Dickens plus Austen = Gaskell?

elizabeth-gaskellI had never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s work before.  After reading her 1855 novel North and South, I have decided that this 19th century English writer is a cross between Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (especially Hard Times) because of her combination of social critique, romance, and light satire.

Like Dickens, Gaskell is concerned in her novel with portraying the harsh effects of the industrial revolution on so many people.   Margaret Hale, a young woman in her late teens, is the daughter of a clergyman.  She is not as beautiful as her cousin Edith but people admire her because of her dignity and intelligence.    She grew up in the South of England partly in the  beautiful village of Helstone and partly in London.  At the beginning of the novel, Margaret discovers that she has to leave her beloved Helstone parsonage and move north to Milton, an industrial city (based on Manchester).  Her father is moving the family because he has some dissenting views from the Church of England and no longer feels he can remain a clergyman in good conscience.  (If Gaskell explained what these dissenting views were, I missed it.  Why keep them a secret?)

Margaret and her mother nearly have a nervous breakdown because of the move.  One would think nothing worse had ever befallen a soul than having to move homes to a new town. Margaret finds Milton lamentable at first.  A large, bustling, dirty industrial town with bad air, it has none of the charms of her beloved Helstone or the sophistication of London.  It also lacks the “right” type of people—gentlemen and their families.  Instead, it is full of industrialists and people who are in trade.  Margaret looks down her nose at all such people.

She begins to soften her stance towards Milton when she makes some new friends—some people who work in the mills.  However, by getting to know the “hands,” as they are called, she learns how deplorable the conditions are for them.  She learns that one young woman is dying at age 18 because of breathing in so much cotton.  She also learns how hard it is for the “hands” to make ends meet with the money they make and she sympathizes with them when they go on strike.  It is Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of the “hands” and her critical view of industrialism that reminds me most of Dickens.  (Apparently, Dickens was her editor, so this resemblance is perhaps not surprising.)

North and South reminds me more of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when it comes to her characters and her wit.  Margaret meets mill owner (and self-made man) John Thornton when she first comes to Milton.  He is attracted to her, but she looks down on him for not being a gentleman. (She has both the pride AND the prejudice.) Later, she disapproves of him because of the way he treats his workers.  The two characters remain sparring partners for most of the novel.  Gradually, though, we see both of them changing and growing (for the better) into more mature and complex selves.   Creating strong central characters who change in a realistic way throughout the narrative is one of Gaskell’s strengths.  I also enjoyed the way she gently but realistically created characters with glaring weaknesses: her mother is self-pitying, her father is weak, and Mrs. Thornton is, frankly, a witch.   The novel is not a comedy, but some of the scenes with these flawed characters interacting together were quite amusing.

Although I admired Gaskell’s critique of industrialism and her creation of characters, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped I would.  This was partly, I think, because of her long-winded writing style.  She could have cut out a couple of hundred pages with no harm to the story.  I also wondered why certain aspects of the novel were included.  Why the story of the brother in exile?  Why the proposal from Mr. Lennox?  The worst part, though, was the last half or so of the novel, in which people were dropping dead like flies.  I found that such melodrama ruined the impact of the story.

I neither loved nor hated the novel.  I thought it was OK.  I know that a lot of people love it, though, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to go for it.

 

This is my post for “19th century classic” in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate

Trademark Louise Erdrich: Humor

In the past few weeks, I have been binging on Louise Erdrich’s novels.

(Erdrich is the acclaimed Ojibwe author of so many books I can’t keep track–maybe 16 novels?   If you are unfamiliar with her work, here is a review of her latest novel by the New York Times. It serves as a good introduction to her work.)

These are the novels I have recently read (or re-read):

  • Love Medicine (1984)
  • Tracks (1988)
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
  • The Plague of Doves (2008)
  • The Round House (2012)

Several years ago, I also read her Crown of Columbus, and I am now starting to read her Bingo Palace (1994).

It would be an understatement to say that I am a fan of her work. The woman is a literary goddess.  Each of her novels creates a world unto itself.  However, most of them are connected to each other as well.  She focuses on a small (fictional) area of North Dakota and many of the same families are featured in each work.   In terms of her style, each work is unique.  Nonetheless, certain themes and stylistic traits recur throughout her work.  Taken together, the combination of these traits add up to a distinct Erdrich voice or “trademark.”

In this short series, I want to focus on a few elements of her voice, the things that mark her as distinct. Today I am focusing on her sense of humor.  In general, I would not classify Erdrich as a comic writer.  Taken as a whole, her fiction veers more towards the lyrical, the tragic, or even magical.   However, her vision is consistently punctuated with episodes of broad comedy.  Often the comedy is physical, even slapstick.  The humor provides some relief from the sadness of much of her writing, but it also expresses her view of the world—one in which the tragic and the comic cannot be neatly separated.

One example of trademark Erdrich humor can be seen in her first novel, Love Medicine.  In this work, Lipsha Morrissey accidentally walks in on his grandfather having an adulterous tryst in the laundry room at the senior center with his old flame, Lulu Lamartine.  In the context of the entire work, Grandfather Nector Kashpaw’s yearning for Lulu is portrayed as poignant, sad, touching.  In this particular scene, though, the perspective is one of broad comedy:

“There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather.  Sheets was flapping on the lines above, and washcloths, pillowcase, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear out a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.  The washers and dryers was all on, chock full of quarters, shaking and moaning.” (196)

This was an awkward scene for Lipsha to witness, to say the least.  But the awkwardness turns to hilarity when a wig is added to the equation:

“The Lamartine wore a big curly light-brown wig.  Looked like one of them squeaky little white-people dogs.  Poodles they call them.  Anyway, that wig is what saved us from the worse. . . . Turned out, though, in the heat of the clinch, as I was trying to avert my eyes you see, the Lamartine’s curly wig jumped off her head.  And if you ever been in the midst of something and had a big change like that occur in the someone, you can’t help know how it devastates your basic urges.  Not only that, but her wig was almost with a life of its own.  Grandpa’s eyes were bugging at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn’t rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something.  He scrambled up, Grandpa did, and the Lamartine jumped up after him all addled-looking.  They just stared at each other, huffing and puffing, with quizzical expressions.”  (197)

This sort of broad comedy intermingles with scenes of great sadness and even tragedy throughout her works.  We can see another example of her slapstick humor in her 2012 novel The Round House.  This novel focuses on the rape and attempted murder of the narrator’s mother (Geraldine).  The perpetrator is known, but cannot be punished by the legal system because of complex and blatantly unjust issues of jurisdiction on Native reservations.  Not surprisingly, the overall tone of this novel is serious, even grim.  Still, Erdrich manages to interject scenes of pure slapstick, such as this one, in which a teenage boy  named Cappy confesses to a Catholic priest that he has been having sex with his girlfriend—in the church basement.  The confession does not go as well as expected though.  Father Travis, an ex-Marine, was in excellent physical condition and had a temper.  Rather than forgiving Cappy, he explodes in anger and starts chasing him:

“There were arcane sounds—the slide of the priest’s window, the whispering back and forth—then the explosion.  Father Travis burst from the wooden door of the confessional and would have caught Cappy if he hadn’t rolled out from under the curtain and half crawled, half scrambled along the pew.  Father ran back, blocking the exit, but already Cappy had sprung past us, hurdling the pew toward the front of the church, landing on the seats with each bound in a breathtaking series of vaulting leaps that took him nearly to the altar.”  (232)

The ensuing chase scene lasts for three full pages of slapstick adventure reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.

“Cappy had those good shoes, but so, I noticed, did Father Travis.  He wasn’t running in sober clerical blacks but had perhaps been playing basketball or jogging before he dropped in to hear confessions.  The two sprinted hotly down the dusty gravel road that led from the church into town.  Cappy boldly crossed the highway and Father Travis followed.  Cappy cut through yards he knew well and disappeared.  But even in his cassock, which he’d hoisted and tucked into his belt, Father Travis was right behind him heading toward the Dead Custer Bar and Whitey’s gas station.  We marveled at Father’s pale thick-muscled calves blurring in the sun.” (233)

I am not a Catholic, but I am pretty sure that’s not how confession is supposed to work.

Certainly, Erdrich is not the only writer who combines humor and tragedy.  Many southern writers, for example, are famed for their tragic-comic vision.   William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.  I think Erdrich’s humor is particularly broad, even cartoonish.  The combination of this slapstick humor with serious, even tragic, themes is one of the more striking elements of Erdrich’s voice.

I will discuss other elements of her voice in future posts.  Stay tuned!

erdrich-novels

Confessions of a Bad Book Blogger

Book List from 2016

Ummm….so it appears that 2016 has come and (almost) gone.  It seems that I forgot that I had a book blog for most of the year.  I did not stop reading, but I stopped writing.  Oops.

My resolution for 2017 is to be better about logging what I read so I don’t end up in the situation I’m in now, wondering what I did all year long.

In a half-hearted attempt to make up for my deficiencies, I am presenting a list here of some of the books I recall reading and liking this year.  I only include the ones I read for the first time this year.  (I also re-read a lot of books for teaching purposes.)  I am not including ones I started but did not finish.  I am also not including some of the mystery/thrillers that I sometimes binge on but then forget about.  (Love em and leave em is my motto.)

Here’s to another year of reading!

  • Herodotus, The Histories.  This one was a doozy that took forever to read, and I read it more than once.
  • Amy Tan, Valley of Amazement.  Multi-generational family saga set partly in China, partly in the U.S.
  • Kevin Powers, Yellow Birds.  Beautifully written novel about Iraq war.  Move over, Hemingway.
  • Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts.  Fascinating nonfiction book about an American ambassador in Berlin during the 1930s, with the rise of Hitler.  This was my introduction to the creature known as a Nazi slut.
  • Lauren Slater, Welcome to My Country.   Nonfictional essays about mental illness. Slater is both a psychologist and a person with mental illness herself.  Beautifully written.
  • Karen Russell, Swamplandia.  Novel about a family reeling from the loss of their wife/mother.  Wonderful style– bordering on fantasy, but not quite.
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer.   Novel about a Vietnamese man who works as a double agent during the Vietnam War.  Really smart, insightful look at the U.S.
  • Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Novel about a Dominican-American young man.
  • Colm Toibin, Brooklyn.  Novel about a young Irish immigrant to the Brookyn in the 1950s
  • Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You.  Did blog post on this book earlier this year.
  • Louise Erdrich, Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.   blogged about this.
  • Francine Prose, Lovers at the Chameleon Club.  Wonderful novel about a French woman who ends up working for the Nazis.
  • Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members.   Hilarious satire of life in a university English Department.
  • Dave Eggers, The Circle.  Novel about a dystopian future (present?).  Technology run amok.
  • Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King.  Death of a Salesman in Saudi Arabia.
  • Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale.  novel about two sisters in Nazi-occupied France.
  • Ann Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread.   novel about disappointments of family life.
  • George Packer, Assassin’s Gate.  nonfiction account of disastrous American occupation of Iraq.
  • Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time.  Blogged about this novel earlier this year.

 

What have you read this year?  Let me know in the comments section!

 

The Piano Man

Writing about erotic love is hard.  One has to navigate so many obstacles: romantic clichés, pornography, cynicism, and the desire to sing Barry Manilow lyrics.  Writing about ghost lovers is even harder.   Is it possible for an author of realistic literary fiction to write about a character who believes herself to be in a romantic relationship with a dead man—and to do so without mocking the character?   Louise Erdrich does so in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001).

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The main character of The Last Report is Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest who serves the Ojibwe Indians on a North Dakota reservation named Little No Horse.  He has tended them faithfully for many decades and has earned their trust.  One thing his flock does not know about him, however, is that he is actually a woman named Agnes (a.k.a. Sister Cecilia). (I am not giving anything away here.  Readers know this from the beginning of the novel.)  Agnes has had a few romantic relationships in her life.  Perhaps the most passionate of them was with the spirit of Frederic Chopin.

The Last Report is a long and complex novel with many disparate strands.  Agnes’ erotic relationship to a dead composer is just one thread of this intoxicating book.  It is a strand I found compelling, though–maybe because I am learning to play the piano myself, or maybe because I find it easy to become deeply attached to a beloved author.  (I may have had an erotic dream about Chaucer when I was younger.)

As a very young woman, Agnes DeWitt becomes a nun and is called Sister Cecilia.  She takes her vows seriously and considers herself married to God.  God has some competition, though.  Her true love is music:

“She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be concentrated in her being—which was half music, half divine light, only flesh to the degree she could not admit otherwise.  At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling sound.”  (14)

Agnes empties her whole soul into her piano, especially when she plays Chopin.  It was “as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascade of notes” (14).    Put simply, “Chopin’s spirit became her lover.  His flats caressed her.  His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles.  His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue.   His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane” (15).

Her relationship with Chopin is so real to her that she feels guilty about it.  After Agnes leaves the convent and receives a marriage proposal from Berndt Vogel, she tells him “that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself soul to soul with Christ, but she had already been unfaithful—her phantom lover the Polish composer—thus already living out too grievous a destiny to become a bride” (17).  Chopin, through his music, has become more real to her than anything else in her life.

To be clear, Agnes is not psychotic.  She is not pathetic.  She has simply realized that piano music is where she can best express the essence of herself.  In a very real sense, she finds herself in communion with Chopin through the music he composed a century earlier.   When she plays his music, he comes alive for her:

“There was the scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere.  The silk of his heavy, brown hair.  A man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat.  His voice, she heard it, avid and light.  It was as though the composer himself had entered the room.  Who knows?  Surely there was no more desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s.  Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the grave.  At any rate, she played Chopin” (16).

chopin
Frederic Chopin

Because she is able to summon him through his music, Chopin the man exists as a real lover for Agnes, one who provides erotic satisfaction.  Berndt Vogel realizes this truth about Agnes as he watches her play: “and as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed Berndt had just watched the woman he loved [Agnes] make love to a dead man” (22).

I find Louise Erdrich an astonishing writer for many reasons.  One of them is her abililty to convey how the unseen world—be it the world of the spirit or the world of the imagination —is for some people more vivid and meaningful than the so-called “real world.”   I wish I could tell you in Three Easy Steps how Erdrich does it so well.  Certainly she relies on sensory detail and a varied sentence structure.  Mostly, though, I think it is her openness to the possibilities of the world.  She refuses to reduce the world to simple categories of real/not real, physical/not physical.  She sees fullness where others might see lack, magic where others see drabness.   If you have not read her books before, I recommend that you do.

 

 

Richard III: Dastardly Devil or Propaganda Victim?

Josephine Tey, Daughter of Time, published 1951.  Mystery novel.

Josephine_Tey_april_1934_6

Josephine Tey was one of the pen names of Elizabeth MacKintosh.

 

“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”  -Francis Bacon

I first learned of England’s King Richard III when I studied Shakespeare in college.  In Shakespeare’s play Richard III, readers learn that Richard, who ruled England from 1483-1485 was a nasty piece of work who reveled in villainy:  “And thus I cloth my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

Shakespeare emphasizes the physical deformity of the hunch-backed Richard, suggesting that his moral deformity is a natural result of his abnormally curved spine:  “And therefore, — since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, – / I am determined to prove a villain, / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”   Since nobody could love a cripple such as himself, Richard mused that he might as well rejoice in evil deeds.

Richard III, I learned, deserved such opprobrium because he had ordered the murder of his two nephews, Edward and Richard, who were aged 12 and 9 at the time.  Twelve-year-old Edward was supposed to be protected by Richard until he was crowned as the King of England.  Instead, Richard declared himself as king and the two boys—Edward and Richard—disappeared forever.  It was believed by many that Richard had ordered the murder of the Princes in the Tower in order to assure his own reign.

Such dastardly deeds surely could not go unchecked, and Richard III did not reign for long.  There were two rebellions against him.  The second one, led by Henry Tudor, resulted in the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.  After his death, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.   Richard III’s reputation as evil incarnate became as firmly entrenched as the Tudor dynasty.

Josephine Tey, however, who lived from 1896-1952 was suspicious of the prevailing belief that Richard was the murderer of the princes.  In her detective novel Daughter of Time, she set out to prove that Richard was innocent of the murder of his two nephews.

Daughter of Time is a fascinating hybrid; it is a detective novel but also a work of historical inquiry.  The main character of the novel is detective Alan Grant.  Grant is stuck in a hospital bed for an extended period of time, and he is bored out of his mind.  His friend Marta suggests that he might pass the time by investigating a historical mystery.  She brings him portraits of historical figures, knowing that he enjoys studying faces.  When she shows him a portrait of Richard III, Grant becomes intrigued.  He does not believe this to be the face of a person who could have murdered his nephews.

Grant then begins to investigate the historical record, trying to figure out how it was determined that Richard was the murderer.  Using the investigative skills that made him successful as a detective, Grant starts with easily available historical books and moves on to records found in the British Museum (thanks to his assistant Brent Carradine.)  The readers learn, along with Grant, how flimsy the evidence for Richard’s villainy actually is.  Instead, Grant believes, the evidence points much more strongly to Henry VII as the real murderer of the princes and the truly villainous king.  Tey makes a convincing case that the Tudors deliberately set out a vicious campaign of propaganda to smear Richard III’s reputation in order to solidify the Tudor dynasty.

I am not a historian and I am not equipped to make an informed verdict on what happened to the missing princes in the tower.  I did, however, find Tey’s novel fascinating for its investigation of how history is made.  She suggests that once a propaganda campaign succeeds in creating a historical “fact,” the “fact” is repeated throughout the generations with few people questioning its veracity.  Hundreds of years after the historical events occurred, it becomes extremely difficult to figure out what actually happened.

Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, however, succeeded in undermining the established “truth” that Richard III was a villainous murderer of children.  According to this article in the New Yorker, Tey’s mystery novel “sparked mass interest in Richard’s redemption.”  Recently, in fact, Richard’s bones have been discovered and he has been given a proper burial (one he did not receive in his day.)  Click here for more information.

I highly recommend Daughter of Time to readers interested in English history and in how history is made.

If you have read the book or know more about Richard III, I’d love to hear your perspective.

This blog post is my Pre-1500 entry for the When Are You Reading Challenge?  

Clarice Lispector, “Near to the Wild Heart”

Clarice Lispector

My South American selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge is Clarice Lispector’s 1943 novel Near to the Wild Heart.  (It was originally written in Portuguese and entitled Perto do Coracao Selvagem.)  Clarice Lispector has been hailed by critics as “something exceptional” and possessed of a “bewildering verbal richness,” and her style has much in common with famous modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Near to the Wild Heart was written when Lispector was only 23 years old.  The novel caused a sensation when it published because it was so different from anything Brazilians were accustomed to reading. The novel attempts to convey the inner life of a young woman named Joana, from her childhood until her early adulthood.

Lispector’s style is striking.  There is very little plot to speak of.  Instead, we are presented with snippets of Joanna’s impressions of the world.  Sometimes her thoughts are beautifully imagistic, as when she confronts her grief from her father’s death by staring at the sea.

“She climbed down from the rocks, walked weakly across the solitary beach until she received the water at her feet.  Squatting, her legs wobbly, she drank a little sea.  She rested there like that.  Sometimes she half-closed her eyes, right at sea level and swayed, so sharp was the sight—just the long green line, uniting he eyes with the water infinitely.  The sun burst through the clouds and the little sparkles scintillating on the waters were tiny fires flaring up and dying out.  The sea, beyond its waves, looked at her from affair, quiet, with no crying no bosom.  Big, big. Big, she smiled.  And suddenly, just like that, unexpectedly, she felt something strong inside her, a funny thing that made her shake a little.” (32)

At other times, though, her thoughts tend towards the abstract; at times the novel reads almost like philosophy or aesthetic theory.

“Music was of the same category as thought, both vibrated in the same movement and kind.  Of the same quality as a thought so intimate that when heard, it revealed itself.  As a thought so intimate that when she heard someone repeat the slightest nuances of its sounds, Joana was surprised at how she had been invaded and scattered.  She didn’t feel its harmony any more when it became popular—then it was no longer hers.  . . . Joana didn’t identify profoundly with all sounds.  Only with the pure ones, where what she loved was neither tragic nor comic.” (37)

I think that ultimately Near to the Wild Heart is about what it means to be human—or perhaps, even more basic, what it means to be alive.  Joana desires to feel fully alive, fully vital, which, I think for her means to reduce the distance between her core being and her thoughts, which seem to be an impediment to true life.  When her teacher asks her what is good and what is bad, Joana replies, “Good is living….Bad is not living” (43).  When she says “not living,” she does not mean death; she means not being fully alive, being deadened to existence.

Because Joana’s views of good and bad are unconventional, she has a tendency to alienate the people around her.  When she is still under the guardianship of her aunt, for example, she steals something, just because she can.  Her aunt is horrified at the theft, but also at Joana’s strangeness.  She calls her a “viper” and sends her away to boarding school because she finds her company unsettling.

Although Joana’s life is far from conventionally happy, she does seem to find satisfactions of a sort.  By the end of the novel, she feels something rising in her, something that feels like the life force she so cherishes.  What she wants most is that,

“the long gestation of her childhood would end and from her painful immaturity her own being would  burst forth, free at last, at last! . . . And one day it will come, yes, one day the capacity as red and affirmative as it is clear and soft will come in me. . . a day will come on which all my movement will be creation, birth, I will break all the noes that exist in me, I will prove to myself that there is nothing to fear, that everything I am will always be where there is a woman with my beginning, I will build inside me what I am one day, with one gesture of mine my waves will rise up powerful, pure water drowning doubt….” (158)

And one day she will “rise as strong and beautiful as a young horse” (158).

Near to the Wild Heart is undoubtedly an unusual book, one that is fascinating in its own way.  However, although I am a big fan of literary modernism, I cannot say that I loved this book.  I’m not sure whether or not I want to read another work by Lispector.  For me, at least, there is a coldness to Lispector’s explorations of her character’s inner life that leaves me…well, cold.  Perhaps this is because Lispector seems more interested in what it means to be alive than what it means to be human.   Joana’s goal, after all, is to be as vital as a horse.   I guess I am like Joana’s aunt in that I find the character off-putting and not somebody I want to spend a lot of time probing.

With this post, I have now completed my own 2015 Around the World Reading Challenge, with three days to spare.  Yay, me!

My Arbitrary and Unreliable List of Good Books

I have read a lot of books in my day.  And yet, I sometimes find that if somebody asks me to recommend a good book, I go blank, like a deer in the headlights.  It seems like the “search” function of my brain goes on overload and then shuts down.  Or something.  This post is an attempt to remedy that problem.

On this list are novels that I personally found to be page-turners.  They made me want to stop doing whatever else I was supposed to be doing so that I could finish them.  I want to emphasize that being a page-turner is not necessarily the same thing as having high literary merit.  There are other books that deserve more praise and are worth re-reading and discussing.

Another disclaimer is that I have almost certainly forgotten some other books I have loved because that’s just the way my memory is (not) working lately.

So, here are a few novels that I have read in the last year or so that I really enjoyed.  I am too lazy to describe what they are about so I’ll provide links to Amazon instead.

Life after Life, Kate Atkinson.  Amazon link.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn  Amazon link.

The Girl on The Train, Paula Hawkins  Amazon link

The Signature of all Things, Elizabeth Gilbert  Amazon link

Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese  Amazon link

Defending Jacob, William Landay  Amazon link

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver  Amazon link

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane  Amazon link

The Piano Teacher Janice K. Lee  Amazon link

Watching the Moss Grow: “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert

I do not know how to write about Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things without gushing.  I really love this book!  It’s been awhile since I curled up with such a big, fat, 19th-century-ish novel and found myself swept away so pleasurably in the story.

I call this a 19th-century-ish novel for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is set in the 19th century.  The main character, Alma Whittaker, was born in 1800, so as her story progresses, so does the century.  The Signature, like many 19th-century novels, is grand in scope, covering not only the entire life of its protagonist, but also grapples with some of the century’s major ideas, most notably the theory of evolution.

Alma is an amateur biologist.  (She is an amateur not because she lacks the training or rigor of university scientists, but because she is a woman and lacks the proper credentials.)  She loves studying nature, and eventually specializes in mosses.  That may sound like a rather dry premise for a novel, but Gilbert manages to make it fascinating.  The novel is not just about moss, however.  It is also about love, sexual desire, ambition, regret, and even contains a jaunt to Tahiti.

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I enjoyed many things about The Signature of All Things, but I think the best part is the protagonist Alma Whittaker.  Alma is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 19th century.  Alma is not a physically beautiful woman, and men are not attracted to her.  She is, however, ferociously intelligent, and her parents encourage her to develop her mind to its fullest potential.

Because of her mind and her keen interest in studying the world around, Alma is able to find contentment and even happiness in her life.  As she notes here:

“I think I have been the most fortunate woman who ever lived.  My heart has been broken, certainly, and most of my wishes did not come true.  I have disappointed myself in my own behavior, and others have disappointed me.  I have outlived nearly everyone I have ever loved. . . I have not had an illustrious career.  I had one original idea in my life—and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given me a chance to be known—but I hesitated to put it forth, and thus I missed my opportunity.  I have no husband.  I have no heirs.  I once had a fortune, but I gave it away. . . I do not think I will live to see another spring. . . Surely you are asking yourself now—why does this miserably unlucky woman call herself fortunate?”

“I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world.  As such, I have never felt insignificant.  This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so—for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities. . . All I ever wanted was to know this word.  I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived.  Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history—added to the great library, as it were.  That is no small feat, sir.  Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.”  (497)

It seems to me that mainstream American culture gives women the message that the path to a satisfying life is narrow.  First of all women have to be beautiful.  Or, if not beautiful, at least reasonably attractive.  Second, women need to have husbands.  Third, women must have children.  Women are allowed to have a career, if they must, but it is optional and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  The purpose of a career, of course, is to make as much money as possible. Other considerations are considered frivolous.

And that’s it.  That’s the path for happiness.  Given the extraordinary diversity of women, with all of our different interests, strengths, and weaknesses, I’ve always found the narrowness of this prescription ridiculous.  For that reason, I enjoy finding out about women (real or fictional) who defy the path and yet lead satisfying lives.  Alma Whittaker is a great example of such a woman and I think young women need to have more examples like her to emulate.

In the end, though, what makes The Signature of All Things such a great read is simply that Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful storyteller.  Her success with Eat, Pray Love was no fluke.  This lady knows how to write!

What is the “Right” Amount of Grief?

Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace, a novel by William Kent Krueger, 2013 .  Atria/Simon & Schuster

 “He who learns must suffer.  And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, fails drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”  -Aeschylus (quoted in Ordinary Grace)

Semi-Spoiler Alert:  In this post, I will not reveal “whodunit,” but I will reveal one of the characters who is found dead in the middle of the novel.

In the early 1960s in New Bremen, a small town in Minnesota, nothing much ever happened—at least most of the time.   During one hot summer, however, several people died unexpectedly, some of them from foul play.   We learn about this town and these deaths in the novel Ordinary Grace, told from the perspective of 13-year old Frank Drum.  Frank is the son of Nathan, a preacher whose faith in God is unshakeable, and Ruth, a restless woman who wants more than her small-town life can give her.  Frank has a younger brother, Jake, and an older sister, Ariel. As the novel unfolds we learn more about the dynamics of this family and their interactions with other members of the small community.

Minnesota author William Kent Krueger is perhaps best-known for his mystery novels featuring detective Cork O’Connor, most of which are set in northern Minnesota.   Writing about murder, then, is nothing new to him.  However, Ordinary Grace is not a crime or mystery novel.   Figuring out who is responsible for the various deaths that occur this summer is only part of what this novel is about.  It is, more importantly, about how survivors respond to loss and how grief affects us all differently.

William Kent Krueger by Tony Nelson
William Kent Krueger by Tony Nelson

This question of loss comes to the fore midway through the novel when we find out that one of the people found dead is Ariel, the beloved daughter of Nathan and Ariel.   It is one thing for a pastor to minister to other people who are suffering.  It is quite another thing when this pastor has to grapple with his own devastating loss.   As Nathan and his wife attempt to come to terms with the murder of their daughter, readers see how differently the husband and wife respond to their loss.  Their reactions are so different, in fact, that their marriage nearly founders upon the rocks of their grief.

Despite the horror of losing his young daughter, Nathan never for a moment falters in his Christian faith.  This is not to say that he does not grieve for Ariel; of course he does.  His soul, however, is not tormented to anywhere near the extent his wife’s is.  Far from being comforted by her husband’s faith, she is, in fact, enraged by it.

In one scene, for example, Ruth expresses her despair to Frank by saying, “There is no God to care about us.  We’ve got only ourselves and each other. . . . But your father, Frankie, he cares more about God than he does about us.  And to me that’s like saying he cares more about the air and I hate him for that.”  (224)

This scene, I think, beautifully encapsulates one of the core conflicts of this book.  Not only does Ruth not share her husband’s faith in God, she actively resents it.  She cannot understand why Nathan is not as shattered and full of rage as she is.  It appears to her that he simply does not love her or their child as much as he should.  She mistakes spiritual peace for indifference.

I found Krueger’s portrayal of a family’s grief and their struggles with faith profound and moving.  Overall, I found the novel compulsively readable as well as emotionally satisfying and I would highly recommend it to others.  One element of the novel, though struck me as false:  the quickness with which Ruth recovers her equanimity.  One day she is raging with fury and even leaves her husband because he says the word “God” too much.  Then, already a day after her beloved daughter’s funeral, her emotional fragility is gone and she says, “It hurts terribly, Emil.  Maybe it always will.  But I’ve survived and I believe I’ll be all right.”

This scene strikes me as unrealistic, happening just a few days (possibly a week?) after the child in whom she had invested all her hopes for the future is taken away by a murderer.   Krueger’s portrayal of her earlier fragility and rage seem believable, but this “recovery” strikes me as coming much too soon.  Yes, the narrator tells us he does find her crying occasionally in the next few months, but still that does not seem like enough to me for a parent who has lost their child far ahead of their time.

But maybe I am wrong.  Maybe people CAN recover more quickly than I expect them to.  This discussion reminds me last season of “Downton Abbey,” in which Lady Mary was grieving from the sudden loss of her husband.  The family “allowed” her six months to grieve.  After that, she was expected to “get on with living.”  Yes, I know, “Downton Abbey” is not real life.  But I do see this reaction in the broader society as well.  It seems that we get the message that if we are to grieve, we should get it done as quickly as possible and we shouldn’t make too much of a spectacle of ourselves.   This strikes me as being more about the needs of the non-grievers than about the needs of the grievers.   It seems that others simply do not want to be bothered too much with other people’s pain.  But perhaps I am off-base here.

What do you think?  Do you think we are “supposed” to grieve for a set amount of time?  If so, how much is the “right” amount?

“Hiding in Plain Sight” by Nuruddin Farah

I wanted to like Nuruddin Farah’s most recent novel Hiding in Plain Sight.  I really did.  Farah, the prolific and distinguished Somali writer, is often spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.  (For more background on his life and work, click here.

photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

I read his novel Knots several years ago and was struck by his feminism.  In that novel, the protagonist Cambara, a Somali woman who lives in Canada, returns to Somalia to take care of some business.  She and the other female characters struck me as the only ones in the novel with any sense.  The women took care of all the things that needed to be done, while the men were busy fighting each other and chewing khat.  If I had not known who the author was, I would have thought it was a woman.  Farah’s new novel Hiding in Plain Sight also has a woman as a main character.  Not only that, but the novel also portrays homosexuality as something which should not be condemned or punished. For any number of reasons, then, I was excited to read the book.

The novel opens with a focus on Aar, a sensitive Somali expat who is stationed in the UN office in Somalia briefly as a logistics officer.  Tragically, he dies when terrorists bomb the building he is in.  (This death happens in the beginning of the book, so I am not giving anything away here.)  The novel then switches perspective to Aar’s sister Bella.  The remainder of Hiding focuses on Bella and her attempts to deal not only with her grief but also to forge a new family with Aar’s children.  At the same time, she has to deal with Aar’s ex-wife Valerie, who abandoned him and his children ten years earlier to live with her female lover, Padmini.

One of the themes of the novel is the issue of sexual freedom.  Farah’s philosophy about sexuality seems to be summed up in this quotation:

“In Bella’s mind, freedom are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world.  The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box.  Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior.  No one, not even the president of the country, should have the power and the authority to define love—including whom to love.”  (35)

Farah’s openness to sexual freedom is a laudable goal.  If that is his goal, though, I wonder why he chose to make Valerie (the lesbian mother of Aar’s children) such a nightmarish character.  She is selfish to the extreme, she has no understanding of the concept of gratitude, she is an alcoholic, and her emotions are completely erratic. I know that everybody is flawed, and there is no reason to paint a lesbian character as a saint.  Still, Valerie’s flaws were so extreme and her good qualities so few that I find her hard to accept as a believable character.

And while I do appreciate a male author who writes about strong female characters in a positive way, it seemed to me that Bella, the main character, was more of an idea (a strong, independent woman) than a believable, complex character.   She struck me as person without any emotional attachments or vulnerabilities, except for her attachment to her brother. I suppose Farah could be suggesting that she was TOO attached to her brother, which was why she found every other man lacking in comparison.  That could explain her inability (or unwillingness) to connect emotionally with anybody else, I suppose.  That changes, though, when she becomes attached to Aar’s children and wants to serve as their surrogate mother.

I imagine that at least part of Farah’s goal was to educate non-Somali readers about his war-torn country, especially in terms of its prevailing attitudes toward sexuality.  I think he was successful in that goal.  However, I think Hiding in Plain Sight worked better as an educational tool than as a successful novel.  The novel was written mainly from Bella’s perspective.  Ideally, readers would be able to get inside her head and see things the way she does.  However, often her thoughts do not sound at all realistic because Farah is using them to educate his readers rather than to portray a character.  For example, on page 135 of my edition, Bella thinks,

She knows that Aar, unlike most Somalis raised in the urban centers in the south of the country, had no issue with male homosexuality and couldn’t be bothered about lesbianism.  As for herself. . . she acknowledges that maybe she is not quite as advanced in her attitudes as she likes to think.  But with her three lovers, she knows that she cannot afford to throw stones at anyone in a similar position.  Many Somalis would think there was something wrong with her, would see her as worse than a whore, because no cash exchanged hands.”  (135)

If this were really a reflection of what Bella was thinking, she would not need to provide so much background explanation. The novel contains far too much of this type of didactic internal thoughts for more tastes.

Often the dialogue suffers from a similar weakness.  People in casual conversation, when they are not talking about food, often launch into mini-lectures on Important Subjects that also do not seem realistic.

For example, in one scene, Salif (a teenage boy) is upset with his mother Valerie, who abandoned them for ten years and now suddenly wants to be back in their lives.  His frustration is understandable, but the formality of his word choice strikes me as unbelievable:

“And let me add this, for what it’s worth, Mum.  You haven’t asked us anything about Dad, what he was like as a father to us after you left.   All you have done is create confusion in my head about the circumstances of his burial, urging me to act without even bothering to ascertain the legal and logistical implications.”  (138)

“Ascertain the legal and logistical implications?”  Really?  Does any teenage boy talk like that in casual conversation?

Overall, I would give the novel an “A” for good intentions, but a “C” for execution.  I could not get past the wooden writing style and unrealistic characters enough to get engaged in the story.

Having said that, I am not ready to give up on Nuruddin Farah.  I do plan to read some more of his earlier work.  If you have read his work, which book would you recommend?

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This post is my first entry in my own Around the World Reading Challenge.  This is my African entry.

It is also my fifth and final entry in the African Reading Challenge for 2014 hosted by kinna at Kinna Reads.  (It is late, I know.  Sorry!)  http://kinnareads.com/2014/01/14/2014-africa-reading-challenge/