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Three recommended books

Posted on April 2, 2010

As a long time lover of fiction and also of history, I have found myself going back and forth between the two genres in my reading pile.  While history helps us understandthe past, novels oftentime capture the feel of those times better than history texts.  Historical fiction brings the two together and I have recently read a terrific work of historical fiction that I highly recommend.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.  The 2009 novel won Britain’s prestigious (if sometimes quirky) Man Booker Prize and is a sprawling 539 page dive into the court of Henry VIII, focusing on the often maligned Thomas Cromwell.  For a tale peopled with such “big” characters as Henry, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Moore, Cardinal Wolsey, and others, it is a surprisingly intimate  story and some of my favorite scenes are grounded in Cromwell’s domestic life.  It is there that we come to love him as a character and a man, though it is his strength, will power, competence, and wile that drive him to prominence.  The book reads with a very modern perspective, in part because of Cromwell’s modernizing ethos around class, religion, business, and politics, but also because of Mantel’s own sensibilities as an author — what she thinks is important for us to know.

It’s hard not to think that contemporary questions around torture and politics, idealism versus pragmatism, and gender and power don’t color her narrative, though that may simply be a function of the novel’s breadth and the ability to find one’s own interests manifested somewhere in a book and a time that touches upon so many themes.   I’m eager to learn more about Cromwell.  He was much maligned in early Tudor histories and juxtaposed against the saintly (literally and figuratively) Thomas More.  In Mantel’s account, More comes across as an intolerant ideologue, a little too good at torturing heretics and too self-absorbed in his own purity and martyrdom.  He brings to  mind Muslim and Christian fundamentalists in our own time and the English rabble that turn up when someone is burned at the stake have all the charm of the recent Tea Party extremists who hurled racial taunts at Black  congressman and homophobic comments at Barney Frank.  Like the best histoircal novels, Wolf Hall invites us into a time long past and, at the same time, provides a lens on our own period, tomorrow’s history.

In all events, it’s been a long time since I stayed up near 2 AM to finish a novel I just couldn’t put down. 

The other two historical works I have recently completed are by Erik Larson: Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck.  Actually, these are both histories that read like novels or historical fiction.  Both explore turn-of-the-century events that speak to dawning modernity — the Chicago World’s Fair of  1893 and the invention of wireless telegraph respectively — interwoven with true-life crime stories.  In Devil in the White City, a disturbingly psychotic serial killer named H.H. Holmes murders in a way that puts Hannibel Lector to shame, and in Thunderstruck, a mousy homeopathic doctor named Hawley Crippin eventually eviscerates his domineering wife.  The crime stories intertwine with the larger historical tales and the latter march across the stage scores of people who loom large in our historical memory, but with a sense of detail and intimacy (that word again) that makes them far more three-dimensional than their mythic status usually allows.  Devil in the White Cityis the better of the two, but both are immensely satisfying page turners that will often surprise and thrill.  How often is that said of history?

One thought on “Three recommended books

  1. Kevin Bell says:

    Paul – given the above, you may like this book – called Credo (UK) published in the US as The Sword and the Miracle.

    The author Melvyn Bragg (no relation) mapped from the period of legend – King Arthur etc. in the UK, through to the first documented histories written in the late 600-700’s by “the Venerable Bede” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bede
    all based around Northumbria (Northern England)…

    I found it an engaging / light-ish read – available on book sites for next to nothing – not sure if they have it for the i-Pad yet!


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