Monday, February 24, 2014

#12 [2014/CBR6] "Dreamers of the Day" by Mary Doria Russell

"All men dream," Colonel Lawrence wrote, "but not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible." (245)

Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite authors. The unique thing about her, though, is that I'm always surprised that I like her books. They are invariably genres or subjects I don't have much interest in but eventually try anyway. And I usually end up loving them. Although I had more trouble with Dreamers of the Day (2008), it still followed a similar pattern. I had a vague idea that it had something to do with the middle east and involved a dog. I know very little about the middle east, especially anything about the detailed intricacy of its history and politics, so the only reason I picked up this book was because I'm slowly working my way through Russell's entire oeuvre. All the reasons why I love Russell's writing were present in this book. Her characters are real, relatable, and sympathetic; I immediately care for them. I also love Russell's style of writing. She manages to convey truths about the world in clear, meaningful sentences.

Agnes Shanklin is left alone after the second wave of the flu epidemic directly following World War I. Finally free from her mother's tyrannical personality, Agnes, who sees herself as an old spinster, finally begins to come into her own and make choices about her life for herself. Remembering how much her sister had enjoyed Cairo, Agnes decides to spend some time there. She brings along an adorable and inseparable companions, her small dachshund. Once there, she stumbles upon the VIP's making up the Cairo Conference in 1921, who are there to decide the fate of much of the middle east. These include the illustrious Lawrence of Arabia, Winston Churchill, and Gertrude Bell. At the same time, she befriends and falls for Karl Weilbacher, a German Jew and sometimes spy with incredible knowledge of the language, people, and history of the area.

I loved parts of this book. The characterization of Agnes is superb. I liked her, I admired her willingness to change her life, and I felt sorry for her all at once. I especially loved the descriptions when Agnes first arrives in Cairo and when they go on the camel ride to the pyramids. Unfortunately, some parts took me out of the story. With my ridiculously limited knowledge of Lawrence of Arabia (I once watched part of the movie and may have slept through some or most of it), the pages long discussions of middle eastern politics in the post World War I days was mostly over my head. I definitely got the gist of a bunch of white people carving up countries without even consulting those affected, but the details I found tedious. It was similar to overhearing a technical conversation between two electrical engineers discussing the working of my ipod. I like music and have an interest in my ipod working. However, I'd need a lot more background information in order to follow such a dialogue.

Another thing I appreciate about Russell is her sensitive view of women throughout history. In her clear presentation of how life was like in whatever story she is writing, I am always reminded  of how opportunities differed depending on sex. It's not that her books are always female-centric, but I appreciate that she doesn't forget about them. I think I only have A Thread of Grace left to read by Russell, which I plan on getting to before the end of the year. And I'm looking forward to her newest novel, whenever it comes out.

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