Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Passion of Artemisia, by Susan Vreeland

"Reading" this one on audio, as I'm in a serious case of Reader's Block. My book club chose this one, and I voted for it, based on my affection for Vreeland's earlier book, The Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Bad choice.

I'm about five chapters in, and the relentless self-pity and melodrama reduce this book from the level of art Vreeland showed in Hyacinth Blue to mere genre "historical" fiction. Do I really have to finish this book?

As a matter of background, Artemisia Gentilischi was an actual historical person, who lived in 17th century Italy. Her father was a painter, and as he had no son, taught her to paint. He also hired painting tutors for her, one of whom raped her. The trial took place in Rome, and the documents are apparently available. After the trial, the true, historical Artemisia entered an arranged marriage and continued to paint, becoming one of very few women artists of her age who achieved prominence both in her lifetime and afterwards. An exceptional woman in an intriguing profession at a time when the Renaissance was sweeping Europe.

Chapter One is called "Sibille" and with it the promise of richness and metaphor. Artemisia and her father are plaintiff/witnesses in the trial of Artemisia's rapist. A device called the "sibille" is used on Artemisia to test the truth of her testimony. Narrow cords are woven between her fingers and tightened -- torture, in short. A "sybil" is a mythological prophetess, and Michelangelo painted a Sybill on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. The sibille is used to test the truth of an artist's testimony, an artist who is herself a woman, with the down side that the sibille appears to risk the use Artemisia's fingers.

But since the book is written solely from Artemisia's perspective, we already "know" that she is telling the truth. The use of the sibille is never justified or presented as anything other than gratuitous torture with a side order of permanent maiming and the destruction of her painting career. Nobody else cares about the effect of this torture on her--and there is not even any indication that the evidence she is bringing is all that important anyway.

The trial continues--the "defense" seems to be that the accused is innocent and that Artemisia has slept with many men. So the sibille is used to test her denial of sleeping with a laundry list of other men. Are those men ever called in to testify? Are they ever even questioned? We don't know, because that is outside what Vreeland is doing, which is creating a melodramatic scene of a woman oppressed by the men who control the society.

Other than making the reader angry at this sexism, does this make any legal sense? Especially since AFTER this, when Artemisia denies the other sexual partners, THEN then bring in midwives to check if she is still a virgin. WHAT? I mean, everybody agrees she isn't a virgin: I don't think that even defendant denied sleeping with her. So, what is this for?

Then, it appears that Artemisia's father and the defendant worked out a betrothal, and that she was going to marry him, and so after that point, she didn't fight him. So, what's the point here? Is this actually a breach of promise suit--did the defendant refuse to marry her after all? Is there such a thing as marital rape in 17th century Rome--I mean, if she was going to marry him, why is there even a trial?

There is something in there about a stolen painting--presumably the defendant stole it from Artemisia's home, and so this trial is about her father's claims for the painting and a virgin daughter, both of which were taken by the defendant? What is going on here?

Vreeland doesn't tell us, presumably because she doesn't care. The point is not to illustrate the culture or the social structure of the time--it's just that men humiliate and destroy women simply because they can. Sure, that's bound to happen in a city where the legal and the religious structures are hopelessly intertwined, but it would be a better book if we saw the scope of entrenched sexism inherent in a rape trial of this time. I mean, if a rape trial -- by the laws of the city -- required the testimony of midwives that the victim was not a virgin, then we could understand why those women were called. Did the laws require that the examination be conducted in the courtroom? Did they require that the notary (presumably the Renaissance equivalent of a court reporter) be present? Then tell us--because that sort of institutional disregard for a woman's experience tells us so much about Artemisia's situation.

Instead, this stuff just happens, and Vreeland only gives us Artemisia's embarrassment and the take away is that all these men are pigs. But "men are pigs" simply is too modern a sentiment to fit comfortably in this 17th century milieu. Ditto a subsequent scene where Artemisia watches her father count out the coin for her dowry. She is entering an arranged marriage, presumably so she can get out of Rome and the gossip about her and her trial. "I felt like a bartered goat," she says, but I can't get the outrage. Aren't arranged marriages pretty standard in Rome at this time? Don't most girls get married off by their parents and sent off with a dowry as well? If this is usual, then there is no reason she should feel so insulted by the process. It's what she's been expecting her whole life. It's as if a modern woman complained about walking down the aisle--if there is something unusual about doing this, or unusual about your feelings about it, you have to make that clear.

But Vreeland merely gives us Artemisia's outrage and disgust, and then moves on. There is so little detail to anchor this story into the time and place of its setting, that it almost feels like a costume drama, where modern people don old fashioned clothing.

Life is too short to slog through bad books.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

This is the second novel from the author of Time Traveller's Wife and has been getting excellent reviews. It's not quite the emotionally engaging success that TTW is, but it is creepily compelling.

Set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London, it is the story of two sets of twins: Edie and Elspeth, and Edie's daughters Julia and Valentina. Something happened between Edie and Elspeth, and for over 20 years they haven't been in contact. Edie and her family live in Chicago, while Elspeth lives in London overlooking the cemetery. At the start of the novel, Elspeth is dying and arranges for her nieces to inherit her estate, with the condition they live in the flat for a year before they can sell it.

The other residents of the apartment building are Robert, Elspeth's lover, who lives in the flat below and works at the cemetery while writing his history thesis on it. Upstairs are Martin and Marijke: Martin has OCD, and his obsessions have finally driven Marijke away after 25 years.

The book is a meditation on identity, the meaning of "home" and the role of relationships to identity. Once Elspeth dies, she becomes a ghost and ends up haunting her flat. What does it mean to be "Elspeth" without her body? Robert is devastated by her death, but what does it mean to him to have her back in ghost form? They are, as he says, "betwixt and between." He wants to come to her, but she doesn't want him to die. Even if he did, they might end up haunting their own flats and never be able to reach each other.

Martin has identity issues--he has a rational brain that understands the pointlessness of his OCD compulsions, yet he can't overcome them with logic. He can take medications, but the side effects rob him of different parts of his identity and so he chooses not to take them. Marijke cannot bear to be robbed of her identity by Martin's compulsions, and she ends up leaving him to return home to Amsterdam, even while remaining in love with him. For Martin, is the flat still "home" without his wife?

Julia and Valentina have their own struggle with identity. Valentina is the weaker and more compliant of the two, but she wants to have her own life and identity separate from her sister. Julia can't imagine ever being apart. Valentina has also fallen in love with Robert, and Julia resents the time she spends with him, resenting the way Robert comes between them. Robert has started to heal from his grief, and starts to consider the possibility of a life with Valentina, when Elspeth makes her presence known.

Niffenegger posits that a ghost starts out as weak as a newborn, and Elspeth has had to train to have any effect in the physical world. The revelation comes as she discovers she can write in the dust on a piano. Robert and the twins develop a home-made Ouija board, and Robert spends hours "talking" to Elspeth through automatic writing as well. As time passes, Valentina begins to be able to see Elspeth and the two of them spend hours together as well.

Matters come to a climax after Elspeth accidentally catches the soul of a kitten while playing with it, but manages to put it back into the cat's body, literally resurrecting it. Valentina sees this as a way to escape her sister--apparently she's completely incapable of simply enrolling in design school without Julia's permission so she creates an elaborate scheme to free herself from her sister. She convinces Elspeth to pull her soul out of her body, and then has Robert steal the corpse from the mausoleum so Elspeth can put her soul back in. Julia will be convinced Valentina is dead, so V can go off and live a non-twin life.

It is a stupid plan, of course, but Elspeth is convinced that Valentina is desperate enough to kill herself to escape Julia, and this way there is a chance that V won't die. This is how she forces Robert to participate--because either way, he will be guilty of V's death.


Of course, it works, sort of, but in all the wrong ways. Elspeth is able to grasp V's soul and pull it out of the girl's body. Robert is able to pull strings with people he knows so Valentina's body is not embalmed, so that it is kept cold, and she is buried in the family mausoleum in Highgate. Robert is able to bring the corpse back to the flat and Elspeth tries to put the soul back in, but V is far too weak, and her soul doesn't go back inside, so Elspeth takes the body instead. Robert is again trapped between the two women--the soul of the woman he first loved, the body of the second one. Elspeth has come back to him, because he could not come to her. Valentina is trapped in the flat as a ghost, now more dependent on Julia than ever before. Julia is heartbroken, but is aware of V's presence in a way she never felt Elspeth's.

In the end, Robert and Elspeth leave London to avoid Julia seeing them. They have a son, although Robert has become distracted, and soon after his son's birth he finishes the enormous thesis and escapes. Elspeth eventually comes to realize he will never return.

Julia learns to see Valentina, and helps her to escape as well. Valentina climbs into Julia's mouth, and Julia carries her to the cemetary, where Valentina meets other ghosts, learns to fly on crows, and finds to her surprise that she is happy.

Martin takes small steps in overcoming his OCD, and at the end of the book is able to travel to Amsterdam, back to Marijke. He escapes his condition, his apartment, his old life in favor of a new one with his wife. Their son Theo comes to the flat, and Julia is probably going to fall in love with him.

There are some interesting parallels--Elspeth must wait for Robert, but she gets impatient and comes to him and so drives him away. Marijke waits for Martin, and by waiting they come together in what promises to be a happy way. Valentina is trapped in her life with Julia, and by dying she becomes free. Elspeth is free in life, but trapped in death. Elspeth and Edie are twins who regretted their separation, Valentina and Julia are twins who should have been more individual.

The great secret of the Noblin twins is finally revealed as well. Edie and Elspeth switched names over Edie's determination to test her fiance's love. (Like "The Marriage of Figaro" or "Two Gentlemen of Verona" perhaps.) Edie was engaged to James, but insisted she and her sister switch identities to see if James could tell. He could, but went along with the scheme. He fell in love with the "other" sister and broke his engagement to one and married the "other." So they remained switched their entire lives. The woman who lived in London and died of leukemia was actually named "Edwina" but for her sister's sake took "Elspeth" as her name. However, the London woman had slept with James once, possibly to spite her sister, and ended up pregnant. Thus the twins Julia and Valentina were actually the daughters of the London Elspeth, not the Chicago Edie. More playing with identity--which only created misery and loneliness.

The specter of death infuses the book--the main characters all live adjacent to the cemetary, Robert works there and writes about it, Elspeth is buried there, Julia and Valentina are grave owners. Various characters muse on the difference between historical graves and the burial of people they know.

The title refers to William Blake's famous poem "The Tyger."

There is some wonderful writing, and some eerie ghost-story-ness to this book, but it feels to me that Niffenegger hadn't quite gotten enough time with it to fully finish what it was meant to be. The scenes around Valentina's death and funeral feel out of touch--the grief is not fully rendered, but only sketched. Robert's abandonment of reincarnated Elspeth and his son is tossed in and seen at a remove. We have spend a great deal of the book inside Robert's head: it's just odd to have no insight into his thoughts about Elspeth's return or why he had to leave.

Julia is rather sketchy as well--she is bossy and orders Valentina around, and yet she is the one afraid to live life without her twin. Julia is the one who abandons college, but we never know why. Julia is the one who expects V to sleep in the same bed, wear the same clothing, do everything together--what is she afraid of if V goes to school without her?

Why are Elspeth and Robert so certain Valentina will kill herself if she doesn't escape Julia immediately? Why do they think participating in V's death and possible resurrection is the right thing to do? Was Elspeth as selfless as she claimed to be, or did she suspect that she would be able to inhabit V's body because V would be too weak?

The bones of a great novel are all there, but the body is a bit gaunt. Still, it's a fascinating read and worth the time.

ETA: I just read the NYT review, and there are two things I wish I had come up with myself: 1) that when pronounced with an English accent, "symmetry" and "cemetary" sound an awful lot alike, and 2) that the novel is concerned with "obsession" as much as anything else. I totally agree--the characters are engaged in a struggle to balance obsession with love, as well as identity.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Steig Larsson

This is the sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I hated. So, why did I read the sequel? I don't know. I just did. And I am glad that it was an improvement in every way over its predecessor.

This book starts off rather slowly, with a lot of daily life of the eponymous heroine, Lisbeth Salander. When last we saw her, she had used her computer hacking skills to steal several billion kroner from a corrupt financier. When this book opens, Salander has used the money to travel, island hopping through the Caribbean. She has had some elective surgery in Italy, getting breast implants to look more womanly, and less like a 12 year old boy. She has also had her most visible tattoo--a wasp on her neck--removed. She has pulled out a couple of piercings as well. Could she be maturing?

We see her studying what can only be called "Extreme Maths," and puzzling over Fermat's Theorem, while covertly tracking the man from the next hotel room, who seems to be beating his wife. Salander has Definite Views on such behavior, and tries to figure out what is going on--she is tired of being kept awake by the sounds from their room. During a hurricane, she stops the man from killing his wife, saves the woman's life, and watches without much emotion as the man is swept away by the hurricane.

But none of this has anything to do with the plot of the book. It's just the kind of thing that happens to Salander. After this episode, she decides to go home to Sweden, where she continues to live as invisible a life as she can.

Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist is still a celebrity journalist, the expose of the corrupt financier that ended the last book has made him a star, restored his reputation, and made his little issues driven magazine a Major Player in journalism. Now, two years later, he is approached by a free-lance journalist who is working with his doctoral candidate girlfriend to document the sex slave trade in Sweden. This is just up the alley of the monthly magazine Millenium, and Blomkvist and co. are planning to publish the book, as well as simultaneously release a themed issue of the magazine at the same time.

Suddenly, the free-lancer and his girlfriend are found dead in their apartment, shot execution style. Not long afterwards, Salander's guardian (a real slimebag she put in his place in the last book) is also found dead, shot slightly before the journalist. Salander's prints are found on the gun used in all three deaths, and on a broken coffee cup in the journalist's apartment. The police decide she is their suspect, and the concentrate all their efforts on finding her.

All the details of Salander's trouble life are plastered over the media. Some things are true, some are invented, most are twisted to be as salacious as possible. At one point, she is characterized as a psychotic serial killer from a Satan-worshipping lesbian sex cult. Spin can be such a nasty weapon.

Because that is not the Salander we have come to know over the course of these two books. And a few people who actually know Salander don't believe the stories they are reading. None of them--for example Blomkvist, or her former employer Dragan Armensky--knew she had been declared incompetent or was under a guardianship, but still they could not quite believe the story as told by the police. And they undertake their own investigations.

The novel then documents the search for Salander, and the differing motives of all those looking for her. The prosecuting attorney is using the salacious details of the story to build up his own newsworthiness, planning to use the trial of Lisbeth Salander to gain political power of his own. Som eof the police involvwed are corrupt, or blatantly sexist and obssessed wtih any deviancy. Armansky has two employees assisting the police, one of who bears a grudge against Salander for discovering that he stole copies of compromising photos from a celebrity client and then sold them to a magazine. She warned him that she would be watching him, and he hated her for it, so he was willing to do anything to pin these three murders on her.

Blomkvist is convined that the murders have to do with the expose on sex=trafficking Millenium was going to publish. The police seem to be unable to consider anything other than Salander's guilt. Salander herself is absent for much of the middle third of the novel ans everyone else tries to figure out what is going on. Occasionally the mysterious name "Zala" bobs up, but no one can find who this is and what connection he has to these murders.

In the end, The Girl Who Played with Fire comes down to a battle between those who respect and trust Salander, and those who hate her obsessively. Those who hate her tend to be men who have run afoul of her strict moral code and have been caught at it, and forced to bend to her will. It is a strikingly sexist villiany that provides the engine of this plot. Nearly all the Bad Guys are men who think women should do as they tell them to do, and that a woman who resists a man's orders must be broken into submission. For them, Salander is their worst nightmare.

Salander isn't the only woman proving herself in what is mostly a man's world. Salander's friend Miriam Wu is a kick-boxer and fully emancipated woman who gets mixed up in the violence because of her friendship with Salander. Sonia Modig is the only woman on the police team searching for Salander, and she outs both the men who cannot understand women except in reference to their own obsessions and hatreds. Ericka Berger is the Editor in Chief of Millenium and is poised to become the editor of one of the largest newspapers in the country. Even one of the murder victims, the woman who was writing a thesis on sex-trafficking, was the one who had done the research and thinking about the issue, which her free-lance journalist boyfriend depended on for his book and for the Millenium articles.

So unlike Dragon Tattoo, this book is much less cruel to women, presenting a much more balanced view of gender relationships. Sure, some men are still cavemen about relating to women, but not all of them are. Not all of the women are merely victims either. Salander is unusually forthright in her defense of herself and her gender, but she is no longer the only one who is able to withstand men's attempts to define her.

The book isn't entirely free of the defects of the first one. There is still a lot of awkward detail: Salander goes to Ikea to buy furniture for her new apartment, and we get what amounts to a sales receipt of everything she purchased. Does the fact that she bought "a Hemnes bed" really tell us anything that a more general description wouldn't have done better? Maybe that is a Swedish thing, where simply listing the name of the Ikea product creates instant recognition. But later we see how Miriam furnished her apartment, and in that case we get a description of what it actually looked like, not just a list of the items in the room.

One of my big quibbles with Dragon Tattoo is that some of the most obvious clues were entirely overlooked until the very end of the book--surely someone would have thought to look at who benefited financially by the victim's death, for example. Such glaring inadequacies were kept to a minimum in Played with Fire. Sure, someone should have thought to talk to Slander's previous guardian when the most recent one turned up dead, but there is a pretty good case that the police were simply too pressed by time and political exigencies to do so right away. Blomkvist does eventually, and not too unbelievably late in the proceedings either.

Okay, kind of late, but he wasn't totally wasting his time before that, and by the time he did find her old guardian, he was in possession of facts that made the guardian's story understandable.


It turns out that the mysterious Zala was a defecting member of the GRU, the military secret police in the Soviet Union. He had a gold mine of information and was incredibly valuable to the Swedish secret police for decades. However, the cost of keeping access to his information was that the Sapo had to clean up after his boozing and whoring ways. As used here, "clean up" is a phrase that actually means to "cover up."

Of course, Zala was Salander's father. He got her mother pregnant, and returned periodically to her, frequently beating her in the process. The last time happened when Salander was 12, and Zala beat her mother so badly that he caused brain injury and she never recovered. Salander tried to protect her mother by attacking Zala in his car, pouring a milk carton of gasoline into the car and tossing in a lighted match.

Zala was seriously injured in the explosion, but because of his special status, the result was that Salander was taken away and locked up in a children's psychiatric ward for 2-3 years. There, her "treatment" consisted of being strapped to a bed in a sensory deprivation room. This was presented as "care," but Salander experienced it as torture, and she learned to hate and distrust authorities. She refused to speak to any doctors or psychiatrists, and so was labelled a "mentally ill" but with no specific diagnosis, because she refused to co-operate.

The murders all go back to Zala. Her former guardian--the one who beat and raped her in the last book--had become obsessed with her and wanted to destroy her. He was also part of the Swedish Security Police (Sapo, kind of like the Swedish CIA) who had helped Zala defect. He asked Zala for help to get out from under Salander's control--Zala hated Salander as much as he did after all. But the journalist came to interview the guardian about Zala, and that meant that Zala had to kill all three of them to keep his identity secret. All three were executed by one of Zala's henchmen. It was just bad luck that Salander's fingerprints turned up at all.

Probably the weakest part of the book is the very end, an extended chase with an appalling amount of violence that somehow doesn't actually stop anybody. Salander tracks down her father's secluded hide-out, and goes after him. He is waiting for her--having spotted her on the infra-red security cameras. She managed to evade his thug, but he shoots her three times with a Browning--once in the hip, once below her shoulder blade, and once in the back of the head. She falls to the ground, and he dumps her into a shallow grave.

Weirdly, she wakes up, and manages to scratch her way to the surface. She ends up confronting Zala again in a woodshed, where she manages to hit him in the face and the leg with an axe, which weirdly doesn't kill him either. She leaves him locked in the woodshed, and again evades the thug, this time by being so frightening that he takes her for a monster from hell and runs away. He is then spotted by Blomkvist and tied up.

Salander checks her injuries, and touches her own brain through her head wound. She tries to stay awake, but goes unconscious with a gun in her hand. Blomkvist finds her and calls for an ambulance. And the book ends.

So--weird. But what Larsson has done much better this time is to paint how difficult it is to be a person out of power. If, like Salander, you don't have any social position or power, you can be ruined at the whim of others. As the police start discussing Salander's past, she looks like someone who should not be allowed into general society. As you see the world from her perspective, however, you realize that she is doing what she can to protect herself from the abuses of those who do have power. She refuses to be a victim, and by so refusing, she gets marginalized. It is easy for the police to believe that she is a triple murderer, because her record looks so bad when read with the idea that she might be a criminal.

The "reality" is that her record looks so bad because she is a victim who refuses to lie down. Really, how many standard deviations is she from the rest of the population? She tried to protect her mother from a violent abuser, and ended up in a psychiatric ward because the abuser was a national security secret. As long as she was alive, she was a threat to national security and so she had to be neutralized. The game was rigged against her from the start--and she had no way to know it. So as a 12 year old, she was locked away, and deliberately controlled in the interest of keeping Zala happy and producing intelligence.

I still find the amount of physical damage these characters experience to be excessive--especially at the end. I don't understand why anybody finds Mikael Blomkvist attractive, although at least three women seem to find him irresistible--women I otherwise admire. But Lisbeth Salander remains a compelling character, and if the third book in the series also has her as the focus, then I will even have more tolerance for the misleading nature of the title of Dragon Tattoo.

As a final note--I read this book electronically. Both Amazon and Barnes & Nobel have free e-book apps for the iPod Touch, and I read this one on my iPod. While the screen is much smaller than a book page, the experience was quite pleasant. I took my iPod on a weekend trip to North Carolina, and except for a short time during take-off and landing when all electronics had to be turned off, it was an excellent way to take a novel on a trip. The iPod couldn't be more portable, and so my carry on bag was much lighter than it would have been if I had packed the two physical novels I had loaded onto the iPod. My next experiment with an e-book on iPod is Audrey Neufenegger's follow up to her amazing The Time Traveler's Wife. The new book, Her Fearful Symmetry has been getting excellent reviews, and is the next book up.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain

I bet, like me, you think you already know this story, don't you?

Two boys, oddly (and conveniently!) identical, change clothes and step into each others' lives. Each learns both the good and the bad of the other's world, and in the end they go back to their original positions, having learned a Moral Lesson about appreciating their own lives.

That sells the story short. After all, it was written by Mark Twain, NOT Little Golden Books.

(Or Disney, either!)

Twain was not interested in generically moralistic pablum for youth. In fact, "The Prince and the Pauper" is set concretely in a specific period of time in a specific location--London, in late January of 1547. The prince of the title is the future Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, and Twain is setting his sights on specific matters of injustice in a fashion nearly Dickensian.

Tom Canty, the pauper, is more than simply poor. His father is a brute and a criminal, his mother and sisters are illiterate and brutalized. Tom himself escapes the meanness of his own life by reading and creating his own small kingdom among the other poor boys of the area. Thus Twain is careful to create a plausible basis for how the boys carried off the switch.

The actual switch happens quickly--Tom is spotted gazing at the Prince of Wales, and having attracted the negative attention of the guards, is being beaten. Prince Edward, a "truly noble" lad, instructs the guard to bring the boy to him. He then takes Tom to his royal rooms, and listens to the stories of a boy who is free to go where he wishes. As a joke, they switch clothes, and only then do they see their amazing similarity. As Twain is making clear, even the victims of class rigidity cannot see themselves clearly. Tom and Edward cannot even see that they look alike until they see themselves literally in each other's place.

Some further injustice causes Edward to leave his rooms at Whitehall to correct matters, and when he is seen in Tom's rags, he is treated as a pauper and thrown out of the palace grounds. What follows are his adventures, dragging him across London and back, meeting the victims of his father's harsh laws against begging, stealing, religious practice. No one believes him to be the Prince, no matter what he says, and they all take him for having lost his mind. Edward finds one champion, a dispossessed soldier who takes him in as his own son and humors him in his belief that he is the Prince.

Tom, meanwhile, is similarly determined to be mad, since no one will believe he is not the prince, despite his failure to recognize anyone or remember any of the thousand things he should. Nevertheless, he is treated kindly by Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, and he begins to enjoy himself. At first terrified that he is going to be discovered and thrown into the Tower, his most frightening moments come when he is called into his "father's" presence. Yet, despite his terrible reputation, Henry VIII is kind and loving to his son.

The situation becomes deeply serious when Henry VIII dies. Edward doesn't learn of it for several days, and is heartbroken to have lost his father. He also knows he will have to get back to his rightful place in time for the coronation. Tom manages to lull himself into a sort of denial, until he sees his mother while on procession through London. He denies her, and then suffers from great guilt and homesickness, and wants to end this charade as soon as possible.

While Edward is battling to get back to Westminster, Twain gives us a wonderful description of the arrangements for a royal coronation, including the wonderful details about just how long the nobles and peeresses have to sit in Westminster Abbey before the ceremony begins, so that they are all in place in time. I happened to have seen a show about QE II's coronation just a week ago, and then as well, people who were fortuneate enough to be inside the Abbey for the ceremony had to arrive as much as EIGHT HOURS beforehand. It was eerily similar to Twain's recounting of Edward's coronation.

Finally, finally, finally, Tom and Edward are in the same place at the same time, at the very moment before the Archbishop of Canterbury is about to place the crown on Tom's head. Edward appears in the aisle, insisting the ceremony halt, and Tom backs him up. Tests are propounded, and at the last, the boys are properly sorted out.

What makes the story so much better than my conception of it is the way that Twain uses the historic people of the time. Somehow, I was surprised to meet that old nemesis Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, in these pages. He and his son are mentioned as being imprisoned and attainted in the Tower of London, and Henry VIII orders their execution immediately. Which actually happened, and Henry Howard was beheaded on January 27, 1547, Thomas Howard was supposed to die the next day, but during the night, Henry died, and no one felt it right to start off the new king's reign with an execution. All of which Twain faithfully records.

The end of the story is also more historic than I would have guessed. Soon after Edward VI's coronation, he and the Lord Protector, his uncle Edward Seymour, repealed many of the most tyrannical of Henry's laws, including just about every form of treason enacted since the reign of Edward III (which ended in 1483). King Edward founded a school for boys, having learned from his experience that education was the best route for improving the lot of his subjects, and he gave Tom a special status of "King's Ward," allowing Tom and his family to leave poverty behind forever.

As a historical novel, it's a rollicking yarn with some real history included. There is an odd aside toward the end, where Twain compares the "blue laws" of New England with the laws of Tudor England, and points out that however hated those blue laws were, they were less rigorous than the English laws.

I mentioned before that Twain is almost "Dickensian" in his story. He places his characters in the most disturbing of social conditions, making the reader become emotionally involved and outraged by the injustices portrayed. Unlike Dickens, however, Twain has portrayed injustices some 300 years old--hard to really get irate about that. Which left me wondering what was the point of this story? It isn't to advocate social reform, like Dickens did; it isn't to develop an Educating Moral. But then, who says there has to be a point? As a swift and engaging story with a coherent theme about "clothes making the man," it doesn't need any other justification for being.

This, however, does require some 'splaining.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Revelation, by C.J. Sansom

The fourth of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, starring the hunchback lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII. This one is set in 1543, and the king has set his sights on the recently widowed Lady Latymer, or as we know her, Catherine Parr.

The king's health is failing, and his ulcerated sores make him nearly immobile and increasingly fat. His pending mortality is obvious and may be the reason he continues to retreat from religious reform. Of course, the cat has already been released from the bag, and various forms of congregations have sprung up from the most conservative "Catholics without the Pope," to the "Hot Gospelers" who focus on pre-destination and are smug in their own perceived purity. The King is trying to return the country to old forms of worship, but it's already too late.

As a reward for his previous service, Shardlake has been appointed as counsel to the Court of Requests, a sort of civil court for poor people. Shardlake has been happily handing the cases assigned to him, and when the novel opens he has a case of a boy who has been placed in Bedlam by the privy council. Young Adam Kite has been praying for a sign he has been saved, and has made a spectacle of himself, demonstrating the new religion at a time when the old forms are ascendant. So the Privy Council has him shut up in Bedlam to keep things as quiet as possible.

Then an old friend of Shardlake's is found with his throat cut in the frountain at Lincoln's Inn and the inquest is cut short. Out of loyalty to his friend and love for the widow, Shardlake vows to find the killer. Of course, things are never simple in Tudor London--Archbishop Cranmer has ordered the inquest to be closed because there is concern that this murder might be linked to another that points to a threat to Catherine Parr. And Cranmer wants her to marry Henry because she is a reformer and the cause needs someone like that to influence the king.

Once again, Shardlake is caught up in politics against his will. Although this time the politics are really in the background. Sure, Cranmer is under attack by more conservative religious members of the Privy Council, but there is no sense that this case will have any effect on that. There is a whiff of strategic positioning: Henry is old and ill, and whoever is in a position to serve as Regent to the boy Edward is going to have a great deal of control over the religion of the country. Catherine Parr, as a Reformer herself, would be in a good position to advance the new religion after Henry's death--if she survives him. But the existence of a psychopathic murderer really doesn't affect those considerations, and so the link to the broader history of the time is much weaker here than in the earlier books.

Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the killer is not political, but a religious psychopath, killing repeatedly in ways suggested by the Book of Revelations, his victims former reformers who have become backsliders. This is where the book becomes gruesome--an "Angels and Demons" for renaissance England. Corpses are found mutilated and tortured--although arguably these deaths are no more gory than the Tudor penchant for burning heretics alive, as well as drawing and quartering and other judicial tortures. The peaceful expressions on the victims' faces lead to the conclusion that they were given a sedative before they were killed, which turns the focus onto the former infirmarians at Westminster Abbbey as the only persons in London who had the knowledge to administer such drugs.

Matthew Shardlake and his strongman Jack Barak are lead this time by the Assistant Coroner of London, himself a "Gospel man" and reformer, and are assisted at times by Sir Thomas Seymour, a real historical personage who had his own interest in Catherine Parr. We are treated to death by multiple stab wounds and resultant infection (also flesh eating maggots--ewwwww); immolation; vitriol burns and tongue mutilation; a naked corpse nailed across a water gate; a corpse with tiny nails imbedded in its face to simulate a smile; as well as some garden variety stab wounds and beatings--the extras thrown in to cover the murderer's trail.

A surprising number of "clues" turn out to be false--the killer is supposed to be tremendously strong, but it turns out he has a wheelbarrow. He is preternaturally informed about people's religious and social lives, but it turns out he has paid informants and also cases his victims while in disguise. He seems to have a great deal of medical and legal knowledge, but this turns out to be exaggerated. He seems to have particular animosity toward lapsed reformers--I still don't know why that is the case, since in the end it turns out he was formerly a monk. Perhaps that was explained in a part that I missed by falling asleep while listening.

Sansom does illuminate what it must have been like to have been caught in that time of theological debate. From where we sit nearly 500 years later, we tend to see Hanry's break with Rome as being purely an expedient to get rid of his old wife and get a new trophy wife. But the "new religion" was more than a question of whether the Pope has jurisdiction over the King of England. And once the Bible was widely available in English, there were suddenly a wide variety of interpretations. Breaking with Rome was one thing, creating a new theology was another. In fact, a truly "Anglican" form of worship was not created until the reign of Edward VI. So religious uncertainty was added to the other uncertainties of Henry's reign. It was a dangerous time to live, and one of great economic disparity and harsh criminal laws and penalties.

Still, somehow the book didn't quite work for me. Maybe it was just too much of a plot to leave much room for the broader social picture. A serial killer with a literary bent and a long list of murders to complete is really quite enough--just ask Dan Brown. The religious issues felt rather distant--the murders were not really believably about the religious issues of the time, but about one crazy man's God complex, which is far from unique to Tudor England.

Add to that that some of the mechanics of the book stood out for me this time. Once again, Matthew Shardlake "has feelings" for a woman, but doesn't tell her about them because he thinks no one could love a hunchback. Then something happens so that he "dares to hope" but ultimately he gets shot down. Maybe having a real love interest, or none at all? This device is getting old.

I was also more aware of the numerous times the characters stop and reiterate what is happening in the plot, either alone or in conversation. "Could it be. . .? But what about. . .? Maybe it's another person? But how could it be someone else when. . .?" Again, a place where reading the book would have allowed me to skip over the tedious recapping, which was much harder to do with an audiobook.

I have enjoyed these books as fictionalized history, using the device of a mystery to animate a fascinating time. This time around, it seems the mystery took pride of place over the historical atmosphere, and that's what I missed the most.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

This is the third book in the Matthew Shardlake series. I had seen this title promoted in a couple of places, and then we went to York. In honor of the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's crowning, the city of York was giving away free copies of the book and holding a number of events related to it all summer.

Set in 1541, Henry VIII is "progressing" from London to York. With 3000 people in tow, including his newest wife Katherine Howard, Henry is making a show of strength to the North. Five years earlier, some 30,000 men joined a "Pilgrimage of Grace," objecting to Henry's new religion and general treatment of the North. Henry and his advisor Wolsey promised negotiations, dispersed the crowd, then ruthlessly hunted down and killed the leaders. Robert Aske, the spokesman for the Pilgrimage, was hanged in chains--which means he was left to die of thirst and starvation, and his bones are still suspended over York Castle at the start of "Sovereign."

Yes, Henry VIII has developed into a cruel and tyrannical king, and the ceremonies planned for his arrival in York include the abasement and humiliation of the city's Council for their failure to prevent the Pilgrimage of Grace. Our hero, Matthew Shardlake, is sent to York to hear petitions from the people of York, to dispense "The King's Justice." He is also charged with seeing that a suspected rebellion leader is brought safely to London to be tortured at the Tower.

Shardlake continues to suffer a crisis of conscience. Originally a fervent supporter of Henry's break with Rome and the new Reformed religion, Shardlake is seeing that the ideals of religion are being corrupted by greed and ambition, and that the king he admired has become casually cruel and unpredictible. Shardlake wants nothing more than to keep his head down and live a quiet life unnoticed by those in power. Unfortunately, his previous work for Cardinal Wolsey has been notice by Wolsey's successor, and he is pressed into joining the King's Progress.

Things get complicated quickly, even before the Progress reaches York. A glazier is found murdered, impaled on a shard of glass. Before he dies, he whispers to Shardlake "No son of Henry and Katherine can be the true heir. She knows." Shardlake can't resist puzzling over the meaning of this statement, and thus he leads himself into further trouble. Visiting the glazier's house, he discovers an old box full of strange documents. An odd royal geneology, an act of parliment called the "Titulus Regulus" and a handwritten document that appears to be a confession of someone called "Edward Blaybourne." But before he can properly examine these documents, someone coshes him over the head and steals the papers.

There is also the matter of the prisoner--a young man whose bravery in the face of the torture facing him rattles Shardlake. The prisoner points out that Shardlake's job is to deliver him to London well enough for the torture to last even longer, and Shardlake's conscience is shaken. When the prisoner is found poisoned, Shardlake figures out how it was done and again has to quettion whether he was doing something immoral in saving a life only so that it could be ended in torture.

My favorite parts of this novel take place in York--a city that I totally fell in love with while we were there. Many of the sites of the novel still exist today, most notably the York Minster, the cathedral that was already over 300 years old at the time of Henry VIII. The King's Manor still stands, the last of the buildings of St. Mary's Abbey that was dissolved and repurposed to hold the Progress. Characters enter through the Bootham Bar, the gate to the walled part of the city where we walked to get to our hotel.

The plot is quite complicated, and requires an awful lot of history to be explained in order to follow what is going on. The murderer of the glazier is discovered about half way through, but the motive is connected to the larger issue of rebellion against Henry VIII. York was the home of the Plantagenet kings Edward IV and Richard III, who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry VIII's father. A convoluted issue of whether Henry VIII is a "true king" because he has only the smallest drops of royal blood takes a long time to explain. At issue is an old claim that Edward IV was an illegitimate son of the Duchess of York (Cecily Neville) and an archer from Kent. When Henry Tudor took the crown from Richard III, he married Elizabeth of York (daughter of Edward IV) to unite the houses of York and Lancaster and put an end to the Wars of the Roses. But if Elizabeth was not truly a "daughter of York" but only the offspring of an adulterous affair with an anonymous archer, then Henry VIII wasn't technically royal and should not be king.

This is a pretty shaky basis for an uprising, if you ask me. How much "royal blood" is enough, anyway? Just one drop? No matter how he got there, Henry VIII has everything he needs to stay on the throne--he's got armies, and money, and a navy, and fortresses, and torturers, and dungeons--all the apparatus of the state. He's also got no rivals--by 1514 he's executed the last of the Plantagenets in England. The only remaining member of that family is a cardinal in Rome. No dynasty there! Henry VIII is in no danger of being ousted from the throne.

There is a secondary plot--obvious to those who know their Tudor sex scandals. Queen Katherine's reign is perilously close to its end. In November of 1541, Henry VIII is presented with evidence of Queen Katherine's infidelity. This issue is a bit of a red herring--could this be the reason for the claim that "no child of Katherine and Henry can be the true heir?" Because it would not be Henry's child? No, this is incidental to the plot, although it is a dangerous secret to know.

About halfway through, the novel moves toward London where, in a carry over from "Dark Fire," Shardlake continues to press a suit against the powerful Sir Richard Rich, a real historical figure. After refusing to be warned off, Shardlake finds himself arrested and taken to the Tower of London to be tortured. He is actually subjected to a vise on his jaw, and the passage is quite disturbing. It makes it even harder to condone the use of torture as a method of information gathering and reinforces the sense of Tudor England as a very scary place to be.

The strength of the novel is in the evocation of Renaissance England as seen by someone who is really rather average--neither royal nor living at court, but a private citizen who struggles with his own ethical boundaries. Definitely worth the read.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

This is the second novel by C.J. Sansom, also featuring Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer of Tudor London. The time is late May, 1540, and Henry VIII is unhappy with his marriage to Anne of Cleves--wife number 4. He has already fallen in love with 17 year old Katherine Howard, and London is preparing for another shift in permissible religious observance.

Matthew Shardlake is a property lawyer who works at Lincoln's Inn. He was originally an enthusiastic reformer who welcomed the "new religion" and the break with Rome. However, the reality of reform has fallen far short of his hopes, and he has lost his zeal for reform. Somehow, he has gotten himself involved in a murder case, in which a young girl is accused of pushing her cousin down a well. Her uncle does not believe she is guilty, but she refuses to speak. Refusal to plead either "guilty" or "not guilty" means that she will be sentenced to pressing, where the prisoner is placed under a board and rocks are heaped on until she speaks or dies.

Shardlake is surprisingly granted twelve days to convince the girl to speak. It turns out that this is because Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII, needs Shardlake to take on a mission for him. Cromwell is a real historical figure, who came to power while Henry was trying to divorce his first wife to marry Ann Boleyn. He was instrumental in arranging the king's marriage to the Protestant Anne of Cleves, and his position in 1540 was precarious as a result.

In the novel, someone has re-discovered the secret of "Greek fire," a burning liquid weapon that can even be used on water. They demonstrated it for Cromwell, who then informed the king. King Henry wants to use it to defend England from attacks by France and Spain. However, the men who demonstrated this weapon have been murdered, and the Greek fire has disappeared. Cromwell needs Shardlake to find the missing substance in time for the planned demonstration for the king. In twelve days.

What Sansom does so well is use this mystery to illumine life in Tudor England--the smells (horrible), the prejudice, the plotting and conspiracy, the hopes for the new religious thought, the status of women, the limited scientific knowledge, the practice of law. All of these play a part in the solving of the mystery, but never over-shadow it. We see the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor, we see the wealth of the monasteries being distributed to those who are already wealthy, we see the plight of the underclass. Shardlake moves from the bear pits and brothels of Southwark to the halls of Westminster and Whitehall as he tries to find the missing Greek fire while also saving his client from being pressed to death.

Closely plotted, the novel takes place over the twelve days ending on June 10, 1540--which is the day that Thomas Cromwell was arrested (for real!) and taken to the Tower of London on trumped up charges of treason. Sansom uses the deadline well, as leads proliferate and then dry up, and some things take longer than they should because travel and communication in 16th century London are much slower than we are used to. No one can pick up a phone and dial 999 for emergency assistance, or call a missing witness on their cell phone. Even travelling from Southwark to Lincoln's Inn requires walking to the river, finding a ferry, crossing the river, then retrieving the horse from the stables for the ride across the city. Coupled with Shardlake's physical limitations, this is not a high-speed thriller, but one where the mystery has to be unravelled deliberately and efficiently.

If there is a drawback to this book, it's that it is unlikely that a man as powerful as Cromwell would rely on a single man to solve the mystery--especially with the stakes as high as they are. Sure, he assigns his assistant Jack Barak to help Shardlake, but it isn't realistic that they are the only two men in London Cromwell would use to investigate.

That quibble aside, this is a much more satisfying read than Sansom's debut, "Dissolution." The writing smoothly blends the historical information into the plot. Many of the characters are atual historic figures, and they are fully integrated into the plot--not just cameo appearances to give some "educational substance" to the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and am looking forward to reading the third book in the series: "Sovereign."

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton

This is a book that I listened to, and that might be the reason this review is going to be so negative. Perhaps if I had read it, I could have sped through some of the more tedious portions and had a different impression of it. As an audio book, however, I was at the mercy of the narrator, and I basically suffered through every damn syllable of a book that would have benefitted from being cut down by at least a third, if not a full half.

The story follows three women through different time periods: Eliza from 1900-1913, Nell from 1975-76, and Cassandra in 2005. The plot concerns the search for Nell's past; she was found sitting alone on a wharf in Australia in 1913, with only a child's suitcase. Inside the case was a book of fairy tales written by Eliza Makepeace. In 1975, Nell travels to England to track down what clues she can about who she was before she ended up in Australia. In the end, it is up to her granddaughter, Cassandra, to solve the mystery.

Roughly the first third of the book establishes Nell's and Cassandra's lives in Brisbane, Australia, and boring lives they are. Nell did not remember anything about her life before Australia, and so she freaks out when her "father" tells her about how he found her and took her home. He waited until she was 21 to tell her, and she gets all whiny and self-righteous about it. She withdraws from her sisters, but refuses to tell them why. She breaks her engagement to the nice boy she was going to marry, and also refuses to tell him why. Then she lives the rest of her life in Brisbane, at some unspecified time marrying and having a daughter--apparently solely for the purpose of having a grand-daughter who can advance the plot.

Nell's adoptive father finally dies in 1975, and only then does he send her the little white suitcase with the book of fairy tales. Because--well, I don't know why. Why would you tell your child she was adopted--and witnessed her extreme response to the news--and then withhold what little evidence there is about her origins? So, eventually--by about the mid-point of the book--Nell goes off to discover her past.

Grand-daughter Cassandra was raised by her grandmother Nell, and was living in the house with her when Nell dies in 2005. It takes a while for Morton to give us her back story, but apparently she was dropped off by her mother (Nell's daughter) for "a couple of weeks" but stayed until she went to college. There are some undated college years, a marriage, a child, and a tragic auto accident, after which Cassandra moved back to Nell's house and lived a boring life. Only once Nell dies and leaves everything to Cassandra does she discover Nell owned a cottage in Cornwall. After quite a lot of boring exposition, Cassandra also goes off to discover Nell's past.

All this set up takes the first third of the book, and really we learn more than we want or need to know about the characters' boring lives in Brisbane. Only when the story reaches England does the plot take off.

But not quite yet! Oh no, there is some more exposition necessary--we get the story of 12 year old Eliza Makepeace and her twin brother Sammy. They are living in poverty in London, some two years after their mother's death. We get some Dickensian cliches about the nasty landlord and his nasty family, some stupid game Eliza and Sammy play called "The Ripper," and Sammy's death. Oh yeah, he was fragile and dependent on Eliza and hardly ever spoke--he was doomed.

Eventually Eliza gets found--her mother, the glamorous Georgiana, was the daughter of wealth in Cornwall, and her brother never stopped looking for her. Eliza gets packed off to Blackhurst Manor (and isn't THAT a terrible name for a house--who's going to be happy in a place called "Blackhurst?") There she finds her creepy uncle is lord of the manor, he has married a cold and nasty woman, and they have a sickly but beautiful daughter named Rose. Rose and Eliza become best friends, and Eliza starts telling stories to Rose. Fairy tales.

The three women's stories start to develop in parallel. Eliza does something, Nan discovers part of what Eliza did, Cassandra finds out a little bit more. Sprinkled through the book, like lumps in mashed potatoes, are the "fairy tales." Leaden and boring on their own, they only become mildly interesting when we find out the real life situation behind the fairy tale. We are also treated to a number of ominous pronouncements about how the cottage is "cursed" and "haunted."

Because a novel this melodramatic has to have a Big Secret--possibly a Big Shameful Secret, and it takes a ridiculously long time for the characters to figure it out. Of course, as readers, we figured it out a long time before the characters do. The Big Secret is that beautiful Rose cannot have children, and so Eliza has one for her. This requires that Eliza sleep with Rose's husband, an artist who illustrates the book of fairy tales. The resulting baby is Nell. But Rose and her husband are tragically killed in a terrible train wreck, so Eliza grabs the child and plans to take her to Australia. Because there is no way she is leaving her baby with the creepy uncle and his nasty wife. Eliza gets the girl on board the ship, but is intercepted by creepy uncle's minion and carried back to Cornwall. She tries to escape and dies while jumping from the carriage.

So little Ivory is left alone on the ship, and manages to hit her head and get amnesia, and is somehow put off the boat in Australia, where the kindly but childless wharfmaster and his wife take her in and name her "Nell."

There are all kinds of trouble with this plot. First of all, in an age of in vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, and open adoption--the "Big Secret" is really not at all shocking. There is not any threat that anyone in 1913 is going to find out about it--it's only the readers who are set up to be shocked and horrified. And frankly, we aren't. And not only because it's not shocking, but because the Big Secret is all but telegraphed beforehand.

Creepy Uncle Linus was obsessed with his beautiful red-haired sister, Georgiana. When Eliza comes to Cornwall, she looks exactly like her mother, including the red hair, and creepy Uncle Linus becomes obsessed with her. When Eliza leaves Blackhurst Manor to live in the cottage on the cliff, creepy Uncle Linus becomes obsessed with red-haired Ivory/Nell. Who looks just like Georgiana. While Rose and her husband are both dark haired. Where could that red hair have come from?

Meanwhile, the incredibly clueless Cassandra fails to put the hints together--Nan and Eliza and Georgiana all had red hair; Eliza "went away" for most of a year right around the time the baby was born; the "inexplicable" actions of Eliza taking Rose's baby (why would she do that?)--and instead concludes that Nan is the child of a housemaid who was dismissed for being pregnant out of wedlock. Morton actually drags this non-starter of a plot out for about three chapters before someone actually has to spell it out for the characters.

And what about that "Forgotten Garden" of the title? It's not forgotten at all. In fact, almost everybody knows about it--it's Eliza's garden where she wrote most of her fairy tales. Ivory/Nell visited it as a child. Cassandra finds her way in and restores it. Frances Hodgsen Burnett even visits it--and (surprise!) thinks she might write a book based on it.

Really, this plot is too ridiculous. Nell's father holds clues to her past for 45 years before passing on the suitcase. Then Nell lives the last 30 years of her life never returning to Cornwall--even after raising Cassandra and seeing her off to college, marriage and her own family, Nell never follows through on her plan to move to the cottage--not even visiting it again. Eliza puts her daughter onto a boat to Australia, then leaves for "one last errand," where she gets killed. I just found myself rolling my eyes. Frequently.

Honestly, this book seemed to take the 96 years of Nell's life span to get to the point. Don't waste your time. Grade: C-

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

Picked this one up after seeing highly positive reviews, as well as a major push placement at Barnes & Noble. How do you evaluate a book apart from the marketing push behind it? It's not easy--would I have liked this book better if I had just stumbled on it? Hard to tell.

Our Heroine Connie Goodwin is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, under some pressure to come up with her thesis topic. She is simultaneously saddled with clearing out her grandmother's house and selling it after it has stood empty for over 20 years. Over the summer, she discovers the name "Deliverance Dane" on a piece of parchment rolled into the barrel of a key hidden in an old Bible in her grandmother's house and she embarks on a quest to find out about her. In the course of her summer she meets a convenient love interest (single, handsome, a restoration expert who dabbles in history). She tracks the existence of Deliverance Dane's physick book, also tracking several of the women of her family.

I would call this an "academic thriller" of the type that A.S. Byatt did so well in "Possession;" a major component of the book is Connie's research through various libraries. Byatt made this exciting and fascinating. Howe doesn't. Connie's first research challenge is to look through 17th century church records to locate some reference to Deliverance Dane. She has no information about this person's age, her marital status, or her family connections. So why does she start with baptismal records? That requires the unwarranted assumption that "Deliverance Dane" was an infant, born in Salem, rather than a married woman's name. If "Dane" was her married name, it would NEVER appear in baptismal records. After the baptismal records, she looks through death records, spending hours and hours on these documents that are statistically unlikely to give her the answers she is looking for. Then she is about to give up, dissuaded only by the steeplejack she just met, and then she FINALLY looks at the church membership records.

I'm already yelling at the book "look at the damn membership records" and I'm less than a quarter of the way through the book. Look, I understand that Howe is trying to build suspense, and she can't assume that her readership knows the difference between the different 17th century documents--but seriously? If you don't know anything about this person, why wouldn't you look at the most general documents first? "Dane" could be a birth name or a married name. She could have been born and married before arriving in Salem. She could have left Salem before she died. But the odds are best that for whatever time she was in Salem, she went to church.

Of course, that's where the name turns up--only as "excommunicated" in 1692, the year of the Salem witch hysteria. Suddenly, it appears that Deliverance Dane might have been a witch.

Which doesn't explain why Connie's advisor has started pressing her to come up with a thesis topic, and is pressuring her to find this "physick book" before she has any inkling of it. As a newly discovered original document, this would have been an entirely new source for historical thought--no such book has been located in America to date. What happens is that it turns out that Deliverance Dane actually was a witch, and the recipies actually work.

Connie's advisor has also gotten odd, and seems to believe that the Philosopher's Stone actually exists, and that he can find the final formulation of it in this book. Not clear where he got this idea, or why he felt he could stake his professional reputation on it even before Connie found the key, but there you go. Not clear how Deliverance Dane's decendants did magic for 300 years with huge blue sparks shooting everywhere and nobody noticed. Not clear if Howe was gunning for a "Da Vinci Code" type reveal when she concludes that the "Philosopher's Stone" was actually St. Peter--the "rock" on which Jesus said he would build his church. If she was, she sure buried her lede on that one.

I have several major quibbles with this book--Connie's research is remarkably lackadaisical, which totally works against the deadline Howe has tried to set up. Her love interest Sam is in medical crisis, and she rushes home to read the physick book; then inexplicably WAITS TWO WEEKS before she does anything to help him. Do we believe that a Harvard grad student doesn't even remember her real name is "Constance?"

Some of the writing is lovely--her meditation on night starting under bushes and trees, then rising to meet the sky--elegant and whimsical. The book skips back in time to "interludes" of the lives of Deliverance Dane, her daughter and grand-daughter, who come alive as vivid characters. Connie herself remains more of a construct than a character, however, and her "discovery" of her own magic is clumsy and fails to engage the suspension of disbelief necessary to the working of the plot.

Would I recommend it? Only if you think the idea that at least some of the Salem witches were actually practicing witchcraft is novel. Only if you have money burning a hole in your pocket and nothing better to spend it on. Otherwise, get it from the library, or wait for the paperback.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell

Yet another in what seems to be quite a run on Scottish novels. Edinburgh novels, even, to be more precise. I had read some very good reviews of this book, and tagged it on my TBR list on GoodReads, but never quite picked it up.

Of course, then it started showing up in the Heavily Discounted piles at B&N, down to about $4 in hardcover, which totally gave off an unwholesome odor of "overrated." Since I don't need any more books, as I have no where to put them any more, I ended up getting it from the library.

Wow. Really a good read, and as I have been stuck with a bunch of books that haven't been worth finishing (sorry, Book Clubbers, but we've had some really whiffy picks recently), this was especially welcome.

Set in modern day Edinburgh, we are introduced to Iris Lockhart, a young woman who owns a vintage shop, who is happy enough with her married lover but doesn't want him to leave his wife. One immediately gets the sense that she doesn't want that much closeness or responsibility. She gets a phone call regarding a Euphremia Esme Lennox, allegedly her great-aunt, who has been held in a mental hospital for over 60 years. The hospital is closing, and the patients must be rehoused.

Iris is completely unprepared for this. Her grandmother, Kitty Lockhart, said she was an only child; Iris's father, Robert Lockhart, was an only child; Iris herself is an only child. And now there is no one to ask. Robert died years ago of a drug allergy; Kitty is suffering from Alzheimer's and is in a nursing home. In the end, Iris goes to see this mysterious woman, and recognizes some family traits. Although she is advised by her lover and her step-brother that she has no responsibility, Iris finds she can't just refuse to help. Her attempt to place Esme in a hostel is a disaster--the place is unclean and unsafe. The hospital won't take Esme back, and Iris ends up taking her great-aunt in for the weekend.

The story is told in chunks, from different perspectives and spanning disjointed times. As the story unfolds, we see Esme as an unusual girl--tall, strong, bored to tears with the traditional roles allowed for women. A number of events mark her as odd in Edinburgh society: the girls were born and raised in India for the first 8-10 years of their lives, before their parents returned to Scotland. Of course, the girls had no "suitable" clothes for the cold norther climate, and their failure to understand what all the layers were and how to wear them was ascribed to feeble-mindedness.

We learn early that Esme was an uncooperative student, while Kitty did as she was expected to. One horrible week, Kitty and the parents left for a social engagement, leaving Esme and the baby Hugo in the care of the servants. The house was struck by typhoid, and Hugo and the ayah died. The rest of the servants fled, and locked the house behind them, and Esme was trapped alone in the house with the dead bodies for three days.

As a schoolgirl in Scotland, Esme was subjected to "Mean Girls" hazing, and while she liked learning, the social aspects were beyond her. However, due to the family's social status, it was unthinkable for her to continue her education beyond her teens. She was expected to stay and home and wait to get married; and she had absolutely no interest in that or any of her social obligations. Kitty becomes increasingly irritated with her younger sister, feeling that her own chances of marrying are diminishing due to Esme's idiosyncratic behavior.

The first crisis comes in the wake of the devestatingly charming Jamie Deziel--the most sought after young man in the city. Kitty is desperately in love with him, but it becomes apparent that he prefers Esme. At his family's New Year's Eve ball, he partners with Esme and sweeps her out of the ballroom and makes clear he prefers her. She refuses him, but allows him to kiss her. He overpowers her and rapes her, then returns to the party. She is found in a closet, unable to stop screaming.

This is the end of her family's tolerance for her. She is committed to a mental hospital, perhaps only until Kitty can marry, and Esme eventually gives birth to the Deziel baby. In the interim, Kitty has married another boy, who refuses to consummate the marriage. Kitty has become desperate for a child, and discovers that she can adopt Esme's baby. Esme's "temporary" incarceration becomes permanent because Kitty cannot face the truth of what she has done.
Even in her confusion, Kitty insists that she didn't intend for Esme to be in the hospital permanently; and also that "I didn't take it." Meaning the baby.

Some of the most powerful writing is about Esme's story: the horror of her brother's death, the terrifying helplessness of her situation. She couldn't convince anyone she wasn't mad, or that she was there by mistake, or even that she should be released. Her desperate desire to keep her baby was coldly ignored, as the baby was removed and she was wrestled to the ground, sedated, and put into heavy security--for the "crime" of refusing to cooperate.

For someone who was locked away for 60 years, Esme is remarkably calm and sane. In the bathroom at Iris's flat, she looks at the razor Iris has left out, and thinks that this is the first unsupervised bath she has had in over 60 years. Which is really quite remarkable, if you think about it.

My summarization here does not do the book justice--the facts are revealed so carefully, as layer after layer of obfuscation is removed, and the characters of the three women are revealed, the book is really quite absorbing. Even unputdownable. Iris has her own story, her own issues, and her life is what Esme's might have been had she been born later. Iris defies the advice she gets from the men in her life, and had she been in Esme's place, might also have been institutionalized for her "unnatural" behavior.

Carefully written, compact and compelling--this is a book that can be read in one sitting, and hard to put down until the end.

The end is somewhat confusing, as it tremendously impressionistic. Esme has figured out that her baby was given to Kitty, and that Iris is her granddaughter. She asks to visit Kitty, and the two of them sit alone in Kitty's room for a while. It appears that Esme confronts Kitty with what she has done, and perhaps kills Kitty in revenge. Certainly, Kitty ends up dead, and nursing home authorities surround Esme and attempt to remove her. Iris refuses to let go of Esme's hand, but it is not entirely clear what has happened, or what will happen next.

The final paragraph is:

But the people in uniform are upon them, muttering, exclaiming, enveloping them in a great white cloud. Iris cannot see anything but starched white cotton. It presses against her shoulders, her hair, it covers her mouth. They are taking Esme, they are pulling her up from the sofa, they are trying to extract her hand from Iris's. But Iris does not let go. She grips the hand tighter. She will go with it, she will follow it, through the white, through the crowd, out of the room, into the corridor and beyond.

What is going on here? Kitty is presumably dead, and Esme is the logical suspect. But it feels inconsistent with the Esme we have seen up to this point. Esme has been cool, a survivor, someone who didn't seem to need revenge for what happened to her, because it is too clear to her that people are still frightened of her. She knows she is not mad, just not willing to accept the bad choices offered her as a young woman. The fact that she has lost so much of her life is horrible, but nothing in her character prepared me for such a irrational act. If she did kill Kitty, she did it with a calmness that guarantees she is going to be re-incarcerated either in prison or another hospital--and I am convinced that she realizes that.

Maybe she did kill Kitty, and maybe her revenge is being served cold. I'm not totally on board with that, but I'm willing to accept that possibility. So why is Iris committing herself to staying with Esme? What does this story do to Iris--how does it change her self-perceptions to such a degree that she is preparing to follow Esme to "beyond?"

I'm willing to do some research to find what other readers think about the ending. It's open ended enough that it has stayed on my mind, and makes the entire experience of reading the book hard to move away from. Definitely recommended!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips

The follow-up to his debut "Prague," this book has the same witty writing, with a lot more plot. There is a degree to which Philips condescends to his characters, rather smugly aware that what they reveal much more about themselves than they realize. That's part of the wit, but also part of the distance that made "Prague" unpleasant to read. In this case, the narrators are already distanced by time, writing in 1922 and 1954, so the distancing is less offputting.

Ralph M. Trilipush is a newly financed Egyptologist, an adjunct instructor at Harvard who has secured private financing from a group of Boston businessmen to seek for the semi-mythical 13th Dynasty pharoah Atum-Hadu (Atum-is-Aroused). He has made a small reputation for himself by translating a scrap of papyrus--two earlier scraps had already been translated by a Victorian and a Frenchman. Tirlipush's translation, however, tends toward the pornographic, and was published by something called "Collins Amorous Literature," although he has hopes for a new edition to be released by Harvard after he returns with proof of his find.

Trilipush is also engaged to Margaret Finneran, a Boston jazz baby whose father is the lead investor in this excavation. As the book starts, he is writing a letter to her, forwarding his excavation records, asking her to edit and publish his findings, as he fears he is going to be murdered by his enemies. The bulk of the book consists of his journal entries from October through December 1922, including writings about his past, messages to Margaret, theorizing about his Pharoah's life and death and tomb.

A second narrative intertwines the journal--an Australian detective named Farrell who is set to find the illegitimate off-spring of a dying English peer in order to deliver an inheritence. The particular Australian heir is named Paul Caldwell, who was last traceable to the Australian forces in Egypt, who disappeared with an English officer named Marlowe, the day after Armistice, November 1918. Their identity tags and a gun were found not far from the Valley of the Kings, near where the Marlowe had found the scrap of papyrus several years earlier. Ferrell becomes convinced that Trilipush murdered the two officers, and follows him to Boston. Ferrell arrives just after Trilipush left for Egypt, but stays in Boston to squire Margaret Finneran around.

Ferrell's narrative is written as a series of letters in 1954 to a nephew of Margaret's who is looking for family history. It is clear that Ferrell himself is deeply deluded about his project--he imagines that this nephew is going to get this detective story published, and even made into a movie. He begins to insert the nephew as a character in his narrative. It is also soon clear that Ferrell is blinded by his own class resentment toward the English, which he exorcises by insisting that they are all homosexuals. He becomes convinced that Trilipush is using Margaret for her money, and that he plans to bilk her father and then drop her--while he stands ready to "catch her as she is dropped." His own infatuation for Margaret clouds his judgment in ways he does not see.

The excavation is just outside the Valley of the Kings, where Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen's tomb in November of 1922. Trilipush is seriously overconfident and underfunded, and unaware. He books luxurious rooms in Cairo, bespeaks 10 suits, merrily purchases supplies, but has no concession--no permission to dig in Thebes. What little response he gets from the Department of Antiquities indicates that the concession for the area is already allotted, but they will contact him back home in America when something becomes available.
So, of course, he rents a villa in Luxor, commissions a painting of himself for the Explorers' Club, and heads south.

Of course, the boy is soon played--he hires a thug as his foreman, who does just enough work to find a tomb, then more of less smashes his way through what turns out to be an elaborate, but empty structure. Trilipush is injured in the process, as a large doorway stone falls on his foot. He binds it up and keeps working, although once his workers are convinced there is no treasure, they leave him to go work for Carter, who has found treasure and pays well.

Meanwhile, Trilipush's sponsors refuse to send him the promised money. This is due to the appearance of Ferrell, on the trail of who he supposes to be Paul Caldwell's murderer. Ferrell has turned up the interesting facts that there is no record of a Ralph M. Trilipush at Oxford, nor in the British Army. He half convinces CC Finneran that Trilipush is conning him out of his money and there is no treasure; or that there is a treasure, but Trilipush is going to take it all himself. Instead of pursuing Trilipush, he remains in Boston, and only returns to his "case" when Finneran flees to Egypt to learn the truth.

Carter's discovery of Tut's tomb has raised Finneran's hopes; he owes large sums of money at punitive interest rates to the other co-investors, who fear that Finneran has taken their shares as well, and hire Ferrell to find both Finneran and Trilipush.

Trilipush has reached the end of his money, has been evicted from his villa (as the demand for living space near Tut's tomb has raised his rent beyond what was budgeted, even if he had gotten his promised financing), and is increasingly pained and delirious from the injury to his foot. And here come the spoilers.

His belief in the existence of Amut-Hadu consumes him, and he was truly wagered everything on the successful (and quick!) outcome of this expedition. Repeatedly, we are told that Howard Carter looked for six years before finding Tut's tomb--rather than taking that as a warning that he might not find anything himself, Trilipush concludes Carter is washed up and a failure. His increasing need to convince himself that he has found Amut-Hadu's tomb coupled with his own feverish illness, leads him to conflate his own history with that of the pharoah's, and he ends up painting the chambers of the bare tomb with scenes and hieroglyphs that "prove" the pharoah's existence.

When Finneran shows up at the tomb, unannounced and angry, Trilipush defends himself and then kills Finneran, then does his best to mummify the man, while confusing him with Amut-Hadu's traitorous minister. As the novel winds to its end, Trilipush has forgotten that the flimsy door that leads to the tomb was his replacement for the massive stone that he smashed to keep the location hidden. He fails to recall that the bloody footprints in the second chamber are his own from when the third door fell on his foot--and he mistakes that door for a dais. He puts his own tattered clothing, cane, and writing materials into the "storerooms." He wraps himself in sheets from his Cairo hotel, leaving himself in the final chamber as he finally conflates himself with his sought-for Pharoah.

Meanwhile, with typical blindness, Ferrell arrives in Luxor, confronts Trilipush, and gets nowhere. Trilipush assures the detective that Finneran and he will be going back to Cairo in two days, Ferrell waits for them at the boat. When neither appears, Ferrell alerts the Egyptian police, who arrest the thug/former foreman for the murder of both men.

In an unmarked coda to these narratives, Harvard sends Trilipush's accumulated mail to Margaret. In the stack is a letter from Marlowe's Oxford friend, which clears up the rest of the story. "Ralph M. Trilipush" is an invented character, used by Marlowe and his homosexual friends to lull worried parents into believing that their sons had left behind their "bad influences" and had gone straight. Thus, no record of any such character at Oxford, although underclassmen recognized the name, even as late as 1922.

Paul Caldwell taught himself as much about Egyptology as he could in Australia, then attached himself to Marlowe while stationed in Egypt, and blackmailed Marlowe into teaching him more. At the end of the war, Marlowe took Caldwell out beyond the Valley of the Kings, intending to kill the inconvenient young man, but was killed himself. Caldwell left behind their identity tags, and then reinvented himself as the fictional Trilipush.

Of course, we've seen this coming for quite a while, nearly as early as when Ferrell decides that Trilipush is a murderer, we've been expecting the identity switch. I will confess, I hadn't predicted the "Bunbury" aspect of Trilibush. (From "The Importance of Being Earnest"--characters trying to evade unpleasant social obligations claim they have to go visit their ailing (fictional) friend Bunbury.) At least one reviewer has referred to this as a "Talented Mr. Ripley" twist, which is also true.

The decoration of the tomb is well done, and Phillips has done a fine job of giving us Caldwell's history so we see his illustration of Amut-Hadu's life as really his own. The items he describes as having been placed in the tomb were also shown to us earlier. I saw this done many years ago by Robertson Davies in "What's Bred In The Bone" in which an art forger convincingly creates a Bosch-like work from his own history. It's quite possible Phillips was aware of this, as the wealthy man who sends Ferrell on the quest to find Paul Caldwell is also named "Davies."

Among the several interesting themes throughout the book is the question of immortality. How does one assure one's own immortality? Egyptian kings preserved their bodies, as well as their deeds and names in their tombs. The destruction of a name and a heart destroyed one's ability to live in the afterworld. Trilipush ponders what he calls the "Tomb Paradox." How do you create a tomb that won't be robbed and destroyed? How do you assure your name lives on after you? In his fevered final hours, he imagines that Amut-Hadu, faced with the invasion of the Hyksos, walked alone into the desert, sealed himself inside his tomb, thus assuring that the knowledge of its existence died with him.

The first half of this book is too long by about half; we get the joke, we get the tee up. We don't need quite as much time spent on Margaret and her recreational opium use, or Ferrell's moping around in Boston. Trilipush's journal is also too slow to get anywhere in the first half of the book. Again, we get the joke--let's get on with the excavation.

But the book is well done, and worth the read. It's good practice in reading behind the words, in trying to see what it is that the narrators don't realize they are telling us. Definitely worth the time.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

I picked this up for $5 from during a sale they had, and I had NO idea how big this really was! I think it has turned out to be something like 31 hours of narration, which is practically a lifetime in comparison to most audio books. So I guess it was about the biggest bargain I have ever found in audio books, and that includes the ones from the library!

Where does one start with Bleak House? I have read three or four of Dickens' shorter novels, but never this one, which showed up on one of those questionable lists of 100 Books You Should Have Read But Probably Didn't. Add to that the fact that as a lawyer, I was ethically obligated to read Dickens' polemic against the English court system, and I felt I had to wade in.

First off, although Bleak House is famous for the unending lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the case itself plays very little part in the bulk of the novel. Instead, the suit serves as the thread which connects all the characters from all different classes of society, allowing Dickens to comment on everyone from country gentry all the way down to the starving street orphans, while showing how they are interconnected. Because make no mistake, Dickens' main topic is not about the injustice of a Chancery case as much as it is the injustice of poverty and the persistent failure of England to care for its own.

The central figure of this novel is Esther Summerson, who narrates most of the action of the book. Her narrative is interleaved with an omniscient third person narrator, whose voice is quite arch and satiric. Esther is the sort of naive narrator who stands in for the reader, watching as the plot unfolds without fully comprehending all the elements at work. Esther is also a model Victorian woman, cheerful, kind, uncomplaining, generous, and loving. While modern readers will doubtless find her unbelievable, I see her as Dickens' demonstration of the Ideal Woman: she constantly puts others' needs ahead of her own, she strictly forbids herself to be mournful over things like her disfigurement by smallpox, or her loss of her love. The other ingenue of the book, Ada Clare, is similarly idealized, to the point where her presence in the book is fairly negligible.

Dickens' has been disparaged for his apparent inability to write believable women--Lucy from "A Tale of Two Cities" is almost farcical in her passivity. Esther comes off better than that, because we see so much through her narrative, and she is given the opportunity to be honest even when it is not flattering. Ada is pure Lucy, a lovely young girl who marries improvidently but for the best of intentions, and while it is her husband who actually dies, Ada is possibly even more the victim than he is.

Ada and her cousin, Richard Carstone, begin the book as wards of Chancery, as they are apparently orphans who stand to inherit under the wills of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. As far as I know, there is no backstory to these two--they do not exist until they burst onto the scene nearly as adults. Their cousin John Jarndyce, has petitioned the court to have them live with him, and he simultaneously takes on Esther Summerson as his ward and companion for Ada. John Jarndyce has refused to take any interest in the Chancery case, and would withdraw from it if that were possible. He has claims which are reportedly contrary to the claims of Ada and Richard, but he takes them into his home in order to counteract the effects of the suit.

Dickens wrote Bleak House as a serial which ran for some 18 months, and the plot is rather a soap opera as a result. Held together by the mechanism of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the narrative wanders widely. The highest ranking characters are Sir Leicester and Lady Honoria Dedlock, landed gentry from Lincolnshire. Lady Dedlock is at the height of the fashionable world, and bored to death with it. Oddly, Sir Leicester's attorney, the malevolent Tulkinghorn, turns up with some documents for them to review in the Jarndyce case. Lady Dedlock notices a certain distinctive handwriting on one of the documents and asks who wrote it. (Oh yeah! This was before copy machines!)

Tulkinghorn notices this unusual behavior, and becomes alert to what it might mean. He spends his considerable intellect ferreting out her secret. It was an error on her part to even mention it, because Tulkinghorn is a collector of secrets, and she is not safe, especially if her secret is in conflict with her gusband.

The secret, of course, is that before she married Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a lover and bore a child, who grew up to be Esther Summerson. The handwriting was of Captain Hawdon, Esther's father, who is found dead early in the book. At that point he was a poor opium addict who went by the name "Nemo," which is Latin for "nobody."

Nemo's milieu introduces a number of other characters: Mr. Krook, his landlord; Miss Flite, the other roomer and a suitor in Chancery (but apparently not in Jarndyce); Jo, the ragamuffin boy who sweeps; Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby, the legal stationer who hires Nemo and others to make copies of legal documents. So, by the device of a document in the Jarndyce case, we have moved from Lincolnshire to London, from the upper levels of fashionable society, through the mercantile middle class, to the opium addicted dregs.

The more I think about this novel, the more I take issue with the claim that this is a protest against the abuse of Chancery, or the legal system in general. The real issue, addressed over and over again, is the various forms of poverty and need, and how different people respond to it. There is, obviously, the utter indifference of the Chancery Court to the injury it causes to the people trapped in it--Mr. Gridley loses his farm to pay the costs of the adjudication of a will, ends up in prison several times, and ultimately dies as a result of his case. Poor Miss Flite has gone mad waiting for her judgment, and the weak Richard Carstone goes into debt, alientes his family members, and loses his health and life in pursuing Jarndyce and Jarndyce. But this is not the only instance of response to human want and need.

In introducing us to Tom All Alone's--a London street where rickety buildings have been colonized by squatters who then let out rooms to those who are even poorer--Dickens reports that Parliament has discussed its response to the horrible conditions there. However, since no one can agree on what to do, the street and its residents are only "to be saved by someone's theory, but by no one's doing." Even when the buildings start falling and killing the occupants, nothing is done.

In contrast, John Jarndyce learns of Esther Summerson and decides to be her protector, as well as taking in his two young cousins as well as all but supporting the feckless Horace Skimpole. Esther Summerson acts to attend to the needy children of Mrs. Jellyby on the one night she is in their household, and as a result has a life-long connection with Caddy. Esther takes in the ill Jo, and ends up nearly dying herself of smallpox. Her generosity is not rewarded--perhaps as a message that individual charity is not the solution. Her ultimate husband, Alan Woodcourt, attends the sick and dying even when it is clear they can never pay him.

Even the nearly penniless Nemo shared what little he had with Jo, who had even less. The brickmakers' wives, Jenny and Lizzie, also share their burdens with each other and help everyone from the gravely ill Jo to the distracted Lady Dedlock.

On the other hand, we also see the pointlessness of some efforts at charity. For instance, Mrs. Jellyby's obsession with her African mission blinds her to the very real needs of her own children. Mrs. Pardiggle forces her children to contribute to her charities, which they bitterly resent. Furthermore, Mrs. Pardiggle's form of charity is basically a pious bullying, and Dickens shows it to be utterly futile.

What Dickens shows us over and over in Bleak House is the necessity of making human connections, as individuals rather than as moral subjects or unbridgeable social constructs. It is this spectrum of relationship which is the real theme of the book. The various responses run from the cold and brutal inefficiency of the Chancery system (which takes no notice of whether waht it does is right, merely whether it is the system) to the generous and warm-hearted humanity of Esther Summerson.

One last comment: while the characters are often quite stock, I fully enjoyed Inspector Bucket, who was a new form of police officer that I had not previously encountered. He is not fixable as either "good" or "bad." He seems heartless as he forces Jo to "move on" without giving the poor boy any idea as to where he was to move to--but then he makes such a wonderful guest at the Bagnets birthday celebration, without letting on that he was only there to arrest Mr. George--far more humane and subtle than I had expected of him. Further, he is an excellent detective, exonerating Mr. George and finding the true culprit. He operates from extremely sympathetic motives, although his actions sometimes have more serious consequences than he could predict. He is truly an absorbing character.