Day 1128: C

Cover for CC is a novel that is as enigmatic as its title, which I assumed at first was a reference to the main character’s name, Serge Carrefax. But late in the novel we learn that the Egyptians had a symbol that looks like a C, representing life.

The novel follow’s Carrefax’s life from the age of two until he is in his twenties. Serge seems to view objects as intersections of shapes and angles, but we’re told repeatedly that he can’t see or draw perspective. As a child, he has a strong, competitive relationship with his older, brilliant sister, Sophie. After a tragedy, though, he doesn’t seem to care. Although the book blurb says he is haunted by this relationship, I saw little evidence of that.

The Carrefaxes run a school for the deaf and a silk manufactory. Simeon Carrefax is a micromanager of the school while letting his children virtually run wild. Serge’s mother runs the silk factory. Because of this upbringing among deaf children, I suppose, Serge often misunderstands what is said to him.

The novel is not without humor, including some hilarious descriptions of the school’s yearly pageant, which sounds both impressive and ridiculously pompous. However, Serge’s distance from everything lends the novel a kind of heaviness.

The novel moves through Serge’s fascination with messages, an adolescent obsession with the wireless, to his air force work in World War I, and finally ends with a seemingly pointless posting to Egypt. Throughout the novel, there are many unanswered questions.

This was another novel from my Walter Scott Prize list that was also on my Man Booker Prize list. Although I found the novel interesting, I also found it too detached and perplexing, and the main character not that fascinating, to like very much.

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Day 1125: A Gentleman in Moscow

Cover for A Gentleman in MoscowFor some time after I began reading A Gentleman in Moscow, I was bothered by the idea that I was reading Aftermath of the Russian Revolution Lite. Still, I enjoyed the novel and finally decided that the historical background was not really the point.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is living in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when he is summoned to a tribunal. Although he has committed no crime except perhaps one of attitude, the people have no use for aristocrats anymore. He might have been imprisoned or executed except that he is considered one of the heroes of the revolution because of a poem he wrote. So, the Count is sentenced to live in the Metropol. He is not allowed to leave, or he will be shot. Further, when he returns to his luxurious rooms, he finds he is to be relegated to a small room in the belfry.

The Count makes himself as comfortable as he can and continues to live a more restricted version of the life he led before, socializing in the lobby, reading, and meeting with friends. But he begins to be bored. We follow the Count as he slowly changes the purpose of his life, beginning with his friendship with a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova.

This tale of more than 30 years of life in the Metropol, I finally decided, is not meant to be realistic but is a gentle story about the effects of the Count’s gentility on other people and of the Count’s own personal development. There is a villain in the form of a character the Count calls the Bishop, a bad waiter who uses his contacts to become manager of the hotel. Life in the hotel is thus not always roses, but its employees and residents are subject more to inconvenience than to misfortune.

This is not to say that nothing bad happens. Friends are exiled to Siberia or disappear, and a famous poet commits suicide. Still, we are detached by the novel’s playful writing style from anything happening outside the Metropol and even from most of the things happening inside the hotel.

Overall, I was captured by the charm of the novel, but I don’t think it consitutes a very accurate reflection of its time and place. Horrible things were happening in Russia through these years, but to this novel, events are just footnotes and parentheses. And, by the way, the Russians executed lots of heroes of the revolution.

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Day 1123: The Reek of Red Herrings

Cover for The Reek of Red HerringsAlthough I’ve come to prefer Catriona McPherson’s contemporary thrillers, for lighter fare, her Dandy Gilver mysteries are lots of fun. Dandy began her career in 1918 with After the Armistice Ball. Twelve years later, she and her partner Alec Osbourne are more sedate, but not much more.

Dandy and Alec’s newest client wants them to skip the family Christmas to investigate a confidential problem. He is a herring exporter, and several barrels of his herring have been returned containing foreign objects, that is, the pieces of someone’s body. Mr. Birchfield does not want to notify the police, because knowledge of this problem will ruin his business. He wants Dandy and Alec to find out who is missing and what happened.

Because the herring fishermen and the “quines,” the girls who gut the fish, only return home a couple of months a year, they must travel to the fishing village of Gamrie, on the Banffshire coast, over Christmas. Dandy is all too happy to escape a dreary house party.

In Gamrie, the two pose as philologists, supposedly recording the local dialect. The village is an uncomfortable one, with freezing weather and a stark hotel as the only accomodation. The villagers themselves are caught up in the preparations for five marriages. All the brides are pregnant, for the custom is to be handfasted and only marry if the handfasting “takes,” that is, the bride gets pregnant.

There is some concern in the village about the marriages of two of the Mason girls. They are marrying two of the Gow boys, who fished in the same boat with John Gow, their older brother. John Gow went overboard last year, and it is considered unlucky for anyone to marry his shipmates unless they take to different boats. But the Gow brothers are keeping their brother’s boat and marrying the two Mason girls, whose older sister was handfasted to John Gow and who disappeared after his death. This news has Dandy checking with Mr. Birchfield that the corpse is indeed male, but it is.

Dandy and Alec also have the dubious pleasure, suggested by Dandy’s husband Hugh, of going to visit Searle’s Realm of Bounteous Wonder. This display is a series of rooms depicting various scenes made up entirely of stuffed animals, a wonder of taxidermy. The two brothers, Warwick and Durban, are very odd, and the exhibits are appalling.

Dandy and Alec’s investigations turn up no unaccounted for villagers except Nancy Mason, but they eventually hear about several missing strange men, people who came to town but never were seen again. Some of the men were derelicts and one was an artists’ model. At least two claimed to have work. So, Dandy and Alec go from having no potential victims to several. All the while, a terrific storm is threatening.

This novel was interesting, from the perspective of the villagers’ wedding traditions and beliefs. Although I figured out fairly soon something about the missing men, I did not figure out the overall scope, nor the identity of Mr. Pickle, as Alec calls the body. This was a fun, if a bit ghoulish, mystery.

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Day 1122: Lolly Willowes

Cover for Lolly WillowesThe two novels I’ve read by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as different as they can be. The True Heart is a historical novel about a woman who lives through great troubles to be with the man she loves. Lolly Willowes is a feminist novel about a spinster who tires of her life dedicated to her family.

The Willowes family doesn’t go in much for change. They have lived in the same house for years, and even after they move, they bring all their possessions, which are never moved from their set positions. Lolly Willowes grows up loving the countryside around her home, and she is so comfortable with her family that she never considers marriage. When her mother dies, she takes over running the house, and neither she nor her father want her to go.

But when her father dies, her wishes are not consulted. Her older brother Henry is more willing to have her in London than her younger brother at the family home. So, she moves to London to be of service to her family.

Twenty years later, she’s had enough. Without seeing it first, she decides to move to a rural village named Great Mop. Her family is very much against this plan, and it is only then that she finds out her brother has mishandled her money and there is very little left. She can’t have the house and donkey she planned on, but she plans to move, and move she will.

It is after Lolly moves that the novel takes a decidedly eccentric turn. Some readers will appreciate it more than others, and I’m not sure how much I do. I’m also not going to tell you what happens. But the message of the novel, though playfully told, is that women are not just adjuncts to their families, to have their lives plotted out for them just because they’re single. There were plenty of women in Lolly’s position in the 1920’s, when this novel was written, and that is probably the reason that the novel became an unexpected best seller in its time.

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Day 1121: Salt to the Sea

Cover for Salt to the SeaAt the end of World War II, three teenagers are among the refugees fleeing through East Prussia from the Russians. Joanna is a Lithuanian nurse who was patriated into Germany. Emilia is a young Polish girl with no papers. Florian is a Prussian on a mission.

Salt to the Sea follows these three on their flight, as well as Alfred, a Nazi sailor helping ready the Wilhelm Gustloff for its load of refugees. The novel switches among the points of view of these narrators in brief chapters.

And this is one of its fundamental problems. The novel jumps back and forth between narrators, allowing us to really know no one. To add further to that distancing, most other characters are referred to only by their professions or other attributes, even fairly important ones such as the old shoemaker travelling with the group. The result is that we don’t really care about any of the characters.

Further, this novel shares an attribute with much other young adult fiction that I dislike. It is told in first person—in this case four first persons—which is not necessarily a problem. But except for Alfred’s, the narratives are indistinguishable in style and written in short, choppy sentences with simple structure, as if the assumption is made that young adults have no complex thoughts. To make things worse, some of the metaphorical language is excruciating. Witness the following:

And for some reason those words are now caught, like a hair, in the drain of my mind.

Of course, this sentence is from the abhorrent Alfred, but similar excrescences come from the other narratives.

Finally, the chopped up narrative style so slows down the action at the end of the book that, combined with the distance we feel from the characters, it makes the climax of the novel actually boring. And really (spoiler), when a torpedo hits the ship, the only description Sepetys can think of is “Bang!” repeated four times?

The evacuation of the refugees and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff make an important story, but sadly Sepetys is not the writer to tell it.

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Day 1119: Northbridge Rectory

Cover for Northbridge RectoryEclipse day! We are not in the path of totality here,
but we are at about 97%. We thought about driving down into Oregon, but since the state is supposed to have more than a million extra people coming for the eclipse, we decided to stay home. I hope you have a nice view!

* * *

Northbridge Rectory is another of Angela Thirkell’s delightful Barsetshire books. I have been making no effort to read them in order, and this one is set during World War II.

The Villarses moved to Barsetshire only a year ago when Mr. Villars was appointed Rector. Mr. Villars formerly had a career as a headmaster of a boys’ school, and Mrs. Villars feels somewhat inadequate in her new role as rector’s wife.

The Villarses expected the rectory to receive its quota of refugees from London, but instead eight officers of the Barsetshire regiment have been quartered there. The Villarses particularly enjoy the company of Mr. Holden, who is managing some of his work as a publisher’s associate along with his military duties. Mr. Holden has become attached to Mrs. Villars and is constantly wearing her out by telling her she looks tired.

Although Northbridge Rectory is mostly from Mrs. Villars’s point of view, it also deals with two poverty-stricken scholars who share a house. Mr. Downing is a middle-aged man working on an abstruse book about medieval Provençal literature. His hostess, Miss Pemberton, is an older lady working on a monograph about the work of an Italian Renaissance artist. Miss Pemberton spends a lot of time keeping spinsters away from Mr. Downing. Mr. Downing, however, soon begins to feel very comfortable visiting the widowed Mrs. Turner and her bouncing teenage nieces.

Wartime brings everyone among unaccustomed people and activities, as when a watch from the church tower is proposed to look for parachutists. The Villarses spend an excruciating weekend entertaining an unexpected guest who will not stop talking, Mrs. Spender, the wife of Major Spender. Other entertaining characters include the couple of spinsters who so loved living in France that they throw mispronounced and misused French into every conversation.

Thirkell’s books are always funny, with a gentle humor that pokes fun without making anyone entirely unlikable. She has an unusual style of narration that breaks out to address readers directly, as if she is having a private conversation with us, usually just before a zinger.

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Day 1116: Greengates

Cover for GreengatesBest Biweekly Book!
I knew that Greengates was about a retired couple, but I didn’t know it would strike home with me in several ways. Although it was written in the 1930’s, it has some universal themes.

Tom Baldwin has his last day at work, retiring from an insurance company where he has worked for 30 years. On his way home, he wonders what he will do with his time, but he decides he will have another career in history and work on his garden.

So, he arrives home full of plans, but within a few days, he realizes his plans were overly optimistic. He doesn’t have the background, even, to understand the history books he has, and his plans for the garden are thwarted because of poor soil and a lack of light.

Further, his wife, Edith, had not reckoned on the disruption to her life. He may be retired, but she still has to keep the house. He continually disrupts her routines. As he begins feeling more useless, he questions her comings and goings. For the first time, they begin to argue.

One day Edith remembers how they used to enjoy a walk to the country on autumn weekends. They would take the train out and then walk to the beautiful Welden Valley. She suggests to Tom that they go, and he reluctantly agrees. Little do they know that the walk will change the rest of their lives.

Although I have not so far experienced a loss of purpose since I retired, the activities I’ve been focusing on parallel those that finally give the Baldwins a renewed set of goals. So, that is what chimed with me.

But I think almost anyone could sympathize with the plight of this couple. Even though some of the details are dated, their problems still exist. Tom has spent most of his professional life involved in activities related to work, even to the company sports team. Now he has to find something else to occupy his time, and Edith has to find a way to cope with their altered life patterns.

This was another fine novel from Persephone Press. I really enjoyed it.

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