Saturday, November 24, 2012

Hard book. Easy book.

33 books so far this year. BAM. I am the mayor of Book Town. Never--ever--in my little life have I read so much at one time.

Here are the latest two I just finished:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall is the first in a series of three books by Hilary Mantel (only two are published so far, this one and Bring Up the Bodies) about Thomas Cromwell, a minister to Henry VIII during that whole Catholic/ Protestant/ married/ divorced/ we need a male heir/ annulled/ let's cut off some heads time. Needless to say Thomas Cromwell was witness to some world-changing historical events; but Mantel seeks to demonstrate how Cromwell himself is a personality worthy of exploration. History has sided with Sir Thomas More, but Mantel shows him to be a dark religious fanatic. Conversely, Mantel takes a different approach with Cromwell, too, showing his personality through flashbacks to his childhood and in vignettes with his family to humanize him, rather than portray him as a power-hungry lawyer who maneuvered within Henry's court for his own political gain. All of the major players: Cardinal Wolsey, More, Henry, Anne, Catherine, Mary are seen through Cromwell's eyes.

This is a difficult book to read for a bunch of reasons. The first is the complicated lineage of all of these people--royal and not--who had the habit of naming their children the same things. I found myself having to refer to the family tree and Wikipedia, often. And much of this story is fictionalized, but it does follow the basic story and events that are well known. Though I have a basic understanding of this story, I found this book tested the limits of my knowledge. That's not a bad thing, but it assumes a level of scholarly familiarity with the players that I am not sure many people have. I felt challenged, to say the least.

But more significant to why this was difficult reading (and this relates to the above paragraph) is Mantel's unusual narrative style. She uses a third person point of view that is limited to Cromwell's perspective. That's clear enough. But her style of denoting dialogue can be downright confusing. There are large portions of the book where she uses quotation marks to denote conversation, and then sometimes (suddenly and at times without apparent reason) she will switch into dialogue without quotations marks--several times on the same page as when she had been previously using them. This, combined with her habit of using pronouns to refer to characters rather than their specific names, made for some confusing reading. I decided after a while to try to just go with it, but I can say it seemed like an unnecessary stylistic choice. The closest I could come to a reason for it was that she meant the conversation denoted with quotation marks to be of greater import, where the dialogue without was meant to merely suggest the nature of the conversation--at times, it seemed like what a person would overhear and maybe not know for sure.

I chose this book to read because I'm interested to read the next one in the series and I wanted to have the full picture. It was a challenge, but I'm glad I read it. As a writer I enjoy the idea that you can reexamine historical figures in different lights and I think Mantel does this well. Strangely enough, Cromwell (on whom she says this book focuses) was the least fleshed-out to me. I felt like I was seeing through his eyes, but that he (as a character) was underdeveloped  I had a strong understanding of what he witnessed, but not what he felt. This was definitely a historical read rather than a literary one--some sections were long and heavy--but I like the Tudor story enough that I'm glad I read it.

My recommendation: A good one for history nerds and/or persistent readers.


Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior is set in rural Tennessee, and it opens with a mother of two, Dellarobia Turnbow, hiking away from her house to commit adultery. What she mistakes for fire in the forest above her house is a cloud of monarch butterflies who have made their home mistakenly in the Appalachian mountains for the winter, rather than Mexico. Dellarobia returns home to her family, taking the butterflies as a sign, but ultimately they bring more change to her life than she was going to enact with her single act of rebellion, anyway.

Much in the way that Wolf Hall felt to be such a challenge, this book felt too easy. Everything about it read as shallow and too neatly tied up to me. And it's too bad. I really wanted to like it, but I felt like it didn't hold up to comparison to some of Kingsolver's other books that were presented with more depth. It's no secret that Kingsolver has been my favorite author for some time. I love teaching Animal Dreams and I especially found Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna to be both entertaining and complex from a structural and stylistic perspective. I think what Kingsolver does best is presenting a story from different points of view that end up converging in the end to tie the narrative together. In Animal Dreams she does this with Codi and Homero, in Poisonwood, it is each of the sisters who present a piece of the puzzle, and in Lacuna she uses faux historical documents and biographical information to tell different pieces of the story. She excels at using different voices, and I couldn't help but feel disappointed that this story was told from a single voice--and one that I didn't find that engaging or sympathetic.

That's not to say the single voice ruined this book for me. It didn't. I found it mildly interesting as far as story, but it did feel like a rehash of some of the same ideas she uses in her other work. The protagonist, Dellarobia (what a mouthful of a name!) seemed like a revisit of Codi from Animal Dreams or some of her characters in The Bean Trees or Prodigal Summer. Maybe I know her work too well. I don't know. Even the thread of "flight" that was woven through the story felt like it had been done before--and done better--in her other books.

But the biggest thing that bothered me in this book was how preachy it was. I understand that Kingsolver uses her books as vehicles for social causes. I don't have a problem with that, or really, her causes. But it felt as though she had such disdain for her own characters--for a rural way of life--and that made it not work for me. When the visiting scientist spends pages and pages of dialogue explaining Global Warming to the main character as though she is a child, Kingsolver's bias was too strong and kind of off-putting. And rather than present her characters as equally having something to bring to the table, the country folk ended up looking like sad idiots who just wouldn't listen. There's one scene in particular where Dellarobia explains to Ovid that there's just no science or math being taught in schools, and his shock and her defenseless shrug were just too... I don't know. Obvious?

I wanted to like this book. Heck, I wanted to love it. I just couldn't. It was a miss for me.

My recommendation: Pass on this one, sadly.

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