Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys

…a late wake up time for me this morning, but I’ve decided to begin the day with a quick book review.  I haven’t reviewed my reading for months now, so, over the coming weeks, I might write one here and there, as I’m at the easel and don’t want to steal too much writing time from that.  I do love writing.  And it relaxes me, all the while giving me the same fearful moments as  I stare at the blank pages as I have when I tremble before a blank panel in the studio.

I have read Helen Humphreys before and thoroughly enjoy her connections with history…such an interesting measure of history and fiction that I have no troubles labeling her writing style as very unique.  While there are some reviews that say that this novel is unresolved, I beg to differ.  This is one of my favourite reads of summer.  It’s a quick read, although this review says that the first half will slow you down, but with the caveat that if the reader takes an interest in the craft of writing, this section might be just as magical as the second.  I am this person.

The book is titled, Machine Without Horses, a somewhat deceiving title, but it will make sense for the reader in time.  Oh, never mind…I’ll offer my readers the literal meaning to start.

Given my time at the river, I’ve been speaking with the fly fishermen and others about their fishing rituals, this past summer.  One evening I had a particularly interesting chat with a young man who shared his enthusiasm for fly dressing.  When I met him he was stooped over with a small screen, capturing the nymphs or larvae of the flies and bugs that were seen hovering above the water and the vegetation that particular evening.  Once identified, then he would make his selection from his collection.  He shared these with me.

I told him about what I had learned about the fine art of fly dressing while reading the book, Machine Without Horses and he was intrigued.  The novel is based on a Scottish protagonist and historical crafts person, Megan Boyd who gained a magical love and ability for salmon fly-dressing.  She worked tirelessly at the craft for some sixty years.  Megan provides the basis for the novel, but the means in which Humphreys writes this character is fascinating to me.

I hope that my young nephew, Jake, reads this post as he has tackled fly-dressing and I’m curious, now, if he continues to do this.  Here are a few of Megan Boyd’s flies.

In the first half of the book, we meet a writer who has come upon the obituary of Mary Boyd.  From the first spark, we learn what motivates the writer (fictional writer?  Helen?  who knows?) to tackle this subject.  The reader becomes an observer of the writer’s process as she develops characters, events and setting.  It is all so fascinating.  As a huge relief, the reader then moves into the historical fiction with greater insight/knowledge about the narrative that unfolds. I’m leaving the synopsis just like this because I don’t wish to introduce you to any bits other than the protagonist and perhaps to say that the setting in Scotland…the atmosphere…the ocean views…and the rivers captivated me.

I think that this is a great little book and highly recommend.  I know. I know.  I certainly don’t have the same tastes in books as many of my friends, but give this one a try.  I’m linking up to the other reviews I might have written on Helen Humphrey’s books.  I may have my friend, Hollee Card, to credit for discovering this author and picked up my first book of hers, Coventry, in a second hand book store.  Other novels were read by the same author, but not reviewed.  One of the most aesthetically written books on my shelf is The River by Helen Humphreys.  I also encourage you, if you romanticize about place, as I do, to pick this one up.

Coventry by Helen Humphreys

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

 

 

Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris

Another Oprah recommendation, Songs in Ordinary Times has felt like an epic read…taking me a surprising month to complete just 740 pages.  It was snowing this afternoon.  I curled up under blankets and finally finished this tale of a very sad family. Someone who reads a book a week, I had to ask myself, “What was it about this book that hung you up?”

Here are just three reviews from Amazon.  I chose the following three reviews because, in a few areas, they express my thoughts.  I’ve indicated in bold text, my agreement.  You may be interested in perusing the others before you take this book on.  Warning!!  Not everyone who writes a review, knows how to write!  YIKES!!  I can’t take liberties with editing in this situation.  Sorry.

Review #1

2.0 out of 5 stars I CAN’T BELIEVE I READ THE WHOLE THING! February 6, 2000

I purchased this book because I trusted Oprah’s judgment, and I wanted a long book to get lost in during summer ’99. Well, it is now February 2000. Through great discipline on my part, I’m finally finished. I feel gypped. There were so many extraneous characters, and their fates were never disclosed. Why introduce characters when they ultimately fizzle out? Why couldn’t the author spend more time giving insight into the main characters? Reading this book made me feel voyeuristic. There was a lot of surface “dirt,” and I was frustrated by not knowing what made the characters tick. The adults were despicable: sleazy Omar, irresponsible Sam, needy/abusive Marie (I’m no shrink – was she manic-depressive?), among other losers. However, my heart broke for the children. I truly cared about Alice, Norm and Benjy; and I was pleased that the story ended somewhat optimistically – for Alice, at least.

This book should come with a warning: Only read it if you’re too happy. It’s guaranteed to bring your mood down several notches.

Review #2

4.0 out of 5 stars If you have patience… December 23, 2002

By Theresa W

If you can get through the first 150 pages, you’ll be happy you did. With a slow start, that’s when the story really starts to pick up & you start to remember the characters, there’s a lot of them! I agree with an earlier reviewer in that there were too many sub-plots & characters.

I did end up liking the book, and I was VERY close to putting it down & not finishing it. I am glad I stuck it out. The characters are memorable. Their plights, long & hard. You will cringe with them when things go wrong. It’s a story that is so believable it feels real. I see why Oprah picked it.

Just remember, there are many books that start off slow, but they don’t always have such a rewarding ending.

Review #3

4.0 out of 5 stars Knowing the setting isn’t everything January 11, 1999

By B. Michael Harlow

A friend who lives in nearby Rutland, Vermont, loaned me this book because she had loved it. I should trust her taste. I guess I’m a snob because knowing it was an “Oprah Book” and that its setting was Rutland, Vermont (thinly disguised as “Atkinson, VT”) slowed down my beginning to read it; I’d had it for a year before guilt set me going once my friend had asked so much whether I’d started it yet. I loved it! It is not a layered piece of philosophic artistry, but the characters are so true and the honest striving of so many of them is so palpable that I’ll buy a copy for my classroom library. These people are flawed, for sure, but most of them are striving mightily to live a good, moral life, especially Marie Fermoyle, whose kids probably see her as mean. But the novelist’s keen and unflinching sympathies let us see a woman in a hard place trying to do right even if she does not always succeed. I found many scenes very profound emotionally, especially the scene where Benjy wants to drown [285–6] and the scene in which Benjy tells his brother Norm the truth [438]. Many of my favorite scenes involved Benjy, the youngest Fermoyle who just wants his mother to be happy, but who carries the load of so many secrets. I also loved occasional descriptions such as this: “Her perfume smelled of roses and wrinkled dollar bills.” [502] The language does not often call attention to itself, but the characters are unfailingly well-observed and believable. There are enough psychologically complex but accessible characterizations to fill a family’s social circle in a small city like Rutland. The book also unfolds slowly enough that a reader can really get the sense of the passage of time in the summer of 1960. I moved to Rutland ten years later in 1970, but it was still essentially the town from whose Catholic high school Morris had graduated in 1957. Knowing the geography, however, is not the main pleasure of the novel; its compassionate and accurate reach goes well beyond merely regional items.

My thoughts on character….

I despised the characters both individually and as a collective.  They felt weak.  Omar’s manipulation and his lies were disturbing.  Marie’s needy dependance on Omar even when she knew that he was impossibly corrupt and her disregard for her own children angered me.  Benji kept secrets because of the ideal life he wished for his family.  Norm was overwrought with anger.  Alice was merely coping.  Sam was busy trying and failing and trying again. Father Gannon was weak. I don’t ditch books.  I am stubborn and so I kept reading even though the content was dark and disturbing.

The redeeming qualities of the novel included the authentic description.  Also, the world is NOT ‘all roses’ and the pain was true-to-life.  I suppose I would say that fiction offers us an opportunity to escape the sadness a little.  This novel was humourless.

I have no idea what the criteria was for Oprah’s recommendations and this one really makes me wonder.  I’m posting the list of her reading group questions here, in the case that the questions give some sort of insight into her motivation.

The Oprah synopsis:

About the Book
It’s the summer of 1960 in Atkinson, Vermont. Marie Fermoyle is a strong but vulnerable divorced woman whole loneliness and ambition for her children make her easy prey for dangerous con man Omar Duvall. Marie’s children are Alice, seventeen – involved with a young priest; Norm, sixteen – hothead and idealistic; and Benjy, twelve – isolated and misunderstood, and so desperate for his mother’s happiness that he hides the deadly truth he knows about Duvall.

We also meet Sam Fermoyle, the children’s alcoholic father; Sam’s brother-in-law, who makes anonymous “live” calls from the bathroom of his failing appliance store; and the Klubock family who – in contrast to the Fermoyles – live an orderly life in the house next door.

Songs in Ordinary Time is a masterful epic of the everyday, illuminating the kaleidoscope of lives that tell the compelling story of this unforgettable family.

Epic!  YES!

  1. Omar Duvall is known to the reader as a dishonest and potentially dangerous man. Why do you think the people of Atkinson are drawn to such a reprehensible figure? What does he offer people like Marie, Benjy, Harvey Klubock, and Bernadette Mansaw? Why do these characters refuse to accept the truth about him, even when it’s clearly evident that he has lied to them?
  2. How do you feel about the character of Marie Fermoyle? Given the circumstances she’s had to face — the breakup of her marriage to the heir of a prominent family, the economic hardships she’s endured, the scrutinizing eyes of neighbors and other members of the community — can you sympathize with her actions towards her children, Oman Duvall, and her ex-husband?
  3. Although most of the novel’s characters are flawed, few of them are truly malevolent. Discuss, for instance, Renie LaChance’s telephone calls to women, Sonny Stoner’s affair with Eunice, Father Gannon’s affair with Alice, Robert Haddad’s Thievery, and Sam’s alcoholism. What do these characters, and their failings, have in common? What compels them in their actions?
  4. What do Joey Sheldon and his popcorn stand represent to the novel and/or to the town of Atkinson? Why do you think people feel so strongly about Joey, one way or the other?
  5. How does Morris use humor to offset the darker events of the novel? Do her humorous passages make you more sympathetic toward characters such as Omar Duvall, Jarden Greene, or Astrid Haddad?
  6. Why do you think Norm, who had been Omar Duvall’s greatest detractor, is taken in by the soap-selling scheme? How does Omar manage to manipulate Norm’s feelings about him, and why, eventually, does he fail?
  7. What does Father Gannon mean when he tells Alice, “I realize that my faith has become a wholeness. It’s a unity of mind and soul. And flesh … I finally feel like a real priest!” Do you think he really loves Alice? What does she give him and what, in turn, does he offer her?
  8. Omar insists that he truly loves Marie, despite all the ways in which he has deceived her. Do you believe him? Do you believe his involvement with the Fermoyle family has changed him? What clues does Morris offer, especially in the final scene involving Oman, Norm, and Benjy, that affect your feelings either way?
  9. How does the concept of salvation figure in the novel? Which characters can’t be saved from their own desperate acts, and which are trying desperately to save themselves?
  10. What do you think the future holds for Marie Fermoyle and her family? How has the presence of Oman Duvall changed each of them, as well as their relationships with each other?