Review 1642: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Gilbert Markham is a young man running a family farm when a new, mysterious person moves into the neighborhood, taking up residence in an old, half-derelict house named Wildfell Hall. She is Mrs. Graham, a beautiful young widow with a five-year-old son, Arthur. She tends to be reclusive, which makes the neighborhood more interested in her. Finally, Gilbert goes with his sister to call and finds that Helen Graham is supporting herself working as an artist.

Gilbert falls in love with Helen, but she will not allow him to express any of his feelings. Then, he hears an ugly rumor about Helen and his friend Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord. Helen has secrets, but they’re not the ones being repeated about her. She finally decides to confide in Gilbert by giving him her diary.

I hadn’t read this novel for many years, so I put it on my Classics Club list. I found the structure of the novel—epistological first because Gilbert is writing a very long letter to a friend, and then the diary—to be cumbersome. It seems as though a straightforward first-person narration would be less artificial for the first part, which must be the longest letter ever written. For the middle, diary portion, I understand why Brontë chose that method of telling her story, which makes up the bulk of the novel, but it seemed a little clumsy and too long.

Finally, there were times when I tired of the self-righteous Helen. It seemed to me that her attitude might have driven a better husband than the one she chose away from her. Of course, he is a scoundrel, so there was probably no attitude she could adopt that would reform him, which makes the ending kind of absurd. I don’t know how to explain it without spoilers, but I thought it might be a sop to the critics of Brontë’s time who would have thought Helen should not have deserted her husband. Either that or she is destined for sainthood.

I am probably being overcritical of this book, which would have been quite shocking for its time because of making a woman who has fled her home with her child its heroine. Although I’ve read a gothic novel or two with the same premise, I’m sure this one was more groundbreaking through the husband’s faults being those of cruelty and dissipation rather than, say, robbery and murder. Here, we see Brontë taking up a feminist viewpoint, and I guess I’m just saying that I found Helen a little too rigidly moral. She spends an awful lot of time being outraged. Jane Eyre is also moral, but somehow from her it doesn’t seem as irritating.

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Review 1641: The Dictionary of Lost Words

After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.

As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.

As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.

link to Netgalley

This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.

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Review 1640: The Pull of the Stars

Julia Power is a maternity nurse in Dublin during the 1917 flu epidemic. The Pull of the Stars covers three days in her life on a small maternity ward for flu patients. With the hospital staff depleted because of illness and the matron away, Julia has only the help of a new volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, for most of the time. During this period, she has to cope with several emergencies and some deaths.

The novel appears to be knowledgeable about the state of medicine at the time and of the ignorance of the common people. One young woman expects to deliver her baby through her belly button, for example.

I found this novel interesting but curiously unsatisfying. I liked the characters Julia and Bridie, but no others are very fully developed. The plot seemed predictable and even a bit manipulative. I never know with Donoghue if I’m going to be blown away or relatively unmoved. This novel is timely, but that may make its content of very graphic medical details uncomfortable for some.

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Review 1639: The Ghost Fields

Detective Harry Nelson calls forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway when a bulldozer at a housing development digs up an American World War II airplane. In the plane is a dead man. Ruth is fairly sure the body was moved there, because its state indicates it was buried in different soil. Oh, and the man was shot in the head.

The American Air Force identifies the body through dental records as Fred Blackstock. The problem with that is that Fred was reported missing from a flight over the channel, in a different plane.

The investigative team finds that Fred’s brother George is still alive, although slightly dotty. His other brother, Lewis, returned from a Japanese prison camp with PTSD and eventually disappeared and is presumed dead. George lives in a desolate family mansion with his son George and George’s wife Sally. Their grown children are Chaz, a pig farmer, and Cass, an actress.

Ruth hears that her friend Frank, a TV historian, will be returning to the U. K. to film a show about Fred. Her feelings are mixed because they haven’t been in touch for a while.

A memorial service for Fred brings his daughter Nell and her family from the United States. During the reception, Ruth finds a likely disturbed area with the right soil in the family pet cemetery and believes it may be Fred’s original burial place. Ruth and another guest also spot a mysterious stranger on the grounds of the house.

I had some inklings about some of the threads of this mystery but ultimately did not guess the truth. It remains another perplexing mystery and thriller by Griffiths and satisfactorily advances the course of Ruth’s private life. My only fear about the series is that Griffiths seems to be advancing it at about two years in the characters’ lives per year in real life, which could result in a premature end of the series because of Ruth’s old age.

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Review 1638: Utopia Avenue

I always look forward to a new book by David Mitchell. So, I read Utopia Avenue almost as soon as it arrived at my house.

Dean Moss has had a bad day. First, he is robbed of his rent and the money to reclaim his pawned guitar almost as soon as he leaves the bank. Then, his landlady threatens to throw him out. When he asks for his pay a few days early, his boss fires him. He is out on the street wondering where to go when Levon Frankland introduces himself. Levon is a manager who has heard him perform. He wants to build a band from scratch and takes him to hear a guitarist and drummer perform at a nearby club. The two are the only good things in an act headed by a washed-up performer. They are Jasper de Zoet (Mitchell fans will know that last name) and Griff, a drummer.

Elf Halloway has a popular folk EP out, but the EP she recorded as a duo with her boyfriend Bruce has not done so well. Then Bruce dumps her, a fact she’s so ashamed of that she lies to her family about it. The three musicians invite her to join their group, which will have an eclectic sound.

This novel follows the band’s adventures as it attempts to gain enough recognition to cut an album. It reflects the love of music that is apparent from most of Mitchell’s novels and also features the reappearance of some of his recurring characters.

Utopia Avenue vividly evokes the heady days of the rock scene in mid-1960’s England and the United States. It features encounters with numerous pop culture figures such as David Bowie, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Mama Cass, Brian Jones, and many others.

If I fault the novel at all, I feel it salts these famous characters in a little too freely. Also, there are a few too many scenes where friends or complete strangers say exactly the right thing to a troubled band member.

However, the novel has a gripping subplot involving an invader into one character’s consciousness and overall, I enjoyed it.

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Review 1637: A Perfect Union of Contrary Things

I have a few disclaimers before I begin my review of this book. First, punk, progressive, and grunge rock are not genres I’ve listened to, so I am profoundly ignorant of Maynard James Keenan’s work, which is perhaps a handicap for my review. Second, the author, Sarah Jensen, is a friend and ex-housemate, with whom I’ve been out of touch until recently. My belated discovery that she had written this biography piqued my interest in reading it.

Jensen follows Keenan from the time when he was a boy, leading a difficult life, to his present life as a musician, actor, comic performer, artist, winemaker, and writer. Yes, he truly seems to be a Renaissance man, continually working at something and giving his many projects detailed attention and effort.

Keenan’s young life was disrupted many times—by his parents’ divorce, his mother’s being incapacitated by stroke, his many households and schools. Although he is a seeker, his attitudes about formal religion are formed by his skepticism, even very early, about his fundamentalist upbringing and his anger at how members of her church told his mother she must have done something very wrong for God to have stricken her so.

Starting at high school, it seems, Keenan developed the philosophy that if you’re going to do something, you should do it well, and if you have talent, you should use it. He was a high school track star and gifted artist, whose dream was to go to art school. He accomplished that by enlisting in the army, where he so excelled that he was offered a place at West Point’s preparatory school. He attended that but with no intention of becoming an officer.

His path to such bands as Tool and A Perfect Circle was anything but direct, so much so that old friends weren’t even aware he was a musician. The tale of his progress through life is truly interesting.

The book is beautifully written, lyrical at times, and explores Keenan’s music, lyrics, and philosophy in detail. I felt a bit at sea in following the discussions of his music and his comic performances as part of Puscifer, as I explained before, despite having watched a few clips on YouTube.

If there was one thing that threw me off a bit it was the tone of the book, especially in discussions of Keenan’s performances, which felt more like, say, a Rolling Stone appreciation than a biography. That being said, I am more accustomed to literary and political biographies, which have more distance from their subjects than ones about living celebrities.

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Review 1636: Everything Under

Best of Ten!
Everything Under is a powerful rendering of the Oedipus myth, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not interested in stories based on myths. I found this novel to be truly affecting, and I’m guessing it will be on my best of the year list.

Water is an important motif in this novel, which is set mostly by rivers and canals, and the shifting narration reflects the fluidity of this story about human depths and gender identity.

Gretel has found the mother who deserted her years ago when she was 16. Periodically during her adult life, she has searched for Sarah, but recently she received messages from her asking for help. Finally found, Sarah is fairly deep into dementia. But she has lucid moments, and Gretel has questions, especially about what happened to Marcus, whom she last saw when they moved away from the canal.

During her search for Sarah, Gretel finds a couple with Marcus’s last name, Roger and Laura. When she visits them, she learns that the couple have been searching for their daughter, Margot, for years. She left home at 16 after their neighbor Fiona, who claims to be a psychic, told her something. Fiona, a transgender woman who now lives in Roger and Laura’s shed, refuses to tell what she told Margot.

Several times the novel checks in with Margot as she comes to live nearby a canal. There she takes on the identity of Marcus and is befriended by a blind man living on a canal boat. Marcus also hears rumors of a creature living in the canal who is eating animals and even people. Abut the community of people wo live along Britain’s canal system, this novel is atmospheric and interesting. I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.,

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Review 1635: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

This sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea is lots of fun. The opening of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins finds our reluctant, roguish protagonist on the way to the gallows. There have been rumors in the neighborhood that he murdered a man in the Borough, but this isn’t the crime he’s been found guilty of.

The story begins with Tom in the street at night on the way home from his usual carouse. He hears the cry of “Thief” from inside the house of his neighbor, Mr. Burden, but when he tries to help, the neighbor becomes abusive. It is Mr. Burden who has been spreading the rumors about Tom.

When Mr. Gonson, the magistrate, comes to investigate the supposed crime, Tom finds that Mr. Burden is accusing Sam Fleet, the nephew of Samuel Fleet, Tom’s friend who was murdered in the Marshalsea in the previous novel, a boy that Tom is supposed to be teaching to be a gentleman. Later, Tom, in a drunken rage, hammers on the Burdens’ door and threatens Burden’s life.

Tip: If you’re in a drunken rage, never threaten anyone’s life. The next night, of course, Burden is murdered, which Tom and his girlfriend Kitty discover when they find Burden’s maid Alice in their house covered with blood. She has come through a secret passage into their house after finding her employer dead. Tom knows that if the authorities find the passage, which he didn’t know about, they’ll assume he is the murderer. The magistrate arrests him anyway, upon no evidence, but then must release him.

Tom also finds himself embroiled in the affairs of Henrietta Howard, the King’s mistress. He undertakes a job, hired by Sam’s father James Fleet, the king of the London underworld, to meet a lady in the park. The lady is Henrietta Howard, whom he finds being attacked by her own husband, Charles. Tom is hired by Queen Caroline to try to find some dark secret to put pressure on Howard, who is trying to blackmail King George by threatening to force Mrs. Howard to return to him.

This novel is atmospheric of Georgian England, especially the nasty places, and full of adventure. It is also quite suspenseful.

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Review 1634: Palace of Desire

The three books of Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy are all named after streets in Cairo. The home of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is located on Palace Walk, the name of the previous book. His oldest son Yasid’s home is on the Palace of Desire, and desire is certainly a theme for this novel.

The novel is set five years after the last one, beginning in 1924. Since his middle son Fahmy’s death, Ahmad has stopped his nightly drinking and womanizing, but fairly soon in the novel he decides to go out with his friends again. Now a middle-aged man, he finds he has lost his confidence. Instead of flitting from woman to woman, he is soon spending a lot of money setting up his mistress, Zanuba, in a house boat.

Kamal, definitely a portrait of the writer himself, as I suspected in the last book, is now 17 and in love. He is entranced by Aïda, the sister of one of his school friends, who was raised in Paris. This girl belongs to a relatively aristocratic family, and Kamal seems to have no hope but just wants to worship her.

Yasid, having been divorced by his wife in the first book, now decides to marry Maryam, the girl from next door that his brother Fahmy wanted to marry. Also a terrible womanizer, Yasid only decides to marry her because she won’t sleep with him. His choice causes some family problems. His mother Amina and his sisters have broken with her because they think she slighted Fahmy by becoming acquainted with an English officer after Fahmy’s father refused to let him marry her. They also think Yasin should leave alone the girl Fahmy loved. His father cannot admit that he doesn’t approve because he himself had an affair with Maryam’s mother, Bahija.

So, Yasin must go to ask for Maryam’s hand himself instead of sending a relative. When he does, he complicates matters more by starting an affair with Bahija. At this point, I almost wondered if I was reading a farce except that Mahfouz is so deadpan serious.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked Palace Walk, but I liked Palace of Desire less. For one thing, Mahfouz doesn’t spend much time with Kamal’s sisters, Aisha and Adijah. But frankly, I found Kemal’s obsessions and long internal dialogues tedious. Either he’s rhapsodizing about Aïda, whom he seriously doesn’t want to be a real girl, or he’s philosophizing about some other subject. In Mahfouz’s attempts at realism, he frequently interjects a character’s thoughts into the middle of a conversation to show what the character is really thinking. When overused, this technique slows things down too much. Finally, Kamal’s conversations with his friends seem terribly formal and artificial, and the other characters’ flirtacious and joking comments seem clumsy and crude, but this just might be a cultural difference. I was most bothered by Kamal’s interactions with Aïda. Without saying too much about what happens, I’ll just say that he comes off as a bit of an idiot and a prig.

I still plan to read the third novel, Sugar Street, but I hope to like it better.

The New York Times reviewer comments that Mafouz essentially invented the Egyptian novel form with reference to Arabic poetry. I can see that in some of Kamal’s musings, but I don’t have much patience for it.

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