Friday, May 28, 2010

Stalled

Between books. Supposedly on vacation. Spent hours gardening yesterday, which was great, but there's still so much to be done. Photographs to follow this afternoon while the sun's still shining and amazing.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

#21 - Black Water Rising

I finished Attica Locke's debut novel last week. It was a quick, enjoyable read, but I'm not 100% convinced that it's the best of the best of women's writing for the year (as judging from its Orange Prize shortlisted status). Yet, that said, there's something about commercial fiction writing that I admire. The way the plots drive forward ceaselessly, the way the action never seems to stop, and the muddled way the somewhat damaged protagonists always seem to figure it out in the end. Locke's narrative reminds me a little of a Dennis Lehane novel -- she's got the same strong characters, the same driving storylines, and the same gift with both prose, and I really enjoyed her main character, Jay Porter.

The gist of the book is as follows: Jay Porter's a black lawyer in Houston. It's 1981, and he just can't get his practice off the ground. He's not a bad lawyer -- he's just attracting the wrong kind of clients. Making it on your own isn't easy and money is beyond tight. Also, Jay and his wife Bernie are about six weeks away from having a baby. The timing couldn't be worse for him to get wrapped up in a case that he, literally, saves from drowning.

Yet, when on a romantic boat ride with his wife to celebrate her birthday, they hear shots in the distance. Then, a splash in the water, and screams for help. Soon, Jay's jumped overboard, swimming, diving, then rescuing a white woman who looks to have obviously been attacked. When they drop her off in front of the police station, Jay and Bernie think that's the end of it -- only it's just the beginning and this one incident will soon change his life in ways he never expected.

Jay finds himself embroiled in a case that involves a lot of crooked people. It digs up his past, makes him face certain demons, and even puts his life in danger. And here's where the novel kind of broke down for me -- there were a lot of cliched, "car on the railway tracks against a running train" moments in the novel. Locke's a screenwriter, and so you can see why she'd fall back into certain cinematic touch points, but I didn't find those aspects of the story believable. To me, car chases and railroad crossings are the stuff of films, not real life, and I found it hard to swallow when Jay was in these precarious situations.

Interspersed with this case that just won't let him out of its clutches, Jay becomes involved with a situation with his father (a Reverend) and some of his constituents. There's a labour dispute that has its heart in the desegregation of the stevedore unions, and when a young boy is violently attacked for no reason, the situation heats up. So, now, Jay has two unsolvable situations on his hands: an ever-increasing case with the almost-drowned woman; and the union dispute that could lead to a lawsuit.

How Locke wrote with the difficult parts of the story that had to do with race relations, the south, and the complex issues of labour surrounding integrating the unions that deal with the docks was incredible. Those part of the novel sang for me -- the setting, the politics, the very nature of Jay's own troubles with the law before he set himself to rights -- the writing was sharp, the relationships taut, and the book felt wholly original. It's a shame that there couldn't have been more of that and less of the played-out gunshots and car chases.

Regardless, once I picked this novel up, I didn't put it down -- I wasn't sidetracked by other books (read The Lacuna and the new Stieg Larsson). Locke's a real talent and I hope she continues to publish in this vein. I'd be happy to see what Jay Porter gets himself mixed up in next. I'll just keep my fingers crossed he stays away from the railroad tracks in any future books.

Friday, May 07, 2010

#20 - Wolf Hall

As a part of the "The Orange Prize is Definitely the New Black" challenge that we started over at the work blog, I finished reading Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, last weekend. And then couldn't put it down. For days. On end. Now, that's saying something for a giant hulking 650-page tome about Thomas Cromwell, of all people. Mantel's certainly not the first, nor the last, to dramatize the Tudor period in literature. The lives and wives of Henry VIII have been immortalized, studied, fictionalized and melo-dramatized for our modern age -- movies, TV series, novels abound about Katherine, Anne, Jane, etc., to the point of overkill. I reached my Henry VIII peak after seeing about three episodes of the current series The Tudors on the Ceeb a couple of years ago, and it all felt wrong, wrong, wrong. First off, and I know it's me being far too literal, but as attractive as Jonathan Rhys Meyers might be, he's just not Henry VIII material -- and neither, for that matter, is Eric Bana -- not in looks, countenance or bearing. I mean, can't Hollywood even get the hair colour right?

Annnywaaay, like most history, pop culture weeds out the most salacious aspects and runs with them, and it's not like the Tudors were lacking in dramatic moments that would work well in terms of adaptations, but it all started to feel a bit tired. I mean really tired. Like The Other Boleyn Girl might just be one of the worst films I've ever seen kind of tired. So when Mantel's novel won the Booker, I kind of thought to myself, "Really, another novelization of the Tudors? Really?"

How wrong I was.

While this is a novel very much about the Tudors, it's from the perspective of an outsider. Someone who came from nothing to make something of himself, who used his very sharp mind to control people and situations to his benefit, and not necessarily with the ulterior motives that tend to drive most characters in historical fiction (sex, greed, lust). But what I really, really enjoyed is that this novel didn't focus entirely on the melodrama, it's actually devoid almost completely of it, and instead turns its focus to relationships of all kinds and how life functioned for these characters at this epic moment in time. It's not about the romance between Henry and Anne and what it means for love and betrayal; it's about how the romance between Henry and Anne changed everything -- and the man who not only made most of these changes possible, but who also participated in creating the whole background of the time period, was Thomas Cromwell.

The novel starts off with a young Thomas getting the stuffing knocked out of him by his brute of a father Walter. Soon, he takes off into the great big world to make a name for himself, and when the story picks up again, he's done just that -- found himself a position working for / serving Cardinal Wolsey, and when that turns sour, for the king himself. Politics, or political machinations rather, take centre stage in this novel. It's about maneuvering situations more than anything, about how to be a man, and how to teach his children to be good in life, but it's also about power -- finding it, taking it, destroying it -- and all the ways it contributes to the ups and downs of the Tudor court.

It's hard to describe the novel as anything other than engrossing. I found myself totally sucked in and read the first 300 pages in just over a day -- sometimes the narrative's a bit muddled (Mantel uses a lot of pronouns and the "he's" get all mixed up sometimes. I just decided that if I was remotely confused that the "he" in question was Cromwell and that seemed to work for me) and the book's unquestionably dense -- but I couldn't put it down. When I gave my copy away mid-read to a friend (I had another at work; we'd save on mail that way), and decided to finish the McEwan novel that I'd started, I found myself longing to know what was going to happen next to Cromwell. Would he convince More to change his mind? Would he ever find a second wife? Would these ghosts ever stop appearing in front of him? Who would he marry his son off to (we didn't get that far; it must be in the second book).

ALL of these questions are answered in history, yet I longed for Mantel's perspective. I loved how she would add rich description to scenes, sum everything up with a brilliant sentence, and keep my interest in her novel far passed my bed time. This book? Definitely better than TV.

WHAT'S NEXT. I've started Attica Locke's Black Water Rising. That's #2 of the Orange Prize nominated books. Will I make the June 9th deadline, probably not. But maybe...