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Sunday Salon: A new bookish adventure

sundaysalonAs we’re only a few weeks away from the end of the year, the blogosphere seems to have been very active with ‘favourite books of 2012’ articles. On my blog this week I featured two of these lists – I found them both interesting more from a perspective of what they didn’t include than what was selected.

This has been an eventful bookish week personally.  After months of inquiries that just sent me down further dead ends. I finally tracked down a book club relatively close to where I live.  There are many clubs around but they don’t advertise themselves – members join via word of mouth it seems. Our library service wanted to help but since most of the clubs are held in people’s homes, they couldn’t disclose personal phone numbers. Very frustrating. Eventually I found one based at a small independent bookshop  called Nickleby’s (which has the added advantage of course that I can browse and buy at the same time).

My first experience was on Wednesday. It was an venture into the unknown for me – I had no clue what to expect; a highly erudite discussion or a ‘Janet and John’ level of chat. It was just at the right level thanks to good preparation by the peson The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. You can see my review here. It’s fair to say this had mixed reviews – generally most people agreed it was a book of two halves but we didn’t come to an agreement on which half was the best. I got ‘persuaded’ to nominate the March read but it wasn’t easy coming up with something on the spur of the moment. In the end we settled for Posession by A. S. Byatt (selfishly, I chose it because its on my Man Booker prize reading list) ….

And in other news……

Have finally made a start on my backlog of reviews. I want to get these finished before year end and before the memory fades too much to write anything meaningful. First up was Bring Up the Bodies which won the Man Booker prize for Hilary Mantel this year which I’d read in August when it was on the long list. It’s as good, if not better than her earlier one about Cromwell (Wolf Hall).

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel #bookreview

bodiesThe year is 1535. Thomas Cromwell has put aside his lowly origins as the son of  a blacksmith and is now chief minister and leading statesman within the court of Henry VIII.  He’s fast approaching the height of his career, having found a way for Henry to extricate himself from his childless marriage and uncovered a rich source of new income for the King through sequestration of monastic lands and buildings.

Most books featuring Cromwell concentrate on his work and achievements as lawyer and statesman. What makes Hilary Mantel’s novels about this period different is the way she reveals the man behind the titles and the legislative actions. The Cromwell she shows us, first in Wolf Hall and again in her sequel, Bring up the Bodies, is a complex character. He’s an astute business man with a thriving cloth trade with Flanders derived from relationships built during his years in that country. He’s a politician par excellence, nimbly navigating the myriad jealousies and jostlings for position amongst the gentry and aristocracy that surround the King. But in Mantel’s text he is also a loving and devoted father with a touch of humanity that extends to opening his home to the poor and needy who require food. The man who manipulates young, impressionable men into confessing they committed adultery with Henry’s new queen (Anne Boleyn) is the same man who is moved to tears when he finds the angel wings his dead daughter once wore at Christmas time.


Thomas Cromwell as portrayed by Hans Holbein

It’s that duality of character that Mantel brings to center stage in Bring up the Bodies, conveying it in a third person narrative style that simultaneously has the intimacy of a first person narrator. Often those moments of character revelation come through short comments made almost en passant.

One such passage occurs when Cromwell is despatched by Henry to see the woman he divorced (Katherine of Arragon) in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Katherine is a problem that will not go away for this royal couple – she refuses to acknowledge the validity of the divorce, refuses to give allegiance to the new queen and is a focal point for Catholic plots against Henry. they need to know whether reports she is dying are true. What Cromwell sees is a shrunken figure of a woman  swaddled in an ermine fur cape.

She is jaundiced, and there is an invalid fug in the room – the faint animal scent of the furs, a vegetal stench of undrained cooking water, and the sour reek from a bowl  with which a girl hurries away: containing, he suspects the evauated contents of the dowager’s stomach.

Noticing the ermine fur coat in which she is swathed, the pragmatic side of Cromwell’s character comes to the forefront. “The king will want that back, he thinks, if she dies.’ But almost immediately the lens is changed to show his more thoughtful nature as he wonders whether Katherine’s dreams are of the gardens of the Alhambra she left as a young girl:

….the marble pavements, the bubbling of crystal water into basins, the drag of a white peacock’s tail and the scent of lemons. I could have brought her a lemon in my saddlebag, he thinks.

Four months after I closed the book, I could still remember that passage and the way Mantel shows Cromwell’s mind leap from the wizened creature he sees in front of him to a simple action he could have taken to remind her of a better life.

Moments like this abound within the novel. For that reason alone, Mantel for me deserved to win the Man Booker Prize in 2012.

Raise a glass to the Mantel and Booker judges

It’s an astonishing achievement to win a prize like the Man Booker prize once in a lifetime. To win it twice is remarkable. To win it for two books out of a trilogy  is truly extraordinary.

But when Mantel took the stage at the Guildhall to receive her prize tonight, she was the model of graciousness that Oscar winners would do well to note and learn from. She opened with a great joke:

“you wait twenty years for a Booker prize and then two come along at once.”

And then immediately paid tribute to those who had not won and thanked the people who had believed in her and helped her to bring Bring up the Bodies to print.

She knew the stakes were staked against her – only two other authors have ever won the Booker prize twice and none of them had such a short interlude between each prize. Her final comment shows that she knows the stakes only get higher now:

“I have to go away and write the third part of the trilogy.”

The judges decision shows once again why I should never take to the Black Jack tables in Vegas. I always pick the wrong one – I kept saying for the last few months that as superb as I thought Bring Up the Bodies is, I couldn’t see the judges giving it to her just because it was the second in the series and was about the same character. Just shows how wrong I could be. But for once how the right the Booker judges got it this year.

I should also thank them for enabling me to tick another Booker prize winner of my list to be read!!

Who will win this year’s Booker Prize?

According to the bookmakers, William Hill, this year’s Man Booker prize is a neck and neck race between Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies and William Self’s Umbrella. They both come in at odds of 2:1 whereas Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is the rank outsider.

But the outcome isn’t nearly as clear as those odds suggest. On the BBC’s The Culture Show last week, the panel members weren’t in agreement on which novelist deserved to win. While it was universally agreed Mantel’s book is as good as Wolf Hall with which she won three years ago, doubt was cast on whether it was appropriate to give the title to the second in a trilogy. The chairman of judges Peter Stothard, hasn’t ruled out the possibility, saying that if anything Mantel’s command of her narrative method is even stronger second time round. The panel also touted Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home  as a potential winner, along with  Umbrella and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse.

Over at the Guardian, the various contributors are unanimous in not agreeing who should win. Robert McCrum acknowledges that it will be a difficult decision – he is tipping Will Self’s Umbrella but with a side bet on  The Lighthouse. But even he admits: “I say this every year: caveat emptor. With Booker, anything goes.” His fellow Guardian contributor Nicholas Wroe however, is backing Narcopolis while Sarah Crown argues in favour of Swimming Home.

The Independent seems to be backing Moore while the Daily Mail sees Umbrella as the clear favourite because of its compelling plot even though it recognises that the book doesn’t aspire to accessibility.

Across the Atlantic, this year’s award is also attracting considerable interest. For Paul Levy at the Wall Street Journal, there is no question but the prize has to go to Mantel. It would be typically ‘boneheaded’ of the judges however to pick Umbrella simply “because it is the most difficult/experimental/tricky book on the 2012 shortlist.

….one novel is so superior that only non-literary reasons could excuse their awarding the £50,000 to one of the other five. Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies,” a sequel to her 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall,” occupies an eminence of its own.

The sole reason possible for denying Ms. Mantel the 2012 prize would be that the judges feel it is someone else’s turn to win. It would be disgraceful, but perfectly in keeping with the perverse record of Man Booker Prize judges down the years.

Since the only one I’ve read out of the six shortlisted titles, is Mantel, I don’t feel that qualified to name my own favourite. It partly depends on whether the judges want to go for readability over inventiveness I suppose. I understand the argument against selecting Mantel but isn’t it more difficult to write a second novel about the same character and to keep the same quality?

We’ll find out soon enough I suppose!

Sunday Salon: Am I a threat to literature?

This is the week when I learned that my ramblings on this blog pose a threat to literature. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, considers people like me are undermining the status of literary criticism.

Sitting in my study, happily tapping away at the keyboard, I never dreamt I was wielding so much influence. I thought I was just sharing my own personal experience and love of reading with other similarly interested people. Stothard however believes the rise of blogs is bad for readers:

…. as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.

He seems to miss the point that many bloggers don’t set them selves up to be anything other than enthusiasts. We don’t claim to have special knowledge or expertise beyond that of being the target audience for people who write and publish books. Is Stothard suggesting that readers shouldn’t share their reactions with others – so would he like to see the end of book clubs and reading circles also?  And maybe he would be happy if we stopped talking about it to work colleagues and friends over lunch? Isn’t he forgetting the fact that many books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter to name just a few) became best sellers based on word of mouth recommendations?

Here is the report on Stothard’s comments: .

And now for other news….

End of another week and I am still behind with posting reviews on some books I’ve read recently.  I did finally get to review a novel I read while on holiday – Shadow of the Wind.  But I’ve yet to post my comments on Bring up the Bodies which I finished about six weeks ago let alone Pure by Andrew Miller which I read last week and Northern Lights which I also finished. I’m also still behind on reading for the Classics Club- am only half way through North and South even though I am enjoying it so far. Better luck next week maybe.

Mantel’s Cromwell comes to BBC screens

The BBC announced yesterday that filming will begin next year on a six part series based on Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  The broadcaster has acquired the rights to the novel and the sequel Bring up the Bodies – which means they already have their eyes on another mini series further down the line.

I admit to mixed feelings about this – it’s a welcome signal that the BBC is returning to what was a core strength for many decades, producing quality drama. If they achieve the standards of their recent Hollow Crown series based on some of Shakespeare’s history plays, we will be in for a great experience.

But I can’t help feeling nervous about the project. It’s so easy to get it wrong with historical dramas especially with ones based on such a larger than life cast of characters. Judge it right and the result is mesmerising (remember the Six Wives of Henry VIII or Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth series?) but the temptation is to treat the Tudor court like some modern day version of Dynasty (I shudder at the memory of the US series The Tudors).

The other challenge is the ease with which they can translate Mantel’s imaginative approach to the screen. Cromwell’s rise to the centre of government from his humble beginnings, and his central role in one of the most colourful of periods in British history, certainly makes for a fascinating story. But what made Mantel’s novel unique is the way she tells the story from inside Cromwell’s consciousness. Without that, Wolf Hall could easily have become just another historic drama about the period. Conveying that on screen seems nigh on impossible.

But then I’m not a tv producer so can so easily be proved wrong. I hope so..

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