Saturday, April 19, 2014

Historical Fiction: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Series: Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #1
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Date: 2009
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: for Historical Novels course
Pages: 650
Reading time: one week

From GoodReads: Tudor England. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is charged with securing his divorce. Into this atmosphere of distrust comes Thomas Cromwell - a man as ruthlessly ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

My review: For a novel that has, to quote my history prof, won "all the awards," this sure was disappointing. I just don't see its greatness. I'm sure a lot of it is my fault - like Lincoln, the previous novel read for this class, Wolf Hall is chock-full of dense (but well-researched) political shenanigans that I just really don't care about. Again, it's essentially a novelized form of one brief period of history. I say brief, but for how long this book is, I was always thinking five years had passed instead of only five months.

So maybe if I cared more about political history in general or Tudor history specifically, I would've found Wolf Hall more interesting and a more enjoyable read. But I don't, so I didn't. The religious-y bits about the Reformation and figures within in it who aren't quite as well known as Luther were nice, especially since I'm highly enjoying taking a class on New Religious Movements right now. I also liked seeing Mantel's characterization of Jane Seymour, who has a decidedly meek and obscured background role at this point (despite the book being named after her family's home...still not sure why that title wasn't reserved for the next book). Anyway, while I'm sure this is a fantastic book if you love the Tudors but not the typical romance-and-drama historical fiction that seems to go along with them, it just wasn't my cup of tea, and I don't think I'll continue with the rest of the series.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Historical Fiction: Lincoln by Gore Vidal

Publisher: Random House
Date: 1984
Format: hardback
Source: purchased used
Read: for Historical Novels class
Pages: 657
Reading time: about a week

From GoodReads: Lincoln opens early on a frozen winter morning in 1861, when President-elect Abraham Lincoln slips into Washington, flanked by two bodyguards. The future president is in disguise, for there's talk of a plot to murder him. During the next four years there will be numerous plots to murder this man who has sworn to unite a disintegrating nation. Isolated in a ramshackle White House in the center of a proslavery city, Lincoln presides over a fragmenting government as Lee's armies beat at the gates. In this profoundly moving novel, a work of epic proportions & intense human sympathy, Lincoln is observed by his loved ones & his rivals. The cast of characters is almost Dickensian: politicians, generals, White House aides, newspapermen, Northern & Southern conspirators, amiably evil bankers & a wife slowly going mad. Vidal's portrait of the president is at once intimate & monumental, stark & complex, drawn with the wit, grace & authority of one of the great historical novelists.

My review: I've never before disliked a novel that's this good. It seems paradoxical, I know, but it's true. Vidal's novel is like a fictional form of the history of the Lincoln administration. It's super-well-researched and basically a run-down of all the political and social shenanigans in Washington during the Civil War. Pretty epic in scope, right? It's like reading a history book, just with extra imagined dialogue and characterizations.

My issue: I don't like politics. It's booooring. So reading this was difficult, because it's pretty much all political dialogue. Gag. Great history, yes, but long and not personally interesting. The characterization of Lincoln, though, is intriguing. We see into the personal thoughts and motives of the rest of the characters, but Lincoln remains an intentionally closed book. The mystery surrounding who he really was is retained, even furthered through the novel. It's by far the most interesting part of the book. My last issue: the pacing is pretty much all the same. Social dialogue, major battles, Lincoln's assassination? All are discussed in basically the same way. It makes the reading even more sloggish than politics already is.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Classic Lit: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Publisher: Penguin
Translator: Tiina Nunnally
Date: 1920-1922 (2005)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased new
Read: for Historical Novels course
Pages: 1125
Reading time: three weeks

From GoodReads: In her great historical epic Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the life story of one passionate and headstrong woman. Painting a richly detailed backdrop, Undset immerses readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of the period. As a young girl, Kristin is deeply devoted to her father, a kind and courageous man. But when as a student in a convent school she meets the charming and impetuous Erlend Nikulauss√łn, she defies her parents in pursuit of her own desires. Her saga continues through her marriage to Erlend, their tumultuous life together raising seven sons as Erlend seeks to strengthen his political influence, and finally their estrangement as the world around them tumbles into uncertainty.

My review: This started out really boring - I swear, Sigrid Unset had to describe every. single. detail. for the first couple of chapters. But that soon lifted, and I enjoyed the rest of the first volume. I was never a fan of Kristin, as I felt like we never really got to see inside her, and I didn't find her likeable anyway. For the main character, she seemed surprisingly one-dimensional or perhaps just closed off to readers. However, as we've already established, I like classic stories of society and romantic intrigues, and the first volume fit this model quite well.

But then the other two volumes were all about Kristin's life once married and as she and Erlend have children and age, and it's really boring and repetitive. Like, 800 pages of her moaning about guilt and religion, stressing over her irresponsible husband and her kids, having yet more pregnancies and sons, and people dying boring and repetitive. I see why the film version only covers the first volume - if not necessarily a chore to read, the other two just aren't all that interesting, at least to me as a younger reader. And with all the deaths and not-great marriages, it's depressing, too. Well, five chunksters for this Historical Novel class down, two more to go.