Bring Up the Bodies

Author: Hilary Mantel

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Thomas Cromwell Trilogy (#2)

Published: 2012

I read it: November 2014


This is a conversational review between Laura Byers and me. It was originally published on Levi & Laura.

“It is no small enterprise, to bring down a queen of England.”

Yet this is the job of Thomas Cromwell. And the large enterprise of Hilary Mantel is to tell Cromwell’s story–and by extension, the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn–like no one before her. The scene was set in Wolf Hall, where Cromwell became the king’s go-to man and arguably the most productive person in all of England. He already replaced one queen. In this second book of the series, he must keep up with Henry’s appetites once again….

Levi: This book has a bit of setup, but on the whole it hits the ground running. Cromwell, Henry, and the rest emerge fully formed from the first novel, and the protagonist has a singular goal which really gives the book its propulsion. It almost felt like a completely different type of story, yet I knew we were right back in the rich interior and exterior worlds of Mantel’s creation.

Laura: (Break to finish glass of wine and grab bread from the oven.) Part two of Cromwell’s career in the court felt even more lively and riveting. Now that we’re used to Mantel’s writing style, we were able to jump right in instead of scrambling about to get our footing, like in Wolf Hall. Speaking of her writing style, I want to bring up the bodies the fact that she refers to Cromwell as “he” throughout the book. It did cause confusion on more than one occasion when, in a group of men, she had to clarify with “he, Cromwell.” I personally wasn’t a fan of that as I felt it broke up the flow of the conversation and I had to go back and figure out who was saying what. Have you seen that before?

Levi: I remember that from the first book, and it’s a very interesting writing choice. It does cause me to pause on the page, and it seems like there would be ways around having to do that. But it’s so deliberate that I search for a good reason. It kind of brings an essence of control to any scene. It feels like Cromwell reasserting his place amongst all these important male figures, even though they will always consider him an outsider (because of his low birth). Or like Mantel herself is saying “this is Cromwell’s story, this is Cromwell’s story” over and over again. It’s a bit intrusive, and kind of manipulative, but then again, don’t those words also apply to the protagonist?

Laura: It also makes me think of He, as in God, and Cromwell playing God of England by manipulating everyone at his or the King’s will. It does make him seem larger than the King and larger than life. Don’t you just imagine a massive Godzilla-sized Cromwell stomping around London, squishing the soul out of every ill-fated fellow he meets? Which makes me wonder where his motivations truly come from. Is he trying to be a good public servant, or is he more interested in exacting revenge when the opportunity calls? It’s interesting that he refuses to live at court and to become a lord, even though many mistakenly call him ‘Lord Cromwell’. He wants so badly to please the King, but for what reward?

Levi: For the reward of staying alive, I would guess. And for the reward of constant, fulfilling work. Ha, I love the Godzilla Cromwell image. Though he’s more of a finesse guy. In a moment of reflection (these are kind of rare, because he’s a man of the future) he says, “I think I have been training all my years for this” and realizes his “whole career has been an education in hypocrisy.” He destroys, and builds up, and tries to keep a small bubble of immediate safety around himself and a select few others. What was that one part you liked, when he observes his wife braiding hair? He realizes he just has to stay in the zone or it will all fall apart.

Laura: I loved that. He was recalling a memory of his wife braiding some string and he asks her to slow down so he can see how it’s done. She replies back saying that she cannot slow down, otherwise she wouldn’t know what she was doing. Let’s move on to a new topic–the women of the story. I found it fascinating how educated, high-class women were worse off than the laboring women. The poor had more choice, were able to marry for love, and the women were able to find ways to leave their dead-beat husbands. Put well, “A young married gentlewoman has no way to help herself. She has no more power than a donkey.” Would you agree that the women’s issues were voiced more in this book because the author is female, and because it’s 2014?

Levi: Probably. They say a book says more about the time it was written in than the time it claims to be written about. It’s impossible not to let modern views slip in, and of course consideration of the females is hugely important in this historical drama. You’re right, these books make it seem like regal women are destined to fail. What could they do against the divine right of kings? Henry can justify anything given a few nights of worrying. He says “I can do as it pleases me. God would not allow my pleasure to be contrary to his design, nor my designs to be impeded by his will.” It’s an echo chamber of self-justification, and with no male heir at the ready, Anne suffers. Henry has eyes for Jane, who is painted as a supremely plain and soft-spoken person to contrast Anne’s sharp spirit. On top of all this, you have Anne accused of treason, adultery, even witchcraft. Some men are charged too, as tragic formalities, but it’s the queen’s crimes that really matter. And wow, this is some tawdry stuff. Some of those pages are on fire in your hands because they turn so fast.

Laura: Why would anyone but a half-wit want to marry King Henry VIII after he ruined two of his wives? But after all, these high-born women have little choice in the matter. Once Henry decides who he wants to wear the poisoned ring, they are doomed. I’m very much looking forward to the next two queens that we can anticipate for book three. I wonder, did he actually love Katherine or Anne, and did either of them love him? It’s difficult to gather from what we know “for sure,” and I wonder how much of it is just Mantel’s imagination. Let’s get real though–is the woman guilty of the charges against her or not?

Levi: Ah! Who knows?! Thomas Cromwell could make a person believe anything. Including this reader. If you’re going to give me the rack until I answer then…yes, I bet she had liaisons at least once with at least one person. Because, big freaking deal. And no, she never loved Henry. Why would she? Thing is, the truth is kind of intriguing, but also not at all relevant. If she had affairs but birthed a bunch of boys, then no harm no foul. Cromwell is digging up old laws and writing new ones as soon as he needs to. Which makes me wonder, how much of England’s history would be what it was without him? The guy was a marionette with a hundred strings. And he has some jobs ahead. He thinks of Anne’s end as a new start. Always something else to do.

Laura: As Cromwell states in the last few sentences, “There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here’s one.” Knowing that Cromwell’s career eventually takes a drastic turn for the worse, can we already see the tides turning against him? And just for fun, what do you think Anne’s last words would have been had there not been any consequences?

Levi: “Screw you assholes,” probably. I mean your death is a spectacle, how could you possibly handle it? How will Cromwell handle it? He is about to slip into the gears of his machine. I’m sure it will be told with power and elegance, like those last couple paragraphs of this book. I’ll venture to say this is some of the best stuff I’ve read in recent years. Such a wonder built only from words on a page. The lawyer Thomas Cromwell would be proud.

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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Novels


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A Man for All Seasons

Author: Robert Bolt

Type: Fiction, play

Published: 1960

I read it: November 2014

man for all

In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, a character called the Common Man takes various bit roles and helps guide the audience through the drama. At one point he introduces the man of the title as:

Sir Thomas More, a scholar and, by popular repute, a saint. His scholarship is supported by his writings; saintliness is a quality less easy to establish. But from his willful indifference to realities which were obvious to quite ordinary contemporaries, it seems all too probable that he had it.

Here is the central idea that Bolt wanted to explore, that perhaps More had some rare quality of a bygone era: the ability to stand up for his core being under immense pressure. He says as much in the preface, commenting how a person’s word of honor and important beliefs are not as tied up into the very being of the person as they may once have been. That is, you can find humans malleable and easily shifted off their course. Was Thomas More above this?

More’s course is to not be persuaded to give approval to King Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine, which goes against the Catholic church. More wants to be true to his king, the law of the land, and mostly to his god, but finds these waters tricky to navigate. He seems proud in his defiance (though he won’t articulate his treason) yet he also claims himself not to be a martyr. Bolt seems to paint more as a kind of academic Job, suffering the slow loss of his material goods and the welfare of his family due to his faithful principles and his absolute certainty he will meet his god face to face with a clear conscience.

I suppose I see the value in structuring a play based on a historical figure who stuck to his guns, but it’s difficult to see More as anything but delusional. He thinks the law is so ironclad that he cannot imagine himself to be guilty in its eyes–and he is astonished when they re-write the laws around him. “They” refers to the small cadre of King’s men mostly led by Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is written as a villain, described alternately as “The King’s Ear” (by himself), a jackal (by the king), and a pragmatist and metaphorical plumber (by More). Cromwell is tasked with persuading More to give an oath in favor of the king right up until his execution, but can’t make it happen. More is stuck in his ways but the times are leaving him behind. As Cromwell puts it, “The situation rolls forward in any case.”

And so rolls Thomas More’s head. In this play he gets the sympathies of the audience when he is accused of electing himself a hero but then goes on to say, “Perhaps we must stand fast a little–even at the risk of being heroes.” His wife Alice, finally coming to romantic acceptance of her husband’s fate, admits “I understand you’re the best man that I ever met or am likely to.” And these examples clinch the fact that this version of Thomas More stands in stark opposition to the version of him in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which he verbally abused his family and was a cold, strict zealot (if well-learned).

Could the real Thomas More please identify himself? I find Robert Bolt’s version hard to buy, but his play about a man coming to terms with himself while the world turns against him is a smart and deep work. As I learn more about More, I grasp him as a true believer whose sense of self hardened so much around structure and civility that he became inseparable from those concepts. Because his intellect elevated him above the common masses, he had a hand in running his own society. But his self-righteousness would not let himself doubt the foundations he built up in his own mind, and he painted himself into dark corners when he grasped the most dangerous parts of faith, such as absolute belief. At some point he came to absolutely believe in himself. Bolt seems to find this virtuous, while Mantel shows that it has a sinister edge. I find More a sad, fascinating figure best studied at the distance of time. I’m entirely unconvinced of his saintliness, or even his decency. But I’m mostly just glad I didn’t have to live during his decades.

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Posted by on November 14, 2014 in Plays


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The Interestings

Author: Meg Wolitzer

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2013

I read it: October 2014


After I heard about this book I talked about it so much that I knew I would inevitably read it. (My wife got so sick of me pointing it out in bookstores that she became numbly disinterested.) I wanted to know about these characters who met at a summer camp and whose lives continued to intertwine as they aged.

The best parts of the book, by far, are those pages that describe Spirit-in-the-Woods, an artsy summer camp that draws mostly well-off kids. The first incarnation is at the beginning, where Jules, the main character, meets Ash and Ethan (who later get married, despite Ethan’s love for Jules), as well as Goodman, Jonah, and Cathy. Toward the end we revisit the camp again, nicely bringing some ideas to a close. Unfortunately, the overall page count at summer camp was too few for a book of this length.

The majority of the story focuses on Jules and her marriage to a man named Dennis, and how their modest lives compare to the wealthy lives of Ash and Ethan (the latter scores big by creating an animated television show comparable to The Simpsons). There is plenty of domestic drama, all of it insightful and realistic. But while the reading experience is inviting and fluid, the story falls short of complete engagement. Perhaps it’s the indecisive handling on how much to focus on each individual character (I remember four or so POVs, though Jules is still the center) or the lack of meaningful intercuts to the summer camp days. There are some unique side stories, like the defining moment for Jonah Bay when he was emotionally manipulated by an older man, colorfully original because of its setting. (Though his foray into a cult was an odd inclusion. Maybe it felt non-consequential because the The Moonies seem so tame compared to modern-day deceptions that can really hurt people. What’s the risk of a hippie commune?)

Wolitzer writes with confidence, and any of her chapters could be studied for flow, characterization, and dialogue. It would be a good book to page through while taking a creative writing class. Yet the lack of a stronger plot is glaring. The book is in the same vein as Freedom, dealing with modern American adults at different points in their lives. Yet somehow Freedom felt focused and driven, while this one is just smoothly competent. It also seems to aspire to be a “New York novel,” which I have very little interest in unless it’s original and universal like Let the Great World Spin. I can’t really say what I would have done differently, but this whole thing has made me wonder about my taste for pure domestic dramas in book form. Am I trained to want something more shiny?

That could be. Or it could be that naming a book The Interestings is a bold yet doomed move. In the novel, this is supposedly the name the tight-knit camp kids gave to themselves, but it hardly comes up in that context. Wolitzer makes sure to drive home the wider lesson that sometimes people aren’t as interesting as they think they are, or that others think they are.. and that some differences are difficult to overcome…though we have to try to live with one another…and that life is just super challenging and unknowable. All good stuff. But did the author create a book that will be remembered for years to come? Will she be considered as artistic and influential as her characters hoped to be? I’m not so sure.

Cover art corner: I was drawn to this book not only because of the synopsis but also the cover art. Isn’t it just so interesting? Forgive me. Seriously though, that is a great cover, and it wraps around to the bound edge, so that the book stands out even when you shelve it traditionally. After staring at this rainbow enough I also got to wondering about the balance between the title’s prominence and that of the author’s name. WOLITZER stands out in all caps, above the title. Why? Apparently this author has about eight other books to her name, so I suppose this is the logical branding choice if her name is the draw at this point in her career. The same would be true of anything written by J.K. Rowling. On the other end of the spectrum, I suppose new writers rely more on the books’ titles because their name is not established. Check out Monica Byrne’s name on her debut novel. Isn’t it, ahem, interesting how this flip happens? Does the same thing occur with bands and their album releases? I need to know!

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Posted by on November 7, 2014 in Novels


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The Graveyard Book

Author: Neil Gaiman

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2007

I read it: October 2014


Neil Gaiman stories fit into fall just as well as the pumpkin beer and apple crisp I’m enjoying. Whether it’s the playful creepiness of Coraline or the spastic underworld of Neverwhere, there are always more creatively dark corners to explore. The Graveyard Book sits on that special shelf between young adult and old adult…um, regular adult? It’s close to 300 pages but definitely appropriate for pre-teens. Sure, it starts with murder, but it doesn’t dwell there. The survivor of the murder is a toddler who wanders off to a graveyard by himself, and is adopted by its residents.

Ghost residents, of course. They agree to look after him and he becomes Nobody Owens. This is a coming-of-age tale about a boy wondering what lays outside the graveyard. The short answer is: the man who failed to kill him the first time. As he grows up he has a series of miniature adventures, such as learning some of the ghostly tricks, like Fading, bestowed upon him by the magic of the graveyard. Or stumbling into the weird red world of Ghûlheim, where the ghouls live their greedy lives. He has a few otherwordly protectors, and those hunting him are also not human.

It’s an accessible tale, one that could have sequels but thankfully does not. It’s delightfully Halloween-ish, more fun than scary. It paints the graveyard only as dangerous as the outside world, and never sinister in and of itself. But I think all this was a run-through for Mr. Gaiman. There is one character in this book who serves as the seed of what’s to come. A witch, Liza Hempstock, takes a particular interest in Nobody Owens and becomes the character who most directly verbalizes how he has grown up and must move on. She is presumably related to–or indeed, actually is–one of the Hempstock women in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That work shares some similarities to The Graveyard Book, such as the young male protagonist who discovers deeper layers to the known world, yet the story is so fully realized that it soars. The person who reads Graveyard first and then Ocean shortly after will be well served by the wonders of this author.

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Posted by on October 31, 2014 in Novels


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This Explains Everything

Author: John Brockman (editor)

Type: Non-fiction, essays

Full title: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works

Published: 2013

I read it: October 2014

this explains

Whenever John Brockman tosses out a question to his scientists and thinkers, the responses are delightfully wide-ranging. The authors of this book get to mull over three adjectives–deep, elegant, and beautiful–and come up with their favorite explanation to a problem in the past or present.

Though “favorite” is a fun allowance, it’s telling how many people acknowledge the top contenders. Susan Blackmore says it in the first sentence of the first entry: “Of course it has to be Darwin.” Hot on the heels of evolution by natural selection is Watson and Crick’s DNA. So deep, elegant, and beautiful are these particular explanations that several contributors deliberately choose something else to write about, confident that their colleagues will take the obvious ones.

The book is generally organized by chunking together essays of similar topics. There’s a lot of physics, which can be a bit dense for me, though I enjoyed plenty of others, such as:

Brains and minds:

“Overlapping Solutions” by David Eagleman

“Our Bounded Rationality” by Mahzarin Banaji


“A Hot Young Earth: Unquestionably Beautiful and Stunningly Wrong” by Carl Zimmer (which gives an anti-answer through a good science story)

“Deep Time” by Alun Anderson


“Why We Feel Pressed for Time” by Elizabeth Dunn

“Dan Sperber’s Explanation of Culture” by Clay Shirky

Ideas and theories:

“How to Have a Good Idea” by Marcel Kinsbourne

“In the Beginning is the Theory” by Helena Cronin

Physical systems:

“The Gaia Hypothesis” by Scott Sampson

“The Pigeonhole Principle” by Jon Kleinberg

Fun, specific concepts:

“Birds are the Direct Descendants of Dinosaurs” by Gregory S. Paul

“Why the Greeks Painted Red People on Black Pots” by Timothy Taylor

Playfulness with the topic itself includes a poem, several entries that question the definitions or usefulness of deep, elegant, and beautiful, and others that practice the art of short writing. The challenge of conveying a large idea elegantly within a few pages goes to the heart of the project. (Katinka Matson’s piece on Occam’s Razor reads in its entirety, “Keep it simple.“)

Like the other Edge books, this collection will confirm ideas and challenge them, unravel the world or solidify it. The love of science and learning drips from the pages, and the authors stand in awe of instances when “mysteries fell like dominoes before the predictive power of a beautiful theory and its elegant explanation,” as Paul Saffo puts it. What might we be able to explain tomorrow?

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Posted by on October 24, 2014 in Essays


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The Silmarillion

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1977

I read it: October 2014


When my wife and I got matching Tolkien tattoos at the beginning of the year, I felt a bit guilty that I had never attempted to read The Silmarillion. The paperback has haunted the shelves of my childhood home for as long as I can remember; even after going through LotR numerous times and one of the Book of Lost Tales, this one sat dormant. So I finally did it.

There’s no denying what everyone suspects: this book is for Tolkien completists. There’s not really a lot to grab the reader’s attention, as the creation stories and other sagas are a bit too omniscient to make for ultimately compelling stories. The proper nouns are legion, sometimes to the detriment of mythological clarity. I gleaned that the Valar are important, and the Maiar, and that those somehow led to the Eldar, a certain race of elves. It gets fuzzy fast. A large part of the tales concern themselves with Melkor, or Morgoth, the fallen angel/Satan character of Tolkien’s world, and those sections are usually interesting. There are some other cool beasts, like huge spiders and werewolves, and plenty of grand war and romanticism. But given the distant writing style, it’s a struggle to latch onto the characters, as glorious or poetically doomed as they may be.

Things get a little more interesting toward the end, during a part called “Akallabêth” (how cool is that word?) as well as the slim final section, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” Here we get to know more about Sauron’s early days when he could still take on a human form (I can see now a little better where Stephen King’s Randall Flagg came from). Of course he tricks the men into rebelling against the gods and Elves, to their demise. There’s also specific emphasis on Mithrandir (Gandalf) and it’s fun to identify the story threads that were used to flesh out plot points in the current Hobbit movies.

There’s a lot of Old Testament going on here, in story as well as form. Evil never seems to be something housed within men’s hearts, but placed there from malevolent sources. The most intriguing parts are when men rise up to argue about their mortality, and face their options about how to deal with “the ordering of their life, such as it might be in the lands of swift death and little bliss.” As is obvious to most modern readers, Tolkien’s story is largely about quests to understand the role of humans on a grand mystical, often religious, scale.

Regardless of the effort needed, Tolkien fans ought to still find pleasure here. It’s in the yellowed pages and that distinct typeface. It’s in the smell of the book and the magical yet fallible worlds. It’s in the sheer existence of the lengthy Index and Appendix where all those creative names are listed. It’s in the bulk and breadth. It brings me back.

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Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Novels


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The House on Mango Street

Author: Sandra Cisneros

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1984

I read it: September 2014

mango street

When we held a book exchange for my birthday last year I was pleased to end up with this one, contributed by my friend Monica. I wanted to make sure to read it while I still had recent memories of Minneapolis in mind. Especially summer living, when I could sit out on the balcony and feel all the other lives tight and close on a narrow street.

In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros tells of a young girl turning into a woman in 1970s or 80s Chicago. Esperanza is not buying that the house of the title–the one her large family moves into–is the type of house they need. Instead of the glorious escape from apartment life that her parents hinted at, it’s crowded and imperfect. But the book is just as much about the second part of the title: all the characters who make up life on Mango Street.

Esperanza’s keen eye catches everyone around her, child and adult, able and infirm, most of them of Mexican origin like herself. She wonders what these lives say about her own, such as an older girl who yearns to escape, who waits for “a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.” She reflects on destiny and concludes that “I think diseases have no eyes. They pick with a dizzy finger anyone, just anyone.” Esperanza is an “anyone” in transition to becoming a “someone” and loves Mango Street only at an emotional distance. She wants it to be better, fairer, or she wants out.

The slim chapters of Cisneros’ book make for quick reading. Each vignette centers on a person, situation, or concept, often describing the games and growing pains of Esperanza and her friends. Some parts, like “Four Skinny Trees,” are elegant prose poetry. By the book’s end, our protagonist has entered puberty and is not the same girl who moved into the house on Mango Street. She is ready for something of her own: “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”

This sharp slice of young adult writing stands as a snapshot of a particular time and place in America, and is likely to remain relevant in classrooms for generations to come.

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Posted by on October 10, 2014 in Novels


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