Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth's novel The Wake is a work that takes seriously the importance of presenting a historical fiction in its world as accurately as possible. The opening is 1066, the year that William the Conqueror defeated the English King Harold at Hastings. To reflect the voice of his narrator, Kingsnorth created a "shadow" tongue -- a somewhat modernized version of Old English, using only words of Anglo-Saxon origin throughout. In the quote above, you can see the adherence to original spellings and there is little punctuation. At first glance, it is very foreign, but it takes surprisingly little time to familiarize yourself with the language and to fall into the rhythm of its cadence. If you've ever read Beowulf, it has the lyrical quality of the great epic.

1066 re-enactment by Guardian photojournalist Felix Clay
Aside from the brilliance of its linguistic choices, Kingsnorth creates a memorable character in Buccmaster of Holland (an area of eastern England known for its watery fenns), a man of status and wealth before the cataclysmic Norman invasion. Buccmaster loses everything, his wife, sons, house and land, and is forced to take to the forest as an outlaw. An adherent of the old ways and the gods who reigned before Christianity came to Britain, Buccmaster is determined to drive the French out  and take his revenge by killing every Frenchman he comes across. He becomes a "grene" man, hiding in the shadows of the forest, gathering his men, and stalking the Norman foe. He is led by the elusive and mythical Weland, whose mocking voice comes to him, guiding his actions, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in visions. Buccmaster feels himself "chosen" by the old gods to fight for England. His animosity for priests and the new Christ is almost equal to his hatred of his Norman overlords.
the bastard he cum north from the place where he had cwelled harald cyng and all the way he cum in blud his men they fucced all anglisc wifmen they cum to and cwelled them when done and all hams and tuns they beorned in ingenga fyr. the bastard cum up  to lundun fuccan and cwellan and beornan and the witan it seen what was cuman and it stepped baec and the last of angland that daeg was gan and we had a new cyng who spac not efen our tunge and ate not our foda and cursed us as hunds and curses us still
I don't want to give too much away about the novel or its narrator. It is profoundly disturbing in a way that historical novels often are not. Usually, we feel the comfortable distance between the past and present as something already finished -- antique, quaint, a lost world, decorated in the trappings of legend. And you would think that Kingsnorth's decision to create a foreign-looking language would serve only to heighten the sense that this historical moment is long past relevancy. Instead, it does the opposite. No matter how archaic the language, the circumstances of Buccmaster's dislocation and suffering, the violence described, the culpability of those bought by French gold, the betrayals, shock, and upheaval of Buccmaster's world are immediate and all too recognizable. It reminds me a lot of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, if that gives you an idea of its effect.

I highly recommend this novel for those who are interested in historical fiction, Anglo-Saxon England, or the unreliable narrator. The pleasure of the language is reason enough to read it, but the story itself is deeply engaging, not to mention, a bit terrifying.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Grant's Memoirs

I spent a good part of the summer reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. He's one of those historical figures who has become almost a caricature -- the hard-drinking, cigar-chomping general who, as the 18th President, led an administration criticized for corruption and bumbling policy.

Grant was rarely out-maneuvered on the battlefield, but he was often nearly undone by gossip and political wrangling, so it's not hard to imagine that his presidency would be undermined by the same kind of elements. But that's just my speculation, so I'm planning to follow up the memoirs with some more objective historical views on his life and presidency.

Grant's intelligence and thoughtfulness define his writing. He was candid, deliberate, fair-minded, and had a knack for incorporating dry humor. My take on him from reading the memoirs is of a thoroughly decent man who held others to his own standards...and was often disappointed. He had no use for pretense, didn't try to duck responsibility or criticism, and didn't waste much time defending himself from the negative press or the petty gossip of his peers. I admired his competence, his doggedness in the face of adversity, and his deep patriotism. There's nothing dry about the writing, even though he gets pretty deep into the weeds of strategy and maneuvers. It seemed to me that he was always weighing the consequences of failure in the face of the overwhelming brutality of the war, and that's how he was able to continue to absorb its blows.

Later in the war, when the battlefield losses in the Wilderness campaign were staggering, beyond even what had come before, Grant was criticized for being no better than a butcher. But in his view, enduring the monumental loss of life was the only way to end the war. Prolonging it without completely crushing the south was not an option -- there could be no negotiated peace, and there could be no compromise on the issue of slavery. At the beginning of Volume 2, after Vicksburg had fallen to Union forces and Gettysburg had been decided in the North, Grant interrupted his narrative on the military progress of the war to give his opinion on why the South must be defeated -- for its own good.
There was no time during the rebellion when I did not think, and often say, that the South was more to be benefited by its defeat than the North. The latter had the people, the institutions, and the territory to make a great and prosperous nation. The former was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class. 
He goes on to describe the bleak and ruinous future that he believed awaited the South if it had succeeded in making itself a nation, separate from the Union, and concluded, "The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost."

Of course, I was reading Grant just as the Confederate flag controversy was rearing its ugly head again in the news, which made me realize how much the Civil War still haunts us, how it is not so far removed in time, and how little some people have heeded its lessons.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Art of Recommending Books

One of my favorite things about working in bookstores was being able to recommend books to people who didn't quite know what they were looking for. They had an idea of a book, they knew what they had liked, but they didn't have anything particular in mind. It was an opportunity to hand-sell books that I loved -- under the radar, backlist, or a forgotten classic -- in any case, a departure off the NYT Bestseller list for those who didn't want the same trendy book that everyone else was reading.

Of course, you have to be careful. Not everyone is going to appreciate the necrophiliac protagonist of an early Cormac McCarthy novel. If you were to even start telling someone about the plot of Child of God, they might start edging away down the self-help aisle and wondering if they should alert the authorities. I've had someone tell me that they tried to read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and wanted to throw it across the room, which makes me wish I had a copy to hurl back at their head, but... then I have to admit that it's really NOT for everyone's taste and it doesn't make them a bad person (necessarily).

So I try to think of things that readers would like based on what snippets of interest they've told me about, when and where they're planning to read it, and my gauge of their attention span. I know from my own idiosyncratic moods that some books have to wait for the right moment. I read Moby Dick the first time one summer while in grad school out of some kind of self-imposed, English major compulsion, liking some parts and finding much of it completely tiresome. The second time around, when I had a little more context and read it because I was interested in Melville and that whole era of writers, I LOVED it. I'm enamored with it. I'd happily read it a third time, and all the difference is when I was finally ready for it.

And some things are never going to click. One of the first serious recommendations I ever received from an adult who saw me as a budding writer was The Great Gatsby, which is totally understandable. It is a virtually undisputed American classic. You want to get some starry-eyed kid off on the right track in American literature, you go for Gatsby. So I dutifully read it as an eighth-grader, and of course, I didn't like it. What could a little Appalachian bumpkin possibly understand about all these whiny, affected rich people, drinking gin and dressing up in tuxedos for no apparent reason? Which is why I re-read it not too long ago -- because for crying out loud, it's F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yeah, I still hate it. I hate all those characters, especially the narrator, and even if you put Leo DiCaprio in the movie version, I still hate it. Is hate too strong a word? It's not to my taste.

And so fellow-readers, with that in mind, here are some entirely random recommendations for your summer reading. You might like them. You might want to employ them as a projectile. Who knows?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. My favorite of her three novels so far (and I've liked them all), it is an epic, touching, adventurous, heartbreaking, thoroughly engrossing novel about love, friendship, and art. Tartt is intellectually imposing while still being approachable and funny. If you want to throw this book, there's no hope for you, despite everything I just said.

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. For those of a naturalist's bent, a gorgeous book about plants and critters the author observes over a year in a wooded spot about the size of a mandala.  Also Scott Weidensaul's Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians. I love his writing and, growing up in these mountains myself, I learned a lot about the special geography of the place.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Here's something that almost never happens -- I'm recommending a novel that absolutely everyone else seems to be reading -- a bestseller, a mystery, someone probably already has the movie rights. Clever and well-written page-turner, this is Ur-summer reading material. I read it because my mother made me read it, and I ALWAYS listen to her. Yes.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills. A really smart, engaging, concise, power-house of a book that elucidates what makes this short speech so revolutionary in American history. My husband made me read it, and I ALWAYS listen to him, too.

Incarnadine: Poems by Mary Szybist. I don't read nearly enough poetry these days, but this is one contemporary collection I did catch. Beautiful and mysterious encounters between the everyday and the otherworldly -- reimaginings and recastings of the Annunciation. Also Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. She's one of my favorite poets, and there's a new book by Colm Toibin on Elizabeth Bishop that I have on my own list.

A few others that I've written about in more detail already: Smith Henderson's Fourth of July Creek; A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book; Hild by Nicola Griffith, anything by Michael Chabon.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Spring reading

I finished up my project to read all of Shakespeare by his birthday this month. I ended with Pericles, even though I realized right after I started it that I had read it in graduate school. Obviously, I didn't remember it very well. It's one of the "disputed" authorship plays -- probably taken over by Shakespeare at some point (it was not included in the First Folio). I think we read it in school primarily to illustrate the difference between the rather mediocre writer of the first part and the more assured second half, presumably when Will took over. There are clear echoes of The Tempest, and of Winter's Tale for the sheer implausibility of the plot. Another of the last ones on my list was The Merry Wives of Windsor, featuring the reappearance of the ever-popular Falstaff from the Henry IV plays. As a main character and butt of all the jokes, Falstaff is just kind of sad and pathetic, and none of the other characters really stand out in this farce. But there you go, they can't all be gems. Sometimes, a hard-working showbiz guy just has to churn out Fast and Furious XXIV.

What I learned from reading through Shakespeare was how entertaining the history plays are. I had never read King John, Henry VIII, or any of the Henry VI trilogy. The history plays feature great characters, beautiful speeches, and ruthless action. They are fascinating for their spin on history, particularly how H6 portrays the Wars of the Roses. It inspired me to read an excellent history of the time period by Dan Jones. The tangled politics, betrayals, and side-switching still make your head spin, but it will shed a little light on this brutal slice of England's history. It was also timely, as they just reburied Richard III after recently digging up his bones in a church parking lot. 

"Illiers-Combray" by Oxxo - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
While I was feeling all sassy from that literary milestone, I went ahead and jumped into another one, finally tackling the first leg of Marcel Proust's multi-volume À la recherche du temps perdu. Volume 1 includes the parts, Combray and Swann in Love.  (I read the updated translation of C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin by D. J. Enright.)

Combray is Proust's fictionalized memoir of his childhood, and if you've ever spent any time thinking about your own fragmented memories, particularly wondering why some small incidents or details stand out over all the rest, you'll be interested to see how Proust explores this phenomenon.

I've often puzzled over the weird little moments that have imprinted themselves on my mind -- and how the vast majority of moments over all those years have just disappeared into the fog of memory. Smells, tastes, feelings, visual impressions scatter like the downy seed of a dandelion head. Proust re-creates a world, literally in search of a lost time, built on nuances, putting into words things that we don't usually even try to capture because they are so elusive or so befuddling. For him, they include the delicate taste of madeleines dipped in tea, flowering hawthorns in spring, his mother's goodnight kiss, the limbo-land between sleeping and waking when you don't remember where you are or even who you are. Sentences unwind across pages and don't so much describe, as paint an impressionistic landscape of accruing details. If I were to try to do the same thing, I would be reconstructing a life from the smell of the riverbank, climbing a fence in my nightgown on a moonlit summer night, my grandpa's old black rotary phone, the terrible excitement of being small in a ferocious wind that felt like it could pick me up and carry me over the fields. These are the strange things that Proust will lay before you, whether or not your life resembles that of a turn-of-the-century Frenchman.

But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke at midnight, not knowing where I was, I could not be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal's consciousness; I was more destitute of human qualities than the cave-dweller; but then the memory, not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived, and might now very possibly be, would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself: in a flash I would traverse and surmount centuries of civilisation, and out of a half-visualised succession of oil-lamps, followed by shirts with turned-down collars, would put together by degrees the component parts of my ego. [Combray, Project Gutenberg] 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

CSI: Shakespeare

I've been embarked on a reading project of Shakespeare since about September, when I decided to read back through all the plays, and catch what I had never read. The history plays have been fascinating. Right now, I'm through Part 1 and still reading Part 2 of  King Henry VI. In Part 1, Joan of Arc gets totally trashed. In Part 2, all the gears are in motion for the War of the Roses.

Henry VI's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester has just been dispatched by the Duke of Suffolk. Rumors are he has been murdered in his bed, but squeamish Henry can't bear to view the body of his uncle and Protector, who has been accused of treason by his enemies. So Henry asks the Earl of Warwick to have a look and report back. Oh, how I wish it was this awesome on CSI:
See how the blood is settled in his face.
Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost,
Of ashy semblance, meagre, pale and bloodless,
Being all descended to the labouring heart;
Who, in the conflict that it holds with death,
Attracts the same for aidance 'gainst the enemy;
Which with the heart there cools and ne'er returneth
To blush and beautify the cheek again.
But see, his face is black and full of blood,
His eye-balls further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly like a strangled man;
His hair uprear'd, his nostrils stretched with struggling;
His hands abroad display'd, as one that grasp'd
And tugg'd for life and was by strength subdued:
Look, on the sheets his hair you see, is sticking;
His well-proportion'd beard made rough and rugged,
Like to the summer's corn by tempest lodged.
It cannot be but he was murder'd here;
The least of all these signs were probable.
Warwick don't need no stinking coroners! It's a slam-dunk:
Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh
And sees fast by a butcher with an axe,
But will suspect 'twas he that made the slaughter?
When Suffolk dares refute this evidence, Warwick shoots back with the timeless "yo mama" insult:
But that the guilt of murder bucklers thee
And I should rob the deathsman of his fee,
Quitting thee thereby of ten thousand shames,
And that my sovereign's presence makes me mild,
I would, false murderous coward, on thy knee
Make thee beg pardon for thy passed speech,
And say it was thy mother that thou meant'st
That thou thyself was born in bastardy;
And after all this fearful homage done,
Give thee thy hire and send thy soul to hell,
Pernicious blood-sucker of sleeping men!
- King Henry VI, Part Two, Act 3, Scene 2 
It really is rather delicious.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Fourth of July Creek

I started off the new year right with my first book pick. I had read some pretty glowing reviews of Smith Henderson's debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, when it came out, but had kind of forgotten about it until it finally became available as an eBook from my library. It may be a first novel, but it reads like an instant classic -- a gripping story, great characters, and beautifully descriptive language that is lyrical and immediate.
Medallions from the quaking aspen lay about in a golden hoard, blowing up in parade confetti as he drove through them. A few Indian paintbrushes still glowed red like small tissue-paper fires at a grade-school play. Pete felt a homesick sorrow at the little differences, at time itself....The place looked shorn, fussed over like a toy dog.
The protagonist is Pete Snow, a social worker in northwest Montana, whose family life is almost as screwed up as any of the people he serves. The year is 1980 and the Reagan era is dawning. Pete becomes involved with an anti-government fugitive whose young son he is trying to help while also searching for his own runaway teenage daughter. He is an alcoholic and pretty terrible at dealing with his personal relationships, but at bottom, he is a good guy. Henderson brings Pete to life in all his failures, his noble attempts, his personal disasters, and his doggedness in pursuing a job that is mostly grim and thankless.

Henderson has an uncanny knack for capturing a character's inner voice, both adults and children, and his dialogue rips right along, natural and succinct. There are moments of humor and quiet beauty among the many dark corners of this novel as it subtly reveals a great truth -- even the most broken people can sometimes do good.

Finely observed and anchored in a very particular time and place, the novel also has some lovely descriptions of the rugged landscape near the Flathead River and Kalispell. I would place Henderson in the same literary space as Larry Brown and Philip Meyer. It is definitely one of the best first novels I've ever read.