Day 1047: The Beggar Maid

beggar-maidLike Olive Kitteridge and a few other books I’ve read the last few years, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a novel constructed from short stories. It tells the story of Rose and of her relationships with other people in her life.

The stories about her childhood and adolescence are mostly about her complex relationship with her stepmother, Flo. Rose feels she can never please Flo, but at the same time she finds Flo rude and vulgar. These early stories also portray an environment of ignorance and poverty, her stories about school particularly shocking.

“The Beggar Maid” is what Rose’s first boyfriend Patrick calls her. But as Rose marries Patrick, who moves them to Vancouver to run one of his father’s department stores, Rose slowly learns that both of them have overestimated Patrick’s own gentility. Rose has thought she was marrying a scholar not a department store heir. As she is attracted more and more to the bohemian crowd in Vancouver, it becomes more obvious how unsuited the two are.

Munro’s stories are insightful about people, and as I believe Rose is Munro’s alter ego, unsparing in looking at herself. Her prose is, as always, spare and beautiful.

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Day 1043: A Great Reckoning

Cover for A Great ReckoningA Great Reckoning is the latest in Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache mystery series. Gamache has found retirement too unchallenging, so he has taken the position as head of the Sureté Academy. He has noticed that cadets graduating from the academy are ill-trained and thuggish and realizes that the corruption he eradicated from the Sureté itself has infected the academy.

He fires many of the professors but decides to keep the second in command, Serge Leduc, where he can see him. He also invites his ex-friend and enemy, Michel Brèbeuf, to join the faculty as an example of failed corruption.

While going through a box in Three Pines, someone finds an old orienteering map that had been walled up in the cabin that became the bistro. It has several mysteries about it. Gamache makes copies of the map for four of the cadets and challenges them to solve the mysteries of the map.

Then Leduc is found dead, shot in the temple with his own gun in his rooms at the school. Although Gamache cannot be on the case, he notices that Leduc had a copy of the map in the drawer of his bed table.

Gamache’s first instinct is to protect the four cadets, who were among Leduc’s inner circle. So, he takes them to Three Pines and has them continue to work on the puzzle of the map.

Meanwhile, Deputy Commissioner Gélinas of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been brought in to the case as an independent observer. He shortly decides that Gamache himself is guilty of murder.

Although I always find these mysteries complex and like the characters, I think I’m beginning to tire of this series. We’re in a rut with the main characters of the village. We hear the same jokes and repeat the scenes when strangers realize this village houses both a famous poet and a famous painter. And why do murder mysteries always resort to that hoary plot of the main character being accused of murder?

But for this novel explicitly, there is a key plot point that stretches credibility. I won’t say what it is except that it is something Leduc has been doing with the cadets. It’s as if Penny tried to imagine the most horrible, while not obvious, thing she could think of without thinking it through. Let’s say that there’s no way Leduc could have been doing this for years without someone dying. Even though he is called a stupid sadist, even he would know it and not risk it.

Finally, just a small point, but with this cover, the series has lost its award, bestowed by me, for most beautiful book covers for a series. The cover is all right, but it doesn’t meet the standards of the previous covers.

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Day 984: A Tale for the Time Being

Cover for A Tale for the Time BeingMonths after the Japanese tsunami, Ruth, of Japanese descent, finds a barnacle-covered package on the beach of the island in British Columbia where she lives. The package contains a Hello Kitty box with the diary of a young Japanese girl.

Ruth gets involved in reading this diary. The girl, Nao, tells a difficult story of having been raised in Sunnyvale, California, until her father lost his job at a technology company. The family was forced to return to Japan, where her father has been unable to find work and is suicidal. Nao, seen as an outsider by her classmates, is viciously bullied. Nao, too, is considering suicide.

The only bright spot in the girl’s life seems to be Jiko, her 104-year-old great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Jiko has taught Nao a few of the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism, which help support her. Nao has stated an intention of writing about Jiko’s life, but she actually writes about whatever occurs to her, including the story of her uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot.

This story is punctuated with scenes from Ruth’s quiet life on a small island with her husband Oliver, a biologist. Both stories dip into philosophy, Buddhist beliefs, and even a little magical realism. Ruth and Oliver become involved in Nao’s story and wonder if she committed suicide, if she survived the tsunami, and where she is.

At first I resisted this novel a bit. I probably wouldn’t have read it if it was not on my Man Booker Prize list. I wasn’t completely convinced by Nao’s voice, and I felt that the story was a way to sneak in lessons about Buddhist teachings. Eventually, though, I got sucked in and became just as interested in Nao’s fate as Ruth was.

However, in tackling its many subjects—suicide, bullying, the trash in the ocean, the nature of time, the tsunami, World War II, just to name a few—I sometimes felt this novel was all over the place. It is entertaining but kind of mind boggling.

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Day 981: Hag-Seed

Cover for Hag-SeedHag-Seed is Margaret Atwood’s modern retelling of The Tempest, a part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. It is inventively plotted and cleverly reimagines the events and characters of the play.

Felix wants revenge. Years ago, he was at the pinnacle of his career, director of the Makeshiweg Festival, presenting The Tempest. He was known for his avante garde approaches to theatre. But while he was occupied with the play, he let his assistant Tony deal with the other points of business. In his turn, Tony plotted with Sal O’Nally, the Heritage Minister, to remove him from his job. Making matters worse, Felix’s young daughter Miranda had died a few years before.

Felix has been leading a retired life in a rustic cottage in the country. Several years ago, he took a job with a program at a local prison. Each year, he stages a Shakespeare play staffed and acted by the prisoners. It has become very popular, and the prisoners’ literacy scores have increased.

But Felix is mostly alone with only his fantasy daughter for company.

One year, Felix hears that several ministers, including Sal and Tony, will attend the prison on the day of the broadcast of the play. Their real intent, he hears, is to shut down the program, despite its success. Felix decides this year’s play will be The Tempest, and through the play, he will get his revenge.

link to NetgalleyI thought Atwood’s approach to this retelling was much more inventive than the other reworkings I have recently read, and I found the novel entertaining. Its revenge plot didn’t really grab me, though. I didn’t like Felix very much, although he gets more likable as the novel progresses. It was clever to combine the Caliban and Prospero roles into one for this book. Certainly, readers familiar with Atwood will recognize her acerbic writing style. Not to get to the point where I thought he was a real person, but I also thought his teaching methods were really creative, and the production sounded as if it would be good.

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Day 933: The Night Stages

Cover for The Night StagesWhile reading The Night Stages, I kept wondering when, if ever, the stories of the characters would link up. The answer is, one character’s story does not, except metaphorically. Still, I thought the novel was at times poetic, and engrossing and affecting enough to recommend it.

It is post-World War II, and Tam is fleeing her married lover. Upset by a confrontation she had with him, she drove from her cottage in Kerry to Shannon Airport and took a flight to Gander in Newfoundland. There, she has been stranded by fog for several days. While she waits in the lounge, she examines a cryptic mural, Flight and Its Allegories by Kenneth Lochhead. Tam’s relationship with Niall has been poisoned, not by his thoughts of his wife Susan but by his memories of his lost brother Kieran.

Kieran as a boy suffers from rages that overpower him. When he was young, his mother and her chemist, both addicted to pain killers, committed suicide. His father finds it impossible to handle Kieran, who hears his mother’s voice inside the house, but Kieran likes the housekeeper, Gerry-Annie. When Gerry-Annie announces she is taking Kieran home with her to live, no one objects.

Kieran develops a deep love of the Kerry countryside and travels all over it on his bicycle. While Niall is studying in college to be a meteorologist like his father, Kieran is an unskilled laborer who loves the stories and songs of the country people. Then Kieran falls in love with Susan, Niall’s fiancée. The story climaxes around the Rás, a bicycle race through the Irish countryside.

Making the novel seem more diffuse is the introduction of Kenneth Lochhead as a character. We see how episodes from his life have inspired characters in his mural. But the description of the mural is a difficult thing to grasp just through text, and the small pictures that come up in Googling it convey very little, although I would love to see it sometime. It seems to me as though the emphasis on the mural and this character take away some of the power of the novel.

Flight is a recurring theme of the novel. Tam used to be a pilot during World War II, flying planes from one location in the U.K. to another. She is on a flight from her earthbound life in Ireland, and of course Kieran has flown Ireland. Then there are the descriptions of biking down the steep mountains and through the valleys of Kerry.

Although I think the novel would have been more cohesive without Kenneth, and in retrospect, Tam’s past as a flyer seems irrelevant (although making me wonder why the person she was before would put up with the situation with Niall), I was deeply involved in the story of Kieran, Susan, and Niall. I think this is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite accomplish its goals but is beautiful and definitely worth reading.

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Day 928: The View from Castle Rock

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe View from Castle Rock is an earlier Munro collection of short stories than Family Furnishings, which I previously reviewed. Since Family Furnishings is an anthology of Munro’s stories over the course of her career, I had already read several of the stories in The View from Castle Rock.

All of these stories have to do with the history of Munro’s family. In “No Advantages,” she has traveled to the area of Scotland where the Laidlaws came from. This story incorporates excerpts from other writings and quotes the epitaphs of some of her ancestors. It explains their hard life and the kinds of people her 18th century ancestors were.

In “The View from Castle Rock” Munro relates a family legend about how their drunken great-great-great grandfather James Laidlaw took his son Andrew up onto Castle Rock in Edinburgh to view America, probably as a joke, since they were looking at Fife. Although he talks of emigration throughout his life, he is unhappy when some of his sons finally take him and their families to America. This story is about their voyage and the fates of some of the family on board.

Other stories are more recent. “Hired Girl” is about a summer when Munro worked as a hired girl at a beach house on an island. For that summer, she had to learn that her employers did not consider her an equal. This was a tough lesson, as her mother especially had always had some pretensions of superiority even though they were poor.

In “Home” she revisits home after living away for some years. Her father has remarried after her mother’s death, and her old house has changed almost completely.

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe stories in this collection are powerful, relating the hard life of her family farming and raising fur, their close-mouthed quality, pride, and stubbornness. She is courageous in her ability to look at everything with honesty, even her own foibles.

One comment I have to make is on the cover of my Vintage International edition, shown here. It has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of the book and gives an entirely misleading idea of the stories. The only story that even faintly is about a beach is “Hired Girl,” and the girl is not exactly lying around in the sand. Sometimes I wonder what publishers are thinking. The cover that I used at top is much better.

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Day 911: A Place Called Winter

Cover for A Place Called WinterI read A Place Called Winter for my Walter Scott Prize project, the second book I’ve read for the 2016 list. Like one of the other books I read recently for that project, Arctic Summer, it has as a major theme the main character’s homosexuality. However, I found myself feeling much closer to the characters and more interested in the plot of this novel than I did for Arctic Summer.

At the beginning of the novel, Harry Cane is being treated, or rather mistreated, in an asylum in Canada. Shortly thereafter, he is transferred to an experimental center that treats the patients much more humanely. We understand that Harry has committed a crime, but we don’t know what it is. Between short chapters about his life at the center, we learn what brought him there.

The story of Harry’s life begins when his wealthy father dies. His brother Jack is still in school, and Harry undertakes his education and expenses. Harry is a man of no occupation who feels that he would like one, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He feels vaguely that he would like to work an estate or a farm but thinks he has to be born to it. A shy man with an occasional stammer, he likes reading and horses. Eventually, he marries a shy woman, Winnie, who informs him on their wedding night that she loves someone else. Nevertheless, he cares for his wife and loves his daughter.

An investment recommendation by his brother-in-law takes a large part of Harry’s inheritance, and Harry and his family are forced to move in with his in-laws. He is an innocent-minded person, so it is not until he meets an actor named Browning that he realizes he is homosexual. He begins an affair with Browning, but then disaster strikes. His affair is exposed to his in-laws by a blackmailer and Harry is forced out of the family. Even his brother Jack, whom he loves, is pressured by his wife not to correspond with him.

Now totally alone, Harry emigrates to Canada and ends up in Saskatchewan, which is just being opened to settlement by the arrival of the Grand Trunk Railway. On shipboard, he meets Troels Munck, who finds him a position where he can learn farming and then helps him purchase a homestead. Munck, though, is a bully, and from the moment Harry meets him, we know that relationship will not end well.

link to NetgalleyHarry finds that a farmer’s life suits him. He settles in, works hard, and makes friends. But we know where he is at the beginning of the book, so the tension builds as we find out how he got there.

Although the time spent to get him to Canada, where the book really captured me, seems a little long, by the time he gets there, we know Harry very well. He is a kind and polite person, but he earns our respect when he finds his niche. Eventually, I became deeply involved in his story. It was also interesting in its details of early homesteading and treatment of mental illness.

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