Day 1071: Anything Is Possible

Cover for Anything Is PossibleLike Olive Kitteridge, which this book reminds me strongly of, Anything Is Possible is a series of linked short stories. What links these stories is Lucy Barton, the main character of Elizabeth Strout’s previous novel. Each story is about a family relation of Lucy or a resident of her home town in rural Illinois, and Lucy appears as a character in one story.

In “The Sign,” Tommy Guptill, who was the janitor at Lucy’s school when she was a girl, goes to visit Lucy’s brother Pete. There he learns that Pete has long believed a terrible thing about the night long ago when Tommy’s dairy farm burned down.

In “Windmills,” Patty Nicely, a school mate of Lucy’s, is able to overcome an insult from Lucy’s niece and help her make her own escape from town. Patty also reviews her life with her gentle husband Sebastian, who has died.

“Cracked” explores the strange marital life of Linda Peterson-Cornell, Patty Nicely’s niece. Although Linda has married a wealthy man and escaped poverty, her husband has some disturbing pastimes.

link to NetgalleyIn “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” Charlie Macauley, to whom Patty Nicely is attracted, is devastated to find out the truth behind his relationship with a woman. In an attempt to recover before going home, he goes to stay at a B&B. Later, we hear from the B&B’s owner, another relative of the Nicelys.

And so on. These stories are beautifully and perceptively told, evoking sympathy for even the most unlikable characters. As I was for My Name is Lucy Barton, I was caught up in the gentleness and empathy of these stories.

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Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasCloud 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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Day 1064: The Shadow Land

Cover for The Shadow LandBest Book of the Week!
Although I was a little disappointed by The Swan Thieves, I liked Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian so much that I was excited to get my hands on an early copy of The Shadow Land. It has a few minor problems, but overall, does not disappoint.

Alexandra has arrived in Sophia, Bulgaria, early for her teaching job so that she can have the summer to see the sights. However, a series of errors sets her on a different path. Instead of dropping her at her hostel, her taxi driver takes her to the Hotel Forest. There she helps an elderly couple and middle-aged man with their luggage as they get into a taxi. Only once she is in another taxi does she realize that one of their pieces of luggage got mixed up with hers. To her horror, she finds it contains an urn with someone’s ashes.

With her driver Bobby’s help, Alexandra begins trying to find the family. They had not been staying at the hotel they came out of. Alexandra feels she has no option but to go to the police. Once she has visited with them, though, and has been given an address based on the name on the urn, Stoyan Lazarov, she and Bobby begin to receive threats. Eventually on their search they find a potentially explosive manuscript about Lazarov’s experiences during the Communist regime.

Although the main intent of the novel is to tell about this dark time in Bulgaria’s history, this novel makes a great suspense story in the manner of Mary Stewart, with just a dash of romance. Like Stewart’s novels, it is evocative of its setting, as Alexandra and her friends travel from place to place in Bulgaria.

link to NetgalleyAlexandra’s adventures in Bulgaria are interrupted, first by the story of her brother Jack’s disappearance when she was younger and later by chapters from Stoyan Lazarov’s manuscript. These interruptions pose one of the slight problems with the novel. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for the first story—as a backstory for Alexandra it is important but could have been handled more economically. The second narrative serves both to finally provide the key to the plot and to prolong the suspense. But I found it to be a bit too prolonged, with too much detail about how Stoyan Lazarov keeps up his inner strength during his trials. The effect of both interruptions was to slow down the main narrative.

Those are minor criticisms, though. A little larger one is that the identity of the villain and his reason for pursuing our heroes are both fairly easy to guess. Still, I found this novel suspenseful and fun to read, with a chunk of Bulgaria’s dark history as a bonus.

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Day 1063: The 1951 Club! Hangsaman

Cover for HangsamanI picked Hangsaman to read for the 1951 Club. Unfortunately, although I have read other books published in 1951, I haven’t done so recently enough to have reviewed them on this blog.

Hangsaman is a very strange book about a young woman and her first months away at college. Although it does a masterful job of exploring her consciousness, that is unusual territory. The first scenes of the novel show her interacting with her parents while she imagines being questioned by a detective about her father’s murder.

And no wonder. Her father is an arrogant and pompous editor, who, under the guise of helping her with her writing, daily subjects her to alternating insults and compliments and tries to enlist her sympathies against her mother. Her mother also tries that, apparently with more reason.

1951 Club logoIn these circumstances, Natalie is delighted to go off to college for a fresh start. But things don’t go well there. The students are cliquish and cruel. The one girl who seems to be seeking her out as a friend turns out to be mentally unstable. And two other girls use her to torment a young university wife whose husband is having an affair with one of them.

Natalie finally makes a very strange friend, and at that point the novel goes off into murky territory, where I didn’t quite understand what was going on. When I read later that the novel was inspired by the actual disappearance of a Bennington student—the girl’s college where Jackson’s husband was employed—I understood it a little better. If you have read Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell, it will ring some bells.

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Day 1062: Today Will Be Different

Cover for Today Will Be DifferentI so much enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette that I was really looking forward to Today Will Be Different. That said, this novel bears many of the same characteristics as the previous one while lacking its originality of expression.

Like Bernadette, Eleanor Flood is also a once-successful professional who is now leading a depressed life as a Seattle housewife and mother. At one time she lived in New York and was the animation director for a successful cartoon series. After the series was cancelled, she agreed to move to Seattle for ten years for her husband’s career as a hand surgeon and sports team doctor. She has been depressed because of her alienation from her sister, Ivy.

The morning of the story, she wakes up determined to do better. Soon she notices that her husband, Joe, is behaving oddly. She thinks she has a lunch appointment with an annoying friend only to realize it’s with a man she once fired from her show. And her eight-year-old son Timby is faking illness to get out of school.

When Eleanor takes Timby to Joe’s office, she finds that he has told his employees the family is on vacation. Where is Joe and what is he up to?

One of my issues with this novel is how most of Eleanor’s problems get solved in one day. Of course, this novel is meant to be light and funny, so something like that has to happen. I guess it’s more my problem with a whole genre of fiction. Still, I felt sympathy with Eleanor and liked most of the characters. I missed the zingers about Seattle from Bernadette, which I understood even though I have only been there a few times. Instead, Semple replaces this kind of thing with Eleanor blaming herself for her New York sense of superiority.

So, a middling review for this one.

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Day 1055: Benediction

Cover for BenedictionBest Book of the Week!
Goodreads has Benediction listed as Plainsong #3, which makes me wonder what that means. The first two novels in the series, Plainsong and Eventide, were very closely related, but this one not so much. All three of them are set in Holt, an imaginary town in Eastern Colorado, but then again, all of his novels are set there. Yet, these three novels all have titles related to religious services and song.

Dad Lewis is dying. That’s the central focus of the novel. But this novel even more than the others provides a picture of small-town life by looking at the neighbors and others in touch with Dad during his last weeks.

Dad is loved by his wife Mary and daughter Lorraine, but his son Frank has long since disappeared from their lives. When Frank was a young man, Dad was not understanding at all about his homosexuality, and that conflict eventually resulted in a complete break.

Dad is also perhaps not being fair to his long-time employees. When he was 22, his boss gave him an opportunity to buy the hardware store, and he has owned it ever since. Now he wants a reluctant Lorraine to take it over instead of extending the same opportunity to his two employees.

There are other things Dad frets over and even hallucinates about, but the novel isn’t just about Dad. The Lewis’s next-door neighbor Berta May has taken in her granddaughter Alice after her daughter’s death. Lorraine lost her daughter years ago, and she and retired schoolteacher Alene take Alice under their wings.

Reverend Lyle has been sent to Holt after a problem in Denver. His wife and son John Wesley are unhappy in Holt, and soon Lyle begins expressing opinions that leave some of the town in an uproar.

This novel is written in Haruf’s lovely spare prose. In theme and plot, it seems more diffuse than his other novels, but it is profound and moving.

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Day 1050: Golden Age

Cover for Golden AgeGolden Age is the last book in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It begins in 1987 and finishes a couple of years into a slightly dystopian future.

The Langdon family tree has expanded since the first book. Now, the original Langdon children are in their 60’s and 70’s. One has died of cancer, and by the end of the novel, only one of them is still living.

By necessity, this novel concentrates more on some of the Langdon descendants than others. Frank and Andy’s sons Richard and Michael are continuing to clash. Richard forges a political career by being a compromiser, while Michael makes it big on Wall Street and subsequently misappropriates funds from several member of his family. Joe’s son Jesse continues to struggle with the farm while both of his sons go to war. Claire finally finds happiness with Carl. Felicity becomes an environmental activist, while Janet spends most of her time with horses. Henry and Andy are also important characters.

Like the other novels, Golden Age covers most of the important events in its time period, the past 30 years—recessions, wars, 9/11, climate change, and fiscal crimes. Guthrie goes to Iraq. A family member is killed on 9/11. Michael is a major criminal on Wall Street.

Although I still felt some distance from the characters because there were so many and because the narration skips around from one to another so often, I couldn’t help but be caught up by the sheer volume and breadth of the trilogy. I wasn’t sure what I thought about the projection into the future of a country largely devoid of rain and mounting in chaos. Smiley, of course, couldn’t predict our current peculiar election results, which shows up the problems with this type of predictive writing in a largely realistic novel. Some aspects of her last chapters remind me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series.

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