In the 1321 village of Ulewic, England, a group of women have settled into a beguinage, a community of women who are committed to a life of celibacy and service but not one sanctified by the church. Some of them are from Belgium, and they are led by Servant Martha.
The village is experiencing dark days and some of the villagers are returning to a pre-Christian cult called the Owl Killers. When the beguinage takes in a leper and then the daughter of a lord, who has been raped, the villagers and the Owl Killers begin to turn against them.
Although this novel is atmospherically dark and seems well researched, I had a hard time sticking with it. This problem may have more to do with the fact that we were moving cross-country while I was reading it than with the book itself. But I frankly found few of the characters sympathetic. The village priest is so terrified that the truth of his affair with a man will come out that he is led into dastardly acts. Servant Martha seems completely blind to what is going on with some of the members of the beguinage. Beatrice is jealous and bitter. Osmana is sympathetic but one-dimensional.
I may try another Maitland novel at a better time. The novel blends a bit of the supernatural with a fairly straight historical narrative, which combination is interesting.
The Daylight Gate
This week’s Best Book is Benediction by Kent Haruf!
P. S. Sorry to those who got a link to The Owl Killers. I published it too early and so deleted my post. I will republish the review on Monday.
Goodreads has Benediction listed as Plainsong #3, which makes me wonder what that means. The first two novels in the series, Plainsong and Eventide, were very closely related, but this one not so much. All three of them are set in Holt, an imaginary town in Eastern Colorado, but then again, all of his novels are set there. Yet, these three novels all have titles related to religious services and song.
Dad Lewis is dying. That’s the central focus of the novel. But this novel even more than the others provides a picture of small-town life by looking at the neighbors and others in touch with Dad during his last weeks.
Dad is loved by his wife Mary and daughter Lorraine, but his son Frank has long since disappeared from their lives. When Frank was a young man, Dad was not understanding at all about his homosexuality, and that conflict eventually resulted in a complete break.
Dad is also perhaps not being fair to his long-time employees. When he was 22, his boss gave him an opportunity to buy the hardware store, and he has owned it ever since. Now he wants a reluctant Lorraine to take it over instead of extending the same opportunity to his two employees.
There are other things Dad frets over and even hallucinates about, but the novel isn’t just about Dad. The Lewis’s next-door neighbor Berta May has taken in her granddaughter Alice after her daughter’s death. Lorraine lost her daughter years ago, and she and retired schoolteacher Alene take Alice under their wings.
Reverend Lyle has been sent to Holt after a problem in Denver. His wife and son John Wesley are unhappy in Holt, and soon Lyle begins expressing opinions that leave some of the town in an uproar.
This novel is written in Haruf’s lovely spare prose. In theme and plot, it seems more diffuse than his other novels, but it is profound and moving.
Our Souls at Night
We have two more books to go in the list already selected for Literary Wives, taking us through June. So, a few weeks ago, the wives started discussing books for the upcoming schedule. We’re happy to announce that we have chosen the next seven books for 2017-18. Here are the new books we just added to our schedule:
August 2017: On Beauty by Zadie Smith
October 2017: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
December 2017: A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves
February 2018: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
April 2018: The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Green
June 2018: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adobayi
August 2018: First Love by Gwendolyn Riley
As usual, if you would like to participate in the discussion, just take a look at the schedule posted on any of our blogs and read along, then post your comments on our reviews, which usually go up the first Monday of the month. Please join us on Monday, April 3, for a discussion of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Theresa Fowler.
Reviews and even the book blurb have made no secret of a major plot point of Room, that it is about five-year-old Jack and his Ma, who has been kept captive in a small room for 10 years. Perhaps Donaghue meant this to be a surprise, simply presenting us at first with a strange situation that is difficult to understand, but there has been too much publicity about this novel to keep this plot point hidden.
Donaghue is clever to make the novel be from Jack’s point of view, because this is the only world he has known. His Ma has told him that the world presented in grainy black and white on their TV is all made up.
But an incident with Old Nick, their captor, makes Ma realize that they could be left locked in their shed to die. So, she begins making plans for their escape, plans that require Jack to leave Room by himself.
This novel is certainly compelling. I read it in one day last October despite spending a great deal of time preparing for our move. At times, though, I didn’t believe Jack’s voice. Yes, he is often childlishly naive, but sometimes Donaghue gives him insights that a five-year-old wouldn’t have. I’m not talking about his almost telepathic sense of what his Ma is feeling, but of other times when he has some rather sophisticated thoughts.
So, I think this novel has been a little over-rated, but it is still certainly worth reading.
Before I Go to Sleep
The Day She Died
I continue to feel less satisfied with the Poldark series as it comes to the end. The only reason I have kept reading at this point is because I have read 10 of the 12 books. Also, I would like to see what happens to Ross and Demelza.
Unfortunately, I am less interested in their children, and the last two books have been mostly about their oldest two. Neither Jeremy nor Clowance seems well defined to me, and both of them have poor judgment.
Early in this novel, Clowance, whose only good judgment of late has been to break off with Stephen Carrington, reconciles with him. They marry shortly after, and Stephen looks to be getting himself into George Warleggan’s clutches financially.
Jeremy is regretting the unlawful act he committed with Stephen and his friend Paul. It is 1813, and there is still war on the continent, so Jeremy has decided to enlist to get away, especially from thoughts of his unsuccessful pursuit of Cubey.
While Ross is away serving his last term in Parliament, Demelza makes a discovery that causes her to have doubts about Jeremy. She begins wondering if she and Ross have done a good job of raising their children.
I will read this series to the end in the hopes that Clowance and Jeremy will get some sense. Unfortunately, only the older characters who have been with the series from the beginning seem to have much depth.
The Miller’s Dance
The Stranger from the Sea
The Angry Tide
A Farm Dies Once a Year is Arlo Crawford’s memoir of growing up on his parents’ organic vegetable farm in Pennsylvania. It focuses particularly on a summer and fall when Crawford returned to the farm as an adult.
Crawford had been living in New York and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, for years before he decided to return home to the farm for a few months before relocating with his girlfriend, Sarah, to San Francisco. Although he was never interested in farming, he found himself at a loss for what he wanted to do with his life.
In between descriptions of hard work and uncertainty on the farm and his father’s worry and fits of anger, Crawford tells the story of his parents’ decision to become farmers. He talks about the first years of difficult life in Appalachian Pennsylvania, his boyhood on the farm, and significant episodes, particularly the senseless murder of a family friend and neighbor when Arlo was 12.
This is a well-written account, evoking both the beauty of the countryside and the sheer hard work of farming a large operation and marketing the produce. It reflects Crawford’s ambivalent attitude toward his home and his parents’ legacy. I enjoyed it very much.
The Rural Life
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
A Mountain of Crumbs