Book Reviews: Barbara Kingsolver, Oakley Hall, Hilary Mantel, and The Stand

January was a good month for reading – time off school meant I had quite a bit of time to delve into some deep novels.

I started with Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, Flight Behavior.

I was attracted to this because it’s set in rural Appalachia, an area I write about with maybe too much frequency. I’m always interested to see how other writers handle the problems of writing about Appalachia – avoiding stereotypes while still managing to convey the poverty and issues of the region. I’d give Kingsolver an A+ for this one.
Flight Behavior follows Dellarobia Turnbow, mired in an unhappy marriage complete with controlling in-laws. Climbing a mountain behind her property in a fit of despair, she discovers millions of monarch butterflies roosting there for the winter. What follows is a novel about science, climate change, relationships, poverty, class, and love.
If it sounds like an ambitious prospect, maybe it is, but it reads like a compelling, funny page-turner. Dellarobia is a convincing character, intelligent but limited by her circumstances. Kingsolver renders her insights into people in prose that doesn’t sound beyond Dellarobia’s reach:
“It was the same on all sides, the yuppies watched smart-mouth comedians who mocked people living in double-wides who listened to country music. The very word Tennessee made those audiences burst into laughter, she’d heard it. They would never come see what Tennessee was like, any more than she would get a degree in science and figure out the climate things Dr. Byron described. Nobody truly decided for themselves. There was too much information. What they actually did was scope around, decide who was looking out for their clan, and sign on for the memos on a wide array of topics.”
More than that, Dellarobia is funny and relatable. She’s an easy character to like, and thus an easy character to ride along with. By the end, nothing fits into a neat little box, but it’s not a depressing book, either. This is a very different book from the other Kingsolver novel I’ve read, The Poisonwood Bible. But I liked Flight Behavior, more than I expected to, and I’d recommend it to anyone, even a casual reader.
***
Next came Hilary Mantel’s latest, Bring Up the Bodies.
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This was a Big Book for Mantel – lots of expectation, lots of publicity, and lots of fans. She delivered, in my opinion, and I’m not the only one who feels that way. The book earned Mantel her second Mann Booker prize.
It had been over a year since I read Wolf Hall, and I decided to re-read that one before diving into this one. It reminded me what a remarkable author Mantel is. I think a huge challenge in writing about historical characters is actually bringing them to life on the page. Mantel does it beautifully, and not just with Thomas Cromwell. I particularly love her portrayal of Henry VIII. She captures his pride, his quicksilver temper, his kindness, his humor, and his terrifying rages so well. There’s all sorts of tension in this book – tension in scenes where Cromwell is manipulating or interrogating, tension from the sense that everyone is always scheming, tension in the untenable situation that Anne Boleyn finds herself in halfway through this novel. But the most wonderful tension of all is that of the reader knowing more than Thomas Cromwell ever will. Mantel makes Cromwell a supremely intelligent and likeable man. It’s wonderful to see his rise to power, his triumph after triumph. Not everything he does is likeable, but his reasoning is always clear, and it’s hard to side against him. But anyone who knows history knows how this story is going to end. That’s what gives the book its most fantastic edge, and what will leave readers craving the third installment and dreading it at the same time. Bring Up the Bodies ends with Cromwell at the peak of his power and favor with the king. Yet behind it, all of it, is the dreadful knowledge that it will all come crashing down – and God, I can’t wait to see how Mantel does it.
***
I won’t say too much about Oakley Hall’s Warlock, because Greg and I are planning to do our next podcast on it, and I don’t want to share too many of my thoughts on it ahead of that.
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What I will say is that whatever else you’re reading right now is probably not as good or as interesting as this novel. I’m willing to bet. This is an extraordinary book that I couldn’t believe I had never heard of before. It kept me reading late into the night, several nights, and I finished it in record time.
Warlock is about a man. It’s also about a community. It’s also about the American West – the mythic one and the real one. It tells the story of the town of Warlock from the point of view of several characters as the townspeople take matters of law and order into their own hands.
From now on, when I think about a Great American Novel, this is the book that will come to mind. In some ways I think writing about American myth is much more satisfying, when done well, than actually writing about American life. This book engages with what we choose to remember, how we choose to interpret it, whom we decide to lionize. It can and will spark fascinating discussion – which I hope we’ll have in podcast form very soon.
***
I have a thing for epic novels with sprawling casts of characters. Warlock fits into that category, and after finishing it, I felt an urge to re-read an old favorite – Stephen King’s The Stand.
The question that I always re-visit when I read King is, what really is his best work? I look at him with a more critical eye than I used to. I read just about everything he wrote before 2000, and I’ve read a few of his newer works – The Dome was the only one I really liked. I last reread The Stand about five years ago, and I remember thinking then that it was his best.
After re-reading it, I still think so. But the book’s not perfect. King has a few annoying habits that seem tiresome after hundreds and hundreds of pages. Certain sections plod. I had issues with the female characters, from a feminist perspective, that didn’t bother me years ago. And the ending, of course, is a deus ex machina by design.
But I love The Stand anyway. I love it for what it’s trying to do, and I love it where it succeeds. I love how much King loves his characters. I love the book’s sense of gravitas. The scene where dying Mother Abagail relays the quest still brings shivers down my spine. And I really appreciated, on this reading, how biblical it is. The trope is that God chooses the weak, the stammerers, the defective, to be his chosen, and King carries that to fruition in using characters like Nick Andros, a deaf-mute, or Larry Underwood – who is really not a great man, just a good-enough one, some of the time – or simple-minded Tom Cullen as the heroes. In his introduction, King calls the novel a “tale of dark Christianity.” That’s exactly what it is. As a reader, I enjoy it. As I writer, I admire it. I guess it’s depressing to think an author still writing did his best work forty years ago, but I almost feel that to write a book like this, you have to be young and ambitious. Anybody wiser would never try.
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