Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

One might be forgiven for wondering whether the world really needed another work of historical fiction on the subject of Henry VIII and any of his wives.  At a certain point, one has had enough of the Boleyn sisters.  Mantel, however, approaches the subject from a less romantic, but more interesting, point of view, that of Thomas Cromwell, secretary to Cardinal Wolsey and advisor to the king.  Wolf Hall, with the exception of a brief chapter relating to Cromwell's youth, covers the years of Henry's struggle to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and most of his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  It is quite a sympathetic portrait of a man who is oft-maligned, but whose administrative genius and reformist accomplishments cannot be doubted.  Those whose knowledge of Cromwell and Thomas More is confined to A Man for All Seasons may be surprised to find quite a different view of the two here.  This period of English history was one of great change.  It was a period of reformation, both religious and political, and Cromwell was at the center of events.   As he delicately weaves his way along the path to power, evading dangers at every turn, Mantel's Cromwell also reveals himself to be a generous man, a patron of the arts (particularly Hans Holbein), a financial whiz, a clever and detail-oriented politician, but one who always has his country's interests at heart, as well as his own.  At bottom, he loves England and he serves his king.

According to my Encyclopedia Britannica, "[i]f he had a private life, nothing is known of it."  That isn't quite true.  We know, for instance, whom he married, and that his wife and two daughters died, apparently of the "sweating sickness", within a short time of each other, and that he had a son, who married Jane Seymour's sister.  But that's the bare bones.  Nevertheless, Mantel has imagined for Cromwell a very rich private life indeed, and she manages to make it ring true to what we do know of his history.

Mantel writes beautifully, for the most part.  Her dialogue is natural, and she has a fine eye for description ("gentlemen . . . wearing their fallen-fruit silks of mulberry, gold and plum").  My one quibble is that she generally uses "he" in place of "Cromwell", so that it is often difficult to know to whom she is referring, particularly when she is narrating conversations among multiple speakers.  However, once one gets used to this quirk, all is well.

Suggested further reading:
Letters of Henry Viii, 1526-29: Extracts from the Calendar of State Papers of Henry Viii

The Lisle Letters: An Abridgement (The Lisles are several times referred to in Mantel's novel.  I won't suggest you read all six volumes!)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Luka and the Fire of Life

Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie

In the city of Kahani, in the land of Alifbay, lived the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, his wife, Soraya, and their two sons, Haroun and Luka.   One day, the great circus called the Great Rings of Fire came to town.  When the circus parade came by, and Luka saw the sad, mistreated animals, he cursed the Ringmaster, Captain Aag, and the animals stopped obeying and the fires burned the tents.  So into the life of Luka came the dog, Bear, and the bear, Dog, from the circus. 

Then into Luka's life came sadness, because Captain Aag took his revenge, and the storyteller, Rashid Khalifa fell ill and was like to die.  One early morning, Luka saw his father in the yard, but wait!  It was not his father, but his father's death, come to claim him.   But, as in all good fairy tales, Luka made a deal with death, also called Nobodaddy, and Luka, Nobodaddy, the dog called Bear and the bear called Dog go on a quest to steal the Fire of Life in the World of Magic.

You will find in the story of Luka's quest reminders of the thousand and one nights and of video games.  Rushdie has immense fun with puns and wordplay, and you will, too!  Here in this world we find the old gods, from Greece and Sumer and Egypt and all the world, flying carpets and Fire Bugs.  Nothing is what it seems, allegiances shift, and Luka and his companions must ever be on the alert, gathering and losing and regaining lives as they move on from level to level.  Luka's love for his father causes him to defy Time, to risk his own life, and to conquer his fears. 

If you haven't read Haroun and the Sea of Stories,  don't worry.  It's not necessary to have read that book to enjoy this one.  But those who have read and loved the story of Luka's older brother will surely not want to miss the saga of the younger sibling.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book sales and bookstores

Book Sale

Every year on Columbus Day weekend, there is a huge book sale in my neighborhood.  It's held outside, in the courtyard of a small local shopping center, so the weather, which can be problematic in Chicago in mid-October, is always a concern.  This year, it was absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as though summer had made a brief reappearance to remind us of what we are going to miss in the coming months.  It was sunny and the temperature reached the mid-'80s!  Perfect for browsing books outside.

The sale lasts three days, and the final day is "$4 bag, $5 box" day.  I skipped the first day, but wandered by on Sunday (well, I did have other errands in stores in the shopping center!), and bought just a few books, including a couple to take to Casa Italiana for their library.  Then I went back yesterday with a large tote bag, and stuffed it with another couple of dozen.  The books ranged from nature writing (This Incomperable Lande) and history (Agony at Easter: The 1916 Irish Uprising) to short stories collections, biography, law and illuminated manuscripts.

A good time was had by all, and money raised for the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, a worthy organization.


This is the "claustrophobic basement" that some people claim constitutes "part of the charm" of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.  Now, I like quirkiness as much as the next person, and it is rather fun to wander in and out of the narrow passageways and hidden rooms of this store that is housed in the basement of what is now the Chicago Theological Seminary (hence, the store's name).

However, it's also down a steepish flight of stairs, which means it's not easily accessible to the handicapped, and those narrow passageways can be a bit of pain at times.  Now that the CTS is being converted to the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, the bookstore is moving.   It's going to first floor and basement space, that will be designed by well-known Chicago architects Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry, in a University-owned building one block away from its current location, and next door to Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House (below).

The architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune did an article about the move, and one commenter (the same one whose remarks about the "charm" of the place I quote above) suggested that a one-block move "will make it much more difficult to draw customers". Well, if people are too lazy to walk one more block to what has been called one of the best academic bookstores in the world, then they are too lazy to be University of Chicago students.  Bookstore manager Jack Cella sent a letter to members (of which I am one, as are architect Tigerman and the President of the United States) in which he states:  The new store will have windows (imagine that!), will be completely accessible, and will have operational temperature and air circulation controls.   How is this bad?  Cella also says "We may bring a pipe along for the occasional customer who feels nostalgic for a place to bump his or her head."  I hope that satisfies the commenter.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Art Book Swap

Today, there was an art book swap at the Ryerson Library of the Art Institute of Chicago.  It was sponsored by Regency Arts Press Ltd., and the New Art Dealers Alliance.   People brought art-related books, and swapped on a one-for-one basis for books brought by others, as well as books donated by various organizations (there were a number obviously donated by the AIOC itself). 

Now, my plan was to bring my half-dozen books, but be restrained and take fewer than I brought.  Ha!  You can imagine how that turned out!   Not only did I take home the same number, but they were bigger.  In fact, if I hadn't been limited to that one-for-one basis, I'd have picked up a few more.  As it was, I had a pile of six, and kept saying, "Hmm, this looks good, too.  Which of this pile should I not take?"  And so forth.  So no bookshelf space has been saved.  Au contraire. 

But it's not my fault there was this big, gorgeous slipcased book of albums and illuminated manuscripts from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul!  Or a very cool book of vertically aligned photographs of New York City, called, appropriately enough, New York Vertical.  I picked up a biography of Peggy Guggenheim; a book of photos of Paris by Eugène Atget; Barbaralee Diamonstein's Remaking America: New Uses, Old Places, about the conversion of old and historic buildings to new uses; and Chez Elle, Chez Lui: At Home in 18th-Century France, a catalogue of 18th-century French paintings that show home life in that time and place.

Altogether, a nice little haul!

I asked the staff if they were going to do this on a regular basis, and they said they thought perhaps every other year.  They'd had a lot of positive feedback, and I'm not surprised.  There were several tables of books, and quite a variety of subjects, ranging from classical Greek art, through the Renaissance, to contemporary art, from paintings to glass to architecture, monographs and catalogues  --  something for everyone!