Saturday, June 16, 2007

Housekeeping vs. Richard M. Nixon

Books now read in ’07: 55
Title: Housekeeping
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 6-13
Pages: 219

Order and entropy are at war in the human heart in Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary first novel. Housekeeping is the story of new sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who live in Fingerbone, a remote Idaho village. The sisters, whose mother has committed suicide, are raised by a succession of relatives – their grandmother, two batty, Dickensian great-aunts and finally their mother’s youngest sister, Sylvie.

Sylvie is a transient by birth and inclination, who only returns home, after being away for years, out of loyalty to her late sister. Initially, the arrangement appears to be satisfactory, but slowly Sylvie yields to the chaotic nature that lives within her. The house begins to fill with discarded tin cans and newspapers and Sylvie blithely disregards the girls increasing truancy from school.

Ultimately, the two sisters are divided. Lucille seeks order, while Ruth yields to her own transient nature. Lucille flees home, seeking refuge with a teacher, while Ruth and Sylvie flee Fingerbone to avoid legal efforts to take Ruth away.

Actual housekeeping becomes a powerful metaphor in this novel as does the vast lake that dominates the landscape surrounding Fingerbone. The sisters’ mother drowned herself in this lake. Their grandfather drowned in the lake too, a victim of a near legendary train wreck that decades later still dominates local imagination.

“One cannot cup one’s hand and rink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, thought they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all children, too, even if their arms could have held them up.”

In his column in the Believer magazine, Nick Hornby called Housekeeping “this extraordinary, yearning mystical work about the dead and how they haunt the living.” He also says the novel is “deep an dark and rich” and he describes Robinson as “one of America’s greatest living writers . . . certainly there is no one else like her.”

I had read Hornby’s column on Housekeeping months ago. What’s bizarre is that after reading the novel, I selected the same quote Hornby selected. I do not believe I have could have remembered the quote as a result of reading Hornby so many months ago. It is in keeping, I think, with the mystical nature of this novel. Hornby in right in all that he writes -- this is an extraordinary, haunting novel and Robinson, who also wrote Gilead, is a writer of exceptional ability and insight.

Books now read in ’07: 56
Title: Richard M. Nixon
Author: Elizabeth Drew
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 6-14
Pages: 219

Elizabeth Drew’s biography of our 37th President, Richard Nixon, is the finest example of the condensed biography I have yet to come across. In a word this new offering in Times Book’s American Presidents Series is superb.

It’s exceptionally well written. Drew seems to offer just the right amount of material on each of the subject areas in which she focuses – Nixon’s early life and Congressional career, his term as vice president, his foreign policy, his domestic policy and Watergate. No single area dominates and all come together to form a most pleasing and coherent whole.

Drew pulls no punches. In her introduction she asks, “How did such a peculiar man become president, and win reelection?” She finds Nixon unprepared for the presidency and writes, “ . . . the evidence is that by the time Nixon reached the White House, he had developed symptoms of paranoid personality. . . . Politics is normally riddled with grudges and jealousies and suspicion, but Nixon’s behavior went beyond the normal range.”

This no hatchet job. It is a balanced, yet brutally candid appraisal of Nixon and the damage his Administration wreaked on this nation, and its standing in the world. Among her conclusions:

“It has often been said that 'but for' Watergate, Nixon would have been a good, even great, president. Some argue that his achievements in domestic policy, or foreign policy, overshadow the unfortunate denouement of his presidency. Yet . . . there is no 'but for.' The events that caused Nixon’s downfall commenced as soon as he become president, and came from within his soul. The traits that led to it – the paranoia, the anger, the determination to wreak revenge, the view that the opposition should be destroyed, even the excessive drinking – cannot be excised from the Nixon presidency.”

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