Day 1177: Song of a Captive Bird

Cover for Song of a Captive BirdI have this little quirk. I’ll pick out a book, but when I actually get around to reading it, I don’t look at the blurb to remind myself what it is about. If I’d done that, I would have known that Song of a Captive Bird is about an actual person, and that knowledge may have affected my reaction to it. On the other hand, a novel should stand or fall on its own merits, not because of what you know or don’t know about it before you begin reading it.

In the 1950’s and 60’s Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad is having a difficult time with the strictures of her culture. She wants to be a poet, but the role of women in her country is still only that of a wife and mother. She has always been a difficult child, and as a young woman, her first act of rebellion is in trying to select a husband for herself. She chooses her cousin Parvez because of a shared interest in poetry.

She marries Parvez but at the cost of losing the regard of her father, a powerful general under the Shah. But marriage isn’t what she expected. Instead of staying in Tehran, her husband takes her home to his small village where they live with his disapproving mother. In the village, her every action is scrutinized.

link to NetgalleyThe novel follows Forugh as she pursues her career as a poet and later a film director despite being slandered, attacked, and viewed as a prostitute by most of Iranian society. It is interesting in its evocation of this time and culture, especially the details of everyday life and the build-up to the Iranian revolution. However, something was missing for me. The novel did not seem particularly successful as an inspiring and moving story of one woman’s courage.

I think my reaction was because of Darznik’s choice to write this novel in first person. There was something about that perspective that didn’t work, particularly at the end of the novel. Although I think I would have ordinarily been touched by this woman’s story—she was certainly gifted and courageous—something about the novel kept me from getting fully involved.

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Day 1168: Hodd

Cover for HoddI was never one for the romantic legends of Robin Hood. I always thought that, if he did exist, he was probably just the leader of a gang of thugs. And such, apparently, is indicated by the older ballads about him. In Hodd, Adam Thorpe weaves a story of the man that is closer to that told by the older ballads.

This novel is all about the manuscript, as the text of Hodd is supposedly the find of a medieval manuscript, written by a 13th century monk. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is writing the story of his youth. The novel includes scholarly notes from its translator and comments by its discoverer, a soldier in World War I. Some of these notes are funny, and some, I think, are meant to be parodic.

The narrator is about 14 when he is traveling with his master, a monk named Thomas, to Nottingham. They are held up by Hodd’s men and the narrator’s harp is stolen. He decides to go back and get it and is captured by Robert Hodd and his men.

Hodd is actually a sort of lunatic cult leader, who believes that there is no sin and that he is better than God. His followers believe him. He keeps himself intoxicated and has constant visions. He and his men are utterly ruthless and cruel. But rather than killing the narrator, Hodd decides to keep him as one of his men. He is a musician, and he can write songs about Hodd.

The narrator tells a parallel story of his education and upbringing by a holy hermit. This story continues throughout the book and comes in strongly at the end.

I think Thorpe realistically imagines the workings of the medieval mind, showing us strange beliefs. As such, this is a very unusual novel. I could have done without some of the religious moralizing, which filled the novel, as it would a medieval manuscript.

If you are a reader who needs a character to like, this is probably not the book for you, for even the relatively innocent narrator is perfidious. He so much wants to be loved that his jealousy turns him against people.

This is another interesting book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1158: Mrs. Engels

Cover for Mrs. EngelsBest of Five!
Lately, I’ve realized that the novels I enjoy most have a strong narrative voice or sense of character. Mrs. Engels, the debut novel of Irish writer Gavin McCrea, is one of these. I had the fortune to read it as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project.

Lizzie Burns is the Irish mistress of Frederick Engels, long accepted as Mrs. Engels. She has a lot to put up with. Although Engels supports Karl Marx’s entire household, liberally, so that Marx can work on his book, he is very careful about what is spent on his own household. Further, Lizzy suspects him of yearning for her sister, Mary, who was his mistress before she died. And Lizzy is aware that Frederick is not faithful. Finally, he is completely devoted to a Communist revolution, so he often opens the house to his comrades or sends Lizzy on errands for the cause.

Mrs. Engels is a vivid imagining of Lizzy’s life, beginning in 1870 and looking backward to the past. A poor worker in Engels’s cloth mill, she leads a penurious life until Mary takes up with Frederick Engels. She becomes involved with the Fenian movement through her lover, Moss Óg. All in all, she’s a strong presence, funny and putting up with no nonsense. As she becomes more involved with the Marx family after she and Engels move to London, she begins to learn more about Frederick and what he will do for the cause, which to him means Marx.

This novel is beguiling, drawing me, at least, into a topic that I wasn’t much interested in. It tells Lizzy’s story with wit and creates a wonderfully realized setting and character.

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Day 1154: Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie

Cover for AgathaI occasionally read a graphic novel, but I am not at all attracted to the superhero kind. Although they generally have very polished illustrations, I don’t find them imaginative and am more attracted to unusual subjects.

Agatha is a biography in graphic novel form of Agatha Christie. It begins with her mysterious disappearance of 1926, something that has never been fully explained. (I confess, I prefer the Dr. Who explanation, in which she was off with the doctor fighting a giant alien wasp.) Then it covers the major events of her life from a girl. To add a touch of whimsy, her major detective characters appear occasionally to talk with her.

I’ve noticed that some graphic novels use the illustrations to tell parts of the story, while others depend heavily on the text. This novel is one of the latter. I would also comment that the illustrations are more workmanlike than beautiful. But they are interesting, colorful, and convey the story.

It’s difficult for me to rate a graphic novel as a book. This one, for example, makes no effort to build up to a climax as fiction would. It is more like a biography without the depth and without the effort to be accurate about details of the times. For example, when Christie is a nurse during World War I, they have her introducing herself to the patients, something that would not have been allowed.

All in all, I appreciate the subject matter, but I have been more impressed by some other graphic novels in terms of beauty of artwork and effectiveness of story line. So far, Hannah Berry is my favorite.

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Day 1046: The Whale: A Love Story

Cover for The WhaleIt seems as if I’ve read several novels lately where Herman Melville is a character or Moby Dick a theme. Such is the case with The Whale, a story about the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The novel begins with a literary outing. Melville is invited along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and others by Melville’s editor while Melville is vacationing in the Berkshires. The reclusive writer Hawthorne is also of the party, and Melville falls in love with him at first sight.

Melville is also dealing with Moby Dick. He is supposed to be nearly finished with it, but he is unsatisfied with the ending. His philosophical and literary discussions with Hawthorne inspire him to massive rewrites. In a way, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale represents Melville’s pursuit of a meaningful relationship with Hawthorne.

For, there is a mutual spark, but as a friend, Jeannie Field, tells Melville, Hawthorne is a Puritan. While Melville tries to get Hawthorne not to deny his true feelings, Hawthorne is determined to avoid an entanglement. Yet, he gives Melville a certain amount of encouragement.

Although I enjoyed this novel very much, I felt it was a little too modern in this regard. I couldn’t imagine a man in the mid-19th century trying to convince another man not to deny these feelings and being so obvious as Melville was at times. At this time and place, Melville would have been trying to hide it. I also have no idea what basis in reality this story has, although the author cites affectionate letters between the two. I was not sure whether Beauregard was aware that at this time men expressed themselves more affectionately than they do now. It’s fiction, though, which does not require any basis in reality.

Still, with language sometimes echoing that of Moby Dick, with really exceptional dialogue, with a fully realized Melville in all his self-absorption, this novel was really a treat to read.

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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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Day 1003: Classics Club Spin! Look at the Harlequins!

Cover for Look at the HarlequinsI was supposed to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada for the latest Classics Club spin, but after attempting to read it, I substituted Look at the Harlequins!, the last novel published before Nabokov’s death. Sometimes I encounter a novel that really makes me feel stupid, or perhaps intellectually lazy, and such was the case with Ada. It was so full of literary allusions and wordplay that I felt I didn’t know what was going on half the time. In addition, it focuses on some of the same themes as Lolita, and while I found Lolita fascinating, the delights of prepubescent girls are not really what I want to read about.

Look at the Harlequins! is a more straightforward fictional autobiography. Many critics consider it a parodic biography, in which Nabokov twists the events of his life to make them meet public expectations of his character. For example, his family’s exit from Russia after the Revolution was relatively uneventful, while Nabokov has his alter ego, V. V., shoot a Red soldier on the way out. Similarly, although in life Nabokov was monogamous, he gives V. V. four wives and a salacious extra-marital career.

His literary career, however, is reflected in the novel, as is, to some extent, his academic career. I believe he transfers events involving his wife Véra to characters such as his fictional daughter Bel and a briefly mentioned assistant. In any event, he addresses his novel to an unnamed “you,” who we may assume is Véra’s alter ego.

We still don’t avoid the theme of prepubescent girls, though, as V. V. fondles an 11-year-old daughter of friends (whom he has an affair with when she is in her 20’s and he is in his 70’s), has such a questionable relationship with his daughter Bel that friends advise him to send her away to school (he fatefully decides to remarry instead), and ultimately marries a woman his daughter’s age. Obviously, this sexual focus on girls was a motif for Nabokov, but I find it disturbing.

It’s hard to evaluate this novel on a literary level. It has none of the beautiful language of Lolita. It is told in a facetious manner and focuses several times on what the narrator considers a mental aberration. Each time we have to endure a description of the problem, which actually seems like a silly one that obsesses the narrator more than it should. V. V. opens the subject each time he decides to marry but describes the problem over and over. I’m not sure what the point of it was.

Because of its facetious tone, however, the novel lacks highs and lows. Instead, it is full of puzzles, anagrams, and self-references. It is entertaining enough but ultimately unsatisfying.

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