Category Archives: Notable Books

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Ecco, HarperCollins, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my local library.  A 2011 New York Times Notable book.

I first discovered Russell Banks when a friend and I went to see The Sweet Hereafter.  It was a film that had me wanting to read the book, a rare occurrence.  Since that time I’ve read several novels by Russell Banks and enjoyed them.  There is always an undercurrent of tension that runs through his work, like the hidden currents in a rip tide poised to drag away an unweary swimmer.  He is willing to look at things we often turn  away from.

In Lost Memory of Skin Banks writes of a part of our society we would rather hold distant and separate from our lives.  Under a causeway in a coastal Florida city there is an encampment.  Men convicted of sexual crimes, having served their sentences and been released from prison, live there.  It is the only place in the city that is 2,500 feet from anywhere that children might gather.  Here we meet the Kid, twenty-two years old and just released on parole.   He is camped out with other offenders, a mixed group thrown together in the only place in the city where they can legally live.   The Kid is lost, knows he messed up.  Still a virgin, he’s been charged with a sexual crime through his own stupidity.  He’s figuring things out, trying to learn the rules.

     He  likes the distinction: there’s good and there’s evil.  Evil is worse than bad.  And it’s a lot worse than merely dumb or unlucky or illegal.  That’s what makes God’s rules superior to all other rules: if you break one you’re not just dumb or even bad, you’re fucking evil!  You have knowingly disobeyed God.  To be evil is to be bad in an extreme way – sentenced to life without parole and locked up in hell for eternity when you die.  If you believe in hell, that is.  Which the Kid does although he does not believe in heaven.  Same as with God whom the Kid believes in when things go right but not when things go wrong.  Which doesn’t make him an atheist exactly or an agnostic.  Just inconsistent.  From page 75.

As the Kid struggles with who exactly he is he is approached by a huge man who claims to be a professor wanting to do research on the homeless, on sex offenders.  As they spend time talking we learn some of the Kid’s back story.

Raised by an uncaring mother, left alone to fend for himself, he discovered online porn at a young age.  His only comfort an iguana named Iggy, he soon looses himself to the small screen.  Completely emotionally detached from others, he lives with the “lost memory of skin” that is pornography on the internet.  Time spent talking with the Professor, a man who has his own secrets and compulsions, allows the Kid to gain some understanding of his past as well as some possibilities for the future.   He begins to understand that there may, in fact, be a future.

Now slowly he’s starting to realize that he might not be exceptional but at least he’s important for being who he is, that he’s not really like the mass of mankind from the beginning of time whose entire lives and everything they chose to do or not to do is determined by their givens, the conditions and circumstances they were born into and the people they found there to accompany them in life.  Until now the only living creatures who seemed to care what he did or thought and were therefore affected by his actions and thoughts were Iggy and Einstein the parrot and Annie the dog as if the Kid wer closer to being reptile, bird or four-legged animal then a human being alive and conscious in time with a beginning, middle and end to his life, all three parts existing simultaneously in each separate part.  His subjective life – his accumulated memories, wishes, fears, and reflections in the last few days – ha started taking on an importance to him that it had never held before.  And consequently he’s begun to have a new interest in the subjective lives of the people who are connected with him starting with the Professor but including the men who live alongside him under the causeway.  Even the Shyster whose story up to now he has had no desire to know since he had no story of his own to compare it to.  From pages 225/226.

Russell Banks is willing to shine a light on characters who do despicable things out of ignorance and he offers readers a way to view these characters compassionately.   We live in a culture were we choose to spend a lot of our time online in one form or another, disconnected from reality and plugged into the internet without really weighing the risks of such a choice.  Nothing makes this clearer to me than the growth of online pornography and the complacency that surrounds it.   Lost Memory of Skin is a novel about this culture, about American society in the early part of the 21st century.  It will be in my top 10 list for 2012.

Mr.  Banks states that he often writes about “the unintended consequences of good intentions”.  There is a wonderful interview about the writing of Lost Memory of Skin here.

9 Comments

Filed under LiteraryFiction, Notable Books, Thoughts

The Notable Book Perpetual Challenge

The Notable Book Perpetual Challenge asks participants to to set yearly goals.  In 2011 I neglected to post my reviews to the challenge web site.  I plan on posting on the web site in 2012.

I hope to read at least 12 notable books in 2012.  Here are some possible titles.

From the ALA 2011 Notable Books for Adults list:

Fiction

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Next by James Hynes.

The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes.

 
Non-Fiction

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier.

The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman.

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Just Kids by Patti Smith.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.

From the New York Times 2011 Most Notable list:

Fiction

The Art of Fielding  By Chad Harbach.

The Barbarian Nuseries By Héctor Tobar.

11/22/63 By Stephen King.

Ghost Lights By Lydia Millet.

The Leftovers by Tom Perotta.

The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.

A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles.

Mr. Fox By Helen Oyeyemi.

Say Her Name By Francisco Goldman.

The Sense of an Ending By Julian Barnes.

Shards By Ismet Prcic.

Space, In Chains By Laura Kasischke. (Poetry)

The Stranger’s Child By Alan Hollinghurst.

Taller, When Prone By Les Murry (Poetry)

Train Dreams By Denis Johnson

Non-fiction

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning By Maggie Nelson.

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. By David Deutsch.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. By Steven Pinker.

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. By Jonathan Lethem.

1861: The Civil War Awakening. By Adam Goodheart.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. By Charles C. Mann.

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. By Joseph Lelyveld.

In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. By Erik Larson.

The Information: A History. A Theory. A Flood. By James Gleick.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion. By Janet Reitman.

Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. By David Bellos.

The Memory Chalet By Tony Judt.

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. By Tony Horwitz.

One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir. By Binyavanga Wainaina.

Pulphead. By John Jeremiah Sullivan.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. By Stephen Greenblatt.

To A Mountain In Tibet By Colin Thubron.

There are many other notable book list links at the Notable Books Blog.  I have actually read and reviewed several of the books on the 2011 NY Times list and will link the reviews to my challenge page.

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Filed under Challenges 2012, Notable Books

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010

From my TBR pile.  The only other  work I’ve read by Baker is a nonfiction book,  Human Smoke.

Paul Chowder, an  occasionally published poet, is trying to write an introduction to a poetry anthology entitled Only Rhyme.  He’s having trouble.

But every time I actually tried to start writing the introduction, as opposed to just writing notes, I felt straightjacketed.  So I went out and bought a big presentation easel, and a big pad of presentation paper, and a green Sharpie pen, and a red Sharpie pen, and a blue Sharpie pen.  What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class.

And in order to be relaxed at the easel, I drank a Newcastle.  Also coffee, so that I would be sharp.  And still I wasn’t sufficiently relaxed, so I drank some Yukon Gold that I found in the liquor cabinet.  No, not Yukon Gold, that’s a potato, Yukon Jack, a kind of Canadian liqueur.  It was delicious.  It added a slight Gaussian blur.  And then some more coffee, so I’d still be sharp.  Blurred, smeared, but sharp.  from page 29.

Paul is adrift, his girlfriend has left him,  at times he is heartsick, at times full of piss and vinegar, and his editor is getting nervous.  Always, his head is filled with poetry, with language, and he talks about it.  A lot.  It made me laugh.  He also talks about the formation of language, stuff I had to spend many hours learning about before working with students with dyslexia.  Just brilliant.

Baby talk, which is full of rhyme, is really the way you learn to figure out what’s like and what’s not like, and what is a discrete word , or an utterence, and what is just a transition between two words.

How does it happen?  Well, it happens gradually, and it happens by matching.  Matching within and matching without.  First you have to learn that a certain feeling in one part of your body, your tongue, matches with a certain feeling in your brain, which is a sound.  A slightly different feeling in your tongue matches with a different sound coming out of your mouth and a different sensation of muscular control registering in your brain.  Each subtle difference of sound feels different.  And this is all very difficult and takes a lot of trial and error and babbling and drooling and lip popping and laughing.  from page 107.

I like poetry.  It is obvious that Nicholson Baker likes poetry.  He has written one of the best books about poetry I have read.  Fiction or nonfiction.  Maybe the best.  He talks about rhythm and meter in ways that are easy to understand, ways that are fun, like a pop song with a great hook.  I don’t think you even have to like poetry to enjoy this novel.  If you don’t, The Anthologist might open up a whole new world for you.

Now I want to go out and read all the fiction the Nicholson Baker has written, maybe even his newest.  His new book is getting lots and lots of press.  I wonder why?

Other reviews:

A Work in Progress

Fizzy Thoughts

Jenny’s Books

Olduvai Reads

Tales from the Reading Room

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Filed under LiteraryFiction, Notable Books, Review

The City & The City by China Mieville

The City & The City by China Mieville

Del Rey,  New York, 2009

I own this one (thanks to students, parents and the blessed gift card).

A Publisher’s Weekly, Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times Best Book of 2009.  The City & The City just won the 2010 Locus Award for best fantasy novel and won the 2010 Arthur C. Clark award in April.

Ever since reading Perdido Street Station and Iron Council I have admired China Mieville’s writing.  When I first heard he’d written a noirish, murder mystery I wasn’t quite sure what that could mean.  I hesitated, finally putting the book on hold at the library.  I waited and waited.   The paperback came out,  I was given a gift card.  I waited no longer.

Wow, this is one of those books I have difficulty writing about…

The story starts with the finding of a body on grounds of an estate in the city of Beszel.  Beszel  feels like an old city somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Inspector Tyador Borlu is called to the scene and finds that to fully investigate this murder, he must travel to Beszel’s neighboring city, Ul Qoma.  But these cities are not just neighbors.  They are intertwined, on top of and crosshatched with each other, and each city’s residents must learn to unsee what they see day-to-day.  There are nationalists and anarchists, politicians, students and archeologists, all wound up in a story that is fast-paced and well written.

There is not much more I can say except to suggest that you read this book.  I don’t really want to tell you more, or maybe I just can’t think of how to write about it.   Even finding bits to quote is difficult.   One thing, it is not an easy book to read,  sometimes the language itself seem to flicker in and out of perception, giving me a kind of vertigo.  Or maybe it was reading it at 2 am that had me dizzy.  In the acknowledgments Mieville offers his gratitude to several authors including Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka and Bruno Schultz.  He is wise and gracious to do so.   This is one of the smartest and most entertaining books I have read in quite a while.

20 Comments

Filed under Arthur C Clarke Award, Mystery, Notable Books, SciFi

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Vintage Canada, 2010

I own this one.

I have been on a book buying ban for over a year now.  That doesn’t mean I don’t fall off the wagon,  particularly with books published outside the US.  My public library is great, ordering many titles before they are published, but they only purchase books published in this country.  So when I read about great books from Canada or elsewhere I struggle with book lust, and occasionally the book wins.  This book is an example, I just had to have it.

Annabel Lyon has written an extraordinary first novel, taking a crucial time in the history of western civilization and bringing it to life through the voice and thoughts of one of the founders of western philosophy.

Aristotle, along with his wife Pythias and their entourage, travel to the city of Pella. After a separation of many years Aristotle meets up with his old friend Philip,  now the King of Macedonia.

“You refined piece of shit,” the king says. “You’ve spent too much time in the East.  Look at yourself, man.”

We embrace.  As boys we played together, when Philip’s father was king and my father the king’s physician.  I was taller but Philip was tougher: so it remains.  I’m conscious of the fine, light clothing I’ve  changed into for this meeting, of the fashionable short clip of my hair, of my fingers gently splayed with rings.  Philip’s beard is rough, his fingernails are dirty, he wears homespun.  He looks like what he is: a soldier, bored by this great marble throne room.  From page 13.

Philip asks him to tutor his son, Alexander.  Aristotle is torn between the demands of his friend and his own desire to succeed his teacher, Plato, and lead the Academy in Athens.  He ponders his past and his future.  He helps Arrhidaeus, Philip’s elder son,  changed after a severe illness at the age of five.  He teaches Alexander, and his companions.

I gather my father’s scalpels from the boys and wipe them slowly, meticulously, as I was taught.  “I had a master, when I was not much older than you.  He was very interested in what things were.  In what was real, if you like, and what” – I gestured at the remains of the chameleon – “was perishable, what would pass away and be lost.  He believed there were two worlds.  In the world we see and hear and touch, in the world we live in, things are temporary and imperfect.  There are many, many chameleons in the world, for instance, but this one has a lame foot, and this one’s colour is uneven, and so on.  Yet we know they are all chameleons;  there is something they share that makes them all alike.  We might say they have the same form; though they differ in details, they all share the same form,  the form of a chameleon.  It is this form, rather than the chameleon itself, that is ideal, perfect and unchanging.  We might say the same of a dog or a cat, or a horse, or a man.  Or a chair, or a number.  Each of these exists in the world of forms, perfectly, unchangingly.” From pages 91/92.

There are many fine characters in this book and Aristotle has ideas about all of them, from soldier to slave.  Combining daily life, philosophy, politics, sexuality and warfare,  told by a historic  figure at once brilliant and unsure,  The Golden Mean is a novel that is intelligent,  funny and surprisingly relevant to our own daily lives.

It reminds me of a book I read last summer, Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Both take a period in the history of western civilization and daringly write literary portraits of daily life.  Both novels feel historically accurate to me, but I am not a classical scholar.  Le Guin uses figures from classical literature, Lyon uses figures from history.  I loved both of these books.  I am in awe of Lyon’s creativity, depth of research,  and willingness to take risks with the western canon.  I have added several books from her bibliography to my to-be-read list, and hope I will actually get around to reading some of them.

Have you read and reviewed this book?  Please leave a comment so I can link to your review.

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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Notable Books

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Twelve, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

This book as won multiple awards and been on many Notable and “Best of”  lists.

I waited a long time to read this book.  Even though I had no desire to revisit this horrible event I kept hearing and reading about Dave Cullen’s in-depth study of the 1999 Colorado high school shootings.  I finally borrowed a copy from the library and discovered that Columbine is so well-written and well-researched that I couldn’t put it down.

I remember Columbine, I remember the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the horrible images that came over the television.  The stories of how these two students snapped and went after jocks, seeking revenge for bullying and harassment and how the “Trench Coat Mafia” was the group behind the murders was all over the media.  Turns out everything they told us about the Columbine shootings was wrong.

Dave Cullen,  reporting for Slate.Com, first visited Columbine High School at around noon on April 20th, 1999, the day of the shootings.  He spent 9  years researching this book, listening to tapes, watching videos, reading journals and conducting interviews. Talking to students, parents and teachers, investigators and police.   He dug deep and his reporting shows it.  It come across as clear and balanced.

Cullen gives us background on Harris and Klebold, in a way he makes these “monsters” human.  Reading their journals and listening to their friend,s investigators on the case believe Eric Harris was a psychopath and that Dylan Klebold suffered depression.  Reading their backgrounds and histories gives a very different view from the one the press reported.  The things I found most interesting in Columbine are Cullen’s analysis of the media circus surrounding the incident and the fact that the police covered up information they had on Harris and Klebold.  It turns out that this incident could have been avoided if certain people had communicated with other people, including some student who had hints of what was going on but never took the boys seriously.  Isn’t that always the way?

Columbine is not easy to read, the descriptions of the shootings and the suffering of the victims is intense, but I found it very worthwhile.

Other review:

Reading Rants

start narrative here

Have you read and reviewed this book?  Leave a comment so I can link you.

10 Comments

Filed under History, Nonfiction, Notable Books, Review

Far North by Marcel Theroux

Far North by Marcel Theroux

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

Marcel Theroux is a novelist, TV broadcaster and the oldest son of travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux.  This is his fourth novel.

Far North is a dystopian novel set in the not-to-distant future.   The narrator, Makepeace, is the last surviving member of a community of Quakers who originally came from the United States and settled in the Siberian taiga.

My parents never spoke of the past, and me, I never took much interest in it.  The past had nothing to teach me.  The beginning of the world and my birth seemed like the same event.  For me the world began with water dripping off wet sheets in the sunlight.  I was the creator, blinking my eyes to make night and day.  And I was Noah, arranging my chipped hardwood animals in the dust of the arctic summer.  I taught my family language, and I was the first human to set foot in the wilderness at the bottom of our vegetable patch.  From page 105.

Makepeace finds evidence that other communities  may exist, and even thrive, out beyond the city’s ruins.  A refugee emerges from the forest, inspiring Makepeace to open up to human connection  and  to travel from the city to search for others in  the Far North.  It is a empty and eerie place.

I lay down to sleep thinking that as much as I missed what was gone, maybe this was the best thing: for the world to lie fallow for a couple hundred years or more, for the rain to was her clean.  We’d become another layer of her history, a little higher in the soil  than the Romans, and the people that built the pyramids.  Yes Makepeace, I thought, one day your mandible will show up under glass in a museum…
In the long run, the waters recede, the sun rises, and the plants grow.  I’ve never doubted that something will survive of us.  Of course, I won’t make it.  And all those books I’ve saved will end up mulch and bird’s nest, I suppose.  From pages 198/199.

This beautiful, spare novel is filled with surprises.  The story twists and turns like a braided river, and  Makepeace travels on with humor and rugged strength to find a kind of redemption.  The world is wild and desolate and yet filled with quiet beauty.  Theroux is a master storyteller.  I plan on reading his other novels.

Other reviews:

Book Club Classics

A Bookworm’s World

Follow The Thread

Novels Now

6 Comments

Filed under New Authors 2010, Notable Books, SpeculativeFiction

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, New York, 2002

Borrowed from the library.

Susan Trinder, orphaned when her mother is hanged for murder, then left with Mrs Sucksby, a baby-seller, is raised in a house of thieves.  Trained to be a pick-pocket, a fingersmith, Susan’s life changes when Richard Rivers arrives and makes her a deal that, if successful, will make them all rich.  Thus begins a tale of love and deception so full of twists and changes it will make your head spin. Is this novel a mystery?  A ghost story? A romance?

The room was a dark one, like all the rooms there.  Its walls were panelled all over in an old dark wood and its floor- which was bare, except for a couple of trifling Turkey carpets, that were here and there worn to the weave- was also black.  There were  some great heavy tables about and one or two hard sofas.  There was a painting of a brown hill and a vase full of dead leaves, and a dead snake in a glass case with a white egg in its mouth.  The windows showed the grey sky and bare wet branches.  The window panes were small and leaded and rattled in their frames.  Page 69

To quote or say any more is to give away too much.  Waters is a master story-teller,  giving her readers damp, smoke-filled images of Victorian London, creating a sense of the strict divisions between classes in the Manor houses of the country side.  She is brilliant at dialogue, between thieves, men and women, cooks, masters, maids and mistresses.  Each one of the characters in this great, elegant old-fashioned novel became real for me.  And Waters given her readers two wonderful female protagonists, each different, each strong, each unforgettable.  I ended up admiring and loving both of them.

I admit it.  I waited way too long before reading Waters, but I’ll make up for it now.  I just picked up The Little Stranger from the library and will start it in the next couple of days.

Other reviews:

Caribousmom

Eclectic/Eccentric

Rhapsody In Books

S. Krishna’s Books

Shelf Love

things mean a lot

Did I miss yours?

23 Comments

Filed under GLBT 2010, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Notable Books, Review

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

A Publishers Weekly 2009 Notable Book

An odd, beautiful book about a son and his father.  As George lays dying, surrounded by his family,  he drifts in and out of time, revisits his childhood and memories of his family and his father,  Howard.  Howard was a salesman, a tinker and an epileptic who deserted his family.  George retired from teaching and learned to repaired clocks.  Built of time, memory and dream, Harding has created a story filled with unusual people and unforgettable images.  Some are beautifully descriptive.

Nearly seventy years before George died, his father, Henry Aaron Crosby, drove a wagon for his living.  It was a wooden wagon.  It was a chest of drawers mounted on two axles and wooden spoked wheels. There were dozens of drawers, each fitted with a recessed brass ring, pulled open with a hooked forefinger, that contained brushes and wood oil, tooth powder and nylon stockings, shaving soap and straight-edged razors….

He tinkered.  Tin pots,  wrought iron.  Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam.  Quicksilver patchwork.  Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest.  Tinkerbird, copppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.  From page 11/12.

What of miniature boats constructed of birch bark and fallen leaves, launched into cold water clear as air?  How many fleets were pushed out towards the middle of ponds or sent down autumn brooks, holding treasures of acorns, or black feathers, or a  puzzled mantis?  Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October  breeze. From page 77/78

Others are out of a dream.

A wind came through the trees sounding like a chorus, so like a breath then, so sounding like a breath, the breath of thousands of souls gathering itself up somewhere in the timber lining the bowls and depressions behind the worn mountains the way thunderstorms did and crawling up their backs the way thunderstorms did, too, which you couldn’t hear, quite, but felt barometrically – a contraction or flattening as of tone as everything compressed in front of it, again, which you couldn’t see, quite, but instead could almost see the result of — water flattening, so the light coming off  it shifted angles, the grass stiffening, so it went from green to silver, the swallows flitting over the pond all being pushed forward and then falling back to their original positions as they corrected for the change, as if the wind were sending something in front of it…From page 128

There is incredible freedom of style in this book.  Harding  moves from the mundane to the unusual, even the visionary, without floundering or loosing his sense of balance.  His language is clear and precise, almost blinding, like a laser, like sunlight glancing off a field of snow.  I have never read a book like this, and will not forget it.

7 Comments

Filed under New Authors 2010, Notable Books

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2009

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

Borrowed from my local library.

This book will be on my top 10 list for 2010.  It may even be my favorite book of the year.  Wait, you ask, it is only the middle of January, how can you say that?  I say that because Mantel has created a world so full and rich that I didn’t want to leave it.  She has given me a place as vivid as the streets of my own city, as lively as my favorite café.  She has introduced me to characters that I want to talk to, that I wish to comfort and, sometimes, to scream at.

Of course, that is impossible, we are centuries and worlds apart.  After all, this is fiction.  Immersed in the history of early 16th century Britain, Mantel tells the story of one man, Thomas Cromwell.   With roots in the lower class, Cromwell, the son of a brewer and blacksmith, rises  to become a confidant to Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII.  Eventually Cromwell becomes the King’s chief minister  and the enemy of  Thomas More, staunch supporter of the Pope.  Henry, afraid of dying without a legitimate heir, wishes to annul his first marriage and marry another.  There are multiple threads of politics, sex and double-dealing and, of course, the King’s battle with the Catholic Church.  But this book is so much more than another fictionalized account of that time in history.

Wolf Hall is dense, dark and rich in a way that made me slow down my reading and savor every page.  What I really want to do here is quote many passages that leaped out at me but I will limit myself to a few.

An introduction to young Thomas Cromwell:

He is surprised.  Are there people in the world who are not cruel to their children?  For the first time the weight in his chest shifts a little; he thinks, there could be other places, better.  He talks; he tells them about Bella, and they look sorry, and they don’t say anything stupid like, you can get another dog.  He tells them about the Pegasus, and about his father’s brewhouse and how Walter gets fined for bad beer at least twice a year.  He tells them about how he gets fines for stealing wood, cutting down other peoples trees, and about the too-many sheep he runs on the commons…from page 12.

After he loses his wife to fever:

For a month he is at home: he reads.  He reads his Testament, but he knows what it says.  he reads Petrarch, whom he loves, reads how he defied the doctors: when they had given him up to fever he lived still, and when they came back in the morning, he was sitting up writing.  The poet never trusted any doctor after that; but Liz left him too fast for physician’s advice, good or bad, or for the apothecary with his cassia, his galingale, his wormwood, and his printed cards with prayers on.  From page 86

On viewing a carpet at Thomas More’s house:

It’s beautiful, he says, not wanting to spoil his pleasure.  But next time, he thinks, take me with you.  His hand skims the surface, rich and soft.  The flaw in the weave hardly matters.  A turkey carpet is not an oath.  There are some people in the world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins.  He is both these kinds of person.  He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight.  Leases, writs, statutes, all are written to be read, and each person reads them by the light of self-interest.  More says, “What do you think, gentlemen?  Walk on it, or hang it on the wall?”

“Walk on it.”

“Thomas, your luxurious tastes!”  And they laugh.  You would think they were friends.  From pages 187/188.

Cromwell observing King Henry:

You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing.  Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more.  Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade.  Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move.  If he had been called to a lower station in live, he could have been a traveling player, and leader of his troupe.  From page 357

Mantel places Cromwell in the third person and some readers find this difficult.  It did not really bother me.  I rather enjoy the rhythm of shifting from Cromwell’s thoughts to observing him from some close vantage point. The only part I found awkward was trying to keep track of the different Royal lineages, and Mantel, or her editors, have graciously placed a list of characters and the Tudor and Yorkist family trees at the front of the book.

I find it hard to say more about Wolf Hall.  I really love Mantel’s style, her intelligence, and her trust in my abilities as a reader.  I will read this book again.

Other reviews:

As usual, I Need More Bookshelves

Booklust

Boston Bibliophile

Fleur Fisher Reads

Savidge Reads

Did I miss yours?

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Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Booker, Challenges2010, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Notable Books