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 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 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasBest Book of the Week!
Cloud Atlas is a reread for me, and I think when I first read it, it was my first postmodern fiction. I found it, and still find it, astonishingly inventive and compelling.

Like its namesake, “Cloud Atlas Sextext,” the musical composition that recurs throughout the book, Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories, but with various themes and motifs linking them. Each story is set farther into the future. A story begins and is cut off at a climactic moment until we get to the sixth, which is complete. Then, going back toward the past, the stories are completed.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the journal of a man traveling in the Pacific in the 19th century. On his travels he observes the shameful treatment of the natives by missionaries, rescues a native from slavery, and encounters a series of scalawags. A quack befriends him and begins treating him for a supposed worm.

In “Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher writes his dear friend Rufus Sixsmith about his adventures. Frobisher is a gifted composer but impoverished and a bit of a scalawag himself. In 1931 Belgium, he talks his way into a position of amanuensis for a great composer. While there, he begins writing the haunting “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But he finds he is not the only con artist in the house.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a manuscript mystery novel about a reporter who finds out about safety hazards in a nearby nuclear power facility. Her informant is Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties, a Nobel winning scientist. After Sixsmith is murdered by the corporation that employs him, Luisa begins trying to get a copy of the report he wrote, which is being suppressed.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie set in the present or near future. In it, a publisher in debt is being threatened by thuggish clients. When he goes for his brother’s help, he is tricked into committing himself to a home for the aged.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451” is an oral history dictated by a fabricant from prison, some time in the future. She relates how she became enlightened and got involved with a revolutionary movement against the corprocacy  that controls the 12 cities still habitable on the planet.

“Sloosha’s Croosin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is a story told to listeners in the far future. By now, most of the world is living as primitive tribes, and Zachry’s tribe lives in Hawaii as farmers and goat herders. But a Prescient named Meronym comes to live in the village. These people are the only ones who have kept the scientific knowledge of the time before. Zachry suspects her of motives for being there that she has not told them.

Each of these stories is written in a different style reflecting its time period and with language evolving in the future. The stories share thematic threads and invoke each other’s characters, mixing together the “fictional” characters with the “real” ones. Luisa meets Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi as a god, Sonmi watches the movie about Cavendish. Intricately plotted and fitted together like puzzles, these stories comprise an amazing novel.

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Day 962: The Red Queen

Cover for The Red QueenThe Red Queen is a novel split in two. The first half is a narrative written by the ghost of an actual 18th century Korean princess, Lady Hyegyŏng. The second half follows a modern British academic, Dr. Barbara Halliwell.

“Lady Hong” relates her difficult life as the girl chosen at the age of nine to be the bride of Crown Prince Sado. This role is already a perilous one, and she and her parents are terrified. It is made more terrifying, though, by the fraught relations between Prince Sado and his demanding father King Yŏngjo.

When it slowly becomes apparent that Prince Sado is mentally disturbed and somewhat dangerous, his wife’s life becomes even more one of stress and fear. The princess’s story eventually builds to the climax of her husband’s horrible death.

The Crown Princess’s story is interrupted occasionally by the comments of her ghost, who provides an acrid note informed by writings of thinkers like Voltaire and Freud. Obviously, this ghost has been doing a little reading since she died. I found these interjections odd, but they did little to disturb the flow of what was a fascinating story.

Then I got to Barbara’s half of the book. Barbara has received the princess’s memoirs anonymously and takes them along with her on a trip to an academic conference in South Korea. The ghost makes clear that she sees Barbara as a host whose purpose is to extend her legacy. Barbara is fascinated by the memoir and goes to visit some of the settings of the princess’s life, but she is also engaging in an affair with a famous Dutch sociologist who is the keynote speaker for the conference.

Here is where I thought the narrative broke down. Despite the occasional presence of the ghost and some similarities of taste and experience between Barbara and the ghost, I felt that there was only a flimsy connection between the two halves of the novel. And I wasn’t really interested in Barbara and her fascination with Jan Van Jost.

Additionally, the second half is narrated by some sort of pixie-like guardian angels who have no apparent role. What’s wrong with third-person limited? She’s writing in that anyway with an occasional lapse into second person plural. This seems like a pointless device that becomes even more wink-wink when Drabble introduces herself as a minor character. So, with a little sleight-of-hand, the novel becomes postmodern, but it does not contain any of the cleverness of technique and approach of other postmodern novels I’ve read. This novel is introduced as a tragicomedy, but I didn’t find it comic. Whimsical, perhaps, ironic, certainly.

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Day 914: History of the Rain

Cover for History of the RainBest Book of the Week!
The distinctive voice of its narrator is what stands out to me about History of the Rain. But again, I feel as if I may not be able to convey just how wonderful I found this lovely novel.

Ruthie Swain is a young girl bedridden from an illness. In her attic bedroom under a watery skylight she is trying to read her father’s thousands of books. She is also writing a novel to try to understand him. During this effort, she writes about Ireland, her village, and the history of her family, especially about the Impossible Standard. Her story incorporates the mythological heritage of Ireland as well as references to countless literary authors and characters and the eccentric residents of her village.

Ruthie’s mother’s family, she says, evolved from salmon, and her mother first meets her father salmon fishing, and is hooked. But that gets way ahead of the story, which in unchronological order recites the history of her father’s family, the story of the Impossible Standard and his evolution into a poet.

To give a flavor of the novel, here is how Ruthie imagines the first time Ruthie’s father Virgil is invited to dinner at her mother’s house:

“So, how do you like it here?”
“Very much.”
“Good.”
That exhausts the dialog. She realizes she hasn’t folded the napkins and takes hers and begins to press it in halves. Virgil does the same. Both of them are useless at it. Maybe evenness is a thing intolerable to love. Maybe there’s some law, I don’t know. She lines up the halves of hers, runs her forefinger down the crease. When she picks it up the thing is crooked. So is his. She undoes the fold and goes at it again, but the napkin wants to fall into that same line again and does so to spite her, and does so to spite him, or to occupy both with conundrums or to say in the whimsical language of love that the way ahead will not be a straight line.

She doesn’t give up, and he doesn’t give up. And in that is the whole story, for those who read Napkin.

This novel is funny, heartbreaking, and lovely. It is about the loves of reading and poetry and Ireland and life. I loved this book.

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Day 877: Literary Wives! The Happy Marriage

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
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Cover for The Happy MarriageA famous painter living in Casablanca tells the story of his marriage in a “secret manuscript” as he recovers from a debilitating stroke. From all accounts, he has married a woman who is almost a lunatic. He tells how his family objected to his marrying beneath his social status but he was in love. Now that he has married this much younger woman, his relatives’ fears have been realized. She has poor taste, she is vulgar, irrationally jealous. She has fits of rage where she disturbs his work and even destroys it. She is constantly asking for money and giving it away to her relatives. She drinks too much and hangs out with unpleasant characters.

In the artist’s story, he is mild-mannered and generous, just trying to figure out a way to handle her irrational outbursts. Finally, he begins trying to get a divorce.

Amina, the artist’s wife, discovers his manuscript and we hear her version of the story—which is completely different. Amina’s story is about insults to her family, consistent unfaithfulness, miserliness and lies.

This novel reminds me very much of Fates and Furies, which has the same structure and intent. However, Fates and Furies seems both more unlikely and more nuanced. The Happy Marriage deals in problems that can trouble marriage—infidelity, money issues, dislike of a spouse’s friends, real and imagined insults—but we see nothing of the more subtle aspects of human relations.

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

Although I think we’re ultimately supposed to sympathize with Amina, the two characters in this novel are so angry with each other that their whole relationship seems clichéd to me. I’m not sure what this book ultimately says about wives. Its main point seems to be a larger one about how people self-justify their own bad behavior and see things from their own point of view. Both of the narrators, but certainly the husband, are untrustworthy.

Still, it seems that the husband married to have a wife that he thought he could control. He picked a much younger woman who was in love with him and would be dependent upon him financially. Many of his other choices seem to be made from vanity about his position.

Literary Wives logoThe wife’s rights are changing under Moroccan law, but even though the book blurb mentions this, it does not seem important to the story except that she can prevent their divorce. In effect, the husband is reduced to blackening her name with everyone and depicting her as unstable.

But Amina seemed to be happy in their relationship as long as she could travel with him and thought he was being faithful. That is, she seemed content with being treated as a trophy wife until she had to stay home with the kids (and of course, this coincided with the infidelity, it seems). So, I’m not sure that her idea of marriage is any more strongly developed than his. In this particular marriage, everything seems to boil down to a struggle for control.

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Day 862: The Remains of the Day

Cover for The Remains of the DayBest Book of the Week!
Having seen the movie The Remains of the Day years ago, I think it is just as well I waited so long to read it. Even so, some of the book’s scenes made me envision the movie, though I had forgotten most of it.

Stevens is the butler for Darlington House in the 1950’s. Lord Darlington, whom he served for 30 years, is gone, and now Stevens works for Mr. Farraday, an American. At Mr. Farraday’s suggestion, he has decided to take a holiday to visit the former Miss Keaton, who used to be the housekeeper in Darlington House. He surmises that her marriage is not altogether happy. She has split from her husband, and Stevens hopes she will agree to return to Darlington House as housekeeper. As he travels, he keeps a diary reflecting his thoughts on the journey.

To Stevens, his professional capabilities are the most important areas of his life. He reflects a great deal on such concepts as what dignity consists of. He has removed himself emotionally from the events of his own life, so much so that when his father is dying in the house, he won’t leave the dinner party he is serving. Stevens’ dedication is taken to such an extreme that when he sees in Mr. Farraday a disposition to banter with him, he, who has no sense of humor, begins to practice witticisms.

The Remains of the Day is the striking portrait of a unique individual as he comes to consider some of his life’s decisions. He has devoted his life to the service of Lord Darlington, whose political decisions before World War II left him a ruined man. Stevens thought he was helping Lord Darlington do important work, but later he had to re-evaluate that idea. In the meantime, Stevens ignored a possible other life for himself with Miss Keaton.

This novel tells a sad, sad story. Stevens is not always a reliable narrator for us, as his perceptions are as limited as his point of view. This is a novel of depth and brilliance, intricate as a puzzle box, as we delve the depth of Stevens’ psyche.

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