Colm Toíbín has written some unusual novels, and such is House of Names. It is basically the Oresteia, and we can’t expect happy endings from the Ancient Greeks.
The novel begins with Clytemnestra. On his way to the Trojan War, Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, summons her and her daughter, Iphigenia, telling her that Iphigenia is to marry Achilles. But Agamemnon is lying. Iphigenia is to be sacrificed for the cause of favorable winds that will get the soldiers across the sea to Troy.
Clytemnestra despises Agamemnon for the deception and his readiness to sacrifice their daughter. She vows to murder Agamemnon when he returns from the war. To take command of the kingdom, she allies with Aegisthus, the enemy whom Agamemnon has kept captive for years. But Clytemnestra finds that she is not in charge after all.
Orestes is a boy when Iphigenia was sacrificed, but he sees what happens to her from afar. Returning home, he is imprisoned with the country’s other boys in Clytemnestra’s attempt to intimidate the villagers. But Orestes has been taken prisoner by Aegisthus. Clytemnestra did not intend him to go with the other boys.
And then there is Electra.
Beautifully written like all of Toíbín’s work, this novel is an interesting interpretation of an old legend, based on the plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. It is eerie and harrowing.
The Song of Achilles
The Greek Myths
The World’s Wife
Dictator is the final volume in Robert Harris’s trilogy about the great Roman statesman, Cicero. This trilogy has truly been spell-binding.
The novel begins in dark times for Cicero, when he and his family are hounded out of Rome by Julius Caesar, his greatest enemy. Cicero was made to look ridiculous in Colleen McCullough’s series about Caesar, but Harris sees him differently, as a man staunchly in support of the dying Republic. On the other hand, McCullough pictured Caesar much more sympathetically, while Harris shows him as a man run mad with the desire for power.
For me, this novel flagged just a little bit in the middle, while momentous events in Rome are described from afar. I think my reaction is partly because I thought I knew what happened to Cicero and was dreading it. But I actually didn’t know my Roman history that well, so I was a little bit off. In any case, the novel picks right up as soon as Cicero rejoins the action.
Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite historical novelists. He writes a good, tight political thriller based on true events. I am already looking for his most recent novel.
Master & God
I don’t think I am the only one to be delighted when I learned that Richard Russo was returning to the familiar ground of North Bath, New York, and Sully, of Nobody’s Fool. Sully has been diagnosed with a heart condition and has less than two years to live unless he undergoes a procedure he’s been avoiding. This situation leads him to consider a little more deeply some fundamental questions.
Sully’s friend Rab has felt a change in their relationship since Sully came into money. They no longer work together, and Rab feels that Sully neglects him. Rab is ridiculously dependent on him.
Sully is concerned for Ruth, his long-time lover, and her daughter, Janey. Janey’s abusive ex-husband is back in town, fresh out of jail.
A major character of the novel is Douglas Raymer. Once the rookie who waved his gun at Sully for driving on the sidewalk, Raymer is now the chief of police. He has always been obsessively self-conscious and unsure of himself. His self-esteem has not been improved by finding out on the day of his beloved wife Becka’s death that she was leaving him for someone else. The problem is, he doesn’t know who, but he has found the remote for someone else’s garage door under the seat of Becka’s car.
Raymer is already considering quitting his job when he begins one of the worst days of his life. While attending the funeral of a judge, he passes out from the heat and falls into the grave. Later he realizes that he must have dropped the remote, which he planned to use to find Becka’s lover, in the grave.
Russo is great at creating flawed but lovable and believable characters, and he specializes in settings of beaten-down working class towns in the rust belt. He also doesn’t flinch from pushing his characters to the heights of absurdity, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek style. Sometimes he goes too far with this, but other times it works perfectly to produce a serio-comic effect. This is one of those times. Empire Falls remains my favorite Russo novel, but this one is right up there.
Bridge of Sighs
In C. J. Sansom’s fourth Matthew Shardlake novel it is 1543. Matthew’s experiences working for Thomas Cromwell have driven him away from his former Reformist religious views, and he has been avoiding becoming involved in political cases. He has never been happier working for ordinary people in the Court of Requests.
But soon his friend Roger Elliard is murdered in a most peculiar way, and Matthew vows to Roger’s widow Dorothy that he will find the killer. This purpose forces him to work for Archbishop Cranmer, along with the Earl of Hertford and Thomas Seymour, who are all worried that Roger’s death has something to do with Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr, whom the king is courting. Their fears are because of a similar murder of Dr. Gurney, who attended Lord Latimer during his final illness. They appoint Matthew to work with Coroner Hartsnet to find the murderer.
Of course, their fears are political. Henry VIII has been turning more and more back to conservative religious views, away from the Reformists. The Seymours and Cranmer see a marriage to Catherine Parr as the only hope for Reform. The English are more and more polarized by religion, with fanatical Reformists ranting in the street on the one hand while Bishop Bonner cracks down on them on the other.
Soon Matthew is convinced that there have actually been three murders. Further, they are modeled after passages in Revelation that detail seven ghastly visitations.
Although Sansom’s Shardlake mystery novels create a fully realized world with highly developed, convincing characters, there is something about them that holds me back from complete attention. I am always mildly interested but not absorbed. In this case, the novel took me an unheard of twelve days to read. That makes me happy that I have only one more to read, the one for my Walter Scott Prize project, although since I understand there is only one more after that in the series, I may choose to finish the series.
Don’t misunderstand me. These novels have complex mysteries that are difficult to guess and are well researched and interesting. I think lots of people would and do love them. I have personally not been able to decide why I’m not that involved. Perhaps Matthew Shardlake is too depressive for me.
Isabel is struggling. It is almost a year since the death of her beloved friend, Josie. Her husband, Chris, has moved out, and her 12-year-old daughter, Hannah, blames her for it. She has become alienated from her childhood friend, Mark, who was Josie’s husband, because of his romantic choice.
This novel is a character study more than anything else, of Josie and of Isabel, as Isabel revisits memories and tries to deal with the sadness in her life. As Isabel grows to understand that she was missing cues from Josie, she slowly learns to handle Josie’s death.
I enjoyed this novel. It is well written, with funny dialogue. Both Isabel and Josie express themselves with imagination and humor. We learn to care for Isabel, with all of her foibles.
The Sense of an Ending
Tell the Wolves I’m Home
This week’s Best Book is Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams! Also recommended is How to Be Both by Ali Smith!
Michael Chabon’s newest novel is supposedly inspired by his grandfather’s stories before he died. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take that literally, if only because he also says the novel was inspired by the stories of his mother’s uncle. In any case, it is a wandering, fascinating story of a complex life.
Grandfather’s stories begin with that of his arrest, when he was fired from his job to provide a place for Alger Hiss, newly out of jail, and attacked the corporation’s vice president. He was left with a hospitalized mentally ill wife and their teenage daughter. But the story wanders back and forth in time from his grandfather’s childhood in Philadelphia, his experiences searching for German scientists at the end of World War II, his work in the space industry. And always, there is his interest in the moon and space travel.
As always, Chabon manages to tackle some weighty topics while entertaining us like crazy. In this novel, he tackles German atrocities during the war and the stain they put on our own space program. Still, Grandfather’s life reads very much like an adventure story.
I really enjoyed this novel, much more so than I did Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes I enjoy Chabon more than other times, but I always find the journey interesting.
Gentlemen of the Road