Disobedience by Jane Hamilton

I haven’t been so great about getting my book ‘blips’ on here this summer.  I am presently reading Postcards by Annie E. Proulx, but want to jot a note here about Disobedience by Jane Hamilton. She is the author of both A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth.

To begin with, I thought that the devices used, particular to voice, were a bit cheesy.  In some respect it reminded me of those middle year short stories I would read by the bucket load.  I thought it was ‘too easy’ to have Henry Shaw land upon his mother’s indiscretions via e mails.  Henry’s telling of the story through these disclosures felt as predictable as the young student who would write a horrific war story and then tell the teacher, in the end, that “the protagonist then woke from a bad dream”.

I stuck with the novel, however, and DID enjoy the warm and engaging humour around Henry’s Shaw’s sister, Elvira and her obsession with Civil War reenactment dramas and period history.  I found that the novel became stronger as the story relied less on the electronic mail and more on the dynamics of the family and relationship.  I’m not certain how I felt about Beth’s (the mother) struggle and her choices.  It’s unclear what motivates her actions.  Kevin (the father) is so neutral and forgiving that I felt frustrated at the writing of his name…his reactions or lack thereof left me breathless.

From Salon.com,

Two of Hamilton’s previous novels, Oprah Winfrey picks “A Map of the World” and “The Book of Ruth,” follow women through hell (wrongful child molestation charges, for instance). In “Disobedience” Beth Shaw’s hell is mostly of her own making, and Hamilton doesn’t seem all that interested in its torments. Instead she trains her attention on how the noncombatant members of the family fare while Beth does battle with her wayward heart. Puberty threatens Elvira’s budding career as a hardcore Civil War reenactor, a pastime described in distracting detail. Desperation creeps into Kevin’s relentless good cheer; he knows something’s up, he just won’t admit it. Gloomy Henry more or less keeps Beth’s secret; you can almost see the clouds gathering over his head.

By the time the inevitable storm breaks, the air has gotten pretty thick. Claustrophobia, brought on by Henry’s obsessive need to keep Mommy under the microscope, sets in way too soon. Hamilton does know how to pace a story, but it isn’t enough to make you happy about sitting through this drama. Henry, despite the similarities, can’t claim to be Hamlet. The melancholy Dane would fall on his sword if asked to deliver this bit of dime-store philosophy: “I was sure that I was permitted, as their son, to exercise moral judgment over the Shaws, even if I did so with no one else, including myself. They had chosen, after all, to play a certain game and it seemed to me that if you entered into it willingly, then you had to observe the regulations. If you stepped out of bounds it followed that you could lose everything. You might very well end up with nothing.” You might indeed.

Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe. Truman Capote

Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx

I completed Accordian Crimes last evening.  It took me two weeks…but, I stuck with it.  I found Shipping News to be such a rewarding narrative, that I assumed that anything else by the same writer would be as good.  Wrong.  It had many powerful moments, but honestly, it felt consistently tragic and that was disappointing.

To begin with, I was somewhat suspect once I read that the thread throughout the various stories/chapters was going to be a green accordion.  Was this going to be a device, like The Red Violin?  Did the accordion come first or did the violin?  The accordion did!!  I think that the story of the red violin was exceptional because it built upon the extreme passion and joy of life, as well as the violence, disappointment and regret.  It was a more balanced tale.

It turns out that there were portions of this DENSE book that really DID pull at my heart strings.  There were characters that became really important to me, but very quickly, the format of the writing took me to a new setting, a new immigrant family and completely different narratives.  At times it was difficult to ‘get into’ the next set of circumstances…too much/too soon sort-of-thing.  I was grateful for the final resolution simply because I wondered throughout the novel about the money.

Grateful, too, for the way that music provided the joy in such dark lives…I enjoyed the many references to music, lyrics and style.  Those moments provided the emotional relief required to hang in with this one.

I could not have reviewed the novel better than Mark Harris who did an awesome analysis here and so I’ve included his remarks in this post directly.  The review was made in 1996, so clearly I’m behind the times when it comes to fiction.

Mark Harris Review for Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 1996

No stranger novel is likely to reach this summer’s best-seller lists than E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, a biography of a green squeeze box that arrives in America in 1890 in the hands of the man who lovingly crafted it and, in its 100-year journey from owner to owner to thief to attic to car trunk to pawnshop to landfill, manages to encompass a full and tortured century of the American immigrant experience. Each of the book’s eight chapters finds the itinerant instrument between the hands of a different ethnic standard-bearer — an Italian laborer in New Orleans, a German farm family in Iowa, a Pole on Chicago’s South Side — in a different era. The unrelated sagas add up to eight different family trees, each gnarled by fate, tragedy, chance, and cruelty.

Two years ago, Proulx’s The Shipping News became that rarity in the publishing world, a  “literary” novel-turned-word-of-mouth smash. As its numerous readers discovered, her descriptive voice can be astonishingly original. In Accordion Crimes, the language is both ebullient and asthmatically congested with detail. A house cat is “immense, squarish and orange, resembling a suitcase, his tail a broken strap.” An obese elderly woman has “skin like a slipcover over a rump-sprung sofa.” Proulx can blast light into every corner of a scene; she seems to see with extra pairs of eyes. String together 381 pages of these visions; throw in a little magic realism, some melodrama, and a stylistic trick or two — Proulx is exceptionally fond of suddenly leaping forward several decades to reveal, in parentheses, the grisly details of someone’s death — and you have a virtuoso performance.

What you don’t have is a novel. The difference between The Shipping News and Accordion Crimesis the difference between a fine book and one that’s so bent on being a masterpiece that it fails to tell a story. Forget about the accordion, a literal groaner of a linking device that wears out its welcome around the time a Mexican musician leaves it in the back of a Minneapolis taxicab. Proulx’s goal is to find something emblematic in the travails of first- and second-generation Americans, and she brings extraordinary clarity of insight into their particular woes. The best of these stories (say, three out of eight) create an enthralling hybrid of family history and imaginative fiction, in images no other writer has discovered. (And language no other writer has discovered; keep your dictionary handy unless words like mephitic, flerried, and lunty are in your vocabulary.)

For all its technical mastery, though, Accordion Crimes is destined to take up permanent residence at the swampy bottom of many a beach bag this summer. The America that greets its new arrivals is a relentlessly racist and embittering land, and Proulx’s vision isn’t particularly generous to the huddled masses she’s writing about. Among the ill fates suffered by Accordion Crimes’ characters are death by trichinosis, self-decapitation, drowning, plutonium poisoning, choking, stabbing, and electrocution by worm probe.

There’s something sour and dogmatic about a novel that allows so few of its humans to act humanly, then takes pleasure in dispatching them in the most arcane, “can you top this?” ways. Joy, kindness, and generosity aren’t part of Proulx’s landscape here, and their exclusion comes to seem strident. None of Proulx’s characters are allowed to take up too much space or emotion, lest their tiny places on her vast canvas of misery become too important. Accordion Crimes offers plenty of brushwork to admire — but the big picture turns out to be surprisingly small-spirited. B-

The Shipping News: Annie Proulx

I found this to be one of the most fascinating books that I’ve read in a long time.  A book that flows nicely, The Shipping News provides complex underlying themes by introducing small exerpts from the 1944 Ashley Book of Knots at the beginning of each chapter.  As I entered into the final chapters, these reflections truly became relevant and contributed greatly to the success of the book.  Set in the rich, always-changing, land/seascape of Newfoundland, I felt that in a very honest way, I finally had some inkling of what life has been for Newfoundlanders.  Issues of overfishing, development, weather, economic struggle and family life were pieces of thread, knotted together into a very satisfying narrative.  A VERY ‘magical’ read!

I want to see this movie!