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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Day 933: The Night Stages

Cover for The Night StagesWhile reading The Night Stages, I kept wondering when, if ever, the stories of the characters would link up. The answer is, one character’s story does not, except metaphorically. Still, I thought the novel was at times poetic, and engrossing and affecting enough to recommend it.

It is post-World War II, and Tam is fleeing her married lover. Upset by a confrontation she had with him, she drove from her cottage in Kerry to Shannon Airport and took a flight to Gander in Newfoundland. There, she has been stranded by fog for several days. While she waits in the lounge, she examines a cryptic mural, Flight and Its Allegories by Kenneth Lochhead. Tam’s relationship with Niall has been poisoned, not by his thoughts of his wife Susan but by his memories of his lost brother Kieran.

Kieran as a boy suffers from rages that overpower him. When he was young, his mother and her chemist, both addicted to pain killers, committed suicide. His father finds it impossible to handle Kieran, who hears his mother’s voice inside the house, but Kieran likes the housekeeper, Gerry-Annie. When Gerry-Annie announces she is taking Kieran home with her to live, no one objects.

Kieran develops a deep love of the Kerry countryside and travels all over it on his bicycle. While Niall is studying in college to be a meteorologist like his father, Kieran is an unskilled laborer who loves the stories and songs of the country people. Then Kieran falls in love with Susan, Niall’s fiancée. The story climaxes around the Rás, a bicycle race through the Irish countryside.

Making the novel seem more diffuse is the introduction of Kenneth Lochhead as a character. We see how episodes from his life have inspired characters in his mural. But the description of the mural is a difficult thing to grasp just through text, and the small pictures that come up in Googling it convey very little, although I would love to see it sometime. It seems to me as though the emphasis on the mural and this character take away some of the power of the novel.

Flight is a recurring theme of the novel. Tam used to be a pilot during World War II, flying planes from one location in the U.K. to another. She is on a flight from her earthbound life in Ireland, and of course Kieran has flown Ireland. Then there are the descriptions of biking down the steep mountains and through the valleys of Kerry.

Although I think the novel would have been more cohesive without Kenneth, and in retrospect, Tam’s past as a flyer seems irrelevant (although making me wonder why the person she was before would put up with the situation with Niall), I was deeply involved in the story of Kieran, Susan, and Niall. I think this is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite accomplish its goals but is beautiful and definitely worth reading.

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Day 724: & Sons

Cover for & Sons& Sons is a novel about fathers and sons, but it is really most about sons and the effect on them of their father’s actions. It is also about the fate of a lifelong friendship.

The friendship seems to be the catalyst for events. Charles Topping has died, and his funeral is packed with people waiting to see his best friend, the reclusive novelist A. N. Dyer, give the eulogy. Dyer is noted for several excellent books, but Ampersand has become a classic about prep school life.

At the funeral, though, it becomes clear that Andrew Dyer himself isn’t quite all there. During the eulogy, he becomes upset about the whereabouts of his young son Andy and has to be removed from the podium.

The story is told by a narrator who is not at all trustworthy, Charles Toppings’ son Philip. When Andrew Dyer meets him at the funeral and finds he has split from his wife, he kindly invites him to stay.

This suits Philip, who grows more malevolent as we get to know him. He is on hand a few weeks later when the Dyers reunite at their father’s request to discuss something important. He can be there to eavesdrop and look through old papers, but generally he cannot possibly be privy to all the details of the story he tells.

Andrew Dyer has been estranged from his ex-wife and two sons since the family learned about the existence of his third son, Andy. Andy is now seventeen. Andrew has tried to avoid neglecting him, as he did his two other sons, and do a better job of bringing him up. But Andrew knows he is nearing the end and is afraid Andy will be alone. He fears Andy is just as messed up as the other sons, only in a different way. Andrew has formed another preoccupation about Andy that shows how divorced he is from reality.

Andrew’s oldest son Richard is an ex-drug addict who has stabilized his life with great difficulty. He is now a drug counselor and has a wife and two teen children. The other son Jamie is a documentary filmmaker whose films for years have dwelt on the darkest of subjects. Philip Topping has a grudge against both of them for the teasing he received as a child.

The novel is told using letters between Andrew and Charlie, passages from Ampersand, and other artifacts from Andrew’s life, as well as Philip’s testimony. We find Andrew feverishly manufacturing an “original draft” of Ampersand because he burned up the original manuscript in disgust at what he did to his old friend Charles in fiction. Now he needs one to leave with his papers.

I waited to write my review for a few days after I finished the book, and I’m still not sure how much I enjoyed the novel. It is well written and absorbing, and it provides a lot to think about.

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Day 686: Everything I Never Told You

Cover for Everything I Never Told YouI just applied a new look to my site! Let me know how you like it.

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From the beginning of Everything I Never Told You, we know that Lydia Lee is dead, but her family doesn’t, and it is awhile before we understand what happened. Lydia’s story has its roots in her family history.

In 1970’s small-town Ohio, the Lees are outsiders, the only mixed race family in town. James Lee is of Chinese heritage, a history professor at the local college. Marilyn Lee is white, a former Harvard medical student who gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor when she became pregnant with Nath, their son.

Once the police begin looking into Lydia’s disappearance, it soon becomes clear that she was leading a double life. Her parents believe her to be a popular girl and a good student with a brilliant future. But when police begin questioning her supposed friends after she is reported missing, the teens claim to hardly know her. She is close to failing some of her classes, and Nath is aware that she has been spending time with their neighbor, Jack, a boy with a bad reputation.

This novel is extremely sad, about the effect on young people of their parents’ insecurities and expectations, about misunderstandings and lack of communication, and about how an event in the family’s past affected Lydia’s behavior.

The novel is moving and well written, exploring the tensions between maintaining individuality and fitting in and the stresses caused by parents only wanting the best for their child. After being almost unremittingly sad for the entire novel, it ends on a more hopeful note, perhaps unrealistically.

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Day 685: A Thousand Acres

Cover of A Thousand AcresBest Book of the Week!
A Thousand Acres is a powerful novel set mostly in 1979 rural Iowa. It evokes a completely realized world that is complex and secret.

Ginny Smith has lived on the family farm all her life. Her husband Ty farms alongside her father, Larry Cook, and she and Ty live on what used to be their neighbor’s property, which Larry has bought to make his thousand acres of land. Ginny’s sister Rose also lives on the farm, and her husband Pete works with Larry as well, a bit less comfortably. The women’s youngest sister Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.

Ginny is proud of her family’s accomplishment in creating a fine, well-run farm out of the swampland her great-grandparents bought sight unseen. It soon becomes clear that the farm and the relationship to the land is the most important thing to her family—to all of the families in the area.

At a local barbecue, Larry makes an unexpected announcement. He will create a corporation of the farm and hand it over to his three daughters. Ginny, who is mild-mannered, is taken aback and has doubts, but she does not say anything. Rose seems to be enthusiastic. Caroline simply says “I don’t know,” at which point, Larry petulantly cuts her out. When she tries to approach him later, he slams the door in her face.

Harold Clark, another older farmer, has his prodigal son Jess return after an absence of many years. Almost immediately, he begins to favor Jess over his more loyal and hard-working son Loren.

If this all is beginning to sound familiar, it should, for A Thousand Acres is a modern re-imagining of King Lear. This novel, however, turns the original on its head, for we see it from the point of view of the two “greedy” sisters. In fact, Smiley accomplishes a rather clever trick, because while the neighbors and townspeople see events occur that, from their points of view, seem parallel to those of the play, the readers of the novel are conscious of a whole new layer of information, about how two old men lie and exaggerate when they don’t get their way, and how family secrets fuel Ginny’s timidity and Rose’s rage.

This novel presents complicated, flawed characters in a fully realized setting. It is really excellent and thought-provoking.

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Day 677: The History of Love

Cover of The History of LoveBest Book of the Week!
At times I wasn’t sure that I would be able to figure out what was going on in The History of Love. This feeling may not be unfamiliar to readers of Nicole Krauss. My book club was so frustrated by Great House a few years back that I had to draw a diagram to help figure out the series of owners of a desk. However, The History of Love eventually becomes clear, with an eminently satisfying ending.

For most of the novel, we follow two main characters. Leo Gursky is an old Jewish immigrant in New York, a survivor of the holocaust from Poland. Years ago he fell in love with Alma Mereminski but was separated from her just before World War II when she went to America. When he tracked her down after the war, she had married. Her oldest son, though, was 6.

Leo has led a lonely life, during which he yearned for Alma and for his unacknowledged son, Isaac Moritz, who became a famous writer. As an old man, he spends part of each day trying to draw attention to himself in some small way, so that if he dies that day, someone will have seen and remembered him.

Alma Singer is a lonely 14-year-old. Years ago her father died, and her mother has ever since lived a life of quasi-mourning, seldom coming out of her room and only doing some occasional translation work. Alma’s brother Bird is a strange boy who believes he is blessed by god. He is preparing an ark for the coming flood.

Alma has been trying to find a boyfriend for her mother so she won’t be sad. One project that interests her mother is a request to translate a book called The History of Love by Zvi Litvinoff that had a small publication run in Chile. This book was very important to Alma’s parents, and Alma was named after a character in the book. Alma thinks she perhaps can strike up a relationship between her mother and the man who requested the translation. But then she notices that the only character in the book who doesn’t have a Spanish name is Alma Mereminski. Reasoning that it may be a real person’s name, she decides to find Alma.

It is Leo who actually wrote The History of Love, we understand, inspired by his love for Alma. But then what happened?

This novel is intricate and vividly imagined. Ultimately, it is emotionally involving. I did not really enjoy the excerpts from the novel within the novel, which seem to be trying too hard to be profound, but those make up only a very small part of the book.

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Day 668: The Sea

Cover for The SeaIn this contemplative novel, recently widowed Max Morden returns to the small Irish seaside resort where his family used to live when he was a boy. It was there he met and became fascinated by the Grace family, much above his own in social strata.

Max’s memories are assisted by his residence as a boarder at The Cedars, the house where the Graces stayed that summer. The Cedars has become a boarding house that is now managed by Miss Vavasour.

The young Max became the companion of the Grace’s oddly feral twins, Chloe and Myles. They are two very unpleasant children who torment their teenage nanny Rose. At first infatuated with the voluptuous Mrs. Grace, Max eventually turns his attentions to the spiky Chloe.

Through his memories of the extraordinary events of that summer and his feelings about his wife’s death, Max eventually gains some self-knowledge. Looking back, he also gains some understanding of the dynamics between people that he did not grasp as a child.

The Sea is stylistically exquisite, with its sussurating and rhythmic prose a striking meditation on death, grief, and memory. Although I guessed one of its revelations much earlier than intended, that did not take away from the power of the prose.

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