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Well, I’ve decided to resume writing these little asides after a hiatus involving a long trip away and settling back in to drudgy life/work/study etc. Books are seriously a ray of sunshine through life. When I think about what makes me happy these days all I generally come up with is my husband (legend) and reading.

Anyway. I’ve just finished reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and it was beautiful. I think having lived in Japan for so many years had a massive impact on the way David Mitchell told this story. While these stories of cultural contact are sometimes told from a foreign, outsider perspective where everything is foreign, strange and sometimes barbaric, this story was told from multiple perspectives, including Japanese and female. Also, the opening chapter was arresting and I thought about it for days afterwards, what a great way to start a book. It was visceral, engrossing, adrenalin inducing. ImageI won’t write too much about it now, but I found the ending very moving, even though it was sped through in a matter of pages. I’m relieved there was a resolution, I was prepared for none, and as with Cloud Atlas it seems kinda of inevitable that time progresses and people die and are born and keep dying.

In between Game of Thrones and now, I have read a stack of books while travelling through Japan and Bali. It began with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and it really was a great book. It annoyed me at first and took me quite some time to get used to the style, but once I did I found it funny and unexpected and a great yarn. Very clever ending also.

After that was a spate of Agatha Christie novels or stories which all kind of blur together now. They are unexpectedly funny, not nearly as prudish as I would have thought, but they are tragically romantic. It fills in the time though, and I was becoming adept at predicting the plot arc of stories by the end. The Harlequin Man had to be one of the more unusual, with Mr Harley Quin the elusive figure throughout.

I also read (am I allowed to say voraciously? That isn’t too wanky?) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel and thought it was fantastic. Completely original, exciting, intriguing etc. I think I enjoyed Sonmi’s story the best and the story on Ha’wai told by Zachry is the one I think about the most. It took me a good while to adjust to the vernacular but I managed just fine. The story of Tim Cavendish was hilarious and also kinda terrifying. That idea of ending up in a nursing home against your will and having to convince people you aren’t crazy is not a pleasant one to dwell on. But I think I had a bit of trouble over the first story, of Adam Ewing. The story of the Moriori, which I initially thought was fabricated but now know if based on historical sources, was confronting and challenging. I had a hard time seeing the justice in portraying the Maori as colonising murderous folk in the context of the colonisation happening to them also. But then when I think about it in the context of the rest of the stories, I can see perhaps he was making a point about civilisations eating themselves regardless of race and cultural context. I liked that he didn’t make too much of the mystical links of humanity which the film seems to have done, I’m interested to know how they manage that. Overall a really great story. Sentiment tempered, loves realistic, fates uncertain and sometimes futile. Sounds kinda grim but it really wasn’t.

I’m now reading something completely different, for a bit of levity. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I catch myself smiling like a maniac, despite the preachy tone of Marmie. When I was a kid I loved the movie and thought my sister was Meg, while fancying myself as Jo. I certainly have Jo’s temper!

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Look who hasn’t written a post on their blog in a long time. And you wanna know why? BECAUSE I’VE BEEN READING GODDAMN GAME OF THRONES.

I’m now on to book five and I just don’t have it in me to go back and remember the different qualities of each book and review them separately. They have all been amazingly well written, which is a pretty substantial feat for fantasy novels to sustain such quality over a long time. The characters are complicated and tortured and I like it.

At this point I’m worried for Arya, as the last time I was with her in book four something pretty big happened and now I don’t know what to think. Also the same re. Brienne, I need for these things to be resolved somewhat before the end of book five!

So that is what I have been reading. The last non-fantasy book I read was Bring up the Bodies, and even that was historical fiction. What a strange year it has been for reading.

Oh boy. This book took me a LONG time to read! I think I finally understand why people with full time jobs struggle to read any books. This one seriously should not have taken so long, it was much shorter than Wolf Hall.

This was really a fantastic book. I kept reading through and being struck by how wonderful her writing is. She is so clever, so witty and it comes through clearly. As with Wolf Hall, Mantel gives Cromwell such life, personality and colour to make him relateable, sympathetic and likeable. He loves his family and cares for them so tenderly. He is in awe of Rafe and the man he is becoming, and is so touchingly protective of his son Gregory. I think perhaps a reason it took me so long to read this book was because I had this sense of impending doom. I don’t want Cromwell to die and yet I know he does, and horribly so.

She also does a beautiful job of giving humanity to Henry, a figure that is so often depicted in film and tv. She covers such well trodden ground in this planned trilogy, yet by looking at the events from Cromwell’s perspective it is fresh, vibrant and unexpected. Henry is vulnerable, confused and verging on addled in his mind. You get a real sense reading this book that power during this period was so very tenuous, brought most clearly into perspective when Henry is knocked off his horse and the attendants think him dead. This passage was so fast paced and exciting and the reality of life without Henry is quickly and starkly depicted. And it is a terrifying vision for many of the characters that we grow to be fond of.

I really enjoy her writing, and I find it really frustrating trying to convince people to read these books. They are truly so much more than just books about Tudor England or Thomas Cromwell,. “England in winter: the pall of sliding snow, blanketing the fields and palace roofs, smothering tile and gable, slipping silent over window glass; feathering the rutted tracks, weighting the boughs of oak and yew, sealing the fishes under ice and freezing the bird to the branch.” I love how she describes the scene so beautfully, yet she never resorts to cliches. It is almost as though the words glide across the page.

The events in the novel shift in the smallest movements. There are rarely sudden jumps when she shocks you with some revelation or another, but subtle movements that build to a massive whole. At the beginning of the book Anne is firmly the Queen, safe in her position although slightly weakened by the King’s attentions towards Jane. By the end she is dead. Bereft of her head, the men entangled in her circumstances also decpitated. The following passage is a good example of these shifts. Before this passage Anne was firmly the queen, and following this passage the movements shift further towards her death.

“It seems he will not name her, Anna Bolena, La Ana, the concubine. So, if she harms the king, would it be the act of a good Englishman to remove her? The possibility lies between them, approached but still unexplored. It is treason, of course, to speak against the present queen and her heirs; a treason from which the king alone is exempt, for he could not violate his own interest.”

So often I was just amazed at how wonderful a writer she is. She doesn’t really go for the shock and awe kind of writing, but is very much about the subtle workings of Cromwell’s mind. The following is from the trial of George Boleyn, where Cromwell dislays his tactical intelligence and his sense of place in a courtroom.

“Certain words are written here, which the queen is said to have spoken to you, and you in your turn passed them on. You need not read them aloud. Just tell the court, do you recognise these words?’
George smiles in disdain. Relishing the moment, he smirks: he takes a breath; he reads the words aloud. ‘The kind cannot copulate with a woman, he has neither the skill nor vigour.’
He has read it because he thinks the crowd will like it. And so they do, though the laughter is shocked, incredulous. But from his judges – and it is they who matter – there is an audible hiss of deprecation.
George looks up. He throws out his hands. ‘These are not my words. I do not own them.’ But he owns them now. In one moment of bravado, to get the applause of the crowd, he has impugned the succession, derogated the king’s heirs: even thought he was cautioned not to do it.”

I can’t say that I am really looking forward to the next book, as it brings us closer to Cromwell’s death. But I am really fascinated to see how she deals with the final stages of his life. Hilary Mantel is funny (I love how she has Cromwell name Wriothesley ‘Call-Me’), so in tune with Cromwell as a real person and as a writer, she just keeps getting better.

Now reading: Game of Thrones (predictable but true)

So I was just chatting with my Mum on Facebook and she was complaining about going to Sydney on the weekend to go to the Sydney Writers Festival. She commented that her friend had only organised “some lame thing for an hr on sunday”.

Since when do grandmothers in their fifties say ‘lame’? And are all Primary School teachers this lax with their grammar?

Anyway.

E: “Who is the author?”

Mother-dearest: “Hilary Mantel”.

E: “WHAAAAAAAT!!!!!?????”

My blood pressure has only just returned to normal.

I’m that excited right now. I just read Geraldine Brooks’ review of Hilary Mantel’s new novel, Bring Up the Bodies. Isn’t it funny how literary loves intersect?

The Guardian also have an extract of the new novel and there is the full first chapter from the Readings website.

       

Wolf Hall is in my top 5 favourite books of all time, and Hilary Mantel one of my very favourite authors. Wolf Hall is a stunning book and everyone should read it, especially if you think you hate Tudor history.
Now to find myself a copy…

I certainly hadn’t intended on reading a novel about the American Civil War. But then again, I’m not really sure why I was all that suprised since it is stated plainly on the back of the book. I think what captured me initially about this book was the idea of following the father of the March family from Little Women (one of my favourite movies when I was young).

What Brooks did beautifully in this book was to portray the complexity of history, the good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad. I often wonder what the Civil War was really about, as poor, uneducated men could surely not have been mobilised to fight a war on behalf of an oppressed and enslaved people. If not, then what were they really fighting for? This book highlights the same idea, that while many individuals were mobilised by ideals of emancipation, the majority were just fighting someone elses war. This is how the overt and barbaric racism could exist within the Union army, and also how African Americans could fight for the Confederates.History is always a complicated thing, and stark depictions of the ‘truth’ never appeal to me.

I was interested in tracking the power relations throughout the book, particularly between Grace and March. In the beginning he is awed by her, then comes to rely on the ideal of her as faultless perfection, in this representing all African Americans needing to be saved from their enslavement. Finally, Grace takes back her power, telling March forecfully “We have had enough of white people ordering our existence! There are men of my own race more versed in how to fetch and carry than you ever will be. And there are Negro preachers aplenty who know the true language of our souls. A free people must learn to manage its own destiny.”

The language is, as in Year of Wonders, matched to the time in its spirit. My boss was looking at the book and noted how Brooks uses language, where she melds in the use of technical language seamlessly to give you a sense of the time without being a flashy know-all. “Less skillful pickers had to grasp the boll with one hand and pluck the staple with the other.” I have no idea what a boll and staple are, but you get a feel for what it means in the context of the paragraph which I really admire.

This book is marketed as a love story, yet I really don’t know who the love is between. Surely, most obviously, it is between Marmee and March. Yet there is also March and his ideals, there is Grace, and the children and the adults of Oak Landing. Yet, where do his beautiful girls fit in? The ones that I loved when I was young; Jo, who I felt I wanted to be when I grew up, Beth with her goodness, Amy, who I actually never really felt any effection for and Meg who always seemed to me like my own older sister.Perhaps the true love was that which Marmee points out; his fabrication of the truth in his letters home to his little women “How he must have toiled over those pages, denying himself the satisfactions that come with unburdening the heart, censoring his every sentiment so that I could continue to think only the best of him and cast his situation in a tolerable light. And I had been ready to condemn him, for what had been, perhaps, a daily act of love.”

I really appreciate what she did to the characters of Marmee and March, as she points out in the afterword “Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee.” and so she wasn’t. She had an admirable temper, was passionate in her early love for her husband and yet, was also secretly and subtly racist. This racism isn’t anything to be admired, it was just a feature of her I didn’t really expect and certainly one that isn’t present in other depictions of her.

This was, once again, a beautifully written story about something actually very tragic. Yet, as with Year of Wonders, it didn’t wallow in depression, it merely sifts through the complicated realities of life.

Now reading: In between books! Quick! Find me a book!

So much of this book reminded me of my childhood, and not in a pleasant way. It reminded me so much of the messed up relationships I had with ‘friends’ at school, girls who were so nasty and spiteful and who made my school days a torture. Atwood inhabited the life of an unhappy and bullied child perfectly “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.” which described that horrid loneliness I felt as a child, knowing that adults either felt that my problems didn’t exist or truly understanding that there was really nothing they could do about it. Maybe this is when we lose innocence, when we realise we have to solve our own problems.

Yet despite all of that, this book took the sting out of so much of what those girls did in my life.  Unexpectedly, Elaine’s ‘best friend’ Cordelia was reduced to a small, frightened and unloved little girl, incredibly troubled by life. And then a funny thing happened. The girls from my childhood suddenly became small, and frightened, and troubled by the neglect of their fathers. It took away the hurt and distress of my memories and replaced them with empathy and compassion. I feel like the boogie man has been chased out of my cupboard.

In other respects, this book was a depressing one. And by that I don’t mean that anything terribly bad happened, as not terribly much happened at all. By that I mean there was a general depressive mood to the whole thing. Elaine, the main character, mused on her old age and the discomfort she felt at feeling washed up and out-of-place in the fashionable art scene she didn’t feel a part of. Yet, from what I could gather she was only in her late forties. Either times have changed radically in the last twenty years and forty is no longer old, or she was reflecting on how invisible and irrelevant women often feel at that age.

Along with the depressive mood I felt like there was something malevolent about the book. As though someone was about to die dramatically (I worried constantly about her brother) or there would be some horrid twist in the plot. Nothing of consequence really happened like that, but it still felt like there was a soundtrack of babies crying and high-pitched violins playing the whole time I was reading. It made it pretty disturbing.

Despite all that it was still a good book. She portrayed post-war Canada in a really beautiful way and the impression I have in my mind now is still from the beginning of the book when she lived in a time of innocence, before girl friends, wandering the country with her parents and brother collecting bug samples and living in the forest.

Now reading: March – Geraldine Brooks