Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

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Day 1174: Literary Wives! The Blazing World

Cover for The Blazing WorldToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in 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!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

The Blazing World was one of my favorite books of 2015, so I won’t recap my review but instead provide you the link so that you can read my original review. Then I’ll go on with my comments for Literary Wives.

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

Although Harriet is a widow at the beginning of the book, all her actions are centered around her experiences of being first a daughter and then a wife. She has been a good wife, but she has had no support from her art dealer husband for her art. She has sat quietly by and watched him claim credit for her ideas. Fiercely intelligent and original, she has become convinced that as an older woman, she is almost invisible. In fact, her entire focus on the project that she conceives and that drives the plot of the novel is fueled by anger at the paternalism of first her father and then her husband.

Unfortunately, she finds that the art world is paternalistic in just the same way, as she has trouble claiming her own art after conducting her experiment. This is a powerful novel about institutional sexism—particularly the difficulties women still have in being taken seriously in any realm except that of the household, but especially in the creative arts.

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Day 1078: How to Be Both

Cover for How to Be BothI thought How to Be Both was only a bit experimental until I read that the book, which is divided into two related stories, appears in some editions with one story first and in the other editions with the other first. I can see that switching the order of the stories would change the novel quite a bit.

In the version I read, a Renaissance artist watches a boy who is really a girl look at one of the artist’s paintings hundreds of years after the artist has died. The artist follows the girl through a few incidents in her life. As the painter follows her, we learn about the painter’s own life.

I am purposefully not using a pronoun to refer to the artist, because we learn fairly early that the painter is a woman passing as a man to receive art instruction and be able to work as an artist. Only a few people know he is a woman, and he comes down through posterity as a man.

In the second story, a teenage girl named George is grieving the death of her mother. As she copes with her feelings, she remembers conversations between them. Shortly before her death, her mother took George and her brother Henry to Italy just so she could see the work of the painter from the first story.

This novel is about the role of art in our lives, but it is also about finding ourselves and about the relationships between mother and daughter. George’s mother tries to challenge George by presenting her with provocative ideas. Some of these ideas are difficult to grapple with.

Although during the first pages I didn’t think I was going to like this novel, I found both of the stories and the connection between them deeply interesting. This novel is another surprising shortlister (surprising for me, that is) for the Booker Prize that I probably would not otherwise have read. I’m glad I did.

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Day 941: Let Me Tell You about a Man I Knew

Cover for Let Me Tell You About a Man I KnewLet me first get this over with. I have rarely encountered a book title that seems so inappropriate to the actual book. This title, which seems so similar to the opening of a 60’s Ray Charles song, is for a historical novel about a fictional relationship between an ordinary woman and Vincent Van Gogh.

That over with, the book itself is another matter. Susan Fletcher’s Corrag was one of my favorite books a few years ago. Even though I have missed some of her others, I was excited to hear about this one. It did not disappoint.

Jeanne Trabuc is the wife of Charles, who runs the mental asylum in Saint-Rémy. She finds herself in a lonely time of life. Her best friend has left town, and her boys have gone off to lead their own lives. She and her husband sleep separately, and she feels unloved. He has many rules about how the house should be run. She feels separate from the other women in the village, whom she feels gossip too much.

link to NetgalleyThere have been no arrivals at the asylum in years, so Jeanne’s interest is piqued when she hears a Dutch painter is coming. Charles does not allow her near the asylum, but she sees the man in the olive orchard painting and begins talking to him. Slowly, she finds herself wondering how she became what she is, instead of the adventurous girl she was.

This novel is more about Jeanne than Van Gogh, but it is touching and compelling. Jeanne Trabuc and her husband were actual people that Van Gogh painted, but Fletcher tells us that the lives she has created for them within the novel are entirely fictional. This novel is about the silences that can grow between people.

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Day 848: RASL: The Lost Journals of Nikola Tesla

Cover for RASLEvery once in a while, I dabble in graphic novels, without really knowing much about them. I’m not at all interested in the violent or superhero ones that seem to dominate the genre but in the more unusual ones. This volume of RASL pulled me in with its reference to Nikola Tesla. Tesla is one of my husband’s interests, so I picked it up at the library to read together.

Alas, there was no indication on the book that it was part of a series, and it was a little difficult to pick up what was going on. Also, I should have paid more attention to the guy with two blazing guns on the cover.

RASL is an ex-military engineer and art thief whose discovery with his partner of Nikola Tesla’s lost journals has allowed them to create a machine that takes them across parallel universes. RASL has figured out that the work of his previous lab to draw energy from the parallel universes to use in ours will destroy people in all the universes involved. He returns from another universe to find the entire town surrounding one of the labs destroyed and the authorities lying about it being a small accident.

RASL sets out to destroy the labs and Tesla’s notebooks, pursued by the dastardly Agent Crow, who has apparently already killed RASL’s parter, Dr. Miles Riley. RASL is also betrayed by his ex-lover Maya.

The science is unlikely, although the story does give a good background about Tesla (ignoring the fact that he was insane when he died). However, the story devolves into the usual violence.

The art is pretty good, although I didn’t like Smith’s rendition of people’s faces. At least the book isn’t full of rippling muscles and pulchritudinous females.

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Day 758: The Ten Thousand Things

Cover for The Ten Thousand ThingsIn keeping with my goal to read all of the finalists and winners of the Walter Scott Prize, here is my review of the winner for 2015. The Ten Thousand Things is John Spurling’s novel about a turbulent period in Chinese history. It is written from the point of view of Wang Meng, an actual artist of the time, and inspired by Wang’s paintings of the ten thousand things, all of creation.

This novel is related by Wang from his prison cell, where he chooses to tell about his past in the third person. He has been arrested on charges of conspiracy because he accepted an invitation to view the art collection of the disgraced Chancellor Hu.

Wang’s story begins in a mountain retreat when he is already a grown man. He has resigned his minor government post to pursue his art, although strictly as an amateur. This action has disappointed his more ambitious wife, but she is barely a character in the novel.

China is uneasy under the Yuan dynasty, which is dominated by the Mongols. The Chinese upper class resent the fact that the powerful jobs go to Mongols. Taxes are heavy, and men are restricted to following the professions of their fathers. Wang’s own grandfather, General Meng, was controversial because of having decided to support the Yuan government instead of retiring from his government post as many of his peers did. In Wang’s time, revolts are underway under several different war lords and groups of bandits.

When Wang withdraws to his retreat, he has three fateful encounters. He meets Ni on the way there when he is forced to share a room in an inn. Ni is a great artist whose work affects how Wang views his own. Next, when Wang’s cousin Tao asks him to a nearby village to meet a woman he is thinking of marrying, Wang and Tao are just in time to witness a demand from the Red Scarf Bandits that she marry their chief. When her father asks Wang’s advice, he suggests that she choose for herself. She decides to marry the bandit, and soon becomes a bandit queen named the White Tiger. Finally, Wang meets Zhu, a would-be monk from a nearby monastery who asks Wang to take him as his servant. Wang politely explains he can’t afford to and advises him to join the bandits if he wants to learn about the world. Later, Zhu becomes a powerful war lord and then an emperor.

This novel documents the turbulent period of the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty and the establishment of the even more repressive, but Chinese-lead, Ming dynasty under the paranoid Emperor Hongwu. It moves a little slowly and is told in a detached way from the point of view of an artist who attempts to stay away from the seats of power. It also spends a good deal of time describing Wang’s paintings. The novel reflects a sophisticated and intellectual culture, although it certainly concentrates its story in the upper realms of this society.

link to NetgalleyI think it was this detached viewpoint that kept me from enjoying the novel more. The subject matter is interesting, as I know little of Chinese history and have long thought it was a ridiculous bias that we didn’t learn any history of the Far East in school except when it intersected with Western history. Yet most of the characters seem only sketchily drawn, and I didn’t fully engage. The novel is said to illustrate the principles of Daoism, but since my brief reading on that subject left me completely clueless, I did not understand in what way the philosophy is reflected, except perhaps in the perceptions of the narrator.

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Day 732: The Blazing World

Cover for The Blazing WorldBest Book of the Week!
Every once in awhile I read a book that is so remarkable that I doubt my powers to convey it. Such a book is The Blazing World. This novel was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2014, but frankly, I think it is better than the novel that won. It is stunningly filled with ideas about such varying subjects as perception and misogyny in the art world, but it is ultimately the touching story of a flawed but compelling human being.

Harriet Burden is already dead when this novel begins. It is purportedly a book about her life, assembled through interviews, excerpts from her diaries, and art reviews and journal articles.

Our examination of Harriet’s life really starts with the death of her husband Felix. Harriet realizes that she has spent her entire life submerging her identity to please first her father and then Felix. She is a ferociously intelligent, well-read woman who has sat by and let Felix take credit for her ideas. Even more importantly, she is an artist. Although Felix was an art dealer, he never helped her find a market for her art. She has become convinced that no one pays attention to her work because she is an older woman.

Harriet, or Harry, as her friends call her, concocts a project she calls Maskings. She will convince a series of young male artists to present her work as his. Once the work gains the recognition it deserves, she will reveal it to be her own.

This novel is remarkable for the character Hustvedt creates in Harry—intelligent, articulate, caring, and extremely angry. Other characters are also complex and insightfully depicted—her grown children Maisie and Ethan, her lover Bruno, her second mask Phinny who becomes her friend, and even the Thermometer, a mentally ill man whom Harry gives a place to stay.

The novel is also remarkable for its ability to describe Harry’s art so that you can imagine it and understand its power. Some of Harry’s ideas are too abstruse for me—she is much smarter than I am and I couldn’t follow all of them even with Hustvedt’s footnotes. Still, this novel is an accomplished feat of storytelling, intellectual and dazzling.

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