(By Susan Fraser King. Crown; 340 pp., $23.95.)
Lady Macbeth — is there any figure more in need of rescue from her characterization in a literary masterwork? Nobody looks to Shakespeare for historical accuracy, but the reputations of Macbeth and his wife may have been made indelible through larger-than-life (and sometimes supernatural) tragic turns told in world-class iambic pentameter.
King, a veteran historical romance writer, deserves considerable praise for following through on an admirable direction. She dials down the potential influence of two towers of successful storytelling, both of which would seem ready to whisper in her ear: Shakespeare’s play and the tested-and-honed conceits of genre romance. She avoids painting her historical research with a melodramatic brush. Whether describing Scottish castle life or the matters of property and legacy that make for betrayals and bloodshed, she shows a determination to educate readers gently but generously, and to maintain character integrity.
The approach is anything but undisciplined, and the results remain interesting despite the occasional stretch of cool dryness. The novel succeeds best as an alternative for those whose view of Scotland is shaded by heaving bosoms and the dashing exploits of plainly labeled alpha-males. The control of coloratura and pacing doesn’t let up, even as our heroine, Gruadh, is abducted or wedded against her will (both of which happen multiple times). This lady is headstrong yet self-conscious, so her character’s problems with damned spots and the like are but momentary — we get the picture that she’s not much different from anyone who had to survive among the royal intrigues of roughshod 11th-century Scots. We do have a fuller picture of the woman now. Rescue accomplished. —T.E. Lyons
The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus
(By Joshua Kendall. Putnam; 297 pp., $25.95.)
How many students, going through the motions of education, ever stop to ask themselves, “Just who was this Roget?” I, for one, at age16, thought the man’s name was Roger. Roger’s Thesaurus. (It was an old edition that our family had, and the T in the name was a bit worn away.)
Joshua Kendall, a journalist rather than a typical biographer, is here to tell us, in a mercifully short volume, exactly who Roget was: an obsessive-compulsive control freak — judgmental, humorless, paranoid, given to shyness and melancholia. Thank goodness for these character defects. Where in the world would we be without him and his systematic means of looking up synonyms and antonyms for every word in the English language?
Roget certainly earned his gloomy view of the world, beset as he was in his youth by almost all of his relatives going mad and/or dying and then, in his adulthood, failing miserably at several professions, not to mention in most attempts at intimacy. List-making became his means of solace. Roget’s compilation, begun in 1805, did not make its debut until 1852.
Chief among the pleasures of this book is the way it will send you to the Thesaurus just for kicks. It’s tremendous fun to read aloud. The online Thesaurus won’t do — it must be the bound volume, each entry surrounded as it is by related entries, all part of the overarching classification system of which many users remain unaware.
Persuasive as Kendall is about the nature of the compiler’s personality, it’s extremely hard not to conceive of Roget laughing madly at his own list of synonyms under the word “fool”: bullhead, dunderhead, addlehead, blockhead, dullhead, loggerhead, jolthead, cabbagehead, beetlehead, grosshead, muttonhead, noodlehead, numbskull, lamebrain, shallowbrain; halfwit, lackwit; dunderpate; lunkhead, etc., etc. —Mary Welp