Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory

Gregory has previously mined the lives of the Tudors in The Other Boleyn Girl, The Boleyn Inheritance, The Queen's Fool and The Virgin's Lover. The Constant Princess is the story of Katherine of Aragon--more specifically, her life prior to 1514 and the birth of Mary I.

Gregory doesn't replow the years Katherine is best known for--the years in which Henry VIII struggled to rid himself of her in order to marry Anne Boleyn. These years are well covered in The Other Boleyn Girl, albeit from a different perspective. Katherine is only a marginal figure in that book, as she has seemed in history.

As a Protestant myself, I have found myself irritated by Katherine's refusal to step aside, because I know how the story ends with the glorious and long reign of Elizabeth I. As a result, I have always seen her refusal to step away as a dam in the flow of history, which was remedied by Henry's break with the Roman Church and Katherine's death in 1536. It is useful to be reminded that no one knew at the time what would happen, and Katherine had her own reasons for refusing to be supplanted.

However, save yourself the time and don't bother reading this book. Gregory simply doesn't have the grasp of her material that she had in the Boleyn books. There are basically two ideas in this book, reiterated ad nasuseum: Katherine was raised by fanatic believers in the True Religion; and Katherine's marriage to Arthur (Henry's older brother) was not only consummated, but was the One True Love of her life. Thus the Great Question of Katherine's divorce--was she married in name only to Arthur?--is answered here by Gregory's frankly syrupy depictions of Katherine and Arthur as the Tristan and Isolde of their age. Sent off to Wales to "learn to rule," Arthur spends all his time sneaking into her rooms (why? Well, no good reason, except that historically, it seems that the two spent very little time together except as ordered--which does not support Gregory's theory of Twue Wuve). There the two of them have sex multiple times, and then engage in pillow talk about making England a great country--the New Camelot.

It is to gag. I mean, really! Arthur was about 15 when he married, and he died about five months later. Sure, the marriage was probably consummated--that's why she had come all the way from Spain. But really--her One True Soul Mate for All Time? Gregory piles on the slop with a deathbed promise--Katherine promises her nearly dead husband that she will stay in England, marry Prince Harry, become Queen of England, and make the England the two of them had planned. Oh, how Noble and Selfless these two were! How tragic for the country that the Real King should have died and his younger brother--who had never been taught to rule--should inherit the crown.

Let's get down to facts. Arthur was no more than 16 when he died. Even had he lived, he was not ready to rule at that age. Henry was then 11 years old, maybe 12. He was thus the heir apparent for six or seven years--enough time for him to have been taught everything he needed to know about ruling--or at least as much as Arthur knew when he died.

But no. Gregory can't have that--it interferes with the picture of True Love. Henry has to be--in every way--Arthur's inferior. Katherine has to do everything she does because of her Deathbed Promise to Arthur. Even though she knew Arthur for less than 5 months, and was married to Henry seven YEARS after Arthur's death, and remained married to Henry for 23 YEARS before he married Anne Boleyn--her heart was always true to Arthur. At best, it's not remotely believable, at worst, it's downright delusional.

Gregory hasn't finished, however. Despite being the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, despite going on the campaigns which drove the Muslims from Spain--Katherine meets a single Muslim and immediately comes to understand that her entire understanding of them was wrong. They aren't heretics to be converted or killed! They are just people who deserve to have their own understanding of God! That just smacks of pandering to contemporary culture. But, once you take away Katherine's faith--why else would she refuse to accept the new religion?

Oh, right. Because she promised Arthur that she would be Queen. It has nothing to do with her bloody inculcation into the Christian cause; nothing to do with forging a single nation out of warring factions through the imposition of a single faith. No--it's just Twue Wuvve--the Wuvve that outlasts life itself.

Well, barf. I would prefer a woman who is not magically capable of running an entire country without any training; I would believe in a woman who stood by her duty to God as she understood it; I would understand a woman who had intellect and ambition to make a country out of the remnants of the Wars of the Roses. I gag at this "I'm doing this all for you, dearest Arthur!" picture Gregory foists upon us.

Interestingly, each of my girls picked up this book at one point--it took me a long time to finish it, as you can probably guess by my review. Each girl read the promo material on the back "[I]t is Katherine herself who takes control of her own life by telling the most audacious lie in English history[.]" Each girl asked me what that lie was. How do you explain the whole nonsense about Henry marrying his brother's widow, and the farcical court of inquiry into whether Katherine had been a virgin 23 years before? I ended up saying something succinct like "Katherine had been married to Henry's older brother before she married him. The lie is that she said they never had sex." To which both girls said: "Ewwwww."

Which really is the proper response to this book.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwoood

This novel won the Booker Prize in 2000, and Margaret Atwood is one of the grande dames of contemporary literature. . .which is the long way of saying that this was one hell of a tedious book and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody I can think of.

How's that for succinct?

The conceit of the book is that the narrator--an 83 year old woman named Iris Chase Griffen--is writing out the story of her life. Interspersed with this narrative are chapters from a (fictional) novel called The Blind Assassin, published in 1947-ish, written by Iris' sister, Laura Chase before she died in an automobile accident. Also interleaved in these two narratives are newspaper clippings of major life events of the main characters.

What little actual suspense this book holds is what connection the fictional novel of Blind Assassin has with the "real" people of the novel. I figured out the Big Secret about a quarter of the way in, which is not much of a secret to anyone who has read much of anything written in the last ten years.

So, here comes the plot spoiling. The Chases are the wealthy family in town, and the girls are raised in isolation, as "befits their station." When the Depression hits, the family loses all its money, and the town becomes inflamed by "communist agitators," including a man named Alex Thomas, whom the girls meet. Before losing everything, Iris's father marries her off to his business rival, Richard Griffen, and the businesses consolidate. Her father then drinks himself to death, so Laura (then 14) goes to live with Iris and her husband.

Iris has an ongoing affair with Alex Thomas which lasts until he is killed in WWII. Richard has an ongoing affair with Laura, then has her committed into a sanitarium subjected to electroshock therapy when she becomes pregnant. He has the baby aborted as well. Iris in unaware of much of this, because Richard confiscates any mail that comes to her. Laura gets out and goes into hiding until the war is over. She re-contacts Iris, who tells her that Alex Thomas is dead and that she was his lover. Laura takes Iris car and drives herself off a bridge. Iris then writes this novel as her revenge against Richard, claiming that Laura wrote it. Richard kills himself when his treatment of Laura and the sanitarium become public, ruining his political aspirations. Iris then lives another 60 years where almost nothing happens and then she dies.

The only lively writing in this entire pretentious mess is in the fictional novel. The "novel" itself is merely a chronicle of Iris's affair with Alex Thomas--all their assignations and the story he makes up for her. It is a genre tale about a barbaric civilization, complete with blind assassins and female sacrifices who have their tongues cut out. The two lovers have nothing in common, and don't seem to even like each other very much. Alex is bitter about all class distinctions, and Iris can never do anything right. All they have is the sex. They don't even agree about how the story should go.

So this is the plot of Atwood's novel. It is jumbled up, and padded out with all kinds of boring details about Iris' life, both past and present. We are treated to numbing descriptions of how far she walks for her health, and how much she doesn't eat. We get details about what clothing women wore. We get small town newspaper social columns full of the vacations taken by people who are literally nothing more than names. We get Latin exercises. Lots of minutia, no character development. Alex Thomas is completely unattractive--he seems to be the only person either Iris or Laura have ever met, otherwise, there is no reason either of them should be drawn to him. Laura is constantly described as "different," but it's hard to see how.

I passed a lot of the book entertaining myself by noticing how Iris was like the imprisoned and voiceless sacrificial virgin of Alex's story, and by trying to figure out who was like the blind assassin. There is a lot of writing about who can see, who is seen. Iris fears that people stare at her, and she dislikes being in a spotlight; her name is evocative of sight, as it is a part of the eye. Otherwise, the book is remarkably dull.

One blogger I found described the book as being the story of Iris' life with all the interesting bits taken out. After she published the book, and Richard died, she lost her daughter (Alex's as well) to Richard's pushy sister, and her daughter's child as well. So, we are supposed to believe that this woman has lived 60 years since the end of WWII . . .doing what? Regretting her life? Being a victim? Merely waiting to die? But suddenly she decides she needs to write it all out (in a boring and convoluted way) for her granddaughter to find?

There is some clever writing, but not enough to justify such an enormous waste of time. Thank god this was an audiobook, so I listened while doing other, more productive things. My recommendation? Don't bother.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Queen of Babble, by Meg Cabot

Meg Cabot is an unusually prolific writer, famous for her teen books "The Princess Diaries," now in its 9th volume, I think. She also wrote two other teen series: The Mediator and 1-800-WhereAreYou. She has a number of adult novels as well, which are differentiated from her teen books mostly by being slightly more sexually graphic.

The Cabot formula is front and center in The Queen of Babble: a young woman (Lizzie) with the ability to run off at the mouth is uncertain about her career future, and is in love with an unsuitable man. When betrayed by him (in this case, because he is working as a waiter AND still "on the dole" in London), she flees to France, where her friend is spending the summer working at a chateau that hosts weddings. On the train, she meets a good looking young man to whom she spills--at length--her woes over her now ex-boyfriend, only to find this stranger is actually a member of the family that owns the chateau.

We have the usual obstacles to overcome: he has a girlfriend, who is obviously completely wrong for him; she insists she is too fresh from her break-up to get into a relationship; the first wedding of the season involves a terrible wedding dress that only Our Lizzie can fix. Evil Inappropriate Girlfriend gets dumped, Lizzie alters a vintage couture gown found in the attic to save the wedding, boy and girl have sex on a wine cask and all ends well.

It's exactly the kind of novel Meg Cabot writes, but it's charming and has some redeeming quirky moments. One of my favorites is when Lizzie sees her crush wearing wingtips, and nearly passes out because to Lizzie, wingtips are "so hot." Another is when Lizzie realizes her English boyfriend was lying and using her, and she wants to "take back" the blow-job she gave him. She spills this particular tidbit to the stranger on the train, and he understandably finds her funny. She gets a phone call from Bad Boyfriend, and her new friend calls himself her "attorney, seeking return of the blow-job. If he is unable to return it to her, she will be forced to sue." It's the modern "meet cute," with a side of raunchy.

A light time waster, frivolous and frothy, no surprises, but no disappointment either.

The Serpent On The Crown, by Elizabeth Peters

This is the first Amelia Peabody book I've read--and to be completely and pointlessly honest, I listened to in from Apparently there are quite a few of these--set in time starting in 1884 up to 1923 or so. This one is 1921 or 22--Tutankhamen's tomb has not yet been discovered, although Howard Carter is hovering around the edges of the story, and "everyone" agrees that there are no more new royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Amelia is married to Egyptologist Professor Emerson, and with their grown son Ramses, his wife Nefret, and their four year old twins, they excavate and inevitably get mixed up in mysteries and murder. In this book, the Emersons are approached by a Lady Novelist, who gives them a priceless solid gold statuette, claiming there is a curse on it that killed her husband. The lady then goes missing, only to be found after a week--dead. The Emersons need some additional assistance on their team, and are approached by a German who worked on digs before The War, and a Russian who can decipher papyri.

The family endures a number of attacks on their home and their members, as thieves attempt to take the priceless statuette. They do not believe in a curse, but they do wish to know were the statute came from originally, as they have never seen anything like it.

I suppose better knowledge of the characters would have given me a better understanding of what the hell was going on most of the time. As it was, I found this to be an extremely slow moving mystery. The total reading time of the audiobook was around 10 hours, and I was already more than halfway through before the first body showed up.

The Emersons are gruff, tempermental, veddy veddy English, and hard to warm up to. They order the police around, and seem to run Luxor for their own interests--yet there is a sense that they skirt the racism that would be normal for their time. There is what appears to be some solid archeological foundation to the book--the Emersons get permission to re-excavate a tomb known as KV55, and what I found about it on the internet was precisely how Peters described it.

Nevertheless, it was an unsatisfying mystery. The murder is solved when the murderer makes a dying confession--and reveals that he had assumed somebody else's identity. So there were no clues, no decent suspects--the mystery seemed to get solved offstage. There were some lingering threads that turned out to be completely unrelated: there were at least two people running around attempting murder at the same time, but neither had anything to do with the other.

It was a pleasant enough listen, and there is something inherently Romantic about the tombs of Ancient Egypt--but I think it may be unfair for me to just jump into this series at book 16 (more or less). I could go back and read the earlier ones and see if it changes my opinion about this one.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, by Christopher Moore

So, first off, I have to admit that I have read Moore's "A Dirty Job" and enjoyed it. I'm a fan of Terry Pratchett, as you can probably tell from my profile, and I was looking forward to an off-beat and irreverent view of the Bible.

Not that I was disappointed, exactly, but it wasn't what I expected. If you are offended by the concept of the thirty year old Messiah calling his disciples "dumb fucks," then this book isn't for you. If that breathes some fresh air into an ossified image, then you might enjoy this book. Moore, though, isn't much more iconoclastic than that.

Everything reported in the Bible happened, more or less exactly as reported, with a few swear words tossed in. Jesus (actually called "Joshua," the Hebrew name he actually had) did do all the miracles, did cast out demons and heal the sick, etc. etc. Sure, as a kid, he and his younger brother played "resurrect the lizard," but even that isn't really heretical.

Biff--or, as reported, "Levi who is called Biff" met Joshua when they were six, and the two were best friends their entire lives. It was Biff (his name is a Hebrew slang term meaning "slap upside the head") is Joshua's first disciple, and chronicles their lives together between the ages of 6 and 30, when Joshua returns to Galilee and begins his ministry.

The intervening years are spent performing minor miracles--Joshua puts his face on all the Passover bread one year--and as they approach manhood, they leave Israel to travel east to find the three wisemen. Joshua doesn't understand what he is supposed to do as the Son of God, and hopes to learn his mission from the three men who travelled to see him at his birth.

He finds Balthazar outside Kabul, where the man studies magic and has a powerful demon trapped in a warded room, which makes him immortal. Balthazaar is attended by eight beautiful and brilliant Chinese women, and Biff gets to live a sybaritic life for the years Joshua studies with the magus. This, incidentally, is where the Jewish tradition of celebrating Jesus' birthday with Chinese food starts.

After leaving Kabul, Joshua and Biff travel to Tibet, where Gaspar is the abbot of a Buddhist temple. Joshua masters Buddhist disciplines, and meets the last remaining yeti--a gentle creature that was hunted to extinction by the humans who could not understand its non-aggressive nature. Foreshadowing much? The monks of Gaspar's monastery make every one who seeks them wait outside their door for three days (significant much?) before letting them in. Joshua swears that anyone who knocks on his door to heaven will be let in.

After eight years or so in Tibet, they leave to seek Gaspar's brother Melchior, who lives in India. There they interrupt a bloody sacrifice to Kali, and Joshua swears there will be no more sacrifices. Well, okay, maybe ONE more.

Perhaps there is something to be gained in experiencing Jesus as a student of several world religions, and thus thinking of Christianity as yet another aspect of a universal search for relationship with the divine. This is as far from canonical Bible as Moore takes his book; leaving one to wonder what drove him to write this particular book. There is nothing very outrageous here: Jesus does not marry, he does not ever doubt his role as the Son of God. Culturally, this book is much less daring than "The Last Temptation of Christ" or even Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code."

In the end, this is a pleasant diversion, but very little that you wouldn't find in Sunday School.

Monday, January 14, 2008

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

I picked this one up at a "Buy 1 Get 2nd Half Price" sale. I read her book "Case Histories" quite a while ago. So long ago, in fact, that I can't remember much about it, other than it was a good read. This one had gotten some good reviews as well, so I figured it was worth a shot.

It was. The novel takes place over three days in Edinburgh, during the Fringe Festival--a period when hundreds of tourists clog the town. The timing on my reading this was coincidentally right after hearing from two dear friends about their trips to Edinburgh. So many of the locations for the book felt familiar to me, because I had just spent some time immersed in the geography of the city.

The story starts with a bang--literally, as a shady character in a silver Peugeot is rear-ended by someone driving a blue Honda. The street is crowded with people lining up to get into a Fringe venue, and so there are a lot of witnesses who see the Honda guy get out of his car brandishing a pipe and beating the Peugeot guy senseless. One person in the crowd throws his briefcase at the Honda guy, clipping him on the shoulder, and stopping the beating long enough for the police to come.

Each chapter is told from a different point of view, with a different character as its locus. The first chapter is told from the point of view of Peugeot Guy, the second by the gentle man who threw the briefcase. There is the wife of a shady real estate developer, a retired policeman whose girlfriend is acting in a Fringe production, a fading comedian whose career is bottoming out at the Fringe, and probably some others I have forgotten. We see the "road rage" incident from several points of view, and see how its ripples spread out from the center.

Atkinson is straddling a couple of genres with this book, as she did in "Case Histories." Her policeman is putting together the pieces of what happened, but this is not strictly a detective story. Who was Honda man? Where has he gone? Why did he beat up the guy in the Peugot? What happened after the man threw his briefcase? Atkinson pulls us along through the book with these questions, but the book is more interested in exploring the characters who are caught up in this incident. We see the disintegration of the policeman's relationship with his actress girlfriend, attended by his unease in having inherited a substantial fortune that means he no longer has to work.

We see the grim malice of the real estate developer's wife as the government agents close in on his business. She has been setting aside money in preparation for this--she has suspected he was going to disappear once the business was exposed, and she intended to keep herself in the style to which she had become accustomed. It was a form of karmic payback that he had a stroke while in bed with a prostitute. He lay in a coma at the hospital as his shady dealings all came home to roost.

We see the hard life of a policewoman who lives in one of those substandard housing developments, as her house deteriorates around her, she struggles to raise her teenage son as a single parent and struggles to be accepted in the largely male world of the police.

Things become complicated when the former policeman finds a girl's corpse washed up on an island, but it slips out on the tide before he can pull it to shore. Who was she, why was she killed, and who killed her?

Atkinson is a smart writer, and she keeps a sure hand on all the various plots. Each of the characters assumes a richness that makes each of them sympathetic in some way, while simultaneously serving as elements of a complicated plot. Matryoshka dolls appear over and over again in the book--the Russian nesting dolls, where each doll holds another one inside it, until you come to the last, tiny doll: the nub of the system.

The novel itself arguable has a similar structure--each story opens up to reveal another one inside it, until at the end Atkinson reveals the center of the story--the reason it all started. Upon finishing the book, however, I was immediately reminded of the ourobouros, the snake that swallows its own tale. The ending of the book is its beginning, and the whole spins around until it meets its beginning again. It's a well crafted book, and an engaging and entertaining read.

***********HERE BE SPOILERS************

I was puzzled throughout the book--why would Honda guy be the one with road rage? He was the one who hit the other car--why did he get out and proceed to beat up the presumably innocent driver of the other car?

Atkinson answers this at the end of the book--with a little slight-of-hand/sly storytelling. Peugot guy was shady, and he had been hired by the real estate developer's wife to kill her husband. It was just coincidence that he had a stroke at the very time the "road rage" incident was happening. Honda guy is the developer's personal thug, and was trying to foil the murder before it happened. Everyone is implicated. Everyone is guilty of something. There are different degrees of guilty, and we see many of them in this book.