Monday, April 5, 2010

What I'm Reading Now: Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day: A NovelDreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell-You know how sometimes you read a book and you think, You know, I probably would have liked that more if I'd had some idea what they were talking about, if I understood that era a little better?  This book was like that except that I loved it, so I guess I would only love it more if I knew anything at all about WWI-era history.  I have always known in the back of my mind that I was somewhat uneducated about this period in history, but this book really pointed out to me just how little I really know.  Middle East history?  Couldn't tell ya much.  Lawrence of Arabia?  Didn't they make a movie about him?  Gertrude Bell?  Was she a real person?  Winston Churchill?  British guy, right?  Wait!  Prime Minister, right?  Yes!  Oh, but not in this book?  *sigh* The Cairo Peace Conference?  ...?  See what I mean?  (Terrible, I know.)  All of these play prominent parts in Dreamers of the Day, and it could have just been a muddled mess of historic references that I had to slog through, but it wasn't.  I loved it.  Because Mary Doria Russell is awesome.

I'm not saying I wouldn't have enjoyed this book more if I knew more about the history of the time.  I'm sure it's full of little winks and nudges that someone more educated than I would appreciate; but for me, it's all about the characters and writing.  If you have good characters, I think you can put them in any (well-written) situation, and if your readers care about them, they will care about their story no matter where and how it takes place...(as long as it's well-written!).  I think this was true for The Sparrow, and I definitely think it applies here.

Agnes Shanklin, our narrator, is a school teacher from Ohio and one of the lucky survivors of the flu epidemic of 1918.  This was another piece of history that I knew very little about.  Just before I read this book, I saw PBS's American Experience:  Influenza 1918.  I knew there had been a flu epidemic, but I didn't realize how devastating it was.  Influenza killed 600,000 Americans that year.  So, at least I had that little bit of history under my belt for this book.  After making it through this horrific bit of U.S. history, Agnes finds herself in some money and decides to treat herself to a trip abroad.  She books passage aboard a steamship to Egypt, and she and her Dachshund, Rosie, are off on a grand adventure.

I was reading this during my last days with Buster, so you know I appreciated Agnes's love for her dachshund friend.  Her explanation of dachshunds hit home for me:

Dachsunds are structural comedians; their very existence is a cause for amusement.  In the full light of morning, I awoke to the spectacle of Rosie lying flat on her back:  pointed nose in the air, stubby forelegs folded demurely across her chest, hindquarters sprawled in lewd abandon.

"Trollop!  Just look at you," I murmured, stroking her belly.  "No wonder Arabs think short dogs are odious." (p.67).

"Structural comedians"-I love it!  That is a perfect explanation and one that I think most long-dog owners would appreciate.

Don't worry, the book is not all about Agnes fawning over Rosie, but little snippets like that do give you a sense of who Agnes is.  Aside from that she is a woman who finds herself in the midst of some of the biggest movers and shakers of her time. She befriends T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and becomes an unwilling travel companion to Winston Churchill among other things-not bad for a teacher from Ohio, and a woman at that! There is enough Middle East history presented to provide a good atmosphere and background for the story but not enough to be overwhelming to people like me who really have no idea what any of it was about.

I love the title of this book which comes from the following excerpt:

"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."

"It's the dreamers who do all the damage," I decided as we watched yet another reckless rush toward calamity.  "I swear, the world would be better off without them!  You know what I'm starting to think?  If you meet a dreamer of the day, you should wait until he sleeps again, and then just--just shoot him in the head!"

Francis stared, not so much aghast as disappointed.

"Well, that's what the Bible tells us," I said, defending myself.  "It's in Deuteronomy.  'If there arise among you a dreamer of dreams, a false prophet who arises among you, thou shalt not harken unto him and neither shall thine eye pity him, but thou shalt kill him!'"

With half-closed eyes, Francis began to recite, "I have a dream...I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will sit down together at the table of brotherhood.[...]" (p. 246).

Oh!  It's never quite so simple as we'd like to think, is it?

Dreamers of the day is also an apt description for Agnes and her contemporaries.  The U.S. had just made it through a war and an epidemic; people were ready to start dreaming of a better life.  The Roaring Twenties were just kicking off; dreams of equality were slowly being realized by women who had finally been granted the right to vote; travel was becoming a reality for more and more people who dreamed of seeing distant lands; the stock market was an exciting way for people to while away their time while dreaming about what they would do with ALL OF THAT MONEY!; and the leaders of the free world were dreaming about what to do with all their recently-established power...which leads us right back to Colonel Lawrence's observations.

Speaking of observations, I'll leave you with one more of Agnes's observations about her generation, the "Lost Generation"of the 1920s:

Relentlessly unlucky with the history they were born into, they fought two world wars and bore the brunt of the Depression.  With their savings wiped out, many were forced in old age to move in with their grown children.  Ancient flappers and decaying swells would shake their heads as their serious sons and respectable daughters raged at teenagers for dabbling in illicit drugs, thoughtless sex, "jungle" music, and lewd dancing.

"Why, we used to drink until everyone was falling down, peeing-on-the-carpet, puking-in-the-streets drunk!" the Lost would mutter, recalling the bootlegging, the jazz, and the parties that went on all night.  "How could we have raised such stiffs?" (pp. 243-244).

See?  Don't you kind of love Agnes?  So do I, but now I am sad.  I have read all of Mary Doria Russell's books, and there are no more for me to read. :(  But!  According to her website, her next book Eight to Five, Against will be published in May, 2011! Until then, maybe I will check out some of her favorite reads.

Have you read Dreamers of the Day?  What did you think?  If you've read Russell's other books, how did it compare?  If you've reviewed the book online, let me know, and I'll link to it below.

Reviews and other stuff:

She Treads Softly
Random House interview with Mary Doria Russell about Dreamers of the Day
Bookslut interview with Mary Doria Russell-at the end Russell gives a succinct description of her then-upcoming book, Dreamers of the Day. 


Heather J. said...

This is the only book by Russell that I still have to read and I CANNOT wait. I only skimmed your review b/c I don't want to know too much about the book. I did read the first few paragraphs though - enough to know that Russell's skill is evident in this book as well as in THE SPARROW. Oh the anticipation!

Jeanne said...

I looked at this one and thought maybe it would be too much history and too little story. But now I'm thinking I could reconsider.

Dreamybee said...

Heather-I don't think I have anything too spoiler-y in my post, but I understand. Part of the fun of reading Russell is reading something that takes your breath away when you're least expecting it.

Jeanne-I was worried about that too, especially with this particular bit of history, but I didn't find it too problematic at all. There were a couple times when I had to stop and reread something to figure out what was going on, but mostly the history stays enough in the background to just let you enjoy the story. Also, the book is pretty short, under 300 pages, so if you're slogging, you're not slogging for long!

Anna said...

I haven't read anything by this author yet, but I want to. This sounds fascinating, and I'm glad to hear you can enjoy it without knowing too much of the history (because I don't).

Diary of an Eccentric

Dreamybee said...

Anna-Oh, I hope you do give her a try soon! I read A Thread of Grace totally by chance when it first came out. I think it was a new release at my library and it sounded interesting-I hadn't ever heard of Mary Doria Russell before. Since then I had been wanting to read The Sparrow and Children of God just because they were by the same author, but I wasn't sure because of the whole space/sci-fi/futuristic aspect; but I'm so glad I finally did! My verdict is still a little wishy-washy on Children of God, but The Sparrow broke my heart by the end of the first page!