Review 1476: Immortal Wife

Irving Stone was extremely popular in the mid-20th century for mostly biographical fiction. His most famous novels are The Agony and the Ecstacy about Michelangelo and Lust for Life about Vincent Van Gogh. Immortal Wife is his second book, about the life of Jessie Benton Fremont, the wife of explorer John C. Fremont.

Jessie Fremont certainly had an exciting life, even though a lot of her time was spent waiting. She was actively involved in her husband’s professional life. The work she did of helping her father write his reports when she was unmarried, she continued with the reports Fremont submitted after his explorations. She lived on an Indian reservation during his second expedition. She was one of the first white women to travel to San Francisco via a trek across Panama. She lived in untamed San Francisco and later Mariposa during the lawless days of the Gold Rush. When Fremont lost a fortune through unwise partnerships, she supported the family by writing stories.

Fremont was a controversial figure, and Jessie was partly to blame for a lot of the controversy. Upon his first command, she prevented him from receiving orders that would have made him turn back, and he was courtmartialed later partially because of this incident. Her advice resulted in more than one incident like this. Partially because of an attitude that the couple knew best, their fortunes underwent many ups and downs. Jessie was quite interfering in her attempts to help her husband, and they made many enemies.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Part of my problem with it wasn’t fair, because I don’t believe in judging a book out of its time. But it was so accepting of Manifest Destiny, the right of the United States to the lands of the west. Fremont essentially starts a war as an excuse to steal California from Mexico, stating that Mexico wasn’t doing anything with it. Comments after an expedition that he had stood on top of a mountain in the Wind River region where no one stood before obviously meant no white men. This kind of thing grated on me for the first quarter of the novel.

On the positive side, the novel is interesting and well researched. On the negative side, at 400 dense pages, it is a bit longer than it needs to be through many episodes of Jessie’s heart-rendings about her marriage. Finally, although Stone clearly meant Jessie to be a sympathetic character, I didn’t like her much.

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Review 1463: This Must Be the Place

Daniel Sullivan is about to leave Ireland for a business trip when he catches a segment of a radio broadcast more than 20 years old. He hears the voice of Nicola Janks, his old girlfriend. When he learns she died in 1986, the year he last saw her, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, fearing he was responsible for her death.

Unfortunately, he is unable to explain this concern to his wife, Claudette. Instead, she hears from his family about his erratic behavior. He is supposed to visit his 90-year-old father in Brooklyn but stays only a few minutes before abruptly leaving to visit his children from his first marriage.

These are the first events in a series that will change his life. But O’Farrell is interested in more than these events. In chapters ranging back and forth over 30 years and switching point of view among the characters, she tells about the lives of many of them, of Claudette, the reclusive ex-movie star; of Daniel; of Daniel’s children and Claudette’s children; of Daniel’s mother; even of some of the novel’s secondary characters.

I came late to O’Farrell and so far have only read two books by her, but I’ve enjoyed them immensely. She catches you with her complex plots but keeps you with her characterizations.

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Review 1452: The Library Book

The Library Book is part history, part biography, part true crime, and part journalism. It centers on the Los Angeles Central Library, an architecturally renowned building that famously burned in 1986, becoming the largest library fire in the history of the United States.

Orlean begins with her own impetus for wanting to write about libraries, her memories of library trips with her mother when she was young. Then she starts meandering through the history of the L. A. library, intermingling her chapters about that and some of its significant librarians with chapters about her experiences and findings during her interviews and visits. Yet, all of this hangs together with the story of the alleged arsonist of the library and stories about the fire and the rebuilding of the library.

This is a fascinating book that resonates with my love of libraries. Not only does it look to the past of this great library, but it examines the future of all libraries and how they are working to address the problems and opportunities that they see.

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Review 1418: Sister Noon

I found the first two books I read by Karen Joy Fowler slight, but then she blew me away with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. So, I thought I’d give Sister Noon a chance.

In 1890’s San Francisco, Lizzie Hayes is a spinster who spends her time doing good works. In particular, she is treasurer for the Ladies Relief and Protection Society, or the Brown Ark, a home that takes in orphaned children or children whose parents can’t keep them. To Lizzie comes the notorious Mary Ellen Pleasant, a woman about whom there are many rumors. She brings Lizzie a child, Jenny Hijab, who needs shelter.

After Lizzy calls on Mrs. Pleasant in the House of Mystery to report on Jenny, her friends go to great lengths to warn her about the acquaintance. Lizzy is fascinated by this household, where Mrs. Pleasant seems to be in charge of Mrs. Bell’s house even though Mr. Bell was previously her lover, and Mr. Bell is never present. Mrs. Bell has told her some bizarre stories but not more bizarre than the ones she’s already heard. Actually, although Lizzie is not inclined to pursue the acquaintance, she finds there are things she needs to know.

This novel moves back and forth in time to tell its stories about the wild days of early San Francisco, but this doesn’t help with the lack of focus I felt when reading the book. I found myself losing patience as it slowly meandered to its point. It finally begins getting somewhere about 20 pages from the end. Normally, a book that develops slowly doesn’t bother me, but this one made me impatient. I think this was because I wasn’t that interested in the characters.

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Review 1353: There There

Cover for There ThereThere There is about the life of urban Native Americans. Set in Oakland, it follows numerous characters who plan to attend a powwow. However, we know from the beginning of the novel that some men are planning to rob the powwow.

The novel begins with a Prologue about depictions of Native Americans in popular culture. Then we meet Tony Loneman, a low-level drug dealer who is being compelled by his contacts to help them rob the powwow. Tony was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, so his thinking processes are not great, but when he puts on his regalia to attend the powwow, he sees a dancer in the mirror.

Dene Oxendene makes a presentation to a grant committee to get funding for a project to record the stories of Oakland Native Americans. The powwow is a good place to find them, and it’s not hard to image that Dene is Orange himself.

Next, we meet Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield as a child in the late sixties, taken by her mother to occupy Alcatraz. With her is her sister Jacquie Red Feather, who is raped by a boy named Harvey. In the present day, Opal doesn’t plan to attend the powwow until she learns that her great nephew, Orvil Red Feather, plans to dance. Ultimately, Opal’s entire family, including Jacquie and Jacquie’s children, ends up at the powwow.

Another important character is Edwin Black, a young man who has spent his time since college trolling the internet and gaining weight. When he finds out that his father, Harvey, is a powwow emcee, he gets a job helping organize the powwow.

Although this novel is an angry one, it at least has a hopeful ending. However, it was marred for me by the promise of violence. Of course, that was the way to lend it suspense, but I had the same reaction to it as I did as soon as I saw the gun in Thelma and Louise. Although these people have a tough life, there isn’t any gun violence in it (although there is domestic violence) except for this plot device. I wish Orange had found a different way to hold his stories together.

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Review 1325: Exit West

Cover for Exit WestIt’s difficult to describe Exit West. Part embedded in a slightly futurist reality, a small part speculative, part romantic, the novel is mostly a parable. Those of you who know me, know I don’t really like parables and I seldom appreciate magical realism, so this probably wasn’t the best choice for me, but I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

Saeed meets Nadia in class as their unnamed city succumbs to war. They secretly see each other while a war goes on between religious fundamentalists and the government. As the situation deteriorates, Saeed’s mother is killed.

Saeed and Nadia hear rumors about doorways that can take refugees to other parts of the world, and we take a few side trips from their stories to witness people emerging in other countries. In some countries, the doors are guarded to keep the refugees safe. In others, the governments are trying to keep refugees out.

Saeed and Nadia decide to leave, but they cannot convince Saeed’s father to go with them. They eventually go, emerging first in Mykonos, where they live in a refugee camp, then in London, and finally in Marin County. Everywhere they go, they join swarms of refugees.

Hamid isn’t as interested in the grueling journeys of refugees as he is in the psychological effects of their journeys. Quiet, reflective Saeed has more difficulty adjusting than does the more adventurous Nadia.

Because this is more of a parable, though, the two main characters are mostly ciphers. We don’t really get to know them or care that much about them. Hamid’s lightning glimpses of other people’s lives open up the novel a little bit. It’s a technique similar to that used by David Mitchell, but in this novel it doesn’t work as well. Sometimes these glimpses seem to have little point, although most of them are linked to the doorways.

Aside from the timeliness of this novel (which I’m guessing is what has made it so popular especially with predictions about climate refugees to add to our current economic refugees and those fleeing violence), this novel was interesting but not altogether successful.

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Day 1295: Scot Free

Cover for Scot FreeI’ve read almost all Catriona McPherson’s books, which up to now have fallen into two categories—her historical mystery series set in post-World War I Scotland and England featuring Dandy Gilver and her stand-alone present-day cozy thrillers, set mostly in Scotland. Scot Free is the first in a new series, the Last Ditch mysteries, featuring Lexy Campbell and set in California.

Lexy is waiting to have her last meeting with clients before she returns to Scotland. Her marriage to an American dentist has turned out to be a big mistake. She is waiting at her office for the Bombaros, who hired her as a marriage counselor to help them keep their divorce amicable. After she helps them with divorce papers, she’ll be off.

But the police arrive to question her. Mr. Bombaro is dead, having been murdered with fireworks. Elderly Vi Bombaro is the chief suspect, and Lexie is suspected of being her accomplice.

Lexie can’t believe Vi is guilty, and she is even more sure of that when Vi’s niece Sparky shows up with her new husband and a couple of thuggish business associates, and they begin taking over Mr. Bombaro’s fireworks manufacturing business. So, she decides to investigate.

Lexie has her own problems, however. She is currently homeless, and her clothes are locked in her office, the pass for which has expired. So, she checks into the Last Ditch motel and into the realm of a collection of colorful characters.

Scot Free is a funny, enjoyable novel even though McPherson signaled a little too obviously the identity of the murderer. I am a little worried, though, about the change of locale. If McPherson decided to move to the United States to appeal more to American audiences, I have to say that much more appealing to me are her Scottish settings, especially the atmospheric ones of her thrillers. The Scottish fish out of water theme can be funny, but I can imagine it getting old quickly, along with the cast of eccentric characters at the Last Ditch. For one thing, Lexie makes a lot of generalizations about Americans based on the Californians she meets, and we all know that Californians aren’t that representative of average Americans. Also, she gets at least one thing wrong. The American cop catches her in a lie because she claims that someone says “I’ve got . . . ” instead of “I have . . .” I believe that most people I know are just as likely to say it one way as the other. I noticed a few other small problems as well.

These are not very big criticisms. I just hope that McPherson doesn’t drop her moody present-day stand-alones for this series, because they are my favorite.

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Day 1096: Lockdown

Cover for LockdownAlthough King is best known for her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it is her stand-alone thrillers that have really appealed to me. I think her Folly is one of the best of its genre. However, if Lockdown hadn’t been written by Laurie R. King, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read it. The subject, a violent incident at a middle school, wouldn’t normally appeal to me.

The staff and students of Guadalupe school are preparing for Career Day. They have had a tough year in which one student’s sister was murdered by a gang banger, another student is a witness against him, and another student, a young girl named Bee, disappeared without a trace.

Linda McDonald, the school principal, is most concerned about whether the day will come off. She is hoping to inspire some of her mostly impoverished students with career ambitions, and hope for the future.

Gordon Kendrick, Linda’s husband, has a past that may be coming back to haunt him after he is mentioned in the publicity for Career Day. Another adult who is hoping to stay under the radar is Tio, the school janitor.

link to NetgalleySeveral of the students are clearly troubled. But 8th grader Brendan Atchison, the son of a successful entrepreneur, is plotting something drastic that involves another person.

Although the novel employs a technique that I recently found irritating in Salt to the Sea, the rapid shifting of point of view between short sections, it works much better in Lockdown, building true suspense. At first, I was more interested in the story of what happened when Linda met Gordon in New Zealand than in the plot about the school, but I finally decided that this is another fine suspense novel by Laurie R. King.

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Day 1092: Commonwealth

Cover for CommonwealthIt’s difficult to explain what Commonwealth is about without either telling too much or failing to make it sound interesting. Yet, it is a very interesting novel about how one afternoon changes the lives of everyone in two families, or at least that’s partially what it’s about.

The novel begins when Albert Cousins, an attorney from the district attorney’s office, crashes a christening for Fix and Beverly Keating’s youngest daughter. Fix only vaguely knows Bert Cousins from his work as a police officer. Bert has crashed the party in an effort to get away from his own household with his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa, as he does every weekend.

But once Bert sets eyes on Beverly Keating, he decides she is his future. One kiss in the upstairs bedroom with a sleeping child begins an affair that results in divorce for both families.

The novel concentrates on the effects of this divorce on both sets of children. Although Carolyn and Franny Keating beg year after year to stay in California with their dad, they are uprooted to Virginia to live with their mother when she and Bert move back to his home state. Bert demonstrates again and again that he doesn’t care to be around his own children, but he wins custody of them for the whole of each summer, while Teresa gets a job and keeps it together the rest of the year by the skin of her teeth. The result is that the kids grow up with virtually no supervision, especially in the summer, when Bert leaves everything to Beverly, who can’t cope.

This novel reminded me in some ways of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, although it spans only about 45 or 50 years. However, it felt that the characters in this novel are much more knowable. I always enjoy Patchett’s writing, and her novels are all different from each other. I enjoyed this one very much.

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Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasBest Book of the Week!
Cloud Atlas is a reread for me, and I think when I first read it, it was my first postmodern fiction. I found it, and still find it, astonishingly inventive and compelling.

Like its namesake, “Cloud Atlas Sextext,” the musical composition that recurs throughout the book, Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories, but with various themes and motifs linking them. Each story is set farther into the future. A story begins and is cut off at a climactic moment until we get to the sixth, which is complete. Then, going back toward the past, the stories are completed.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the journal of a man traveling in the Pacific in the 19th century. On his travels he observes the shameful treatment of the natives by missionaries, rescues a native from slavery, and encounters a series of scalawags. A quack befriends him and begins treating him for a supposed worm.

In “Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher writes his dear friend Rufus Sixsmith about his adventures. Frobisher is a gifted composer but impoverished and a bit of a scalawag himself. In 1931 Belgium, he talks his way into a position of amanuensis for a great composer. While there, he begins writing the haunting “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But he finds he is not the only con artist in the house.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a manuscript mystery novel about a reporter who finds out about safety hazards in a nearby nuclear power facility. Her informant is Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties, a Nobel winning scientist. After Sixsmith is murdered by the corporation that employs him, Luisa begins trying to get a copy of the report he wrote, which is being suppressed.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie set in the present or near future. In it, a publisher in debt is being threatened by thuggish clients. When he goes for his brother’s help, he is tricked into committing himself to a home for the aged.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451” is an oral history dictated by a fabricant from prison, some time in the future. She relates how she became enlightened and got involved with a revolutionary movement against the corprocacy  that controls the 12 cities still habitable on the planet.

“Sloosha’s Croosin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is a story told to listeners in the far future. By now, most of the world is living as primitive tribes, and Zachry’s tribe lives in Hawaii as farmers and goat herders. But a Prescient named Meronym comes to live in the village. These people are the only ones who have kept the scientific knowledge of the time before. Zachry suspects her of motives for being there that she has not told them.

Each of these stories is written in a different style reflecting its time period and with language evolving in the future. The stories share thematic threads and invoke each other’s characters, mixing together the “fictional” characters with the “real” ones. Luisa meets Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi as a god, Sonmi watches the movie about Cavendish. Intricately plotted and fitted together like puzzles, these stories comprise an amazing novel.

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