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Archive for April, 2015

Bring Up Bodies Cover

Anne Boleyn is Queen of England now, but she and Henry have fallen out and no male heir has been produced. Her position tottering, Anne is ruthlessly lashing out at everyone around her including Thomas Cromwell. Meanwhile, King Henry’s affections have moved to on to Lady Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, and he wants Cromwell to find legal grounds to let him out of his second marriage. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Cromwell struggles to protect his friends and family and keep his head firmly attached to the rest of his body.

One of the great mysteries about Henry and Anne Boleyn’s relationship is why Anne had to die as opposed to being divorced. Mantel suggests that Cromwell was driven to trump up treason and adultery charges against her because Anne and the rest of the Boleyns would have seen him  imprisoned and executed otherwise. Certainly, one of the most chilling moments of the book for me was where Anne suggests to Cromwell that she have the gentlemen of her chamber seduce and shame the Princess Mary. In victory, Anne is neither merciful nor gracious to her opponents, especially not to the former queen and her daughter.

The sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, is, if possible, even more of a compelling read than the first book.

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Wolf Hall Book

George R. R. Martin was quoted as saying that he initially considered writing the story that would become Game of Thrones as historical fiction, but opted to change it into a fantasy saga because that way the readers wouldn’t know how the story would end. A great quote, but it illustrates one of the challenges to historical fiction writers which is how do you keep your story suspenseful and involving when your readers know what ultimately happens to the characters?

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s solution has been to focus on Thomas Cromwell, a major player historically, but often only a minor character in other historical fiction about the Tudor period. The story opens with young Thomas being beaten half to death by his drunken, abusive father, Walter, and then running away to sea. We then flash forward to the now adult Thomas, a respected lawyer and moneyman in London, and protege of Cardinal Wolsey.

Most of the action in Wolf Hall pivots around Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from favor with Cromwell first attempting to salvage his mentor’s career and then trying to avenge his death while at the same time trying to keep his own neck off the executioner’s block. Wolsey, up til then the King’s Chancellor and the most powerful man in England, falls from favor when he is unable to arrange Henry VIII’s divorce from his wife of 18 years, Katherine of Aragon. The book ends with Anne Boleyn having become queen. In between, we see the private Cromwell, losing his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness, taking care of his wards and employees, and eventually becoming a powerful patron in his own right.

I became interested in the books via the PBS adaptation of Wolf Hall
with Mark Rylance as Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn. The well-received stage play version of Wolf Hall is also enjoying a successful opening on Broadway.

One of the bigger themes of Wolf Hall is the clash between the older, static, stratified medieval world and the newer, dynamic, more open Renaissance world.  “New men” like Cromwell who have risen in the world through merit, initiative, and education are frustrated by the intransigence of “old men” like the Duke of Norfolk who continue to believe that the right family name and an ability to hunt and hawk are all the qualifications necessary to run the country.

My only quibble with the book is that the author doesn’t always make clear who’s doing the talking so sometimes the action becomes confusing.

 

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Desk Attendant Song of the Library Staff 1906

 

Head Librarian Song of the Library Staff 1906

The two delightful poems above are from Sam Walter Foss’s 1906 book, Song of the Library Staff. These particular pages (click on the image for a better view) are courtesy of the Seattle Public Library. However, you can get the whole book as a free download from the Internet Archive or Google Books.

One of the truisms about librarianship is that while the tools we work with have changed, the essential nature of the work has remained largely the same over the centuries. Anyone who has worked in the Circulation department will recognize themselves in “The Desk Attendant”. My favorite line from that poem: “the un-inspected canned beef intellect of man”. And “The Head Librarian” focuses on budget problems (“trying to fit his thousand dollars to his million dollar needs”)–tres contemporary, no?

Sam Foss was himself a librarian as well as a poet. His best known poem today is probably “The Coming American” which contains the opening line “Bring me men to match my mountains/Bring me men to match my plains”.

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Re: Bard of Gosling

Shakespearean Ryan Gosling

Oh, Ryan Gosling, you know just how to quote Shakespeare and improve our Wednesdays.

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Lord John and the Private Matter

So the recent publicity about Outlander, the series based on Diana Gabaldon’s genre-bending books, got me interested enough to take a look at the author’s home page which in turn lead me to her excellent series of historical mysteries starring Lord John Grey. Lord Grey, a British aristocrat and soldier, is a minor character in the Outlander books who, quite accidentally, has been spun off into his own series. Unlike the Outlander books which don’t fit neatly into one genre category (they are fantasy/historical fiction/romance/add genre of your choice here), the Lord John Grey series are historical mysteries. While supernatural explanations are proffered for odd happenings, the truth usually turns out to be quite prosaic and is uncovered by old-fashioned detective work.

John Grey is an upper class nobleman with a dark secret–he’s gay and being a sodomite (to use the 18th century term) in Britain at that time is a ticket to scandal at best and prison and possibly execution at worst. The most interesting parts of the books for me were the descriptions of 18th century male gay life in London.

Historical fiction is, I think, the most difficult genre to get right. The author has to balance the need to explain the customs and mindset of the past to the reader while, at the same time, allowing the characters to react naturally to the things and events around them. Historical mysteries dial everything up a notch by adding the requirements of believable crime solving to the mix. Gabaldon balances all these elements well and her Lord John Grey stories are the work of a master craftswoman.

The Lord John Grey stories are set as stand alones and are told in a mix of short stories, novels, and novellas. You can start with the first story in the series–“Lord John and the Hellfire Club”–or you can start where I did which is “Lord John and the Private Matter”. My favorite story is “Lord John and the Succubus” just because it deals with Germany. Here’s a listing of the stories in order. “The Custom of the Army” and “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” are published in the Outlander collection Trail of Fire.

I highly recommend the Lord John Grey series to anyone who enjoys a good historical mystery.

 

 

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Saw what I took to be raindrops splattering down on the steps of the library so I ran outside all excited to see the first rain of the season. Sadly, the first rain turned out to be hail the size of Dippin’ Dots (as my colleague, Karen, put it).

Yeah, I got spring fever. Why do you ask?

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