Review 1641: The Dictionary of Lost Words

After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.

As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.

As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.

link to Netgalley

This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.

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Review 1617: The Western Wind

On Shrove Tuesday 1491, Henry Carter awakens the local priest of the village of Oakham, John Reve, to tell him he’s seen a body floating in the river. For four days, Tom Newman has been known to be drowned, but the villagers have not been able to recover the body. When John and Henry return to the river, however, the body is gone.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that Newman’s death was other than an accident or suicide, the dean, who has taken it upon himself to investigate, is convinced that Newman was murdered. His reasoning is that Newman, as the wealthiest, most productive man in town, is unlikely to have committed suicide and that there was no reason for him to be by the broken village bridge so early in the morning unless he was meeting someone. Before the day is out, the dean has selected two possible murderers and is trying to force Reve to pick one, even though Reve believes neither is guilty.

The novel moves backward in time to the day of the drowning, during which time the villagers’ secrets are revealed—John Reve’s among them. The novel is deeply interesting for its view into the thinking and superstitions of the Medieval mind. I read this absorbing novel for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1593: The Long Take

When I opened up The Long Take, which I was reading for both my Walter Scott prize and Booker prize projects, I was not delighted to discover it is mostly a poem. However, it is fairly easy to read, so my next challenge was a search for the plot.

Walker, a World War II veteran from Nova Scotia, first arrives in New York City in 1946. He haunts skid row and dive bars as he tries to find a place for himself. Later, after an invitation, he travels to Los Angeles and gets a job with a newspaper.

This novel is more atmospheric and thematic than plot-driven. It is about droves of homeless ex-soldiers occupying the downtown areas of all the large cities Walker visits. It is about Walker’s feelings about what he saw and did in the war. And it is about the gutting of downtown Los Angeles to make room for parking lots and freeways and the racism underlying the planning decisions.

The Long Take is beautifully written. It is not a noir work, as described on the cover, but it is gritty and depressing.

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Review 1578: After the Party

In 1938, Phyllis Forrester and her family return to England from a long period of living abroad. Phyllis has been yearning to be near her two sisters, so they settle down on the Sussex coast.

Through her sisters, Phyllis gets involved with two different sets of people, with some overlap. Her socialite and snobbish sister Patricia introduces her to an upperclass group interested in social events. Her activist sister Nina is involved in the new Peace Party that runs educational classes and camps for youngsters. It’s not too difficult to figure out that their revered leader is Oswald Mosley.

It’s difficult to decide whether Phyllis is an unreliable narrator through innocence, obliviousness, or lying. I think most likely both of the first two. Certainly, this novel downplays the most negative aspects of Mosley’s party. Anti-semitism is mentioned but is not emphasized, and Phyllis denies the group is Fascist, which of course is what Mosley thought would be best for England. No mention at all is made of the blackshirts or links to Germany. But perhaps Connolly trapped herself into this point of view by using Phyllis as the narrator. In any case, for me the effect was a sort of whitewashing of this movement.

The novel starts slowly and takes a long time to get to its meat, which is the imprisonment of Phyllis and her husband without any due process. If Phyllis can be believed, her activities were fairly benign and this imprisonment was uncalled for. It also involves a betrayal.

I didn’t have much sympathy for Phyllis or really anyone in her circle. The socialites early on are involved in an incident of throwing a terrified pig off a balcony, which some of them seem to think is funny. Although Phyllis doesn’t seem to think it was funny, she also doesn’t seem horrified by it, either. It’s not clear to me what the author’s intent is toward any of her characters unless she is criticizing the class as a whole, both in their leisure and political activities. If so, the criticism is muted.

Periodically, we hear from Phyllis in 1979 when she is being interviewed by someone. If anything, her views have become more right wing. I found this novel rather unsatisfying. Is it a sympathetic one for someone unfairly imprisoned or does it chillingly depict these upperclass people? The novel is one I read for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1572: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light dealt with a relationship in the life of the playwright John Millington Synge. Shadowplay deals with a period in the life of another Irish literary figure, Bram Stoker.

In a novel that shifts back and forth over a 30-year time period, Stoker goes to work as general manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, having been hired by Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Stoker has taken what he believes is a part-time job that will allow him to work on his fiction, but he finds himself assuming responsibility for everything in the theater, an overwhelming position. Further, he has to cope with his employer’s extravagance and his occasional wild rages. Worse, Irving is dismissive of Stoker’s literary efforts. Nevertheless, they form a lasting friendship.

Also involved in the theater is the famous actress Ellen Terry. Shadowplay is primarily about the enduring relationship between these three. However, it reflects other events of its time, particularly Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde. It deals with Stoker’s struggles to earn a living as a writer, a feat he never accomplished. And it has a ghost.

Shadowplay, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was involving and interesting.

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If I Gave the Award

With The Vanishing Futurist, I have now finished reading all the shortlisted books for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. So, it is time for my feature where I decide whether I think the judges got it right.

Sometimes, it’s easy for me to decide which book I thought was best. In this case, though, it’s pretty difficult as almost all the entries are really good. With the Walter Scott Prize, however, I think one aspect that should be looked at is how well the novel evoked the time and place, and that sometimes helps with my decision.

Let’s start with the winner, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I enjoyed this book, about two gay soldiers during the Civil War and the Indian Wars. I remember hearing criticism about the cross-dressing angle, which some readers thought wouldn’t be accepted back then. But I could buy this in communities that were solely male. My problem with the novel was that none of the characters seem fully developed, even though I liked them.

The weakest entry for that year, I thought, was The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. Set in postwar Switzerland and about a boy and his friendship with a Jewish violinist, it felt to me as if it was holding a pane of glass between me and the characters. Also, this novel seems pointless until the very end.

All the other books do more with the time and place than The Gustav Sonata, but perhaps, although I liked it very much, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift does less by virtue of the type of book it is. Even though this book, about how the events of one afternoon define the course of one young girl’s life, was one of my favorites, I’m not going to pick it just for that reason. It is a very short novel, and as such doesn’t have as much of the flavor of time and place, but it is an excellent book, extremely well written.

The Good People by Hannah Kent is based on a true crime and explores the deep superstition in a 19th century Irish village that leads to tragedy. This novel does a very good job of evoking time and place as well as building a sense of dread.

Similarly, The Vanishing Futurist evokes the heady times of idealistic young people after the Russian revolution as well as the dangers. Although the aims of the scientist in this novel may seem to be absurd, I don’t think they were an exaggeration of the types of things the Soviets were working on at the time. I felt it does a better job of depicting the time and place than several other novels about the aftermath of the revolution that I’ve read lately.

Notice I haven’t used the word “but” about either of the last two books, which is why my decision is so tough. These are both really enjoyable novels that handle their time and place well. And there is one more, Golden Hill by Frances Spufford. It is set in 18th century New York and evokes a city with mercantile origins and interests that still bears the influence of its Dutch founding. As far as plot is concerned, it is the most ambitious, about a young man who arrives there with a secret agenda. It is humorous and has a picaresque adventure story, so I decided to pick it, but nearly made this decision a three-way tie.

Review 1554: The Vanishing Futurist

Right before the start of World War I, Gerty Freely goes to Moscow to be a governess for the Kobelev family. There she falls in love with one of Pasha Kobelev’s friends, Nikita Slavkin, a brilliant, idealistic scientist and revolutionary. Although Gerty is not political, she eagerly embraces the life of a communard in a commune Slavkin founds in the Kobelev’s house after the revolution. With them are Pasha and his sister Sonya and a few other young people.

Slavkin’s mission becomes to invent a machine that will change people’s cellular structure making them perfect Communists. Eventually, he comes to believe that he can make a machine that will transport a person into another dimension where perfect Communism is possible. Certainly, it doesn’t seem possible in the present one.

Hobson’s novel skillfully depicts the idealist euphoria and immense creativity of the early days of the Russian revolution as well as the hardships, the inevitable disintegration of communal life, and the craziness of those days as the revolution begins to turn in on itself. It makes really interesting reading and seems to much more authentically depict the time than any of the recent novels I’ve read about it.

I read this book for my Walter Scott Prize project and really enjoyed it.

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If I Gave the Award

Now that I have reviewed Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, the last of the shortlist for the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it’s time for my feature where I explore whether the judges got it right. The winner for that year was The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, so I think I’ll start with that one.

Myers’ novel was based on true events, charting the course of a group of 18th century coin clippers and counterfeiters who organize their remote Yorkshire valley around this activity. This novel is lyrically written and atmospheric, but I didn’t like its brutality or its faint favoritism toward the criminals.

It is much more evocative of its period, though, than Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, a disappointing novel by one of my favorite authors. Also a tale featuring gangsters, I didn’t feel that it very effectively evoked the time and place of the New York naval yards during World War II.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is Rachel Malik’s touching exploration of the mysterious life of her grandmother that is also set during and after World War II. I found it much more evocative in its setting on remote British farms but maybe a little slight compared to some of the other novels.

A certainly atmospheric novel that was cold and creepy was The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath. Poor Joan Grice is just mourning the loss of her husband when she makes a horrifying discovery about him. This novel is set just after World War II.

I liked Sugar Money by Jane Harris a lot. I especially liked its sprightly narration by Lucien, a 13-year-old slave who is sent with his brother on a dangerous mission. I felt it was much more realistic than many other novels I have read lately about the evils of slavery.

At times when I am doing this feature, I realize that I don’t like very many of the books. In this case, I really liked four of them, so my choice is simply based on which one I liked most. That one is Grace by Paul Lynch, about a young girl who must fend for herself during the Irish famine. It’s a harrowing story, told in beautiful, mesmerizing prose.

 

Review 1538: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Rachel Malik’s investigation into the life of her grandmother has resulted in a gentle and touching story of friendship and love. It is an unusual one, too.

Rene Hargreaves leaves her difficult marriage to sign on as a land girl during World War II. She is assigned to work on a remote farm named Starlight owned by Elsie Boston. Elsie is a little peculiar and uncomfortable with strangers, but the two form a close friendship.

When a law is passed allowing the agricultural board to take charge of poorly run farms, Elsie’s greedy neighbors on the board use it to cheat her out of her farm, even after the examiner rates it “fair.” As a result, Elsie must leave the farm. Rene goes with her, and they become itinerant workers.

A promise Rene made to an old friend puts their lives in peril when Elsie is nearing old age and Rene is middle aged. Rene promised Bertha she would take care of her in old age, but it is Bertha who dies, leaving her difficult and senile husband Ernest with no place to go, so the two women take him in.

Although the two women live unremarkable lives for most of the novel, something about their story is compelling. Ultimately, it takes a turn I didn’t expect at all, despite its opening. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1482: Grace

In the midst of the Irish famine, Grace’s mother awakens her in the middle of the night and hacks off her hair. She tells her she must go out as a boy to get money for the family. Besides, Boggs, who lets the family stay in their house in exchange for sex with her mother, has been eyeing Grace lately. So, Grace is cast out to fend for herself, wandering through a country thronged with starving people, a country that’s becoming more and more desolate.

From the first words of this novel, you know you are reading something different. The prose is beautiful, mesmerizing, occasionally hallucinogenic, as Grace goes through one experience after another, haunted by the people she loses along the way.

What an experience it was to read this book. I read it for my Walter Scott project. It’s a book I probably wouldn’t have come across except for that, and I’m grateful to have read it.

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