the time. Almost every sentence is double-edged, such as when Wharton describes a soprano’s solo in the first chapter:

She sang, of course “M’ama!” not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Nice! I understand that when this book was published, nearly 50 years after its setting, members of New York society were still able to match most of the characters in the novel with their real counterparts.

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Day 687: Someone At a Distance

Cover for Someone at a DistanceBest Book of the Week!
I would normally not give away something important that happens well into a novel, but the book blurb openly presents it as the novel’s central conflict. The Norths are an affectionate and happy family with little to discontent them in post-World War I England. Avery enjoys his work as a partner in a publishing firm and is a loving husband and father. He dotes on his daughter Anne especially. Ellen loves her family and her garden. Although she perhaps does too much for her family, she enjoys it. Hugh is serving his term in the army but can’t wait to get out and work at his father’s firm. Fifteen-year-old Anne loves her family and especially her horse.

The only small annoyance in the family’s life is Avery’s mother, who is critical and discontented, wanting more attention than the busy family can provide. But she soon solves her own problem by hiring a companion, a French girl named Louise Lanier.

Louise is a selfish and discontented young woman who is fleeing the end of an affair in which she was felt to be socially inferior to her lover and unworthy of marrying him. Eventually, she sets her sights on Avery, heedless of any destruction she may wreak with her harmful intentions and toxic personality.

I spent the first half of this novel entranced by this perceptive and layered novel and the last third in tears. The characters are wonderfully realized. Perhaps Louise’s character lacks a little nuance, but we have all met people who are able to justify their own bad behavior to themselves. This is a great book that should have had more attention since it was written in the 1930’s.

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Day 686: Everything I Never Told You

Cover for Everything I Never Told YouI just applied a new look to my site! Let me know how you like it.

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From the beginning of Everything I Never Told You, we know that Lydia Lee is dead, but her family doesn’t, and it is awhile before we understand what happened. Lydia’s story has its roots in her family history.

In 1970’s small-town Ohio, the Lees are outsiders, the only mixed race family in town. James Lee is of Chinese heritage, a history professor at the local college. Marilyn Lee is white, a former Harvard medical student who gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor when she became pregnant with Nath, their son.

Once the police begin looking into Lydia’s disappearance, it soon becomes clear that she was leading a double life. Her parents believe her to be a popular girl and a good student with a brilliant future. But when police begin questioning her supposed friends after she is reported missing, the teens claim to hardly know her. She is close to failing some of her classes, and Nath is aware that she has been spending time with their neighbor, Jack, a boy with a bad reputation.

This novel is extremely sad, about the effect on young people of their parents’ insecurities and expectations, about misunderstandings and lack of communication, and about how an event in the family’s past affected Lydia’s behavior.

The novel is moving and well written, exploring the tensions between maintaining individuality and fitting in and the stresses caused by parents only wanting the best for their child. After being almost unremittingly sad for the entire novel, it ends on a more hopeful note, perhaps unrealistically.

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