Monday, July 25, 2016

I Miss This Guy

I spent a lot of time with Thomas Cromwell in July, and now that he's gone away, I miss him.

My quest to read all the Man Booker Prize winners led me to Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), both by Hilary Mantel. I'm not a big fan of historical novels in general, nor am I well-versed in the politics and romances of Henry VIII in 1520s England and Europe. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed these two books.

Mantel's portrayal of Thomas Cromwell stands out as a major factor in my enjoyment. Wolf Hall opens with a savage scene in which the teenaged Cromwell receives a beating from his father, but (fortunately for me, as I was not looking forward to any more scenes like that) the beating motivates Cromwell to leave home, launching him on the winding road of his political career. It's the first of many personal incidents that inform Cromwell's public life. Somehow, in Mantel's portrayal, Cromwell keeps a core of kindness and compassion for those closest to him, not to mention random strangers, while moving in the highest, most precarious, most vicious political circles. This humanity saves Cromwell from being just another political tool sans moral compass and these novels from being just another rehash of historical events.

Wolf Hall tells the story of Henry VIII's obsession with producing a male heir, an obsession with huge political, personal, and religious implications. Henry's insistence on annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, freeing him to marry Anne Boleyn, creates ripples across England and across Europe. As Henry's advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, descends from favor, Cromwell's influence grows. It's a tribute to Cromwell's genius and subtlety that he's able to remain personally loyal to his mentor Wolsey while becoming one of Henry's most trusted counselors.

Bring Up the Bodies continues the saga. Henry has waited seven difficult years -- while his personal desires destabilize international alliances and destroy religious institutions -- to marry Boleyn. However, prize achieved, he becomes disenchanted with her rather quickly, due to the same qualities of wit and willfulness that he initially found irresistible. Even more importantly from a political perspective, she seems unable to produce a male heir. At Henry's request, Cromwell engineers Boleyn's fall, while Henry's fancy turns to Jane Seymour. Regardless of my modern-day disapproval of Henry's behavior and the power of monarchy, Mantel manages to leave me in awe of Cromwell's smooth political machinations. And he's just so darn likeable, even while using Henry's request to seek revenge upon Wolsey's enemies. Amidst the events of his political life, Cromwell's personal memories, motivations, and pleasures remain part of the story.

At times, Mantel compresses a lot of action and meaning into a few paragraphs. At other times, she draws an incident out at length, giving its implications time to sink in -- a very important skill when court intrigues are involved, as they often are. The result is a novel that breathes, expanding and contracting as the story unwinds. Domestic events in the Cromwell household intertwine with the historical record, adding contrast, richness, and depth. Mantel has a knack for making characters come alive.

My enjoyment of Mantel's storyline may have been enhanced by my relative ignorance of the details of Henry VIII's time. If I knew more about the chain of events or that era in general, perhaps I might have noticed something inaccurate. (There are certainly those who feel her work is a rehabilitation of Cromwell that he doesn't deserve.) However, Mantel is such a masterful writer, clearly in control of her craft, that I doubt she makes any significant errors. Her cultural references are effortlessly natural; she portrays the times without ever appearing to insert detail just for effect.

Others have remarked on one stylistic difficulty with Mantel's writing: her tendency to use an untethered "he," making the reading a bit difficult in places. "He" is almost always Cromwell himself, which blends first person and third person nicely when it gives the reader intimate access to his thoughts and feelings. But occasionally "he" is someone else in the  very next sentence -- and that brings you up short in a passage, requiring a pause to figure out who is speaking or being described. Mantel helps sometimes by saying "He, Cromwell," an effective if somewhat clumsy method of clarification. Overall, it's not a major sticking point. Over hundreds of pages, you get used to it.  

Weeks after finishing these novels, I am still thinking about Cromwell. Fortunately Mantel plans to write another novel about the remainder of his life. Whether her sympathetic portrayal is accurate or not, it's been a long time since I enjoyed the company of such an intelligent, charming, kind, dangerous character. Meeting such a person in fiction is nothing but pleasurable. Although in real life I would run fast and far from Cromwell, I look forward to seeing him again on the page.

Excerpt, from a meeting with Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Cromwell's home:

The door opens; it is Alice bringing in lights. "This is your daughter?"

Rather than explain his family, he says, "This is my lovely Alice. This is not your job, Alice?"

She bobs, a small genuflection to a churchman. "No, but Rafe and the others want to know what you are talking about so long. They are waiting to know if there will be a dispatch to the cardinal tonight. Jo is standing by with her needle and thread."

"Tell them I will write in my own hand, and we will send it tomorrow. Jo may go to bed."

"Oh, we are not going to bed. We are running Gregory's greyhounds up and down the hall and making a noise fit to wake the dead."

"I can see why you don't want to break off."

"Yes, it is excellent," Alice says. "We have the manners of scullery maids and no one will ever want to marry us. If our aunt Mercy had behaved like us when she was a girl, she would have been knocked round the head till she bled from the ears."

"Then we live in happy times," he says.

When she has gone, and the door is closed behind her, Cranmer says, "The children are not whipped?"

"We try to teach them by example, as Erasmus suggests, though we all like to race the dogs up and down and make a noise, so we are not doing very well in that regard." He does not know if he should smile; he has Gregory; he has Alice, and Johane and the child Jo, and in the corner of his eye, at the periphery of his vision, the little pale girl who spies on the Boleyns. He has hawks in his mews who move toward the sound of his voice. What has this man?

"I think of the king's advisers," Dr. Cranmer says. "The sort of men who are about him now."

And he has the cardinal, if the cardinal still thinks well of him after all that has passed.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Just the Thing

Reading choices are funny things, aren't they?

Sometimes you want to roll up your sleeves and dive into a challenge. Maybe something you should have read ages ago, as part of your education. Or something that says to the book universe, "Challenge accepted!" - whether that means sticking with a 500-page novel, or tackling that book in your TBR pile that you've been putting off, or finally making progress on one of your reading lists. 

But sometimes you need something light, something innocuous, something that engages your interest without taxing your intellect too much. For those times, allow me to recommend the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series.

I am reading them all, as a break from "heavier" reading, and continue to find them delightful. The latest one in my quest, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, tells how Precious Ramotswe, founder of the agency, meets her mentor-by-book-only, Clovis Anderson, helps the most capable apprentice in her husband's business face up to some undeserved legal trouble, and resolves a serious difficulty involving her friend Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphan farm. Meanwhile, associate detective Grace Makutsi and her new husband are building their dream house, but something is fishy there, too. With the introduction of this last story line, the focus easily and naturally drifts away from Mma Ramotswe for a bit, allowing us to learn more about those characters.   

Even after many books, all these characters continue to hold my interest. The lessons their experiences impart are gently delivered but resonant: the foibles we're prone to, the essential need we all have for connection to people and places, and how the good we do ripples out into the world, often in unexpected ways.  

Throughout the difficulties she faces, Mma Ramotswe's sense of herself keeps things grounded. Emblematic of her self-awareness is the repeated reference to her person as being "traditionally built." One never knows how much she weighs, but with this honest and nonspecific phrase she turns what could be an awkward or negative thing into an asset. Here is a woman who stands solidly on her own two feet, proud of herself, her heritage, and her capabilities, honoring tradition while being undeniably modern. She is not quite unflappable, but she is never off balance for long. All this without being overbearing or conceited.  

Although the impact of this book is gentle enough to qualify it as "light reading," that label fails to give it its due. While it's certainly a break from more challenging writing styles and subject matter, plenty of substance lies in these pages. Not only am I already looking forward to my next opportunity to spend time with Mms Ramotswe, I hope to hold her example of kindness and self-assurance in mind, in the meantime.


"But I know how busy you are, Mma Ramotswe," the Bishop said, "what with your business and all those investigations, and so on."

She nodded politely. He was right, but it was the so on that was the trouble now, and in particular that bit of the so on that was made up of Mma Potokwane's troubles. And then there was Fanwell, whose trial was due to take place the following day.

"Yes, Bishop. There are many things to worry about in this life. Many things."

The Bishop smiled. "But we must not those overwhelm us," he said. The smile faded, to be replaced by a look of concern. "You are all right, aren't you, Mma Ramotswe?"

She looked up at the sky. The man to whom she was talking, she reminded herself, had major concerns to think about. He knew the issues of Africa, its sorrows. He knew all about the burdens and difficulties of those who struggled to get by in countries where there was cruelty and oppression. It was all very well for her to stand here drinking tea in a peaceful and well-ordered country, but what about those who did not have that luxury?  And should she then worry him  with her petty concerns -- very small ones, really -- when there were many weightier things occupying his attention? No, she thought. No. "Everything is all right, Bishop," she said.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Summer in Florida

The big view and the small . . . .

Lake Woodruff Wildlife Refuge

Buttonbush flowers and seed pods

Monday, July 18, 2016


Remember this?

As of yesterday morning, nobody home.

That's meconium in the bottom, a red liquid made up of leftovers from the transformation process. Human and other mammal babies have a meconium, too: intestinal contents developed while they're in the womb and expelled soon after birth.  

We noticed just in time to see the first flight, over the back fence and into the woods behind the house.

From this perch, it fluttered away - no doubt to look for flowers and its first meal.

I don't especially care for these pagoda plants (they aren't native), but they support butterflies and hummingbirds so I let them stay.

We'll be keeping an eye out for "our" butterfly!

Meanwhile, the pipevine is putting out new leaves, ready for the next batch of caterpillars.

Friday, July 15, 2016