Day 1190: LaRose

Cover for LaRoseSet in 1999 on a North Dakota reservation, LaRose is about how a community, but in particular two families, are affected by a horrible accident. Out hunting a deer on his property, Landreaux Iron kills Dusty, the young son of his best friend, Peter Ravich, when Dusty falls out of a tree as Landreaux takes his shot.

To try to make amends, Landreaux, who has turned to the old ways to throw off addiction and straighten out his life, offers the Ravich family his own young son, LaRose, to raise. Nola Ravich, Dusty’s mother, is eaten up with hatred against the Irons, even Emmaline, who is her half sister. But having LaRose helps. Emmaline, however, can’t be expected to give up her son forever.

LaRose is the latest in a long line of LaRoses, all of whom had a special connection with the spirit world. LaRose finds himself able to help Nola and her neglected daughter, Maggie, even though he is only a small boy.

Another significant character is Romeo, who long ago was Landreaux’s best friend. He bears Landreaux a grudge because of an incident years before. Slowly, he works at his resentment despite the Irons having taken in his son Julius to raise.

Although I occasionally got distracted by how diffuse the plot is and how many directions it goes, in the main I enjoyed this novel. It isn’t nearly as depressing as a lot of Erdrich’s work, and it paints a powerful portrait of these two families. Dealing with forgiveness, of oneself and others, grief, guilt, and other human complexities, it is a strong novel.

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Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsBest of Five!
Yun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

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Day 1108: His Bloody Project

Cover for His Bloody ProjectI was actually reading another novel on my iPad when I picked up His Bloody Project because my iPad needed charging. I was so riveted by it that I couldn’t go back to the other novel until I finished this one.

In 1869 Scotland, 17-year-old Roddy Macrae is in jail awaiting trial for the murders of three people. Roddy has admitted the murders and is ready to take his punishment, which in this time means hanging. His advocate, Mr. Sinclair, thinks there are mitigating circumstances and asks him to write his account of the crimes.

The entire novel is made up of documents—first, Roddy’s account, then the medical reports of the victims and psychiatric evaluations, finally the account of the trial and what happened afterward. Although there is no doubt who committed the murders and little doubt of the outcome of the trial, Burnet manages to conjure up a great deal of sympathy for Roddy and a terrific amount of suspense.

Not only does Burnet create a complex psychological depiction of Roddy, he also deftly depicts the life of highland crofters in the mid-19th century. The novel deals with such issues as class discrimination, the inequities in the lives of crofters and their domination by the landlords, the limitations of our system of justice, and the beliefs held in the infancy of psychiatry. These observations make the novel sound heavy, but it is eminently readable. This is one of the books I read for my Booker Prize project, and I’m really 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 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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