Category Archives: Historical Fiction

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

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The Latest News and Articles from the Major Journals
Of The Civilized Word
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd Will Read a Compendium
From Selected Newspapers
At 8: 00 P.M. At The Broadway Playhouse

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is in his early 70s. He sports a shock of white hair as evidence, but possesses a commanding stature and presence that make him seem years younger. Kidd makes a living as an itinerant newsreader. He visits places far removed from civilization, in this instance northern Texas, and reads to the locals newspaper items from around the world. No internet in 1870. Just as the news today has to take care about stepping on toes, Kidd must employ a keen sense of the crowds who come to hear him for ten cents a pop, informing his decisions on what stories might delight and educate and which ones might prompt a riot. He has begun to find his life thin and sour, a bit spoiled. While making his rounds he is approached by Britt Johnson, a freighter (materials hauler), and his crew. Britt (who appears in other Jiles work) leads him to a ten-year-old girl. She is unnervingly still. I am astonished, he said. The child seems artificial as well as malign. And thus begins a beautiful friendship.

Johanna Leonberger had been abducted four years earlier, at age six, when a Kiowa raiding party slaughtered her parents and sister. She had been taken in by Turning Water and Three Spotted, regarding them as her real parents. She speaks Kiowa but no English. Her aunt and uncle had offered a considerable sum for her to be found and returned. Britt took care of the obtaining part, but a black man transporting a young white girl to southern Texas, where the end of slavery was not entirely accepted, seemed a risk too far. Kidd obliges and takes on the task of restoring the girl who calls herself Cicada to her biological family.

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Paulette Jiles – from Harper

This is a road trip of self-discovery, or some sort of discovery. Kidd slowly tries to gain Johanna’s trust, no mean feat, and see her safely home. There are challenges along the route, of course, brigands, morons, white slavers, unfriendly natural elements, the usual. What is magical here, and I do mean magical, is the growth in friendship between the old man and the young girl, as she slowly sees his kindness and wisdom and he sees her strength, intelligence and character. The language Jiles uses for expressing Johanna’s growing grasp of English is distilled delight.

The other great treasure to be found here is the portrait of a time and a place. A frontier with an actual front, during the transition from Native American control to ouster by Europeans. Jiles offers a compelling look at the challenges faced by the invading whites (hostile locals, for one), without turning a blind eye to the challenges faced by the dispossessed people. She also offers appreciation for the culture from which Johanna had been taken. Jiles uses a few methods to mark the trail the unlikely pair follows. Birds are used liberally, as are descriptions of local landscape and fauna. You are there. The color blue is applied frequently, but I do not know if that is for a particular purpose.

You’d better call United Van Lines. You will be moved. It was all I could do to keep from sobbing aloud on the G train on an autumnal (finally) early morning in November. Maybe I could pretend it was the cool air that raided the car whenever doors opened at each station that was making my eyes leak. Yeah, I’m gonna go with that. But for those of you short on ready excuses, you might want to finish this book at home. Tissue box locked and loaded.

So, not only is this book information-laden with period detail, not only is this book incredibly moving, but it is written with surpassing beauty and sensitivity. It is truly amazing that News of the World weighs in at only a little more than 200 pages, at a word count of about 56K. Don’t be fooled. This is definitely a case where size does not matter. I have no doubt that NotW will find its way onto 2016 top ten lists aplenty, meriting consideration for major awards, and deservedly so. For me, at least, this is the first GREAT book of the 2016. Don’t miss it!

Pub Date – 3/29/16 – As of January, 2016, the pub date for this book has been pushed back to the Fall. When I have a specific new date, I will post it here.

Review posted – 12/3/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s personal website

A Wiki page on the Kiowa

Jiles recommends The Captured by Scott Zesch for a closer look at the experience of returned captives/

An Aside – As with Sweet Girl and True Grit this book features an older man trying to help out a young girl. I am aware of no particular category for this, so will offer up a suggestion. SMYF, pronounced “smiff” (cockney for Smith?) for Senior Male Young Female. I know it might conjure inappropriate associations with other acronyms of a sexual nature, but it was the best I could come up with. Sometimes words fail me. I am open, very open, to something better. It wouldn’t take much. Help me out here, folks. Please. If there isn’t a better title for what is certainly a sub-genre of the road-of-self-discovery type, or the bildungsroman, I’m not an oversized Mic.

SMYF no more. With Sandra’s rec in comment #1, I am throwing my support behind OMYG, unless someone comes with something even better.

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Some Luck by Jane Smiley

book coverThere are so many elements to Some Luck, long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award, that wherever your interests may lie, there is much here from which to choose. Take your pick—a Pulitzer-winning author going for a triple in the late innings, finishing up her goal of writing novels in all forms. Take your pick—a look at 34 years of a planned hundred year scan of the USA through the eyes of a Midwest family, winning, engaging characters, seen from birth to whatever, good, bad and pffft, where’d that one go? Take your pick—a look at the changes in farming, over the decades, the impact of events like the Depression and massive drought on people you care about. Take your pick—the impact of the end of World War I on the breadbasket, a sniper’s eye view of World War II, the chilly beginning of the Cold War. Take your pick– the searing summer heat that killed many, the biting snow-bound winter that stole the heat from every extremity. Take your pick– an infant’s eye view of learning to speak, a teenager’s look at awakening sexuality, an older man looking back on his life. Take your pick—the newness and revolution of cars, tractors, hybrid plants, new fertilizer, the tales brought from the old country, often told in foreign tongues. Take your pick—a bad boy with talent, brains and looks, a steadfast young man taking the old ways of farming and mixing them with the new to make a life and a future, a smart young woman heading to the big city and getting involved with very un-farm-like political interests. Take your pick—shopping for a religion while looking for answers to the sorrows of existence, shopping for political help when no financial seems forthcoming from the nation. Take your pick—love is found, lost, found again, couples struggle through ups and downs, the charring of fate and time, the questions that arise, the doubts, the certainties. Take your pick.

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Jane Smiley – from The Guardian

Jane Smiley, born in Los Angeles, and raised in a suburb of St. Louis, MO, and now a California resident, spent twenty four years of her life planted in the farm-belt. It’s not heaven, it’s the University of Iowa. Smitten with the place, she stayed on after completing her MFA and PhD, and taught at Iowa State for fifteen growing seasons years, yielding bumper crops that include a short story, Lily, that earned her an O Henry award, a script for an episode of the TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets, a novella, The Age of Grief, that was made into a film in 2002, a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, a YA series on horses, a couple of biographies, a volume that looks at the novel through history, twelve adult novels with this one, and a slew of other work beside. Whatever Smiley is using for her literary fertilizer, can you send me several hundred pound bags? Looking to rotate her offerings, she decided early on that she wanted to write novels in every literary genre, tragedy, comedy, romance and epic. With Some Luck she has produced the first volume in that classic form, in this case The Last Hundred Years Trilogy. The second volume, Early Warning, was released in April of 2015. The third volume, Golden Age goes on sale October 20, and will look a little bit into the future. This first part looks at the growth of the United States from an agricultural, second tier power, to the dominant military and economic power in the world following World War II.

When I thought about where exactly I wanted to set it, I considered that the most important aspect of any culture is where they get their food — how they think of their food, what their food means to them. So I decided to go back to farming – from Little Village Magazine interview

She plants her story in 1920, Denby Iowa. Walter Langdon, 25, and his wife Rosanna have just started their lives together, on their own farm. Baby Frank has recently arrived.

“I feel like it’s going back to the center and saying, ‘OK, things come from here. This is where the roots are.’ … If we start the family living in Iowa, then they’re gonna go lots and lots and lots of places.” -from the NPR interview

And, over the course of thirty four years the farm will be a touchstone, a place to which the various members of the clan return, for reasons happy and sad.

The book consists of thirty four chapters, one for each of the years from 1920 through 1953. Each chapter touches on things that are going on in the world, and how they affect the Langdon clan. From the affect on milk prices as Europe recovers from The Great War, through the boom times of the 20s, the Depression, World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. With such a large canvas Smiley can look at some of the details that might not stand out in a broad overview, things like the move from livestock to tractors, how the spread of the automobile affects a farm family, changes in how crops are bred. Some of the details of farm life are chilling indeed, a woman giving birth alone in a farm house because no one can hear her calls for help over the driving wind, brown from the pump signaling the end of available water during a severe drought, the loss of a child to a random accident. Another death from a cause that would be easily treatable today.

An omniscient narrator gives us both a bird’s eye view and close-ups as needed. We often get to look through the eyes of her characters, even from early childhood. Frank creeping around as an infant is precious, particularly when he heads to his favorite hiding place, and more alarming when he is an adult, in the military. There are plenty of Langdons to go around, the prime group, father Walter, mother Rosanna, and each of their kids get time in the spotlight, but to the extent that there is a primary here, it is Frank. He is far from perfect, but he is perfectly engaging. You really, really want to know what he is doing, where he is going, and what is in store for him. Smiley’s writing style is straightforward, dare we say Mid-Western? This is a very effective approach, quietly but steadily advancing the story. She does let loose with some dazzlers from time to time. The paragraph with which I opened this review is an homage to one of those, a Thanksgiving celebration late in the book. I am including the entirety of that bit under a spoiler tag, (red-colored text here) mostly because of its length, but there might be a detail or two in there that would be actually spoilerish, so you might want to skip it until you have read the book. Caveat lector.;Rosanna could not have said that she enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner for twenty-three people (a turkey, a standing rib roast, and a duck that Granny Mary brought; ten pounds of mashed potatoes, and that not enough, five pies; sweet potatoes; more stuffing than could be stuffed; all the Brussels sprouts left in the garden, though they were good after the frost). She could not say that Lilian had control of those children, who were underfoot every time you took a step, though they were good-natured, to be sure. Henry scrutinized the dishes of food as though he were being asked to partake of roadkill, at least until the pies were served, and Claire burst into tears for no reason at all, but when they all had their plates in front of them, and a few deep breaths were taken, and first Andrea, and then Granny Elizabeth, and then Eloise said, “This looks delicious,” she began to have a strange feeling. She should have sat down—Joe, who was sitting beside her, moved her chair in a bit—but she didn’t want to sit down, or eat, at all (what with tasting everything she wasn’t hungry) she just wanted to stand there and look at them as they passed the two gravy boats and began to cut their food. It couldn’t have happened, she thought. They couldn’t have survived so many strange events. Take your pick—the birth of Henry in that room over there, with the wind howling and the dirt blowing in and her barely able to find a rag to wipe the baby’s mouth and nose. Take your pick—all of them nearly dying of the heat that summer of ’36. Take your pick—Joey falling out of the hayloft, Frankie driving the car to Usherton, Frankie disappearing into the Italian Campaign. Frankie, for Heaven’s sake, living in a tent all through college. Take your pick—Walter falling into the well (yes, she had gotten that out of him one day during the way when he said, “Remember when I fell into the well?” and she said, “What in the world are you talking about?” and he blushed like a girl) Take your pick—Granny Mary with her cancer, but still walking around. Take your pick—Lilian running off with a stranger who turned out to be a clown, but a lovable one, and nice-looking, and weren’t Timmy and Debbie just darling? Normally Rosanna took credit for everything good and bad (her eye flicked to the doorway, the very spot where Mary Elizabeth had slipped; it might be happening right this minute, that’s how vivid it was) but now she thought, this was too much. She could not have created this moment, these lovely faces, these candles flickering, the flash of the silverware, the fragrance of the food hanging over the table, the heads turning this way and that, the voices murmuring and laughing. She looked at Walter, who was so far away from her, all the way at the other end of the table, having a laugh with Andrea, who had a beautiful suit on, navy blue with a tiny waist and white collar and cuffs. As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant something had created itself from nothing—a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious. Rosanna wrapped her arms around herself for a moment and sat down. There are others bits of writerly sparkle and well-honed craft in the book.

I suppose if I have any gripes with the book it is that I wanted to spend more time with this or that character at this or that period of their life, a hazard in any book that takes in so much real estate and so many characters over so many years.

There are sixty six years to go in the remaining two volumes of Smiley’s trilogy. With any luck at all I won’t miss a single one.

Published – 10/7/14

Review posted – 8/14/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s web site, FB page and Huff-Po blog

INTERVIEWS – Take your pick
—–NPR – NPR with Lynn Neary
—–The New York Times – by Charles McGrath
—–Bookpage – by Alden Mudge
—–The Millions – by Michael Bourne
—–The Little Village Magazine – by Mallory Hellman
—–Authorlink – by Anna Roins

My review of Smiley Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

book cover Atticus Finch as racist. There it is. Tough to swallow, isn’t it? Atticus Finch, the embodiment of decency, brought to life in To Kill a Mockingbird, widely considered one of the greatest novels in American literature, magnificently brought to cinematic life by Gregory Peck in the film, defender of the powerless, dispenser of wisdom, a hero to generations of readers and movie-goers, spouting opinions that do or should make most folks cringe. Here are a few samples:

…You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’ don’t you?

…If the scales were tipped over, what would you have? The county won’t keep a full board of registrars, because if the Negro vote edged out the white you’d have Negroes in every county office—

…I’d like my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP, which knows next to nothing about its business and cares less.

…do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?

So what are we to make of this?

First, let’s step back from the this version versus that one controversy and consider the book on its own. Jean Louise Finch (JLF) is returning to her home town for the fifth time since moving from Maycomb, Alabama to New York City. She sees the place where she grew up more clearly this time than she ever had before. She professes, based on her experience of having been brought up with exposure to all sorts, and having never been overtly taught to be a racist, to be someone who is color blind. That makes her unique in Maycomb, as everyone else has been very much aware of color all their lives. What comes as the biggest shock for JLF is seeing that her sainted father, a man everybody loves, and other people she cares for, despite their positive qualities, hold views that are shocking. JLF struggles to come to terms with this realization. The crux of the story is how she deals with this. While she is already physically an adult, Jean Louise must cope with coming-of-age truths. She realizes that when it comes to her appreciation for the people of Maycomb, dad included, she has been, as Jem describes in Mockingbird, “a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon.” The watchman of the title is taken from a biblical quotation, (Isaiah 21:6), and refers to conscience. JLF tries to reconcile her conscience with what she now sees, and realizes had been present all along. She is anguished by her internal conflict. With amazing memories of her childhood in this town, it is a huge part of who she is. In facing the possibility of rejecting her father and the place in which she became the person she is, she is faced with rejecting a part of herself and that is the core conflict of the story.

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Harper Lee – from Smithsonian.com

Set in a time when Brown vs the Board of Education had recently and unalterably changed the legal and social landscape, many in the South perceived changes mandated by that decision as nothing less than another war of northern aggression. One of the biggest strengths of the book is how it communicates the locals’ feelings about and arguments against Civil Rights, and particularly the activities of the NAACP. There is real insight here into the local psyche, from a true local. Another strength of the book is the clear voice of JLF, Scout as a kid, particularly in her recollections of a glowing childhood. The voice of Scout will take you by the hand and lead you through. It is the same voice that appears in Mockingbird, warm, familiar and welcome. I enjoyed JLF’s relationship with her uncle Jack, a character absent from Mockingbird. Jack offers a perspective that is definitely homegrown, but is also decorated with the baubles and gewgaws of an advanced education and unusual interests. The affection between JLF and Jack is palpable. Her interaction with Henry, a friend since childhood, was kludgy. There are moments of real connection between the JLF and the young man who wants to marry her, but so much of their conversation is peppered with excessive use of “honey” and “sweet” that it was distracting from the content of the interaction. It felt forced. The scenes in which JLF confronts Atticus are powerful and even upsetting, but she lays into him without even asking what was up. I do recognize that many people, and particularly the young, jump to conclusions, but I wondered whether Scout, who is portrayed as a pretty bright person, would really be so close minded as to form an opinion, particularly so strong an opinion, based on unexamined evidence.

There is also some wonderful, and playful use of language, although the content reflects some of the very not 2015-politically-correct zeitgeist of the era. There are also beautiful passages that reflect the attachment Harper Lee, through her avatar, feels to her native soil.

The political views on display are appalling, paternalistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and do reflect the attitudes of the time and place depicted, I expect. But it galls to have characters portray their dark views as accepted wisdom and have far too much of that accepted by a character who should know better.

In short, as a stand-alone there is much to like here, including some strong characters, a wonderful feel for place and a willingness to take on serious and controversial subject matter, but there are plenty of flaws as well. Go Set a Watchman is no classic.

Of course Go Set a Watchman would not have become the literary event of 2015 had it not shared DNA with a novel widely regarded as one of the best American novels ever written, To Kill a Mockingbird. And just in case you are newly arrived on our planet, perhaps are recently thawed out from an extended cryogenic holiday, or have just come to after a nasty crack on the head in 1960, Mockingbird recounts, through the eyes of the grown-up Scout, a time when she was six years old and her father, Atticus Finch, was called on to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. It offers a view of a golden childhood and a principled father taking on the bigotry of a deep South town in service of justice and decency. If you have not yet read it, go, scoot, scram, take a hike, go find a copy, and come back when you are done.

Ok, read it? Good. There has certainly been a lively reaction to Go Set a Watchman. Would that reaction have been different if there had never been a Mockingbird baseline against which to compare this version of Atticus? That is something we can never know. But it is helpful to think of To Kill a Mockingbird as the second and final version of Nelle Harper Lee’s (Yes, Harper is her middle name) seminal novel. Go Set a Watchman was Mockingbird 1.0. Harper Lee sold her book to the publisher JB Lippincott in 1957. But it was deemed not ready for prime time. I do not know the specifics of what editorial direction Lee was given by her editor, Tay Hohoff, other than to focus on the time of Jean Louise’s childhood. Racism is taken on very powerfully in 1.0. There is less telling and more showing in Mockingbird. The childhood recollections here, while wonderful, do not occupy as much of the stage as they do in version 2.0, but you can certainly see how an editor might laser in on those as strengths to magnify when trying to improve the book. And if one is then going to re-set the primary stage to the time of Scout’s childhood, it makes sense to make Atticus more purely heroic. In fact Mockingbird was intended to have been titled Atticus.

There is danger, of course, that this original depiction of Atticus will forever tarnish the gleaming ideal of a man we admire so from Mockingbird. Why splash racist graffiti over a cherished icon? Actually the racist element was there from the start, in this 1.0 version. It is instructive to see how Atticus evolved in the writer’s molding from the crusty first version to the graceful, fine character that illuminates Lee’s ultimate masterpiece.

There is no need to overstate Atticus’s racism in Watchman. In reviews and commentary some elements have been taken out of context and misrepresented. The KKK thing, for example. Atticus states that his purpose in joining was to find out who was behind the masks, not to further the organization’s agenda. Another item pertains to a racist screed handed out by a lunatic and found by JLF in her father’s home. Atticus agrees that the author is a nut, and that he had been granted the right to speak at the town council, as any other nut might have. Atticus does not subscribe to the views in the pamphlet. He subscribes to enough, though, to cause all who know where his character ends up in version 2.0, to take a large step back. You can get a taste of that in the quotes at the top of this review. It continues on, with nastiness about the NAACP, legalistic hogwash about SCOTUS violating the 10th Amendment, a general sense of feeling under assault by outside forces, and a paternalistic notion that all would be just fine if those northern rabble-rousers would just let Negro advancement proceed at a more measured pace. This is crucial, I believe, to one of the strengths of Watchman. While the views held by the residents of Maycomb, as represented by Atticus, Henry and others, may not receive a universal welcome in 2015, I believe they do fairly represent the beliefs of most educated southern whites during this era. The book might have been instructive to northerners, had it been released in its original form, as to the nature of the strident opposition the civil rights movement faced. As such, Watchman offers a valuable guide to a time and place, where even folks most at the time would consider pretty decent, like Atticus, maintained views that, while they remain widespread among some segments of our population today, are now generally seen as abhorrent.

There are other interesting elements that come from a consideration of the novels set side by side. What remains? What is lost? The courthouse where Scout watches Atticus heroically defend Tom Robinson in Mockingbird is a real place in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s birthplace. In Watchman it is a scene of horror as Jean Louise sees a racist propound his views in a public forum in which her father and friend are principal players. Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper in Mockingbird plays a major role in Watchman as well. In one particularly chilling scene, Jean Louise, who had seen Cal as a nurturing force her entire life, now wonders if Cal ever really cared for her or, instead, saw her only through a racial lens. Dill, her avatar for childhood pal Truman Capote, is present in both novels, but Boo Radley was added in Mockingbird. Henry is gone from Mockingbird. JLF’s brother, Jem, a major character in Mockingbird, is much less of a presence in Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman may occupy a place in the shadow of what was to come, but it does offer insight into the author, her take on the world in the late 1950s, and into her characters. As a blood relation to one of the greatest books in American literature, it is most definitely worth reading.

Published – 7/14/15
Review – 7/24/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Harpercollins has made a FaceBook page for GSaW

Robert McCrum’s review in The Guardian is quite informative – Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee review – a literary curiosity

A Charles Leerhsen article in the June 2010 Smithsonian is also worth a look – Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement

A nice bit of extra intel on Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor in this article by Emma Cueto on Bustle.com, Harper Lee’s First Editor, Tay Hohoff, Had A Lot To Do With Creating ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, So Here’s What You Should Know About Her
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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”

Kate Atkinson, author of eight previous novels, including four Jackson Brodie crime books, has come up with a nifty notion for a story. Kill off your heroine, early and often, while offering a look at the history of England from 1910 to the 1960s. I would love to tell you more but an SUV appears to have run a red light at the corner, had a too close encounter with a very large truck and seems to be heading into this café…Gotta go. Damn!

Now, where were we, a review? Yes, I seem to recall something about that. More of a feeling really. So, England, 20th century, perils of Pauline, well in this case Ursula, little bear, of Fox Corner, the manse of a well-to-do sort, not Downton rich, but, you know, comfortable. She has a prat of an older brother and a decent elder sis, with a couple of brothers arriving later.

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Kate Atkinson – from The Telegraph

Life is full of decision points. Walk this way, survive, walk that way and splat. It begins early with Ursula, who is offed before her first breath the first time around. She gets a better deal on the next go, managing to remain with us into childhood, and so on. The structure seems to employ the backstitch a fair bit, starting Ursula up a few chronological paces before the deadly decision point. She seems to be born again more than an entire congregation of fundamentalist Christians, or, maybe more likely a band of Buddhists, as she seems to pick up a bit of wisdom, a bit of strength with each reincarnation. I counted 15 passings-on, but sure, I could have missed one or two. The lady must have G. Reaper on her autodial. What if I had done this instead of that? How might that have changed the outcomes? One can imagine the fun, and challenge an author experiences. Taking her main character, and plenty of secondary characters as well, in one direction then another, then another. It must mimic, to a degree, the authorial process. What if I do this to Ursula? What might happen? What if I point her in a different direction? And as for stuff happening, while it is usually pretty calm here, writing while on a bench in Prospect Park, I must admit I have never seen tentacles that size emerging from anywhere let alone the very modest Park Lake. The slurping sounds are getting rather loud. That sumbitch is faster than he looks…Gotta go. Damn!

So, I felt like sitting with some coffee but the local café just seemed, I don’t know, not what I wanted. Then I considered maybe heading over to the park to work on a review, but it looks like it might rain, so I think I’ll stick at home for now. Of course the desktop has been a bit dodgy of late, but no big whup. I will dip into the special Kona stash, brew up a nice cuppa and set to, shoes off, no shirt. Maybe a nice bagel with butter and strawberry preserves. Yummm! Review, yes, Atkinson, Ursula, do-overs. Oh yeah, it does call to mind a bit of Groundhog Day, although Phil the Weatherman knew early on that he was coming back each time. Not Ursula, although as time goes on she does develop a bit of a sixth sense about some things. And the other major difference here is that Life After Life takes on some heftier purpose than Phil getting the girl and becoming a better person. Ursula is faced with some immediate challenges, like evading a rapist, a girl-killer, those annoying Nazi bombs during the blitz, not falling out windows, you know, stuff. But she also must contend with moral choices, and larger scale. Not only figuring out what the right thing is to do and then deciding, for her life, but thinking about how events affect other people, the nation, maybe the world. What sort of life does she want to lead? How can she help the most people? What sort of person does she want to be? Can she make an impact beyond her immediate concerns? And within that context, others face similar choices. Ursula is not the only one with multiple exit scenes. There are plenty in the chorus of secondary characters who come and go, or should that be go and come back in varying iterations. What if so-and-so did A this time and B the next? How might that change things? This is part of the fun of the book. Not all the decisions are of the life-threatening variety, but they can seriously impact one’s life, other lives as well. Excuse me a moment, Nala, sweetie, off the desk please. I will be happy to scratch you. No, do not rub up against my coffee cup. Nala, DOWN, NOW! Too late, brown milky liquid splatters from the cup on the desk, rushing over the top of the desktop tower, which is sitting on the floor between desk and couch. I get up to fetch some paper towels. Nala’s tail is vertical as she scampers from the room. Maybe I should have worn slippers. I step away from the desk chair, contact enough wet to matter, and only feel it for moment when my body hair begins to ignite and my heart goes into highly charged spasms. I hear the beginning of a scream and then….sonuva..!

Seems a lovely morning for some reviewing. Rainy out? Well, not yet, but you can feel it coming. So, open a few windows. Sit at the desk. Well. Maybe not. Might be a bit too much breeze there. Maybe the couch for a change. Yeah, book, they killed Kenny. You bastards! England. Ursula. War.

I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945. – from Chatelaine interview

There have certainly been some wonderful novels in the last few years that play with structure. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the more dramatic of that sort. The rise of the novel comprised of linked stories has seen a boom in popularity. This year’s Welcome to Braggsville takes some chances with form as well. And so it is with Life After Life. While the notion of reincarnation is hardly new in fiction, how it is handled here is far beyond what we have seen before, a real risk-taking. And so effective.

Ursula is a very engaging character. Each time she comes back, you want her to stick around. And even when she makes bad choices you will be rooting for her to fix those in the next round. Her sister Pamela seems as decent a sort as their brother Maurice seems insufferable, maybe a bit too insufferable. We get to see dimensions to Atkinson’s characters over the many iterations, learn something new about them, sometimes surprisingly so. I found it to be entirely engaging, and was always sad with Ursula went dark yet again. The book opens with her taking aim at the worst baddie of the 20th century and you will keep hoping she finds her way back to that place and completes the mission. Will she?

One of the most riveting and memorable elements in Life After Life is the description of London during the Blitz, on the ground, you-are-there, offering considerable nightmare material, and making it clear just how hardy the survivors must have been, and how fragile the hold on life, whichever iteration a person is in. The best part of the book, for me.

There are many uses of animal references here. Ursula means little bear, The family name, Todd, means Fox. A group of Nazi wives is referred to as a wolf pack. Actual foxes move in and out of the story, residents of Fox Corner, the Todd family home. A German is named Fuchs which also means fox. There are more. A warden during the Blitz is named Woolf. At one point, Atkinson offers a wink and a nod to readers as her characters discuss time travel questions. There is much consideration here of the role and rights of women in the first half of the 20th century, and the changes in mores that marked the era. The difference between love and gratitude when considering marriage is considered. The effect of World War I on the nation is noted as well, the loss of a generation of men in the war, and the loss of vast numbers from both genders from the Spanish flu. While florid passages do not characterize the novel, there are some wonderful descriptions. One of my favorites regards the night sky during the Blitz

“It’s almost like a painting, isn’t it?” Miss Woolf said.
“Of the Apocalypse maybe,” Ursula said. Against the backdrop of black night the fires that had been started burned in a huge variety of colors—scarlet and gold and orange, indigo and a sickly lemon. Occasionally vivid greens and blues would shoot up where something chemical had caught fire. Orange flames and thick black smoke roiled out of a warehouse…”
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Savage and strangely magnificent.

Yes it is.

Now that the task is done, I think I will bring in a glass of juice and have some of these lovely hard sourdough pretzels. Maybe catch something from the DVR. Always loved these pretzels, except, of course, when bits get stuck going down. Sometimes large bits, uh oh, a very large bit…trying to self-Heimlich, but no go, hitting my head on the edge of the coffee table as I stumble and fall while trying to stand up. Maybe if I can get some liquid in there it will soften it, but the noggin-knock and the inability to get any air makes decision-making a tough go. Damn!

Published – 5/2/13

Review Posted – 7/17/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Chatelaine by Alex Laws – this is a two-parter. The link to the second part is at the bottom of this one.

—–NPR – with Scott Simon

—–The Sydney Morning Herald by Linda Morris

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Filed under England, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

book cover

His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy. Eyes that once skewered him now kindle with simulated regard. Hands that would like to knock his hat off now reach out to take his hand, sometimes in a crushing grip. He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.

Be careful what you wish for. Henry VIII was pining for the younger-than-his-current-wife Anne Boleyn. After getting his heart’s desire, which required him to take on the Catholic Church, one might imagine him speaking to Thomas Cromwell as Ollie might have said to Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” nicely demonstrating an inability to accept any responsibility for his own actions. Of course, AB had gotten her heart’s desire as well, a nifty crown, plenty of staff, and she gets to headline at the palace. But pride, and not popping out a male heir, goeth before the fall, and well, the girl should have known. I mean H8 was not exactly a model hubby to his first wife. Why would she think he’d be any more loyal to her? Time for the head of household to summon Mister Fixit.

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Rafe Sadler and Stephen Gardiner

Looking for advice on ridding yourself of unwanted household pests? Running low on funds for your comfortable lifestyle? Need the occasional hard thump to the torso to get the old ticker restarted? Need to re-direct your reproductive efforts towards a more masculine outcome? Need to fend off potential assaults by enemies foreign and domestic? Why, call Mister Fixit (Yes, yes, I know there were no phones in 16th Century England, so summon Mr. Fixit. OK? Happy now? Jeez, some people). Thomas Cromwell, a man of modest origins who had risen to the highest position in the land, that did not absolutely require aristocratic genes, had already demonstrated a penchant for getting things done, by whatever means necessary. And so continues the tale, in book 2 of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Tudor England.

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Hilary Mantel

The end of Wolf Hall (You read Wolf Hall, right? If you haven’t, stop reading this now, and go get a copy. Read that and when you are done, feel free to return. What are you waiting for? Go! Scat!) was H8’s marriage to AB. The quest had come to the desired conclusion, and now they’re gonna party like it’s 1533. Not only had H8 succeeded in flipping the bird (a falcon in this case – see the badges below) to the RC, but he was engaged in swiping their stuff as well. Pope? We doan need no steenking Pope. Cromwell was the guy who had done most of the fixing. So everything should be fine now, right? Not so fast.

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Dueling Badges – Anne Boleyn’s and Catherine of Aragon’s – in case any are needed

AB is getting very full of herself but not, unfortunately full of a male heir, and there are younger ladies-in-waiting, you know, waiting. H8 has an eye problem. It wanders uncontrollably, in this instance to young, demure Jane Seymour. Of course there is the pesky business of clearing that obstruction from the royal path, and Mister Fixit is called in (sorry, summoned) to make it go away. Luckily for him he has his fingers in many administrative pies and is not shy about using his inside knowledge to achieve his boss’s goals. Cromwell also has an excellent network of spies sprinkled throughout the realm. Combine the two, make much of what was probably idle gossip, add a dollop or three of spite and voila. For good measure, TC takes particular pleasure in focusing his skills on those who had done dirt to his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, ticking off each one as they succumb to his devilry.

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The once and future – Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour

Was AB guilty of the crimes of which she was accused? Probably not. But as long as the folks in charge can get the people with weapons to do their bidding it does not much matter. There is no law, really, only power. Legal processes are often mere window dressing to the underlying exercise of big fish eating smaller fish, and sometimes spitting them out. The fiction of legality keeps the mass of smaller fish from chomping their much larger tormenters to bits. Sort of like now. See, people? It’s all perfectly legal.

Bring Up the Bodies is a masterful achievement, showing, step-by-step, how dark aims are orchestrated and achieved. In laying this out, Hilary Mantel also offers us a look at how the reins of power can be abused by the unscrupulous, and Thomas Cromwell is shown in his full unscrupulousness in this volume. He was gonna get these guys and when he saw his chance, he took it. Where Wolf Hall presented a more removed Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies shows us Cromwell as more than a fixer, more than a technocrat. We get to see him as a monster, despite his supposed desire to make England more equitable for working people.

H8 is shown much more as a spoiled psycho-child in this volume. Whatever his intelligence, whatever his accomplishments, what we see of Henry here is primarily his boorishness, his childishness. I want what I want and I do not care who gets hurt, or even killed, so I can have it. I was reminded of the great Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life.

Mantel won a second Booker prize for this one, and it was well deserved. Not only do we get a very human look at a key period in Western history, but are blessed with Mantel’s amazing wit as manifested by her characters, and consideration of issues that transcend history, as well as a compelling episode of Survival: Tudor. It is an easier read than the first book, more engaging, if that is possible. If you have not seen the miniseries made from the combined volumes you really must. Hilary Mantel has brought out her best in Bring Up the Bodies, using her genius for historical fiction to make the old seem new again. You won’t lose your head if you don’t read this book, but you probably should.

Review posted – 5/22/15

Publication date – 5/8/2012

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google + and FB pages

Excellent radio interview with Mantel by Leonard Lopate

A marvelous New Yorker magazine article looking at Mantel’s career

Great material here in another New Yorker article, Invitation to a Beheading, by James Wood

Why isn’t Henry VIII fat and other Wolf Hall mysteries explained

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

All Involved by Ryan Gattis

book cover

…this whole entire scene says the same to me as it says to every other knucklehead who ever thought bad thoughts across this whole city: now’s your fucking day, homie. Felicdades, you won the lottery! Go out there and get wild, it says. Come and take what you can, it says. If you’re bad enough, if you’re strong enough, come out and take it. Devil’s night in broad daylight, I call it.

At 3:15pm on April 29, 1992, a Simi Valley jury found the police officers who had beaten the crap out of Rodney King, on what was certainly one of the first viral videos, not guilty. At 6:45pm, as news of the verdict spread, Los Angeles exploded with rage. For most of the next week large swaths of the city burned, almost four thousand buildings, with property damage in excess of a billion dollars. Stores were looted. Dozens died, and when the LA Police Department was unable to stem the violence, the National Guard was called in. In many cases police and security personnel stood around as stores were torched and/or looted, a close-to-home reminder of what US troops in Baghdad had done in 1991 when the locals were making off with sundry public property and untold national treasures. Rioting is messy. Stuff happens. The prolonged unrest, called an uprising by some, was a reaction not only to the jury’s decision, but, for many, to a lifetime of duress.

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Cops beating Rodney King – from the Guardian

Ryan Gattis, who, among other things, is part of a street art project in LA, got considerable insight into what had gone on in 1992 from other members of that group, folks who had been present for the experience. The result is a stunning piece of work, as Guernica was for the Spanish Civil War, so All Involved is for the LA Uprising, a complex, horrifying, moving portrait of a city at war with itself.

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Picasso’s world-famous mural depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War

The book is divided into six parts, one for each day of the riot. Each part is sub-divided into two or three chapters, one for each the 17 characters whose tales are told. The primary character in each chapter is presented in first person, and Gattis does an excellent job of preserving their individuality.

Ernesto Vera, a food worker with a sophisticated palate, aspires to opening his own restaurant. Straight arrow. Keeps his nose clean. Is kind to the less fortunate. A good, no, a very good guy. That does not matter to some. What matters is that he is brother to Ray, aka Lil Mosco, who is very much not a very good guy. Ray managed to shoot a woman while trying to kill someone else. Since Ray cannot be found, since direct revenge cannot be taken by the woman’s family, Ernie will have to do. From this spark the fire grows.

Ernie lived with his sixteen-year-old sister, Lupe, and Big Fe, the leader of a local gang. Big Fe is the general, the warlord, and justice for killing Ernie will be meted out. We see each of the players as they wend their way through this six-day-long drama. A bit player here is featured there. The parts connect. We get to see events from several angles. It is like looking at a holographic image. As you change perspective the image shifts. We are shown individual motivations. This event takes place because of a prior event, but the new event results in subsequent ripples. And on it goes.

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Ernie’s Last Ride – from Gattis’s site

The primary media focus for the events concerned black rage at injustice. But the Latino population in 1992 was almost as large as the black population. Gattis focuses primarily on the former community here, in the Los Angeles County city of Lynwood. Add to the problems blacks have with the police the potential for many Hispanics who are in the country illegally to be deported. In The Divide Matt Taibbi offered a pretty detailed look at how the unequal treatment dealt out by the criminal justice system has created a large segment of America that has a lot more in common with the West Bank than it does with Beverly Hills. It is not surprising, that a prolonged violent reaction might take place in response to a dramatic legal slap in the face. But the conflagration of violence offered cover to many with other motivations.

They think it’s sad, some kind of thoughtless, primal rage thing. It’s not. It’s mostly planned and it’s one of three things—grudge, mayhem, or insurance…It’s grudge if one guy doesn’t like the other guy for whatever reason, so he takes advantage of the chaos to do something about it, so even the race stuff, like what the blacks are doing to the Koreans, goes here. It’s mayhem if you’re deliberately setting it for the heck of it, or if you’re trying to cover a crime, or using it as a distraction to draw emergency assistance elsewhere so you can commit a crime somewhere else, which the gangs definitely do…. The last and likeliest, it’s insurance of you’ve got a business in a run-down part of the city and it’s not making as much money as you want but you do have fire insurance and you’ve been paying hefty premiums on that policy for damn near too long and then one day the racist cops get acquitted and all of a sudden up pops the opportunity to torch your own premises and get away with it—all you have to do is blame gangs or looters, so why not?

Wars are fought in the smoke-filled nights, personal, gang-related, mindless-rage-based. Ordnance fills the air like Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, L.A as Walpurgisnacht, with witches and demons of all sorts throwing flames, dousing with accelerant, and casting dark spells. A place where it is not uncommon for firefighters to find bullets on their rigs, where a police escort is needed to keep them from being shot while putting out fires. There are scenes that are reminiscent of Mad Max, as those driving fire-trucks know better than to stop when someone walks into their lane. Any rig that does will come under immediate assault. One attack on firefighters is resonant with the real world attack on Reginald Denny. You are there.

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So how, in all the mayhem, in all the violence, in all the death and destruction can we find some humanity? Gattis may have created a dark portrait of a time and place, but his people are much more than kindling. He takes time with each of his many characters to build, to show where they came from, how they got to where they are, to understand their motivations, their dreams. It is true that for some, all they want is to become even more dangerous than they already are. But there is profound humanity on display as well. A tagger is shown as an artist, a nurse dreams of love, a gang member with CSI skills wonders what else there might be for him in the world. Other gang members connect with old cinema, surprising music, one with his cat, Teeny. There are plenty of pure black hats to go around, but Gattis mixes large dollops of color as well. There are people you can feel for here, and not just the studly Dudley Do-right fireman, or the compassionate nurse. Not all the burned can be healed. Some, as awful as they seem, shouldn’t be. Others might be true citizens if given a chance.

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Ryan Gattis – from his site

Gattis drops in relevant information through various means. Intel on the number of guns in L.A. is truly alarming, or should be. Information on the number of gang members versus the number of police is frightening. Gangs do not come into existence in a vacuum. Where safety is assured, and enforced, where the population feels protected, attended to, respected, gangs cannot flourish. It is when there is inadequate protection that people turn to other forms of self-preservation. The growth of gangs in Los Angeles and other cities is a testament to the failure of law enforcement to do what is needed, and reflects also the failure of political leaders to provide the resources public safety departments need to do their jobs, the failure of leaders to nurture a vision of the future with educational and career opportunities of the legal sort.

There’s a helicopter overhead—looks like Channel 7—shining a light down on us like we’re at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. The people who live around here, they know what that actually feels like. They know how ugly life can get. Everybody else, the people sitting at home, watching this unfold on television, they have no idea. Those are the people shocked by the riots. They can’t comprehend them because they don’t understand the other side. They don’t understand what happens to people with no money who live in a neighborhood where crime is actually a viable career path when there are no other opportunities, and I’m not excusing it or condoning it or saying it can’t be avoided, but I’m saying that’s how it is.

Ryan Gattis has written a masterpiece. A soldier-by soldier, bullet-by-bullet, Molotov-by-Molotov look at a recurring tragedy in American history. You will smell the smoke, feel the heat and get an urge to bolt the doors and slip into some Kevlar. All Involved is one of the hottest books of the year. It is not to be missed.

Review posted – 4/24/15

Publication date – 4/7/2015

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages and to his transmedia work

There is a bounty of musical links on the author’s site, but you will need to be signed in to spotify to listen. Here are a couple from that list available on youtube:
Ride of the Valkyries
Star Wars – Burning homestead on Tattooine

These were not among the items on the author’s playlist
Disco Inferno
I Love LA

You can see 1:23 of the 12 minute Rodney King tape on George Holliday’s (the guy who shot it) site

The NY Times review by Michiko Kakutani is worth a look

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

book cover

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discrete sigh of flesh against flesh.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown…but really, crown-wearers seem to have little difficulty with fabrication. Do they mean lie, as in lying down? I mean I would take it off before going to bed. It might get pretty uncomfortable trying to sleep with that thing still on. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say uneasy “sits the head that wears the crown,” although that creates in my tiny mind an image of Mister Potato head, with legs and feet.

Well, I could not find one with legs but you get the picture.

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His and Hers

How about uneasy stands the head… , but, oh, see Mr Potato head referred above. So I guess we will leave that one alone, as, clearly, it could be worse. In any case, as uneasy as that head might be, it is clearly more dangerous to anyone who has anything at all to do with the head that has the crown on it. Chopped tops are practically bounding down the streets like bulls in Pamplona. Of course there is the attraction of the power that emanates from the golden circlet. It seems to radiate a glow and a hum that attract the dishonest, the rapacious, seducers, flatterers, scoundrels and hypocrites in far greater numbers than the sort of person Diogenes was looking for, and many of them make moth-like crackling noises as they drift in a bit too close.

One struggles to come up with a contemporary point of reference to help us grasp who Cromwell was. I suppose one might consider Thomas Cromwell to be a royal bug-zapper. There are other ways to see him of course. He was one of the greatest political fixers of all time. Think Olivia Pope as, say, Chief of Staff to the President. But whereas the fictional Olivia occasionally manifests the odd scruple, the real-world Thomas appears to have manifested fewer. In a similar vein, I suppose we might see him a consigliere to H8’s Don Corleone, or maybe Tony Soprano. Maybe Kissinger to Nixon?

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Cromwell by Holbein and Mark Rylance as TC – from the Guardian

We meet Thomas as a lad, suffering abuse at the hands and boots, of his drunken father. Thomas is clearly a young man with an elevated spirit and he leaves his bloody home in Putney for a world of adventure and diverse experience. He reappears decades later, the person he had become. I could not help but be reminded of another famous personage who vanished from sight for a couple of decades, only to return from his journeys, possibly abroad, to flash across the pages of history, leaving a very large result. Cromwell was involved in a revolution of a religious sort as well, throwing out the money-changers, but with, perhaps not quite the personal up-side of his predecessor.

He is considered to be one of the most ruthless human beings of his time, in seeing that the king’s word was made flesh. Already married, but wifey does not pop out a male heir? What’s a king to do? Why, twist, turn, beg, borrow, steal, threaten, intimidate, and murder until you get your way. Spoiled children with their own states are fond of such behavior. Of course, to a large extent, one must engage in these forms of feces flinging and head-lopping at one remove, as kings are too proud to be seen with their hands so filled, whether with their own droppings or axe handles. Thus the presence of people like Thomas Cromwell. Thank you, your majesty, I’ll take that now.

Since the Catholic Church was all that stood in the way of Henry VIII getting what he wanted, H8 sought to remove it. Seizing the church’s real estate and other holdings would be a nice bonus. And setting up his non-ecclesiastical self as the head of his own sort-of Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, meant that, in addition to visiting horrors on the RC he would be claiming even more divine rights. Sheesh!

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H8 by Holbein – from Wikimedia — and Damian Lewis – BBC

So, you would expect that in Hilary Mantel’s rollicking tale of Tudor England, Cromwell would be painted in rather dark shades. The author offers something other. Hogwarts DA Masters notwithstanding, the darkest of the dark arts is the power of manipulation. The proper words tossed near the proper ear can wreak devastation no less awful than an armored division. Cromwell is portrayed as a practitioner of 16th century RealPolitik, someone who uses his rapier wit, his power, his capacity for manipulation, his wide knowledge of the world, and his deep intelligence to serve his king. Is he in it mostly for himself? Maybe. Probably, but he is shown in small bites, talking to this one, planting spies, chatting with that one, nuancing everyone within reach to see things his way, the king’s way, and he sees that more direct action is taken when words alone will not do.

Cromwell, both the real one and his fictitious doppelganger, is a pretty interesting guy, rising from modest (and, if Mantel does not mislead, abusive) origins, dashing off to soldier for hire, becoming expert in international trade of various sorts, making very useful friends and connections along the way, becoming a lawyer, and with his contact list and rep for discretion, rising as far as a low-born can rise in Tudor England. I am sure that, had he shown an inclination towards the culinary arts, he might have been considered a Man for All Seasonings. (sorry)

He is our window on the Tudor era. Regardless of the accuracy of the portrayal, as a literary device, Cromwell is ideally placed to allow us a look into many of the machinations of the era. Questionable prophetess, the Holy Maid of London, making life uncomfortable for a wandering king? Cromwell is there. Both to hear her speak and see her burned. Anne Boleyn plotting to get around the Church’s refusal to annul H8’s marriage? Yep, TC is right in the middle. The population being laid waste by a plague sweating disease? He loses family. Cromwell was a real-life Zelig of the era, with a hand in every historical pie.

What motivates Thomas Cromwell? He moves through the novel like an avatar of the author, a witness to the things the author wants us so know, but lacking much of a personality himself. The delightfully acerbic wit he manifests is hardly unique to him in this telling. One might point to his ambition, and there are certain decisions he makes or directions he takes that offer some guidance, but I never really got much of a feel for what really makes Thomas tick. Is Thomas Cromwell Horatio Alger, an exemplar of hard work, smarts and ambition paying off in the end? Is he a model for the notion that power corrupts? Does he really have morals, or merely goals? Is he a religious extremist or a technocrat? In the second volume of her series Mantel points us to Cromwell’s quest for vengeance on all those who had seen to the toppling of his mentor and father figure, the larger-than-life Wolsey. But that is only hinted at in Wolf Hall (I absolutely see Sidney Greenstreet in my tiny mind as Wolsey) That makes a lot of sense, lending a core of cohesion to a sequence of loose scenes, a lot of this-happens-and-then-that.

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Anne Boleyn by unknown and Claire Foy in the role

Well, Thomas is only one element here, albeit the largest. It is the era that Mantel brings to life. It was a time of big change. H8 may be established in our 21st century minds as a solidly placed monarch, but the security of his line was very much in question, thus the freaking out about producing a male heir. The Protestant Reformation was underway and the world was in flux. Plagues…um…plagued Europe and the enlightenment was far in the future.

While this look at the Tudor era is gruesome, enlightening and fun, it also shines a light, as good historical fiction does, on contemporary concerns. Torture? Check. Religious extremism? Check. TC is seen by at least one writer as a Tudor version of ISIS. Privacy concerns? Check. Government abuse of authority? Check. The one percent riding roughshod over the rest of us? Check. National wars for private purposes? Check. Issues of separation of church and state? Check. So, for those of you who have not yet taken on this large novel, and it’s younger siblings, one born, the other gestating, keep an eye out for how the Tudor era contains many of the same conflicts we endure today. Of course one might despair by doing this. Really? We have learned nothing in five hundred years? But one might also see some universality in the human condition, across time and space.

There are many, many characters in Wolf Hall. Mantel has included a nice list of them at the front of the book. I found I needed to refer to it frequently. It can be a bit daunting to keep track of what is going on, or to discern who is talking to whom, particularly when so many of the names are used by multiple characters. Most particularly, there are more Toms here than at a convention of male cats held in a turkey farm, enough Johns to construct a considerable public lavatory, as well as herds of Harries and Henries, Annes, Katherines and Marys, and probably a few more household names that repeat uncomfortably often. You will be needing that chart. That said, realizing that TC is the author’s and thus the readers’ eyes on pretty much everything helps.

There is a very different take here on Thomas More than the one we are accustomed to. A Man For All Seasons presented More as a moralist, one who stuck by his principles in opposing H8’s desire to be rid of wife #1 in favor of wife #2. In this version we are shown a Thomas More who is much more an Ayatollah than a serene wise man, as much a political player as a man of the cloth. He happily sends to the torturer and the executioner those who oppose his views. Mantel shows a bit of sympathy for H8 trying to dismantle an organization that includes such dark prigs.

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Thomas More by Holbein and Anton Lesser in the role

The novel does not tie up neatly. There are two more volumes after all, and those who remember their history, or who, like me, are memory-challenged and need to look such things up, know how it ends, anyway. It is the journey through this often dark age that is the treat. The wit alone would have been enough for me. The feel for the time adds depth.

The novel and it’s younger sib have become the source material for both a BBC miniseries and stage productions in Britain and the USA, and seems to be gathering cultural strength and presence as more branches extend from the Wolf Hall tree. Can the graphic novel and the Barbie Anne Boleyn be far behind? The series from the Beeb has already aired on the east side of the pond, and is scheduled to begin on Easter, April 5, here in the states.

In short, for book with a considerable page count, and covering thirty five years of English and European history, the results of most of which we already know, Wolf Hall is an engrossing read, rich with all-world-large personalities, bristling with sharply barbed wit and intelligence, richly appointed with intrigue and betrayal, red with blood, and great fun to read. There are sections that sag a bit, but keep on, there will be another scene just around the bend that will make you smile and sometimes even laugh out loud. And there are passages that will transport you with their beauty and insight.

BTW, the title, Wolf Hall refers to the residence of the Seymours (the family serving up one of theirs to be counted among the many wives) and is a takeoff on a Latin saying, homo homini lupus est, or ‘man is a wolf to man.’ He is indeed, and what big teeth he has.

Review posted – 4/3/15

Publication date – 4/30/2009

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google + and FB pages

A nice article from the Telegraph about the historical TC

Another

Fab item by Mantel in the NY Review of Books on how her characters should be played

Interview with Mark Rylance , who plays TC in the BBC production.

He has no doubt there are parallels between Cromwell’s time and our own. “Although we’re not ruled by a sociopathic 14-year-old king, we seem to be ruled by a group of people who are completely in the service of corporations as much as the kings were in the service of the pope before Cromwell and Henry VIII changed the times.”

I included a link in the body of the review, but in case you missed it Dominic Selwood of the Telegraph has a dark view of TC – Thomas Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day

Martin Kettle of the Guardian has a more positive take – Cromwell, the fixers’ fixer: a role model for our times

An article from the NY Times about the upcoming mini-series

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction