Review 1776: Strangers

Anita Brookner is a writer I’ve sometimes considered reading but never have until now. I read Strangers for my James Tait Black project.

Paul Sturgis is a 72-year-old bachelor who leads a routine life. He has always wanted a family, but after his last girlfriend, Sarah, left him, he resigned himself to bachelorhood. Since his retirement, he has felt lonely and purposeless. He routinely visits an elderly cousin, but he always feels that he bores her. She asks him no questions and constantly talks about her social engagements.

He takes a trip to Venice and meets Vicky Gardner, a woman some years younger than he. In London they meet again and develop a sort of acquaintance that is characterized again by her talking about herself and asking favors but not asking about him. She is a free spirit of no fixed abode who asks him to take charge of some luggage.

He also meets his old girlfriend Sarah again. She is now a widow, and although she is 10 years younger than he, she has changed from an active, decisive woman to an old lady who is always thinking of her health. She also never asks him any questions.

Most of this novel is concerned with Paul’s ruminations about his situation and the past and his yearning for real company and a different kind of life. Although it is well written, it seemed slow moving and repetitive. The cover reviews refer to its wry humor, but I guess I missed it, because it just seems sad. Paul is eventually galvanized into action, but it takes a long time, and I’m not convinced that the new life he chooses will be much different from the old one.


The New Sweet Style


Review 1712: Pippa Passes

I have been reading the Indian novels of Rumer Godden, so I’m not quite sure how Pippa Passes got in there. It was published in the 1990’s and is set mostly in Venice. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Browning poem except by its being about a young, innocent girl. It does relate, however, to many of Godden’s novels that have a theme of the loss of innocence.

Pippa Fane is a 17-year-old ballet dancer who is new to the corps de ballet of an up-and-coming company from the English Midlands. The company is getting ready to tour Italy, and Pippa, as the newest member, doesn’t expect to be invited to come, but she is, at the insistence of Angharad Fullerton, the ballet mistress. Pippa’s friend, Juliette, warns her to beware of Angharad, but since the mistress has only been kind to Pippa, she pays no attention.

Pippa is enchanted at first sight of Venice and disappointed that Angharad expects the girls in the corps to do nothing but work and rest. When the other girls try to get her to go out the first night, she argues that Angharad told them to stay in and is left behind and taunted as Angharad’s pet. But instead, Angharad and the other company leaders take her out when they find she’s been abandoned.

Pippa’s star is beginning to rise with the company, but she has also met a gondolier named Niccolo who fascinates her. The company gives her a solo part after another dancer is injured, and at the same time Niccolo wants her to sing with his band.

I wasn’t as interested in this novel as I have been in the others by Godden that I have been reading. For one thing, it seems absurdly outdated for the 90’s, as Niccolo and his band make a splash dressed like gondoliers and singing such songs as “Santa Lucia” and “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. Yet, there’s no indication that the novel is set earlier. Also, although the information about the workings of the ballet company is interesting, I don’t think it was necessary to include pages describing the action of The Tales of Hoffman. And for the 1990’s, Pippa seems far too naïve about the intentions of both Angharad and Niccolo, and some readers may understand the novel as slightly homophobic. It’s possible that the novel was written many years earlier, but then there should have been some indication that it was set, say, in the 1950’s, if it was.

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Day 1276: The Haunted Hotel

Cover for The Haunted HotelWilkie Collins’s The Haunted Hotel was the spooky book I read for the Classics Club Dare that will also do for the R.I.P. Challenge.

* * *

His family is shocked when Lord Montbarry jilts his gentle cousin, Agnes, and marries the infamous Countess Narona. Agnes herself cannot explain the behavior of the Countess when she meets her in London. The Countess seems horror struck by Agnes and says she will be her undoing.

Lord Montbarry and his new wife go off with her brother, Baron Rivar, to live in Venice. It is not long before the family hears, first, of the disappearance of Ferrari, Lord Montbarry’s courier and the husband of Agnes’s former ladies maid, and then of Lord Montbarry’s death from bronchitis. Lord Montbarry’s fortune is entailed, but he leaves a large life insurance award to his widow. Although the insurance company conducts an investigation into the death, they can find nothing wrong.

Lord Montbarry’s younger brother, Henry Westwick, has been trying to court Agnes, but she is still in love with her former fiancé. In the meantime, he occupies himself with investments, including in the hotel that used to be the villa where his brother died. After the hotel opens, one family member after another stays there, in room 14, all having bad experiences. What happened in that hotel?

Frankly, this short novel has neither the entertaining narratives of The Moonstone nor the intriguing plot of The Woman in White. It is a potboiler, not one of Collins’s best. The hero and heroine aren’t much more than cardboard figures. The only character of interest is Countess Narona herself. The plot is predictable, the novel not scary, and the truth, although creepy, is not told to maximize the effect. On the scary scale, it gets a low mark.

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Day 670: The Jewels of Paradise

Cover for The Jewels of ParadiseI have read a few of Donna Leon’s Commisario Brunetti mysteries and liked them well enough. I was intrigued, though, to find The Jewels of Paradise, a recent one-off or perhaps the start of a new series by Leon.

Caterina Pelligrini is an Italian musicologist who has been working as an assistant professor for a university in Manchester. With a doctorate specializing in Baroque opera, she has found employment opportunities hard to come by. She also has not foreseen how much she would miss her home. So, when she hears of an opportunity for a research position in Venice that is to last a few months with the possibility of being extended, she jumps at it.

The position is an unusual one, though, for she knows only that she has been hired to go through some trunks containing recently discovered papers belonging to an unnamed composer. Hired by an impeccable lawyer, Dottor Andrea Moretti, Caterina is employed by two thugs, Scapinella and Stievani. They hope she will find papers showing that one of them has a better claim to the trunks than the other, for they have family legends that this man, a supposedly  rich relative, died with a fortune of jewels.

Caterina is to conduct her research at a foundation that is almost bare of resources. There she finds that the papers belong to Agostino Steffani, a once famous Baroque composer of operas who gave up his career to become a church diplomat. As Caterina investigates, she finds he may have been implicated in the Königsmarck Affair, in which the lover of the wife of the future King George I of England disappeared and was believed to have been murdered.

A faint air of menace haunts the entire project, as Caterina is followed and finds someone has been reading her email. Soon she learns that the position, for which she has moved from England, is only to last a month.

I really enjoyed this tale of mystery in the realm of academic research, although I thought that the physical setting of Venice got short shrift. Still, I find I am drawn to this kind of novel and hope to see more of them from Leon.

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Day 544: Death in Venice

Cover for Death in VeniceGustave Aschenbach is a renowned author who has devoted his life to intellectual pursuits and his art. He leads an orderly life, conscientiously applying himself to his work.

One day when he is feeling over-taxed, he goes out for a walk and spots a red-haired man dressed as a traveler. Although the man appears to view him with disdain, at the sight of him Aschenbach is suddenly possessed with the desire to travel.

After stopping a few days on an island in the Adriatic, he decides to go to Venice. The city is gray and unwelcoming. The air is miasmic, and he wonders if he should have come. Then at the hotel he sees a beautiful boy. At first he simply enjoys looking at him, but eventually he becomes erotically fixated.

In writing this novella, Mann wanted to examine the relationship between art and the mind, a life of the senses and a life of intellect. At first, Aschenbach tries to rationalize his obsession by philosophizing about it. Mann makes many allusions to Greek mythology and calls the boy’s beauty godlike. But Aschenbach is lead inexorably into mental degradation. On the boat to Venice he was repelled by an older man, hair dyed and face rouged, who was traveling with a bunch of students. By the end of the novella, he has become that man.

While respecting the merits of the novella, I found Aschenbach’s obsessions and rationalizations repulsive, but I believe that is what Mann intended. In many ways, the story has similarities to Nabokov’s Lolita. However, while Nabokov’s language was beautiful enough to make me somehow grasp what Humbert Humbert felt, Mann’s was written with a different intent, I think.

Day 386: Bridge of Sighs

Cover for Bridge of SighsOne of my favorite books from recent years is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. Unfortunately, the problem with reading your favorite book of an author’s first is that the others may not quite live up to it. But Bridge of Sighs comes a little closer than some other Russo novels to my initial delighted feelings about Empire Falls. (I know, I’m a bit behind the times with this one.) This novel shares some of the same themes as Empire Falls and is set in a similar working-class, industrial small town, this time in upstate New York.

The novel is narrated principally by Lou Lynch, one of three main characters. Lou is writing a novel about his life, even though he admits it will probably be boring. The son of Lou, an optimistic, cheerful if not very bright milk man turned convenience store owner, and Tessa, a sharp, insightful bookkeeper, Lou has always felt as if his parents are in conflict, and he is on his dad’s side. We understand, though, that Tessa is not really in conflict with her husband and son, she just wants them to see reality as it is, not as they would like it to be.

Seeing things as they are is also a problem for Lou’s best friend Bobby. At least, Lou thinks of Bobby as his best friend, but that is one more thing Lou doesn’t see clearly. Bobby’s father bullies his mother, who is eternally pregnant. She runs away every time she gets pregnant, but he always finds her and brings her back. It isn’t until late in the book that we find there is more than one way to look at their relationship.

The book begins when Lou is sixty and traces back through his childhood and adolescence through the device of his novel. The adult Lou is married to his high school sweetheart Sarah, and they are soon to take a trip to Italy, hoping to visit Bobby, now Robert Noonan, a famous American painter who lives in Venice. But Robert isn’t answering Lou’s letters letting him know they are coming. This trip is an anxious one for both Lou and Sarah, Lou because he has hardly ever left his home town, and Sarah because she once had to decide between Lou and Bobby.

In the background is the story of the small town of Thomaston, an industrial backwater dominated by a tannery, the dyes of which used to color the river waters differently each day and resulted in high levels of cancer in the community. The town is dying. The tannery has finally closed.

The town is divided into three areas that are widely separated by class, even though Thomaston’s richest citizens are probably big fish in a small pond. As the story moves into the present time, the wealthier citizens begin moving away. But Lou doesn’t see any reason not to love his town or his life. Sarah has always wanted to travel and experience more, but they have stayed put.

The Lynch family, as Russo creates it, is a warm and welcoming one. Both Bobby and Sarah are attracted as youngsters to the little store by the promise of a substitute family, Sarah’s own being particularly bizarre. In the modern-time story, Lou’s father is dead, and his uncle Declan has gone away, but Lou’s son works in the store, and his mother still lives above it.

As the story moves back and forth in time, I felt myself occasionally tiring of Lou’s reminiscences, especially of junior high, where he spends an inordinate amount of time. As Bobby reflects when he returns to town during his senior year after being sent off to military school, he doesn’t understand why Lou continues to bring up those years as if they were good times when actually they were horrible and Lou was not treated well at school. I personally was much more interested in the current-time story, of which there is much less, even though I understood that its seeds are in the past. But then again, the fact that Lou dwells on the past is part of the point of the novel.

This novel possesses a few characteristics of postmodernism, without being exactly postmodern. Here perhaps Russo is dabbling in some of the techniques without going full-thrust for its inventiveness and irony. The alternating point of view among Lou, Bobby, and Sarah, the alternating time streams, the metafiction, and Lou’s essential untrustworthiness as a narrator, not because he is not truthful to us, but because he is not truthful to himself, all are postmodern techniques. Within the time and narrator changes, though, Russo proceeds with a traditional narrative style.

Russo’s writing is leisurely, and he likes to muse. Still, he creates some complex and attractive characters and makes you want to contemplate their lives with them. He is also one of the few writers willing to explore the theme of class in America, a theme that is very important to this novel.

Day 368: Dead Lagoon

Cover for Dead LagoonDead Lagoon is the most atmospheric of the Aurelio Zen mysteries I have read. In the novel, Zen returns to his home town of Venice, ostensibly to look into the “haunting” of the Contessa Zulian, his mother’s old employer, who is convinced that costumed “swamp dwellers” are invading her home. The contessa has long ago been deemed batty because of a tale she has been telling for years about a missing daughter. Although Zen has hitherto been incorruptible, he is actually there to work on the case of a missing wealthy American businessman, being paid under the table by the businessman’s family.

As Zen wanders or boats through the misty winter setting of Venice, visiting places he knew in his youth, he keeps stumbling over “ghosts,” some from his own past, and some actual dead bodies. A fisherman who spotted a ghost on the Isle of the Dead is drowned, then a crooked cop, head of the Venice drug squad, is found smothered in a sewer. In the search for the ghost on the cemetery island, an unexplained skeleton is found.

Zen’s investigation leads to a string of discoveries, of dishonest police, drug smuggling, and ambitious local politicians. His biggest discovery, though, is about his own family, including that nothing is what he thought it was.

I think what makes this Aurelio Zen book stand out is its depiction of Venice. The plot itself is rather disjointed and difficult to explain. Zen is able to solve both cases, but some readers have expressed frustration about the conclusion.

Day 358: People of the Book

Cover for People of the BookBest Book of the Week!

I read People of the Book several years ago and remembered that it was good, but when re-reading it for my book club, I enjoyed it even more. The novel is based on the history of a Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Part of the novel is envisioned based on what is known of the book’s history, while the rest is invented.

In the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian war, Hanna Heath, an expert in the restoration of old books, is asked to restore the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous book believed twice to have been destroyed by war that was both times rescued by Moslem museum curators. The book is especially important because of its beautiful illustrations, as before it was discovered, scholars believed that old Hebrew books did not contain such illuminations.

While Hanna is working on the book, she makes observations and collects artifacts that will help trace its history. She notes that the book once had clasps that are now missing, collects an insect wing, and scrapes residue from staining.

Hanna also becomes involved with the man who rescued the book, Ozren Karaman, whose wife was killed during the war and whose baby son is in the hospital with a brain injury. As Hanna was raised by an aloof and competitive mother, though, she is poor at forming attachments.

When Hanna finishes restoring the book, she follows up with research into the clasp and the artifacts she collected. As she finds out about each item, the novel goes farther back in time, explaining what happened to the book and telling the stories of the people involved with it, until the creation of the book in 15th century Spain.

A poor Jewish girl named Lola works for the partisans in the forest outside Sarajevo during World War II after the Jews are expelled from the city by the Nazis and her family is shipped off to camps. Later she is helped to safety by the Moslem curator of the museum, who also has a book to hide. A 19th century Viennese bookbinder who is dying from syphilis steals the beautiful silver clasps from the book to exchange with his doctor for treatment. In 1609 Venice, a priest working for the Inquisition saves the book from burning but confiscates it from its owner. A young girl saves the book as the Jews are expelled from Spain in 1492.

These are just the bones of some of the absorbing stories that draw you along as Brooks imagines the history of the book. Each tale is vividly imagined and skillfully told, and they are all held together by Hanna’s experiences. People of the Book is a gracefully written and imaginative novel that emphasizes the contributions of multiple cultures and religions to the book’s creation and safety.