The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, Preface by Jane Smiley, Introduction by Robert Kellogg, 5/5
I’m not usually one to complain about scholarly features such as an extensive introduction, maps, diagrams, summaries, analysis, etc., but by page 73, I was ready to just get to the fun stories already! By any standard definition of “fun,” I would have quite a while longer to wait; the first saga’s opening paragraphs read about as smoothly as a cross between the Old Testament and War and Peace. Once I gave up trying to remember who was who’s father’s best friend’s son and where they came from and where they were going, I was able to enjoy the dramatic events for their human interest without getting too bogged down by genealogical, geographical and historical details.
That is not to say that I learned nothing about Norse culture along the way. The stories in this book corrected many misconceptions I had about Viking life; yes, they glorified masculinity to a level that many today would find intolerable, but they were far from being merely uncivilized, lawless barbarians. In fact, they had well-defined legislative and judicial infrastructure (though the enforcement of laws and rulings sometimes required one to show up with a large group of armed friends) and more respect for women’s rights than might be expected. While there are fantastical elements to some of the stories (especially the shorter tales at the end of the book), the overall tone was much more prosaic and historical than I expected.
Why I read it: I have read traditional stories from many cultures and this thrift store find piqued my curiosity. I started it while in the ER the weekend my son was born, then re-started it once I caught my breath over a year later!
This tedious attempt to legitimize the relationship between King Charles II of England and Lucy Walter, one of his numerous mistresses, is painfully contrived. The dialogue is stilted, the characters unlikeable, the romantic scenes unbearably sappy, and the whole thing suffers from a pervasive moral ambiguity that causes painful cognitive dissonance. For example, Lucy and one of the king’s good friends have a one-night fling that results in pregnancy, but according to the author “both had the gift of a dedicated loyalty” and “were faithful to the core” (473). I guess I’m just one of those who “would not have understood, if they could have seen it made visible, the quality of the integrity that despite their failures gave such distinction to Lucy and her lover” (473). Integrity?! Is this backwards day?
Despite constant attempts to make Lucy appear the victim of malicious gossip, the political climate of the times, and her own big-hearted, “Welsh” emotionalism, I felt that even the author no longer liked the main character by the end of the book. And that was the romanticized, fictional version of her…
[Why I read it: my friend, Alison, passed it along to me, [rightly] thinking that I would enjoy the Welsh references.]
This dense historical fiction starts with a barrage of names and characters reminiscent of the panic-inducing first chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Unfortunately, the barrage doesn’t seem to let up and I spent most of the book feeling both unable and unwilling to follow all the subtle intrigues and sift through previous pages for hints about who that one guy is and what on earth his cryptic comments mean. At first, I blamed myself for reading too quickly or not being smart enough to understand the intricacies of the story. Then, I started to suspect that the author was responsible for the frustrating obscurity with which the book tangled along and purposefully used inscrutable characters to half-hint at important aspects of the plot through scenes and conversations that would only make sense in retrospect (if then).
In addition, I didn’t feel that the author did a very good job of integrating the story with its historical setting in 15th-century Bruges. The characters didn’t feel real, the dialogues all felt very modern and there were those dreaded episodes where “history” happens, G. A. Henty style–the story is paused so that a dry list of historical events can take place, consisting of stuff like Duke So and So having a battle with ex-King What’s His Name over some historical province that I can’t be bothered to take out an atlas to locate. For a story that hinges on character development (this is only the first of eight books in the series about Niccolò, a bastard dyer’s apprentice who makes his way to the top of the food chain), there wasn’t much development. Yes, some of the characters were complicated, but mostly because they acted unpredictably and inconsistently. Dunnett seems to think that it’s deep to make a character act out of character, but if the action is not a result of believable motives and growth, then the effect is off-putting, not illuminating. I didn’t really like or understand many of the characters in the book and certainly can’t face reading the second book in the series.
Now, I am no fan of historical fiction in general, so I can understand that Dunnett has many loyal admirers and I can even imagine a reader who might adore this book: someone with a long attention span, lots of free time and an unhealthy interest in the prosaic details of historical economics and politics (or at least, a willingness to be bribed into tolerance of these details by the promise of a sex scene or two).
[Why I read it: it was passed on to me in defeat by Tom from choir (whose reference in conversation to Tom Jones happily inspired me to read that classic), who in turn received it from fellow choir member Paula.]
This fun and competently-written story about the adventures of Abigail Adam’s midwife during the American Revolution was a bit too much of a page-turner to fit my customary pre-bedtime reading schedule, leaving me somewhat sleep-deprived over the last couple days. The book is impressively long and Daynard doesn’t succumb to the first-time novelist’s temptation to rush the ending. I thought she also did a good job of incorporating period-specific vocabulary in a natural way. Ultimately, though, the plot felt lacking to me, the characters puppetish and I found the ending unsatisfying in its predictability and mushy romanticism. Suspension of disbelief was difficult for me to attain and I often found myself wondering just how accurate the author’s perception of the era really was.
Since my friend Alison, who is an enthusiastic connoisseur of historical fiction, assures me that the book is well-written and convincing, the foregoing complaints no doubt stem from my deep mistrust of the historical fiction genre in general (which is surely not Jodi Daynard’s fault). I know that all history is subjective (filtered as it is through human perception) but some sources are more subjective than others, with historical fiction being the most untrustworthy and potentially misleading of all, in my opinion. I don’t mind so much when iconic time periods are used as settings or major historic events are incorporated into plots, but it grates on me no end when famous people from the past, people who were once as fully alive, independent and individual as you and I, are co-opted for major roles in other people’s made-up stories. What right does an author have to put words into these once-alive mouths? To invent experiences and reactions, emotions and opinions, for people who can no longer defend or explain themselves? Most historical fiction seems written by people who are either expert writers OR expert historians, but how rarely is a synthesis of these two qualities achieved.
[Why I read it: it was my friend’s end-of-summer book recommendation. Our library didn’t have a copy, but I put in a request and they bought it! This is the second time in as many months. I’m definitely feeling spoiled.]