Saturday, April 20, 2013

AT LAST by Edward St. Aubyn (fic)

     At last I read Edward St. Aubyn's final book (I think) in the series of Melrose novels.  I have reviewed the previous novels in a blog in 2012.  St. Aubyn is one of my favorite writers despite the gritty content of his novels which deal with abuse, addiction and destructive behavior.  If you haven't read the other books in this series, you should not begin with this novel.  You need the previous books to understand the characters and their various transformations with the passage of time.  "At Last" and the other Melrose novels are the closest the reader may ever come to examining the dysfunction of certain Upper Class British, unless you count the British press/Murdoch bugging scandals and the Chipping Norton set who aren't really Upper Class anyway, despite playing at it.
    As "At Last" opens time has passed since we last left Patrick in pretty awful straits.  Somehow he has resurrected himself and seemingly found some peace without resorting to spiritual psycho-babble.  The novel is constructed around his mother, Eleanor's funeral in the course of one day. As the ceremony drones on, we become voyeurs into the thoughts of the various characters from the previous novels, some close to death themselves, others resurrected and redeemed.
    St. Aubyn maintains his amusing sardonic voice and insights into his appalling childhood of abuse, both physical and mental.  We again meet Patrick's understanding wife, Mary; his precocious and observant sons, Robert and Thomas; the self-absorbed and ironically funny Aunt Nancy and Nicholas Pratt; as well as some other peculiarly funny specimens of humanity.  At the same time we have a closer look at Eleanor and her own dysfunctional background.  If all this sounds too dreary, it isn't.  St. Aubyn who admits he draws on his own background, writes with such skill and talent that despite the dark content, his novels are fascinating and addictive.  If you have read his other novels, I don't have to tell you that you cannot stop without reading this addition to Patrick Melrose's history and you will not be disappointed.

Friday, April 19, 2013

MISTRESS OF THE MONARCHY by Alison Weir (non-fic)

This biography of Katherine Swynford has an unfortunate title.  It sounds like a bodice ripper, but rather it is a scholarly study of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster and the history of her time.  More accurately, it is also a biography of John of Gaunt, who was the third son of Edward III of England. Without John of Gaunt there would be little knowledge of Katherine, in fact we might not even have known of her importance in the history of the English throne. Most the factual knowledge we have of her is derived from the records of John of Gaunt and the numerous grants he made to her.  The story of Katherine and John spans the years 1350 to 1403, the years of Katherine's life.
Katherine de Roet was born in Hainault where Philippa, the wife of Edward III, was born.  As a youngster Katherine's father brought her and her sister, also a Philippa, to the British court to serve  the English Queen.  Philippa de Roet eventually married Geoffrey Chaucer, of "Canterbury Tales" fame.  She and Katherine remained close throughout their lives.
Like many who became fascinated by Katherine Swynford, many years ago I read the fictionalized romance of John and Katherine by Anya Seton.  This study by Alison Weir, despite being non-fiction, is every bit as exciting as the novel.  Weir is meticulous in her scholarship, citing many original sources.  She deals in facts and leaves room for the reader to continue to muse on the whys and wherefores.  I even found her chapter notes interesting.  Although there are not many known facts about Katherine, Weir turns what is known into a fascinating story .
Katherine grew up at court and at a young age married a knight, Sir Hugh Swynford who fought along side John of Gaunt in the wars against the French.  They had four children who lived, early death always a danger in medieval times.
John of Gaunt, 10 years older than Katherine, was married to Blanche of Lancaster and though it was an arranged marriage, it was apparently a love match as well, which was unusual for that period.  Their oldest son became Henry IV and his decendents became the Yorkist monarchs of England. Sometime after Blanche's death John fell in love with Katherine.  As she was not considered highly born, they were unable to marry, and she became his mistress.  They had four children together whose surname was Beaufort.  Their decendents were the Tudor monarchs. 
John's second marriage was a political one; he married Constance of Castile.  The marriage was part of an alliance against France.  Theirs was not a happy marriage, and John's romance with Katherine continued for twenty more years with one short period of separation.  Their love was long and enduring.  When Constance died, John, despite strong public approbation, married Katherine.  Unfortunately they only had four years as man and wife, but their children were legitimized by the Pope, thus enabling them to inherit titles and wealth.
During his lifetime, John of Gaunt was the most powerful and richest man in England. His descendants with his first wife Blanche, and those with Katherine, were a powerful influence on the history of England and Europe.  His children with Constance became rulers in Spain and Portugal.  Several American Presidents were also descendants of John of Gaunt.
So, this is the bare bones from which the romance of Katherine and John is constructed.  If you have an interest in English medieval history, you couldn't have a more thorough guide than Alison Weir.  I highly recommend her book.  If you are only looking for the romantic interpretation of their story, read Anya Seton's book, but be aware it is not entirely accurate, though well written.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walker (fic)

"Beautiful Ruins" must have been liked and enjoyed by a number of people because it was in many notable books of the year lists for 2012 as well as receiving several awards.  However, I was not one of those who thought this was a great read.  There is plenty of action, yet I was bored.  It is somewhat comical, but I could not get into the spirit of the book. 
The story opens in a speck of a town on the coast of Italy, an impoverished cousin to the beautiful Cinque Terra.  It is 1962.  An American actress, Dee Moray, who believes she is dying of cancer mysteriously arrives by boat supposedly to meet her lover.  She has a bit part in the famous movie, "Cleopatra" which was being filmed in Rome.  The owner of the town's only pension called the Adequate View, falls for her.  One of the few characters I enjoyed is an old crone of an aunt who stirs the pot up a bit with her mumbling curses.
From here the book jumps around in time from 1962 to present day Hollywood.  Other settings include Florence, Seattle, Idaho, Oregon, Edinburgh, et al.  Characters appear and disappear.  Richard Burton plays a part in moving the plot along.  He may have meant to be funny, but only seems a buffoon.  Elizabeth Taylor is also lurking in the background. After the passage of 50 years Pasquale (the owner of the inn) and the lovely Dee enter each others orbits.
At any rate, perhaps if it were summer and I was reading on the beach in the warm sunshine, I might find more positives to say about this novel.  I soldiered on to the end, but was happy to move on to  the next book waiting by my easy chair.

Monday, April 8, 2013

CANADA by Richard Ford (fic)

Richard Ford is one of my favorite American authors and "Canada" is my favorite of his books.  Ford has written through the eyes of a young teen male before.  This time we follow Dell Parsons, 15 years old, who tells the story of how an ill-thought out robbery by his immature parents, changed his life forever.  Dell, the narrator, is now 60 years old, a teacher of writing, who returns to American to visit his twin sister who is dying of cancer.
The novel is placed in 1960 and rings authentic in its descriptions. I recognize this middle century America; it is as true as I remember it.  Just so, is the bewilderment of young Dell as his parents actions lead to consequences beyond his control, that he is incapable of understanding.  It is all so real, even Dell's passivity and inertia to control the events that are determining his life and what he is to become.
Dell and his twin sister, Berner, grow up on a series of American air bases, until they find themselves in Great Falls, Montana, where their father, Bev Parsons, decides to settle down and leave the service.  Dell at last begins to lead a more normal school existence, and it is touching to see his blossoming interest in chess and beekeeping.  Meanwhile, Bev's choices in life are naive and grandiose, and he eventually destroys his family with his crazy schemes.
The book begins with the robbery, and after his parents are arrested Dell is spirited off to Saskatchewan by a friend of his mother.  Here the reader begins to feel real anxiety as Dell is thrown in with some shady characters, especially an ex-pat radical, Arthur Remlinger, the brother of the woman who brought Dell to Canada. There is also a particularly peculiar and creepy character named Charley, who the reader will want to rescue Dell from.  Yet, through all his subsequent adventures, there is something about Dell that is grounded and the knowledge that he is writing this, having reached adulthood safely, is somewhat comforting. Meanwhile his sister, Berner has chosen to run off to California and chooses a vastly different path in life than Dell.
Ford's writes perfect sentences, clean yet at the same time so full of description, that you don't have to have ever been in Montana to know just how desolate the open scrub landscape can be.  When Dell flees to Canada, the reader does as well. All of Ford's characters are well-drawn and complete.
I highly recommend "Canada" to all readers.  It is also a good choice for book club readers.  It would be on my list of best books of 2012.