Pass on the Olives

Review #21

Book: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Audience: G-U

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

Yet another G-U fiction book disappoints. Perhaps I should stay away from eponymous novels. In the last one I read (Stella Bain) I liked the character, but I had a few too many criticisms about plot and style to truly enjoy the book. This time I liked the style and had no real issues with plot, but I couldn’t bring myself to like Olive.

I suppose I have no one to blame but myself. The blurb warned that Olive was not particularly likeable, but hinted that she mellowed or somehow changed or was at least interesting, so I thought she would be worth a read. Not so much.

The novel is written as a series of vignettes about Olive and her small town. From multiple perspectives (a device of which I am rather fond) we learn that Olive was a middle-school math teacher—tough, strict, and a bit of a hard-ass with her students, her husband, her son, and for that matter just about everyone she meets. She suffers no fools and has absolute confidence that her ways and opinions are correct. Her indifference can border on the cruel, yet she is also capable of intense loyalty which can manifest itself in unexpected ways. Her passions (her loves as well as her dislikes) are always as fierce as her determination to never expose those passions. In short, she presents herself as a caricature—narrow, small-minded, rigid, unfeeling, and cold—when in fact she is far deeper and more complicated than anyone ever suspects.

I guess that is what is supposed to make her intriguing, and I will admit on some level I found her to be so. Yes, her later in life experiences show her to have indeed mellowed, but only new people in her life get to see the improved Olive. Her strained relationships with those she loves most remain static. I pitied her because who she is makes those dearest to her unaware of her feelings and therefore unable to return the love she desperately craves.

So, while Olive is a far more fascinating character than meets the eye, I still didn’t like her. She was not interesting enough to overcome my dislike, and I’d rather find something to admire in her rather than something to pity about her. Overall, this was a well-crafted book, but for me character trumps craft and this played out to be a rather weak hand.

The Tudor Bunch

Review #20

Book: Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda DeLisle

Audience: GU

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbookbook

It started with a 13-year-old mother and ended with a 69-year-old virgin—with all manner of people and situations in between.

The Tudor family has long been of great interest to me—ever since I was seven and my mum and my sister returned from London with a souvenir puzzle of Henry VIII and his wives. Considering all the movies, books, and television productions about the subject, I am hardly alone. Why the fascination? After reading Miss DeLisle’s book I have a few ideas.

Ultimately, the Tudors were underdogs. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, raised the family to royal status with the slimmest of claims—his mother, Margaret Beaufort (that 13-year-old previously mentioned, who, incidentally, turned out to be quite a force to reckon with!), was a descendant of Edward III. Inheriting through the female line was not the done thing, and Miss DeLisle makes the assertion that Henry truly rose to kingship not through his genealogy but through his defeat of Richard III at Bosworth and timing. Edward IV was a usurper, having overthrown Henry VI, and thus his reign, while mostly popular, was always under threat. Richard III was an even greater usurper, having essentially bullied and murdered his way to the throne after Edward IV’s death. Henry’s defeat of Richard finally rid the country of an unpopular monarch and offered the idea of stability. So we have obscure man overthrowing big bad king, or obscure man being a trailblazer and making a claim through his mother’s ancestry. Either way you look at it, Henry Tudor was an underdog, and everyone loves an underdog.

The Tudors also had glamour. Henry VIII, in particular, was rolling in it. Strapping, handsome, athletic, and musical, he was the figurative knight in shining armor to his beleaguered, widowed sister-in-law, saving her from a poor and uncertain future by marrying her for both honor and love. His later marital escapades (two divorces, two beheadings, with a stint as a grieving widower thrown in) only add to his modern-day allure. His sisters were no slouches in the glamour department, either. One (Margaret) becomes Queen of Scotland, then in her widowhood marries someone totally inappropriate. The other (Mary) is strikingly beautiful, briefly becomes Queen of France, then in her widowhood disregards the dictates of her brother the king and marries the love of her life. Love, lust, treachery, betrayal, defiance, reconciliation—it doesn’t get much more glamorous than that.

The Tudors were chock full of pathos as well, Edward VI more than anyone else. You have a boy king, the son Henry VIII was desperate to have, whose birth cost his mother her life. He tries to be fair to his half-sisters, feels a strong sense of religious conviction which he is determined to mandate throughout his kingdom, and wants so much to do the right thing that he ultimately allows himself to be bullied by his advisors. He dies an early and excruciatingly painful death and tries to name a successor to preserve his religious agenda and avoid rebellion. In the long run, the ramifications of that choice (his first cousin once removed Jane Grey Dudley) destroy the religion he wished to preserve and lead to revolution. Poor Edward.

Then there is the novelty factor. Mary was the first Queen Regnant of England, and she actually did a fairly decent job of it. Miss DeLisle, in fact takes pains to debunk the image of Bloody Mary that permeates popular culture. Elizabeth was a novelty as well, as she can be thought of as England’s first feminist. Rather than having to share her kingdom with a husband or risk ending her reign due to death in childbirth, Elizabeth chose to go it alone. She was also a master politician: hinting at much, promising nothing, devoting herself to her own agenda. Her handling of the whole Mary, Queen of Scots (another first cousin, once removed) business was entirely political. Elizabeth actually had a great number of faults and made many mistakes, as Miss DeLisle chronicles, but they do not really detract from the aura she created for herself, one of a female maverick who showed for the first time what a woman in power can do.

So there you have it. In short, informative chapters that read almost more like a narrative than a history, Miss DeLisle presents us with The Tudors, in all their scrappy, glamorous, pathetic, groundbreaking glory. No wonder we love them so.