Day 1201: In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

Cover for In the Shadow of 10,000 HillsRachel Shepherd has recently lost the child she was expecting. Her husband, Mick, expects her to grieve for a month and then get over it, but she cannot. She thinks a lot about her father, Henry Shepherd, who disappeared from her life when she was seven. Her mother has also recently died, and in her things, Rachel finds a newspaper clipping of a young African-American girl in church during a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., the photo taken by her father as a young man.

Rachel figures this photo must have been important to her father and decides to try to find her father through this girl, now presumably an older woman. However, the woman does not answer her emails.

That woman is Lillian Carlson, who now lives in Rwanda. Henry had been living with her until two years ago, when he also disappeared from there. She does not feel that she can tell Rachel anything helpful, which is why she hasn’t responded.

Lillian provides a home for children orphaned during the Rwandan genocide. Tucker, an American doctor, has a room in her house, where he also keeps Rose, his adopted Rwandan daughter. Tucker decides it could be good for both Lillian and Rachel if they met, so he invites Rachel to come in Lillian’s name.

The core of this novel is devoted to the events of the Rwandan genocide and their continuing ramifications, during the time this novel is set (2000), for Lillian and her household. In particular, Nadine, a girl taken in by Lillian and Henry, was the witness of a horrific event.

I didn’t really engage with this novel, but I’m not sure why. I do know of one thing that particularly irked me, and that was the sections from Henry’s point of view. First, although they show his thoughts, they are written more in a speaking style, a style no one would use in thinking. For example, a rough such recollection (not a direct quote) of one thought was something like Gee, what does a guy have to do . . . . You see what I mean, utterly unconvincing.

And in general there is the type of person Henry is. For most of the novel, he just sort of lets fate push him around, and when he takes an action, he refuses to deal with its ramifications. He most often doesn’t take responsibility. Since a great deal of this novel revolves around the results of his actions, I found this infuriating.

link to NetgalleyFinally, I think the characters in general are too prone to be one-sided. Take, for example, Mick. He gives Rachel a deadline for grieving for her child. He has to spend every holiday with his parents. He won’t compromise. He’s not bad, really, but it’s clear from the beginning that he and Rachel will split, so he shows no qualities that would make her want to stay. These are characters serving the plot rather than ones who are convincingly complex.

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Day 1197: Literary Wives! The Headmaster’s Wife

Cover for The Headmaster's WifeToday 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
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

In trying to rate The Headmaster’s Wife, I again became frustrated with Goodreads’ inflexible five-star system. The novel was more ambitious and better written than many run-of-the-mill novels I’ve given three stars to, but it wasn’t good enough to get four stars, which I give to books I like a lot but don’t think are wonderful. There was just something lacking in it, and 3 1/2 stars would have been perfect.

Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster of a private prep school,  is found wandering naked in the park. He tells the police his story about having an affair with a student forty years younger than him, an event ending in a crime.

But halfway through the book, we find it is not about what we think it is. Arthur turns out to be an unreliable narrator. At this point, the focus changes to Betsy, the girl in the headmaster’s story, sort of. There’s not much more about the plot that I can say without major spoilers.

The prep school world is one that I’m not familiar with, but everything about this novel could have taken place in the 1950’s instead of the current times. I found the world of the book scarily insulated from the events of the real world.

Overall, I found this novel unsatisfying. The first half of it I found distasteful, especially in these Me Too days. But the novel, as I said before, isn’t really about what it seems. The second narrative is unsatisfying because we only actually see Betsy in her relationship to the males in her life—her boyfriends, her son, her lovers. It’s as if she has no actual life. Which, of course, leads us into our Literary Wives discussion.

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

First, I didn’t believe in Betsy as a character except in Arthur’s narrative. In her own section, we have no sense of her day-to-day life. She doesn’t seem to exist. Maybe that was the intention of the author, but maybe he is just really bad at depicting women. While Arthur shuffles papers and attends board meetings, she does literally nothing except have one conversation with an acquaintance.

At the beginning of Arthur and Betsy’s relationship, when Arthur sees she is cooling off, he plays a nasty trick to get rid of a rival. Betsy is fully aware of it. Yet, we are to believe that she went ahead and married Arthur, presumably to have a place at Lancaster forever. I didn’t believe it.

Then, we see Betsy, as I mentioned before, only in relationship to the males in her life and mostly in reference to sex. That is, when she looks back at her own life, it’s one sex scene after another, except for her memories of her son, and even those are somewhat eroticized. Even her desire to become good at tennis involves an affair with her tennis instructor. All I can say is, guess what guys? Sex isn’t the only thing women think about.

The central theme of the novel is supposed to be about grief, but characters in this novel don’t deal with their grief or even really face it. I feel that Greene meant for this novel to be meaningful, but it doesn’t really make it.

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Day 1190: LaRose

Cover for LaRoseSet in 1999 on a North Dakota reservation, LaRose is about how a community, but in particular two families, are affected by a horrible accident. Out hunting a deer on his property, Landreaux Iron kills Dusty, the young son of his best friend, Peter Ravich, when Dusty falls out of a tree as Landreaux takes his shot.

To try to make amends, Landreaux, who has turned to the old ways to throw off addiction and straighten out his life, offers the Ravich family his own young son, LaRose, to raise. Nola Ravich, Dusty’s mother, is eaten up with hatred against the Irons, even Emmaline, who is her half sister. But having LaRose helps. Emmaline, however, can’t be expected to give up her son forever.

LaRose is the latest in a long line of LaRoses, all of whom had a special connection with the spirit world. LaRose finds himself able to help Nola and her neglected daughter, Maggie, even though he is only a small boy.

Another significant character is Romeo, who long ago was Landreaux’s best friend. He bears Landreaux a grudge because of an incident years before. Slowly, he works at his resentment despite the Irons having taken in his son Julius to raise.

Although I occasionally got distracted by how diffuse the plot is and how many directions it goes, in the main I enjoyed this novel. It isn’t nearly as depressing as a lot of Erdrich’s work, and it paints a powerful portrait of these two families. Dealing with forgiveness, of oneself and others, grief, guilt, and other human complexities, it is a strong novel.

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Day 1188: Horse Heaven

Cover for Horse HeavenFor me, Jane Smiley’s work is a little unpredictable. While I consider her A Thousand Acres to be one of the best books I’ve read, I haven’t liked others as much. To my surprise, though, I really enjoyed Horse Heaven.

In this novel, Smiley attempts a difficult feat—she wants to show all the nooks and crannies of horse racing by depicting quite a number of characters. There are owners, trainers, riders, jockeys, bettors, and veterinarians. There are also horses, a handful of which are important to the plot.

The novel isn’t plot heavy. We’re not headed toward a showdown among the major players at the races. Instead, each character has his or her own plot trajectory. The shifty trainer Buddy will do anything to win a race but suddenly finds Jesus. Elegant owner Rosalind is married to loud and gauche Al and has an affair with her trainer, Dick. Irish trainer Deidre thinks of herself as bitter and brusque but is adored by the people who work for her. Zen horse trainer Farley falls madly in love with rider Joy, who feels most comfortable alone. Elizabeth is an animal psychic who gets tips on the races from a retired racehorse.

I complained in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy that there were too many characters to get to know. But here, even though you see them in little vignettes, you do begin to care about them.

And I cared even more about some of the horses. Without actually anthropomorphizing them, Smiley gives them discernible characters. I was particularly captured by Justa Bob, an intelligent, reliable horse who begins a downhill slide mostly because of the carelessness of his owners. Smiley does’t focus just on champions. There is Mr. T., the retired horse; Froney’s Sis, a young filly who is timid and a slow learner; and Epic Storm, a horse who is fast but dangerous and mean.

If you like horses, I think you will love this book, but even if you don’t, Smiley shows us a fascinating, complex world. The novel is written in a breezy style with quite a bit of humor.

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Day 1174: Literary Wives! The Blazing World

Cover for The Blazing WorldToday 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
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

The Blazing World was one of my favorite books of 2015, so I won’t recap my review but instead provide you the link so that you can read my original review. Then I’ll go on with my comments for Literary Wives.

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

Although Harriet is a widow at the beginning of the book, all her actions are centered around her experiences of being first a daughter and then a wife. She has been a good wife, but she has had no support from her art dealer husband for her art. She has sat quietly by and watched him claim credit for her ideas. Fiercely intelligent and original, she has become convinced that as an older woman, she is almost invisible. In fact, her entire focus on the project that she conceives and that drives the plot of the novel is fueled by anger at the paternalism of first her father and then her husband.

Unfortunately, she finds that the art world is paternalistic in just the same way, as she has trouble claiming her own art after conducting her experiment. This is a powerful novel about institutional sexism—particularly the difficulties women still have in being taken seriously in any realm except that of the household, but especially in the creative arts.

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Day 1161: A Little Life

Cover for A Little LifeBest of Five!
For me, anyway, it often happens that a novel gets a lot of hype, with reviewers raving about it, and when I finally read it, it is unable to live up to its reputation. Such is not the case, however, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I found it to be thoroughly absorbing, all 800+ pages of it.

It begins with four young men who all roomed together in college—Willem, Jude, J.B., and Malcolm. The novel, which covers roughly thirty years, begins when they are all struggling to make their way in New York City. Willem and Jude still share a tiny apartment while Willem works as a waiter and auditions for acting parts, and Jude works as a lawyer for the district attorney’s office. Malcolm is poorly paid and given boring work in the office of a prestigious architectural firm, and J.B. is working on his art.

In at first a very subtle way, though, the novel centers around Jude. For some time, Jude remains a mysterious presence in the novel. He was severely injured when he was young, but he never speaks of that incident or any other in his past. But Jude’s life, we eventually find, is ruled by his past, during which he was repeatedly abused.

Since college, Jude believes that he has been pretending to be a different person than he is, and that if his friends found out who he really is, they would leave him. He is full of self-hatred.

This novel is extremely powerful and deals with some heavy issues. But it is beautifully and empathetically written. It makes us love some of the characters, and the others seem fully realized. I may not have read it if it hadn’t been on my Booker Prize project list, but I’m glad I did.

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Day 1147: The Light of Paris

Cover for The Light of ParisEleanor Brown’s first novel, The Weird Sisters, was just original enough to keep it interesting. Sadly, The Light of Paris is all too predictable.

Madeleine has never felt comfortable in her privileged life of debutantes and charity committees. When she was in high school, all she wanted to do was paint, but her mother considered her painting trivial. She finally married Phillip to please her mother and lives in a cold, sterile Chicago condo with a husband who insists on having everything his way.

Madeleine decides to take a break from Phillip, so she goes to visit her disapproving mother in Magnolia, her home town. She finds her mother preparing to sell the house. In helping her, Madeleine discovers her grandmother Margie’s diaries from her youth.

Margie is a naive, romantic young woman who is also a failed debutante in 1924. Her family considers her an old maid, and when she refuses the unromantic proposal of her father’s middle-aged business partner, they send her off to Paris to chaperone a difficult acquaintance, Evelyn. Evelyn almost immediately abandons her to go off on her own, but after some hesitation, Margie decides to get a job and stay in Paris.

While reading her grandmother’s story, Madeleine begins to work through her own issues, all the while wondering how the Margie from her diary became the distant woman she remembers.

Madeleine’s family secrets are fairly guessable, as is the resolution to the novel. That didn’t bother me so much as some other issues. A small point, perhaps, but in those days no one would have sent a 23-year-old unmarried girl to chaperone an 18-year-old. If Margie was 40, maybe.

A larger issue is my utter lack of sympathy with Madeleine’s problems. Many people seek the approval of their parents, but to think that Madeleine could see no alternative but her Junior League upbringing and marriage to Phillip is ridiculous in this day. I’m sure there are a few women in pearls and twinsets still around, but Brown has set this portion of the novel in the 1990’s, not the 1950’s. I had no patience with this heroine. She needed to grow a backbone when she was 16, not when she was in her 30’s.

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