Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY by Lauren Grodstein (fic)

I am unfamiliar with this author, but I found Lauren Grodstein's novel compelling reading.  The reader learns early in the story that something horrible has happened that has torn apart a family that seemingly had it all.  Grodstein never lets us know what that something is until the climax of the novel. Because of this, the plot buildup is slow and measured.  The novel goes back to the recent past gradually building up the suspense of this suburban tragedy.  The main character, Pete Dizinoff, who has suffered this tragedy, is complete and well-drawn; some of the minor characters, are less so.  Grodstein does an excellent job of giving voice to Pete, which can be a pit-fall when a female author inhabits the soul of an important male character. 

When the story opens, Pete has been banished from his home to a bedroom above the garage. What he has done to merit this is the mystery which through flashbacks is eventually exposed to the reader. Pete is an internist with a successful practice in Round Hill, New Jersey.  He has a lovely wife, Elaine, and a 20 year old son, Alec.  Alec, a sensitive boy of artistic nature, has dropped out Hampshire College.  Gradually we learn that Pete has lost his practice, his friends, and worse of all, his son.  

Intruding on what had been a seemingly normal family life, is Laura, the beautiful 30 year old daughter of the Dizinoff's best friends.  Laura's tragic and sad past is the catalyst which leads to Pete's downfall.  It isn't long before Alec falls dangerously in love with Laura, and we are left to ponder if she uses Alec or in fact loves him in return.  Pete who sees disaster around every corner sets out with good intentions to squash the romance.  It becomes clear that Alec is the only child Elaine and Pete had been able to conceive.  Possibly because of this, Pete is an overly protective parent, the kind which we have labeled "helicopter parent."  Pete has always had a plan for Alec's life without ever taking into account Alec's needs which would allow him to grow into a complete adult.  Pete is well-meaning, loves his son dearly, but is clueless about giving space and allowing his son to develop a sense of self.  Now along comes Laura, ready to spoil all of Pete's hopes and dreams for his son.

Grodstein writes well, and though the story is tragic, I enjoyed reading her well-plotted novel.  The characters are interesting and one feels they could be any neighbor down the street, living in desperation, but seemingly having the best of lives.

Monday, October 12, 2015

TULIP FEVER by Deborah Maggach (fic)

Deborah Maggach's book "Tulip Fever" is about to be released as a movie this fall.  I thought it would be interesting to read the book first, especially as it is about an interesting period in Dutch history when speculation in the market for tulips was wild and crazy.  Of course, like all Ponzi-like schemes, it came crashing down with horrible consequences for many people of the rising bourgeois including the protagonists of the Maggach fictional account.  The book is not new and was written at the turn of the 21st century.  Maggach is also the author of "The Best Marigold Hotel," which was such a huge hit several years ago.

Maggach brings Amsterdam and its citizens to life and does a creditable job of leading the reader into a Dutch-master-like painting turned into the written word.  Indeed, the author has said in interviews that the paintings of Vermeer and Jan van Loos were her inspirations.  Jan van Loos becomes a character in this book and falls in love with the subject of one of his paintings.  She is Sophia Sandvoort, the wife of the wealthy merchant, Cornelis.  Sophia and Jan begin a passionate affair, that is filled with foreboding and darkness.  To bolster this, the book is filled with lovely illustrations of the paintings of the Dutch masters.  Many of the paintings deal with mortality and death using symbols such as succulent fruit resting near a worm or a skull lurking in the background of a seemingly happy couple.  As they become more deeply entwined, the lovers become more reckless.  Grave and dire consequences arise when they begin to speculate in tulip bulbs and become part of the financial bubble that is engulfing Holland.  Sophia is the mastermind of a scheme using the money raised from speculating that will help her escape from her loveless marriage to the much older Cornelis.  Soon Sophia has ensnared her maid, Maria and Maria's lover, Whillem into her plan which leads to a tragic conclusion.

Maggach does an excellent job of presenting 17th century Amsterdam and paints her descriptions as if on canvas.  The moodiness of the Dutch interiors with their bright rays of sun intruding upon the darkness of the background reminds the reader that along with good, evil is able to threaten the subject at any given moment.  The story is interesting and a good one, although one must suspend logic when falling in with the intensity of Sophia's scheming.  I recommend the book as a beautifully written story that is also a 17th century thriller.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

THOMAS CROMWELL by Tracy Borman (non-fic)

Having feasted on Hilary Mantel's two fascinating fiction books on Thomas Cromwell, which have dominated the best seller lists for the last few years, I thought it a good time to delve into a biography of the man and his love/hate relationship with Henry VIII.  Luckily for us, there is plenty of documentation on Cromwell.  With his sharp lawyer's mind, he recorded much of his prolific correspondence and noted all of his transactions including bribes.  Borman's account of his life is as fascinating as Mantel's fiction.

Cromwell loyally served Henry for ten years, all the while enriching himself and practicing the fine art of graft.  He consistently used bribes and called in favors.  Borman reminds us that in the medieval world with power comes corruption.  There is a wonderful portrait of Cromwell painted by Holbein.  Cromwell is dressed in black which heightens the contrast with his pale fleshy face and small eyes.  His only concession to his status is his fur color, strictly deemed to be worn by persons of rank and power alone.

Cromwell was a protege of Cardinal Wolsey whose service he entered in 1524.  Cromwell was a blacksmith's son; he instinctively understood power (honed by his years spent in Italy absorbing the politics of Machiavelli).  His background was always the thorn which pricked at his aristocratic enemies at the court of Henry led by the Duke of Norfolk and his faction.  Henry's court was, "an arena ridden with intrigue, betrayal, treachery and deceit.  Attack was not just the best, but the only means of defence."

In trying to extricate Henry from his numerous and disastrous marriages, Cromwell became interested in the reformation as he studied Martin Luther.  He may have ideologically wished to devolve the monasteries because of their rampant corruption, but he also rapaciously enriched himself and political allies with their spoils.  Cromwell was possessed with energy, ambition, ability and determination.  He was a distinguished orator, able to sway and frighten others. He was close to complete domination of king and country before his enemies gained the upper hand and accused him of having designs on the throne.  He was arrested and beheaded in 1540, a death he had condemned others to, including Anne Boleyn.  True to his fashion, it was not long before Henry bemoaned the fact that others had caused him to lose the most faithful servant he ever had.

One of Cromwell's great achievements was to strengthen the power of Parliament.  Never again would a monarch be the only determiner of the law of the land.

Tracy Borman has written an interesting and readable biography of a complex man of contradictions.  She has been criticized for relying on some Victorian sources instead of using original material.  This point might be more important for one doing deep research, but for the general reader I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking to learn more about the man we were introduced to through, Mantel's fiction.