Saturday, August 27, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

In high school, we were assigned Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. I loved it so much I read more. However, so many years have passed, I don’t remember much about any of his novels. So I decided to re-read Hardy for the back-to-the-classics challenge. Although I intended to re-read The Return of the Native, when it came down to it I picked up Tess of the d’Urbervilles instead.

This is a painfully beautiful story of a woman wronged in every conceivable way. I wish I could remember my response to it when I was a teen, because I imagine I see it differently now. Or maybe not.

Tess is the ideal perfect woman. The daughter of uneducated, poverty-stricken, adverse-to-the-idea-of-work farmers, Tess is intelligent, industrious, and strikingly beautiful. Her father is a drunkard who, unfortunately, is told that he is a descendent of the noble d’Urberville line. In order to achieve the wealth and respect he believes he’s entitled to, he tasks his daughter with presenting herself to a rich woman a few towns away whose name is d’Urberville. He’s sure the woman will set them up in style, just because.

Tess is more sensible than her parents, but unable to disobey them. She goes to the home of the d’Urbervilles where she meets the wastrel son, Alec. He gives her a job taking care of the chickens, then pursues her relentlessly. She rebuffs him time and again. However, eventually she is caught off guard and raped.

Tess flees home and has a baby who does not survive. Although she is now a ruined woman, she nevertheless manages to find a job as a milkmaid in a different town. She is as pure at heart as she ever was and all her coworkers are fond of her. There she catches the eye of Angel Clare, a studious young man, son of a parson, who is learning how to be a farmer. He is captivated by her innocence and beauty.

The two fall in love. Angel proposes marriage. Tess resists as long as she can, feeling unworthy of Angel. However, his persistence wears her down. They are wed. But on their first night together, she confesses her past. Horrified, Angel rejects her.

For the remainder of the story, Tess tries to make her own way without Angel. Her living situation goes from bad to worse. She is essentially the only bread-winner for her family and they are no more sensible than they ever were. Through various twists of fate, Alec d’Urberville finds his way back into her life. By the time Angel recognizes the error of his ways, it’s too late.

The story is old-fashioned, but also challenges the social conventions of the time. Tess is a fallen woman and believes herself to be unworthy of Angel’s love, but the reader can’t help but feel indignant for Tess and infuriated at the men in her life–none of whom deserve her. Although a modern reader can feel impatient with Tess’s tendency to let people treat her as a doormat, in the bigger picture one has to see that she’s trapped by her circumstances. None of this is her fault. And that’s what makes this story so tragic. Tess deserves better, but there were no good options in her life.

I have more of Hardy’s work on my shelf, and will have to make time to re-read more of his books now that I’ve reacquainted myself with what a marvelous a writer Hardy is.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Infinities by John Banville

Occasionally, I’ll look through the books on my local library’s recommended list and generally end up requesting one that looks interesting even if it isn’t my usual fare.

The Infinities by John Banville falls into that category. At the center of the novel is the dying patriarch of a dysfunctional family: Adam Godley. Adam is a famed theoretical mathematician, a man who stood on end the conventional wisdom about mathematics. However, we don’t get much insight into his brilliance; we have to take that as a given. By the time we meet Adam, he has had a stroke and is essentially non-communicative. Readers do get to glimpse inside his head where his life is flashing before his eyes– only to discover a surprisingly mundane life.

Gathered around his bedside, awaiting his demise, are his second wife and his children. His wife, Ursula, is a timid woman who drinks too much and has never earned the love or respect of her stepchildren. Adam’s son is a rather dull man who has managed, somehow, to marry a beautiful actress. His daughter, Petra, is withdrawn and maladapted to the world. She has a suitor, an unpleasant young man who wants to write Adam’s biography and uses Petra to gain entrance to the household. Yet no one is under any illusions about his interest in Petra.

As a deathbed vigil story, there isn’t much to the novel. The relationships are superficial and the characters are more interested in themselves than each other. Despite Adam’s supposed contributions to mathematics, he hasn’t touched the world very deeply.

The saving grace of the novel is the narrator/observer, Hermes. The ancient Greek gods are still around and occasionally still dabble in the human world. Zeus primarily pops down to earth to chase skirts. Pan makes mischief. Hermes actually cares about people and hangs around to clean up the messes. Hermes also philosophizes about why the gods envy humans and what a burden immortality is.

This is an interesting concept for a novel, but the execution is somewhat weak. It’s fairly short and an easy read, but despite its lofty themes, it’s a forgettable story. If you are, for some reason, looking for a gather-around-the-deathbed novel, I’d recommend The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy instead.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Buddenbrooks. The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann

I was just on a vacation with a long car ride, so I took along one of my back-to-the-classics challenge books. My classic in translation (a particularly lengthy choice) was Buddenbrooks. The Decline of a Family, by Thomas Mann.

Thomas Mann is a brilliant German writer from the early twentieth century. Buddenbrooks is his first novel, first published in 1901 (when he was 26!). This novel is reported to be largely responsible for Mann’s Nobel Prize in literature. (See my long-ago review for Joseph and His Brothers, probably the best book I have ever read.)

Set in the 1800s in a German city near Hamburg, the novel follows four generations in the Buddenbrooks family. At one time prosperous grain merchants, the intertwined "firm" and family members are unable to maintain their success in the face of changing economic opportunities and personal/familial difficulties. There is no single crisis or poor decision that leads to the decline of the Buddenbrooks, but rather a slow accumulation of miscalculations and bad luck. Not every member of the Buddenbrooks family is blessed with good health and strong business acumen, so the fact that the firm is so closely tied with the family means that when one suffers, the other does as well. Their little victories provide episodes of pleasure and hope–the things that make life bearable–but there is a tinge of pathos even to the victories, because they are so fleeting.

Although this is a long novel, filled with day-to-day anecdotes of the daily life of the wealthy merchant class, it reads quickly. The characters in the novel are aware of the larger picture–the historical events taking place in their lifetimes– but they are only peripherally affected by them. Events are discussed but not experienced, which itself is an interesting commentary on small-city bourgeois society. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, and commercial enterprise form the narrative of the novel. Religion is a balm for some, but dismissed by others, giving it an ambiguous significance. The lovers of the arts–music and poetry in particular– are seen as odd, even exotic, creatures who have little of actual value to contribute. And yet, the novel demonstrates how illusory and unreliable is the supposed stability of mercantile success.

The novel’s greatness (aside from extraordinary writing that shines through translation) lies with the characters, sympathetic even when not particularly likeable. They are very real, three-dimensional people. Their errors are understandable. We root for their small triumphs even while seeing that, in the big picture, small triumphs only postpone the inevitable. It’s a tragic story even if the consequences are not far-reaching or historic. The intimacy of the tragedy makes it even sadder.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Secrets of Wishtide

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

If you like cozy mysteries, I recommend The Secrets of Wishtide, book one in the A Laetitia Rodd Mystery series by Kate Saunders.

Set in Victorian London and surrounding villages, the novel is rich in details of daily life. The detective is a grieving middle-aged curate’s widow who has settled into a life of genteel near- poverty after her husband’s unexpected death. She has family she could turn to for support, a devoted younger brother who is a celebrated criminal defense lawyer, but he has a large brood and an extravagant wife, and Laetitia decides she’d rather find a way to fend for herself. Fortunately, she finds a place to let in the home of a sensible, intelligent widow who lives in a less fashionable district. The two women become fast friends.

More to the point, Laetitia finds a source of income–performing investigations of suspicious activities at the request of her brother. Just on time (Laetitia’s financials are at a strained point), her brother has need of her for a particularly delicate case. A wealthy, powerful politician/businessman is furious because his only son, a young man of great promise, has fallen in love with an impoverished governess. Ostensibly a widow and curate’s daughter, the woman is somewhat older than the son. The politician is certain there is dirt in her past and he wants it dug up to discredit the woman, discreetly, before his son throws his life away and drags the family name through the mud.

Laetitia is willing to investigate the woman’s past, but with the understanding that she will be scrupulously honest. If there’s no dirt to be found, she won’t be party to putting obstacles in the way of the couple.

It turns out there is plenty of dirt to go around. And someone out there is willing to commit murder to keep the secrets secret.

There are enough curves in the road and misdirections to keep the reader guessing. Laetitia’s no-nonsense approach to investigating makes her a likeable protagonist. Her sympathy for the people she comes across, from all walks of life, make it credible that she can get suspects to open up to her.

This is not historical mystery romance in the fashion of many historical mystery series. Laetitia is grieving the loss of the love of her life. There is a stick-to-the-facts police detective, himself an older widower, who is both Laetitia’s nemesis and her nosing-about partner. The respect and kindness between them is refreshing. Even if their methodologies differ, their goals are the same and they don’t get in one another’s way. Perhaps a romance is in the future, but there is no rush to get there.

Often in book one of a mystery series, the author has to establish credibility for an amateur sleuth. Why is it that a librarian or school teacher is so much better at solving mysteries than a trained detective? (Made up examples, I’m not referring to any particular books.) Sometimes the set-up is well done and perfectly believable. Other times, the plotting is somewhat strained. Saunders has taken an interesting tack in presenting Laetitia Rodd. Throughout the novel, she refers to past cases that she has helped to solve. She and the professional detective are already acquainted and he is already aware of her skill, even if he prefers to do his own investigations his own way. And her cases are provided by her lawyer-brother. It’s not as though she’s hung out a shingle. In this novel, this approach works. I had to double check to be sure that I wasn’t jumping into the middle of a series– God forbid. This was, for me, a rather unique way to be introduced to a new detective, giving her already established credentials, and she proved to be every bit as effective as her fictional reputation. I look forward to more from Mrs. Rodd.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I thought I would keep going with the Back-to-the-Classics challenge. My twentieth century pick was Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve read The Great Gatsby (and seen the movie) and, while I can see why it is considered such a great book, I was a bit let down by it. The story didn’t draw me in as I expected given the book’s reputation. I wanted to read something else by Fitzgerald to see if it was just the story or if maybe I’m just not so much of a Fitzgerald fan.

Well, I’m a Fitzgerald fan.

I was completely captivated by Tender is the Night. This is the story of Dick Diver, his wife Nicole, and the people that swim in and out of their orbit. Dick was, at one time, a psychologist of great promise. Now, he is a gregarious charmer who escorts his wealthy wife around Europe. While vacationing in the Riviera, they meet a teenage American movie starlet, Rosemary, who is traveling with her mother. Rosemary falls in love with Dick. There is a hint of something amiss between the "perfect couple," but whether their marriage is solid or not is of no concern to Rosemary. She knows what she wants. Dick loves his wife, but he loves the attention of the young starlet even more.

At first, the characters seem shallow and rather dull, but the writing is so beautiful I had to keep reading. Then the action slips into a flashback to show us who Dick and Nicole really are.

Dick met Nicole at an asylum in Switzerland. Although he was one of her doctors, and against the strong advice of his peers, he fell in love with and married her. He understood he would forever be doctor and husband both. But Nicole was not only exceptionally beautiful, she was an heiress with ungodly sums of money. Dick tried fighting against the feeling of being bought and owned by Nicole’s family who were simply glad to have someone to look after her. But as time and circumstances wore on, the relationship fell apart under the strains. Dick wanted to work; instead, he entertained. He loved his wife, but he needed the adoration of other pretty females.

The novel is a rather unflinching look at the difficulties inherent in a relationship where one partner is mentally ill. It also is pretty unsparing in portraying the consequences of the ethical lapse of a psychologist becoming intimately involved with a patient. But it isn’t quite so simple. Fitzgerald manages to make the characters so multidimensional and so realistic, that they can’t be pigeonholed and "fault" is impossible to assign.

The book is tragic and Dick’s deterioration, inevitable as it becomes, is painful to watch. Fitzgerald drew inspiration from his own life and the people in it, which may be why the emotions come across so vividly. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s truly a masterpiece.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Christmas

I was in the mood for something that would be light, amusing, and gentle on the psyche. There’s too much craziness going on just now and I needed to escape into a fictional world that would soothe: just enough conflict to keep it interesting, but nothing to get worked up over, and something I could read with complete confidence that things would be all right in the end.

I knew just what to choose: the next book in Patrick Taylor’s Irish Country series. Having read the first two books, An Irish Country Doctor and An Irish Country Village, I knew I could count on this author to deliver.

The fact that book three is An Irish Country Christmas made checking it out of the library feel a bit silly. Who reads a Christmas book on a 90-degree day in July? But I wasn’t about to read the series out of order. This novel could possibly be read as a standalone, but I recommend starting with book one.

It’s simple to slip back into the small Irish town of Ballybucklebo and catch up with the main characters, Dr. Fingal O’Reilly and Dr. Barry Laverty. The whole town is preparing for the annual Christmas pageant and traditional parties. It’s all so convivial–even the bad guys from previous novels are softer around the holidays–that Barry grows more and more enamored of the small Irish town, and readers will too.

There are a few wrinkles. First, there is a new physician in the town next door, who seems intent on poaching patients. O’Reilly knows the man from medical school days, and the two have never gotten along, but that’s no reason to go on the attack. The real concern is that he is luring patients away with bizarre cure-alls that both our heroes worry may be dangerous.

In addition, the two Ballybucklebo physicians are distracted by their love lives. O’Reilly, an older widower who never expected to fall in love again, is challenged by the reappearance of an old girlfriend, the confident, competent, beautiful nurse, Kitty O’Hallorhan. She makes her interest known and he has to decide if he’s ready to open his heart once more. As for Laverty, the love of his life, Patricia Spence, is away in the big city, beginning her engineering studies. Although the plan had been to come to Ballybucklebo for Christmas, Patricia keeps putting Barry off with excuses he isn’t quite buying. She assures him there is no other man in the picture, but he worries that if it’s not another man, it’s the allure of city living. If that’s what she wants, she won’t find it in Ballybucklebo. And Laverty, despite being a decent guy, is having a hard time keeping his eye from roving. If she isn’t going to come home, is it time for him to look elsewhere?

The villagers remain entertaining with their good hearts and eccentricities. O’Reilly still governs them all, and Laverty’s knowledge of the community continues to expand. The series has not lost its charm. I know the next time I need a feel-good read, book 4 will be waiting.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

I’m closing in on or finished with all my challenges except the Back-to-the-Classics challenge. I always particularly enjoy picking the books for this challenge, then drag my feet getting around to them. So, I decided before I read anything else, I had to finish one of my classics.

I went with The Living is Easy by Dorothy West for my classic by a non-white author. West, daughter of an ex-slave, wrote this novel during the 1940s. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance. I fully expected to be moved by this book.

The story follows the life of Cleo Jericho Judson. Cleo was born in the south, the eldest of four girls, to a sharecropper. She moved north, married a wealthy business man, and set about deceiving him and treating him poorly in her quest to socially climb among the black families of good name in Boston. She devotes the bulk of her time to weaseling money out of him, the rest to lying to family and acquaintances in the hopes of personal gain.

As soon as she is able to con her husband into moving into a larger house in a better neighborhood, she lies about the situations of her sisters, and gets him to send them money to come visit. Cleo’s sisters have settled in various places, marrying men they love. They aren’t wealthy. They aren’t moving up in the world. But they are loved and content. Cleo sets out to change all that.

She manages, by hook or by crook, to ruin her sisters’ marriages. Each has brought a child along to Cleo’s house, and she arranges their lives as well, forcing them to become little Bostonians. Cleo has also arranged the life of her daughter’s tutor, an impoverished young woman whose father, from one of the oldest established families, had gone bankrupt and died. Cleo is a master manipulator whose need to be admired is pathologic. She craves control. Eventually, she bleeds her husband dry. (That’s not entirely her fault. WWI has started, affecting his shipments of bananas. And the consolidation of grocery stores squeezes out independents. But one gets the sense he might have done better if not supporting all Cleo’s sisters and nieces and nephew–as well as the insatiably money-hungry Cleo.) Although she treated him like dirt, she realizes how dependent she is on him. The loss of his unconditional support is devastating. Or should have been. But even at rock-bottom, Cleo has no real insight. She is still weaseling money from people and looking for who to exploit next.

This well-drawn portrait of a narcissistic sociopath is surprisingly dull to read. There is social commentary and portrayals of racism (largely intra-community racism as the lighter skinned among them are more admired, and they get to look down on those who are darker, or those more recently come up from the south.) With good writing and themes that are unusual and uncomfortable, this should have been more compelling. Yet the story manages to be both unpleasant in its revelations and tedious. Only towards the end does the pace pick up, because the reader will be more than ready for Cleo’s chickens to come home to roost. Unfortunately, that means the good and the weak people in the novel are dragged down with her. While I tried to find an underlying insecurity in Cleo, or some reason to excuse her or empathize, in the end there was no justification for her utter selfishness.

Maybe it’s just that I didn’t need to be reading such a pessimistic book about such an awful person when there is so much horrible stuff going on in the real world just now. It was a struggle to get through. But at least I can now check off one more book on the challenge.