Lake House Library

Back in September I wrote this post on curating the perfect beach house library.

Well, another month, another season and another friend’s renovation project (my friends are big into tearing down walls!) has just wrapped up.  This was a special project in that it’s a house I practically grew up in, owned by a woman who had a huge role in shaping the person I am today.  The house is completely changed – all for the better – and this friend, too, is planning to dedicate an entire room to books.  While a beach house is obviously a place for summer reading – the lake house has always made me think of Fall and changing leaves and the romance (though not the practicalities!) of a wood burning stove.

This is definitely the library for large, heavy hardcover door-stopper novels.   And knowing the tastes of the people who’ll be using it, it’s also a place where I imagine edge worn sci-fi paperbacks by Jack Vance & Fritz Leiber side-by-side with contemporary examples of narrative non-fiction.  A whole row of cookbooks and a stack of…. enough.   Let’s do this right.

  • A subscription to The New York Review of Books – perfect for Saturday morning reading between sips of coffee.

  • Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies for all the obvious reasons.
  • The Complete Annotated Short Stories of Sherlock Holmes (W.W. Norton) – They’re huge, unwieldy and don’t make for the most comfortable reading, but I’m partial to the annotated volumes in this boxed set.
  • Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Douglas Adams and that guy who wrote the Conan the Barbarian series – classic American sci-fi and fantasy.  I always feel nostalgic in the Fall.
  • Murakami – not 1Q84 so much, though I don’t rule it out of hand.  I’m thinking of his earlier books with their themes of isolation and loss.
  • I know Cloud Atlas is EVERYWHERE at the moment so I won’t insult you by recommending it. A novel by David Mitchell is perfect for this (or really any) time of year.   I wonder if they were written while the leaves changed color?  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or Black Swan Green… reader’s choice. 
  • The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series from Germany – decidedly middle-brow, but well done and a lot of fun for all that
  • I still haven’t discovered cookbooks I like better than The Canal House Cookbook series.  New books come out twice a year.  An added (and, admittedly, obvious) benefit is that you can read them while cooking up a fabulously delicious meal.
  • Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One should have a permanent spot on the table next to your favorite reading chair.  Just waiting for you to dip into on a long, cold night.  A cat and a snifter of brandy is recommended but completely optional.
  • Any book from the collection of authors born out of the imagination of the French author Antoine Volodine.  I’ll be reviewing We Monks & Soldiers by Lutz Bassmann later this week. Atmospheric and strange and more than a little bit creepy.


Do you have a favorite book for this time of year?  Something you recommend for when the nights begin to turn cold?

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Simon Vance reads Brings Up the Bodies

Was my rave review of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall sequel enough to pique you interest?  Or, interest piqued,  could you possibly be on a book-buying-ban, attempting to make a dent in that teetering TBR stack on the bedside table? Maybe you never finished Wolf Hall (which, by the way, isn’t necessary to enjoy the sequel).  Or do you think historical fiction just isn’t your thing?  *sigh* There could be 99 reasons why you might delay reading Bring Up the Bodies.

Well.  Finding the time to read ain’t one. 🙂

Macmillan Audio has released the audiobook of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies – read by none other than Simon “Golden Voice” Vance (a.k.a – Booklist’s “Voice of Choice”).  He is so delightfully and authentically British that you’ll want to pinch his cheeks and offer him a scone.

Below is an excerpt of Simon reading from the opening pages.  All you need to do is click on the link, relax and let those dulcet tones wash over you.

Audio from Bring Up The Bodies

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Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

He shakes his head. ‘You’ll live.’ He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal.  But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm.  You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs.  You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it,God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.

It’s not often a sequel surpasses the original, yet Hilary Mantel has succeeded in accomplishing just that. Bring Up the Bodies is brilliant (and, happily, a good 264 pages shorter than Wolf Hall).  It continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, describing the downfall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour.

If you know your British monarchy, you’ll find no surprises or plot twists in these pages…  this is despite the (still) unorthodox use of Thomas Cromwell as her protagonist.  Instead Mantel concentrates on immersing her readers in Henry VIII’s court; placing us, with Cromwell, at the center of the action.  As in Wolf Hall, the characters in Bring Up the Bodies are written with incredible tenderness.  The author works hard at establishing a sense of intimacy and a foundation of affection… until we feel that we know these men and women as well as our own families.  More so, even.  She creates a false sense of history by continuously referring back to events that took place in the first book.  The reader remembers with Cromwell.  His daughter, Grace, dressed up in peacock wings for Christmas. The persecution of Cardinal Wolsey.  These memories haunt him, and in turn they haunt us. There were moments in which I found myself actually missing the Cardinal  – Thomas’ master, mentor and friend – thinking of him fondly as if we’d met.  Mantel wraps her story around her readers as if it were the Queen’s ermine furs.

And, let’s be honest, what a story it is!  So much intrigue and human emotion. The Boleyns move through the narrative like a serpent, Anne its head.  This is a period when family was truly everything.  Men, and women too, fought to build dynasties.  Henry fights to secure the Tudor succession.  The Boleyns have aspirations that border on treason.  Even Cromwell focuses, with no illusions on where service to a king eventually will lead,  on building more secure futures for his son, his nephew and his people.

It’s obvious Mantel loves her characters.  Still she manages to avoid sentimentality and has written a novel filled with wicked and dry humor…. her signature.  She doesn’t waste her sentences on historically unlikely romantic fantasies.  The one man who has the  luxury to indulge in them, the King, comes off as the more ridiculous for it.   In one scene a weepy Henry embraces his 16-year old son, the illegitimate (taking him out of line for the throne) Duke of Richmond, dramatically beseeching him to pray.  ” ‘Pray for your father, pray God does not abandon me.  I have sinned, I must have.  The marriage was illicit.’  “What, this one was?’ the boy says.  ‘This one as well?’ ”  The hypocrisy of the King, like everything else, has no boundaries.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up the plot almost exactly where Wolf Hall left it. The transition is seamless, as if the author never stopped writing.   Mantel’s prose style is unusual.  Both books are, technically, narrated from the third person.  But there is an unsettling immediacy to the action. In fact the writing is constantly shifting from third into the second person – always in the present tense. It isn’t jolting and it isn’t something you would immediately pick up on.  Still, it’s there and it’s disorienting. Leaving the reader unbalanced.

…With the graces of his person and mind, he could have floated and hovered above the court and its sordid machinations, a man of refinement moving in his own sphere: commissioning translations of the ancient poets, and causing them to be published in exquisite editions.  He could have ridden pretty white horses that curvet and bow in front of ladies.  Unfortunately, he liked to quarrel and brag, intrigue and snub.  As we find him now, in his light circular room in the Martin Tower, we find him pacing, hungry for conflict, we ask ourselves, does he know why he is here?  Or is that surprise still to come?

Or, even better, in this example:

The boom of the cannon catches them unawares, shuddering across the water; you feel the jolt inside, in your bones.

Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of historical fiction, this is one of those novels that is so incredibly well written and constructed that it transcends its genre.  Personally, Anne Boleyn bores the hell out of me.  I never read The Other Boleyn Girl, avoided the film, didn’t bother with The Tudors television series.  I’m not really even sure why Anne’s become so celebrated other than as the mother of Elizabeth.  (In contrast to Catherine of Aragon, whose place she took.  Catherine was the daughter of Queen Isabella I & King Ferdinand of Spain.  Her claim to the English throne, through her mother, was stronger than the Tudor’s.  She ruled when Henry was off fighting in France, commanded her army to fight the Scots and sent the defeated Scottish King’s bloodied shirt to Henry as a token.  She was by far the better Queen, better leader and savvier politician than Anne).   And yet, in spite of my professed disinterest, I couldn’t stop reading Bring Up the Bodies.  All the buzz, the anticipation, the hype built up around this novel… it deserves every bit.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9003 1

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Wolf Hall: Parts 1-3 by Hilary Mantel

"...And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom."

Hilary Mantel has burst onto my bookshelves and claimed a spot as my new favorite author.  I purchased Wolf Hall last year from   It spent a few months on my nightstand – six hundred and fifty pages is a large time commitment and I usually save the  heftier tomes for vacations. But Vacant Possession hooked me.  Fortunately Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel is divided into six parts, which allows it to be broken down into manageable chunks.

Wolf Hall is set in the court of Henry VIII, at that pivotal moment in English history when Henry is attempting to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in order to make Anne Boleyn his queen.  The reader is an observer to the politics and machinations involved in the pleasing of a King.  That, in and of itself, would be fascinating. But what makes Wolf Hall successful and different, is Mantel’s decision to have  her narrative follow Thomas Cromwell.  It is in many ways an obvious choice – he was the Cardinal Wolsey’s man, and as such would be privy to intimate details of the negotiations with  Rome for the King’s annulment.  But he also hedged his bets.  He met with Henry on several occasions as Wolsey’s representative and performed services (such as arranging loans) for the powerful nobles closest to the King.  Thomas Cromwell was the 16th century equivalent of a  fixer.  There were very few pies baked in England that he didn’t have a finger in.

From violent and coarse beginnings Cromwell rises to the highest circles of power and influence.   That is not new information, nor is it what makes him appealing  as a main character.    As usual, it is the  personal details that draw the reader in.   He has a murky past as banker, soldier, cloth merchant and other connections only hinted at.  There is his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey – one which is based on mutual trust, loyalty and true friendship.  Cromwell’s love for his wife, family (and extended household) is also apparent, and even more compelling because of the practicality with which he tempers his emotion and affection.

Wykys stumped away after he showed him the figures.  ‘Lizzie?’ he yelled. ‘Lizzie?  Come downstairs.’

She came down.

‘You want a new husband.  Will he do?’

She stood  and looked him up and down.  ‘Well, Father.  You didn’t pick him for his looks.’  To him, her eyebrows raised, she said, ‘Do you want a wife?’

‘Should I leave you to talk it over?’ old Wykys said.  He seemed baffled: seemed to think they should sit down and write a contract there and then.

Almost, they did.  Lizzie wanted children; he wanted a wife with city contacts and some money behind her.  They were married in weeks.  Gregory arrived within the year.  Bawling, strong, one hour old, plucked from the cradle:  he kissed the infant’s fluffy skull and said, I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me.  For what’s the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?

This is a stark contrast to the romantic melodrama being played out by Katherine, Henry and Anne.  Yet, Cromwell’s feelings appear  all the more genuine because of the simplicity of  Mantel’s portrayal. The opening passages of the chapter  Make or Mar.  All Hallow’s 1529 poignantly reveal a man grieving the deaths of his loved ones to  sweating sickness.   A man whose actions and emotions read as wholly appropriate to a period of history in which there were constant reminders of human mortality.

Halloween: the world’s edge seeps and bleeds.  This is the time when the tally-keepers of Purgatory, its clerks and gaolers, listen in to the living, who are praying for the dead.

At this time of year, with their parish, he and Liz would keep vigil.  They would pray for Henry Wykys, her father; for Liz’s dead husband, Thomas Williams; for Walter Cromwell, and for distant cousins; for half-forgotten names, long-dead half-sisters and lost step-children.

Last night he kept vigil alone.  He lay awake, wishing Liz back; waiting for her to come and lie beside him.  It’s true he is at Esher with the cardinal, not at home at the Austin Friars.  But, he though, she’ll know how to find me.  She’ll look for the cardinal, drawn through the space between worlds by incense and candlelight.  Wherever the cardinal is, I will be.

At some point he must have slept.  When daylight came, the room felt so empty it was empty even of him.

One of the greatest pleasures of Wolf Hall is witnessing how Hilary Mantel has chosen to distill her historical research into a novel.  It is never overt.  There are no long explanations of wars, the historical climate or societal norms of the day.   She assumes a certain level of knowledge.  The novel is suffused with historical detail, but never does the author lower herself to pointing these details out.  They are just there.  As a reader you are expected to keep up or be left behind.

Parts 1 thru 3 of Wolf Hall chronicle Thomas Cromwell’s move to position himself advantageously in Henry VIII’s court and parliament, while still maintaining his loyalty to the out-of-favor Cardinal Wolsey.   We watch him scrabble up the class ladder to wealth and power, a journey made all the more compelling because the man who is making it appears to be neither attractive or extraordinary.     In many ways, his is the original Horatio Alger story.  Hilary Mantel succeeds in giving the reader the precise and unclouded world view of a man who (to paraphrase Tolkien) did not choose his time,  or even his circumstances, but chose what to make of the time and circumstances that were given him.

United Kingdom

Publisher:  Fourth Estate, London (2009)
ISBN:  978 0 00 723018 7

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Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel (plot spoilers)

Vacant Possession is a sequel.  Let’s start there.  It takes place ten years after the events of Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, and follows the lives of the characters introduced in the first book.  I was unaware of this until I’d finished Vacant Possession.  Nowhere on my copy does it state that the book is a sequel.  In fact, the only reference was under the author’s name.  A small line that reads:  Author of Every Day Is Mother’s Day.  I wasn’t happy to come upon that glaring omission, but it does pose an interesting experiment.  Can you enjoy a sequel when read out of order?

I didn’t initially feel as if I’d missed anything by starting in the middle of the story as it were.  Vacant Possession contains an ensemble cast of characters and Mantel does a good job of filling in a rough outline of the details from the previous book.  (Such a good job that *ahem* the reader might not even realize a prior book existed).  The story’s protagonist is Muriel Axon.  We meet her after her release from a mental hospital where she’s spent the last 10 years for murdering her mother (who arguably should have been locked away herself – which seems to have been the gist of Every Day is Mother’s Day).  Institutional life agreed with Muriel, who believes herself to be a changeling – the child of a faerie left behind to replace a stolen human child.  Muriel is described as mentally handicapped with problems relating to others, and so she learns to be “human” by taking on the personalities of those around her.  The motivation for all her actions is revenge on the small group of people she holds responsible for her mother’s death, for taking her house and for the loss of her child.  Based on her strange logic she has developed a plan that she believes will bring back her mother, restore her family home and her dead child to her.  The details of Muriel’s plan remain fuzzy throughout the book.  In the end it is left to the reader to decide whether or not she has succeeded.

It’s not giving much away to say that Muriel arrives at the place she was heading for by book end.  The puzzle is how much did her plan really have to do with getting her there?  And what, actually, has occurred?  The object of much of Muriel Axon’s malevolence is directed at one family, the Sidneys, who were there for the events of her mother’s death.   If Muriel’s intention is to ruin their lives, they’ve already done most of the work for her.  Muriel’s talent seems more in the way of moving herself into position to reap the rewards of a series of coincidences rather than setting events into motion.

And coincidences abound in Vacant Possession.  If the novel has a fault it is that the connections between its characters feel contrived, too coincidental and much too convenient for the author.  While I understand that those connections are integral to the plot, Mantel walks a fine line between masterful manipulation and the plain ridiculous.   For example, Colin Sidney’s mother and sister lived in the house behind the Axon’s.  The mother would go to seances which Old Mrs. Axon (Muriel’s mother) performed.  Colin Sidney was having an extramarital affair with the Axons’ social worker.  After Mrs.  Axon’s death and Muriel’s institutionalization, Colin moves his family into the Axon house.  10 years later the social worker’s husband impregnates Colin’s teenage daughter.  We find out that the same social worker’s father had impregnated Muriel 10 years before.  Etcetera, etc.

I feel that I should mention that Vacant Possession was described as a black comedy by British reviewers.  Personally I didn’t see it and wonder if having read Every Day is Mother’s Day would have made a difference.  The book contains funny bits, I especially enjoyed Colin’s asides, but “Savage and funny black humor at its best…”  “Filled with fiendish glee… Lie back and laugh yourself silly…” (blurbs from the cover) seem a bit much.  The novel is entertaining, the writing makes it a pleasure to read, but I can only assume that some of the jokes were lost in translation.

It’s difficult to reconcile the Hilary Mantel who wrote Wolf Hall with the author of Vacant Possession.   The two novels seem orthogonal to eachother, at least structurally .  The former an epic that fills in the spaces left between historical record, the latter a present day thriller which intentionally leaves gaps to be filled in by the readers. Vacant Possession was written in 1986, almost 25 years before her 2010 Mann Booker Prize win, and shows the skills of a mature author in terms of the quality of its writing.  Plot construction may be another story.  At no point in my reading did I want to abandon the novel, but there is an amount of suspended disbelief required to make it to the end.   Ultimately, I enjoyed it immensely because of the writing – Mantel is brilliant and her prose is a pleasure to read.  But I was also left feeling confused and that I lacked the necessary information to fill in the blanks.  The result:  I’ll be on the hunt for a copy of Every Day is Mother’s Day.  It remains yet to be seen if it will provide the answers I’m looking for.

United Kingdom

Publisher:  An Owl Book, Henry Holt & Co., New York.  (2000)
ISBN:  0 8050 6271 8

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