I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately. Both Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel came out with collections this year, so I’ve found it interesting to compare their styles.
Atwood’s stories are often complex in their setups, whereas Mantel is quite stripped down (the reverse of her Cromwell novels, which I found slow-moving and very dense) in tone and style. While Atwood’s collection is about love, betrayal, and revenge, Mantel focuses on a more vague state-of-nation sensibility and covers a variety of ideas in her stories. My personal favorites are “Sorry to Disturb,” “The Heart Fails without Warning,” and “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983.” The last one intrigues me, because it suggests an alternate history if Thatcher had died right at the cusp of her Falklands victory. Did she change the course of British history? Or was it inevitably headed towards privatization and conservative reforms? “The Heart Fails without Warning” is a gripping look at an eating disorder from the perspective of a younger sibling who cannot imagine the personal and psychological turmoil of an anorexic older sister and sees only the bony body, the frequent vomiting, and the glassy stares. It’s gripping and heartbreaking at once–one of the finest writing voices that Mantel employs in this collection.
This collection is probably here to tide us over until the third Cromwell book hits the shelves. Is it worth it? Yes, definitely. But it takes on a different tone and style, so don’t be expecting Mantel in her “trilogy form.” This collection has inspired me to seek out her other work, though.
The Chancellor has been at me to read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe so we can talk about the ending. He did not like the ending. In fact, read his amazing review first, and then let’s talk.
Back? Let’s talk. I won’t summarize it for you, since The Chancellor did such a great job of it in his review. But suffice it to say, I agree with his assessment 100%.
I wanted to fall in love with this book madly, to root and cheer and whoop for Printz winners, for Stonewall winners, you get the big picture. And up to the ending, I really, truly was. It’s a great book, it really is. But in some ways, it could have been a mindblowing book. It was thisclose. But the ending was neat, conventional, tidy. And that’s not always how life works. Maybe Saenz did it purposefully, to give some idealism and some wish-fulfillment to his characters, but it just didn’t feel true to form. It’s not a bad ending, but it sort of comes out of nowhere, and left me a little head-scratching. Like, huh? Wait, what?
It’s sort of like the letter at the end of The Fault in Our Stars (another book I really wanted to love SO HARD and just liked okay). It’s pretty, it’s cathartic, but c’mon. It’s so fiction, so wish-fulfilling that it’s a fantasy. I realize that when you are focusing a story on a gay teen coming out in the 1980s, you might want a little enjoyable fantasy, and I respect that. It’s just that I thought the book would take a totally different direction, and as a reader, I was definitely a bit puzzled. But it’s still a highly worthwhile book, no matter what.
I don’t always like Martin Amis’s novels, but I almost always find them really interesting (more interesting than his father’s work, if I must confess). He knows how to create a wild, colorful story with characters to match and The Zone of Interest is one that I think will stick with me long after reading it.
If you’ve never read Amis, this is honestly one of his most approachable works. The Zone of Interest takes a look at what it would have been like to work at a concentration camp (no, really), from the German perspective. It takes three perspectives: officer Angelus (Golo) Thomsen, the nephew of a prominent Nazi official; Commandant Paul Doll whose marriage has taken a sour turn; and header of the Sonderkommando Szmul, who is tasked with sending other Jews to the gas chamber. It is a ludicrous, darkly funny, and nastily honest novel. Pure Amis–at his finest.
Martin Amis is great at deducing the follies of humanity and making fun of them (this is where Jane Austen’s influence on his writing becomes most apparent). He’s also great at illuminating the social problems of a time period and fleshing out the corruption and hypocrisy rampant in our world (this is Dickens’ influence on his writing. Also, his previous novel, Lionel Asbo, is great at sussing out this wicked world we live in). His deconstruction of human nature and the evils present in our collective psyches is also adroitly addressed, and this is a trait he gleans from Nabokov and Tolstoy. He’s not always an approachable writer, but The Zone of Interest, is entertaining, provocative, and well worth the time. I highly recommend it.
*I should also note that as a contemporary British and American scholar, this is the kind of book I enjoy reading. You may not share the enthusiasm I had for it, or for Amis in general. This is my disclaimer to you.*
The tagline for We Were Liars promises a huge twist and then admonishes readers, if anyone asks you how this book ends, lie.
No, really. LOL. How do you expect to drum up business for a book with such a cheap trick? It’s one thing to vaguely allude to the shocking twists that occur in a book, and it’s quite another to forecast it and then try to get readers so hyped up about that you JUST have to read it for YOURSELF so that you can LIE ABOUT IT TO OTHER PEOPLE.
Spoiler: I did not like the end of this book at all.
Cadence is a teenager from a wealthy clan, whose extended family owns an island and goes there to stay throughout the summer. She, her cousins, and her aunt’s boyfriend’s nephew form a posse called The Liars, and they do rich-people things all summer. Of course, Cady is still battling amnesia from an accident and trying to piece together why this summer is so weird. And of course, we find out.
E. Lockhart is a gorgeous writer. There is some beautiful prose, and the feelings of isolation, grief, confusion, and growing up are convincingly plotted. But the end. The hamfisted twist. That clumsy marketing. It ruined the experience for me. It cheapened what could have been an otherwise really genuine and interesting novel for me. I mean, you know what happens at the end of The Book Thief, but it only makes the end that much more compelling and devastating since you already knew it.
Basically, We Were Liars is The Book Thief in reverse.
I read The Fever and was drawn in to the dark underworld of female adolescence. In this earlier novel, Megan Abbott deftly explores the sexual tensions, hierarchy, and desire for power that undergird female relationships in high school.
This time, Dare Me is about cheer squads. It’s no sassy Bring It On pep rally, either. Rather, it focuses on Addy Hanlon, a second-in-command to cheer captain Beth Cassidy, whose reign of terror has brought her power and glory throughout grade school, JV, and now through their senior year of high school. And then, a new, young coach enters the scene. Colette French is ruthless and unafraid to make a girl cry to get her into impossible physical shape. She reinvigorates the cheer team with new physical routines and a new diet/training regime–and she aims for Beth’s power. Addy, of course, finds herself trapped in the middle–wanting to retain her position as Beth’s second-in-command, yet addicted to the powerful draw of her compelling coach. It’s a dark and twisty story.
All told, I do like The Fever better, but this is still an interesting story about power relationships, especially when you think about it from the “sidekick’s” perspective. Addy is an interesting narrator, and the clique of girls is well-fleshed out. I do have to say, though, every time I see movies/TV shows about teens binge-drinking or read books of this sort, I always think, Where are your PARENTS? I mean, I was not allowed to borrow my parents’ car unless I gave them specifics. And my friends never had parties at their houses. So I read some of these instances about teens sneaking out and taking the car, and I wonder about it. Maybe that’s just me.
I’m doing that thing again where I read all the books by my favorite author. It’s okay, though, I really like being an expert in my favorites. And Willa Cather is definitely a new favorite. Now that I’ve read her most famous stuff, I’m hoping to read all her less known novels.
A Lost Lady is about the enigmatic but charismatic Marian Forrester, a beautiful woman married to a much older man and living in the somewhat remote railroad town of Sweet Water. As a child Niel Herbert falls under her spell and becomes a confidant and friend as he grows into a man. It is through his eyes that we see the rise and fall of Mrs. Forrester throughout the town’s history. She seems like the glue holding her husband together, but through hardships and tragedy, she reveals a shocking vulnerability beyond the brilliant surface.
This story actually reminds me a LOT of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (not the film–as much as I like the film, apart from Mickey Rooney’s cringe-worthy racist character, it’s quite different and more melancholy than the original). The woman is a beautiful, brilliant character who ultimately finds herself unmoored by the hazards of real life and the man who sort of worships her comes to realize that he is worshipping an image, not a person.
Cather is a talented novelist, and her prose is sharp, never too sparing (cough cough HEMINGWAY) and never too florid and dense (FAULKNER). She is an elegant writer, but she takes us out of the elite coasts and into the forgotten West, without resorting to cowboy tropes and Wild West romances. I’m definitely excited to read more!
It seems that most, if not all, of my favorite contemporary authors are putting out books in the next year. I feel grateful, and also a little nervous that it’s going to be a drought for the next two years. Oh, who am I kidding? I have so much to read anyway. My sister alerted me to the release of Stone Mattress, and I immediately put myself on the library waitlist, hoping to get it when it was first released. Sure enough, luck was with me.
There are some authors who are fantastic short-story writers (Alice Munro, Sherman Alexie) and then there are novelists who try to write short stories (early Ian McEwan). Margaret Atwood is a rare writer who tackles both genres with seeming ease, making you want to read everything she’s ever written. Stone Mattress is no exception. She weaves together fantastical and realistic tales, themed around love, betrayal, rejection, bitterness, growing older, despair, and revenge. But the stories don’t feel repetitive, and you leave wanting more. To me, that’s a sign of success when a short story ends and I’m mad that there’s not more of it.
This collection is particularly strong, though I do have some personal favorites. There’s a trilogy of short stories to kick off the collection, starting with “Alphinland,” in which we get three perspectives on the same decades-long saga. It’s interesting, and you meet so many of the players involved. My personal favorite, though, is “The Dead Hand Loves You.” It’s a story within a story, and the two merge and cut away from each other yet again. It’s intriguing and suspenseful at once.
It might be time to read more of Atwood’s short story collections…