- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Recently Viewed clear list
More copies of this ISBN
Dreamers of the Dayby Mary Doria Russell
Synopses & Reviews
“I suppose I ought to warn you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me. Nevertheless, I am sure of this much: My little story has become your history. You wont really understand your times until you understand mine.”
So begins the account of Agnes Shanklin, the charmingly diffident narrator of Mary Doria Russells compelling new novel, Dreamers of the Day. And what is Miss Shanklins “little story?” Nothing less than the creation of the modern Middle East at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell met to decide the fate of the Arab world–and of our own.
A forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio still reeling from the tragedies of the Great War and the influenza epidemic, Agnes has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel just as the Peace Conference convenes, Agnes, with her plainspoken American opinions–and a small, noisy dachshund named Rosie–enters into the company of the historic luminaries who will, in the space of a few days at a hotel in Cairo, invent the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
Neither a pawn nor a participant at the conference, Agnes is ostensibly insignificant, and that makes her a welcome sounding board for Churchill, Lawrence, and Bell. It also makes her unexpectedly attractive to the charismatic German spy Karl Weilbacher. As Agnes observes the tumultuous inner workings of nation-building, she is drawn more and more deeply into geopolitical intrigue and toward a personal awakening.
With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates todays headlines. As enlightening as it is entertaining, Dreamers of the Day is a memorable, passionate, gorgeously written novel.
"Russell's enjoyable latest historical is told in the exuberant, posthumous voice (yes, it's narrated from the afterlife) of Agnes Shanklin, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Cedar Glen, a town near Cleveland, Ohio. After the influenza epidemic of 1919 strikes down Agnes's family, a childless and unmarried Agnes settles the family estate, acquires financial independence and adopts an affable dachshund named Rosie. Accompanied by Rosie, Agnes travels to Cairo during the Cairo Peace Conference, where she befriends Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia among other historical heavy hitters. She also falls in love with the charismatic Karl Weilbacher, a German spy whose interest in Agnes may have less to do with romance than Agnes will allow herself to believe. Agnes's travelogues, while marvelously detailed, distract from the increasingly tense romantic play between Agnes and Karl. When a more worldly-wise Agnes returns home, her life — first as an investor wrecked by the Depression and then a librarian until her death in 1957 — remains low-keyed. Though the bizarre, whimsical ending doesn't quite gel, Russell (The Sparrow; A Thread of Grace) has created an instantly likable heroine whose unlikely adventures will keep readers hooked to the end." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Mary Doria Russell began her writing career with two well-received science fiction novels, 'The Sparrow' and 'Children of God,' both about people making contact with extraterrestrials. Lately, though, she's turned to 20th-century history for examples of first encounters fraught with unintended consequences — an acknowledgment, perhaps, that plenty of otherworldly events take place right here on earth.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 'The Thread of Grace' was an enthralling novel about Jewish refugees fighting to survive in Northern Italy during World War II. And now she's published 'Dreamers of the Day,' a deceptively quiet novel about an old maid schoolteacher in Ohio in the early 20th century. Even before we realize that this endearing narrator is speaking to us from beyond the grave, the tale she tells is oddly haunting — and disturbingly relevant. 'My little story has become your history,' Agnes begins. 'You won't really understand your times until you understand mine.' Convincing evidence of that connection accumulates with every page. Agnes is the only member of her family to survive the Great Influenza of 1919 — portrayed here with intimate, sobering detail. She had always imagined she 'would become the sort of maiden aunt who lived in a spare bedroom and helped in the raising of nieces and nephews,' but after the loss of her family, she boldly decides to cast off her mousey personality, buy a set of expensive clothes and book passage to Egypt with her ugly dachshund in tow. 'I wanted to ... walk away from my own dull mediocrity,' she explains. 'I wanted to escape anyone and everything that had ever told me No.' What follows is a stirring story of personal awakening set against the background of a crucial moment of modern history. Agnes turns out to be a surprisingly charming tour guide; aware of her naivete and inexperience in the world, she's full of gentle humor and colorful observations. Initially, she feels utterly lost in Cairo — 'a perfectly nauseating blend of sewage and citrus, burning tobacco and roasting meat, unwashed bodies and jasmine.' Because of her late sister's connections, though, she quickly falls in with the region's power brokers: Young Winston Churchill is the blustering colonial minister representing a depleted British government eager to cement its access to Middle East oil. Gertrude Bell, one of the most formidable women of the 20th century, is a scholar negotiating the borders of a new Iraq. And T.E. Lawrence is the dashing archaeologist and soldier who, having participated in the Arab rebellion against the Turks, is already passing into legend as Lawrence of Arabia. They're all vividly, sometimes comically brought to life here. Bell is severe with Agnes, but Lawrence, with his ambiguous sexuality and his boyish giggle, is gracious and kind. Churchill, always desperate for an audience, welcomes the American into their social circle and gives her a front-row seat to watch them 'finish some business left undone at Versailles' — creating the modern Middle East. The challenge of a cast like this is balancing these real but larger-than-life characters with a fictional and decidedly modest narrator. Humble little Agnes could easily fall into the position of merely witnessing these important people shaping the lives of millions. But Russell rather daringly decides against that and, in fact, keeps the novel focused on Agnes, even when more historical exposition would have helped. (Quick: What tribes made up Trans-Jordan? Come to think of it, where was Trans-Jordan anyhow?) Still, 'Dreamers of the Day' is packed with illuminating glimpses of the origins of the current troubles in the Middle East. Russell draws cringe-inducing parallels between England's geopolitical meddling and our own. In a moment of exasperation with 'Winston and his Forty Thieves,' Lawrence tells Agnes, 'The British public were tricked into this adventure in Mesopotamia by a steady withholding of information. ... They have no idea how bloody and inefficient the occupation has been, or how many have been killed. The whole business is a disgrace.' The novel's title comes from Lawrence's dark warning, in 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' (1926), about 'dangerous men' who insist on forcing their private daydreams on other people. Gertrude Bell, however, offers a more optimistic prediction: 'When we have made Mesopotamia a model state,' she claims, 'there won't be an Arab in Syria or Palestine who won't want to be a part of it.' Mission accomplished! Russell packs this section of the novel with marvelous scenes: riding by camel with Churchill; watching Lawrence quell a riot in Gaza; listening to Bell's bitter laughter as she explains, 'Happy and contented people don't make history.' Agnes, of course, is not a maker of history, but the story of her transformation into a happy and contented person remains as engaging as anything going on around her during this calamitous period. She falls in love with a German spy, and their courtship becomes a test of her determination to cast off her mother's withering influence, to move beyond 'decades of defining myself by what I would not do, what I did not want, what I could not be.' In this rewarding blend of personal and historical events, Russell has produced a novel bound to please a broad range of readers. From her vantage point in the afterlife, Agnes claims that 'observing human history has turned out to be a terrible exercise in monotony,' but for those of us still on this side, such tales as this make it fascinating. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
With graceful and effortless prose, Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today's headlines.
About the Author
Mary Doria Russell is the author of The Sparrow, Children of God, and A Thread of Grace. Her novels have won nine national and international literary awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the American Library Association Readers Choice Award. The Sparrow was selected as one of Entertainment Weeklys ten best books of the year, and A Thread of Grace was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Russell lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Contact her at www.MaryDoriaRussell.info.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Average customer rating based on 2 comments:
Other books you might like