Wolf Hall is the tale of Thomas Cromwell, a self-educated commoner who rose to become Henry VIII's chief advisor. The first of 3 volumes, this book co...moreWolf Hall is the tale of Thomas Cromwell, a self-educated commoner who rose to become Henry VIII's chief advisor. The first of 3 volumes, this book covers Cromwell's rise to power, Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn and the execution of Thomas More. Mantel's portrait of Cromwell is mostly sympathetic and admiring, and represents something of a literary reassessment. In A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell was portrayed as Henry's cynical henchman while More was the martyr to religious tolerance. Here More comes off as a bully and a fanatic, while it is Cromwell who understands the coming social changes and is able to adapt to and influence them. (Although it will be interesting to see how Mantel's portrayal plays out in the final book, given Cromwell's ultimate fate.)
Mantel is a talented writer, and the book displays many of her protagonist's qualities: intelligence, charm, wit, but also caution and emotional reserve. The writing is smart and restrained as well, but full of tiny gems of sentences and a dry sense of humor. This is an exciting and fascinating book about a pivotal moment in English history, and should be quite enjoyable for anyone who likes historical fiction.(less)
George Saunders has been buzzed about so much recently that it probably seems a little bandwagony to give this short story collection five stars. But...moreGeorge Saunders has been buzzed about so much recently that it probably seems a little bandwagony to give this short story collection five stars. But too bad. I am not remotely qualified to place the author here or there in the pantheon of Greatest Living Writers or what have you, but neither am I going to do a damn thing to discourage that sort of irresponsible hyperbole. Tenth of December is fantastic and you should read it!
The obvious fellow-travelers are Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, so if you like either of them you'll probably dig this too. In concept many of these stories shouldn't "work." They're gimmicky. Too schematic, too cutting. More than once I was reminded of the Coen Bros at their most misanthropic. And yet he manages to draw out -- in me at least -- this profound emotional response. I wondered when the last time it was that a book made me feel something quite so strongly. Have all previous books been medicated or wrapped in gauze? (OK, now I remember when: reading "The Third and Final Continent," the final story from Interpreter of Maladies.)
And the emotional response is not always a positive one. Most of these stories are pretty dark. There are several portraits of poverty and family dysfunction that make you hold your breath for pages. After a few of these I felt an urge to give my sleeping family members a kiss and count my blessings. He leads with humor and then sticks in the knife... but then he dresses the wounds at the same time. That despite the cruel satire he inflicts on his characters, there is also a deep identification with their struggles. As if he is actually laughing at himself, at some blunder, or misunderstanding, or foolishness he himself committed years before. Misanthropic and at the same time, sentimental, if that makes any sense.
The longest and best story here is "The Semplica Girl Diaries" which is a standard tale of class anxiety made volatile by the slowly revealed, and utterly bizarre, science fiction conceit lurking in the background. In contrast "Escape from Spiderhead" is exactly the sort of schematic sci-fi story that should feel tired and reductive, except that it packs a surprising wallop at the end. The final, title track of the collection inverts his usual pattern of light-then-dark and arrives at a moment of emotional catharsis that sums up the entire collection.(less)
Not really a fan, although Blake Butler's sustained experimental style is certainly admirable on a technical level. The central problem here is a lack...moreNot really a fan, although Blake Butler's sustained experimental style is certainly admirable on a technical level. The central problem here is a lack of contrast. Many of the individual passages here are interesting, even moving, and you could see them being powerfully deployed as elements inside of a better novel. But in the context of There Is No Year, the experimentation is literally all there is. There are no characters and only a whisper of a plot. In fact there's barely even reference to recognizable themes or aspects of the world. (Something something illness, mumble mumble suburbia.)
The worst is that Butler doesn't even remain loyal to his imagery. As we go from sentence to sentence, he jumps from experimental conceit to experimental conceit, without pausing to develop any of them. One sentence will have some bizarre/gross imagery, the next will have conspicuously awkward phrasing, the next will use a different font. And so on and so forth. There's no time to reflect on why people are covered with mold or what the black boxes symbolize, when immediately you're trying to figure out what the buzzing electrical sound is supposed to refer to and why he's formatted the text like that. After a certain point you realize: none of it really means anything at all. He's not deploying symbols as we usually understand them, but rather using imagery as a kind of wallpaper or muzak or found-art collage. It's for creating an ambient mood, not for advancing ideas. It's a 400 page trough of word salad. Yum.
So yeah: it's experimentaler-than-thou. Which is fine. He's definitely traveled a few steps further down the road paved by William S. Burroughs and friends. I'm generally on board with this sort of thing. I like dark, challenging fiction. If I had to pick one major influence on this book I would point to the films of David Lynch, and I am a big David Lynch fan. So why don't I find this very compelling? Again, it's the lack of contrast. Lynch's films are powerful because they embed moments of dark chaos within a superstructure of bright, shining Americana. I'm not sure I would want to watch Twin Peaks with no Dale Cooper. And this book is the equivalent of an entire TV show built out of the Red Room/Black Lodge scenes. In the end the author doesn't give much of a reason to care about this for more than a few minutes after closing the book.(less)
You might worry that a book of unpublished story by a late, well-beloved author would be nothing more than a quick vault-clearing cash-in. (Insert Tup...moreYou might worry that a book of unpublished story by a late, well-beloved author would be nothing more than a quick vault-clearing cash-in. (Insert Tupac joke here.) But never fear, Look at the Birdie is no collection of juvenalia or sketchy first drafts; these are actual stories. The collection as a whole doesn't rise to the level of Vonnegut's classic works, and its easy to see guess why they were unpublished. In too many of the stories, the central irony or surprise is just a little too obvious, too underdeveloped. Ah, you say, I see where this is going. Is that all you've got?
But even the worst of the lot -- like the clumsy anti-Communist parable "Petrified Ants" -- is never boring. And there are a handful of gems, including "Fubar" (charming), "Ed Luby's Key Club" (a Coen Bros movie waiting to happen) and "Hello, Red" (where Vonnegut pulls a nifty head fake on the reader).(less)
Did not like. This book is basically Oh the Places You'll Go minus the brevity, the charm and the rhyming couplets.
The whisper of a story found here...moreDid not like. This book is basically Oh the Places You'll Go minus the brevity, the charm and the rhyming couplets.
The whisper of a story found here actually has some promise. The author pulls together some graceful moments and the central idea (spoiler alert: you should follow your dreams!) is plenty good enough to build a book around. When the author confines himself to characterization and description, it's not a bad read.
But as the book goes on, those moments are buried under an avalanche of clumsy, didactic, self-help nonsense. Even worse, this self-help schema is oddly shoehorned into A Complicated Mythology centered around alchemy and stealing bits from various world religions and traditions. To top it off, the last half of the book is basically various characters blathering back and forth in a way that manages to be pompous and cryptic all at the same time.
Finally on page 145 the personified voice of the desert has had enough, crying out "I don't understand what you're talking about." Amen to that, personified voice of the desert! Amen to that.
The main problem here is that the vague philosophizing has completely swallowed and digested the actual story. A lighter touch would make it a much more effective book. A paragraph here, a paragraph there, perhaps a longer section at a dramatic moment. As it is, every page is like a jackhammer driving home the idea of finding your Personal Legend. Enough already. Show me, don't tell me. And the ending is fairly dumb; I really wasn't sure why I was supposed to be inspired by that part at all.
In the interest of finding something nice about the book, I will say that I appreciate the spirit of the endeavor. Serious Important Literature is so often bogged down in miserabilism and drama-mongering that it misses a good portion of the human experience. How many big name award-winning authors can you envision writing about living a happy, good life full of enthusiasm and emotional resiliency. Paulo Coelho hasn't figured out how to write compelling stories about that side of life either, but at least he's trying.(less)
True History of the Kelly Gang is a fictional narrative of the life of Ned Kelly, supposedly written down by the outlaw himself in parcels found after...moreTrue History of the Kelly Gang is a fictional narrative of the life of Ned Kelly, supposedly written down by the outlaw himself in parcels found after his capture and execution. The subtext is the oppression of the Irish immigrants in Australia by British authorities who saw them as criminals. I was unfamiliar with the story of Ned Kelly, but in Australia he is regarded by many as a national hero, a Robin Hood figure who rebelled against injustice.
Peter Carey's style manages a tricky balancing act, giving Ned Kelly a voice that seems to be at once authentic Australian slang at the same time sophisticated and poetic, as befits an award-winning author. Apparently, Carey's writing style is based in part on some of Kelly's own writings. Often it's pretty funny, thanks to the character of the young Ned, a quick-witted smart-aleck with very little respect for authority figures. There is also the amusing use of euphemisms for the constant cursing. B-----Y this and effing that and adjectival the-other-thing. (I actually never did figure out what B-----Y was supposed to refer to.)
In a weird way, the story reminded me most powerfully of Malcolm X's condemnation of "a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight." From the start, Kelly highlights the police harassment and injustices visited on his family. The plot revolves around how the Irish were considered guilty until proven innocent and the way a criminal past inevitably drove many into a life of crime by cutting off the possibility of an honest living. Ned himself starts out with the settler's dream of land and opportunity, although his character is also hot-headed and infused with an occasionally self-destructive conception of honor.
The course of events drive Ned deeper and deeper into conflict with the police, until finally, late in the book, he has a breakthrough and creates what you might call a unified theory of the political economy of rebellion. It's a moving moment when he connects his personal troubles with the systemic oppression and devises a strategy for mobilizing the people to his side. Carey connects this breakthrough to Kelly's casting off the baggage of the long history of Irish rebellion (represented here by the Molly Maguires) and creating something authentically Australian.
All told, an exciting and entertaining story, with a surreal (yet 100% true) ending. Call it 4.5 stars.(less)
Philip Pullman's re-imagining of the Gospels is an intriguing idea badly hamstrung by a disastrous stylistic choice.
In Pullman's retelling, Jesus Chri...morePhilip Pullman's re-imagining of the Gospels is an intriguing idea badly hamstrung by a disastrous stylistic choice.
In Pullman's retelling, Jesus Christ was born as twin boys, Jesus and Christ, and the familiar Gospel stories are retold as an interaction between the two men. Pullman is drawing (at least) two separate distinctions here. His "Jesus" is bearer of the traditionally "human" elements of Jesus Christ -- he is a carpenter, a preacher of the coming Kingdom of God, a lover of justice, a companion of the down-trodden, scornful of power and the powerful. Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan and Pullman hardly changes a word. Ironically, this human Jesus is almost too perfect, too divine.
In contrast, "Christ" is the bearer of the "divine" or "supernatural" elements of the stories. Christ is the one who is transfigured and, (view spoiler)[after his brother is crucified, it is Christ who reappears--resurrected--to his brother's followers (hide spoiler)]. In keeping with the dualism, the divine Christ is all too human: flawed, ambitious, willing to compromise and rationalize his decisions.
Christ is also the one who tempts Jesus in the desert with the promise of power, in particular with a vision of an institutional church who will carry his word into the world and do good works. Christ makes himself the un-official historian and scribe for his brother, writing down and occasionally "improving" the traditional Gospel stories. This is Pullman's second distinction, contrasting Jesus with the organized religion that followed him.
I'm not entirely sure that it makes sense to embody this second distinction by an internal division within the figure of Jesus Christ himself. Perhaps a better contrast would be with Peter, Paul and the early church fathers? But of course, criticism of the institutional church (the Magisterium) is what animated Pullman's fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy and here provides Pullman with his most passionate moments, for better and for worse.
Unfortunately, Pullman decided to write the book in the terse style of the original Gospels and the entire middle section is a forced march through the most famous passages of the Bible with Pullman changing parts of the stories or offering commentary. This decision reduces his interesting ideas to a kind of trite one-up-manship. When Christ tempts Jesus in the desert with the vision of churchly power, it's a clever moment and a clever twist on the story, but it also comes off as shallow and juvenile. (You know who the *real* devil is, man?)
When Pullman steps away from this stylistic choice the book shows real passion and promise, most especially in two paired monologues given by Jesus and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Those chapters point to the book I wish Pullman had written, a longer, more literary work where the ideas arise out of the characters and the plot, rather than vice versa.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
1Q84 is a long, intricately-plotted novel set in a slightly-altered reality. This is the first Haruki Murakami I've read, although I've long figured t...more1Q84 is a long, intricately-plotted novel set in a slightly-altered reality. This is the first Haruki Murakami I've read, although I've long figured that he writes the sort of cool slipstreamy fiction that I usually like. And I did like this and enjoyed the process of reading it. But I don't think I loved it. By the end I was left wondering what it really added up to, apart from an impressive stylistic workout.
There are two main flaws. First, the central love affair between Aomame and Tengo is more an outline for a romance than an actual one. (view spoiler)[We're constantly being told how deep and pure their love for one another is, but since they spend basically the entire book separated from each other, we really have to take the author's word for it. I guess your reaction will depend on how romantic you find the idea of "destiny" and (moon-crossed?) lovers separated for decades. To be fair the eventual reunion (when it finally happens) does make up for it somewhat. (hide spoiler)]
Second, the central mystery of the Little People and the air chrysalis is really too obscure and sketchily drawn to inspire much of a reaction. (view spoiler)[It's really not entirely clear what Murakami's elaborate mythology is trying to say other than advancing the plot forward. He's clearly referencing Orwell's Big Brother, but to what end? If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that the sarin gas attacks carried out in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo cult left a big impression on Murakami. His non-fiction book, Underground, deals with the aftermath of the attacks, and the group clearly serves as a model for the Akebono and Sakigake cults found in 1Q84. In this reading, the Little People are a kind of an ancient, anarchic, destructive force that is periodically loosed in the world, but you don't really get that sense from actually reading the book. Their actions and motives and consequences are not really made clear in the course of the plot. (hide spoiler)]
Some reviewers have complained that the book is slow and repetitive, but I didn't find that to be such a problem. In certain passages Murakami achieves a kind of perfectly hypnotic and transparent clarity that the book almost seems to read itself. The ascetic personalities of Tengo and Aomame are well-adapted to this voice, but his writing style is so pervasive that it even sometimes spills over into the voices of minor characters like Ayumi, which can lead to some jarring moments. Still, a decent effort, and I do feel intrigued enough to check out some more Murakami in the future.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A hugely entertaining and engaging novel from Ann Patchett. Similar to her Bel Canto, the book's heart is found in the collision of personalities plac...moreA hugely entertaining and engaging novel from Ann Patchett. Similar to her Bel Canto, the book's heart is found in the collision of personalities placed in stressful, unusual and highly constrained environments. In Bel Canto the pressure was supplied by a hostage situation, here it is the difficulties faced by scientists living at a research station deep in the Amazon.
It may in fact be physically impossible for northerners to write about the jungle without drawing upon Heart of Darkness, and true to form State of Wonder shares a lot of that book's virtues and faults ...along with a good chunk of its plot. The story concerns Marina Singh, a pharmacologist working for a giant drug corp, who is sent to Brazil to investigate the death of her colleague. He had died while attempting to review the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson in developing a top-secret, blockbuster fertility drug at her research station in the rain forest. Dr. Swenson is, of course, the Mr. Kurtz character, a terrifyingly brilliant scientist of fearsome reputation who peels back the hidden assumptions of Western Culture one hilariously caustic declamation at a time.
Patchett's interrogation of western culture ends up in a gentler place than Conrad's imperialist horror story. Like Marlow, Marina enters the jungle with a certain darkness (or, let's say, heavy emotional baggage) already living within her that is laid bare by the events of the book. The voyage into an alien world is again here an opportunity to reflect back on the home culture. Of central importance is how two very different cultures can and should interact with each other and what sort of "interference" is acceptable. Less positively, as with Conrad's book, the indigenous characters remain ciphers who are seen and interpreted only through the eyes of the scientists. They are object rather than subject, much less author of their own story. The only real indigenous character is a hearing-impaired child, who serves (basically) as a plot device and stand-in for our protagonists' ethical debates.
Floating on top of all this is a genuinely exciting adventure tale replete with deadly snakes and hallucinogenic mushrooms, poison arrows and scientific breakthroughs. To top it all off, the character of Dr. Swenson is a hoot, and Marina -- quiet, stubborn, self-doubting, brave, idealistic -- makes for a low key but effective protagonist. Patchett writes lovely, decent, human characters and I finished the book wishing I could spend more time with them.(less)
Never Let Me Go is a beautiful, emotionally-rich and disturbing read. The author has charted the twists of the story down to the last word, but has re...moreNever Let Me Go is a beautiful, emotionally-rich and disturbing read. The author has charted the twists of the story down to the last word, but has retained the smooth flow of the narrative. An effect much like holding in your hand an expertly-finished piece of woodwork, where you can see the joints and seams but you can't feel them and they don't detract from the appreciation of the craft. If you haven't read it yet but plan to, you should try to avoid the spoilers (below) since much of the fun is watching Ishiguro's puzzle unfold.
(view spoiler)[Since the main characters are humans who have been cloned and raised for the purpose of harvesting their organs, the book eventually comes around to the relationship between creator and creation, to the underlying ethical, moral and existential dilemma. But it does so only reluctantly and selectively, choosing to linger instead on the shifting and minutely-observed relationships between the three main characters: Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. (Although the theme is similar, the focus on characters rather than adventure-spectacle is the exact opposite of Ridley Scott's incoherent Prometheus, which I had just watched prior to reading this.)
Which is to say that the science-fictional premise is buried deep, and while it drives the story forward, it is almost of secondary importance to the emotional life of the characters. This framing delivers a deep sense of mystery and building tension, and drives us to identify strongly with the clones and to see the surrounding society as inhuman/e. This structure pays off spectacularly in the book's closing scenes, where the author makes you feel the full weight of tragedy while leaving enough open questions to keep you mulling it for days. It's an impressive feat.
One open question is how the narrowness of the world is maintained. At Hailsham, the boarding school, the clones were kept in a controlled environment and were heavily socialized to accept their place in the world. But beyond Hailsham, there is no mention of coercion or even the possibility of resistance. That seems to suggest the possibility that the clones are kept passive by more than just a lack of information (genetics? drugs?). Although the possibility is never really raised in the narrative, there is something just the tiniest bit otherworldly about Ishiguro's characters--their deliberateness and odd obsessions--that seems to hint in that direction.
Instead Ishiguro implies that social pressure and exclusion is sufficient to enforce passivity among the clones. Naturally this raises questions about our own social order and our own passivity to injustice (both to ourselves and to others). The moral questions raised are ostensibly about futuristic advances in biotechnology and our ongoing debate about bioethics. But unfortunately, we don't need to look to the future to find examples where one class of humans is despised, excluded and exploited for the benefit of another. We already have shameful experience with that. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)