Book Review: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

images            The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is a historical novel set in 1066 “Angland.” Most history buffs recognize this year as the Norman Invasion of England by William the Conqueror, or rather, Duc Guillame of Normandy or “the bastard,” as the readers will encounter him in the pages of The Wake.

The story follows one Buccmaster of Holland, an egotistical man who repeatedly reminds us that he is a “socman with three oxgangs.” This notable achievement may seem obscure to the modern reader, but thankfully, Kingsnorth has provided a glossary and some historical notes at the back of the book. (Hint: an oxgang is a measure of land.)

Buccmaster is of the old ways, worshipping Wodan and Ing and Frigg, working his land, beating his wife, and disparaging his sons and laborers. He is the tough kind of man one would imagine encountering in 1066, a grandson of the Danes who invaded Angland themselves. But what makes Buccmaster an interesting narrator is his relationship with the disembodied voice of Weland Smith, a mythic blacksmith whose kidnapping and subsequent brutal retribution and escape gives Buccmaster courage to fight back against the French invaders. Weland Smith gives advice, insults him, and goads him into action on more than one occasion–the inner voice we all have, minus the graphic backstory.

 

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Engraving on the Franks Casket, showing Weyland the Smith at his forge, after having been hamstrung by the King.

But the triumph and originality of this novel is not the characters, rather the language itself. This books is not written in modern English, but rather a modified version of Old English, which the author calls “a shadow tongue.” This renders the book as slow reading for those of us who likely devour words at too quick of a pace. In some ways, these speedbumps frustrated me, but in the end, luxuriating in this brutal, no-win world with the Buccmaster was a delight. Due to the presence of the “shadow tongue,” there was no need of the typical tricks of historical fiction: no lengthy descriptions of ox-carts or how to make leather shoes. The simplicity of the relationships between people, hierarchies and land are laid bare. Returning to my own world with computers, cars, and trans-continental family structures seemed complicated and almost confusing in comparison.

 

Shadow Tongue

One of the reasons I found this shadow tongue to be so effective is that it shapes not only the narrative, but requires the mind to read in an accent. As an American, I have only vague notions of the various accents that live in England. To read a book written like this conjures up a very specific accent, not just in the shape of which words being used, but in the rhythm of the line.

When we had seen this man before he had been proud he had been strong in his raedels and tales. an old man yes but he had the strength what all men moste haf if they is to hold others to them.

Kingsnorth notes that he uses only letters of the alphabet that would be used at that time (for instance, there is no “k” to be found in the text), but he also eschews capitalization and punctuation.

This brings up another aspect of this unique style that echoes the dark mythic quality lurking in the book. If this was written in modern English, I doubt it would have allowed the e.e. cummings-esque use of whitespace when Buccmaster argues with the disembodied voice of Weland Smith:

now does thu see

where has thu been I has been callan

it is not for thu to call

who is thu

thu named me

but I cannot see

 

Angland before England

As the story continues, loping along as Buccmaster collects a band of mostly well-intentioned men to fight the French invaders, Buccmaster drops more hints of his past, bathed in the brine of his bravado. The plot of this story isn’t complex, nor particularly important. For no matter what Buccmaster does, this was a tragic tale before it started. We all know what happened after the Norman invasion of 1066. The ruling class spoke French, while the lower classes spoke English. The Buccmaster’s version of “Angland” and what it meant to be an Englishman was a myth in of itself, as some of his comrades point out in the novel. Buccmaster was descended from Danish invaders who settled there, pushing out the Iceni natives, who had already fought and then intermarried with the Romans centuries before that. Buccmaster has created an “Englishness” that is unique only to his village, and, because of his distaste for Christianity, unique only to those that cling to the old ways. The parallels to modern nationalism are striking.

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The Fens, a marshy land on the Eastern coast of the England, is where The Wake is set.

But in Buccmaster’s world of swords and fire, women have no place. His only love, his sister, is dead, but it isn’t until the end of the book that we find out what happened to her. His father is evil, and again, at the end of the book why Buccmaster refuses to speak of him. His wife, Odelyn, receives some lip service, but it is clear that while Buccmaster claims to love her, she is a responsibility and a dependent, not unlike his sons.

The world is against him, and in the early days of the book, before the invasion, when his farm is in need of harvesting, Buccmaster’s bravado is funny, almost endearing. We’ve all known a person or two who is puffed up on his own importance, and they are harmless. But after the invaders come, and Buccmaster becomes a leader of the resistance, his bravado and faith in the old ways come to darker and darker turns. Like the men of his camp, you wonder where he is going, if he is sane, and if you can trust anything he says.

The Wild

Buccmaster bears witness to the destruction and occupation of his home, playing out the very fear that plagues us still. This phobia is what drives the Zombie Apocalypse entertainment of the last few years, all of the post-nuclear war fiction. As a larger community, we understand how interconnected we are, and how that makes us inter-dependent. To shut off the ability to build together means we no longer get technology like cars, space shuttles, or iPhones. One person can no longer “know” how to do his or her job when so much of the work relies on technology built on the shoulders of our ancestors. Ripping away that rug is terrifying, because we don’t really know where our water comes from. Are we really that much more informed about our lives than Buccmaster, who relies on stories from nearby villages for news?

How much bravado is required to get out of bed every day, to know that you are a “great man,” able to do good in the world after your world has been burnt to the ground? We all need a trick sometimes, and Buccmaster needs someone to think he is not “weac” like a “wifman.” (Though he did seem to appreciate his wifman when none of the men could figure out how to smoke and salt pork, as that was women’s work.)

But what Buccmaster lacks in humility, he makes up for with dark eloquence:

 

the wilde will be tacan from these fenns and the wilde will be tacan from in me for in efry man there is the wind and the water and his worc until he is tacan is to cepe the wild lands from the tamers

 

Ultimately, this is a tale not far off from our current Apocalyptic fiction craze. But, in some ways this is very different from the other books in the genre, because this war did happen, unsettling not just the people of England, but later shaping the conquest of the world. Kingsnorth appends the book with a note that 70% of the land in England is still owned by less than 1%, many of them descendants of those same Norman invaders. Hundreds of years later, the monarchy/government who conquered lands across the ocean, so the sun never set on the British Empire, was also run by the descendants of those same invaders. From the perspective of the Normans, this is a success story. From Buccmaster’s, it is the ultimate tragedy, an event that wiped out his way of life.

The Wake won a number of awards, and can be found in local libraries and bookstores. I strongly recommend seeking it out.

Best Books of 2016 Compilation

Maybe 2016 was an all-out Dumpster Fire for you. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, you probably missed some great books as the months sped by. I have compiled a resource list to help you choose your next book (a best book) before 2017 takes over and you have to keep up with those.

I have broken them into some categories to make it easier to peruse. Perhaps you like Award winners. Committees form, discuss, celebrate a winner. Man Booker Award winners are usually great books for me because they are often quirky. However, they do not allow Americans to enter, so if you want an American experience, go instead with the PEN or the National Book Award winners. Of course, if you want to give someone new a chance, the Hemingway award is only for debut novelists.

But maybe prizes are meaningless. There are deadlines and politics involved. No problem! I have also compiled a list of “Best of…” from a number of different resources. The typical news outlets that have book reviews like the New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, but also a little less literary, like Harper’s Bazaar. But, if you want to get insider knowledge, there is also Publisher’s Weekly.

imgresOf course, there are a few books that are on every list or almost every list. One is Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. If you haven’t read it,  put it on the list. In non-fiction, Evicted by Matthew Desmond. imgres-1

But read on, friends. It is the best way to understand the miles of someone else’s shoes.

Award winners:

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Not into the whole content thing?

*Best Book Covers of 2016 according to Paste Magazine

Best of 2016 lists:

 

Best of luck with your To-Read-Next Pile.

 

 

Problem

I hear the first step is to admit you have a problem. Therefore: I have a problem.

See, it wasn’t my fault. I had to go to Charleston yesterday–not my fault–and we had a bunch of time to kill, so I said, all casual-like, “How about we go to this Used Bookstore?”

And my friends were all like, “Cool.”

BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T KNOW.

We went to a coffee shop first, which was good. Who wants to be without caffeine in a bookstore? No one worth knowing, that’s who.

So we went to Blue Bicycle Books–new and used.

I peruse the shelves, putting down copy after copy of books I had been meaning to read for years. No, I reasoned. I am in the middle of reading img_3712Waveland by Frederick Barthelme, about a man caught between his ex-wife and his girlfriend a few years after Hurricane Katrina. There’s a lot of drinking and pondering over bad decision-making skills. I’m halfway through. Poor life choices made by middle-aged people doesn’t compel me much, but as always, it is well-written, and I am compulsive about finishing books.  I’ll get there.

And I had just started Broken: a love story by Lisa Jones. I only read the first few pages the other night before something else had demanded my attention, img_3713but the introduction tells me I am going to read about a paraplegic Native American man who can break even the wildest of horses, and this will somehow serve as a metaphor for the author’s journey, too.

So I shouldn’t buy any books is what I am telling myself. Nope, no books.

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Except this one. What a find! This is why used bookstores are amazing! Caves and Caving? Perfect! And really, it isn’t just for me! Andy will be interested!

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Chapter Four: Where DO You Go?

 

Sure, it’s from 1986, but it has locations in it, and we have been itching to do more caving since Bouncing the Well.

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I’d like to think we are Joe Cavers.

 

 

Can we talk about Bouncing the Well again? No? Oh.

Well, I’m just going to leave the link here for you again. You know. Just in case you need to fill 14 minutes of your time today.

Ok. So just one book, that’s fine.

Perfect really, except, what about Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez? I have been hearing about this book for ages AND it is a National Book Award Winner.

img_3703It says so right on the cover.

Plus, with Big Five Dive this summer, many of those woman will be later going on an Arctic expedition, so this will help to have some common knowledge, a way to ask intelligent questions and get to know people better.

THIS BOOK IS GOING TO HELP ME MAKE FRIENDS.

But whatever, two books? No big deal. Besides, they’re both non-fiction, which just means I’m interesting. 

 

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Blue Rodeo next to Damian Lewis’ face on Bringing Up the Bodies

Cruising over to the literary fiction section, I’m thrilled to see my friend and mentor’s book on the shelf, Blue Rodeo by Jo-Ann Mapson, kicking it with Hilary Mantel and Damian Lewis’ face. I take a picture to send it to her later, because I would be thrilled if that were me.

 

I mean, I would be thrilled if my book were in a bookstore across the country from where I lived, not that I was next to Damian Lewis’ face.  Er.  Well, I mean, I’m sure he’s lovely, so maybe being next to his face would be lovely also, but I’M TALKING ABOUT BOOKS, DAMMIT.
img_3707Books! Continuing down the alphabetical line–oh, no. This one is just mildly misfiled.  I revert only momentarily to my Title Wave/Eagle Eye Books days where I shelved and shelved and shelved. But then I get to something that really strikes my fancy (sorry, Damian Lewis).

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. I loved his book An Instance of the Fingerpost. He writes historical mystery/thrillers. Plus, I am writing historical fiction, so if I buy that book, it’s just work. A financier/arms dealer falls out of a window in Edwardian London? A reporter with gumption hired by the aristocratic and oddly beautiful widow? In the backdrop of the emerging financial markets? I have been reading up on the history of the London Stock Exchange for another Idea I have for a book. So this is both work AND research. Well. If I have to, then.

img_3704At the end of the literary fiction section, The Martian by Andy Weir catches my eye. I’ve been waiting to buy it used, but unfortunately this copy is new. I listened to a Star Talk podcast where Andy Weir talked about writing this serially on his crummy website (he said it was crummy, not me.), and then once he got finished, his readers enjoyed the story so much but hated his site, so to make reading easier, Weir made it an e-book. Self-published success. This particular edition is now published by Broadway Books. I hope Andy Weir ends his evening by clutching a wad of money, rocking back and forth and cackling. Matt Damon starred in the movie version of his e-book that had no sex in it.

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“…but I have ideas. Really bad ideas, but they’re ideas.”

And it’s about Science.

So that’s a must read, if only to support Andy Weir’s logistic brilliance on outwitting the publishing industry.

I pay for the books, we drive back home, I watch some TV with my husband, but then I have to go to bed. Sure, I’m tired or whatever, and it is a little early, but really?

 

 

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A history? Tell me more.

Stone’s Fall is whispering for me so sweetly that I cannot ignore it. I used my California Parks brochure for a bookmark. I haven’t read the brochure yet either, but I will.

 

 

Because I have a problem.

The Siege Winter

      
    I like local bookstores. I used to work in local bookstores. One of the cool perks, of course, is getting grubby hands on the advanced reader copies ahead of everyone else. True, there may be a few mild copy errors, and the binding is not meant to last. Plus, there’s that bright red Uncorrected Proof – Not For Sale sticker.   
     

    That red sticker
     

     I was at a local bookstore a month ago, and conveniently, two of our local bookstores are located within a block of each other, and I got to pick out an Advanced Readers copy from a small basket near the register. 

    I have a deep affection for medieval history, so the pick of the basket was easy: The Siege Winter By Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman. It is mostly set during 1141, in England. This is a fascinating time period, as the Norman Conquest in 1066 changed the small island irrevocably. The descendents of those conquerors still own the majority of the land in England. But the security of these new landlords was not certain. 

    The story of these two authors is interesting as well, and deserving of its own post. 

        

      

    Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

     

    Mrs. Poe[amazon template=add to cart&asin=B00ADS36DM]Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

    I found this book at a used bookstore (one of my favorites, maybe because I used to work there, and my dog got to work there, too), Eagle Eye Books in Decatur, GA.  Doug Robinson (bookstore owner, heavy reader, and all-around nice person) recommended it, so I took a look at that and a few others before I settled on Mrs. Poe.  I also happened to stumble into a group of friends wanting to start a book club, so this is our first selection.  Not only has it gotten excellent reader reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, it is seasonally appropriate with the upcoming Halloween holiday.

    My Reading kit: Page Points from Levengers so that I won't damage the pages, two different color post-its, and the best "disposable" ink pen.
    My Reading kit: Page Points from Levengers so that I won’t damage the pages, two different color post-its, and the best “disposable” ink pen

    Honestly, however, I bought this book in paperback because I wanted to learn from it.  It fits the same historical fiction genre as my novel, The Square Grand, it has a female protagonist, and is set close to the same time period.  The setting is in a different part of the United States than my novel, but given that New York is always ahead of its time, and my setting is slightly forward in time and rural, I figured I could pick up something that might help me out.  Plus I love reading historical fiction.

    I am still in the first 100 pages, but I am definitely enjoying myself.  She has used excellent sensory descriptions, most notably the sense of smell to ground our location.  The best example I have read so far is early on.  On page seven she writes,

    “The wet had brought out the smell of the smoke rising from the forest of rooftop chimneys as well as the stink of horse manure, rotting garbage, and urine.  It is said that sailors can smell New York City six miles out at sea.”

    Now that is a smell–and it also grounds the reader in a time when New York City wasn’t just pavement and taxi cabs.  The next paragraph she uses an impressive extended metaphor that was also very effective:

    “Vehicles poured down the thoroughfare before me as if a vein in the city had been opened and it was bleeding conveyances down the bumpy cobblestones.”

    The reason why this metaphor is so effective is that it alludes to a common metaphor for large cities like New York: that the city has a “beating heart.”  But Cullen manages to use that metaphor obliquely by referencing a vein.  Also, she used that anatomical structure correctly.  Veins bleed, arteries spurt.  I dislike writing where veins “spurt.”  Veins lack pressure, and therefore, there is no zombie-movie spatter to use as the metaphor for love, or bugs, or whatever.

    I am about to go sit on the porch and read some more.