Day 1074: Pure

Cover for PureThe subject matter of Pure is unusual, and at times the events within the novel seem almost dreamlike in nature. It is an imaginative novel that evokes a real sense of place and period.

In pre-revolutionary France, Jean-Baptiste Baratte awaits a minister in Versailles to ask for employment. He is a young engineer and is hopeful to be given an interesting project.

He does get a job, but he is disappointed in its nature. The cemetery of les Innocents in Paris is so stuffed with remains that the nearby neighborhoods are being polluted. Jean-Baptiste is to oversee the removal of the remains and eventually the church. For the sake of discretion, he is not supposed to reveal his mission until he must.

The novel follows the provincial Jean-Baptiste for a year as he explores Paris and pursues his project. It conveys a strong sense of the city and of the effect of the cemetery on nearby residents.

This is another novel that I probably wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been on my Walter Scott prize list. It is an interesting novel, reminding me a bit of Viper Wine.

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Day 1049: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Cover for Lafayette in the Somewhat United StatesIt was interesting to contrast Lafayette in the Somewhat United States with the other book about the American revolution I read recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition. While Valiant Ambition concentrated on what made Benedict Arnold a traitor, this book focuses on the French contribution to the war, embodied particularly by the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Marquis himself
The Marquis himself

In some ways, both books cover the same ground, particularly the woeful state of the Continental army. Several times, infusions of cash from the French saved it from utter ruin. But the writing style and the intent of these books are different. Vowell’s book is written in an informal, sprightly style with many references to current popular culture. Also, Lafayette’s impetuous, affectionate character comes through strongly.

This book is a slightly quirky homage to Lafayette’s contribution to our country, featuring side-trips to various battlefields and landmarks as well as a cogent, irreverent discussion of the events. It is a fun read.

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Day 1034: Ulverton

Cover for UlvertonBest Book of the Week!
We’re now more familiar with novels written as related short stories, but Ulverton was written in 1992 and may be the first novel of this kind. The novel covers 300 years of English history and is set in one place, the fictional village of Ulverton. Other hallmarks of this unusual novel are that each chapter is written in a distinctly different voice and the chapters are written in different formats, from a tale told in an inn to the captions from a photographic display to the script of a documentary.

In 1650, the novel opens with the return of Gabby Cobbold from the Cromwellian wars. He meets the narrator, a shepherd named William, on his way home, but William does not have the courage to tell him that his wife, Anne, thinking he was dead, has remarried Thomas Walters. Gabby explains that he was away earning money to support the farm. Gabby disappears, and William is sure that Thomas and Anne killed him. But three hundred years later, Gabby gets his own back against a descendent of Thomas.

In 1689, the foolish Reverend Brazier tells the story of a strange night out on the downs, when he, William Scablehorne, and Simon Kistle were making their way through a snowstorm. As related in his sermon, they were apparently attacked by the devil and Mr. Kistle went mad.

Diary entries made in 1717 reveal a farmer’s preoccupation with improvements to his property and begetting an heir. Since his wife is ill, he does not touch her but begins trying to impregnate the maid.

In 1743, Mrs. Chalmers writes letters to her lover while shut away after childbed. Apparently having read her letters, her husband gets his doctor to keep her isolated longer.

And so it goes, stopping in about every 30 years, so that we sometimes hear of characters again. Through time, names are repeated and the story of incidents changes.

On occasion I had problems with the vernacular, although I tried to stick with it. The most difficult stories for me were the 1775 letters of Sarah Shail to her son and one side of the 1887 conversation between a man plowing and two boys. Sarah Shail is illiterate and is dictating her letters to John Pounds. However, this chapter has its own humor as Sarah is writing to her son Francis, who apparently answers her abusively, to the indignation of Pounds, who begins adding threats to the letters. Pounds’ spelling is so bad, though, that the letters are sometimes incomprehensible. In the case of the plowman, his dialect is so thick that I kept rereading parts of it but was unable to understand very much.

This was just one chapter, though. Overall, I found this novel deeply original and interesting. The countryside is so integral to the story that it features almost as a character. The writing is lovely, and the novel contains a great deal of drama and humor.

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Day 1010: The Antiquary

Cover for The AntiquaryThe Antiquary was considered Scott’s gothic novel, but I felt it was more a romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The only gothic elements involve trickery and a ruined abbey. This novel was Scott’s favorite, as well. It is not mine, but it does have a good deal of humor.

The antiquary is Mr. Oldbuck, loquacious to a fault, a man who likes to lecture others on the history of every object that he sees and every subject in conversation. He befriends a young man he meets on a journey, Mr. Lovel, who arrives in the area on undisclosed business.

Mr. Oldbuck has a friend, Sir Arthur Wardour. Sir Arthur handles his money poorly and is in the thrall of a German conman, Herr Dousterswivel, who is trying to further deplete him. Mr. Lovel has formerly met Miss Wardour and proposed to her, but she has turned him down because of his lack of birth.

There are several plot lines in The Antiquary—the machinations of the German, the state of Mr. Lovel’s romance, and a terrible secret of the house of Glenallen that begins to emerge upon the death of the countess.

The dialogue for this novel is in Scottish dialect except for the well-born characters, and there is a good deal of humor around the characters of Mr. Oldbuck and of the rustics.  A beggar named Edie Ochiltree acts as a deux ex machina so often that I began to think the novel should have been called The Beggar. I enjoyed this novel, just not as much as I  have some others of Scott’s.

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Day 991: The Angry Tide

angry-tideAt the beginning of The Angry Tide, the seventh novel in the Poldark saga, Ross Poldark is taking his place for his first term in Parliament. George Warleggan is so jealous about what he sees as having his seat stolen that he is buying property so that he can represent a pocket borough, a borough with few or no inhabitants. What is more serious to Ross, though, is that the Warleggans are again plotting to bring down Pascoe’s bank.

When the threat comes to Pascoes, Demelza is left to deal with it, as Ross is away in London. She does what she thinks Ross would do, which is to try to support Ross’s friend Pascoe.

While the Poldark’s marriage is still shadowed by Ross’s knowledge that Demelza was unfaithful to him, the Warleggans are getting along better. George has finally accepted the idea that Valentine is his own child.

Poor Morwenna Whitworth feels herself to be close to losing her mind. Although her husband Ossie has been told that having another child could kill Morwenna, he begins insisting on his marital rights again. But twice a week isn’t enough for him, so he begins a dangerous liaison. Soon, he gets what he deserves.

This novel is another worthy continuation of the Poldark series. Although I don’t always like the directions Graham takes, the story is always interesting.

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Day 980: Guy Mannering

Cover for Guy ManneringGuy Mannering is the second of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, set in Scotland and featuring Scottish dialect and folklore. It is a romping adventure, with smugglers, hidden caves, a kidnapped child, a gypsy queen, a hidden identity, and murder.

The novel begins in the 1760’s with a visit by Mannering as a young man to Ellangowan, an estate on the southwest cost of Scotland. Mannering arrives there on a rambling tour in time for the birth of Harry Bertram, the son of the Laird of Ellangowan. Mannering is an amateur astrologer, and he casts the baby’s horoscope, revealing that he will encounter dangers at the ages of 5 and 21. Then Mannering disappears from the story for 21 years.

The tragedy of the household occurs when Harry is five. He disappears after being the inadvertent witness to the murder of a customs officer. The family assumes he has been murdered. His foolish father being overwrought by grief, the estate is plundered by his agent Glossin, and Bertram is bankrupted.

Mannering comes back on the scene after many years as an army officer in India. He arrives in time to witness the sale of the Bertram estate to Glossin. It cannot be saved from its debtors without a male heir, and there is only Lucy Bertram, born the day her brother disappeared. In his fury at Glossin, Bertram has a fit and dies, leaving Lucy without home or money. Since Mannering’s daughter will be joining him in a nearby manor, he offers Lucy a home.

Mannering has his own troubles with his daughter Julia. In India, he had reason to believe that a young officer, Vanbeest Brown, was courting his wife, so he challenged him to a duel and wounded him. But Brown was actually courting Mannering’s daughter, and her guardian has caught her meeting secretly with him. Mannering summons Julia to join him, but Brown soon follows.

It is when Brown arrives in the locality that the plot heats up, for he begins finding things familiar, and he meets a mysterious gypsy woman named Meg Merrilies who makes some mysterious pronouncements. Of course, it soon obvious that Brown is the long-lost heir to Ellangowan. But he has the enmity of local villains, who are afraid he can accuse them of murder and malfeasance against him, as well as circumstances that appear to convict him of a crime. Moreover, he doesn’t know who he is, and once he knows, how will he prove it?

This is an entertaining adventure novel about the wild borderlands of Scotland. It has some fine villains, upright heroes, and an amusing couple of comic characters, one being the farmer Dandy Dinmont, a terrier breeder, whose name has since been taken for a breed of terriers.

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Day 970: The Four Swans

Cover for The Four SwansThe sixth book in the Poldark series finds George Warleggan unable to dismiss the allegations that Aunt Agatha made about his son Valentine’s parentage before she died. He has been treating the baby Valentine with some distance and has been having Elizabeth followed. But he finds no evidence in support of his suspicions.

Ross Poldark has been offered a seat in Parliament, but he refuses to run, thinking that such a job will not suit his disposition. He is not happy to learn, however, that George Warleggan gets the position instead.

Demelza hears of a meeting between Ross and Elizabeth Warleggan, so she fears that Ross may be seeing Elizabeth again. When a young naval officer that Ross rescued from prison in France is attracted to her, Demelza is in the mood to pay him more heed than she ordinarily would be.

The economy is shaky during the wars with France. At first, the French seem to be foundering, but then everyone begins hearing of the victories of a new general, Bonaparte. Ross becomes impatient of having no more role to play than as leader of a group of Volunteers.

With the latest two novels, the scope is branching out to include more characters. This novel goes into the fate of Elizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna, who George Warleggan forced into an unhappy marriage when she fell in love with Demelza’s brother, Drake Carne. Morwenna’s repellent husband, Reverend Osborne Whitworth, has used the excuse of Morwenna’s illness after the birth of her child to molest her younger sister Rowella, who is the children’s nursemaid. We also hear more about the difficulties of the Carne brothers.

After six books, this series has not palled. From a mildly interesting start, it gets more and more compelling as it goes on. I have already bought the other six novels in the series.

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