Day 896: No Country

Cover for No CountryA story about Irish immigrants to India seemed like an interesting change to me. But I decided not to finish this 500+-page book.

It begins in 1989 in upstate New York, where the bodies of a couple are found and their daughter is being questioned. The promise is that the novel will answer the question of who killed them or whether they committed suicide, but at least in the first 200 pages, after this brief opening, the book doesn’t return to the crime.

Instead, the story goes back in time to 1843 Ireland. There, we meet two boyhood friends, Brendan and Padraig. Through several unlooked-for occurrences, Padraig ends up on a ship to Bangladesh with every intention of returning immediately, while Brendan adopts Padraig’s illegitimate daughter Maeve and ends up fleeing the famine for Canada.

Everything about the Irish section of the novel seemed clichéd to me, and because Ray spends no time at all on characterization, we’re not especially interested in the characters. The point of view switches between characters, but they don’t have distinctive voices or personalities. Finally, there is no sense of place to the novel. So, I decided to stick it out until the novel moved to India, hoping that would change things.

In Calcutta in 1911, we meet Robert, Padraig’s Anglo-Indian grandson. I didn’t stay with Robert very long because I still didn’t feel very interested, and again there was no sense of place. It seems obvious that the couple who die in 1989 are going to find they are related in some unanticipated way, but by then the relationship will be so distant, it would hardly seem to matter.

In fact, the story seems to be one of unrelenting misery, but a misery so detached that we feel little empathy as we read the catalog of horrors experienced by Brendan and his family in Ireland and on the way to Canada. The novel is ambitious to tell the story of these families but in a way that didn’t capture me or make me want to invest the time to finish it. From reviews I’ve read, it just becomes more complex, one reviewer mentioning it needed a family tree. But that would probably give away the ending.

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Day 858: Fates and Furies

Cover for Fates and FuriesFates and Furies is about a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde marry shortly before graduating from college, after knowing each other only two weeks. They are both very tall and blonde, considered by many to be a golden couple. Lotto is charismatic and loud, always the center of attention, with many faithful friends. Mathilde is quiet and aloof.

Although Lotto has had a bit of a Southern Gothic upbringing, he is the son of wealth and privilege. However, his mother cuts him off when she hears of his marriage. Mathilde appears to have no family or money. So, the couple’s first years are tough, as Lotto tries to make it as an actor in New York while Mathilde supports them. But one night Lotto stays up drunk and writes a play. When Mathilde reads it, she knows he has found his vocation.

The first half of the novel is from Lotto’s point of view. Success seems to come easily to him after he writes his first play. Even though he is prone to depression if things don’t go well, he has hit after hit. Mathilde quits her job to take care of the business side, and he becomes a little self-satisfied. Still, all in all they are remarkably happy. He considers his wife a saint.

It is not until the second half of the novel, when we see the marriage and past from Mathilde’s point of view, that we learn a different truth about their lives. Mathilde, who has been alone for much of her life, is fiercely loyal to Lotto. But she is no saint.

Lauren Groff seems to write completely different novels each time out. This one shows the complexities of human relationships. That this relationship is almost operatic in scope gives the novel a slightly gothic trend.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I think we are supposed to like Lotto more than I did, but I distrust charismatic people. I think Lotto may be a little stereotypical, however, while Mathilde is mostly a cypher until her half of the book, when many secrets come out. It is not until we learn Mathilde’s side of things that the novel really begins to unfold. It is certainly an interesting novel and one that could provoke discussion.

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Day 710: The Kept

Cover for The KeptBest Book of the Week!
The Kept is a mysterious and darkly moody novel that I found compelling from the first sentences. Elspeth Howell arrives home on a snowy winter day in upstate New York near the turn of the 19th century. She has been away for months working as a midwife. But when she reaches home, she finds that her husband and all of her children that live in the house have been murdered. Only her 12-year-old son Caleb, who has taken to living in the barn, is alive, but he has been hiding in the pantry for days, and when she opens the pantry door, he shoots her in terror.

Caleb spends the next few days alternately trying to take care of his mother and dispose of the bodies of the rest of his family. He cannot bury them in the frozen earth, but in his attempt to burn them, he accidentally burns down the house. He ends up caring for his mother in the barn.

The Howell’s home is isolated and difficult to find. As a young girl, Espeth was driven from her home for having spoken to Jorah, the man she later married, because he was Native American. But there are other reasons for the family’s isolation. In any case, Elspeth thinks the murderers must have sought for their house.

When Elspeth is barely healed, she and Caleb set forth to find the three men who murdered their family, men whom Caleb watched from the barn. They stay briefly with an old couple who have been terrorized by the same three men and who point them in the direction of a town on Lake Erie with a terrible reputation. There, with Elspeth disguised as a man, they go to search for the men.

Beginning as a straightforward revenge novel, the book goes on to explore deeper themes. One of them is that of unintended consequences, as Caleb finds that their troubles result from Elspeth’s own actions years before.

This novel is well written and packed with atmosphere. It is vivid and brutal and beautiful.

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Day 688: The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of InnocenceI have certainly read The Age of Innocence before, but it was not until this rereading that I gained a full appreciation for its subtlety and complexity. I may have read it years ago, but I became really interested in it after an interview with Martin Scorsese about his movie adaptation (my favorite film ever) where he commented on “the brutality under the manners” of the upper class New Yorkers in the novel, set in the 1870’s, and likened them to gangsters.

This novel is about the tension between individual desires and the expectations of a rigid society. However, it is also about the two main characters trying to do the right thing in the face of yearning and passion.

Newland Archer is an intellectually inclined young man interested in art and travel who thinks he understands but sometimes is a little impatient of the rigid and insular customs of his time and social class. He has just become engaged to May Welland during a difficult time for the Welland family. May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, has returned to New York to her family, having left her husband, and society is shocked to see them bringing her to parties and the theatre. Archer decides to show solidarity with the Wellands and soon finds himself drawn into the Countess’ affairs in his professional capacity as a lawyer. Countess Olenska wants to divorce her husband, and the family is horrified, asking Newland to convince her not to.

Newland succeeds, but he soon realizes that he is in love with Ellen Olenska himself. Ellen is determined not to betray her cousin.  When she admits she loves Newland, she comments that by getting her to drop her divorce, he has assured that they can never be together. A disappointed Newland marries May.

Within a short time, Newland regrets his marriage and foresees a gray existence of doing the same things with the same people year after year. The innocence and purity he saw in May is actually an incuriosity and inability to grow or change. Although Newland doesn’t see Ellen, who has moved to Washington, he has begun to think of her as the only real corner of his life. All these feelings are brought to a climax when the Countess returns to New York and her family decides she should reunite with her husband.

This novel is vivid with carefully observed descriptions. Underlying it all is an understated yet savage critique of petty and provincial New York society of the time. Almost every sentence is double-edged, such as when Wharton describes a soprano’s solo in the first chapter:

She sang, of course “M’ama!” not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Nice! I understand that when this book was published, nearly 50 years after its setting, members of New York society were still able to match most of the characters in the novel with their real counterparts.

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Day 615: The Rural Life

Cover for The Rural LifeThe Rural Life is a collection of essays, more like musings by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer of the editorial board for the New York Times. Most of the essays were previously published in the Times and are related to his rural life, whether through his family history on an Iowa farm, his own farm in upstate New York, his father’s ranch in the Sierras, or travels to various western states.

I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps informative book, as I plan to be leading the rural life within a couple of years. Certainly many of Klinkenborg’s essays struck a chord with me. I liked best the pieces that do not go far from nature, whether he is discussing the care of bees, the lushness of his farm in the summer, or the beauty of a snow fall. Occasionally, he gets a little more philosophical than I am interested in.

The book is beautifully written. It occasionally confused me because it is ordered in chapters by month, and in the summer months he seems to be hopping back and forth between his farm and Wyoming. It wasn’t until a paragraph at the end that I discovered the book combines essays written over several years.

Day 561: Lucky Us

Cover for Lucky UsI was enchanted by Away, so I was excited to find that Amy Bloom had another book out. This novel is good but does not live up to the other.

Eva Acton has not met her older half-sister Iris until Eva’s mother dumps her on the front porch of her father’s home. Up until then, Eva worshipped her father, but she begins to see that he has his flaws, a second family being a major one of them. Another is stealing the money Iris wins in talent competitions.

Once Iris has managed to hide enough money from her father, she and Eva take off for Hollywood, where Iris is determined to make it big. At that point, Eva’s formal education comes to a halt, when she is 14.

Iris is beginning to have some success when her chances are ruined by betrayal and scandal. The girls, their friend Francisco, and their father, who has joined them upon premature news of Iris’ success, set off for New York.

This Depression-era novel is written in a light, jaunty tone, narrated mostly from Eva’s point of view punctuated by letters. For after a lot has happened, the girls are eventually separated.

The conflict of the novel is around some choices Iris makes, causing Eva to take on responsibilities and struggles that Iris has initiated. Iris commits several unconscionable acts.

http://www.netgalley.comI cared about what would happen to Eva and some likable friends, but I felt that the end of the novel was too easy on Iris. I also felt that this novel lacked the originality of Away. It is interesting, though, because I was never sure what would happen next, and the narrative style has its charms.


Day 518: The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

Cover for The Fall of the House of WalworthJust a quick note before I get started about the Classics Club Spin #6. The spin selected #1, so I’ll be reading Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gillman!

The Fall of the House of Walworth begins in the 1950’s with Clara Walworth living in a crumbling mansion in Saratoga Springs. She obsessively goes through the possessions of her once-eminent family, not realizing that its members have hidden from her a shocking truth. Her father was once imprisoned for the murder of his own father.

The book then returns to trace the history of the Walworths, a family of prominent figures who became New York state aristocracy. In particular, it looks at the career of Reuben Hyde Walworth, the last Chancellor of New York. It was his younger son Mansfield Walworth who was murdered in a New York City hotel room by Mansfield’s own son Frank, then only 19 years old.

The book relates the story of the marriage of Mansfield and Ellen Hardin. Ellen was Mansfield’s step-sister after the marriage of his father to her mother, Sarah. As a young girl, Ellen was apparently carried away by Mansfield’s streak of romanticism. But she did not realize he had already gained a reputation as a wastrel and a bully. O’Brien theorizes that the family may have hoped the love of a good woman would help him to reform.

The book examines the history of Mansfield and Ellen’s marriage and the reasons the situation reached such heights of drama, including a strain of mental instability in the family. Mansfield was an author of overblown romantic novels, who saw himself as a misunderstood genius. O’Brien’s comments about his dreadful writing and excerpts from his novels show us how deluded Mansfield was about his own talents, even in a sentimental age. They also provide a hint of amusement to the book.

Cultural historian O’Brien has written an interesting true story of an unusual crime that shocked the country. Frank Walworth’s trial provided the test case for the new concept in law of second degree murder. The book also provides insight into the views and treatment of epilepsy, at the time considered a mental illness.