Day 1016: Orfeo

Cover for OrfeoBest Book of the Week!
Richard Powers is clearly a lot smarter than I am, for I did not always understand him. But I enjoyed his novel Orfeo immensely. It is by coincidence the second reworking of a Greek myth that I’ve read recently.

Peter Els had a career as an avante-garde composer, although with one exception most of his works were only heard by a few hundred people. Now retired, he has taken up a hobby in chemistry, the field he originally intended to work in. Although he has broken no laws, he is trying an experiment to compose music that will last forever, in the genetic code of bacteria.

When his dog unexpectedly dies, an unfortunate series of incidents brings the police to his door. They are alarmed by his chemical periphernalia. He thinks all he will have to do is explain himself, but when he arrives home to find Homeland Security raiding his house, he flees in alarm.

During his flight, he revisits the memories from his past. Most of these have to do with music, and Powers’ use of prose is lyrical as it describes what Peter hears and imagines. The world for Peter is full of music, from bird song or a penny whistle to the most formidably intellectual modern composition. I wasn’t familiar with many of the pieces Powers describes, but his descriptions make me want to hear them.

Although Powers’ writing can be so cerebral that it is thought by some to limit its emotional power, I did not find that to be the case with this novel, even though I did not grasp every idea. Ils decides to visit the important people from his past to make amends for any wrongs he’s done them. As he travels, we continue to revisit his memories. A strong theme of paranoia in the post-9/11 world also prevails.

I found this a touching and powerful novel, full of the joy of music. It probably also includes the best evocation of the creative scene from the 60’s that I’ve ever read.

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Day 810: The Round House

Cover for The Round HouseThe Round House looks back to 1988, to traumatic events in the life of 13-year-old Joe Coutts and his family. Joe has had a comfortable life for a kid living on the reservation. His father is a tribal judge, and his mother is a social worker. They live in a homey, not fancy house, and his mother keeps a beautiful flower and vegetable garden.

Joe is enjoying the summer as any 13-year-old might, sometimes running around with his friends, sometimes helping out at home. One Sunday he is digging out saplings that have worked their way into the foundation of their house. His mother has run out to the office to pick up a file. She is usually very punctual, but he and his father realize she has not returned at her usual time. The two decide to go get her.

They pass her coming home, but it is not until they arrive home that they discover something horrible has happened. Joe’s mother has been raped and brutally beaten. They rush her to the hospital.

When the police come, she will not talk about what happened except for the broadest outlines. She was kidnapped from the old ceremonial Round House and taken somewhere else to be assaulted. She escaped after her attacker doused her with gasoline and went for matches. After she returns from the hospital, she retreats to her room.

Because of complicated laws related to who has jurisdiction over what type of crimes and where they are committed, Joe’s father begins trying to sort out how a prosecution could be pursued when they find the rapist. This task is made more difficult by the insistence of Joe’s mother that she doesn’t know where she was when she was raped. Joe himself starts looking for evidence of who could have committed the crime.

Like most of Erdrich’s novels set on the reservation, this novel is as much about heartbreaking experiences as anything else. Erdrich points out in the Afterword that up to 1/3 of Native American women are raped on the reservation, mostly by men who are not Native American. She says that this number is almost certainly an understatement, because Native American women don’t want to report rape. Many of these incidents cannot be prosecuted because of jurisdictional problems.

There were a few things that bothered me about this story, particularly that Joe doesn’t connect some money he finds near the scene of the crime with the crime or that he and his friends drink some beer they find even though they think it is connected with the crime and could be a clue. Even at 13 and in 1988, they had to have watched more crime shows than that.

In general, though, this is compelling reading, about the change in Joe’s family, about how fast he is forced to grow up, about the limitations of justice on the reservation.

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Day 671: Lila

Cover for LilaBest Book of the Week!
In Lila, wonderful writer Marilynne Robinson returns to the small Iowa town of Gilead, the setting of her previous novels Gilead and Home. In these novels Lila Ames is not much of a presence. She is referred to as the surprising choice of a wife for the elderly, gentle, and educated pastor John Ames—much younger, rough, and uneducated.

Lila has lived almost her entire life on the tramp, ever since Doll stole her away, a neglected, starving, feverish little mite who lived mostly under the table or was locked out of the house. Doll and Lila joined up with a group of travelers lead by Doane, wandering from job to job, and life was just fine until the long, dark days of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Years later, Lila has stopped outside Gilead and is living in a shack, walking to nearby farms and houses and asking for work.

Lila knows nothing about religion, but on occasion she has been curious about it and was warned away by Doane, who claims all preachers are charlatans. So, one day she ventures into the church. There she sees and is drawn to John Ames, and he to her. Eventually, they marry.

The action of this novel is mostly interior. Lila is tormented by some of the memories of her previous life and feels unworthy of Ames. She is afraid that he may ask her to leave at any minute. All the same, she occasionally wants to return to the freedom of her old life.

Ames, on the other hand, is happy to have Lila’s company, for he has lived alone ever since the death of his wife in childbirth, years ago. He is afraid she will decide to leave him one day.

As with Gilead and Home, this is a quiet novel, characterized by religious discussions as Lila tries to read and understand the Bible. She has no prior relationship to religion, but she has vowed that John Ames’s son will be brought up praying, as his father does. The discussions in Gilead between the two pastors were way over my head, but these are more fundamental.

I am not particularly interested in religion, but what I like about Robinson’s books is that they are about good people trying to be good. That is a refreshing theme these days. And the writing is superb, the subject matter approached with delicacy. I can’t recommend any book by Marilynne Robinson strongly enough.

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Day 548: The Good Lord Bird

Cover for The Good Lord BirdBest Book of the Week!
Henry “Onion” Shackleford is a boy working with his father in a barber shop when John Brown and his followers ride into town. He relates his story many years later when he is more than 100 years old.

Henry and his father are African-American slaves living in the Kansas Territory near Laurence, a hotbed during the Border Wars, referred to as Bleeding Kansas. Brown has come to help the Free Staters, those who want Kansas to be free of slavery. But Brown’s ultimate goal is to rid the country of slavery, and he doesn’t care how he does it. In the resulting fight, Henry’s father is killed, and Brown “frees” Henry by kidnapping him.

Because, as Henry points out several times in his narrative, John Brown sees only what he wants to see, he mistakes Henry in his potato sack clothing for a girl. From then on, Henry is a girl as far as Brown’s followers are concerned, and Brown calls him Onion.

What follows is an an account of the deeds of John Brown, leading up to the assault on Harper’s Ferry. This tale is often cynical or ironic, boundlessly energetic, irreverent, and funny as well as touching. Brown is depicted as a sort of half-crazed, raggedy zealot, who is capable of stopping midway across a stream while being pursued by his enemies to pray for half an hour. Only his son Owen is brave enough to interrupt him and try to get him on his way.

Onion and other slaves they encounter are reluctant to be freed, afraid they’re going to end up in hotter water than they started. They have some cause. Onion, in fact, is almost always planning how he’ll escape the group and does so several times. But he always ends up back with Brown. His adventures lead him to residence in a whorehouse, a visit with Frederick Douglass (who gets drunk and tries to seduce “Henrietta”), and a more impressive meeting with Harriet Tubman in Canada. All the while, Brown attempts to “hive the Negroes” to revolt at the appropriate time.

The wonder is that with all this poking fun, McBride somehow manages to make us care deeply for John Brown and to honor his place as a trigger for the Civil War. This is an unusual novel—highly entertaining yet also deeply serious.