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 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 1808: The House in the Cerulean Sea

I have to confess to having picked this book out because of its cover and title. What a great word “cerulean” is.

Linus Baker is a caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He goes completely by the book, which may be why he is selected for an unusual task—to investigate the orphanage on the island of Marsyas where seven magical orphans live under the tutelage of Dr. Parnassus. He is instructed to report everything.

On the island, he meets Dr. Parnassus as well as Ms. Chapelwhite, a sprite who helps with the cooking and care of the house and children, and the seven orphans. These unusual children include Lucy, the six-year-old Antichrist.

This novel is well written and occasionally amusing, but I don’t read much fantasy, and when I do, I have high requirements for it. This isn’t really my genre. But my biggest problem with it was trying to decide who it was written for. It reads like a children’s book and its sense of humor is juvenile. However, Linus and Dr. Parnassus have conversations on such topics as Kant and I think it was Schopenhauer that would certainly be above most kids’ heads, and he uses vocabulary (like “self-flagellation”) that seems aimed at adults. In addition, the novel features a love story between two middle-aged men, which doesn’t seem as if it would appeal to even gay children, so more for adults. But the tone of the piece smacks of children’s literature, and not necessarily good children’s literature.

Finally, though, the novel was just too saccharine to appeal to me. I ended up reading about 2/3 of it but eventually decided that I wasn’t invested in the outcome. The kids were cute but kind of one-dimensional, although I thought the concept of Lucy was clever and sometimes funny.

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Review 1799: Summer Will Show

I have enjoyed the two other books I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, but I am not as sure how I feel about Summer Will Show. According to the Introduction by Claire Harman, the two main characters bear a strong resemblance to Warner’s real-life companion, Valentine Ackland (Sophia) and herself (Minna). This may be the problem I have with this novel, because, as with Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge, depicting a semblance of her own true-life relationship, I think perhaps the closeness of the relationship inhibits the writing. In this case, I didn’t really get the attraction between the two women. It didn’t seem convincing.

in 1848, Sophia Willoughby has been running her estate and raising her children on her own for some time. She has long tolerated her husband’s affairs, but when she hears of one with Minna Lemuel, she is enraged. Minna is famous as a sort of actress/prostitute/mountebank, and she is not only unattractive but older than Sophia. Sophia tells her husband Frederick he can stay in Paris.

Although Sophia is an extremely competent manager, she is impatient in many ways with her woman’s role. She wants to live a free life. She is not happy in society and has no friends. Although an attentive mother, she thinks her children are too soft and doesn’t coddle them. Then a mistaken attempt to toughen them up ends in their deaths.

With no one to care for, Sophia decides to go Paris and talk her husband into having another child with her. She arrives there as the Parisians are preparing for another revolution.

In searching for Frederick, Sophia meets Minna and is immediately captivated. In a short time, she is caring for her instead of a new child. Minna is a revolutionary, however, and although Sophia is skeptical of the movement, whose advocates seem to hang around Minna’s flat and do little, she is slowly drawn to Communism. In the meantime, Paris is starving.

Aside from what I felt was an unconvincing love affair, I wasn’t really interested in the revolutionary setting or the turn to Communism, which wasn’t very coherently explained. I was also appalled by Sophia’s treatment of Caspar, her husband’s illegitimate half-caste son. So, not so excited about this one.

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Review 1676: The Last of the Wine

It’s the fifth century BC, and the Peloponnesian War has been going on as long as Alexias can remember. As a boy almost reaching manhood, he is more interested in his training as a runner and the teachings of Sokrates. He is often at odds with his father, who has a poor opinion of the Sophists, in which group he includes all the philosophers. Alexias is a beautiful boy who fends off in disgust the advances of his father’s friend Kritias, but he eventually falls in love with Lysis, a man about 10 years older than he, and they form a fast friendship.

Things change as his father Myrom is dispatched to fight against Syracuse. The city of Athens has approved an attack proposed by the charismatic, mercurial Alkibiades. Then, shortly before the fleet is due to leave, someone destroys all the Herms in town, and Alkibiades is accused of this impious act. He leaves with the fleet and is found guilty in his absence without a trial, so he flees, leaving the fleet without the only leader who could have prevailed. Myron is sent with the second wave of warriors.

Before Alexias has even reached his official manhood, he goes off with Lysis to fight Spartans encroaching into the Attican farmlands. The Spartans attack every year to steal or spoil the harvest. The novel follows the two in war, under siege, in famine, and in civil conflict through 10 turbulent years in the history of Greece.

As usual, Renault’s novel is meticulously researched and elegantly written. After so recently reading her Alexander trilogy, though, I began to feel a sameness about her writing. The narration from book to book sounds the same to me, not like different characters (except the one narrated by the Persian boy), and she examines the same themes in Greek culture, although the books are set in different times. Maybe I’m just a little tired of ancient Greece. I read this book for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1645: The 1936 Club! Nightwood

When I looked for books to read for the 1936 Club, I picked a couple of rereads, as I usually do, but also tried to find one I hadn’t read before. That novel was Nightwood, which I had heard of for years.

T. S. Eliot, who wrote the original Introduction and had a great deal to do with its publication, said that it would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry.” That comment struck dread into my heart, because I am not a big poetry reader. And indeed this is a difficult novel.

The plot is relatively slight. Felix, an Austrian Jew and pseudo-baron, marries Robin Vote because he wants a son to pass his heritage to. Robin is an enigma whom we only see through the eyes of those infatuated with her. She is boyish, and the Doctor, an intersex character who is also an enigma, implies that she is also intersex. Robin seems to view motherhood with horror, so she leaves Felix with his son and takes up with Nora, who is madly in love with her and spends most of her time dragging her, dead drunk, out of sleazy Parisian nightclubs. Then Robin dumps Nora for Jenny, a woman who always wants what other people have.

All the characters are distraught.

The novel is most known for its style and language. It is crammed with images and metaphor, but it is difficult to understand what the characters are talking about, especially the Doctor. I felt like I understood him less than half the time.

The novel seems filled with dread, as it might well in pre-World War II Europe, even though its characters’ preoccupations are not political. I found it disturbing, thought-provoking, and astonishing.

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Review 1332: Fire from Heaven

Cover for Fire from HeavenIt seems like I’m in the middle of a lot of trilogies lately. I just wrote up my review of the last of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy (coming soon) and in two weeks the review of the first book in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy will appear. I actually just finished reading the second book in that trilogy (review coming in a few months) and liked it enough to purchase her Levant Trilogy. Now, here’s the beginning of another trilogy. Fire from Heaven is the first book in the great Mary Renault’s trilogy about the life of Alexander the Great. Renault, of course, is known for the historical accuracy, admired by authors and classicists, of her novels set in Ancient Greece.

Fire from Heaven follows the life of Alexander from the age of four to nineteen, when he became king of Macedon. His life is plagued by the battles between his mother, Olympia, allegedly a sorceress, and his father, King Philip. Philip’s crime is to have taken additional wives, even though Olympia is at total enmity with him. She sees this as a mortal affront and teaches her children to hate him. She is also cagey about whether Philip is actually Alexander’s father, hinting that he is not.

As Alexander gets older and begins learning about fighting and diplomacy from his father, they begin to understand each other. Olympia’s machinations and Philip’s womanizing continually create problems and misunderstandings, however.

An important person to Alexander is his friend Hephaistion, who becomes his lover. The two are inseparable, and Alexander is fascinated by the Sacred Band of Thebes, a group of soldiers composed of pairs of lovers, said to fight the more doggedly because of it.

This novel is rich in the intrigues among the city-states of the area, the myths surrounding Alexander’s life, and the depth of characterization. I read it long ago but found I didn’t remember it well and am pleased to have begun rereading this trilogy.

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Day 1211: Days Without End

Cover for Days Without EndI so much enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side when I read it for my Walter Scott Prize project that I was excited to see his Days Without End on the shortlist, too. Again, his protagonist is an Irish immigrant to the U. S., but this time a man, Tom McNulty.

Tom and his best friend, John Cole, enlist in the army sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. Their job in Daggsville has disappeared with the miners. That job, which they have had since they were boys, was to dress up like women and dance with the miners.

Tom and John enjoy the army but have some difficult experiences when their unit is sent west to deal with Native Americans. After some brutal experiences, they leave the army, taking with them a little Native American girl they call Winona. Although she is purportedly their servant, they treat her as a daughter.

Tom and John are lovers, and they have adventures that have raised some skepticism among other bloggers, particularly when Tom goes back to cross dressing to entertain miners in Grand Rapids. Some commenters did not believe this act would be accepted so easily during that time. I’m not sure what I think about that, except that Barry presented it in a convincing way.

In Tom, Barry creates an engaging character, and his descriptions of events, many of them horrific, as Tom and John go from serving in the Indian Wars to the Civil War, is masterful. However, none of the other characters in the novel were fully developed, including John.

This lack, and my doubts about the probabilities of some of the situations in which the pair find themselves lessened my enjoyment in this novel. It is certainly worth reading, but I didn’t like it as much as On Canaan’s Side.

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Day 1207: White Houses

Cover for White HousesAmy Bloom’s latest novel, White Houses, leads me to a topic that I’ve mentioned before. I think it is important, when writing fiction about real people, to keep their characters true to that of the original person. Historians disagree about whether Eleanor Roosevelt’s warm friendship with Lorena Hickok was a full-blown lesbian affair. Those who believe it was, base their supposition on Eleanor’s exuberant letters. Those who do not, base it on Eleanor’s dislike of being touched. I think that’s significant, and I think people these days misinterpret the tone of letters from earlier times, when friends expressed themselves more affectionately than we do.

Amy Bloom has chosen to believe that the women’s relationship was a lesbian affair, and that’s what White Houses is about—and all that it’s about. It is written from the point of view of Lorena Hickok—or Hicky, as she was called.

link to NetgalleyThe novel paints a relatively convincing portrait of Eleanor, although I don’t buy the bed bouncing, and it is a sad story and ultimately touching. Its premise, though, makes me uncomfortable for the reasons stated above.

Franklin does not appear in a positive light, and in terms of their marriage, he should not. The character study of Hicky as a downright, plain-speaking reporter who gave up her career for love is a good one, and one I can believe.

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Day 1178: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover for Do Not Say We Have NothingBest of Five!
When Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was so popular, I was not a fan. I disliked how the two male college students patronized and abused the girl, even though she won through in the end. I also vaguely felt that the events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution were being trivialized, even though I was not really sure about the facts. Reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing confirmed that I was right.

Marie is a young immigrant Chinese girl living in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1991. She and her mother are confused and grieved, because after the family escaped from China, her father, Jiang Kai, first deserted them to move to Hong Kong and later committed suicide.

Marie’s mother receives a call from China, from Ling, the wife of Jiang Kai’s beloved teacher, Sparrow. Ling says that her daughter, Ai-Ming, has had to leave China because of involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests, but she has missed the amnesty offered by the U.S. Ling asks that they give Ai-Ming a home.

Ai-Ming becomes an older sister to Marie. She tells her stories about her family—her great uncle, Wen the Dreamer, who courted her aunt Swirl with chapters from a forbidden book called the Book of Records; her grandparents, Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute, wandering musicians; and her father Sparrow, a composer of music. Ai-Ming tells of the days of her father, her cousin Jhuli, and Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, at the Shanghai Conservatory. Shadowing all their lives is the Cultural Revolution and its horrible excesses—murder and exile of intellectuals, forced denunciations of relatives, ransacked homes, humiliation and ruining of the innocent.

At first, I was irritated by the style of Ai-Ming’s story, which feels a little like a fairy tale, but it was not long before I was completely absorbed in it. The novel is a heart-rending tale about identity, music, love, and political destructiveness. This was another excellent book that I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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