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One of my favorite moments as a reader is when a book out-wits me; when I think I know what’s going on and then a twist catches me off-guard. I’m usually pretty good at spotting a twist (my boyfriend makes fun – “wish we could make some money out of it!”) so it’s always a thrill to be surprised.
With Gillespie and I it helped that I went into it without knowing anything about the plot. It helped, but it also made me *this close* to giving up half-way. For a long time the pace felt slow and without direction, but I later realized that was just Harris preparing the ground very carefully.
So no summary from me – it’s up to you how much you’d like to know.
I didn’t completely love Gillespie and I as much as a lot of you out there did. I thought it was very clever and well done. I’m glad I read it and spent some happy hours discussing all the details with friends – it’s the kind of book that demands a post-reading deconstruction. But I wish Harris had been able to pull it off with 100 pages less.
It would also help if the Victorian-speak didn’t feel forced at times, as if the author applied Word’s “Replace All” tool to exchange “house” with “habitation” or “happiness” with “felicity“. Some expressions were really on the border of the ridiculous and I’m now sorry I didn’t write them down. One of then, however, stuck in my mind: someone asks the main character if she’d like something else to eat and she replies “no thank you, I’ve had ample sufficiency“…
Other thoughts: Savidge Reads, Reading Matters, Iris on Books, Reviews by Lola, nomadreader, BookNRound, Sam Still Reading, She Reads Novels, BooksPlease, Vulpes Libris, Buried in Print, Capricious Reader, Secluded Charm, an adventure in reading, A Musing Reviews, The House of the Seven Tails, Cornflower Books, Wordsmithonia Yours?)
I think I’ve read more complex books and if not longer, not much shorter, but there seems to be a whole rite of passage associated with W&P. You feel you must prepare for it like you prepare a camping trip in the wilderness: you decide to do it and carefully plan a route and what to pack.
So from the height of my experience, let me give you some advice for a successful W&P reading:
1) Go to Wikipedia and read a bit on the Napoleonic Wars and the invasion of Russia.
2) Make it a read-along. At first my friend and I decided to make it a year-long project and read only 200 pages a month, but we were so surprised by how easily we were getting along that we sped it up to 400 pages/month. It was really good to have someone to discuss the book with every 15 days or so: it motivated me in the slow bits, made me notice things I’d missed and helped clear most doubts.
3) Read it in a digital format, not only because of the weight, it also helps if you’re able to quickly look-up names and places mentioned on page 43 and that you’ve forgotten by page 967.
W&P‘s story follows the events just before, during and just after the French invasion of Russia, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. We get to know them during the peaceful times and once war strikes the narrative splits into following the men at the front and the lives of those left behind.
For lack of better words: I really liked it. It surprised me how much, really, but I do admit to a prejudice against The Russians. In fact, if it wasn’t for that last third it could have been one of the best of year. Taken by themselves, those last chapters should have been called “Setting the Record Straight” or “How Historians Got it Wrong”.
It might have been Tolstoy’s agenda from the start, but at the end of W&P it became much more obvious that he wanted to myth-bust some of the accepted truths about the Napoleonic invasion. And he has no qualms blaming historians for the misconceptions:
“C’est grand!” say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil but only “grand” and “not grand.”
History (or what is called by that name) (…)
All that strange contradiction now difficult to understand between the facts and the historical accounts only arises because the historians dealing with the matter have written the history of the beautiful words and sentiments of various generals, and not the history of the events.
Yet Napoleon, that greatest of all geniuses, who the historians declare had control of the army, took none of these steps.
Tolstoy’s biggest qualm with the established History as it teaches us that all major changes happen because of the will of great men like Napoleon of Czar Alexander II. He was a firm believer that at what really mattered was the movement of the masses.
To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved.
It’s a great argument, and he presented powerful arguments, but by the end of the book his wish to bring this point home (often in a repetitive way) is done at the cost of the characters he made us care about. At some point the parts about the families become very rare and most pages were filled with long essays on What Really Happened.
Credits: Theresa McCracken, CartoonStock
This being said, it was a great ride to accompany the fortunes and misfortunes of these characters. The balls, the intrigues, the romance, the innocent and the cunning, the hangers-on and the intellectual wanna-bes. It was very easy to imagine the St Petersburg’s salons illuminated by hundreds of candles, or the patriotic fever that possesses the young gentlemen at the front, still romanticizing the idea of fighting for their country and soon to have the reality-check of their lives.
As Claire (The Captive Reader) very well put it,
In Anna Reid’s history of the siege of Leningrad, she mentions that War and Peace was a popular reading choice during the first deadly winter of the siege, when half a million civilians died. I can completely understand why Leningraders, starving, freezing, and watching civilisation disintegrate around them, sought to escape their surroundings with this massive, enthralling novel.
I can also easily understand. There is some extraordinarily compelling about these characters and their lives. Every one of them is so layered that you can never easily tag him or her as the villain of the good guy. What you can’t help is immediately chose a favorite.
In my case (as it happens with almost everyone), Natasha got me at hello. She’s full of life and really stands out among the other, less spontaneous, characters. Natasha seems to live without great concern for what society might think so this is why,
I felt a bit cheated about how we see her at the end, tamed by marriage. Her personality is diluted and she thinks and acts only as she thinks Pierre would wish her to. Am I being too harsh or did I miss Tolstoy’s real intention with this Married Natasha?
* end spoiler*
Another character that fascinated me (and this will probably only make sense to those who read the book) was Helene.
Do you believe there are characters that escape their creators? That become more than what the authors meant for them to be? I always did and Helene is a great example. Tolstoy keeps telling us how stupid she is, but look at her actions: she quickly becomes the leader of one of Moscow’s leading intellectual salons and it’s hard to believe that she did it being as dumb as Tolstoy wants us to believe. To me she’s a very smart social strategist, ambitious and cunning. A great example is,
how she ensured that society would go along with her idea of divorce. She started carefully spreading the idea here and there and then planted it in the mind of her confessor. Brilliant!
* end spoiler*
My friend and I spent a long time discussing the book (and made a bet about who would marry Natasha… I now owe her a package of good tea) so I know there’s a LOT more that could be said, but I’ll stop here. I’m glad I read it and finally understand the fascination of generations with War & Peace. If any book has the right to be called an epic, this is it.
By the way, I read Project Gutenberg‘s edition and was really surprised at the quality of the translation. Highly recommended.
Life has been happening like crazy on this side of the line. Add holidays and heat and pure, unadulterated laziness and you get a blogging slump. It would also be a reading slump if it wasn’t for YA audiobooks and daily newspapers (a holiday tradition and zen moment).
I need a bit of incentive because my spirit breaks just by looking at the two months backlog. Anyone interested in doing a buddy-read or something? Any easy read-alongs going around? Interesting projects?
Meanwhile, and while inspiration doesn’t strike, I’m doing a meme. They’re not usually my thing, but these are desperate times and maybe thinking about the books I’ve planned for the upcoming months will help.
Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR List
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Harris’ The Observations didn’t do much for me, but everyone seems to be raving about Gillespie and I so I’ve decided to give it a try.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
My most anticipated re-read is Tigana, my favorite book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve decided to tackle it in audio format this time around.
Chroniques de Jérusalem by Guy Delisle
All books by Guy Delisle are an instant best-seller here in Brussels, European capital of the graphic novel. I’ve never read anything by him but heard lots about this one, a birthday present from my co-workers.
The King of Attolia (The Queen’s Thief, #3) by Megan Whalen Turner
I’ve recently re-read the first two in the series just so that when I’d pick this one up for the first time everything was fresh. I hear it’s the best one of the series so far?
The Unicorn Hunt (The House of Niccolo, #5) by Dorothy Dunnett
I’m trying to go through The House of Niccolo series reeeeeeally slowly because you only read Dunnet for the first time once. It was a Herculean effort not to lunge for this one right after Scales of Gold and its extraordinary ending. I’ve waited long enough.
Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry
Whenever I don’t have a formed opinion on a certain topic, I Google Fry’s thoughts on it and always find myself nodding in agreement. Moab is My Washpot is an autobiography covering his first 20 years of life. The Fry Chronicles is already in the TBR waiting its turn.
The Mauritius Command(Aubrey/Maturin Book 4) by Patrick O’Brian
Another series I want to make last, although its 21 volumes-long… The previous book, HMS Surprise, is set to become one of the best of 2012.
Mayombe by Pepetela
For Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge, this will be my first by one of Angola’s most famous writers. Everyone I know who reads in Portuguese seems to have read at least one of his books.
She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff by Annalee Newitz & Charlie Anders (Eds.)
To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, on 16 October.
Un día de cólera by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
At the beginning of the year one of my goals was to read more books in their original languages. I’ve done well in Portuguese and French but haven’t picked up anything in Spanish yet. This hour by hour description of 1808′s Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid will put me back on track.
I already loved the earlier two books, but I this one topped them . I only hope I’ll be able to say the same for everyone of the upcoming 18 in the series. I understand now why so many Aubrey/Maturin fans consider this their favorite.
While the other two books in the series were set around Europe, in H.M.S. Surprise we take sail and head for more exotic lands. On a technicality, Aubrey is refused the prize and position promised him in the previous book, which would mean not only freedom from pressing debts, but being able to finally marry Sophie.
He’s eventually offered the captainship of the H.M.S. Surprise, with a condition: deliver the new British envoy to the East Indies, with a stop in India. This is not Jack ideal mission – everyone knows there’s almost no prize to be won in those waters – but there is hope: the possibility to take the ships sent by Napoleon to attack the valuable China Fleet.
The humor, the wit, the tragedy and amazing characterization that made the other two books so wonderful are also in H.M.S. Surprise, but O’Brian stepped up a notch. We already know the characters, so now he can start playing with them, putting them and their relationships to the test.
The fast change between the wider view and the detail that I loved before are also still there, making every sentence fresh and keeping you on your toes with a quick-changing pace. From Jack taking Stephen to see the initials he carved into the Surprise when he was only a midshipman, to the description of an India street, a deadly flash-storm or the details of Diana’s dress – what a delight every scene was.
I’ve read other books set in the sea, and seen many movies about it, but none was better than H.M.S. Surprise at showing me what it was like to be an 18th century sailor packed with hundreds of others in a tiny micro-cosmos. How delicate the balance that makes men obey orders, how volatile the sea around them, what frail creatures humans are with their constant and vital need for food and water! As Stephen Maturin puts it:
So full a ship, so close-packed a world, moving urgently along, surrounded by its own vacuum.
Patrick O’Brian is one of those authors that make me believe they wrote the book with my tastes in mind. His are the descriptions that move me, the romance that feels stronger because it’s about what’s not said, and the style of humor that tickles my little grey cells:
“I beg your pardon,” said Nicolls with an artificial smile. “I am afraid I lost the thread. What were you saying?”
“I was repeating phrases from this little book. It is all I could get, apart from the Fort William grammar, which is in my cabin. It is a phrase-book, and I believe it must have been compiled by a disappointed man: My horse has been eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear; I wish to hire a palanquin; there are no palanquins in this town, sir — all my money has been stolen; I wish to speak to the Collector: the Collector is dead, sir — I have been beaten by evil men. Yet salacious too, poor burning soul: Woman, wilt thou lie with me?”
You gotta love Maturin! It might not look like it at first, but H.M.S. Surprise is also a very moving book, mostly because of the focus on his (internal) life. Maturin’s such a complex character. How very ingenious of O’Brian to let him develop slowly over the series.
Only Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O’Brian have ever make me stop reading, turn to my boyfriend and say “Damn, he’s/she’s good!”
Bellfield Hall first came to my attention through a post by Eva, and now that Summer is in full swing a cozy Georgian mystery felt just the thing.
It’s a locked-room mystery (or in this case a locked-country house), set during a hunting party in the English countryside. The “detectiving” is done by the most inconspicuous of guests, Miss Dido Kent, the spinster aunt of the fiancée of Bellfield Hall’s heir.
Dido knows it’s often useful to be underestimated and she puts this to good use when several mysterious events threaten her niece’s happiness, not the least of them the discovery of an unknown young women’s body on the Hall’s grounds.
The plot is all coziness, but the language feels right for the period and Dido’s sharp intelligence and ironic sense of humor brings in a welcome zest and saves her from Mary Sueness.
Bellfield Hall’s target audience is clearly all the Jane Austen fans out there. It’s unavoidable to make connections, but the ones I made were less with her books and more with Austen’s own life: Dido’s close relationship with another single sister, a handicapped brother who’s raised away from the family, other who’s in the Navy, etc.
I’d also like to thank Anna Dean for producing a mystery that the reader, if observant enough, can solve. I love when this happens and feel incredibly cheated if at the end the detective presents a clue he/she got off-line. I appreciate the challenge of creating a transparent story and at the same time guaranteeing a progressive unraveling and a conclusion that’s not given away too soon.
A book to carry around next to your beach or picnic towel.
It’s because of books like this that I’m Reader with capital R, and why that’s such a big part of what defines me. Dorothy Dunnett is a genius, so once again here I am (as always after reading one of her books), struggling to write a post in which I’ll never be able to do justice to her awe-inspiring work.
Before going into the plot let me just say that Scales of Gold has one of the best, most unexpected and emotional endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I felt those last pages physically - punch-in-stomach, hairs standing up, pupils dilated.
If Dunnett could be see me at that moment I’m sure she’d have a little victorious smirk on her face, because for over 500 pages she expertly and purposely took me along, getting me to feel exactly what she wanted me to feel, think what she wanted me to think, just so the end could turn my world upside-down. Just as she planned from page one (I’m not the only one feeling this, but unlike Stephanie I’m a masochism and loved the gut-wrenching moment). Like I said: genius.
But about the plot. There’s great freshness in reading historical fiction that’s not yet again set in Tudor England or Second World War wherever. Scales of Gold picks up right after our hero Niccolò manages to escape Cyprus. It’s 1464 and he’s about to enter yet another crazy commercial endeavor, this time to the heart of Africa, towards Timbuktu. Were you ever curious about what The Gambia, Guinea and Mali looked, smelt and sounded like in the 15th century? This book is your chance.
Accompanying Niccolò is an entourage of extraordinary characters that include a Flemish missionary who wants to evangelize Ethiopia, a confident and intelligent young woman who blames Niccolò for the death of her sister, her formidable Scottish companion and an ex-slave with a mysterious past.
This unlikely group of companions is led by a crew of experienced Portuguese sailors down the Coast of Africa and into the barely mapped “Dark Continent”. The plot is intricate, the setting is lush, and the succession of adventures kept me on the edge of my seat for hours.
The Discovery Period was an interesting time that encapsulated the best and worst about us: an ode to human spirit and bravery, but it also marked the beginning of globalized slavery and colonialism (the best of times and the worst of times?). Dunnett explores this very well by getting a group of well-developed characters with different visions of the world in (literally) the same boat, experiencing the same hardships and pleasures.
Despite its horrible consequences, the romantic Portuguese in me, fed from childhood on poetry about my country’s immortal deeds, cannot but admire the spirit of the Discoveries. The image of the lonely caravels braving the Unknown always got me a bit teary. There’s a quote in Scales of Gold that really encapsulates this. Niccolò is at Sagres Point, Europe’s Western-most point:
Standing at Sagres, or on the single Cape that lay westward, one looked down sheer sandstone cliffs twenty times the height of man with the white of dashed foam at their feet; and abroad at the flat, shoreless oceans, upon which laboured the flecks that were vessels and the infinitesimal specks that were souls, witness to man’s perseverance, his greed and his courage.
What else can I say? It’s a marvelous book, full of wonder and characters you grow to know as if you were also in their boat, surrounded by the vast Ocean, or part of their caravan, slowly making its way into deep Africa, in search of legendary riches.
Other thoughts: I’ve been reading lately (yours?)
June is Daphne du Maurier Season over at Historical Tapestry, and today I’m guest-posting there about possibly du Maurier’s least famous book, and the one that sold less copies: The Infernal Life of Branwell Brontë.
She was fascinated by the Brontës (there’s no escaping the similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca), in particular by Branwell, the golden child, the unfulfilled promise, the most tragic element of the tragic family. It’s a great example of du Maurier’s non-fiction skills and she saw it as an opportunity to prove herself beyond her “popular literature”.
Please drop by and share you thoughts!
Just like the recent 1812: The Navy’s War, this is another book from my Armchair Audies History category, another book about 19th century US, and another book clearly written by an American for an American audience (e.g. sentences like “the people of this country” and sorry Mr. Goodheard, but, President Garfield who?!).
Fortunately for me, this was where the similarities ended. I was afraid it would also focus too much on military and political strategy, but my mind was soon put to rest when Goodheart explains in the Prologue that
… to get the full story of that moment in American History, it is necessary to go much further afield, to the slums of Manhattan, and the drawing-rooms of Boston, to Ohio villages and Virginia slave camps and even to the shores of the Pacific.
It is also necessary to consider people and ideas that were migrating from the old world to the new. It is only then that this defining national event can truly be understood as a Revolution, and one whose heroes were not only the soldiers and politicians. That Revolution began years before the guns opened, as a gradual change in the hearts and minds of men and women, until suddenly, months before the attack on Sumter.
(…) One person at a time, millions of Americans decided in 1861 – as their grandparents had in 1776 – that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country. Eighteen sixty-one, like 1776, was – and still is – not just a year, but an idea.
Sorry for the long quote, but I thought it was a great one, and one that can apply to all major events. A non-fiction author that feels like this is half-way towards writing a book I’d really enjoy reading. 1861 might be another of the thousands of books about the American Civil War, but it offers a fresh perspective by staying away from legislative bills and instead following the cultural movements of the day and people who inspired them.
The most surprising part for me was understanding the national feelings towards slavery of the time. I realized that even though the North despised slavery they weren’t abolitionists, who were considered dangerous radicals hell-bent on dividing the country. In these early days, Lincoln himself was willing to sacrifice abolition to preserve the Union (*gasp*).
From here Goodheart describes how the North came to a position where it was willing to accept (and even welcome) war as the only solution against secession. Lincoln of course couldn’t be excluded from the story, but Goodheart also focuses on almost-forgot figures, like the dashing Elmer Ellsworth (photo), founder of the New York Fire Zouaves regiment, who inspired unprecedented patriotic passion. He also describes how states who were divided between Secession and Union came to a final decision. Ohio in particular went through a fascinating process.
There were only a couple of things that didn’t make me give it a 5/5, the most important of which is that the story is told from the Northerners’ perspective and I often wondered about what was going through the minds of their Southern counterparts. Also, Goodheart is prone to unapologetic flights of poetic patriotism that are a bit uncomfortable for someone from a much more self-effacing culture like mine (1861 is the story of Americans who rose up to the situation “not just with anger and panic but with hope and determination, people who, amid the ruins of the country they had grown up in, saw an opportunity to change history.”).
About Jonathan Davis’ narration. As I’ve mentioned above, it’s a very passionate book and Goodheart even includes the odd piece of poetry. It’s also full of inflamed speeches and proclamations, so it wouldn’t do to have a flat narration or one that goes the other way and becomes theatrical. I though Davis found the perfect balance.
The only thing I have to point out is that sometimes it was hard to differentiate between normal text and quotes – often there was just the slightest hint of change in tone or subtle accent. Probably this doesn’t apply to Davis, but don’t you sometimes have the feeling that narrators are ashamed of using a strong accent (or maybe insecure about it?)?
For the Africa Reading Challenge I’ve decided to read one book from each of the five Portuguese-speaking African countries. The Last Will is the Cape Verde choice. I’ve read it in the original but I’m happy to report that there is an easily-found English translation, as well as a great movie adaptation.
Scribacchina from Paroles/Words was also planning to read it for a while, so we’ve decided to have a little chat about it, which I’ve included below. I’m always surprised at how much more you take out of a book by discussing it with other book lovers.
In the island of São Vicente, Senhor Napumoceno Silva Araújo led the life of a respectable self-made business man. He was famous for owning the island’s first car, but also for being a man of habits and routine. There was nothing extraordinary about his life, or so everyone though until the opening of his last will and testament…
Alex: Did you think there was an “African feeling” to the book? It somehow reminded me more strongly of South American story-telling. I often thought of the Brazilian Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the way one describes Salvador da Bahia and the other the fictional village of Macondo. There’s no magic realism in The Last Will, but a the sort of other-worldly feeling about life in São Vicente, that had the same effect. It also reminded me why I love books set in islands, there is something about the feeling of isolation that’s perfect for growing eccentric characters and habits
I found the funeral (sorry to say it) delightful to read and couldn’t help but smile at all the loops the heir had to jump to be able to fulfill Napomunceno’s last wish to be buried to the sound of Beethoven’s Funeral March. Any favorite moment?
Scribacchina: It is interesting that you cite Marquez, because from the start I kept comparingThe Last Will to his Chronicle of a Death Foretold, if just for the structure: the death (or the last will) of a man is the excuse to tell different histories about several people in a close society. But I feel the parallelism (if there is one) ends there. To me, it did feel more like another African novel I read, Mia Couto’s A River Called Time, which was my first experience with African magical realism — and while there is no magical realism in The Last Will, the society feels very much alike. But I do see what you mean, and I do agree that in a way all of them talk about closely-knit societies and how they influence the type of characters that live in them.
At the same time, I feel The Last Will is much more focused on identity than society. Little by little we are told how Napumoceno’s saw himself. How he tried to be more European than he was — the Beethoven March is part of that effort, I think. But because the book is so much focused on real and perceived identity, I was completely baffled by the last chapter, which basically contradicts everything that we have been told previously: we are told that no one knew about his affair, but then Carlos says that everyone knew Maria da Graça was Napumoceno’s daughter; we are told that he was one of the most influential men in town, but then it looks like everyone still considered him the small-village poor he was when he was young… How did you react to the ending? Did it come out of the blue, or do you think it was expectable?
One of the things that made me LOL was Napumocenos’ reaction to green: basically, he’s so passionate about the Sporting football club that when he sees his cleaning lady dressed in the team’s green, he takes her on as his lover. (Of course that is not exactly what happens. It is a rape, but nobody seems to perceive it that way. What do you make of that?)
City of Mindelo, São Vicente Island – credits
Alex: I was reading the green parts to my boyfriend who’s a hard-core Benfica fan First about the ending, I wasn’t surprised because I assumed that over time the “affair” slowly came to light, it’s just that Carlos expected the money to go only to him. We’re told even her husband knew, and Napumoceno’s regular rent must have become suspicious. About the way the village saw him, I spend long months of my childhood and early teens in a small village in Serra da Estrela and I recognize those “mood swings” as typical of a close community. It’s very hard to forget that a stranger is a stranger, especially if the person is envied.
Interesting that you saw identity over society, because I did the other way around. I think the humor and witty language is used expose the public and private morality of village life. I wouldn’t be surprised it some stabs were private Cape Verdean-jokes, that we just don’t get.
I’ve read in another site an interesting quote that might shed some light into why the novel reminded us of South America, Europe and Africa:
Discovered in 1462 and settled before Columbus’ arrival in America, the arid Cape Verde archipelago is arguably home to the oldest, most thoroughly Creolized culture in the world. Indeed, the Portuguese used the islands as an advertisement for their missao civilizadora or assimilationist colonialism. (…) Cape Verdeans, scattered around the Atlantic Rim by geography and economics for centuries, intuitively understood the idea of “transnational identity” long before it became a buzzword in cultural studies journals.
It must be a very interesting society and I look forward to visiting it at some point (maybe in my honey-moon). (Did you know there’s going to be an Observatory of the Portuguese Language there?) I felt Almeida captured that peculiarity of the country well and subtly.
What do you think about Napumoceno the man as a metaphor for Cape Verde: isolated, with an apparently controlled and repetitive life, but full of secrets and adventures. He’s a serious business-man, with a good dose of the comical about him (he became rich by selling umbrellas in a country where it doesn’t rain!). He’s the poor foreigner, who cannot be part of the exclusive club, no matter how rich and philanthropist he becomes (Cape Verde vs. Portugal after independence?).
Scribacchina: I love your interpretation of Napumoceno as a metaphor for the country, it fits perfectly! At the same time, I know too little about Cape Verde to judge (I had to go and check out history and geography on the Internet), but I think that parallel to that metaphor there may be another, less subtle one: Napumoceno as a symbol (or even as a satire) of part of the local society, struggling to identify themselves less and less as African and more as Westernized. Or am I just mis-constructing Cape Verdean identity here? I would love to know how the locals reacted to the novel — I’m sure there are inside jokes as you mentioned, but also because they have the first-hand knowledge of the place that we lack.
Moving back from society (thanks for the links!) to plot, what do you think about Adélia, the lifelong love/lover that no one seems to know about? I wonder if it was some kind of wishful thinking on Napumoceno’s part, a fantasy that he created to redeem his bleak life and give it some color?
The late and very missed Cape Verdian singer Cesária Évora, singing one of her most famous songs, a love-song to São Nicolau Island, where Senhor Napumoceno was born (she makes an appearance in the movie).
Alex: That is also a great point! And I guess it can be applied to every country that was under some sort of restriction and then became infatuated by the wonders of the west and all its status symbols (Napumoceno’s car, the office gadgets). Regarding Adélia, I’m still convinced she’s the toothless old woman. We only see her described by Napumoceno and who’s to say he didn’t embellished her here and there? If the old woman is really Adélia, I can’t but to admire her pride and stubbornness.
Regarding the whole individual vs. societal focus we discussed above, I was thinking: there is a strong sense of place, but surprisingly little about history or politics in the book (unless we count our guessed metaphors). In the end, it’s really a story about a man trying not to be the poor child who arrive in São Vicente penniless. He wanted to exit this social limbo, so he divided his live between the boring bachelor business man that everyone esteemed (but maybe didn’t really respect?), and the man to whom the color green was so irresistible that he basically raped his cleaning lady when she wore a green skirt.
I really liked Germano Almeida’s style of writing: the ironic and witty way he gradually built this extraordinary character and I’m looking forward to reading more by him.
Scribacchina: You really think that woman is Adélia?! She doesn’t fit Napumoceno’s description at all, nor the character I had imagined! I’d rather set for the interpretation that Adélia was some kind of fantasy. But then again, nothing in the will completely mirrored his life, so…
In the end, I think I was less impressed by this book than you were, but the best thing about it (apart from the witticism you mentioned) is that it can be read on so many level. It is just the story of a man who tries to overcome his poor origins. It isjust the story of a man who basically missed each and every chance at happiness he had. And at the same time it is the social satire, and the reflection on identity, and probably many more things that we don’t see yet.
I first heard of this novella in a “best of 2011″ list by a notable publication (sorry, tried to look for it, with no success). That article invited a number of prominent authors to choose their yearly favorites and Train Dreams was recurrent, even though up to that point I’d never heard of it. Actually, I must shamefully admit that I hadn’t even heard of Denis Johnson, although it seems he’s considered “one of the nation’s [USA] best novelists”. Since then Train Dreams became more famous for being on the Pulitzer’s short-list in a year when the judges couldn’t reach a decision and the award wasn’t given.
Train Dreams started as a short-story in The Paris Review, but it ended up a novella that deserves to be read in one go, when your concentration isn’t distracted by something else. The story is simple: the life of Robert Grainer, one of the thousands of hands that built the American West at the beginning of the 20th century. Grainer is a good man, a simple man, honorable, introverted, hard-working. Throughout his long life he sees modern-day America take shape – the T-Models, the railway, airplanes – but also witnesses the enduring strength of the West’s myths, mostly of Native American origin.
I can’t say there was any particular turn of phrase that caught my eye, but there were several scenes I kept going back to for days after finishing it. Grainer’s life is told in a series of more or less disjointed episodes, but it develops into a tight glimpse into the life of itinerary workers.
It’s hard to pin-point why the novella feels so intense when the tragedies and good fortunes of its characters are told so matter-of-factly (it reminded me of Ian McEwan and William Faulkner). There’s a clever eye for the weird detail, an effective capture of the historical period, and a continuous sense of wonder at nature and the stranger-than-fiction episodes we all face at some point.
All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.
Some scenes made me laugh out loud (conversation in the horse cart with the almost-dead), choke up (the biplane ride) and get goose bumps (the wolf pack’s visit). It surprised me that a story written so simply could be so evocative.
Anyone has any recommendation for other good Denis Johnson’s?