Quick Review: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman

Book 3 for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge
★★★★

  • Highly recommended if the story of one man’s accumulation of wealth and his daughter’s peculiar handling of it throughout the 20th century intrigues you 
    • In the reader’s guide at the end of the book, Dedman describes the main threads of the story as “the costs of ambition, the burdens of inherited wealth, the fragility of reputation, the folly of judging someone’s life from the outside, and the tension between engaging with the world, with all its risks, and keeping a safe distance from danger” (579)
  • Largely a biography but with a bit more spunk, as the author examines all the characters involved in the fight over Huguette’s will. 
  • First impression: “Ooh, I love it, it’s already like a moody novel about rich people. BUT IT’S REAL.”
  • What struck me most about this book is the absurdity and luxury of such wealth. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to have that much money. How does someone get so rich?? How do they decide what to do with all that money?? Unbelievable. And to think there are far, far richer people today…
    • Sooooo much extravagance!! I scrunched my eyes tight trying to imagine how much $220,000 was worth in the 1890s or how big a 121 room house is.
    • And there’s the china set – 900 pieces worth $3 million today. What does it look like? What’s it made from? What kind of pieces are included? Why do you need 900 of them? (7%)
    • Oh god, the description of the library (same page as above). The libraries of wealthy people will never cease fascinate me.
    • I nearly squealed while reading about what happens to Clark’s grand mansion (the house on the cover) (169).
  • Huguette’s interest in Japan was timely for me. At the same time I read about Huguette explaining Hina Matsuri to Paul (244), I was visiting an immense Hina Matsuri display where over 30,000 dolls were on view.
  • Huguette is an intriguing woman. It’s difficult to truly understand her as the reader comes to know her only through the stories others tell about her. It’s impossible to draw any clear conclusions as to whether she was mentally ill (perhaps on the autism spectrum) or just a happy woman living how she desired.
    • Later in the book, as I read about Huguette’s final 20 years, I found her story becoming more poignant. I thought, “Oh, that’s a bit sad. I don’t want to age to a point where all I can do is look back and try to preserve the life I had long before.”
    • Huguette is immensely charitable (she gives tens of millions of dollars to her nurse and the nurse’s family), to the extent that the climax of her tale is built around whether she was being taken advantage of. I understand this is where the tension in the story lies – in the fight over Huguette’s will – but I didn’t really like how the authors present the people involved. Which I think deserves a bullet point all on it’s own, so moving on!
  • Dedman strives to present unbiased portrayals of Huguette, her family and her assistants (or at least, he presents both the positive and negative views of all the players involved). However, I didn’t like the tone that resulted. (It’s a bit difficult to describe…If you read the book, please let me know if you understand what I’m trying to get at.) He presents all the ‘evidence’ but stops short of suggesting one conclusion or the other. I guess that’s the way to present both views in order to let the reader draw a conclusion for themself, but there’s something a bit off about the way he does this. It’s not really balanced. I suppose there’s to be some fun for the reader in deciding who is deserving of Huguette’s generosity, but I don’t like to do that. It’s too bad I can’t just ‘know’… (Though I suppose the main takeaway is don’t judge people you don’t know, ultimately.)
    • For example: Okay, so you’re saying Huguette is old and in a hospital and maybe a little mentally broken, you’re one sentence away from saying “She’s a crazy old lady”. But then on another page, there’s the complete opposite side – she’s sweet, she’s mentally capable, she knows what she’s doing, you’re on sentence away from saying “She was perfectly fine.” These views are presented as separate, like the author leads you to one conclusion and then to another. It feels like he wants you to decide something, then he can say, “Well, you said it, not me.”
    • In other places, the information presented just felt rude to me. I wanted to say “Butt out, you didn’t know this lady! Why is this the public’s business?” I get that such information would probably become relevant later on when he discussed the fight over the will, but I would have liked that to be made clear. At times it feels like he just laid out information so we, the unknowing public, could gawk at the people involved.
    • Moments like this don’t make up the bulk of the story (for the most part, it’s well-written) but when they did crop up I felt a little annoyed (and maybe that partially comes from my own guilt at being so fascinated by one little old lady’s private life).

Response: Understanding Éowyn, Part 1

Éowyn is one of my favourite characters in The Lord of the Rings (not top three, but maybe top five and definitely top ten). From a feminist perspective, I struggle with my personal view of Éowyn as an admirable woman. At a glance, Éowyn appears to be a feminist character. Given just a touch more consideration, however, the feminist label falls away. Or does it? My struggle stems from the many ways one can interpret Éowyn’s character. She’s feminist because she kills the Witchking when a man couldn’t! She’s not feminist because she’s a rarely seen anomaly in Middle-Earth! She’s feminist because she gets to be the leader of her people! She’s not feminist because she’s only the leader when there are no men left! She’s feminist because she recognizes it’s okay to be feminine and not masculine! She’s not feminist because she gives up her masculine desires to be feminine! I’m sure there are more points others would add. And then where am I left? It’s easy to dismiss her character, especially when you consider Tolkien’s views. Yet, I don’t want to stop myself calling Éowyn feminist simply because I know her creator wasn’t. Even if one disregards Tolkien’s personal views, if one looks as Éowyn as an independent character, considers her a human being and not a mouthpiece, can I still consider her a feminist icon? Or if not a feminist character, can she at least be one I can look up to without feeling guilty about it? (And then, perhaps ‘feminist’ isn’t even label I particularly care about here. Maybe whether she’s feminist or not isn’t what’s important to me. I guess I just want to feel okay with thinking of her as a role model, in spite her of [apparently?] conflicting complexities.)

All this is to preface two articles I recently read about Éowyn that explore her from perspectives I hadn’t considered before. I’d like to summarize and respond to the ideas presented in one of those articles now, in hopes that I can get some clarification about her role in the story and expand my understanding of her.

Johnson, Brent D. “Éowyn’s Grief.” Mythlore 27.3 (2009): 117-27. Web.
(Purchase digital article)

  • Johnson’s perspective: “Éowyn’s  story  of  grief  and  recovery  is  a portrait  of  many  soldiers’  family  members  who  remained  in  England  during World War I” (117). Johnson cites +18 years as a military chaplain for giving him much experience in dealing with grief (119).
  • Johnson understand my Éowyn woes – his immediately asks “Is she a role model for feminists, or merely a pitiful, flat  character  (easily described  in  one  sentence),  or  is  she  a  woefully misunderstood young woman who merely wishes to die in battle?” (117)
  • The first part of Johnson’s article argues that Éowyn suffers from war-based traumatic grief rather than PTSD (117-120). He compares her experience to that of women (including war widows) during WWI.
    • Interesting point: Of Dr. Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Éowyn does not exhibit the final stage of acceptance (she doesn’t accept her place in the Houses of Healing) (119).
  • Johnson argument comes out strongly in the segment “Éowyn’s Traumatic Grief” (122-3), where he describes her symptoms of traumatic grief. I never thought of Éowyn as suffering immense grief, but Johnson makes a number of observations that demonstrate this. Some examples: Numbness to emotion (122), difficulty accepting the loss as real (123), inability to trust others, confusion over her role in life
  • Johnson explores Faramir’s role in assisting Éowyn’s recovery in the remainder of the article (124-7).
    • I initially braced myself for this part of the article. It might be understood as Faramir saves Éowyn (that would be a strike against the ‘feminist’ definition) – however, he saves her by being ‘feminine’, by having suffered great loss as well (as opposed to triumphing as warrior) and by helping her through her grief.
    • Johnson’s exploration of Faramir isn’t really part of my discussion here, but Faramir is my favourite character and I’m biased in his favour and I loved this exploration of his and Éowyn’s relationship.
  • Lastly, Johnson briefly addresses Éowyn’s decision to become a healer, renouncing her warrior ambitions. Only after experiencing great healing herself does she choose to become a healer (126). I would have liked Johnson to expand a bit on this point, but as it’s not one I ever really thought of before, I was happy to encounter it here.  
  • I nearly applauded at Johnson’s conclusion – “If  Tolkien’s  belief  that applicability “resides  in  the  freedom  of  the  reader  […]  (not)  in  the  purposed domination of the author” (LotR Foreword xvii) holds true, then each individual who reads Éowyn’s tale of grief will find hope restored in her healing and her calling as a healer. ” (127). As I wish to, Johnson demonstrates that it’s possible to look up to Éowyn (as a model of hope and recovery), regardless of authorial intent.
  • If you have any interest in Éowyn, I highly recommend this article! I’ve only given a general summary here.

The second article I read explores Éowyn’s role as war bride, but I think I’ve written enough for now! I’ll save that article for my next response post. I’m sure as I continue to delve into Tolkien scholarship I will read more about Éowyn and my views of her will continue to evolve. The opinions I express here aren’t set in stone. I’d love to know – what is your opinion of Éowyn (whether or not from a feminist perspective)? Are there other fictional female characters that cause you to debate in this way?

BONUS: I listened to this play list while working on this article.

Review: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Author: Eden Robinson
Title: Monkey Beach
Format/Source: ebook/Kobo
Published: April 2002
Publisher: Mariner Books
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction (magical realism?)
Why I Read: CBC Books group read for February
Read If You’re: A fan of B.C. as a setting; interested in Indigenous literature 
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

One of my goals this year is to read more books by Indigenous Canadian authors. I’m happy this book was chosen for CBC Books’ February group read because I hadn’t heard of it before. I jotted down my own thoughts, then went through the GoodReads discussion and added responses to some comments. When I’m quoting someone else, it’s from that group discussion. Here’s the link if you want to check it out.

I really enjoyed this book but I’m having a hard time writing about it! I just like most everything – the mood, the setting, the focus on culture and spirituality, Lisa’s narrative voice. I didn’t like the ending. That’s pretty much all you need to know. Please humour me as I try to explain 😉

First and foremost, I love the atmosphere of this novel. I’m having a hard time putting it into words. The foggy atmosphere is created (for me) by the setting and tone/mood of the narrator. I love the British Columbia setting. I haven’t read many novels set in B.C., but Monkey Beach brought to mind A Tale for the Time Being. The dense forests coming to meet the vast ocean naturally creates a moody atmosphere. The setting helps to fuel the atmosphere of the novel. MJ wrote “I am not sure that I would call the mood of the book melancholic but it definitely had an unearthliness or other worldish aspect to it – most likely because the book was filled with so many references to the spirit world, the afterworld, ghosts, mythic creatures and living creatures (birds, seals, whales, crows, snakes, cats) all who seemed to have aptitudes and impacts far exceeding what non-native people usually attribute to these same creatures.” Well-said! I also enjoyed Lisa’s narrative voice, though it took me a bit to really settle into the reminiscent style. I didn’t realize most of the story would take place in the past. The mood felt like one shrouded in fog, I think one could describe the novel, at least in part, as an exploration of how we deal with different types of loss. The melancholic, distant feeling comes from looking back into the past, to those difficult memories.

I push myself out of bed and go to the open window, but they luanch themselves upward, cawing. Morning light slants over the mountains behind the reserve. A breeze coming down the channel makes my curtains flap limply. Ripples sparkle in the shallows as a seal bobs its head. (1)

I understood I had just had a vision, but I was afraid to think about what it meant. I went downstairs and waited until Jimmy woke an hour later. I followed him onto the porch as he took a bag of stale bread out to feed the crows for good luck. The crows fluttered around his feet. He seemed puzzled that I was watching him do what he’d done for years. (64% of part two)

Family relationships are at the heart of this story. Jane from BC writes, “I feel that Robinson is doing a great job of giving us a sense of place and the dynamics amongst the characters. So many sibling relationships that have been introduced and then the relationship between the generations.” Agreed! Many types of familial relationships are explored, both horizontal (siblings) and vertical (parents/aunts/etc.).

All major characters in the novel are Haisla. Indigenous spirituality plays a significant role, and was one of the most interesting parts of the story for me. This is where the ‘magical realism’ comes from, but I never thought of using that term until I read it in the discussion. If someone asked me for some magical realism to read, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Aboriginal experiences that one may often hear of, such as residential schools, play a less major role in the story, because Lisa herself wasn’t affected by them. One scene in particular (when Lisa stands up to a group of white guys and is almost attacked) stood out for me, though, and was tough to read. In my hometown, I hear too much about missing and murdered Indigenous women. There are too many of them, but what’s almost as sad is that while not every Indigenous women is going to be attacked, a large majority have experiences such as what Lisa had, some likely on a regular basis. For them it’s just a part of everyday life.

One struggle I had while reading this book was keeping track of Lisa’s age. I was very happy to read I wasn’t the only one with that problem! Her experiences are so much older than she is. I thought she was three or four years older than she actually was when she started smoking. Specific ages are rarely mentioned and I kept losing track. I was always surprised when an age was mentioned. It was always far younger than I thought. I wonder if this uncertainty about ages was intentional on the author’s part? I suppose you could look at it as a comment on memory, as some people in the discussion mentioned. I think also part of my issue was that I thought the Lisa we meet at the beginning of the story is also older, but she’s still young. I was surprised to find her reminiscing take us up to Jimmy’s decision to go fishing. I wasn’t expecting that.

The main qualm I have with the story is the narrative skipping over critical events (and just as I’m typing that I’ve thought – maybe it’s because Lisa doesn’t want to recall those awful, specific moments? But that’s beside the point here). Usually this type of narration really bothers me, and I was kind of bothered…but only because I usually am? Hah, what I guess I mean is. – the skipping over major events didn’t actively bother me until I thought about it afterwards – “Hey, how come I didn’t get to read about that? I’d rather read about it than find out in casually dropped comments!” I still enjoyed the book. So, I only became annoyed at the skipping when I thought about it because I enjoyed all the stuff I did read. It didn’t feel like I had missed out (though if I followed my usual reactions/logic, it felt like I did). My note during reading when this happened for the first time was “AUGH do I or do I not hate this convention?” (beginning of part two). Later notes include “not a fan of skipping big parts”, “boo why’s all the action off the page”, “another big off stage moment” but the last note is “I WANT ANSWERS but I’m kind of content”. A related note is that the reader doesn’t know much about many of the characters background, which I suppose is realistic given Lisa’s age. So much of your family’s relationships play out before your born. Michelle noted,  “What is interesting about this book is that we are left to fill in some of the stories of many of the characters- we know them, but not everything about them.” I think because we can fill in the gaps on our own, skipping the main scenes doesn’t bother me tooooo much. This ambiguity is why I’m giving it 3.5 stars here and 4 on GoodReads. If it bothered me more, I’d be going down to 3.

Please note: The next paragraph discusses the novel’s conclusion. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

I don’t mind if characters die towards a novel’s conclusion and I don’t mind if the protagonist’s situation ends the same as it was (i.e, I just don’t want to see them worse off). Can you imagine really if Jimmy was dead? That’s the impression I got, but how awful that would be for Lisa. Jimmy’s death could be just another part of her story. It could have been portrayed like the others deaths. Because of my wish for Lisa not to lose another significant person in her life, I’m on the side that Jimmy lives. I don’t like that it’s so ambiguous, though.

The Bottom Line: A sad story, perhaps, but full of heart, featuring thoughtful and soothing (somehow, it was soothing to me) prose and beautiful locations. An intense examination of an Indigenous family. The conclusion may be difficult for some readers to accept but I still recommend it.

Further Reading: