“Is it genuine?”: Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising

niccoloInspired by my excitement about King Hereafter, I have finally started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s other big series, The House of Niccolò. I’ve actually owned Niccolò Rising for many years, and I’d started it a few times before, but it is another story with a slow burn and I’d never made it past Chapter 2. If I hadn’t been schooled in this trick of Dunnett’s so recently, I think I would have bogged down once more, and it did take a bit of determination to keep on. I remembered, this time, that I have to trust her and that if I do, I won’t be disappointed.

I wasn’t disappointed in Niccolò Rising — but mostly I wasn’t enthralled either, though I was almost always interested or curious. There are certainly sporadic sequences (as in King Hereafter) that are exciting or dramatic.  Then, a lot happens in the last 50 pages, and I was reminded that while King Hereafter stands on its own, Niccolò Rising is just the beginning of a much longer saga, so the real pay-off for her elaborate set-up (and it really is a tangled web she and Niccolò are weaving) is yet to come. I’ll certainly pursue it! Though I haven’t quite given my heart to anyone in this book the way I lost it so completely to Lymond, Claes / Nicholas is a really intriguing figure. Pobably the best thing about Niccolò Rising, in fact, is watching him transform from the wide-eyed, powerless, good-natured boy Claes into the much more poised man Nicholas and wondering, as his friends and associates do at the end of the novel, if I really know him at all. “He’s won the good will of everyone who has ever beaten him,” observes the doctor Tobie,

‘by being cheerful, placid, long-suffering, and, above all, by bearing no grudges. It makes him attractive to work with. For me, it would make him attractive to work for. But I’ve begun to wonder about this submissive role. Is it genuine?’

Julius grinned. He said, ‘Have you seen Nicholas putting up with a beating? It’s genuine.’

‘Oh, he puts up with it, at the time,’ Tobie said. ‘But what if he doesn’t immediately forget it, as you seem to think? What if every slight, every punishment is being quietly registered, because he is really a different sort of person altogether?’

‘I’ve wondered,’ said Gregorio.

‘Yes. So have I,’ said Tobie. ‘Is he what he seems? And then, from wondering, I started to notice things. The chief being this: whom friend Nicholas dislikes, it seems to me, friend Nicholas kills.’

“I started to notice things”: that’s Dunnett’s recipe, isn’t it, that we should notice things, and from there, do our best to connect them, as Tobie, Gregorio, and Julius proceed to do. They are much better at it than I am, though, and that is something that is starting to bother me, not so much about Dunnett as about myself as a reader. Is it my fault that here too I was so incapable of following the multiple threads that make up Dunnett’s incredibly intricate pattern? Is the pattern really so intricate, or am I not working hard enough, as a reader? I imagine that the pleasures of her books are greater for those who can keep track of the allegiances and loyalties and double-dealings, overt and covert, actual and possible, the way her heroes do. What makes them heroes, of course, is that they can do this, so maybe we aren’t expected to be in the know: as a device, it keeps us both surprised and impressed as she pulls out her version of the detective’s “reveal.” Other Dunnett readers: do you follow the game as it’s played, or wait, as I mostly do, for the outcome and the laying down of the hands? I grasp enough to appreciate the human confrontations, but that’s also mostly what I’m reading for, and maybe that’s a sign of weakness.

In any case, I do want to read on: she populates her novels with characters who provoke complex responses, which I really enjoy (here, so far, Katelina van Borselen is a particularly tricky one, and Marian de Charetty is particularly appealing) and there are worse expectations than that I will be consistently outsmarted even as I’m entertained and moved.

Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act

oneevilactThe last time I wrote about Elizabeth George here, after reading 2008′s Careless in Red, I said that “I turned to these latest instalments [in her series] motivated far less by curiosity about the latest corpse than by the desire to know how things are going” with her main characters: Thomas Lynley, Barbara Havers, Simon and Deborah St. James. I was tiring of the detective plots that ostensibly motivated the novels but that really just provided an excuse and an occasion for personal stories and character development. Then with 2012′s Believing the Lie I admitted that these private lives were also becoming a bit stuck for me: so much angst, and so many words (I have thought for a while that George’s books aren’t getting edited as stringently as I’d like). Still, she’s a writer I trust enough to keep trying — as I kept on going even after the disaster that was 2006′s What Came Before He Shot Her (a good enough idea, but, in my opinion, really unsuccessful in the execution). We’ve been in a reading relationship since 1988, after all: that’s a lot longer than I’ve known most of my actual friends, or my husband, for that matter.

This weekend I caught up on her latest, Just One Evil Act, and it made me glad I’ve stuck with her and this series, because I really enjoyed it. I think one reason it worked so well for me is that it combines case and characters: the crime story is a big tangled mess involving Barbara Havers’ friends and neighbors Taymullah Azhar and his (maybe a little too sweet?) daughter Haddiyah. The more Barbara in the case the better, usually (Deception on His Mind, in which Barbara operates solo, is one of the most interesting books in the series), and in this case her annoyingly endearing bulldog tendencies have a certain poignancy because she really has no other friends, so her attempt to find out what has really happened has an urgency that transcends professionalism. Not that Barbara usually toes the professional line, of course, but sometimes she just seems defensive and stubborn, whereas here she is defensive and stubborn and really vulnerable. An ongoing theme of the series is loyalty, too, and here it’s not just her devotion to her friends that drives the plot but Lynley’s to her that is tested (again) to the limit.

I also enjoyed following the action to Italy: much of it takes place Lucca, which looks as lovely as George makes it sound. It was kind of a two-for-one deal, a Lynley novel plus a Donna Leon mystery, all in one!Lucca

I wonder if one reason I’m slow to pick up new mystery series these days is that I have been reading the same ones for so long — between Rebus and Kinsey and V.I. and Lynley and Dalgliesh (and, less faithfully, Banks, and Kincaid / James) I just don’t have room in my heart for many more! That’s not to say I haven’t read mysteries I’ve liked recently (I have Dorian and others to thank for putting me on to Tana French, and I’ll probably keep up with any new ones in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, for instance), but I have sampled a lot of others and just not felt inspired to go steady with them, even if they struck me as pretty good. It’s not altogether bad to know they are in reserve! I can have a big Maisie Dobbs phase later on, when some of my old standbys have retired.

House of Cards Update: The UK Version

ukhouseAfter my previous post about the American House of Cards, a large number of people online and off told me how much better they had liked the British version, so we went ahead and watched it, and now I’m trying to decide if I too preferred it to its US counterpart.

I certainly didn’t think the UK version was itself better in every way: the production values are not as good, for instance, though that follows partly from its being so much older. The plots are brisker and not as complex and thus not quite as interesting or suspenseful: in the US version there’s a lot more to figure out, or at least to wait and see about. On the other hand, Ian Richardson is superb as Francis Urquhart: he brings a sly malicious glee to the role that makes Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood seem pretty dreary by comparison. I’d give Claire Underwood the edge as a character over Elizabeth Urquhart, though, partly on the basis of Robin Wright’s strong performance but also because she simply has more to do for herself, while all we ever see of Elizabeth is the Lady-Macbeth-like politician’s wife. I thought the balance of power in the US couple’s relationship added a very interesting dimension to the series. While being cautious about spoilers, however, I will say that in the very final episode Elizabeth emerges as a more powerful and controlling character than I had suspected — I wonder whether (if a 3rd season is in the works) the US series will follow her devastatingly cold logic to its same ruthless conclusion. Once you’ve made it to the top, after all, what other option is there, besides losing?

I thought the most interesting difference between the UK and US versions is that while both are about politics, the UK version is much more overtly political. For some time I wasn’t even sure which party Francis Underwood belonged to, and given how polarized American politics are these days, that’s both unexpected and (it seems to me, anyway) unlikely. His work on specific pieces of legislation is entirely self-serving, rather than ideologically motivated. In contrast, Francis Urquhart is clearly aligned with the right wing of British politics: he may resent Margaret Thatcher’s longevity (his petulance about her memorial is one of the show’s funnier bits) but if anything he aims to go further than she did in dismantling the welfare state and promoting a competitive rather than compassionate spirit. Similarly, the opposition to Francis Underwood is partisan only in that his congressional opponents would like to be the ones in power, not because they stand for principles other than his, but Francis Urquhart’s opponents abhor not just the man but his vision of Britain. This aspect is brought out most strongly in the episodes featuring Michael Kitchen as the idealistic new king (every time I saw him I thought “Foyle is King! Hooray!”), but the association of Urquhart’s villainy with a particular kind of party politics runs throughout the series. There’s still plenty of cynicism about how the whole system works, but identifying FU so strongly with the right suggests pretty strongly that any hope for virtue or heroism lies with the left.

Why do you suppose the creators of the American version chose to keep real political ideas so far from view? Was it a marketing issue — in such an oppositional political climate, would it have cost them too many viewers to be perceived as taking sides? I also find it interesting that they did make Underwood a Democrat: insofar as he does stand for anything besides Francis Underwood, it’s ruthless individualism and competition of the kind that these days seems more readily associated with Republicans. The choice could, I suppose, be seen as deliberately countering that stereotype, and perhaps also as a bit of push-back against the obvious “liberal bias” of The West Wing (which is impossible to imagine, at least for this non-expert non-American, as a show primarily about Republicans — though they did do a great job with Alan Alda as the very smart and sympathetic Republican candidate in the final season). By and large, though, I thought that the characters’ specific party affiliations were irrelevant in the US version: it was about power and greed more generically, and then about government as a domain in which these qualities rule unchecked — hence its overarching cynicism. In the UK version, in contrast, it’s bad government specifically that’s terrifying, though at the same time it is certainly entertaining.

So did I like the British version better? You might very well think so — but I couldn’t possibly comment. :-)

Steps in the Dark: Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows


we had to go back and retrace our steps in the dark which I suppose is the meaning of life.

Miriam Toews’s conspicuously autobiographical novel All My Puny Sorrows is the story of two sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi — from a Mennonite community, like Toews, and with a father who, like Toews’s, committed suicide. Elfrieda, like Toews’s sister, is a pianist; the novel is narrated by Yolandi, who (like Toews) has dealt for much of her life with  her sister’s depression and suicide attempts. Because Yoli’s perspective necessarily dominates, we never understand Elf’s feelings as clearly as we do Yoli’s rage and grief and love and baffled desperation. But this seems right in any case, since Elf’s point of view and feelings are, almost by definition, not neatly explicable: if they were, she wouldn’t be so tormented, not to mention so frequently hospitalized, medicated, and restrained.

Yoli is dedicated to saving Elfrieda from her “weariness of life.” But does saving Elf mean keeping her alive or letting her die — or even helping her find a way to die? Much of the novel turns on Yoli’s deliberations about whether and how she might do the latter: sneaking away to Mexico for a final toxic cocktail by the beach, or going boldly to Switzerland, where “mentally ill people … have the same rights as anybody else who wants to die.” “The core of the argument for [suicide],” Yoli explains to a friend, “is maximizing individual autonomy and minimizing human suffering,” but she herself remains irresolute about whether it’s better for Elf to live or die, or about whose choice that is to make, and ultimately she is saved from decisive action by the unwitting intervention of other characters. The ending hints that Yoli would have decided for Switzerland, but it’s suggestive, not definitive: it may be that she is just wishfully comparing the orderly Swiss process she imagines to the jarring reality.

Toews does Yoli’s voice well: by the end I definitely felt as if I’d been up close and personal with her trauma. The novel is not all crisis all the time, though: something else Toews does well is mix in humor, sometimes to nicely ironic effect — which can certainly happen when we’re dealing with sad or scary things in real life too. The family members and friends are vivid and lifelike, with their eccentricities and tensions and intertwined histories, and there’s tenderness, too, along with the laughter, as they do their best, as we all must, to get from one day to the next. But the colloquial first-person narration was ultimately too chatty and artless for me: Yoli / Toews is neither a great writer nor a great thinker, so not only is the prose mostly quite pedestrian but the novel does not expand beyond Yoli and Elf to explore the abstract problem their conflict dramatizes. To me, the novel ended up feeling small, even confined, as a result, even though it deals with some of the biggest questions there are. I would have liked to learn something, to have been offered some illumination, something to take away from the novel beyond description at the level of “this is what it felt like for me” – and while “for me” officially means “me, Yoli,” it’s hard not to think it also means “me, Miriam.” There’s a pleasing humility in sticking so close to home, and so close to one’s own heart, but there’s also something unambitious, even unimaginative, about it. Toews does a good job at “write what you know,” but All My Puny Sorrows also shows the limitations of that precept: as a reader, you get to know her, but not a lot else.

But why isn’t that enough? I realize that I am criticizing Toews not for failing at what she set out to do (because she doesn’t) but for not setting out to do something different — something less personal but broader and more ambitiously philosophical, something less intimate and colloquial and more stylish. (One of my marginal notes asks whether coming up with good one-liners really counts as having a style. She does get in some good ones: as a long-time user of the product, I chuckled especially at her observation that Vaseline Intensive Care lotion has been renamed “Vaseline Intensive Rescue lotion,” “to reflect the emergency atmosphere of current life on earth.”) I’ve been struggling for a couple of days to explain (or maybe justify) my lack of enthusiasm, especially when there are other small-scale novels I like very much — most of Anne Tyler’s, for example.

It’s possible that my dissatisfaction with All My Puny Sorrows is a side-effect of reading it right after King Hereafter, which is not just large in its scope but deep in its inquiries, not to mention challenging, and thus exhilarating, to read. (For a book about suicide, All My Puny Sorrows really skips right along.) But I think that another reason for my impatience is, a bit paradoxically, that the situation of the novel is in some ways quite familiar to me. For years a very close friend of mine struggled with serious and suicidal depression, so Toews’s novel brought back a lot of memories, of anxious waiting, of difficult, sometimes frantic, phone calls, and of many, many hospital visits — during all of which I had no power or responsibility except just to be there as much as I could and keep on being her friend. Because I was not family, I had less say and, in a way, less at stake than Yoli does in Elf’s care and future. It was an intense and pretty challenging experience nonetheless, and the novel’s focus on the supporter’s perspective rather than the patient’s had a particular resonance for me.

Shouldn’t that personal connection have made All My Puny Sorrows more, not less, meaningful to me, though? Why, with that experience of my own to think back on, did I find myself resisting Toews’s novel rather than appreciating it all the more? My theory is that it’s because her story is precisely not mine, and so the similarities between them only become really interesting if we go to a higher level of abstraction. She can tell her story, and I can tell mine (though I decided not to do so in more detail here, since in so many ways it is someone else’s story more than mine — which for me raises further questions about Toews’s strategy of making art out of her sister’s death). Unless there’s more to it than that, though, the result is just an accumulation of anecdotes. I don’t deliberately seek out literature that I expect to reflect my own life back at me, but because in this case I did find myself prompted to retrace my steps through some very dark territory indeed, I would have liked to do so in the company of someone who had more to say about the meaning of it all than I can manage on my own.

I have an uneasy feeling that I’m selling All My Puny Sorrows short. Lots of people have really, really liked it — including readers whose judgment I greatly respect. I’m not even sure that I’ve figured out my own reaction: all I know is that I wanted something from it that I didn’t get. I look forward to discussing it with my book club tomorrow night. At this point my favorite thing about the novel is that it included Philip Larkin’s “Days,” which inspired me to spend a sunny hour on the deck yesterday reading through his collected poems.

“On some book my name will be written”: Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter


“What kings may follow me I do not know, and I do not care. When my day is ended, it is ended. But . . . on some book my name will be written.” — Thorfinn

“All hail, Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!” – Shakespeare, Macbeth I.iii.50

The first 250-300 pages of King Hereafter are pretty hard going. Here’s why:

‘Eachmarcach is not a young man, and he has been King of Dublin on and off now for seventeen years. What will happen to our interests in Ireland and Man if Dublin falls into unfriendly hands has been something I have been giving a lot of thought to. On the other hand, Diarmaid is fighting-mad and has been ever since he claimed Meath. He wants to make Turlough Ua Brian King of Munster, and the present incumbent is giving him trouble. He may recruit Harold and his men to help him attack Munster instead.’

 ‘He may recruit Harold and his brother and get them killed, which would be best of all,’ said Prior Tuathal with un-Christian firmness. ‘For, while King Edward wouldn’t mind a west-coast alliance excluding the Godwin family, Harold wouldn’t like it at all, if he ever came back from exile. After all, it was to prevent such an alliance between the Welsh and the Mercians and the Cumbrians, presumably, that the Kings of England farmed out Cumbria in the first place. They couldn’t hold it. Cumbria was self-supporting and too far from Wessex to benefit from Wessex protection. Now it’s different.’

Actually, I lied: in the way that this little excerpt suggests, the entire book — all 700+ pages of it — is hard going, and in fact my sample comes from nearly 500 pages in. But by that point the ceaseless cascade of names and details and the bewildering welter of political maneuverings have stopped seeming like interpretive problems and become simply the habitus of the novel. Confused? Adrift? Surprised? Vulnerable? Constantly struggling to keep track and keep up? Welcome to the 11th century, and to the region that would one day become the United Kingdom but which in the time of King Hereafter was neither united nor, mostly, one kingdom. It’s as much as our characters can do to keep abreast of the constantly changing landscape of allegiances and threats: one reason the protagonist, Thorfinn, is such a dominant figure is that he manages the flow of information, and thus the shaping and reshaping of possible outcomes, better than anyone else. Well, better than almost anyone else — or he’d meet a different end.

King Hereafter tells the story of “the historical Macbeth.” I put that in scare-quotes because Dunnett’s identification of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, or Thorfinn the Great (or Mighty), with Macbeth is debatable. (Dunnett has a bit to say about her research and conclusions here.) I’ll just accept Dunnett’s theory, since it’s the novel that interests me and not the (almost certainly unrecoverable) facts. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t possibly recapitulate all the intricacies of the plot, but its main outlines are pretty simple, and (sort of) recognizable if you know Shakespeare’s play: with the support of his wife, Thorfinn overcomes rivals and enemies (including Duncan) and becomes Earl of Orkney and Caithness and King of Alba, only to be overcome eventually himself by yet more rivals and enemies (including Duncan’s son Malcolm). Thorfinn is nothing like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, though: his rise to power is not an exercise in ruthless (if conflicted) self-aggrandizement but a response to political and military necessities (win or die). More important, it is at once a test and a proof of his character: blessed, or cursed, with a great capacity for leadership, Thorfinn sees the possibility of forging a nation that can build on the combined strengths of its disparate parts, rather than persist in endless cycles of destructive rivalries:

He spoke in Gaelic, with which every man was familiar, for uniformity was the theme of the meeting.

Uniformity of justice, with the same rules enforced by the King’s authority through the King’s agents everywhere from Fife to the Hebrides.

Uniformity of worship, so that men might be baptised and buried and shriven on the same terms in the same way . . . and have ready to hand a source of aid for the poor and the sick and the traveller . . .

Uniformity in the way land and rights and property were held and changed hands . . .

Uniformity of aims and ideals, so that no region should plan independently of its neighbour, but each should look towards the rest, as brother to brother, and to the King as a father. So, as in Alba of old, men had brought their token of earth to the Moot Hill of Scone to signify unity, so each region would bring its own excellence and bind it into the country that was neither Alba nor Orkney, but men had begun to call Scotia.

That nation-building can be difficult to distinguish from self-aggrandizement, especially in the heat of the moment, is one of Dunnett’s recurring interests — at any rate, it’s certainly something the Lymond books explore, especially The Ringed Castle. A similar problem emerges at the personal level: what distinguishes an inspired leader from an egomaniac or a charlatan? Like Lymond, Thorfinn has the knack of inspiring loyalty in others, often motivating them to extraordinary feats of courage and self-sacrifice (and, occasionally, self-destruction) in his service. “No one who really knew him,” his wife reflects, “would ever let him down.” With great charisma, Dunnett always emphasizes, comes great responsibility.

Thorfinn has a less tormented relationship with his leadership role than Lymond with his, though, proceeding through the journey from Viking overlord to sovereign of a modernizing European country with no paroxysms of doubt or conscience. His growth in reach and vision seems part and parcel of the changes in the world around him, which is also leaving behind its Viking past of raids and barter and pagan gods. Thorfinn himself still feels the pull of the old ways, as we see especially through his ongoing struggle to accept in his heart the Christian faith which is the spiritual scaffold of the new nation. He gets strength and clarity from time spent in his own territories of Orkney, and is never more completely at peace with himself than when at sea. But he recognizes and never shirks the burden he has taken on with “this tortuous business of ruling.” He accepts it all, even knowing that it means his death:

‘What else were you born for?’

‘Why not happiness, like other men?’ Thorfinn said.

‘You have that,’ said his foster-father. ‘But if you try to trap it, it will change. Why do you resist? It is your right.’

‘I resist because it is no use resisting,’ Thorfinn said. ‘Do you not think that is unfair? I shall be King because I was King; and I shall die because I did die; and did I remember them, I could even tell what are the three ways it might befall me.’

The three ways are foretold in a prophesy that, again, is recognizable to us from Macbeth, and here too they work themselves into reality: Birnam Wood does, for instance, come to Dunsinane. There are no witches, though: it’s Thorfinn’s other-worldly step-son Lulach who sees and “tells you what has already happened, through many eyes.”

Groa, Lulach’s mother and Thorfinn’s wife, is also nothing like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Though she is secondary to Thorfinn in power and historical significance, she is (another common element in Dunnett’s novels) every bit his equal and partner as his wife and as a character. The development of their relationship was my favourite aspect of the novel. The beginning is inauspicious: he kills her husband and then marries her himself to secure his lands and victory. That’s no more than what’s expected, however, by them and by those around them. What’s unexpected is that gradually their rough pragmatic union changes into something more tender and profound, based on both intellectual and sexual reciprocity. Thorfinn calls it “soul-friendship”: it’s not demonstrative, and it is even dangerous, creating potential weakness where they both need to be resolute and fearless, but through everything, “steady and constant, the river ran as ever below,” bringing them comfort.”He knew no one like her,” Thorfinn thinks as the prophesied end draws near; “there had never been anyone like her.” Our knowledge that their marriage has been more than a war-forged necessity makes both her situation and her strength at the novel’s conclusion all the more dramatic.

There is much else to savor in King Hereafter: the battle scenes, for instance, which are tautly gripping and vivid with sound and color. There’s a sea battle in the first part in particular that had me completely caught up in the action. An array of memorable characters bring drama and interest in many different registers, from the glitter of Thorfinn’s beautiful, feral cousin Rognvald to the cunning and strength of Lady Godiva and England’s Queen Emma. If the names and genealogies and politics are sometimes mentally clogging, the scenic descriptions provide the perfect antidote — winter in Orkney, for instance, with

the winds that dragged through land and sea like a scraping-board and flung the green waves and the white against the storm-breach at Skaill until the heathland was salt a mile inland and the night sky was cuffed with pale breakers.

Or on the shores of Caithness, “where the biggest headland of all stood dark red against the afternoon sky,” and

a man or a woman could lean on the wind as into the bosom of God and look upon the whole sunlit world of green grass and blue sea, from the land’s edge that lay towards Norway to the smudged snow-capped peak of Ben Loyal, far to the west. . .

Thorfinn’s travels take him across the sea to Norway and Sweden and even as far as Rome:

Terracotta and white in the sunlight, the slim columns stood; the reeled arcades, the thumbnail arches, the delicate boxes of brick, cross-pleated with stairway and portico. The triangles of pyramid and pediment. The assiduous tooth-comb of the aqueducts, bringing the rivers riding on triumphal arches. The domes; the campanile stalks; the tablets of fluted clay tile or chalked bronze with their feet in drifting blue smoke from the other, invisible roofs of reed and of wood.

There’s a wonderfully tactile quality to Dunnett’s prose, a lavishness, a profusion of specificity. Like A. S. Byatt or Hilary Mantel, Dunnett isn’t afraid of showing her work, and King Hereafter is thick with research. It never has the dreaded “info-dump” effect, though: also like those other great historical novelists, Dunnett understands how to make history palpable through her people.

Facing his defeat and death, Thorfinn wonders if he will be forgotten. His friend Sulien insists that “whatever Lulach may say, men will look back and see a king who strove to build for his people.” This is not the story we now know most readily about Macbeth, but Dunnett offers something monumental to stand beside Shakespeare’s very different story, a book in which, as her Macbeth envisions, his name is written, and in something other than blood.

Recent Watching: House of Cynicism Cards

house-of-cardsI’m not in any position to evaluate how accurately American politics is depicted in Netflix’s remake of House of Cards, but if people even think that Congress and the White House are run solely on greed, ambition, and ruthless back-stabbing, as the show suggests, no wonder voter turnout is so low. The series is one of the most dispiriting things I’ve ever watched — not just because of its relentless cynicism about both human nature and democracy but because it seems to have embraced that nihilistic cynicism so wholeheartedly. Imagine how different the show would be if it wrapped the story of its sociopathic central characters in some irony, or developed their story as tragedy, so that we could be caught up in their rise — as we are with Shakespeare’s Richard III or Macbeth, or with Thackeray’s Becky Sharp — but also see them suffer and fall. Instead, their vicious dishonesty wins them triumph after triumph, while the few around them who so much as raise questions, never mind try to stand for something else, are weak and ineffectual — or just dull. “She did what she had to do,” one character says in Season 2 about another who betrayed him for her own political gain: the show does not provide any alternative narrative, so even if we are repelled watching we have to look outside the box (literally!) to find a critique that goes beyond wishful thinking.

Richard III is definitely an apt point of reference (even the wink-y addresses to the audience, which I know are a carry-over from the original British series, are reminiscent of Richard’s gleefully oversharing monologues). But Shakespeare’s play is about ambition and greed and politics in a way that I don’t think House of Cards is. The show seems to me to reduce villainy purely to spectacle. It was just interesting enough that I kept watching (how far can they go? will they perhaps meet their match, or get their comeuppance?) but it didn’t provoke any serious thought about the issues its plot-lines touch on: unlike, say, The Wire or Deadwood (both of which are much more graphically and disturbingly violent but which reach for insight and explanations — and improvement), House of Cards operates purely at the level of individual malice (or, much more occasionally, good intentions). Francis is also much less charismatic than Richard, which is at least partly the fault of the writers (who often mangle idioms or resort to cliches) but I think can also be blamed on Kevin Spacey’s performance, which (like everyone else’s in the show) seemed extraordinarily limited in range. Most of the characters require at most two facial expressions over the whole series, and since the show is premised on deceit, the dominant one for almost everybody is a kind of grim deadpan stare.

The other inevitable comparison is to The West Wing. I joked on Twitter during Season 1 that I’d need to watch it all the way through (again!) as an antidote to House of Cards, and now that I’ve finished both seasons of House of Cards I don’t see any reason to take that back. Whatever its faults, The West Wing at its best shows recognizably human people struggling to make the messy process of democracy — with its competing interests and different ideologies and, yes, its components of greed and ambition along with its idealism — serve the common good. It works with the clash between what Francis characterizes (self-servingly, of course) as “ruthless pragmatism” and a high-minded commitment to public service. It has a quality of sincerity as a show, and allows for the same possibility in its characters. Where are the people in House of Cards who give a damn about ideas, or about other people, including — crucially, in a show that could be about governance in some deep way — those they are supposed to serve? Where is even the possibility of gravitas? Where is the capacity for real and difficult moral struggle? You might with justice say that these are simply not House of Cards’s concerns: that it’s not that kind of show. And you’d be right — and that would be exactly why, though I did watch it all, I won’t watch it again, whereas the show that gave me the episodes “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or this extraordinary confrontation between an earthly and a higher power is one I’ll go back to over and over.

Catching Up: Storm Warnings and Summer Reading

arthurbranchesHurricane Arthur passed over us yesterday. Happily, he was “only” a post-tropical storm when he got this far north, but he still packed a wallop. Our particular neighborhood in Halifax doesn’t seem to have been very hard hit. There are some branches down, including some pretty big ones, and we were without power for a few hours, but we got back on the grid before it became necessary to eat all the ice cream (shucks!). We got off lightly, then, compared to many. Here at least, too, the storm was pretty insignificant compared to 2003′s Hurricane Juan, which came onshore full force pretty much right where we live and took out 70% of the trees in nearby Point Pleasant Park as well as many of the biggest and most beautiful ones along our street (the before and after pictures here show clearly what a difference 70% makes).

Juan taught us respect for hurricane-force winds: the high reported gusts yesterday seemed to us good enough reason to keep off the streets and out of the way. So we had a quiet family day inside. Maddie and I did a sorting and reorganizing project in the basement while the lights were still on: its ostensible purpose was clearing out toys and supplies the kids have outgrown (brace yourself for donations, Salvation Army!), but a beneficent side effect is that we cleared three shelves in the bookcases down there, so my next project is reorganizing my mystery collection so the books aren’t two-deep. I also read deeper into King Hereafter (about which more in a moment). Then once we lost power it was, happily, still bright enough by the window to read most of the latest New York Review of Books. Owen has been spending most of his time lately turning a computer game he made into an iOS app (I’m counting on him to finance my early retirement through this or some similar project!) — a nice consequence of his losing power to his desktop is that he headed to the piano for amusement instead, so we whiled away the afternoon listening to his improvs plus some practice time on another of his summer projects, the cadenzas from the Ravel left-hand piano concerto.

We weren’t expecting power back until 9 p.m., but everything lit up again around 7, which was a relief. During winter storms you always have the reassurance that you can keep food fresh just by putting it outside, but the freezer packs we use to keep things chilled in summer wouldn’t probably get us through much more than a day. In then end, then, our storm day was just kind of a quiet break from routine. But we’re back in business today, which, along with making up for yesterday’s missed chores and errands, includes packing Owen off for math camp at Dalhousie. Here’s hoping the restored sunshine doesn’t turn his residence room into a sauna, and (more important) that he has fun bonding with other kids who really like math. He’s read math books for years, starting with picture books like G is for Google and moving on to books like Clifford Pickover’s Wonders of Numbers. He and his dad have also worked their way through most of the Great Courses math options. I did well in math through high school but met my match in first-year calculus, so they leave me behind pretty quickly with this stuff. But in case your kid ever says “what will I ever use this for in real life?” it might be helpful to know that just this week Owen apparently solved a graphics problem in the design of his new game using calculus. Hard as it is for us to believe, he will be applying to Dalhousie for real this fall, presumably as either a math or a computer science major — or both! So this time on campus will be a good preview.

juliejamesweddingAnother summer routine in our household is the library’s summer reading club. Maddie has signed up for it regularly in the past, and I was very happy that she agreed to do it again this year. Like last year, we’ve picked a small quantity of books for her to aim for (10) so that she doesn’t compromise on their quality — also, as usual, she’s got several weeks scheduled for summer camps that never leave time for reading during the day. As always, I’ve pledged to match her book for book (which shouldn’t be any problem for me, I hope!); our last day to meet our goal is September 6. You can see here how things have gone for us in previous years. We’ve both read our first book for this year’s tally: hers was Judy Blume’s Forever, and mine was Julie James’s It Happened One Wedding (which I quite enjoyed, though not as much as her Practice Makes Perfect). I’ve been reading a lot besides that one, but I’m not going to officially count books I read only as “filler” (familiar books I skim through for distraction when it’s too busy to concentrate properly, usually a Dick Francis or a Robert B. Parker, or, nowadays, a Jennifer Crusie or a Mary Balogh). The other real reading I’ve been doing is King Hereafter.  Though it is going very slowly, I’m not at all sorry to be reading it: the first 250 pages were really tough, and even now, at 400 pages in, I still can’t always remember who’s who, or who’s related to whom, but it is working its inexorable Dunnett magic on me, and it’s wonderful to see her working through her great themes (leadership, nation building, love, war) in a different landscape. I’m also part way through A Time of Gifts: it got put aside for other things but not because I wasn’t interested in it. Next up after King Hereafter will be Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, though, which my book club has chosen for its July meeting.

Open Letters Monthly July 2014!


We did it again! And though I think this almost every month, this issue is a particularly good one. As has become traditional for our July issue, we all pitched in for a summer reading feature: this time we each recommend a book or two that’s hot hot hot! (My romance-reading friends will appreciate that one of my recommendations is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible: I’ve come a long way!) A significant highlight is editor John Cotter’s account of what it’s like to lose music — gradually, stutteringly, but inexorably — in which he manages the very difficult feat of writing poignantly about personal loss without becoming lachrymose or sentimental. My colleague Alice Brittan reviews Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, The Snow Queen: how I love the graceful, meditative way she writes. Steve Danziger adds to his OLM credits with a look at the obsessive eccentrics who collect 78 rpms: Steve is another favorite contributor for me because he writes about subjects I don’t expect to be interested in but always draws me right in. Greg Waldmann takes on the Taliban; Justin Hickey continues his work on science fiction with Robogenesis; Steve Donoghue covers what sounds like a great book on jazz age New York; there are two new poems; and that’s not all!

My own main contribution is an essay on K. M. Peyton’s Pennington trilogy, a “YA” series that continues to be a favorite of mine. Inevitably, I found myself reflecting on the recent debate about whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA fiction, but rather than focusing on that argument in broad or abstract terms, I decided to write about Peyton’s books as I would any other. As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding: either they stand up to that kind of critical attention or they don’t.

“Absence of Sense”: Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment

ferrantedaysRemember when I said I couldn’t think of a book that I actively hated, that I truly regretted having read? Guess what: I found one! I did finish reading it, partly because I wanted to be sure it didn’t pull some kind of switch on me at the end and surprise me into liking it better, but mostly because it’s pretty short so reading it all the way through didn’t require a great investment of time. It took some will power, though, because I really wanted to get away from it as fast as I could.

Why did I pick out The Days of Abandonment in the first place? I had heard of it because I have been reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, starting with My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, and though my initial reaction was not rapturous, I couldn’t deny the interest and power of her story of two girls grimly battling their way through childhood and adolescence. (I was interested enough to grab the third volume, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, away from Steve on my recent trip to Boston, and I’ll still read it.)

Why did I dislike The Days of Abandonment so much? Basically, take all the things I didn’t like about Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, then remove all the things I did like about Messud’s novel and add a lot more bile (metaphorical bile, but also literal, as in the kind your dog would vomit up if he ate strychnine). The novel is about Olga, a writer with two children who collapses into rage and depression after her husband leaves her for Carla, a younger woman. He attributes his departure to “an absence of sense.” At the end of the novel, Olga tells him he was wrong to excuse himself that way:

Now I know what an absence of sense is and what happens if you manage to get back to the surface from it. You, you don’t know. At most you glanced down, you got frightened, and you plugged up the hole with Carla’s body.

“An absence of sense” does perfectly describe her life during those abandoned days: she spirals emotionally out of control, she can’t manage housekeeping or childcare, she loses the ability to do ordinary things like lock and unlock her doors. She tries with unsuccessful guile to track her husband down, and then when, quite accidentally, she happens across him and Carla on the street she viciously attacks them. She tries to have an affair with her neighbor. She starts swearing a lot, screams at and threatens her children, and basically behaves like a nasty, incompetent, raving idiot. That’s all, of course, in some ways perfectly appropriate and understandable in the circumstances.  It seemed disproportionate to me, her complete disintegration less about grief than a woeful abdication of her self-respect and autonomy — but who am I to judge? So her dog dies and she puts her children through hell: everybody hurts, right? And I have to give Ferrante credit for presenting Olga’s bad behavior without a hint of softening or compromise. I can’t think of a novel I’ve read recently that has a main character so entirely devoid of redeeming qualities. She doesn’t do or say one nice or admirable thing for the entire 200 pages.

But why? Why put us — not to mention Olga — through that? In my post about The Story of a New Name, I wondered if “the critical enthusiasm for [Ferrante's] novels is connected to the current anxiety about niceness in female characters: is anger the new obligation of the “serious” woman writer, or the new touchstone for critics of women’s writing?” I agree that the obligation of any novelist is not to be nice but to be interesting, but I found Nora’s anger in The Woman Upstairs tedious and Olga’s “absence of mind” repulsive. I guess I can’t rule out repulsion as an aesthetic effect, but I can opt against it, at least as the sole effect a novel has to offer. Just because for so long it was considered unladylike to show anger — just because anger needed to be admitted to the repertoire of women’s writing — doesn’t mean that in itself anger equals art. I thought Messud was “trying to make a broader political and feminist case for anger out of one woman’s very personal neuroses and bad judgment.” Now I think, well at least she was trying. I didn’t really see her point (I honestly didn’t think Nora had much to be angry about), but Ferrante doesn’t seem to have one: she’s just creating a spectacle, immersing us vicariously in Olga’s psychological and emotional catastrophe. It’s like confining her novel, rather than her protagonist, to the Red Room. Here, indeed, is “a mind filled with hunger, rebellion and rage.” But Bronte’s heroines are angry at something — and something systemic, too — and their novels are both protests against injustice and assertions of their right to transcend their oppression. The Days of Abandonment, in contrast, stakes everything on its skillful and ruthless portrayal of Olga’s unreason.

Olga does emerge, haltingly, from the depths. But here too what Ferrante offers is disappointing. Olga falls apart because her husband leaves her; her return to real life and self-control is measured through her response to another man. Again, you could say the same thing about Jane Eyre — but both she and Rochester work hard to earn their happy ending. I’m not against relationships in or out of novels; nowhere is it written that a love story must be a capitulation to patriarchy. But for me, Olga spends way too much time measuring her success according to how attractive or sexually active she is. Fine, this is the character Ferrante has created, and (again!) who am I to judge? I haven’t always handled my own personal traumas in ways that would stand up to scrutiny. I was sure happy, though, to reach the end  and be done with her– not to mention relieved that, bad as the experience was for me, the only actual casualty in the novel was the dog.

Note that I have given my reasons for not liking this novel. Sometimes (can I mention Madame Bovary and Edward St. Aubyn just once more?) when I dislike a novel I can nonetheless appreciate it, even admire it. I didn’t find anything admirable about The Days of Abandonment except, perhaps, its consistency. Oh, and I got that the locked apartment doors were probably symbolic! But I can see how someone would make a better, or at least different, case for it. Indeed, the cover of my handsome edition is adorned (as covers always are these days) with samples of effusive praise. I hated it, but maybe it’s not a bad novel. Maybe it’s a great novel! I don’t know. Feel free to defend it — but you’re more likely to convince me about it if you can avoid the following words: “searing,” “honest,” “raw,” “brave,” “exposed,” “unflinching,” or “naked.”

The Silver Spoons and the Joy of a Loving Letter

WP_20140625_002Here, as promised, is the story of Stewart and Joan and their silver spoons.

Each Christmas the lot at the condominium get together for a huge dinner, catered, at the swanky social suite on the main floor. Each brings his own plate and cutlery. Stewart donned his neat green jacket and red tie and off they went. That night they discovered the heirloom silver spoons from Joan’s grandfather (who left her the fortune she is enjoying now) were missing. Stewart wanted to post a notice on the board but Joan held him back. “We will be making out everyone is a thief,” she cried. Time passed and now they are in the airport on February 1, ready to go through the gun frisking. Joan slides through then the machine let out a scream when Stewart’s body got in. They frisked him again, more screams as Stewart kept crying he had nothing on his body. Finally he found a few silver coins which went in a saucer and more tests. More screams. Passengers were now getting edgy and the official took a hand-held explorer and went over Stewart’s body pocket by pocket. Lo, when he hit one pocket the machine went berserk, and lo, there was a hole in the lining and in went the silver spoons where they had lain since Christmas. As the official drew them out and all heads craned to see what Stewart was trying to sneak into Hawaii, there was a loud cry from Joan: “MY SPOONS! MY SPOONS!” The official’s face was full of disbelief as Stewart tried to explain the long story and he hustled them through the turnstile. By now red-faced and overheated, they scurried down the aisle to the plane when loud cries brought them up short as the official came up with the silver change they had forgotten to pick up.

I wonder if the pleasure I take in these anecdotes is because when I read them, I seem to hear my grandmother recounting them. “No one can hide themselves in their writing,” she noted in one of her letters; “you just read them, then you know them.” Don’t you think that’s true? I suppose it does assume a fairly direct relationship between writing and identity, without due caution for the conscious and unconscious ways we construct ourselves in words. And yet it also seems a common-sense version of Booth’s theory of ethical criticism: writing always conveys an ethos, a sense of self. From my grandmother’s letters, I can pick out her flaws and blind spots, certainly, but what I see most of all is her zest for life, with all its ups and downs and mysteries and revelations. “I don’t envy people who have tension-free lives,” she writes in one; “how dull it must be.” No one with her flair for making drama out of the mundane could ever be dull, but also growing up in the Depression taught her to appreciate the little things. Reminiscing about her life-long friend Dorothy (shown with her in the 1929 photo on my previous post), she noted that when they were young “the biggest thing was to walk from the west end where we lived up to the old Carnegie library on Hastings Street for me to get my books. . . all we needed was an excuse to go somewhere.” Both the need and the destination sound just about right to me!

Anyway, as I said, I have only a small selection of her letters left, but I treasure them. How she would have loved email! I have a vast archive of messages from friends and family — especially from my dear mother, another excellent correspondent. The form really doesn’t matter: what counts is the connection. As my grandmother says, “Why is it so hard to explain to anyone what a joy a loving and news-filled letter does to the soul? It really is magic.”


Summer Reading 2014

1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
In progress: Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
In progress: Dessen, Dreamland

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