Monday, April 29, 2013

The Professor and the Madman

Last year I read HHhH, which is amazing, and, to paraphrase myself (to paraphrase Eric Stoltz in Kicking and Screaming) it's basically made the average historical non-fiction completely unbearable for me.  The amazing thing about HHhH is that the author doesn't call it "non-fiction", despite the fact that the entire story IS true, because he acknowledges that his own bias in retelling the story changes it.  Even as he's recounting how these two spies are being fired upon by like, hundreds of Nazi's, he won't even suppose that they might be scared.
In The Professor and the Madman, all kinds of supposing is going on.  Author Simon Winchester freely associates as he images conversations and emotions throughout his best-selling non-fiction book from 1998. We amused ourselves at book club by reading out the most egregious of these presuppositions - mine was "Mrs. Merrett had no reason to be concerned: She assumed, as she had for each of the twenty previous nights on which her husband had worked the dawn shift, that all would be well."  Really?  A lady thought that, every morning for twenty years in 1871?  That was page 10... I had a long way to go.

For me, the most annoying thing about Professor and the Madman was this offensive language Winchester insisted on using regarding people with mental illnesses.  It's quite clear that the so-called "madman" had schizophrenia, however, he refers to him as "mad" or consumed by "demonic mischiefs"and so on (not to mention prostitutes were referred to as "whores").  I think that he was going for an over-all tone of 19th century yellow journalism or the penny-dreadful, but it's really unclear what purpose it serves.  

The most ridiculous part was where he implies that the "madman" had a sexual relationship with the wife of the man he killed, even while prefixing it with "No suggestion exists..."  What a bizarre thing to write!  Because this man and a woman were possibly in a room alone maybe once, oh, good lord, they probably/well could have/certainly could have/but probably didn't have sex.  Thus I rend my garment and cry out in rage.  

Overall, I found the entire book completely offensive - I mean, the basic premise is CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? A MENTALLY ILL PERSON HELPED WRITE AN IMPORTANT BOOK??? As if the mentally ill are incapable of contributing to society.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl’s getting a lot of buzz since it came out a year ago - I finally got around to reading it recently and got so mad on Facebook I said it made me QUESTION THE VERY PURPOSE OF BOOKS.  In retrospect, I don’t know what I really meant by that, and I’ve kind of settled down about the book.  I’m about to drop some Crazy-town spoilers, so don’t read on if you intend to read Gone Girl yourself.

So, at the beginning, there’s a double-narrative about the disappearance of Amy on her 5th wedding anniversary.  Nick, her husband, gives his perspective, and the other half is from Amy’s old diary.  Nick comes off like a jerk and Amy seems like sweet and likable woman that’s WAY too good for Nick.  So, it seems fairly obvious that Nick “did it”, because you can only assume that she is dead and that she was killed by her domestic partner.  

So, then there’s a twist.  If you talk to anyone who’s read Gone Girl, they’ll want to know when or if you knew there would be a twist.  I’ll admit that I saw the twist coming only about 2 pages in advance.  Some people will tell you they saw it a mile ago.  It turns out, Amy’s a psychopath, and she staged her own death and framed Nick for her murder, mostly just to stick it to him.  So, the double narrative continues, but from Nick’s increasingly befuddled POV and from Amy’s vindictive POV, where she explains how she “did it” and observes how the case goes forward.  Amy admits that she’s taking advantage of the general assumption that in case of a missing or dead woman, it’s fairly likely that her domestic partner had something to do with it.
I thought the entries turned out nicely, and it wasn’t simple. I had to maintain an affable if somewhat naive persona, a woman who loved her husband and could see some of this flaws (otherwise she’d be too much of a sap) but was sincerely devoted to him - all the while leading the reader (in this case, the cops, I am so eager for them to find it) toward the conclusion that Nick was indeed planning to kill me.
For a while that really cheesed me off until I was finally able to doff my cap to Flynn and admit she’d really pulled a good one.  I mean, not only that, but put together an extremely well-crafted narrative structure followed by a beautifully executed twist. Although, the truth is, if a woman is injured or killed, it’s actually fairly likely that her intimate partner did harm her - somehow I felt like this whole switcher-oo was a kick in the pants to the very real issues of domestic violence.  So, ok, I’m naturally willing to concede this is FICTION and for entertainment purposes, but what Gone Girl turned into for me was a particularly over-the-top episode of CSI, which I stopped watching years ago specifically because of their propensity to veer toward ridonkulous plot twists.  I mean, the only rational explanation for what Amy does is that she’s like, an honest-to-God psychopath.  And then the book turns to the area of truly inconceivable when Amy double-frames and murders her ex-boyfriend, comes home to Nick and somehow convinces him that they’re going to live together even though he knows what she did and then she impregnates herself with old sperm he had a bank and traps him forever with the threat that otherwise she’ll turn their kid into another psychopath or... something?  

Anyway, aside from a handful of friends who discreetly whispered to me that they too, were annoyed by Gone Girl, it’s been very well received since it’s publication.  It was also a finalist in the Tournament of Books, a kind of cool showdown between some of the year’s hottest and, in some cases, overlooked fiction in a sports-like bracket thing.  Anyway, Gone Girl made it to the next-to-last bracket-thing (I’m not very good at describing this).  Here’s what Kate Bolick has to say about the book, even as it beats out the competition:  “And then: Hah! The joke is on Amy! And also on Nick. And also on you.”  That’s the truth.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being

My review of A Tale for the Time Being on Newcity!  What a great book!  I'm a long-time Ozeki fan, this is a fine addition to her cannon.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy continues to amaze with Bring Up the Bodies, which chronicles the dissolution (to put it gently) of Henry VIII's second marriage to Anne Boleyn.  I read Wolf Hall, despite my general rule, that I break all the time, not to consume culture about capital punishment, which makes me feel queasy inside.  Bring Up the Bodies is all about Henry giving Anne the boot, which leads to her eventual (spoiler?) decapitation.  Boy, did that make me feel queasy.  Both books have won the Booker Prize. This entire trilogy trajectory is going to end with (mini-spoiler) Thomas Cromwell's decapitation.  Eek!  But I can't. Stop! Reading!

Mantel got in a teensy bit of hot water recently when it was perceived that she was denigrating the duchess Kate in her talk on Royal Bodies.   Even David Cameron jumped into the fray.  I found the whole thing very amusing - and an especially inept reading of what she actually said, which was a feminist examination of the "royal body", from Marie Antoinette to Anne Boleyn to Kate to Queen Elizabeth, who Mantel shamefully admits:
I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment.
Yowza.  I mean.  The way this woman writes!  Bring up the Bodies was largely a thrilling experience for me - like a joyride of gorgeous unravelling language from a master of the craft.  By now I've noticed that critics seem to enjoy sharing what they consider the Most Beautiful Sentence Mantel has written.  For me, it's this one:
The susurration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversation.
Sure, it's an incomplete clause but uh, in context it's really great.  Also I had to remind myself what "susurration" means.  Suddenly studying for the GRE came flooding back.  Actually, I am not ashamed to list the following words whose meanings I had to look up (see below if you want to quiz yourself):

  • Tonsured
  • parvenu
  • opprobrious
  • suborn
  • oubliette
  • sauve qui peut
  • sprezzatura
  • subfusc
  • fulminating

Also "phlegmatic" doesn't mean what I thought.  All this time I thought it was a person with a lot of phlegm.  Thank you, Reader-dictionary-tool!

An interesting aspect of this trilogy so far is that Henry VIII actually comes off as a fairly likeable character despite almost all evidence to the contrary.  Makes sense - almost everything's gone right for him his entire life, surrounded by yes-men with his every whim fulfilled. Why shouldn't be be a jovial character?  But, it's wise to be careful around him:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it's like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you're thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.  

That's the rub, of course. Out of the mannered civility of the court come the absolutely barbaric actions of the crown, and by the end, (spoiler?) everyone's literally slipping around in the blood of Anne Boleyn and five men on trumped-up charges of treason.  Whew!  What a book!  Read it!


  • the bald part of a monk's head
  • a person of obscure origin who has gained wealth
  • disgraceful, shameful. Not to be confused with approbation, of course
  • bribe
  • a secret dungeon accessed by a trapdoor at the top.  
  • a general stampede, panic. Literally: "save who can"
  • studied nonchalance 
  • drab
  • hurling denunciations or menaces.  Underused, isn't it?  I mean, I fulminate almost daily.