Saturday, August 25, 2012

Deliverance (by James Dickey)

Never having seen the movie Deliverance, all I knew about the story was something vague about banjos and men getting raped. And hillbillies. Turns out this was accurate, except there are also canoes.

As soon as I finished it, I talked to Ian about it (he has seen the movie but not read the book) and it sounds like the film and novel mesh pretty well: all the moments that stuck out in my mind also stuck out in his the same way--the kid playing the banjo accompanied by Drew on guitar, the increasing tension, the paranoia at the end, the sense that the characters Will Never Be The Same. The other thing that sticks out in my mind that Ian can't remember is the guy climbing the cliff in the moonlight. What a scene!

The books at the end of my Time 100 list have been pretty sloggy--Augie March was horrible, The Recognitions is enjoyable but incredibly long, Blood Meridian was just grim. Deliverance isn't exactly cheery, but the prose is very clear and vivid, the pace is fast, the story is exciting. It's a good read.

"I touched the knife hilt at my side, and remembered that all men were once boys, and that boys are always looking for ways to become men. Some of the ways are easy, too; all you have to do is be satisfied that it has happened."


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Wolf Hall (by Hilary Mantel)

Backdating this post since I finished it two days ago, just in time for my book group meeting on Thursday night! Even though the book is 600 pages long, we had six book group members in attendance and all of us had finished it. And it was a great discussion as well.

This book is the first in a planned trilogy about the reign of Henry VIII from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell. It starts as Henry's busy ditching wife #1 and ends when he's with Anne Boleyn, and with the death of Thomas More. You do probably need a certain amount of background knowledge of the time period to enjoy the book, but I wouldn't say a ton. (Knowing the name of Henry VIII's third wife certainly helps.)

I enjoyed the book, but in my opinion it doesn't hold a candle to Antonia Fraser's Wives of Henry VIII, which is an amazing nonfiction book that covers all of Henry's marriages. It's also not as breezy and trashy as The Other Boleyn Girl. (Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize, so I don't think it's going for "trashy" at all.)

The one thing that really bugs me about how it is written is Mantel's use of pronouns. She uses "he" to mean Cromwell even when Cromwell is not grammatically the referent of the pronoun. So it reads very confusingly. Sometimes you have no idea who is actually doing something, since at any given moment, "he" could either be the person who makes grammatical sense, or Cromwell. This is incredibly annoying. The beginning of the book also jumps around a lot in time, for no real reason.

One of our book group friends, Laura, theorized that the "he" thing is to remind us constantly that the book is from Cromwell's subjective point of view. (She also has started the next book in the trilogy, and said Mantel stopped doing that with the pronouns, apparently because everyone in the world complained about it.) We also talked a bit about the title--Wolf Hall is the home of Jane Seymour, who is a minor figure in this book. I think it represents the coming downfall of Anne Boleyn, personally. Someone else mentioned the court being like a hall of wolves, which is certainly also accurate.

We also discussed Cromwell's blind spots in terms of his loyalty to Cardinal Wolsey (at the beginning) and Henry himself, which confused some people. I said that the book begins with Cromwell's beating by his abusive father to explain this very thing--he's searching for a father figure, and thus his blind loyalty to the two men that he serves. (Without the book club discussion, I would not have come up with this theory, but I like it, so here it is.)

So there you go. I think we all enjoyed reading and discussing this one, even if it's neither as historically rich as Fraser's work or as unapologetically trashy as The Other Boleyn Girl. But if you're fascinated by the time period and don't mind 600 pages of pronoun fuckery, this might be the book for you!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Blood Meridian (by Cormac McCarthy)

This novel was difficult for me to read. Not because of the unrelenting and grotesque violence (which there is plenty of, described in the most dispassionate manner possible), but because of descriptions of scenery. Oh, descriptions of scenery. 

I've talked about this before, but a few years ago I realized that whenever I zone out on what I'm reading, it is inevitably on a description of scenery. Descriptions of people, of emotional states, of action, I'm fine with. But for some reason, it's difficult for me to concentrate through descriptions of scenery. And this book is like *evocative and poetic description of bleak scenery* *dispassionate recounting of savage violence* *more scenery described at length* *maybe someone says a sentence or does something* *but then there is more scenery again*

This might sound like I'm faulting the book, but in fact, the descriptions are great. They are so cinematic. I couldn't stop thinking about the Coen brothers' version of No Country for Old Men. I have not read the book, but the movie landscape really stuck with me as a visual memory. This has a similar type of feeling, a bleak and harsh landscape so evocatively described that you can see it in front of you with a terrible beauty.

The Road is similarly bleak, but it isn't all about the scenery and the violence, since it also has characters you can really feel for. The closest thing Blood Meridian has to a protagonist is introduced as a cruel and amoral killer with a thirst for violence. It's only relative to another character who is even more cruel and even more amoral that he becomes at all sympathetic, and even then, it all happens in the last few chapters.

Plotwise, Blood Meridian explores the historical account of bloody and lawless warfare on the U.S./Mexico border, including the slaughter of native Americans and the slaughter of buffalo, but generally encompassing the slaughter of just about everyone. It's been compared to Moby-Dick and I agree that it says something uniquely American about how these characters view the world and the landscape. They see it as theirs to shape and theirs for the taking, except that nature (both the natural world and the baser instincts of human nature) can be overwhelming and pull them down.

I liked this snippet from Wikipedia: "A major theme is the warlike nature of man. Critic Harold Bloom praised Blood Meridian as one of the best 20th century American novels... but admitted that he found the book's pervasive violence so distasteful that he had several false starts before reading the book entirely." Distasteful is a good word. In addition to the violence against men, women, children, and animals, the characters refer to an "idiot" who is kept in a cage as "it" and they throw the n-word around a lot. I know it's appropriate to the characters, but I find it even more distasteful than the violence, personally. So, you know, to sum up, it isn't exactly a fun read. But it certainly packs a punch.

It's a mystery. A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.