Freddy and Fredericka, by Mark Helprin

As Prince and Princess of Wales, Freddy and Fredericka are a constant embarrassment to his mother, the Queen, and to the nation. Obviously based on Charles and Diana, the two create tabloid fodder wherever they go. Unfaithful Freddy does not love his wife, who cares only about fashion, shopping and her appearance. His own appearance is ludicrous enough, but his misadventures and bumbling make it worse. His words are taken out of context by a mocking press, and he is made to appear ridiculous in the eyes of his nation and the world, while Fredericka is universally praised and beloved no matter what she does, even when she gives a flagrantly inaccurate speech concocted for her by Freddy. Eventually their misadventures become so egregious that they are sent on a secret mission to the U.S., parachuting into an industrial wasteland in New Jersey with no possessions and clad only in furry bikinis.

Yes, that's the level of silliness. I've long enjoyed Helprin's books, but this comic novel is quite a departure. In the mode of Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote, the book makes no pretense at realism. It employs the classic quest story structure, well-known to us from King Arthur and from fairy tales where the son who is considered a bit of a doofus goes into the woods or climbs a beanstalk and manages to rescue the princess or kill the giant. Coincidences abound and events converge to drive the story. The structure has also been described as the hero's journey, as Helprin points out in the interview at the end of the book on my Recorded Books copy. Famously put forward by Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey drives stories like The Odyssey and The Inferno. After all, as has been repeated so often that I've been unable to find who first pointed it out (though John Gardner's name is mentioned most often): there are only two kinds of stories: “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town.” As Scott Myers notes, both are contained in the hero's journey since usually it is a stranger coming to town who calls the hero into action (the journey).

I have long said that I have reservations about novels that include real people as characters or even characters created by other writers. Legal questions of copyright and libel aside, since copyrights expire and people in the public eye or deceased are considered fair game, the writer is presenting his or her version of that person. Obviously it is unethical, except in the case of satire, to deliberately show a version that the writer knows is untrue, e.g., that distorts the facts to whitewash or condemn the subject. But I question even well-meaning attempts. The image of the person or character becomes lodged in our minds and part of what we “know” about him or her. Having read Laurie R. King's and Michael Chabon's versions of Sherlock Holmes, I can no longer read the original stories the same way, yet both King and Chabon are excellent writers who I believe genuinely try to honor Arthur Conan Doyle's creation.

Several of the essays in The Offensive Internet mention the belief that some proponents of zero-privacy hold, that today's exposure prevents people from presenting themselves as someone other than who they are and this is a good thing because it keeps us honest. Without getting into the huge body of work on the identities people construct consciously or unconsciously to show to others, I will just say that I do not think it necessarily dishonest to show different facets of ourselves in different contexts, any more than it is dishonest to wear business attire to a meeting at work instead of a bathing suit, unless you’re a lifeguard of course.

What I do believe is that it is our responsibility as writers to consider what “truth” we are lodging our readers' minds. Helprin's obvious admiration for Freddy and disdain for Fredericka (“less intelligent than garden mulch”) must inevitably color readers' opinions of Charles and Diana. In the course of their quest, Freddy comes into his own as a brilliant and well-read man, equally adept at wilderness survival and swaying the multitudes with his speeches. Fredericka, on the other hand, finds her best self in cleaning toilets. Her only talent is a sort of idiot savant ability to spout versions of famous literary works which she has never read. This sort of bias turns the book into a polemic in favor of Charles and—for me at least—diminishes the comic charm.

Still, I enjoyed the book and got a lot of chuckles out of it. Luckily I listened to it in the car, where the simple-minded humor filled the niches of my attention perfectly. I don't think I would have gotten past the first chapter or two if I'd been reading it. While I appreciate the humor of crossed communication, the who's-on-first sequences go on too long for me. In fact, most of the comic sequences go on too long. I admit I'm not a fan of slapstick or farce, so those scenes were for me a dead loss. Even for those who enjoy such humor, some judicious cutting would have made the book a lot better. However, I applaud Helprin's departure from the realist focus of today's fiction and his attempts to resurrect the picaresque stories of the past.

The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel

Langston Braverman has come home to her small town of Haddington, Indiana, simply walking out of her PhD orals and abandoning that life and all its dreams. She takes refuge in the hot attic of her parents' home where she imagines that she is writing a novel. Or maybe an epic sonnet sequence. In reality she is mostly sleeping and contemplating the wreck of her life. In alternate chapters, we follow the town's minister, Amos Townsend, whose life has been a series of losses, each more grievous than the last. Both Amos and Langston find their lives transformed by the appearance of two damaged little girls.

I love the title and spent several days just pondering the words before opening the book. Kimmel says of the book that it is a retelling of A Confederacy of Dunces. It's been a while since I read that book, but I can certainly see Ignatius J. Reilly in Langston. She's almost annoyingly smart, confounding family and townspeople alike with her lectures on abstruse subjects. I can understand why one reviewer felt that the book bogged down in excessive references to religion, physics, psychology, and philosophy, and Langston herself one of the “most self-absorbed and annoying characters in recent memory. Langston, who seems perpetually mired in surly adolescence, cannot bear her reduced circumstances, finding every aspect of small town life excruciatingly insipid.”

However, I enjoyed Langston. I guess it helped that I have been rereading some of the subjects she expounds upon. Mostly I just enjoyed the way her mind works. Reading Kierkegaard in the hot attic, her thoughts begin to drift. “Langston closed her eyes, and her mind filled with images almost immediately, as if she were beginning to dream. She thought of Hermes Psychopompos, who leads us over thresholds: between life and death, between sleeping and waking. As the psychopomp, Hermes carries a staff of intertwining snakes.” And she's off on snakes and women and locusts.

I enjoyed following Amos about, too, though I struggled a bit at first with disentangling my mind from a Midwestern pastor named Ames in another novel that grapples with large ideas. Perhaps my next memoir will be titled Haunted by Books. From talking about big ideas, Solace gradually moves into playing them out in daily life. I adored the scenes between Langston and the girls, loving the way they talked to each other. I could have done with more about the unfolding of that relationship and also more about Langston's father, Walt, who sort of gets summed up at the end. But overall I liked the book a lot, finding it smart and funny and unexpected, just as I always found Kimmel's blog postings.

I mentioned recently that I’ve noticed bullying and abusive behavior on the Internet, and that blogs that I used to enjoy have had to be shut down. I'm not sure why Kimmel abandoned her popular blog in May of 2009, but given that there was no warning and the end came right after a lengthy post on a controversial subject, I suspect that she was targeted. It's a shame. Not only was Kimmel's blog fun and thought-provoking, it had become a gathering place for a community of people, addressed affectionately by Kimmel as her “blog babies”. Losing this online forum must have been detrimental to her career. There hasn't been a book from her since 2008's Iodine and I'm not finding any interviews or articles about her since the blog shut down. I hope she's just retired to a quiet place to do more writing and is not in hiding from cyber stalkers.

The Offensive Internet, ed. by Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum

This book attracted my attention because I’ve long been interested in issues around privacy on the Internet. I’m often horrified by how casually people reveal personal information there, naively revealing things like birthdates and travel information. I’d have thought that most people knew by now that once something is on the Internet, it is there forever, and that modern search engines enable anyone to find it. People may not realise that employers and college admissions offices will look for and find that photo of a keg party or blog post about a sexual encounter. Some folks I’ve spoken with say they have nothing to hide or adopt a fatalistic attitude, assuming that privacy is impossible in an online world, yet I believe it is important to do what we can to protect ourselves.

I’ve also been conscious of much bullying and abusive behavior on the Internet, directed especially at women and minorities. Blogs that I used to enjoy have had to be shut down and some newspaper columnists no longer allow comments because of the vicious and threatening comments posted. Martha C. Nussbaum’s essay goes into detail about the causes and effects of misogyny and objectification of women. Brian Leiter recounts two examples of what he calls cyber-cesspools and the methods posters there use to ensure that their harassing and threatening posts are the first search results returned. Anonymity certainly contributes to the level of violence, and it is shocking how badly some people behave when they think no one will know who they are and there will be no retribution.

Essays in this book, which grew out of a conference, explore offensive behaviors on the Internet in three areas: reputation (how easily it can be damaged and what the personal, professional, and financial repercussions are), privacy (how the Internet enables gossip and false accusations to spread outside of our local communities), and speech (what speech is protected by First Amendment doctrine). The essays concentrate on what legal and political remedies could be deployed to protect non-public individuals.

I’ve followed the arguments of the large and vocal contingent who want the Internet to remain “free”, i.e., unregulated, so it is good to hear such a measured and intelligent response. For example, John Deigh’s essay includes a discussion of the classical defense for freedom of speech, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, going beyond the usual quotes to put them in the context of Mill’s argument. I appreciate the precision of the discussions, where terms are clearly defined and recommendations supported by carefully crafted arguments.

The essays are well-written and—I think—easy for the lay-person to understand, though this is a field where I have some expertise. Many of the essays gave me new insights such as Cass R. Sunstein’s essay which explores how informational cascades and group polarisation contribute to the spread of false rumours. For all the talk of a “marketplace of ideas”, few people will go against the beliefs of their group or the opinions that have already been voiced. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in these ideas.

Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

Set just after WWII, Mudbound is the story of two families in rural Mississippi. Laura is gratefully married finally at the advanced age of 31. Her husband, Henry, has transplanted Laura and their two young daughters from Memphis to a remote farm with only a shack for a house, as he fulfills his long-time dream to own a farm. One of his tenant farmers, Hap Jackson, is proud to be working half-shares, knowing that sharecropping would mean keeping only a quarter of his crop, thus guaranteeing long-term indebtedness to the landlord. Hap's wife, Florence, a strong woman gifted with healing, overcomes her initial wariness to help the floundering Laura adjust to farm life. Relationships between these characters and between the two families, one white and one black, are complicated first by the arrival of Henry's abusive father, Pappy, to live with them and then by the return of two discharged soldiers: Henry's younger brother, Jamie, and Hap and Florence's son, Ronsel.

My book club liked this book, finding it an engrossing read. Most felt the author deployed foreshadowing and description well to create suspense and keep them reading to find out what would happen. However, a few found the story predictable, and the suspense a bit heavy-handed. Some people thought the author tried to force emotional response by pushing obvious buttons, such as the Holocaust and lynchings. A few were disappointed by the ending, saying that the writing, while excellent in the earlier parts, seemed rushed at the end.

For me as a writer, this is one of the great benefits of being in a book club: seeing how personal preferences and circumstances influence a reader's reaction to a book. Someone beleaguered by end-of-term papers and exams to grade may not have the time or energy to read as attentively as at other times, or may turn to a book for relaxation rather than full intellectual and emotional engagement.

We all found the characters more complex and interesting than those in The Help, which is also about race relations in the South, though at a later date. Even Pappy, the most stereotyped character, has moments demonstrating his humanity. I found Henry the most interesting. He could have been presented as a classic overbearing husband, but what would seem like tyrannical behaviour today seems normal within the context of the times, and the chapters in his voice show not only his care and concern for his family but also his steadfast and practical nature. Each chapter is devoted to a single voice, alternating between Laura, Henry, Florence, Hap, Jamie, and Ronsel.

The characters play out the conflict between personal morals and society's mores. Those characters who try to transcend the overt and accepted racism of the rural South, still find themselves reacting in ways dictated by the local culture. Laura's great moment of growth and change comes when she recognises this dynamic. This same conflict is played out in other ways, such as the way society dictates family relationships. The story explores who within a marriage makes decisions and how children should behave towards their elderly parents, as Florence and Hap trade decision-making control back and forth, and Henry negotiates the conflicting demands of Laura, Pappy and his own heart.

Jordan handles the emotional connections between the characters particularly well. I was fascinated by how the relationship between Henry and Jamie plays out and the one between Jamie and Pappy, what they could forgive in each other and what they could not. My book club also talked a bit about the difference between an extramarital affair and an affair of the heart. We cannot, of course, control to whom we are attracted, though we can control how we behave with that person. The interesting question is how much is too much. The challenge is finding the line where innocent flirting or fantasizing crosses over into betrayal. We agreed that the great strength of the book lay in its depiction of the way violence is legitimised by the group environment, and the way a person's character is formed within the framework of his or her society, either dominated by it or reacting to it.