Archive for May, 2012

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You know what it’s like… Unless it’s just me…

You see a book on a shelf, perhaps at a Service Station, maybe on the M5.

Something about the cover appeals; the blurb interests you; the historical context intrigues you…. And yet for some reason (let’s call them children and imagine the reasons were at the point hitting each other and screaming) you don’t get the chance to buy it.

For weeks you keep an eye out for the book, it doesn’t appear. Eventually, your Audible.com credits come up and you get the chance….

Excitement mounts…

Anticipation peaks…

And it just never quite hits the mark.

I don’t think that narrator helped – Jonathan Aris in this case – as his voice was rather monotonous. But I just didn’t get the story! Well, I understood the story but I didn’t get the story. Get me?!

The story revolves around the cemetery at Les Innocents in Paris which, having been packed with corpse upon carcass upon carrion upon cadaver for decades is spilling into neighbouring houses and poisoning the air of Paris. In itself, this is a potentially wonderful image of the superating wound in the heart of pre-revolutionary France.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young Engineer is instructed to remove the cemetery. And herein lies my problem with the book. I didn’t like Jean-Baptiste; I didn’t care about him. Half way through the book, avoiding spoilers, a dramatic event befalls him. And I still didn’t care for him. He fell in love. I still didn’t care for him. he was plunged by events into the role of a hero. Cared? Still no. And I think that the “plunged by events” is the problem: he was so damned passive! Things happened to him. A classic example is when Jean-Baptiste meets the organist Armand who whirls him through Paris, cons him into buying a pistachio suit. He does not demur, does not decline, neither agrees not disagrees with anyone. Later, Armand whirls him again into becoming Beche, an unwitting activist for the Party of the Future.

There are good things here, don’t get me wrong. Jeanne the Sexton’s daughter was very sweet; the gang of miners who actually toiled to remove the bones were simultaneously very earthy (somehow with their pipes and whoring reminding me of Moby Dick‘s Stubb) and simultaneously somehow fey and otherworldly. Now that’s not a bad trick to pull off!

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What a fabulous book!

It is rare that I anticipate a book as eagerly as this one; rare that a sequel can live up to the expectations of the first book; rare that historical fiction can grip me quite so intently! But Mantel manages all this in Bring Up The Bodies which, in my opinion, outshines the original Wolf Hall.

The original book had charted the rise of Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn and the fall from grace of Cardinal Wolsey. This book, in which Cromwell is at the height of his powers, charts the fall, trial and execution of Anne Boleyn and her replacement by Jane Seymour.

Is that a spoiler? It’s historical, there was never any doubt about the outcome. If so, what’s the point of reading it? The ending is mapped out by my (somewhat cloudy) GCSE History; the plot twists and turns that, say, C. P. Sansom relies on cannot appear here. The delight is in the people, the life, the humanity that Mantel’s language brings to what had been just names before! She invites us into a new and vibrant world populated by some of the most complete people that I have ever met in fiction.

In fact, Mantel’s language explicitly does invite us in: the present tense, the occasional first person plural pronoun that places her world before “us” as “we” explore it. By instinct, these overly writerly techniques to bridge the 500 years gap between us and the Tudors would usually irk me. But here they work exceptionally well.

Let us consider the title: “Bring up the bodies” is the cry to bring the prisoners out of the Tower to face their trial. But Cromwell is also haunted – so so haunted – by ghosts that it is almost tearjerking. The opening image is of him hawking with hawks named for his dead children. We are told that “when the house is quiet… then dead people walk about” in Austin Friars; the Christmas costume that he had made ten year previously for his daughter reminds him “Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather’s breath from you”; following an argument with Henry, he recalls advice his father gave him and “is glad his father is with him”; the final image in the book is of a page turned over and displaying the remnants of “the cardinal’s writing… so he can see the dead hand that inscribed them”. In fact, despite being dead, Wolsey’s presence is so frequent and integral to Cromwell he deserves to be cited in the dramatis personae at the start of the book.

This is a book resonant with imagery that is redolent with symbolism but also rooted in the world if the book. The hawks circling their prey in the opening pages parallels Anne’s waiting women circling and betraying her; the proverb book given by Henry to Jane and still bearing the jewel encrusted “A” for Anne and the marks of the “K” beneath it like a palimpsest is hugely and wonderfully evocative of the effect on our lives of all our past encounters.

And finally onto the big question: how is Cromwell himself portrayed? Enigmatic and shadowy in history, “sleek, plump and densely inaccessible” as Mantel describes him. Here, he is perhaps less sympathetically portrayed than in Wolf Hall. He is certainly utterly imposing: the moment when he is beside the injured King and

seems to body out and fill all the space around the fallen man. He sees himself, as if he were watching from the canvas above: his girth expands, even his height. So that he occupies even more ground. So that he takes up more space, breathes more air, is planted and solid when Norfolk careers into him, twitching, trembling. So he is a fortress on a rock, serene, and Thomas Howard just bounces back from his walls, wincing, flinching and blethering.

This is almost a Gandalf The Grey moment facing the Balrog!

And his conduct of the interviews with Anne’s women and then her four alleged suitors and her brother is utterly chilling. He shows an utter lack of compulsion or interest in whether the five men were guilty as charged. As he tells us: he was charged to find guilty men; and the men he found were guilty of something. When Gregory asks “Were they guilty?” he meant had they slept with Anne; Cromwell heard the question asking if the court had found then guilty.

Nor is he trustworthy: as he said to Thomas Wyatt, he cannot split himself into two men, one his friend and the other the King’s man. Nothing can be said to him in confidence that it will not be used against you later.

Yet he is still wholly compelling! His utter self assurance is refreshing; his splashes of humanity and disregard for others who mock Anne even as the preparations for her execution are made; his concern for his son; and, above all his loneliness and his ghosts all humanise him.

Utterly outstanding!

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Absolutely sublime play. Re-reading it after many many years and still bowled over. A GCSE set text; an integral part of Degree level “tragedy” unit (other people got to play with dead bodies, I learned how to be miserable: thanks Cambridge!!); and a vital part of my make up!

As I write, please near in mind this confession: I adore Cleopatra! With and because of all her faults, I adore her. I see in her echoes of all my favourite Shakespearean characters and feel personally convinced that Shakespeare wrote the part for the same actor who played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff in Henry IV, perhaps even Hamlet. That same boundary between comedy and tragedy, life and death, ribaldry and poetry is danced by them all!

Maybe more on that connection in a future post…

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So, the story (which is by far the least important part of this play) revolves around the eponymous Anthony, one of the thee rulers of Rome along with Octavian Caeser and Lepidus, and the wonderful Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Our first scene Opens with soldiers Demetrius and Philo berating Anthony for allowing his gaze to “now bend, now turn… Upon a tawny front” and become nothing more than a “fan / To cool a gypsy’s lust”.

Even now I feel aggrieved at that description of my Cleo! But love the unreliability of our commentators: Roman to the core, bored in the hedonism of Egypt, aching for battle. Their words undermined by her scene stealing appearance.

We quickly learn of politics that drag Anthony from his lover’s bed: his wife has waged war on Caesar; pirate lords rule the sea; Caesar needs him. So Anthony heeds the call of duty. And herein lies one of the cores of the play: the dichotomy and conflict between Rome and Egypt, duty and pleasure, land (firm and solid and reliable) and the water (treacherous and changeable), the square and the circle, marriage and love.

It is when Anthony returns to Rome that we see the latter: being passionately in love with Cleo (and yes I do think it is love not infatuation) he agrees to marry Caesar’s sister in order to apologise for his first dead wife’s war. Seriously. Was that ever going to end well?

The war with the pirate lord Pompey dissipates in a scene with a peace treaty and Anthony is soon back in bed with Cleopatra (whose reaction to news of his wedding had not been terribly gracious and left the messenger rather bruised, timid and obsequious.

Anthony and Caesar fall out again, rather quickly – something to do with the division of Pompey’s lands and Lepidus but the politics really didn’t interest me: Shakespeare is at heart a domestic rather than epic writer. Another war starts and Anthony – with a massive aromas land army at his back – takes to the seas to attack Caesar’s superior, vaster, quicker navy, principally because he is lent the Egyptian navy. D’uh! Cleo, I love you, but you ain’t no strategist!

They flee; Enobarbus (Anthony’s lieutenant) and Hercules (his divine protector) abandon him; Caesar tempts Cleopatra to betray Anthony. Enobarbus’ abandonment and regret and Anthony’s generosity to him afterwards is a wonderfully lyrical scene which I had completely forgotten about! His death is tear jerking.

Another battle, another loss, another flight led by Cleopatra again.

Cleopatra gives word that she has died in order to win Anthony back; Anthony takes his own life; she takes hers in reality (once you’ve got a good ending why change it, eh, Will?!).

It is not the plot though that drives this play! It is the character of Cleopatra (I love you, Cleo). The beauty of the language here is outstanding even for Shakespeare: the

Age shall not wither her

speech is worth the price of the book or theatre admission itself. That Cleopatra – played in 1600, as everyone knows, by a boy actor – is horrified at the prospect of

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore

is a wonderful piece of modernist metatextuality 400 years before modernism!

It is sublime and amazing and so full of gems! Not the best Shakespeare play (which honour goes to King Lear) but sparkling poetry and – have I mentioned – I love Cleopatra!

Ooooo the adorable and lovely Mrs P has just returned from Exeter with my pre-ordered copy of Bring Up The Bodies.

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As a big chunky two inch thick book, released in the midst of a busy time at work, it may take a while to be able to give a full review so I thought I’d do a quick mini-review of the opening pages. A ‘taster’ if you like; or an amuse-bouche.

So Bones is a sequel to the sublime (and that’s coming from someone whose not a fan of historical fiction generally) Wolf Hall which ended with Thomas Cromwell moving into the role of Henry VIII’s chief minister, Wolsey has died, Thomas More executed, Anne Boleyn Queen.

The opening pages of Bodies picks up with Cromwell and Henry VIII (with assorted courtiers including the winning Rafe Sadler) hunting together. The first sentence is chillingly bizarre: “His children are falling from the skies”. Recalling the tender, terrible moments in Wolf Hall when Cromwell’s wife and children succumb to the plague, it is almost enough to bring a tear to the eye immediately.

Mantel in just these pages hurls us once again headlong into the Tudor world. The present tense (which usually grates with me but here I relish) thrusts us into the “gore-streaked … riot of dismemberment” that is Henry’s hunting season.

Knowing my GCSE history, as I tentatively, vaguely, tenuously do (reinforced by Phillipa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl), I don’t think it’s a spoiler to note that Boleyn is executed in due course. This opening gore soaked hunting scene anticipates the inevitable fall of Anne and reinforces the blood stained history of the period. This is no chivalric romance.

There is a wonderful, lyrical quality to Mantel’s language here. The hawks (named after Cromwell’s dead children and hence explaining that enigmatic first line) fly above and bear witness to a “flittering, flinching universe”; Henry’s summer consists to the “beating off and the whipping in of hounds”.

We don’t see much of Cromwell himself here: he seems almost eclipsed by Henry’s presence. As Mantel writes, Cromwell “will defer” to the King’s or the Seymours’ stories at supper so that his work can begin as night falls. What we do see of him, however, sets him out as distinct and different from the others. Unlike the King, unlike Rafe, Cromwell does not burn in the summer sun but remains “as white as God made him” with “the skin of a lily”. This suggests again perhaps a grave-marked quality to him, possibly almost a vampiric presence: communing with his dead daughters, deathly pale, working through the night.

Overall a great opening. Not as strong as Wolf Hall‘s which erupts before us with a scene depicting the young Cromwell being beaten half to death by his father Walter in a coruscating tour-de-force!

Poor Mrs P may have to put up with an engrossed husband this weekend…. But then I also know what else she bought … 😉

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I was torn between three and four stars on this but came to the view that having read through it in 4 days it was a four, but I do have reservations about this book.

It is without doubt a great read, fun enjoyable and lighthearted. It evokes the atmosphere of the 1800s in the Wild West style Roughs in which Wax and Wayne act as lawmen; and also the atmosphere of Victorian England, setting the majority of the book in the city emerging into modernity, almost reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the two protagonists Wax and Wayne are very much a Holmes and Watson double-act, Wayne specifically deferring to Wax’s powers of deduction on at least two occasions. They also reminded me very much of Batman and Robin: Wax is the discredited heir of a great house returning to the City and Society to assume the mantle of the head of house, but disappearing into the night and the mists with his mistcloak flapping about him. Is the decision to use the name Wayne an homage to Bruce Wayne? There’s even an old retained butler! The other writer that it reminded me of in its lightheartedness undercut by darkness was Pratchett: Wax seemed to have echoes of Sam Vimes at times.

I think the biggest problem I had with this book was the expectations I had of it. I was looking for the same character building, mythologising and originality that Sanderson had displayed in the original trilogy. The most intriguing and satisfying moment in this book was, unfortunately, the cameo by Marsh from the original trilogy as Ironeyes, who has evolved in the mythology of the world into a demonic Lord of the Dead figure.

The book suffers from the inevitable comparison with the original series. There was a definite arc to the original: the characters developed from rebels and urchins to statesmen and finally reached apotheosis. This feels much more static in its momentum: as a member of the society created by the events of the Mistborn trilogy and, therefore, one that we have to have faith in, Wax is interested in maintaining a status quo rather than overturning it which has inherently limited the scope of the novel. It is interesting that even Wax himself seems to recognise this: he tells the reader that in the Final Empire, his nemesis Miles would have been seen as a hero.

Nor is it in any way as original as Mistborn. Again, this is not the fault of Sanderson’s writing but of the premise. The book is set in a previously created universe and therefore cannot be original without being unfaithful. I did like the combinations of the allomancy and feruchemy to produce a different style of skills (magic doesn’t seem to be the correct term for a power system based on science and metallurgy).

Apparently conceived as nothing more than a personal creative writing exercise without the intention of being published, the book does have that feel of derivative fan-fiction rather than mythologising high fantasy, albeit done extremely well and by an extremely competent story teller. Great fun though.

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It is with genuine sadness that I learn of Maurice Sendak’s death today. This man will have the status of icon, myth, legend and inspiration for all time.

I feel it wouldn’t be right, as a reader, not to mark his life in some way. He was the one man whose story, Where The Wild Things Are has stayed with me throughout my life. I remember my mother reading it to me; it was the first book I ever read alone; I remember having to draw the Wild Things in an art lesson at school when I was 10; it was the first book I bought to read to my adopted son and daughter; it was subsequently eaten by my son but quickly replaced; I have taught it in A level English classes and at GCSE.

I do not know enough about Sendak to write an obituary and there will be countless. The first (perhaps) is here

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/09/books/maurice-sendak-childrens-author-dies-at-83.html

What I can do is explore what Sendak means to me and what he woke in me.

He taught me that language is alive and resonant and beautiful and playful and true. His line that Max “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year” is still one of my favourite lines in all writing! The way the sentence moves from the literal to to symbolic; the interplay of movement through time and space – “in and out of weeks” – is controlled, simple, elegant and just sublime. It is language at its best and reminds us that beauty, depth, poignancy and truth are not limited to long, pretentious, showy language.

Another thing he was the first to teach me was that the creatures and shapes that peopled the inside of my head – and I assume others’ – were valid and real and true in a way that transcended the mundane truths of our banal world. They were parts of me. Contradictory, antagonistic, childish, irritating, unruly, scary and – in it’s richest sense – wild but all parts of me.

He taught me that no one can limit or control human and my own imagination. The limitlessness of the Max sent to his room in which

That very night … a forest grew and grew- and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by

. Yes I know it’s “just” a kids’ book but Max in his room is Mandela on Robbins Island, is every wage slave, is every oppressed individual or group or race. Mandela in fact said, of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that it was the book that caused the “prison walls fall down”. Sound familiar? And the vastness of our human imagination: unbounded even by the ocean.

Yet despite his unbounded oceanic imagination, Max returns home to “be where someone loved him best of all” and through this I learnt that we cannot exist in our imagination alone. And as a parent, trying to discipline an unruly (book eating) wild thing of my own, I learnt that discipline does not stop the child loving and feeling loved “best of all” however much he may be screaming that he hates me!

Through Sendak, I learnt that love can be so possessive it becomes destructive. When he leaves, the Wild Things howl “Oh please don’t go- we’ll eat you up- we love you so!”. Watching Jeremy Kyle or recalling the disputes I got involved in as a barrister, other people would have benefitted from learning that too.

I learnt through Sendak that the label of “children’s” or “young adult” books is patronising. I recall Patrick Ness’ sublime A Monster Calls and I wonder about the debt Ness owes Sendak; I read Neil Gaiman and China Miéville and Sendak seems to echo through them. I have no idea whether these people have read or valued Sendak but I hear Max’s spirit in them.

So, Maurice Sendak, dead today at the age of 83, I thank you! You have in a very real sense made me who I am today. And I like who I am!

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