PAT CONROY MONTH!!! Made Me Do it the First Time, But After That I Did it on my Own: Some Acquisitions (by Bethany)

I am officially regretting how zealously I attacked my first PAT CONROY MONTH! back in 2012. I read four of Conroy’s ten books that year. Then I read two more last year and The Death of Santini when it came out in November, leaving me with just South of Broad, The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, and My Reading Life to re-read. This year I’m stretching the fun out as long as I can with War and Peace (which is really good! I swear it is!), and I’m re-reading South of Broad, and then I think I’ll read one of the several Kindle books I bought last week by Conroy’s friends and wives.

What? Okay, fine: FRIEND and WIFE. You people are no fun. No fun at all.

Conroy writes quite endearingly about Anne Rivers Siddons’ novels in My Reading Life, so I chose a few to sample:

anne rivers siddons homeplace

anne rivers siddons low country

anne rivers siddons outer banksI know what you’re thinking (or, more precisely, I know what Jill is thinking): Bethany is really going to hate these books. It’s true: they do not look like my sort of thing. I don’t have anything specifically against a woman wearing a long wind-whipped white skirt gazing wistfully at the ocean (in fact, images like these are a common motif in the J. Jill catalog, and I like the J. Jill catalog quite a lot), but wild horses? A porch swing? I’ll bet there will be sweet tea in these novels – and also grown men who call their fathers ‘Daddy.’


And then I chose a couple of titles by Cassandra King, Conroy’s third and current wife:

cassandra king moonrise

cassandra king the same sweet girlsMoonrise is apparently Cassandra King’s homage to Daphne deMaurier’s Rebecca, which I haven’t read but want to, and Same Sweet Girls is about a group of childhood friends who reunite in their hometown, making it somewhat timely for both Jill and me, as we have out 20th high school reunion coming up in a few weeks. And yes, I think there will be sweet tea in this one too. And also possibly lengthy scenes that take place at the beauty parlor.

These five Kindle books (which were quite inexpensive, I should add – approximately $5 each) represent the most chick-lit that I have ever bought in a one-week period. They also represent a grievous violation of my book-buying ban, but hey – I am exploring new horizons here.

hildAnd while I was at it, I bought this book too: Hild by Nicola Griffith. I wanted this book when Books, Inc. was selling it in hardback for $30, so when I found out that the Kindle edition was only $5.99 I let it come along for the ride. It’s set in seventh-century England, and the Dark Ages fascinate me. If nothing else, it will help to cleanse my palate after downing all that sweet tea.


I’ll be back soon with an update from the Napoleonic Wars, which are not going so well for our French-speaking Russian friends at the moment. I hope everyone has a good weekend in the meantime!

Posted in Acquisitions, PAT CONROY MONTH!, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

Welcome to PAT CONROY MONTH!!!, 2014 edition–Jill’s first progress report on The Prince of Tides


I was thinking that it’s really bad that we’re already over halfway through PAT CONROY MONTH!!! and I haven’t posted anything about Pat Conroy yet, but then I looked back in the archives and discovered that last year I didn’t post anything about actual books I read for our special month until December. So now I feel better. This year I think I’m only going to read The Prince of Tides as an official PAT CONROY MONTH!!! selection, though I need to go back through My Reading Life and pick some books out of there for future “inspired by Pat Conroy” reading options. Bethany is hard core and reading War and Peace. That book scares the crap out of me, mostly because of its length. That being said, I have wanted to read more Tolstoy since I first read Anna Karenin(a). Maybe someday.

But wait! I was supposed to be talking about The Prince of Tides! I first read this book in probably 1992 or 1993? After The Lords of Discipline and before The Great Santini. I have seen the movie version more times than I can count, but not in many years. I remember enjoying it at the time, but as time has gone by I can only focus on how absurd a romantic relationship between crazy Nick Nolte and the legendary Barbra Streisand seems when I remember the movie. In addition, all I remember about the movie is said relationship, and not any of the typical Conroyvian family drama, of which there is plenty in the novel. When I was younger I did enjoy this book quite a bit, but I don’t remember the details of the plot other than the relationship between Tom Wingo and Susan Lowenstein, and that’s probably because it was such a focus of the movie.

I haven’t picked up The Prince of Tides in a few days: work has been really busy and I’ve been getting home late and I have found this book really heavy, more heavy than Conroy’s other books that I have read/reread in the past few years. I’ve not been in the best mood lately so that may be coloring my viewpoint, but I don’t think it is. I believe from the memoirs Conroy has written since this book was published that he was not in a good place when he was writing The Prince of Tides, and that is shining through for me.  Tom Wingo seems to have no joy in his life.  He says the typical sarcastic sorts of things that all Conroy protagonists say, but they aren’t said in a happy (that isn’t quite the right word but it will have to do for now) way.  It comes off as bitter and angry and sad, and that isn’t usually the case.  The other interesting thing to me is the portrait Conroy paints of the mother character this time: it’s not a positive one, and historically, for example in The Great Santini, the mother figure is practically a saint, but not here. Here, she is selfish and distant and self-involved. In Conroy’s non-fiction he speaks this way about his own mother. I admit, I preferred the saintly mother of Santini. This one is not a nice lady.  The father is the typical Conroy father, though we haven’t seen much of him in the present day story line yet.  I know Don Conroy redeemed himself a bit at the end of his life, but I can’t remember if the Shrimp Boat Captain version of him did.

Here’s something else.  This is the first book of Pat’s that is written looking back on the events of a miserable childhood.  The Lords of Discipline is written looking back but there is no present day narrative.  We just know that the events at The Institute took place a while ago.  And The Great Santini is written in third person without a narrator to say that any time has gone by.  Beach Music and South of Broad are also written with a present-day narrative interspersed with flashbacks.  As such, it seems that he is able to insert more of his own emotions into the story, you know, as they are at the time he’s writing. I’m wondering if this is good or bad or what.  And I think I know what I’m reading for next year’s PAT CONROY MONTH!!!!, or maybe I’ll even get into one of those this year.

So that’s it for now. I’m falling asleep as I type, so I’m going to close for tonight.

Posted in Fiction - general, Pat Conroy, PAT CONROY MONTH!, Reviews by Jill | 4 Comments

Yarn Along

EDSTROM - WIN_20140916_130633

Any questions about why I haven’t gotten much work done on my orange cowl since last week? I’d tell you, but I’ve got this enormous novel to read…

Happy Wednesday!

Thanks once again to Ginny for hosting Yarn Along on her blog, Small Things.

Posted in Yarn Along | 10 Comments

Thoughts on Book One, Part One of War and Peace (by Bethany)



Pages read: 148 out of 1455

When I told Jill a while back that I planned to read War and Peace for PAT CONROY MONTH!!! this year, she said something to the effect that this endeavor might extend PAT CONROY MONTH!!! well into 2015. I failed to see why that would be such a bad thing, but I’ll be the first to admit that last year I took until February to write my review of The Lords of Discipline, which is perhaps a little problematic. So for a while I tossed aside the idea of reading War and Peace this year. Then I decided to go ahead and do it. Then I told myself I was crazy and put the book back on the shelf. And then on Friday, when I finished & Sons, I went to my book pile to pick up South of Broad but decided to pick up War and Peace instead – decisively, just like that. I don’t expect to finish it in September, but I don’t expect to take until next year either. As I often do when reading long books, I will probably take a break halfway through to read South of Broad and something by Anne Rivers Siddons and maybe an overdue Numbers Challenge book or two.

War and Peace is very easy to read and is very much a product of its era. If you’ve read books like Anna Karenina and Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady, you will feel very much at home reading War and Peace. I don’t know why it’s sort of set apart as something different than other 19th-century novels and unusually challenging. It’s not that challenging at all – it’s actually quite accessible. I did learn by reading the introduction to my edition (Signet classics – translation by Ann Dunnigan) that Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace a novel, even though he did consider Anna Karenina a novel. The scholar who wrote the introduction seemed almost as perplexed by this as I am, although I suppose that since this novel concerns the actual events of the Napoleonic wars as well as the lives of a variety of fictional characters, Tolstoy might have hesitated to call it a novel, seeing it as a hybrid of fiction and history. Nowadays we see all kind of experimental novels: novels in verse, metafiction, and those sorts of things. To me, War and Peace s definitely a novel.

Book One, Part One, which is further subdivided into 25 chapters (Tolstoy’s books are very well organized. I like that.), involves a variety of French-speaking wealthy Russians who spend most of their time traveling back and forth between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The novel (a term that I will use, regardless of Tolstoy’s objections) opens at a party thrown by Anna Pavlovna Scherer. The first guest to arrive is Prince Vasily, and from the very first sentence of the novel the topic on everyone’s mind is the war, which is beginning to seem inevitable. The characters debate the overall worthiness of Napoleon – some find him an appalling upstart not fit to lead the French army; others may accept that he needs to be defeated but have a certain respect for him as a soldier and as a general, almost as if they sort of wished he was on their side. “One would think the whole world had lost its wits” (44) says Anna Pavlovna.

A notable outlier on the matter of Napoleon is a young man named Pierre, who pronounces Napoleon to have “grandeur of soul” (46). As far as Anna Pavlovna is concerned, this remark from Pierre ruins her party, and she spends a good bit of time micromanaging everyone and prescribing certain specific topics of conversation in an attempt to salvage her party. Prince Andrei doesn’t rush to defend Pierre, but he is sort of intrigued by his willingness to defend Napoleon. Prince Andrei himself can’t get off to the war fast enough, though at this point we’re not quite sure why.

Also introduced at the party are Prince Vasily’s sons, Anatol and Ippolit, who are both kind of out of control. Anna Pavlovna declares that Anatol will be fine once he has a wife, and she volunteers her services as a matchmaker (her sights are set on Prince Andrei’s sister Marya, who is pale and religious and gaunt and would be much more at home in Jane Eyre than in this novel). Ippolit, though, is hopeless, according to Anna Pavlovna.

When I read Portrait of a Lady, I remember noticing that Henry James structures some of his chapters almost as calls and responses, in that one chapter either directly or indirectly poses a question and then the next chapter answers it, usually not directly but in the actions of its characters. I think I caught Tolstoy doing something similar here. In chapter 6 of War and Peace, Prince Andrei’s wife (whose name, rather incongruously, is “Lisa”) goes off on a bit of a tirade about men and their stupid wars: “I don’t understand it, I simply do not understand why men can’t get along without war. How is it we women don’t want such a thing, have no need for it … You see what egotists men are” (54). Lisa is young and pregnant and obviously represents not only womanhood but motherhood and youth and naivete. Prince Andrei later gives Pierre some private advice: “Never, never marry, my friend! That is my advice to you: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of doing, and till you have ceased loving the woman you have chosen and can see her clearly, or you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake. Marry when you are old and no longer good for anything” (56).

In the next scene, which is also in chapter 6, we get our answer to the question of why men have to go to war. The second half of chapter 6 gives us a dozen or so raucous, drunken young men, all soldiers or planning soon to become soldiers, plus Pierre, who is not a soldier and for now is not planning to become one (though I suspect that may change). One of the young men (whose name is “Stevens” – there appears to be some kind of study-abroad program going on) has just bet another that he can drink an entire bottle of rum in one swallow while sitting on the edge of a third-story window. The others accept the wager, although they think the task is too easy if Stevens gets to sit on the actual window sill, so one of the young men seizes the window sill in his massive Russian arms and wrenches it free from the wall so that all that remains is a hole. Stevens sits on the edge of the hole, drinks an entire bottle of rum without removing the bottle from his mouth, without grabbing on to anything for support, and – amazingly – not plunging to his death. Next, the young men “[get] hold of a bear somewhere, and put it into a carriage, and set off with it to visit some actresses. When the police rushed in to restrain them, they tied one of the policemen back to back to the bear and threw them into the Moika Canal. And the bear swam off with the policeman on his back” (66-67).

In other words, the reason we have war, Lisa, is that otherwise men will run around doing things like THAT all the time.

I’ve told you most of the fun parts, except for the fact that there is a pair of lovers named Boris and Natasha – and by “lovers” I mean that Natasha is twelve years old and mostly acts as if she’s three, until, that is, she can catch Boris alone and shove her tongue down his throat – and Boris is the pampered son of Princess Anna Mikhailovna, who spent the entire party at the beginning of the novel harassing Prince Vasily to pull strings and get Boris a position in the Guards – which I think means that he will not have to go to battle. There’s also a character named “Shinshin” – you know, sort of like “Frou-Frou,” except not a horse. And Anna Mikhailovna gets into a girl-fight with a bunch of teenaged princesses over the will of Pierre’s father, who is dying in the very same room where they are pulling each other’s hair to get the will. I’m pretty sure there is a scene in Middlemarch that’s almost exactly the same. Those wacky 19th-century Europeans and their controversial wills.

So that’s where we are at the end of Book One, Part One. Prince Andrei is off to war, and his wife Lisa has just been relegated to live out the rest of her pregnancy and childbirth in the middle of nowhere at Prince Andrei’s family estate, with his creepy elderly father and the emaciated but pious Marya. Pierre has been berated by just about everyone over his part in the policeman/bear incident, but in spite of that his father legitimizes him on his deathbed (prior to that, he was a ‘bastard.’ Those wacky pre-20th-century Europeans and their bastards.) and now he’s a count. Boris and Natasha continue to make out behind the curtains, and there are a number of other budding romances beginning to crop up among the younger generation. Prince Andrei’s father may be about to die. And Anna Pavlovna – the one who threw the party at the beginning and was constantly present for the first five chapters or so? Who knows? She has kind of disappeared. She may well have died of embarrassment when Pierre sang the praises of Napoleon.

And that’s it. I’m enjoying the book and will tell you more about it soon!

P.S. If you’re wondering how War and Peace fits into PAT CONROY MONTH!!!, here’s your answer. Pat Conroy wrote a book a few years ago called My Reading Life. It’s a wonderful book about the pleasures of reading – Jill reviewed it here. We’ve decided that in order to sustain our tradition of focusing on Pat Conroy in September, we will read not only Conroy’s books but also the ones he writes about in My Reading Life – and War and Peace is one of them.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Leo Tolstoy, PAT CONROY MONTH!, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

A Review of David Gilbert’s & Sons (by Bethany)


What an interesting novel this is. On the one hand, it’s a fairly typical of the sweeping-family-saga genre: the Dyer and Topping families have been interconnected for several generations, ever since Charlie Topping and Andrew Dyer were born a few weeks apart in 1934 and grew up as best friends, and of course the various family members have secrets and nurse grudges and are angry at one another for all sorts of things. There is something very Franzen-like in this novel, and John Irving (who wrote a lengthy blurb on the back of the book) comes to mind too, mainly because this novel, like several of Irving’s, is about a writer whose books and letters play an integral role in the plot, so there is something “meta” in the fiction of this novel. Finally, this novel contains just a teeny tiny bit of sci-fi, which is startling when it appears (and don’t worry, I won’t tell you any more about it) and certainly represents a significant risk on the part of the novelist, but is also ultimately a part of what makes the ending of the novel (and the novel as a whole) so wonderful.

Andrew Dyer – born in 1934 – has always been a gifted writer. His childhood friend, Charlie Topping, is intelligent as well but suffers from a severe speech impediment. Charlie’s life becomes an inward one: he marries and cultivates a life with his family and friends with minimal need to meet new people or speak in public. Andrew Dyer becomes famous when he publishes his first novel Ampersand (hence the title; there are a number of other little ampersand jokes woven in for the enjoyment of us language nerds) in his late twenties. Ampersand is a boarding-school novel that draws upon Andrew and Charlie’s years at Exeter in the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s. The characters in the novel compare Ampersand to real-world seminal novels of adolescence like The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. After Ampersand was published, Andrew Dyer continued to have a distinguished career as a novelist but retreated more and more into his study, cutting himself off from his family and friends. When he does go out, he is treated like a celebrity the way Salinger or other beloved, reclusive writers were and are: pointed at in the grocery store, pestered for autographs at Parents’ Day at school, and so forth.

The Toppings and the Dyers raise their children together. Andrew Dyer’s two boys are Richard and Jamie, who grow up feeling neglected by and distant from their father, who was always present but was often dissociated from his immediate surroundings. Richard is a drug addict by sixteen, but by the time of the present-time action of this novel he has been clean for two decades and lives in Los Angeles and writes screenplays. Jamie has a degree in film from NYU and has made a career of documenting death – flying off at a moment’s notice to whatever place in the world is experiencing a greater-than-average death rate and then making a documentary about it. In the present-time action of the novel, both Richard and Jamie are estranged from their father but in touch with their mother Isabel, who divorced Andrew after Richard and Jamie were grown. Charlie Topping’s two oldest children, Charles and Grace, are mentioned but never appear in the novel as characters. His youngest son, Philip, is the narrator of the novel.

Which brings me to a quick digression about this novel’s unusual point of view: first-person OMNISCIENT. Philip Topping – a recently-fired fifth-grade teacher, recently-separated husband and father of two, resentful and pathetic Philip Topping – tells this story in the first person, but he routinely and in detail relates the private thoughts of characters Philip Topping has never even met and narrates events at which he is not present. It’s a little bit alarming for a point-of-view purist like me. I’m sure it’s been done before, but at the moment I can’t think of a book I’ve read that is narrated in quite this way. I’m sure somewhere out there is a novel narrated by a psychic (I was going to say that thankfully I had never read such a novel, but then I remembered: oh, yeah – the Sookie Stackhouse books. Never mind.), and I’m sure there are novels narrated by God or the Grim Reaper or various other creatures able to enter other people’s minds at whim – and isn’t the girl in The Lovely Bones gazing down from heaven (vomit) and watching her family and telling their story in first person? I think this is the only novel I’ve read, though, where a first-person omniscient narrator is not explained away through some spiritual or supernatural joo-joo.

Philip Topping would make perfect sense as a first-person narrator in the usual sense because he is plenty unreliable. His professional and family lives have recently imploded, and he is living in a hotel and also spending time at the Dyer apartment, where he takes any opportunity he can to snoop through Andrew Dyer’s stuff. This snooping is the sort of thing a novelist would normally do to justify a first-person narrator knowing things he otherwise wouldn’t know – but I don’t know why a first-person narrator would need to snoop AND be omniscient.

This novel begins on the day of Charlie Topping’s funeral, and the opening chapters really do an excellent job of introducing the complexities of these characters. The church is packed, not only with legitimate mourners but also with fans of A.N. Dyer (Andrew Dyer’s work is published under these initials), who have heard rumors that Dyer will be delivering a eulogy (An aside to my co-blogger: Can we go crash a funeral where one of our favorite writers is giving the eulogy? Please?). Dyer, who is not in the greatest of health himself and has been deeply saddened at the loss of his friend, finds himself unable to write a eulogy himself because he is too upset, so he goes online and finds a eulogy-writing website where one can enter a few details about the deceased and then buy a pieced-together cliché-ridden eulogy – and Andrew Dyer, in front of his family and friends and however-many of his greatest fans, stands up and delivers an appallingly maudlin eulogy for the best friend he’s ever had.

An odd situation, no? On the one hand, it’s hilarious. On the other hand, I didn’t find it very plausible. I’ve known some old writers who were not in the best of health, but they never became so downtrodden that they stopped wanting to pontificate. Elsewhere in the novel, including in some other scenes in which Dyer is deeply, deeply grief-stricken and unhappy, he is delighted to sling around lines from Yeats and Eliot and Wordsworth and Shakespeare, and nowhere else in the novel does he demonstrate anything but a quick, biting, cynical, and profound wit. I also find it strange that after the funeral is over no one, not even Dyer-obsessed, omniscient Philip Topping, ever mentions the fact that the eulogy given by A.N. Dyer was ridden with awful extended metaphors and horrific clichés. I don’t believe it. I’ve never known a writer so traumatized or grief-stricken or ashamed that he would read something that awful in public – unless the cheesy eulogy was some kind of self-punishment on Dyer’s part? Or his attempt to internalize Charlie Topping’s terrible fear of public speaking? These explanations could make sense – but, again, the horrible eulogy is never mentioned again, and this is a flaw in the novel, I think.

Also present at the funeral is Andrew Dyer’s youngest son – also named Andrew Dyer but usually called Andy – who, we’re told, was conceived as a result of Dyer Senior’s only lapse in fidelity to his wife and occasioned his divorce from his wife Isabel and his estrangement from Richard and Jamie. Andy is seventeen (and his father is in his eighties, to give you a sense of the age difference), and he spends the funeral on the front steps of the church, awaiting a liaison he has arranged with a 24 year-old assistant who works for Andrew Dyer’s publisher. Long story how this woman entered Andy’s life, but he spends most of the novel pursuing her without result (he ends up passing out drunk on her couch with his pants around his ankles while she has sex with Andy’s nephew [i.e. Richard’s son Emmett, who is also seventeen, who comes to New York after the funeral with his parents and sister at the request of Dyer Senior, who believes that he is dying – pun intended, I’m pretty sure – and wants to see both Richard and Jamie before he does so], which is just one of the reasons that Andy is both pathetic and adorable and one of the best teenagers I’ve encountered in a novel in quite a while).

This novel bops all over the place: to Hollywood, where Richard is being pressured by film producers to persuade his father to let them adapt Ampersand for the screen; to Vermont, where Jamie is honoring the rather odd dying wish of an old girlfriend who has late-stage breast cancer; to Andrew Dyer’s study, where – for some reason we never quite understand, though we can guess – he feels compelled to type out the entire manuscript of Ampersand all over again, including errata. And let’s not forget, there’s some sci-fi. I know – this seems like the weirdest possible novel to have sci-fi in it, but it’s there, and it works. It actually improves the novel (which is good in and of itself), and the fact that he pulled it off makes me respect David Gilbert – whose work I have never read before – a great deal.

There’s so much more, of course, but I don’t want to go on forever. I do encourage you to read this book. I’ve described a couple of narrative glitches (the first-person-omniscient point of view; the lousy eulogy), but overall I loved this novel. I was completely immersed in it the whole time I was reading. I finished it around 8:00 last night and should have had plenty of time to write my review before I went to bed, but I felt I needed to let the book simmer in my mind a bit before I could write about it. There was that stillness in the air that comes when you finish a really good novel and you have to slowly accept the fact that you live in this world, not the world of the novel – a realization that in itself is a kind of grief.

Posted in Authors, David Gilbert, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany | 2 Comments

Final Thoughts on J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (by Jill)

childhood of jesus cover


Oh, this book. I zipped right through it, because it’s very readable. Coetzee’s style is effortless and easy, but the content and the currents of meaning bubbling beneath the surface are the stuff of a graduate level seminar. (I think. I’ve never taken one of those. Bethany would know better if she read this book.) I jut learned on Wikipedia that Coetzee is a noted introvert and shunner of publicity and the public life that is his right to claim as a Nobel Laureate. So much for getting finding an interview in which he discusses The Childhood of Jesus, I guess. I’ll just have to muddle through on my own.

In prepping for what I should say about this book today I read a few reviews, both by readers and by professionals. I mentioned that Joyce Carol Oates wrote a review for the New York Times. Benjamin Markovits (another writer) wrote a review for The Guardian, which was quite good. I read a few others, too. The common thread of opinion is that no one is quite sure what Coetzee is up to, and I found that supremely comforting. No one has been able to definitively connect this book’s title to our Lord, Jesus Christ, for me, and Markovits says that “it isn’t really about Jesus, except at some hard-to-pin-down allegorical level.” So that was helpful. Or if not helpful, at least made me feel less like an idiot.

At the end of my last update, Simón had given David to Inés, and was trying to stay away from the “mother” and “son” in order to give them time to develop their bond as such. Simón finds that he misses David quite a lot, and begins to come around again, which Inés seems to resent at first, but later accepts. David begins to develop some rather undesirable personality traits while under Inés’ care. In short, he becomes something of a brat, though there may be more to it than that. Simón insists he go to school, though Inés feels that he is too young. Eventually David is forced to attend school by the government, but he doesn’t fit in well there. His teacher, Señor León, recommends he be sent to Punto Arenas, a boarding school that is described in various ways, a reform school, a school for special students, a breeding ground for criminals. They refuse to send David there, and a car comes and takes him away. He escapes and comes home. He says that he had to get through a barbed wire fence to get home. The people from the school who come to retrieve him say there is no barbed wire, and that everyone at the school loves, David, and desperately want him to come back. Simón and Inés finally see eye-to-eye and agree that David shouldn’t go back to the school. They take off to start a new life in a town hundreds of kilometers away. On the drive they pick up a hitchhiker named Juan. And that’s the end. We don’t see them reach their destination. We don’t find out if Juan is a serial killer who murders them all in their sleep one night, though that seems unlikely in this land of bland, benign people.

One bizarre event that happens is that the stevedores at the docks where Simón works decide to give a crane a try at helping them more efficiently unload their cargo of grain, out of respect for Simón’s opinions about the usefulness of technology. No one really knows how to use the crane, and Eugenio, a secondary character, decides to give it a try. On the first attempt to bring a load of bags off the deck of the ship, Eugenio loses control, and “the swinging load strikes [Simón] in the midriff and knocks him backwards. He staggers against a stanchion, trips over a rope, and tumbles into the space between the quay and the steel plates of the freighter. For a moment he is held there, gripped so tightly that it hurts to breathe. He is intensely aware that the ship has to drift only an inch and he will be crushed like an insect. Then the pressure slackens and he drops feet first into the water (235).” Simón ends up having several broken ribs and a punctured lung. He spends some time in the hospital and then is discharged to recuperate, but ends up going on the run with Inés and David. This seems to me to be a statement against using technology when good old-fashioned brute strength will do just fine. Coetzee has definite opinions about animal rights from what I’ve read, but he doesn’t seem to be anti-technology as far as I can find on the internets. Perhaps that’s something new. Or maybe it’s just a plot device to get Simón unconscious for a few days so he knows nothing about David’s escape from school/juvenile hall.

The last event I wanted to make mention of happens on their flight out of their town, before they pick up Juan the hitchhiker. Señor Daga, a “friend” of the family, gives David a present that he opens when they stop for the night at a motel. It’s a “magic cloak of invisibility,” which of course brings up thoughts of Harry Potter. For a second I thought that David might be some sort of post-apocalyptic Harry Potter figure. The cloak also comes with “magic powder” that David is supposed to set fire to and say the provided spell so he can become invisible. The magic powder ends up being magnesium, and David is temporarily blinded when he gets overzealous with setting it on fire. He also burns his hand. The next morning David “describes rays of green light travelling across his field of vision, cascades of stars (268).” Now this part reminds me of The Matrix Revolutions when Neo has his eyes put out by Agent Smith/Bane, and he develops the ability to see in a different way. I’m just about positive that Coetzee didn’t intend to allude to a Keanu Reeves movie, but I’m quite pleased that I brought this post back around to popular culture of the early twenty-first century, which is something I can discourse about with a fair degree of authority. They get to a doctor a few towns away from where they spend the night, though everyone keeps telling them that for the things that they seek the best place to go is the town they started out in. The doctor says that David’s vision is perfectly fine, and the burn on his hand is minor. And off they go. And now there is yet another question: does David have a special way of seeing now? Or is he merely telling stories again? What is wrong with this kid? Or are the adults the ones with the problems?

And since I always enjoy talking about memory when it comes up, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this most bizarre aspect of this world the main characters have found themselves in. This land they find themselves in, where they are assigned new names and birthdates, also somehow stripped them of their memories of their former lives. It seems to have happened at the camp in Beltsar where Simón and David stay for six weeks following their arrival on the ship. This is where they are taught rudimentary Spanish, as well, for the language of this place is Spanish, not whatever they spoke where they were before. For a time Simón rails against this loss of his past, while everyone else seems to not mind it, or have at least accepted it. He has a conversation with his neighbor Elena in which he says, “’I place no value on my tired old memories. I agree with you: they are just a burden. No, it is something else that I am reluctant to yield up: not memories themselves but the feel of residence in a body with a past, a body soaked in its past…. What is the good of a new life, if we are not transformed by it, transfigured, as I certainly am not (143)?’” I fail to understand this life, this place that Coetzee has created. Are we not made up of our memories, of our experiences? Is Coetzee trying to make a point about the importance of memory or is he mocking the importance people place on it? I find that the more I think about this book the more questions I have. So I’m going to stop thinking about it now, and move along to the world of southern shrimpers and New York psychiatrists. Next up: PAT CONROY MONTH!!! begins for me with a re-reading of The Prince of Tides, which I haven’t read in over twenty years.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, J.M. Coetzee, Reviews by Jill | 4 Comments

Yarn Along

EDSTROM - WIN_20140909_132656

My cowl is coming along nicely, though I haven’t had a lot of time to work on it lately. Mostly I’ve been reading and writing – and enjoying both tasks even more than I usually do. I’m not reading South of Broad yet, but I’m excited to get started with it as soon as I finish my current book. I’m so excited that one would think I was unaware that this book is not one of Pat Conroy’s best – but I do know that, and I’m excited anyway. I keep trying to remind myself of the ridiculous parts: the ex-nun/Joyce-scholar/school-principal nun mother is totally implausible. There’s a married couple (or maybe just a boyfriend-girlfriend couple – I forget) named Fraser and Niles, like the brothers in the Kelsey Grammer sitcom. There’s way too much attention paid to high school football.

But I don’t care. Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care. My hands are pressed against my ears. I’m just excited to be back in Pat Conroy’s world.

Yarn Along is, as always, hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

Posted in PAT CONROY MONTH!, Yarn Along | 10 Comments