Books!

Dec. 8th, 2014 05:05 pm
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
I have quite a few books I want to talk about!

Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield:
I first encountered Katherine Mansfield in grad school, when we read her long story "At the Bay" in a novella workshop I took. I was Mansfield's coolness, by her light touch, by the ease with which she shifted about among an array of perspectives, by the way she built a story out of tiny, ordinary moments somehow turned it into much more than the sum of its parts. Now that I've read more of her fiction, I can say that these qualities are shared by all of her best stories, and the ones that don't succeed are the ones where she loses her lightness or the effortless mobility of perspective. I found some of the stories in this collection to be quite flat, but those that are good are very very good. The best stories of all were the group about the Burrells, the family in "At the Bay."

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel:
What an uneven collection! There were a few standout stories that I loved (the title story, "The Heart Fails Without Warning," and "How Shall I Know You?"), but the rest were either underdeveloped or marred by pat endings. Reading this collection gives the impression that Mantel is much better at starting stories than at finishing--almost every piece here had a promising premise and atmospheric beginning, but most of them fizzled by the time they were over. Although I was sometimes frustrated by Mantel's prose in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in general I found it more interesting than the style in these stories.

The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt:
Wonderful! A beautiful tiny gem of a book. This book contains only three stories (longish stories, but still), yet it feels very rich and full. And pleasurable! I luxuriated in Byatt's descriptive writing. The characters all felt natural and believable, and though there was considerable thought put into themes and connections, it didn't impinge on the stories' need, first, and foremost, to be good stories. (Hilary Mantel could learn a thing or two.) As much as I admire Byatt as a novelist, I'm beginning to think I might like her even more as a short story writer.

Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet:
I've just started this after having it on my shelf for quite some time. I confess that I'm reading it now more out of sense of mingled curiosity and obligation (if one is going to claim to be knowledgeable about queer literature, one must read Genet!) than out of a deep desire. So far all I can say is that it's a strange book, with very flowery prose applied to base acts, and an unusual relationship between the narrator, the author, and the text.... I am fifty or sixty pages into the book, and still feel like I don't quite have a handle on it yet. We shall see.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel tells a long, many-threaded story: Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his re-marriage to Anne Boleyn, the beginnings of the English Reformation, the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the rise and rise and rise of Wolsey's servant Thomas Cromwell. All of these plots are important, but it is Cromwell who is at the center of the book--appropriate, perhaps, since it seems he was also at the center of virtually every political development and intrigue in England in the 1530s. Mantel follows Cromwell from his low beginnings--the book opens with a scene of fourteen-year-old Cromwell being beaten nearly to death by his brutal drunkard of a father--to the lofty heights of King Henry's council chamber, showing us every twist in his fortunes along the way.

About that opening scene: it's effective. It would take a cold-hearted reader not to feel sympathetic toward a main character when we first meet that character battered and bruised and struggling to crawl out of the way of his father's boot. It worked on me, anyway--I loved Mantel's version of Cromwell, I wanted to hang out with him, I rooted for him even when he was at his most manipulative and morally ambiguous. And why not? He is an amazing character: eminently capable, intelligent, ambitious as the day is long, full of contradictions, possessed of a fine sly sense of humor which spreads outward from him to fill the narrative. In Mantel's telling, it almost seems as though Cromwell amasses power simply by always being the most imperturbable person in the room. Yet there is something unknowable about him too, a mystery that shrouds his innermost thoughts and motivations. We get hints, but we can never be quite sure--it's always possible that each of his machinations is just part of larger machination happening on a level too deep for us to see...

This review got really long. )

I didn't want to give in to the hype surrounding Wolf Hall. But in the end I had to admit that it was great. I've was talking with a writer friend recently about the extent to which a writer's job is to give the reader pleasure, and Wolf Hall gave pleasure in abundance. I couldn't get enough of it. So much so that as soon as I finished it, I picked up the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. So far Bring Up the Bodies does not quite live up to Wolf Hall, but I have great hopes that it will improve.
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