Monday, May 29, 2006

I'm a Wrathful, Gloomy, Lustful Mouse

Probably because of thinking dark thoughts about historical novelists who don't bother to do research and about all of those hunky Scotsmen who have populated much of my recent reading:

The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Fifth Level of Hell!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Low
Level 2 (Lustful)High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Moderate
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)High
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Low
Level 7 (Violent)Moderate
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Low

Take the Dante Inferno Hell Test

And I don't even like cheese, except when it's well disguised on a sausage pizza:

You Are A: Mouse!

mouseSome people are scared of mice while others find them cute and cuddly. As a mouse, you forage for food and manage to sneek into everything, but prefer to stay out of sight. The phrase "quiet as a mouse" isn't for nothing, however surprise one and expect a squeek! Your small size and quiet nature are partly what makes you a mouse.

You were almost a: Duckling or a Bunny
You are least like a: Bear Cub or a PuppyTake the Cute Animal Quiz

Will The Cup of Ghosts Be Your Cup of Tea?

I'm not generally a fan of mysteries, except for those of P. D. James, but if it's about Edward II, I'll buy it, so naturally I eagerly awaited The Cup of Ghosts by the amazingly prolific Paul Doherty (not only does he manage two or three novels a year, he's a school headmaster). It's the first of a promised series featuring Mathilde, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella.

Mathilde, who has been training as a physician in Paris under the supervision of her beloved uncle, finds her world shattered when King Philip begins persecuting the Knights Templar, an order to which her uncle belongs. To save Mathilde's life, her doomed uncle sends her to the house of a friend, who in turn sends Mathilde to the household of young Princess Isabella. Sexually abused by her loutish brothers and full of hatred toward her father, Isabella regards Mathilde with suspicion at first, but becomes her devoted friend when Mathilde chases Isabella's drunken brothers out of her bedchamber. In the meantime, several people have died horribly, in and out of court, and more deaths follow when Isabella marries Edward II and travels to England. Shrewd and with a physician's eye for unnatural death, Mathilde is a natural to investigate what she realizes must be murders--and a natural target for murder herself.

I admit that as the body count grew higher and higher in this novel, my interest began to flag somewhat--I would have liked fewer corpses and more time to get to know the living. Still, there's a lot to like here. As Alianore in her review noted, Edward II and Isabella are attractively portrayed (though I doubt whether Isabella's brothers merited their portrayal here as child molesters, and incestuous ones at that). I particularly liked Mathilde. Resourceful, courageous, tough, and at the same time kindly and warmhearted, Mathilde is a heroine I look forward to seeing again.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Better than the Beach, Almost

This being Memorial Day weekend, I would normally be at the beach, but as our family was away last weekend, it seemed better for all concerned to spend this weekend at home catching up.

Instead, I sashayed down to the local university library, which is at its nicest in the summer. No pesky undergraduates hogging the tables, speaking at a volume generally best reserved for rock concerts and sporting events. Just me and a few other stray grown-ups and stacks and stacks and stacks of books. I get trembly just thinking about it.

Anyway, while I was there I picked up Michael Prestwich's Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience. It's not a new book--it was first published in 1995--but it's not one that I'd come across before. In the little time I've had to read selected portions of it, I'm finding it extremely useful for research purposes. There are chapters on "The Logistics of War," "The Navy," "Siege Warfare," and "Battle," among many others, all geared to inteligent readers who nonetheless don't have a thorough familiarity with medieval warfare. Take a look at it, especially if you're a writer struggling with a battle scene.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Happy 700th Anniversary . . .

To Hugh le Despenser the younger and Eleanor de Clare (heroine of my favorite historical novel), married on May 26, 1306. Edward I, Eleanor's grandfather, paid for the minstrels for the wedding, which took place at the king's chapel at Westminster. (This information comes from a thesis by Richard Rastall, available online here.) According to Michael Prestwich in "Royal Patronage under Edward I" in Thirteenth Century England I, Edward I also gave Eleanor nearly 29 pounds to buy jewels for the wedding, plus an additional 10 pounds for robes for her maidservants. Thirteen-year-old Eleanor's wedding dress must have been quite the thing; according to Mary Anne Everett Green in Lives of the Princesses of England, 100 pounds was paid to redeem it from the friar minors of London, who owned it as their prerequisite.

Whether the young couple consummated their marriage on their wedding night is unknown, but their eldest son was born around 1308. Needless to say, the couple, with the usual blatant lack of consideration for future historical novelists shown by medieval folk, named him Hugh.

Despite the abundant evidence for the 1306 wedding (it's also mentioned in Pierre Langtoft's chronicle), a distressing number of historians and novelists persist in having the couple's marriage take place sometime after the Battle of Bannockburn at the instigation of Edward II, presumably on the assumption that since Edward II arranged the marriages of Eleanor's sisters to his favorites, he had to have arranged Eleanor's too. It could be worse, however--at least no novelist has had Eleanor succumb to the charms of a dashing Scotsman before settling down to married life with Hugh.

Not yet, anyway.

And in any case, Hugh was a pirate, for a short time at least. Who wants a man in a kilt when you can have a man with an eyepatch?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Disappointing Look at a Controversial Queen

Thanks to Alianor, who sent me a photocopy, I just finished Alianor by Maureen Peters. (It’s not every day you get to write a sentence like that.) This is a 1984 historical novel about Eleanor of Provence, Henry III’s queen. It’s easier to find in the UK than in the US, apparently, but whether it’s pounds or dollars that are in your pocketbook, I’d keep them there in this case.

A woman who was so hated by the Londoners that they pelted stones at her ought to make a fascinating subject for fiction. Unfortunately, this novel doesn’t live up to its subject; it’s disappointingly shallow. The events of Henry III’s turbulent reign are only touched upon; for instance, although Simon de Montfort makes a few appearances, it’s only to spar verbally with Alianor, then to disappear for a few chapters until he turns up again for another sparring match. Events such as the attack on London’s Jews and Guy de Montfort’s murder of Richard of Cornwall’s son, vividly portrayed by Sharon Penman, are described only fleetingly here or ignored altogether.

The main focus of the novel, instead, is on the unconsummated love between Alianor and her brother-in-law, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Curiously, Alianor’s wistful longings for Richard are about the only interior life she has—she’s never shown as worrying about the captivity of her son or her husband, for instance, though she's depicted as a loving mother. Though she’s portrayed as being greedy for jewels and clothing and overeager for the advancement of her family, no attempt is made to explain her motivations. There’s the occasional glimpse of tension between her and Henry, but the couple’s relationship is never explored in any depth. It’s quite typical that when Henry dies, his death is mentioned only in passing, as are the deaths of two of Alianor’s daughters.

The star-crossed-love theme here leads to a very odd scene when Eleanor de Montfort, Alianor’s widowed sister-in-law, turns up solely for the malicious pleasure of telling Alianor that Richard has died. Eleanor’s pleasure is tripled by the fact that both of Alianor’s young grandsons have just died of a fever. We should feel pity for Alianor, but there’s so little depth to her character, we don’t feel a thing (except, perhaps, indignation that Eleanor, historically in exile at France at the time, is being hauled clear across the Channel to do the author’s dirty work for her).

The most frustrating thing about this novel is that it could have been so much better. It’s certainly not badly written—there are some nice turns of phrases, including Alianor’s last spoken line, “Well, at least I kept my looks.” Alianor has retired to Amesbury priory when she utters that line, and it’s typical of the novel that we don’t have the slightest idea of why she’s there or why she hasn’t seen her family for five years before her daughter-in-law finally visits her. A good historical novel should illuminate the past; this one keeps us in the dark.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Headless Woman Cover? No, It's a Faceless Author Picture

For those who have asked, here's a rearview picture of me in my dress, wimple, and hat (I'm ever so bashful). I think I'm going to replace the wimple with just a veil, since either covers my hair quite adequately and the veil is somewhat more flattering.

I know the lacing is crooked, but it takes a while to break in a good lady's maid. Maybe if Hubby keeps watching the scene from Gone With the Wind where Mammy laces up Scarlett O'Hara, he'll get better at it.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Tickled Silver

I'm tickled pick--or make that silver--to announce that The Traitor's Wife won the silver award in the historical fiction category in ForeWord Magazine's 2005 Book of the Year Awards.

My family was kind enough to drive me to Washington, D.C., this weekend to BookExpo America, where the results were announced this Friday. They were also kind enough not to laugh too hard the following evening when I enlivened the baseball game we were attending by spilling two buckets of french fries on my lap and on the floor, then two bottles of water. (One french fry landed neatly inside one bottle of water, which I thought was quite impressive.) All of that without having had a single sip from the cute little plastic bottles of beer that were being hawked around us.

Since we're riding the self-promotion train for the moment (it won't be too much longer, I promise), I should mention again that if you live in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area or just happen to be passing through, I'll be signing copies of The Traitor's Wife at Brightleaf Books in Smithfield, NC, on Friday, June 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. As I'll be in medieval costume, with a dress dragging the floor, and have a proven record of clumsiness, there's an excellent chance I'll trip on something at some point, rather like Chevy Chase in those old "Saturday Night Live" skits. So please come.

After all, how often do you get to see a woman in fourteenth-century dress falling flat on her face?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hanging My Head in Shame

This will come as no surprise to my family, I'm afraid:

You Failed 8th Grade Geography

Sorry, you only got 5/10 correct!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Historical Accuracy, An Esoteric Reference to Dickens, and an Invite

Over the weekend, J. Peder Zane, the book columnist in the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer, had this to say about the topic of accuracy in historical fiction (here's a link to the entire column):

"Of course, "The Da Vinci Code" is a novel. But it raises the question of what responsibility works of historical fiction have to the known record. My rule of thumb: The better known the subject, the more liberties the author may take. A novel about an obscure figure--which may largely shape our memory of the person--must hew closely to the facts."

I don't agree with this. (Not, mind you, because of any petty grudge I might hold against the N&O for not reviewing The Traitor's Wife, even though I've been reading the damned paper for over 10 years now and even though I always stick up for it when Republican hubby says mean things about it. No, I'll just continue to seethe until I spontaneously combust, like Mr. Krook in Bleak House--and then the jerks will have to mention my book. Ha ha!) I'm unhappy with authors who take liberties with the known facts about any historical figure, well known or obscure. Many readers may read only one book about a historical person, and if that book happens to be a historical novel which presents a distorted picture of that person, that may be the picture that stays in the reader's mind, even though it's amply contradicted by nonfiction works and by other historical novels. My own opinion remains firm: If writers alter known facts, they should let the reader know, unless the alteration is so obvious or ludicrous that an average reader couldn't possibly take it seriously. After all, even with well-known people, there are often so many blanks to fill in--unknown motivations, conflicting accounts, private interactions, for instance--that there's plenty left for a writer's imagination to work on without having to distort known facts or invent grossly improbable ones just for the sake of being sensational.

So what do you think? (I should add that in writing the above, I was not thinking of The Da Vinci Code in particular--I've never read it and have done my best to ignore the hype surrounding it, because that's the kind of perverse gal that I am.)

By the way, if you mosey over to my website, you'll find a new section, Medieval Miniatures, featuring mini-biographies of historical figures. Octavia Randolph's got it started with one of Lady Godiva. I'd love to post some others (under the author's own byline, of course), if you'd like to send me some!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Please Stop Dissing Eleanor de Clare's Mum

As today is Mother's Day, I couldn't resist posting about Joan of Acre, mother of the heroine of The Traitor's Wife, Eleanor de Clare. Joan's taken some hard knocks at the hands of novelists lately, and this is a Mother's Day plea on the poor lady's behalf.

The most detailed account of Joan's life that I've seen is by Mary Anne Everett Green in her invaluable Lives of the Princesses of England. Green used primary sources in her research, and her book is still of great use today, although some of her statements of fact (such as her assertion that Piers Gaveston was divorced from Joan's daughter Margaret de Clare) are plain incorrect and some of her judgments are heavily clouded by her own fixed notions of proper behavior. She certainly didn't care much for Joan of Acre, who is perhaps best known for her secret marriage to Ralph de Monthermer, a squire in her husband's household. Joan is scolded roundly by Green for leaving her young children "only to the guardianship of servants," though it was hardly unusual for noble children to be left in the care of others while their parents traveled about. When Edward I calls Joan of Acre's son Gilbert to court--a natural summons for a boy who was the king's grandson and the heir to the vast Clare fortune to receive--Green somehow interprets this as a sign that Edward I was "aware that the boy's mother either could not, or would not, take sufficient care of him."

Joan of Acre is sketched nicely by Eve Trevaskis in The Lord of Misrule, where she's described as a "female edition of the awe-inspiring Longshanks," with an aristocratic bearing that makes even Piers Gaveston nervous, and she also makes a spirited cameo appearance in Chris Hunt's Gaveston, where she coolly breaks to her fathre the news of her marriage. Lately, though, things have gone downhill for poor Joan. In one excerpt that I read online, from a novel which shall go nameless until I have the book itself with which to compare, Joan is wandering around by herself somewhere and takes refuge in a hut during a storm. Inside said hut is none other than William Wallace, whose erotic effect on the soaked Joan is so overpowering that before you can say, "Will, can you put your great big log on the fire, please?" the two of them are going at it like rabbits.

Well--you really can't blame poor Joan for this one. After all, William Wallace had the same effect on Princess Isabella in Braveheart. Must be the kilt.

But poor Joan's reputation falls to a new low in Virginia Henley's forthcoming historical romance, Infamous, which opens with Joan, on the eve of her wedding to Gilbert de Clare, coming fresh from the bed of a nobleman with whom Joan has slept as an act of rebellion against her father for marrying her to the middle-aged Gilbert. Asked by the heroine, Jory, about the nobleman's identity, Joan tells her she can't remember because there were too many noblemen gathering for the wedding to keep their names straight. In any case, Joan informs Jory, she had already lost her virginity two years before ("go all the way" is the phrase the hip and trendy Joan uses).

Joan dutifully marries Gilbert de Clare, whom she happily describes as a "far better lover than any young noble I've lain with," but her wedding-eve high jinks puts the paternity of her daughter into question, though Gilbert, a good-natured sort, either doesn't notice or doesn't mention his daughter's remarkable resemblance to Humphrey de Bohun. Joan's roving eye, however, soon lights upon the "rippling muscles" of Ralph de Monthermer, though Ralph, she complains, "is too damned noble to even acknowledge the invitation in my eyes." Gilbert, however, obligingly dies two pages later, leaving Joan and rippling-muscled Ralph free to marry. (Strangely, Joan, who has been cavorting under her father's nose since age sixteen, has to be talked by Jory into daring a secret marriage to Ralph, an episode that somehow leads to Jory's hopping into bed with none other than Robert the Bruce. Must have been the kilt again.)

For all the bed-hopping Henley has Joan engage in, she's remarkably subfertile. Though the real-life Joan had eight children, four by Gilbert and four by Ralph, Joan here manages only one child, a daughter named Margaret Eleanor. Whether little Margaret Eleanor is supposed to be Eleanor de Clare or Margaret de Clare has baffled my poor mind all weekend, but she does have one of the better lines in the book, "My doggie pissed on the carpet."

So does my doggie on occasion, Margaret Eleanor. But only when someone's forgotten to take him out for his walk.

But really, you novelists out there. Isn't it time to give poor Joan of Acre a break? Her secret marriage to Ralph de Monthermer hardly indicates that the woman slept with half the nobility of England, after all. If you must have a woman carry on like a medieval version of the gals in "Sex in the City"--and I suppose with a steamy historical romance, one must--at least make her entirely fictional, unless history indicates that the lady was indeed a tramp.

Please. Do it for your dear sainted mother's sake.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Magdalen Who Has Absolutely Nothing to Do with Dan Brown

I finished reading Lady Magdalen by Robin Jenkins, which is about Magdalen Carnegie, who at a young age married James Graham, Earl of Montrose and later Marquis of Montrose. Montrose became a supporter of Charles I and eventually was hanged, drawn, and quartered. (The novel, however, ends sometime before his ultimate downfall and death.) I confess I had not heard of Montrose before I read this novel, as my knowledge of 17th-century Scottish history is next to nonexistent, but he seems to have led a fascinating life. There's even a society devoted to him.

Lady Magadalen, however, focuses mainly on Magdalen, who--according to Jenkins, anyway--bore Montrose four sons and lived quietly at home while Montrose traveled about and involved himself in politics and war. Gentle, peace-loving Magdalen is rather neglected by Montrose, who comes home from time to time, makes a snide remark to her, feels bad about it and apologizes, fathers another son, and leaves home again. Though obedient to Montrose, Magdalen is not a dishrag; she has decided opinions about honor and the folly of war, which she expresses to Montrose. She's universally beloved by all of her servants and most of those beneath her social station, and she displays a great deal of quiet courage when men come to destroy Montrose's castle, Montrose's loyalty to the king having made himself many enemies. She could quite easily be insufferable, but she's not, perhaps because she possesses a sense of humor and a strong moral code without being priggish. The people Magdalen interacts with in her daily life--ministers, doctors, teachers, servants--are vividly and interestingly portrayed, and Jenkins has a nice ear for dialogue. The quality of the writing is excellent: an unfussy prose that is spare without feeling barren.

Nonetheless, I found this novel somewhat unsatisfying. A Scottish writer, Jenkins assumes that his readers are familiar with Montrose's history, and most of them may well be, but this novel does little to enlighten those who aren't. For instance, Montrose brings a Bible home to Magdalen, who suspects that it has been given to Montrose by a lover, but as she never asks him about it and neither Montrose nor Jenkins ever clears up the matter, the reader is left hanging.

The Big Messages of this novel also got in the way of my enjoying it completely. One overarching theme is that females are inherently more noble and honorable than males, which should come as a large surprise to anyone who has spent time in a junior-high-school or high-school girls' locker room. (As Jenkins is a man, he was presumably denied this enlightening opportunity.) One chapter ends: "Was there a way other than James's participation in controversies and wars and Francis's white-handed aloofness among his paintings? Yes, there was. A way where the horrors and miseries of war had to be endured though no blow was struck, and where, though debating chamber and battlefield were far away, their consequences had to be bravely tholed and patiently remedied. The way of women."

Which brings us to Jenkins's other Big Message: War is hell. Agreed, but Jenkins doesn't content himself with showing us that, as he does most effectively in scenes where Magdalen cares for wounded, maimed soldiers and when the news is broken of the deaths of various young teenagers, including Magdalen's eldest son. Too often, Jenkins resorts to lectures of the sort above, and they frequently take the form of gender stereotypes, albeit politically correct ones: Man as lover of war, Woman as lover of peace. This wouldn't be so bad in itself, but Jenkins's characterizations suffer as a result. We're told at one point, "Under [Magdalen's] influence, [Montrose] could have written poetry that would have earned him more lasting fame than military victories," but we have seen very little of Montrose as poet. (For that matter, Magdalen, though appreciative of sculpture and painting, shows no particular interest in poetry, even Montrose's.) It's difficult to believe, however, that Montrose's military career was motivated merely by an overabundance of testosterone: the possibility that Montrose might have been acting out of convictions that were as genuine as those of Magdalen seems to have been discounted entirely by Jenkins.

All in all, this is a novel worth reading for its portrait of a young woman exhibiting grace under pressure, but one that left me with a sense that the men in Magdalen's life had been short-changed here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Picky, Picky

Over the weekend, I went to the university library and grabbed a few historical novels, secure in the knowledge that if I didn't like them, I wouldn't have wasted a cent.

This is a good thing, because except in the case of one novel, I haven't warmed to any of them--two by Philip Lindsay and one by Rosemary Hawley Jarman--enough to read more than a few pages. Though I enjoyed Philip Lindsay's Royal Scandal, the writing in the two other ones is a little too fusty to be engaging--with the exception of this memorable passage from the dedication of Lindsay's 1952 novel about Jane Shore, The Merry Mistress: "The portraits of Jane so often reproduced cannot, I deeply regret, be accepted, and sadly do I discard the charming painting in Eton College showing her firm, hard-nippled breasts, as it appears to me to be of a later date."

Well, that line woke me up. I trust Mr. Lindsay took a cold bath afterward.

Lindsay's other book (about Anne Boleyn), though with a dedication that disappointingly does not contain similar mammary passages, looks a tad more interesting, and I may get to it sooner or later. In the meantime, my fourth book from my library excursion, Lady Magdalen by Robin Jenkins, is somewhat more interesting, and I'm getting through it at a brisk pace. It's about the wife of James Graham, Earl of Montrose, about whom I know nothing, so there's no issues of historical accuracy to bog me down. It's written well, though Magdalen strikes me as being a little too enlightened--religious without being tied to dogma, averse to war and blood sports, and instantly accepting of her neighbor's scandalous Italian sculptures--but perhaps she was that way in real life. In any case, I'm going to keep telling myself that until some more books come in.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Another Book About Richard III, Plus a Not-So-Scruffy Dog

So what does my cairn terrier, Boswell, have to do with Richard III? Nothing, except that he went to the groomer the other day, and he looks so pretty, I wanted to post his picture before he reverts to his usual scruffy self.

Anyway, now that Isabella of France is not commandeering my computer, I thought I'd mention The Seventh Son, a historical novel by Reay Tannahill about Richard III, a figure without whom historical novelists would surely be lost. I'm happy to report I enjoyed this one better than most about this king.

Tannahill's novel picks up shortly after the battle of Tewkesbury, with Richard and his brother George fighting over the Warwick inheritance, and ends at Bosworth. It's written in a sardonic, somewhat emotionally detached style that may be off-putting to some readers but which I liked.

Richard III is portrayed by Tannahill as neither a villain nor a saint, but something in between--in other words, as a fallible human being. He marries Anne for her lands, not for love, but he's a faithful husband who eventually comes to love his wife and is devastated by her death. Though he governs fairly, he has a ruthless streak and has no qualms about taking the lands of the Countess of Oxford or about his mother-in-law's dispossession. He makes mistakes: Richard's act of executing Hastings without trial on very flimsy grounds engenders distrust and hostility that haunt Richard throughout his reign, ultimately leading to his defeat at Bosworth.

Anne Neville is attractively portrayed as a resilient young woman with a backbone and opinions of her own. The episode where she works as a kitchen maid, pure melodrama in the hands of some novelists, is almost farcical here--Anne, seeing Richard come to rescue her, does not swoon or burst into tears of relief, but tidies her hair. She has a sense of humor, which Richard does not always appreciate. ("'Two more bastards?'" she asks when Richard, having already invited his out-of-wedlock children to spend Christmas at court, proposes to invite his nieces as well.) Her death scene is moving without being maudlin.

The Woodvilles are their usual villainous selves, but at least they're villains with a sense of style. ("'Dear me. I will have to think of something else,'" says Elizabeth Woodville when Richard tells her he always checks his food for poison.) With a few exceptions, such as Richard's friend Francis Lovell, a major character with a well developed personality, most of the other characters are sketched in, but they're vivid sketches. I liked this sentence in particular, uttered by Edward IV's womanizing friend about Jane Shore: "'Lovely woman,' sighed Lord Hastings, doggy-eyed."

For those of us who like author's notes, Tannahill provides a long one, including a section on further reading.

So, a cute doggy picture and another book about Richard III. What more could one ask for in blogland?

Isabella of France Gets Tagged

Isabella of France was tagged by Alianore and Gabriele Campbell for the "Me Too" meme. (There was some talk about Hugh le Despenser the younger joining in, but he was too busy relieving widows of their unwanted lands to join in right away. Isn't it sweet of him to take on that responsibility for them?)

I am: Isabella of France, consort to Stupid Edward II
I want:
heads and other assorted body parts to roll.
I wish:
that the person who told my father, “The Prince of Wales will be a perfect match for the girl,” had kept his big mouth shut.
I hate:
my husband’s "good friend" Hugh le Despenser and his father Hugh le Despenser. I don’t even like to hear the words “dispense,” or “dispensation.”
I miss:
my French servants that Stupid Edward sent packing.
I fear:
that Stupid Edward might change his mind and not let me go to France to negotiate for him.
I hear:
Roger Mortimer might be stopping by once I get to France.
I wonder:
what Roger Mortimer looks like naked.
I regret:
not having a peek while he was at the Tower.
I am not:
going to keep thinking about that hunky Roger Mortimer.
I dance:
perfectly when I have a decent partner like some people I could think of.
I sing:
beautifully when there’s someone listening attentively instead of thinking about his darling Hugh.
I cry:
whenever I think of Stupid Edward giving my wedding jewels to Piers Gaveston.
I am not always:
the meek little wife Stupid Edward thinks I am.
I made:
Papa do something about my brothers’ unfaithful wives and their paramours.
I write:
letters to my brother Charlie about Stupid Edward.
I confuse:
those damned Despensers by calling, “Hugh!” and seeing which one looks up. It’s really quite fun.
I need:
a man like you-know-who around.
I should:
just send him a letter telling him to visit me in France. After all, I am the Queen.
I start:
to chortle when I think of all the fun things Roger and I could do together if we could just get my son Ned  to France, and a little money, and some ships, and some followers, and . . .
I finish:
what I start, thank you very much.
I tag:
Well, it might be fun to see what Nest of Deheubarth has to say for herself. And we’d be honored if Geoffrey Chaucer stopped by.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Frolic and a Detour

Though this blog was intended to deal mainly with historical fiction, I've got to make an exception when a new Anne Tyler novel comes out. Yesterday, her newest, Digging to America, appeared in bookstores, and I duly grabbed a copy and read it within a day.

I'm not sure how familiar readers outside the USA are with Tyler. Suffice it to say that her novels fall into that vast category known as "mainstream fiction." Her books, though beautifully written, aren't full of the stylistic tricks and angst that would put them in "literary fiction," as I see it at least.

Digging to America tells of two couples, Brad and Bitsy, who would be called a white-bread American couple except that Bitsy would not dream of eating white bread, and Sami and Ziba, an Iranian-American couple, who meet in 1997 at the airport where both couples are picking up adopted baby girls from Korea. The couples, or at least the wives, become good friends, and they and their large extended families get together over the ensuing years to celebrate the anniversary of their daughters' arrival as well as other sundry events. Eventually, Bitsy's slightly eccentric, newly widowed father takes a romantic interest in Sami's reserved, long-widowed mother, and the little plot there is grows out of this.

With Tyler's novels, however, one doesn't read for the plot so much as for the characterizations and Tyler's wonderful eye for detail, and this novel displays these talents amply. As with so many of Tyler's novels, the point of view shifts from chapter to chapter, and Tyler draws male characters as deftly as female ones, aging characters as deftly as young children. Indeed, my favorite chapter, devoted to a party Bitsy hosts to break her second adopted daughter of her pacifier habit, is told from the point of view of the older adopted daughter, young Jin-Ho.

Unfortunately, however, I can't put this up at the top of the list of my favorite Anne Tyler novels. Pondering it, I think it's because although I found the unlikely romance between Dave and Maryam to be engrossing, it doesn't develop until relatively late in the novel, by which time we've developed an interest in the other characters as well, especially Sami and Bitsy, who have each been given a turn as the focus for a chapter. They get overshadowed when the romance takes center stage, and I felt a little cheated when the spotlight moved off them. Perhaps the novel would have been more effective if it had stuck to the points of view of Dave and Maryam, or if it had taken the story of the families' relations to each other a little further in time (this would have added pages, of course, but I've no objection to a longer Tyler novel).

Buy this one? Sure--but if you want Tyler at her best, try the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, perhaps, or my personal favorite, Saint Maybe.

Now that I've got my Tyler fix, I'm reading Reay Tannahill's novel about Richard III, The Seventh Son, and will be blogging about it in due course.