Day 1041: Enon

Cover for EnonEnon is the second novel by Paul Harding and it follows the story of the same family as in his first novel, Tinkers. That novel was about George Crosby and his memories of his epileptic father. Enon is about George’s grandson, Charlie Crosby, and his life in the village of Enon.

At the beginning of Enon, Charlie’s beloved 13-year-old daughter Kate is killed when her bicycle is hit by a car. Soon after, without much attempt to work anything out, Charlie’s wife Susan returns to her parents’ home and he never hears from her again. Charlie begins a downward spiral into grief, anger, and an addiction to pain killers.

In some respects, Enon is a little more accessible than Tinkers. It is characterized by the same beautiful prose, especially in the descriptions of nature. Further, the setting in the old New England village with its sense of history is fully imagined.

Yet, I wasn’t so interested in watching Charlie fall apart, nor did I enjoy his hallucinogenic dreams about Kate, where she turns to obsidian, for example. I’m starting to realize I don’t enjoy reading about dreams in fiction.

I was also nonplussed by Charlie’s relationship to Susan. No wonder their marriage fell apart. Although they seem to be a happy family at the beginning of the novel, Susan is always somewhere folding clothes while Charlie and Kate go off on adventures. I was surprised when she left just a few days after Kate’s death, but it became clear she wasn’t important to her own family.

So, if this subject matter attracts you, you might enjoy this book more than I did.

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Day 1035: Literary Wives: The Wife

Cover for The WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

I’ve only read one other book by Meg Wolitzer, and I found it mildly interesting. The Wife, however, I found much more impressive.

Joan Castleman is traveling to Finland at the beginning of the novel. Her husband Joe is a famous novelist, and he is on his way to accept the Helsinki Prize for literature. On the flight, Joan decides their marriage is over. For too long, Joan has put up with Joe’s selfishness, including his infidelities. But their marriage is founded on a more fundamental lie.

The novel flashes back to incidents in the couple’s life, beginning with Joe’s seduction of her when she was a Smith co-ed in the 50’s and he was her literature instructor. Their relationship caused the end of his marriage and his fatherhood of a new baby.

Aside from a deft and insightful portrait of the end of a marriage, this novel deals with such feminist themes as the bias against women in the publishing industry and the sexual politics of marriage. Although I sometimes dislike Wolitzer’s apparent fascination with bodily functions, I found this carefully observed novel both dryly amusing and terribly sad. It had a twist that I saw coming, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

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

Although this novel comments on the experience of wives from the Greatest Generation, these experiences continue, in their own way, in many current-day marriages. In her marriage, Joan continually caters to the needs of her selfish and unfaithful husband on the grounds that he is a great writer. But she does even more for him than raise the kids, keep his house, meet his every need, and be a loyal wife. In fact, their relationship is entirely one-sided, with him becoming ever fatter and more self-satisfied.

In fact, the sacrifices Joan makes for her husband are shocking. But I am determined not to tell too much. Although Joan thinks the bargains they’ve made are exciting at first, she goes into her marriage with extreme naivety. In fact, over time, it is difficult to understand what Joan gets from the marriage at all, while it is clear what Joe gets from it.

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Day 1030: Outline

Cover for OutlineIt was hard for me to decide what I thought of Rachel Cusk’s novel, Outline. It is a difficult novel to describe and seems to be an experiment in fiction. It consists of a series of dialogues where most of the time only one side of the conversation is reported.

The almost unnamed narrator, Faye, is a writer on her way to Athens to teach a writing class. Something about her encourages the people she meets to tell her their stories. The narrator herself seems to be exploring the possibilities of passivity so that she doesn’t herself do or say much; instead, things happen to her. But not much, and that isn’t the point.

The characters’ monologues are written as little gems—sparely expressed and containing interesting intellectual ideas. But there are too many of them for me now to remember which concepts struck me. The overall effect is very cerebral, even though some of the characters express strong emotions.

I am not generally fond of monologues. It was hard for me to tell whether we are to assume that the narrator seldom speaks or whether, as one reviewer assumed, her part of the dialogue has been excised. In addition, the monologues are not written as speech but mostly as narrative, lending even more inertness to the work. I remember going to a play called “Danton’s Death” where instead of talking to each other, the characters took turns declaiming. The effect to me was a series of rants. This novel doesn’t have that effect because of the narrative. I was interested in the characters’ stories, but I wasn’t moved by them.

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Day 1016: Orfeo

Cover for OrfeoBest Book of the Week!
Richard Powers is clearly a lot smarter than I am, for I did not always understand him. But I enjoyed his novel Orfeo immensely. It is by coincidence the second reworking of a Greek myth that I’ve read recently.

Peter Els had a career as an avante-garde composer, although with one exception most of his works were only heard by a few hundred people. Now retired, he has taken up a hobby in chemistry, the field he originally intended to work in. Although he has broken no laws, he is trying an experiment to compose music that will last forever, in the genetic code of bacteria.

When his dog unexpectedly dies, an unfortunate series of incidents brings the police to his door. They are alarmed by his chemical periphernalia. He thinks all he will have to do is explain himself, but when he arrives home to find Homeland Security raiding his house, he flees in alarm.

During his flight, he revisits the memories from his past. Most of these have to do with music, and Powers’ use of prose is lyrical as it describes what Peter hears and imagines. The world for Peter is full of music, from bird song or a penny whistle to the most formidably intellectual modern composition. I wasn’t familiar with many of the pieces Powers describes, but his descriptions make me want to hear them.

Although Powers’ writing can be so cerebral that it is thought by some to limit its emotional power, I did not find that to be the case with this novel, even though I did not grasp every idea. Ils decides to visit the important people from his past to make amends for any wrongs he’s done them. As he travels, we continue to revisit his memories. A strong theme of paranoia in the post-9/11 world also prevails.

I found this a touching and powerful novel, full of the joy of music. It probably also includes the best evocation of the creative scene from the 60’s that I’ve ever read.

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Day 1011: Once in a Blue Moon Lodge

Cover for Once in a Blue Moon LodgeIn the present day, Nora is writing a memoir for her three triplet daughters to tell them about their lives. She begins explaining how she got pregnant after a one-night stand just before she met the love of her live.

The novel begins in Minneapolis, where Nora’s mother Patty Jane is closing down her “salon within a salon,” that is, a hair salon where she schedules cultural activities. But soon enough, Nora gets an offer to buy a stunning lake house from an eccentric older woman.

This novel is crammed with eccentric characters, and that is one of its problems. It has so many eccentric characters, what with complicated familial relationships, Patty Jane’s former customers, and various friends, I couldn’t keep them straight because we learn very little about them. Instead of building fully realized characters, Landvik simply throws out a few details about each one or briefly shifts the focus to one and then shifts it back. I see that this novel is a sequel or closely related to Landvik’s previous novel, so perhaps she is relying on people’s knowledge of the previous novel to know who these people are. But I hadn’t read it, and some of the characters are new. Since the novel is supposed to be written by Nora, the shifting point of view is a problem. Why would we suddenly get several paragraphs from, for example, Henry’s point of view (Henry being Nora’s mother’s lover’s son)?

link to NetgalleyAnother problem is the plot, at first relatively easy to follow even though broken up by many unsignaled time shifts. But after Nora has her triplets, the story seems to lose focus and we just get anecdotes as the girls age. In fact, there are really no ups and downs or climaxes, except ones we can predict.

When you combine all this with an unrelieved feel-good quality, you’ve probably guess that it isn’t my style. I can actually get into a novel full of eccentric but nice characters and can think of many that I’ve loved. But they have to be well executed and funny. This one isn’t.

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Day 1009: The Miracle on Monhegan Island

Cover for The Miracle on Monhegan IslandI enjoyed Elizabeth Kelly’s The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, so I was pleased to find she had written another novel. I felt a further pleasure in store because of its setting. Ever since I found online a map of the island with links and information about rental cottages, I’ve dreamed of renting a cottage on Monhegan Island.

I didn’t count on the dog, though. This novel is narrated by a Pekingese named Ned, a truly intelligent Pekingese with lots of insight to offer. I could almost buy this approach in The Art of Racing in the Rain, but not quite. Here, I didn’t buy it at all.

Ned is stolen from the back of his car by Spark Monahan, who takes him as a gift for his son Hally, whom he hasn’t seen in four years. Hally has been living on Monhegan Island with Spark’s father Pastor Ragnar and his brother Hugh.

Spark is the family black sheep, but Ragnar has recently also run into trouble. He was in charge of a concert on the island, but his security wasn’t able to handle the number of people who tried to attend it for free. Now he is being sued for proceeds that were never collected from the people who got in without paying. He is the pastor of a church he basically invented and has the ambition to be a cult leader.

Hally is just beginning to find out some of the secrets of his family, and he finds them upsetting. One day when he is off by himself, he returns claiming to have seen and spoken to the Virgin Mary. Pastor Ragnar latches on to this event and starts trying to make the most of it, while Hugh and Spark more or less passively object. At a second event, people attending claim to see odd effects in the sunlight, and soon Hally is receiving national attention.

Spark and Hugh know that Hally’s mother was mentally ill when she died, so they are worried about Hally. But no one actually does anything to stop Ragnar.

Aside from the problems of the narration, Kelly leaves nothing unsaid. The dog is always pointing things out to you in case you missed them. At the same time her focus is all over the place. There are discussions about religion and faith, mental illness, inheritance, celebrity. The characters, the most interesting part of the novel, sometimes get lost in the baggage.

Also, I missed the darker overtones of the previous novel. Although this novel provides plenty of dark overtones, it lands solidly in the feel-good zone by the end, which for me is not necessarily a good thing.

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Day 1007: Perfume River

Cover for Perfume RiverYears ago I greatly enjoyed Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. This set of short stories about Vietnam and its aftermath was beautifully written.

It’s 24 years later, and Butler is still thinking about Vietnam. His newest novel is about how a family and a homeless man are all affected in their own ways by the war.

Robert Quinlan is a Vietnam veteran who at 70 is now a university history professor. All his life, he’s tried to please his father, and his military service was part of that effort. Despite his administrative position, he had to kill a man during the Tet offensive. He is still affected by the incident and has never spoken about it at home.

Shortly before he shipped out, Robert’s younger brother Jimmy fled to Canada as a draft dodger. Their father disowned him. Now their father has broken his hip, and their mother asks Robert to try to talk Jimmy into coming home.

The homeless man Bob is also affected by Vietnam because his father was a veteran. Growing up with his father’s PTSD has affected his mental health.

link to NetgalleyI read more than half of this novel, but I grew increasingly impatient with it. The novel is closely observed but maybe too closely. All of the characters seemed to be obsessively evaluating each other’s every little action. It moves excruciatingly slowly. I felt like this novel was bogged down in detail. So, I didn’t finish it, even though the writing was beautiful.

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