How does a character who relocates wild critters who have wandered too close to a human turn out to be a person of rare and admirable character? That describes Angie Anderson, the main character in Carl Hiaasen’s new book, Squeeze Me. Perhaps Angie stands out because most of the characters in Hiaasen’s book are caricatures. Hiaasen, a Florida author, is famous for creating both mayhem and humor that is recognizably Floridian. He loves Florida but he also sees that it is a wacky place and he mines it for his satirical prose. He knows how to tell good stories.
This time we find ourselves at Casa Bellicosa, a thin disguise for the winter White House. You can probably guess who has the code name Mastodon, and by association, who has the code name Mockingbird. There are secret service men and women all over the place. Mastodon and Mockingbird are getting it on, but not with each other. We also have the Potussies (POTUS + Pussies) a gaggle of old socialite club members who idolize Mastodon.
When one the Potussies disappears the wealthy ladies are sad to lose one of their own but they are also worried that there will be a scandal for their beloved POTUS. Assumptions are made which lead to the arrest of Diego, an illegal immigrant and college graduate who just found his way back to the US where he went to college. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mastodon is only too happy to whip up his cult to harass the young man in his cell in the local jail, and to even get cult members arrested so they can try to kill Diego. Sentiments are running high and Diego is in despair.
Angie Anderson has a good idea of what happened to Kiki Fitzsimmons, but the proof keeps escaping from her clutches even though the proof is dead. It’s a romp that feeds into a certain political viewpoint which may or may not be yours. If it is you will surely enjoy Hiaasen’s book, Squeeze Me. I don’t want to give away the yucky parts so this is all I can tell you. If you subscribe to the opposite political viewpoint buy the book anyway. You can always burn it on behalf of the president you love. Support writers.
Michael Hughes sent me a note asking me to read his novel Inland Intrigue so I did. I had never heard of the Inland Empire, a rather ostentatious name given to a not so ostentatious section of southern California, apparently to help market the area. The story takes place in the Inland Empire town of Riverside and all around the Inland Empire in 2006 and 2012. Tyler and his dad are on the way to the funeral of Bill Higgins, a man who was a friend of his father, a lawyer who worked for a bank called CalCoast that was into subprime housing loans. He died in a car accident. On the way David suggests that Tyler get involved with the Republican Party someday. Six years later Tyler Conway is home from college and staying with mom Linda and dad David at the upscale family home with pool and hot tub. Tyler is at loose ends about what to do with his summer so he decides to do as his Dad suggested. He gets involved in the local Republican election campaign.
Political campaigns are not exactly hotbeds of activity during the summer months but Tyler’s dad puts him in touch with the Vice Chair of Riverside County Republican Party, Seamus O’Malley. Madison, Tyler’s sister is the only Democrat in the family and she gets some heat as she comes back from Boston to work in a program called Housing Helpers which is supposed to assist those who were hurt when the housing bubble burst. Tyler figures the program is a scam. He is also not sure that his dad’s friend Bill died from natural causes. If he is doing detective work it is the lowest key detective work I have ever experienced, but he does get some answers.
Hughes spends a lot of time describing Tyler’s days which are almost as boring serving the party as they would be if he just stayed home all summer. Is the Groundhog Day pace of the book purposeful, as it really does describe political campaigning several months out from an election, or is it a flaw in plotting? Do we really want to pull into the driveway in Riverside day after day in either the Mercedes Benz E320 or the Land Cruiser and jump in the pool and then the hot tub, or take a nap and heat up a pot pie. I kept reading. I didn’t quit. Perhaps because, often enough, a day would bring one new piece of the puzzle, or one new character to catch my interest. Weekends we often went to dinner with Linda and David and Tyler where conversation seemed scarce. I also had problems with the unusual uses of the word “but” in Tyler’s thoughts and conversations. Is this a regionalism? Is it just bad grammar? Just when it started to bother me the odd usage stopped.
Highways are complex in California and knowing which ones you will take and where your exits are is very important. Is it important to include every detail of each time the ‘Benz’ or the ‘Cruiser’ hit the road? You will have to judge for yourself. However, if you need to know how to get anywhere in the Inland Empire or the route to Tyler’s sister’s place, or to a weekend convention or a photo shoot, Tyler is as good as a GPS. He tells you every highway to take, every exit and even surface street directions if necessary, and he describes the neighborhoods he is passing by. I would consider these kinds of details superfluous as they were not part of the plot, but another reader might appreciate knowing exactly where they were at all times, and it might be a California thing.
It is not easy to write books, even fiction books, so I give Hughes credit for a book that hangs together and has all the necessary elements of a story. Is it an exciting story? Is it great storytelling? I will leave that to other readers to decide. But there was intrigue of a sort and it was uncovered. I had some trouble with Tyler’s reactions to what he discovered. You will have to judge for yourself. Keep writing Michael Hughes. You’re off to a good start. And that’s how writers get better.
Given all the recent interest in a book that was required reading when I was in school, and the new TV series based on the book (which I have not seen), rereading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley seemed in order. It was shocking to find how little I remembered about the book so, good plan. The book is actually a philosophical exploration of the underpinnings of societies and it projects us into a mechanized future with universal happiness as its goal. I’m experiencing this as a sort of a mash-up because I am also reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari at the same time. Harari suggests that the only difference between homo sapiens and other animals is our ability to tell stories, our facility for generating myths that allows us to exist in collective groups greater than the 150 members of the largest groups that prevailed in previous ages. This reverberates with what Huxley writes about in Brave New World in 1931.
In the society Huxley creates, the god who is at the mythical core is Henry Ford and the model is the assembly line which was the object of both admiration and consternation among various groups. It allowed the production of all those Model A cars and Model T’s that offered the freedom of the open road and seemingly conquered the matters of distance and time. Rather than turning out one vehicle at a time the assembly line could produce dozens in a day or hundreds in a year and the production rates kept improving. So what if you applied the idea of the assembly line to human reproduction. Rather than the whole messy and often tragic process of biological birth, what if birth could be mechanized, removed from the nuclear family and moved into a factory setting. You could even produce different castes of humans depending on the way you controlled the birth environment and later the mental development. Huxley used Greek letters to indicate these castes: Alphas as the highest, Epsilons as the lowest.
We begin our tour of the “World’s State” at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. The motto of the State is “Community, Identity, Stability.” Because of the Bokanovsky Process it is possible to create infinite numbers of twins by causing branching in fertilized eggs. These groups of identical twins work very well together without pesky disagreements, and in addition to their genetic content they are mentally conditioned or programmed to enjoy their group identity and their slot in society, however high or low. Alphas and even Betas are individuals and are not ‘twinned’. Epsilons are slated for menial labor. Alphas are, within limits, thinkers.
Sexuality is key to the goals and order of this society. Toddlers are encouraged to engage in sexual play. Many groups are sterile. During naptimes subliminal conditioning is broadcast as nursery rhymes and songs that are treasured in adulthood even as they control the behaviors of the various groups. Alphas and Betas cannot reproduce but they can have as many sexual partners as they wish, although pair bonds are frowned upon. If you live in this Brave New World and you find yourself in any way troubled or unhappy there is a drug for that. Soma will restore your happiness and send you tripping off into musical, light and sexual sensations that make you happy once again, and if that doesn’t work you can really zone out, take lots of soma and take a soma holiday.
An Alpha, rumored to have experienced a chemical imbalance in his birth bottle, promises to take Lenina, a female conditioned to enjoy sexual encounters, to an area that has stayed ‘savage’. There we meet Linda, who was what Lenina is now, but was left for dead by a previous Alpha who toured the same area. Linda was pregnant and was forced to do the very thing she was conditioned to despise. She had to give birth and have the feelings that mothers have. But she had also been taught to perceive of motherhood as a relic of the past, as an unacceptable role for women. It leaves procreation to chance. This combination of biological imperative and conditioned loathing is not a recipe for good parenting. We also meet her son John who does not biologically fit into this tribe in which he has been born. This tribe worships two gods; they worship Jesus and a tribal god. John has been raised with this religious conditioning. His mother acts promiscuously within the tribe and is shunned because of it. That is part of her conditioning, as is her willingness to take the mescalin and peyote available to her as a soma substitute. John is torn. He loves his mother and he loathes her sinful behaviors and the way it spills over into the tribes’ perceptions of him.
So what happens when our Alpha takes Linda and John back to the World’s Society, the Brave New World? What happens when myths collide? This is exactly the point where Sapiens and Brave New World collide, although they were written decades apart. You can probably make some guesses about what happens but this is a book that should be read and pondered as you question societies and what you believe they should be like.
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, set in the Permian Basin town of Odessa and the oil fields that spring from it and surround it is a modern story whose themes are those recurring modern themes: male dominance and white supremacy. But this story is told by women; women who deal with a hardscrabble existence and men who are, for the most part absent. The men have not deserted them, they are working on the oil rigs and the horizontal drill sites because these jobs pay well and give hope, mostly unfounded, that the family will stockpile enough money to buy their way to a better life. It may work out for some people but tragedy stalks oil work and the climate is killer, made worse by blowing dust and methane flares. The billions of stars visible in the night skies, away from the flares, may be the only compensation Wetmore’s. characters tell us.
“We lose the men when they try to beat the trains and their pickup trucks stall on the tracks, or they get drunk and accidentally shoot themselves, or they get drunk and climb the water tower and fall ten stories to their deaths. During cutting season, when they stumble in the chute and a bull calf roars and kicks them in the heart. On fishing trips when they drown in the lake or fall asleep at the wheel on the drive home. Pile-up on the interstate, shooting at the Dixie Motel, hydrogen sulfide leak outside Gardendale.”
Gloria is 14. She is looking for excitement so she does something that she knows her mother (who she loves) will disapprove of. She allows herself to be enticed into the passenger seat of a pickup truck by an older, but handsome-in-a-beat-up-sort-of-way, man. She wakes up on the ground next to the truck somewhere out in the oil fields, raped and beaten, and lucky to be alive. That man, Dale Strickland is still asleep in the truck as she carefully sets out to find someone who can help her. It is clear that this man could kill her if he awakens and finds her. She has no shoes, we’re not even sure if she is wearing clothing. She cuts her feet on the hard caliche rock and she stops herself from falling and staying there to die by holding on to barbed wire.
When she appears on Mary Rose’s front porch, the only home in this barren land, Mary Rose is at first reluctant to answer the door. She has a young daughter and she is seven months pregnant. Of course even when she does open the door she almost wishes she didn’t. Close behind Gloria who is wounded and traumatized, the pickup truck carrying Dale Strickland turns onto her property. Mary Rose has a gun but is not sure if it is loaded. Dale Strickland knows he is in trouble and he knows how to intimidate. Robert, Mary Rose’s husband is out with his cattle, nowhere nearby. If the ambulance and the police had not arrived (called by the daughter) who can tell what horrors might have happened at that isolated house full of females.
Mary Rose’s husband always wanted her to move in to town to wait for the birth of the baby. She did not want to give up their ranch. Now it is Mary Rose who insists on a place in town and Robert who doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that she is having nightmares, that she is afraid that Strickland will come back to hurt or kill her daughter and her. She is planning to testify, to stand up for Gloria in court. There is pushback. Gloria’s last name is Ramirez. Dale Strickland grew up in small town America. He is white, a high school football player. His community writes lots of letters on his behalf and offers character references which show that they are out of touch with this incarnation of Dale Strickland, a mean meth head. Who is likely to win in court?
Mary Rose waits for her court appearance in town, on Larkspur Lane, where she eventually meets her neighbors. These women are such well-drawn characters that we feel like we live with them on Larkspur Lane – Suzanne Ledbetter, Corrine Shepard, and Debra Ann, the young girl that Ginny left behind when she lit out for places unknown. It is a world of casseroles and cigarettes, drinks and target practice, women who can’t decide if it is worthwhile to go on or just give up. Debra Ann is an abandoned child and also possibly headed for trouble.
Gloria changes her name to Glory because she can no longer stand the sound of Gloria. She slowly recovers but she has to do this without her mother, Alma, who is taken away by immigration. Her Uncle Victor takes her to a motel where they can disappear. A kind woman Glory meets in the pool at the motel finally gives her the empathy she requires. Mary Rose is getting threatening phone calls day and night to try to scare her into reconsidering her decision to testify. Elizabeth Wetmore evokes the despair of life in the Permian Basin in western Texas, she creates these women who struggle to live in what basically seems like hell on earth. There are glimmers of hope. I guess you can tell that I really loved this book. She calls this book Valentine.
Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell’s new book, ‘hooked’ into memories of things I learned to love long ago that have stayed with me all these years. I was just out of college in the years Mitchell sets his band, called Utopia Avenue, down in. If you want to invent a rock band there is not a better era than that musical era that contained so many great bands and solo artists. After all that was the age of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joanie Mitchell and Graham Nash, the Grateful Dead, Cream, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. I sat in summer-green parks and watched children chase bubbles and whiled the afternoons away listening to great music. I saw the Moody Blues in concert. I went to Woodstock. I cannot help enjoying Mitchell’s story.
He gives us great characters too. Dean Moss is the first band member we meet and he is having a very bad day. He is not playing in a band at the moment and a pick pocket rips off his rent money. He gets evicted by his cruel landlady. He left his last band, Battleship Potemkin, a poorly designed band that tried to rock out to some Communist ideology. He asks at the coffee shop where he now works if he can have an advance and he loses his job. All the while the juke box in the diner plays an ironic soundtrack. But then the day ends with an astounding piece of luck. Dean runs into Levon Frankland who has heard Dean play his bass guitar. Frankland wants to put a band together with the best musicians he has seen at the London clubs.
We meet Elf, a girl folk singer with a user boyfriend, and he isn’t using drugs, he is using Elf, who has talent and character. Griff plays a harmonica and he is also the drummer. Jason sings and plays guitar. Elf plays guitar, piano, any keyboard instrument; she writes great songs and is a singer with some recording chops already. Dean sings and writes songs and so does Jason so this band would have a deep bench. They are lucky that Levon is the manager who found them because he is honest, and the music scene was and is loaded with managers who are happy to rip-off their artists.
David Mitchell usually writes dense books that play with time and offer up symbolic doses of social commentary; books that are sometimes like a mind puzzle. This book worked a bit differently. It plays with time in the sense that Mitchell sees parallels between 2018 and 1968. If you were around in both of these times, which Mitchell was not, but I was, the time travel happens inside my mind, inspired by Mitchell’s story. The people he mentions as contemporaries of Utopia Avenue are the same people I listen to on my stereo today. Yes I still have a stereo, but it only plays CD’s. So the reverberations of this book in my own life are trippy enough, but that is an accidental effect since I don’t think the book was aimed at only old hippies. It’s difficult for me to perceive, though, how it affects a younger reader. I say take a chance. Go for it. If you’re alive, you know rock bands.
Mitchell also does that ‘horology’ thing he does. Jason’s last name is de Zoet. Jason hangs on to sanity by a thread, via a drug prescribed for him and a strange encounter on a beach. Is Knock-Knock real? Is knock-knock a joke. Is Jason schizophrenic? Jason is able to forget the battle in his head when he’s on stage but when he is not performing he keeps expecting the quarantined Knock-Knock to return at any moment. He has seen ‘Knock-Knock’ and he takes the form of an imperious oriental figure who wants Jason dead. If you have read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet then you see the connection right away. If you didn’t read it, just go with the flow. All will be explained and it will be sufficiently freaky.
When the band gets famous enough, they are offered performances in America. Mitchell is able to fit in some observations about America through the eyes of Brits who have some delusions about the USA.
“I’ve never associated America with violence,” says Elf.
“Violence is on every page of our history.” Max mops up his gazpacho soup with a crust. “Brave settlers massacring Indians. Some days we’d cheat them with worthless treaties, but mostly it was massacres. Slavery. Work for me for nothing till the day you die, or I’ll kill you now. The Civil War. We industrialized violence. We mass produced it, years before Ford. Years before the trenches of Flanders. Gettysburg! Fifty thousand deaths in a single day. The Klan. Lynchings. The Frontier. Hiroshima. The Teamsters. War! We need war like the French need cheese.” Page 424
So not quite as abstract as some of Mitchell’s other books but packed with enough material for several readings. I don’t know why he chose a band as his vehicle but it worked for me. It’s an ‘Is it real, or is it Memorex’ moment. You may not be old enough for that reference either. He still sits firmly on my ‘great writer’ list.
Lily King’s novel, Writers and Lovers is the kind of book that is so readable that it’s over before you are quite ready for it to be over. Usually books that we can’t put down are mysteries or thrillers, but this book is not in either of those genres. I suppose it would be classified as literary, but it is not at all obscure. Casey’s life is not in a good place. Her mom just died. They had a blip in their mother-daughter relationship but it got mended and they became very close. She is trying to finish writing a novel and yet she wants to cancel her appointment at a writer’s camp in Rhode Island because her grief is not the best mood for writing. And indeed, she gets almost nothing done but she does have a sexy romp with another writer, Lucas, which ends badly.
We find her, after her days at writer’s camp living in the garage of a friend of her brother, in what is so shabby and small it can hardly be called an apartment. Casey does not want to sell out. She does not want to take a job just for money because then she won’t have any time to write. But her college loans are weighing on her and we all know those lenders do not leave you alone. She is working as a waitress at Iris, a restaurant that King describes so perfectly that we know exactly where it fits in our restaurant schema; at the high end. King also brings all of the other wait staff, owners, chefs to life with deft character sketches that don’t require too much detail because we already know these people in a sense. Some of Casey’s fellow employees are miserable and some are warm and see work as a cooperative venture.
Casey’s friend Muriel is also a writer and she can see the grief and the debt weighing down on Casey’s mind. She takes her to a party where a writer named Oscar is set up in the kitchen for a book signing. She has another writer on her mind, named Silas who left town after they had one date – hard not to take that personally. She doesn’t pay attention to Oscar but he pursues her and shows up at Iris with his two lovable sons. His wife, the boy’s mom, died and he is past the main stages of his grief, looking for a new wife and a new mom for his boys. Here is another trap for Casey. First of all she doesn’t really want to be a wife and a mom, she wants to be a writer. Can she be both? But she is half in love with those two little boys. Second, Oscar is older than she is and is already a published writer with a pretty hefty ego. Is Oscar likely to be happy if she also becomes a successful published writer. And then there is that other interesting weirdo, Silas. He is back in her life and yet just as skittish. Will Casey Peabody have a nervous breakdown now that her landlord tells her the garage property is up for sale and the new chef turns mean. Quelle dilemma.
I see that I made this sound like some kind of romance novel, which it really isn’t. That’s because I’m not as good a writer as Lily King. Maybe I enjoyed this novel so much because I am currently trying to write a novel of my own. Still, worthwhile if the story line is of interest to you.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner covers a lot of ground, both culturally and politically. It is one of those novels that jumps around in time, which at first makes it seem disjointed and a bit obscure. Once we manage to focus on the characters and let them guide us through the social commentary there is great depth to the content, which is made more effective by the nonlinear presentation. If you lived through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, if you smoked pot or dropped acid, if you got caught up in the movement those psychotropic substances engendered of self-analysis, of getting rid of personal baggage, and eventually professional analysis, then you will get Lerner’s book. Perhaps you remember therapies like Reiki, Feldenkrais, Transactional analysis – “I’m OK, You’re OK, and Primal Scream therapy.
The Topeka School is a foundation that applies Freudian and other psychological methodologies to treat adolescents who stray from acceptable societal norms, or whose behaviors will short circuit future success. Even the therapists often end up analyzing each other. Kansas is an odd location for a foundation full of political liberals. The children of the resident therapists attend a school known as Bright Circle (sounds a bit cultish but is actually more a combination of hippie philosophy and southern conservatism – a mix that already builds in an element of schizophrenia). Jane is the main therapist character we follow, although she is not the key figure at the Foundation; that is the mythic Klaus. Jane is married to Jonathan and her son is Adam. Adam is relatively well-adjusted, has plenty of friends and fits in well enough that he can also buck the culture by being a debate nerd. He has a few setbacks that require parental and psychological intervention, but nothing major. What bothers his mother the most is a culture of toxic male behavior which is a rite of passage for young men in the South, even more so than in other corners of American culture. Darren is another character involved with the Foundations whose behaviors are less well adapted to the cultural experiences of schooling in America and whose trajectory contrasts with that of Adam.
The novel is actually taking place in the days of the Trump administration, although given the many flashbacks, the commentary on right-wing politics and Trumpian behavior, however insightful, is intermittent. Obviously Trump is not responsible for the manly code in Topeka that requires physical violence when another male disrespects you in any way, but Trump’s own behaviors work against therapeutic attempts to change male behavior and to help men evolve into humans who handle personal interactions in less pugilistic ways. The Foundation and the Topeka School is a clever convention that allows the author and the reader to consider modern male behavior and the reasons we are bothered by the Trump administration and to revisit therapeutic models that have been taken to the edge of obsolescence by modern pharmaceuticals. Interestingly enough in The Topeka School the Foundation leaves Kansas and moves to Texas. Why the school chooses to embed itself in places where American culture is such a mismatch to the culture of the Foundation is left for us to decide. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner was a trip, a trip worth taking.
The Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel gives us in her trilogy, and especially in this last offering, The Mirror and the Light is half real, half imagined and yet he seems entirely real. Thomas Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith who drank. Thomas never knew when his father, Walter, would turn abusive and beat him, but he was always bruised and on the verge of running away. He grew up in a situation that could have led to a harsh life and an early grave. A few relatives intervened when they could and eventually he was given a place in the kitchen of a wealthy family. Then he, in a fit of anger, killed a boy his own age who liked to bully him. He did not intend to kill him and there was never a charge resulting from his violence. But killing someone changes you.
This third book in the trilogy has Thomas in his 50’s. He has succeeded in law, in business, and he has become the closest advisor of the King, Henry VIII. Henry needed to bypass the Pope in Rome when he wanted to divorce his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, knew the sins of the Catholic Church, the usual sins of greed, gluttony, lust, and the scams involving the sale of relics and the statues that cried blood. He did not think the Catholic Church represented any true connection to God. It is the time of Martin Luther, but he is considered a heretic. Anyone who challenges the church in Rome is, by association, also considered a heretic. When Henry declares himself the head of the church in England, when he basically combines the functions of Pope and King in one body (his), Cromwell backs him up, and keeps sending emissaries into Europe to keep track of repercussions against England. Will the Catholic nations go to war against Britain. Cromwell also helps Henry break up the monasteries and nunneries and move their wealth from the church to Henry’s treasury. He also helps himself to some of the properties that become available and divvies others out to British royals and aristocrats. He is valuable to the king. He has become a very stable, organized, and talented man – and very rich.
Cromwell straddles the Catholic religion and the new religions that allow even poor people to read the Bible, now that it has been printed in every language. His mentor in his early years was Cardinal Wolsey, a Catholic who is turned out of all his houses and left, as an old man, in conditions far cruder than he is used to. Wolsey will not back the King’s divorce. He is on the way to his execution when he dies of natural causes. When Cromwell is asked to rid the King of Anne Boleyn, he sees his chance to also take down Wolsey’s enemies. He holds this grudge and takes his revenge. Killing so many courtiers though may lead to his eventual downfall.
Cromwell lives, in this third book, both in his past and in his present. Is he too distracted to make the decisions he has always made with confidence? Henry VIII is a very unstable king to serve. He imagines that he is still young and heroic, when he is actually old and portly, with a injured leg which will not heal. He looks in his mirror and he finds himself bathed in the light of earlier days (there are many mirrors in this book so full of self-reflection). He is shocked when his new wife, in a marriage that Cromwell helped arrange, cannot hide her disappointment that she will marry this old man. She is not as beautiful as Henry thought she would be. The marriage does not take and Henry blames Cromwell. He wants out.
At this critical time Cromwell has a return bout with the malaria he picked up in Italy and while he is ailing others in the council and the parliament creep in and influence the King. Cromwell is arrested and charged as a heretic who supports the church of Luther, and he is charged with treason because jealous men attest untruthfully that Cromwell wished to marry the King’s daughter Mary and place himself on the throne of England. Although Cromwell is guilty of pride and has feathered his own nest and enjoyed the advancements the King has offered, although he has his fingers in every British pie, he is not guilty, according to what records are available, of either heresy or treason. But the King is ever worried about betrayal and once he thinks you have betrayed him all your loyalty means nothing.
These books are a tour de force and I am sorry to leave the England of Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s writing alone evokes the mid 1500’s in the reign of Henry. There is an immediacy in her prose:
“The Cornish people petition to have their saints back – those downgraded in recent rulings. Without their regular feasts, the faithful are unstrung from the calendar, awash in a sea of days that are all the same. He (he is always Cromwell) thinks it might be permitted; they are ancient saints of small worship. They are scraps of paint-flaked wood or stumps of weathered stone, who say and do nothing against the king. They are not like your Beckets, whose shrines are swollen with rubies, garnets and carbuncles, as if their blood were bubbling up through the ground.”
And this is just a tiny taste. It’s a long book, but since I didn’t want to leave it, the length made me happy.
Alexander McCall Smith has written over 20 books in his series about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and each one is like a perfect little piece of Mma Potokwane’s fruit cake and a refreshing cup of tea. I am reading this particular book in the time of the novel coronavirus when a bit of Mma Romatswe’s Botswana wisdom and her solid home-grown values are a perfect antidote to the fears of contagion and social isolation.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is one of the faux families we create sometimes when we are in close contact with the same people every day, in this case Mma’s employees, and because her office is in the same building as her husband, Rra J.L.B. Matekoni’s, mechanic business, this small work-family includes her husband’s employees.
The cases that Mma Romatswe and Makutsi take on are often small family matters such as infidelity or money matters. But this time there is a matter that is somewhat more serious. Some developers want to build a hotel over what was a graveyard. Although Precious Romatswe has no desire to run for the empty seat on the Gabarone council, her strong feeling for traditional Botswana customs, and a lot of pressure from her work family sees her signing the application and running for office.
A customer at Tlokweng Motors also reveals that he was a victim in a hit and run accident in a smaller Botswana village. And Charlie, a handsome young man who turns out to be a fairly hopeless mechanic, but a somewhat lucky assistant detective finds Queenie-Queenie, who seems to be the girl of his dreams. These homey stories, and more, are surprisingly absorbing and I find that these characters have become a kind of faux family to me. If you crave a little sincerity and kindness in your day you will find it in The Colors of All the Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith. I hope the real people of Botswana have not been affected very deeply by the COVID19 virus.
Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s books are full of detail and paint a picture of life in 1500’s England. Her prose is exceptional and her descriptions are so well done that the book plays like a movie in your head.
Apparently Cromwell has not been the subject of in-depth research. Mantel brings him to life using the known to extrapolate about the unknown. She fleshes the man out. She uses fact and imagination to make him a living contemporary of Henry VIII. In this second book, we begin to understand why Cromwell was a formidable figure. Cromwell, in Wolf Hall, had been loyal to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Great men trained up younger men with promise, and Wolsey saw much promise in Cromwell. When Henry VIII wanted to set aside his first wife Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn, the Catholic Church stood in the way. Cardinal Wolsey, wealthy, learned, and powerful, represented the Catholic Church in England.
Wolsey could not approve the King’s divorce. His property was seized and he lost all his comforts, was forced to live in rougher circumstances than his advanced age could tolerate, and he died of illness before he could be executed. Cromwell happened upon a play that mocked the fall of Wolsey. This masque was described in Wolf Hall, Book 1. Cromwell happens to look behind a screen as the players shed their disguises. He makes a mental note of who is the left front paw, the right front paw, the left rear paw, and the right rear paw of the beast in the play.
In Bringing Up the Bodies, Cromwell gets his revenge. He also reveals himself as so much more than the intelligent businessman and mentor of his own domain and the friend and ally of Henry, the King. We see his dark side. Previously we understood people’s envy and incredulity that this commoner could rise so high; now we understand how Cromwell becomes an object of fear. He becomes a man to deal with cautiously. Henry is now convinced that he needs to be free of Ann Boleyn so he can marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell makes it so in horrifying fashion. I was liking Cromwell. However, he is slipping in my regard, even though I still admire his many talents.
Cromwell and the King have already found a way to make the King the head of the church of England. Now they are beginning to dismantle the holdings of the Catholic Church and transfer the wealth to the King. Cromwell is ‘way out over his skis.’ Will he fall or remain upright? People near the King are falling like flies. Cromwell might be making too many enemies. I could look up the outcome online but I want to wait and let Mantel take me there. I’m looking forward to Book 3.