Wolf Hall: Surprisingly Readable

Villains are so much more engaging when they have a heart, dontchathink?

I have been ashamed for too long – Wolf Hall has had pride of place on my bookshelf for months now, and I’ve barely poked it. I only wish I had got to it sooner, because once I picked it up I could not put it down. And it seems like the perfect time to talk about it, what with the 2010 Booker shortlist having just been announced (I can’t believe Mitchell wasn’t picked)!

So then: Wolf Hall. The 2009 Booker prize winner is something of an art piece, detailing a vast account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise as the grand vizier to Henry VIII. So often the courts of Henry VIII are the subject of lusty romance fiction novels, with victimised mistresses as bawdy fruit ripe for the picking, and a particular redheaded brute who enjoys hunting, feasting, and aforesaid victimised mistresses. Don’t get me wrong, I love that bodice-ripping stuff. But it can get a little worn. Wolf Hall is of a refreshingly different breed, and Mantel is the architect of a sceptical and calculated court, seen through the beady eyes of one Thomas Cromwell.

The novel’s magic lies in the humanisation of Cromwell – his marriage is a business contract, but he comes to love his wife Liz, his boy Gregory and his two little girls. When Liz, Grace and Anne perish of the sweating sickness we don’t see the outward show of stoic, but instead are witness to Cromwell’s grieving thoughts as he makes a show of conducting his daily business. Mantel treats Cromwell’s life unequally – she is particularly attentive to his early years where his father uses him for bloodsport, and then is attentive to his later years under the majestic Cardinal Wolsey, with very little in between. Yet, this deliberate spotlighting results in a fascinating portrait of a guy whose humble beginnings helps him understand the fickleness of power when everyone around him is a glutton to it.
Cromwell’s wry disdain of mademoiselle Anne Boleyn is particularly evident – I especially love the first introduction of her:

“The lady appeared at court at the Christmas of 1521, dancing in a yellow dress. Daughter of the diplomat, Thomas Boleyn, she has been brought up since childhood in the Burgundian court at Mechelen and Brussels, and more recently in Paris, moving in Queen Claude’s train between the pretty chateax of the Loire. Now she speaks her tongue with a slight, unplaceable accent, strewing her sentences with French words when she pretends she can’t think of the English. At Shrovetide, she dances in a court masque. The ladies are costumed as Virtues, and she takes the part of Perseverence. She dances gracefully but briskly, with an amused expression on her face, a hard, impersonal touch-me-not smile. Soon she has a little trail of petty gentlemen following her; and one not so petty gentleman. The rumour spreads that she is going to marry Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s heir.”
-[Page 67, Wolf Hall.]

The rest of the book is just as impeccably written. And if you expect to see the rise AND fall of Thomas Cromwell, you will be disappointed – the curtain closes when Thomas is at the height of his power in 1535, five years before his downfall and his execution at Henry VIII’s word in 1540. To my mind it is the perfect send-off. You can’t help but feel a little uneasy, like a gypsy reader unsure of her own clairvoyance. Thomas Cromwell, in the closing of Wolf Hall appears as if he will be Henry’s beloved forever. But that’s the draw of power, isn’t it? It makes you omnipotent and thrillingly vulnerable in the same intoxicating breath.

The Utter Insanity of Book Guilt

Sigh.

Being part of the blogging community, particularly being part of the book blogging community, is a fun, informative, and – if you want it to be – a largely collaborative experience. If you’re a social internet creature with a book fetish, there is a whole plethora of groups you can join to help hone your book goals and meet likeminded people who will comment on your page, and recommend you books they think you’ll love. Oftentimes joining these groups, and regularly participating in these groups, can be a really productive thing.

Joining a book challenge is probably the most popular way to go about group participation with a common goal in mind: someone hosts the challenge on their blog page, sets the rules, and those who are interested in that particular challenge will hopefully follow those rules, maybe even post their experiences following the challenge on their own blogs. It’s a great way to feel part of the blogging community, and to knock the dusty top off your never-ending TBR pile.

One particular challenge that I thought I could handle is Wolf Hall Wednesdays. The gist of the challenge is this: Read 100 pages of Wolf Hall, weigh in with your thoughts at the hostess’ blog page, and see what everyone else thought of it in return. Once a lively and colourful discussion has been had by all, you crawl back in your hidey-hole until the next Wednesday, at which point you discuss your thoughts on a further 100 pages. In theory, this is brilliant idea with a substantial payoff to the individual– it’s like an online book club, where everyone supports everyone else in getting through a fairly chunkeriffic read that you otherwise might be too intimidated to finish on your own.

Except I haven’t really been holding up my end of the bargain.

You would perhaps think that since the internet isn’t ‘real life’ you can easily drop book challenges that you’ve committed to online without psychological repercussions. Not so, my friends. The guilt I feel is disproportionate to what I SHOULD be feeling, considering I don’t have a boss to report to on a failed deadline and the other challenge participants probably don’t give a rat’s if I contribute or not. But the guilt is definitely real. I panic as the Wednesdays roll around like the next car in a city cab rank, and I am barely past the third paragraph each and every time.

So instead of writing my discussion post on pages 300-400 of Wolf Hall and feeling some sense of accomplishment, I am here writing this warning post and wallowing in self-pity. If I could go back to my younger self when I signed up for this challenge (all of four weeks ago), I would say “Don’t do it!!” or “Do it next year instead!!” But it’s too late for me. Maybe not for you.

Like I said, book challenges are a fun way to participate in the blogosphere, and accomplish some long-held book goals. My advice for newbies, however, is: don’t bite off more than you can chew.

You’ve just gotta know when to stop, I guess.

So here’s to 400 pages of Wolf Hall to catch up on before next Wednesday. It’s gonna be a long week.

Does Size Matter?

Wolf HallUntil recently, book size wasn’t something that I noticed. If I wanted to read it, I wanted to read it. And very often the larger the book the better. After all, there’s nothing worse than finishing a good book too quickly and then finding yourself in the post-good book void.

But it’s in finding myself with fewer and fewer hours in the day to devote to reading (yep, growing up sucks) and my pile of books to read ever growing (partly due to my good fortune to be able to review books, but mostly due to my penchant for purchasing books before I’ve had time to read the ones already in the pile), that I’m starting to wonder if size does matter.

My always-spritely, avid-reader grandmother is now 93 and is starting to become frail. This year my mother’s instructions for her Christmas book present purchase was not which book she’d like but that I should select something that wasn’t—a consideration I’d never before encountered and which saddened me greatly—too heavy for her to hold up.

When I worked as a bookseller, parents desperate to get their children reading would screw up their noses at books even slightly more than wafter thin that might seem, like a mountain, insurmountable to their reluctant reader. Once one woman wanted a refund on a stack of mass market books she had bought to take on holiday because they would be ‘too heavy’ and take up ‘too much room’ in her suitcase. Why this hadn’t occurred to her when she selected, purchased, and then carried the books home, I don’t know. As someone who’d sacrifice clothes, toiletries, and underpants before I’d take out books, I was, well, a little incredulous.

But as I find myself having to choose my next book carefully, I’m starting to size up my books as much for their page length as their compelling content. I’m selecting books that I can get through quickly, in part to make myself feel as though I’m accomplishing something. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m so physically and mentally sapped that I’m flat out staying awake for more than a few pages and am unlikely to remember what happened at the beginning of the book by the time I’ve gotten to the end.

I keep telling myself that I’m saving the longer books for the holidays—say, for example, Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning tome Wolf Hall—but as a freelancer my holidays are few and far between and Wolf Hall and its counterparts are likely to sit gathering dust for some time. Which makes me wonder if every other time-poor ‘adult’ (and I use that term loosely because I’m not yet convinced that I am one) is in the same boat? Do we live by the mantra that size—specifically, the smaller the better—does matter?

For the Love of the Chunkster

Dear Readers:

I have a confession to make. It is a confession that is so monstrous, so remarkably horrid, that your view of me will forever be marred.

*Takes deep breath*

I have never read The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

[I know what you’re thinking: “and here she is, this imposter, purporting to be a FANTASY blogger, no less!”]

Before you pass too hasty a judgment, let it be known that I have watched the Peter Jackson movies and loved them to bits, over and over again. And I read The Hobbit, so really, I feel like I know Bilbo Baggins PRETTY well. It’s not the same, I know. But it’s a start.

On three separate attempts I have made it, at best, about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring. My excuse for not finishing it? It was TOO DARNED LONG. Too much valuable reading time had to be spent on the series, whereas I could read 15 or so smaller books in the same time bracket! But in my heart of hearts, I know this is a lie.
In truth, if you look at which books I love and have enjoyed the most, refusing to read a book because it is “too long” is laughable. For my very reading existence is almost completely dependent on my love for a particular type of book: for the love of the CHUNKSTER!

I define a chunkster as a book that has at least 500-600 pages, average size font.

Why do I love them? Well, there is something deliciously satisfying about reading a book that gives me the proper amount of time to immerse myself in the story, wallow about in its glorious filth. To know the characters through an intense description of a frock worn, to know a world as it is built, brick by brick around me. And, of course, I feel pretty awesome when I finish something that requires so much time and effort to get through.

Some of my fave chunksters:

Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett is a magnificent choice in the chunkster realm. To understand the passion and architectural skill of building a Gothic cathedral, while all these people’s lives are carrying on around it, is just mesmerising to me. After reading that book, I felt like I had built the church myself – ’tis a great feeling of accomplishment;
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is 1000 pages or so of mind-numbing faerie Victoriana brilliance;
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, sends me into a spin just thinking about it;
And I have just read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and been absolutely blown away by its intricate content, its romantic Sci Fi, its literary awesomeness. No wonder it won the Booker Prize.

I am also super pleased to report that the fashion of the chunkster doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere fast. The obsession with mass fantasy reads like Harry Potter and Twilight meant that each book in the series had to be larger than the last, to satisfy the starving fans. And you only have to look at 2009’s Booker shortlist to see that chunksters are still considered worthy literary reads (I’m currently digging my way through Wolf Hall with mounting enthusiasm). So, to come full circle – I don’t know why I can’t get through Lord of the Rings. I’m going to try again, mid-year, and let you know the results. As long as another chunkster doesn’t steal my attention… (here’s hoping!)

How do you feel about chunksters? To me, you’re in one of two camps: you adore the chunkster and all that it stands for, or you fear them to the depths of your soul and avoid them like the plague.

Which is it for you? Team Love? Or Team Fear?