Despite appearances from that last post, I really did read some wonderful books in these last few months! This post is dedicated to them, the ones that should have big flashing neon signs on their heads, the ones that nobody should be allowed to miss. There should be a traffic cop where these books are at the bookstore, indicating that you may not pass Go until you pick up this book and try it. Because these were the unmissable ones for me. Thanks, by the way, go to the many bookfriends who helped me find these reads, so:
…Captain Picard and I applaud you all! Let’s get to it!
The Discovery of France, Graham Robb
This is my French history book recommendation for ever and ever after, amen. This is a completely fascinating look at how a bunch of local tribes that inhabited the lands we now think of as France eventually became “The French”, whether they much wanted to or not. This famous process of turning peasants into Frenchmen, as Sieyes had it, occurred over the course of the 19th century after the centralizing French Revolution and even more centralizing Napoleonic administrations came to power. Before the late 18th century, “France” was a series of isolated hamlets, nomadic herders, fishers and farmers, feudal villages, the rare small town, and of course, Paris. They were linked by a king and taxes and not very much else. Each area often had a different language, set of traditions, economic lifestyle or even social hierarchy that had nothing to do with each other-especially with Paris. It was certainly not predestined that France emerge the way it has today: That is, one long extension of Paris’ power, as the city gradually reached out ever more powerful tentacles and took the provinces more tightly in its grasp. Part One mostly deals with pre-Revolutionary France, talking about natural geography, early tribes in France, early agricultural rhythms, pagan religions mixed in with the role of Christian institutions and the remarkable economic patterns established for survival over the course of centuries. In Part Two, the project of internal nation-building begins (or the colonization of France’s rural areas, really, if you want to be frank about it). Robb leads us thematically through the different ways that the “certain idea of France” of de Gaulle’s mostly invented memory took shape, out of these disparate societies that happened to share borders. There’s a fascinating section on road-building, one on map making (accurate maps of France didn’t really exist for mass consumption until the late 19th century- people would have “tablets” showing one area), travel, empire and the changing perspectives of foreigners. And of course, how Paris, the only place that most Frenchmen were prepared to consider “civilized” became synonymous with “France”. The book’s subtitle is A Historical Geography for good reason. Robb has a wonderful sense of place so you can feel the puzzle pieces sliding to pieces in your head until you form a full picture. If you ever wanted to know why France is the way it is from an extremely practical and clear eyed perspective, this is the book to read. I have at least a hundred pages dog-eared to go back to with great stories and I expect to re-read the whole thing again in a few years, when I’m sure other sections that I ignored will be of interest. This should be a classic of French history, at least for us poor Anglophones.
Frederick the Great, Nancy Mitford
Nancy Mitford writes some of my absolute favorite historical biographies. Her area is 18th century France, particularly the court of Louis XIV, for the most part. Each of her central characters is clearly chosen after a connection to someone she just wrote about. Madame Pompadour leads to Voltaire who leads to Louis who leads to Frederick the Great, who is not French (but was a well-known Francophile), was a great admirer and then frenemy of Voltaire’s, and very much an unavoidable part of the politics and culture of the era. The reason I love her work so much, which I have written about before, is her conversational style. It’s like she’s telling you a fascinating story about an old friend that just happens to go on for three hundred pages, a little more each night as a storm howls outside. Mitford always assumes a great familiarity with these characters and is not afraid to pronounce judgment upon them and with none of the qualifications and safe caveats that professional historians feel bound to give, either. If she thinks someone is a little beast, you can be sure that you’ll hear about it. Her admiration tends to be more subtle, but just as clear once you learn to read Nancy’s not-so-well hidden code.
This particular book was a vivid picture of an intelligent, passionate young man growing up under the gaze of a not particularly bright, unimaginative father who found Frederick’s intelligence both threatening and effeminate. This troubled childhood leads to an unsurprisingly rocky personal life later on (his poor, pretty much blameless wife spent basically her whole marriage alone without much reason- unless he really was gay, as persistent rumors and some evidence indicated, but his hostility seemed extreme nonetheless). And politically, Mitford really paints Frederick as just as lucky as he ever was talented, if not more so. The fate of his country hung on a wing and a prayer as often as not, and came down heads up through no effort of Frederick’s just as often. Ever heard that you’d rather be lucky than right? Well Frederick’s pretty much the incarnation of that. That whole “the Great” thing at the end of his name could just as easily have been “the Big Fat Failure” so many times. Oh, he made some real efforts of his own, but that was mostly later and mostly domestically after all the cards had fallen his way and he could be safe. Anyone who has had an idealized picture of Frederick won’t have it after they read this book- so be careful Great Man theorists of history, for here there be dragons for you.
A final amusing thread, expected in any Mitford biography, is his relations with France, and in particular Voltaire. Mitford has a deeply love-hate sort of relationship with Voltaire and it isn’t hard to see why- seems like a brilliant dude.. and a huuuuuuge drama queen and general pain in the ass. I found myself coming down on Frederick’s side again and again. So again, overall, charming, delightful, full of stories and practical perspective. You could probably read it in a week or so in daily installments and never regret it.
My only personal regret is that this is the last of Mitford’s biographies- I’ve read them all now. 😦 Oh well, I guess I just might have to read them all over again! What a shame.*
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
Recommended to me by my wonderful cousin Taylor, I bought it on impulse, started it that night and didn’t regret it for a second. This book centers on the last woman to be executed in Iceland in the 1840s, while the country was still a Danish colony. Two women and a man were convicted of murdering the man that both women worked for (the man was engaged to the younger of the two women) for his money or for revenge or both. The book’s major strength is its atmospheric way of breathing the air of Iceland into you. It manages to convey the spare, sparse life these people lead without the prose needing to become Hemingway-esque in order to indicate it- in fact there are sections that are quite poetic. This is particularly the case when we get inside the head of our main POV character, Agnes, who is the older of the two women accused. The story centers on her last request for a new priest, and the home she is moved to to be looked after by a local family, while she awaits execution. (If that sounds like bad jailing, just think about an isolated Icelandic farmstead in the middle of nowhere in winter. You stay or you die. There is no try.)
As Agnes’ tale slowly emerges and we learn more about the hard, cold, small life she’s lead, and what made her who she is, it is hard not to become drawn into the tale, to wonder and to hope, even though we know how this turns out historically. It is a measure of Kent’s character creation that we nonetheless attach deeply to our protagonist and dream, like her, of a way out. This book is a part of a wonderful slew of books recently that have put flawed females thinking flawed things at their center and still found ways to understand them and sympathize with them. This book does a wonderful job presenting the dangers of sexism and colonialism, but doing so in a highly personalized way that makes them seem poignant all over again rather than old hat. She says even more wonderful things about the performance of femininity and the power it gives or the refusal to perform it denies, and even more so about how we learn and grow, even in the most unlikely circumstances. Good for a cold winter evening, a rainy few afternoons, or a completely absorbing day. Just be prepared for the phantom chill in the air, even if it doesn’t exist at all.
An Irish Country Doctor, by Patrick Taylor
Switching gears again to something much lighter is this delightful surprise. Patrick Taylor was a doctor for 30 years in Northern Ireland and Canada, and began writing comedic pieces for papers, featuring small funny stories of patients, until he eventually turned it into this lovely series about Barry Laverty, a new assistant GP in the country hills of Northern Ireland, in the wonderfully named town of Ballybucklebo, and his crotchety mentor, the excellently drawn Fingal O’Reilly. This first book introduces us to Ballybucklebo’s cast of quirky characters and O’Reilly’s relationships with all of them, and introduces Barry to the joys and perils of small town hilarities and tragedies. Everything is on a small scale, very day-to-day, almost every situation is a recognizable one from some sitcom or other- but given very quiet truth and verisimilitude by Taylor’s practical experience. While Taylor can occasionally become repetitive, and he does like to show off his research (which is more apparent in the second volume), and does occasionally have a tendency to overexplain humor that does not need it (we all get irony now, Taylor! It’s how we operate!), the overall effect is so charming and absorbing and everything it should be that it makes it onto this list. I recommend it as the best form of escapism I’ve read in the longest time, one that is, if this is your sort of thing at all (and I assume from my description it’s pretty easy to tell if it is or not, yeah?) guaranteed to leave you smiling and looking to come back for more. I was less impressed with number two, but I can’t imagine that I won’t continue anyway, I liked this one so much.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Oh! What a wonder! What a delight! What a fantastically smart piece of experimental writing that never feels that way. The pages slipped past like flowing water, in a steady rhythm because I just could not stop reading. The concept is so obvious that you can’t believe someone hasn’t done it before, for starters. St. John Fox is an author who can’t stop killing his female characters- usually in increasingly inventive ways. So his muse, Mary, decides to take him to task for this in a series of increasingly real adventures that change not only his writing but his actual life, including his relationship with his long neglected and disrespected wife, Daphne. So essentially what Mary does, in such an insightful way that you can tell that Oyeyemi has really thought about this, is take Fox on a tour of all the different reasons that he seems to want to kill women, almost all of them the comi-tragic result of a typically misogynistic upbringing- the sort of upbringing where you get all sorts of subconscious dreams and assumptions about what women Should be, and feel entitled to anger when they are not. The story/dreams/hallucinations become, alternately, increasingly allegorical and then more sharply realistic, blurring the line between the worlds of fiction and actuality until it seems that it is a flimsy veil that one can step back and forth between without very much difference at all- for, in the end, aren’t we all living out someone’s idea of life that we got out of a book? Or someone we love did? (Whether that book is The Good Book or pornography, it’s all stories in the end.) The ending is excellent, and both of the female main characters, both as incarnations of Fox’s imagination and seperate, independent beings, are wonderful to be around and we keep opening doors and windows and finding more, more, more. Fox himself is less interesting, but he’s meant to be- he is the dance around which the true magic happens, unable to avoid him and his power, but elusive nonetheless. This is probably the best book I read in the last six months, if I had to call it. You can take it as seriously as you want or not, but as a fun literary game or as a real feminist statement or exploration of identity, there’s something on offer here for lots of different readers. I can’t wait to read more Oyeyemi- I can tell she’s going to become a favorite.
The Emigrants, W.B. Sebald
I’ll close on a rather ambiguous essay-cum-set of biographical pieces called The Emigrants. This was my second outing with Sebald after the wonderful, but sometimes plodding and dense Ring of Saturn. I am happy to say that the best of Sebald was on display here- he could still transport you easily to any place or time seemingly without trying, and he could conjure up a tone and a mood with the slightest twist of a word use, giving you light through a window, glistening across the classroom floor, without ever telling you it was there. You knew anyway.
He also does wonderful character work. The Emigrants is four mini-biographies of Germans who, for one reason or another, left their native country sometime in the 20th century. There is a charming, but sad, eccentric doctor, a reserved Remains of the Day type butler who cared for the possibly insane and then seemingly went actually insane himself, of his own free will. There’s what’s my personal favorite chapter, on his third grade teacher, Paul, written after he learned that he had died recently and looked into his life since he had last seen him. And there’s a piece on the child and parents of people who didn’t get out in time before the specter that hangs ominously, but never foregrounded, over all of these people, which is of course the coming to power of the Nazis. It’s an intimate look of how everyday life was conducted in a country that had so many troubles (and brought so many upon itself), with a cast of characters who mostly didn’t fit in (forcibly so or not) even before the Nazis came and just wanted to continue doing whatever it was they loved, like most people. Or at least to survive in the best way they had learned how. This piece is excellent for its meditations on the banal reality of tragedy, how unfair it seemed to be and yet how common. Sebald also does an exquisitely fantastic job of rendering how a person might get from Point A to Point B in the most seemingly normal fashion, but turn out anything but “normal” in the end.
I should offer some caveats that I found the last piece to be much less strong than the first three, and Sebald can occasionally love his strained metaphors, for sure. But these flaws don’t seem to matter in the face of everything else achieved. I’m glad I read this- I think had I picked a less compelling Sebald, I might never have tried him again. But with this, I’m back on the Sebald train and happy to be there. For those of you who have never tried him, I highly recommend this one over Ring of Saturn.
…..And that’s all, folks! I’m all caught up on reviewing my reading from the past three months, from the disasters to the middling to the truly never to be forgotten.
Posting to resume it’s usual single review status with the next posts! Next up: my belated return to crime fiction, beginning with Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series which I.. you guessed it… shoulda, coulda, woulda read years ago.
Until next time, happy reading to all and to all a good night!
* This is also probably when I will start to indulge my more general interest in the Mitford family. Has anyone read The Sisters? I see it gets mixed reviews… is there a better one I could read? If not I will definitely tackle it soon.