Among the major literary genres, the Western probably makes me the most wary. Not only have I read precious few books within it, but I am also unfamiliar with other iterations, whether on TV or in the movies. (Except for Justified. Is that a Western?) John Wayne for me is nothing but a name that personifies the cookie-cutter Hollywood Hero. My only way in is country music and… that’s about it.
It’s also a genre that seems so heavily nostalgic for the geographical and historical specifics of the United States to the point that it lionizes episodes of systematic institutional violence such as Manifest Destiny, the uprooting and genocide of Native Americans, and so on. So I guess it’s appropriately ironic that my first foray into the Western is a novel written by a Canadian writer. (Though to be fair, he is a current resident of Oregon according to Wikipedia.)
The premise of Patrick deWitt’s Booker-nominated novel The Sisters Brothers is as simple as it is thrilling: notorious siblings Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired by an Oregon bigwig called the Commodore to travel to California and kill a man. What transpires is an archetypal roadtrip story, except the protagonists are on horseback. Continue reading
1st Diary Entry – Wolf Hall
2nd Diary Entry – Wolf Hall
There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.
The storytelling structure becomes more or less conventional once Thomas Cromwell becomes the top dog in the eyes of both Henry VIII and the Boleyns. In the early parts of the novel, Henry was a sort of misguided yet not entirely unlikeable character, but by the end he has become a right bastard. Is it weird that I still root for Thomas Cromwell despite the fact that he is largely responsible for Henry’s descent into assholery? That’s what a masterful command of point-of-view can do, I guess.
1st Diary Entry – Wolf Hall
I really need to buckle down if I am to finish reading this book by Tuesday. A big chunk of this post is full of spoilers so consider this a warning, though I’m not sure how I can possibly spoil a novel based on 400-year old historical events….
Halfway through Wolf Hall, Cardinal Wolsey is dead and Thomas Cromwell’s star is on the rise. The very people who orchestrated his patron’s downfall–the Boleyns and the Howards–have all turned their flowery attentions on to him. Even the king himself is intrigued by his seemingly foolhardy loyalty towards Wolsey, though Henry VIII gradually starts valuing him for his shrewd mind and candid attitude. From being a mere blacksmith’s son, Cromwell is now one of the most admired men within the king’s court.
(Not the cover of my copy but I like this one a lot more!)
While I’ve known the basics of Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn saga, I have to confess that I only know of a few major players such as Cardinal Wolsey from what I’ve seen on the Bravo TV show The Tudors, which is wildly inaccurate to say the least. So Hilary Mantel’s depiction is informed and contradicted by what popular culture tells me about this historical moment. That Anne Boleyn is a seductress that almost brought an empire to its knees. That Henry will forever be known for having six wives and disposing of them in horrific ways. This is something that Wolf Hall takes into account without addressing it overtly.
Wolf Hall is surprisingly modern, but I don’t quite know how to convey that through textual evidence. It just feels that way to me. Part of it is the prose–it does away with leisurely sentences that writers often use to signal that a novel is historical. The juxtaposition of the pomposity and machination within the king’s court with the clipped, precise sentences that describe them can be jarring, but I find it incredibly effective.
A couple of pages before finishing The Alienist, I declared that it is the most complete mystery I have ever read. Months after finishing this book, I still don’t think that was hyperbole. Using the milieu of New York City in the middle of the Gilded Age, historian-turned-novelist Caleb Carr pits the emerging phenomenon of the serial killer against the pioneers of what would become criminal profiling in this fascinating example of a historical thriller.
At the center of the story is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an engimatic alienist–early word for psychiatrist–who is attempting to solve a series of gruesome murders targeting boy prostitutes in 1896 New York. He faces challenges from all sides: notorious proponents of morality are unwilling to accept the existence of boy prostitutes (or any form of homosexual trade) in the first place, and policemen of the time are violently opposed to any form of scientific inquiry into the criminal mind. With the help of a young, reform-minded Theodore Roosevelt, Kreizler creates a small team of intelligent and determined proto-profilers who gather material and pyschological evidence in order to create the portrait of an urban predator.
Day 14 – Favorite character in a book
Jonathan Strange from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
I have already written about some of my favorite characters in my previous meme entries (Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Chabon’s Sam Klayman, Frances Hardinge’s Mosca Mye). Jonathan Strange and his quest to save the woman he loves is the driving force behind Susanna Clarke’s sprawling doorstopper of a debut novel.
In the book, I loved the anecdotes of Strange gallivanting around Europe trying to help the English forces defeat Napoleon. He is made of both genius and madness, a man who managed to show up Lord Byron. Just when you have him pegged as a dandy seduced by the prospect of magic but who is ultimately not taking it seriously, a personal tragedy adds layers to his character.
Day 09 – Best scene ever
The final reveal of the villain in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
Of course I’m not going to spoil you with what actually happens. Sufficed to say, however, the final discovery by William of Baskerville about the mastermind behind the series of murders inside an Italian abbey stands apart as one of the very few thoroughly satisfying denouements I’ve ever encountered in mystery fiction. The reveal builds upon the series of events which includes an actual inquisition, rife with dread and uncertainty that is characteristic of the Dark Ages. When the clues show that the deaths aren’t the done by the hand of a supernatural being but engineered by a very human mind, the implications doesn’t actually get any less terrifying.
It’s quite difficult to explain the significance of this scene without actually revealing much of the plot. The Name of the Rose is a daunting read but it is so, so worth the effort. If you’re into mystery, post-modernism, and the value of books and stories, you will find it very rewarding.