Purple Hibiscus

purple hibiscusHappy Canada Day to those who celebrate it! I have just returned from a family vacation in California. In the past, when my children were smaller, I’ve packed several books for this yearly ten-day vacation and gotten nothing read at all, not a word. More recently, now that they’re a little more self-entertaining, I can get something read, but with all my extended family to talk to, it’s never as much as I think it will be. So this time, I cleverly stacked up my books for the trip and then left half of them at home — only to have my trip extended by a week when my sister fell severely ill and I needed to stay to help care for her family while she recovered. This story has a happy ending, though: 1) my sister is recovering very well, and 2) I visited two irresistible bookstores while I was there, and was amply stocked for the occasion. I’ll review the books I read on the trip later, but for the moment I’m still horribly backlogged, and am catching up from months ago!

Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel. About two years ago, I read Half of a Yellow Sun, her novel about the Biafran war, and was so moved and shaken by its ability to evoke the human capacity for change through suffering that I put Adichie on my list of authors to follow. Although Purple Hibiscus is less complex than Half of a Yellow Sun — fewer characters, fewer story lines, and a more linear time frame — it, too, refuses caricature, even of characters who might easily be static in other hands. The possibility of change and growth is everywhere.

Purple Hibiscus is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Kambili, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Nigerian man, Eugene Achike. Eugene is a devout Catholic, but uses his devotion as a tool to abuse his family physically and psychologically, including his wife Beatrice and both his children, Kambili and her brother Jaja. As a result, Kambili is very shy, compliant, and sheltered, until she and her brother have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with their Aunty Ifeoma at Nsukka. This family is also Catholic, but in a different mode: they are liberal and accepting, and encourage the children in the family to speak their minds and make rational arguments. In this environment — much poorer than Kambili’s family, and much more questioning of the government’s decisions — not only does Kambili open up and begin to think for herself, she falls in love with a Catholic priest and becomes aware of her own sexuality.

If this were all there were to Purple Hibiscus, I wouldn’t necessarily be recommending it. It sounds simple to the point of being simplistic. But in fact, this is a rich postcolonial novel laced with important feminist concerns. No character is quite as he or she seems, not even the domineering and abusive father, not even the frightened mother, not even Kambili, whose internal voice we hear. If I’m remembering correctly, I don’t think we see a single white person in this book, but the white colonial/ postcolonial presence is everywhere: in the rites of the Catholic church (which has a white portrait of Jesus, so maybe that counts), in the structure of the educational system, in the idea of America, in the crisis of rationing and the student riots, in the sharp binaries between rich and poor, city and village, Christian and pagan.

Adichie never succumbs to these binaries. In the voice of a sheltered 15-year-old, she questions them all: is there a shadowy area in between? Must we make a choice? Who benefits from that choice? Adichie tells the story of contemporary Nigeria in what might otherwise be a fairly obvious coming-of-age book. Because of this, I found myself much more deeply engaged than I thought I might be. The ending is cautiously hopeful, though (as in Half of a Yellow Sun) Adichie leaves it unclear where exactly the hope may lie. It may be that life itself is hope enough for her. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

The Beckoning Lady

Beckoning LadyThis 1955 mystery by Margery Allingham finds Albert Campion and his wife Amanda back at Pontisbright, the setting of Sweet Danger. Uncle William Faraday, who previously appeared in Police at the Funeral and Dancers in Mourning has just died, apparently of natural causes.  Detective Inspector Charlie Luke is visiting to convalesce after a recent injury, and he’s taking what Campion considers an unfortunate interest in Prunella Scroop-Dory, the plain daughter from an aristocratic family.  Despite the general feeling of grief over Uncle William’s unexpected death, the town is abuzz with preparations for Tonker and Minnie Cassands’ upcoming garden party. The discovery of a body in the river is not about to stop the festivities.

The body, originally believed to be that of a tramp, turns out to belong to a local tax inspector who’d been giving Tonker and Minnie a difficult time about some unpaid taxes. Minnie was willing to do what she could to pay up, but the constant monitoring of expenditures and the extremely intrusive advice was wearing thin. The man is now dead from a blow to the head, and Campion’s suspicions are raised when he learns that Uncle William had not been ill before he died. Two unexpected deaths so close together can hardly be a coincidence.

After the serious and atmospheric Tiger in the Smoke, my favorite of the Campion novels so far, this book feels light and a little silly—that despite the extremely creepy and realistic masks one of the characters creates. So much of the narrative involves the antics of party preparations and the eccentricities of Tonker and Minnie that it’s easy to get carried away with the silliness of it all and forget all the sinister doings around the edges. These hardly seem like people living in the shadow of a murder—perhaps two. The Campion novels frequently juxtapose light and dark, usually in the person of Campion himself. But by this point in the series, he’s set aside his amiable buffoonery and is now surrounded by amiable buffoons. Even the always dedicated Charlie Luke has given over to romance while Campion is concerned with getting to the bottom of a crime.

The crime itself turns out to be nearly, but not quite, accidental. And Campion’s way of getting at the solution is more than a little unsettling. Here, his focus on exposing the killer has a dark side, but it’s for a good cause. And as usual, Amanda has his number. She knows what he’s done and sees that it’s just what was needed so that everyone can move on.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 3 Comments

Cop Town

Cop TownWhen I saw Karin Slaughter’s new book Cop Town was available on Netgalley, I decided to request it, because Slaughter is a crime writer I’ve been curious about. Then I remembered that I had tried Slaughter’s fiction, in the form of the audiobook Martin Misunderstood, and I nearly chose not to read this at all. I really hated that audiobook. But I decided to give this a chapter or two, and that was enough. I had to know what was going to happen.

Cop Town is set in 1970s Atlanta, a place where everything is changing. The once white-male police force is now admitting women, African Americans, and others who once would not have been welcome. Not that they’re exactly welcome now. Women are allowed to serve, but they’re given every reason to quit. Maggie Lawson’s brother and uncle are both cops, but they both seem to recent her intrusion onto their turf. Kate Murphy, a blue-blooded blond, finds that both the men and the women of the force rejecting her when she comes for her first day on the job.

Kate joins the force in the midst of an investigation into a series of cop killings. A man dubbed the Atlanta Shooter has been executing cops, two by two. The most recent victim, Don Wesley, was the partner of Maggie’s brother, Jimmy. Jimmy narrowly escaped being shot himself—or so he says. Maggie is quick to notice that his words about what happened and the evidence she sees in front of her don’t add up. But she’s loath to say anything about it; Jimmy is the force’s golden boy, and Maggie’s just a woman cop.

The story unfolds over the course of just four days, as Maggie and Kate pursue various leads and figure out how they can be the good cops they want to be. And being a good cop is not a straightforward endeavor. Following orders doesn’t always lead to the truth, and sometimes intuition is as valuable as evidence. Plus, fear and anger are real, and they affect even a good cop’s judgment.

Fear is at the root of a lot of the problems the characters encounter in the novel. The men who’ve been on top of the heap for so long are afraid of change. Some—both men and women—have secrets that they are afraid will be revealed. The regressive views espoused by many of the characters are extreme, but considering the time and place, they aren’t unexpected. But these views, when rooted in fear, can lead to dangerous consequences as people lash out at those they fear. Better to find ways to work together, because sometimes those who are different prove that their difference is an advantage. Kate’s background, for instance, gives her a way in with a character no one else could have understood—and most would just have scoffed at.

The book moves along at a satisfying pace, with new angles to the mystery and perspectives on the characters moving the plot forward. The pressure cooker environment forces Kate and Maggie and the others to look hard at their own propensity to give in to fear and commit evil acts themselves. Learning to be a good cop means getting a handle on that aggression, using it purposefully and ethically. The better cops in this book don’t lack fear, but they don’t let their fear master them.

Review copy obtained through Netgalley.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 2 Comments

Retreat Reading

I just returned from a weekend on retreat at the monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a remarkable weekend, filled with time for prayer and reflection—and all the quiet I could want. Four days of quiet and without technology, plus two travel days, also meant lots of time to read. In the spirit of the weekend, I took with me several books pertaining to matters of faith. They were short, and over the course of the weekend, I polished off four of them, plus another I found in the monastery guesthouse library. The books all intersected in interesting ways with each other and with the aspects of prayer that we spent the weekend exploring, so it’s fitting that I tell you about them all at once. (Also, writing five posts about similar books seems like too much work.)

Girl at the End of the WorldThe Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

Elizabeth Esther’s grandparents were founders of a fundamentalist Christian sect known as the Assembly. The group focused on preparing for the end of the world and maintaining strict purity and isolation from the world, except when attempting to win the world to Jesus. Children, including young Elizabeth, were raised strictly, sometimes with spankings that left marks even for minor infractions. Elizabeth developed anxiety at an early age but received no help until she forced her way out. In her memoir, she describes her gradual realization that most of what she’d been taught was terribly wrong and that the only way she could have a healthy and whole life and faith is to leave. The pathway out was a long one, and even after she left, Elizabeth continued to deal with the aftereffects of spending her whole life in what amounted to a cult. But she does find a way out and she does so without giving up on God. Instead, she finds a new path to a faith that provides hope instead of fear.

I’ve had some experience with quite conservative versions of Christianity but nothing like what Elizabeth Esther describes here. I could see echoes of things I was taught as a young adult, particularly around gender roles and modesty, but the difference is that I was never totally isolated, and I was encouraged from a young age to think for myself. Even so, I find myself struggling to shed the guilt-based version of Christianity that I was immersed in for a time. The full immersion that Elizabeth Esther experienced from birth makes her getting past it especially remarkable. She’s now one of several Christian women who have found a voice online, speaking out against abusive and otherwise troubling practices within the church. Her writing is engaging, and I enjoyed reading about her experiences. You can get a taste of her voice on her website.

Call to CommitmentCall to Commitment by Elizabeth O’Connor

It’s strange that I went from a book about the toxic aspects of strict Christian communities to a book about a church that requires a high level of commitment of all its members. This book tells the story of Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. I first became familiar with this church’s work when I was in college, and I attended a small group for a while with someone who was part of that church. Church of the Saviour is an unconventional ecumenical church founded in the 1940s with an emphasis on teaching and mission. This book, written in the 1960s, details its early history.

Instead of focusing on a church building and drawing in as many members as possible, Church of the Savior keeps its membership small, requiring intense levels of commitment from members who then create and run ministries that involve people from throughout the community. One such ministry is a coffee house; another is a retreat center. They help people find jobs and work with the mentally ill. When someone gets an idea of a thing God might be leading them to do, the community prays about it and looks for a way to make it happen.

As someone with a strong aversion to anything that smacks of legalism, I was initially put off by the pledge members are required to make, even though the practices in the pledge (reading the Bible, praying, attending worship, giving, serving on a mission) are good things for Christians to do. Making these things a requirement of membership rubs up against my impulse to welcome all as they are. But reading this while at a monastery helped me see it in a different light. The members of Church of the Saviour are, from what I could understand, the group that plans and makes decision and leads the work. Nonmembers can also participate as associates who might commit to a particular task. There are different ways to be part of the church; formal membership is just for the most committed. The monastery where I spent the weekend is the home of men who’ve made an intense commitment that is not for everyone. But those who don’t join the order may become fellows who commit to a modified version of the monastic rule that fits their situation. And the monastery welcomes all who wish to come to worship or go on retreat. That seems fair, and thinking of Church of the Saviour membership as being similar helped me get past my mental block.

Experiencing GodExperiencing God Through Prayer by Jeanne Guyon

This little book by a 17th-century French mystic offers brief and simple instruction in contemplative prayer, that is, prayer which is about being in God’s presence, rather than presenting requests to God. Guyon, both encouraging and stern, writes that God “desires to be more present to us than we desire to seek Him. He desires to give himself to us far more readily than we desire to receive Him. We only need to know how to seek God, and this is easier and more natural than breathing.”

In my experience, it’s easy to know what to do when it comes to prayer, but less easy to make it a habit. Guyon’s advice, which includes such suggestions as reading scripture slowly and resting in God’s love, dovetailed nicely with the retreat sessions we had.

ThirstThirst by Mary Oliver

The brother who led our retreat sessions gave us one of Mary Oliver’s poems (“The Blue Iris”) to read, and he noted that she had visited the community. I loved the image in the poem of prayer as patching words together to give thanks for mundane beauties and wanted more. The monastery library happened to have a copy of Thirst, written after the death of her partner, is filled with beautiful poems about the intersections of nature and faith and pain and life. My favorite poem in the collection, “Coming to God: First Days” ends with these lovely stanzas:

Lord, I would run to you, loving the miles for your sake,
I would climb the highest tree
to be that much closer

Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible,
the inscrutable and the everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bath in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in place, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.

The themes of noticing and silence (and silence as an aid to noticing) were prominent all weekend.

Digital DiscipleDigital Disciple: Real Christianity in a Digital World by Adam Thomas

The author of this book, an Episcopal priest and a millennial, doesn’t remember a world before the Internet, although he’s been around long enough to remember its earlier, slower days. In this book, he considers the mixed blessing that the Internet has become, how it allows us to communicate with people we’d never have known while distancing us from the people who live next door. A lot of what he says won’t seem that new to people who think a lot about online communication and presence, although I did find his insights about the importance of bodily presence and the link to the Incarnation of Christ to be interesting. The fact that Jesus lived in a body, not just in pixels, is important.

A few times, I thought he attributed problems to technology when they are really human problems that happened pre-Internet, just in a different way. (I was also a little aggravated by his decision to refer to online communications as the Tech throughout. It seemed like a silly affectation to me.) He has some good suggestions for giving yourself a tech sabbath and getting focused on seeking God’s presence. I might have appreciated this advice more had I not spent a weekend immersed in hearing similar suggestions from others. By the time I got to this book, it was just more of the same. But taking time to focus on God is a good practice for any Christian, and it doesn’t hurt to hear it from one more source.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Religion | 4 Comments

A Time of Gifts

Time of GiftsAs a young man, Patrick Leigh Fermor couldn’t quite decide what he wanted to do with his life. He’d left school, peace-time soldiering had proven unsuitable, and his attempt to take lodgings and become a writer was more difficult than he imagined. So he decided he needed to try something different:

To change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp—or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight or the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth! All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do. I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples, jogging along on fifty pounds a year like Lord Durham with a few noughts knocked off, there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!

Fermor’s plan was to walk across Europe, from the Netherlands to Constantinople. The year was 1933, but Fermor did not write this account of the journey until 1977. This book, the first volume, covers his travels from the Netherlands to Hungary.

Although Fermor did not make a lot of plans for his journey before he began, the few plans he made did not exactly come to fruition. He did travel mostly on foot, with a few train rides when it seemed appropriate. And he did consort with some peasants, but he also stayed in castles when offered the chance. He “tacit principle,” he writes, is “to flinch at nothing on this journey.” Fermor is open to whatever type of experience that comes his way, and that openness, which helps him throughout the journey, also makes him an engaging writer.

As Fermor journeys across Europe, he finds again and again that people are willing to help him, whether by providing a simple meal and a bed in a barn or offering a luxurious dinner and room in a fine home and writing to friends along the way who will offer the same. The journey is very much a time of gifts, enabling Fermor to get by on little money and few firm plans. One humorous incident occurs when Fermor arrives at the home of a friend of a previous host and senses that these new hosts are uneasy at his arrival. Uneasy as they are, they do not fail to be hospitable. Only later to the letters of introduction arrive, alleviating everyone’s concern but not quite erasing the awkwardness.

Of course, not everyone Fermor encounters is kind and helpful. His bag gets stolen, and he meets a few Nazis but doesn’t spend time among them. He arrives in Vienna during a battle, an incident that reminds readers that the sort of journey he’s taking soon won’t be possible at all.

The book is not merely a travelogue in which Fermor tells what he did and when he did it. He uses his travels as a springboard to muse on art, culture, history, language, and whatever else crosses his mind. Like his unplanned journey, Fermor’s narrative winds around, taking readers on detours that are unexpected but hardly ever out of place.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | 14 Comments

Sunday Salon: The Critical Role

sundaysalonEarlier this month, Slate published a piece with the deliberately rage-baiting title, “Against YA.” The piece aggravated me, primarily because it set up a false binary of YA=simplistic and adult=complex. There’s also the problem that I don’t think the article’s author, Ruth Graham, has read that much contemporary YA. (There were many good criticisms of the piece; two of my favorites appear at Something More and XO Jane.) Setting aside the false assumptions in the piece, which others have addressed, the piece does raise some interesting questions, and I’d like to consider one of those questions today.

In an NPR interview last weekend, Graham addresses some of her critics, and one of her statements caught my attention:

You know, the job of criticism is to make distinctions between good things and bad things and between complicated things and simplistic things.

Is that the job of the critic? Recently, Rohan at Novel Readings wrote an excellent post about liking and disliking certain books, and Tom of Wuthering Expectations noted in the comments that what he wants is for critics to show him what they saw in a book that he does not see. I like Tom’s view much better. The trouble with making critics the arbiters of good and bad is that critics don’t even agree on what’s good and bad, never mind the fact that there are many different ways to be good and bad. What, specifically, is the book good or bad for? I hated Wuthering Heights the first time I’d read it because I’d been led to believe it was a beautiful romance. It’s a marvelous book, now one of my favorites, but it’s a terrible love story.

I’m assuming the critics who want to set themselves up as arbiters of good and bad believe that good books are challenging and complex. They are books that are somehow intellectually improving. That’s certainly the impression I get from Graham’s piece, but I resent the notion that everything we read must challenge us in order to be good and that we must feel guilty when we read something that is not appropriately challenging. I put enough guilt on myself for things that matter. I refuse to feel guilty for sometimes (maybe even usually) preferring Maggie Stiefvater and Diana Wynne Jones over James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I’m going to reserve my guilt for the times I’m rude to others or unfairly judgmental (ahem).

Another strand I’ve noticed in the pearl-clutching over readers choosing “unworthy” books is the notion that readers don’t even know their own minds, as demonstrated in a recent article in Vanity Fair about some critics’ distress that people (including some critics!) like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. (News Flash! Critics Sometimes Disagree!) Toward the end of the article, Lorin Stein frets that some who don’t read much may read The Goldfinch, because of all the praise it’s gotten and “tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children” and will them give up on reading altogether. Let’s unpack that, shall we?

If Stein’s hypothetical readers tell themselves they like something, chances are they liked it. People know what they like better than Stein does. I will admit to a tendency to looking for things to like in what I read, but the fact that I’m looking for pleasure and finding it doesn’t make that pleasure false. I may doubt that I’m seeing everything there is to see in a book, and my opinion may evolve over time, but if I tell myself I like something, it’s probably because I do. (Never mind that liking and disliking are not discrete categories. I can like and dislike the same book all at the same time.) I’ve not read The Goldfinch, so I can’t speak to its quality, but there are plenty of critical darlings out there that people who don’t read much are likely to be bored by. Probably lots of books Stein likes and has praised will bore people who don’t read much.  Also, people who like The Goldfinch are children? Wow.

So I circle back to asking myself what the role of a critic is, and I continue to agree with Tom that a good critic shows me something I wouldn’t see on my own. Alternatively, a critic will help me see what a book is like so I can decide on my own whether I want to read it. A critic saying a book is good or bad is rarely enough to sway me. I want more. I want critics to understand the many ways a book can be good or bad and the many reasons people read. What does this book offer? Where does it fall short? What’s interesting about it? That’s different from good or bad, and it’s far more helpful.

Posted in Sunday Salon | 29 Comments

Midnight in Europe

Midnight-in-Europe-220x327Alan Furst’s new novel enters new territory for me. Instead of focusing on Paris before and during World War II, in Midnight in Europe, Furst turns to the Spanish Civil War, a conflict I knew nothing at all about. The novel’s hero, Cristián Ferrar, left Spain with his family shortly before Franco’s Nationalists took over large parts of the country. Unable to return home but loyal to the Spanish Republican government, Ferrar has taken a job with an American law firm and resides in Paris. When a spy working for the Republican cause is arrested in December 1937, Ferrar is recruited to take his place, and so he becomes embroiled in the underground arms trade. The purchase and transport of weapons is a challenge when so many countries refuse to support Spain and when Germany is on the side of the Fascist rebels.

Furst’s novels, in my experience, are about atmosphere, rather than action. There are moments of terror for his spies, but those moments don’t make up the bulk of the story. Midnight in Europe has intense moments, including a heart-stopping firefight on a ship filled with explosives, but Ferrar’s work mostly includes meetings with potential helpers, which he fits in between meetings related to his work sorting out disputed wills and other legal matters. The suspense is as much about who he can trust or whether he can work a particular deal as it is about whether he’ll get out alive.

History makes it clear that however successful Ferrar is in these smaller missions, Spain will still fall, and that fact adds an element of melancholy to all Ferrar’s endeavors. Ferrar and his cohorts are trying to prevent a thing we know will happen. We know, also, that Hitler’s first steps beyond Germany are only the first steps. One of the fascinating things about this book is the way people and nations in the book deal with their fear of what’s coming. Although we have the benefit of hindsight in a way Furst’s characters don’t, the book doesn’t make them seem naive. They’re aware of the danger, although some governments fear Communism more than Fascism. They just don’t know how bad it could get. When Ferrar goes to New York and a colleague suggests that he look into buying an apartment for his family, he’s sure he won’t need it. But he’s smart enough to buy it. Hope for the best, plan for the worst seems like the right mentality.

If I could register one small complaint (and I can—it’s my blog), I would like to see more and more interesting women in Furst’s books—best of all would be women who don’t become lovers of the main character. The romance was the weak spot in The World at Night. It was much better handled in Mission to Paris because the woman had a life of her own. Here, the main woman we get to know brings a pleasing plot twist, but I didn’t find her convincing. She mostly is a plot point, rather than a person. And now that I think about it, I don’t want more women in Furst’s books. I just don’t want women who are there to fuel the main characters’ sexual fantasies. If a plot doesn’t need a woman, I’m fine not having one if this is how women are going to be depicted. This may just be part of the whole spy novel genre, but I’d like to see something different. Other than that, I like Furst’s books a lot.

Review copy obtained through Netgalley.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 11 Comments

Bring Up the Bodies

bring up the bodiesHilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was one of the very last books I read in December 2013, and it couldn’t have surprised me more. Instead of being an overhyped, overwritten contender for a sometimes-lackluster prize, it took a man who has always been an enigma, and made him as fascinating as the times he lived in. I’d read reviews of it, and not believed them, but I was much more willing to believe the many great reviews of Bring Up the Bodies that came my way. This novel is different in tone, and it takes place over a much more condensed period of time, but it is still unafraid to sink its wolfish teeth into politics that are anything but tidy.

Wolf Hall was particularly wonderful (to me, at least) because it let us into the secrets of Cromwell’s past. We spent a fair bit of time looking at his domestic arrangements: his wife, his children, even his own childhood and formation in other countries. We got to see his history, so we got to see inside him. Very little of that exists in Bring Up the Bodies; that has all been tidied away under Cromwell’s accomplishments and titles. The members of his household — most of whom love him and are loyal to him — simply function, without needing to settle into new places. We do get to see the nobility’s ongoing contempt for Cromwell because of his lowborn past, but this is something that affects his current situation, and something he takes (quiet, clever, irreproachably nasty) steps to change. Because we don’t see Cromwell’s domestication or his past in this book (though it follows on nicely from Wolf Hall), we understand him less. Mantel deconstructs his actions, but there is, I think, less penetration into his soul.

Bring Up the Bodies takes place in just under a year, from September 1535 to just after Anne Boleyn’s execution in summer of the following year. These months are packed with action for Cromwell. It has not been long — not long enough for anyone to forget — that Henry’s advisors don’t always fare well: the deaths of Cardinal Wolsey and of Thomas More haunt his imagination. Though Cromwell has big plans for his country — a Bible, in English, in every church; training for priests; education for the people — he is nothing if not a pragmatist. He cannot leave a legacy if he is not alive to complete it. Throughout the book, Cromwell is thoroughly aware of how much he is indebted to Henry, and how thin is the ice on which he skates.

When Wolsey fell, you might have thought that as Wolsey’s servant he was ruined. When his wife and daughters died, you might have thought his loss would kill him. But Henry has turned to him; Henry has sworn him in; Henry has put his time at his disposal and said, come, Master Cromwell, take my arm. Through courtyards and throne rooms, his path in life is now smooth and clear. As a young man he was always shouldering his way through crowds, pushing to the front to see the spectacle. But now crowds scatter as he walks through Westminster or the precincts of any of the king’s palaces. Since he was sworn councilor, trestles and packing cases and loose dogs are swept from his path. Women still their whispering and tug down their sleeves and settle their rings on their fingers, since he was named Master of the Rolls. Kitchen debris and clerks’ clutter and the footstools of the lowly are kicked into corners and out of sight, now that he is Master Secretary to the King.

In this context, it makes perfect sense that he would serve the king’s wishes, and not any inward doubts of his own. He will help the king make a case against his wife Anne, whom Cromwell helped bring to the throne in the first place.

Mantel makes it wonderfully clear what it meant to serve at court. There’s a riveting scene in which Henry, who has been jousting (as his courtiers regularly beg him not to do) is thrown off his horse, and everyone believes him to be dead. Cromwell comes at a run, to find most of the court paralyzed with fear. A few people are, unbelievably, already clamoring for their place in the succession, but most cannot even begin to think about what it would mean to live without the King. “What is there, without Henry? Without the radiance of his smile? It’s like perpetual November, a life in the dark.”

It’s also clear that Anne’s downfall is a tragedy, no matter what her degree of guilt — that this “bringing up of the bodies” is partly or mostly fabricated to create a shift in the dynamics of power at court is a given. Mantel gives no sense that Anne deserved her fate. But again, Cromwell is not cast as a villain. He is never bloodthirsty. He is practical, avoids torture whenever he can, and serves his king and country to the best of his astonishing ability. That his job involves such sharp teeth is unavoidable.

I said in my review of Wolf Hall that I simply did not understand the complaining I’d heard about the style being difficult, or the use of “he” for Cromwell being too hard to understand. I think Mantel is a wonderful stylist, and not only did I not find it difficult, this time or the last, I found it captivating; we see the world from Cromwell’s point of view, and since when do we call ourselves by our names inside our own heads? (I think Mantel may have taken the pronoun criticism to heart: I noticed she used “he: Cromwell” a lot more in this volume. Shame. I liked it fine the way it was.) Bring Up the Bodies is only about half the length of Wolf Hall, and I wished there had been more of it. I am eagerly looking forward to The Mirror and the Light, but I think I may branch out to other books of hers as well. Have you read any others of her books? What did you think?

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 11 Comments

My Place

my-placeSally Morgan begins her autobiography with a memory of visiting her father in the hospital when she was five years old. Post-traumatic stress from his wartime service sent her father to the hospital a lot, and when he was home, his behavior was unpredictable. The first third or so of this book covers Morgan’s childhood in Perth in the 1950s and 60s Perth. Besides dealing with her father’s illness, Morgan goes to school, spends time with family, and grapples with the various ways she and her family are unique. It’s not an unusual story–or at least it doesn’t appear much more unusual than that of any other eccentric family of limited means. The writing is adequate, but the style is sometimes choppy and episodic. There’s nothing much in the telling to make this story stand out, and if I’d known nothing about this book, I would have wondered why it exists at all.

The first several chapters of the book offers only hints at what sets Morgan’s story apart. At one point, she asks her mother what they are. Her classmates have said they aren’t Aussies, so what are they? Her mother says to tell her classmate her family is Indian, but she has nothing more to say about their background. Although Morgan’s grandmother< Daisy, lives in their house, Sally has been told nothing about her heritage. She has to wait several years before she learns that they are actually Aborigines. Her grandmother and mother decided years earlier to hide their background because the consequences of being an Aborigine were too painful. Better to let the children of Sally’s generation pass as Indian and avoid the misfortune their maternal ancestors faced.

Once this truth comes to light, Morgan decides to learn as much as she can about her maternal ancestors. Her mother and grandmother are, at first, reluctant to talk, but her great-uncle Arthur tells his story of how he worked his way out of poverty and servitude. He puts Sally in touch with others who knew her grandmother, and she finds out about the white men who most likely fathered her mother and grandmother. Gradually, her mother and grandmother soften in their attitude toward Sally’s research, and she’s able to hear their stories from their own mouths. She gives each of their first-person accounts a section of the book.

Although the writing never picked up for me, I can understand why this is an important book. Apparently at the time of its publication in 1987, not many works of Australian Aboriginal literature had been published. And the idea of cultural erasure and identity is potent. Morgan, having been raised in ignorance of her family heritage, has to figure out what it means. After she receives a scholarship granted to Aboriginal students, she’s  accused of faking her history. Morgan is understandably indignant at the accusation, but she’s haunted by the questions it brings up:

Had I been dishonest with myself? What did it really mean to be Aboriginal? I’d never lived off the land and been a hunter and a gatherer. I’d never participated in corroborees or heard stories of the Dreamtime. I’d lived all my life in suburbia and told everyone I was Indian. I hardly knew any Aboriginal people. What did it mean for someone like me?

These are good questions, and the book is at its best when it focuses on them. Morgan’s book is important as a piece of history, but as a reader only slightly familiar with Aboriginal history and the Stolen Generations, I wanted more context. Morgan’s account is focused entirely on her family. There’s little sense of how typical their situation was. That’s not a fault of the book, but of the reader, but it is a fault that limited my appreciation of the work in front of me.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 4 Comments

Doll Bones

doll bonesI’ve been seeing reviews of Holly Black’s books here and there on blogs I like (Jeanne likes her, for instance), and I’m fairly sure that it was Ana’s review of Doll Bones that finally tipped me over the pick-it-up-at-the-library edge. And since it was the only book I read in April (!!), it bears a mention, at least.

The book is about three children who are just on the cusp of becoming adolescents. Zach, Alice, and Poppy have been playing together since young childhood, and for years they’ve had an ongoing game, involving action figures and dolls and a story they tell each other about the heroes and heroines and pirates and ninjas and mermaids that sail the dangerous seas of the land they’ve invented. Their story is ruled by The Queen, a fragile 19th-century porcelain doll who lives in a china cabinet at Poppy’s house. These days, though, the story has become dangerous in a different way: they’re more aware of the contemptuous way their schoolmates would see their play, and their parents aren’t as thrilled about the amount of time the three of them spend together.

Zach’s father brings the game to an abrupt end when he throws all his action figures away, telling Zach that he’s much too old to be playing with them. Zach is furious, but too uncomfortable to share his rage with his friends; instead, he tells them he’s no longer interested in the game. But the girls have one more important part of the story still to tell: The Queen, whose china may be made of the ground-up bones of a dead girl, wants them to do something for her, and unless they obey, they may suffer.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. The cover is well and truly creepy, and I was expecting to be genuinely scared, as I was with Coraline, for instance. That wasn’t the case. Ana’s review, which I hope you clicked through and read, talks a good deal about what’s really happening in this book: the three friends are shifting their friendship and their understanding of what they expect from each other and from their long-standing bond of the imagination, given the gender expectations society holds out like tainted candy.

Most of the book is told from Zach’s point of view. We see him wondering what Alice thinks of him, and noticing her in new ways. We watch him weighing the game: how important is this life of the imagination and his loyalty to these girls, given his social life, sports, possible dates? But the real cry of fear comes from Poppy:

“I hate that you’re going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I’m next.”

Melodramatic? Yeah. A little. Growing up never felt like dying to me, maybe because no one ever told me that excessive reading was inappropriate for girls and I should get my head out of the clouds and pay more attention to boys. But you see what she means: if becoming a teenager means forgetting the narratives that helped make you who you are, then possession is nearly the right word for it.

Doll Bones wasn’t as scary as I expected (or maybe hoped.) But it was pretty good — reasonably well-written and exciting, and the characters were solid. To be honest, I’d have liked to see a lot more of the story they were telling each other. It felt as if there were a living jungle of narrative behind the fairly-tame quest the three children were doing for The Queen, and I’d have loved to get in among the tigers and read it.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Contemporary, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 7 Comments