Review: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

This is one of those books I suspect “everybody” has read by now, as it won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was made into a popular movie in 2002.  Well, I hadn’t read it yet, despite running into it nearly every time I entered a used bookshop.  Now that situation has been remedied, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed the experience.

The Hours uses Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway as a jumping-off point, and chronicles a single day in the life of three women:  Woolf, during the period in which she wrote the novel, Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife smitten with the novel, and Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed “Mrs Dalloway,” who is preparing to host a party for a dear friend on a summer day in the late 1990s.

I read Mrs Dalloway several years ago, and recall being underwhelmed.  It was my introduction to Woolf and her writing requires special attention.  I’ve since come to appreciate her work; and found myself nodding in agreement as Laura Brown experiences the novel for the first time:

How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that — who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that — come to kill herself? What in the world is wrong with people? Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book and lays it on the nightstand. … At least, she thinks, she does not read mysteries or romances. (p. 41)

The day unfolds through chapters about the three women in turn.  Clarissa goes out to buy flowers for the party (much as Clarissa did in the novel), Laura makes a birthday cake for her husband, Virginia struggles to get a few sentences down on paper while staring down her depression.  Cunningham writes delightful prose, making even the most ordinary activities exquisite and sensual:

Guiding Richie’s hands with her own, she helps him dip the cup into the flour. The cup goes in easily, and through its thin wall he can feel the silkiness and slight grit of the sifted flour. a tiny cloud rises in the cup’s wake. Mother and son bring it up again, heaped with flour. Flour cascades down the silver sides. Laura tells the boy to hold the cup steady, which he nervously manages to do, and with one quick gesture she dismisses the grainy little heap on top and creates a flawless white surface exactly level with the lip of the cup. He continues holding the cup with both hands.  (p. 77)

As the day proceeds, we come to know each woman better.  Laura feels confined by her lifestyle, but guilty because she “should” love being a good wife and mother.  Clarissa is a perfectionist about the party, but also tremendously insecure about her life and relationships.  As for Virginia, Cunningham shows us signs of the mental illness that eventually leads to her suicide.  Knowing what’s in store for her makes her sections of the novel all the more poignant.

The lives of these three women become intertwined in a surprising way, which actually made me gasp.  And now, after reading The Hours I want to re-read Mrs Dalloway.  If you haven’t read either book yet, I recommend reading them concurrently; each would enrich the other.


The Sunday Salon: Middlemarch, Book IV (Three Love Problems)

I’m now about halfway through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and a fine Victorian novel it is.  This weekend was originally the scheduled date for Team Middlemarch discussion, but various events required dovegreyreader to defer discussion until late August.  Well, I know all about life interfering with reading plans, so that’s no problem, but I figured I’d better set down a few thoughts on Book IV now, before it’s a distant memory.

I was intrigued by the title of this book — Three Love Problems — and hoped for a bit of high romance.  That’s not what I found, but I still enjoyed the interwoven tales of Eliot’s varied characters.  The book opens with Featherstone’s funeral, and the reading of his will.  There were surprises right off the bat as we learned of a distant relative, and poor Fred Vincy did not come into the inheritance he’d hoped for.  This is all the more tragic, since we know Featherstone destroyed another version of his will just before his death, a version which might have been of greater benefit to Fred.  Not only does Fred now have to choose a profession (shock! horror!  working for a living!), but his diminished prospects could also affect his sister Rosamond’s prospects for marriage.  However, she remains steadfastly committed to Tertius Lydgate, and they accelerate their marriage plans.

Meanwhile, Casaubon is becoming increasingly grumpy with Dorothea.  He blames her for the arrival of his cousin, Will Ladislaw, when in truth Dorothea’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, invited him.  Will’s attraction to Dorothea is obvious to all but her, and Casaubon can hardly contain his jealousy.  Dorothea is blissfully unaware, and advocates for Will to inherit Casaubon’s wealth.  You can imagine how that went over.  Meanwhile, Casaubon asks Lydgate to give him the straight story about his health, which did nothing to improve his mood.  Things are quite strained in the Casaubon household these days.

I’m finding it useful to consult Spark Notes at the end of each book.  This is partly because of the group read’s slow pace. I read about a chapter a week, 10 chapters in all, and by the time I finished some of the early details had slipped my mind.  Also, Eliot explores a number of social issues, which the Spark Notes explain very well:  the dependence of women on men, the rise of industrialization, the rise of the middle class.  Reading up on these topics has provided much more insight to what Eliot was trying to do with this novel.

Book V, The Dead Hand, is about the same length as Book IV.  I will probably hold off on starting it until after the Book IV Team Middlemarch discussion so as not to get too far ahead of the group.  For the curious, here are my impressions of the earlier parts of this book:


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Review: None to Accompany Me, by Nadine Gordimer

Set in barely post-apartheid South Africa, this is primarily the story of Vera Stark, who has spent her career working for a legal foundation as an advocate for housing rights.  Her longevity makes her an unofficial executive director, and she commands tremendous respect.  While Vera and her work are at the center of this book, it is also a moving portrait of two marriages.  Vera is a strong woman, and fiercely independent.  Her husband Ben needs her more than she needs him.  Vera’s past figures heavily in her present, and in her relationship with Ben.  Vera and Ben have very liberal views about race, and are long-time friends with a black South African couple, Sibongile (Sally) and Didymus Maqoma.  Sally and Didy have only recently returned from exile, and in a surprise turn of events Sally is elected to an important post, and Didy finds himself on the sidelines.

Several threads run concurrently through this book.  One of Vera’s black colleagues, Oupa, shows the reader a different layer of black society from that of Didy and Sally, and presents one of the more moving parts of the novel.  Vera and Ben’s adult children have relationships and challenges of their own, and intersect with the parents’ lives in interesting ways.  Sally and Didy’s daughter Mpho is a teenager, causing her parents angst as she comes of age.  And then there’s Vera and Ben, whose relationship appears unshakable, but is actually threatened by a number of forces.

Nadine Gordimer also has a lot to say about the political structure taking shape in her country at the time of publication (1994), and its effect on everyday people.  I suspect there were nuances in the text that went completely over my head.  Deeper knowledge would have helped me appreciate the political context underpinning this study of characters and relationships.

Review: Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

Dark Fire is the second in the Matthew Shardlake mystery series.  Shardlake, a lawyer, is capable enough to be occasionally retained by Thomas Cromwell, but his work also takes him to the darker, poorer areas of London.  In this book he’s juggling two such disparate cases.  First, he’s called in to defend Elizabeth Wentworth, a young woman accused of murdering her cousin Ralph by throwing him down a well.  Elizabeth refuses to speak to anyone, behavior which can only lead to a guilty verdict and death.  The court wants to deal with the case quickly — after all, there are hundreds more waiting.  But Cromwell needs Shardlake on another case, and uses his power to buy time for Elizabeth.

Cromwell’s case is by far the more interesting of the two, and concerns a mysterious substance capable of generating intense, destructive fire.  Known as Greek Fire or Dark Fire, the substance could be an important weapon in the King’s quest for power.  Cromwell is under pressure to stage a demonstration for King Henry VIII.  Dark Fire is known to be available in limited quantity, but its properties are not well understood, and the formula has been stolen.  Cromwell offers Jack Barak as an assistant to Shardlake, and the two set off to learn as much as they can about the origins of Dark Fire and the people currently controlling its use in London.  Shardlake finds himself moving in new, influential circles, as a guest at banquets hosted by the aristocratic Lady Honour.  Unlike most people, who see his hunchback as evidence of inferiority, Honour treats him with respect.  The banquets give Shardlake the opportunity to observe others who are influential in the case, including Cromwell’s rival, the Duke of Norfolk.

This being a murder mystery, it’s not too long before bodies start dropping right and left.  The plot is quite tangled, and it’s difficult to tell who’s on the side of good vs. evil.  Meanwhile, Shardlake continues to stay connected to Elizabeth’s case.  There are a few leads to follow up on, and some surprise developments. Thankfully progress is glacial, because he really has his hands full chasing down Dark Fire.  Along the way, C. J. Sansom provides the reader with rich detail that brings 16th-century London to life.  The summer heat exacerbated odors associated with human habitation; women held bouquets of posies close to their faces to mask the smell.  Sanitation techniques were primitive: at one point Lady Honour casually warned an attendant to “watch out for that turd,” and I realized this was probably a fairly common occurrence (ewww…!).  I also enjoyed the book’s historic context (summer of 1540 … Thomas Cromwell … anyone?), and the way everyday murder and mayhem touched the controversies of King Henry VIII’s court.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, by Anthony Powell

I approached the fourth movement of A Dance to the Music of Time with mixed emotions.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three volumes (rating each 4-5 stars), I was ready for more of the same.  But I was also a bit sad to be coming to the end of the series, knowing I would have to leave Nick Jenkins and many, many other interesting characters behind.  And things started off pretty well.  The first novella, Books do Furnish a Room, was set in the post-war period, with Nick entering his forties.  On a return visit to his university, he realizes:

The probability was that even without cosmic upheaval some kind of reshuffle has to take place halfway through life, a proposition borne out by the autobiographies arriving thick and fast — three or four at a time at regular intervals — for my review in one of the weeklies.  … their narrative supporting, on the whole, evidence already noticeably piling up, that friends, if required at all in the manner of the past, must largely be reassembled at about this milestone. The changeover might improve consistency, even quality, but certainly lost in intimacy; anyway that peculiar kind of intimacy that is consoling when you are young, though probably too vulnerable to withstand the ever increasing self-regard of later years.  (p. 3)

Reading these opening pages prompted reflection on the past decade of my life, having just left my forties this year.  I found I could relate to Nick in a different way than before.  Books do Furnish a Room brought new characters into the dance, along with familiar faces like Kenneth Widmerpool, who was introduced in the very first novella and has reappeared in unusual situations, usually when you would least expect it.

Unfortunately, Anthony Powell wrote two more novellas after Books do Furnish a Room.  I found them a slog.  Reading Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies was a lot like watching a favorite television series that has gone past its prime.  The dance metaphor failed to work as well, mostly because so many important characters were lost in the war.  Powell brought in new characters Nick supposedly knew twenty years before, but being unknown to the reader these encounters lacked spark.  In addition, Powell’s writing was strongest in the earlier books, which covered the 1920s through 1940s.  In Hearing Secret Harmonies, published in 1975 and set in the 1960s, Powell comes across as a crotchety old man who couldn’t understand what those crazy hippie kids were up to.  The plot became outlandish, I lost interest, and the last book became a forced march to the finish.

However, when I step back and think about the twelve novellas in their entirety, this is an amazing body of work depicting a specific slice of England in an enormously readable and enjoyable way.

My reviews of the other books in A Dance to the Music of Time:

Midweek @ Musings: Middlemarch, Book III (Waiting for Death)

It’s almost time for dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch discussion of Book III, Waiting for Death.  Doesn’t that title sound ominous? Well, we certainly are waiting for the death of a certain elderly gentleman, since his estate may benefit others we have come to know.  But there’s much more going on in these 100 pages, and several lives hang in the balance.  Young Fred Vincy got himself hopelessly in debt, and permanently damaged a relationship by borrowing money he could not repay.  Then he was struck with typhoid fever, and I thought OK, that’s the death we’re waiting for then.  But no, Dr. Tertius Lydgate saved the day by correcting the first diagnosis and making sure Fred received proper treatment. Whew!  Fred lived to see another day.

Then Lydgate continued to prove his medical superiority in attending to Edward Casaubon, who suffered a heart attack shortly after returning from his honeymoon with Dorothea.  Lydgate advised Casaubon to take it very easy, but chose not to share the severity of his condition.  Instead, he told Dorothea that Edward’s heart condition will kill him someday.  Pretty tough news for our young bride, especially when it’s expected she will keep a brave face and pretend everything is fine.  So are we waiting for Casaubon’s death then?

Will Ladislaw made a brief appearance from offstage, sending letters describing plans to visit his uncle (Casaubon).  I suspect future entanglement between Ladislaw and Dorothea, but George Eliot has so far kept that at bay.  Dorothea asked her father to reply to Ladislaw’s letters, expecting him to warn off Ladislaw due to Casaubon’s poor health.  But her father offers him accommodation at his place instead!  Now was that a tactical error on Dorothea’s part, or will she be happy to see Ladislaw?

Meanwhile, Dorothea’s sister has become engaged to Sir James Chettam.  Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy are seen together often enough to spark widespread gossip about their possible engagement.

Oh, and that death we were waiting for?  It was the elderly gentlemen after all, and not at all unexpected, but he does give a dramatic performance on his deathbed, so it was worth the wait. 🙂

I have high hopes for Book IV, Three Love Problems, because of its spicier title and all the groundwork laid in Waiting for Death.  Like Book III, the next book is a bit over 100 pages spread out over 10 chapters.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to approach this.  With Book III, I decided to read a segment each time I finished one of my other books.  But I found I left too much time between Middlemarch reading sessions.  Each time I sat down to read, I had to flip back a few pages to reconnect with the story.  For Book IV, I’m going to set a weekly goal of (pages or chapters), and make sure I stick to it.  We’ll see how it works.

Just for the record, here are my impressions of the earlier parts of this book:

Review: The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

Americans had become a force of awful geology, changing the face of the earth more than ‘the combined activities of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, and all the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.’ (p. 127)

In the 1930s, the American prairie was repeatedly subjected to dust storms: huge clouds of dirt that moved across the land.  The storms made roads impassable, filled homes with dust, suffocated livestock, and infiltrated people’s lungs.  Many died from what was called “dust pneumonia.”  This was initially thought to be a freak of nature, a rare meteorological happening.  But as the storms pummeled the plains day after day, the government commissioned experts to investigate.  They soon learned the storms were the result of human behavior going back to the turn of the century.

The explorer Stephen Long wrote about the Great Plains, “I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”  Nevertheless, after the US government ousted the Native Americans from their lands, a syndicate sought to make a buck by offering cheap land and promises of prosperity.  They distributed attractive brochures across the eastern part of the country, and to immigrants at major entry points.  The people came, and they farmed.  But agricultural success was short-lived.  Extensive farming and over-plowing, coupled with drought, weakened the soil system and sent it blowing up into the air.  As the dust storms became a daily occurrence, along came the Depression, and by 1940 the Great Plains were a very different place indeed.

Timothy Egan tells the story of the dust bowl through the lives of those who survived life on the plains during that time.  These survivors were still living, and his direct access resulted in a vivid, realistic, and very human portrait of this period in American history.  His accounts of dust storms are real page turners — narrative non-fiction at its best.  Egan had access to historical records too, of course.  Don Hartwell’s diary was one of the most moving parts of this book, recounting the decline of his farm, his livelihood, and his community in spare sentences, like these from 1939:

Feb. 5

I have felt lost lately — not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn’t ‘got’ anything, there is not much he can do.

July 10

The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blaze killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase ‘There’s no place like Nebraska’ wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don’t have to die to go to hell.

Sept 18

There are no dances here anymore — nothing but silence, emptiness, ‘respectability.’

It’s positively heart-breaking, and with growing concern about climate change today, I couldn’t help but wonder if humankind is heading down a similar path.  Have we learned from past mistakes?  It gives one pause.

The Sunday Salon: A Victorian Reading Party aka Middlemarch, Book II

Well, I’ve caught up with dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch readalong, and this weekend we are discussing Book II, Old and Young.

Middlemarch is a novel about ordinary people, living ordinary lives in 19th-century England. Book I revolved around Dorothea Brooke, who married Edward Casaubon, an older man she admired for his intellect.  And you just know that isn’t going to go well.  But this potential downer isn’t far from the only storyline in this rich novel.  We also met a myriad of characters that I’m sure will figure into all of this somehow.  Well, it whetted my appetite, that’s for sure.

Book II begins with Dorothea nowhere to be found (actually she’s off on her honeymoon in Rome).  Instead the camera zooms in on Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor recently arrived in Middlemarch bent on reforming medical treatment. Lydgate is the classic outsider who, much like the reader, observes Middlemarch and its inhabitants from the sidelines. He falls for Rosamund Vincy, a young and beautiful woman, but he doesn’t want to marry for several years. It appears he may be unintentionally leading Rosamund on. Then there’s a big flap over election of a hospital chaplain. Nicholas Bulstrode, a powerful banker, wants to replace the current chaplain with a man of his choosing. He pressures Lydgate to vote for his man. I liked Lydgate, but I found all this power-mongering a bit tedious, and was glad when the story moved on.

Well, no surprise here, Dorothea is already disappointed with married life.  Casaubon has proven to be a boring intellectual with no emotional depth, just as anyone paying attention could have told her:

How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?

Dorothea had hoped to be a partner in creating his life’s scholarly work, The Key to All Mythologies, but Casaubon does not recognize her abilities, nor does he detect her emotional ups and downs. Casaubon’s cousin Will Ladislaw runs into the couple while in Rome; it’s evident he despises Casaubon and is sympathetic to Dorothea. Ladislaw is an artist, and couldn’t be more different from Casaubon. The seeds are sown for a deeper relationship between Dorothea and Will … what will Book III bring?

Eliot brings delightful subtle humor to the text.  Casaubon is indeed a bore, and I’m sympathetic to Dorothea, but it’s hard to take his work seriously.  His endless research and fact-checking, the little details squirreled away for the mammoth book that somehow never quite takes shape.  Even its pompous title, The Key to All Mythologies, made me laugh.  We’ve all known someone like this, haven’t we?

I’m happy to be following the traditional Victorian approach to reading Middlemarch.  It was first published in installments, and likewise the Team Middlemarch readalong will spread the novel out over the rest of the year.  To a modern reader, the language requires a certain level of concentration until you get immersed in the story. Reading in short sittings was ideal. Each book is further subdivided into chapters, perhaps about 10 pages each.  I found it easy to knock out a chapter or two at a time. Prolonged reading sessions didn’t work so well, as I kept losing focus.

As much as I enjoy playing the Victorian in my reading, there’s a decidedly 21st-century activity happening in parallel: the BBC dramatization is streaming into my family room, courtesy of Netflix.  The first episode lined up nicely with Books I & II, and I really enjoyed it.  Released in 1994, it features Robert Hardy and Rufus Sewell, two actors I’ve enjoyed in lots of other programs.  I’ll definitely watch the rest of the series, but I’m adhering strictly to a “read it first” rule.

At this point my Kindle tells me I’m 26% into this book (or 243 pages).  I need to read 11 chapters (100 pages) in time to discuss Book III (Waiting for Death), on May 19/20.  That’s doable!


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Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

At the age of 7, Lily and Snow Flower became laotong, or “old sames,” a Chinese practice which established their lifelong relationship as kindred sisters.  They were matched based on their birth date and other characteristics.  Snow Flower was from a “better” family, and the match was expected to improve Lily’s marriage prospects. Snow Flower visited Lily’s family every few months.  They experienced life’s milestones together: from foot-binding to menstruation, through arranged marriages, childbirth, and child-rearing.  Their friendship was deep, and endured despite many challenges and hardships.  They recorded life events on a fan, given to them at the beginning of their laotong, and sent back and forth between them over the years.

Lily & Snow Flower’s story was rich with details of 19th-century Chinese culture with its very traditional — even oppressive — treatment of women.  Female relationships, like  laotong and the concept of “sworn sisters,” made life bearable.  Women established their own community, their own rituals, and even their own language, and this became the source of their strength.  I really enjoyed learning about this period in history.

In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lily tells their story from the vantage point of old age, with all the significant characters now dead.  As a narrative technique, this worked well: it allowed her to speak freely about relationships with her parents, her in-laws, her husband, and of course, Snow Flower.  But she was also too kind to herself, and early in her life, I often wondered how Lily was viewed by those around her.  Some of this is revealed in later chapters as the central conflict is presented.  As readers we see Lily’s mistakes, we see how she fails to own up to them, and we see the impact on her laotong.  But we also see how truth is revealed to her, and we experience the healing power of forgiveness.  This is a lovely book about essential women’s friendships, and the characters will live on in my thoughts for a long time.

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

These days, human society faces increasingly complex food choices: low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, organic, etc.  What does “cage-free” or “free range” mean?  Which alternatives are better for you?  And where does your food come from, anyway?  In this book, Michael Pollan set out to trace three basic food chains: the industrial, the pastoral alternative, and the old-fashioned hunter-gatherer.  Along the way, he made some important discoveries about our food supply, most notably the consequences of oversimplifying nature’s principles in pursuit of industrial efficiency.

Written in an engaging, narrative style, the reader follows Pollan as he traces a steer from birth to plate and discusses the surprisingly pervasive role of corn in our food supply.  He then travels to an innovative farm, managed as a complex ecosystem producing meat for local consumption. Finally, he treks into the forest to hunt game and gather wild mushrooms.  Each of these adventures is described with a balance of personal experience and primary research.  Somehow it makes it all more digestible (pardon the pun) to read the facts and figures even as we learn that Pollan didn’t like waking up early, and often overslept.  But despite this being a very accessible read, it had a tendency to stray into personal memoir.  Towards the end, I began to lose interest.  In part, I just didn’t want to read about hunting with a firearm.  But I also didn’t enjoy Pollan’s navel-gazing about the experience, nor did I really care about Pollan as “foodie,” preparing a special meal for friends.  That’s why this book earned only three stars from me.

And yet. Pollan’s message is incredibly important.  Pollan writes, “Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.”  (p. 84)  I chose a vegetarian diet four years ago, because I am unwilling to play a personal role in the slaughter of animals for food, I prefer not to contribute to the environmental impact of the fossil fuels used in industrial meat production & transportation, and I could no longer look at supermarket meat without a keen awareness of what it once was, and the path it took to get there.  I respect each person’s right to make their own decision in this regard, and highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma as essential reading to understand where our food comes from, examine your values around food production, and begin to make choices aligned with those values.

On a related note, visit Marie @ The Boston Bibliophile, and read her excellent review of Fast Food Nation.