Six Degrees of Separation from The Poisonwood Bible to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite books. I’ve read it several times.

The Poisonwood Bible

Told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

I bought The Poisonwood Bible in Gatwick airport bookshop just before boarding a plane to go on holiday. So my first link in the chain is to another book I bought in an another airport bookshop waiting to board another plane:

Fortune's Rocks

It’s Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve. I had never heard of Anita Shreve, but I liked the look of this book – and the fact that it’s a chunky book of nearly 600 pages, good to read on holiday. It’s set in the summer of 1899 when Olympia Biddeford and her parents are on holiday at the family’s vacation home in Fortune’s Rocks, a coastal resort in New Hampshire. She is fifteen years old and this is the story of her love affair with an older man.

When I looked at it today, I saw that it’s written in the present tense. Recently I’ve been writing about my dislike of the present tense – but I obviously haven’t always disliked it, because I remember really enjoying this book.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

Another book written in the present tense that I loved is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and his political rise, set against the background of Henry VIII’s England and his struggle with the Pope over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, which takes me to my next link, another book set in the reign of Henry VIII –

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)

Lamentation by C J Sansom set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. It evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension.

Barnaby Rudge

The next book also combines historical and crime fiction – Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, set in 1780 at the time of the Gordon Riots.  It’s a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution.

Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip.

Ravens form the next link-

The Raven's Head

to The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, set in 1224 in France and England about Vincent, an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. He attempts blackmail but when this fails Vincent goes on the run in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head. The plot revolves around the practice of alchemy – the search for a way to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as the way to find the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

And finally to the last link in this chain another book featuring alchemy –

Crucible (Alexander Seaton, #3)

Crucible by S G MacLean, the third of her Alexander Seaton books. Set in 1631 in Aberdeen Robert Sim, a librarian is killed. Alexander investigates his murder and finds, amongst the library books, works on alchemy and hermetics – the pursuit of ancient knowledge and the quest for ‘a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients’ since lost to us. S G MacLean’s books are full of atmosphere. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, and the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions.

My chain this month has travelled from Africa to Scotland via America and England, and spans the years from the 13th century to the mid 20th century. It has followed a missionary and his family, a teenager in love with an older man, and looked in on power struggles in Tudor England, and the pursuit of the secret to turn metal into gold.

Links are: books I bought to read on holiday, books in the present tense, crime fiction and historical fiction (and a combination of these genres), ravens and alchemy.

Next month  (June 2, 2018), we’ll begin with  Malcolm Gladwell’s debut (and best seller), The Tipping Point, a book and author I’ve never come across before.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Final Thoughts

I began reading Wolf Hall last year and at first I found it hard to get interested in it. For one thing it’s written in the present tense and that usually jars with me and then it’s so physically big and heavy. So I put it to one side whilst we moved house, only going back to it recently.

I’ve referred to the book in a few posts including one on a small extract containing the word waffeting and one on my thoughts as I was reading it. Now I’ve finished it I can reflect on it as a whole. Overall, despite being written in the present tense and despite the over-frequent and confusing use of the pronoun ‘he’, I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not the best one. It is satisfying in depth and breadth, with a host of characters and detail.

It is, of course the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and his political rise, set against the background of Henry VIII’s England and his struggle with the Pope over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. It’s a brutal time. What I found most enjoyable was the way this book transported me back to that time, with Mantel’s descriptions of the pageantry, the people, the places and the beliefs and attitudes of the protagonists. My knowledge of the period has been built up over time, from history lessons at school, films, books and TV series and it all seemed secondhand. In this book you are there in the thick of it all. Here, Thomas More is not the saint I thought he was from watching ‘A Man for All Seasons’, Anne Boleyn is a coy, flat-chested, manipulator and schemer and Thomas Cromwell is not the hard hearted, cold and stern character I’d read about before, but is humane, kind and considerate, taking care of his family whilst weaving his way through the intricacies of court life. He is hardworking, generous and cultured. But he is tough and ruthless too. Here Chapuys, the French ambassador is talking to Cromwell after Anne’s coronation:

‘Well, you have succeeded where the cardinal failed, Henry has what he wants at last. I say to my master, who is capable of looking at these things impartially, it’s a pity from Henry’s point of view that he did not take up Cromwell years ago. His affairs would have gone on much better. … When the cardinal came to a closed door he would flatter – oh beautiful yielding door! Then he would try tricking it open. And you are just the same, just the same.’ He pours himself some of the duke’s present. ‘But in the last resort, you just kick it in.’ (page 465)

The descriptions of Cromwell’s house, Austin Friars, and his family brings it all to life, the reality of the daily lives of ordinary people as well as of the court. I wondered about Austin Friars, whether it still exists and found an article by Mantel in the Timesonline where she writes:

Very near the Bank of England, at the foot of the glass cliff of Tower 42, there is a secret city garden that now belongs to Draper’s Hall. A plaque on the wall says: ‘On this site, once part of the Augustinian Priory, Thomas Cromwell built his palace and in 1536 plotted the downfall of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII.

“Palace’ is perhaps an inflation. The building at Austin Friars was an opulent merchant’s house, which from 1530 accreted new wings, storerooms, strongrooms, and tighter and tighter security. It was a powerhouse of Tudor politics, and over a decade, its master became one of the richest and most powerful men in England: councillor and secretary to the king, Master of the Rolls, Lord Privy Seal and eventually Earl of Essex. Austin Friars was not a quiet spot. Twice a day, 200 of London’s poor swarmed to the gate to be fed by the great man’s kitchen.

I’m still a bit puzzled about the title – why Wolf Hall, when Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymour family hardly figures at all in the book. It could be that it is symbolic of the times, when ‘man is wolf to man’ (page 572).  The Seymour family is a seemingly of little significance, sneered at by Anne as ‘those sinners at Wolf Hall.’  But there are tantalising glimpses of Jane Seymour at the court, ‘ a little pale girl … the sickly milk-faced creeper’ who Anne calls ‘Milksop‘ and thinks no one will ever want, let alone Henry! The future is signalled as the book ends, with Cromwell’s intention to visit Wolf Hall.

As well as being shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Wolf Hall is also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

I hope it’s not too long before her second book on Cromwell is published, taking his story up to his execution in 1540 .

Sunday Salon – Recent, Current and Future Reading

I keep a record of the books I read but it’s meaningless to think of them in terms of how many I read because that depends not only on their length but also on the nature and complexity of the books.  I’ve read three books so far this month:

But that is no indication at all of the amount of reading I’ve been doing. And this is mainly because one of the books I’m currently reading and have been reading for a while is the massive Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m nearing the end now with just under 150 pages left to read. I read this morning that Henry has married Anne Boleyn, she has had her coronation and given birth to Elizabeth. Henry, of course, wanted a son and I wondered as I read this whether the words Mantel puts in his mouth were from a contemporary source or were her own in the light of her knowledge of future events. Henry is striding about the palace at Greenwich:

We are young enough, he says, and next time it will be a boy. One day we will make a great marriage for her. Believe me, God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess (my own emphasis). (page 485).

The other book I’m reading is The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison. I’m torn between wanting to finish it and taking it slowly just because it’s so good. It’s very easy to read (it’s not written in the present tense, which helps enormously) and I could gallop through it at top speed, so different from Wolf Hall, where I sometimes have to flip back a few pages and re-read them to make sure I know what’s going on. The characters in The Very Thought of You are clearly delineated and I don’t have to wonder ‘now who is that?’  as I do in Wolf Hall – thank goodness that book has a Cast of Characters at the front and two family trees as well.

The Very Thought of You begins in 1939 and as I’m reading I’m becoming very aware that I know very little about that time or about the Second World War as a whole. I’ve been meaning to find out more and a while ago I bought Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner, to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge, so I keep dipping in to that as I read. It looks as though Alison has done her research well.

As for the books I have coming up next to read, I want to get back to reading more Agatha Christie – Death on the Nile for example and  also Set in Darkness, the next Rebus book in my reading of Ian Rankin’s series. But before that I have some review books to read. The vast majority of the books I read are my own or borrowed from the library or friends and family, but every now and then I receive books from publishers. At the moment I have three I haven’t read yet, although I have read the beginning of each one:

There is one more book that I’d love to read right now and that is The Border Line by Eric Robson (a library book). Robson is a broadcaster and he wrote this book about walking the modern border line between England and Scotland from the Solway Firth to Berwick-on-Tweed. It’s a mixture of history and anecdotes with descriptions of the landscape – the cairns, castles, battlefields and boundary stones along the way. This is the area we spent much time in last year when we were looking for a place to move to in the Borders and where we now live.

Sunday Salon

Today I’ve been reading more from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and I’m now almost at the halfway stage. At times I’m loving it and at times I’m thinking why, oh why is she writing this in the present tense? See, it’s getting to me – I’m not overly fond of books in the present tense. And why does she keep using ‘he’ and I’m not sure which ‘he’ she means? Sometimes it’s Thomas Cromwell, but it could be any number of other ‘he’s’ too. But on the whole she’s winning me over and I have to keep on reading. What a character this man Cromwell is, a man who Cardinal Wolsey describes as:

… 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. (page 86)

Cromwell knows that

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook … (page 60)

I didn’t expect Wolf Hall to be relevant to the current state of affairs and yet it’s about power, who holds the purse strings, who can command. People, then as now, want change, always hoping for something better. I read this as the present election campaign was in flow with the politicians’ slogans ‘Vote for Change’ and ‘Change that Works for You’. Just see what Geroge Cavendish thought in 1529

‘But what do they get by the change? ‘ Cavendish persists. ‘One dog sated with meat is replaced by a hungier dog who bites nearer the bone. Out goes the man grown fat with honour, and in comes a hungry and a lean man.’ (page 55)

Talking about elections, Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to be ‘elected’ was rather different from today’s methods.  His constituency was Taunton which he held with the agreement of the king and the Duke of Norfolk because seats in the House of Commons were

…  largely, in the gift of the lords; of lords, bishops, the king himself. A scanty handful of electors, if pressured from above, usually do as they’re told. (page 161)

Well, at least that is different these days.

Wolf Hall engages me on different levels – it’s historical fiction of period I used to know well and as I read it all comes back to me – Henry VIII’s wives and all that. It’s also made me think about writing styles and what I’m comfortable reading. It’s a dense book, one that you have to take your time reading and it helps if you know the history because nothing happens quickly in this book, which is full of description and lots of characters. I’m not finding a page-tuner but a fascinating study in particular of Thomas Cromwell.

Wolf Hall is a long book, and I need to vary my reading. I’m also at the beginning of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, very different from Wolf Hall and also listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Moving forward 400 years from Tudor England to Britain in the 20th century on the brink of war with Germany is quite a leap, but it still feels like historical fiction. The Very Thought of You begins with Anna’s evacuation from London in September 1939 to Ashton Park, a large Yorkshire estate. This is the calm before the storm.

It’s a very different style from Wolf Hall and I’m enjoying the contrast. So far, it has a warm, family feel about it, yet connected to world events with the parallel activity in Poland as Hitler invaded. The British ambassador in Warsaw, Sir Clifford Norton, watched the city burn and abandoned the embassy as the Nazis and the Soviets invaded.

I don’t envy the Orange Prize judges their task – how do you compare such different books?

Wednesday’s Wondrous Word

I have just one wondrous word this week –  ‘waffeting’.

It’s from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. In 1529, Cardinal Wolsey has been ordered to go straight to the Tower of London, but he decides to go to Esher. His barge has arrived:

When they get out to the cardinal’s barge his flags are flying: the Tudor rose, the Cornish choughs. Cavendish says, wide-eyed, ‘Look at all these little boats, waffeting up and down.’ For a moment, the cardinal thinks the Londoners have turned out to wish him well. But as he enters the barge, there are sounds of hooting and booing from the boats; spectators crowd the bank, and though the cardinal’s men keep them  back, their intent is clear. When the oars begin to row upstream, and not downstream to the Tower, there are groans and shouted threats. (page 54)

It didn’t strike me straight away that I didn’t know what waffeting means because this paragraph paints such a vivid picture of the spectacle of the barge on the Thames, with the sight of the boats and the threatening sounds of crowd. I thought waffeting must mean something such as the movement of the boats jostled together and bobbing up and down on the river.

I can’t find the word in any of my dictionaries or in any of the online dictionaries I’ve checked. The closest I could find are the verbs waff,  which means to wave, flap, flutter, and waft, which means to float, sail pass through the air.  The noun waftage is the act of wafting or waving, derived from wafter meaning a convoying vessel, probably derived from Low German or Dutch.

Interestingly (at least I think it is) waffeting is the word George Cavendish, who was Wolsey’s gentleman usher and later his biographer used to describe the scene:

 He was ordered to retire to Esher; and, “at the taking of his barge,” Cavendish saw no less than a thousand boats full of men and women of the city of London, “waffeting up and down in Thames,” to see him sent, as they expected, to the Tower.” (from Cavendish, Life of Wolsey p251) quoted in Froude’s History of England: The Reign of Henry VIII Volume I (page 125 ref: footnote 214) (first published in 1909).

Hilary Mantel doesn’t give a bibliography of sources for Wolf Hall, but in an Author’s Note she refers to George Cavendish’s book ‘Thomas Wolsey, late Cardinal, in his Life and Death’ which he began to write in 1554 when Mary came to the throne. It took him four years to complete. She writes that it is ‘ a very touching, immediate and readable account of Wolsey’s career and Thomas Cromwell’s part in it. It’s influence on shakespeare is clear.’ (page 651)

I think waffeting is such a good word and gives a contemporary and authentic description of the scene.

For more Wondrous Words go to Bermudaonion’s Weblog.