Mini-reviews of some of the books I’ve read in early winter 2019, including four chonkers of 400+ pages. Richard Powers, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Dorothy Sayers, and Louise Erdrich. Spoilers for everything.
Richard Powers, The Overstory (novel, 2018): When reading novels about nature, I can usually tell whether or not a writer has actually spent time outside among the things they’re describing. Powers has. His forests are not static photographs, but the sweet rot of poplar duff and the leathery sheen of hepatica leaves beneath the snow. It’s a pity he’s unwilling to spend as much time exploring the guts of his characters as he is his trees. That the plot of a 2018 Booker nominee should revolve around the hero-motivating death of a manic pixie dream girl, a disabled immigrant driven by self-loathing, and the variously-inappropriate lusts of several middle-aged men for much younger women, is a profound failure of imagination. But he does the trees well.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (novel, 2009): The blurb on the back of Wolf Hall calls it a “non-frothy historical novel,” damning this intricate, erudite brick of a book with the faint praise of not knowing quite how to classify it. I don’t, either. But I loved it anyway. Wolf Hall is plotless in the way history is: it’s about the minute, everyday shifts in loyalties that assume world-changing importance only when you pull back and consider them from a distance. Watching Thomas Cromwell try to survive Henry VIII’s court is like watching a man clear individual fingers of quicksand while his torso slowly sinks.
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (novel, 2002): An unapologetically frothy Victorian thriller: lavish, sexy, and unafraid of a Dickensian plot twist (or six). When J and I read this novel back-to-back, we referred to it as “the sauce,” and reading is does feel like ladling ganache directly into your mouth.
Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night (novel, 1935): Gaudy Night is a mystery whose stakes—the reputation of an Oxford women’s college—I can appreciate. It’s also one of the best romances I’ve ever read (though my tastes are, I admit, very particular). The book’s middle-aged lovers respect one another’s intelligence and spend much of their time discussing principles whose dictates they must satisfy before they can get together. That satisfaction happens via the mystery plot, but also through a delightful series of very British conversations whose emotional swordplay is visible only through the faint ripples it leaves on the surface of the dialogue.
Louise Erdrich, Four Souls (novel, 2001): Erdrich’s short novel is told by three characters whose personalities are so distinct their speech feels like transcription. Undergirding them all is Erdrich’s wry compassion for human stupidity, though compassion should not be mistaken for forgiveness. Four Souls is also a historical novel set between WWI and WWII. Erdrich’s casual erudition about the grungy workings of everyday life in the upper midwest is breathtaking, from noting how newly-quartersawn oak weeps sap to detailing which animals’ bones are best for whittling beads.