Review 1845: The Nickel Boys

The Prologue of The Nickel Boys is chilling in and of itself. The novel is based on investigations into the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which turned up evidence of mistreatment, torture, and even murder of young boys.

Set mostly in the early 60s, the novel follows Elwood Curtis, a black boy who has been taught to do what is right and who has been inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. His attitude seems to be working. He is doing well in high school, he has a job with a good boss, and his presence at some demonstrations for equality has earned him an invitation to take college courses.

He is on his way to college for the first night of classes when he accepts a ride from a stranger. Next thing he knows, the car has been pulled over as stolen and he’s been sentenced to the Nickel Academy for Boys.

On his second day, still trying to make sense of things, Elwood steps in to stop some bullying and ends up being beaten senseless by the Director. He spends some time in the infirmary, where the doctor only prescribes aspirin no matter what the problem is.

When he gets out, Elwood is befriended by Turner, who tries to show him how to get by. Turner gets him on Community Service detail, where Elwood observes all the food for the school being sold to restaurants, boys being sent to homes of the board members to do yard work and painting, and other signs of graft and corruption. Elwood writes them all down.

This novel is a searing record of the recent racial history of our country as well as being a story of friendship. It’s a powerful book. It makes me wonder why I haven’t read any Whitehead before.

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Review 1830: Breathing Lessons

Anne Tyler is concerned with the lives of ordinary people—in this case a middle-aged couple, Maggie and Ira Moran. The novel explores a common confusion of middle age—how we got where we ended up in life.

After attending an unusual funeral, in which Maggie’s best friend Serena attempted to recreate her wedding day—Maggie talks Ira into detouring to visit their ex-daughter-in-law, Fiona, and their granddaughter, Leroy. The situation with these two is unfortunate, for the Morans have not seen their seven-year-old granddaughter since her third birthday. However, Maggie is convinced that son Jesse and Fiona still love each other, and all they need is a little nudge to get back together.

It is immediately apparent that Maggie is a somewhat scattered thinker, while Ira is more practical. It takes a while to learn, though, something that Ira understands—Maggie is so prone to look at the positives that she doesn’t see things as they are but as she wants them to be. Unfortunately, this includes getting carried away to the point of lying about things.

This wasn’t my favorite Anne Tyler book, but it depicts some characters who seem very true to life (but are also similar to the couple in The Amateur Marriage). Maggie is, I think, supposed to be lovable, but I sympathized with Ira and thought his patience was phenomenal. Jesse is a fairly typical boy-man, another one of Tyler’s types, lacking in responsibility but whose irresponsibility may have been encouraged by Ira’s lack of faith in him. Maggie fails to see that Fiona not only left Jesse, she left the whole family because of its dynamics.

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Review 1626: The Overstory

Best of Ten!
When I read Richard Powers’ Orfeo a while back, I remember thinking he was quite a bit more intelligent than I am, perhaps a little intimidatingly so, yet I enjoyed his book. Reading The Overstory hasn’t changed my impression of that, except that it blew me away.

The novel is about trees. When am I ever going to write that sentence again? The metaphor for its structure that I’ve seen used is that it’s like the rings around a tree as you go inward, but that’s not the metaphor Powers actually uses. He starts in a section called “Roots” and works his way up the tree.

That doesn’t sound very interesting, but it is. He starts with a group of characters who have all formed an interest in trees. Nick Hoel’s ancestor planted some chestnuts on their farm in Iowa, and his father began a giant project of photographing the last one standing every month for years so that you could see its growth if you used the photos like a flip book. Nick, an artist, has re-created these photos as drawings. Mimi Ma’s father Winston brought with him from China an ancient scroll about trees and took his family out to enjoy the national parks. Adam Appich is a budding natural scientist until judges in a science fair think he cheated and he ends up in psychology. Still, his father planted a different tree for each of his children. Douglas Pavlicek is saved by a tree when his plane crashes in Vietnam, and so on. These lives are described as fables on the cover of the book, but the characters felt authentic, which they seldom do in fables.

In the next section, “Trunk,” Powers begins to intertwine the lives of these characters with each other and with the issue of what is happening to the trees in our world and what the consequences will be. Along the way, Powers tells us all kinds of interesting and astonishing things about trees.

The novel takes place between about the 50’s and 60’s to the present, but the meat of it is in the 70’s or 80’s when there was a lot of activism around the protection of our forests. Some characters’ stories begin earlier with their parents or ancestors.

But the novel is really about the trees, and as Powers’ sections go up the tree, the view becomes a little more abstract, while not losing sight of the human characters. I had a few issues with it. The role of Neelay Mehta, a boy of Indian descent who becomes a master computer programmer, doesn’t really fit well into the story. I understand his role but find it unconvincing. Finally, the last section is so abstract, it’s a bit above my head, although I enjoy Powers’ tendency to present readers with lots of ideas.

Overall, though, I was just entranced by this novel, so much so that I fear for our species. If anything is going to make you pay attention to climate change, it’s this book. Now that I live in a state where clear cutting is going on all around me, not just in the national and state forests but by the purchasers of practically every plot of land, who think nothing of devastating their lots for the money, I have been more struck by what we are doing to our forests. This is an incredible novel. I read it for my Booker Prize project, and it won the Pulitzer.

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Review 1526: Olive, Again

Best of Ten!
Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Day 888: Tinkers

Cover for TinkersGeorge Crosby lies dying. He is an old man who retired and then became a clock repairman for 30 years. As he dies, he remembers the life of his father, who was a tinker—a traveling salesman of household items in the rural wilds of Maine—and an epileptic. In a way, of course, George also tinkers, with clocks.

This novel’s writing is truly astounding. Harding has a way of examining ideas and objects down to the bone. At other times, musings seem almost hallucinogenic. I wasn’t sure I understood the point of view, though. If all of the novel is from the point of view of George, as most reviews of the book seem to imply, how does he know what happened to Howard, his father—or is he imagining a life for his father?

To me, the novel seems to be about both men, in particular, about the circumstances that led to George being raised without his father. In the hard primitive life of backwoods Maine, George’s mother is resentful and cold. It is his father who is more considering and thoughtful, but a poor provider who might stop to weave pallets of grass instead of selling his goods. After a particularly bad epileptic attack, the only one witnessed by the Crosby children, George’s mother decides to have their father committed.

This novel was difficult for me to read, because I was so interested in some aspects of the plot that I glanced over some of the gorgeous prose or couldn’t concentrate on it (not my usual approach). The prose is the point of this book, however, and the meditations it evokes.

I believe this book is related to another book that also bought. I can’t remember if it is the sequel to the other book, or the other book is a sequel to it. I’ll be interested to see if reading both books enlightens me more.

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Day 824: The Optimist’s Daughter

Cover for The Optimist's DaughterLaurel McKelva Hand, a widow from Mississippi who now designs fabrics in Chicago, is called to New Orleans, where her elderly father is undergoing an eye operation. Laurel is anxious. Her experiences with the health issues of her mother were not good; there is a sense that something about her mother’s final illness wasn’t handled well.

Judge McKelva’s new wife, Fay, younger than Laurel, is vulgar, frivolous, and stupid. She objects to the procedure. But the judge has a cataract in his other eye, and without the operation at this time, he would end up blind. Dr. Courland thinks the operation will save the judge’s sight, so it is performed.

While the judge struggles to recover, Fay complains about missing Mardi Gras and goes shopping. Unfortunately, as they say, the operation is successful but the patient dies. Although the judge is ordered not to move, his wife shakes him, later saying she was trying to “shake him into life.”

Back home for the funeral in the small town of Mount Salus, Mississippi, Laurel is greeted by old friends who are preparing for the funeral. Fay arrives later and is obviously upset at what she views as an intrusion. It soon appears that Becky, Judge McKelva’s first wife, is the elephant in the room, along with the genteel friends’ incomprehension of what led the judge to marry Fay.

Since Fay has told everyone she has no family, they are surprised when the Chisoms arrive from Texas for the funeral. They are obliviously and cheerfully vulgar, and they add a good deal of macabre humor to the funeral. Fay is so determined that the judge will not be buried next to Becky that she buries him in the unpleasant newer part of the cemetery, right next to the new interstate.

When Fay leaves briefly for a visit with her family, she makes it clear that she expects Laurel to be out of her house when she returns a few days later. Laurel must reconcile herself to the loss of all her parents’ belongings and her childhood home as well as residual pain about both her parents’ and her husband’s death.

This very short novel, written in 1972, is considered Welty’s best, although I confess to a preference for the more lovable The Ponder Heart. The Optimist’s Daughter compresses a lot in just a few pages. At times, the Southern darkness almost reminds me of the grotesque humor of Flannery O’Connor, who is a bit too much for me, but Welty is kinder to her characters.

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Day 815: No Ordinary Time

Cover for No Ordinary TimeNo Ordinary Time tells of the contributions of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the conduct of the United States before and during its participation in World War II. The book relates how Franklin Roosevelt exercised his acute political awareness of public opinion to nudge the U.S. out of isolationism during the war, foreseeing as he did how the world would be changed if Germany succeeded and how assisting England against the Axis powers allowed the U.S. to ramp up for war. While Roosevelt was concentrating on the war, Eleanor remained his social conscience, attempting to hold on to the social advances of the New Deal, taking up the causes of women and their right to work and of African-Americans and their right to equal treatment.

The book also treats of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor. Although they were always friends and companions, Eleanor had been devastated much earlier in their marriage to find out that Franklin had been having an affair with her own secretary, Lucy Mercer. This discovery ended certain aspects of their marital relationship. Eleanor’s relationship with her mother-in-law was difficult, too. In many ways, Eleanor was never at home in her own house. When she had to find a way to be of use as First Lady, since the traditional role of hostess didn’t suit her, she began to make a life for herself as Franklin’s eyes and ears around the country. So successful was she at this that when Franklin wanted to rekindle their relationship later in life and asked her to stay home more, she didn’t want to give up her active life.

These were two remarkable people, although they had their faults. At times, Eleanor’s zeal for a cause made her oblivious to Franklin’s need at the end of the day for relaxation. She found it difficult to unbend, always wanting to be active. Franklin, although charming and seemingly affectionate, was occasionally selfish and seemed sometimes to have no care for people who had given him unstinting care and friendship.

Reading this book made me feel as if I really knew these people, a feeling I seldom get from nonfiction. This is a fascinating story, sometimes thrilling, sometimes sad, about an important period in our history.

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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 685: A Thousand Acres

Cover of A Thousand AcresBest Book of the Week!
A Thousand Acres is a powerful novel set mostly in 1979 rural Iowa. It evokes a completely realized world that is complex and secret.

Ginny Smith has lived on the family farm all her life. Her husband Ty farms alongside her father, Larry Cook, and she and Ty live on what used to be their neighbor’s property, which Larry has bought to make his thousand acres of land. Ginny’s sister Rose also lives on the farm, and her husband Pete works with Larry as well, a bit less comfortably. The women’s youngest sister Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.

Ginny is proud of her family’s accomplishment in creating a fine, well-run farm out of the swampland her great-grandparents bought sight unseen. It soon becomes clear that the farm and the relationship to the land is the most important thing to her family—to all of the families in the area.

At a local barbecue, Larry makes an unexpected announcement. He will create a corporation of the farm and hand it over to his three daughters. Ginny, who is mild-mannered, is taken aback and has doubts, but she does not say anything. Rose seems to be enthusiastic. Caroline simply says “I don’t know,” at which point, Larry petulantly cuts her out. When she tries to approach him later, he slams the door in her face.

Harold Clark, another older farmer, has his prodigal son Jess return after an absence of many years. Almost immediately, he begins to favor Jess over his more loyal and hard-working son Loren.

If this all is beginning to sound familiar, it should, for A Thousand Acres is a modern re-imagining of King Lear. This novel, however, turns the original on its head, for we see it from the point of view of the two “greedy” sisters. In fact, Smiley accomplishes a rather clever trick, because while the neighbors and townspeople see events occur that, from their points of view, seem parallel to those of the play, the readers of the novel are conscious of a whole new layer of information, about how two old men lie and exaggerate when they don’t get their way, and how family secrets fuel Ginny’s timidity and Rose’s rage.

This novel presents complicated, flawed characters in a fully realized setting. It is really excellent and thought-provoking.

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Day 661: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Cover for The Bully PulpitNoted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin approaches her subject of the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft from several insightful angles. Although her book examines their careers separately, it is focused on the differences in their personalities and approaches that finally led to the serious rift in their friendship of many years. This rift also led to Roosevelt’s third run for president, which split the Republican ticket.

One of the major differences that Goodwin identifies is their relationships to and use of the press. The journalists particularly close to Roosevelt and involved in the fortunes of both presidents all worked for McClure’s magazine and make up an impressive list of names in journalism: Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, and Lincoln Steffens.

I wanted to read more by Goodwin after I read Team of Rivals, the great history of Lincoln’s career that inspired the movie Lincoln. Although I also have her book about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in my queue, I was interested in this one because I know only a little bit about Teddy Roosevelt and almost nothing about Taft, just the broad outlines of their careers.

Without going into detail about the careers and personalities of either man, although I developed respect for both, after reading this book, I confess to having a lot of sympathy for Taft over their split. The fact is that Roosevelt regretted his decision not to run for a third term and so looked for excuses to find fault with Taft’s presidency. After Roosevelt’s return from Africa, he criticized Taft’s record of progressive legislation even though it was actually better than Roosevelt’s own. Taft later acknowledged that he wasn’t as good as Roosevelt in publicizing his accomplishments or explaining his policies to the press.

This book is thoroughly interesting and revealing of the characters of both men. It is carefully researched, and it is also very well written. Although quite hefty at 750 pages, it moves along at a good pace and does not get bogged down with extraneous details.

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