Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 5th printing, 2009
Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction
Jacket copy: In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political power.
England is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and Catholic Europe oppose him. The king’s quest for freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and creates a years-long power struggle between the Church and the Crown.
Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell, a wholly original man, both a charmer and a bully, an idealist and an opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: Cromwell is a consummate politician, hardened by years abroad and his personal losses. Implacable in his ambition and self-taught–it is said that he can recite the entire New Testament from memory, knows Europe’s major languages, and speaks poetry freely–Cromwell soon becomes the country’s most powerful figure after Henry. When Henry pursues his desire to marry Anne Boleyn, it is Cromwell who breaks the deadlock and allows the king his heart’s desire. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition–Tomas More, “the man for all seasons;” Katherine the queen; his daughter,t he princess Mary–but what will be the price of his triumph?
Witty and persuasive, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, in which individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. Employing a vast array of historical characters, and a story overflowing with incident, [Mantel] re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death.
Book report: You know, despite being half-crazed, overworked, and sick (I am now recovering from a bout of diverticulitis all ’round my appendix, which was a real fun time, let me tell you), I’ve actually gotten a fair amount of reading done this spring/summer, if less than usual. And a lot of what I read is worth sharing, so if you bear with me, I’ll try to unload it all at once, in as semi-organized a fashion as I am capable. Perhaps with a little less analysis–but does anyone even like that, anyways?
When I put Wolf Hall on my hold list at the MCL, I was 486th in line for it, but it only took maybe seven, eight months to get to me. I didn’t have much trouble holding out that long (patience is not numbered among my virtues), because I wasn’t really sure I actually wanted to read it (in part because someone had told me that it was hateful toward AB, and you know I am such a fangirl for her, but also because of that present tense thing). But everyone loved it, and it was about Thomas Cromwell, and it came rather sooner than I thought it would, so I kept it in my work bag and read it on my breaks and lunches. That habit kept me reading it longer than it would have taken me otherwise, but once I got past the first couple chapters and was hooked, I didn’t want it to end, so I dragged it out as long as I could. Because I loved it. Read the rest of this entry »
Election: A Novel by Tom Perrotta
GP Putnam’s Sons, 1st edition, 1998
Genre: Satire, literary fiction
A suburban New Jersey high school teacher confronts a student body election gone haywire, in this darkly comic novel by the author of The Wishbones.
Who really cares who gets elected president of Winwood High School? Nobody–except Tracy Flick. Tracy’s one of those students of boundless energy and ambition who somehow find the time to do everything–edit the school paper and yearbook, star in the musical, sleep with her favorite teacher. Tracy’s heart is set on becoming president of Winwood, and whatever Tracy wants, Tracy gets. What’s more, her classmates seem to agree. With weeks to go before election day, her victory is nearly a foregone conclusion.
And that’s just the problem, according to Mr M aka Jim McAllister, faculty adviser tot he Student Government Association and a popular Winwood history teacher. In the name of democracy–not to mention a simmering grudge against Tracy Flick–Mr M recruits the perfect opposition candidate. Paul Warren is a golden boy, a football hero with a brain and a heart, eager to bulk up his meager resume. But the clear-cut two-way race is muddled when Paul’s younger sister unexpectedly enters the competition. Running on a platform of apathy, Tammy Warren is an anonymous sophomore, struggling with her sexuality and mourning the defection of her best friend Lisa, who has abandoned their friendship to become Paul’s campaign manager and girlfriend.
As Winwood High experiences election fever, Mr M is distracted by a sudden attraction to his wife’s best friend. The two dramas he has created–one personal and private, the other public and political–unfurl simultaneously, with all the players haring a life-altering conclusion.
Part satire, part soap opera, Election is an uncommon look at an ordinary American high school and the extraordinary people who inhabit it.
Book Report:I saw Election shortly after it came out on video (I was working at Hollywood Video then, and saw just about everything), and loved it from the start. I even purchased my own used copy from work (on VHS!) because it seemed to me to be the kind of movie I could enjoy any time–and I also wanted to be able to share it with others. That was back in 1999, and I had no idea till I read Little Children that it was based on a novel. (Or did I? I sometimes forget things, amazing as that might sound. I don’t believe I knew it was a novel.) Read the rest of this entry »
Property by Valerie Martin
Nan A Talese/Doubleday, 1st edition, 2003
Genre: literary fiction, historical fiction
Set in the surreal heat of the antebellum South during a slave rebellion, Property takes the form of a dramatic monologue, bringing to the page a voice rarely heard in American fiction: the voice of a woman slave holder. Manon Gaudet is pretty and petulant, self-absorbed and bored. She has come to a sugar plantation north of New Orleans as a bride, bringing with her a prized piece of property, the young slave Sarah, only to see Sarah become her husband’s mistress and bear his child. As the whispers of a slave rebellion grow louder and more threatening, Manon speaks to us of her past and her present, her longings and dreams – an uncensored, pitch-perfect voice from the heart of moral darkness.
Property is riveting fiction, fast, richly plotted, shimmering with visual detail. It is also an invitation to re-examine the traditions of the Southern novel and the myth of the chivalrous South, and a haunting meditation on what Valerie Martin has called “the fantastic and constant perversity of the oppressor to feel victimized by the oppressed.”
Book Report: I stumbled acrost a description of Property somewhere on the Internets while at work late one night, and promptly requested it from the MCL.I was mildly surprised to discover the author was the same Valerie Martin as wrote Mary Reilly, a parallel novel I could never quite make up my mind on (though I have have read it more than once, which may be suggestive of something). It currently holds first place on my Overdue shelf, as I was unable to renew it due to hold, and refused to give it up till I’d written about it–no matter how long that might take. Was it worth the fines? Read the rest of this entry »
The Group by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt, 1st edition, 1991
Genre: Roman a clef, literary fiction, satire
Synopsis & Review: A week after Commencement 1933, a group of eight young women freshly graduated from Vassar meet on the occasion of Kay Strong’s wedding to Harald Petersen. The first of their group to be engaged, she is also the first to be married, and The Group will follow their lives from that point. They all come from wealthy backgrounds, but the Great Depression has left many in straightened circumstances. But those circumstances are also the means to allow them greater freedom as they live on their own and pursue various careers, some also becoming wives and mothers.
The narrative devotes chapters to each woman, moving in a vaguely chronological fashion, as flashbacks fill in the backgrounds. Following Kay’s wedding, Dottie finds herself entangled in an affair of the heart with a man who seems to have none. As Harald’s career founders, he and Kay become dependent on her salary, creating resentments. Helena, a young Hepburn-like woman whose family lives on the income of their income, is perhaps the most intelligent of the eight, but does nothing. Mary “Pokey” Prothero is a rich society girl who goes on to study veterinary medicine, flying her own little plane to school, and marrying young. Pretentious Anglophile Libby MacAusland tries getting her foot in the door in publishing, like any of thousands of young women with similar backgrounds. Polly flounders, trying to support herself and her half-mad spendthrift father, after losing her heart to a married man. Gentle, timid Priss, finds herself at odds with her husband, her family, and established medical doctrine when, after several miscarriages, she finally carries a baby to term, only to struggle with breastfeeding and scientific child-rearing practices. And Lakey, though prominent in the girls’ memories of Vassar, goes abroad to study art immediately after Kay’s wedding, not returning until war threatens and one of the Group dies. At the final funeral, the various triumphs and compromises that measure the lives of the Group are eclipsed by death and war.
Reading The Group is like attending a long cocktail party. As you read each chapter, another party guest comes up and initiates a conversation with you, all frivolity and gossip on the surface, masking the depths of feeling beneath. Everyone’s talking about everyone else, and by the end, you’ve got a good grasp on everyone in attendance, but in dribs and drabs. If only there were more canapés to go ‘round. Read the rest of this entry »
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
St. Martin’s Press, 1st edition, 2004
Genre: Satire, literary fiction
Synopsis & Review: After dropping out of grad school, Sarah dove into a quick marriage with an older, divorced man simply because she couldn’t bear her loneliness any longer. And at the novel’s start, she finds herself observing the other mothers with their children, desperately trying to distance herself from their suburban ordinariness. She reminds herself to think like an anthropologist in a phrase which perfectly encapsulates Sarah’s problems: “I’m a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman myself.” Sarah doesn’t love her husband, having settled for him, and her small daughter seems like a stranger, an inexplicable stranger. She cannot seem to get motherhood “right” as it is dictated by her peers in the park who have mastered the intricacies of napping, strollers, and snack time, and so Sarah flounders.
So enter the Prom King. Todd is a stay at home dad (SAHD), already unusual in this sheltered little world, but even more unusually, he is handsome, throwing the mothers into a fluster whenever he appears. Though they enjoy the titillation of his proximity, they also resent him because they feel they need to be pretty for his appearances. Mary Ann, the most domineering and conservative of the mothers, dares Sarah to approach Todd and get his number. And when Sarah does, things … change. They kiss. Something begins.
Though his background differs entirely from Sarah’s, being filled with football games, popularity, and frat parties, Todd suffers from much of the same malaise. He stays home with his son Aaron while his lovely wife Kathy works as a documentarian, supporting the family just until Todd passes the bar exam and becomes a lawyer who will rake in enough cash for them to live comfortably. Rather than study for his third try at the bar (no JFK Jr jokes, please), Todd spends his evenings watching skateboarders, envying their self-absorption (HINT HINT) and mourning his own rapidly disappearing youth. But Todd gets an opportunity to recapture his youthful glories on a brightly lit field when a former neighbor introduces him to an informal night football league, and again in Sarah’s worshipful admiration.
Elsewhere in the subdivision, a registered sex offender comes home to roost. Released from prison into his mother’s home, Ronnie McGorvey–convicted of exposing himself to a Girl Scout and widely believed to be responsible for the disappearance of a nine-year-old girl several years previous–brings a clandestine excitement to the community, which works itself into a frenzy of fear and rage at his presence. From flyers and town meetings to harassment and graffiti, Ronnie never stops being a focus for the anxieties of suburbia. His mother, however, thinks he just needs to settle down with a nice girl, and tries to set Ronnie up on dates. Ronnie’s appearance and subsequent ejection from the community pool, followed by a sudden rainstorm, becomes the catalyst that sends Sarah and Todd from mere flirtation and tentative friendship into adultery.
“Marry in haste, repent at leisure.” Those were Ma’s words when Laura announced that she and Almanzo wished to not delay their wedding. (About Laura’s choice of wedding dress, she said something like, “Marry in black, you’ll wish yourself back.” Ma wasn’t batting .300 in These Happy Golden Years.) However, Sarah in Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, proves Ma’s rule.
I watched Little Children first, and impressed, made a mental note to read the book. In January, with my nuptials fast approaching, I requested it from the MCL, but when I told my sisters that I’d read Revolutionary Road and meant to read Little Children (and The Group), they shouted “NO! BAD, NAUGHTY, STUPID GIRL!” and whacked me on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. I had my revenge, though: I made Eli watch it OnDemand late one night on our honeymoon. Nothing augurs a good marriage like that! Haha. So Little Children ended up being one of the first few books I read upon returning home and settling into a not very different life of marriage. Read the rest of this entry »
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
originally published 1961
Vintage Books, 23rd printing, 2008
Synopsis & Review: Frank and April Wheeler are young, bright, and beautiful. They’ve lived as though “greatness is just around the corner,” and in the meantime, they’ll make small compromises. But those small compromises become major ones as Frank takes a job he cannot stand, and they have two children, and then move out of the city. Neither one of them is happy with the concessions they’ve made, so they make do by feeling superior to the young suburbanites who surround them. Beneath their charming, joie de vivre-filled facades, Frank and April are discontented and miserable, drowning in the “hopeless emptiness” of suburbia.
While Frank slowly begins making peace with his lot, April throws herself into projects to improve her quality of life: first community theatre, then a plan to move the family to France where they can both “find themselves.” But an unplanned pregnancy jeopardizes everything.
So, like the SUPERsmart person that I am, I thought it would be a great idea to read Revolutionary Road, Little Children, and The Group right before getting married. (Cuz like, I’m not smart—get it?) After I told them I’d read Revolutionary Road, and then began wondering aloud whether I was dooming myself to a lifetime of being unfulfilled and miserable, my sisters put the kibosh on my little reading list so that I wouldn’t psych myself out of getting married. (I am too suggestible sometimes.) Wise women.
Don’t think that Revolutionary Road isn’t good, however, because it is very, very good. “Bleak” is so often applied to Yates’ work, and it is apt, but there’s a beauty to the bleakness, a stark clarity that illuminates his writing with a chiaroscuro of emotions and impressions. It is unsentimental and capable of wrenching emotion from its readers. And most curiously, despite the fifty years that have passed since it was written, it could be a novel of the twenty-first century. Read the rest of this entry »