Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood is a historical novel about a woman involved in a double murder. She is spared hanging because of her age, but is imprisoned for life, although some think she is insane and should be treated. Apart from the day-to-day lives of Grace (who works in the warden’s home as a servant and goes back and forth from her cell to the house under armed guard) and the psychiatrist who is studying her (who is a resident of a shabby boarding house and also corresponds with his whiny mother about money and marriage), the narrative unfolds as Grace tells her story to the doctor. She came to Canada from Ireland with her abusive father (the mother dying during the crossing and being buried at sea) and worked in various servant positions from a very young age before coming into service for a gentleman and his housekeeper, the victims she is said to have killed. How reliable is she? That’s not clear, but she builds a persuasive case that the laborer on the farm did the killing and also that the housekeeper was something of a madwoman herself.
How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson isn’t quite what I thought it would be. Instead, it’s a history of Individualism and the Cowboy Mentality—both somewhat mythical—that still divides the country. I would have suggested a different title, because that war is still being fought, but these are significant issues and I learned a great deal from the book about the attitudes that shape the battle. I’m not sure the author gets at the cause of the divide, though. The cowboy myth is an outgrowth of the cult of individualism, which was always based on a lie, but where did that start? She ties it to the oligarchy that developed in the south, built on the foundation of slavery, which makes sense, and the conquest of the West was in part an attempt to extend that domination over more land and more people. The book is very readable, but I would love to have it brought forward to the present attitudes of the Tea Party, Libertarians, and Trump’s GOP. I’m told that’s the subject of her next book.
Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes is a novel about La La, a veterinary student who is the daughter of a burglar (and, nominally, a locksmith). When her father is arrested after his latest job, La La drops out of vet school and starts robbing houses, a skill her father taught her, in order to raise money to pay his legal fees. As the book progresses, we learn more about her childhood in which she robbed homes with her father after her mother abandoned them, and how he took the rap for her when she carelessly let slip to some shady friends what they’d done. What also makes her unique is that she’s an animal empath. She doesn’t seem to know what human animals are feeling, but she does sense the discomfort of pets, which is what steered her toward veterinary medicine. She even rationalizes her robbery because she treats the pets in the homes she robs. But the robberies create a rift between her and her fiancé, and life gets complicated when she tries to find her mother. The book is beautifully plotted and clever.
The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds is a collection of poetry first published in 1987. I’ve also read another collection by Olds, Stag’s Leap, that I loved, but this one put me off for some reason. The whole last section of the book is about her children, and those poems did little for me, and I failed to connect with a great many other poems in the book also. Some were just borderline offensive (“The Pope’s Penis” for one, “Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor” for another), and others, such as the many poems about her parents and their problems felt either too personal or not personal enough.
Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear by Patrick Boucheron (translated from French by Willard Wood) is a collection of essays about Machiavelli that the author did (and read) on French public radio. Machiavelli is an interesting figure from the early 16th Century who is often misunderstood, and I’m not sure this slim book really clarified him for me. Most of us learn that his book, The Prince, was a guide for authoritarians, but others argue that it was more satirical and descriptive than prescriptive. But he wrote other works as well. Boucheron refers to the interesting Stephen Greenblatt book, The Swerve, about the importance to the early Renaissance of the rediscovery of an ancient book by Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, which I read recently, but not to Leonardo da Vinci, who was prominent at the time also.
The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman is a novel in stories about a man who goes from being a mischievous prankster as a child (releasing a bunch of frogs at his mother’s carefully planned Passover seder is one example) to respected professor of international political economy. The stories are not arranged in chronological order, which I actually liked, so the story about his childhood pranks, which begins the book, is followed by one about his retirement, and then we go back to fill in the blanks. The writing is crisp and Jeremiah is sometimes amusing, sometimes infuriating, like a male, Jewish Olive Kitteridge. Particularly funny is one story where Molly, his wife, tasks their son Stuart, with calming their father down before the wedding of Hannah, the daughter. Stuart gets the great idea of feeding him pot brownies and it does the trick. It’s a terrific book that enjoyed reading very much.