Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Book of Memory

The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

Memory is in prison for murder.  She is the only woman on death row in the Harare prison, and her lawyer has asked her to write down everything, to be sent to an advocate in America, in hopes of getting an appeal.  So Memory writes for her life, starting with the day her parents sold her to a white man when she was nine years old -- the same man she is in prison for murdering.  But even Memory does not know the whole story of her life.

It's a really good novel, and Memory's account is full of fascination.  She jumps back and forth, talking about her childhood with her family, as an albino child in a slum, then to life in the Harare prison, then to her adolescence in Lloyd's care, where she was given an excellent education but had little explained to her.  She keeps coming back to the same questions: why did Lloyd buy her?  Why did her family give her away? and does not expect ever to know.

Good stuff.  I recommend it.

PS This book is, of course, for Zimbabwe in the Read All Around the World project, and it's also book #11 in my original list of 20 Books for Summer.  

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Go-Between

The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley

The first line will be familiar to all: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Leo, now well into his 50s, opens up a box of memories and tells the story of the summer of 1900, when he turned 13.  It was first a sort of awakening, and then a life-changing trauma.  As Leo remembers his lost innocence, he also wonders whatever became of the people involved...

Leo goes to stay at a country house with a much wealthier school friend, and since Marcus' older sister is engaged to the local baronet, there is a constant social whirl around her.  She enlists Leo as a messenger in her secret romance, and it all ends in disaster.

This is a really famous novel, considered a classic of the 20th century, but it mostly did not enchant me.  Its exploration of the emotional and mental life of a young teen boy did not reel me in.  It was fine, but I did not love it, and I was ready to be done well before it was over.  My final opinion is meh.  Sorry, L. B. Hartley.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Marie Grubbe

Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen

This post is about a 19th-century Danish novel you've almost certainly never heard of.  But stick around till the end for a real surprise...

J. P. Jacobsen is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but he was quite important in European literature.  I studied his more famous second novel, Niels Lyhne, in college, and re-read it a few years ago.  In that post, I gave a little background, and here it is again for your convenience:
 ...a major classic of the late 19th century -- for literary middle-Europeans interested in Romanticism and Naturalism.  Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke considered it to be among the greatest of novels.  Henrik Ibsen and Stefan Zweig cited Jacobsen as an influence.  Both Zweig and James Joyce even wanted to learn Danish so they could read this novel in the original!  But J. P. Jacobsen remained obscure in the English-speaking literary world, and Niels Lyhne was not translated into English until 1919, forty years after it was published in 1880.
Jacobsen's first novel was Marie Grubbe, published in 1876, and it too made something of a splash.  It's historical fiction about a real person; the actual Marie Grubbe was a 17th-century noblewoman (she lived 1643–1718).  Jacobsen begins his story with Marie as a young teenager, where she develops a huge crush on the old king's dashing son, Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve, but he dies and she is soon married off to the new king's dashing son, Ulrik Frederik Gyldenløve.  This works for about a year.  Ulrik Frederik becomes viceroy of Norway, but Marie is miserable.  After a divorce, her father marries her off to a neighboring landowner, Palle Dyre, and that is miserable too, but she meets Søren, a stablehand on the property, and falls in love with him, although at this point she is over forty and he is about half her age.  Marie and Søren marry and live in dire poverty.  She is finally happy, but this comes at the cost of her downfall; having started off a lovely, delicate lady of the court, she has been defeated, and has descended through degradation into a gross sensuality.

It's not all that easy to keep track of the characters -- there are two kings, each with illegitimate sons, and they mostly seem to be named Ulrik, a name I have always disliked -- and there's a handy foreword to help, explaining that illegitimate sons of Danish kings were always given the surname of Gyldenløve, which means 'golden lion.' 

I wasn't gripped by the novel; whatever Rilke and Joyce and Zweig saw in it, I did not.  It was fine, but I did not love it.  I would read Niels Lyhne again, but I doubt I will bother much with Marie in the future.  Clearly I'm a Philistine.

Now for the really wild part.  Marie Grubbe was translated into English in 1917, and although some few English literary types loved it, it remained pretty obscure and was practically unknown in America.  Except for one remarkable exception: a copy made the rounds among Harlem Renaissance writers, and Zora Neale Hurston read it.  Then she used the framework -- a woman marrying three times, only finding happiness with the third, seemingly inappropriate, husband and a life of poverty --  for her amazing novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I only read for the first time back in February).

That was pretty surprising to me, and I wanted to know more.  I tracked down an academic paper on it,* and read up a bit.  It seems Hurston didn't love Jacobsen's treatment of Marie, and wanted to write the story her own way, with 'Marie' undefeated.  And good for her, I say!  I liked that novel much more.

As far as blogging goes, just call me Ms. Procrastinator.  But hey, I finished a quilt top, got a kid's wisdom teeth taken out (and was driven nearly mad by the recovery) and painted a bedroom.  Now I'm very much not looking forward to the start of school.  I have to do this paperwork, and there's shopping stuff, and they have to pack lunches every day.  Homeschooling was easier.  But!  Before that, we're going to go see the solar eclipse.  Have you got eclipse plans?? 

* Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen's Marie Grubbe
Author(s): Jon Woodson
Source: African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 619-635

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

Jenny reviewed this book a while ago and I was intrigued enough to get it from the library, though I was not sure I would like it.  I'm still not sure whether I liked it!

In an alternate Victorian London, telegraph clerk Thaniel Steepleton* has a mysterious gold watch show up in his lodgings.  Six months later, the watch saves him from an Irish bomb.  The bombing is not very interesting, but the watch is; where did it come from?  Thaniel finds Keita Mori, a Japanese watchmaker with some fairly stunning inventions and something odd about him.  Much of the story is dedicated to figuring out just what Mori's mystery is, and what it means.

We also have Grace, who wants to be a physicist but is hemmed in by family demands that she marry.  I found her to be an awkward character; I don't love where she fits into the story, I don't know why she is at Oxford, despising classicists, when Cambridge is where the science is at and also they accepted women students first, and could she really get a chair in either location?  It's interesting that she's after proving the existence of aether, which may actually exist in this version of the universe, but otherwise she does bizarre things.  

It's almost steampunk, but the clockwork is too pretty.  I kind of liked this novel, and I was also frequently annoyed by it.  I am distinctly ambivalent about the whole thing, including the cover, which I want to love but which may just be too much.  And that might be how I feel about the story too.

If you've read this, let's argue about Grace in the comments!

*Thaniel?  Dude, really?  He even apologizes for it in the story, but that is not enough.