Review 1739: Oh William!

In Oh William! we meet again Elizabeth Strout’s alter ego, Lucy Barton. Lucy’s second husband David has recently died. She considers her own grief in addition to the state of mind of her first husband, William, who begins to experience some shocks in life.

First, William’s third wife, Estelle, leaves him abruptly. Then William begins to find out some family secrets, particularly about his mother, Catherine. Lucy, who has remained on good terms with William, reflects upon her relationships with him, Catherine, and her own family as she tries to help him.

link to Netgalley

As usual, the story, which is told as a series of apparently random recollections and incidents, is written in lovely prose. What stands out for me even more than that in the Lucy Barton books is Lucy’s gentleness and the loving, accepting way she approaches the world and the other characters. Although Strout’s novels are not strongly plot driven, once you start one, you just want to keep reading.

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Review 1697: Black Narcissus

After reading Coromandel Sea Change, I decided to find more of Rumer Godden’s India novels and read them. Black Narcissus was the first (although I have already reviewed a few of the others), and I found it mysterious and haunting.

Sister Clodagh and a small group of Anglican nuns arrive at a palace above a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, hospital, and school. The abandoned palace once was the home of the General’s father’s harem. He first gave it to religious brothers for a boys’ school, but after only five months, they left with no explanation.

From the first, the place seems to affect the sisters oddly. Sister Clodagh finds herself dreaming about Ireland and Con, whom she thought would marry her long ago. Sister Philippa, the gardener, becomes involved with the flower garden, to the neglect of the vegetables and the laundry. Sister Honey becomes too involved with the children. Sister Ruth, always difficult, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, the General’s agent. The sisters occasionally begin to forget their devotions.

Mr. Dean has warned the sisters about possible cultural misunderstandings with the villagers, but although they sometimes make an attempt to understand the natives, mostly the sisters heedlessly continue on their agendas. The sense of foreboding grows.

This is an absolutely terrific novel, very atmospheric, in which the brooding mountain across from the convent becomes almost godlike, certainly a character. I was so rivetted, I stayed up late into the night until I finished it.

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Review 1675: Kingfishers Catch Fire

Before she is even eight years old, Teresa has learned to put her head down and cry when her mother has an idea. Sophie Barrington-Ward is feckless, naïve, doesn’t listen to anyone else, and only sees what she wants to see. Widowed and left relatively poor after paying off her husband’s debts, she has worked so hard at jobs she’s not qualified for that she gets sick. Recovering, she has an idea. The Kashmiri peasants are poor, but they are healthy and well-fed. Why not rent a house in the Kashmir countryside and live like a peasant?

Of course, she has no ability to live like a peasant and has no understanding of just how poor the villagers are. As she settles into her house in the high Himalayas, she doesn’t notice that the villagers are vying for opportunities to make money from her. She consistently overpays and doesn’t listen to the advice of her landlord or his caretaker, Nabir. More dangerously, she doesn’t realize that there are two feuding factions in the village, the Sheikhs and the Dārs.

Teresa knows that it is Nabir who keeps them safe, particularly herself and her little brother Moo. But Nabir has a pride and aloofness that makes him seem insolent. And he has people working against him, including Sultan, the incompetent house servant Sophie brought from the city. Over time, a dangerous situation evolves.

Like the other India-based novels by Godden I’ve been reading lately, Kingfishers Catch Fire is freighted with a love of this region that does not miss its cruelties. Its descriptions are lush. Its heroine is complex. At first frustrated by Sophie’s faults and her lack of understanding of her daughter, I eventually came to admire her. Although I thought Black Narcissus was wonderful (I haven’t reviewed it yet), I think this novel is even better.

The afterword notes that this novel is one of Godden’s mostly autobiographical, and it includes a short section of excerpts from Godden’s Kashmir diary.

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Review 1672: Literary Wives! Monogamy

Today 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
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Annie, a small, reserved photographer, and Graham, a large, extroverted bookstore owner, have been married for about 30 years. Their story goes forward linearly with many visits to the past as Miller minutely examines their relationship. The crux of the story, though, is that Graham has been having an affair that he has just managed to break off. Then that night he dies in his sleep. Months later, Annie is just beginning to make some sort of recovery from her grief when she learns of the affair and has to reassess what she thought she knew about their marriage.

It’s hard to explain or evaluate this novel. Miller is generous to her characters, but she is also very observant. She examines and excavates their relationship in a detached way, even though the novel is from Annie’s viewpoint, that can seem cold. That is, there are no value judgments but also no feeling of affection, either, which may make readers feel detached. On the other hand, she really understands the intricacies and complications of marriage.

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

Literary Wives logo

Although Annie and Graham are happily married, we learn that Annie resisted him at first because she was afraid he would overwhelm her. For his part, his bonhomie and charm hide his insecurities, and his lust for life is characterized by a certain insatiability. He needs.

In this novel, although we see almost her every thought, I thought Annie was somewhat of an enigma. I find myself puzzled by her even while understanding why she is angry with Graham. I almost think that the novel provides us too many details of their lives to answer this question. Of all the books we have read for this club so far this one seems to be the most nuanced. Still, I find myself without very much to say about it.

After thinking about it for awhile, though, it seems to me that the couple is a mismatch even though they were happily married for years. It seems that Annie doesn’t realize that Graham reinvented himself from an introverted geek to the loud, exuberant charismatic person he became. Perhaps because this isn’t his true self, Graham seems to seek reaffirmation of his attractiveness through affairs. Annie is probably too self-possessed to be the person who could calm Graham’s insecurities. Perhaps he would have been happier with someone who was more dependent.

The title also makes me wonder if we’re supposed to re-evaluate the whole concept of monogamy, but nothing in the book forwards this thought.

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Review 1654: The Panopticon

Best of Ten!
Anais Hendricks, 15, arrives at the Panopticon, an old prison designed so that someone can see the inmates at all times, which is now being used as a home for juveniles. The police believe she beat an officer and put her in a coma, but she was so high that she can’t remember what she was doing.

Anais has been in the system since birth, and the system has failed her on every front. Although at first she seems to be hard and criminal, she is a feisty girl, and most of her offenses have been a defense of someone else or an act of protest against an injustice. Her trouble with the law began when Theresa, her adoptive mother, was murdered. Anais now believes she is part of an experiment that wants her to fail.

At the Panopticon, Anais makes some friends and gets a better social worker in Angus, but she still ends up in trouble. Soon, the police tell her that one more offense will result in her being transferred to detention.

In Anais, Fagan has created an unforgettable character. The novel is full of bad language, but it is fluent and lively, and makes a riveting story. I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1634: Palace of Desire

The three books of Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy are all named after streets in Cairo. The home of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is located on Palace Walk, the name of the previous book. His oldest son Yasid’s home is on the Palace of Desire, and desire is certainly a theme for this novel.

The novel is set five years after the last one, beginning in 1924. Since his middle son Fahmy’s death, Ahmad has stopped his nightly drinking and womanizing, but fairly soon in the novel he decides to go out with his friends again. Now a middle-aged man, he finds he has lost his confidence. Instead of flitting from woman to woman, he is soon spending a lot of money setting up his mistress, Zanuba, in a house boat.

Kamal, definitely a portrait of the writer himself, as I suspected in the last book, is now 17 and in love. He is entranced by Aïda, the sister of one of his school friends, who was raised in Paris. This girl belongs to a relatively aristocratic family, and Kamal seems to have no hope but just wants to worship her.

Yasid, having been divorced by his wife in the first book, now decides to marry Maryam, the girl from next door that his brother Fahmy wanted to marry. Also a terrible womanizer, Yasid only decides to marry her because she won’t sleep with him. His choice causes some family problems. His mother Amina and his sisters have broken with her because they think she slighted Fahmy by becoming acquainted with an English officer after Fahmy’s father refused to let him marry her. They also think Yasin should leave alone the girl Fahmy loved. His father cannot admit that he doesn’t approve because he himself had an affair with Maryam’s mother, Bahija.

So, Yasin must go to ask for Maryam’s hand himself instead of sending a relative. When he does, he complicates matters more by starting an affair with Bahija. At this point, I almost wondered if I was reading a farce except that Mahfouz is so deadpan serious.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked Palace Walk, but I liked Palace of Desire less. For one thing, Mahfouz doesn’t spend much time with Kamal’s sisters, Aisha and Adijah. But frankly, I found Kemal’s obsessions and long internal dialogues tedious. Either he’s rhapsodizing about Aïda, whom he seriously doesn’t want to be a real girl, or he’s philosophizing about some other subject. In Mahfouz’s attempts at realism, he frequently interjects a character’s thoughts into the middle of a conversation to show what the character is really thinking. When overused, this technique slows things down too much. Finally, Kamal’s conversations with his friends seem terribly formal and artificial, and the other characters’ flirtacious and joking comments seem clumsy and crude, but this just might be a cultural difference. I was most bothered by Kamal’s interactions with Aïda. Without saying too much about what happens, I’ll just say that he comes off as a bit of an idiot and a prig.

I still plan to read the third novel, Sugar Street, but I hope to like it better.

The New York Times reviewer comments that Mafouz essentially invented the Egyptian novel form with reference to Arabic poetry. I can see that in some of Kamal’s musings, but I don’t have much patience for it.

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Review 1632: Memories of the Future

When reading Hustvedt, I am always aware of an intelligence far greater than mine as well as a quality of being frighteningly well read. I especially noticed these attributes in Memories of the Future, an apparently autobiographical novel.

In the novel, the narrator, S. H., has found her old diaries from when she was a young adult and moved to New York City to spend a year writing a novel. She breaks up the story to reflect on her thoughts and actions of the time, provide a few updates on her present life working on this novel and visiting her elderly mother, present portions of the novel she was writing back then, and even take on a sort of third persona, the Introspective Detective.

S. H., who acquires the nickname Minnesota, is thrilled to move into her tiny, dark studio apartment, because she is starting a new life. Next door, her neighbor, Lucy Brite, has intriguing dialogues with herself that S. H. begins eavesdropping on, trying to figure out what she’s talking about, as it seems to involve violence.

Minnesota is given her nickname by her new friend, Whitney, who attends the same types of poetry readings and lectures, and soon Minnesota is part of a lively group of young people. She is already running out of money, however, and has some dark times ahead of her.

Hustvedt muses on some interesting topics, such as the nature of memory and the effects of aging, but most of her anger centers around women’s learning of acceptance. In an incident that turns out badly, she asks her younger self why she was more concerned with politeness and going along than with her instinct to resist what was happening. As in the wonderful The Blazing World, she tells the real story of a woman whose work is claimed by a man, Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, an artist and poet whose sculpture was claimed and attributed to Marcel Duchamp after her death.

I found this novel more difficult and not as engaging as the other two I have read, but still, she is always inspiring and fascinating. I just wish I understood more of her allusions and philosophical meanderings.

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Review 1620: Beatlebone

Judging by the description, Beatlebone is a novel I never would have picked up if not for my James Tait Black project. Often, these projects I’m pursuing have led me to discover wonderful books that I never would have thought to read, but this is not always the case.

Further, I think that reviewers sometimes get jaded, which causes them to give a book rave reviews just because it is different. Certainly, the newspaper and magazine reviewers raved about this one.

The premise is that John Lennon, in 1978, decides, in an attempt to renew himself, to visit an island he bought off the west coast of Ireland. He doesn’t want to be followed by the paparazzi, however, and he can’t remember exactly where his island is. He ends up being taken around by a man named Cornelius O’Grady, who hides him at his farm, takes him to pubs, and so on. During this time, Lennon has what are described on the jacket as surreal experiences.

The novel was lauded for its writing, and the writing is good, but it is full of Joycean monologues that sometimes go on for pages. One Goodreads reviewer mentioned that a novel needs more than good writing, and I’m with him there. I’m not one to say about a novel that nothing much happens in it if something else keeps my attention, but nothing much happens here, and what does happen, I didn’t have much interest in.

Several newspaper reviews mention Barry’s daring act of inserting himself into the novel. This act consists of inserting about 20 pages into the back end of the novel that would normally go in an Afterword. I found this section simply interrupted what little forward movement there was, as did a five-page rant at the end. The whole thing struck me as well-written fanboy fantasy.

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Review 1615: Swimming Lessons

Best of Ten!
I was interested in reading Swimming Lessons when it came out, but I never actually got hold of a copy. Then I read Fuller’s next novel, Bitter Orange, and liked it so much that I had to read Swimming Lessons.

Gil Colman, a famous writer who hasn’t written anything for years, is now elderly and dying of cancer. He has discovered letters from Ingrid, his wife who was presumed drowned years ago, tucked away in his thousands of books, many of which were removed from his house by his daughter Nan and sold to a bookstore. He is in the bookstore, having discovered one of the notes, when he thinks he sees Ingrid out in the street. Rushing after her, he gets injured.

That is the setup of the novel. From there, chapters alternate between the letters telling the story of their marriage from Ingrid’s point of view and Gil’s daughter Flora’s point of view as she returns home because her father is in the hospital. She tries to learn more about Ingrid, who she believes is alive. Although the sections about the current time and Flora’s struggles are interesting, most enthralling are Ingrid’s letters to her husband, describing a marriage in which, as a naïve girl thirty years Gil’s junior, she falls into a life she does not want, of marriage and children, to a husband who is serially unfaithful, and who, in a way, co-opts her past.

This is a fascinating and haunting story about the secrets of a marriage.

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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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Outline

Ducks, Newburyport