Reading List 2011 (8/116)

Recent reading:

  • Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
  • Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Elizabeth Moon
  • Divided Allegiance, Elizabeth Moon
  • Oath of Gold, Elizabeth Moon
  • Surrender None, Elizabeth Moon
  • Liar’s Oath, Elizabeth Moon
  • The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

I first heard of Hilary Mantel by accident. I ran out of books (!) while on vacation in England. We stopped in a little bookstore in the middle of nowhere, which had Beyond Black as one of their recommended titles. I read the back, read the first chapter, and had to be escorted out of the bookstore with my nose still in it because I couldn’t put it down.

I’ve been delighted to see Mantel get the recognition and attention she deserves, what with Wolf Hall winning the Booker Prize … but somehow I’d never quite gotten around to actually reading the darn thing! Fortunately, I have now fixed that problem.

Wolf Hall recreates the life of Thomas Cromwell, the politically savvy and occasionally thuggish adviser to Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. Historical novels have a remarkably difficult line to walk – well, the good ones, in any case. They need to be true to a very different time and place, but still create characters and stories that are recognizable, accessible, and profoundly human. Mantel’s greatest achievement is to give Cromwell realism and emotional depth, without pandering to modern sensibilities. To inhabit Cromwell’s mind is to become just a bit alien to the world in which we live every day; you’ll come back changed, with new eyes to see the assumptions we make about power, morality, family, and more.

I found myself reading the book in a Schrodingerian state of half-knowing. Yes, the fall of Wolsey; yes, Henry and his many wives; yes, Thomas More’s implacability; but my God, what would happen next? I think that’s because Mantel gives her novel a double shape: the power and inevitability of history, the randomness and surprise of ordinary life. The details of Cromwell’s day-to-day life, and the knowledge that they are true while also being outside ‘history’, kept the book from being too straightforward. Plus, Mantel does a gorgeous job of allowing Cromwell’s personal life to reflect on and illuminate the more famous historical events.

In short, highly recommended.

I also enjoyed the Moon books – currently only available in omnibus editions as The Deed of Paksenarrion and The Legacy of Gird. I’d read them once before, and the only thing I could remember was that one of the Big Heroic Characters spent a lot of time worrying about latrines. That’s actually why I wanted to reread them; how often do you get a fantasy novel in which that sort of thing matters?

The first three books follow Paksenarrion, a girl who runs away from home to become a mercenary, but finds that her true destiny is to become a good deal more. I enjoyed the texture of day-to-day life in the mercenary company, which takes up most of the first book; the Big Quest Narrative that takes up the second and third books isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have the same carefully observed charm. The big adventure sequence in the second book feels especially arbitrary, as if it was put together to introduce specific plot elements and leave Paksenarrion in a particular emotional state, rather than being awesome in its own right. Overall, though, I’d say these are definitely worth a read – especially if you like fantasy with female protagonists where the handling of gender issues won’t make you want to punch someone. Paks isn’t the only powerful woman in the world, she doesn’t fulfill her destiny by falling in love or getting married, and even though some very bad things happen to her, she always retains her agency and power. I think that’s pretty cool.

The book I’d remembered was Surrender None, which takes place several hundred years before the Paksenarrion trilogy. It follows Gird, a farmer, who decides to lead an uprising against the Very Bad And Oppressive Overlords. The extended sequence where he figures out how to lead a guerrilla organization – and what to do about latrines! – is particularly excellent. I wouldn’t recommend the sequel, Liar’s Oath, which I think was meant to be a sort of how-does-Judas-become-Judas thing, but didn’t exactly work for me. I just plain didn’t like the protagonist/villain, which kind of ruined the whole premise.

The House on the Strand is one of the very few time-travel novels I’ve ever read where the time travelers literally cannot do anything while in the past – only watch. Because she’s du Maurier, she makes it work, and it’s probably worth a read because it’s so unusual, but I can’t imagine many other novels taking this approach and succeeding.

Finally, David Foster Wallace is David Foster Wallace. If you like his essays, you’ll like these essays. If you don’t, you probably won’t, as he’s quite characteristically himself. I found the titular essays the most interesting. He sprinkles brief vignettes of, well, horrible men throughout the book. Oh, god, the scalpel of his compassion. So grateful it will never be turned on me.

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