Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

This is the third historical novel I've read by Hilary Mantel. The first was her little-known novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, which I LOVED and have read three or four times. The second was the Booker Prize-winning and bestselling Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell and the rise of Anne Boleyn, which I found a little disappointing. For me, Bring Up the Bodies - the sequel to the latter, about Thomas Cromwell and the fall of Anne Boleyn - is somewhere in between those two books: definitely better than Wolf Hall, but not quite as exciting and involving as Greater Safety.

Though I prefer her historical fiction to her contemporary fiction, Mantel's writing is invariably excellent: sharply observed, psychologically acute, lightfootedly poetic and darkly witty. She clearly has a fascination with infamous men: both her Cromwell and her Robespierre are sympathetically portrayed, far more human and complex than the usual sinister cameos. I think what distinguishes her best work, for me, from her lesser work is that, in A Place of Greater Safety and in the second half of this book, I felt as if I were on the inside, as if I might have known the people involved. Wolf Hall was doubtless more authentic, certainly in its language and possibly in its history, than Greater Safety, but it was a much more distant reading experience; I felt frustrated rather than enthralled by its perfectly worked prose. The authenticity gave it a veneer of dust that, in spite of the present tense employed throughout, separated me from the immediacy of the characters' actions and thoughts and feelings.

I don't know what happened in Bring Up the Bodies to change that feeling - maybe it was just the story itself that was more obviously compelling (the climax being death rather than merely exile and annulment) than Wolf Hall, or maybe Mantel relaxed more into the telling - but either way I found myself speeding through it, inhabiting Cromwell's cold-eyed, calculating (but also at times compassionate/haunted/wryly amused) mind, breathing the same stale air as the novel's characters.

I also love the way Mantel, who looks so inoffensively hamster-like in all her bookjacket pictures, never flinches - and sometimes even seems to linger with pleasure - on sex and violence and profanity. Bring Up the Bodies, for all its Booker-winning, BBC-adapted respectability, is full of 'splayed cunts' and 'wet quims' and hints of dark perversion. I think my favorite line of all was Lady Rochford's description of her womanizing husband George Boleyn: 'No man as godly as George, the only fault he finds with God is that he made folk with too few orifices. If George could meet a woman with a quinny under her armpit, he would call out "Glory be" and set her up in a house and visit her every day, until the novelty wore off.'

Now that's what I call characterization!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

I ruined this book for myself by falling for unrealistically high expectations. It's touted as a Harry Potter-esque fantasy for adults, and is also favorably compared to the Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret History. All of the quotes of praise in the first few pages told me I would love this book, and would not be able to put it down.

So I was quite disappointed when I found it to be a pastiche, strongly influenced by superior sources: the obvious ones mentioned above, as well as a few others (like The Mysterious Benedict Society, and maybe even Charlie Bone). And the parts that seemed to be original weren't especially inspired.

My opinion, halfway through the book, was that the story was too loosely plotted, and many events were skimmed over so briefly that I wondered why they were even included. The overall effect was dissatisfying, and my opinion remained unchanged throughout the remainder of the story.

It's not as if I didn't enjoy the book at all, though. (Miserable and bitter teenage genius Quentin Coldwater is offered the chance to study at Brakebills, the only magical university in the United States; he jumps at the chance to attend, though he's never heard of the place, and it must be kept a secret from his parents.) The story was entertaining, and it held my interest, but I was frustrated by the knowledge that it could have been so great . . . and it wasn't. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

I didn't mean to finish this book so quickly. I have a week off work for the holidays, time to relax and spend with family; I should have made my leisurely, lazy way through this nearly-400-page book over a week or more, but I just couldn't help it. It flew by.

This is the story of a middle-aged couple homesteading in Alaska in 1920. (THAT part of the synopsis held absolutely no interest for me. I'm one of those weird people who sees no appeal in the harsh beauty of the cold north.) Jack is working his fingers to the bone in his fields and making no headway; Mabel is desperately drawn to the isolation they've found, but at the same time it is destroying her; and both nurse their unfulfilled desire for children. Winter is coming on, and neither is confident that they'll survive. Depressing, right?

But with the first snowfall, the magic begins. In a rare moment of uncharacteristic high spirits, Jack and Mabel have a snowball fight, then build a snowman--or, rather, a little snowgirl. The next morning, the snowgirl is gone . . . but is that a child they see flitting through the trees?

The story was such a nice mix of fairy tale and mystery, tempered by grim reality. On Monday evening, when I told Sam what I'd read so far and how much I was enjoying it, his assessment was that the story sounded too sentimental. And I assured him that it wasn't at all--if it sounded that way, it was just because I'd described it poorly. However, I did find that it tended towards the sentimental at the end, but by then I was invested enough that a bit of extra sweetness didn't bother me at all.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

This is a quiet little book--or at least it seemed that way to begin with. But it surreptitiously crept up on me (or maybe in me?) and meant much more to me in the end than it did in the beginning. In fact, I didn't especially enjoy reading the first half of this book (though I did appreciate the writing and the thoughts expressed). But I must admit that by the end I had a tear in my eye. (See? I could prove I'm human if I had to.)

Not a lot happens plot-wise (which is mostly what I meant when I called it quiet). Though there are a handful of significant events, there isn't much movement in the story, and certainly no flash or dazzle; but this book impresses in a more muted and meaningful way.

The writing focuses on two characters: Renée, a dumpy, middle-aged concierge in a classy Parisian apartment building, and twelve-year-old Paloma, a privileged tenant. In some ways these two characters are mirrors of one another. Each is highly intelligent, and each strives to hide that intelligence from those around them (though Renée does this to a much greater extent than Paloma). But whereas Renée has a ravenous hunger for continuing the clandestine education she has managed for herself (none of it formal), Paloma has already decided that life has no meaning, and those who pretend it does are fooling themselves.

It's funny how I keep going back to Me Before You in my mind as I read--it's not as if that book could possibly have become my literary touchstone!--but I'm still trying to pin down the reason I can be so accepting of romance and tragedy in some books and so dismissive of it in others. Maybe it's really as Sam says, and it's just down to the quality of writing? I think with Hedgehog, it's also the fact that Barbery doesn't screech Romance and Tragedy, blatant and annoying. Instead she whispers quietly of them, describing them through silhouette and negative space. Or perhaps that's just an example of higher quality writing?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Mick Jagger" by Philip Norman and "Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello" by Graeme Thomson

I've been on a rock star binge in the last few weeks. The Jagger biography was a birthday present from Kathy, the Costello one something I got myself because I've been listening to his first four albums a lot recently in my car and wondering about that period in the late 70s and early 80s when he was so incredibly prolific while at the same time being out of his head on drinks and drugs.

I've always been fascinated by that combination of creative flood and hedonistic frenzy, and particularly involving artists from my two favorite eras in pop music: 1965-70 and 1977-82. I'd already read Philip Norman's biographies of The Beatles and John Lennon, and the Fab Four are perhaps the ultimate example of what I'm talking about: startlingly young men (George Harrison was still only 27 when The Beatles SPLIT UP!) who were ingesting ludicrous quantities of mind-altering drugs, going through traumatic relationships, turning from best friends into enemies, dealing with the most intense levels of fame any working-class people had ever experienced, and somehow, at the same time, writing and recording some of the best music ever made.

The Stones and Elvis Costello weren't quite on the same plane, either in terms of fame or music, but they weren't too far off. The Stones made great singles, while Costello made great albums, and both lived in interesting times. So how could the books not be entertaining?

Well, the main problem is that Mike Jagger and Declan MacManus are both very private people, unwilling to talk to biographers and (I'm guessing) perfectly capable of ordering their friends and associates not to talk to biographers either.

One of these two writers overcame this problem, the other didn't.

Mick Jagger was a riot of a read, smoothly and amusingly written, full of stories and quotes and perfectly calibrated in terms of its concentration upon the most interesting years of Jagger's life (the 60s take up well over half of its 600 pages). Complicated Shadows, on the other hand...

OK, it wasn't completely uninteresting. There were a couple of gross/juicy tour stories and a reasonable amount of insight into the beginnings of the 'Elvis Costello' persona (the name was invented by the boss of Stiff Records; the 'angry young man' character was essentially an exaggeration of MacManus's natural personality). But there was so much missing! Call me nosy and vulgar if you like, but surely two of the main reasons people read rock biographies are to find out about the star's sex life and their bank account.

In 450 pages packed with information (we are given the set list for practically every gig he ever played, for God's sake!), I don't feel I got to know the real Declan MacManus at all, and certainly not what he was like in bed, or what his three wives were like, or how much money he (and how little the Attractions) made. It was as if Graeme Thomson was too discreet to divulge such crass facts. Either that, or no one talked. I get the impression, though, that he just had too much respect for his subject, that he wanted Elvis to read the biography and think, 'Well, actually that Graeme Thomson seems like a decent chap'.

Well, I don't care about him being a decent chap. He's a rock biographer! I don't want to read a muck-raking hatchet job (the reason I'm reading these books in the first place is because I'm a fan of their subjects), but I do want some juice, some dirt, some sense of what it was like to be there. It would also be nice to read prose that wasn't dry and clunky and full of clichés. And I must admit I have a serious problem with a professional writer who thanks someone in his acknowledgements for 'correcting my spelling, a task she has been performing since I was old enough to write' and then publishes a book that is FULL of spelling mistakes. I'm not kidding. One sentence sums up everything that is wrong with this book. This is pretty much all the insight we get into Costello's first wife and the mother of his eldest son: 'She was bright, loquacious, funny, temperemental (sic), with a bouyant (sic) sense of humour.' I don't know, maybe I'm being unfair - maybe Graeme is dyslexic - but in that case, FIND A PROOFREADER WHO ISN'T!

Philip Norman is probably the most famous (and best-paid) rock biographer in the world, and (this may just be down to the fact that I read Mick Jagger straight after reading Complicated Shadows, but...) I can see why. He's witty, detached (i.e. his tongue stays well away from his subject's arsehole) without being overly cynical, and he obviously has a bulging contacts book. It's hard to know to what extent the truth is embroidered here, of course, but the book felt plausible and authoritative, and - most importantly - it was never boring. And when you're dealing with a sexagenarian pop star who refuses to talk about the past, that is no mean feat.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"The Lady and the Unicorn" by Tracy Chevalier

I've enjoyed two other books by Tracy Chevalier (my favorite was Girl With a Pearl Earring), so I was looking forward to reading this one . . . though it gave me pause when I opened the front cover and the first thing I read was The Washington Post's claim that The Lady and the Unicorn was a "beautifully rendered romance." Ugh, really? I just finished suffering through a romance! But my distress was unfounded. In fact, as I read, I found myself thinking, This is why I read books. Yay! I love that feeling!

I must say I'm tempted to denigrate Chevalier for reusing the framework of Pearl Earring, again taking a famous work of art and building a story around its origin. But I'm not going to bother--I enjoyed the story too much to put my heart into criticism. (And why shouldn't she try it again, as it worked so well the first time?)

This time the story revolves around a series of tapestries woven during the late fifteenth century and is narrated by the designer (a painting Lothario), the lissier who oversaw the tapestries' weaving, and several of the women depicted in the tapestries (including those related to the lissier, and those related to the nobleman who commissioned the work). WOW, it sounds really dry and dull when I describe it that way. But I promise you it wasn't. It maybe all ended a bit too neatly, but otherwise it was a great story. And I was really glad they had full-color pictures of the tapestries to refer to, as kind of a centerfold in the book: it was good to be able to see the different aspects of the works as they were described.

I couldn't help but try to figure out why I liked The Lady and the Unicorn but not Me Before You. This book had luuuurve in it too. But in Chevalier's book the characters seemed more fleshed-out, more three-dimensional, more relatable. And their relationships were more complex and believable. I don't think the fact that the story seems like it could really have happened (and that it seems much more likely than MBY) is a prerequisite for savoring a book--I've loved many a fantastical and unrealistic story. Somehow Chevalier just works for me. Maybe it's magic.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, a photo of the main tapestry in the book:

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

I've never liked Dickens. Well, that's only half-true, I suppose: I enjoyed reading Oliver Twist for O-level English (a lot more than I enjoyed Emma, anyway), and I have loved watching Scrooge - the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim - during many Christmases Past. So, I liked Dickens' stories; what I couldn't stomach was his writing, which generally struck me as pompous and prolix, and his characters, who too often seemed like caricatures and stereotypes designed to represent certain virtues or sins.

So I wasn't all that thrilled when Kathy suggested we read Great Expectations, but she assured me it was a wonderful story, and I trust her. And she was right - after a slightly slow beginning, I ended up LOVING Great Expectations! Technically, I didn't read it: Kathy did, for about ten minutes every evening as our baby son Finn drank down his bottle of warm milk and we cuddled together in our bed. Maybe you imagine that my critical faculties were softened by this sweet bedtime arrangement, but we did the same thing with A Tale of Two Cities, and I thought that was a steaming pile of crap.

So... why did I love the former and hate the latter? Where does the difference lie? I think, in Great Expectations, Dickens the Storyteller won out over Dickens the Rhetorician. Maybe he was just more inspired at the time? Maybe he had more belief in the story? I don't know, but it was, on the whole, very simply told, and the characters felt plausible, like real people rather than cartoonish representations. Sure, the female characters were either ludicrously virtuous (and boring) or ludicrously horrible, as they are in A Tale of Two Cities, but I believed in Pip and his reactions to his fate, and most of the time Dickens resisted the temptation to underline the moral lessons that can be learned from our hero's follies.

A Tale of Two Cities, on the other hand... First of all, I should say that I was really looking forward to this book, partly because I'd enjoyed Great Expectations so much, and partly because the French Revolution has always fascinated me. And I know it's possible to write a great novel based on that subject matter, because my favorite historical novel of all time - Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety - is set in Paris, during those infamous, bloody years.

So yes, I had great expectations of A Tale of Two Cities. And it began quite well, with plenty of mystery and action. But, on the whole, I found it a deeply frustrating read. Partly because the twist was so predictable, but mainly because the prose was so incredibly windy and bombastic. While Great Expectations seemed to be narrated in a quiet, deep voice in a candlelit room, A Tale of Two Cities was declaimed from a pulpit in the middle of a thunderstorm. And no, that is not how Kathy read it.

Basically, it's the difference between drama and melodrama. With A Tale of Two Cities, I thought the proportion of characters and narrative to rhetoric and moralizing was all wrong, like a cake that consisted of 90% frosting. And yeah, some people would love that, but it made me feel sick.

All the same, I haven't given up on Dickens. My expectations of the next book I read by him have been lowered a little bit, but maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

Disclaimer: I think Keith and Pat are really great, and I don't want them to be afraid to give me books as gifts. BUT . . . 
This was another birthday present, this time from my parents-in-law. It didn't look or sound like anything I would be interested in, but Pat insisted that ALL women LOVE it. (Erm . . .) My doubts were not assuaged by the "praise" printed inside the front cover, which included, "Moyes's story provokes tears,"  "read it and weep," and "should be sold with a pack of tissues." I HATE shameless tearjearkers (which is why I shun Nicholas Sparks). Then there was "the perfect modern love story" and "romantic through and through." Not helping. You know how romance makes me gag.

So, as much as I appreciated the gift and the thought behind it, this book and I did not get off to a good beginning. Aaaaand . . . it did not get better from there. I suppose I must grudgingly admit that as romance novels go this one may be better than the usual--or at least different from the usual--due to the challenges faced by its leading man, and the unconventional portrayal of "happily ever after." Louisa Clark, perfectly content in her very small life, loses her snug job in a local café and is forced to reach outside her comfort zone. She finds a new position as caregiver for a handsome quadriplegic. And, what do you know, they fall in love. (Cue regurgitation).

Heartbreaking as this situation might have been in real life, I didn't give a flip for the characters as I read about them. They just didn't seem believable, or even very likable. And as far as the threat of tears: not only did I not cry, but I didn't even remotely feel like I might. I insist that this was just as much a result of the book's shortcomings as it was the fault of my own callous psyche.

This book has sold more than three million copies! Somebody must have loved it (including all women, except for me.) I wonder how it might have transformed my experience if I could have come to this book with an open mind? . . . Nah, it couldn't have made a difference.