A View of the Harbour – 4/5 stars
In this smallish novel, we visit a seaside town in southern England in years briefly after WWII. We get a whole cast of different characters, a local artist, a local writer, a single mother, a war widow, a doctor, and town drunk, and various other figures that come and go into the narrative. There is not a story as such, so much as how the various figures in the town interplay, interact and go about their business. There is, however, a set of themes, that do get explored throughout the piece. Sexual proclivity and freedom, women’s agency, and longing and sacrifice play huge roles in the novel. In addition, there’s a long focus on the expectations of love and marriage. Lastly another prominent theme is readership, education, and literacy as an emancipatory act.
The novel is written in a kind of cinematic style, not to say like a movie, but with a clear focus of who the narrative lens is on at any given time. You can imagine a television production of this novel starting off in the first two chapters showing us the different figures of the story and lightly staying with them long enough to understand a little about their situation, their basic character, and their function in the story. But like any good television show, it’s not the plot that matters as much as the characters, and Taylor’s strength lies heavily in her ability to create realized characters even within extremely efficient and economical prose.
Innocents and Others – Dana Spiotta – 4/5 stars
I guess it’s in my nature to want to crap on big award winners in today’s posts. I didn’t really like “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. It has the same issues almost every book about art (except nonfiction) and that’s that art is more interesting than writing about art and of course usually writers aren’t as good at creating fictional art as they think they are. They are writers, and usually only when they’re being ironic does it land.
This book has some parallels with Jennifer Egan’s book. It’s about aesthetic film and art film and about a group of women who are in these types of films or create. The different though is that it works. Because art films are such a weird kind of art that a lot of people aren’t super into, somehow it works in this book that she is describing what these women are creating. I think it had do with the various kinds of discomfort the filmmakers and their subjects experience and this shared discomfort the audience of this book might also share. And also, unlike with a lot of other art media, we have a familiarity with film, and discussing and describing film somehow works better. Without the visuals, paintings and sculptures just fail in fiction and with the music, lyrics sound so goofy written out. But books describing film seem to work better. I also happen to just think that this is simply a better book than Jennifer Egan’s, so that also account for the difference. There’s no false cleverness or wryness in this book. The characters are authentic, there’s no borrowing from better writers, and the human qualities land.
Enemy Women – Paulette Jiles – 4/5
Without a doubt my favorite book from childhood is “Rifles for Watie” by Stan Keith. It’s a Civil War YA novel from the 1950s that starts off in the border between Kansas and Missouri right at the outset of the Civil War. Jefferson Davis Bussey comes from a family of Union sympathizers, whose father fought in the Mexican-American War under Jefferson Davis, hence the name. I just felt so connected with it and it hit all the right notes for me and sure sure it completely ignored slavery or refused to complicate but whatever, as a young Vel Veets I loved it.
And so this book is almost a grown up version of that one. In this one, a local judge on the Missouri side of things is arrested and his horses are confiscated as war debts. Under martial law, his children are also variously arrested. The resulting story is about each looking for their own way back to the family, dealing with the motley cast of characters in the far west part of the country (at the time) and the limits of agency and justice in war time.
This novel clearly knows “Rifles for Watie” – not only does it cover a lot of the same ground, even referencing a real (minor) general who is killed in battle in the early parts of that novel, but even having the main character share a name with a minor from Keith’s. Also dealing with the amoral nature of armies at war (as opposed to an overly simplistic representation in so much Civil War media of any type) and using spare authentic language, this novel focuses on the creation of a fictional, but real historical record, including borrowing heavily from historical sources to serve as epigraphs in each chapter.