Book Review 6: “Bring Up the Bodies”

Genre Fiction
Have in the Library? Yes

This book begins with the dead: his children (his, Thomas Cromwell’s), Grace and Anne, briefly reborn in the guise of royal falcons carrying their names. As they drift above the English countryside, Mantel paints the scene:

The horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western countries stretching into a haze of blue; let us stand, the king’s hand on his shoulder, Henry’s face earnest as he talks his way back through the landscape of the day, the green copses and rushing streams, the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the stillness, the afternoon heat.

It’s 1535 and King Henry VIII is going across the countryside for sport. Henry here is childlike, with England as his playground for falconry and courting, while Europe falls into chaos. Cromwell, his handler, watches on the sidelines, at the whim of the King but secure in the knowledge that it is really his hand that controls the court and country.

“Bring Up the Bodies” is the second novel in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. The first, “Wolf Hall,” charts Cromwell’s unlikely rise to power and first forays in Henry’s court. Now in “Bring Up the Bodies,” we find Cromwell firmly established with a happy household and a prominent position as Secretary to the King. The final book, “The Mirror and the Light,” is slated to come out later this year.

Though the storyline picks up immediately from where “Wolf Hall” ended, this book stands alone. I liked it better than its predecessor. The action is more tightly packed, the writing tauter, and everything is tuned just a little bit darker. The endless court intrigue that bogged down “Wolf Hall” is pared down here and the events go by at a rapid pace. Cromwell is also different. Now with years at court behind him, his cruel side is starting to show as he tries any means possible to sabotage Anne Boleyn. Here we get a more tragic Cromwell. Though he seems to slide through the days as smoothly as ever, inside he is eaten up by loss: the deaths of his wife, daughters and former master Cardinal Wolsey.

As someone who hasn’t studied British history, I had no idea who Thomas Cromwell was. Anne Boleyn and Henry were just names. There is a lot of history going on here to be sure; place names and people names and levels of hierarchy that I occasionally found myself glossing over. I don’t always like historical fiction for this reason, but in “Bring Up the Bodies,” those details are just background noise. Following the rise and fall of fortunes, you are swept up and see the events taking place as though you are really there.

What makes the difference in Mantel’s writing is her sense of time. She writes in present tense, which should feel strange but isn’t. In doing so, Mantel implies that the past is present. Though different in details, the dramas of the Tudor court are presented as just as urgent as any contemporary politics today. The consequences are just as deadly.

The book ends with the dead, this time Anne Boleyn, “Anne sans tête.” The chapter on her trial and the execution is one of the best written scenes as Mantel spares nothing in depicting the brutality of the proceedings. Yet it’s her quieter passages that are most powerful, as in the last chapter where Cromwell reflects:

When the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me…they will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

“Bring Up the Bodies” is a portrait of a time in history, when plagues stalked the land and when a shift in power was heralded with executions. One thing seems certain: in Tudor England, no one is safe. Cromwell is remarkable because of his willingness to look ahead in the face of this helplessness, his endurance, “stuck like a limpet to the future.”

The truth of it is not so different today. Death is still the constant, or to put it less morbidly, the fact of our impermanence in the world. Like Thomas Cromwell, Henry the XVIII or Anne Boleyn, we spend our lives plotting and scheming for more: love, power, creation of a bloodline or creation of a book. Yet in the end history teaches that there will always be an afterwards. Whatever we gain is not forever. But, Mantel gently suggests, perhaps we misunderstand the “nature of endings.” Just as the falcons named for his departed daughters soar in the sky, in these pages Cromwell can again open his wings and fly. We, the reader, feel the exhilaration as though we are standing there with him in that summer field.

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Book Review 5: “The Once and Future King”

 

Genre Fiction/Fantasy

Have in Library? Yes!

 

Confession: I love fantasy. It feels like a confession because fantasy too often exists simply as “genre” writing: fun to read, but not considered as serious canonical literature. Especially in light of everything going on in the world right now, it feels indulgent. Who needs escapism? How can stories about made up things contribute to a serious examination of contemporary issues?

Enter “The Once and Future King.”

*Spoilers ahead … if you don’t already know the story of King Arthur, that is!*

This four-volume story begins with “The Sword and the Stone,” and for most of us, that’s where it ends. This tale follows King Arthur when he is a boy named Wart, learning about knighthood at his foster father’s estate in the picture-perfect English countryside with his eccentric tutor Merlyn. This is fantasy as we know it, Disney-ready (the movie came out in 1963): talking animals, magic spells, and a satisfying story arc where we can watch Wart transform from underdog to hero when he pulls the sword from the stone. But look closer. Even here there are hints of deeper meaning. Wart has a series of adventures in which Merlyn transforms him into animals: a pike, a goose, a falcon, and an ant, so that he can learn the inner workings of the animal realm. It is a place of cruelty, where “eat or be eaten” is the rule of the day. Yet the badger tells him: “homo sapiens is almost the only animal that wages war.”

The second book of the saga, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” has Arthur already king, tasked with uniting the Orkneys with the rest of England. Here the humorous tone that ruled the first book is juxtaposed with new scenes of darkness. King Pellinore’s friends dress up like the Questing Beast to cheer him up while Morgause’s children enter into a twisted quest for a unicorn that can only be caught by a virgin. It’s unsettling to see adults act like children while children meddle in pursuits too mature for them. This gives the whole volume an off-kilter, disturbing feel and introduces us to the themes of sexuality and violence that will carry through the rest of the saga.

The comedic is lost all together when we get to the third book, “The Ill-Made Knight,” which is the tragic chronicle of Lancelot’s adventures. In White’s version, Lancelot is an ugly, self-hating man tortured by issues of purity. (Autobiographical nod?) This book is yet another tale of men by a man, but TH White’s take on women is refreshing. Guenever is smart and complicated, as is Elaine, who transforms quickly from Lancelot’s damsel in distress to a free agent who schemes for what she wants. On Lancelot’s first meeting with Guenever, White writes:

The young man knew, in this moment, that he had hurt a real person, of his own age. He saw in her eyes that she though he was hateful, and that he had surprised her badly. She had been giving him kindness, and he had returned it with unkindness. But the main thing was that she was a real person. She was not a minx, not deceitful, not designing and heartless. She was pretty Jenny, who could think and feel.

Now that Arthur has united his kingdom, he must try to rule it. Despite Merlyn’s early teachings, Arthur develops his own theory of reconciling war and justice.

Why can’t you harness Might so that it works for Right?…You can’t just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can’t neglect it. You can’t cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad.

TH White was born in India but educated in England, where he wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” while at Queen’s College. He lived out World War II as a conscientious objector in a countryside cottage. It was at this place that he began to reconsider the work of Malory and to write “The Once and Future King.” Like fellow-war time writers C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White may be telling “fairy stories,” but he is working against the backdrop of one of the most scarring times in history. In White’s case, “The Once and Future King” is both his homage to Thomas Malory and his own searing response to the carnage of World War II.

By the last book, “A Candle in the Wind,” we find Arthur caught in the trap of his own laws, his newest idea to forge a peaceful kingdom. In a ridiculous turn of events, the King unwillingly sentences his beloved Queen to death and pins all his hopes on Lancelot swooping in to the rescue. Yet he knows that if Lancelot succeeds, it will mean that he must eventually meet him in war, breaking the Round Table forever. Despite all Arthur has done, in the end innocent blood is still spilt, justice is a charade, and the “uncivilized” emotions of revenge and fear still have a way of ruling the day.

My favorite part of the book was the last chapter, when a broken Arthur reflects for the last time about war. To fantasy cynics, if great literature is that which is still relevant today, read these words and think about our current political situation:

The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing—literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines. There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it. It was geography which was the cause—political geography…Countries would have to become countries—but countries which could keep their culture and local laws. The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok, and would to Man if he could learn to fly.

Ultimately, Arthur fails. The book closes with a scene in the King’s tent, as he readies himself for his own “war to end all wars” where he will be slain by his own son Mordred. The Round Table and the era of chivalry is ended, and while a young Thomas Malory escapes with the story, White implies that the end becomes life as we know it. The Arthur legend fades and the history of England takes over, leading up to, at the time of his writing, the horror of World War II. Like Arthur, we are left with the unsettling conclusion: are we by our very nature simply doomed to be violent? Perhaps in the end the only hope is in passing the stories on, so that one day, some day, we might learn from them. It does indeed seem like “a candle in the wind.”

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Book Review 4: “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight”

 

Genre Biography/Memoir
Have in the Library? Yes

When I’m traveling, it can be hard to find books in English, which results in me reading things that are pretty random and outside my normal taste. This is what lead me to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, found in a used book shelf in the back of a textile cooperative in Guatemala. Browsing through an endless sea of paperback romance, sci fi and thrillers,  I was excited to find a title I recognized so I paid my 60Q and started to read.

This book chronicles the life of Alexandra Fuller, called Bobo by her family, growing up in the countries of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Zambia and Malawi during the 70s and 80s. Bobo’s parents think nothing of land mines, inhospitable conditions, terrorists or civil war being the childhood backdrop for their children: Bobo, her older sister Vanessa, and three others who tragically do not make it to adulthood. (Not a spoiler I promise! You find out in the first chapters.) Weaving back and forth in time, Fuller recounts snapshots of her family’s experiences in these countries, both serious and lighthearted: from throwing a drunken Christmas celebration to the severe beating taken by a maid. Fuller fills in these episodes with brief explanations of African history, but her focus is personal. Looming especially large in her tale is her mother, alcoholic, haunted, slightly insane:

Her eyes are half-mast. That’s what my sister and I call it when Mum is drunk and her eyelids droop…Like the flag at the post office whenever someone important dies, which in Zambia, with one thing and another, is every other week…”Have a drink with me, Bobo,” she offers. She tries to pat the chair next to hers, misses, and feebly slaps the air, her arm like a broken wing.

One of the hardest aspects of this book to stomach is the racism. One of the first chapters opens with a recounting of a family gathering when Bobo is an adult, returning to visit her parents in 1999 in Zambia. Her mother is telling some houseguests, “Look, we fought to keep one country white ruled, just one country.” The theme of white supremacy is entrenched throughout the book with scathing portraits of Africans the family interacted with, like the cook Thompson, whom Bobo mocks when he tells her not to disturb an African gravesite.  It is part of the structure of the narrative: the decline of the family with the successive deaths of Bobo’s siblings and her mother’s insanity is tied to the changing fortunes of the war and the ultimate breakdown of “white rule” in these African countries. Bobo’s mother exclaims after one death: “that’s what happens when you have a baby in a free African country.”

Yet as an adult, Fuller is  aware of the effect of racism had on her life. As revealed in her epilogue, she has purposefully used these episodes to represent without glossing the reality of how white people lived in Africa. She also provides a list of books by black Africans so the reader can broaden their understanding.

Fuller writes: “I am African by accident, not by birth…I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Arica, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me.” When two populations have such disparate experiences, she goes on to wonder if there can really be such a person as an African. In telling this tale of her life in Africa, Fuller seems to find an answer, if an uneasy one, to this question, as her parents for all their (mis)adventures on the continent have not been able to.

The subject of racism in children, and racism in the history of Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, are beyond the scope of both this review and book, but I found Fuller’s take on this topic provoking. In the end I found myself admiring the way in which she decided to portray her life, to look it in the eye for all that it was. Honesty is the first step toward accountability after all.

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Book Review 3: “Gilgamesh”

 

Genre: Poetry/Mythology

Have in the Library? No

As a lover of mythology, I have had “Gilgamesh” on my to-read list for years. A Mesopotamian heroic poem from 1250 BCE, this is literally the oldest story ever told, at least in written form! There are many translations of “Gilgamesh,” but the one I happened upon was David Ferry’s from 1992. I started it only to realize that it was billed as “not a translation, but a transformation,” that is, not a literal and scholarly text per se, but rather Ferry’s own poetic vision of the epic.

And I loved it. Ferry’s lines are are simple, allowing the bare bones of the story to shine through with little embellishment: the King Gilgamesh (believed to be an actual historical figure), has been terrorizing his people, so the Gods create another man named Enkidu to match him “stormy heart with stormy heart.” The two become close, and in this interpretation at least, romantic companions who go on many adventures together. The poem ends however in Gilgamesh’s solitary journey to the underworld to learn the secret of immortality. The poem is especially spare and  haunting during this sequence:

 

Weeping and fearful, struggling to keep breathing.

he made his way and finally struggled out free

into the morning air and the morning sunlight.

He emerged from the mountain into a wonderful garden.

Gilgamesh looked at the garden and wondered at it.

The fruit and foliage of the trees were all

the colors of the jewels of the world,

carnelian and lapis lazuli

jasper, rubes agate, and hematite,

emerald, and all others gems the earth

has yielded for the delight and pleasure of kings.

And beyond the garden Gilgamesh saw the sea.

 

The holes in the narrative are intriguing. Parts of his journey are barely sketched and full of names not explained. What is meant, for example, by this description of the boatman of underworld: “He guards the Stone Things and he searches out/ there in the island forest, the Urnu-Snakes”? We never find out, we only hear that Gilgamesh later defeats these things and stows them in his boat, yet this is later held against him by the Gods. With a story so old, it is tantalizing to wonder what information has been lost, and I loved having the sense of a larger world in which the story is taking place: a whole universe of names, things and places that in ancient Mesopotamia must have been well known.

Though I’d like to explore other translations to gain a better understanding of the history, I found myself ultimately not caring about the accuracy of Ferry’s work. I simply appreciated it as an impressive piece in its own right and an entirely lovely door into the world of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian mythology.  After all, translation is art far beyond conveying the meaning of foreign words. To me, Ferry’s rendering achieves exactly what it should: it engages readers in a story that is more than 4,000 years old by making it timeless and moving. That’s immortality to me!

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Book Review 2: “The Forest Unseen”

 

Genre: Science & Nature

Have in the Library? Yes!

Review by Kathie Iannicellli 

I just finished reading a new book on the science and nature shelves at the library. THE FOREST UNSEEN/ A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. The author writes about his visit to a single square meter which he calls his ‘mandala’ over the course of a year, near his home in Tennessee. Patient observation, meditation, and reverie combine in a very readable narrative, full of fascinating scientific facts and what they teach us about how the natural world maintains its rich and diverse balance. A review from the New York Times reads: “(Haskell) thinks like a biologist, writes like a poet, and gives the natural world the kind of open-minded attention one expects from a Zen monk rather than a hypothesis-driven scientist.” More science than poetry, but written to the nonscientist who is curious about the natural world. Highly recommended!!

 

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Book Review 1: “Station Eleven”


 

 

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes!

Station Eleven  begins when actor Arthur Leander collapses on stage during a production of King Lear in Toronto. As Jeevan, a medic in the audience, rushes to his aid, no one suspects that this is the last night before “the Collapse,” and that the world is about to be wiped out by a terrifying virus called the Georgia Flu. What follows is the story of the aftermath.

I loved everything about this book: the satisfying way the characters intertwine, the fast paced plot, but most of all Mandel’s writing. It dazzles, creating the sense of a glittering world that is familiar but also wondrous. This passage, for example, read like poetry:

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights, no more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail…No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light. No more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment.

As someone who is not normally a fan of post-apocalyptic settings, what drew me in was the way in which Mandel rooted her world firmly in real life as we know it now. Indeed much of the book is flashbacks about the time before the Collapse. I got the sense that she was actually not as interested in exploring the horrors of apocalypse as she was in using them to illuminate our present reality. Her writing is filled with nostalgia for the way we live now. In Mandel’s vision, it is art, theater and stories, but also the small things: a snowglobe, a telephone, an electric light, that contribute to, as Dr. Eleven says, “the sweetness of life on earth.”

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The First Library

Want to learn more about the first public Library? Read on for an intriguing history, written by Candis Kerns!

 

In 1732 as Benjamin Franklin set upon founding the first public library in this country, he sent in a book order to London that included dictionaries, grammars, histories, books on science, husbandry and agriculture. The purpose of the library was decidedly secular – the “eternal vigilance” that a democracy requires takes an informed citizenry. It is not surprising, then, that theology books were not part of Franklin’s book order.

What is surprising, however, is that the order did not include novels which were seen by the patriarchal culture as potentially harmful to the suggestible, volatile nature of women. Thomas Jefferson wrote of reading novels as an “ inordinate passion” which constituted “a great obstacle to good education.” Between 1700 and 1779, there was only one novel published in the United States. Yet, women continued to read novels and discuss them. Between the years 1840 and 1849, the demand for novels had grown to such an extent that 765 novels were published. In 1848, Edwin Hubbell Chapin wrote that the mass of novels “has leaped from the press like the frogs of Egypt…with the froth of superficial thinking (and) the scum of diseased sentiment.”

Novels were not a matter of escape but a matter of women discovering the wider world of thought and feeling within themselves and that their friends, their mothers and their daughters could share in this newly found world.

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