Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies
Incredibly, I just got around to reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, the second installment in what will be a trilogy in April. Mantel tells the story of Harry the 8 and his break with Rome to marry Anne Boleyn. Spoiler: Anne B. dies not too long after Katherine of Aragon. Book 1 is the story of Thomas Cromwell’s ascendancy delivering what Cardinal Wolsey could not, a pretext to break with Katherine (and Rome) to marry Anne. Book 2 is the fall of Anne, again told from the perspective of Cromwell. Mantel’s sparse but lengthy writing is inspired, mostly because of the thin line she presents between Cromwell’s imagined deft thinking and expressed vocabulary. Cromwell emerges as the true modernist in the bunch, whether or not that can be supported with historic inquiry. In her postscript, however, Mantel does acknowledge that the historical scholarship on Cromwell is thin and out of date. I do like very much how he is portrayed by Mark Rylance in the BBC adaptation, which is remarkably faithful to the writing. Certainly her books are the premiere novelistic words on the subject. Book 3 lands in April 2020. Yum.
Comment on Richard Powers, The Overstory
In the middle of reading, The Overstory by Richard Powers, a beautiful, necessary, frustrating, devastating story about trees. I opened google maps and put my finger in the middle of the Central Cascade mountains. I needed to see trees. This forest in Western Washington is so precious and necessary. The program told me it would only take a bit over an hour to get to the center of the trees. I drove there, took a short hike, and made and posted a photograph.The photograph is an accurate representation of a breathtakingly beautiful place. But it’s a lie. In the foreground of that photograph is stump. There are far too many stumps in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. And there are entirely too few old trees.The entire loop that I drove, including a forest road 3000 feet up into the depth of the green, was all second growth. The area that took me three hours to drive—sometimes at 80 mph; sometimes at 30—every last mountainside, valley, and hill, no matter how steep or remote, had been clear cut. I saw no more than three trees that were over 100 years old. And, the ground away from the road on all sides was torn up and pitted from profound disturbance. I am beginning to wonder just how much old growth forest is left in this country. The book roughly follows my own environmental activism. I was stunned to see how little we were able to protect.A friend commented on an earlier version of this post that climate change is as much about the killing of trees as it is about the pumping of carbon. She is correct. Powers’ book won the Pulitzer Prize. I think everyone should read it.
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black
I really enjoyed reading Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. As far as historical fiction goes, the author presented a well-researched book of Caribbean slavery while touching in important issues of white guilt and salvation, pointing out in an eminently readable volume that much of abolitionist fervor was fired by fears of damnation of white souls rather than violence inflicted upon black bodies. Washington Black of the title has an extraordinary mind, and the novel leaves open the question of the exquisite misery of intelligence being lost to brute labor. What happens to all those extraordinary minds and those extraordinary people who are treated worse than beasts of burden? How does a thinker trapped in such misery process injustice and boredom? Although the book is very much framed by the experience of English slavery, the plight of smart women in any stratum of society is also in focus, albeit not so sharply. I had trouble putting it down.