Bring Up The Bodies

Historical fiction devotees, take note: this and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, set the bar high with an in-depth look at the life of Thomas Cromwell, written in a wholly readable and digestible tone. “Bring Up the Bodies” is the cry from the Tower of London whenever the accused prisoners are to have their day in court. In this book, we see the downfall of Anne Boleyn, the further tightening of Cromwell’s hold on power, the king’s infatuation with Jane Seymour. The king suffers a jousting accident and loses consciousness for some time, during which everyone believes he is dead and people’s true colors come out, Howard shouting, “me, me, me” as if he is the true successor. This incident sharpens Cromwell’s vision of the future and he soon begins to round up witnesses to testify to Anne’s adultery. In addition to the servant boy, Mark’s, testimony, he ropes up the four men who had enjoyed a starring role in re-enacting Cromwell’s hero (the cardinal)’s death at a pageant for the public. As he takes them down, he notes left-forepaw, right-forepaw, etc, according to their place under the beast costume. With this book, Cromwell is at the height of his power. Mantel has planned a trilogy, so the next will be the dramatic fall from grace.

Pavilion of Women

Tremendous book which I gobbled down greedily. On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu gets a concubine for her husband and frees herself from having to sleep with him, moving into new rooms in the estate, paying attention to her own needs, reading books all day and continuing to manage the household affairs. Slowly and carefully, she begins to know herself, especially after the tutelage of her third son exposes her to dialog with his teacher, Andre. Brother Andre is a giant foreigner, hairy, wise beyond words. After her son leaves, Madame Wu continues to employ Andre, as a tutor for her son’s wife, with most of the teaching going above Rulan’s head. The concubine is troubled, attempts to hang herself, has an early delivery of a daughter. Master Wu falls in love with a flower girl whom Madame Wu folds into the household. Andre is attacked by a gang of hooligans, and later dies after sending for Madame Wu and telling her to continue his work. She scoops up the dozens of children he’s been sheltering, and adds them to her household, housing them in an unused temple in a court of the estate. Her wisdom grows after Andre’s death, she lives for everyone instead of just herself. The pacing was a steady stream, then a hurricane of activity leading up to Andre’s death, and then slowly winds back down to a more calming pace. Andre lives on in Madame Wu and her son’s thoughts and actions.

My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain

Weird book, didn’t like it. Let’s just start with the title– the random capitalization of “Is” but not “in the”. The possessive of plural “fathers”. This, from the Spanish “El espíritu de mis padres sigue subiendo en la lluvia” which does not have the bizarre cap or make one’s grammatical eyes bleed a bit. Secondly, the numbering in Part I, so heavy-handed, he’s lost his memories to the drug haze he’s in, so sections go missing (skip from section 2 to 4, 7 to 9, etc.) – not a good sign for me when the structure of a book arouses more interest than the content itself.
Summation of the plot: writer living on sofas in a German city has no real memories of that time due to a drug he’s been prescribed by a shrink. Dad falls ill back in Argentina, he flies home, discovers he has lots of memories of his family. Finds a file in his dad’s office tracing the mysterious disappearance of a man, and then the man’s death, finding that the man was related to a woman that his dad helped convert to the Cause in the 70s.
Not sure what the hubbub is about this book, it was quite boring, almost a coloring book for post modernism, just fill in the drawing with words and you’re good to go.
Translated by Mara Faye Lethem, sister to the more famous Jonathan.

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

I can feel the eyes of Thomas Cromwell creeping up on me, ever vigilant, watchful, weighing. Diving into these 600+ pages, I found myself in the 1500s, watching Cromwell struggle with his father’s fists and abuse, finally escaping the country at fifteen to make his own way, then seeing his rise to power at the hem of Cardinal Wolsey from whom he learns how to say soothing phrases while gripping throats tightly. Cromwell makes himself indispensable to Anne Boleyn and Henry (VIII), acquiring power slowly, putting people in his debt for favors, skillfully maneuvering the state towards a break with the Church in Rome. Written in a very modern tone, it doesn’t feel anachronistic, but keeps the story alive, you’re inside Cromwell’s thoughts. The ever-present “he” is Cromwell in the story. His spies in every corner, he finally puts Thomas More in the Tower, then executes him for his unwillingness to swear the oath that the king is head of the church. His son and various wards all married off, we see him at the end of the book with five days that he’ll spend in Wolf Hall with the Seymours, his fondness for Jane growing. Enjoyable to see him rein himself in, his wild thoughts or tendency to laugh stifled while he “arranged his face.” Also great sections with Hans Holbein painting both More and Cromwell, I sat reading under a postcard from the Frick of the wonderful Thomas More painting, then had to search up an internet picture of the companion portrait, that of Cromwell, that sits across from the More painting in New York. Terrific historical fiction; I’ve already ordered up book two from the library so I don’t miss a beat of the action!
112013_portrait-of-thomas-cromwell

Modes of Creativity: Philosophical Perspectives

Read-skimmed this one, finding it very hard to concentrate on the elaborate sentence structures that Singer built around his point (which I’m still not sure I get). A bit disappointed, since the last Singer book I read was dog-eared, underlined, devoured in tentative bites that exploded in my head. Suffice it to say, he explores the idea of creativity. On the personal side, this was the first book I checked out since joining the Mechanics’ Institute Library, which reminded me of what libraries should be like. I interacted with the librarian, chatting about the book while he hand-stamped the due date. Because of this, I know that two other people have checked the book out since it was acquired in August. No self-checkout here!

Creativity results from collecting items in one’s own experience and then transforming them in a practical manner that is personal to oneself. p27

Breathing in a substance that comes from without, which is what terms like inspiration or being inspired mean literally, is different from what happens in the doing of creative work. That depends instead upon a kind of breathing out, an expiration that bestows upon the environment something new and welcome and usually less ephemeral than the air one exhales. p106

The aesthetic activity ends not because of any predetermined ultimacy that has been miraculously attained but rather because the artist becomes sated, and possibly exhausted, with this particular project, and senses that further alteration may ruin what she has done. She may also feel motivated, for whatever reason, to put her energies into something else that now clamors for attention. Various artists work from a preliminary plan, but in working from a plan, an outline or sketch, the artist is always revising it moment by moment. Consecutive revision of this kind can properly be seen as a form of intelligence. p124

Insights about the nature of things or a relish for the beauties of well-wrought forms can be sufficient for a great many talented people. But a poet or novelist who scans the world from a philosophical or politically engaged perspective does not thereby relinquish the right to be considered a creative artist. p130

Master Of The Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

Once again, I am awed by the power of Caro to immerse himself so completely in LBJ’s life, spending years researching, combing through libraries, conducting lengthy personal interviews. In this volume, the years between 1950 and 1960 detail Johnson’s arrival in the Senate (under slightly questionable circumstances), his grasping and attaining power which previously did not exist, showcasing his genius legislative ability. He was a conductor, a maestro, sewing together compromises between a militant Southern anti-civil rights group and liberals from the North, recognizing that Western support could be thrown to the South by their cooperation on a water/dam bill. Unfortunately, I read the final volume last year, and as the pace dizzied, frenzied with Johnson’s success and ultimate election as Vice President, I knew he was headed toward a brick wall of powerlessness. This volume showcased his ferocious strength, hard work, smarts, ability to read men, ability to get opposite sides of an argument to simultaneously think he agreed with them. Caro goes deep into the question of LBJ’s civil rights agenda, and leaves you with the impression that while he used it as a tool to further his quest for presidency, he was deeply committed to achieving equality of races. LBJ is the reason the 1958 civil rights (voting act, with jury trial amendment) passed, the first civil rights legislation in 82 years. He kept the South from filibustering and got the liberals to accept the toothless bill, evoking the image of getting the Senate to give up its virginity on civil rights legislation and future acts would be easier to jam through. This finger-jabbing, lapel-grabbing, do-what-it-takes politician did end up signing a much stronger bill once he was president. Caro does a tremendous job making Senate procedure come to life, clearly explained and the impacts outlined. Well written, dreamy to get lost in 1,000+ pages. Perhaps I’ll read volume 1 now, then flow back through the trilogy. I am left with the unshakeable suspicion that LBJ had something to do with Kennedy’s assassination, although Caro denies it. But his uncontainable naked desire for the position comes through in this book, and after being paralyzed in Vice Presidency with the specter of another term should Kennedy be re-elected, I can see dominos falling into place in his home state where the incident occurred.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice

I’m not quite sure what to say about this book, except that I want to purchase a copy for my personal library. Nearly every word is quotable (“The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous”) and needs to be digested in slow, mindful bites. The suppression of the ego is something the world seems in need of, a bit more, poignant to read during the week of the IPO of technology that enables the anti-zen, the anti-koan, the ego, the not-present because tweeting about the event. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in enhancing or beginning their practice.

Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present

Truly awful book about a fantastic topic. I plowed through as best I could, as far as I could, holding my nose at the poorly documented facts and oversimplified stories, gritting my teeth over the notes section (couched as “Bilbiography”)’s over-reliance on web documentation as a source. For example, the life of Lillie Hitchcock Coit was constructed from what is listed as “www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/h-coit.html” and “www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/h-coit2.html” in the notes. After visiting those webpages, I need to add plagarism to the list of crimes committed by this wretched book, with many sections of text from the website reprinted verbatim without attribution or quotes in the book.
But I may have been able to stumble blindly through the fog of a poorly written, poorly researched book had I not tripped over the typo of a name, Ina Coolbrith referred to as Ina “Coolbirth” in this poor excuse for a history book, published by an outfit called The History Press. If they cannot get Coolbrith’s name correct, the first Poet Laureate of California, what hope do they have in getting anything in this rag correct?
After that incredible mistake, I flipped through the rest of the book and nearly gagged on the reductive, assumptive, dumbed down history that does a true disservice to the phenomenal history of women in California. Julia Morgan was known to have climbed scaffoldings in her skirt? Well I’ll be gobsmacked to hell! “Apparently the hostility to women that was commonplace in the professions of layers and doctors was not as deeply ingrained in the fields of architectural design and urban planning.” Excuse me, WHAT?
Silver lining in this shit-storm of a book is my increased curiosity about:
* Lilli H. Coit
* Laura de Force Gordon
* Josephine C. McCrackin
* “Dame Shirley”

Book Club Drama: A Portrait of The Artist As a Young Man

“Alcohol should not be allowed at future meetings,” remarked a fellow participant as we walked away from the Commonwealth Club’s book discussion on Joyce’s Portrait. (Sidenote: the average age of attendees at Commonwealth Club events is ~70 years old.) The evening started out well-behaved, with the group voting on which book to discuss in January, then one of the members gave prepared remarks on A Portrait of The Artist. Another member (Mika?) challenged the group to identify where the artist exists in the book, the artist remains hidden only to emerge from his shell (eggs, birds!), at the very end. The elderly man beside me (lawyer-ish, tufts of hair sprouting from his ears, cartoonishly big watch and purple shirt with suspenders) burst forth with an incredulous “You don’t consider writing an art?!” before harrumphing himself back into his chair, wheezing and muttering.
Joyce tackles the triumvirate of unmentionables in his work: religion, sex, and politics. We covered each of these areas, but the group careened wildly off the wheels talking about religion, prompting the moderator to draw us back to the work itself, cutting off one of the participants. The offended party grabbed her purse and coat and headed for the door, saying, “Do you want me to leave? Or just shut up?” The moderator tried to calm her down, but pointed jabs were thrust on both sides. She eventually sat back down and made her point, which wasn’t as stunning as the outburst itself.
An undercurrent of anti-elitism murmured during extended remarks from the woman who studied at Columbia who kept bringing up her glory days of Columbia. Someone made an offhanded remark about Chico State, setting off a woman at my end of the table who said, “I went to Chico State and I resent that!” before huffing under her breath about the pretentious a-holes at the other end of the table. Another member commiserated, “I went to San Jose State, I know what you mean.”
Despite the drama, the discussion was instructive and well-informed. Up next month is Plato’s Symposium, another great candidate for drunken dispute among septuagenarians.