Review 1413: The People in the Trees

When everyone was reading The People in the Trees a few years ago, I didn’t think it sounded like something I’d be interested in. Then I finally read Yanagihara’s fabulous A Little Life. That made me pick up this book when I saw it again.

The novel begins with documents written by Ronald Kubodera, a coworker and acolyte of Dr. Norton Perina, a renowned scientist who won the Nobel Prize and now has been imprisoned for child molesting. Kubodera convinces Perina to write his memoir, telling his side of the story.

Just out of medical school, Perina is wondering what to do with himself. He has no intention of becoming a medical doctor, and his graduate school lab work he finds boring. He has managed to offend his laboratory boss, so he is surprised when the man recommends him for a position accompanying Paul Tallent, an anthropologist, to a remote Micronesian island.

Perina’s prize-winning work is based on what he observes on that island. Tallent takes him to the U’Ivu U’ivu Islands, an archipelago of three islands. One of them, Ivu’ ivu, is forbidden, but there are rumors of a strange animal-like people on that island. Tallent hopes to discover an unknown tribe.

The first people they discover are in a state of extreme senility, some almost totally dehumanized. When they find the village, these other people are much like other U’Ivu islanders, only there are no older people in the village.

Perina’s discovery is to figure out that the people of Ivu’ ivu can live almost eternally after eating the meat of the opa’ ivu’ eke turtle, found only on Ivu’ ivu. The downside is that something in the meat also causes increased senility. The older islanders remain physically fit but eventually lose speech and all semblance of humanity.

Perina breaks a taboo to capture an opa’ ivu’ eke turtle and smuggle it out of the country for study. He also takes with him some of the elders, whom he calls dreamers.

This novel is about the abuse of power and what it can lead to. Perina is not a sympathetic character, although he states justifications for his own actions. His view is that any scientist would have taken the turtle even though his action results in the death of a guide whom he likes. Removing the dreamers from their familiar surroundings to a lab increases their decreptitude, but Perina seems to feel no remorse or even responsibility. He is more concerned with the inevitable destruction of the lifestyle on the islands once he publishes his paper.

This is a fascinating character study of a man so driven by ambition and his own needs that he doesn’t even notice the results of his actions. Even the structure of the novel speaks to this theme of power, for Kubodera’s footnotes abound, and he cuts out an important passage from the original manuscript, included at the end of the book. Kubodera’s comment is that it shouldn’t matter. He himself is such a hero worshipper that he’s ready to excuse Perina anything. Perina attempts to tell the truth about his life, but he is so self-deluded that he becomes an untrustworthy narrator.

Yanogihara has blown me away with another terrific novel.

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Review 1331: The Good Soldier

Cover for The Good SoldierThe Good Soldier is considered Ford Madox Ford’s greatest novel. His earlier work was more Edwardian realist, but this novel has several characteristics of modernism, including an unreliable narrator, an interest in characters’ psychological underpinnings, and a more liberated female character.

The narrator of the novel, set before World War I, is John Dowell, a wealthy but incredibly dense American. He is not unreliable because he is lying or misrepresenting what has happened but simply because he is almost willfully blind to it. At the beginning of the novel, he informs us that the Ashburnhams were his wonderful, close friends for nine years, decent people, good people. Yet, at almost the next breath he reveals that Edward Ashburnham had an affair with John’s wife, Florence, for nine years.

The Good Soldier is the story of the complex relationships between Leonora and Edward Ashburnham and how their problems affect the lives of other people, particularly their innocent young friend, Nancy. This is the kind of book, I believe, that readers will understand differently each time they read it.

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Day 1286: The Murder of My Aunt

Cover for The Murder of My AuntI’ve read quite a few of the British Library Crime Classics and enjoyed their beautiful covers, but The Murder of My Aunt is the first that has been darkly comic. Edward sees himself as fashionable and too good for the sleepy Welsh village of Llwll where he lives with his aunt. His aunt supports him but not well enough for him to live in London and indulge himself.

Edward is not a nice person, but he turns malicious after his aunt pulls a prank to get him to walk into the village instead of driving his car, La Joyeuse. He decides to murder her to get control of his life and her fortune.

link to NetgalleyIndeed, if we are to believe Edward’s version, his aunt is not much more likable than he is. But are we to believe him?

The novel is very entertaining until it bogs down a bit with a change of narrators. The Murder of My Aunt was considered a genre breaker in its time and was praised for its freshness and originality. Certainly, I found Edward’s machinations amusing, but the barbs directed at his effeminate nature are also mean-spirited.

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Day 1197: Literary Wives! The Headmaster’s Wife

Cover for The Headmaster's WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in 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!

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

In trying to rate The Headmaster’s Wife, I again became frustrated with Goodreads’ inflexible five-star system. The novel was more ambitious and better written than many run-of-the-mill novels I’ve given three stars to, but it wasn’t good enough to get four stars, which I give to books I like a lot but don’t think are wonderful. There was just something lacking in it, and 3 1/2 stars would have been perfect.

Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster of a private prep school,  is found wandering naked in the park. He tells the police his story about having an affair with a student forty years younger than him, an event ending in a crime.

But halfway through the book, we find it is not about what we think it is. Arthur turns out to be an unreliable narrator. At this point, the focus changes to Betsy, the girl in the headmaster’s story, sort of. There’s not much more about the plot that I can say without major spoilers.

The prep school world is one that I’m not familiar with, but everything about this novel could have taken place in the 1950’s instead of the current times. I found the world of the book scarily insulated from the events of the real world.

Overall, I found this novel unsatisfying. The first half of it I found distasteful, especially in these Me Too days. But the novel, as I said before, isn’t really about what it seems. The second narrative is unsatisfying because we only actually see Betsy in her relationship to the males in her life—her boyfriends, her son, her lovers. It’s as if she has no actual life. Which, of course, leads us into our Literary Wives discussion.

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

First, I didn’t believe in Betsy as a character except in Arthur’s narrative. In her own section, we have no sense of her day-to-day life. She doesn’t seem to exist. Maybe that was the intention of the author, but maybe he is just really bad at depicting women. While Arthur shuffles papers and attends board meetings, she does literally nothing except have one conversation with an acquaintance.

At the beginning of Arthur and Betsy’s relationship, when Arthur sees she is cooling off, he plays a nasty trick to get rid of a rival. Betsy is fully aware of it. Yet, we are to believe that she went ahead and married Arthur, presumably to have a place at Lancaster forever. I didn’t believe it.

Then, we see Betsy, as I mentioned before, only in relationship to the males in her life and mostly in reference to sex. That is, when she looks back at her own life, it’s one sex scene after another, except for her memories of her son, and even those are somewhat eroticized. Even her desire to become good at tennis involves an affair with her tennis instructor. All I can say is, guess what guys? Sex isn’t the only thing women think about.

The central theme of the novel is supposed to be about grief, but characters in this novel don’t deal with their grief or even really face it. I feel that Greene meant for this novel to be meaningful, but it doesn’t really make it.

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Day 942: Siracusa

Cover for SiracusaNews flash! The Man Booker long list was announced today, and I have actually reviewed one of the books!

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Siracusa is a sometimes shocking story about a disastrous vacation in Italy. Two couples, linked by a friendship between the husband of one and the wife of the other, vacation together with one couple’s pre-teen daughter. The trip this year has been planned by Taylor except for a detour to Siracusa, Sicily, planned by Lizzie. The story alternates among the points of view of the four adults.

Lizzie’s voice seems the most reliable, but all of the adults are unreliable narrators for one reason or another. Lizzie, a writer, is deluded. She is in love with her husband Michael and does not know he is unfaithful. Michael, a formerly famous playwright who has been working on the same novel for years, is a liar who likes power games. He has been cheating on Lizzie with a waitress named Kathy.

Finn is a restaurant owner who smokes too much and is serially unfaithful. His wife Taylor is snobbish and shallow, and she is so overprotective of their 10-year-old daughter Snow that she talks for her. At some point, Taylor begins making a play for Michael, whom both she and Snow adore.

At Siracusa, a tragic chain of events begin when Kathy appears as a surprise for Michael and begins trying to maneuver him out of his marriage. It isn’t until then that Michael realizes he wants to stay with Lizzie.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is complex and interesting, with a shocking conclusion. I was rather freaked out by one of the characters from early in the novel, and my impressions turned out to be right. From starting out to be a fairly mundane story of relationships, this novel works up quite a bit of suspense.

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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 872: Elizabeth Is Missing

Cover for Elizabeth Is MIssingBefore I begin my review, here is a little bit of news about the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Some of you may know that, along with Helen of She Reads Novels, I am attempting to read all the short-listed novels. Today the short list for 2016 was released. To see the list, check out my Walter Scott project page. I have only read one of the novels, but was disappointed, along with other readers, to see that A God in Ruins, which was on the long list, didn’t make the short list.

* * *

Elizabeth Is Missing is—I won’t disguise it—the third book about Alzheimers I’ve read in the last six months. When the book blurb says Maud is forgetful, that’s putting it mildly. After only a few pages of this novel, I wondered why Maud was living alone.

Maud is an old lady who is having trouble keeping track of just about everything. She writes herself reminder notes but loses them. She makes endless cups of tea and forgets them. Her caregiver comes in every morning and makes her lunch and she has eaten it by 9:30. She remembers occasionally that her friend Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth doesn’t answer her phone and she isn’t home. But no one pays attention to a dotty old lady.

Of course, we realize fairly quickly that Elizabeth isn’t missing, but Maud has a more important mystery in her life. When she was a young girl just after World War II, her older sister Sukey disappeared, never to be seen again. Although Maud’s short-term memory is inconsistent, there’s nothing wrong with her long-term memory, at least not at first, so the more coherent narrative is the time around Sukey’s disappearance. Maud finds the boundaries between the past and present blurring.

I found this novel extremely painful to read at times, even more so than Still Alice. However, it is certainly compelling although not perhaps as realistic as Still Alice is.

One thing that bothered me, although only a bit, is that Maud clearly has all the information she needs to solve her sister’s disappearance, if only she can make sense of it. But she tried to investigate when she was young, and she had the same information then. That she would finally solve it in her current condition is a bit hard to buy. We’re to understand that she found something before the action of the novel, though. At least, that’s what I think happened, since sometimes the narration from the point of view of a confused old woman is a little opaque.

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