Review 1713: The Narrow Land

As a young child, Michael Novak was rescued during World War II and sent to the States as part of a program for orphaned children. There, he was adopted by the Novaks. At 10, he is still extremely fearful and full of routines he follows to calm himself. So, he is resistant when Mrs. Novak tries to put him on a train, the first step in a journey to spend the summer on Cape Cod with the Kaplans. Finally, he decides to go.

On the island in 1950 live the artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. Although they tend to be standoffish with the vacationers, Michael forms a friendship of sorts with Jo. And it’s really the relationship between Edward and Jo that this book is about.

Edward has been having a dry spell, and he seems preoccupied with trying to find a woman he painted a few years before. She is right under his nose in the person of Katherine Kaplan, Mrs. Kaplan’s daughter, who is dying of cancer. He has seen her and noted the resemblance, but she is no longer dyeing her hair blond. He is an introvert who spends most of his time in his own head.

Jo is extremely jealous of him and thinks he pays too much attention to Olivia, Mrs. Kaplan’s daughter-in-law, when it is really Olivia paying attention to him. Jo is in fact irrationally and violently angry at times, particularly when she feels she had to abandon her career when she became his wife. Although Jo has some moments of self-awareness, I really think Hickey treats her harshly as a character. Granted, I know nothing about the couple’s life, but Hickey shows her making a fool of herself at a party with her airs and graces and spiteful remarks about other people.

Hopper is not very nice to Jo and belittles her art, although I read about that and found she had some standing as an artist.

This novel, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was slow moving, and for a long time I couldn’t tell whether it was going anywhere. Sometimes that doesn’t bother me, but in this case I had a hard time staying interested. The novel does have a payoff in the end, but it is more character study than plot-based.

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Review 1626: The Overstory

Best of Ten!
When I read Richard Powers’ Orfeo a while back, I remember thinking he was quite a bit more intelligent than I am, perhaps a little intimidatingly so, yet I enjoyed his book. Reading The Overstory hasn’t changed my impression of that, except that it blew me away.

The novel is about trees. When am I ever going to write that sentence again? The metaphor for its structure that I’ve seen used is that it’s like the rings around a tree as you go inward, but that’s not the metaphor Powers actually uses. He starts in a section called “Roots” and works his way up the tree.

That doesn’t sound very interesting, but it is. He starts with a group of characters who have all formed an interest in trees. Nick Hoel’s ancestor planted some chestnuts on their farm in Iowa, and his father began a giant project of photographing the last one standing every month for years so that you could see its growth if you used the photos like a flip book. Nick, an artist, has re-created these photos as drawings. Mimi Ma’s father Winston brought with him from China an ancient scroll about trees and took his family out to enjoy the national parks. Adam Appich is a budding natural scientist until judges in a science fair think he cheated and he ends up in psychology. Still, his father planted a different tree for each of his children. Douglas Pavlicek is saved by a tree when his plane crashes in Vietnam, and so on. These lives are described as fables on the cover of the book, but the characters felt authentic, which they seldom do in fables.

In the next section, “Trunk,” Powers begins to intertwine the lives of these characters with each other and with the issue of what is happening to the trees in our world and what the consequences will be. Along the way, Powers tells us all kinds of interesting and astonishing things about trees.

The novel takes place between about the 50’s and 60’s to the present, but the meat of it is in the 70’s or 80’s when there was a lot of activism around the protection of our forests. Some characters’ stories begin earlier with their parents or ancestors.

But the novel is really about the trees, and as Powers’ sections go up the tree, the view becomes a little more abstract, while not losing sight of the human characters. I had a few issues with it. The role of Neelay Mehta, a boy of Indian descent who becomes a master computer programmer, doesn’t really fit well into the story. I understand his role but find it unconvincing. Finally, the last section is so abstract, it’s a bit above my head, although I enjoy Powers’ tendency to present readers with lots of ideas.

Overall, though, I was just entranced by this novel, so much so that I fear for our species. If anything is going to make you pay attention to climate change, it’s this book. Now that I live in a state where clear cutting is going on all around me, not just in the national and state forests but by the purchasers of practically every plot of land, who think nothing of devastating their lots for the money, I have been more struck by what we are doing to our forests. This is an incredible novel. I read it for my Booker Prize project, and it won the Pulitzer.

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Review 1611: Flights

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead was unusual, but Flights is in another category altogether. It is an attempt to escape the boundaries of the conventional, linear novel.

It is written in snippets. Some of them are stories, some little vignettes or descriptions, some philosophical discursions, some lectures. Some of the snippets are observations from the narrator, an unnamed Polish woman who likes to be constantly traveling, often to visit museums of curiosities, particularly those that show the workings of the human body. Others are stories about people she meets on her journeys or just stories about people. Some of the threads recur in the novel; most do not.

Anchoring all this is the theme of movement. Most of the stories are about people on their way somewhere else, occasionally to another stage of being.

This novel was widely acclaimed by reviewers and won the Man International Prize. How it will strike ordinary readers is hard to guess. It’s not easy. I found parts of it interesting and other parts, particularly the lectures on travel psychology, which I doubt anyone would ever listen to, incomprehensible, as if someone were reading from a dense professional manual.

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Review 1563: #1956 Club! Palace Walk

I experienced quite a bit of culture shock reading Palace Walk, which made me realize that although I have read books set in Egypt about Egyptians, all but one were written by Western writers, and that one, Map of Love, was much more modern. Palace Walk is about Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family, and I believe it’s Mahfouz’s own family thinly disguised.

The novel is the first of three in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. It begins with al-Jawad’s wife, Amira, getting up at midnight to help her husband get ready for bed after his usual night of carousing and womanizing. Although her husband is a good friend and convivial participant in nightly drinking bouts, at home he is an angry tyrant to his wife and children. I found it interesting that although he has the reputation of a righteous and observant man, no one seems to think his drinking and womanizing make him a hypocrite.

Mahfouz was a writer in the Realism school and as such explores both the good and bad facets of his characters’ personalities (although it sometimes seems like Realists concentrate on the gritty). The novel develops slowly, introducing us to al-Jawad, Amina, and his five children—Yasin, a government clerk who immerses himself in sensuality like his father but with less control; Fahmy, a university student who is serious and ardent; Khadiya, the older, sharp-tongued daughter; Aisha, the younger, beautiful daughter; and Kamal, a schoolboy who may be Mahfouz’s alter ego.

Beginning in 1917 near the end of World War I, the novel at first focuses on purely family concerns such as Fahmy’s desire to be affianced to Maryam, the neighbor girl; Aisha’s receipt of an offer of marriage before Khadiya’s, when their father has decreed that the younger girl will not be married before the older; and Yasin’s mother getting married again, which Yasin thinks is obscene, since she has been married several times. In these domestic incidents, the family constantly faces their father’s anger and intransigence. Mahfouz frequently tells us of his good points although they are not often demonstrated. In fact, there is a lot of explanation going on about the thinking and characters of the family members, some of it quite repetitive.

As the novel develops, external events become more important, especially the Arab Revolution of 1919 against the protectorate of the British. This more outward view makes the second half of the novel move along more quickly.

Certainly, al-Jawad’s actions toward his wife and children are shocking, and Mahfouz makes clear that he is stricter than most others by the comments of al-Jawad’s friends. Yet, it is also clear that no one would interfere in his treatment of his family, since it is his right to behave as he wishes. As an example of some of the things he does, Amina, who has only left the house a few times in 23 years of marriage, takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence on a business trip to visit a nearby mosque. Because Kamal guides her out of her route so that he can visit a pastry shop, she becomes disoriented and faint and is hit by a car. After she recovers, her husband banishes her from the house for leaving it without asking him (and believe me, he would have said no).

His son Yasin, the leaf not falling far from the tree, thinks later in the book when his wife is not happy with his nights out that it is the husband’s right to do anything he wants and the wife’s to obey. Nice.

The trilogy is supposed to be about the effect the father’s tyranny has on his family. I read it for the 1956 Club, and I suppose I will go ahead and read the other two novels. It certainly provides an intimate look into family life and customs in early 20th century Egypt.

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Review 1526: Olive, Again

Best of Ten!
Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Review 1524: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Mrs. Dusczejko lives in a tiny Polish village near the Czech Republic, so remote that they get Polish or Czech police depending upon where in town they call from. In the early morning, her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, comes to get her, telling her he has found their other neighbor’s body. Although she hates this other neighbor, whom she calls Big Foot, because he’s a hunter and she believes it’s a crime to kill animals, she helps him make the body decent before the police arrive. Later, it’s determined that he died from choking on a deer bone.

Mrs. Duszejko is an eccentric old lady who spends her time doing astrological charts, helping an ex-student translate William Blake’s writings into Polish, and writing letters to the police complaining about poaching. After a few months, though, her life is disturbed when men in the area begin dying in a series of bizarre killings.

This is an unusual crime story that’s not so concerned about the criminal case as it is about the activities of its characters. It is sometimes funny and always atmospheric. I really enjoyed it.

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Review 1521: The Yellow House

The Yellow House is not just a memoir. It’s more an excavation of self and belonging. Sarah M. Broom centers her explorations around her childhood home in New Orleans East. She begins with what she knows of her grandparents’ lives and her parents’ before marrying. Then she tells how her mother, Ivory Mae, purchased the yellow house when she was 19, the first house owned by the family.

At the time of the purchase, 1961, New Orleans East was touted as a promising area for expansion of the city. However, this promise never unfolded. The story of the slow crumbling of the neighborhood and house, culminating in Hurricane Katrina, is a symbol of the disenfranchising of all the poor inhabitants of the city, particularly those of color.

Although Broom was living in New York at the time of the hurricane, many of her family members had to be evacuated, and two of her brothers chose to ride the storm out. The storm destroyed the house, but it also rendered the family physically and metaphorically homeless. Almost more excruciating is the catalog of incompetence and obliviousness to the needs of its citizens by the city of New Orleans after the storm.

This is an interesting and eye-opening memoir about the population of the city that is usually ignored, and of course, it has ramifications for all such populations in all such cities.

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Review 1511: Nocturnes

Nocturnes is a collection of five loosely linked short stories all on the themes of music and night. A few of them are linked a little more closely by repeating characters. All but one feature struggling musicians.

In “Crooner,” the unnamed narrator is an Eastern European guitarist eking out a living in Venice when he meets Tony Gardner, a once-famous singer his mother listened to. When Tony invites him to help serenade his wife, Lindy, he learns that Tony is so eager to make a comeback that he is willing to give up something he loves.

In “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Ray, a middle-aged English language instructor, is invited to stay with his old school friends, Charlie and Emily. Once there, though, he finds he’s been invited to be a negative contrast to Charlie, showing how much more successful Charlie is. He finds common ground with Emily only in their shared taste in music.

In “Malvern Hills,” a would-be singer-songwriter is staying with his sister and helping out at her café when he meets two professional musicians, Tibs and Sonja, on holiday. He unwittingly gets involved in the breakup of their marriage.

The narrator of “Nocturne” is a gifted saxophone player whose ex-wife and manager convince him that he would be successful if he wasn’t so ugly. Reluctantly, he agrees to have plastic surgery. In a hotel recovering from his procedure, he meets Lindy Gardner, also recovering from plastic surgery.

In “Cellists,” it is perhaps the same narrator from the first story who tells the tale of Tibor, a gifted young cellist he and his friends met seven years earlier. Tibor’s personality changes once he is taken under the wing of Eloise McCormack, who claims to be a virtuoso cellist.

This is a book that explores the place of music in each character’s life, and in some cases, the character’s commitments to music or to fame. Although there is a lot going on in these ultimately sad tales, they felt unsatisfying to me in some way. I felt that some of the situations were ridiculously unlikely, as well. This is a book I read for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1510: The Left Hand of Darkness

Best of Ten!
Genly Ai, an envoy to Gethen from the Ekumen, a league of other worlds, has been waiting for an audience with King Argaven XV of Karhide for two years. Although he does not trust Lord Estraven, Argaven’s prime minister, he has understood the prime minister was supporting his efforts to gain an audience. But during a state parade, Lord Estraven tells him it is not a good time.

Genly’s disappointment makes him doubt that Lord Estraven ever had good intentions. When Lord Estraven hints that Genly should leave the capital, Genly ignores him. Soon, he learns that Lord Estraven has been banished from Karhide upon pain of death.

King Argaven encourages Genly to travel around Karhide, and he does so. The planet of Gethen is an ice planet, formerly called Winter by Ekumen, and Genly is constantly cold. He has trouble understanding the Gethenians, who are androgynous; when they are in heat once a month, they take on whichever sex is opposite to that of their partner. Genly has a hard time adjusting to the feminine side of the Gethenians. For their part, they consider him a pervert for always, as they see it, being in heat.

Eventually, Genly decides to leave the more primitive, indirect Karhides for Orgoreyn, an apparently more civilized and direct country, where he is welcomed. This state is much more authoritarian. Whereas in Karhide his presence was known, in Orgoreyn it is being kept secret from all but the government. Soon, the situation takes a turn he doesn’t expect.

When I first read The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, I thought it was about the best book I had ever read. Reading it again, I see no reason to change my mind except to say that others stand up there with it.

It is written as a set of documents, Genly’s story mixed in with records from other envoys and stories from the myths of various cultures on Gethen. It manages to explore many topics with its theme of light and darkness, including the effects on our lives of different sexual orientations. It’s really a masterpiece.

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Review 1454: Milkman

Best of Ten!
Middle sister, the unnamed narrator in a novel where no one has a name, has a stalker. Actually, she has two. She lives in the 1970s in an unnamed city that is clearly Belfast, and at 18 she has no way to explain what is happening to her and no one to tell, anyway. The man she’s worried about is known as the Milkman, rumored to be a powerful renouncer-of-the-state. This stalking begins with him driving up next to her and offering her a ride. She knows not to get into his car.

That is all it takes for rumors to begin flying about that middle sister is having an affair with the Milkman. Eldest sister, egged on by her husband, who has been letching after middle sister since she was 11, arrives to berate her for this supposed affair with a middle-aged, married man.

But middle sister’s strategy for keeping safe in a dangerous world is to tell nothing about herself. That, and her mother’s constant queries about why she isn’t married yet, have caused her to keep secret her real relationship with maybe-boyfriend. It is the maybe part of this relationship that decides her not to tell maybe-boyfriend about the stalking either, when it progresses to the Milkman joining her while running and making clear that he knows every aspect of her life.

She does finally tell her Ma the truth, but her Ma is too busy upbraiding her for bringing shame upon the family with the affair and calls her a liar. So, middle sister is left to cope with her fears alone.

This sounds like a grim tale, and at some times it is, but it is told exuberantly, in a torrent of words, ideas, stories, asides, and circumlocutions. To give you an idea, about page 80 middle sister steps into an area called the ten-minute zone because it takes ten minutes to cross it. She describes the ten-minute zone and an explosion within it, then she goes into what she calls “the provenance of the eeriness of the ten-minute area” from which she relates a discussion with Ma about her asking weird questions, tells about her father’s history of depression and her Ma’s “hierarchy of suffering,” discusses her bafflement in “shiny people,” those who go around looking happy, finds the head of a dead cat and decides to bury it, compares cats and dogs and tells about an incident where the state killed all the neighborhood dogs, has another encounter with the Milkman and then with one real milkman, and so on until page 139, when she steps out of the ten-minute area. I would include an excerpt, but a short one would seem nonsensical and a long one would be, well, long.

Above all, the novel is funny, dazzling, gleeming. I was absolutely entranced by it. It is about more than middle sister and her adventures, it is about the effects on society of everyday terror, paranoia, gossip, constant attention to the behavior of your neighbors. This is a stunning novel that won the Booker Prize. It deserves it.

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