Day 1085: House of Names

Cover for House of NamesColm Toíbín has written some unusual novels, and such is House of Names. It is basically the Oresteia, and we can’t expect happy endings from the Ancient Greeks.

The novel begins with Clytemnestra. On his way to the Trojan War, Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, summons her and her daughter, Iphigenia, telling her that Iphigenia is to marry Achilles. But Agamemnon is lying. Iphigenia is to be sacrificed for the cause of favorable winds that will get the soldiers across the sea to Troy.

Clytemnestra despises Agamemnon for the deception and his readiness to sacrifice their daughter. She vows to murder Agamemnon when he returns from the war. To take command of the kingdom, she allies with Aegisthus, the enemy whom Agamemnon has kept captive for years. But Clytemnestra finds that she is not in charge after all.

link to NetgalleyOrestes is a boy when Iphigenia was sacrificed, but he sees what happens to her from afar. Returning home, he is imprisoned with the country’s other boys in Clytemnestra’s attempt to intimidate the villagers. But Orestes has been taken prisoner by Aegisthus. Clytemnestra did not intend him to go with the other boys.

And then there is Electra.

Beautifully written like all of Toíbín’s work, this novel is an interesting interpretation of an old legend, based on the plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. It is eerie and harrowing.

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Day 1084: Dictator

Cover for DictatorDictator is the final volume in Robert Harris’s trilogy about the great Roman statesman, Cicero. This trilogy has truly been spell-binding.

The novel begins in dark times for Cicero, when he and his family are hounded out of Rome by Julius Caesar, his greatest enemy. Cicero was made to look ridiculous in Colleen McCullough’s series about Caesar, but Harris sees him differently, as a man staunchly in support of the dying Republic. On the other hand, McCullough pictured Caesar much more sympathetically, while Harris shows him as a man run mad with the desire for power.

For me, this novel flagged just a little bit in the middle, while momentous events in Rome are described from afar. I think my reaction is partly because I thought I knew what happened to Cicero and was dreading it. But I actually didn’t know my Roman history that well, so I was a little bit off. In any case, the novel picks right up as soon as Cicero rejoins the action.

Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite historical novelists. He writes a good, tight political thriller based on true events. I am already looking for his most recent novel.

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Day 1080: Moonglow

Cover for MoonglowMichael Chabon’s newest novel is supposedly inspired by his grandfather’s stories before he died. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take that literally, if only because he also says the novel was inspired by the stories of his mother’s uncle. In any case, it is a wandering, fascinating story of a complex life.

Grandfather’s stories begin with that of his arrest, when he was fired from his job to provide a place for Alger Hiss, newly out of jail, and attacked the corporation’s vice president. He was left with a hospitalized mentally ill wife and their teenage daughter. But the story wanders back and forth in time from his grandfather’s childhood in Philadelphia, his experiences searching for German scientists at the end of World War II, his work in the space industry. And always, there is his interest in the moon and space travel.

As always, Chabon manages to tackle some weighty topics while entertaining us like crazy. In this novel, he tackles German atrocities during the war and the stain they put on our own space program. Still, Grandfather’s life reads very much like an adventure story.

I really enjoyed this novel, much more so than I did Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes I enjoy Chabon more than other times, but I always find the journey interesting.

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Day 1078: How to Be Both

Cover for How to Be BothI thought How to Be Both was only a bit experimental until I read that the book, which is divided into two related stories, appears in some editions with one story first and in the other editions with the other first. I can see that switching the order of the stories would change the novel quite a bit.

In the version I read, a Renaissance artist watches a boy who is really a girl look at one of the artist’s paintings hundreds of years after the artist has died. The artist follows the girl through a few incidents in her life. As the painter follows her, we learn about the painter’s own life.

I am purposefully not using a pronoun to refer to the artist, because we learn fairly early that the painter is a woman passing as a man to receive art instruction and be able to work as an artist. Only a few people know he is a woman, and he comes down through posterity as a man.

In the second story, a teenage girl named George is grieving the death of her mother. As she copes with her feelings, she remembers conversations between them. Shortly before her death, her mother took George and her brother Henry to Italy just so she could see the work of the painter from the first story.

This novel is about the role of art in our lives, but it is also about finding ourselves and about the relationships between mother and daughter. George’s mother tries to challenge George by presenting her with provocative ideas. Some of these ideas are difficult to grapple with.

Although during the first pages I didn’t think I was going to like this novel, I found both of the stories and the connection between them deeply interesting. This novel is another surprising shortlister (surprising for me, that is) for the Booker Prize that I probably would not otherwise have read. I’m glad I did.

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Day 1074: Pure

Cover for PureThe subject matter of Pure is unusual, and at times the events within the novel seem almost dreamlike in nature. It is an imaginative novel that evokes a real sense of place and period.

In pre-revolutionary France, Jean-Baptiste Baratte awaits a minister in Versailles to ask for employment. He is a young engineer and is hopeful to be given an interesting project.

He does get a job, but he is disappointed in its nature. The cemetery of les Innocents in Paris is so stuffed with remains that the nearby neighborhoods are being polluted. Jean-Baptiste is to oversee the removal of the remains and eventually the church. For the sake of discretion, he is not supposed to reveal his mission until he must.

The novel follows the provincial Jean-Baptiste for a year as he explores Paris and pursues his project. It conveys a strong sense of the city and of the effect of the cemetery on nearby residents.

This is another novel that I probably wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been on my Walter Scott prize list. It is an interesting novel, reminding me a bit of Viper Wine.

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Day 1069: The Twisted Sword

Cover for The Twisted SwordA short side note before starting my review for today. The shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker prize was recently announced. You can see the shortlist on my Man Booker Prize Project page. I am getting behind on that project, having read hardly any of the books for the most recent years. I have one excuse besides too many books, too little time, and that is that some of them have been hard to locate.

* * *

It was a nice change to have most of this penultimate novel of the Poldark Saga be more about Ross and Demelza than their children. It is 1815, more than 30 years since the start of the series. At the beginning of the novel, Ross is summoned to London.

The Napoleonic Wars have been a backdrop to most of the series and come to the fore in this one. Although Napoleon is exiled to Elba, the British government is getting conflicting reports about the loyalty of the French army toward the Bourbon government. England is depending upon the stability of France, so the Prime Minister wants Ross to travel with his family to Paris as an independent observer and make visits to various army regiments.

Ross and Demelza take their two youngest children and ask Dwight and Caroline to join them later. The family enjoys Paris despite Demelza’s fears about her social skills and lack of French. Ross finds that one of the sore points in the French army is the return of the aristocrats, who demand their old positions from men who have been fighting for years. Of course, no one knows that Napoleon is shortly due to escape from Elba.

I enjoyed this novel, with its focus on well-known characters, more than I have the last two or three. I think this enjoyment is mostly because I don’t find the Poldark’s children very interesting, and they certainly don’t make good decisions. We spend time with some of them, though, particularly Clowance and her husband Stephen, as Stephen finds that George Warleggan’s help isn’t what it appears to be.

All in all, I am happy to be nearly finished with this series. It started out very good, but now I am just determined to finish it.

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Day 1067: The Boston Girl

Cover for The Boston GirlI keep trying Anita Diamant, hoping to encounter something as good as The Red Tent. So far, however, I have not read anything by her that comes close.

The Boston Girl is about the life of Addie Baum, the child of Jewish immigrants, from her young womanhood in 1915 until she is an old woman in 1985. It is written in the first person, as if Addie is speaking to her granddaughter.

This narrative styles is probably the biggest weakness of the novel. It is not a traditional narrative but one person’s side of a conversation. Although Addie does all the talking, occasionally she addresses her granddaughter directly, and that has a false, jarring effect.

In addition, although the narrative does tell a story, it is broken up more like a series of anecdotes. This style removes most of the tension from the novel, and there is no sense of a narrative arc. There is no climax.

The story deals mostly with Addie’s thirst for knowledge and her desire to accomplish more in her life than working in a factory. She also strives to earn a word of approval from her mother. She could have been an interesting and compelling character, but none of the characters in this novel feel fully formed.

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