Day 1039: The Home-Maker

Cover for The Home-MakerBest Book of the Week!
The Home-Maker, which was published in 1924, was certainly a radical novel for its time. It has themes that resonate even today, although in some ways it is dated.

Evangeline Knapp is one of those super housekeepers whose home is always immaculate. When we first meet her, she has spent hours scrubbing a grease stain on the floor. But she does not love her work, and her unhappiness creates an atmosphere of tension in the house. She continually picks at her children for not meeting her standards, and everyone is afraid to upset her.

Lester Knapp works as an accounting clerk at a department store and hates every minute of it. He is not earning points with the new management for his dreamy demeanor or love of poetry. Although he is a good husband and father, he is perceived by his community as ineffective and a poor provider. Early on, we learn that he did not get a promotion he was hoping for, and his family will continue to be poor.

A terrible incident forces the two Knapps to swap responsibilities after Lester is injured. Lester takes over the household and child-rearing while Evangeline gets a job in the department store. Her new employers are struck by her energy and dedication to her work, while Lester’s patience with the children makes everyone’s temper and health improve. Everyone learns to adjust to a certain level of messiness.

The idea of swapping roles was much more controversial at this time, so much so that the novel is forced into a shocking conclusion. That was the only thing I didn’t like about this novel, which is touching and compassionate in its view of its characters. However, there probably wasn’t a better way to resolve the situation at the time.

This is a fascinating novel for its time, exploring the ideas of roles for the sexes and how well they actually apply, what happens when a person has no challenging life’s work, and so on. The novel’s themes are applicable to today, even if the times would not require such a resolution.

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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 1028: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Cover for Empty MansionsI’ve been sitting here trying to understand what makes Empty Mansions such an interesting book and what drew me to the topic in the first place. I’m still wondering about that, although the topic was interesting enough to make Bill Dedman’s NBC investigative series popular. (I did not see it.) Perhaps the fascination is with abundant wealth, perhaps one with eccentric personalities. Perhaps it is a sort of voyeurism.

Huguette Clark was the youngest daughter of W. A. Clark, the Copper King, a man who for Samuel Clemens, fairly or unfairly, represented the Gilded Age. Although W. A. Clark’s name is not familiar to us like that of John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, he was right up there in terms of wealth.

This book tells the story of his life along with that of his daughter, Huguette. An artistic woman but shy, she gradually removed herself from the public eye. Although she owned several beautiful and palatial homes and apartments, she first became almost a shut-away in her New York apartment and then lived in a small hospital room for the last years of her life. Of further interest is the charge that some of Huguette’s caregivers and employees took advantage of her dependence on them to drain her estate. Her estate is currently involved in a suit between the legatees of her will and 19 of her relatives.

The book, written by Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin who corresponded with Huguette, does a pretty good job of remaining impartial on this point. In any case, I found the story of Huguette’s unusual life to be fascinating.

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Day 1024: Vittoria Cottage

vittoria-cottageVittoria Cottage is a gentle post-war romance with likable characters. Caroline Dering is a widow with three children. She was married at a very young age to a selfish, complaining man many years her senior, and the marriage was not a happy one. Now she is alone with her two teenage daughters, her son James being away in Malaysia.

Caroline meets Mr. Shepperton, a stranger to the village who doesn’t say much about himself. Caroline gets along with him very well, and he begins making himself at home with her family. Everyone likes him but her older daughter, Leda.

Leda, unfortunately, takes after her father. She soon announces her engagement to her childhood friend, Derek. Caroline and Derek’s father both have reservations because of the young people’s ages, but frankly Caroline does not believe they will be happy. Still, she and the admiral agree that the young couple can become engaged, as long as they don’t marry until Derek gets his degree.

But the central romance in the story is between Caroline and Robert Shepperton. Caroline falls in love with him and thinks he is in love with her. But then her sister Harriet arrives for a visit, and Caroline comes to believe he prefers Harriet.

It isn’t often that I develop an affection for a character within a few pages of meeting her, but that was how I felt about Caroline. The other characters are mostly engaging. This is a pleasant and touching little novel about post-war village life.

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Day 1021: Mariana

marianaAt the opening of Mariana, Mary hears that her husband’s ship has struck a mine and that there were many casualties. Her phone is dead and it is nighttime, so she must spend the night convinced her husband is dead. She goes back in her memory to her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood to consider how her life began.

As a young girl, Mary lives for her summer vacations at Charbury, her grandparents’ home, and it is Charbury she first remembers. Charbury means her wonderful room at the top of the house, her pony, and lots of running around with her cousins. In particular, this means Denys, with whom she is infatuated. Dickens’s descriptions of Charbury are delightful.

In the fall, Mary reluctantly returns home to the small flat where she lives with her mother and uncle, a largely unemployed actor. Her father married beneath him, but since his death Mrs. Shannon has insisted on her independence, and the small family struggles along. Certainly, her upbringing is unusual, because her mother and her brother are on the Bohemian side, although certainly affectionate guardians.

This novel follows Mary as she grows up and through her various relationships in her youth. We are pulled along by our interest in her and our curiosity about who she marries rather than by the plot. This novel is romantic without being a romance novel as such. Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens’s great-granddaughter, and she certainly inherited his ability to tell a tale.

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Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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Literary Wives! Day 1005: Mrs. Hemingway

Cover for Mrs. HemingwayToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Although I liked Mrs. Hemingway better than many of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives, I still wasn’t that fond of it. Perhaps my reaction has more to do with my dislike of Hemingway.

Mrs. Hemingway purports to be about each of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives, particularly about the periods when each of them split from Hemingway (or in the case of Mary, when Hemingway died). As it is such a short book, it can’t really deal with their relationships in depth. And, I used the word “purports” advisedly, because this novel shows more insight into Hemingway than into his wives.

In fact, none of the wives seem like a distinctive character except Martha Gellhorn, and she, interestingly, is depicted with the least sympathy. She alone seems serious about her own writing career, even though two of the other wives are also writers, and she alone breaks with Hemingway.

Not that Hemingway actually breaks with anyone. Instead, he manipulates his wives and mistresses into impossible situations without making a decision, until something gives.

This novel did nothing to change my opinion of Hemingway as a loud, macho bully, so overtly masculine as to perhaps reflect an unsureness about his own sexuality. But I’m over-analyzing. An alcoholic, and a person who alternates charming and brutish behavior. In other words, a jerk.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Literary Wives logoIt says, don’t marry Ernest Hemingway. But seriously, I don’t think we see enough of these marriages to understand them. We start out at the end of each one, with flashbacks. But it’s hard to understand what draws these women in. I didn’t really feel the charm as described. What I saw was manipulation, cruelty, and a combination of self-regard and self-hatred. Clearly, Hadley thinks he is unbelievably handsome, which he was when he was young. The others are to a certain extent attracted by his fame.

If we are to believe this book, these marriages consist of swimming, fishing, hunting, and drunken parties. We don’t really see the characters in a day-by-day existence. Maybe we see more with Mary, Hemingway’s last wife, but she is dealing with depression and madness along with the alcoholism. Still, we don’t learn very much about what makes any of these characters tick.

The most we can say is that a wife of Hemingway’s can’t rely on him to be faithful, even when he seems at his most tender. Also, that marriage is a one-way street. Everything is for the benefit of Mr. Hemingway.

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