Day 1095: Number9Dream

Cover for Number9DreamI usually enjoy, on one level or another, everything David Mitchell writes, and I consider a couple of his novels to be really excellent. I wasn’t as fond of Number9Dream, however.

Eiji Miyake has traveled from his home on a southern island of Japan to Tokyo to find his father. He and his twin sister were the product of an illicit relationship that their father abruptly broke off, and Eiji and Anju have never known his identity. They were raised by their grandmother with only infrequent visits from their mother.

When Eiji was eleven, his sister drowned. We are supposed to believe that he ran away on that day and lived in the mountains by himself.

The book begins with a series of unlikely daydreams that Eiji has about meeting his father as he sits in a cafe looking at the building where a lawyer representing his father has an office. When he finally meets the lawyer, she refuses to give him any information about his father or even to give his father a message.

Eiji begins a series of attempts to find his father, involving some unlikely and almost surrealistic adventures. He journeys to the city’s underworld, visits brothels, gets involved with the Yakuza, and has other adventures, all while working a series of low-wage jobs.

This novel is Mitchell’s second, and it seems more juvenile than the others. I don’t think I’m giving away too much, considering the quotes on the jacket cover, when I say that it’s difficult to tell at times whether the protagonist is dreaming or not or whether the entire novel is a dream. There are varying opinions about whether using dreams in novels is effective, or whether they simply stall the plot. I am usually bored by them.

Like some of Mitchell’s other novels, this one also involves several voices. One chapter interjects a series of children’s tales in between sections of the main story, and I found these frankly tedious and unlikely to amuse children. In another section, Eiji receives a diary of his uncle’s life during World War II. This manuscript is interesting inasmuch as it tells about a Japanese program to send manned torpedoes against the American fleet, a suicidal mission that proved more costly to the Japanese than it did to their enemies. This section had some appeal but didn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the novel.

So, this novel was not to my taste. I felt it was disjointed and occasionally uninteresting. Although it uses techniques that Mitchell employs in other books, it doesn’t use them as skillfully. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, though, so I guess I’m in the minority.

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Day 1089: Literary Wives! The Awakening

Cover for The AwakeningWe have two new members of Literary Wives joining us today, I hope. They are Eva of Paperback Princess and TJ of My Book Strings. Welcome, Eva and TJ!

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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!

Ariel of One Little Library
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

Literary critic Elaine Showalter, in her introduction to The Awakening, says it is “recognized today as the first aesthetically successful novel to have been written by an American woman.” I’m not at all sure what she means by “aesthetically successful,” but there is no doubt that the novel was revolutionary, and controversial.

The novel begins with a summer on Grand Isle, south of New Orleans. The Pontelliers are vacationing there, or at least Edna and the children are. Léonce spends the week in the city.

Edna has an almost constant companion, the young man Robert Lebrun. As he adopts a young married woman every summer to worship, no one takes him seriously. But sometime during the summer, Edna realizes she is in love with him.

Edna begins a slow self-realization during which she tries to cast off the parts of her life that are not really hers. Shockingly for her audience in 1899, these include her duties to her husband and children.

Even from the beginning of the novel, her husband criticizes her child-rearing and housekeeping skills, and her mothering is contrasted to that of the other mothers very simply. We’re told that when her children fall down, they pick themselves back up and go on instead of crying and being fussed over by their mothers. This sounds like good mothering to me but apparently was not the norm in Edna’s set of Creole neighbors. Creole in the New Orleans sense means of French descent, and tellingly, Edna is the only one among them who is not Creole.

The descriptions of this summer are heavy with atmosphere and lush, almost sensual. Although barely perceptible on the island, Edna’s awakening affects her behavior after Robert leaves for Mexico and she returns to the city. She is no longer able to lead a conventional life.

Although the novel is considered a feminist classic and was radical for its time, from a modern feminist viewpoint, Edna’s behavior is still defined by her relationship to men. She is awakened by her feelings for Robert, but even in her emancipation her fate is determined by her relationships to men.

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

Even before her awakening, Edna seems bored and disenchanted with marriage, although she perhaps doesn’t know it. She is married to an older man who is both critical and generous, at times controlling, at times neglectful. She loves her children but does not dote on them or even seem to think of them very often. In truth, she seems a lot like my mother, dreamy and abstracted and not very prone to domesticity.

As her foils in the story, she has two opposites. Madame Ratignolle is the personification of motherhood, with a loving relationship with her husband. Mademoiselle Reisz, the musician, lives a meager and bitter existence alone. These two opposites seem to pose extremities of alternative lives for her.

For Edna, marriage is stifling. She attempts to move out of the bounds of marriage and take up a creative life. To do so, she feels she must shed everything pertaining to her previous life.

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Day 1083: Everybody’s Fool

Cover for Everybody's FoolBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think I am the only one to be delighted when I learned that Richard Russo was returning to the familiar ground of North Bath, New York, and Sully, of Nobody’s Fool. Sully has been diagnosed with a heart condition and has less than two years to live unless he undergoes a procedure he’s been avoiding. This situation leads him to consider a little more deeply some fundamental questions.

Sully’s friend Rab has felt a change in their relationship since Sully came into money. They no longer work together, and Rab feels that Sully neglects him. Rab is ridiculously dependent on him.

Sully is concerned for Ruth, his long-time lover, and her daughter, Janey. Janey’s abusive ex-husband is back in town, fresh out of jail.

A major character of the novel is Douglas Raymer. Once the rookie who waved his gun at Sully for driving on the sidewalk, Raymer is now the chief of police.  He has always been obsessively self-conscious and unsure of himself. His self-esteem has not been improved by finding out on the day of his beloved wife Becka’s death that she was leaving him for someone else. The problem is, he doesn’t know who, but he has found the remote for someone else’s garage door under the seat of Becka’s car.

Raymer is already considering quitting his job when he begins one of the worst days of his life. While attending the funeral of a judge, he passes out from the heat and falls into the grave. Later he realizes that he must have dropped the remote, which he planned to use to find Becka’s lover, in the grave.

Russo is great at creating flawed but lovable and believable characters, and he specializes in settings of beaten-down working class towns in the rust belt. He also doesn’t flinch from pushing his characters to the heights of absurdity, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek style. Sometimes he goes too far with this, but other times it works perfectly to produce a serio-comic effect. This is one of those times. Empire Falls remains my favorite Russo novel, but this one is right up there.

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Day 1078: How to Be Both

Cover for How to Be BothI thought How to Be Both was only a bit experimental until I read that the book, which is divided into two related stories, appears in some editions with one story first and in the other editions with the other first. I can see that switching the order of the stories would change the novel quite a bit.

In the version I read, a Renaissance artist watches a boy who is really a girl look at one of the artist’s paintings hundreds of years after the artist has died. The artist follows the girl through a few incidents in her life. As the painter follows her, we learn about the painter’s own life.

I am purposefully not using a pronoun to refer to the artist, because we learn fairly early that the painter is a woman passing as a man to receive art instruction and be able to work as an artist. Only a few people know he is a woman, and he comes down through posterity as a man.

In the second story, a teenage girl named George is grieving the death of her mother. As she copes with her feelings, she remembers conversations between them. Shortly before her death, her mother took George and her brother Henry to Italy just so she could see the work of the painter from the first story.

This novel is about the role of art in our lives, but it is also about finding ourselves and about the relationships between mother and daughter. George’s mother tries to challenge George by presenting her with provocative ideas. Some of these ideas are difficult to grapple with.

Although during the first pages I didn’t think I was going to like this novel, I found both of the stories and the connection between them deeply interesting. This novel is another surprising shortlister (surprising for me, that is) for the Booker Prize that I probably would not otherwise have read. I’m glad I did.

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Day 1073: Middlemarch

Cover for MiddlemarchBest Book of the Week!
The first section of Middlemarch is concerned with Dorothea Brooke, an ardent but naive young woman who only wants to take part in something good. She thirsts for knowledge and wants to help with something important.

One trait of Dorothea’s that is physical as well as metaphorical is her shortsightedness. As her sister Celia tells her, “I thought it right to tell you because you went on as you always do, never looking just where you are and treading in the wrong place. You always see what no one else sees; it is impossible to satisfy you; yet you never see what is quite plain.”

Dorothea in her youthful ardor and intelligence attracts the attention of Mr. Casaubon, a cleric and scholar in his fifties who has been laboring for years on a work he calls “The Key to All Mythologies.” Dorothea decides it would be an honor to marry Mr. Casaubon and help him with his great work. And she does so, despite the admonitions of her friends and family.

It is while Dorothea is on her honeymoon in Rome that we meet other important characters in the novel, for Eliot subtitled her novel “A Study in Provincial Life.” There are the young Vincys, Fred and Rosamund, who have both been indulged by their wealthy parents. Fred has been raised to expect a fortune from his crusty old uncle, Peter Featherstone. Concerned at first only with leading the life of a gentleman, he has quit his university studies and fritters away his time. He would like to marry his childhood friend Mary Garth, but she won’t have him until he sticks to something.

Mr. Lydgate is a new doctor in town. He hopes to reform medical practices and make some significant discovery in medicine. Although he feels he cannot afford to marry for some years, he has not reckoned with Rosamund Vincy, a beautiful but self-centered young woman.

He also starts out by harming his chances through some outspoken comments and a too close relationship with Mr. Bulstrode. A wealthy businessman, Bulstrode is involved with the local hospital. But he likes to be in control of all his charities and is inflexible in his religious views.

In Rome, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon re-encounter Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon’s second cousin. Mr. Casaubon has been supporting Will financially through his studies after Will’s grandmother was disinherited from her family because of her choice in husband. Dorothea, in trying to befriend Will, does not see how much Mr. Casaubon dislikes him. That dislike is to have repercussions for Dorothea’s future life.

Eliot masterfully acquaints us with the problems and politics of this provincial area. Her characters are unforgettable, rich and human. There is a strong feminist sensibility, as Dorothea finds that everything she tries to do is balked because she’s a woman. And class is also an important theme. I continue to feel that Middlemarch is one of the best books ever written and was happy to have it chosen for me by the Classics Club spin.

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Day 1071: Anything Is Possible

Cover for Anything Is PossibleLike Olive Kitteridge, which this book reminds me strongly of, Anything Is Possible is a series of linked short stories. What links these stories is Lucy Barton, the main character of Elizabeth Strout’s previous novel. Each story is about a family relation of Lucy or a resident of her home town in rural Illinois, and Lucy appears as a character in one story.

In “The Sign,” Tommy Guptill, who was the janitor at Lucy’s school when she was a girl, goes to visit Lucy’s brother Pete. There he learns that Pete has long believed a terrible thing about the night long ago when Tommy’s dairy farm burned down.

In “Windmills,” Patty Nicely, a school mate of Lucy’s, is able to overcome an insult from Lucy’s niece and help her make her own escape from town. Patty also reviews her life with her gentle husband Sebastian, who has died.

“Cracked” explores the strange marital life of Linda Peterson-Cornell, Patty Nicely’s niece. Although Linda has married a wealthy man and escaped poverty, her husband has some disturbing pastimes.

link to NetgalleyIn “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” Charlie Macauley, to whom Patty Nicely is attracted, is devastated to find out the truth behind his relationship with a woman. In an attempt to recover before going home, he goes to stay at a B&B. Later, we hear from the B&B’s owner, another relative of the Nicelys.

And so on. These stories are beautifully and perceptively told, evoking sympathy for even the most unlikable characters. As I was for My Name is Lucy Barton, I was caught up in the gentleness and empathy of these stories.

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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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