Case Histories

I’ve just finished Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. I very much enjoyed the first three-quarters of it. The book is, as the title advertises, a series of apparently disconnected ‘unfortunate events’. Gradually, as the book progresses, these themes become intertwined until most of them are resolved. Somewhere fairly near the start, a detective, Jackson Brodie, enters the scene. He’s a pleasant character, easy to identify with but one of those frustratingly passive men who can mentally articulate but cannot deal with events in his personal life. So, as with so many of his fictional predecessors and contemporaries, he takes refuge in detecting and kind of plods on in a straight line, until solutions to the various mysteries fall into his lap almost by default.

I don’t mean to be harsh on the book, it is extremely well-written and I enjoyed it a lot (though I could have done without the rather constant sexual descriptions and references). The "case history" approach allows the author to create telling little short stories, which whet the appetite of the reader and make you want to read on. The book is permeated with sad events and melancholy characters.

But the last quarter was disappointing. The whole was not the sum of the parts. It is always a bad sign when a book suddenly switches style, as this one does nearish the end, messing around with time. Significant events are missed out of the narrative and told out of order or in retrospect (or both), which indicated to me an unnecessary loss of confidence by the author, as if she could not quite believe that the reader is on her side by then, and just let things carry on to the end. And eventually, the number of "neat" solutions is not believable, even if it is satisfying to know the outcome of many of the mysteries, the book has somehow lost the unique voice it had at the outset.

I’m very tempted to read the sequel, One Good Turn, which cannot be out yet in the UK as I called into Waterstones by the station on my way home tonight to see if it was on sale. It wasn’t. However, Susan Balee says it is excellent so I will give it a shot when I can get hold of it. (Have just checked, you can buy it via Amazon UK.)

The Ghost Map

From the Typepad book blog, a title that sounds pretty interesting: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. From the "blurb" (I won’t call it a post):

"When he creates the map that traces the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn’t just solve the most pressing medical riddle of his time. He ultimately established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.

The Ghost Map is an endlessly compelling and utterly gripping account of that London summer of 1854, from the microbial level to the macrourban-theory level-including, most important, the human level."

Typepad is featuring this book because the author is a "longtime Typepad blogger". Here is Steven Johnson’s blog if you want to check it out.

Link: Book Blogs and Author Blogging Services at TypePad : Steven Johsnon.

Hitting the wrong target

Poor J K Rowling. Why do people have it in for her? Jealousy? Mean-spiritedness?

The Times today devoted most of a page to an article by Michael Gove entitled "The Revelation that put me off J. K. Rowling". There is a large pull-out quote on the page that states "Diana was not just the willing partner of Oswald Mosley in race hatred and active treachery, she was also an unrepentant admirer of Hitler", leading the reader to expect some grave wrongdoing.

So what exactly is J K’s crime? After reading a few paragraphs too many of build-up, containing lines like "My respect for J K Rowling has taken a knock from which it will take a long time to recover", it turns out that she has been quoted in the Sunday Telegraph’s review of Jessica Mitford’s letters as being an admirer of Mitford. (I had read an interview years ago in which J K is said to have named her elder daughter after Mitford.)

The rest of Gove’s article is an attack on the Mitford family as a whole, and what he calls "the Mitford mythology" which "illuminates a strain in our national character I can’t abide". Most of his article is an attack on the well-known Nazi sympathisers and Fascists Diana (wife of Oswald Mosley) and Unity (mistress or "close friend" of Hitler). But Jessica was the opposite pole, who cut herself off from her family when very young, and from the Fascist elements of it for her entire adult life. Far from living in the idle rich lifestyle which she easily could have done, she worked all her life for a cause she believed in. And it is this sister whom J K Rowling admires, not Diana or Unity.

Yes, as Gove points out, Jessica was taken in by the Communists in 1955 Hungary and supported the Soviet Union for a couple of years longer than Gove finds palatable. But a lot of people at that time were similarly taken in: one has to judge their gullibility in historical context, when memories of Fascism in Europe were fresh, and people yearned for peace after the hard years of war.

Gove does not mention far more significant events. Jessica’s first husband, Esmond Romily, with whom she eloped when both were extremely young, was a pilot who fought in the Spanish civil war and was shot down and killed during WW2. And after moving to the United States and marrying Bob Truehaft, Jessica worked long and hard for civil liberties — I remember laughing out loud when reading her autobiography about her group’s practice of "buying" houses in White neighbourhoods on behalf of Black people, to whom Whites would not sell, and the expressions on the White people’s faces when the Black neighbours moved in. She is perhaps most famous for her witty but cutting expose of the funeral business. Jessica did many, many good deeds in her long life and wrote very amusingly and movingly. You may not agree with her politics, but she was a woman of principle as far removed from Nazism as it is possible to be.

Quite apart from all this, what on Earth is wrong with J K Rowling admiring someone? Can’t this Michael Gove find something more important to get upset about?

Here is a resource about Jessica Mitford if you are interested in knowing more about this remarkable woman.

Telegraph article about Jessica Mitford with samples of her letters.

Publisher’s website feature on the book, including quotes by J K Rowling.