Day 1083: Everybody’s Fool

Cover for Everybody's FoolI 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 MiddlemarchThe 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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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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