Review 1739: Oh William!

In Oh William! we meet again Elizabeth Strout’s alter ego, Lucy Barton. Lucy’s second husband David has recently died. She considers her own grief in addition to the state of mind of her first husband, William, who begins to experience some shocks in life.

First, William’s third wife, Estelle, leaves him abruptly. Then William begins to find out some family secrets, particularly about his mother, Catherine. Lucy, who has remained on good terms with William, reflects upon her relationships with him, Catherine, and her own family as she tries to help him.

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As usual, the story, which is told as a series of apparently random recollections and incidents, is written in lovely prose. What stands out for me even more than that in the Lucy Barton books is Lucy’s gentleness and the loving, accepting way she approaches the world and the other characters. Although Strout’s novels are not strongly plot driven, once you start one, you just want to keep reading.

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Review 1733: Redhead by the Side of the Road

Micah Mortimer grew up in chaotic conditions, so he structures his week carefully and keeps his basement apartment neat. He lives there rent-free in exchange for maintaining the building and has his own tech business.

He has been dating Cass for three years. When she is caught with a cat in her apartment, she worries that she’ll be evicted, but Micah does not understand her hints to invite her to live with him. The same day, Brink, the teenage son of his old girlfriend, comes by. His mother has never told him about his father, so Brink thinks he is Micah. Micah knows that isn’t possible, but he focuses on trying to get Brink to call his mother, who doesn’t know where he is.

Micah extends Brink an invitation to spend the night, but that backfires. For Cass interprets this invitation as a pre-emptive move to avoid having to invite her to move in, so she breaks up with him.

This novel is a touching character study about a man who is kind and thoughtful but needs to loosen up a bit and get a clue. I’ve recently rediscovered Anne Tyler and have been reading more of her.

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Review 1718: Literary Wives! The Amateur Marriage

Today 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
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

It’s December 7, 1941. Michael Anton is working in the family store in an Eastern European Baltimore neighborhood when Pauline comes in with some neighborhood girls. It’s apparent to everyone that he’s a goner. Excitement is in the streets because of that day’s declaration of war against Japan, and in the impulse of Pauline’s excitement, Michael enlists.

Michael is injured during training, so he never goes to war but instead marries Pauline. Michael is steady, perhaps a little stolid. Pauline is emotional, reacting to every little thing and often over-reacting. The Amateur Marriage follows what is really an ill-assorted couple through their marriage—children, deaths, family crises—and beyond.

Tyler is excellent in her minute observations of everyday life. She sees the cracks in the American dream and reveals them with empathy. I enjoyed this novel, although at times Pauline drove me crazy.

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

At first, I thought Tyler was going to show how this admittedly mismatched couple could still make a lasting marriage, but that turned out not to be the case. The couple come together almost completely by chance, and later, when we learn about Pauline’s previous dating career and her career while Michael is in the service, we realize that if Michael had gone to war, Pauline would almost certainly have found someone else before he got back.

In the beginning of the relationship, the chemistry between them works pretty well, even though they obviously go into marriage with different expectations. Michael, for example, believes they will continue to live above the store, while Pauline assumes they will buy a house in the suburbs even though they can’t afford one. Michael at first seems relatively unambitious, while it is Pauline’s ideas that push him to do better than his parents’ store. The difficulties come when the chemistry starts to wear off.

This novel depicts a couple a little older than my parents although more conservative. In fact, in many ways they resemble my parents, some in temperament and others generationally. However, frankly Pauline is sometimes so volatile that I don’t know how anyone could live with her. It seems as though someone more expressive than Michael would make her feel more secure but would be even more likely to fight with her. And some of the things she says when she’s upset, which in later years seems like all the time, are really nasty.

Although Tyler isn’t explicit about this, I can’t help thinking that a lot of Pauline’s unhappiness comes from the sterile suburban life that my mother also lived, because the Antons do eventually move to the suburbs. Theirs is a typical 50’s marriage, with Michael away working a lot and not as involved with his children as he could be, with Pauline taking all the responsibility for the house and child care.

Pauline, a social girl, is isolated in the suburbs except for neighborhood parties and gossip by the pool or visits back to the old neighborhood (which, however, was not her old neighborhood, but Michael’s). However, she also cultivates a helplessness that I found shocking, when later in life she can’t light her own pilot light or shovel her own driveway.

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Michael is a little more of a mystery because we don’t hear from him as often. He makes the same kind of mistakes as my father did, for example, buying practical gifts instead of frivolous or romantic ones. They fight about money, but he has had a careful immigrant upbringing of scrimping and saving, while hers has been more privileged—and she does seem to do some reckless spending.

I also felt this novel showed how people tend to concentrate on the negatives of their relationship when they’re at odds. It is only when things are long over that both Michael and Pauline begin to remember some of the things that brought them together in the first place.

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Review 1714: Girl

Maryam is a young girl attending a girl’s school in Nigeria when Boko Haram attacks the school and drags off the girls. At the Jihadist camp, the girls are gang-raped and otherwise brutalized while they are forced to work as slaves. Eventually, Maryam is forcibly married to a young jihadist.

But that’s only the beginning of this deeply involving novel, for after a harrowing escape and a restoration to her family, Maryam finds herself treated almost as badly at home.

This novel is a break away from O’Brien’s usual Irish novels although not from her fluid prose. It is short—I read it in a few hours—and riveting. I read it for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1708: Leaving the Atocha Station

Adam Gordon is an American pursuing a project in Madrid in 2004. He only hints at the project’s purpose, but he spends most of his time taking drugs, visiting museums, and doing what he calls “translating,” in which he takes lines from other people’s works, substitutes words, and moves things around. He is supposed to be a poet on a grant to write a long poem about how the Spanish Civil War has affected poetry, but he is not doing any research and knows very little about Spanish poetry.

In fact, Adam lies almost all the time. He doesn’t consider himself a poet but a fraud. He is self-loathing and is constantly manipulating his face or thinking up things to say to seem deep. He talks about not feeling anything or experiencing the experience of the event rather than the event itself.

This novel, which seems more like a disguised memoir, is funny at times. It asks a lot of its audience intellectually, and at times I got lost in its logical circumlocutions. The narrator is not very likable, but he grows on you, and he undergoes a sudden transformation at the end.

Would I recommend this book? Only to certain people. I would like to say, though, that its cover design, which starts with snippets from The Garden of Earthly Delights on the right and then smears the colors of each snippet into a shape of a train, is fabulous.

This is a book I read for my James Tait Black Prize project.

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Review 1705: The Mars Room

Romy Hall is on her way to prison at the beginning of The Mars Room, having received two life sentences for murder. Because she worked as a stripper and led a not so savory life, she has been denied the opportunity in court to testify that her victim had been stalking her, even following her from San Francisco to L. A., where she moved to get away from him.

On the way to the prison in far eastern California, one woman dies. None of the prison personnel pay any attention. This is just one example of the treatment the women—and sometimes girls—receive.

This novel isn’t just about Romy, though. We hear the voices of quite a few characters, all of whom are incarcerated or are connected to the incarcerated. None of these characters are all bad or all good, but what they have in common is that they have been silenced.

There is Doc, a corrupt cop who has killed just for the pleasure of it but befriends Serenity, who has performed her own sex change operation in jail and is trying to be transferred to the women’s prison. There’s Gordon Hauser, who comes to teach at the women’s prison but gets a little too involved with the prisoners and quits to become a social worker. There’s even Kurt Kennedy, Romy’s stalker and victim. In between, we read paragraphs from Ted Kaczynski’s writing, most of them chilling.

This novel explores some deep territory, the lack of justice for the poor, the futility and vindictiveness of the prison system, the lack of any chances most of the characters had in their lives to begin with. It is gritty, difficult to read, and sometimes heart-wrenching. In general, I’m not that much of a fan of Kushner, but this novel has some powerful moments. I read it for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1693: An Orchestra of Minorities

An Orchestra of Minorities has an unusual narrator. It’s the chi, a guardian spirit, of Chinonso, a young Nigerian poultry farmer. The chi has come before a sort of heavenly court to plead for leniency for his host, who has harmed a pregnant woman.

The chi’s story begins when Chinonso prevents a young woman, Ndali, from throwing herself off a bridge. Later, they meet again and become lovers. However, Ndali’s family is wealthy, and they don’t consider Chinonso a suitable partner for their daughter. Ndali is ready to split with them, but Chinonso decides to go back to school and earn his degree so he can get a good job.

His friend, Jamike, is attending a college in Cyprus, so Chinonso sells his farm and gives Jamike the money to pay for tuition and board and open a savings account in Cyprus, all without discussing this with Ndali. When he reaches Cyprus, he finds he has been scammed, that Jamike only paid for one semester in college but not for board, and there is no savings account.

Some people in Cyprus try to help him, but the hapless Chinonso falls into one misfortune after another. It takes him four years to get home.

I really struggled with this novel for so many reasons. It incorporates Igbo mythology and culture, which can be interesting, but every chapter and most of the smaller divisions of the novel begin with a story or a series of sayings or other digressions that slow down the narrative.

Then there is the character of Chinonso. He has low self-esteem and is weak, he is unbelievably na├»ve, he falls into traps that we can see coming pages ahead, he makes poor choices, his reactions to meeting Ndali’s parents seem cowardly. This might be a cultural thing. I have no idea what wealthy displeased Nigerians might be able to do to poor ones.

Then there’s his relationship with Ndali. For all we know of her, she might be a cipher. She is pretty much just something he wants. He calls her Mommy, for god’s sake. This is not a cultural thing, because she asks him why, and his answer creeped me out. I won’t say what happens to her, but it’s not good.

The only way I can justify not personally detesting this novel is if I look at it as a character study of what happens when a weak person is pushed beyond endurance. I strongly feel, though, that this novel shows an underlying hatred of women. What do women do in this novel? One dies at his birth. One leaves him without explanation. One is a prostitute. One makes a false claim of rape. One is steadfast and suffers a horrible fate. None have a personality. Detestably, at least for me, this novel is described as one about a man who will do anything for the woman he loves. Right.

And let’s not even mention the mistreated gosling that we hear way too much about. I read this novel for my Booker project.

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Review 1685: Our Endless Numbered Days

In 1976, eight-year-old Peggy’s father James spends his time talking with his survivalist friends while her mother, Ute, prepares for a concert tour. Ute has been gone several weeks when James tells Peggy they are going on vacation. They travel from London to Germany camping in a tent, finally arriving at a small cabin that is falling down. James tells Peggy that everyone is dead and they are the only people left in the world, which has been destroyed.

In 1985, Peggy has been returned home to Ute and her brother Oscar, who was born after she and James left. She is struggling to adapt to the real world.

This novel reminded me very much of Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, only with an added twist. Still, it is absolutely gripping, as James gradually loses touch with reality.

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Review 1677: Sisters

September and July move suddenly from Oxford with their mother to a decrepit and dirty house on the moors. They have lived there before—the house belongs to their father’s family—but to July the house seems freighted with a depressing atmosphere and full of odd noises.

Something bad happened at school, but July can’t remember what it was. Her depressed mother spends all her time in bed, leaving July and September to fend for themselves. Judging by their games, I thought at first that the girls seemed only about ten or eleven, but we find out later they are several years older. September is the leader, insistent and fiery, sometimes cruel. July is the appeaser, but she has trouble with her memory and sometimes has waking dreams.

In a section from their mother Sheela’s point of view, we learn that she worries September might be demonstrating the same kinds of traits that made Sheela afraid of the girls’ father. Her relationship with him, it appears, was of both love and hatred. Sheela has also worried about the closeness between the two girls, which shuts her out. They behave like twins even though they are 10 months apart.

This novel is a fabulously atmospheric character study. It pulls us forward, making us wonder what is going on. What happened at school? What will happen next? The writing is at times poetic in quality.

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Review 1673: Writers & Lovers

Ever since reading Euphoria, I’ve been wondering what else Lily King can do. Let’s just say that Writers & Lovers did not disappoint.

Casey Peabody is having a rough time. At 31 she is still waiting tables and trying to work on her novel. Her mother died recently, and she is grief-stricken. She just wasted a spot in a writing workshop on an affair instead of writing, and now she hasn’t heard from the man she spent so much time with. She lives in what used to be a gardening shed, and her landlord frequently belittles her. Finally, she has a crushing student loan debt, and she is working double shifts just to be able to afford to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As if all this isn’t stressful enough, she finds herself dating two very different men. She is supposed to go on a first date with Silas when he abruptly leaves town with no explanation. Then she meets Oscar, a middle-aged, established writer with two delightful young boys. Soon, she is going on outings with the three of them. But then Silas shows back up.

This is an intimate and engaging story of a few months in a complicated woman’s life. This description almost makes it sound like a romance novel, but it is much more than that. I found it absolutely compelling.

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