Tag Archives: book club

Tudor Thriller “Bring Up the Bodies” Captivates, Again

12 May

I’m far from the only person giving Hilary Mantel a glowing review for Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment in her saga of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII and his ill-starred wives.  The critical acclaim, international readership, and heaps of awards for Wolf Hall, published in 2009, may have surprised everyone (Mantel included), but there’s been nothing but hype for book number two.

We’ve heard the story a thousand times and, it would seem, in every possible iteration: histories and historical fiction, romance novels and bodice-ripping tv shows like The Tudors.  It isn’t as if the story’s going to change.  History has spoken.  The tale is a tragedy.  And so whatever book you read or film you see, Henry VIII is always going to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn will always find her head severed from her pretty little neck.

All of which makes Mantel’s trilogy-in-progress even more astonishing.  By showing us the mind of Thomas Cromwell–the man who usually features as the villain, if he features at all–in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel somehow makes the story new.

I reviewed Wolf Hall for the University of Alabama campus newspaper earlier this year–after reading it for the nth time since I first downloaded the historical novel onto my Kindle in 2009.  By that point I was getting very, very excited for the release of book number two.

Well, 3 years of waiting and I read Bring Up the Bodies in under 3 days.  I couldn’t help it!  As much as you want to savor every word of Thomas Cromwell’s sometimes-cryptic thoughts and Hilary Mantel’s always- and remarkably beautiful prose, Bring Up the Bodies is even more of a political thriller than Wolf Hall.

The pace ramps us as Henry VIII grows increasingly unhappy with the marriage for which he turned Europe upside down, as Queen Anne grows ever more imperious without getting any more pregnant, and as our do-everything Cromwell works to undo the royal marriage–whatever the cost.  (I think the title gives us a pretty good idea of the lengths to which Henry’s chief minister is forced to go.)

Of course, as we begin to see in this second book, being “the unknowable, the inconsolable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” takes a toll.  By the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536, Cromwell had been at the king’s right hand for about a decade–and we, the readers, can see the changes the years have worked in him.  He’s a far cry from the young lawyer of the first book, joking with Cardinal Wolsey at his apogee and doting on his young daughters (all of these people dead by the end of Wolf Hall).  Mantel continues to give us a sympathetic protagonist, but as Cromwell tells himself, a lesson he’s learned in the past 10 years:

“You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”

This is a harder, colder, more confident Cromwell than in Wolf Hall.  Even if he is still plain Master Cromwell (no lordship yet), he definitely has the authority to carry out his plans and the king’s orders (because he is nothing if not loyal to the capricious Henry).  But at the same time, the ground is shifting.

Enemies are rallying.  As Cromwell gains more power, and more money, and more prestige, he (and we) can feel the baleful glares of the old nobility burning holes into his back.  This is a book about beheadings, don’t forget, and there are plenty of instances of foreshadowing–if you happen to know the end of Cromwell’s story.

Knowing how close we’re getting to that inevitable bloody finale makes Bring Up the Bodies a gloomier  book for me to read than Wolf Hall, but no less engrossing.  My heart was pounding by the end, but, I think understandably, it was my neck that I was clutching.

* * *

Advertisements

How to Converse with Silly, Stupid Ladies (Victorian Life Advice 2.0)

8 May

Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date.  Or not.  Probably not.

Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s  Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation.  And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”

You’d better be reading Godey’s Lady’s Book, Belle. Not that you could understand it any better than the sheep.

This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,”  a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act.  We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females.  But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common.  Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:

1. No Controversy Allowed

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”

We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family.  Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman.  You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.

2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up

I love this one.  Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:

“You can speak, even though you’re so clearly my intellectual inferior! It’s remarkable!”

“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited.  If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”

By jove, that must be it!  It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men!  Well, that makes much more sense.

3. That’s What She Said

You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season?  Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet.  And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.

“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”

Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on.  Lord knows there’s not much.

* * *

Thuvia, Maid (or Murderess) of Mars — because everyone loves a girl with a gun

26 Apr

I’ve been having some serious fun with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s  “John Carter” series of the early 20th century lately (I’m on book three of eleven, and like the pioneers of old, it’s Mars or bust! or something).  But since I’ve already reviewed “A Princess of Mars” and kind of “The Gods of Mars,” it’s time to do something super exciting geared at all you history and art history majors out there: using book covers to reflect on persistent gendered and racialized themes throughout history!*  Yes!

* Disclaimer: Now that I am officially a doctoral student in American history I reserve the right to do textual analysis whenever the hell I want.  So let’s begin.

Before I started seeing lukewarm reviews for Disney’s “John Carter” movie a couple months ago, I didn’t know that the film (such as it is) was based on an early-20th century series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, prolific king of pulp sci-fi in the 19-teens, twenties, and beyond.  It seemed strange to me that Disney would be borrowing from a rather problematic book published in 1912, but hey, I didn’t know that musical, animated “Tarzan” was based on Burroughs either.

In any case, it was Spring Break and, being the kind of person who goes home for spring break to read books and play with her family’s cats, was bored.  Also kind of broke.  So it made sense to download free public domain books onto my kindle, and for laughs, John Carter seems to have potential.

I was very quickly obsessed with it.

Of course, being the kind of person who brings her copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Troubles home with her over Spring Break, I can’t help but share some of the interesting things I’ve noticed about women not just in the books–but especially on the book covers.

This is the cover for the first installment in the series, A Princess of Mars.  As you can see, the princess, being a proper Victorian lady (even if she is a Martian who lays eggs), spends most of her time cowering behind her hero.  And she loves it!  And he loves her!  And no one will ever question their respective femininity and masculinity, because, I mean, just look at them.

Most of the first three books deal with the princess, Dejah Thoris, being kidnapped and help captive–first by green alien monsters, then an enemy group of Martian “red men,” and then by evil black people who live underground in the pit of a volcano or something.  Do we sense a pattern emerging.  This is science fiction’s kind of icky extension of the American captivity narrative, possibly one of the first distinctly American literary genres.

Have you heard of Mary Rowlandson?  In 1676, she was taken captive by Wampanoag Indians for about 3 months.  You really have to feel bad for this woman–she watched her friends and family brutally murdered, and then was thrust into a society completely foreign (dare I say alien?) to her.  But like a good yankee lady, once she got out, she had her eye on the main chance.  Rowlandson published a wildly, spectacularly popular account of her captivity in 1682.

Now, for those who haven’t read it 4 or 5 times over the course of high school and college, Rowlandson’s narrative pretty much gets this point across: It’s all about God’s sovereignty.  Haters gonna hate, but God will do what God does.  And on and on.  Rowlandson was incredibly devout, and even during her captivity chose not to make any escape attempts, deciding that it was God’s will that she was there and she would wait for Him to deliver her.

Funny, then, how the second edition of her book included pictures like this one.  “A Female Soldier”?  With a rifle?  That’s not exactly what happened–actually, that’s not at all what happened–but the idea of a forceful, armed heroine seemed to gain some purchase with contemporary readers.

That pattern continued with the story of Hannah Duston, another colonial American woman taken captive by Native Americans in the late 17th century.  Duston didn’t have a gun, but she got her hands on a hatchet and the rest is history.  Really gruesome, bloody, Native American killing history.

People liked that story too.

And they still liked it when Burroughs was writing his second John Carter book, The Gods of Mars, in which readers were introduced to another woman with a weapon: Thuvia.

Like Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was a prisoner of all sorts of different and abhorrent “others.”  Unlike Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was not content to resign herself to fate and hope that her lover would rescue her.  Thuvia got a gun and shot her captor point-blank.  And then, over the course of the next two books, she saved John Carter’s book like half a dozen times.  Most notable example: when John Carter is condemned to die in a gladiatorial-style fight against a bunch of ravenous lion-like alien beasts, Dejah Thoris attempts to kill herself so that she might die with him.  Thuvia uses her animal mind-control powers to save him.  Again.  And when one of John Carter’s crazed fangirls (no really, this is absolutely true) tries to stab Dejah Thoris and steal John for herself (like that’s going to work), Thuvia saves Dejah Thoris too.

She’s super badass.  And four books in, she gets her own starring role with Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

Let’s note the word “maid.”  Especially in archaic and literary contexts, a “maid” is not just a young, unmarried girl–she’s a virgin.  Thuvia is getting a title treatment that would seem to indicate that she’s as pure and unsullied a princess as Dejah Thoris.  Meanwhile, she looms over the corpse of her victim with a bloody knife.  The entire book cover is made to look like it’s been smeared with blood.  And let’s not forget that her first kill was a man who, it was implied, may have, you know, violated her.

Pure?  That’s questionable.

But we’ve kind of had a literary love affair with women with knives and guns and machetes for a long time.  Since the 1600s at least.  And how American is that?

Review: “To Say Nothing of the Dog” (plus, proof that the Victorians really, really loved their cats)

17 Apr

In the year 2057 — when getting a Ph.D. in history is a high-risk endeavor requiring mental and physical endurance, athleticism, a working knowledge of quantum mechanics and Victorian table manners, and, as always, a firm grasp of the Chicago Manual of Style — Ned Henry is a doctoral candidate on a mission. The stakes? If he fails, the Nazis win World War II. The operation? Return a time-traveling cat back to 19th-century Oxford.

For original article in the CW, click this eerie and vaguely misleading book cover! Because it's definitely not about ghost cats, flaming gothic architecture, or disembodied heads.

“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is a classic whodunit — if the “it” were causing an incongruity that could rip open the space-time continuum and destroy the universe, and the “who” were a snowy-white feline named Princess Juju.

Did I mention this is a comedy?

That’s the premise of Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” a delightfully bizarre literary commingling of sci-fi and historical fiction. And considering that the Large Hadron Collider didn’t result in black holes or time travel technology last year after all, for a novel written in 1997, the science-y parts of the plot hold up. Besides, since most of the action takes place in 1889, Google wouldn’t have done Ned Henry much good, anyway.

And as tangled as the timelines are, this is, essentially, what’s going on.

In 2057, the aptly named Lady Schrapnell is working on a massive project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid during WWII. And because “God is in the details,” she’s employing scads of time-traveling historians to go back in time and find out exactly what the cathedral looked like the night before its destruction.

All that’s left to replace is the Bishop’s Bird Stump, a hideously ugly Victorian flower vase that, according to an inconveniently waterlogged journal entry, changed the redoubtable aristocrat’s some-odd-great-great-grandmother’s life in the summer of 1889 (and thus absolutely must be reproduced in the new cathedral).

But the unthinkable has happened: It’s missing, along with that great-great-something-great-grandmother’s pet cat, both of whose disappearances might just have a domino effect leading to Hitler taking over the world (if the world survives the breach in the space-time continuum, that is).

To say nothing of our hero — Ned Henry is certainly no Indiana Jones. And when it comes to tracking down lost artifacts (or missing cats), he’s no Sherlock Holmes, either. But wearing his straw boater at a jaunty angle, Ned and his partner-in-historical-crime Verity Kindle (perfect name for a historian, right?) are ready to play croquet, host séances and, of course, save the world.

Hold onto your petticoats, ladies and gentlemen, and pay attention to your Western Civ professors — because some day the fate of the universe may depend upon you knowing your groats from your tuppence.

This here ends the book review.

But Now… More Victorian Cats! (or, the tangential stuff I didn’t put in the newspaper column)

Recently I purchased an item of clothing that unites two of my loves: cats and the long 19th century (yes, I am absolutely going to be a spinster historian animal hoarder when I grow up).  After seeing it, my eldest sister (who you may know from long ago posts as Kate the Lostie), who has already grown up to be something of a cat lady, sent me an article that reveals something Connie Willis must have known–Victorians really, and I mean really, did love their cats.

My Sweatshirt, circa 2012

And more Actual Historical LOLcats, circa 1870s (below)
But there are more! (photos from io9)
 

“A Princess of Mars” and John Carter, the Prince of Pulp Sci-Fi

20 Mar

Literally just minutes ago (as of this writing) I finished Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 novel “A Princess of Mars,” and I’m fairly convinced that it’s the best worst early-20th-century science fiction novel ever published. That should be no secret, considering that this book, the first in an 11-part series, was the inspiration for Disney’s recent movie (soon to be a flop), “John Carter.”

See how she cringes? That's how a real Victorian woman cringes.
(Click for the original column in the Crimson White)

Burroughs, an astonishingly prolific writer of the 20th century, gave us, among other iconic characters, Tarzan the jungle man, but you’re not likely to find him on the syllabus of an American literature course. If you’ve seen “John Carter,” that won’t be a big surprise: Burroughs’s writings, many initially published as magazine serials, are as pulpy as they come.

They’re science-fiction penny dreadfuls, dime novels with sensational and poorly-illustrated covers, cheap paperbacks you’d find on the counter at a seedy gas station and all-around the stuff sophisticated college-educated young people such as us would be embarrassed to be caught reading in the 1910s.  And to be perfectly honest, I should be embarrassed now. But, I’m three books in, and there’s no going back.

The story begins with Virginian ex-Confederate John Carter mining for gold in Arizona, running away from angry Apaches and hiding in a creepy cave filled with human skeletons. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very promising.  But let’s fast-forward a chapter to his mysterious re-location to the planet Barsoom — what we, in our ignorance, call Mars.

Like the movie, “A Princess of Mars” has vicious aliens, epic battles and a giant monster dog named Woola.  But the novel is certainly a product of its time.  Occasionally this leads to questionable racial connotations (red men on the red planet) and cringe-worthy gendered characterizations (“I would rather stay and die with you, my chieftain!” or something). But at other times we find hilarious misunderstandings for the modern reader. For example, the chapter entitled “Lovemaking on Mars” includes nothing more scandalous than John accidentally grazing the bare shoulder of the Helium Princess. Steamy stuff.

Considering the time period and his icky military history, John Carter is a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist. He is, essentially, the classic hero of a Western, and Barsoom does look suspiciously like Arizona. The many times crypto-Victorian princess Dejah Thoris cringes behind him during a battle scene get annoying, I’ll admit, but by the second installment we have a much more active heroine: Thuvia, who protects her own honor quite adeptly by just shooting evildoers with Carter’s revolver.

The science is outdated, the romance is somewhat silly (Helium Princess, really?) and the writing is mannered, but we still read Jane Austen don’t we? We made “Twilight” a major franchise and eagerly await the return of “Game of Thrones” on HBO. I’ll go so far as to add that “Avatar,” with its Noble Savages and white hero, is quite like the John Carter books, and let’s not forget that “Avatar” came 97 years late to great critical acclaim.

“A Princess of Mars” and the rest of the John Carter books aren’t great literature, but even in 1912, they weren’t intended to be. Burroughs’s writing is fast-paced, entertaining, and readable today (not to mention the first three books are 99 cents digitally). If nothing else, they’re fun to make fun of. But I warn you, it’s not hard to get emotionally invested: When I turned the last virtual page on my Kindle, I was still holding my breath for the cliffhanger.

Of course, if you still feel you might be embarrassed reading “A Princess of Mars” and its sequels, just tell your critics that doing it … ironically.

All sorts of 19th-century drama in “The Marriage Plot”

11 Mar

“There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.”

That’s the motto Madeleine Hanna lives by, anyway, in the 1980s college world of Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Marriage Plot.”

Click here for the original column in the Crimson White.

Hanna, a senior majoring in English with an impending graduation date and no idea what she wants to do with the rest of her life, probably isn’t too different from you – especially if you were raised on Jane Austen novels and the sort of early 19th-century happily-ever-after that ends with someone becoming a Mrs. Darcy.

Madeleine Hanna is a hopeless romantic.  When her professors and more fashionably cynical classmates argue that the trope of the Jane Austen “marriage plot” is as fantastic and unrealistic as any Grimm’s fairy tale, Hanna closes her eyes and mutters “na-na-na-na-na” under her breath.

Well, not exactly.  She also happens to be bright and articulate, and instead, she thinks something like this: “What Thurston was saying seemed to Madeleine both insightful and horribly wrong.  It was maybe true, what he said, but it shouldn’t have been.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that a pretentious guy named Thurston really should play a handsome, but sinister rake in an Austen novel.  In this book, he’s just a pompous preppy, and maybe that’s just as well.

Madeleine Hanna is also an incurable idealist.  After graduation, she, along with her friends, seem somewhat perplexed by the “real world” they’ve finally entered.  And it’s really no wonder: She lives in an intellectual circle made of Nietzche-reading classmates like Thurston and professors with names like “Zipperstein” and a boyfriend who makes fun of her drink preferences with quips like, “Sure. Martinis.  We can pretend we’re Salinger characters.”

College, clearly, is a far cry from grown-up life.  And Madeleine Hanna, bless her heart, is expecting to grow up to be Elizabeth Bennet.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a novel if there weren’t some sort of conflict.  And it wouldn’t be a Valentine’s Day book review column if there weren’t some sort of love triangle – am I right?  Of course I’m right.

Our heroine, like many a Bennett before her, has two suitors: Leonard Bankhead, the biochem major from semiotics class, and Mitchell Grammaticus (what did I say about these names?), the religious studies guy who emerges from his long library sojourn with Meister Eckhart with the total conviction that Madeleine is his soul mate.

What’s an Austen devotee to do?

Well, marry one of them, naturally.

To Madeleine Hanna’s puzzlement and most readers’ exasperated sighs, the traditional marriage plot takes a twist in Eugenides’s new take on an old trope.  This might not be the book to read on Valentine’s Day.  But it’s a great read on a day when you’re not swamped in sentimentalism.  Like tomorrow, for instance.

Readers might also like… “The Dovekeepers,” by Alice Hoffman; “The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green; “Death Comes to Pemberley,” by P.D. James; “The Paris Wife,” by Paula McLain.

Better Living Through Chemistry? (Book Review: Limitless, by Alan Glynn)

15 Nov

Put away your half-started manuscripts and tragic hopes, creative writing minors. In an economy like ours, your chances of publication are bleak – unless, that is, you have unlimited access to a mind-enhancing “smart pill” called MDT-48. That’s the premise of Alan Glynn’s novel “Limitless,” anyway (originally published as “The Dark Fields” in 2001).

You might remember “Limitless” from theaters last spring – or maybe not, judging by its lukewarm critical reception. In any case, it was the movie with Robert DeNiro and that guy from “The Hangover,” and I guess it was pretty good. Some of the visual effects that critics like to describe with words like “stunning” or “experimental” were in keeping with the movie’s billing as a techno-thriller, sure, but in the end they just left me dizzy.

What I found truly stunning – dizzying enough to reverse that age-old tradition of reading the book first and seeing the movie second – were the ideas.

“Limitless” is a novel about human enhancement. And while our trans-humanist hero Eddie Spinola’s journey might end up in some unlikely situations (convincing a shady Russian loan shark to give him half a million dollars by promising to write him into a screenplay about the Mafia, for example), in terms of believability Glynn’s novel is light-years ahead of old-school science fiction that couldn’t see beyond evil cyborgs or disembodied brains in jars. Chances are, the future’s going to look a lot more like “Limitless” than “I, Robot.”

Eddie Spinola starts the novel writing his own novel (that’s right, it’s meta from the very first page), with a day job as a copy editor at some podunk publishing firm. There may have been a point in the distant past at which he had his life together, but it certainly isn’t now, fifty pounds and one failed marriage later.
Lucky, then, that his ex-wife’s brother hasn’t changed at all. When they serendipitously meet on the street one mediocre morning, Eddie’s drug-dealer-in-law gives him a sample of a mysterious substance that propels the intelligent but unmotivated Eddie to the stratosphere of genius and productivity. Lucky, also, that Eddie gets his hands on the entire existing supply of MDT-48 when his supplier gets offed in a very messy scene that I’ll happily leave to Alan Glynn for description.

Taking half, then one, then two or three pills a day, Eddie finds himself playing the stock market like a true Wall Street One-Percenter – with the spare time to wax philosophical about the global trading network as a “template for human consciousness” or “humanity’s collective nervous system.”
On a tangential note, that’s something I liked better about the book: like its original title, it’s deeper, darker and includes quite a few more discussions about the nature of free will and determinism.

You don’t have to have seen the movie to guess that with great power comes great responsibility, and even greater plot twists (involving many, many terrible things happening to our Eddie Spinola as he spins out of control). But even if you did see “Limitless” in theaters, the original, words-only iteration is well worth the read. In fact, it might not be fair to compare the two versions at all: the book is so much more nuanced – subtle where the movie is showy – that it makes you think even while calling itself a techno-thriller.

Along those lines, what’s most impressive is how Glynn makes an apparently far-fetched plot completely believable – from the ideas about boosting human intelligence to the political context of the United States invading (pardon me, “liberating,”) Mexico (from drug cartel tyranny, ironically enough). By the end, you get the feeling that not only could this book happen – it could be happening right now.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (or, how historical fiction gets really weird)

27 Sep

Click for the original article in the Crimson White. That's right. Print.

Armed with a flame gun, an axe and an unshakeable conviction in the rightness of his cause, the 16th President of the United States stands ready to fight for the nation his fathers brought forth four score and seven years ago—a nation free from the tyranny of vampires.

In the grand tradition of completely making things up and then pretending you have historical documentation, author Seth Grahame-Smith brings us his latest masterpiece (and I use the term very, very broadly), “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” The history is atrocious; the explanations are reductive; and suspension of disbelief while reading is patently impossible. But isn’t that the case for all conspiracy theories? And I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like this one before.

Grahame-Smith made waves some years ago with the publication of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Protectors of the Jane Austen canon were outraged! Fan fiction writers quailed at the thought that Mr. Darcy, the object of their ardent affections, might be undead! Book critics, wiping misty tears of frustration from their horn-rimmed glasses, bemoaned the public’s abysmal literary taste (or lack thereof). Voltaire and Mark Twain rolled over in their graves, and then, realizing that the novel was about zombies after all, thought better of it. I mean, the book wasn’t even satire. But readers enjoy an iconoclast, and shattering Jane Austen fans’ smug propriety was undoubtedly part of the appeal.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” seems to cause a similar sort of furor, a riotous mix of anger and enthusiasm. And with the title so refreshingly transparent, I don’t even need to include a plot summary to explain why.

Elementary school social studies teachers taught us that “Honest” Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin somewhere in backwoods Kentucky. In American popular mythology, he epitomizes the everyman who rose to the highest position of power in the land (contemporaries might have given the honor to Andrew Jackson, but that whole Trail of Tears thing has understandably disillusioned modern Americans).  Grahame-Smith tells us that Lincoln was traumatized as a child by the death of his mother at the hands of rapacious vampires.

American civ professors emphasize the complexity of causes leading up to the Civil War. Grahame-Smith informs us that it was little more than Lincoln’s fanatic fight against vampire slaveholders. And all this on the basis of a “lost journal” that somehow fell into his possession, along with a handful of doctored photos scattered throughout the novel.

As a history major, I find the idea repulsive. But this book isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It isn’t meant to be an enduring classic. And, unless I have seriously overestimated the American public, there isn’t going to be a “DaVinci Code” debacle like we saw in 2003. Like he did with Jane Austen in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Grahame-Smith is parodying the conventions of biography itself.

Hey, maybe this is satire after all.

Most of the humor of the novel comes from the ridiculous juxtaposition of an absurd plot with Grahame-Smith’s staid, stuffy, David McCullough-esque writing style. He doesn’t break character for so much as a sentence, and halfway through readers might find themselves accepting Abe Lincoln’s flame gun as an accessory as natural as his stovepipe hat.

Ultimately, I’m ambivalent about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” But I will say one thing in its favor: at least the vampires don’t sparkle.

 

Readers might also like… “The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes” by McSweeney’s; “Android Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy and Ben Winters; “The Zombie Survival Guide” by Max Brooks.

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman: The Anti-Harry Potter?

7 Sep

In this bleak and empty wasteland of the post-Harry Potter world we live in, it’s inevitable that any book about twenty-somethings at a school for magic will come under the closest scrutiny. That would be daunting for most fantasy writers, but in “The Magicians,” author Lev Grossman relishes in the prospect.

His characters are us—college students who grew up in the pages of Hogwarts, Middle Earth and other classics of fantasy lit (including a Narnia-like universe called Fillory, complete with talking animals and thinly veiled religious allegories). And naturally, just like us, their expectations of what magic should be like are colored by these books. Quickly, they realize that they (and consequently we too) couldn’t have been more wrong.

Click for the original article in the Crimson White, the University of Alabama's campus paper

Quentin Coldwater is a genius. He, unlike a disturbing number of Hogwarts students, has more than a fifth-grade education in the traditional three R’s—which is all for the good at a magical college with a broader curriculum than the Hogwarts’ spell-casting of made-up Latin, wand-waving and jazz hands.

Magic at Brakebills Academy requires calculus, a working knowledge of quantum physics and proficiency in the very necessary languages of Estonian, Bedouin Arabic and Old Church Slavonic (just to name a few). Plus, giant spiders in the woods are nothing compared to the inter-dimensional Beast swimming up from the depths of the multiverse to devour students alive in the middle of class. In other words, practicing magic is actually kind of hard.

And that’s not the only difference. Brakebills, for one, is American. Located in upstate New York, the school caters to the uber-nerds, super-geniuses, hippie Wiccans and hipster intellectuals of the country. People like Quentin, our anti-hero, whose first reaction to the revelation that magic exists and he could be a magician (“wizard,” you know, is so passé) isn’t the wide-eyed wonder of a ten-year-old Harry Potter.

This is a world-weary high school senior we’re talking about, the kind who makes arch allusions to quidditch and the Anglophilia of American prep schools, quotes Borges and Cervantes alongside Star Trek references, whose professors curse often, turn their students into geese for a semester, and sanction a shocking amount of on-campus alcohol use, and whose headmaster tattoos battle demons into his students’ backs the night before graduation.

Not to mention that the central theme of the book is a whole lot more complicated than the clear-cut battle of good and evil we, the Harry Potter generation, have come to expect. Brakebills students are cynical, sarcastic and hardly heroic. They’re college kids, after all, with unlimited power and no small amount of post-traumatic stress disorder from battles with monsters out of H.P. Lovecraft’s worst nightmare. In “The Magicians,” Quentin and his cronies discover, as he says, “the horror” of getting what you wish for.

Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” (2009) is the anti-Harry Potter, a story that riffs on contemporary expectations of fantasy tropes and heroes. In its characters and plot, however, the novel is completely original—a trend that only continues in Grossman’s sequel “The Magician King,” just released last month.

This is a book you will devour, so get excited. But maybe not too excited. In keeping with the spirit of Brakebills and its denizens, try, at least, to affect an air of indifference. Hold your “retro” Kindle 2 casually aloft in one hand with the hip lassitude of the youthful literati, and just pretend you don’t wish that you too could be one of The Magicians.

 

“The Magicians” is available in that old-fashioned pulpy stuff called paper, as well as ebook form on Amazon, for $12.99

 

Readers might also like:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke; A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin; The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross; Johann Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

One Throne to Rule Them All

20 Jul

This month, TIME magazine christened novelist George R. R. Martin, author of the epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the “American Tolkien for a jaded age.” Possibly, it’s the two Rs for middle initials; possibly, it’s the grandiloquent series title; possibly, it’s the fact that both write in the fantasy genre with a cult following dissecting every word and chapter. Personally, I think it’s a facile comparison. Call me a blasphemer, but George R. R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms wipe the floor with Middle Earth, and here’s why.

Read my original column on the Crimson White website, campus news for the University of Alabama

The Tolkien universe has long been the standard against which readers and critics compare any fantasy work. The more mediocre sword-and-sorcery writers think that vomiting dwarves, elves, dark lords and half-baked mythologies onto a computer monitor makes a bestseller – Eru knows there are enough of those on the market. Plots are predictable: an evil menace, a chosen one destined to save the world, a malevolent piece of magical jewelry and a final battle between good and evil (I think I unintentionally described Harry Potter here). It’s boring, plain and simple. The sheer quantity of this kind of hack fantasy drove me into the arms of science fiction long ago, but George R. R. Martin has gradually pulled me back.

“A Song of Ice and Fire,” which begins with “A Game of Thrones,” has no hobbits or orphan boys on a quest to save the world. We have one dwarf, but he doesn’t go around swigging ale and swinging axes – he’s just a man with achondroplasia, and if he drinks a little much, it’s probably because his father tries to get him killed in battle. His sister, the queen, wants him dead too (along with a long list of other powerful people), and his only weapon is the ability to create really smart, funny dialogue. Tyrion might be the most likeable character in the book (he’s my favorite, at least) – and he also happens to be a member of the superficially villainous Lannister family.

Unlike Tolkien, Martin gives us no clear-cut good versus evil. Instead, we get a five-sided civil war (six or seven, counting all the madness across the Narrow Sea) in a world peopled by people best described as anti-heroes, or maybe just human beings. Instead of epic quests, Martin delivers realpolitik and plotlines as complex as his characters. Oh, and by the way, in this fantasy universe, women actually do stuff. And I don’t mean the token Eowyn, or elf princess Arwen who (movies to the contrary) actually spent her time sewing Aragorn a battle standard. For real. For three books.

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh on J. R. R. After all, even the new HBO series “Game of Thrones” cast Sean Bean, alias Boromir, as this season’s lead (and I say this season because, spoiler alert, Sean Bean’s character kind of has an unpleasant encounter with a sword and his neck). Which brings me to another point: the bloody-minded George R. R. Martin will kill, maim, torture or torment any of his characters. No one is safe. Plot twists might leave you crying or leaving profane notes in the virtual margins of your Kindle, but they keep you guessing, and originality is the holy grail of fantasy novels.

There’s only one downside as I see it: fans probably have another five years to wait before book six comes out. Of course, with five books at 1,200 pages each, new readers might just take five years to catch up. I highly encourage it.

 

You might also like… “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan; “The Worm Ouroboros” by E. R. Edison; “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch; “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke.