Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

One of my first exposures to dystopian fiction (after Orwell, of course) was the incomparable Margaret Atwood.  While not all of her writings fall into the genre, it’s been my experience that some of her best works describe some form of a society gone wrong.  To me, the Atwood’s flagship novel in this genre has always been The Handmaid’s Tale.  I read it first while in my mid-teens, and again just this weekend; needless to say, I still think it’s one of the most creative and best-told stories I’ve ever read in my life.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a hard book to review in some ways.  There are two reasons for this; the first is that the whole of the history and functioning of the dystopian society is never quite revealed (and what is told is told in pieces that are laid out before the reader like a trail of bread crumbs); the second is the ending cannot, for any reason, be revealed until you reach it.  I’m of the opinion that ruining the ending of this book is probably the worst thing a book fan could ever do.

So, a quick (and unrevealing) word on the plot.  We meet the main character about 3 years into a fundamentalist Christian take-over of the American government.  Society has become centered on the Christian Bible, and a totalitarian state; gender-rolls have become highly ‘traditionalized’; and procreation is of the utmost importance to the society.  The reader is given some insights into how the totalitarian take-over occurred; they see the occasional interaction between men and woman in this new gender-dynamic; but the main story is centered around this obsession with procreation and what impact it has on women.  

It is hard to describe any of the novel’s characters as engaging; as with many dystopian fictions, I find I’m always more interested in getting an over-view of the society and how it all went wrong.  To me, in a dystopian fiction, if the society is engaging, it carries the same weight as a personal attachment that I usually look for in a story’s characters.  Atwood’s creation of a time and place that is at once shockingly familiar and upsettingly different has this sense of engagement for me.  I would have liked even more information on the society, but the “Historical Note” at the very end of the book does fill in some holes (which, I’ll admit, the 16-year-old me didn’t read the first time I read the novel; I guess it never occurred to me that it would be someway related to the story).

The reason that I chose to re-read this book is because it appears on my EW Classic Closing Lines reading challenge.  I’ll give you the line here, but it will mean nothing to you unless you’ve got the context for it:

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

I cried the first time I read that line – within the context of the book’s climax and ending, it is incredibly haunting.  But the line itself isn’t as powerful as some of the others on EW’s list (just think of A Tale of Two Cities!).  I think The Handmaid’s Tale made it onto this list because the ending is one of the best and most impactful endings in modern western literature.

So, final verdict?  No surprise here – go out and read this book.  The world Atwood created in engaging and dynamic and, as it should be with a dystopian fiction, incredibly believable.  It’s hard for me to tell you too much about the book without ruining it, and I never want to do that for any book, let alone one as great as this.  The Handmaid’s Tale is truly one of Atwood’s greatest books, and it deserves a place in everyone’s personal literary tradition.  

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

The first thing I said when I finished my latest read was “Really?  That book got a bunch of acclaim?  Hun.”  I recently finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the book which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which was pimped hard-core by Chapters for over a year, and which a lot of people (whom I respect) speak highly of.  And yet, I don’t get it.

Wolf Hall is yet another addition to the cannon of Tutor literature; the twist, however, is that it tells the tale of Thomas Cromwell.  The problem is, Mantel seems unsure which tale she wants to tell – Cromwell’s professional rise, or his personal life.  Had she written solely about his professional rise, I think I would have been interested, but not engaged – everyone knows the story of Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man, who became Henry’s right-hand man until he (like Wolsey) could no longer deliver on expectation.  What would have made this re-telling of oft-tread ground interesting would be the new angle; very few fictional histories come at events from Cromwell’s perspective, and most paint him as a villain.

The far more interesting tale, which I wish Mantel had told, would have been of Cromwell’s personal life.  The vilification of Cromwell is almost common-place in Tutor historical fiction; he’s the blacksmith’s son who supports Wolsey until the Cardinal is on the outs with the King, then he deserts him, or he’s the man who helped the Boleyn’s in their rise to power until they’re on the outs with the King, then he deserts them, or he supports the King’s marriage plans until he can’t deliver and the King deserts him.  But every story has two sides – what made him the man he was that brought him to these impasses?  A history of Cromwell the person would have been an interesting addition to the literary tradition.

But Mantel does neither.  Rather, she straddles the fence and gives half an account of each.  To be fair, so much of Cromwell’s personality and personal life were wrapped up in his work, but Mantel somehow falls short; she isn’t able to pick a lane and stick with it to further develop her plot.  An odd dynamic, however, is that her Cromwell has moments of sheer humanity that make him engaging; the problem is that these moments are few and far between.  Some judicious editing would have helped her cause of presenting a humanized Cromwell.

Besides the fundamental problem this book presents of not being sure of what it’s trying to do for Cromwell, I found it almost unreadable.  For whatever reason, Mantel has decided that she is not bound by traditional conventions about punctuation and clarity; it takes 5-10 minutes of reading to get into a rhythm to come to an understanding of her thought process; without punctuation its hard to tell who is talking; she almost never refers to Cromwell when he’s speaking (instead referring to Cromwell as ‘him’); she jumps from one train of thought to the next without any sort of section break; and it is often impossible to tell who is in a particular scene without back-tracking and rereading to put the puzzle together.  As an illustration (from page 203):

‘She can stand it,’ he says, and Mary says, indeed, she likes a skirmish with someone on her own level.  What are you working there? he asks, and she shows him.  It is Anne’s new coat of arms.  On everything, I suppose, he says, and she smiles broadly, oh yes, her petticoats, her handkerchiefs, her coifs and her veils’ she has garments that no one ever wore before, just so she can have her arms sewn on, not to mention the wall hangings, the table napkins…
‘And how are you?’
She looks down, glance swiveling away from him.  ‘Worn down.  Frayed a little, you might say.  Christmas was…’
‘They quarreled.  So one hears.’

The first paragraph is an exchange between Cromwell and Mary Boleyn, then there is a more traditionally presented exchange between them right below.  The fact that Mantel will and won’t respect punctuation rules at will is incredibly distracting and, in retrospect, I can’t believe I read through 650 pages of it.

A final note, on the title Wolf Hall.  This is probably the worst chosen title I’ve seen in a long time.  Wolf Hall was the country estate of the Seymour family; Jane Seymour (future wife to Henry) makes the occasional appearance here and there throughout the tale, but at no time in this story do Henry or Cromwell visit, none of the action occurs there, and the tale covers a period when the Seymours were, if not in decline, than stagnating at Court.  I think she picked the title because the last passage of the book relates Cromwell’s plan to have Henry stop there as part of his last summer progress with Anne, implying this is when Jane will come to his attention, leading to the end of his second marriage.  Wolf Hall (and the people who inhabit it) are of so little consequence to the story that it seems like Mantel is setting herself up for a sequel.

Final verdict?  I honestly can’t recommend you read this book; it is slowly paced, more often than not confusing, and so close to being something different (something better) that you pick up on it as you read which ruins the reading.  My MA thesis supervisor used to tell me to not wish an author had written something different – it’s their work, they can do as they please, and if you feel they missed the mark, you should write it as you think it should be written.  I often thought of this advice while reading Wolf Hall, and maybe I am being too harsh on it, but as this blog is about my opinions, I get to say what I want.  What I want to say is, avoid Mantel as an author.
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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Darcy's Passions, by Regina Jeffers

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I have something of an addictive personality.  When I got back into drinking tea, I dropped over $150 in buying Twinnings while I was in London; when I knit, I don’t just make myself a scarf, I make myself several scarves and some for my friends; when I find an author I like, I buy and read all their works in quick succession.  So, really, no one should be surprised that following my reading of Pride and Prejudice, I decided to read an homage to Austin’s master-piece which tell the same story (and a little extra) from Mr. Darcy’s point of view.

Darcy’s Passions, by self-professed Austin-addict Regina Jeffers, is the second-half of Austin’s story.  P&P is the telling of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s love story from her perspective; as Jeffers (rightly) points out, Darcy is a secondary character in P&P who isn’t actually around very much.  Jeffers set out to give readers an impression of what Darcy was thinking and feeling throughout the tumultuous year that was Elizabeth and Darcy’s courtship.

The premise for the book is, obviously, Darcy’s three passions: the love of his life, Elizabeth; his ancestral estate, Pemberley; and his little sister, Georgiana.  Jeffers does a great job in expressing the emotional turmoil that Darcy faces in trying to reconcile all three.  In what is probably one of the worst proposals in literary history, Austin has Darcy tell Elizabeth that despite everything she is, he fell in love with her; Jeffers picked up this prideful and prejudicial comment (see what I did there?) and ran with it – pre-proposal Darcy is an arrogant twat; post-proposal Darcy is a kind and respectful character.  Jeffers uses the few indicators provided to us by Austin in the original work to be guide-posts for her own Darcy’s character development; an admirable decision.

If there is one flaw in this work, it’s that the author is trying to capture the voice of the Regency-era female writer too hard.  Jeffers doesn’t end her tale where Austin did – rather, the reader is treated to an insight into Darcy and Elizabeth’s first two months of marriage.  For readers who love the original story, this is like a little bonus.  However, the profuse expressions of love from Elizabeth and Darcy get to be so repetitive that one might almost wish this peek behind the curtain didn’t happen.  A major complaint of contemporaries about female authors was that the voice of their male characters weren’t sincere; clearly written by a woman, the male voice because overly effusive in proclamation of love.  Critics felt that ‘real’ men of the era would never do this.  (This was something Austin never did in P&P, but that I commented on in my review of Jane Eyre.)  Jeffers, however, falls into this trap.  For lack of a better description, it’s like two thirteen year old Justin Beiber fans got married and can’t stop telling each other how much they love being together and why.  It gets old.  Fast.

But, that’s the beauty of fan-fiction.  The author gets to do whatever they’d like to the characters.  (And thank god this isn’t a horribly modern-iteration with all the homo-erotic undertones that usually go along with the genre.)  Being so beloved, Austin’s work(s) is a lightening-rod for modern authors who want to pick up where she left off and give readers more details.  You can’t walk through a Chapters without spotting at least a half-dozen of these types of work.  I don’t think I’ll explore anymore though; I like how Jeffers explored and fleshed out the tale, and I’m perfectly content to live with her interpretation of what happened next.

So, final verdict?  Read Pride and Prejudice.  I know, that’s not what you’re expecting, but how can I tell you to read Darcy’s Passions if you don’t read the inspiration for the work first?  Now, once you’ve read P&P, Darcy’s Passions is a great idea.  In terms of Austin-inspired work it’s charming and does a great job at filling in holes, and giving readers a satisfying conclusion.  It might be a little too self-aware in certain passages, but these are easily overlooked in favour of the whole story.  However, since I’ve not read any other P&P fan fiction (with the exception of the P&P&Zombies series, and that doesn’t count), I can’t tell you how this one stacks up against the rest.  But, I enjoyed it, and I would recommend it to others.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

One of my quirks is an ability (if not a compulsion) to re-watch movies and tv shows and re-read books almost constantly.  I understand from others that this isn’t common – many people feel that once a book is finished, they never have the patience to go back and read it a second time.  That’s not a problem I have; if it’s a good book, I can almost guarantee a second reading, if not a third or fourth (but not back-to-back).  To me, re-watching movies/tv and re-reading books is like slipping into a second-day pair of jeans; you know it’s a good fit, and you’ve already broken them in, so you also know it’s going to be comfortable.  

My latest read, Pride and Prejudice definitely falls into that category, and it was almost inevitable that it would end up there.  In 2005, a cinematic re-telling of the story was put out, staring Kiera Knightly and Matthew MacFayden; that was also around the time that I was thinking that I wanted to specialize in Regency-era British History.  In a perfect storm of timing, this is also when I fell in with a group of friends who had read and loved it, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was released.  It all added up to my need to know what all the buzz was about, so I read P&P for the first time.

The story and characters are so well known, that I almost think it’s unnecessary to go over them in a book review.  It is one of the enduring ‘boy meets girl’ love stories of our Western literary zeitgeist and that in and of itself is odd; Jane Austen was writing in an era of rigid social expectation, in which women had few options in what they could do with their lives, and woman from the higher echelons of society had even fewer – a woman in Austen’s social circle could either marry, or be single and be ridiculed for being a spinster.  But everyone knows Jane Austen’s personal story: proposed to, she turned the man down and never did marry; what she did do was go on to write some of the most beloved love stories to ever grace our bookshelves.  Austen died a spinster, but she also died as an author whose works are still read and re-read to this day.

What makes her works popular (both now and then, and in my opinion), is their honesty; Jane Austen was a keen observer of human foibles and never shied from committing them to paper.  In what is, perhaps, one of the most famous lines Austen ever wrote (and which comes from P&P), she encompasses her honesty and observant nature:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

With that opening line, Austen launches into a character study that is pitch-perfect.  In a society rigidly structured around etiquette, Austen found the humour in characters who felt they either had to hold the polite-line, or felt they had to buck it.  The characters in P&P fall almost entirely into either camp, and those that don’t are simply back-ground players.  For their honesty and sincerity, the entire cast of characters in P&P is endearing, something I relate to every time I read this work.

While I won’t comment on the content of the plot, I will comment on plot development.  So many of the ‘Classics’ (I find) tend to stagnate and slow-down at random intervals.  Often times the reader is subjected to morality lessons in-between plot development that slows the pace even more.  This is never a consideration in P&P; maybe it’s because the story is so well known that I know where all the twists and turns will be, but regardless, the plot is always moving forward in some fashion, which is a breath of fresh air for a work penned in the 1800s.

So, final verdict.  Read it, of course.  This is a massive piece of our literary zeitgeist.  I don’t think you would have a conversation with woman of a certain temperament and/or education about literature and not acknowledge that this work is more than likely a shared experience.  But more than just wanting to be part of the literary ‘in-crowd,’ this work is incredibly moving, relevant, and engaging, even 200 years after it was written.  Granted, this work won’t be for everyone – though (most) people will still be able to relate to the characters and emotions, it is written in contemporary language, meaning some of the vocabulary and sentence structures are not what we are used it.  But, I encourage you to look past that and push through.  In the end, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for what one of the most celebrated western authors was able to accomplish, and one of the best-loved ‘boy-meets-girl’ stories every put down on paper.  
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