Friday, February 9, 2018

January 2018 Reading

I miss doing a monthly summary of all that I've read so I thought I would try it again.  We'll see how long this lasts.

Here's what I read in January:

The Medicus Mystery Series by Ruth Downie.  I spent the early part of the New Year catching up on all the Ruth Downie Medicus mysteries.  About  year ago I read her first book in the series, simply entitled Medicus.  Since I am a big fan of Lindsey Davis' Roman mysteries I thought I might like it.  I did, but it took me a while to get back to them.  Finally I loaded up on the rest of them through the beginning of January and filled the very cold nights reading away.  There are now seven published novels with the eighth coming this year.  Although they are Roman, most of the action takes place in Brittania where Gaius Petreius Ruso is a doctor to the Roman legions.  Ruso is from the south of Gaul (France) and has joined up to make some money to pay off the debts left by his deceased father and to escape his ex-wife. Two of the books move out of Brittania, one into Gaul and one into Rome, but Downie constantly returns her hero to Brittania, specifically the area up near the border with Sccotland where the "barbarians" live.  Hadrian is building his wall during this time.  Her books seem well researched, her main character is appealing, the other characters are interesting and  it is a time period I'm interested in.  She does particularly well writing a male character that thinks the way women assume that men think (I have no idea of course if they really think that way.)  She also allows him all the prejudices of his time and doesn't make him perfect.  While I think I like the Lindsey Davis books a bit better, this is a good series and I'll continue to read it as books come out.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Eagan. I'm not sure what to say about this.  Full disclosure, I wasn't wild about A Visit From the Goon Squad.  I liked this novel better.  It kept my interest through most of the story.  She created a very believable world.  The story includes graphic descriptions of what it was like to go down in a diving suit during WWII that I found difficult to read because they made me claustrophobic.  There was an entire section set on a merchant marine ship that I found fascinating.  But it felt like she didn't know how to end it so, she just ended it.  And a key part of the story is how one character avoids sure death - and I found it completely unbelievable.  All in all, I think Jennifer Egan is just not for me.

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett.  This was a re-read.  Lots of people I follow on Twitter are reading this series so I decided to re-read it.  I'll probably write about the whole series when I finish the re-read (and there are eight novels).  Dunnett is one of my favorite authors.  I read this novel when it first came out and then re-read it before every succeeding novel in the series came out.  But I didn't re-read it after the end of the last novel and I find myself interpreting the story in light of what ultimately happens to all the characters eight novels from now.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy

Two families are on a cruise down the coast of Central America.  They meet a family from Argentina on board.  As with most cruises, the ship puts in to port most days and there are options for excursions.  One day the mothers and kids decide to go zip lining in Costa Rica (although the country is never named) while the fathers go to play golf.  Disaster ensues. 

I have little tolerance for "children are in danger - and the parents are full of angst" novels because I mostly think it is a cheap trick to keep the reader turning the pages.  And this is that kind of novel.  So, if you like that kind of thing you might like this for a beach read.  If you don't, don't bother. 

A few thoughts.

There are six children ranging in age from about 5 to teenager.  Two are white, two are bi-racial and two are Argentinian.  All of these kids are wealthy.  There are also two other Latino children who become involved, both of whom are poor.  It was never completely clear to me why Meloy decided to create a bi-racial couple with children but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was so she could have bad things happen to the Latino children (but not the white children) and still have a defense that this wasn't racist.  But the fact is, the only kids to whom physically bad things happen are not the American kids.  This really bothered me.

A particularly bad thing happens to the 14 year old Argentinian girl.  Not a particularly surprising thing, given the circumstances; but a bad thing.  This kind of bad thing is never the victim's fault although people often blame the victim.  Meloy does pretty much everything to make it seem like it was her fault.  

The happy ending for one of the kids was resolved so easily with no apparent complications, which I found completely unbelievable.   Maybe that's just because we're living in an age of such intense anti-immigration feeling.  But I think it was unbelievable even before the last year. 

A person I know who writes mystery novels once said that all the best novels rely on coincidences that aren't noticed.   I was distracted by all the coincidences in this novel. 

Finally, if you've ever read A High Wind in Jamaica you don't need to read this novel.   It was better and you've pretty much already been spoiled for plot twists. She isn't trying to pass anything off here; the book opens with a quote from that novel.  But basically this is a retelling of that story. It may be that Hughes' novel worked better for me because it mostly told the story about the children and didn't dwell on the psychological angst of the parents. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

House of Names by Colm Toibin

When I was a small child my father worked as a textbook editor at McGraw-Hill.  One of the perks of his job was that he could bring home samples of children's textbooks.  Programmed reading was the rage at the time: children working at their own pace, teaching themselves to read and checking their own work. My sisters and I had an entire set of programmed readers. 

The last, and most difficult, of the programmed readers drew on the Greek myths for their stories. These were the books that I read over and over.  As I grew older, I would search my public library branch for more stories of the ancient Greeks.  One of my favorites was a young adult novel, its name long-ago forgotten, about the Trojan War.  That book led me on a search for more stories of the men and women who populate the tales of the Trojan War:  Priam, Helen, Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Agamemnon.  Eventually I read the Iliad and the Odyssey.  And over the years I've seen productions of Greek tragedies and operas based on them.

I've never, as an adult, found a novel based on Greek myths or tales, especially tales related to the Trojan War, that has swept me away in the same way that I was swept away to ancient Greece as a child. But I always have hope. 

House of Names by Colm Toibin, is a retelling of the story of the fall of the House of Atreus.  As the story goes, Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greek armies during the ten-year long Trojan war, returns home after the fall of Troy and his wife, Clytemnestra, murders him.  In his bath.  It was beyond his comprehension, apparently, that she would be nursing a bitter rage toward him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to the gods at the start of the war to insure favorable winds for the fleet.  The murder of their father of course screws with the minds of their remaining two children:  daughter Electra and son Orestes. Orestes, who stays away for years, eventually returns and murders his mother to avenge his father. 

Toibin retells this story from the point of view of Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes, the novel being divided into parts that take the point of view of one specific character.  For the women, he takes a first person perspective.  For Orestes he takes a third person omniscient perspective.  The women are, of course, unreliable narrators although they are sure of their own perspectives.  We are no more sure of the story of Orestes, partly because he is portrayed not only as young but, frankly, as a little simple.

If you are, like me, a person who reads historical novels to be transported to another time and place this is probably not the novel for you.  Toibin's ancient Greece could be anywhere.  There is a lot of telling and not showing.   The story is, of course, horrifying.  His Iphegenia does not go calmly to her murder but struggles and screams.  There is blood and gore.   And the treatment of her mother is horrific.  It is easy to see why Clytemnestra plots revenge.  It also easy to understand how her other children are unable to understand the state of mind of their mother.  Orestes is too young to really understand what is going on and Electra is appalled that their mother would take a conniving cousin of their father's as her lover.  Clytemnestra, as is usual with adults, doesn't take the time to explain her motivations to her children.  And of course, there IS the lover. 

In the stories of ancient Greece the gods influence the actions of humans which is a hard concept for modern people to understand. Toibin dispenses with the problem of the gods by having Clytemnestra reject all religion.  Which is a bit too easy since presumably religion was an important part of life in ancient Greece.  Orestes is too young to worry about the gods and Electra, well Electra is (as usual) the most difficult to relate to whether there are gods or not.  

His style in the first section (Clytemnestra's version of the murder of Iphinegia) is spare, I assume because he is trying to evoke a translation of ancient Greek?  The parts of the story about Orestes are the easiest to read, with the third person style.  But the landscape and peoples he encounters could be ancient Britain or Ireland as much as ancient Greece.  Toibin explains Orestes' long absence by creating a kidnapping situation from which he and two other boys escape.  The other two boys ended up being, for me, far more interesting than Orestes.

One of the more distracting parts of the novel for me was figuring out the passage of time.  The Trojan War lasted 10 years but in this re-telling it feels as if Agamemnon is gone for only a relatively short time.  And there isn't really a reference to the Trojan conflict.  For all any reader of this novel would know, Agamemnon was simply gone on a war of conquest.  There is no mention of the concept that Helen was abducted much less that she existed much less that she was Agamemnon's sister-in-law much less that she was the sister of Clytemnestra.  In the original tales, Orestes is gone a long time, enough time to grow to manhood.   But again, it feels as if he is gone only a few years.   Electra never seems to age in this story. 

But the real problem for my was that, by the end of the novel, I found that I didn't really care what happened to any of them.