Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Divine Misdemeanors, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Meredith Gentry is back in LA working as a private detective, living with an unspecified number of exiles from the Unseelie court, and pregnant with twins. Someone is killing demi-fey--the small winged creatures humans think of when they think of "fairies"--and arranging the corpses to copy children's book illustrations.

Much of this book is perfunctory--less a novel and more a short story padded out with recaps of previous books in the series and re-introductions of the many different characters. Some new supernatural characters are introduced, including a "Jack-in-Irons" named Uther. A couple of characters gain new powers from Meredith, and a new sithen is produced magically, disguised as an apartment building, although that development happens entirely off-stage.

The only development of interest to the larger arc of the novels is that Meredith faces off against Barinthus, a former sea god who is regaining some of his former strength by living next to the ocean, and who wants to return to Faerie to rule with Meredith through power and fear. Meredith refuses and makes clear that he has obligations to contribute to the upkeep of the LA exiles. By the end of the book, Barinthus has eaten some of the humble pie he's been served.

As a measure of how thinly plotted this book is, there are three murder scenes, but no suspects until after the third one, and the novel is "solved" by the voluntary appearance of someone who rats on an acquaintance. So, basically, no mystery solving, no complexity to the crime. There are two perps, one of whom literally appears only at the end of the book after the informant has passed on what he knows. Meredith and her people go confront the bad guys, who are quickly killed after a short confrontation. The End.

Not worth the purchase price--if you have to read everything by Hamilton, get this from the library, read it at the bookstore, or wait until the inevitable clearance sale lowers the price on this one to under five bucks. Safe to skip--all the developments will be recapped in future novels. Read it with very low expectations to avoid inevitable disappontment. Less original than the widely reviled Micah.

Fans can hope that Hamilton is working on something meatier and that this is a contractual obligation; ex-fans can feel justified in their opinion that Hamilton has run out of ideas.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

I read this one for our mother-daughter book club; one of the 13 year olds picked it. It's Twilight for werewolf lovers, and there are no vampires at all. But there is the whole "I love my boy/girl friend and nothing else matters as much as being together" and "we can't be together because my boyfriend is a freak and I can't let anybody know about it" thing that is the distilled essence of Twilight. And that's how I know I am old: because I've had enough of that.

The main characters are Sam, the werewolf, and Grace, the girl he has loved ever since she was 11 and attacked by werewolves, and he saved her. Since then, she has loved the wolves and he has obsessed about her, and they finally meet when she's 17 and he's 18. And in Stiefvater's conception, transformation happens when it gets cold, so as Minnesota winter approaches, Sam is vulnerable. It also looks like this will be his last chance to be human—at some point, usually much later in life, werewolves just don't change back into humans and they live a shortened wolf life-span. This is Sam's last chance to be human.

Of course, like so many YA tropes, the existence of werewolves has to be kept secret, because adults wouldn't be able to handle the truth and would (obviously! God!) just hunt down and slaughter the pack. So Grace has to figure out how to keep Sam warm enough to stay human, while solving the mystery of a classmate's disappearance and has to fight off a she-wolf who wants Sam to take over the pack. So Grace is gifted with two of the most absent and incompetent parents in the history of literature. Dad is never home, Mom is a spacy artist who grabs cereal to eat in front of the TV on the few occasions she's outside her studio. Grace cooks all the meals, which her parents are never home to eat, and occasionally gets calls on her cell when her parents decide to stay away for a weekend.

Which is mostly just fine, because that means Sam can move into Grace's bedroom and her parents never notice. Early in the plot, a classmate (Jack) is reported killed by wolves, but there is no body because he's actually been turned into a werewolf. Jack's a bit of an ass, and school is actually more pleasant with his absence, but he doesn't stay away. He also has an inconveniently nosy sister, Isabelle, who thinks Grace knows something about the wolves and her brother. Between all these students, they figure out that Grace was bitten and should have turned, but apparently a fortuitously timed fever killed the toxin. So now Sam is about to go permanently wolf-shaped, Jack is losing what little mind and patience he had by turning back and forth, and Jack has bitten Grace's friend Olivia who is about to turn wolf for the first time.

Isabelle manages to get three vials of blood from a meningitis patient, and she and Grace inject Jack. Jack suffers for three days and then dies. Olivia choses to turn wolf, so she leaves a note for her parents to say she is running away and they shouldn't look for her. Sam gets half an injection before he turns animal. Logic dictates that a meningitis fever can't burn away the wolf while the patient is in wolf shape, so he's probably not going to get better. There's no way to tell for certain, because he runs out the open door and into the woods, as sick animals will. After a couple of pages where Grace finally gives up looking for Sam in wolf form, he shows up human Happily Ever After The End.

And I am tired of this. I'm tired of YA characters having to keep all these Big Secrets and fight these life and death battles with Absolutely No Adults they can trust or ask for help or advise or ANYTHING. The kind of message 13 year olds NEED to get from their literature is that adults are Big Stupid Dummies who Can't Be Trusted and who will only Interfere and Make Things Worse. Make no mistake, because the biggest market for these books are 11-13 year olds. Maybe we need to blame Shakespeare, because the template was set by Romeo and Juliet, and of course they shouldn't trust either the Montagues or the Capulets.

Sure, there's the developmentally appropriate process of a seventeen year old to separate from her parents, but does so much YA literature have to throw these kids so completely on their own resources? There are no positive adult relationships—no teachers they could turn to, no advice seeking from other adults or even older college kids. Every adult in this book is absent (Grace's dad), vapid and disconnected (Grace's mom) or dangerously violent (Sam's biological parents, Sam's werewolf mentor, Jack and Isabelle's dad). The world of this novel is entirely limited to teen agers. I'd have felt less annoyed if they had turned to a science teacher to ask about the meningitis, for example, or even gone to a library and spoken to the librarian. Instead we get a parade of horrible parenting.

  • Sam's parents saw him turning into a wolf when he was 11, so they held him down in the bathtub and slit his wrists trying to bleed the disease out of him.
  • Sam's werewolf mentor decided he needed werewolves who would still be human in the spring to support the pack, so he went out and bit some teens, tied them up in the back of his van and brought them to his house.
  • Jack's dad organized the hunt to kill the pack that he thought killed his son, and also keeps stuffed hunting trophies in the house.
  • Grace's mother makes a single attempt to counsel her daughter, but when rebuffed she gives up and leaves the scene.
  • Grace's dad is a workaholic who only comes home in order to go away for the weekend with Grace's mom.

So Grace and Sam live for weeks together in her empty house and nobody knows about it. It just annoys me because it overtly sends the message that whenever any important life (and death!) issues come along, teens should just handle them on their own.

I'd rather see these kind of things be handled with a sense of a larger community. Some writers have started to explore what happens when these groups—vampires, werewolves, etc.—come out of the shadows and have to be absorbed into society. True Blood is all about what happens when vampires are no longer myth, for example. I'm not na├»ve enough to think that YA novels are going to all start promoting healthy parent-child relationships, but what good does it do to show the kids so completely alone? Even Harry Potter had Dumbledore and McGonagall to help him out sometimes.

Can we also maybe can the "destined for each other for eternity" meme as well? It's rather unhealthy, I think, in this day and age to portray seventeen year olds as fated to be mated. We are even told that Grace has never even had a boyfriend—so we're even treated to the old "virgin's first lover" trope. (Has Sam had a girlfriend, or even a wolf mate? We don't know, but it's not ruled out in clear way Grace is overtly signaled to be a virgin.) I can't help but think that Grace is going to want to have a life—to go to college, to travel with her friend Rachel, to not just move from being her parents' caretaker to taking care of her boyfriend and his wolf pack. Maybe he would like to do some of that himself as well. Sure, he's grateful she saved his live and all, but do they really have all that much in common?

I know, I know—this is just a tween/teen friendly romance novel, and asking for realism is like asking for Cinderella's shoe size—it misses the point. Still, I'm bothered by the insidious messages that lie just beneath the romantic story, and I dislike what those messages say about the proper behavior for heroes and heroines.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

Another oddly charming read by the wizard of the Socialist Republic of Wales. Jasper Fforde won my reader's heart with his first book, The Eyre Affair, in which his heroine Thursday Next reads herself into fiction. I was totally won over when he introduced the door-to-door Baconian proselytizer--a Jehovah's Witness-like pamphleteer who tried to convert those who believed Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare. From then on, I was in his capable hands as he re-wrote the ending of Jane Eyre, held a Rocky Horror re-enactment of Richard III, and seized forged Samuel Johnsons with a street value of millions of pounds.

Fforde has produced four Thursday Next novels, mixing literature with his own fictional version of 1980s England. Less successful for me are the Nursery Crimes novels, featuring Detective Jack Spratt and his assistant Mary Mary. But there are still moments of inspired lunacy that make him worth reading even at less than top of his game. Did Humpty Dumpty fall, or was he pushed?

Shades of Grey creates a different universe for Fforde to play with, and is apparently the first of a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic England some 700 years after "Something Which Happened." The world we know is buried under centuries of leaf mold and ivy, although pieces of our time (and even our future) obtrude occasionally. What does exist is a society organized entirely by what colors people can see: almost no one can see full spectrum any more. The hierarchy is the reverse of ROY G BIV, with the "Purples" at the apex, Reds at the bottom except for the dreary Greys, who are the servant class and do all the unpleasant work.

The book starts with the transfer of Eddie Russett and his father from their cosmopolitan home to the Outer Fringe village of East Carmine. During a stop-over in the town of Vermillion, a Purple appears to be dying on the floor of a National Color store, and since Eddie's father is a swatchman, the equivalent of a doctor, he is called to aid. Things are not what they seem, however, as the recommended treatments have nearly killed the patient. Eddie notices that the Purple seems to be mis-identified: his hands are work roughened. It's a Grey, passing himself off as a Purple!

Things get more complicated as the Russetts reach East Carmine. Eddie finds himself on the bad side of the village prefects, a nasty Yellow family called the Gamboges, while he is simultaneously falling in love with a sarcastic and aggressive Grey with a retrousse nose. Eddie seems unable to keep his head down, and his inconvenient curiosity opens his eyes to secrets that challenge his ability to live according to his society's rules.

A great deal of the charm of this book is the way Fforde has mapped out the class system with colors. According to an interview on his website, Fforde set the Purples as dukes, and the rest of the spectrum fell into place. In many ways, Shades of Grey is a social satire like Jane Austen's novels--so much depends upon securing a good marriage, and the consequences of marriage negotiations illuminate the nature of social relationships.

Much of Eddie's time is spent trying to secure his engagement to one Constance Oxblood, whose family has a higher percentage of red perception than the Russetts do, and there is hope that their children might rise to sit on city Councils, or serve as Red Prefects if they have enough color perception. Eddie himself seems to be a strong Red, but he has not yet been officially tested at the annual Ishihara and so his status is mere potential. There is a rival for Constance's affections, as well as some advantageous (if unattractive) marriagable women in East Carmine. There is also the un-advantageous and dangerously attractive Jane Grey.

There is also the continuing mystery of the dead man from Vermilion, who seems to have had some connections with East Carmine's previous swatchman--a Robin Ochre, who was selling swatches illegally, and whose own death is questionable. What happened to the missing swatches and the money that came from their sale? Who else was in on the beigemarket scam? Why is it illegal to manufacture spoons and why does no one ever come back from High Saffron?

I'm not certain I can explain why I enjoyed this book so much; it's something about Fforde's ability to take something ridiculous, treat it as serious, while at the same time writing with such deft lightness that the entire book becomes a sort of confection. He's also put so much thought into how his color-based society would work that there are none of the floating loose ends and nagging inconsistencies of--just to pick an example at random--James Cameron's Avatar. Plus Fforde did it for less than half a billion dollars.

Shades of Grey isn't the literary romp that the Thursday Next novels are, because he's planted himself in a non-literary world. However he has created a world as internally consistent and as intriguing as Thursday's world, and it's worth a read.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

At the risk of sounding pretentious, I would say this book is "very French." There is such fixation on class differences, and while very little happens in terms of plot, the book is stuffed to the gills with meditations on what makes art beautiful, the role of literature in society, the nature of cultural displacement on violence in society, the fundamental error of Husserl's phenomenology, and on and on.

The two alternating narrators are Renee Michelle, the widowed concierge of a glamorous apartment building in Paris, and Paloma Joss, the 12 year old daughter of one of the families living in the building. Both have untempered disdain for everyone else in the building, but they don't actually know each other until late in the book.

What little plot there is concerns the arrival of a new resident, a 60-ish Japanese man named Kakuro Ozu, who sees the intelligence hiding behind Mme. Michelle's facade, as well as Paloma's loneliness. The concierge begins to bloom under M. Ozu's attentions and as a narrator begins to lose her defensive prickliness -- which is the metaphor expressed in the title.

I am admittedly surprised that this has become such a successful book here in the US, as so many of the issues of class and privilege don't resonate here in quite the way they do in France. Mme. Michelle puts out a great deal of effort to appear to be a "real concierge;" she leaves the TV on all day, she buys horrible food which she actually feeds to her cat, she behaves as though she is both stupid and stubborn. Actually she doesn't watch the TV, she hides her real food underneath the horrible stuff, and she reads and thinks with ferocious avidity. She is authentic, however, in her dislike of everyone in her building and their privilege, although it's not clear for most of the book if there is any reason for her fury. Most of the people are thoughtless or unpleasant, but I found them to be predominantly lost themselves and mostly pathetic.

After all, none of them treats her badly; the worst thing that any one of them does is Paloma's older sister who rings the bell of the loge at 7 a.m. instead of waiting until 8 when the loge is officially open. Mme. Michelle had been out late the night before, drinking sake with M. Ozu, so she was particularly irritated by it, but in the universe of bad behavior it's pretty negligible.

No, most of Mme. Michelle's hatred of her employers seems to be projection--her own assumption of what they think about her. Frankly, if this spiky woman worked in my building, I'd be desperate to respect the privacy she so obviously wants! Not because I think I'm "better" than she is, or because I didn't think she could understand my deep thoughts, but because I was afraid I might leave her with less than all ten fingers I started with.

This got to me toward the end of the book especially hard. She is going out to dinner with M. Ozu, dressed up and made up like she doesn't ordinarily do. She's even gone to a hair dressers for the first time in her life, when they meet two of the women of the building. To her amazement, the women don't recognize her. M. Ozu claims it is because they have never actually looked at her to see her properly. But, honestly, how empathetic has Mme. Michelle ever been to them either? Has she ever tried to see them for who they really are, to see what their joys and sorrows have been? Of course not.

The second narrator is Paloma Joss the younger daughter of one of the families in the building. Her father is in the government, her mother is apparently deeply bored and passes much time in psychotherapy, and her older sister is a student in one of the best schools in Paris. Paloma hates them all and has decided that being an adult is so horrible that she will kill herself on her 13th birthday, just after setting fire to the apartment building. In the interim, she will keep journals and see if she can find any reason not to carry out her plan.

Paloma as a character is hard to swallow. I am not certain if her "Journal of Profound Thoughts" is supposed to actually be profound, or just the kind of "profound" that one would expect from a twelve year old. Nor did I ever believe she was going to kill herself or set fire to the building. If this were anything more than a plot device imposed by Barbery, said twelve year old would have spent some time planning. Exactly how was she going to do this thing? Sure, she swiped some of her mother's pills, but was she going to take them the night before her birthday so she would be found the next morning, or was she going to take them in front of everybody, or hide them in the birthday cake, or what? Surely a girl planning to commit a statement suicide would plot what she was going to where, how she would be found, as well as imagine the satisfaction of the family's reaction to her death.

Even less believable was the idea of burning down the apartment building. There was really no plan at all. Was she going to take a kitchen match to some carpeting maybe? Before of after she took the pills? No, the whole "die before I get old" was just never going to happen. Sure, she found her family to be annoying and intrusive; it's practically a developmental stage.

I will not attempt to distinguish myself by weighing in on the philosophical musings of the two women, as honestly, I just trudged through those parts of the book. Not that they were worthless; it's just that I don't enjoy philosophy. I'm kind of tone deaf to it, I think, or something, because I didn't particularly care one way or another about Mme. Michelle's views on Husserl or Marx, and her disquisition on the subject of Dutch still life went in one ear and out the other.

I did object to her dismissal of Paloma's sister's paper on William of Ockham, though. After all, I, the reader, have just spent valuable hours of my life hearing your thoughts on all sorts of things that were hardly personally useful--the habits of your bladder, for one. I'm sorry you don't care for Ockham's thought, but is it really completely without any worth whatsoever? Surely there are plenty of "thinkers" who are more obscure and less worthy of study--she could have been a student of romance novels or something even more disposable. At least she is trying--just like you are. Show a little compassion for people; you certainly demand it for yourself.

And the end. The end! Fortunately I had Googled the book and knew to expect it, although I might have figured it out anyway. I kept thinking about Virigina Woolf's comment (as delivered by Nicole Kidman in "The Hours") that someone has to die so the rest of us can see how precious life is. And it was never going to be Paloma.

Yes, Renee Michelle dies, hit by a dry cleaning truck, just as she has started to soften up and behave like a human being. Maybe she and M. Ozu would have married. Maybe not, but maybe she would have learned how to be her true self and be a happier person. But no.

Although I have to give Barbery some credit, as Mme. Michelle's last thoughts are quite interesting and the whole idea of narrating what happens while a person dies was an intriguing and daring risk to take. And, of course, it is Mme. Michelle's death which convinces Paloma not to kill herself, so there is that silver lining as well.

While looking up other reviews of this book--to see if I could figure out why this has been such a successful phenomenon, I came across a delightful and persuasive critique here.

In the end, did I like this? No, not much, but then it's not really the type of book I enjoy. I'm not someone who reads philosophy for fun, just as I don't do well with non-fiction. Mostly it's because there are so many other types of books I enjoy more, and I'd rather be reading those. It's a classic line, because it works: "It's not you, it's me." It's probably more a failure on my part than on the book's part, for whatever that is worth.

On balance, I wouldn't recommend it because I didn't enjoy it. If I had a friend who adored philosophy, I'd mention it. It's not an easy read, although the philosophy is deliberately accessible, but you have to want to read philosophy to really enjoy this book.

Finally, a note on the audio book. Yes, I listened rather than read this one, and so I devoted more hours to it than I would have if I had simply read it. On the other hand, I listened while doing other things, so I didn't lose as much time to it than I would have if I had to sit and concentrate on it alone. The readers were very good, especially Barbara Rosenblatt as Mme. Michelle--but then something about Barbara Rosenblatt's voice holds a secret smile, as though she is about to tell you a really good joke, which lightened the tone of the bitterness.

What will probably live on for me, however, is the beauty of French. Sure, the author's name is "Muriel Barbery," but when pronounced in the French way, it's a beautiful name. Muh-ree-EL Bahr-buhr-REE. Much more elegant, and worth the price of the download itself.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Now this was a good book.

I know I bitch a lot about the books I read, and even I wonder sometimes if there are ever any books that I do like. I liked this one. I liked this one a lot, and I'd recommend it to anyone with any taste at all for historical fiction.

The hero is Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who improbably rose to be Henry VIII's closest counselor. He was the epitome of the "new man," the non-noble who rose to prominence by his skill and talent--something that hadn't happened before Henry VIII.

A quick look at the Wikipedia entry on Thomas Cromwell gives the substance of his life and does nothing to diminish the joy of this novel. Mantel has taken the bones of Cromwell's life and fashioned a character, one who moves through history in relation to other characters. Mantel sets up Cromwell against Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and shows off each individual character. Whether or not they are actually accurate, they are engaging.

The book starts with what may have been the lowest point in Thomas Cromwell's life: at approximately age 14 he was beaten within an inch of his life by his father. The book literally starts with Cromwell's thoughts that he might not survive. The book ends at a high point in his career, where he has achieved a great deal in royal government and seems to be contemplating the possibility of marrying again. Along the way we are treated to seeing turbulent Tudor life through the eyes of a man we can respect for his wisdom and his kindness.

It is through the accumulation of almost domestic details that Mantel tells this story, leaving the reader with a sense of having truly seen into the past. Cardinal Wolsey is not terribly pious, and is always at the king's side, despite being the Archbishop of York. He is a tireless worker, fond of luxuries, surprisingly kind and witty. When he is presented with a sun dial he remarks "Nine faces! That's two more than the Duke of Norfolk!" Which is a rather witty way to vent his frustration over his opponent.

Wolsey amused himself by inventing stories of Cromwell's origins. At one point in the book, after Wolsey's death, someone demands to know if Cromwell had been baptized, since the cardinal had said that Cromwell had been kidnapped by pirate while an infant. Cromwell's response captured the spirit of his former master: "Who will I have to invent me now?"

T here is a touching scene between Cromwell and King Henry. Wolsey has been stripped of his position as Lord Chancellor and has been turned out of his London house, after failing to get a divorce for Henry. Cromwell has come to beg for some leniency or assistance, to get Wolsey up to York. In front of his counsel and Anne Boleyn, Henry remains firm, but he demands a private consultation with Cromwell and asks "Would a thousand pounds help?"

I adored these human touches to people who are often just names in history books. Thomas More is portrayed as a self-righteous prig. Mark Smeaton, the musician who would ultimately be swept up in Anne Boleyn's fall, is a vain gossip. Henry Norris is a thoughtless and casually cruel man. Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, compete with each other to hire Cromwell after Wolsey's death, but do not appreciate his appointment to the king's council. Anne Boleyn is wary, tense, and fiercely intelligent; her sister Mary is kind hearted and genuinely likable. Jane Seymour is a ghostly presence, yet attractive, somehow remaining loyal to Queen Katherine yet welcomed in Anne Boleyn's rooms.

The book ends before Anne Boleyn's fall, but the signs are there: the first baby only a girl, a miscarriage, and the stress of the relationship between her and the king. The dominoes are lined up to be pushed over. Yet, again, Thomas Cromwell will survive this fall, as he survived Wolsey's only to lose his position and his head over the debacle of the marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1640.

But the book ends before any of this happens. Could Mantel be planning a sequel?

And why the heck is it called "Wolf Hall?" Wolf Hall was the seat of the Seymour family, where (eventually) Henry VIII would go to court his third wife, Jane Seymour. The first we hear of Wolf Hallin the novel is as the site of a scandal. Wolf Hall's lord, Sir John Seymour, was discovered carrying on an affair with his oldest son's wife. Later, Jane Seymour makes a remark about staying at court until things settle down at home. At the end of the book, Cromwell is contemplating a call at Wolf Hall, presumably to court Jane Seymour. Other than these references, nothing happens at Wolf Hall--all the main action happens at Cromwell's home or the royal palaces.

Even writing this review, I find myself wondering what I missed the first time through. This book gets an A from me.

The Passion of Artemisia, Part II

Despite not liking this book much, I did finish it. At some point I dumped the audio book and picked up the actual book from the library--and the good news is that I can read much faster than I can listen.

I do have to lay some of my dislike for the book at the feet of the audio production. The narrator was competent and her pronunciation of the Italian was fluent, but her affect lent a permanent air of bewilderment to the first person narration, creating an Artemisia Gentileschi who just couldn't be very bright, as she was constantly surprised by everything.

Also, the book is written as a series of vignettes, and the audio production would have benefited from leaving longer silences between each scene to replicate aurally the visual use of spaces to represent the passage of time.

Leaving the audio aside--how was the book? Again, not very good. The group pretty much agreed that the subject was very interesting, but the book didn't do it justice. We rated it a C+.

Looking at the task of pulling together such a book, you'd think you'd have a slam dunk. Artemisia Gentileschi lived at a high point of Italian history, painting for Medicis, corresponding with Galileo, working in Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and England. We have many of her paintings with a rough chronological order. Some of her letters have survived, as has the legal records of the rape trial. The author's task was to pull this patchy data together and create a character who could also speak to modern readers. Vreeland was only intermittently successful.

I think perhaps my dissatisfaction came from the uneasy mix of modern sensibility with period detail. It just seemed that Vreeland pointed out things that the real Artemisia would not have. For example, when attending a ball at a noble's house, she writes of the "too sweet perfume that failed to mask the musky scent of their unwashed bodies." That's a detail that translates the Renaissance for modern readers, but wouldn't Artemisia be used to that and not notice it? After all, she didn't bathe more often than the rest of them did.

The real strength of this book should have been Vreeland's ability to describe the paintings--how she made them, what choices she made as a woman that were different from other artists' depictions of the same subjects. And we do get some of that. Artemisia's Judith slaying Holofernes is described as requiring more realistic work on Judith's part.

Vreeland especially takes time with Artemisia's choices in painting Lucretzia. Traditionally, it is a blood-and-sex subject, in which the victim of a rape kills herself. Vreeland's Artemisia is unwilling to perpetuate the belief that death is the only proper response. After all, she didn't kill herself, why should Lucretzia? We get a lovely set piece with Artemisia holding a dagger and testing poses herself, while looking in a mirror. Should she hold the dagger pointing in, or out? Wrist up, or down? Blade touching skin, or in the air? Artemisia muses on what moment she wants to capture in her painting, rejecting the more extreme emotions in favor of painting a woman who is still undecided about her fate.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more if we had gotten more about the art and less about the melodrama: Artemisia seems to have had bad luck in picking her family. She spends much of the book blaming her father for making her rape public by starting the trial, for the use of the sibille on her, for marrying her off to a man who cheats on her. She spends most of the novel with a major chip on her shoulder, and refuses to have anything to do with him until the end, when Vreeland cobbles up a sort of reconciliation. Perhaps it was necessary to have some sort of arc to the story, but the result was a deeply immature and petulant main character who failed repeatedly to appreciate what he had done for her and dwelled only on what he had done to her.

It came as a relief toward the end when Artemisia's mentor (a nun) gives her a bit of a tongue lashing. Grow up! Get over it! You've had a fabulous life, living in wonderful cities, making your living by what you love, surrounded by art and beauty. You have a healthy child. You have a life that most women can't even dream of, while I've been shut up in this convent for thirty years. Quit whining.

It would have been good advice for Vreeland to have taken earlier with her character.

A word about the title: "The Passion of Artemisia" is most likely intended to play on the many paintings of saints called "The Passion of X." These pictures often (usually? always?) show the saint in a moment of religious ecstasy, sometimes indistinguishable from sexual orgasm. Vreeland doesn't give us a passionate Artemisia--even her love of art doesn't really register as a "higher calling" or something that gives her transcendent bliss. Rather, she is a very practical woman--as she would have had to be--juggling painting with child care, commissions with household management. She tells us she loves to paint, but that love is shown not by ecstasy and an O face, but by the determination with which she manages to keep painting even when that requires major upheaval in her life.

In some ways, the book is diminished by events--at the time the book was published in 2002, it didn't have to compete with Wikipedia, which summarized the factual events of Artemisia's life. When Vreeland wrote it, she didn't have any reason to expect that her readers might Google "Artemisia Gentileschi" and readily access her history. In the world where the internet so dominates, the role of historical fiction may have changed. It's no longer enough to bring forth the facts of a somewhat obscure character from history--authors have to do something more.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory

Having novelized all the Tudors she could get her hands on, Philippa Gregory moved back in time for her new trilogy, starting with Elizabeth Woodville in "The White Queen." So now she can do for the War of the Roses what she did for Henry VIII's marital troubles.

Elizabeth Woodville was the wife of Edward IV, and is perhaps best known as the mother of the "Princes in the Tower"--the young Edward V and his brother the Duke of York who disappeared while living at the Tower of London and who Shakespeare claims were killed by the hunchback Richard III. So I was curious to see what Gregory's take on the story would be.

First off, the book suffers from Gregory's adherence to her formula: take a woman from a significant historical period and tell the story from her point of view. Because most of what happens historically during Elizabeth Woodville's life happens while she was not there. Edward fought the Wars of the Roses without bringing his wife along to the battlefields, so all the military strategy and political intrigue can't be reported first hand. Gregory "solves" this problem by giving her protagonist magical powers, so she can "see" what happens hundreds of miles away.

And I have a problem with this. Admittedly, I don't expect a historical novel to be rigorously accurate to every last detail--it is fiction after all, and if I want accurate history I shouldn't be reading fiction. And goodness knows that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was strange enough that contemporaries probably did consider that she had bewitched him. But having the author introduce sorcery and mythical ancestry (the Woodvilles are descended from Melusina?) as if it were fact crosses a line for me.

Secondly, Gregory has gotten sloppy with her writing. Maybe she was always a master of cringe-inducing prose and I just missed it before, but it really intrudes here. Perhaps it's the essential lack of story that throws the writing into stark relief, but whatever it is, it is painful. The novel opens with the meeting of Elizabeth Woodville and the future king. He is on his way to meet his army and another battle, she is standing with her two sons (she is a widow, and still quite young) intent on stopping him to ask for her sons' lands back--lands that were given to someone else when her husband died in the wars.

This is a famous meeting, at least as much romance as history, and there are people in England today who can point out the exact tree she stood beneath. The king-to-be was stopped by her beauty, and was so taken with her that he actually married her secretly before he won the crown. He then insisted on the validity of the marriage, even in the face of arrangements to consolidate his throne by marrying a French princess. Warwick, his former mentor (called the "Kingmaker") turned against him, and the wars continued.

Gregory is not up to the task of dramatizing this meeting and the relationship between these two people. She may have been beautiful, but how beautiful would she have to be that Edward would sneak away from his war and risk the crown to marry a widow with two sons? Gregory's Edward can only speak in modern cliches: "God, I must have you." Perhaps that is why she resorted to treating the allegations of witchcraft as truth--because as a writer, she simply couldn't make this marriage believable.

Third: Elizabeth Woodville's life is most historically interesting after her husband dies in 1483, and Gregory has committed to covering the twenty or so boringly domestic years before that. So not much happens in cursory form for hundreds of pages. Somehow, the first half of the book suffers both from too much and not enough happening. The book only comes alive once Edward is dead and Elizabeth has to protect herself and her children and weather the political changes that threaten them.

Before he died, Edward IV named his youngest brother Richard (Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III) as Lord Protector, to run the kingdom until the Prince of Wales reached his majority and could rule for himself. Once Edward IV died, the young prince was brought to London from Wales, where he had his own household as Prince of Wales. He was there under the protection of one of Elizabeth's many brothers, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, as well as one of the sons of her first marriage, Thomas Grey. Richard intercepted the procession, and Rivers and Grey ended up imprisoned and dead.

Elizabeth fled with her remaining children to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, and from there watched the preparations for her son to be crowned. Historically, she was persuaded to send her second son, the Duke of York, to join his brother at the Tower. Gregory posits that she sent an anonymous urchin in disguise, while she spirited her son to Flanders, where he was raised as "Perkin Warbeck." Gregory also shows Elizabeth as suspicious of Richard's every action, and trying to raise military forces through her brothers and Grey relations, while remaining in sanctuary herself.

Gregory plays with the historical mystery: the generally accepted story is that Richard killed the two princes in order to get the crown for himself. Gregory doesn't accept this version--by the time the boys disappeared, Richard already had been declared king by Parliament, the boys had been legally declared illegitimate, and they were no real threat to his position. Their disappearance, however, was a problem. In an nicely imagined meeting, Richard III comes to Westminster Abbey to ask if Elizabeth knows what happened to the boys. If they are alive, he can show them to be so and the rumors of their murders will stop. If they are dead, he can show their bodies and blame their deaths on one of his current enemies--the Duke of Buckingham. As it is, there is only damaging speculation and rumor, and he recognizes that his name will always be blackened by their deaths.

So, by the end, the book gains the historical ballast it needed all along. Richard is a hard man, but no worse than others. The young man who shows up in England years later calling himself "Perkin Warbeck" and claiming to be boy who was assumed to have been murdered in the Tower is the son of Edward IV. No one knows what actually happened to the boys in the Tower, but Gregory leaves open the suspicion that they were murdered by Henry Tudor, later Henry VII. She also gives some understandable human flesh to the bones of Elizabeth Woodville's later actions--why she allows her daughter Elizabeth to leave sanctuary and go to Richard III's court, and what happens to Elizabeth there. How Elizabeth falls in love with her uncle, and her betrothal to Henry Tudor.

It is in the latter half of the book that Gregory finally shows some of her talent in a more subtle use of sorcery--while in sanctuary, Elizabeth curses whoever killed her boys by cursing him with the death of his own sons. "That is how we shall know who it was--by the death of his own heir." This threatens to rebound to her own injury, as history shows us that Elizabeth's grandson Arthur dies before becoming King of England, and that Henry VIII spends decades in a quest for his own heir.

The next two books in the projected trilogy are "The Red Queen," to focus on Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and "The White Princess," focusing on Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Elizabeth Woodville, sister to the Princes in the Tower, wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII.

Will I read them? Probably. Will I bitch about it as I do. Undoubtedly. But I think I can't live with not knowing what position Gregory takes on the historical mysteries of those times.