Category Archives: Serious

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

This is the last of my Hardy novels for my Victorian Literature group – you can definitely see Hardy’s increasing maturity as a writer when you read them in chronological order. Having said that, however, I still think The Woodlanders my favourite. I am sure this novel has more literary merit, but Tess’s life is so grim.

Here is the plot summary from Shmoop

Tess Durbeyfield is a (totally and completely doomed) country girl living in the late 19th Century in an English village that seems secluded, even though it’s only a four-hour journey from London. Her father learns in the first chapter that he is the last lineal descendent of the D’Urbervilles—one of the oldest, most aristocratic, families in all of England. He foolishly assumes that his aristocratic heritage will suffice to pull his family out of poverty, and so he sends Tess off to “claim kin” (i.e., to borrow money on the strength of their distant family ties) from a wealthy branch of the D’Urbervilles.

Tess is a very pretty girl, and very “womanly” (i.e., sexy) for her age, and the son of the wealthy D’Urbervilles, Alec, tries to seduce her. He finds her too proud and modest to fall into his snares, and so he tricks her into accepting a ride from him back to the family house at night, and cuts through the woods. After getting lost (possibly on purpose), Alec leaves Tess to fall asleep under a tree while he tries to find the path. He comes back, and, finding her asleep, takes advantage of their solitude to rape her under the trees.

The next phase of the book (“Maiden No More”) opens with Tess back at her parents’ house in the village of Marlott. She’s had a baby as a result of her connection with Alec, and has secluded herself from her former friends out of a combination of shame and pride. She works a few odd jobs to make money, and things are going okay until her baby suddenly gets sick… and dies. Tess is more worried about the baby’s soul than anything else, so she buries it in the churchyard on the sly.

Time passes, and most of her friends and neighbors have forgotten about Tess’s troubles. But she hasn’t, so she decides to go to a neighboring county to work at a dairy farm where nobody knows her. One of the other workers at the dairy, Angel Clare, is the son of a gentleman. Angel is learning about farming so that he can move to the colonies in America and become a wealthy farmer there. He and Tess gradually fall in love.

Tess wants to tell Angel about her past, but she can’t bring herself reveal it to him. Finally, the night before they’re supposed to get married, she slips a note under his door confessing everything. When he doesn’t say anything about it the next morning, she assumes all is forgiven—but really, he never saw the note. On their wedding night, he confesses to her that he’d had a brief fling with a strange woman in London long before he’d met Tess. So Tess feels like she can tell him about Alec, since that wasn’t her fault.

But Angel doesn’t see it that way. He’s shocked and horrified that she’s not a virgin, and runs off to South America to try and forget about her. Tess is heart-broken and wanders from job to job, trying to leave her problems behind her. But her problems keep finding her. Alec runs into her on the road, and even though he’s become a Christian, he becomes obsessed with her again. Eventually he persuades her to live with him, even though she’s legally married to Angel. But she’s given up hope that Angel will ever come back to her.

But he does come back to her, and when she sees Angel, she stabs Alec in their hotel room. Angel realizes that he’s partly responsible for the murder, and runs away with her. They flee together across the countryside, and are finally caught by the authorities at Stonehenge, an ancient monument of huge stones in the English countryside that was built by the druids or even earlier. “Justice” catches up with Tess, and she is hanged.

I listened to this one (it was read by Anna Bentinck), which, as Hardy is a poet first, means I have a much greater appreciation for how his work sounds.

I think Hardy has pyschological insight – like this (Tess has returned home after being ruined (seduced/raped) by Alec D’Urberville

Their chatter, their laughter, their good-humoured innuendoes, above all, their flashes and flickerings of envy, revived Tess’s spirits also; and, as the evening wore on, she caught the infection of their excitement, and grew almost gay. The marble hardness left her face, she moved with something of her old bounding step, and flushed in all her young beauty.At moments, in spite of thought, she would reply to their inquiries with a manner of superiority, as if recognizing that her experiences in the field of courtship had, indeed, been slightly enviable. But so far was she from being, in the words of Robert South, “in love with her own ruin,” that the illusion was transient as lightning; cold reason came back to mock her spasmodic weakness; the ghastliness of her momentary pride would convict her, and recall her to reserved listlessness again.

It must be quite unusual for a 19th century novel to have a working class heroine as its main protagonist. I am intrigued as to what contemporary readers thought.

Hardy is highlighting the complete lack of control or agency that Tess (or any woman) has over her life. Also the incredible hypocrisy and double-standards of the time – Angel cannot forgive Tess for not being innocent despite confessing a prior entanglement. There is a lot of tramping about the country side (Tess walks 15 miles to the vicarage at Eminister and back again in one day), descriptions of lush dairy country and harsh upland country. Country customs and conversations plus the usual Hardy pre-occupation with villages losing their tradespeople as life leases end.

 

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The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Have you ever had one of those days, weeks, months when everything is hard work? That’s where I am right now – hence the lack of posts. Books are being read and enjoyed, but the ability to sit down and write about them seems beyond me and then by the time I do find the motivation I have forgotten most of what I thought in the first place.

Anyway, The Scarlet Letter has always been one of those books I thought I should read, but somehow never got around to it. My historical book group chose it and I was quite pleased to be finally forced to read it. It was quite hard to find a copy I think I eventually got one from the book depository (I like the penguin editions because I can read the introduction and get a better idea about the book).

Here is the blurb …

Set in the harsh Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, this tale of an adulterous entanglement that results in an illegitimate birth reveals Nathaniel Hawthorne’s concerns with the tension between the public and the private selves. Publicly disgraced and ostracized, Hester Prynne draws on her inner strength and certainty of spirit to emerge as the first true heroine of American fiction. Arthur Dimmesdale, trapped by the rules of society, stands as a classic study of a self divided.

And here is the link to Wikipdeia.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect the story (or at least the plot) is very much part of popular culture – I even watched Easy A, but the writing and style were an unknown quantity.

I hated the first section, about working in the Customs House, but once the story got going I was hooked. I was amazed at how modern it felt – Hester was a woman born out of time she wanted the freedom to live her life on her own terms. Dimmesdale just annoyed me – a dithering coward who couldn’t face up to the consequences of his actions and allowed Hester to bear the ‘shame’ alone. It really highlighted for me the tyrannical effect religion can have on some people. And the effect strict, joyless communities can have on the individual members of the group – not a lot of christian charity going on.

I think this is well worth reading – you just need to push on past the Custom House chapter (although I believe some editions don’t have that chapter, so maybe find one of those).

Here is an article from The Atlantic.

 

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Scenes of a Clerical Life – George Eliot

Scenes of a Clerical Life - George Eliot

Scenes of a Clerical Life – George Eliot

I’ve read Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch and would describe myself as a George Eliot fan. However, I must admit I struggled with this one. Scenes of Early Death would be a more descriptive title. It is three longish short stories (or maybe novellas) in one novel all featuring clergymen.

Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia

The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton

The titular character is the new curate of the parish church of Shepperton, a village near Milby. A pious man, but “sadly unsuited to the practice of his profession”,[19] Barton attempts to ensure that his congregation remains firmly within the care of the Church of England. His stipend is inadequate, and he relies on the hard work of Milly, his wife, to help keep the family. Barton is new to the village and subscribes to unpopular religious ideas; not all of the congregation accept him, but he feels that it is especially important to imbue them with what he sees as orthodox Christian views.

Barton and Milly become acquainted with Countess Caroline Czerlaski. When the Countess’ brother, with whom she lives, gets engaged to be married to her maid, she leaves home in protest. Barton and his wife accept the Countess into their home, much to the disapproval of the congregation, who assume her to be his mistress. The Countess becomes a burden on the already stretched family, accepting their hospitality and contributing little herself. With Milly pregnant and ill, the children’s nurse convinces the Countess to leave.

Milly dies following the premature birth of her baby (who also dies) and Barton is plunged into sadness at the loss. Barton’s parishioners, who were so unsympathetic to him as their minister, support him and his family in their grief: “There were men and women standing in that churchyard who had bandied vulgar jests about their pastor, and who had lightly charged him with sin, but now, when they saw him following the coffin, pale and haggard, he was consecrated anew by his great sorrow, and they looked at him with respectful pity”. Just as Barton is beginning to come to terms with Milly’s death, he get more bad news: the vicar, Mr. Carpe, will be taking over at Shepperton church. Barton is given six-months notice to leave. He has no choice but to comply, but is disheartened, having at last won the sympathies of the parishioners. Barton believes that the request was unfair, knowing that the vicar’s brother-in-law is in search of a new parish in which to work. However, he resigns himself to the move and at length obtains a living in a distant manufacturing town.

The story concludes twenty years later with Barton at his wife’s grave with one of his daughters: Patty. In the intervening years much has changed for Barton; his children have grown up and gone their separate ways. His son Richard is particularly mentioned as having shown talent as an engineer. Patty remains with her father.

Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story

The second work in Scenes of Clerical Life is entitled “Mr. Gilfil’s Love-Story” and concerns the life of a clergyman named Maynard Gilfil. We are introduced to Mr Gilfil in his capacity as the vicar of Shepperton, ‘thirty years ago’ (presumably the late 1820s) but the central part of the story begins in June 1788 and concerns his youth, his experiences as chaplain at Cheverel Manor and his love for Caterina Sarti. Caterina, known to the family as ‘Tina’, is an Italian orphan and the ward of Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, who took her into their care following the death of her father. In 1788 she is companion to Lady Cheverel and a talented amateur singer.[20]

Arbury Hall, where Eliot’s father was estate manager, and the model for Cheverel Manor[21]

Gilfil’s love for Tina is not reciprocated; she is infatuated with Captain Anthony Wybrow, nephew and heir of Sir Christopher Cheverel. Sir Christopher intends Wybrow to marry a Miss Beatrice Assher, the daughter of a former sweetheart of his, and that Tina will marry Gilfil. Wybrow, aware of and compliant to his uncle’s intentions, nonetheless continues to flirt with Tina, causing her to fall deeply in love with him. This continues until Wybrow goes to Bath in order to press his suit to Miss Assher. He is then invited to the Asshers’ home, and afterwards returns to Cheverel Manor, bringing with him Miss Assher and her mother. Wybrow dies unexpectedly. Gilfil, finding a knife on Tina, fears that she has killed him, but the cause of death is in fact a pre-existing heart complaint. Tina runs away, and Gilfil and Sir Christopher fear that she has committed suicide. However, a former employee of Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel returns to the manor to inform them that Tina has taken refuge with him and his wife. Gilfil seeks her out, helps her recover and marries her. It is hoped that marriage and motherhood, combined with Gilfil’s love for her, which she now reciprocates, will endue her with a new zest for life. However, she dies in childbirth soon afterwards,[22] leaving the curate to live out the rest of his life alone and die a lonely man.[3][20]

 Janet’s Repentance

Janet’s Repentance is the only story in Scenes of Clerical Life set in the town of Milby itself. Following the appointment of Reverend Mr Tryan to the chapel of ease at Paddiford Common, Milby is deeply divided by religious strife. One party, headed by the lawyer Robert Dempster, vigorously supports the old curate, Mr Crewe; the other is equally biased in favour of the newcomer. Edgar Tryan is an evangelical, and his opponents consider him to be no better than a dissenter. Opposition is based variously in doctrinal disagreement and on a suspicion of cant and hypocrisy on the part of Mr Tryan; in Dempster’s wife, Janet, however, it stems from an affection for Mr Crewe and his wife, and the feeling that it is unkind to subject them to so much stress in their declining years. She supports her husband in a malicious campaign against Mr Tryan, despite the fact that Dempster is frequently drunkenly abusive to her, which drives her to drink in turn. One night her husband turns her out of the house; she takes refuge with a neighbour, and, remembering an encounter with Mr Tryan at the sickbed of one of his flock, where she was struck by an air of suffering and compassion about him, asks he might come to see her. He encourages her in her struggle against her dependence on alcohol and her religious conversion. Shortly afterwards Robert Dempster is thrown from his gig and seriously injured. Upon discovering what has happened, Janet, forgiving him, returns to her home and nurses him through the subsequent illness until he dies a few weeks later. Tryan continues to guide Janet toward redemption and self-sufficiency following the death of her husband. She, in turn, persuades him to move out of his inhospitable accommodation and into a house that she has inherited. It is hinted that a romantic relationship might subsequently develop between the two. His selfless devotion to his needy parishioners has taken his toll on his health, however, and he succumbs to consumption and dies young.

There is a lot of religion in this novel (I guess I shouldn’t be surprised with a title like Scenes of a Clerical life) particularly in the final story Janet’s Repentance. I think a modern secular audience would struggle with the ideology. I was surprised to read in the introduction (to the Penguin edition) that George Eliot was herself an Atheist.

There are beautiful descriptions of scenery and the characters and dialogue are spectacular. The world of Milby and its environs seems very real – the characters leap of the page (I’m sure we recognise some of our acquaintances or ourselves). There is a bit of authorial intrusion, which I found annoying and a bit patronising. For example, here is the start of Chapter Five of  The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton.

The Rev. Amos Barton, whose sad fortunes I have undertaken to relate, was, you perceive, in no respect an ideal or exceptional character; and perhaps I am doing a bold thing to bespeak your sympathy on behalf of a man who was so very far from remarkable,—a man whose virtues were not heroic, and who had no undetected crime within his breast; who had not the slightest mystery hanging about him, but was palpably and unmistakably commonplace; who was not even in love, but had had that complaint favourably many years ago. ‘An utterly uninteresting character!’ I think I hear a lady reader exclaim—Mrs. Farthingale, for example, who prefers the ideal in fiction; to whom tragedy means ermine tippets, adultery, and murder; and comedy, the adventures of some personage who is quite a ‘character’.

But, my dear madam, it is so very large a majority of your fellow-countrymen that are of this insignificant stamp. At least eighty out of a hundred of your adult male fellow-Britons returned in the last census are neither extraordinarily silly, nor extraordinarily wicked, nor extraordinarily wise; their eyes are neither deep and liquid with sentiment, nor sparkling with suppressed witticisms; they have probably had no hairbreadth escapes or thrilling adventures; their brains are certainly not pregnant with genius, and their passions have not manifested themselves at all after the fashion of a volcano. They are simply men of complexions more or less muddy, whose conversation is more or less bald and disjointed. Yet these commonplace people—many of them—bear a conscience, and have felt the sublime prompting to do the painful right; they have their unspoken sorrows, and their sacred joys; their hearts have perhaps gone out towards their first-born, and they have mourned over the irreclaimable dead. Nay, is there not a pathos in their very insignificance—in our comparison of their dim and narrow existence with the glorious possibilities of that human nature which they share?

Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones. In that case, I should have no fear of your not caring to know what farther befell the Rev. Amos Barton, or of your thinking the homely details I have to tell at all beneath your attention. As it is, you can, if you please, decline to pursue my story farther; and you will easily find reading more to your taste, since I learn from the newspapers that many remarkable novels, full of striking situations, thrilling incidents, and eloquent writing, have appeared only within the last season.

 However, I can see a progression from these stories (her first) to Middlemarch.

More reviews …

http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/classrev/clerical.htm

http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/2009/08/61-scenes-from-clerical-life-by-george.html

Here is a letter Dickens wrote to Eliot on reading Scenes of a Clerical Life

http://theamericanreader.com/18-january-1858-charles-dickens-to-george-eliot/

 

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe

For book club last month we read The Help. As I had already read it, it was decided I should read Uncle Tom’s Cabin instead.

You can find a plot overview here.

I found this novel to be very confronting. Obviously the treatment of the slaves is appalling, but the narrator clearly feels superior to the slaves. The fact that it appears to be unintentional just makes it worse. There is a lot of talk about their child like, simple ways. I know we’re not meant to judge with modern eyes behaviour from the past, but I am surprised there is not more outrage about this novel.

It is very Victorian in style. What I mean by that is long sentences, lots of authorial intrusion and lots of description. Some sections even reminded me of L M Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame) particularly the bits about Eva. Montgomery wrote after Harriet Beecher Stowe and I do wonder if she had read and been influenced by Uncle Tom’s Cabin (must look it up in the journals).

However, having said all of that, I did think the structure of the novel was clever. There appears to be examples of the different types of slave owners; kind but still prepared to sell their slaves, generous and taking steps to free his slaves, but dying prematurely and leaving them to their fates as chattels and mean – treating his slaves as stock. One extremely disturbing point was the slave owner who ‘farmed’ his slaves – breeding slave children that he could raise and sell. I guess that is the logical conclusion of owning someone, but it is repellent.

I was also surprised by the amount of religion in the novel. Both sides used religion to bolster their arguments and Uncle Tom was a Jesus figure.

I can see how this novel would have galvanised the anti-slavery movement and I am glad that I have read it, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it and I will think carefully about to whom I recommend it.

More reviews …

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/books/review/book-review-mightier-than-the-sword-by-david-s-reynolds.html?pagewanted=all

Here is a whole page of contemporary reviews …

http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/reviews/rehp.html

 

 

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Notes from an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

A friend recommended this book to me at least a year ago. I picked it up a couple of times in various different book stores, but wasn’t that interested. Then I saw it in my local $5 book store and picked up a copy. In the way these things go, I really enjoyed it and I am sure I shall read more of his work.

Here is the blurb …

The new novel from the bestselling Patrick Gale tells the story of artist Rachel Kelly, whose life has been a sacrifice to both her extraordinary art and her debilitating manic depression. When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies painting obsessively in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind an extraordinary and acclaimed body of work — but she also leaves a legacy of secrets and emotional damage it will take months to unravel. A wondrous, monstrous creature, she exerts a power that outlives her. To her children she is both curse and blessing, though they all in one way or another reap her whirlwind, inheriting her waywardness, her power of loving — and her demons! Only their father’s Quaker gifts of stillness and resilience give them any chance of withstanding her destructive influence and the suspicion that they came a poor second to the creation of her art. The reader becomes a detective, piecing together the clues of a life — as artist, lover, mother, wife and patient — which takes them from contemporary Penzance to 1960s Toronto to St Ives in the 1970s. What emerges is a story of enduring love, and of a family which weathers tragedy, mental illness and the intolerable strain of living with genius. Patrick Gale’s latest novel shines with intelligence, humour and tenderness.

I really enjoyed the slow (and sometime misleading) unfolding of Rachel’s story. The writing was beautiful. The characters were all sympathetically portrayed – even Rachel who was really a bit of a monster. This novel examines the fine line between creativity and madness and also what happens to families  when the creative genius is a mother? She is absent when she is creating and when she is not creating she is fighting her inner demons.

Here are some other reviews …

http://booksinstacks.blogspot.com/2011/03/notes-from-exhibition-patrick-gale.html 

http://kirstenjane.wordpress.com/2007/10/19/notes-from-an-exhibition-patrick-gale/

http://www.26books.com/2008/06/cathys-book-13-notes-from-an-exhibition-by-patrick-gale/

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There Should be More Dancing – Rosalie Ham

I bought this novel based solely on the title – there should be more dancing, don’t you think? I have read and enjoyed Summer at Mount Hope, so that might have made me more receptive to buy a book knowing nothing at all about it. Rosalie Ham is Australian and this novel is definitely Australian. It reminded me at times of the movie The Castle – there were some laugh out loud Australian humour, so international readers beware.

Here is the blurb …

Margery Blandon has led an upright, principled life guided by the wisdom of desktop calendars. What went wrong? Margery suspects her that her first born, Walter, has betrayed her. Her second son, Morris, might have committed a crime, and her only daughter is almost certainly trying to kill her. Then there’s Pat, her life-long neighbour and enemy – now demented – who possibly knows the truth about everything. Should she throw herself from the 43rd floor, or should she abandon everything she believes and embrace her enemy for the sake of what’s right?.

 I loved this novel, the characters are superb. Margery with her cross stitch aphorisms (mostly taken from desktop calendars), her strict routine (roast chicken every Sunday) and her willful blindness to people and events around her. Then there is Walter, the Brunswick Bull, who has never been quite the same since the last fight. Judith, Margery’s daughter, with her mobile beauty business and her determination to finally possess her mother’s pearls. This was a joyful book about a difficult subject; aging. Her children want her to move into a nursing home, so they can sell the house and have the cash. She wants to stay there and if she moved who would tie Mrs Parsons’ shoe laces? There is also a bit of a mystery about Margery’s husband (who blew himself up – and the pub – by smoking too close to his oxygen tank) and Pat (who has dementia) seems to know what it is. And is her second son really managing a hotel overseas? I suspect Margery knows everything, but doesn’t really want to admit she does.

This novel is about families – the relationships between family members, what is due to family and the lies we tell one another for whatever reason. Although it has funny moments, there is an undercurrent of sadness to this novel. Margery, after a life of disappointment, is finally living how she wants and old age, infirmity and greedy relations might steal it all away.

More reviews …

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/confessions-of-a-not-so-merry-widow/story-e6frg8nf-1226079889071

http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/the-age-of-enlightenment-20110922-1klsd.html 

 

 

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Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann

This was a random choice by my book club. Someone had it, but hadn’t read it yet, but was keen to read it. That was enough – a bit of enthusiasm and we will all jump on board.

Here’s the blurb …

In the dawning light of the late summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. . . . It is August, 1974, and a tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter-mile in the sky. In the streets below, ordinary lives become extraordinary as award-winning novelist Colum McCann crafts this stunningly realized portrait of a city and its people.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among prostitutes in the Bronx. A group of mothers, gathered in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn the sons who died in Vietnam, discovers how much divides them even in their grief. Further uptown, Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenaged daughter, determined not only to take care of her ‘babies’ but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful novel comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the tightrope walker’s ‘artistic crime of the century.’

McCann uses the 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center as a way of linking his characters (a bit of a six degrees of separation thing). This is another novel with many (and varied) narrative voices – eleven (I drew a chart). These narrators cover a large spectrum of humanity; a prostitute (she’s 38 and a grand mother), the judge who sentences her, mothers who have lost their children in Vietnam, a man who compulsively photographs graffiti in the subway tunnels and a computer nerd. McCann is fabulous at bringing these voices to life – I particularly admired Tillie (the prostitute).

Hooking was born in me. That’s no exaggeration. I never wanted no square job. I lived right across from the stroll on Prospect Avenue and East Thirty-first. From my bedroom window I could see the girls work. They wore red high heels and hair combed high.

In 1974 none of the characters appeared to be happy, but choices were made and lives changed and the next generation seemed to be on the path to happiness. Tillie’s grandchildren did not become prostitutes (breaking a family tradition). This novel is about balancing, between playing it safe and being risky, making a connection with others or being alone and it is also about picking up the pieces and getting on with life.

I’m glad that I read this novel – although I struggled with the first section (the bit narrated by Ciaran) and I’m not sure I will be reading it again in a hurry. I admire the characterisation and the sense of place created by Mr McCann.

Another review …

http://rippleeffects.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/let-the-great-world-spin-how-not-to-judge-a-book-by-its-cover/ 

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Elegies for the Broken Hearted – Christie Hodgen


I read about this novel on a book blog, but I can not remember which one and google searching hasn’t enlightened me.

This novel consists of five elegies. In each one the narrator is talking to the character describing their lives and her interaction with them. It is an interesting structure like, but also different from, connected short stories. This method allows Hodgen to reveal things about the narrator (Mary).

Here is the blurb …

A savvy, spirited, moving, and surprisingly humorous novel in elegies. A skirt-chasing, car-racing uncle with whiskey breath and a three-day beard. A ‘walking joke, a sitting duck, a fish in a barrel’ named Elwood LePoer. A dirt-poor college roommate who conceals an unbearable secret. A failed piano prodigy lost in middle age. A beautiful mother haunted by her once-great aspirations.

In Elegies for the Brokenhearted, Mary Murphy tells her own story as she paints lively portraits of the people with whom she’s crossed paths. Having weathered her mother’s erratic movement among homes and multiple husbands, the absence of her runaway sister, and a discouraging search for purpose, Mary’s reflection on her own path intertwines with the histories of the people she’s loved and lost. With a rhythmically unique voice and distinctive wry humor, Christie Hodgen builds an unconventional narrative about the difficult search for identity, belonging, and family.

These are all sad, defeated and damaged people. Except for Elwood, but even his life appears sad to an outsider. As the narrator says

We were a family of bad citizens. Drunk drivers and tax evaders, people who parked in handicapped spaces and failed to return shopping carts to their collection stands.

Despite sounding depressing (after all we know sone of the characters are dead) this book is ultimately uplifting as the narrator finally determines what constitutes family – and it’s not blood …

What joined two people together wasn’t always exciting. The cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, the maintenance of the home and car, all the mundane things you never wanted to be bothered with – this I believed, was what bound people together.

The characters are beautifully written. I found each of their stories compelling and I was desperate to know how Mary reconciled herself to her life and her family (such as it was).

Here are some other reviews …

http://feministreview.blogspot.com/2010/06/elegies-for-brokenhearted.html

http://bookreview.mostlyfiction.com/2011/elegies-for-the-broken-hearted-by-christie-hodgen/

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A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

20110727-025753.jpg

I selected this book for book club after reading a review in the Weekend Australian. I liked it. It has different points of view – the structure is quite intriguing ranging from first person to third person there is even an amazing chapter in second person. The time period changes as well from the near past, to the present, to the near future (where the environment has suffered – solar panels in the desert, etc.)

Here is the blurb …

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

I would say this novel is a series of interconnected short stories. Although it is more than that – the characters grow, change and adapt, the writing technique alters with each chapter (including one chapter that is consists of power point slides) and then there is the inner lives of the extremely diverse characters – who would have thought that an attempted rape could be so hilarious? And the idea of a suicide rock tour?

The goon in the title is time and all of the characters have certainly been visited by time. I enjoyed the different stages of people’s lives – it seems like one part is going to last for ever and before you know it you’re at a different point with different people and then that changes and your some where else again.

For me this novel was also about appearances and spin. With just the right hat you can make a war criminal look benevolent. By using ‘parrots’ you can create enthusiasm for a musician (he must be good if all of these seemingly independent people say he is).

This might all sound quite chaotic and although I think this book deserves a second reading, it all comes together quite convincingly. From the experience of my book club, it would appear that different readers take different things away.

Some where in my ‘to be read’ pile is The Keep (also by Egan), which I look forward to reading soon.

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The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

After having enjoyed Freedomthis one was a must read. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Freedom – the characters weren’t as appealing – although I did get the same sense of an America not normally described in novels.

Here is the blurb …

After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson’s disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man-or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.

Franzen has the ability to write from quite varying viewpoints; from Enid wilfully refusing to acknowledge her husband’s descent into madness (if only he would do his exercises he would be OK), to Chip who seems determined to destroy every opportunity that comes his way, and Alfred in his madness (which from Alfred’s point of view seems to make sense). This creates sympathy for a cast of characters and I was interested in their ‘trials and tribulations’.

The narrative shifts around in both time and view point allowing the story to unfold slowly – a technique that seems to be quite popular of late Maggie O’Farrell did something similar in The Hand That First Held Mine. I like it. I like having my opinions about particular characters challenged when I read their version of events.

More …

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Corrections 

http://takingleadnow.blogspot.com/2011/07/musings-on-jonathan-franzens-bulky-but.html

 http://exlibrisamie.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/corrections-franzen/

 



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