Archive for October 3rd, 2010

Debbie Macomber’s “Hannah’s List:” Contrived, Predictable, and Infuriating.

Debbie Macomber’s Hannah’s List (Mira, 2010) is a book that, unlike most of her other romances, is based on a plot contrivance that made my teeth grind. In Hannah’s List, Doctor Michael Everett receives one, final letter from his deceased wife on the first anniversary of her death from his brother-in-law. His wife Hannah, for reasons known only to herself, decided while she lay dying, she’d make up a list of people she wanted her husband to date — more than that, she wanted her husband Michael to pick one of these women to start a new family with.  She finishes her letter by saying that she feels terrible that she wasn’t able to give Michael any children during their twelve-year marriage, so she really hopes he’ll pick one of these gals soon and get on with the job. This letter was not played for laughs; instead, it’s played straight, and although Michael puts up some rather formulaic grumblings, he decides that he should do what his wife wants, and ends up meeting all three of the women.

The three women on Hannah’s little list are about as dissimilar as could possibly be.  First off, there’s Winter, who was Hannah’s second cousin. She’s a cook and caterer who runs her own little coffee shop, and she’s very good at what she does. She and Michael already know each other slightly, but there are no real sparks there and both know it — basically, she’s there to ease Michael back into dating and not feel as if it’s such a chore. Also, Winter has a boyfriend already, Pierre, a fellow cook who runs a restaurant, but they’re ever-so-conveniently “taking a break from each other” so Winter and Michael can have their little “meet-cute” before realizing she’s better off being Hannah’s second cousin than Michael’s new main squeeze.

Next, there’s Leanne, who is an oncology nurse. Hannah met Leanne while she lay dying in the bed, and liked Leanne because Leanne has a good sense of humor even when things are going to Hell in a handbasket around her due to the nature of her job (cancer equals dying people is the equation Ms. Macomber was going for). Michael likes Leanne when he meets her because they have their work in common — he’s a pediatrician, she’s an oncology nurse, and they can talk shop together. But because she’s coming off a painful divorce, and he’s still grieving (it’s been a year, which apparently Ms. Macomber thinks is “too long” for a grief cycle), they are unable to connect as anything more than good friends despite several dates. Which, once again, is just as well as the ex-husband comes back into the picture because Ms. Macomber must not have wanted to leave any dangling plotlines.

Finally, there’s Macy. She’s the youngest of the lot at just over thirty; she’s impetuous, scatterbrained, air-headed, wears silly outfits, paints her house in multiple colors, and has the requisite three cats that apparently any such person must have (all with unusual names). As for what she does for a living, it’s pretty much anything she can find — she’s an artist, she does radio voiceovers, she does some acting — she’s the comic relief of the book, such as it is, and it’s obvious from the start that Michael, who is in his late-thirties, is intended to pair off with her.

Listen. I have a real problem with the main idea of Hannah’s List because most dying women would never, ever do this — and not just because they’re worried about their own imminent death. The way Ms. Macomber writes it, Hannah is being unselfish by putting this list together, and indeed, unselfishness would probably be part of the equation if a real woman were ever to do something like this. However, what was infuriating about all of it is that Hannah’s darker motivations were never brought into play at all — Hannah was seen as a spiritual force for good, or in simpler terms, an angel. And thus we don’t see any of Hannah’s less admirable qualities even in retrospect except for the nature of this letter.  The fact that Ms. Macomber does not discuss the other reasons why a woman might write this letter makes me extremely troubled.

First off, writing a letter as Hannah did in this book, then giving it to her brother to give to Michael, her husband, as he grieved the one-year anniversary of her death, is an extremely manipulative act. First, from pages 24-5:

The greatest of (my) regrets is my inability to have children. This is harder for me than even the discovery that my cancer is terminal. I so badly wanted your baby, Michael. A child for my sake, yes, but yours, too. You should be a father. You will be a wonderful father. Oh, Michael, I so wanted a child.

And as if this wasn’t enough, on page 29 Hannah says:

I’ve given you three names, Michael. Each is someone I know and trust. Any of them would make you a good wife and companion; with any one you could have the children you were meant to father.

I’ll be watching and waiting from heaven’s gate, looking down at you. Choose well.

Then she has the nerve to sign it, “Your loving wife, Hannah.”

I don’t even know where to start to say how wrong I believe all of this is. It’s incredibly manipulative; it plays on this poor man’s grief and pain and rage that his wife is dead, and says, more or less, “If you love me, you will remarry and have children by one of these three women I’ve picked out for you. And if you don’t meet these women and pick one of them, you don’t love me anymore.  Then I’ll look down from Heaven and be bitterly disappointed. Nyah. So there.”

Ms. Macomber, in her preface to Hannah’s List, says that one of her readers gave her the idea for this — that apparently something like this has actually happened. And after that, she said (paraphrasing) that the idea for Hannah’s List just popped into her head.

May I be the first to say that I wish this idea hadn’t occurred to her? Or that perhaps if she had explored the darker aspects of what Hannah did here, rather than making Hannah into this saintly presence that Michael should be glad to have had in his life for twelve years, this would’ve been a better book?  Because without question, Hannah’s final action shows her to be far, far less than saintly, perhaps even Machiavellian, yet this is never, ever thought of — no, Hannah is a veritable saint, Michael is an idiot who must be led by the hand through what’s left of his grief cycle or he’ll never father children, and because of Hannah’s “brave and selfless” act, Michael will be all right because he’ll have married the ditzy Macy and the children will start popping out all over the place in due course.

What a disappointment!

Mind you, the rest of Debbie Macomber’s career shows that while contemporary American romance does have a formula, it usually can be gotten ’round using humor and a keen knowledge of what makes people tick — that is what Debbie Macomber’s name on a romance has come to mean.  But all of this was wholly absent in Hannah’s List except for some moralizing about how important communication is to a marriage, which seems mighty hypocritical considering Hannah’s final action.

I have read just about everything Debbie Macomber has ever put out. Her “Heart of Texas” series is outstanding. Her “Midnight Sons” series is good. Her “Cedar Cove” series, the first four in particular, are interesting and well thought out. And her best books are probably those she’s written about Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, three rather scatterbrained angels — one of those books is called Angels Everywhere and I highly recommend it as a good, honest, heartwarming read.

But this book — Hannah’s List – I cannot recommend.  It made me incredibly angry because it is not honest at its heart.  And due to its emotional dishonesty, the rest of the book boils down to a bunch of plot contrivances: for example, I knew from the beginning Michael would end up with Macy, but that Macy would “inexplicably” run off two chapters from the end for no good reason except that the plot demanded it, just so they could have a typical “fall into his arms” ending where the reader is supposed to bask in the warm glow of yet another book successfully completed.

I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. And I’m very unhappy that I read this book.

My advice, if you like Debbie Macomber, is to skip this book and read anything else by her — I don’t care what it is, it has to be better than this.

Reviewed by Barb

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Michael Schaffer’s “One Nation Under Dog:” Satire with Bite.

Michael Schaffer’s One Nation Under Dog (Holt, 2009) is a satirical book that is sure to please dog lovers and people who enjoy absurdity of all sorts. Schaffer’s subtitle – America’s Love Affair with our Dogs — pretty much gives away that this book is a gentle send-up of the extremes pet-lovers often go to in order to give their pets the best of everything. Schaffer’s vision is that of a rueful pet owner who knows he’s been suckered, but can’t stop the madness.   There’s just enough in Schaffer that responds to all the consumerism, that makes him want to give  his dog Murphy the best things in life, and this is why he can be moved by the various PR firms selling this or that dog-accessory to keep buying things Murphy neither needs nor wants even though he knows better.

Now, with a title like One Nation Under Dog, you probably already realize that Schaffer’s point is obvious — dogs really don’t need to have expensive designer outfits (though there’s a dog fashion show every year in New York that attracts many people interested in buying whatever the hot new “look” may be), they don’t need to have the most expensive hot, new toy, and they really don’t need to have the newest, best-designed food, either — all of that is for us, the pet owners, not for the dogs themselves.

Schaffer’s argument is that we, as a society, seem to have adopted our pets more as our children — the term “fur-baby” has been in use for at least fifteen years (along with the similar “fur-kin”), and perhaps the reason for this is because people are having fewer human children. Schaffer mostly talks about pet ownership from the affluent American “middle class on up” perspective, which is why there are chapters about pet hotels, the aforementioned pet designer clothing industry, pet toiletries (some of which are incredibly expensive), the race for the most difficult and challenging pet toy (to keep active pets amused and exercised during the day when they’re forced to be inside waiting for their owners to show up), etc. And he gently mocks much of the contemporary “pet movement” in America today while admitting he’s no better than anyone else as his pet, Murphy, takes anti-depressants, turns up his nose at the various high-end foods Schaffer checked out (preferring homier fare, I guess), and goes to the vet probably more often than Murphy really needs in order to reassure Schaffer and his wife that they truly are doing everything they can to give Murphy the best-possible quality of life.

The way Schaffer structured his book with anecdotes about his pet, Murphy, between visits to the local pet hotel (don’t call ‘em “kennels” any more, folks, not unless you want a thrashing from the PC-police), the visits to PetSmart and PetCo and other pet stores, talking about the horror that is the “puppy mill” industry and of course the ridiculousness that is the dog fashionista movement, helped to humanize Schaffer’s book and reflect better the American experience with pet ownership and its uneasy alliance with American consumerism.

I enjoyed this book; it’s funny, it’s skillful, and it made me think about many of my previously-unchallenged assumptions about dog ownership. I think if you enjoy pets, or at least appreciates a writer who pokes fun at American consumerism, you will also appreciate this book.

Reviewed by Barb

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Alison Weir’s historical “Queen Isabella” is Engrossing, Honest.

Alison Weir’s Queen Isabella (Ballantine Books, 2007) is an engrossing work of history that reads like a novel. This is to its credit, as many readers never really knew anything about Queen Isabella of England (1292-1358) except for some rather outdated legends. Isabella was originally from France, and had been sent to England to cement the peace when she was only twelve years old; over time, she became a wife and queen in more than name only, and if her husband, Edward II, had only been a better king and husband, none of the slanderous words which came down through history about her would’ve been written.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Queen Isabella was known for her wisdom and was called a “peacemaker” in her time for her intelligence, strength of vision, and because she was able to mitigate the worst of the damage caused by her husband, Edward II. Edward, you see, was either homosexual or possibly bisexual, and he had male favorite after male favorite, which caused great problems in England due to favoritism and worse. Yet Isabella was far too canny, even in her youth (remember, she went there when she was only twelve), to show how upsetting this was — we only know she was upset because of the correspondence between Isabella and her father, Philip IV of France — and she went out of her way to be kind to Edward’s favorites while moderating the worst of Edward’s favoritism toward them. Because of the morality of the day, women in general — even queens — were viewed as lesser people, weaker due to being born female, and Isabella had to work within this framework in order to get anything done. It is to her credit that England was stable and prosperous during much of this time despite some of Edward’s ill-conceived notions.

Over time, though, Isabella grew increasingly frustrated. After her father’s death, Edward often withheld the money and provisions Isabella needed in order to live because he was weak and easily led by his male “favorites,” who, to a man, seemed extremely jealous of Isabella. And even those who weren’t “favorites” could cause trouble for Isabella merely for political gain, which seems to have been why the Despenser family was so vindictive and cruel toward Isabella.

It was because of this reason, the narrowing-out of her life, that Isabella fled to France with her son (and Edward’s heir), Edward, to the court of her brother Charles IV, who’d succeeded their father Philip. Charles IV was horrified at how Isabella had been treated, and backed her at least as far as helping her maintain the lifestyle expected of a queen in exile. But it was obvious to all that Edward II was a failed king, someone who did not deserve to rule; something had to be done.

And it wasn’t just the nobility that were frustrated over Edward II’s lack of kingship.  The people in England were very upset at excessive taxation, not to mention the obvious favoritism shown to the entire Despenser family regarding taxation and everything else. Many of the nobles were outraged because of the excesses of the Despensers, several of whom were known to be ruthless and cold. Yet Edward couldn’t rein them in; he didn’t even seem to believe it was a problem, which showed he was completely out of touch with his own people — and showed his lack  of kingship in full measure.

This is why Isabella, in 1325, was in France gathering support to overthrow her husband in favor of her son, while her husband was powerless to stop her and for the most part didn’t seem to even realize what she was doing. It took her over a year of planning, but she eventually returned to England and made Edward abdicate.

At this point, you might be wondering, “OK, Barb, where is the scandal here? There’s been incompetent rulers before, even homosexual ones who granted his favorites excessive liberties. Where’s the story?”

Well, Isabella, for all her good qualities — and it appears she had many — was a woman like any other, and she was now in her thirties. She was one of the most beautiful, sought-after women of her day, and yet her husband was not attracted to her (or possibly any other woman); she was ripe for a love affair, and unfortunately, one found her. I say “unfortunately” because the man she ended up having the affair with was Roger Mortimer, who was a good man to have around if you needed to go fight a war, but someone who was as disastrous in his own way to Isabella’s well-being as her husband Edward had been.

The epithets thrown at Isabella long after she went to dust — the “she-wolf of France,” “Isabella the Mad,” or “one of the most beautiful, and depraved, women of her time” — are shown by Ms. Weir to be inaccurate. It is clear from reading this book that Isabella was a very good queen and ruler; her only crime, if there was one, was that she fell in love with the wrong man at the wrong time — it’s possible that had Mortimer never laid eyes on Isabella in 1325 (and into 1326) that history would’ve been written differently.

The truth of the matter was, Isabella herself was a good ruler, and was apparently hampered by the two men who were supposed to love her — her husband, Edward II, and Roger Mortimer, the man she had an adulterous affair with because of what seems to be helpless physical passion from this far remove. We in the modern, Western world know that a woman who is not well-matched to her husband, especially physically, is likely to have an affair, and that does not make her a bad woman — or a bad queen in this case — but in that day and age, Edward III was able only to keep the worst of it from his mother’s shoulders, and Mortimer, of course, was doomed.

The end of Isabella’s life was quiet; she was respected by her son, the King, and by other rulers of the day for her quick mind and her excellent grasp of what we’d now call realpolitik. She did her best to make peace with her inner demons — having that affair was probably as big of a shock to her as it was to anyone else — and died quietly, in her favorite castle, with her favorite possessions willed to others (something highly unusual in that time, as women usually were not allowed to exert their will and testament after death — but no one was going to stop Isabella).

Queen Isabella is fast-paced, like a novel, and reads easily and well.   This is an unflinching look at history, and it is both engrossing and honest — Ms. Weir did a superlative job here in bringing the large cast of characters to life and shining a spotlight onto a long-dimmed area of English history.

I leave you with only two sentences: read this book! You’ll be glad you did.

Reviewed by Barb

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