November in Books

Books read 

 Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I finished it! It only took me 8 months, but I completed this brick of a book. You must be wondering why it took me so long. Why did I not put it down when I couldn’t get into it? Was it that horrible? And am I such a masochist to stick with a book that does not appeal to me?

Alas, no on all counts. The answer is infinitely more complex and simple at the same time. It was not the book itself, but the chemical reaction of the book and my brain that was the problem. I appreciated the writing of it, I really did. I love historical fiction and though I usually stick to Victorian stuff,  I occasionally enjoy a trip back a few more hundred years to that old scamp Henry the 8th and his need for a heir that overrode all church and law and morality at the time.

Mantel offers us an even juicier perspective by telling the story of Henry through the eyes of one if his advisors, Thomas Cromwell, a peasant that has literally pulled himself out of the gutter to become one, if not the most powerful man in England. The vagaries of the court, and the political machinations are all seen through his detached and pragmatic eyes.

I think the problem for me was, first of all, I did not have enough time to devote to this book. In order to get right into the world, you have to have a a chunk of a few hours to acclimatize to Mantel’s unique style. Her use of the pronoun “he” threw me for a loop. It took me an excessively long time to figure out the her “he” was her main character, Cromwell himself.  And because I was only reading it for about five minutes beforeI went to sleep at night, I had to go through my mental rolodex and remember who all the characters were.

By the way, Cromwell was an actual historical figure, usually portrayed as the villain (with his traditional enemy Thomas More, as his saintly victim). Mantel gives us a different perspective, one that makes us question our historical assumptions. That is, if you know enough about the historical period to question it, which I didn’t. It is only after reading the book and reading articles such as this.

A worthwhile read if you are a fan of Historical fiction and Tudor England. However, be warned: it is a dense read that requires mucho brain power. I just read that Mantel is writing the sequel to it (the book ends rather abruptly with Anne Boleyn as queen but miscarrying dreadfully. Wolf Hall is where Jane Grey lives, if I am not mistaken…)


 Just Kids by Patti Smith

I don’t get it. I just don’t. I know that Patti Smith is supposed to be the godmother of punk rock, but I don’t even get that.  I have spent most of my adult life studiously avoiding anything remotely flaky (call it an allergic reaction to my west coast upbringing) so was appalled to see it in spades in Smith’s new memoir, Just Kids.

But I should have known. I attended one of her concerts a couple of years and though I was ashamed to admit  it to myself as she is such a revered icon in the circles I circulate in (ha!), her poetry gave me that uncomfortable prickly sensation I get when I have to listen to someone recite their own bad poetry: you know- embarassment at having to listen to it, shame for the person reciting it, a slight itch in my eyeballs that won’t go away until the poem stops (and this is coming from someone who has subjected other people to her bad poetry so I am well aware that this is a double-edged sword I frequently impale myself on).

But first: the redeeming parts. The memoir is in fact a chronicle of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe which is indeed worth a chronicle. They met when they were 20 in New York city- both poor, both needing a friend, both wanting to make it as an artist (more about that last one). They were lovers for years  during which time Mapplethorpe discovered he was gay. The early years were marked with extreme poverty, STDs, drugs and on Mapplethorpe’s part some hustling, but they remained each other’s rock through it all. It is a testament to the organic, fluid and evolving power of love that their relationship could survive so many permutations and I found her account if maudlin at times, quite moving.

Second: it is an amazing glimpse of New York during the late sixties and early seventies. Mapplethorpe and Patti resided in the famous Chelsea Hotel, the hub of the arts scene in New York at the time. She would sit and have coffee with William S. Burroughs and Alla Ginsberg (though I’m not sure at the same time). Although in my righteous youth I dismissed the ramblings of the 60s as decadent and self-indulgent (as righteous youth are apt to throw not only the baby out with the bath water, but the soap, the shampoo and the plumbing) Smith’s account gave a nice glimpse into that historical era.

My main objection to the book is that Patti Smith, with no trace of shame, embarassment or irony views being an Artist (yes, with a capital A) from the 19th century Rimbaud-esque perspective of tortured, self-destructive soul. I really, really hate that.  The book is full of grandiose statements such as vowing in front of the statue of Joan of Arc that she will make something of herself. Her and Robert Mapplethorpe’s commitment and hyper aware and meticulous putting together of a certain look. Her style is choppy and full of self-aggrandizement about her art.

It occurred to me that it is akin to someone speaking in flowery, romantic terms about their faith and what a saint they are. The lack of humility in itself belies the latter. And the former, though it may be true, should not be talked about in polite society. The relationship between the artist and their artist-ness is deeply personal and requiring, in my view, the same sort of humility that should accompany Faith. For it is a kind of Faith after all.

Matched by Ally Condie

But back to the wobulous world of Young Adult Dystopias! In The Society, every choice is made for you. It is a world regulated by statistics: how much and what is the optimum quantity and quality of the food you eat; what is the line of work that best suits your personality;the best age for dying. Your future partner is also determined by compatibility tests and measures and revealed to you in the Matched ceremony.

Usually, your match lives in an another city or district of town and you don’t know them. So when Cassia finds out her match is her best friend Xander, she is over the moon. Until actual love gets in the way and unfortunatly, it is not  Xander.

Oh, how the YA novels like their love triangles!  I was talking to a student today who mentioned she was heartily sick of them. I myself find it funny that it is such an overused plot device as I don’t hear much of the love triangle in real life.

But I digress.

Condie’s book is less about the romantic aspect (though it is there in spades and will probably be why young teens pick it up) but about the idea of a true Huxleyan Dystopia. The Society has managed to eliminate sickness, disease, hunger but at the cost of personal agency. Everything is determined by the statistical best. But what happens when your heart goes in a different direction then the society dictates?

Bad things of course, or else we wouldn’t have a novel.

Condie sets up her world with simplicity and elegance. Cassia’s voice is believable as the young teen who fully believes everything The Society tells her until a mistake happens at her Matching banquet and the cracks in the veneer begin to reveal themselves. The transition is nicely done, with tension building whenever another crack pops out. Like many novels of this genre, the end is one that begs for a sequel, which exists and which I am now reading.

First Descent by Pam Withers

Reviewed from Librarything Advanced Reader’s Copy

Once again, this is a book I would never have picked up if it were not for the fact that Librarything sent it to me.

Rex is a champion kayaker who is determined to nab a first descent, the name given to the feat of being the first crazy person to kayak a river. But his heart is set on not just any first descent- he wants to kayak the one river his famous kayaker grandfather tried and failed to complete: the furioso located in Colombia.

Myriam is an indigena living by the banks of the Furioso. Her great ambition is to go to University so she can become a journalist and expose the plight of her people. Stuck in between a bloody and ruthless guerrilla war between the rebels and the paramilitaries, her people and her way of life are slowly being exterminated.

When Rex hires her as a guide for his expedition Myriam believes she has finally found the way to make it to University. Together they embark on an adventure replete with white water, cliffs, jagged rocks, minefields and soldiers.

The strength in this novel are the Myriam sections when she is describing the horrors her people have to face as well as their acute poverty. She is a great foil to Rex who is self-centered and single-minded. He refuses to see the political dangers of the situation along the river and doesn’t clue in to state of Myriam and her people for way too long. Although irritating, I suspect this might be true to the character of any red-blooded, indifferently educated young american.

A fast-paced gripping read that combines adventure, sports and a glimpse into an under-reported human rights atrocity.

Books Listened
 The Lady Julia Grey Mysteries by Deanna Raybourn

I will do this all in one shot, mainly because they are part of a series of mysteries that follow the same formula and, to be honest, I am a little ashamed of myself at how much I ate them up. The first title in the series , Silent in the Grave won the Rita award for novel with storng romantic elements in it.

I had never heard of the Rita awards before.

And I had never read anything emerging from that great clichéd romance factory, Harlequin.

In my defense,  they are mysteries. However there is a steamy love affair that begins slowly, climaxes (excuse the pun. Or don’t. I don’t care.) at about the third and then steam rolls ahead in the last couple books.

As you can see by the fashions so prominent on the cover, it takes place in mostly Victoria London although they do travel.

Here is a list of why I liked them so much:

  • Pretty decent mysteries with nice twists at the end. Sufficient red herrings to keep you off the scent, but a conclusion that makes sense once you think back on it. I hate it when the solution to the mystery feels like it cam out of the blue. This is not the case with Raybourn’ conclusions, though she does like to trick the reader into assuming she is talking about one character when she is really talking about another. Smart and crafty Raybourn, smart and crafty!

  • 19th century Victoria London. That is all I want to read right now for some reason. Why? I honestly have no idea. I suspect it is why I love Jane Austen’s novels. There is a certain enviable simplicity in everyone knowing their place, even if their place in society is grossly unfair and based on random and uncontrollable events such as who your parents were. I realise that that kind of simplicity comes at too great a price and I would have hated living in that time, but still. Sometimes it is nice to read about the upper crusts fixation on the right hat.

  • Eccentric family: Lady Julia Grey has a beautiful lesbian sister and a brother who wants to be a doctor (which apparently was the height of bad taste for a gentleman). She comes from an illustrious line of eccentrics and was raised by a father who has given his children way more freedom than was thought cautious at the time. I also like it that the most eccentric and hardest for the family to accepts is her older brother who turned Torry. Ha.
  • The romance part involves a dark, handsome gypsy with muscular forearms (as Raybourn likes to tell us over and over).

The things I don’t like:

  • She tends to use the same phrases over and over. I expect she does this on purpose as the phrases are so singular. Building castles in Spain. Gathering wool. They appear at least once in each book.
  • The romance bits, especially when they are quarrelling get to be a tad tedious and the reasons for quarreling never seem good enough. 
  • Lady Julia Grey temporizes a lot.

Still. For what they are, the writing is not so noticeable. There are many humorous parts and the character of Lady Julia Grey is strong, eccentric but not totally out of sync with her era. I listened to them during the dread month of November when motivation for running was at its low and the ever low motivation to clean was even lower. They helped me escape and for that I am very appreciative.

But on a total other note- so far as purchasing them from audible which I did, they are quite short- about 12 hours each novel, which was a bit of a waste of a credit.

C’est tout mes amis! Bonne semaine et à la prochaine.

2 thoughts on “November in Books

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Wolf Hall. (I don't have your many–legitimate–distractions.) I'm familiar with Cromwell as a historical figure and appreciated that the book was written from his pov, though I agree with you that the use of “he” was disorienting and sometimes downright off-putting. As a side note, this book led me to another of Mantel's (An Experiment in Love) which I did not like at all. Interesting lesson on how an author's style can change given the subject matter.
    By the way, you have turned me onto audio books. I finally purchased a cheap mp3 gadget and downloaded some free public domain novels–all my favourite oddball 19th century writers. Audio hasn't improved the housework status, but I'm knitting.

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