Day 1080: Moonglow

Cover for MoonglowMichael 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.

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Day 1079: Murder in the Dark

Cover for Murder in the DarkOne of our pleasant discoveries since moving is to find that the local PBS station schedules lots more murder mysteries than Austin did, including our favorite, “Midsomer Murders.” On another channel, we also discovered the “Miss Fisher Mysteries,” based on the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood being reissued by Poison Pen Press. When I saw that Netgalley was listing three of the series, I promptly requested them.

Phryne Fisher is a sort of flapper detective in this Australian series set in 1920’s Melbourne. Murder in the Dark is the 16th in the series. For those of you who have been watching the TV series, I have to warn you that this novel bears very little resemblance to the episode of the same name.

Christmas is nearing when Phryne begins to receive threats related to the Last Best Party, a house party given by siblings Gerald and Isabella Templar. Someone does not want Phryne to attend and even sends her a Christmas present of a poisonous snake. Of course, this makes Phyrne determined to attend.

When she speaks to Gerald about it, he admits that someone has sent him death threats. Soon after she arrives at the house, Gerald’s adopted son, Tarquin, disappears, as Isabella’s adopted daughter, Marigold, has already done. Although they thought Marigold had run away, Tarquin seems devoted to Gerald. Phryne also begins a sort of scavenger hunt, as she receives clues, supposedly from the murderer, that each lead to the next.

Phyrne soon finds out from her sources that someone has hired a hit man. Unfortunately, the description of the man is so vague that it could apply to most people.

In the sybaritic atmosphere of the party, Phryne tries to find the clues and locate the hit man before he kills someone. Since the guests include members of the upper classes, polo players, musicians, hashish smokers, the acolytes of the hosts, and even a goat lady, there are a lot of characters roaming about.

This novel was a pleasant enough light reading experience. The culprit wasn’t readily guessable because there was so little information about the plethora of characters. And indeed Greenwood cheats a bit by having, count ’em, three different culprits. I did glancingly guess the identity of the person who hired the hit man but dismissed the idea because it didn’t seem to make sense.

link to NetgalleyOne character who doesn’t appear in the TV series (oops! not until after I wrote this) is Phryne’s lover, an elegant Chinese man named Lin Chung. In this book, at least, he seemed to be completely unnecessary, perhaps only around to make Phryne’s behavior at the party seem more scandalous. But maybe he is more important in some of the other books. In any case, the TV show centers around a flirtation between Phryne and the police inspector, Jack Robinson, that does not seem to be present in the novels. Or maybe I’m talking from too little exposure to Phryne’s world.

Normally, I would avoid mysteries like this that go into great lengths to describe Phryne’s clothes and are too detailed about her love affairs. I have two more to read, so we’ll see how well I can stand it. In any case, these novels are like popcorn, light and fluffy.

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Day 1067: The Boston Girl

Cover for The Boston GirlI keep trying Anita Diamant, hoping to encounter something as good as The Red Tent. So far, however, I have not read anything by her that comes close.

The Boston Girl is about the life of Addie Baum, the child of Jewish immigrants, from her young womanhood in 1915 until she is an old woman in 1985. It is written in the first person, as if Addie is speaking to her granddaughter.

This narrative styles is probably the biggest weakness of the novel. It is not a traditional narrative but one person’s side of a conversation. Although Addie does all the talking, occasionally she addresses her granddaughter directly, and that has a false, jarring effect.

In addition, although the narrative does tell a story, it is broken up more like a series of anecdotes. This style removes most of the tension from the novel, and there is no sense of a narrative arc. There is no climax.

The story deals mostly with Addie’s thirst for knowledge and her desire to accomplish more in her life than working in a factory. She also strives to earn a word of approval from her mother. She could have been an interesting and compelling character, but none of the characters in this novel feel fully formed.

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Day 1066: The Lake District Murder

Cover for The Lake District MurderIf I was thinking ahead, I would have read something for today that commemorated the Norman Invasion, but oh well . . .

The Lake District Murder is John Bude’s first mystery featuring Inspector Meredith. Golden Age mysteries seem to be divided between adventure novels and novels that focus on the puzzle. This one focuses on the puzzle.

A farmer stopping for gasoline finds the gas station owner, Clayton, an apparent suicide, with a mask over his face where he has funneled carbon monoxide from the engine of his car. But Meredith sees discrepancies at the scene. Why would the man have fixed himself a tea but not eaten it before committing suicide? And how could his hands be clean after he affixed the dirty hose?

Moreover, the victim was engaged to be married and had plans to emigrate to Canada with his bride. These plans are ones his partner in the garage, Higgins, claims not to know about.

Meredith’s investigation leads him to surmise that something illegal is going on involving the oil company and a chain of garages. As a result, the book focuses on this problem for most of the time, and it involves examinations of tank trucks, calculations of pumping speed and tank capacity, timetables, and lots of other details that are, frankly, boring.

When the solution comes, both to the illegal activity and the murder, it is so overly complicated that it’s hard to believe anyone would think of it. This is not one of the classic mysteries that I enjoyed. It focuses almost exclusively on the puzzle with little bother toward characterization or other literary elements.

Day 1061: The Baker’s Daughter

Cover for The Baker's DaughterIn the Scottish town of Beilford, the Bullochs are worried about their granddaughter, Sue Pringle. Since her father remarried, Sue has led a tough life with her stepmother. Had she known her grandfather planned to offer her a job in his store, she would not have taken a job as cook for the Darnays to get away from home.

The first morning at work, Sue finds that Mrs. Darnay and her maid have left the house, leaving her alone with Mr. Darnay, an artist. Although for propriety’s sake she should leave him to find an older housekeeper, Sue decides to stay.

Darnay is so wrapped up in his painting that the practicalities of the situation don’t occur to him. He has previously been well paid for his paintings, but since changing his style, he is not making any money. He has a shock when he realizes he owes money in the village and hasn’t paid Sue. To make things worse, his wife has sued for divorce, naming Sue as corespondent, even though she herself created the situation that makes her husband and Sue look bad.

Sue is in love with Darnay but views him as unattainable and above her in class. Once he sends himself off in disgrace, she returns to work for her grandfather. But will she see him again?

It’s interesting to me that the class angle is still such a strong one in 1938, when this novel was written. Stevenson works around it, but this plot point seems even more important than the divorce. In any case, this is a slight but entertaining novel with likable characters.

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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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