Authors: Thomas More, Paul Turner (translator, introduction)

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1965 (this version), 1516 (original)

I read it: March 2015 (re-read)


I read this in college, but all I really remembered was golden toilets. I had forgotten, or never even paid attention to, the structure and overall analysis of the work. And while I call it a novel for purposes of this site, it’s really not (this preceded Don Quixote by close to a century). What would you call it then…a philosophical tract?

Regardless, it has a remarkably modern structure. It kicks off with a couple letters, one from More to his friend Peter in which More shows off the draft but expresses doubt that he should publish it, then the second from Peter to another higher up in which he praises the work and calls for its wide distribution. The bulk of the text is a conversation with Raphael Nonsenso, a cultured traveler who relays his tales of lands that most Europeans haven’t seen firsthand. It’s a clever way for More to couch his ideas within fiction, yet it’s cast as if it actually happened (which apparently some people believed, so there’s a hallmark of a good, or at least respected, author).

The name “Nonsenso” and others with modern English puns are thanks to the translation by Paul Turner. In the introduction he addresses the common question: translated from what? From Latin, apparently, which was new to me. Thomas More decided to write his work in the most timeless way he knew how, and Turner has done an excellent job in extracting meanings as best he can and crafting the book so it makes sense to our modern eyes and ears. The only word left alone is “Utopia” itself, which means no-place. Did you know that alongside Utopia, there are other lands the character Raphael has seen, such as Happiland, Blindland, and Tallstoria? The book is full of this clever stuff.

So what is Utopia like? It’s forward-thinking in a lot of ways, which is surprising because More was intensely religious to the point of asceticism, and conservative to our minds (depending on which books you read). So when he criticizes then-modern cultures with something like the following, it’s eye-opening:

Their last resort will be: ‘This was good enough for our ancestors, and who are we to question their wisdom?’ Then they’ll settle back in their chairs, with an air of having said the last word on the subject—as if it would be a major disaster for anyone to be caught being wiser than his ancestors! And yet we’re quite prepared to reverse their most sensible decisions. It’s only the less intelligent ones that we cling on to like grim death. I’ve come across this curious mixture of conceit, stupidity, and stubbornness in several different places.

Raphael goes to lengths to call out the silliness of European societies, and explain how the seemingly radical ways of the Utopians are often the most logical (“for things always sound incredible if they’re remote from one’s own habits of thought”). Their society is about sharing the workload and finding comfort and belonging in knowing they will never go without food or shelter, because they have no personal property and so everyone’s home is everyone else’s home. While the concepts are dramatically over-simplified to show Utopia in the best light, More makes intriguing points about how a properly run society prevents huge amounts of crime:

Stop the rich from cornering markets and establishing virtual monopolies. Reduce the number of people who are kept doing nothing. Revive…plenty of honest, useful work for the great army of unemployed. Until you put these things right, you’re not entitled to boast of the justice meted out to thieves…You allow these people to be brought up in the worst possible way, and systematically corrupted from their earliest years. Finally, when they grow up and commit the crimes that they were obviously destined to commit, ever since they were children, you start punishing them. In other words, you create thieves, and then punish them for stealing!

If that sentiment doesn’t still have relevance today, then I don’t know what does. Of course, Thomas More on his own couldn’t conceive of an absolutely perfectly functioning society. Things are still patriarchal in Utopia, though the women and children probably have more freedoms in this fictional land than in More’s England. And as for those golden toilets: precious metals are looked down upon so that no one forms useless attachments to them, so they make their chamber pots, as well as the chains of the slaves, out of gold and silver. That’s right, there are slaves in Utopia, though even this has its qualifications. The slaves are either Utopians who have fallen from grace because they committed some terrible crime, or certain types of war prisoners. This seems to reflect More’s steadfast belief in personal virtue and the ability to overcome vices (which themselves are heavily regulated in Utopia). If you’re a slave in Utopia, it’s because you are selfishly weak.

I imagine this work is the furthest that More ever went in openly flirting with critique of popular religion. A hardcore Catholic, he was overly devout in real life. There are moments when the reader sees this shining through, like when Raphael describes bringing Christianity to the Utopians. This makes you cringe for a minute, until it is described that only some of the Utopians have converted, and some still hold to native religions. Not only that, but religious tolerance is a highly valued concept on the island. Then there’s another shift where we read that the homegrown beliefs of Utopians align more or less with monotheism, as if they somehow rationalized their assumptions of nature and conveniently landed on something close to Christianity, or secularly worked their way there because the concept of one father-god is self-evident. And come to find out, the ultimate intellectual shame for Utopians is someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife at all or doesn’t think that humans are divinely special. They basically just wait these people out until they come around to better conclusions! We get a similarly twisty argument when on one page Raphael takes the rich and the noble down a peg, while on the next we read about the inherent goodness and infallibility of kings and priests. More wants to have his hierarchical cake, but eat it in on island incapable of corruption.

Obviously, the only way a modern reader can learn from the land of Utopia is to pick out the best parts and leave behind the worst. Isn’t that how we should aim to build all societies, by using the best ideas according to our admittedly limited points of view? I was pleasantly surprised how much was worth considering from More, as well as the amount of humor he used. Maybe he wasn’t such a curmudgeon after all. The most glaring aspect is how explicitly he advocates for a brand of communism, which considering how radical some people think that concept is today, must have seemed even more so in the 1500s. Paul Turner, addresses that some people refuse to take this angle seriously, but in the appendix he concludes, “I have yet to see any conclusive evidence that More did not mean what he said about communism in Utopia.” That’s a strong endorsement for taking the book’s ideas seriously, instead of as pure farce.

There’s one last piece I have to highlight for the reader and writer crowd, because it’s so keen and amusing. This is from the introductory letter in which More shows reluctance to publish the work:

Most readers know nothing about literature—many regard it with contempt. Lowbrows find everything heavy going that isn’t completely lowbrow. Highbrows reject everything as vulgar that isn’t a mass of archaisms. Some only like the classics, others only their own works. Some are so grimly serious that they disapprove of all humor, others so half-witted that they can’t stand wit. Some are so literal-minded that the slightest hint of irony affects them as water affects a sufferer from hydrophobia. Others come to different conclusions every time they stand up or sit down.

Well, Thomas, you might be sorry to hear that we can be just as fickle in the modern age. And we have yet to build our Utopia. But we’re working on it, you old coot. Or are we?

Music corner: Whenever I think of this book, my mind goes instantly to The Shins song “So Says I” with its tuneful line, “Sir Thomas More, we’ve got another failed attempt.” So many failed attempts. The original track is good, though I prefer the bluegrass cover by Iron Horse.

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Posted by on April 17, 2015 in Novels


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The Green Mile

Author: Stephen King

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1996

I read it: March 2015

green mile

A free what?! I can’t tell what was supposedly included in pink there in the original boxset. I had the box but it was ruined by toddler hands. The individual volumes themselves are nifty, all brightly colored and the same length (with the exception of the final installment, which is longer). The set only cost a few bucks used years ago, and a recent Stephen King discussion with a coworker caused me to finally give it a go.

This is some pretty solid King. Despite the hyperbolic selling points on the paperbacks, it’s not all that terrifying. But then, most regular SK readers know that he has more tricks up his sleeve than traditional horror. This book does have one large dose of supernatural, framed in the construct of some old-timey religion. Without the miracle nature of prisoner John Coffey, who acts as “a conduit” of healing, there wouldn’t really be a story, so you have to go with it. Plus the narrator really sells it. Former death row guard Paul Edgecombe tells the story from his retirement home, and his take is about as objective a one as you could hope for from someone bound up in the fantastic.

The six parts that make up the novel are all impressively solid, and feature plenty of memorable set pieces. The prisoners and guards are full characters, as long as you can get used to those weird King phrases that seem pulled from thin air. (Also, there’s an amusing feel of stumbling into a certain story of a boy wizard when you come across sentences that involve Dean, Harry, and Percy.) I can’t say how accurate the situations and mannerisms would be for this story set in the dustbowl of 1932, but it sure feels real while you’re deep in the book. I’d recommend it for those who enjoyed the prison tale of “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” but want something a bit longer. My only regret was that I read it in the wrong season; this one is meant for the stickiness of late summer, or an unseasonably hot October evening.

And one last hurrah for the format. It would have been a lot of fun to experience the serial release in real time. King seems to have enjoyed the Dickensian experiment, though he mentions he probably wouldn’t do it again. But I wish other authors would, especially if they have long stories in the works. Readers want a good cliffhanger, but one that is soon resolved. We want Southern Reach instead of A Song of Ice and Fire. Sign me up for the next revival of something published in this format.

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Posted by on April 10, 2015 in Novels


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Great Tales of Horror

Author: H.P. Lovecraft

Type: Fiction, short stories (anthology)

Published: 2012 (this collection), 1919-1943 (original stories)

I read it: March 2015


This review was originally published on The Stake.

Let’s sum up a few general things you may have heard about author H.P. Lovecraft. He wrote a run of stories published in genre magazines in the 1920s and 30s; for them he is recognized as a distinct influence on American horror, second to Edgar Allan Poe. He created the great Cthulhu, the fearsome winged, tentacled, octopus-thing whose mythos lives on in tabletop games and other fan-made fictions. He spawned numerous unsettling tales of ghastly creatures and mind-bending mysteries situated around New England locales, which transformed into places like the “legend-haunted city of Arkham.” He was a known recluse with a xenophobic streak, and died poor and obscure. And for my money, he had one of the coolest names of any author, ever.

We should also address the common criticism that Lovecraft’s stories follow a similar formulaic structure. This is mostly true. It goes something like this: An educated white male records recent events in which he (or someone he knows) witnessed something extremely strange. More events unfold in the form of a story that revolves around strange heredity or cosmic visitors or travel to an unsettling location. The narrator makes it clear that insanity may overtake him because it’s difficult to reconcile his personal experiences with the known world. The recorded events dovetail into the present moment in which the person must finally deal with the almost unexplainable horror face-to-face. The final line of the story, often emphasized in italics, sums up a ghastly revelation about the perceived nature of said heredity, visitors, or location.

Reading Lovecraft can be simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating. Take “The Call of Cthulhu,” the opening tale. Packed full of broad mythology, it becomes interesting only after experiencing several other Lovecraft stories that get more hands-on. The Cthulhu story is told at arm’s reach, by a narrator who wasn’t even there to witness the beast firsthand. It’s the most popular in name, but deserves to wrap up the collection in the last slot, not open things up for a newcomer. (Besides, over the course of the collection Cthulhu is not even the most frequently mentioned of the ancient ones; that distinction goes to the mysterious Yog-Sothoth.)

That said, the popular story does have some great quips that illustrate the philosophical scaffolding on which the author built his brand of fear. He writes that “we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” and are therefore weak prey to “the horrors that lurk ceaselessly behind life in time and space.” His angle was that the universe is entirely indifferent to humans and it’s only a matter of time before others stumble upon our tiny planet, or rise from the deep, and consume us in ways not so much hostile as inevitable. The narrator in the Cthulhu story gets rather blunt when he tries to fathom the fathoms of unknown waters: “When I think of the extent of all that may be brooding down there I almost wish to kill myself forthwith.” Puny humans can’t handle the truth.

For the characters, taking action to understand the hugeness and strangeness of an idea is tantalizing yet dangerous. The author excels when he crafts the struggle between a scientific world and an older one filled with fantasy and legend. He uses his creatures and cosmic rifts to propose that perhaps our weirdest myths were due to actual ancient beings who were once worshiped as gods but who modernity has largely forgotten. Most of his characters keep an agreeably open mind as they struggle with the push and pull between science and superstition. As one puts it after a disturbing encounter, “I remained awake all that night, but by dawn realised how silly I had been to let the shadow of a myth upset me. Instead of being frightened, I should have had a discoverer’s enthusiasm.” Lovecraft does not work in the realm of pure fantasy. He works in the cracks between what we know and what we do not know. Readers don’t get fooled into falling for flimsy ghost stories. They get lead along, page by page, until they too second-guess reality and wonder if maybe, just maybe, something lurks at the edges of what we can see.

This narrative alchemy is not always so carefully measured. While the repeated references to “hideous books of forbidden elder lore” offer the amusing, quaint idea that books could hold actual magical power (with the dreaded Necronomicon being the most evil), it undercuts the suspension of disbelief. Spell-and-incantation cliches only devalue what Lovecraft is trying to do with his grandiose mythology. There’s also a fine line between using folklore as a whole for the basis of wonder and inquiry, and getting a little too specific with attempts to tie in the real world. When the author toys with connecting stories to the tragedies of Salem, or makes an offhand comment that swastikas were found alongside other strange marks associated with the ancient and unspeakable gods of old, the attempts at cleverness miss the mark. They only downplay very real horrors that don’t need otherworldly explanations.

The biggest stumbling block to fully enjoying Lovecraft is his intensely hierarchical view of human cultures. Woe to any racial minorities unlucky enough to be mentioned in his stories. Unfamiliar peoples, and their religions, get to be the voodoo fetishists whose cults secretly worship bloodthirsty alien beings. I recommend avoiding the most painful caricature by skipping “Herbert West—Reanimator” completely. There’s also an intense focus on heredity. Is this a New England thing? (At least there’s the ongoing joy of reading names like Jabez Brown and Abraham Whipple.)

Several stories, like “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls,” feature degenerated humans who have either adopted beastlike habits or have become beasts themselves over time. Apparently one of Lovecraft’s personal fears was some sort of impurity in the bloodlines. And this is where you have to take the bad with the good. A victim of his time, he was also a notorious loner with questionable self-esteem. It could have been that these exact asocial qualities worked in a feedback loop with his creative imagination, and enhanced a style that specifically experimented with grappling with the unknown. He writes that “the abnormal always excites aversion, distrust, and fear.” It’s easy to imagine Lovecraft typing away behind shuttered windows, afraid to go outside for days on end for fear of who or what he might run into.

It’s better when Lovecraft leaves human history behind and explores the limits of the senses or the qualities of space-time. Some stories attempt to describe things that can barely be put to page, like the actual sounds that come from “The Music of Erich Zann” or the mysterious hues from “The Colour Out of Space.” On occasion the author plainly states that something “would be useless to describe” or is “beyond the power of words to classify,” but generally he does a fine job in taking the reader to places that could only be described in a book because the imagination has to fill in huge gaps to supplement the author’s speculative foray. “The Colour Out of Space” is a remarkable tale of rural decay that is among the creepiest science fiction I’ve read, and much the same goes for “The Dreams in the Witch House” for its depictions of a crystalline fourth dimension—not to mention the nightmare vision of one creature by the name of Brown Jenkin.

For all Lovecraft’s strengths, the stories in this particular collection by Fall River Press are uneven in quality, poorly ordered, and simply too large in number. With 20 stories that total 600 pages, the book does not offer the accessibility the author deserves. It should open with something representative like “The Whisperer in Darkness” that has a little bit of everything, from local charm to lobster-like aliens. It should completely excise the drudgery that is “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” a novella that the author did not intend for publication and that he himself called a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism.” It is a beast that should have stayed buried. What’s needed is a slimmer, all-star collection of the best of the best. Properly juxtaposed with all the fat trimmed, his standout stories could illustrate the full range of his imagination.

The repetitive themes and structures, mixed with bits of brilliance throughout, give readers the sense that Lovecraft was one of those writers who was on a journey toward a singular greatness. Amazingly, he found it. “At the Mountains of Madness” is another novella, contained in this anthology but also (breathe a sigh of relief) available as its own book with a few supplemental stories.

Here is the holy grail of all things Lovecraft.

It’s a travelogue about an expedition to the remote reaches of Antarctica, inspired by the real expeditions that occurred during the author’s lifetime. Four primary explorers plus their crew stumble upon organic pods in unexplored territory, and things get strange quickly. After a catastrophe strikes, two of the men fly a plane even further into the interior, and witness vistas of inexplicable architecture that they explore with a mix of fear and fascination. The story has everything: a recounted adventure that feels immediate, the awe of scientific discovery, a small cast of characters with a sympathetic narrator, a slow steady burn set against tangible descriptions of creeping claustrophobia and wide open landscapes, and the full range of Lovecraftian mythology. It towers above the other stories, deserving to live outside these doorstop anthologies and have much wider recognition. It’s really all the Lovecraft the casual reader needs.

Yet despite my bellyaching about page count, there’s something to be said for the full immersion. The specific paranoia the author creates in his stories shows he was well aware of “man’s eternal tendency to hate and fear and shrink from the utterly different,” and his refusal to settle for common ghouls illustrates his view that “memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.” If H.P. Lovecraft writes about something and you can’t quite picture it, yet you still feel a tingle in your spine as you read, it’s because he has touched the same place that myth and infinity touch. He has reached into the crevice and noticed something was alive.

Music corner: The Mountain Goats song linked above is what probably planted the seed years ago which caused me to eventually explore Lovecraft. The song is great on its own, but I also enjoy the Aesop Rock remix for the added lines about “little Howie” nervously exploring the city. This video of the remix version has nifty fan art and a coda that features some original Lovecraft lines.

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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Short stories


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Astonishing X-Men

Author: Joss Whedon

Artist: John Cassaday

Type: Fiction, comic

Published: 2009

I read it: March 2015


This one was another entry point recommendation from Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men. Though more traditional than Marvels, it was a solid book through and through. I knew most of the characters going in but there was plenty of new stuff (still trying to get used to cat-Beast) and I think total newcomers would also have a good experience. Before the real action begins there are a few pages that outline some broad plot points from historical X-Men narratives, so you can get your bearings for this modern tale.

The team is kind of unique, but still features core members. Cyclops is the leader, and he gets some really good coverage to the point where you actually root for him instead of get annoyed by him. Wolverine is present but doesn’t take over, which is the just the right dose. Beast is awesome and I think I can still call him my favorite, after I accept the feline qualities. A big change-up here is Emma Frost (the former White Queen) as an X-Man and love interest for Cyclops. You learn a lot about her in this story. The return of Kitty Pryde is a major part of the plot, as well as a revival of Colossus (it’s not a spoiler, he’s right on the cover) who was supposedly dead. Kitty and Peter are great both individually and in their scenes together. They are the heart and soul of the story and factor into the climax in a big way.

This is just all-around a super fun book, fat enough at 24 issues to have a little bit of everything you might look for in an X-Men comic, yet focused enough to know what it’s trying to do. These are the types of standalone stories I could continue to enjoy. What are some others from the Marvel universe? Let me know if you have favorites. Just give me fair warning if my favorite characters now look like cats.

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Posted by on March 27, 2015 in Comics


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Author: Kurt Busiek

Artist: Alex Ross

Type: Fiction, comic

Published: 1994

I read it: February 2015


I still dream of Marvel cards. That I’m opening a brand new pack or hunting down a rare set at a convention at the mall. Upon awakening, I’m disappointed that I don’t actually have a mint Nightcrawler card in my possession.

Alongside the X-Men animated series, the trading cards made up the bulk of my Marvel education. For whatever reason, my brother and I didn’t read many actual comics. But collecting the cards allowed us to get a glimpse, piece-by-piece, of the structure and stories of the somewhat dense and confusing Marvel universe.

Now when it comes to said trading cards, there were cards and then there were cards. In the former category you got the characters in bold primary colors, all forced flash and little personality. On the other end (and for several dollars more) were the sets in which each hero and villain was rendered with artistry and care, colored in delicate pastels or lit to reveal a complex expression. In the best scenario, these cards had a comment by the artist on the reverse side, where they explained their inspiration or vision or technique.

Marvels is an entire book of this artistic caliber. The pages are paintings you could hang on your wall, such as the cover of issue two that shows Angel lifting a helpless young mutant above the clutches of a bloodthirsty mob. It’s magnificent.

The story is equally renowned. It’s from the perspective of Phil Sheldon, a New York photojournalist who is at the center of the action when superpowered beings first spring onto the scene in 1930s America. The issues span across the following few decades and explore the changing attitudes that regular humans have about the “marvels” who often leave destruction and confusion in their wake. There is a huge cast of cameos, and the back of the book lists the reference points to how the plot points of the book link up to where they previously occurred in the Marvel universe (gotta try to keep that tangled continuity intact).

But man, that artwork by Alex Ross. You can see the folds in the fabric on Spider-Man and Captain America. You can tell they are wearing suits! A simple detail that adds heaps of realism. More extras include artist commentary and photos of his craft, as well as concept art that includes homage covers that update the early appearances of Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spidey, and the Avengers. The X-Men cover is another revelation that I could frame.

This is the type of superhero book that a wide audience can enjoy, without needing much comic experience. It’s self-contained and exciting, and asks great questions. It’s worth noting that I heard about it while listening to the podcast Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, which I definitely recommend, and I’m eager to seek out other starter books they have mentioned.

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Posted by on March 20, 2015 in Comics


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The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014

Author: Daniel Handler (series editor), Lemony Snicket (introduction)

Type: Fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, comics, poetry (anthology)

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015


The times they have a-changed for The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. Dave Eggers has stepped down as captain, and Daniel Handler is filling his shoes. It was a bit of a cheap trick to have Handler’s alter ego write the introduction, but I suppose they had plenty of newness to deal with this year, so I give it a pass.

First, the one notable downside that occurred with this shift: the death of the front section. Throughout all the volumes I had read, the front section was a creative mishmash of anything that couldn’t comfortably fit into a distinguishable genre of written work. Speeches, snippets, emails, collected quotes, best first (or last) lines of books, Craiglist ads, weird flyers, newspaper clippings, you name it. One of my favorite parts, The Best American New Band Names, had already been excised from the front section a couple years ago. And now the whole thing is gone.

This would have stuck with me as a major concern if under the new leadership the group didn’t end up filling that extra space with superb writing picks. But rest assured that they have done it. In fact, the first seven or so entries are a rush of exceptional pieces, kicked off by Matthew Schultz’s “On the Study of Physics in Preschool” (a must-read for teachers) and Dan Keane’s equally creative “AP Style” (a must-read for editors). A couple non-fiction selections that show up in the early pages include a portrait of a man who infiltrates and saves people from cults, an insightful look at the way humans interact with pets, and a lively interview with a female Egyptian political activist.

The rest of the anthology includes:

  • A couple of breezy comic excerpts.
  • Several poems and flash fiction plays.
  • An intriguing history of comedian Dave Chappelle, by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.
  • A transcript of an episode from a podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, which I’m now tempted to check out.
  • Engaging accounts of the friend of a terrorist (V.V. Ganeshananthan’s “K Becomes K”) and the life of a soldier returning from modern war (Cole Becher’s “Charybdis”), which I can’t tell whether or not are fiction or non-fiction.
  • True accounts of reporters in third world countries, which are always eye-opening and hard to read for the obvious reasons, and which seem to be requirements in compilations like these. I can see why they have value, but my narrow first world mind has a hard time distinguishing these sometimes.
  • Two parallel stories, one short and one long, that channel first-hand experience of the illness of a loved one. These are “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky and “Nirvana” by Adam Johnson.
  • A deceptively straightforward yet aching piece, Gabriel Heller’s “After Work.”
  • A fantastic essay on the topic of “Joy” by Zadie Smith.

So yes, the Nonrequired series remains in fine form. Hopefully Handler can confidently steer the ship for a while and continue to let the young anthologizers show us the good stuff. Happy reading.

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Posted by on March 13, 2015 in Comics, Essays, Poetry, Short stories


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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Author: Hilary Mantel

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015


This review was originally published on The Stake.

Hilary Mantel continues to expand her readership as more people latch onto her brilliant Thomas Cromwell trilogy. This piece of historical fiction is the first taste of her work for a lot of us, and the final installment has yet to land (not to mention a TV adaptation that British viewers are enjoying as we speak, but which awaits stateside release). In the interim, a separate publisher has provided the ten short stories in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

The opening shot, “Sorry to Disturb,” is a confusing gauge of what is to come. It paints a modern culture clash, with vague hints of a male threat against the female protagonist, and then fizzles with not much of an ending. Bad men, and infidelity specifically, are a regular occurrence in this collection. In “The Long QT” a wife comes upon her straying husband at a party they host, and “Offenses Against the Person” is a more complex story in which the mistress of the narrator’s father is known and named.

A better display of Mantel’s writing is her strange take on girlhood. In “Comma” two girls are voyeuristically enthralled with someone with unstated deformity or disability. An eating disorder haunts the sister of the callous teen protagonist in “The Heart Fails Without Warning.” One of the more distinct stories is “How Shall I Know You?” which is unique in its unease. It tells of a weary writer visiting a dilapidated motel on a shoestring book tour, and her interactions with a mysterious (and once again, somewhat deformed) young girl who works there.

Mantel slips a bit when she tries to add a punchline or ah-ha moment to her endings. This happens in a consecutive trio starting with “The Long QT,” then “Winter Break,” in which a couple argues over the idea of children until their topic of conversation is made gruesomely manifest, followed by “Harley Street.” This last is rich in detail, chronicling a group of women who work in a shabby hospital in an unspecified year. But by the end we are to presumably suspect vampirism of a sort, and the whole thing feels more like a clever exercise.

Yet this all makes a bit more sense when you see that “Harley Street” was originally published way back in 1993, with most of the other stories having origins in the first decade of the 2000s. The whole book is a reason to publish the title story, which sits in the final slot. This is a strong piece, evoking an exciting day in a humble London neighborhood in 1983, when Mrs. Thatcher makes a stop. Here is Mantel in her element, vividly painting a situation that feels immediate because of its particular place and mood, toying with established history. The assassin and his unwitting accomplice set up shop next to a window with a perfect sightline, awaiting the final minute. The story is more about these two than the bullet that may or may not find its target.

“I should like to be rich in anecdote. Fertile to invent.” Mantel writes this in the short and poetic “Terminus,” the penultimate story in her collection (and one that city commuters would appreciate). She no doubt has these qualities herself, though this collection as a whole fails to show off her strongest side. “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” as a story is worth the while, something that would work well as a $1.99 Kindle Single. In its best moments it reminds the reader of the author’s intricate handling of significant events, and leaves us eager to return to her visions of an older England. The short story snacks hold us over for a minute, but the meal is in Mantel’s novels.

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Posted by on March 6, 2015 in Short stories


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