Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Echo in the Bone

I'm grateful I didn't read An Echo in the Bone in 2009 when it was published. Five years would've been an excruciating wait for the next book in the Outlander series; the cliffhangers and loose ends are unmatched since Dragonfly in Amber. As it is, I merely have to give myself a little time to decompress before picking up Written in My Own Heart's Blood, which waits on my bookshelves.

Number 7 in the series, An Echo is my favorite so far and the only one I've rated 5 stars. Diana Gabaldon's storytelling powers are magnificent. She has created interesting characters and set them in interesting times. In this case, the interesting times are the American Revolution, which, in this narrative, is largely a civil war as communities and even families are divided. [Ms. Gabaldon's portrait of the war may be a more accurate understanding than the prevailing mythology of it as a struggle against imperialism.]

Readers who thought the previous three books were a snooze, with too much description of Claire tending her garden or making ether in her home surgery, should enjoy seeing Jamie and Claire back in action and near-constant danger. I found myself wondering, as Claire is about 60 in this book, how she can physically manage so many adventures, but she does reflect on this herself and is keenly appreciative of soft beds and warm fires when she can manage to find them.

The last 200 or so pages of this novel were so gut-wrenching and absorbing that I'll need a few days at least and a couple of buffer books to chill out before the next one, but I know I won't be able to put it off for long.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Joy of Conversation

A few months ago, a friend in my neighborhood book group inquired if any of us would like to meet occasionally to discuss other topics, perhaps issues of local interest, in a semi-facilitated manner. Hmmm, I'm aware of that concept, I thought, and I mentioned it to another friend who has facilitated conversation salons, and she loaned me a book on the subject. Published nearly 20 years ago by Utne Reader, "The Joy of Conversation: The Complete Guide to Salons" is a helpful resource for anyone seeking to convene a group for the purpose of thoughtful conversation.

The book begins with a history of salons, from ancient Greece through 18th-century France to 1990s Los Angeles, and ends with some thoughts on salons and activism. In between are mostly how-to chapters with advice on organization, publicity, time management and strategies for coping with difficult personalities. Some of this advice is dated (the publicity section can be entirely skipped as no group would rely on mailings and flyers in this era of e-mail and Facebook events invites), but most of the instructions are timeless and applicable to almost any conversational situation. Who couldn't use a guide on listening skills?

A chapter on e-salons is included, although at the time of publication, those were mostly listservs and usenet groups. Still, internet nastiness such as flamewars and cyberstalking had already become enough of an issue that the author suggested strategies for saving an online discussion group from those sorts of troubles. I wonder what she would advise now as the internet often seems to me a place where nearly all hope of civil, thoughtful, meaningful discourse is lost. What if we all logged out one night a week and met with our neighbors in a real living room instead? Maybe every block needs a Gertrude Stein.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Shades of Grey

No, not THAT book! This is Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey of unspecified quantity. I joined an online book group, and this dystopian-type novel was the September read.

The setting is a world in which one's ability to see certain colors determines social status, as well as nearly every aspect of life. This world appears to be on our planet several centuries from now, but no specific places from our time are identified, so I couldn't decipher if the action takes place in what was once England, or North America, or South Africa (fortunately, Wikipedia steps in to inform me it is set in Wales). References to moorlands, the constant consumption of tea, and the author's nationality made me suspect England, but the local wildlife includes beasts such as giraffes and flamingoes. However, I can't be sure these names refer to the same species we know in our time. Relics from the past, inhabited by people called "the Previous," include vehicles known as Model-Ts, which seem to be a catch-all term for any motor vehicle.

The world-building is elaborate and was a little hard for me to follow at first. I almost abandoned this one as I generally don't want to step into that much unreality. But eventually it settles down into a basic mystery-adventure tale, with some romance and plenty of humor. It's part social satire reminiscent (at least to me) of Gulliver's Travels. I suspect that some things in the novel are meant to represent a counterpart in our current society, but I didn't try to ferret out the symbolism.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies

The intrigues of the court of England's King Henry VIII have long been rich source material for novelists and screenwriters. Centuries later, Henry remains one of England's most famous monarchs, noted for his break with the Roman Catholic Church and his six wives. Henry's reign provides ample excitement to fuel the plots of a modern soap opera, but in Hilary Mantel's novels, the sexual politics are primarily background for a languid psychological drama.

The second volume in a proposed trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies continues the story of Henry's court as told through the perspective of his chief counselor, Thomas Cromwell. This is a character study of a specialist in character study, as Cromwell achieves and retains his position through his keen ability to assess the motivations, strengths and frailties of his acquaintances and generally manipulate these to his advantage.

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell was presented sympathetically. A devoted father, grieving husband, steadfast friend, generous employer, he was kind to those in need and generally a good guy. Sure, he plays power politics masterfully, but as he rises to prominence in Henry's government, his primary motivation seems to be to act for the good of England. Happily for Cromwell's household, what's good for England is what's good for Cromwell.

The first volume chronicled Henry's seven-year campaign to set aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for Anne Boleyn, a marriage that was not sanctioned by the Catholic Church and thus severed England's ties with Rome. As the second book begins, Henry is beginning to tire of Anne and cast his eyes on the quiet Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Cromwell, ever sensitive to his monarch's desires, engineers the downfall of Anne and a few men of the court whom Cromwell resents. A darker side of the man now emerges. That he treats his friends well no longer compensates for the persecution of his enemies, even as he rationalizes to himself that those he has convicted of crimes are guilty even if they are innocent of the particular charges.

Mantel's prose is lovely, and Bring Up the Bodies is a shorter, faster read than Wolf Hall, but I think I more enjoyed the first volume, which was richer in period details. Without as many descriptions of household management to distract me, I was more immersed in the political maneuverings and ever on the alert to discern the mistakes in judgement that would lead to Cromwell's eventual downfall. But that will have to wait for volume three.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A Discovery of Witches

The last of my pleasant summer reads was surprisingly diverting, the surprise because I continued to read it after discovering it was a vampire romance novel. The entire genre has previously caused me to snort with contempt. In my 50 years, I've read only one book involving vampires, a well-reviewed Anne Rice novel, and that was so long ago I can't recall the title. I've fastidiously avoided even learning what the "Twilight" series is about beyond an inescapable awareness that it involves teen vampires.

I suppose if a vampire romance is to appeal to a middle-aged book snob it helps if it is written by a middle-aged professor of history, and so Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches was my discovery that maybe vampires could be romantic after all. Previously, the blood-drinking habits of a vampire would be sufficient for me to disqualify him as a romantic hero, but I had not considered the compensatory charms that can be accrued in an exceptionally long life. Imagine a man who has lived for centuries and shows up for dinner with a bottle of 1811 Chateau Yquem that he purchased from the estate the year it was made. The library at his castle in France is filled with rare first editions, many inscribed to him by the authors. Among the treasures is a Gutenberg Bible, a first printing of On the Origin of the Species with a personal letter from Darwin tucked in, and a folio of handwritten manuscripts titled "Will's Playes." Perhaps I, too, could overlook his thirst for blood. Besides, it's not like he needs to drink that all the time!

Reading this novel over the lazy Labor Day weekend provided me the opportunity to consider the essential attributes of the romantic hero. In high school, when my adult literary tastes had not yet developed, I devoured those formulaic Harlequin romances. The hero was always handsome, fabulously wealthy and not as arrogant as he first seems. I will not argue with those who say that every romance writer since Jane Austen has been attempting to recreate her Mr. Darcy.

As I was trying to account for my enchantment with the dashing, 1500-year-old Matthew Clairmont that chained me to my front porch with a book for the entirety of summer's last long weekend, I became aware of what may be a universal characteristic of the romantic hero that previously had escaped my notice. In every romantic novel that has charmed me (as well as millions of other women), be it from an erudite writer such as Harkness or a churn-them-out dimestore novelist, the hero is a protector. (Hear me out; this isn't about rescuing the damsel in distress.) In my personal memory bank of romantic literary heroes, I can think of some exceptions to the rule of handsome (Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility) and several exceptions to the rule of wealthy (Peeta in The Hunger Games, Jamie Fraser in the Outlander series), but I can't think of a single book with a significant female following in which the hero does not protect the heroine, even when she is more than capable of taking care of herself.

Most of our contemporary heroines have no need of a knight in shining armor. They are not Jane Austen's gentle ladies who are prevented by social customs from earning their own way in the world. Our daughters read about Katniss Everdeen, whose skill with a bow helps her feed her family and eventually overthrow her despotic government. Katniss both protects and is protected; she exceeds Peeta in every survival skill except charm, yet Peeta's self-appointed raison d'etre through three books is to safeguard Katniss. (She also protects Peeta, although not with the same single-mindedness). The Outlander's Claire is a woman of courage and accomplishment, yet Jamie is her unrelenting bulwark against a hostile world. Midway through the series, Claire and daughter Brianna are discussing career callings, and Brianna asks Claire what her father's calling is. Claire answers (paraphrasing), "He's a man."

Jamie and Claire

Protection need not involve a sword or a vampiric bite on the neck of a witch who dared offend his lady love. Recall Mr. Darcy, the model of the romantic gentleman, who is Elizabeth's shield against malicious gossip, whether he is silencing it with a sharp remark to Mr. Bingley's catty sister or saving the Bennet family from social disgrace by arranging the foolish Lydia's marriage. The hero provides the form of protection needed.

This protectiveness is rooted and powered in the unselfishness of love, putting the beloved's interests ahead of your own, which may partially explain the magnetism of these stories. But self-sacrifice isn't enough; results matter. An incompetent champion will not do.

Since my teen years, the most frustrating love triangle in literature for me has been Scarlett-Rhett-Ashley. Scarlett is Katniss' spiritual great-grandmother. She doesn't need rescuing, despite often being in distress. Scarlett takes care of herself and everyone else, turning to Rhett on only a couple of occasions when she gets in over her head. My frustration is with Scarlett's obsession with the vapid Ashley, who in every respect save one is the ideal romantic character: handsome, intelligent, honorable, kind, thoughtful, loving. The missing element? He can't protect her! He can't manage anything! Scarlett rescues Ashley repeatedly; he gives her nothing but lovely speeches and shattered dreams. We may believe Ashley loves Scarlett and spurns her for noble reasons involving duty and honor, that perhaps he is even acting in her best interests as he recognizes their ultimate incompatibility. But we aren't moved by this type of self-sacrifice. Rhett, by contrast, will defy public opinion for Scarlett. He'll steal a horse for her and, we suspect, commit murder. Rhett is the competent hero, and woe to Scarlett that she can't see it in time.

Many years ago, my husband I took a weekend class based on the popular book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The lesson centered on a primary distinction between men and women. According to the author, when women talk to men about a problem they are having, men want to offer a solution, but all women really want is for them to listen. This may be true in our real lives, but our most popular romantic fiction suggests our fantasies play by other rules.