Book review – Olive Kitteridge, and The Plot Against America

I actually read these two books before Treasure Island, the subject of my last post, but felt that I needed more time to write an appropriate review.  In summary, if I were to write a list of my favourite books of 2016 (read in 2016, not published), I would be sure to include both Olive Kitteridge and The Plot Against America.

Olive Kitteridge: a novel in short stories is a 2008 novel by American author Elizabeth Strout.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 and it’s not hard to see why, especially given other books awarded the prize, including A Visit from the Goon Squad, reviewed in an earlier post.  As it says on some versions of the cover, it’s a novel in short stories centred around the character of Olive Kitteridge.  The 14 stories are mainly based in the quiet, coastal town of Crosby, Maine, and feature Kitteridge, a seemingly bitter and terse retired teacher, to a greater or lesser extent.  At its simplest, as the events in the book unfold so does our understanding of Olive.

What makes the book so enjoyable and enduring in the mind is the fact that there is a strong duality at play: on one hand Olive (and the supporting cast of characters) is a simple individual, coping with life as best she can; on the other we see that the seemingly simple character of Olive is actually a complex human being.  Strout does a magnificent job at bringing Olive and the people of Crosby to life and giving meaning to the simplest things surrounding us.  I also found the book to be quite a page-turner despite its nature.  If it’s excitement and action that you’re after, this book won’t give you that.  But if you want to read a very well written book, with wonderfully drawn characters, and that makes you think about life beyond the book then Olive Kitteridge ticks all of those boxes.

Incidentally, HBO (who can seem to do no wrong in my eyes) produced an Olive Kitteridge mini-series in 2014.  I’ve just started watching it and hope that it lives up to the book or at least somewhere near.  Maybe I’ll write about it in a future blog on mini-series or box sets.

Philip Roth, like HBO, is also someone who can seem to do no wrong.  I’ve read The Human Stain and American Pastoral and enjoyed them thoroughly.  When you pick up a Philip Roth book you know that it’s time to get serious.  He writes with great depth and power, however, I’ve sometimes found him to be overly descriptive at the expense of the plot.  Roth achieves just the right balance in The Plot Against America (2004).

The book probably falls in the category of historical fiction but is one of those books that assumes an alternative history.  In this case, the alternative history is an America (and world) where Roosevelt didn’t win a third term as President and, as a result, the US doesn’t enter World War II.  Moreover, the person voted in, Charles Lindburgh (a real character and a famous aviator of the time), has warm relationships with the Nazi regime and is sympathetic to some of their views.

The book is written mainly from the perspective of a young Philip Roth, a member of a Jewish family residing in Newark, New Jersey.  Young Roth’s father is deeply suspicious of the Linburgh regime, which has captured the imagination of white, anglo-saxon America: a cult of personality.  The suspicion amounts to the fact that Lindbergh is pursuing anti-semitic policies dressed up as policies which are designed to unite the citizens and cultures within the US.  The way Roth (the author) balances the fear of anti-semitism with the promotion of benign assimilation policies is handled deftly, including through having pro- and anti-Lindbergh forces living under the same roof.

I found it hard to read the novel without thinking of the recent US election and the rhetoric and policies of Donald Trump; the outcome of the BREXIT vote in the UK; and even the McCarthy witch hunts of 1950s America.  There are certainly some parallels, not least in the use of certain tactics to marginalise minorities and protesters.  I think this brought the book even more to life for me.  At over 400 pages, the book isn’t a short read, but it’s a great read.  I’d even go as far as saying that it’s an important read and it brings to mind one of my favourite phrases, ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything’.

This is my last post of 2016.  I wish you all the best for your new year festivities and I hope you keep reading in 2017.

Nick