’Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,' says Thomas More, 'and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating lark...more’Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,' says Thomas More, 'and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.'
Wolf Hall, the first entry in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, covers the years 1527-1535 (with an introductory chapter describing Cromwell’s childhood). Over that span, Cromwell rises from Cardinal Wolsey’s trusted servant to Henry VIII’s chief minister and one of the most powerful men in England.
Now, a 600 page book focused on 16th century statecraft isn’t usually what you’d think of as a “page-turner.” But, Wolf Hall kinda is. The early English Reformation was a pretty exciting time. Europe was in the middle of a religious revolution, with Martin Luther advocating change in Germany and “heretics” risking their lives to produce a vernacular Bible in England. Henry VIII caused an international scandal when he sought to dump Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Thomas More was burning people in the streets of London in support of an increasingly corrupt papacy*. And class distinctions, while still oppressive, were easing up just enough to allow the son of a blacksmith to reach unparalleled heights. Mantel does a great job of bringing this history to life in this book, making Wolf Hall a real joy to read.
For a series that has had serious critical success (Wolf Hall won the Booker and the NBCC Award for Fiction, and the sequel already took home a Booker of its own), Wolf Hall has had its detractors. Some readers have found Mantel’s writing style to be off-putting. Mantel has a weird way of always describing Cromwell as “he” which can cause confusion at times, particularly in dialogue (where it is not always clear who is speaking, at least at first glance). But overall I enjoyed the writing in Wolf Hall. Cromwell (at least Mantel’s version of Cromwell) makes for a fascinating main character, and I thought all of the other main players were well portrayed, although I’m not an expert on the early Tudor period. Many readers probably know what’s going to happen, at least with major characters like Henry, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, etc. But somehow Mantel is able to make a pretty familiar story feel fresh and vibrant. The backroom politics that take of much of Mantel’s time, and could make for dry reading in the hands of a less effective writer, were really engaging and reminded me quite a bit of George R.R. Martin’s work in his Game of Thrones series, which was partly inspired by the War of the Roses that brought the Tudors to power. The dragons in Wolf Hall are wooden, and the direwolves replaced by terriers, but Mantel’s Anne Boleyn could give Cersei Lannister a real run for her money in the monster-queen department.
If you have any interest in 16th century history, you’ll probably really enjoy Wolf Hall. The prose is not quite as tight as other Booker Award winners I have read (although I thought it was still very strong). But the characters are memorable, and the book is surprisingly funny and even moving at times. I was very impressed by this book overall and will be tackling the sequel in short order. 4.5 stars, highly recommended!
*One of the best things of this book, at least in my opinion, was its handling of Thomas More. I grew up Catholic (where More is considered a saint), but I’ve always thought the fawning portrayal of More in works like A Man for All Seasons were off the mark. More stuck to his spiritual convictions when others were only too happy to fold, and for that he should be commended. But the man was practically begging to be martyred. More importantly, during his chancellorship six “heretics” were killed in horrific fashion (burned at the stake) and More was thought to engage in torture during interrogations. I thought Wolf Hall did a good job of presenting a complete Thomas More – not demonizing him necessarily, but certainly not lionizing him either.(less)
This is a difficult book to review without getting spoiler-y, even though the big “reveal” isn’t much of a secret (as the book’s narrator might say, w...moreThis is a difficult book to review without getting spoiler-y, even though the big “reveal” isn’t much of a secret (as the book’s narrator might say, we are “told but not told” very early on). But I’m going to do my best to hide any key surprises behind the ‘spoiler’ tag. The book is told from the perspective of Kathy, a woman in her mid to late 20’s. Kathy grew up at a very special boarding school called Hailsham, and the first third of the book is dedicated to her childhood reminiscences. Early on, it is clear that something is very off about Hailsham, despite Kathy’s rosy memories of growing up there. Sure enough, we learn before this first third is up that Hailsham is (view spoiler)[a boarding school for human clones, bred to be used as organ donors until they are killed, or “complete.” (hide spoiler)]
The rest of the book deals with Kathy’s life post-Hailsham, along with her close friends Tommy and Ruth. I’m not going to go any deeper in the plot, as to do so would give away key elements, but suffice to say Kathy and her companions are forced to deal with (or not, as the case may be) the repercussions of the book’s “secret” and the true purpose of Hailsham. One nice feature of the book’s plot is that by taking the reader along Kathy’s journey from childhood through the present, it allows you to learn the truth along with the narrator, bit by bit. Even if the reader can see the writing on the wall from a pretty early stage, that only builds the sense of dread, and I thought the end result was pretty tragic.
From an early age, Kathy and the other Hailsham students are almost aggressively sheltered. This isolation, combined with a reluctance to look their future (and their role in the wider world) square in the face means that they learn the full story of what’s going on around them very slowly. These chilling glimpses of the truth, contrasted with the idyllic setting of Hailsham and Kathy’s simple narration, accumulate in the reader’s mind and let the horror grow, like Chinese water torture. This novel is advertised as ‘literary fiction’ with sci-fi elements, which is probably accurate, but Ishiguro proves to be a very accomplished horror writer too; at times, this book is downright disturbing (view spoiler)[for example, in a late look at what could really lie behind the veil of “completion” – a horrible, lingering death on life support as donors are ruthlessly harvested for all they have to offer (hide spoiler)].
I am a fan of Mr. Ishiguro’s work, and this is my second favorite of his books (behind the superb The Remains of the Day). I had some niggling problems with it – the book drags a bit at times in the first two sections, when the simple narration and lack of activity bog things down, and I didn’t completely buy that the sci-fi elements present here fit logically into the larger world (although if the book is allegorical on some level, which it probably is, that’s not really relevant). But it all pays off in the third section, which I thought was pretty brilliant. This is not a “feel-good” book in any sense of the phrase, but it will make you feel, and it might make you think. 4.5 stars, highly recommended. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The sad story of two black men in the pre-Civil Rights era South, one of whom is unjustly convicted of murder. Not To Kill a Mockingbird, but well wor...moreThe sad story of two black men in the pre-Civil Rights era South, one of whom is unjustly convicted of murder. Not To Kill a Mockingbird, but well worth reading. 3.5 stars, recommended.(less)
Beloved elicits a wide range of opinions. On one hand, the book was a winner or finalist for almost every literary award under the sun when it came ou...moreBeloved elicits a wide range of opinions. On one hand, the book was a winner or finalist for almost every literary award under the sun when it came out in 1987, and in 2006 the New York Times ranked it the #1 work of American fiction of the past 25 years. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who simply can’t stand this book. In between are a lot of people who like things about the book, but don’t think that it’s Morrison’s best work, let alone the best of its generation.
Beloved is set in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1873. The main character, Sethe, lives with her daughter in a house that’s haunted by some kind of spirit. Paul D., who was a slave on the same plantation as Sethe before the end of The Civil War, arrives and attempts to restore normalcy. However, the arrival of another houseguest (the enigmatic Beloved) threatens to turn the situation around and throw the house back into new levels of despair. While the setting is 1873, there are many flashbacks to Sethe’s slave days in the 1860s. Some of the book’s depictions of the horrors of slavery are very intense; Morrison has said that she wanted to display the ugliness of slavery without holding back and she does not pull any punches.
Reading through some of the more negative reviews, it seems that many people who really hate Beloved have a problem with this aspect of the book. Again, this book has some disturbing and graphic scenes relating to slavery, but attacking Morrison for writing about them seems like the ultimate case of shooting the messenger. The most famous act of violence in the book, (view spoiler)[when Sethe kills her daughter (hide spoiler)], is based on an actual incident. While some of the inhumanity on display in this book is hard to read about, I don’t think it’s gratuitous or hyperbolic given the subject Morrison chose to tackle. That said, potential readers should be aware Beloved contains some intense depictions of human suffering.
But if the above paragraph hasn’t turned you off, I would recommend this book. The writing is very good, the structure is effective, and Morrison creates some memorable characters. The most interesting aspect of the book for me was its use of magical realism. This book is not diving 100% into that genre, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or 2666, but it contains magical elements. I thought the use of those elements was a little inconsistent, but when they work they are striking and they help the book stand out.
I didn’t think this book was perfect, and it’s not my favorite book from the 1980s. However, I thought it was very good and would highly recommend it, with the caveat that readers should be ready for an unflinching and sometimes graphic look at the ugliness of slavery. 4 stars.
Winner: Pulitzer Prize (1988) Finalist: National Book Award (1987) Finalist: National Book Critics Circle Award (1987) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 1987["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I was born in 1983. Is A Visit from the Goon Squad the most critically acclaimed book to come out in my lifetime? The book won the Pulitzer and the Na...moreI was born in 1983. Is A Visit from the Goon Squad the most critically acclaimed book to come out in my lifetime? The book won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2010 and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. TIME immediately dubbed it “a new classic of American fiction,” at least according to the back of my copy of Goon Squad. Pretty much every publication under the sun listed it as one of the best books of the year.
Jennifer Egan’s trophy case (approximation)
I think Beloved (1987) and The Corrections (2001) are probably the only other books to generate that kind of critical consensus since ‘83. So you can say that this book had some hype. Overall I really enjoyed Goon Squad, although the book left me a bit cold and I didn’t experience that “eureka!” moment that so many have had.
The structure of the book is unusual, and not just because of the famous PowerPoint chapter. Goon Squad is in a sort of limbo between a novel and a collection of short stories (apparently Egan herself is somewhat unclear on how precisely to define it). Another reviewer compared the structure to The Hours and I think that’s a good example, although Goon Squad leans further in the direction of short stories than Cunningham’s book. While the chapters interconnect and characters cross over, the book is really a collection of short stories with a common theme (the passage of time).
The best part of the book, at least for me, was the prose. Egan isn’t setting off verbal fireworks like Cormac McCarthy or anything, but her writing is really impressive. It’s crisp, clean and razor sharp. Egan’s able to write from a number of different first person perspectives and creates a variety of unique voices. The best word I can use to describe the writing in Goon Squad is polished, and it was a pleasure to read.
As for the stories themselves, I enjoyed them all thoroughly without falling head over heels in love with any of them. Ultimately, I found myself more impressed with the book’s technical brilliance (the prose) than I was riveted by any of the individual stories or characters, which dampened my love for the book a bit. But, even though I didn’t find Goon Squad to be an instant classic, I was impressed by this book and would recommend it to others. 4 stars.
Winner: Pulitzer Prize (2011) Winner: National Book Critics Circle Award (2010) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 2010(less)