Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I loved Wolf Hall, so I was looking forward to this book, which earned Mantel her second Booker Prize. The timeline of this book is more compressed than in Wolf Hall. This book is focused mainly on the downfall of Anne Boleyn, while the previous novel spanned several years in retelling the demise of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, as well as the ascendance of Anne. As this novel ends, Anne is gone, the Henry is marrying Jane Seymour, and Cromwell seems to have lost many of his own personal allies in the fight to rid the king of his second wife. A third novel is planned, in which Cromwell’s own downfall will be told. I can’t wait. It’s sure to be a Shakespearean-scale tragedy.

The novel is often wickedly funny, with a lot of gallows humor. Its forceful language is again the main attraction, and it fits so well with the ruthless characters.  Here’s a great passage, one that sums up Mantel’s Cromwell about as concisely as possible:

Rafe asks him, could the king’s freedom be obtained, sir, with more economy of means? Less bloodshed?

Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room, and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

Historical novels like this, which set out to tell old stories in a new way, often have to introduce a twist of interpretation to freshen things up. Usually the things historical figures did are a matter of record, but we can always speculate about why they did them. In this retelling, the five men who are executed for treason for sleeping with the queen are chosen by Cromwell as an act of vengeance for the Cardinal. These are the men who are depicted in Wolf Hall acting in a play as devils dragging the Cardinal off to hell. The idea of having several people executed on trumped-up charges for an old grudge based on a silly play is pretty sick, but in the context of the novel and the character, it makes decent sense. It’s an audacious display of Cromwell’s power and corruption, as well as the deep loyalty and strange sense of justice that make him such an interesting character in Mantel’s books. As far as history goes, it seems unlikely, but in a novel it’s brilliant entertainment.

Bastard Out of Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

This book is incredibly violent and almost unbearably sad and depressing, but it’s one of those rare, great, sad books that are worth the pain they put a reader through. It gives a harrowing view inside an extended family suffering from generational poverty, addiction, abuse, and incest. Almost every imaginable horrible thing that could happen to a family, happens to this one, pretty much all at once.

The novel’s language is funny and witty, full of country idioms and local South Carolina flavor. It’s a voice-driven novel narrated by a young girl called Bone, the “bastard” of the title. Bone is painfully self-aware, expressing precocious insight into adult relationships, rage at her parents, and almost bottomless shame for her victimization.

The novel’s main conflict is between Bone and Daddy Glen, her mother’s second husband. Glen abuses Bone physically and sexually, and her mother allows it to happen, partly because she doesn’t have many other options, and partly because she loves Glen too much to leave, even though she knows it means her daughter suffers. As she struggles to escape Glen, Bone immerses herself in a destructive friendship with a strange evangelical girl, and lives with several other relatives, in turns. She finds moments of peace with her Aunt Ruth and her garden and gospel and country music records. It’s impossible not to feel for her and root for her, even when she makes bad choices in her fight for safety and freedom. Bone is the book’s main attraction and its center. She is our window into her family’s suffering, and the reason we care to look.

Margaret Atwood lecture

Margaret Atwood is lovely, witty, and wise. In her lecture at the Nashville Public Library, Atwood talked a lot about The Handmaid’s Tale, its writing and background. She wrote it in 1984 (the year I was born) while living in West Berlin and Tuskaloosa, Alabama. Seeing the totalitarian state close up in Berlin informed the writing significantly. She said that novel is not about a feminist or anti-feminist dystopia, but a dystopia told from a female perspective. Her point was that men suffer in that regime as well. While writing she was careful that all of the strange and oppressive things that happened in the novel were things that had happened at one point in history. And, she pointed out, if it happened before, it can happen again. She said that writing the book scared her, but she knew she had to keep writing it. To finish that part of her talk, Atwood read a section from The Handmaid’s Tale about the men’s bodies hanging on the wall as warnings to future traitors, saying it was the part of the book she wrote first.

Atwood concluded with a piece from her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, singing a hymn she wrote called “We Praise the Tiny Perfect Moles,” and explaining the unusual environmentalist religion people follow in that novel. One remark she made about religion that was particularly popular with the crowd was that she believes it’s a presumptuous heresy to say that you know what God wants. She would “look askance” at Richard Mourdock, I suppose. However, she does believe that religion and narrative are both hardwired into us as human beings, that we are evolved to depend on these two ways of making meaning. The next question then, is what kind of religion is it? What kind of narrative is it?

I loved a metaphor she used during the Q&A to describe reading. She said that writing on the page is like a musical score. It’s dead until a musician plays it or a reader reads it, and each reading is individual, just as each musician’s version of a particular piece of music will be a little different from the last. Atwood’s 50-some books are like pieces of music playing with millions of variations in the minds of readers all over the world, making a beautiful noise, making us all a little more aware and alive.

Margaret Atwood comes to Nashville!

Margaret Atwood is going to be giving a lecture at the Nashville Public library tomorrow! She is being awarded the Nashville Public Library Literary Award! She’s given us such entertaining and important books as The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, The Penelopiad, and Oryx and Crake, so I’d say she certainly deserves the recognition! It’s great to see an award, even a small regional one like this, go to a woman, especially one known for writing about feminist and environmentalist topics.

I don’t know if I can describe how excited I am about this event. I feel like a 12-year-old girl at a New Directions or Taylor Swift concert. It’s like when I was in college and I drove to Lexington to see Seamus Heaney (!) and my roommates didn’t understand who he was or why I was so excited. “He’s a rock star!” I told them. Atwood is the same. She’s at that same level of literary superstardom where she’s canonized in the Norton and people will be reading her 100 years from now.  And, sad to say, but she’s an older lady, and she won’t be with us forever. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event!

After the Snow

After the Snow by S. D. Crockett

This YA dystopia novel is set in a future of constant winter. Willo, the narrator, and his family live in the country, hunting and living off the land, while others who have the proper papers live in miserable cities. It’s unclear exactly what has happened to cause this state of affairs, besides environmental disaster. The action begins when Willo’s family disappears, kidnapped or killed by police/soldiers, and he is left to fend for himself.

This is a voice- and language-driven novel. Willo speaks and thinks in a very idiosyncratic way, with lots of folksy idioms. Sometimes the language is cute or sweet or lyrical, and sometimes it’s just annoying. It’s implied at one point that Willo may be mentally challenged. He has visions or delusions of a wild dog talking to him, telling him to look out for number one. It’s almost like a religion for him. His main conflict is how much he should try to help others, versus focusing only on saving himself.

I wasn’t thrilled with what I considered too much coincidence in the ending, or a strange choice Willo made at that point. I would have liked to know more about the novel’s politics and the reasons why the society is the way it is. It’s not my favorite dystopia of this year, but then Pure, Wither, Partials, and Delirium are hard to beat.

The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

I’ve read and loved Maggie Stiefvater’s books before. I think she’s one of the best sentence-writers working in YA today.  I named her fairy books as some of my favorites I read in 2011. I enjoyed the Shiver series, and The Scorpio Races, but not quite as much as Lament or Ballad. In The Raven Boys, first of a planned series, I see a lot of what I liked so much about that first couple books. There’s an ethereal quality, a sense of things just off the edge of normal. Though there is a sense of longing, this book is less of a love story than the fairy books.

The title of Raven Boys comes from the mascot and sweaters of the students at a prep school called Aglionby. They have a reputation for arrogance and disgusting shows of wealth. One of these privileged boys, Gansey, is obsessed with finding the ley line, a mysterious source of energy and magic, and a Welsh king that might be buried along it. In this quest, he has help from three friends, each one a misfit in one way or another: the troubled fighter, the scholarship kid, and the shy, insubstantial one. The boys meet Blue, a daughter of a psychic, who joins their group and its adventures. It becomes a bit of a ghost story about halfway through. There are some class issues that the story brings up, as Gansey is always being reminded of his privilege.

As befits the first in a series, the ending leaves a lot of ends untied. A villain is defeated, and the ley line is awoken, but the Welsh king still sleeps. The book begins with a hint that Gansey and Blue will fall in love, or she’ll kill him, before the story is over. Blue lives under a curse that when she kisses her one true love, it will kill him. Niether of these things have happened yet, but Chekhov’s gun says one of them will before this is all over. It’s going to be a four-book series, and Stiefvater has been turning out her books pretty quickly. She’s also recently signed a movie deal for the series.


Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune is a very big, deep book. I mean deep the way that Lord of the Rings is deep: it’s a fully imagined world with lots of details, the kind so rich that it that feels more discovered than invented. It even has an appendix and glossary in the back to help readers understand the book’s strange new world. It’s set on Arrakis, a desert planet far in the future, where valuable spice is mined. The protagonist Paul Muad’Dib Atreides is the son of the duke who has come to rule Arrakis, whose family falls victim to treachery from the Harkonnens, another powerful family that has a fued with his. Paul and his mother hide out with the Fremen, the free people who inhabit the deserts of Arrakis, and he becomes their religious leader. Eventually he leads them in a revolt to take back the planet from the Baron who killed his father, and he even makes himself emperor.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book to me was the importance of water on this desert world. People spend most of their time in “still suits” that preserve all their body moisture. When someone dies, the body is liquidated so that the family is able to use the water that made up that person’s body. Crying is seen as a waste of water, “giving water to the dead.” It’s totally logical that the scarcity of water would give it outsize importance in this world, and it was interesting to see that play out in details like this.

My biggest problem with the book was the main character’s messianic nature. He’s a perfect hero with superhuman abilities who always does the right thing based on instinct, because he was born and bred to be the Kwisatz Haderach or whatever. Once he kind of came into his powers, he never really had any moments of self-doubt. There was a moment when he was fighting a climactic duel and he got nicked by a poisoned knife. Not only was he able to detect the tiny amount of poison, but he consciously slowed down his metabolism so that he wouldn’t feel its effects before dispatching his opponent. I mean, come on. When the deck is stacked that high in the hero’s favor, the drama of the fight disappears.

Dune felt to me like a very masculine book. It’s about fueds and war and mining and there are few female characters. The philosophical moments didn’t present a philosophy that was very appealing to me. I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the series because of this issue and the perfect hero problem. But I’m glad to have had a taste of the world of Dune.


Hidden by Sophie Jordan

Hidden is the third and last of the Firelight series, which is about Jacinda, a girl who can turn into a dragon (draki) who falls in love with a boy, Will, whose family hunts her kind. I previously reviewed Vanish, the second book, which introduced a third character into a love triangle, Cassian, another draki who has bonded with Jacinda. At the end of Vanish, Miram, Cassian’s sister, was captured by the dragon hunters, and they were coming up with a plan to rescue her. The book’s opening is dominated by this plot, and much of the rest of the book consists of outrunning and evading the hunters pursuing them.

It’s a pretty action-packed book with a few good surprises. A lot of running around in the woods and meeting exactly the right people or exactly the wrong people. Some of the drama felt manufactured, stirred up just to spark tension between Jacinda and Will, who are solidly in love from the first page and would otherwise never fight. Some of the sentences in the kissing scenes are decent, others are cliched and cringeworthy. This is not life-changing literature, just entertainment.

Hidden brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The love triangle is resolved, pretty much the way it was always going to be. The tribe’s bad leadership situation is fixed, thanks to some revelations. I stand by what I said about the second volume: it’s a series very much modeled on Twilight, but less objectionable when it comes to gender issues. I was wrong about the sex though. No sex in this book. Boo.

Sherman Alexie Reading

Sherman Alexie is a very entertaining man. He treated us to a half hour of stand-up comedy before diving into a reading from his new book of stories, Blasphemy. Here are some gems from his riffs on doing book tours:

  • “I’m an Indian, we’re tapped into magical shit you don’t even understand.”
  • “My Indian name should be Dances With Hatred.”
  • “I was so rezzy, I was a redskin redneck.”
  • “Unfamiliar trees are terrifying.”

He told an elaborate story about being quizzed about Emily Dickinson by an elderly woman on Cleveland public access TV, then told us it was a lecture on storytelling. He had actually been on Cleveland public access TV, but it wasn’t at all the way he just told it, and that is the way that his life inspires stories, he takes one piece from life and does something completely different with it.

He read a story called “Breaking and Entering” about a man who kills a young black man breaking into his home. He said it was written in 2006, and so it had nothing to do with the Trayvon Martin case.

During the Q&A, he talked about how he hates doing craft interviews because what each writer does is specific to them. He described his process in a very mundane way: “I sit at my computer and start typing and shit comes out, and I keep going til the shit’s not coming out anymore, then I get something unhealthy to eat, then l go back and look at the shit and try to figure out what’s good and what’s bad.” He said that he feels most natural writing poems and would give up fiction if it weren’t paying his bills. He said that he always wrote as a child, mostly mimetic stuff that was similar to what he was reading, (he had a funny story about how his grandmother used to buy him bodice rippers about Indian warriors and settler schoolteachers because they had an Indian on the cover) but didn’t feel connected to his writing until he took a college poetry class and the professor gave him an anthology of Indian poetry.

As a bonus, Ann Patchett was there to introduce Alexie and to promote her independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, which sells books at all of the library readings. She said that Alexie “makes the rest of us look like dreadful sloths.” I think I agree.

Sherman Alexie at MBA

Today at 6:15, Sherman Alexie will be speaking at Montgomery Bell Academy in the Dead Poets’ Room. I’m really excited to see him! I loved The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I’ve heard good things about his new book, Blasphemy. Though the event is not at the Nashville Public Library, it is sponsored by the library.