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 928: The View from Castle Rock

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe View from Castle Rock is an earlier Munro collection of short stories than Family Furnishings, which I previously reviewed. Since Family Furnishings is an anthology of Munro’s stories over the course of her career, I had already read several of the stories in The View from Castle Rock.

All of these stories have to do with the history of Munro’s family. In “No Advantages,” she has traveled to the area of Scotland where the Laidlaws came from. This story incorporates excerpts from other writings and quotes the epitaphs of some of her ancestors. It explains their hard life and the kinds of people her 18th century ancestors were.

In “The View from Castle Rock” Munro relates a family legend about how their drunken great-great-great grandfather James Laidlaw took his son Andrew up onto Castle Rock in Edinburgh to view America, probably as a joke, since they were looking at Fife. Although he talks of emigration throughout his life, he is unhappy when some of his sons finally take him and their families to America. This story is about their voyage and the fates of some of the family on board.

Other stories are more recent. “Hired Girl” is about a summer when Munro worked as a hired girl at a beach house on an island. For that summer, she had to learn that her employers did not consider her an equal. This was a tough lesson, as her mother especially had always had some pretensions of superiority even though they were poor.

In “Home” she revisits home after living away for some years. Her father has remarried after her mother’s death, and her old house has changed almost completely.

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe stories in this collection are powerful, relating the hard life of her family farming and raising fur, their close-mouthed quality, pride, and stubbornness. She is courageous in her ability to look at everything with honesty, even her own foibles.

One comment I have to make is on the cover of my Vintage International edition, shown here. It has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of the book and gives an entirely misleading idea of the stories. The only story that even faintly is about a beach is “Hired Girl,” and the girl is not exactly lying around in the sand. Sometimes I wonder what publishers are thinking. The cover that I used at top is much better.

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Day 888: Tinkers

Cover for TinkersGeorge Crosby lies dying. He is an old man who retired and then became a clock repairman for 30 years. As he dies, he remembers the life of his father, who was a tinker—a traveling salesman of household items in the rural wilds of Maine—and an epileptic. In a way, of course, George also tinkers, with clocks.

This novel’s writing is truly astounding. Harding has a way of examining ideas and objects down to the bone. At other times, musings seem almost hallucinogenic. I wasn’t sure I understood the point of view, though. If all of the novel is from the point of view of George, as most reviews of the book seem to imply, how does he know what happened to Howard, his father—or is he imagining a life for his father?

To me, the novel seems to be about both men, in particular, about the circumstances that led to George being raised without his father. In the hard primitive life of backwoods Maine, George’s mother is resentful and cold. It is his father who is more considering and thoughtful, but a poor provider who might stop to weave pallets of grass instead of selling his goods. After a particularly bad epileptic attack, the only one witnessed by the Crosby children, George’s mother decides to have their father committed.

This novel was difficult for me to read, because I was so interested in some aspects of the plot that I glanced over some of the gorgeous prose or couldn’t concentrate on it (not my usual approach). The prose is the point of this book, however, and the meditations it evokes.

I believe this book is related to another book that also bought. I can’t remember if it is the sequel to the other book, or the other book is a sequel to it. I’ll be interested to see if reading both books enlightens me more.

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Day 869: Snow

Cover for SnowSnow is a charming picture book I got for my nephew for Christmas. It is a Caldecott Medal winner with beautiful pictures.

A boy sees a snowflake and says it is snowing, but the adults dismiss it. The radio says it isn’t supposed to snow.

But the weather has other ideas. Soon snow is everywhere. The boy and his dog frolic in the snow, and some Mother Goose figures come down from a sign and frolic with them.

Written for little children or early readers, this is a delightful book with lovely pictures.

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Day 862: The Remains of the Day

Cover for The Remains of the DayBest Book of the Week!
Having seen the movie The Remains of the Day years ago, I think it is just as well I waited so long to read it. Even so, some of the book’s scenes made me envision the movie, though I had forgotten most of it.

Stevens is the butler for Darlington House in the 1950’s. Lord Darlington, whom he served for 30 years, is gone, and now Stevens works for Mr. Farraday, an American. At Mr. Farraday’s suggestion, he has decided to take a holiday to visit the former Miss Keaton, who used to be the housekeeper in Darlington House. He surmises that her marriage is not altogether happy. She has split from her husband, and Stevens hopes she will agree to return to Darlington House as housekeeper. As he travels, he keeps a diary reflecting his thoughts on the journey.

To Stevens, his professional capabilities are the most important areas of his life. He reflects a great deal on such concepts as what dignity consists of. He has removed himself emotionally from the events of his own life, so much so that when his father is dying in the house, he won’t leave the dinner party he is serving. Stevens’ dedication is taken to such an extreme that when he sees in Mr. Farraday a disposition to banter with him, he, who has no sense of humor, begins to practice witticisms.

The Remains of the Day is the striking portrait of a unique individual as he comes to consider some of his life’s decisions. He has devoted his life to the service of Lord Darlington, whose political decisions before World War II left him a ruined man. Stevens thought he was helping Lord Darlington do important work, but later he had to re-evaluate that idea. In the meantime, Stevens ignored a possible other life for himself with Miss Keaton.

This novel tells a sad, sad story. Stevens is not always a reliable narrator for us, as his perceptions are as limited as his point of view. This is a novel of depth and brilliance, intricate as a puzzle box, as we delve the depth of Stevens’ psyche.

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Day 841: Night

Cover for NightHere is my review of my Classics Club spin choice for Spin #11!

Night is Elie Wiesel’s spare and harrowing description of his and his father’s time spent in a series of concentration camps during World War II. He begins his story in 1944, where in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, the war did not seem to have touched the Jewish population. They had heard of problems in Budapest, but they knew nothing of the larger Nazi activities aimed at their people.

The first indications came from Moishe the Beadle, a man with whom Elie has been studying the Kabbalah. As a foreign Jew, Moishe was deported to a work camp. But he came back to tell everyone that all of the deportees were driven to Poland where they were forced to dig trenches and then shot. Moishe was wounded but managed to get away and returned to warn them. No one believed him, however. They naively refused to believe the Germans could behave that way. Elie and his family could have gotten a visa out of the country, even at that late date, but they stayed.

Next, all the Jews were rounded up into two ghettos, and not much longer after that, they were shipped out to Auschwitz. Once the women and girls were separated from the men and boys at the camp, Wiesel never saw his mother or sister again. He was 15 and probably only lived because an inmate told him to say he was 18.

At only 120 pages, this is a short but affecting description of his experiences in the camps. It does not dwell overly much on the horrific conditions, but we understand how terrible it was. The book also deals with Wiesel’s spiritual landscape, as he changed from a devout boy to a man who no longer believes.

This book is not a testament to human fortitude, for Wiesel makes it clear that humans under evil conditions behave badly. Instead, it is an important documentation of a black time in human history.

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Day 824: The Optimist’s Daughter

Cover for The Optimist's DaughterLaurel McKelva Hand, a widow from Mississippi who now designs fabrics in Chicago, is called to New Orleans, where her elderly father is undergoing an eye operation. Laurel is anxious. Her experiences with the health issues of her mother were not good; there is a sense that something about her mother’s final illness wasn’t handled well.

Judge McKelva’s new wife, Fay, younger than Laurel, is vulgar, frivolous, and stupid. She objects to the procedure. But the judge has a cataract in his other eye, and without the operation at this time, he would end up blind. Dr. Courland thinks the operation will save the judge’s sight, so it is performed.

While the judge struggles to recover, Fay complains about missing Mardi Gras and goes shopping. Unfortunately, as they say, the operation is successful but the patient dies. Although the judge is ordered not to move, his wife shakes him, later saying she was trying to “shake him into life.”

Back home for the funeral in the small town of Mount Salus, Mississippi, Laurel is greeted by old friends who are preparing for the funeral. Fay arrives later and is obviously upset at what she views as an intrusion. It soon appears that Becky, Judge McKelva’s first wife, is the elephant in the room, along with the genteel friends’ incomprehension of what led the judge to marry Fay.

Since Fay has told everyone she has no family, they are surprised when the Chisoms arrive from Texas for the funeral. They are obliviously and cheerfully vulgar, and they add a good deal of macabre humor to the funeral. Fay is so determined that the judge will not be buried next to Becky that she buries him in the unpleasant newer part of the cemetery, right next to the new interstate.

When Fay leaves briefly for a visit with her family, she makes it clear that she expects Laurel to be out of her house when she returns a few days later. Laurel must reconcile herself to the loss of all her parents’ belongings and her childhood home as well as residual pain about both her parents’ and her husband’s death.

This very short novel, written in 1972, is considered Welty’s best, although I confess to a preference for the more lovable The Ponder Heart. The Optimist’s Daughter compresses a lot in just a few pages. At times, the Southern darkness almost reminds me of the grotesque humor of Flannery O’Connor, who is a bit too much for me, but Welty is kinder to her characters.

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