Day 1115: On Canaan’s Side

Cover for On Canaan's SideBest Biweekly Book!
I just wanted to comment that this is the third book in a row I’ve reviewed that has a title starting with “On.” That has to be unusual.

While I was reading On Canaan’s Side, I kept comparing it to Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. I think that’s because, although it approaches its subject matter much differently, it has one goal similar to the trilogy’s. It covers events in almost the same period, only in terms of one woman’s life span. But it does so in a mere 256 pages and with a limited number of characters, as opposed to Smiley’s three large books and a plethora of characters.

Lilly Bere is almost ninety years old. Her beloved grandson Bill has just died, and Lilly has decided to follow him. Before she goes, she writes an account of her life.

Lilly grew up in Dublin, but shortly after the First World War, she has to flee to America. The army mate of her dead brother has become her fiancé, Tagh. But after he takes a job as a Black and Tan, Lilly’s father hears he is on a hit list, and she with him.

Lilly’s cousin is no longer at the address she has in New York, so she and Tagh travel to Chicago to try to find her second contact. They are just settling down when Tagh is murdered at an art museum.

Lilly must flee again. In her subsequent life, she finds friends and love, but she also has mysteries in her past that Barry skillfully spins out.

The point of view is kept at Lilly’s, and we feel we get to know her and share her joys and sorrows. This novel’s prose is quite beautiful, and I was touched by events in Lilly’s life. Whereas I felt distances from Smiley’s trilogy, I was pulled into Lilly’s story. This was another excellent book I read for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 1108: His Bloody Project

Cover for His Bloody ProjectI was actually reading another novel on my iPad when I picked up His Bloody Project because my iPad needed charging. I was so riveted by it that I couldn’t go back to the other novel until I finished this one.

In 1869 Scotland, 17-year-old Roddy Macrae is in jail awaiting trial for the murders of three people. Roddy has admitted the murders and is ready to take his punishment, which in this time means hanging. His advocate, Mr. Sinclair, thinks there are mitigating circumstances and asks him to write his account of the crimes.

The entire novel is made up of documents—first, Roddy’s account, then the medical reports of the victims and psychiatric evaluations, finally the account of the trial and what happened afterward. Although there is no doubt who committed the murders and little doubt of the outcome of the trial, Burnet manages to conjure up a great deal of sympathy for Roddy and a terrific amount of suspense.

Not only does Burnet create a complex psychological depiction of Roddy, he also deftly depicts the life of highland crofters in the mid-19th century. The novel deals with such issues as class discrimination, the inequities in the lives of crofters and their domination by the landlords, the limitations of our system of justice, and the beliefs held in the infancy of psychiatry. These observations make the novel sound heavy, but it is eminently readable. This is one of the books I read for my Booker Prize project, and I’m really glad I did.

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Day 1100: The Stranger’s Child

Cover for The Stranger's ChildI had the oddest experience with The Stranger’s Child. Although it was well written and sounded like something I would be interested in, for a while every time I started to read it, I fell asleep. There is very little movement to this novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the end of it had me wondering what the point of it was.

The novel is multigenerational, beginning in 1913 and ending in 2008. In 1913, Daphne Sawle, who is 16, is attracted to her brother George’s friend, Cecil Valance, down for a visit from Cambridge. Cecil is an aristocrat and a poet. Unbeknownst to naive Daphne, he and George are having a wild affair.

The next section of the book takes place ten years after World War I. Cecil died in the war, and the family is dedicating a memorial to him. The family includes Daphne, as she has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and they have two children. However, she is in love with Revel Ralph, a set designer for the theater.

By far the bulk of the novel is set in the 1960’s and 70’s and is from the point of view of Paul Bryant. In the 1960’s, he is a shy bank clerk. He has become involved with the family through his boss, who has married into it, and through his affair with Peter Rowe, a schoolteacher at Corley House, which used to be the Valance home. Cecil is now regarded as one of England’s minor poets.

Ten years later, Paul is a biographer, determined to out Cecil as a gay man despite the claims of Daphne to have been his fianceé. It is unfortunate that I found this main character of the longest section to be so unappealing and completely focused on who was or was not gay, although I realize that the 1970’s was the time for that kind of revelation.

Part of my problem with the novel may have been the blurb, which really oversells aspects of the plot. For example, it says, “Over time, a tragic love story is spun . . . .” Well, there are several love stories that come out, but I wouldn’t call any of them tragic, and it’s actually difficult to tell which of them this comment refers to. One of the secrets is so understated during the novel that even though it is the last revelation, it seems anticlimactic. I suppose it’s supposed to be ironic that Paul is so focused on the possibility of one affair that he completely misses another.

Finally, this is a novel so focused on the sexuality of its characters that it gives the impression that the entire upper class male population of England is gay. We see a little into Daphne’s infatuations, but otherwise, only from the point of view of various gay men trolling for sex or obsessing about it. Those of you who know me will realize that I would have the same complaint if the sole focus was on heterosexual sex. So, not one of my favorites for my Walter Scott prize project.

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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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