10 July 2013

Library Limelights 32

Sheelagh Whittaker. Slaidburn Angel. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2012. 
Non-fiction, but it was recommended somehow, somewhere, for its genealogical content. The story is not family history per se but nevertheless my reading produced mixed feelings. What a bonanza the author fell into: nineteenth-century Yorkshire newspaper accounts of a family-involved murder. Late Victorian child care, illegitimacy, the working poor, and prison conditions are just some of the issues. Whittaker examines the contemporary context of the ancestors and can’t help contrasting with her own modern family. So far so good. We genealogists talk about squeezing every morsel of information and evidence out of a source—all good. You have to admire the thoughtful analysis the author and her correspondents contribute to reconstructing motives and opportunities for the various characters.

Normally when writing about our historical findings, we don’t repeat the facts over and over again. Therein was my problem: impatience. The author backtracked time and again as new morsels of information were uncovered or reinterpreted. The research methodology—if one can say there was method—was antithetical to good genealogy practice, although there were likely some editorial devices/values at play here. It’s a different way of presenting a dramatic family history episode but a bit like watching a small (blindfolded) child play pin the tail on the donkey. And yet, family history was really secondary to targeting the characters involved in the entire affair. Maybe I’m too linear, but it was not long before the re-winding became irritating. I’d really like to hear a second opinion about this! 

So much for finding a quote I liked, even among Whittaker’s frequent risks of putting words in the mouth of an ancestor. I fall back on an anomalous throwaway remark about a living relative:
Still, Penny is a genuine Christian, if only of the Anglican variety. (146)   

Herman Koch. The Dinner. New York: Hogarth/Random House Group, 2012. 
Copyright 2009 by the author, the book was translated from Dutch last year. The Dinner is a fiendishly clever tour de force of appearances not being what they seem. Dry observations on the narrator’s part had me laughing out loud at least four times in the first fifty pages—a record, I believe—although impending doom was just around the corner. It bears an initial similarity to the play God of Carnage (made into the 2011 film Carnage) in that almost-invisible children are a key element, but this is a much deeper social commentary. 

A simple concept elegantly and eloquently expressed: dinner for two couples in a first class restaurant. What could possibly go wrong?! There is a crime, and some mystery, but the true suspense is the unveiling of characters. One of the four is the consistent narrator. As the layers peel away, signs of complicity and paranoia emerge—it’s difficult to describe much without giving it all away. This mini-review is written in March, and the book is already climbing the bestseller lists.

On the politician:
At those moments and on those occasions when he is the public’s sweetheart, during his speeches in union halls, when he answers questions from an audience of the “rank and file,” or in front of the TV cameras or radio microphones, when he stands in a street market in a windbreaker handing out campaign flyers and talking to regular people, or when he stands at the lectern and lets the applause roll over him—no, what am I saying: the continuous standing ovation that lasted for minutes at the last party congress (flowers were thrown onto the podium, spontaneously, it was said, but in fact carefully stage-directed by his campaign manager), at moments like that, he shines. It’s not just a matter of beaming with pride, or self-importance, or because politicians who want to get ahead simply have to beam, because otherwise the campaign might end tomorrow. No, he really shines: he radiates something. (98)

Defending the low mark he gave a student:
“In addition to the Second World War, I also deal with a large part of the history that came afterwards,” I interrupted again. “Korea, Vietnam, the Mideast and Israel, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Palestinians. I deal with all of that during my classes. So then you can’t expect to turn in a paper about the state of Israel in which people mostly pick oranges and dance in sandals around a campfire. Cheerful, happy people everywhere, and all that horseshit about the desert where flowers blossom again. I mean, people are shot and killed there every day. Buses are blown up. What’s this all about?”
“She came in here crying, Paul.”
“I’d cry too if I turned in garbage like that.” (179-180)

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