Books I Finished in October

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
Viking, 2016

couple-next-doorAnne and Marco Conti appear to have an ideal life: a loving marriage, a nice home, and a beautiful baby daughter, Cora. One summer night they are invited to have dinner at the home of the neighbors with whom they share a duplex wall. When the baby sitter cancels at the last minute, they decide it will be all right if they take the baby monitor with them and run home to check on Cora periodically.

And of course the unthinkable happens: on one check-in, Cora has vanished. Anne is swamped by guilt because she agreed to go next door and leave the baby home alone. Marco comforts her, saying that using the baby monitor was not an unreasonable solution. The police believe that the Contis are hiding something and begin to suspect them. Because Anne’s mother and stepfather are extremely wealthy, the police and family anxiously await a ransom call.

This is a pretty typical thriller, with information gradually emerging about the secrets each of the major players is hiding. As usual in this genre, things are not always as they seem and darkness swirls below the surface of life. And the ending involves a standard trope of the genre that I particularly dislike.

This is not a bad book, just an ordinary one that breaks no new ground in the insights it presents. It’s appropriate for reading on a long airplane flight, as I did on a recent coast-to-coast trip.


Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Knopf, 2015

souls-at-nightIn the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, the setting of Haruf’s earlier novels, Addie Moore, age 70, offers a proposition to her neighbor, Louis Waters. Their spouses died years ago and their children live far away. Now each lives alone and lonely. Addie asks Louis if he’d be willing to spend nights with her so that they’d have someone to talk to and share stories with. Louis initially is stunned but then realizes that he’d like some company just as much as Addie does.

The two soon develop a comfortable relationship, not caring that other people in the town think. When Addie’s son decides he can’t handle his own son, he drops the boy off at his grandmother’s house. Addie, Louis, and the boy bond, creating a surrogate family that enriches all their lives.

The book’s bittersweet ending probes the significance of relationships and of fulfilling other people’s expectations. This is the last book Kent Haruf completed before his death in 2014 at age 71. In its look at the lives of older adults, this short novel is a fitting and large-hearted conclusion to Kent Haruf’s body of work.


The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
Simon & Schuster, 2010

distant-hoursThe description on the back cover of the paperback edition explains, “In this enthralling novel, Morton pays homage to the classics of gothic fiction, spinning a rich and intricate web of mystery, suspense, and lost love.” The novel is full of gothic trappings: a huge old castle, full of secret passages and creaking stairs, that looms over the surrounding land like a living, breathing entity; eccentric and isolated long-time inhabitants of the castle who harbor long-suppressed secrets; and a mysterious, long-ago story that continues to dominate lives in the present. (For more about gothic literature, see Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” .)

The story opens with a letter delivered 50 years after it was sent—a typical quirky and mysterious catalyst for gothic storytelling. Edith Burchill, an editor at a small publishing firm, is helping her mother, Meredith, peel potatoes when the letter arrives. Meredith doesn’t want to talk about the letter and is vague about its origin and contents. Eventually, though, Edith gets the germ of the story out of her mother: during World War II, at the age of 12 or 13, Meredith was sent away from London to avoid the German bombing. In the country Meredith lived at Milderhurst Castle with the Blythe sisters, a pair of twins and their much younger sister. The girls’ father, Raymond Blythe, wrote a tremendously popular children’s book, The True History of the Mud Man, which Meredith had read to Edith as a child.

Edith and Meredith have always had a troubled relationship. With an interest in literary matters and a desire to learn more about her mother’s background, Edith sets out to visit Milderhurst and discover what her mother experienced there so long ago. Under the guise of a gothic tale, The Distant Hours examines the power of long-kept secrets and their power to continue to dominate lives.

I don’t remember how I heard about this book or why I picked it up, but I came to it at a significant time in my life. Like Edith and Meredith, my mother and I have always had a strained relationship. Reading this novel while my mother was dying helped me to realize that healing can come through trying to understand life from the other person’s point of view. Like Edith, I began to see how the past can influence the present and how learning about the past can help us understand and accept the present.


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books, 2011

miss-peregrines-homeAs a young child, Jacob was always fascinated by his grandfather’s box of unusual photos. Then, when Jacob is 16, his grandfather is brutally killed in what police call a dog mauling. But Jacob suspects something else killed him, and he goes off in search of the place where his grandfather came across the peculiar children of the photographs.

When I started reading this book, I thought it would be a typical coming-of-age story coupled with a typical hero’s journey quest. But somewhere along the line these notions evaporated. The book becomes an unfocused wandering in search of something that may or may not exist. The children’s peculiarities are not anything like super powers; they are simply peculiar.

Jacob’s search is sloooooowww,, and I found each plot complication more annoying than the previous one. The book ends with a cliffhanger, with no resolution of Jacob’s search. To be fair, Riggs has published two more books in the series, so I imagine that I’d have to look at the series as a whole to see and understand the resolution. However, I disliked this book so much that I’m not going to spend the time to read two more.


© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Finished in May

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Original publication date: 1857
Translated by Lydia Davis
(Penguin Books, 2010)

Highly recommended

madame bovaryMadame Bovary is a seminal work in the rise of literary realism:

an approach that attempts to describe life without idealization or romantic subjectivity. Although realism is not limited to any one century or group of writers, it is most often associated with the literary movement in 19th-century France, specifically with the French novelists Flaubert and Balzac. George Eliot introduced realism into England, and William Dean Howells introduced it into the United States. Realism has been chiefly concerned with the commonplaces of everyday life among the middle and lower classes, where character is a product of social factors and environment is the integral element in the dramatic complications (see naturalism). In the drama, realism is most closely associated with Ibsen’s social plays. Later writers felt that realism laid too much emphasis on external reality. Many, notably Henry James, turned to a psychological realism that closely examined the complex workings of the mind (see stream of consciousness).

Citation: “Realism.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia®. 2013. Columbia University Press. 15 May 2016.

Emma Bovary, daughter of a farmer and wife of a country doctor, dreams of a love that she can never attain. In the convent school she attends as a young girl, she reads romantic accounts of mythical love and imagines a similar life for herself. But her visions of what married life should be quickly fade in the face of real life in a country village. She then turns to motherhood to sustain her, but her lofty visions of motherhood pale in the reality of the everyday chores of caring for a child. Still searching, she hires a servant to take care of her daughter and imagines herself involved in truly passionate love affairs that rise above quotidian reality. In a discussion about literature with Leon, one of her would-be lovers, occurs the following exchange:

”That’s why I’m especially fond of the poets,“ he said. “I think verses are more tender than prose, and more apt to make you cry.”

”Yet they’re tiresome in the end,“ Emma said; ”these days, what I really adore are stories that can be read all in one go, and that frighten you. I detest common heroes and moderate feelings, the sort that exist in real life.” (p. 73)

That pesky “real life” always intrudes on the romantic picture of love she developed from her earliest reading:

One day when [Emma and her lover] had left each other early, and she was walking back alone down the boulevard, she caught sight of the walls of her convent; she sat down on a bench, in the shade of the elms. How peaceful those days had been! How she had longed for the indescribable feelings of love that she had tried, with the help of her books, to imagine for herself! (p. 251)

Someone like Emma can never be happy, the novel assures us:

She was not happy and never had been. Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust? … Yet if somewhere there existed a strong, handsome being, with a valorous nature, at once exalted and refined, with the heart of a poet in the shape of an angel, a lyre with strings of brass, sounding elegiac epithalamiums to the heavens, then why mightn’t she, by chance find him? Oh, what an impossibility! Nothing, anyway, was worth looking for; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure. (p. 252)

Not long after I finished reading Madame Bovary, I came across the article Alain de Botton on why romantic novels can make us unlucky in love. He distinguishes between the tradition of Romantic novels, “novels that do not give us a correct map of love, that leave us unprepared to deal adequately with the difficulties of being in a couple,” and Classical novels, which, he writes, present us with a picture of the right kind of love:

The narrative arts of the Romantic novel have unwittingly constructed a devilish template of expectations of what relationships are supposed to be like – in the light of which our own love lives often look grievously and deeply unsatisfying. We break up or feel ourselves cursed in significant part because we are exposed to the wrong works of literature.

That is exactly what happened to Emma Bovary.

Choose your books wisely.


the nestThe Nest by Cynthia E’Aprix Sweeney
(HarperCollins, 2016)

Recommended

Meet the Plumb children: Leo, Jack, Beatrice (Bea), and Melody. Years ago their father, Leonard, set up a trust to provide them with a little nest egg, “not an inheritance,” he insisted, for a midlife boost. The money was to be distributed when Melody, the youngest child, turned 40. Over the years “the nest” has grown more than Leonard ever imagined. Since Leonard’s death, the fund has been administered by his wife, Francie, who has steadfastly resisted her children’s various pleas to allow them to borrow against their future inheritance.

Until now. A very drunk Leo, the oldest, has picked up a pretty young woman from the catering staff at a family wedding and driven off with her for a quick tryst. Along the way Leo drives into a spectacular car crash that causes the amputation of the young woman’s foot. To keep Leo out of trouble and the story out of the papers, Francie has approved a huge chunk of the nest as a hush-money settlement quietly arranged by Leo’s cousin and family lawyer.

The book opens as the other three siblings gather for a meeting with Leo to make clear that they expect him to repay the nest so that they can all get their money when Melody turns 40 in three months. Over those three months we get to know all four of the Plumb children, two of whom desperately need that inheritance—the whole amount they’ve been counting on, not the half left after Leo’s payout.

Sweeney deftly brings all these major characters, along with a few minor ones, to life in an exploration of the meanings of family, relationships, commitment, betrayal, and money. The resolution, which is exactly right for these characters in these circumstances, is a lesson in moving through dysfunction into a new working definition of family.


A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
© 1959

leibowitzThis book was popular when I was in college back in the late 1960s. I never got around to reading it back then, and the same mass market paperback has been kicking around on my bookshelves ever since then. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel that deals with the themes of recurrent history and of the conflicts between church and state, and between faith in science. It comprises three sections:

Part I: Fiat Homo (“let there be man”)
Part II: Fiat Lux (“let there be light”)
Part III: Fiat Voluntas Tua (“let thy will be done”)

Part I opens 600 years after nuclear devastation, known as the Flame Deluge, destroyed 20th century civilization. Isaac Leibowitz, who had been a scientific engineer with the U.S. military, started a monastic order to preserve as much knowledge as possible by hiding books, memorizing books, and writing out new copies. The order’s abbey in the Utah desert is the repository for the Memorabilia, the remaining documents of the earlier civilization. We learn that after the nuclear devastation, there had been a backlash against the science and technology that had produced it, a period known as the Simplification, when learning, even the ability to read, became a cause for execution. For 600 years the Order of Leibowitz had been keeping safe the Memorabilia for a time when the world was once again ready for it. Part I ends with the canonization of Leibowitz as Saint Leibowitz.

As Part II opens, 600 years after Part I, civilization is beginning to emerge from the previous dark age. While scientists study the Memorabilia at the abbey and begin to make crude instruments from the preserved descriptions, political unrest and manipulation heat up.

After another 600 years, in Part III, mankind once again has nuclear weapons along with spaceships and extraterrestrial colonies. Members of the Order of Saint Leibowitz load the Memorabilia onto a ship and head off toward another planet just as the people of earth once again destroy themselves through nuclear attack.

Through its three sections this novel examines the themes of the cyclical recurrence of history and the eternal conflicts between darkness and light, knowledge and ignorance, truth and deception, religion and science, and power and subjugation. A Canticle for Leibowitz has remained in print since its original publication and is generally considered one of the outstanding works of science fiction. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.


chatham school affairThe Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook
(Bantam Books, 1996)

Recommended

I’ve seen so many recommendations of this book, which won the 1997 Edgar Award for Best Novel, that I finally had to read it.

Henry Griswald, now an old man, narrates this story of an event that occurred about 70 years ago, in 1927, when he was 15 years old. In this classic coming-of-age story, he reflects on the significance of the event and how it affected both his own life and the lives of others.

The structure of the novel features a framing device, a short sequence at both the beginning and end, that serves to introduce, then conclude the main action. At the beginning, an old friend visits Henry, now an old man, to enlist his help in selling the property that contains Milford Cottage. At the end, after the sale of the property, the book returns to its present time with a short section in which Henry distributes the money from the sale of the property.

The bulk of the novel, between these two events, consists of Henry’s memory, examination, and explanation of what happened at Milford Cottage on that day long ago. He begins with the most general memories—description of the setting and introductions of the characters involved. He continues to peel back the layers of the experience, like peeling an onion, gradually moving toward the center in ever-tightening circles. This spiraling structure is appropriate, perhaps even inevitable, in the narration of how a character comes to understand how a long-ago event affected the rest of his life.

I recommend this novel for anyone interested in deep psychological fiction.


Year-to-date total of books read: 17

Review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
© 1959

leibowitzThis book was popular when I was in college back in the late 1960s. I never got around to reading it back then, and the same mass market paperback has been kicking around on my bookshelves ever since then. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel that deals with the themes of recurrent history and of the conflicts between church and state, and between faith in science. It comprises three sections:

Part I: Fiat Homo (“let there be man”)
Part II: Fiat Lux (“let there be light”)
Part III: Fiat Voluntas Tua (“let thy will be done”)

Part I opens 600 years after nuclear devastation, known as the Flame Deluge, destroyed 20th century civilization. Isaac Leibowitz, who had been a scientific engineer with the U.S. military, started a monastic order to preserve as much knowledge as possible by hiding books, memorizing books, and writing out new copies. The order’s abbey in the Utah desert is the repository for the Memorabilia, the remaining documents of the earlier civilization. We learn that after the nuclear devastation, there had been a backlash against the science and technology that had produced it, a period known as the Simplification, when learning, even the ability to read, became a cause for execution. For 600 years the Order of Leibowitz had been keeping safe the Memorabilia for a time when the world was once again ready for it. Part I ends with the canonization of Leibowitz as Saint Leibowitz.

As Part II opens, 600 years after Part I, civilization is beginning to emerge from the previous dark age. While scientists study the Memorabilia at the abbey and begin to make crude instruments from the preserved descriptions, political unrest and manipulation heat up.

After another 600 years, in Part III, mankind once again has nuclear weapons along with spaceships and extraterrestrial colonies. Members of the Order of Saint Leibowitz load the Memorabilia onto a ship and head off toward another planet just as the people of earth once again destroy themselves through nuclear attack.

Through its three sections this novel examines the themes of the cyclical recurrence of history and the eternal conflicts between darkness and light, knowledge and ignorance, truth and deception, religion and science, and power and subjugation. A Canticle for Leibowitz has remained in print since its original publication and is generally considered one of the outstanding works of science fiction. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Finished in April

11_22_6311/22/63 by Stephen King
Recommended

Jake Epping is a 35-year-old high school English teacher in the small town of Lisbon Falls, Maine. To earn some extra money, he also teaches English to adult GED students. The only other activity in his life is moping around and lamenting the recent divorce from his short-term alcoholic wife. At least he doesn’t have to track her down and go drag her home from some bar any more.

So when Al Templeton, owner of the local diner, asks Jake if he’s willing to take on a secret mission, Jake’s interest is piqued. Al confides to Jake that, at the rear of the diner, there’s a portal that leads to a day in 1958. Al himself has gone through the portal and back several times, so he knows that the passage through always leads to the same day. Also, no matter how long he has stayed in the past, when he returns he has always been gone from the present (2011) for exactly two minutes.

Al believes that the greatest disaster of modern history was the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. When he discovered the time portal, he decided to go back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK. Al has spent years researching Oswald’s life and movements, but now he’s dying of lung cancer and can’t finish the job. Would Jake be willing to see the mission through?

After a few trial runs into the past and back, Jake agrees. Armed with Al’s notebook of information on Oswald, he goes back to 1958 with the plan of ending up in Dallas on 11/22/63. He drives through the land of Long Ago and settles down in a small town in Texas to make his preparations. There he becomes George Amberson, who begins substitute teaching at the local high school, falls in love with the new school librarian, and finds a life much more satisfying than the one Jake Epping left behind in Lisbon Falls.

Will George/Jake be able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And, if he succeeds, how will subsequent history unfold?

Stephen King excels at using details to create interesting characters and to build narrative worlds. 11/22/63 presents him at his storytelling best.


The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

gilded hourIt took me a while to figure out the provenance of this book.

First, Sara Donati is a pen name for Rosina Lippi, a former university professor. She writes historical fiction as Sara Donati. Under her own name she writes contemporary novels and academic work.

Second, the blurb on the inside fold of the dust jacket says “The Gilded Hour follows the story of the descendants of the characters from the Wilderness series.” I, apparently erroneously, took this to mean that this novel is the next installment of that series. According to Lippi’s web site, the Wilderness series comprises “six historical novels that follow the fortunes of the Bonner family in the vast forests in upstate New York, from about 1792–1825.” However, The Gilded Hour, also about the Bonner family, jumps forward to after the Civil War. It is the first book in a new series that will follow the Bonner granddaughters into the twentieth century.

For more information, see these sources:

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In New York City in 1883, two female physicians, Anna Savard and her cousin Sophie Savard, graduates of the Woman’s Medical School, care for the city’s poor and immigrant inhabitants. They must contend not only with society’s expectations for women, which still looked down upon women in professions previously reserved for men, but also with Anthony Comstock, self-proclaimed upholder of Victorian morality and creator of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The 1873 Comstock Law, passed by the U.S. Congress, made illegal the production and distribution of any printed material explaining abortion or birth control. For more information about Anthony Comstock, see THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A TRUE AMERICAN MORAL HYSTERIC.

I was drawn to this novel because I wrote my dissertation on the life stories of five nineteenth-century U.S. women physicians. The first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. was Elizabeth Blackwell, in 1849. Women of that era knew that they had to be self-confident, assertive, and thick-skinned to succeed, but they also knew that they could not overtly flout society’s expectations about the proper behavior of women. Most early women physicians therefore worked to expand the role of women to include health care rather than to denounce social expectations altogether.

And this is where I become uncomfortable with Sara Donati’s portrayal of Dr. Anna Savard, who quickly becomes the central focus of the novel when her cousin Sophie departs for Switzerland. Anna is self-confident, assertive, and thick-skinned, but too aggressively so. She is always eager for an argument. A more realistic portrayal of a female physician of the time would have been someone who was less confrontational and more willing to work around challenges instead of charging straight into the middle of them.

There is also a lot more sex in this book than necessary. Of course sex is an apt area for characterization, but the encounters in this novel are as explicit as those in a typical romance novel. Anna and her love interest, detective Jack Mezzanotte, also engage in a lot more subtle sexual communication in public than would have been natural at this time period. For example, Jack often unbuttons Anna’s cuff and rubs his finger along her wrist and down into her palm. It’s hard to imagine much of this actually going on in public among polite nineteenth-century society.

Despite these criticisms, I found much to like in The Gilded Hour. At 732 pages, it’s a Big Book that exhibits many of the positive characteristics its size permits. There’s a large cast of characters who have the room to reveal themselves amply. Donati/Lippi’s eye for detail creates a fascinating picture of New York City in 1883 and reveals that the author has done an enormous amount of research. And, as some readers lamented on Goodreads, even at 732 pages, this novel leaves several storylines unresolved. But that’s all right, since The Gilded Hour is the first novel in a new series.


no join book clubNo! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside

About three months before her sixtieth birthday, Marie Sharp decides to keep a diary to record her passage into old age. She begins with comments on the usual complaints of this age: aching knees, bunions, HRT (that’s hormone replacement therapy for the uninitiated), and receding gums. However, she gradually begins to appreciate some of life’s larger aspects: love, death, and personal relationships.

There’s a lot of humor in this book, but it’s humor based on stereotypes. Even when Marie Sharp turns those stereotypes on their heads, she does so in a completely expected way. For example, the woman who can’t imagine why grandmothers go so ga-ga over their grandchildren goes completely ga-ga over her own grandson.

There’s nothing new in this novel. I’m 67, and while I was sometimes amused by this book, I certainly didn’t learn anything from it.


Year-to-date total of books read: 13

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #12: “Darkness at Noon”

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darkness at noon

Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
Translated by Daphne Hardy
Original publication date: 1940
Rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1966
ISBN 0–553–26595–4

 

Originally written in German and translated into English by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy, Darkness at Noon was first published in 1940. Set in an unnamed country, the book is an allegory for the USSR’s 1938 purges during which Stalin worked to cement his position as dictator by eliminating potential rivals.

In an opening note Koestler wrote:

The characters in this book are fictitious. The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real. The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to the author. This book is dedicated to their memory.

The Classics ClubThe main character, Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, is imprisoned and tried for treason against the government that he helped to create. As he contemplates his life, Rubashov realizes the Party, which has been in power for 20 years, is no closer than it originally was to accomplishing its goal of creating a socialist utopia. He remembers, with some shame and guilt, his own earlier actions of betrayal that promoted the Party’s purposes.

As he is interrogated, Rubashov initially refuses to admit to the trumped-up charges. Afterwards, the two interrogators, Gletkin and Ivanov, discuss Rubashov’s fate. Ivanov, the more intellectual of the two, is basically humane and disturbed by the suffering he causes. Ivanov represents the original Party supporters. Gletkin represents the younger generation of the Party elite moving to take over from the older generation. He favors more ruthless means of torture such as sleep deprivation and doesn’t care how he gets the confession he needs to establish his own position.

Eventually Rubashov admits to the false charges. The novel ends with his execution.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

2 Big Books That Disappointed Me

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I’ve been writing a lot about Big Books lately. Since I no longer continue to slog through books that don’t engage me (although I’ll give a Big Book, one of more than 500 pages, 100 pages to win me over), I don’t have a long list of Big Books I didn’t like. I don’t review books I don’t finish and only seldom report on books that I gave up on.

However, here are two Big Books that I did finish and didn’t like.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
Paperback, 768 pages

hour first believedI picked up this book really wanting and expecting to like it because I was so taken with I Know This Much is True. However, there’s so much wrong with this novel that it’s hard to know where to begin discussing it.

The book centers around a married couple, high school English teacher Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen, a nurse. When Caelum discovers that Maureen is cheating on him, he attacks the other guy with a pipe wrench. In an effort to repair their lives, the Quirks move to Littleton, Colorado, where Maureen gets a job as school nurse at Columbine High School. And if you think you can see where this story is going, you’re right.

A few people I know said they refused to read this book because they didn’t want to revisit the terrible massacre at Columbine. In fact, in remarks at the end of the book Wally Lamb apologetically addresses his decision to use that event as a plot point. I don’t object to his use of this event. What I object to is the point of view he chose with which to narrate it. In the book Caelum has returned to his family home in Connecticut to check on an aging family member when the attack occurs. He tries to reach Maureen by phone while she covers in a closed cabinet listening to the gunfire. Afterwards, we learn more about the massacre as Caelum researches it to help himself understand Maureen’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Once Lamb had chosen to write about Columbine, I felt that, to do the issue justice, he should approach it in first person, through the eyes of the person who experiences it in the book, rather than obliquely, through someone reporting on the event and on his wife’s reaction to it.

The couple decide to get away from the scene of the trauma and move back to Caelum’s Connecticut home. Eventually Maureen, unable to overcome her demons, goes to prison for vehicular homicide. And here the story pivots into sole focus on Caelum. SPOILER ALERT: In an obvious deus ex machina move, Lamb eliminates Maureen from further consideration.

In this second half of the novel, Caelum discovers a cache of letters from the 19th century that sets him a crusade to discover his now deceased mother’s true identity and background. He lets a feminist scholar use the letters for her dissertation, a long portion of which appears in the novel. Either half of the book could have been a novel in its own right, but jamming the two together makes this novel a structural nightmare, even though the two parts deal with some of the same themes. Add a few wobbly, far-fetched attempts at symbolism—praying mantis, butterfly, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—and you have a book that never would have been published if its author were not already a well established figure.

This book looks like an attempt to apply the formula that worked so well in I Know This Much is True to another novel for which the formula is inappropriate. I would have given up on this book long before I reached the end if it hadn’t been a selection for one of my book clubs. I wasn’t surprised when just about everyone else in the club said they also didn’t like it.

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
Hardcover, 742 pages

man in fullAuthor Tom Wolfe is a Big Figure: Goodreads describes him as “our prime fictional chronicler of America at its most outrageous and alive.” Big Figures write Big Books, such as this one that deals with a number of contemporary themes: real estate development, boom vs. bust, shady deals, the politics of college sports, the life of the corporate elite, and racism in the U.S.

The book features Charles Croker, a former college football star who now, in late middle age, owns a large quail-shooting plantation where he schmoozes with the corporate and political elite. Croker also owns a huge but half-empty new office tower and the load of debt associated with it. As real estate tanks in Atlanta, Croker attempts to juggle his enterprise to keep himself afloat.

This is the book that taught me the lesson of not passing judgment until I’ve finished a book. Wolfe’s writing is so vivid and clever that he kept me interested in these characters and the situations they dig themselves into for most of the book. However, most of those situations are so complex and definitive that there really is no way out of them. Wolfe painted himself into a corner and could not find a suitable ending: the book runs out of steam and peters out. Perhaps it’s fair to say that it’s enough for an author like Wolfe to point out society’s problems without having to suggest solutions to them, but Wolfe is such a good storyteller that the failure to provide an adequate ending here irritated me. After I had told a few people that I was enjoying the book as I was reading it, I then had to tell them that I was disappointed in the way it ended. Now I wait until I’ve finished a book to recommend it.

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What Big Books (of 500 or more pages) have you read that disappointed you?

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

“The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote

Cover: The World WithinCapote, Truman. “The Headless Hawk” (1945)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

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This story first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in October 1945. It later appeared in the collection A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (2005).

In her introduction to the story, Mary Louise Aswell, literary editor of The World Within, wrote that Capote, then in his 20s, had “consistently explored a territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly.” She added that “we ourselves have visited it in the dark” and are moved to “the catharsis at least of terror” (p. 283). In an interview published in the spring-summer 1957 issue of The Paris Review, Capote acknowledged Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar as one of the editors who most encouraged him early in his career.

Truman Capote later became known for his innovative writing style in In Cold Blood, but in his early stories of the 1940s he was a master at using gothic elements to create psychological states. He is therefore often associated with the Southern gothic tradition of writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner.

In “The Headless Hawk,” Vincent, a 36-year-old art gallery employee in Manhattan, has an affair with a young girl, who remains mysteriously unnamed, who sells him a painting depicting a girl with a severed head and a large, headless hawk. Both the painting and the girl draw Vincent in in a way that first thrills, then repulses him.

The story opens with the following quotation from the biblical book of Job:

They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light. For the morning is to them as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.

—Job 24:13, 16, 17

Capote uses imagery to create an atmosphere of darkness and death in keeping with this epigraph. We first meet Vincent when a “promise of rain had darkened the day since dawn” (p. 284). He lives in a dark basement apartment. Much of the story’s action takes place either under cloud-darkened skies or at night. Scenes, such as Vincent’s stumbling, rambling visit to a Broadway funhouse and penny arcade, become surreal night visions. Other macabre scenes come to Vincent in dreams.

Imagery of the sea, of submersion, also creates a picture of Vincent moving unnaturally through the world, encumbered in an alternate reality: “Vincent felt as though he moved below the sea” (p. 284). Buses “seemed like green-bellied fish, and faces loomed and rocked like wave-riding masks” (p. 284). Vincent sees himself in a dream “swimming through oceans of cheese-pale faces, neon, and darkness” (p. 293). Later, “The air seemed thick with gummy fluid” (p. 307).

Vincent is out of sync with the world, “never quite in contact, never sure whether a step would take him backward or forward, up or down” (p. 284). He had “substituted for a sense of a reality a knowledge of time, and place” (p. 287). Later, Vincent thinks of himself as “a man in the sea fifty miles from shore” (p. 291).

Narrative structure also contributes to the creation of a dark, foreboding, otherworldly atmosphere. In the opening section of the story, Vincent sees the girl and tries to elude her. But he watches where she goes and then approaches her. He stops to light a cigarette in front of her, and she steps out of the shadows and offers her lighter. This action sequence is disconcerting for the reader because it seems counterintuitive: Who is stalking whom? He walks away, and she wanders into traffic, causing a cab driver to yell. Vincent turns and sees her staring straight at him, “trance-eyed, undisturbed as a sleepwalker” (p. 286). He walks on but continues to hear “the soft insistent slap of [her] sandals” (p. 286).

Much of the rest of the story is an extended flashback about how Vincent and the girl met and how their relationship developed. Events jump back and forth in time as the flashback unfolds, and this disjointed time sequence contributes to the story’s sense of jumbled reality.

The focal point of the story is the girl’s painting, with its dominant image: “The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky” (p. 289). For Vincent, the painting, though lacking technical merit, “had that power often seen in something deeply felt, though primitively conveyed” (p. 289). He just knows that he must have the painting, which has “revealed to him a secret concerning himself” (p. 290). On nights when he can’t sleep, “he would pour a glass of whiskey and talk to the headless hawk, tell it the stuff of his life” (p. 291). At those times he sees himself as “someone … without direction, and quite headless” (p. 291).

Vincent sees himself in the headless hawk: “a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed. It was there, all of it, in the painting, everything disconnected and cockeyed, and who was she that she should know so much?” (p. 291). It is this question that piques his interest in the girl:

There are certain works of art which excite more interest in their creators than in what they have created, usually because in this kind of work one is able to identify something which has until that instant seemed a private inexpressible perception, and you wonder: who is this that knows me, and how? (p. 290)

The climax of the story comes in a dream in which a young and handsome Vincent recognizes an “old and horrid” (p. 302) Vincent. Of other guests in the room of his dream, “many are also saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay” (p. 302). In the dream a man approaches with “a massive headless hawk whose talons, latched to the wrist, draw blood” (p. 302).

After this dream, Vincent realizes that

he’d betrayed himself with talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled … oh why in his lovers must he always find the broken image of himself? Now as he looked at her in the aging dawn his heart was cold with the death of love (p. 304).

He gathers the girl’s belongings and puts them and her out, marking the death of yet another love, just as all his other love affairs have ended. The phrase “the death of love” recalls the epigraph’s references to the shadow of death.

In his brief remarks after the story, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham focuses on the girl, whom he describes as a schizophrenic portrayed with “almost clinical accuracy” (p. 311). Wertham also touches on the story’s “surrealist tapestry” of “phosphorescent decadence” (p. 311), but about Vincent, the story’s protagonist, he has little to say.

The psychiatrist’s remarks don’t do the story justice and in fact demonstrate how we understand the human psyche as portrayed in literature. We don’t need a clinical diagnosis of a specific condition, complete with a catalog of symptoms. Rather, we more often experience psychological states in literature as a “private inexpressible perception,” a “territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly,” that we may not know how to articulate ourselves but recognize when we see represented by an artist of words.

In fact, this story well illustrates how that process works. Capote’s language creates more of an atmosphere than coherent symbolism. Even the headless hawk produces a general, though macabre, feeling of terror and unreality that cannot be mapped as a specific symbol (e.g., headless hawk = death, headless hawk = fear). This story well illustrates how a master of language such as Truman Capote can communicate psychological truth that feels more real to readers than a clinical description would.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “Go Set a Watchman”

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

You won’t envision Gregory Peck when you read what Atticus Finch has to say to his daughter late in this novel:

“You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?” (p. 242)

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” (p. 245)

“Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people… . They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.” (pp. 246–247)

The hard work of reconciling this picture of Atticus Finch with the Atticus Finch that Peck portrays in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird raises an essential question about this newly released novel by Harper Lee: Is it possible to review Go Set a Watchman without reference to To Kill a Mockingbird?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try.

In Watchman, 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she has been living for five years. She comes home for two weeks every year to see her father, Atticus Finch, whom she adores, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Henry Clinton, whom she has known since childhood. She usually travels by plane, but this year she takes the train. The view as she approaches her destination allows her to reconnect with the place where she grew up: “She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful” (p. 6).

Jean Louise rolls her eyes over the Southern propriety of her Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, who never passes up an opportunity to explain that Jean Louise should stay home in Maycomb, get married and have children, and take care of her aging father. But she loses patience when her aunt invites some of the young women she grew up with over for coffee. After living in New York, Jean Louise cannot tolerate the narrow-mindedness of women who define themselves only in terms of their husbands and their children.

This scene crystallizes Jean Louise’s internal conflict: She loves and respects her father, but she no longer shares the beliefs and values that underlie the Southern way of life that he and Maycomb epitomize. Atticus, now 72, has always been her moral beacon. but she is shocked and disgusted when she sneaks into the courthouse and witnesses a political meeting at which both Atticus and Henry denounce Negroes and Jews. Jean Louise sneaks back out of the courthouse repulsed and sickened by the revelations of her father’s hypocrisy.

This pivotal scene of the coming-of-age story occurs very late in the novel. But it’s not just the novel’s pacing that’s off. The text doesn’t adequately prepare us for the depth of Jean Louise’s revulsion. We know that she has always loved and deeply respected her father for the values he taught her. So why is she so astonished now? How is it possible that she didn’t know her father held these views? She discusses her concerns with both her father and her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, afterwards, but this backward attempt at explaining what should have come before her moment of realization falls flat. And the explanation is given in terms of political theorizing that doesn’t adequately address the emotional nature of her reaction.

The writing in Watchman is adequate though uninspired. There are several flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood that are more interesting than the present time of the book but that also do not cohere thematically with the novel as a whole. The late climax and quick resolution that doesn’t effectively resolve matters leave the reader jarringly unsatisfied.

scroll divider

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThat’s my review of Watchman without reference to Mockingbird. But it leaves out one question that cannot be ignored: How do we reconcile the Atticus Finch of Watchman with the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird?

Not to be flip, but there’s only one possible answer: We don’t. These novels are two separate works. Even if we accept that Watchman is an early draft of what later became Mockingbird, each novel should be read and evaluated separately, in its own right. Comparing them might say something about Harper Lee or about the two different time periods presented in the books, but the publication of Watchman does not change To Kill a Mockingbird at all.

On Novels and Novelists

7 Book Franchises We Really Need To Say Goodbye To

Claire Fallon writes in the Huffington Post:

Let’s be honest: Too many series and franchises are reworked and rebooted until there’s simply no life left in them. As much as fans may clamor to spend more money on another Dune book, for example, they’re more likely than not going to be disappointed by the lackluster result, which only serves to taint the otherwise acclaimed series. We need to learn to say goodbye before we’re entirely ready, instead of waiting until a brand has fully worn out its welcome.

Here are the seven series she lists:

  1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  2. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  3. The James Bond series by Ian Fleming
  4. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  5. The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson
  6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

A quick reading of the comments suggests that many people misunderstood the point of this article. Several commenters list books and series that they say are awful. Some of the authors mentioned are Tom Clancy, Robert B. Parker, and Lee Child.

But I don’t think Fallon is writing about books that shouldn’t have been written in the first place. I think she’s concerned about books and series that have become so beloved by readers that it’s painful to watch someone else—some lesser writer—keep on writing inferior additions to the set. At least that’s how I feel about franchises such as Harry Potter, the Millennium trilogy, Little House, and Hitchhiker’s Guide.

How about you?

The Wachowskis’ Sense8 Is the Philip K. Dick Adaptation We Always Wanted

Here’s another long read, and I have to admit that much of it is way over my head for now. Bram E. Gieben looks at the Netflix Original series Sense8 in relation to the work of author Philip K. Dick and series creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski:

The ‘mind-melds’ (lets just call them that) which the characters experience begin to fracture their reality. This is in itself a Phildickian trope, but this ‘reality breakdown’—often the principle focus of a PKD novel—is not a key focus here. Rather, the series is full of scenes where characters listen to each other, and share their stories. This is the way in which the show deals with empathy—and yet, this is where Sense8 is at its most Phildickian. This also accounts for the erratic pacing. The Wachowskis have chosen to show empathy at work, rather than just divesting the story of these ‘emotional’ tropes, and focusing on the game of cat-and-mouse the protagonists are forced to play with a shadowy, quasi-governmental agency (as they would in most flawed Dick movie adaptations, from Total Recall to Minority Report).

I include this piece because it prompted me to add Sense8 to my Netflix list. The next long weekend that comes up I hope to spend watching several episodes of the series to see if I can make sense of them.

Care to join me?

13 Children’s Book Authors Who Would Have Written Beautiful Fiction For Adults Too

Riffing on Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event, Katherine Brooks lists 13 authors she thinks would have written good fiction for adults:

After all, according to a 2012 study conducted by Bowker Market Research, 55 percent of the people buying fiction geared toward young adults are, actually, just adults. And they’re, actually, reading the books for themselves.

See why Brooks wishes these 13 authors had written fiction for adults:

  1. Beverly Cleary
  2. Walter Dean Myers
  3. Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  4. Katherine Paterson
  5. Mary Pope Osborne
  6. Gail Carson Levine
  7. Maurice Sendak
  8. Madeleine L’Engle
  9. Ellen Raskin
  10. Chris Van Allsburg
  11. and 12. Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
  12. Lois Lowry

Brooks also lists as runners-up S. E. Hinton and E. L. Konigsburg.

How To Read A Bad Book By A Great Author

“What do we make of a bad book, written late-career, by an acclaimed author?” asks Colton Valentine, who moves on to discuss Milan Kundera’s recent novel, The Festival of Insignificance. According to Valentine, critics almost universally have described this novel as “out-of-touch, sexist, and, worst of all, banal.”

But, Valentine argues, late-career novels such as this must be approached not in isolation, but in the context of everything the author has written before. In particular, Valentine makes sense of Festival of Insignificance by comparing it with what Kundera had to say in his best known novel, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

And this is the approach we should take to the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s second novel:

In a few weeks, Harper Lee will release Go Set a Watchman, a book that will inevitably fail to live up to its predecessor but that need not be written off. Broadening our mindset – fitting the novel into a larger textual legacy – may not redeem it. But that mindset can, at least, provide a stimulating exercise, a more productive and respectful way to think about the late works of the greats.

The Classics Spin #9: “Cannery Row”

Back in March I won the opportunity to read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for The Classics Spin #9. And I mistakenly thought the completion date was May 15. In fact, it was May 5. Not that it really matters, since I’m a bit late either way. But I did finally finish reading the book on the plane flight to Europe.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
Original publication date: 1945
Rpt. New York: Penguin, 2002
ISBN 978–1–101–65979–3

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chopped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

This opening paragraph introduces readers to Cannery Row, where, when the “cannery whistles scream … men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work.” But at day’s end, after these workers “straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town … Cannery Row becomes itself again—quiet and magical. Its normal life returns.”

The book’s narrator asks, “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?” He decides that the way to write this book is “to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

And so, in the manner of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Cannery Row tells the story of this place through the intertwining stories of its inhabitants. Set during the Great Depression, the book portrays a time when work was hard and life was even harder.

The main characters include Doc, a marine biologist based on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, to whom the book is dedicated; Lee Chong, a local Chinese grocer; Mack, the leader of a group of unemployed men; and Dora, owner of the local brothel. The book acknowledges the characters’ many faults—drunkenness, malingering, craftiness—while at the same time portraying their good qualities—kindness, charity, friendship. After all, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” are the same as “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.”

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown