Wolves, Swords, Council Estates: What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been largely off this blogging grid for the past few weeks, spending most of my waking hours with my students who are preparing their college applications (and learning that, yes, deadlines are deadlines are deadlines), getting LAR issue 12 into the world, finishing LAR issue 13, working on my plans for my book’s release in just a few short months, and finishing my work in progress. Somewhere in there I’ve found time to read, thank goodness. I’m of the belief that one can’t be a good writer without being a voracious reader, so if I want any of my projects to succeed, I’d better keep up the reading pace.

Here are some assorted thoughts on what’s occupied my reading life lately:

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

I’d resisted picking this book up for some time; I’m pretty sure the Tudors have been well covered, and despite the time I spent living in England (or perhaps because of it), I’m not a huge anglophile who revels in the lives of the royals. However, given that this author’s now the lucky winner of two Bookers, I decided I should probably give her a chance. I’m about halfway through Wolf Hall, and it’s slow going not only because of its sheer length, but also because I find I need to keep a Wikipedia page open as I read. (No, I haven’t forgotten my Who’s Who Among Henry VIII’s Wives. I just need to be reminded of who played the characters in the Showtime series The Tudors.) 

I’m not yet sure I understand the fuss about this book. Sure, it’s heartening to see our old friend Thomas Cromwell depicted as the goodie and the self-righteous Thomas More as the baddie, but beyond that point of interest, I’m not certain Wolf Hall is adding all that much to our literary landscape. I also feel compelled to read the book with a bottle of White-Out in hand to correct the wonky punctuation issues throughout the book. Mantel does not hold with the rules of coordination and subordination.

NW, Zadie Smith

Here’s the thing about experimental literature: experiments sometimes fail. Smith pushes the limitations of point of view, proportion, and characterization in this novel, but I’m tempted to say she pushed them to the cracking point. It’s entirely possible that I’m just a stodgy reader, but I think there’s much to be said for the progress we as writers have made over the last few centuries. Through a great deal of trial and error, we’ve developed techniques that work for our readers. We don’t have to feel bound to those techniques, of course, but neither do we need to throw them away in order to make fiction feel new and fresh. Experimentation is not inherently good.

The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling

I read Rowling’s and Smith’s books back to back, and was surprised by how much similar territory they occupy. Both books deal with life in and around British council estates, the middle-class hypocrisy that surrounds discussions of such housing estates, and the lives of those who’ve left but feel inexplicably drawn back to them.  I’m surprised to find myself saying this, but I think Rowling did the superior job.

The Casual Vacancy is not a perfect book by any means, and many of its flaws are also, oddly enough, mirror images of NW’s: in both books, the authors kills off one character in a rather clumsy way for the sole purpose of allowing a more important character to have A Big Emotional Response, and both authors go in for some cliched characterizations. On the whole, though, I think Rowling fares much better in her handling of her material. Her characters, unlike Smith’s, are at least likable. We want them to succeed. We leave the book with a sense of humanity, and I appreciate that.

The Fifty-Year Sword, Mark Danielewski

(Yes, I’m hyphenating Fifty-Year. You’re welcome.) I have such a complicated relationship with Mr. Danielewski. House of Leaves is one of my favorite contemporary novels, and I give out copies to friends the way people who use Pinterest appear give out undesirable crafts in mason jars. But Only Revolutions, his follow-up, gave me so much frustration that I wanted to throw the book at the wall. I had high hopes that Mark and I would be back on good terms with the advent of The Fifty-Year Sword, and I even sprang for the enhanced digital version of the book. Maybe the digital format, with the sad little animations of burning candles, musical accompaniments that sounded like they’d been played on a child’s toy keyboard, and text that evaporated off the page before I’d had a chance to read it, was a big part of the problem. I appreciated that Danielewski’s publisher was willing to try something new by adding value to the digital book format, but I think the final product was somehow unfortunate. I may give the book a try on paper and hope for better results.

What do you say, readers? What should I put on my reading list after I finish Wolf Hall?

2 Replies to “Wolves, Swords, Council Estates: What I’ve Been Reading”

  1. Dear Kelly, Have you read “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey? It’s not a perfect book, but I liked the writing and the idea of the re-writing of the classic fairy tale. (Although I have to admit wanting to “Fix” several things about her book.)
    Also, some oldies that are fantastic: Blue Bamboo by Osamu Dazai, and if you’re in the mood for a Downton Abbey meets Virginia Woolf fix, “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.”

  2. I’ve not heard of The Snow Child–it sounds fascinating (and, as you can see, I’m open to reading with white-out in hand for touch-ups!). I’m also not familiar with Blue Bamboo. This is great–my to-read list is growing. Thanks!

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