March’s Books

1 Apr

Hey team,

It’s the first day of April, which means (among other things) that the list for March’s books is now CLOSED. And that you get to hear all about them. Woop!

I’ve read quite a lot this month. I don’t quite know where I found the time to do all this. I’ve also seen an unprecedented number of films. Again, not sure how I did this. The long Bank Holiday weekend can only account for so much.

Without further ado, then: I started the month with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (not that David Mitchell). This had been on my radar for some time – in fact, since I saw the BBC version of Richard II in the summer and was totally captivated by Ben Whishaw. Anyway. I knew that I wanted to see the film (and not just because of Ben Whishaw) so I read the book first. Coming straight after Wolf Hall, it’s a very different kettle of fish – Mantel writes Cromwell in an almost ahistorical way; Mitchell writes his characters in a manner that is supposed to delineate very clearly where they are from and who they are. The book is divided into the story of 6 characters and each story is split in half so it brackets the stories that come inside it, like a Russian doll. The central ‘doll’ is whole – the character and story are entirely self-contained. If you had to describe the plot – well, you couldn’t, really. You’d have to be content with the idea that the novel is an exploration of the theme of the renegade against a greedy corporate society.  If you haven’t read it, it is really very good. And, incidentally, so is the film.

Next I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It is only a very short book; more like a couple of chapters to Jane Eyre rather than a standalone, requiring as it does fairly good knowledge of Bronte’s novel. I enjoyed it as a study of what you can do with a source text; people can get quite hoity-toity about authors writing sequels or prequels to well-known books (Eoin Colfer’s take on Douglas Adams, for example). There’s really no need. It’s just a more explicit acknowledgment of influence, and it can be very successful. Bertha Rochester isn’t just a madwoman who stands in the way of Jane and E.F.R’s love. Her backstory may not have been something Bronte was prepared to explore or elucidate on, but another’s take on it is fascinating. And, as is the idea with this ‘reception’ lark, the more recent work informs subsequent readings of the earlier one. Next time I re-read Jane Eyre, I daresay I’ll notice things I didn’t previously. 

Next on the list – Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. I heard there was going to be a radio serialisation so I wanted to read it (as it happens, the serialisation was very good and I could have not read the book, but anyway). Neil Gaiman is great. He combines some of my favourite elements of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and delivers them forth with lightness and nonchalance. He’s the sort of writer who makes you hug yourself when you come across a really great line, because it’s so delicious and it feels as though it’s been tailored specifically to amuse you. Also, a villain that collects and eats priceless Chinese porcelain. That’s just – inspired.

After a bit of a diversion into Gaiman, I returned to my monster book order with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I thought this was great – a very twisted, dark story about solitude, reality and sex. Interesting questions raised about narrative, authorship and memory. I wasn’t sure whether I felt let down by the ending or not – on the one hand, an epilogue that contextualises and concludes the story is usually a good thing; on the other, the nature of the epilogue almost made me feel uncomfortable. The ease with which the narrative was explained as a historical account cast a slightly noxious light over my own experience of studying history. So – the novel was still very much a satisfying read, but the ending didn’t quite close down the book as I expected it to do. In retrospect, I think I prefer that.

Around the time I started reading the Handmaid’s Tale, I realised I was running out of books. So I put in a substantial book order, almost exclusively composed of Virginia Woolf. I decided I should get stuck in sooner rather than later, so after Atwood, I began A Room of One’s Own. I know purists would say this isn’t really a book so much as an extended essay based on a couple of lectures, but whatever. It was enlightening and inspiring and so – well, simple. Just a very reasonable rejoinder to so many criticisms people make of women and have done for centuries. I don’t know why it isn’t compulsory reading. I felt a lot better about myself and my insecurities after reading Woolf. I followed up this essay/book with The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel. I enjoyed how it seemed very familiar, very close to the late Victorian novelistic tradition and yet – it was more; there was definitely something else to it. I thought there was a powerful subversion of the unity one normally gets from a conclusion. Anyway, two books of Woolf seemed like a good start to improving my general understanding of the development of 20th century literature.

I concluded March with Bring up the Bodies, the second in Hilary Mantel’s projected trilogy on Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Knowing Mantel’s prose style this time, it was much easier to slip into the spirit of the narrative, and with so many threads already set up in Wolf Hall (and a considerable chunk of this history being much more familiar to me than the early years of H8) the story flowed smoothly onward. I suppose the great boon of a historical novel is that it is much harder to accidentally leave a line hanging – every character plays a part, and these parts can be reflected backwards as well as forwards within the novel’s unfolding to cast light on motive and cause. But Mantel shows the folds you can also smooth out of the history – the covered up events that don’t suit the chronologists (or rather, the ones you can invent on this pretext) that can stand as explanations for sudden policy changes and the like. The promotion of Richmond; the return of Henry’s bad leg; Mantel can turn these into elements of her story so skilfully that her retelling could well feed back into our historical understanding of the period.

So. There you have it. March. Lined up for April – a whole bunch more Virginia Woolf, some Betty Friedan and probably some George Eliot, for a personal project.

Til next time, then!

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