Fair and Tender Ladies

Lee Smith drops an astute warning at the start of her enthralling Oral History. And though its directed at the ladies, anyone aiming to “court” young men should listen up.

Come all you fair and tender ladies
Be careful how you court young men.
They're like a star in a summer's morning,
First appear and they're gone.

That sets the tone for a story “that’s truer than true, and nothing so true is so pretty. It’s blood on the moon.” Yikes! I’m not sure fair and tender ladies and gentlemen are ready for this.

Jennifer is a college student who was raised by her father. She hardly remembers her mother. She’s working on a project for her Oral History class, and her professor (who clearly has taken some non-academic interest in her) has encouraged her to interview her mother’s family. She may learn something about herself in the process. Cool.

But is it? Jennifer’s mother was a Cantrell, and she grew up in Appalachia. Geez, Gladiola, that’s a huge territory in the eastern United States. Could you be more specific? OK, fine. The Cantrells have lived for generations in the most remote part of southwestern Virginia – the pointy nose part that sticks into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Not everyone is glad Jennifer has shown up. Her grandmother in particular is frosty. Wow. Grandma doesn’t sound like a fair and tender lady. She’s not. Perhaps it’s because she has spent most of her life in the shadows of Hoot Owl Mountain. It might be the “prettiest holler on God’s green earth” but there’s something about it that makes a “body lose heart.” Maybe it’s because that witch cursed it.

And let’s not forget. Jennifer may be family, but she’s also a “foreigner” – a term that “does not necessarily refer to someone from another country or even from another state, but simply to anybody who was not born” in that area of the county.

In Oral History Lee Smith tells a rollicking tale of four generations of Cantrells. It’s full of music, moonshine, laughter, tragedy, desperation, ghosts, and violence. There is poverty, hard times, and true grit. It’s also honest and loving. Appalachia has been stereotyped and ridiculed ever since foreigners have been telling its stories. Smith doesn’t do that. She knows the region well and has affection for it, but she does not gloss over its tortured history. Her characters are flawed and sometimes wicked, but they’re human.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

The Maidens – Do You Dare Defy a Goddess?

If you like Dan Brown and Paula Hawkins (and many people do, myself included), you will enjoy the first 87% of Alex Michaelides’ The Maidens. It’s a fast-paced suspenseful mystery in the Gothic setting of present-day Cambridge University where the sexy ancient Greek literature professor, Edward Fosca, leads a cult dedicated to the goddess Persephone.

It’s a small cult. Only six of his “special” female students are in it. They are the maidens, and they’re special because they’re super hot. They have strange rituals, and we’re pretty sure R-rated sex is involved.

Tara is a maiden, and she is friends with Zoe. Mariana is Zoe’s aunt. Zoe calls Mariana and tells her she’s scared, but she won’t say why. The following day Tara turns up murdered in such a grisly fashion Hollywood must have directed it.

Mariana jumps on the next train to Cambridge. Meets a clumsy, creepy guy. Then meets Professor Fosca on campus and immediately decides he’s the killer – instead of Clumsy Creepy, who keeps showing up at strange times and odd places. Professor Fosca has an airtight alibi, but Mariana isn’t concerned about that.

So Mariana must be a brilliant detective if she’s going to solve this mystery. Nope. She’s a group therapist. But to be fair, the Cambridge police appear to be on holiday, so Mariana might be the best option. Except she is still mourning her beloved husband. He died a year ago. And she has big-time daddy issues. Does her grief and the trauma of her childhood blind her to the possibility that Professor Fosca is not the killer? While she’s trying to sort that out, two more maidens die ritualistically, and Hollywood officially has a joy boner.

This novel has literary pretensions. There are brief discussions of Euripides’ plays. Every once in a while Tennyson is mentioned. Mr. Michaelides has read a lot of literature, but he’s not interested in writing it. He has a MA in screenwriting, and he is clearly trying to write a Hollywood blockbuster. To his credit, he may have done just enough to have succeeded. Time will tell.

Unfortunately the last 13% of the book is a rushed mess. It will leave you feeling confused and cheated. It seems like Mr. Michaelides was having a good old time writing this book and then realized his deadline was the next day so he hurriedly pasted together an ending. One so implausible Dan Brown would blush. An ending so unsatisfying it just might be a misdemeanor in Virginia.

It’s as if a Greek goddess, perhaps Persephone herself, appeared in his bedroom just before he wrote the final chapters and said here’s your ending. And Mr. Michaelides said this makes no sense. To which Persephone demanded do you dare defy a goddess? He did not.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

An Ishiguro Thing

A Pale View of Hills was first published in 1982. It’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel, and it’s noteworthy because it contains the elements that made him an eventual winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As with his more accomplished novels, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and Klara and the Sun, not much happens in A Pale View of Hills. Not much of importance is said. But Mr. Ishiguro is fascinating because the things that aren’t said and the things that don’t happen are the things that matter. They leave the reader unsettled – asking uncomfortable questions.

The novel opens in the English countryside in the late 1970s where Etsuko is trying to cope with her first-born daughter’s recent suicide. A visit by her younger daughter, Niki, and the memories of her deceased daughter, Keiko, draw Etsuko back to her life in Japan a few years after the second world war ended. At the time Etsuko was pregnant with Keiko and living in Nagasaki, which is just emerging from the death and destruction caused by the atomic bomb. Society is experiencing a huge upheaval as the Americans “introduce” democracy to a country buried under rubble. As Etsuko’s father-in-law, who represents Japan’s traditional order, puts it: “now instead there’s all this talk of democracy. You hear it whenever people want to be selfish, whenever they want to forget obligations.”

The younger generation does not long for the old ways that led them into a disastrous war. “[S]uch things are in the past now, and there is little to be gained in going over them here.” They would rather think of the future. But the past, much like the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Keiko’s suicide, refuses to be ignored.

While in Japan, Etsuko is constantly looking forward. She hopes to be a loving mother, because being a mother is what “makes life truly worthwhile.” Back in England, Niki disagrees. “I can’t think of anything I’d like less.” With Keiko’s suicide always hovering just within sight, motherhood is not a comforting prospect. “The horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.” That’s unsettling. But is it a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing? Well played, Mr. Ishiguro, well played.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Not Too Shabby

If you are a fan of historical fiction, it is hard to do better than Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both won the Man Booker Prize. As that esteemed literary critic Adam Sandler would say: not too shabby. The third and final book in this sympathetic treatment of Thomas Cromwell is The Mirror and the Light. It did not win the Man Booker Prize. Probably didn’t come close.

Who is Thomas Cromwell, you ask. Congratulations! You aren’t English. Moreover, you are probably an upstanding citizen living a meaningful and productive life.

Thomas Cromwell lived in the first half of the 1500s. But you don’t need to be familiar with the English Reformation to enjoy these books. Wolf Hall describes Cromwell’s brutal childhood and how he rose from obscurity to become Henry VIII’s most influential adviser. His chief adversary is Sir Thomas More, who is opposed to Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. The book ends with More’s execution. Cromwell has accumulated wealth, power, and a potent ally in Anne Boleyn.

Bring Up the Bodies opens with Henry married to Anne. However, Henry soon grows tired of her and falls in love with Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s alliance with Anne is now problematic, as Henry expects Cromwell to find a way to get rid of her so he can marry Jane. Cromwell accomplishes this and in doing so manages to have some of his political enemies executed as well. But, of course, Anne must lose her head too. The book ends with Anne’s execution and Cromwell at the height of his power and influence.

Anyone familiar with Greek tragedy knows this is where it all unravels for Cromwell – if only the unraveling wasn’t so plodding. Welcome to The Mirror and the Light, which limps along to Cromwell’s demise.

The first 2 books are stellar. Cromwell’s adversaries (Thomas More and Anne Boleyn) are worthy opponents and truly challenge him. In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell’s only real adversary is himself, and he makes several mistakes that ultimately lead to his execution. It just takes a long time to get there.

The history of this time is fascinating, and Ms. Mantel has certainly done her research. Just as importantly, she knows how to tell a compelling story – at least she does in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Cromwell had an eventful life. But ultimately his livelihood (and his life) depended on the whims of a paranoid, superstitious, and mercurial monarch. As one character describes Cromwell’s predicament: “[y]our whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.” Fortunately, we live in a time when monarchs don’t have the power or inclination to ruin people’s lives. Just ask England.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor