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The Lady Di of her day

I read Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire while I was in Portland last year. This is a very rich book, and it is better than the average popular historical biography on several levels. Many contemporary books on "scholarly" subjects, such as history or science, are immensely "dumbed down" to the point that an average layperson such as me, who is college educated but not by any means an academic, feels quite condescended to by the writing style, and a bit cheated by the material. That is definitely not the case with Amanda Foreman's writing. It is never repetitive nor does it over-explain, and yet it remains not only accessible, but also gripping in places, due to the fascinating nature of the subject. As an example of what I mean, here are excerpts from two reader reviews on the Amazon website:

Alexandra from Manningtree: I'm lucky enough to have a history degree, but this book is so accessible you don't need one; Foreman just guides through giving you all extra info without sounding patronising. This has to be the best researched biography I've read... if only my academic reading was as fun.

A Reader frim London:I often feel that books aimed at the general reader, ie, someone like me who did not go to university, assume that we are all thickwits who can't tell the difference between good and bad writing. The one thing I loved about Georgiana is that the book has all the quality of academic history while at the same time being very entertaining. Although at times I had to concentrate really hard on a lot of unfamiliar information, I also felt I was getting the real thing.

A brief synopsis of the life of Lady Georgiana Spencer (great x4 aunt of Princess Diana), who became at 19 the Duchess of Devonshire, will give a taste of the rich and engaging tale this book tells. Beautiful, talented and gracious, Georgiana was one of the wealthiest people in the world, yet she was plagued by enormous gambling debts most of her life. She was one of the first women in the modern world to get involved in politics, at a time when women had not even the faintest hope that they would ever vote, and was alternately cheered and jeered for it by the fickle public. She was married to one of the most powerful peers in England, yet she gave birth to a child who was fathered by a man of lesser rank, and had to sneak away to the continent to do so. She was part of a menage a trois, being in love with the manipulative yet charming and somewhat pitiable Lady Elizabeth Frazer, her husband's sometime mistress. Although she died somewhat prematurely in her late 40s, she was a witness to or participant in many of the major episodes of early modern European history.

A pair of novels with a common thread

I have this weird habit of reading two novels, either close together in time or sometimes even at the same time, that share a theme or otherwise speak to each other in some way. A little less than a year ago, I did it again. I read Vernon God Little, by D. B. C. Pierre, just a week or so after reading Hey, Nostradamus, by Douglas Coupland. Both of these are black comedies (of a sort), told (partly, in one case) from the point of a male teenager protagonist, concerning a community caught up in the throes of a mass shooting at the local high school.
Of the two, I thought Vernon God Little was funnier, but also far darker. Perhaps this is because it does not grapple with metaphysical issues so much. In the bleak, rather horrifyingly ugly community of Martirios Texas, a mass shooting can only bring the people far enough awake from their ugly dream-state to contemplate the possibility of human decency, and they don't get very far with that. All of the characters in VGL are flawed, some of them very, very deeply. Although the novel doesn't have a totally negative viewpoint, the best it can offer is the kind of redemption where a really terrible situation improves to approximate normality. The protagonist, Vernon Gregory Little, is wrongly suspected of the shooting, and is gleefully sent to death row by his community. His mother is sick with concern, but slightly more stressed by losing out on her new almond-coloured refrigerator and being dumped by the evil sleaze-bag Eulalio Ledesma, who is, unbeknownst to her, responsible for her boy's conviction by the media.
Hey Nostradamus is another take on a similar scenario. The neighbourhood and the school are slightly more upscale. This novel is about religion and views society through a more moral lens than VGL. Of the four narrators, the strongest character is the male teenager, Jason. Jason was secretly married to Cheryl, the first narrator, and Cheryl was one of the victims. Jason is revered as a hero because he killed one of the gunmen with a rock, but he is himself so troubled by this and by another little secret in his life that it dominates his adulthood completely. The third narrator is Heather, who marries Jason some time after the tragedy, never knowing that he was married to Cheryl. The fourth narrator seemed to be the villain of the piece at first: he is Reg, Jason's destructive, unlovable father, a fundamentalist with a self-righteous streak and an even bigger streak of character disorder. Reg, however, takes up the narration many years after the shootings, and by this time, life has rubbed off a lot of his sharp edges and he has even gained Christian humility. I am leaving out a lot here, because these quirky touches are so much better when discovered suddenly in the narrative. It's not your typical Douglas Coupland book.