Day 1168: Hodd

Cover for HoddI was never one for the romantic legends of Robin Hood. I always thought that, if he did exist, he was probably just the leader of a gang of thugs. And such, apparently, is indicated by the older ballads about him. In Hodd, Adam Thorpe weaves a story of the man that is closer to that told by the older ballads.

This novel is all about the manuscript, as the text of Hodd is supposedly the find of a medieval manuscript, written by a 13th century monk. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is writing the story of his youth. The novel includes scholarly notes from its translator and comments by its discoverer, a soldier in World War I. Some of these notes are funny, and some, I think, are meant to be parodic.

The narrator is about 14 when he is traveling with his master, a monk named Thomas, to Nottingham. They are held up by Hodd’s men and the narrator’s harp is stolen. He decides to go back and get it and is captured by Robert Hodd and his men.

Hodd is actually a sort of lunatic cult leader, who believes that there is no sin and that he is better than God. His followers believe him. He keeps himself intoxicated and has constant visions. He and his men are utterly ruthless and cruel. But rather than killing the narrator, Hodd decides to keep him as one of his men. He is a musician, and he can write songs about Hodd.

The narrator tells a parallel story of his education and upbringing by a holy hermit. This story continues throughout the book and comes in strongly at the end.

I think Thorpe realistically imagines the workings of the medieval mind, showing us strange beliefs. As such, this is a very unusual novel. I could have done without some of the religious moralizing, which filled the novel, as it would a medieval manuscript.

If you are a reader who needs a character to like, this is probably not the book for you, for even the relatively innocent narrator is perfidious. He so much wants to be loved that his jealousy turns him against people.

This is another interesting book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

Related Posts

Ulverton

The Scottish Chiefs

The Owl Killers

Advertisements

Day 1153: Bleak House

Cover for Bleak HouseI just love Bleak House. I hadn’t read it for years, so I was happy to pick it up as one of the last books on my first Classics Club list. Note: with this book, I have finally posted my last review for my first Classics Club list. I will soon have my second list posted at the link above.

At first, the novel appears to follow two distinct stories, that of the orphan Esther Summerson and that of the household of Lord and Lady Dedlock, but we find that these stories are entwined. Peopling the novel are countless other unforgettable characters.

Esther has had a sad childhood, but her life begins to improve when an unknown benefactor first takes her education in hand by sending her to school and then employs her to be the companion of Ada Clare. Ada, with her cousin Richard Carstone, is another orphan, and both are parties to the famous lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. As they are wards of the court, a distant cousin, Mr. John Jarndyce, has agreed to be their guardian.

Dickens was famous as a social activist, and one of his targets here is the Courts of Chancery, where wills are proven. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a famous case in Chancery that has been going on for years and has driven countless possible legatees to ruin. Mr. Jarndyce refuses to deal in this case and hopes to encourage Richard and Ada to leave it alone.

Esther makes a happy home for herself and Richard, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce at Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce’s home. But as Richard grows older, he fails to settle to a profession and devotes more and more time to the lawsuit. He is sucked in. And that is more a shame because Ada, whom Esther calls her darling, is in love with Richard.

At the Dedlock’s, a mystery begins that eventually takes up much of the novel. Lady Dedlock is beautiful and stately but deeply bored. However, one day when the Dedlock lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, comes with papers to sign, Lady Dedlock glimpses some handwriting and promptly faints. Lady Dedlock has a secret, and Mr. Tulkinghorn is determined to find it out. Mr. Tulkinghorn is inexorable.

As with any Dickens novel, Bleak House is filled with entertaining characters. There is Mrs. Jellyby, who is so taken up by a charity for Africans that her children are neglected and her house is a disaster. Her unfortunate daughter, Caddy, covered in ink when we first meet her, becomes an important secondary character. One of Mr. Jarndyce’s friends is Harold Skimpole, who professes himself a mere child in worldly ways and proceeds to leech off his friends. There are many other notable characters, but one of the most interesting is the detective, Mr. Bucket. At first he seems rather sinister, but we soon change our minds about him.

Above all, there is Dickens’ style, which carries you along with the story. He makes you laugh, he makes you cry, and as always, he shows sympathy for the unfortunate, especially for children. It is easy to see from Bleak House, which many consider his masterpiece, why he was the most popular writer of his time.

Related Posts

David Copperfield

Great Expectations

Oliver Twist

Day 1149: J

Cover for JJ is one of the books I read for my Booker Prize project, and I almost didn’t finish it. About one third of the way in, I considered giving it up. Jacobson spent almost half the book hinting around about the underlying secrets of the novel, during which time nothing much seemed to be happening. Finally, I decided to read some reviews to see if they would make me decide to finish it, and they were intriguing enough for me to continue.

This novel is set in a dystopian future, but this dystopia is not quite what we might expect. An event, referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED seems to color all of society. History is not studied, and reading books is not encouraged. Everything seems too politically correct, with nothing being outlawed but many things—like rock music and most forms of art—eliminated by general consensus. Because this event was precipitated by social media, no one uses computers anymore, and the only phones are landlines that cannot call long distance, called utility phones. Oh, and everyone has a Jewish last name through a program named Call Me Ishmael.

Ailinn Solomons meets Kevern Cohen, and they begin dating. They both feel like outsiders in their coastal village even though Kevern was born there. He is a paranoid person who checks his locks and the position of his rug several times before he leaves his home. Ailinn is an orphan who is new to town.

Ailinn is vaguely aware of being nudged in Kevern’s direction by her housemate, Esme Nussbaum. And Kevern’s paranoia isn’t unfounded as someone is keeping an eye on him, Professor Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky, a colleague of the Benign Arts deparment of Bethesda Academy.

Something is clearly going on, but Jacobson is evasive about it for most of the novel. Zermansky knows about part of it and his diary entries, at first unidentified, punctuate the narrative as do those of another unidentified character. Zermansky’s interjections are more annoying than revelatory, written in an ironic but elliptical style, and we don’t see the point of them for some time.

My main criticism of this novel is that it takes so long to be understandable. In the meantime, we are treated to an uninteresting romance between two characters we don’t care about. It’s not that they’re one-dimensional, they’re no dimensional. For this is a novel about ideas, not people.

The reviews promise a shocking conclusion and stunning deep secrets. Certainly something nasty is going on, but by the time I learned what it is, I didn’t care. There are enough hints along the way that the conclusion is not all that surprising. I’ve seen this novel compared to Never Let Me Go, but that novel made you care about the characters before it sprung its big reveal, and then it stayed with the characters afterward. This novel puts all its eggs into the basket of the big surprise ending, which isn’t that much of a surprise by the time you get to it.

Related Posts

The Prague Cemetery

Brave New World

The Heart Goes Last

Day 1139: Framley Parsonage

Cover for Framley ParsonageIn the fourth of the Barsetshire Chronicles, we meet some old friends and make some new ones. Of particular interest to Framley Parsonage are two occupants of the parsonage, Mark Robarts and his sister, Lucy.

Mark Robarts is a young clergyman who has been remarkably lucky and successful because of his friendship with Lord Lufton and his patronage by Lord Lufton’s mother, Lady Lufton. Instead of slaving away at a curacy like most clergymen of his age, he has the living at Framley, given to him by Lady Lufton, at a very good income. His lovely wife, Fanny, was chosen for him by Lady Lufton and makes him very happy.

Perhaps Mark has been too lucky, for he begins to think that his good fortune is due to his own efforts. He is a good man, but he is still only twenty-six. In any case, he ignores Lady Lufton’s prejudices against a set of people headed by Lord Omnium, her particular enemy, and accepts an invitation to Gatherum Hall. He believes he can better himself through acquaintance with the politicians he will meet there.

At this gathering, he is befriended by Mr. Sowerby, an insolvent member of parliament. Mr. Sowerby talks him into signing a bill for him for 500 pounds, promising repayment (reminding us of a similar subplot in Middlemarch). But Sowerby has no means by which to pay. Later, Sowerby talks Mark into compounding his error by signing another bill for £400. Mark is now in debt for his entire yearly salary.

Lucy Robarts, Mark’s sister, comes to live at Framley Parsonage after her father’s death. Lady Lufton has been trying to match her son with the beautiful Griselda Grantly, daughter of archdeacon Grantly, but Lord Lufton falls in love with Lucy. Lady Lufton is not at all in favor of the match.

Among these new acquaintances are old friends and acquaintances. The wealthy Miss Dunstable, whom Frank Gresham’s family wanted him to court in Doctor Thorne, is now being sought in matrimony by Mr. Sowerby. Doctor Thorne and his niece, Mary, also make an appearance. And the Grantly’s were, of course, prominent characters in the first two novels. We also see a lot more of Bishop and Mrs. Proudie than we have since The Warden.

I am really enjoying this series, and I like how Trollope ties in all of the characters so that some who are important to one book appear as minor characters in another. Trollope examines in this novel the standards of behavior expected of a gentleman, particularly a clergyman. Mark Robarts has broken with those standards, and as slight as his offence may seem, is forced to pay the consequences.

Related Posts

Doctor Thorne

Barchester Towers

The Warden

Day 1137: The Rehearsal

Cover for The RehearsalThe Luminaries was one of my favorite books several years ago, so when I ran across a copy of The Rehearsal at Powell’s a few months ago, I snapped it up. The Rehearsal is Eleanor Catton’s first novel.

The novel focuses obliquely on an affair between a high school student and her teacher. Although those two characters hardly appear in the novel, it is about how the discovery of the affair affects the girl’s younger sister, Isolde, and others in the all-girls’ school the two sisters attend.

At the nearby drama institute, the freshman students decide to design a play around the affair for their first-year project. This conceit and the nonlinear organization of this portion of the narrative have the effect of blurring reality, making it hard to tell which scenes are part of the novel’s “real life” and which are part of the play rehearsal. I had to admit to being confused about whole story lines.

There are clues. Characters sometimes break out into astounding monologues or remarks that people would not make in real life. The saxophone teacher, an unnamed character, is very important in the novel but often makes these kinds of remarks. I took this to mean that the teacher was often in the play—and in fact that is signaled at times by references to who is playing her or lighting changes and so on. Sometimes I wondered if in terms of this novel she was entirely fictional, that is, just a character in the play.

The afterward tells how Catton originally wrote a monologue for the saxophone teacher, using the position of her sax as body language. I did note as I read that the positioning of the sax seemed to be important, but either I have little visual imagination or this is something you have to see, because I could make nothing of it.

Dealing with themes like sexual identity, victim and perpetrator, and coming of age, the novel is brilliantly written and very inventive. But sometimes I felt as if it was not altogether successful, perhaps its originality being pushed too far and getting in the way of itself.

Related Posts

The Luminaries

The Virgin Suicides

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Day 1133: Dept. of Speculation

Cover for Dept. of SpeculationToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

Dept. of Speculation is a clever and affecting short novel about marriage and relationships. It is written mostly in little fragments but still manages to generate both sympathy for the main character and suspense.

The narrator is referred to as “I” in the first half of the novel and “the wife” in the second half, I suppose signifying a sense of distance from herself. The wife and the husband navigate some of the common problems in marriage, including parenthood, settling for less interesting careers to have a paycheck, changing houses, and so on. But the primary tension comes from when the wife realizes the husband is cheating.

The novel has some truly comic moments, especially concerning motherhood. The narrator, who is scarily intelligent, feels her brain is turning to mush after she has a daughter. I could relate to some of the comments she makes, as my niece has been going through the same thing.

Funny and sad, this novel feels like a true exploration of a relationship. It is sparsely written and contains many thought-provoking quotes and facts.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Last meeting of Literary Wives, I commented that On Beauty was the most realistic book we had read in dealing with marriage, but Dept. of Speculation sets forward a similar situation in all its difficulty and ambiguities. It does this in an inventive way, by only looking at the fragmentary thoughts and feelings of one character, the wife. And she has complex reactions to events as well as an astounding intelligence.

Literary Wives logoFirst, we are treated to her reactions at being a mother—a frustration at the stalling of her career, exhaustion from little sleep, the sense that her intelligence is failing her, and overwhelming love. Her feelings about her husband aren’t as obvious until she is astounded to learn he is unfaithful. It is clear she thought that nothing was wrong and they would be together until death. Then she has to deal with the complexities of her reactions to that.

I think this is as thoughtful and true an observation of marriage as I have ever read.

Related Posts

On Beauty

Look at Me

How to Be Both

Day 1130: The Idiot

Cover for The IdiotI think I read The Idiot when I was about 13, and all I remembered of it was that at a tea party, someone stood on the table and shouted. That memory turned out to be false, but they might as well have, and I can’t imagine what my very young self must have made of this novel. My very old self is having trouble enough with it.

The thing about Dostoevesky—and I have read most of his novels, although none for a long time—is that his characters always behave as if they’re in a frenzy. The Idiot is no exception.

Prince Myshkin returns to Russia from years in Switzerland, where he was being treated for epilepsy, to inquire about a legacy he may receive. On the train he meets Rogozhin, who has just inherited a fortune and is on his way to pay court to Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova. Nastasya Filippovna was orphaned as a young girl then brought up by the lecherous merchant Totsky to be his concubine. Now Totsky wants to marry someone else, but Nastasya Filippovna has threatened terrible scenes if he does. Totsky is scheming to marry her off to Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin for the sum of 75,000 rubles.

When the prince meets Nastasya Filippovna, he is so overcome with pity for her that he becomes irrevocably bound with her fate. Later, when he falls in love and wants to marry Aglaya Ivanovna Yepanchin, his entanglement with Nastasy Filippovna ruins him.

Prince Myshkin is completely naive, yet at the same time very perceptive. Dostoevsky wanted to portray in him a simply good man and show how this goodness is overcome by the cynicism and self-interest of society. At times, he is compared to Christ or to a knight.

Although Myshkin is a sympathetic character, he constantly has bad things done to him—is betrayed, libeled, slandered, and cheated—by the people he knows, many of whom are just plain annoying. There is Lebedev, for example, who constantly tells people how vile he is, then behaves badly. And Ippolit, a student dying of tuberculosis, who sneers at the prince, even while accepting his hospitality. Are people really like Dostoevsky’s characters? you may well ask. Of course, Myshkin forgives everyone.

Did I like this novel? I hardly know. I do know that it is one of the last books on my first Classics Club list.

Related Posts

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Death in Venice