Day 1186: Toby’s Room

Cover for Toby's RoomI know I’ve talked about this before, but I find it interesting to see what the blurb writer finds to comment about a book versus the book itself. In the case of Toby’s Room, the blurb says something about a family torn apart by war. Well, World War I begins well into the novel, and the family is fairly well torn apart already.

The novel begins in 1912 when, in a weekend break from Slade, where Elinor is an art student, her relationship with her older brother Toby undergoes a shocking change. She and Toby have always been close, but they have difficulty closing the gap after this incident.

Later, shortly after the war begins, the family receives a telegram stating that Toby is missing, presumed dead. Elinor feels there is something not right about the letters she receives from his commanding officer and the chaplain. Letters to her friend Kip, who served with Toby, receive no answer. Elinor asks her friend Paul, who is home wounded, to help her find out what happened.

That makes the book sound like a mystery, but it isn’t. It is more about Elinor’s unresolved feelings for her brother, and latterly about the horrors of war.

Although Toby’s Room is a sequel to Barker’s Life Studies, and I have not read the first book, I felt myself immersed in this fully realized world. This is another situation, like with The Quality of Mercy, where I was reading the novel for my Walter Scott prize project and chose not to read the first one. Unlike The Quality of Mercy, though, I don’t think my not having read the first book affected my appreciation of the second. Although I do wish the Walter Scott prize judges would stop putting sequels on their short list, I enjoyed Toby’s Room. It examines serious issues while still capturing our attention.

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C

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Day 1128: C

Cover for CC is a novel that is as enigmatic as its title, which I assumed at first was a reference to the main character’s name, Serge Carrefax. But late in the novel we learn that the Egyptians had a symbol that looks like a C, representing life.

The novel follow’s Carrefax’s life from the age of two until he is in his twenties. Serge seems to view objects as intersections of shapes and angles, but we’re told repeatedly that he can’t see or draw perspective. As a child, he has a strong, competitive relationship with his older, brilliant sister, Sophie. After a tragedy, though, he doesn’t seem to care. Although the book blurb says he is haunted by this relationship, I saw little evidence of that.

The Carrefaxes run a school for the deaf and a silk manufactory. Simeon Carrefax is a micromanager of the school while letting his children virtually run wild. Serge’s mother runs the silk factory. Because of this upbringing among deaf children, I suppose, Serge often misunderstands what is said to him.

The novel is not without humor, including some hilarious descriptions of the school’s yearly pageant, which sounds both impressive and ridiculously pompous. However, Serge’s distance from everything lends the novel a kind of heaviness.

The novel moves through Serge’s fascination with messages, an adolescent obsession with the wireless, to his air force work in World War I, and finally ends with a seemingly pointless posting to Egypt. Throughout the novel, there are many unanswered questions.

This was another novel from my Walter Scott Prize list that was also on my Man Booker Prize list. Although I found the novel interesting, I also found it too detached and perplexing, and the main character not that fascinating, to like very much.

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Day 1100: The Stranger’s Child

Cover for The Stranger's ChildI had the oddest experience with The Stranger’s Child. Although it was well written and sounded like something I would be interested in, for a while every time I started to read it, I fell asleep. There is very little movement to this novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the end of it had me wondering what the point of it was.

The novel is multigenerational, beginning in 1913 and ending in 2008. In 1913, Daphne Sawle, who is 16, is attracted to her brother George’s friend, Cecil Valance, down for a visit from Cambridge. Cecil is an aristocrat and a poet. Unbeknownst to naive Daphne, he and George are having a wild affair.

The next section of the book takes place ten years after World War I. Cecil died in the war, and the family is dedicating a memorial to him. The family includes Daphne, as she has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and they have two children. However, she is in love with Revel Ralph, a set designer for the theater.

By far the bulk of the novel is set in the 1960’s and 70’s and is from the point of view of Paul Bryant. In the 1960’s, he is a shy bank clerk. He has become involved with the family through his boss, who has married into it, and through his affair with Peter Rowe, a schoolteacher at Corley House, which used to be the Valance home. Cecil is now regarded as one of England’s minor poets.

Ten years later, Paul is a biographer, determined to out Cecil as a gay man despite the claims of Daphne to have been his fianceé. It is unfortunate that I found this main character of the longest section to be so unappealing and completely focused on who was or was not gay, although I realize that the 1970’s was the time for that kind of revelation.

Part of my problem with the novel may have been the blurb, which really oversells aspects of the plot. For example, it says, “Over time, a tragic love story is spun . . . .” Well, there are several love stories that come out, but I wouldn’t call any of them tragic, and it’s actually difficult to tell which of them this comment refers to. One of the secrets is so understated during the novel that even though it is the last revelation, it seems anticlimactic. I suppose it’s supposed to be ironic that Paul is so focused on the possibility of one affair that he completely misses another.

Finally, this is a novel so focused on the sexuality of its characters that it gives the impression that the entire upper class male population of England is gay. We see a little into Daphne’s infatuations, but otherwise, only from the point of view of various gay men trolling for sex or obsessing about it. Those of you who know me will realize that I would have the same complaint if the sole focus was on heterosexual sex. So, not one of my favorites for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 976: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Cover for The Wicked BoyDuring a scorching 1895 July in East London, Robert Coombes murdered his mother while she was sleeping. He and his younger brother Nattie continued to live in the house for ten days with their mother locked in her bedroom, decaying. They hocked items from the house for money and attended a cricket game and a play. They told neighbors and relatives their mother had gone to Liverpool to visit her sister. They invited a laborer named John Fox to live with them, and they all slept downstairs in the parlor. Their father was away at sea at the time.

When the boys’ Aunt Emily forced her way into the house and found the body, Robert told her that his mother had beaten Nattie and that Nattie had asked Robert to kill her when he gave the signal. This story later seemed to have been forgotten, and Nattie testified against Robert in trial.

This crime was shocking to the Victorians, and there were many theories about it, from the morally debilitating effects of the penny dreadfuls Robert loved to ideas about children’s innate base instincts that must be covered over by civilizing influences. No one really knows why Robert killed his mother, but journalist and writer Kate Summerscale has her ideas.

link to NetgalleySummerscale was able to follow Robert’s movements to Broadmoor Asylum after his committal and traced his career in World War I as an instrumentalist and stretcher bearer. At first I wondered where the epilogue was going but figured it was connected with the opening of the novel, about a fleeing boy.

I found this book very interesting. Although most of it focuses on the crime and trial, I found this story of a murderer’s redemption satisfying.

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Day 939: A Man Could Stand Up

Cover for A Man Could Stand UpBest Book of the Week!
At the beginning and end of A Man Could Stand Up, the third book of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, it is Armistice Day. In between, the book returns in time several months to the front.

Valentine Wannop is at her job as a schoolmistress in a London school when classes are dismissed because of the Armistice. But in the midst of all the confusion, Valentine receives a spiteful phone call from Lady MacMaster about Christopher Tietjens. Since Lady MacMaster has been spilling her poisonous lies to the headmistress, Valentine finds herself having to make plain to her what she barely understands herself.

Months earlier, Tietjens has been ordered to take second in command of a unit at the front. He was in a much safer position in charge of moving men, but General Campion has, as usual, miscontrued the events in the second book between Tietjens and his faithless wife and has transferred Tietjens to a position of more danger. Unfortunately, his commanding officer has been drinking too much, and Tietjens has to remove him from duty. The novel depicts the events of a chaotic night during a bombardment.

This novel has been considered one of the best books about World War I. Certainly I have enjoyed every minute reading about the principled Tietjens, whose every action has been misinterpreted, and his so far unfulfilled affair with Valentine Wannop.

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Day 926: No More Parades

Cover for No More ParadesBest Book of the Week!
The second book in Ford Madox Ford’s tetrology about World War I, No More Parades, begins as Christopher Tietjens is busy preparing a draft of men for the front in an atmosphere of almost total chaos. The discussion between Captain Tietjens and his fellow officers reveals the difficulties of this task, with shortages, supplies withheld from his troops because they are Canadian, and contradictory orders.

During this night, Tietjens is not able to retire to bed because of his duties. And one of his men is killed because of the lack of a helmet during a bombardment, helmets having been refused them. Since Tietjens recently refused the man leave because of fears he would go home and get himself killed over an unfaithful wife, he blames himself for the death.

Tietjens is already feeling rocky when Colonel Levin comes to tell him that his wife Sylvia has arrived. Levin has been sent by General Campion to advise him of this extremely compromising situation, women not being allowed there and Sylvia having come without papers.

Tietjens was under the impression that Sylvia had left him, after an evening where she acccused him of infidelity with Miss Wannop just before he returned to the front. He is in love with Miss Wannop, certainly, but he has never acted on it. In fact, it is Sylvia who has been consistently unfaithful.

Sylvia, though, is torn between the need to get some sort of reaction from Tietjens and the realization that she wants him back, that in fact, no man seems adult after him. However, she continues to try to injure him with his family, his commanding officer General Campion, and society.

This volume is a fascinating portrait of two unusual characters—Tietjens with his old-fashioned morality and Sylvia with none at all. This story is an indictment of the conduct of war but also a tale about a disappearing kind of man.

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Day 903: Some Do Not

Cover for Some Do NotBest Book of the Week!
Some Do Not is the first volume of Ford Madox Ford’s tetrology “Parade’s End,” which is considered one of the great novels about World War I. For those who are interested, an excellent TV series came out a few years ago starring Benedict Cumberbatch (or maybe for those who are interested in Benedict Cumberbatch).

When we first meet Christopher Tietjens in 1912 or so, he is separated from his wife Sylvia and on a golfing trip with MacMaster, his coworker and friend from school days. We eventually learn that Sylvia was having an affair with a married man when she met Tietjens, and the paternity of their son is in question. Sylvia has run off to Europe with a lover, but Christopher has just received a letter from her asking to come back.

Christopher Tietjens is a big clumsy man who is a sort of genius with facts and figures and works for the government. (That was the one weakness of the casting of Cumberbatch, who is neither big nor clumsy, in the part, as several times he is forced to refer to himself that way, which struck me as odd before I read the book.) He is also absolutely principled and honest. He agrees to take Sylvia back because that is how a gentleman behaves.

On this golfing trip, though, complications begin that are to affect the rest of his life. A member of the golfing party is General Campion, an idiotic but well-meaning man who likes Sylvia and so thinks that any problems in the marriage must be Christopher’s fault. When Christopher helps a couple of suffragettes escape from the police, the General immediately concludes that one of them, Valentine Wannop, must be Christopher’s mistress, even though Christopher has never met her before. Later on, similar misunderstandings contrive to blacken his reputation.

Egging everyone on is Sylvia, who takes a long time to understand the character of her husband. She believes he and Valentine must be lovers and even spreads the rumor that he is sharing a mistress with MacMaster. Mrs. Duchemin, whose husband is an academic with mental issues, is indeed having an affair with MacMaster, but Christopher’s only crime is to help MacMaster financially. Some of Sylvia’s ex-lovers or would-be lovers are also eager to harm him.

Christopher does fall in love with Valentine, but he doesn’t act on it because he is incapable of treating her dishonorably. With social ruin threatening him, he goes to war.

I tried out this first volume to see if I would like it after having watched the TV series. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the other three volumes. This is a great novel, about how a completely honorable but reticent man is misunderstood and dishonored by almost everyone around him.

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