First off: is it just me, or is “Bring Up the Bodies” one of the best book titles in recent memory? The phrase comes from the court order summoning An...moreFirst off: is it just me, or is “Bring Up the Bodies” one of the best book titles in recent memory? The phrase comes from the court order summoning Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers to trial. Mantel has gone 2-for-2 with the prestigious Booker Award so far, taking home top honors for each of the first two entries in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. And as good as Wolf Hall was, the sequel may be even better.
Heads. Will. Roll.
Bring Up the Bodies has a much tighter focus than its predecessor. Where Wolf Hall stretches out over 35 years, Bodies covers less than one, from September 1535 to the summer of 1536. This narrower view gives the book a more focused feel than Wolf Hall: from start to finish, this is the story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall. The plot still tends to meander from time to time (particularly in the first half), as Mantel revels in exploring the nooks and crannies of Cromwell’s world, but it’s a more linear story than the first novel. At 432 pages, it’s only about 70% of the length of Wolf Hall, which also contributes to the feeling that Bodies is a leaner, tighter, more focused book.
The story itself is well known and requires no summarizing from me. The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn has been a favorite of storytellers for years, and is plenty compelling stuff for a historical novel. As in Wolf Hall, telling this well known story through Cromwell’s eyes makes it feel fresh, and Mantel’s research seems more than up to snuff (although I’m not an expert on the period). There are plenty of little historical details that pull the reader into the story, and the prose is very strong. Mantel had a weird habit of creating confusing dialogue mazes in the first book, because she only refers to Cromwell as “he” (so if he is speaking to another “he,” it quickly becomes very difficult to know who is saying what), but that has been corrected in Bodies.
The book does a nice job of foreshadowing the third and final entry in the series, in which Cromwell will face the same fate as his predecessors (Thomas More and Boleyn). The description of More's fall in Wolf Hall, particularly his final scene in court, was inspired, and if Anne’s last days didn’t quite reach that level, they’re awfully close. Mantel stumbled onto something special with this series, and if she can stick the landing with the finale, she could have an all-timer on her hands. 4.5 stars, highly 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)
If you like medieval literature, this is pretty much a must-read. The classic epic poem is the oldest work of English literature that's actually read...moreIf you like medieval literature, this is pretty much a must-read. The classic epic poem is the oldest work of English literature that's actually read today, and still holds up as an exciting tale of man vs. the monster lurking in the shadows. The Seamus Heaney translation (which was selected as one of the 10 best books of the year by the NYT despite the fact that the poem is over 1,000 year old) deserves the hype. 4 stars, recommended.(less)
Wow. I stumbled upon this book almost by accident, having heard good things about Ishiguro but coming in unfamiliar with his work. Now I’m going to ha...moreWow. I stumbled upon this book almost by accident, having heard good things about Ishiguro but coming in unfamiliar with his work. Now I’m going to have to go and read through his back catalog. This was an extraordinary book. The story is told from the perspective of Stevens, a butler in an English manor. Most of the book takes place in the years before World War II, and both the butler profession & the rigid class system that supports it are on the decline.
Another reviewer (Siria) noted how extraordinary the first person narration is in this book, and I completely agree. It’s not just that the author creates a unique & authentic voice for the main character (which he does); Ishiguro takes full advantage of the first person format in other ways. Stevens is an unreliable narrator, and much of the book’s power comes from what remains unsaid. It’s a very subtle story, devastatingly so at times. This really is as good as first person narration gets.
I could sit here and gush about this book for hours. The characters are well drawn and true to life. The story’s structure is well conceived and works brilliantly in my opinion. The writing is top-notch. 6 stars. Not to be missed.
Winner: Man Booker Prize (1989) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 1989 (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)
I had never heard of Marquez before I was assigned this book in college. It changed my conceptions of what literature could be. Repetitious, yes, but...moreI had never heard of Marquez before I was assigned this book in college. It changed my conceptions of what literature could be. Repetitious, yes, but elemental and almost biblical in many ways. Along with Blood Meridian and Infinite Jest, this is one of the three best novels I've ever read. A masterpiece. 6 stars, highest possible recommendation!(less)
Arguably is a compilation of recent essays by Christopher Hitchens. The book covers a wide range of topics, but a large number of the essays focus on...moreArguably is a compilation of recent essays by Christopher Hitchens. The book covers a wide range of topics, but a large number of the essays focus on American history, Hitchens' favorite authors, the Middle East, and totalitarian regimes.
At about 750 pages, it's a formidable looking book (made more so by the unsettling cover where Hitchens just stares at you...seriously look at that thing). But the individual essays are short and Hitchens' tone tends to be conversational, so the pages really fly by. Because of the tone and Hitchens' opinionated manner of writing, reading these essays often feels like having a long conversation with an ultra-intelligent acquaintance. Some of the essays are laugh out loud funny, while others are gravely serious. In my opinion, Hitchens is at his best when he pours on the wit (like in The Other L-Word) or when he really gets worked up into a raving froth (for example, North Korea: A Nation of Racist Dwarves). But Hitchens has a real gift for prose, and the book is entertaining reading from front to back.
It's unlikely that you're going to agree with every argument Hitchens makes (I certainly didn't). But even when you don't, the writing is so sharp that you'll enjoy kicking back and listening to him make his case. An impressive final collection. 4.5 stars, highly recommended.
Selection: New York Times Best Books of 2011(less)