Recommended Reading: Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

photo (132)Yes, I’ll talk about the controversial title in a second, but let me say this first: at one point, I looked up from reading this book and said to my husband, “Hilary Mantel is unbelievably good.” One look at my face and he replied, “That good, huh?” Yes, that good.

Now, about the title story, which is the last story in the collection: it’s a good story, a fascinating premise. It does not depict the assassination of Margaret Thatcher, but the narration makes it clear that in the story’s alternate timeline, the assassination happened. The story is an examination of character, of history, of choices. The narrator, a woman who lives near an eye clinic where the Prime Minister has had surgery, lets in a man she thinks is a plumber, but who turns out to be an IRA operative. He holds her as a semi-willing hostage, and the pair discuss what he intends to do. It’s chilling and strange, and none to flattering toward Margaret Thatcher, who is still a divisive figure in the UK (Baroness Thatcher died last year), where the controversy over the story is much louder and nastier than it has been here (there have been Orwellian calls for Ms. Mantel’s imprisonment, for example). However, I imagine that if a similar story had been published here about Ronald Reagan so close to his death, the commentary would be just as deafening.

As a girl, I loved reading about Margaret Thatcher; I considered her a role model, since at the time I wanted to go into politics (also astrophysics—ah, the follies of junior high). Now, as an adult, I admire her in some respects, though I don’t think I’d find her domestic policies agreeable. What I’m trying to say is that I have no ill-will toward Margaret Thatcher, and my only objection to Ms. Mantel’s story is that though it depicts Margaret Thatcher as a public figure, not a private person, it should perhaps have been held back for another year or two in deference to Baroness Thatcher’s family’s mourning.

By the way, I do not know who chose the title for this collection of stories, but the cover suggests to me that the American publisher, in any case, is not at all alarmed by the prospect of controversy, and perhaps welcomes it.

Most stories in the collection have been previously published (the oldest, by publication, dates back to 1993, but most were published after 2000), and their contemporary settings will come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Ms. Mantel’s glorious rendering of Tudor England in the Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In “Sorry to Disturb” (which, incidentally, I think would have made a better title) a woman living in Saudi Arabia comes to regret allowing a stranger in to use the phone, which leads to an increasingly awkward series of social encounters. Another story, “Comma,” finds a young girl and her slightly older friend sneaking around an invalid’s house; rarely have I found a child-narrator so interesting.

“How Shall I Know You?” finds an author on a dispiriting stop of her book tour, alternately loathing and pitying the people around her. The last line of the story took my breath away; was a good story up to that point, but the last line made it blossom into something magnificent.

Other characters in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher* include a girl watching her sister slowly die from anorexia, a philandering husband, a traveler on a train who sees her father’s ghost, and couple on holiday who leave too much unsaid.

These stories are often grim, often chilly, and often funny. The characters tend toward the grotesque, but reveal just as much about the reader as they do about themselves.

And oh lord, the language. Ms. Mantel’s images are detailed, strange, perfect. A girl’s twisted hair ribbon makes “her head [look] like a badly tied parcel” (40); table linen is fringed “like the ears of a teddy bear” (25); “big eyes—unripe fruits–were bulgy with incomprehension” (107). In context, they can be eerie, or funny, but they’re always illuminating.

Hilary Mantel is an absolute wonder. If you like short stories and exquisite writing, don’t miss this book.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“the stooping haunted readers”: Louis MacNeice’s “The British Museum Reading Room”

I just got a copy of Van Morrison’s Lit Up Inside (City Lights), and I’m looking forward to diving in soon (I hope to talk about it in next week’s poetry post).

In the meantime, here’s a poem by another Irishman, Louis MacNeice, which has nothing to do with brown-eyed girls. “The British Museum Reading Room” is, I think, my favorite poem of his, and I hope you’ll tell me what you think in the comments!

Recommended Reading: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie

photo (131)As you might have noticed, the photos that accompany my review posts are not the lovely, high-definition pictures of a book cover alone, but rather photos of the copies of the books that I read.

One of the reasons for this is that I’m perhaps overly cautious when it comes to copyright, so I don’t like the idea of pulling covers from Amazon or publishers’ websites.

The other reason, though, is that I want to show writers and publishers that I am reading physical books.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an e-books-are-evil rant; even though I find them problematic in many ways, I understand why many people like them. I even have an e-reader (an ancient Nook) that I used when I was pregnant and commuting by train or bus and didn’t want to lose my grip to turn pages (much as I love Boston, it’s not the kind of town where pregnant women are automatically offered a seat, even if they are visibly pregnant). It was also a godsend when I was nursing and only had one arm free. But ever since, it’s been a backup device, there if I think I might want to read Jane Eyre or Sense and Sensibility on a trip.

I prefer physical books, and for this simple and selfish reason, I don’t want printed books to go the way of the illuminated manuscript. I like their heft, I like flipping the pages, I like seeing the type and the layout and width of the edge left to read. I like seeing my friends’ books arrayed on their shelves. I like seeing my own books arrayed on my shelves. I like bookmarks, reading lights, notes in the margins, and of course, reading glasses.

(I love books.)

And that is why you’ll see my humble photos of the books I read for as long as I run this site.

And that brings me to Gutenberg’s Apprentice*, Alix Christie’s debut novel about loyalty, family, religion, invention, and the printing press.

Let me say first, before I delve into the novel, that is is a gorgeous book. Ms. Christie owns and operates a letterpress, and the book designer must have taken her expertise into account when putting Gutenberg’s Apprentice together. The typefaces are perfectly chosen, the initial capitals resemble those in Gutenberg’s books, and the cover is spectacular. The map inside is hand-drawn and serves as the book’s endpaper, too.

Now, like most people who took Modern Euro in high school, I knew that Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type, which allowed books to be printed on an unprecedented scale. Books became accessible (if sometimes dangerous to own) and widespread, which meant, among other things, that more writers could influence more people.

What I did not know, however, is just how much work it took to print the Gutenberg Bible, and how much the hand of man figured in the machine that changed the world.

The apprentice in Gutenberg’s Apprentice is Peter Schoeffer, a young scribe dedicated to the art of copying manuscripts. Called home to Mainz by his foster father, the merchant Johann Fust, he hopes that he’ll soon be back in Paris, working on a large commission. To his dismay, Fust wants to apprentice him to a wild-eyed man named Johann Gutenberg, who is working on an invention that Peter views initially as evil, the work of the devil meant to eclipse the beauty of hand-lettered manuscripts.

Duty to Fust, who rescued him from an impoverished orphanhood, prevails, and Peter joins Gutenberg’s highly secret workshop. Backed by Fust’s funding, Gutenberg hopes to perfect his movable type technique and reap the rewards of selling cheaply printed books; Fust, too, hopes that printed books will make their own market and make him even richer.

Peter finds the work backbreaking, the master harsh and impatient on his best days, and the need for secrecy claustrophobic. Slowly, too, he finds himself caught between his master and his father, neither of whom trusts the other. Mainz is a city gripped by conflict; the complicated politics of Church and guild constantly threaten the work of printing, especially when it’s finally decided to begin a massive project: printing the Bible.

The work, always under threat of discovery, stretches on for years, but in those years, Peter begins to find in the workshop a kind of family. He takes pleasure and pride in his work, but more than that, begins to believe that they have been ordained by God Himself to accomplish this great task. The frame of the novel finds him looking back over these weary years:

He once believed that what they did would lift them higher, ever higher–he sensed the godliness that flows throughout Creation brush them. Until it cracked, and their whole workshop filled with anger and recriminations. With each succeeding year Peter has seen the world become unhinged, cacophonous, the very earth stunned by the pounding of machines. And he’s begun to wonder if God did not unleash some darker force with that great shining net of words. (4)

It does seem, given the labor involved—carving molds, casting type, mixing ink, pressing paper and vellum—a kind of miracle that the Gutenberg Bible ever came to exist. I had the privilege of seeing one, once, at the University of Texas, and it is a marvel. It’s enormous (two volumes). Its paper is creamy and its columns perfectly set, the ink a deep, crisp black. Gutenberg’s Apprentice helped me see the immense effort that went into creating this book, the men behind the machinery.

Ms. Christie’s book immerses the reader in mid-fifteenth-century Mainz, in its tangible details and its political climate; we feel the mood of the times. Her prose is straightforward and clean, bringing technical details to artful life.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice invites us to imagine how we would have viewed the printing press had we lived half a thousand ago, and how the inventors of the press might view our own historical moment. The sense of fear and hostility, curiosity and anticipation toward the printing press resonates with our own culture’s ambivalence about the proliferation of texts and voices in the age of digital media. Who can know what was meant to be, and who can predict what comes next?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

In Memoriam: Carolyn Kizer

Carolyn Kizer, who won the Pulitzer Prize nearly thirty years ago, and who was one of the most respected American poets, died last week. As is too often the case, I do not know her work as well as I ought to, but I’ll be taking the time this week to read some of her poems; perhaps you will too?

I commend to you her utterly charming poem “A Child’s Guide to Central Ohio” and the fiery yet funny “Pro Femina.” Her final collection of poems appeared in 2001–Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000. 

If you have a favorite Carolyn Kizer poem, please tell me about it in the comments section!

Recommended Reading: The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

photo (130)I love Westerns, I love books that keep me guessing, and I love a book that makes me see a landscape. Kim Zupan’s debut novel, The Ploughmen*, is all three, and was an excellent reading experience.

John Gload is a murderer, plain and simple. Murder is how he made his living, and in his late seventies, he’s finally been caught and is waiting for his trial. He’s smart, strong, and utterly unrepentant.

Valentine Millimaki is a sheriff’s deputy, the most junior man on the force and its most skilled tracker; together with his dog he searches for people lost in Montana’s wildernesses. Haunted by the death of his mother, on a bad streak of finding only bodies, and fighting to keep his marriage going, he comes to sit my Gload’s cell at night, to talk and to listen.

The two men have more in common than they know, and slowly, they share more with each other. Valentine’s job is to extract information out of Gload that will damn him at trial; Gload finds himself concerned by Valentine’s appearance, as the long night shifts and daytime insomnia take their toll.

For the rest of us, thought, thought Millimaki, the distance from reason to rage is short, a frontier as thin as parchment and as frail, restraining the monster. It was there in everyone, he thought. It was there in himself. (113)

The Ploughmen is tense; I was never sure what would be revealed next, or how the two men’s relationship would develop. It’s not a tale of redemption, but neither does it glory in cruelty for its own sake. The violence in the novel isn’t sanitized, but it almost seems to be played off-stage.

Often Westerns are described as “spare,” but The Ploughmen is the opposite. Mr. Zupan’s prose, almost old-fashioned, given the novel’s contemporary setting, luxuriates in the Montana landscapes he knows so well; seldom have I been able to picture a place so clearly.

Far below through the greening trees he could almost see the place along the creek where they’d swum one afternoon in their courting days. To get there they pushed through undergrowth and came out near the creek and from the tall grass and thin willow stems at their elbows rose a cloud of small orange butterflies and they went before them on the warm air like a blizzard of flower petals strewn before heroes. (120)

Despite its beauty, at times the landscape, with its blizzards and wildlife and craggy ravines is just as brutal as John Gload’s hands. Valentine is used to seeing death from exposure, and John Gload has caused death by violence, but old age and sorrow too haunt the jail they share together.

The Ploughmen is about searching, no matter how little hope there is, and no matter how strange or difficult the object of the search.

Highly recommended reading. Also recommended: Rory’s wonderful review.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

On Meditation and Poetry and Neil Fischer’s Neil Fischer’s [As if the moon could haul through you]

CarolynOliver_MountAuburnCemetery_October2014I’ve been thinking about mindfulness lately, which is, I realize, sort of ridiculous; instead of thinking about mindfulness, I should just be mindful, right?

I do try, but then there’s always something in the back of my mind– a project for a client, how much Christmas gift-planning I have left (hey, I start early but my Decembers are very relaxed), books to read, reviews to write, wondering if my son will ever outgrow the vegetarian-except-for-bacon-phase, wondering what color I’d paint my front door if I owned a house with paintable front door (purple, but what shade?), how often I should be checking to see if Leonard Cohen is going on tour again,  which houseplant I’ve brought closest to death this week, how much I wish Parks & Rec season 7 was on right now . . . and so on.

I have a few friends who practice meditation,and they seem calmer and better adjusted than I feel, but every time I think about getting a meditation app or reading a book about how to meditate, I’m distracted by something (often a small something who likes to wear three shirts at once, demands very specific, non-findable episodes of Super Why, and recently expressed a need for a “poem-book,” thereby bringing his mother to tears).

Which is all a long way of saying that my one small step toward meditation is reading poetry. Sometimes—most of the time—I can’t read a full collection, but one poem? I can do that.

So this week I’ve been reading and re-reading Neil Fischer’s [As if the moon could haul through you], which is gorgeous, and is about clearing the mind, even if it fills the reader’s with heady images (“the purl of south-bending river”—I swooned, almost).

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner [Classics Club]

Angle of ReposeMy friend Mary gave me Angle of Repose for my birthday nearly six years ago. While I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me so very long to read it, I’m so very happy that I did. It’s both brilliant and controversial, and I can’t stop mulling it over.

Distinguished historian Lyman Ward suffers from an ossifying disease that’s cost him a leg, most of his mobility, and his wife. Ostensibly retired, he retreats to his grandparents’ former home to write a book—part novel, part biography—about the life of his accomplished and unusual grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. “My grandparents are a deep vein that has never been dug. They were people,” he says (22).

In the 1870s, Susan is an in-demand illustrator in New York, enjoying a life of cultured society and the companionship of her best friend, Augusta. When she meets Oliver Ward, a taciturn mining engineer, her life is turned upside-down. After a few years exchanging letters, she decides, for several reasons, to marry him, expecting that after he achieves success out West in the mining business, they’ll return to the comfort and civility of life in the East.

Success eludes them, first for one year, then two, and then on and on. Oliver is talented, fair, hardworking, and honest—too honest, sometimes. As the years go on, Susan learns to love the West’s vistas, its sense of freedom, and the circle of friends they bring together, but never lets go of her disappointments. There’s no triumphant return to the East, no grand house, no lively and varied intellectual culture at her fingertips. For his part, Oliver resents her disappointment, and feels his own missteps keenly.

Lyman’s book—he’s dictating it, and he often interrupts the narrative—follows them from town to camp to mesa, and begins to sputter out only when a true tragedy strikes.

Angle of Repose is controversial because Stegner based Susan Ward on a real woman, the prolific author and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, and used her personal letters and papers (as well as details from her biography) to construct his novel. A conservative estimate is that ten percent of the book was lifted directly from her writing. As this informative piece by Susan Salter Reynolds explains, he had the permission of at least one of Mary Hallock Foote’s heirs to use her work, but he did not reveal the extent of that use in the novel’s preface; his note is quite short and reads:

My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.

Despite the disclaimer, many of Mary Hallock Foote’s descendants resented the use of her biographical details (especially since Susan Ward’s conduct differs materially from what is known about Mary Hallock Foote’s), and her words.

I encourage you to read the article if you’re interested to learn more. If you’d like to read Mary Hallock Foote in her own words, look for A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, which is out of print but available on Amazon, and perhaps at your library.

If I were an author in a similar situation, I do not believe I would have felt comfortable, or ethical, for that matter, using another writer’s work without specifically acknowledging where in the book I had done so, and what changes I had made. Writers of historical fiction frequently note how their novels depart from the historical record, or mention a particularly helpful source of material, and I see no reason why Stegner could not have done so here. Angle of Repose is gorgeous, but it is not his work alone; it is also the work of Mary Hallock Foote, and Stegner was, as far as I can tell, too quick to write off her accomplishments.

I will say, however, that while I found the sections on Susan and Oliver Ward affecting, and found it difficult to read about their many disappointments and hardships, I think the best of the novel lies in Stegner’s creation of Lyman Ward.

Irascible, difficult, precise, honest, proud, and mostly unflinching, Lyman Ward is a wonderful narrator. His interruptions and disquisitions on the relation of the Victorian period to his own time are illuminating and often funny; his interactions with the people who care for him and help him are touching, but not pitiful. And the way he distrusts his family is fascinating.

I loved the way he conflates present and past, without ever wholly realizing that immersing himself in his grandmother’s life is a way for him to confront his present.

This present of 1970 is no more an extension of my grandparents’ world, this West is no more a development of the West they helped build, than the sea over Santorin is an extension of that once-island of rock and olives. My wife turns out after a quarter of a century to be someone I never knew, my son starts all fresh from his own premises. (18)

Sometimes he addresses his grandmother directly.

Thanks partly to your success in art, and more to the influence of Augusta and Thomas Hudson, you had gentility in your eye like a cinder, and there would be a lot of rubbing, reddening, and irritation before your tears flooded it out. (95)

This mannerism lessens as the novel goes on, perhaps because Lyman hires a young woman, an old friend’s daughter, to transcribe his tapes and help him with filing. Shelley makes him uncomfortable, especially when she asks his opinions on communal living and free love, which he gives honestly.

Stegner is revered as lion of Western literature—he taught everyone from Wendell Berry to Larry McMurtry—and he was also an important environmental activist. However, for all the Western beauty extolled, neither Lyman nor Susan nor Oliver seems particularly concerned about what the forces of modernization and progress did to the people who lived in the West before those forces’ arrival. And to a feminist reading in 2014, Lyman has his faults as a narrator; things I’d very much like to know about Susan, such as how she handled a miscarriage or how exactly she managed a continuing career (she often kept the family afloat financially) with childcare or what books she wanted her children to read, he tends to gloss over (though with the occasional joke that shows Stegner peeking through).

I have heard publishers, lamenting their hard life over Scotch and soda, complain that they must read a hundred bad manuscripts to find one good one. Having practiced the trade of history, I feel no stir of sympathy. A historian scans a thousand documents to find one fact that he can use. If he is working with correspondence, as I am, and with the correspondence of a woman to boot, he will wade toward his little islands of information through a dismal swamp of recipes, housekeeping details, children’s diseases, insignificant visitors, inconclusive conversations with people unknown to the historian, and recitation of what the writer did yesterday. (379)

Lyman Ward, in other words, is no Jane Austen or A. S. Byatt.

He is a near-perfectly realized character,, though, and in his own reflections on his grandparents’ marriage, he asks the questions all of us, readers and writers, ask ourselves, in one form or another, when we open a book:

Why then am I spending all this effort trying to understand my grandparents’ lives? [. . . ] Why do I drive my drifts and tunnels toward the hidden lode of Susan Ward’s woe? Is it love and sympathy that makes me think myself capable of reconstructing these lives, or am I, Nemesis in a wheelchair, bent on proving something—perhaps that not even gentility and integrity are proof against the corrosion of human weakness, human treachery, human inability to forget? (439-40)

The answer to his last question is yes.