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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Review 1672: Literary Wives! Monogamy

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

* * *

Annie, a small, reserved photographer, and Graham, a large, extroverted bookstore owner, have been married for about 30 years. Their story goes forward linearly with many visits to the past as Miller minutely examines their relationship. The crux of the story, though, is that Graham has been having an affair that he has just managed to break off. Then that night he dies in his sleep. Months later, Annie is just beginning to make some sort of recovery from her grief when she learns of the affair and has to reassess what she thought she knew about their marriage.

It’s hard to explain or evaluate this novel. Miller is generous to her characters, but she is also very observant. She examines and excavates their relationship in a detached way, even though the novel is from Annie’s viewpoint, that can seem cold. That is, there are no value judgments but also no feeling of affection, either, which may make readers feel detached. On the other hand, she really understands the intricacies and complications of marriage.

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

Literary Wives logo

Although Annie and Graham are happily married, we learn that Annie resisted him at first because she was afraid he would overwhelm her. For his part, his bonhomie and charm hide his insecurities, and his lust for life is characterized by a certain insatiability. He needs.

In this novel, although we see almost her every thought, I thought Annie was somewhat of an enigma. I find myself puzzled by her even while understanding why she is angry with Graham. I almost think that the novel provides us too many details of their lives to answer this question. Of all the books we have read for this club so far this one seems to be the most nuanced. Still, I find myself without very much to say about it.

After thinking about it for awhile, though, it seems to me that the couple is a mismatch even though they were happily married for years. It seems that Annie doesn’t realize that Graham reinvented himself from an introverted geek to the loud, exuberant charismatic person he became. Perhaps because this isn’t his true self, Graham seems to seek reaffirmation of his attractiveness through affairs. Annie is probably too self-possessed to be the person who could calm Graham’s insecurities. Perhaps he would have been happier with someone who was more dependent.

The title also makes me wonder if we’re supposed to re-evaluate the whole concept of monogamy, but nothing in the book forwards this thought.

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Review 1654: The Panopticon

Best of Ten!
Anais Hendricks, 15, arrives at the Panopticon, an old prison designed so that someone can see the inmates at all times, which is now being used as a home for juveniles. The police believe she beat an officer and put her in a coma, but she was so high that she can’t remember what she was doing.

Anais has been in the system since birth, and the system has failed her on every front. Although at first she seems to be hard and criminal, she is a feisty girl, and most of her offenses have been a defense of someone else or an act of protest against an injustice. Her trouble with the law began when Theresa, her adoptive mother, was murdered. Anais now believes she is part of an experiment that wants her to fail.

At the Panopticon, Anais makes some friends and gets a better social worker in Angus, but she still ends up in trouble. Soon, the police tell her that one more offense will result in her being transferred to detention.

In Anais, Fagan has created an unforgettable character. The novel is full of bad language, but it is fluent and lively, and makes a riveting story. I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1649: The Hoarder (aka Mr. Flood’s Last Resort)

Best of Ten!
Let me just start out by saying I hate the trend of changing the name of a book from the British edition to the U. S. edition. In this case, I got caught out buying both versions of this novel just because I didn’t realize they were the same. I loved this novel, but I don’t need two copies of it. If they are going to do this, the least they could do is warn us in really big letters on the cover.

____________________________

As with Things in Jars, it took a bit of time before I plunged myself into the eccentric world of The Hoarder. But when I did, I was all in.

Maud Drennan is a care worker whose job it is to feed the difficult Cathal Flood and attempt to make some headway in cleaning his house, for the old man is a hoarder. There are odd rumors surrounding Flood, not only about his recent behavior—he is supposed to have tried to brain carer Sam Hebden with a hurley—but also about his past—his wife died after falling down the stairs.

Maud herself is a little eccentric. She is followed around by the ghosts of saints, particularly St. Dymphna and St. Valentine, and her best friend is Renata, an agoraphobic transgender woman with an elaborate wardrobe. It is Renata who suggests that perhaps it was Cathal Flood who pushed his wife down the stairs.

Certainly, something is going on, because Maud is approached by Gabriel Flood, Cathal’s son, who is looking for something in the house. Then, Renata and Maud discover that Gabriel had a sister, Maggie, who disappeared as a teenager. Maud’s sister, we learn, also disappeared, so Maud becomes immersed in an investigation and attempts to search the blocked-off portions of Cathal Flood’s house.

This novel is a bit gothic, a bit funny, a bit haunting, and Kidd’s writing is brilliant. Love this one. Need more.

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Review 1636: Everything Under

Best of Ten!
Everything Under is a powerful rendering of the Oedipus myth, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not interested in stories based on myths. I found this novel to be truly affecting, and I’m guessing it will be on my best of the year list.

Water is an important motif in this novel, which is set mostly by rivers and canals, and the shifting narration reflects the fluidity of this story about human depths and gender identity.

Gretel has found the mother who deserted her years ago when she was 16. Periodically during her adult life, she has searched for Sarah, but recently she received messages from her asking for help. Finally found, Sarah is fairly deep into dementia. But she has lucid moments, and Gretel has questions, especially about what happened to Marcus, whom she last saw when they moved away from the canal.

During her search for Sarah, Gretel finds a couple with Marcus’s last name, Roger and Laura. When she visits them, she learns that the couple have been searching for their daughter, Margot, for years. She left home at 16 after their neighbor Fiona, who claims to be a psychic, told her something. Fiona, a transgender woman who now lives in Roger and Laura’s shed, refuses to tell what she told Margot.

Several times the novel checks in with Margot as she comes to live nearby a canal. There she takes on the identity of Marcus and is befriended by a blind man living on a canal boat. Marcus also hears rumors of a creature living in the canal who is eating animals and even people. Abut the community of people wo live along Britain’s canal system, this novel is atmospheric and interesting. I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.,

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Review 1633: The Distance Between Us

Jake, a Hong Kong Brit who has never been to Europe, is out with friends on Chinese New Year when they are caught in a crush. His girlfriend Melanie’s best friend is killed, and Melanie is gravely injured. Doctors say she will not live, so when she asks him to marry him, he reluctantly agrees even though he has only known her for four months. Of course, she does not die. The next thing he knows, he is in England staying at her parents’ house, and her mother is planning a formal ceremony for them. Having always wanted to find out about his Scottish father, he leaves for Scotland.

Stella’s too close relationship with her sister Nina is one she has to escape from sometimes. The roots of this lie in a horrible incident years ago. On one of her escapes, she takes a job at a hotel in Scotland.

This novel travels back and forth to relate incidents in both Jake and Stella’s lives and in the lives of their parents and grandparents. O’Farrell has a way with making you care about her characters as well as a gift for lyrical prose. This is another great book for her, and thus for her readers.

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Review 1632: Memories of the Future

When reading Hustvedt, I am always aware of an intelligence far greater than mine as well as a quality of being frighteningly well read. I especially noticed these attributes in Memories of the Future, an apparently autobiographical novel.

In the novel, the narrator, S. H., has found her old diaries from when she was a young adult and moved to New York City to spend a year writing a novel. She breaks up the story to reflect on her thoughts and actions of the time, provide a few updates on her present life working on this novel and visiting her elderly mother, present portions of the novel she was writing back then, and even take on a sort of third persona, the Introspective Detective.

S. H., who acquires the nickname Minnesota, is thrilled to move into her tiny, dark studio apartment, because she is starting a new life. Next door, her neighbor, Lucy Brite, has intriguing dialogues with herself that S. H. begins eavesdropping on, trying to figure out what she’s talking about, as it seems to involve violence.

Minnesota is given her nickname by her new friend, Whitney, who attends the same types of poetry readings and lectures, and soon Minnesota is part of a lively group of young people. She is already running out of money, however, and has some dark times ahead of her.

Hustvedt muses on some interesting topics, such as the nature of memory and the effects of aging, but most of her anger centers around women’s learning of acceptance. In an incident that turns out badly, she asks her younger self why she was more concerned with politeness and going along than with her instinct to resist what was happening. As in the wonderful The Blazing World, she tells the real story of a woman whose work is claimed by a man, Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, an artist and poet whose sculpture was claimed and attributed to Marcel Duchamp after her death.

I found this novel more difficult and not as engaging as the other two I have read, but still, she is always inspiring and fascinating. I just wish I understood more of her allusions and philosophical meanderings.

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