Review 1878: Edinburgh

Fee is a 12-year-old mixed race boy (Korean-American) who feels out of place in his home in small-town Maine. Not only does he not look like his peers, but he likes boys. He is deeply in love with Peter, his best friend.

When Fee joins an elite boys’ choir, he thinks he recognizes in the choir director, Big Eric, a person like himself. But he soon realizes that Big Eric is a predator, who systematically abuses the soloists and keeps them from telling by threatening to cut them from the choir.

Fee conflates his homosexuality with Big Eric’s abuse and is so ashamed that he tells no one even when Peter is given a solo part. Eventually, Big Eric approaches the wrong boy, and the truth comes out. But this also has disastrous consequences for his victims, two of whom commit suicide.

Moving forward in life, Fee continues to be haunted by these events during his teen years and early adulthood. He is finally managing a happier adulthood as a swimming teacher in his home town with a loving partner when he meets a young student who reminds him of Peter and is involved in the early events in a way neither of them understand.

I had mixed feelings about this novel, which I won from Adam of Roof Beam Reader. It is beautifully written and incorporates lore from the Korean side of his character’s background. But it also feels removed from its characters, which is probably necessary as it feels at least somewhat autobiographical. There are some times when the lyrical language doesn’t seem to mean anything and is written more for its sound and images. But mostly, I am disappointed in the ending of the book.

Read no further if you want to avoid spoilers. I don’t usually include them, but I felt I had to in order to express my opinion of the book. It seemed to me that his succumbing to the boy, even though it was mutual and the boy was much older than he had been, is still a predatory act because of the teacher-student relationship. Also, I could not believe that he could teach a student without knowing his last name. There are rosters, reports to be filled out. That was just unbelievable.

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Review 1872: The Bass Rock

Told in three compelling narratives that take place over centuries, The Bass Rock is a novel about the history of violence toward women. The novel is located on the banks of the Firth of Forth, an area of Scotland dominated by the Bass Rock.

Early in the 18th century, the local priest comes upon some young men raping a very young girl, Sarah. The priest rescues her, but the young men claim she must be a witch because she enchanted them and forced them to do it. Soon, the men have burned down the priest’s house, and the entire household must flee toward the beach.

Post-World War II, Ruth and her husband Peter have recently moved into the big house in North Berwick. Ruth doesn’t quite understand the reason for the move, since Peter works in London. He says it is for the benefit of his sons by his previous marriage, Christopher and Michael, but they are being sent off to school. Soon, newly wed Ruth finds herself left very much on her own with only the housekeeper Betty for company. She begins to discover some secrets in the family.

After Ruth’s death as an old lady, Michael’s daughter Viv is hired by the family to sort through the things left in the house so it can be sold. She has recently had some mental issues and feels like she is the family failure. Almost despite herself, she befriends Maggie, a homeless occasional sex worker who has an interesting take on things. Maggie tells her there is a ghost in the house.

This is a powerful novel. Although its theme is grim, its main characters are relatable and sometimes likable. I loved All the Birds, Singing, and this is another winner from Wyld.

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Review 1867: Literary Wives! The Sentence

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.

We would also like to welcome a new member, Rebecca of Bookish Beck! We are so glad to have her with us!

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

My Review

Tookie spent the first decade or so of her adulthood getting wasted and falling into trouble with the law. When she was arrested by Pollux of the tribal police, though, she wasn’t even sure she had broken the law, or at least she didn’t see it that way. She had borrowed her previous employer’s van to bring the body of her friend’s boyfriend back to her from the woman her boyfriend left her for. But Tookie didn’t know the woman had taped packets of crack into the body’s armpits.

Both other women having lied about Tookie’s involvement in the crime, she had the bad luck to pull a judge who sentenced her to 60 years. What saved her in prison was reading.

Tookie’s lawyer never stopped working for her, so after ten years she was released for time served. She got a job at a bookstore in Minneapolis and married Pollux, no longer a cop.

Flora dies. Tookie describes her as the bookstore’s most irritating customer. The bookstore (which I believe is Birchbark Books, owned by Erdrich) specializes in books written by and about indigenous people. Flora was a wannabe, who claimed indigenous heritage based on a photo of an ancestor who looked possibly indigenous.

After her death, Tookie takes home a handwritten manuscript that Flora was holding when she died. It is difficult to read, but when Tookie makes out a particular sentence, she is horrified. She knows that reading this sentence was what killed Flora. She tries to burn the journal and finally buries it in the backyard.

Flora begins haunting Tookie at the bookstore. At first, no one else notices her, so Tookie is afraid she’s going mad. But then others hear her, and Tookie becomes afraid to work in the bookstore alone. The city becomes more chaotic with the arrival of Covid and later the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd.

This book explores what the living owe the dead, as well as what we owe ourselves. It is a book for book lovers and even ends with lists of favorite books, so of course it appealed to me.

Erdrich’s books can be difficult to read, but even though this one contains some tough scenes, she seems to be softening. Despite some hard subject matter, the novel is almost cozy, with a warm feeling of community centered around the bookstore, a loving marriage, an evolving family life for Tookie, and quirky, likable characters. Its overall feeling is of transcendence. It’s a lovely book.

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

I had to reread this novel for the book club even though I had just read it a few months ago, because I hadn’t read it with our subject matter in mind. On second read, I liked this book even better than I did the first time.

We should all be so lucky as to have a marriage like that of Tookie and Pollux. Although they have a few small spats, for most of the novel, the two have a warm and accepting relationship. There is a little bit of a breakdown because Tookie feels she can’t tell Pollux about being haunted by Flora, but even that turns out to be a misunderstanding.

The biggest impact to their relationship comes with the murder of George Floyd and the resulting chaos around police violence. These events make Tookie face her feelings about Pollux having been a cop, especially because when she reached out to grasp his hands after her adventure with the corpse, he cuffed her. I believe this situation is made worse because of Pollux’s own ambivalence about the events surrounding the Floyd killing and his own former career. Tookie shows her feelings subtly, for example, by not wearing the jingle dress herself but giving it to Hetta to wear, but the couple know each other so well that he understands.

Basically, their relationship is so good that they weather their problems. Troubles come from not speaking about things, but eventually everything is discussed.

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Review 1833: Unsettled Ground

Twins Jeannie and Julius Seeder live precarious but contented lives with their mother Dot in the cottage where they were born. At 51, neither has much education. Jeannie was kept out of school so frequently with rheumatic fever that she never learned to properly read and write. Julius only attended school until 15. Jeannie and her mother keep a market garden while Julius earns what he can through various odd jobs. Their mother has taught them to be independent and not borrow money.

When Dot dies unexpectedly, however, the twins are thrown by one thing after another. They had always understood that their cottage was theirs for life, rent-free, because their landlord, Mr. Rawlings, was partially at fault for their father’s horrendous death. However, almost immediately after Dot’s death, Mrs. Rawlings arrives to tell them they owe £2000 for back rent. The man they sell vegetables to informs Jeannie that Dot owed him money, and the husband of her mother’s best friend says she owed him £800. But they can find no money in the house. Then, right before the wake, a thuggish young man tells them they are being evicted in a week. They have no money for a funeral.

Although Jeannie finds a job doing a woman’s garden, she is paid by check and has no idea how to cash it. The electricity has been disconnected. But Jeannie and Julius are too proud to ask for help or let anyone know what’s going on.

This story about people living on the margins of society had me utterly rapt. I could not do anything but wonder how it would all end. Fuller has done it again with another powerful, absorbing novel.

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Review 1830: Breathing Lessons

Anne Tyler is concerned with the lives of ordinary people—in this case a middle-aged couple, Maggie and Ira Moran. The novel explores a common confusion of middle age—how we got where we ended up in life.

After attending an unusual funeral, in which Maggie’s best friend Serena attempted to recreate her wedding day—Maggie talks Ira into detouring to visit their ex-daughter-in-law, Fiona, and their granddaughter, Leroy. The situation with these two is unfortunate, for the Morans have not seen their seven-year-old granddaughter since her third birthday. However, Maggie is convinced that son Jesse and Fiona still love each other, and all they need is a little nudge to get back together.

It is immediately apparent that Maggie is a somewhat scattered thinker, while Ira is more practical. It takes a while to learn, though, something that Ira understands—Maggie is so prone to look at the positives that she doesn’t see things as they are but as she wants them to be. Unfortunately, this includes getting carried away to the point of lying about things.

This wasn’t my favorite Anne Tyler book, but it depicts some characters who seem very true to life (but are also similar to the couple in The Amateur Marriage). Maggie is, I think, supposed to be lovable, but I sympathized with Ira and thought his patience was phenomenal. Jesse is a fairly typical boy-man, another one of Tyler’s types, lacking in responsibility but whose irresponsibility may have been encouraged by Ira’s lack of faith in him. Maggie fails to see that Fiona not only left Jesse, she left the whole family because of its dynamics.

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Review 1827: The House Between Tides

A house on an island separated from the main island by a causeway only open at low tide is the focus of this novel set in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a dual timeframe novel, which format I have to admit I am tiring of.

In 1910, Beatrice Blake arrives with her new husband, the famous artist Theo Blake, to his home on the island for the summer. In 2010, Hetty Devereaux has inherited the house and is considering turning it into a hotel.

Neither woman has made a good choice of partner. Theo thought Beatrice would drive away his thoughts of his first love Mailí but realizes very soon that she cannot compete and begins to neglect her. Hetty’s fiancé Simon has forced his way into her plans and has hired people to do surveys and look into such issues as financing before Hetty has even seen the property.

Both of these stories deal with how the property should be handled and how much claim the crofters have to the island, but in 2010, bones have been discovered under the foundation of the house. The 1910 story eventually reveals whose bones they are.

I found this novel interesting, and the descriptions of the island are lovely. However, even though I saw complaints about Hetty’s lack of backbone, I was more interested in the modern story than the older one. Possibly it’s because it was obvious to me why Theo is so interested in his factor’s son, Cameron, and also because I wasn’t interested in Beatrice’s romance. The final twist was obvious to me, although I didn’t figure out who the bones belonged to.

This novel is atmospheric but a little hackneyed, I think.

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Review 1822: Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain lives the first five or six years of his life in his grandparents’ flat in Glasgow with parents and older sister Catherine and brother Leek. The family is poor but respectable. His father Shug is a taxi driver, and his mother and grandmother keep a neat house. Shuggie’s mother Agnes is beautiful and always immaculately made up.

Shug is a horrible womanizer, though, and from jealousy Agnes hounds him by making calls to his dispatcher. Then Shug decides they should move to get a fresh start. What he describes as an outdoor paradise turns out to be a tiny shack next to a mine in a neighborhood built for miners’ families. But the mine is all but closed. It isn’t until the family unloads their possessions that they realize Shug’s aren’t among them. He has taken Agnes and her children out into the country to dump them.

Agnes descends into alcoholism, and as his older siblings grow old enough to leave, Shuggie is left trying to hide money for food, trying to keep Agnes’s drinking buddies out of the house, trying to get her to eat. All the while, he has a growing realization that he’s not like other boys. He likes pretty things and colors and is attracted to boys.

This novel is a moving and empathetic portrait of working-class Glasgow in the 1980’s, when there is not much hope for many people. It’s also a convincing depiction of the effects of alcoholism. It is absolutely gripping and heartbreaking. It was the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it deserves it.

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Review 1819: Dirty Birds

Just before I read Dirty Birds, I attempted to read Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, and I was surprised by the parallels. Both protagonists are on a quest to make a woman love them. Although Rushdie’s protagonist is old and Murray’s is young, both are naïve and deluded. Road trips are part of each novel, and so is satire—Rushdie’s for the cult of personality and big pharma, among other things, Murray’s for the Montreal art scene and the young man as artist. I found Murray’s book more successful and a lot funnier.

Milton Ontario is a hapless young man who is not only utterly average but characterized by the extent of his naiveté and inexperience. He gets an idea in his head that he wants to be a poet, even though he writes atrocious poetry (at first dedicated to the love of his life, Ashley, and later to the love of his life, Robin), so he sets out from his small town for Montreal and a tiny room he has rented sight unseen in a dilapidated, filthy house full of students and would-be artists. There he attempts to enter the art scene and falls in love with Robin, the maker of a seven-minute documentary entitled Dirty Birds, who is almost unaware of his existence.

Milton stumbles through a series of horrendous jobs horrendously performed and meets a cast of rowdy, raucous characters. He inadvertently starts a riot and gets to meet his hero, Leonard Cohen, only to find he is a mob boss (where I think the novel starts to go a bit astray). In among all this silly action is a series of footnotes enlightening us about the history of Canadian mistreatment of indigenous peoples, Newfies, and French-Canadians, among others.

Although I think it gets a little carried away with itself (and I didn’t like the part about the late, great Cohen), for the most part, this novel is a hoot.

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Review 1816: Sight

Hmmm. I find it hard to evaluate Sight because even though it explores very personal thoughts and feelings, it appealed mostly to my intellectual side not my emotion. And I have the greatest response to the latter. Some readers on Goodreads compared Greengrass to Rachel Cusk, and I can understand the comparison.

Sight is concerned with seeing below the surface, both in the obsessions of the main character and in the stories she tells about Roentgen, Freud, and John Hunter, an early anatomist. The unnamed character is at first painfully and neurotically conflicted about having a child, feeling the desire for the child while at the same time fearing the responsibilities of parenthood, but even more so fearing that she will not connect with her child. All the while, she lets us know that in another time she has already had this child and is expecting another one.

We learn that the narrator’s mother, the daughter of a psychiatrist who is an unrelenting self-analyst, had her dreams interrogated so thoroughly as a child that she stopped having them. Thus, her mother attempts to live only on the surface. Greengrass explores how we can know another person, or even ourselves, through the focus of motherhood, daughterhood, and through ruminations about scientific discoveries.

She writes in a lovely, meticulous prose, although she often prefers long, complicated sentences. Like her microscopic observations, though, her style seems distanced from the reader. I read this novel for my James Tait Black prize project.

Outline

4321

Umbrella

Review 1813: Literary Wives! I’m Fine and Neither Are You

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!

Literary Wives Needs Your Help!

Recently, we’ve had some members resign, and we will miss them. Now we feel we are getting a little small for a club unless we can recruit a few new members. If you are interested in becoming one, please let one of us know.

What Does Membership Involve?

Although we started out as all wives, that’s not a requirement. Now we would just like people who are interested in reading and discussing how literature depicts wives and marriage. You will need to have your own blog on which to post your reviews so that we can link to it. We read four books a year and try to post our reviews on the same day. These days are the first Monday in March, June, September, and December.

When Would I Begin Working with the Club?

Our next book review isn’t until June, so it’s up to you to decide how much time you need to finish the book. However, right now, we are just beginning to select books for the next couple of years. Members are more engaged at this time in looking at lists of books, reading about them, and voting for their choices. We only do this every other year, but we will begin this process as soon as we get new members.

My Review

What seems at first to be a funny chick lit novel becomes a little more serious with a plot twist. Lately Penelope Ruiz-Kar feels like she’s barely keeping her head above water. She’s the main supporter of her family while her husband Sanjay sells an occasional article. But her job as a fundraiser for a university is stressful and requires a lot of overtime. (Although, just a little comment. The character mentions 50 hours a week, which for people in high tech is not a lot of overtime. Things are changing, though, which is good.) Sanjay doesn’t pick up much of the slack at home, and her youngest child, Miles, wakes her up every night, having wet his bed. She just feels exhausted.

She envies her best friend Jenny Sweet, who seems to lead a perfect life. Although Jenny’s husband Matt travels a lot for work, he seems to adore her, and they are financially better off than the Kars. But Penelope’s illusions are shattered when Jenny dies of an accidental overdose of opiates. Penelope wonders how she could not have noticed that Jenny was in trouble.

When Matt tells Penny that his marriage was in terrible shape despite appearances, she begins to think she needs to work on hers. After a discussion with Sanjay, they decide to give each other a list of things they would like the other to change. I wonder how they thought that would turn out?

This novel is entertaining and well written, but despite a few glitches at first, it went for too easy resolutions. Everyone should have such a near-perfect husband. The end result felt like chick lit after all.

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

Literary Wives logo

Pagán picks a common problem—the difficulties of a working mother. And these difficulties seem realistically portrayed, especially for a woman whose husband’s role as a house husband has largely lapsed without his taking on other duties. This is a fairly good marriage despite the couple’s difficulties, because Sanjay reacts reasonably to Penny’s suggestions (there are many husbands who wouldn’t), and even though they’re in a slump, he’s affectionate to her. It is actually Penny’s personal problem that interferes most with her job and at home, and that’s her pretending everything is okay and not asking for what she needs.

The miracle, and the thing that seems a little unrealistic to me, is that when she begins asking, she begins getting what she needs.

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