Day 1063: The 1951 Club! Hangsaman

Cover for HangsamanI picked Hangsaman to read for the 1951 Club. Unfortunately, although I have read other books published in 1951, I haven’t done so recently enough to have reviewed them on this blog.

Hangsaman is a very strange book about a young woman and her first months away at college. Although it does a masterful job of exploring her consciousness, that is unusual territory. The first scenes of the novel show her interacting with her parents while she imagines being questioned by a detective about her father’s murder.

And no wonder. Her father is an arrogant and pompous editor, who, under the guise of helping her with her writing, daily subjects her to alternating insults and compliments and tries to enlist her sympathies against her mother. Her mother also tries that, apparently with more reason.

1951 Club logoIn these circumstances, Natalie is delighted to go off to college for a fresh start. But things don’t go well there. The students are cliquish and cruel. The one girl who seems to be seeking her out as a friend turns out to be mentally unstable. And two other girls use her to torment a young university wife whose husband is having an affair with one of them.

Natalie finally makes a very strange friend, and at that point the novel goes off into murky territory, where I didn’t quite understand what was going on. When I read later that the novel was inspired by the actual disappearance of a Bennington student—the girl’s college where Jackson’s husband was employed—I understood it a little better. If you have read Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell, it will ring some bells.

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Day 1055: Benediction

Cover for BenedictionBest Book of the Week!
Goodreads has Benediction listed as Plainsong #3, which makes me wonder what that means. The first two novels in the series, Plainsong and Eventide, were very closely related, but this one not so much. All three of them are set in Holt, an imaginary town in Eastern Colorado, but then again, all of his novels are set there. Yet, these three novels all have titles related to religious services and song.

Dad Lewis is dying. That’s the central focus of the novel. But this novel even more than the others provides a picture of small-town life by looking at the neighbors and others in touch with Dad during his last weeks.

Dad is loved by his wife Mary and daughter Lorraine, but his son Frank has long since disappeared from their lives. When Frank was a young man, Dad was not understanding at all about his homosexuality, and that conflict eventually resulted in a complete break.

Dad is also perhaps not being fair to his long-time employees. When he was 22, his boss gave him an opportunity to buy the hardware store, and he has owned it ever since. Now he wants a reluctant Lorraine to take it over instead of extending the same opportunity to his two employees.

There are other things Dad frets over and even hallucinates about, but the novel isn’t just about Dad. The Lewis’s next-door neighbor Berta May has taken in her granddaughter Alice after her daughter’s death. Lorraine lost her daughter years ago, and she and retired schoolteacher Alene take Alice under their wings.

Reverend Lyle has been sent to Holt after a problem in Denver. His wife and son John Wesley are unhappy in Holt, and soon Lyle begins expressing opinions that leave some of the town in an uproar.

This novel is written in Haruf’s lovely spare prose. In theme and plot, it seems more diffuse than his other novels, but it is profound and moving.

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Day 1046: The Whale: A Love Story

Cover for The WhaleIt seems as if I’ve read several novels lately where Herman Melville is a character or Moby Dick a theme. Such is the case with The Whale, a story about the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The novel begins with a literary outing. Melville is invited along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and others by Melville’s editor while Melville is vacationing in the Berkshires. The reclusive writer Hawthorne is also of the party, and Melville falls in love with him at first sight.

Melville is also dealing with Moby Dick. He is supposed to be nearly finished with it, but he is unsatisfied with the ending. His philosophical and literary discussions with Hawthorne inspire him to massive rewrites. In a way, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale represents Melville’s pursuit of a meaningful relationship with Hawthorne.

For, there is a mutual spark, but as a friend, Jeannie Field, tells Melville, Hawthorne is a Puritan. While Melville tries to get Hawthorne not to deny his true feelings, Hawthorne is determined to avoid an entanglement. Yet, he gives Melville a certain amount of encouragement.

Although I enjoyed this novel very much, I felt it was a little too modern in this regard. I couldn’t imagine a man in the mid-19th century trying to convince another man not to deny these feelings and being so obvious as Melville was at times. At this time and place, Melville would have been trying to hide it. I also have no idea what basis in reality this story has, although the author cites affectionate letters between the two. I was not sure whether Beauregard was aware that at this time men expressed themselves more affectionately than they do now. It’s fiction, though, which does not require any basis in reality.

Still, with language sometimes echoing that of Moby Dick, with really exceptional dialogue, with a fully realized Melville in all his self-absorption, this novel was really a treat to read.

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Day 1042: Troy Chimneys

troy-chimneysTroy Chimneys is a curious novel. Written in the 1950’s by a contemporary of the modernist Elizabeth Taylor, Troy Chimneys is set in the early 19th century and feels more like a Victorian novel except for the complexity of the morality. As such, I preferred it over the spare works of Taylor.

Miles Lufton is an ambitious man, but he has no fortune or title, so he must make his own way. He becomes a member of parliament and so must please people and curry favor.

Mr. Lufton sees himself as two different people. The ambitious, political Lufton who is always diplomatic and conciliating and has sometimes had to associate with the wrong people he calls Pronto, after a character in a play. The more retiring, thoughtful Lufton, who has no particular ambition and tends to the naive he calls Miles. Lufton dreams of the day when he has earned enough money that he can retire to his home, Troy Chimneys, and become wholly Miles.

After only one adventure in romance when he was young, Pronto has been content with flirtation (well, almost). But he finally realizes he is in love with a serious, intelligent spinster named Caroline. Caroline has had the perception to notice the two Luftons, but she has a different opinion of them than Lufton does.

The introduction of my Virago edition states that, like Taylor, Kennedy was examining virtue in this novel. That seems rather stuffy sounding, but the novel is quite enjoyable, full of ironies.

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Day 1041: Enon

Cover for EnonEnon is the second novel by Paul Harding and it follows the story of the same family as in his first novel, Tinkers. That novel was about George Crosby and his memories of his epileptic father. Enon is about George’s grandson, Charlie Crosby, and his life in the village of Enon.

At the beginning of Enon, Charlie’s beloved 13-year-old daughter Kate is killed when her bicycle is hit by a car. Soon after, without much attempt to work anything out, Charlie’s wife Susan returns to her parents’ home and he never hears from her again. Charlie begins a downward spiral into grief, anger, and an addiction to pain killers.

In some respects, Enon is a little more accessible than Tinkers. It is characterized by the same beautiful prose, especially in the descriptions of nature. Further, the setting in the old New England village with its sense of history is fully imagined.

Yet, I wasn’t so interested in watching Charlie fall apart, nor did I enjoy his hallucinogenic dreams about Kate, where she turns to obsidian, for example. I’m starting to realize I don’t enjoy reading about dreams in fiction.

I was also nonplussed by Charlie’s relationship to Susan. No wonder their marriage fell apart. Although they seem to be a happy family at the beginning of the novel, Susan is always somewhere folding clothes while Charlie and Kate go off on adventures. I was surprised when she left just a few days after Kate’s death, but it became clear she wasn’t important to her own family.

So, if this subject matter attracts you, you might enjoy this book more than I did.

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Day 1039: The Home-Maker

Cover for The Home-MakerBest Book of the Week!
The Home-Maker, which was published in 1924, was certainly a radical novel for its time. It has themes that resonate even today, although in some ways it is dated.

Evangeline Knapp is one of those super housekeepers whose home is always immaculate. When we first meet her, she has spent hours scrubbing a grease stain on the floor. But she does not love her work, and her unhappiness creates an atmosphere of tension in the house. She continually picks at her children for not meeting her standards, and everyone is afraid to upset her.

Lester Knapp works as an accounting clerk at a department store and hates every minute of it. He is not earning points with the new management for his dreamy demeanor or love of poetry. Although he is a good husband and father, he is perceived by his community as ineffective and a poor provider. Early on, we learn that he did not get a promotion he was hoping for, and his family will continue to be poor.

A terrible incident forces the two Knapps to swap responsibilities after Lester is injured. Lester takes over the household and child-rearing while Evangeline gets a job in the department store. Her new employers are struck by her energy and dedication to her work, while Lester’s patience with the children makes everyone’s temper and health improve. Everyone learns to adjust to a certain level of messiness.

The idea of swapping roles was much more controversial at this time, so much so that the novel is forced into a shocking conclusion. That was the only thing I didn’t like about this novel, which is touching and compassionate in its view of its characters. However, there probably wasn’t a better way to resolve the situation at the time.

This is a fascinating novel for its time, exploring the ideas of roles for the sexes and how well they actually apply, what happens when a person has no challenging life’s work, and so on. The novel’s themes are applicable to today, even if the times would not require such a resolution.

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Day 1034: Ulverton

Cover for UlvertonBest Book of the Week!
We’re now more familiar with novels written as related short stories, but Ulverton was written in 1992 and may be the first novel of this kind. The novel covers 300 years of English history and is set in one place, the fictional village of Ulverton. Other hallmarks of this unusual novel are that each chapter is written in a distinctly different voice and the chapters are written in different formats, from a tale told in an inn to the captions from a photographic display to the script of a documentary.

In 1650, the novel opens with the return of Gabby Cobbold from the Cromwellian wars. He meets the narrator, a shepherd named William, on his way home, but William does not have the courage to tell him that his wife, Anne, thinking he was dead, has remarried Thomas Walters. Gabby explains that he was away earning money to support the farm. Gabby disappears, and William is sure that Thomas and Anne killed him. But three hundred years later, Gabby gets his own back against a descendent of Thomas.

In 1689, the foolish Reverend Brazier tells the story of a strange night out on the downs, when he, William Scablehorne, and Simon Kistle were making their way through a snowstorm. As related in his sermon, they were apparently attacked by the devil and Mr. Kistle went mad.

Diary entries made in 1717 reveal a farmer’s preoccupation with improvements to his property and begetting an heir. Since his wife is ill, he does not touch her but begins trying to impregnate the maid.

In 1743, Mrs. Chalmers writes letters to her lover while shut away after childbed. Apparently having read her letters, her husband gets his doctor to keep her isolated longer.

And so it goes, stopping in about every 30 years, so that we sometimes hear of characters again. Through time, names are repeated and the story of incidents changes.

On occasion I had problems with the vernacular, although I tried to stick with it. The most difficult stories for me were the 1775 letters of Sarah Shail to her son and one side of the 1887 conversation between a man plowing and two boys. Sarah Shail is illiterate and is dictating her letters to John Pounds. However, this chapter has its own humor as Sarah is writing to her son Francis, who apparently answers her abusively, to the indignation of Pounds, who begins adding threats to the letters. Pounds’ spelling is so bad, though, that the letters are sometimes incomprehensible. In the case of the plowman, his dialect is so thick that I kept rereading parts of it but was unable to understand very much.

This was just one chapter, though. Overall, I found this novel deeply original and interesting. The countryside is so integral to the story that it features almost as a character. The writing is lovely, and the novel contains a great deal of drama and humor.

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