What I Read This Week

Our Country Friends is a novel by Gary Shteyngart that tackles coronavirus head-on. It’s March 2020, and a racially and culturally diverse set of friends are waiting out the pandemic at a country house. They live there for several months, coming together and breaking apart, sometimes at odds, sometimes enjoying each other’s company, sometimes gritting their teeth and rolling their eyes.

The whole time I was reading this book I kept felt like I was missing something. I don’t mean that I was missing plot points — my attention didn’t really wander and I always knew what was going on — but I felt like there was some big thematic something that was lurking in the background that I wasn’t picking up on. My suspicion is that there are allusions and references to Russian novels that I am not getting because I’ve really only read The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, and those were both a long time ago. (Someone on Litsy suggested that the book is modeled on Uncle Vanya and — maybe? I don’t know, it’s also been a long time since I’ve read Uncle Vany.)

But I didn’t get whatever point of reference there was, so I can report that this book is — fine. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I didn’t really buy that the kid was only eight, but I developed a fondness for Vinod. Maybe someday I’ll see a production of Uncle Vanya and everything will click and I’ll revise my mental rating. Or maybe the discussion during the Tournament of Books will illuminate it for me. Until then, it’s a solid three stars.

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is Julian Sancton’s account of the Belgica, a Belgian ship captained by Adrien de Gerlache, a 28-year-old man determined to achieve glory for his homeland by exploring Antarctica. De Gerlache and his crew — including the famed Roald Amundsen — lose time, encounter various setbacks and in the end are forced to spend almost a year stuck in Antarctic sea ice. Most of them do make it back to Europe eventually, and de Gerlache and some of his crew now have namesake islands and landmasses in Antarctica.

I have always had a thing for books about nineteenth-century seafaring — beginning with Mutiny in the Bounty, which I read approximately one thousand times when I was growing up — and so I enjoyed this account, although conscience compels me to report it isn’t as vibrantly written or as eventful as Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice, an account of a North Polar expedition gone horribly wrong. The book is filled with interesting characters; besides Amundsen, there is the ship’s doctor, Frederick Cook, who comes across as proactive and energetic and a little bit full of himself (he would later spend several years in prison for fraud) and de Gerlache himself, who seems hubristic, unwise, and far too young to be in charge of the Belgica. The best adventure books keep you tense and attentive even when you know how they end, and I certainly was holding my breath as the crew attempted to break their ship out of the sea ice.

Alison Weir’s biography of Katherine Swynford, Mistress of the Monarchy, is absolutely delicious if you’re into biographies of medieval noblewomen. Katherine Swynford was the longtime mistress of John of Gaunt, who was Richard II’s uncle and adviser, and Henry IV’s father. Gaunt was a very powerful man in his day, second only to the king, and his affair with Swynford was quite the scandal at the time.

There’s not a great deal of evidence about Swynford’s life: we don’t have letters or papers or a will or personal possessions or even any recorded words. Given all of that, Weir does a masterful job of cobbling together a four-hundred-page biography. As usual with Weir, I question some of her conclusions. I think she has a tendency to interpret evidence in the way that will make her happiest. In the case of Swynford and Gaunt, she is very invested in the idea that they were a true love-match. She is also attached to the notion that Gaunt was deeply in love with his first wife and would never have cheated on her. These beliefs affect the way she interprets every scrap of data, and lead her to insist upon “facts” that she can’t possibly establish as firmly as she thinks she can. (At one point, she refers to her belief that Gaunt would not have lied to the pope about his sex life as “watertight” evidence. Personally, I feel that the pope might be one of the first people you would lie to about your sex life.)

So I’m not convinced that Swynford and Gaunt are the great romance that Weir wants them to be. These were two wealthy, ambitious people who seem to have been rational actors. They may have begun their affair out of love (or lust) but once they had children there were plenty of political and financial reasons for them to continue a partnership, romantic or not. That doesn’t make them, or this book, any less fascinating.

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