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Archive for January, 2021

I’d seen this book described as uplifting and heart warming, and it turns out that Jane Smiley realized and told her publisher it was right for these times. And she is correct! Perestroika in Paris is the story of a young horse, Perestroika (Paras for short) who walks away from her stall after winning a race, makes her way through some woods, and ends up in a Paris park. There she meets Frida, a german shorthaired pointer, and eventually also meets mallards named Sid and Nancy, a raven named Raoul, and a rat named Kurt, and a boy, Etienne, who lives with his very old great-grandmother in a big old house.

The way the animals figure out how to get humans to help them and how to help humans is the basis for the story, which follows the friends over the course of many months. Smiley has always written beautifully and feelingly about horses, and her sensitivity extends to other animals as well, even the blustering Sid, who explains to Raoul as he is returning from his annual migration late in the book that he’s gotten in touch with his inner duckling and had some counseling and he’s going to be a better dad and partner to Nancy now.

But most of the time, Smiley doesn’t anthropomorphize that much. She explains things from a more horsey or doggy perspective. For example, Smiley’s explanation of Frida’s conception of Christmas gifts: “As a bird dog, Frida also understood the concept of offerings.” Smiley also explains, “As a dog who paid attention to humans and was also prone to dejection, Friday could see . . . that Christmas was not making Etienne happy.” Contrast this sense of emotional intelligence with the way Smiley describes how Paras felt when she realized Frida was coming near: “Paras, her ears flicking, heard her coming, or rather, she heard a dog, and she recognized Frida’s characteristic gait — smart and quick. Paras would not have said that she loved Frida, or even felt affection for her . . . . Nevertheless, when she sensed Frida passing, Paras let out a piercing whine.”

I don’t know much about horses, but I do know dogs are pretty good at sensing their humans’ emotions, so this seemed pretty spot on to me. I won’t say how the story goes, but I will say it’s gentle, the humans are mostly a thoughtful bunch, and nothing bad happens to the animals. The essence of the book is the loose but cooperative community that the animals form, and a few friendly people who notice the animals, and the way they all respond to each other’s and the boy’s needs. It’s lovely and very different.

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I just finished the third in the Kingsbridge novels by Ken Follett, A Column of Fire. It’s another thick historical novel (although not as thick as the previous two, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End). This one starts in fictional Kingsbridge again, and follows the lives of the descendents of some of the families from the earlier books. But it follows the great drama of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (actually, beginning when she is still a princess), and the religious strife as Protestants and Catholics struggled over “true” religion tolerance in 1500s Europe.

It’s a tough thing to read right now, in a time when the world is polarized and we’ve had an election in the US where the religious right believes that they are the keepers of true faith and patriotism in this country. Throughout A Column of Fire, characters who are zealous plot against those who favor religious tolerance. Follett highlights the role of the French queen mother, Caterina ( a Medici), and Elizabeth in keeping things calm and tolerant. While there are a few hypocritical Puritans, he really illuminates the incredible greed and hypocrisy of the Catholic church, from the cruel (even bloodthirsty) Spanish inquisitors, to the traitorous (and also bloodthirsty) English nobles and their collaborators.

Our hero is a Kingsbridge man, Ned Willard. He becomes a secretary to Elizabeth’s trusted counselor, Sir William Cecil. Eventually he develops into a spyrunner, quietly observing the people who are fighting each other and noticing their weaknesses. He falls for not one but two women, each kind and utterly dedicated to her cause (one Catholic and one Protestant) and brave.

I admit I skimmed over some of the fighting. Now that I’ve read the trilogy, I think The Pillars of the Earth was the best, for me, because of the building details, but I liked that about World Without End as well. While A Column of Fire is true to its time — people venture farther afield, even to the New World, and there is a long list of historical figures who appear as characters — for me, it wasn’t as much about Kingsbridge, so I didn’t enjoy it as much. But Follett is a compelling writer, and I again couldn’t get to sleep while reading this, because I wanted to know what would happen. I also admire how he addresses modern concerns, like systemic racism, with historic examples.

A decent read, and very distracting during a very stressful time (COVID, politics, semester starting at work). But sad. At least, I guess, we no longer burn people at the stake and run each other through with swords but still, we haven’t moved on all that much.

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I haven’t read Maggie O’Farrell before, even though her books have been recommended by various book friends. When I looked at the “best books of the year” lists, Hamnet struck me as one of the least depressing. Which is ironic since it’s about Shakespeare’s only son, who, we are all well aware, died. No spoiler — every review talks about how this book is about grief, and that is one of the few certain facts of Shakespeare’s life, that his son died as a child.

O’Farrell presents Shakespeare as misunderstood and mistreated by his family, a teenager who meets Agnes (also called Anne) Hathaway, similarly misunderstood, harangued by her stepmother, both suspect and sought out because of her talent with herbal remedies and her gift of being able to predict or sense what people are thinking or will do. O’Farrell presents their marriage as a sanctuary for both of them.

But as much as the book is about Agnes and her relationship with her mostly absent husband, it’s also about the loss of Hamnet and his presence in the family’s lives after. The scenes where Hamnet and his twin sister Judith are playing and suddenly she feels “unwell” and Hamnet realizes something is seriously wrong are harrowing. He goes around the family’s apartment, his grandparents’ adjoining house, even around Stratford, trying to get help. He can’t find any grownups.

Despite the fact that we all know it’s going to be Hamnet who dies, O’Farrell makes it suspenseful as the family gather around the twins — Hamnet has come and wrapped himself up with Judith — and one gets better as the other gets worse. Shakespeare’s sister has this thought: “Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.”

Chilling to read as we approach 400,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US and 2 million worldwide. And the twins have the plague — something that is entirely plausible but which O’Farrell points out in her afterword is her own invention. The historical record doesn’t tell us what Hamnet died of. But she noticed that even though the plague closed the playhouses in London numerous times, Shakespeare never wrote about it. What if it was too painful to write about?

The rest of the book moves back and forth between the backstory of how Agnes and Shakespeare met and married, how she sensed his greatness and his need to escape his family, how their family grows and their lives expand. And how Hamnet’s death and their subsequent grief undoes them, each in their own way. This description of Agnes in the months following Hamnet’s death illustrates O’Farrell’s poetic language and vivid imagery:

“Summer is an assault. The long evenings, the warm air wafting through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the town, the shouts of children playing late in the street, the horses flicking flies from their flanks, the hedgerows heavy with flowers and berries. Agnes would like to tear it all down, rip it up, hurl it to the wind.”

Slowly, Agnes begins to live with the grief, returns to healing people, to keeping bees, to growing herbs. The tension that has developed between she and her husband eases a bit. He becomes prosperous, realizes that she may need a change of scenery, buys the largest house in town. Agnes and Judith and her older sister, Susannah, make a new life there. Shakespeare returns from London a few times a year.

But none of them every stop trying to “find” Hamnet . . . Agnes frequently wonders this. Shakespeare admits to looking for him in the audiences who come to see his plays. When the midwife who helped bring the twins into the world tells Judith she sometimes senses Hamnet at night, Judith takes to roaming the streets, trying to sense him. Then, during one of her father’s prolonged absences, her step-grandmother comes by with a playbill: in London, people are talking about a new Shakespeare play, Hamlet.

Agnes hasn’t been to London but is outraged that he could make their grief public and decides she must go see for herself what her husband has done. Her brother travels with her, and she makes her way inside the Globe, up near the stage. While at first disappointed that the play is, to her ears, just speeches, she grows mesmerized:

“When the King addresses him as ‘Hamlet, my son,’ the words carry no surprise for her. Of course this is who he is. Of course. Who else would it be? She has looked for her son everywhere, ceaselessly, these past four years, and here he is. It is him. It is not him. It is him. It is not him. The thought swings like a hammer through her. Her son, her Hamnet or Hamlet, is dead, buried in the churchyard. He died while he was still a child. He is now only white, stripped bones in a grave. Yet this is him, grown into a near-man, as he would be now, had he lived, on the stage, walking with her son’s gait, talking in her son’s voice, speaking words written for him by her son’s father.”

It’s a haunting idea, even though O’Farrell notes that it’s unclear whether Shakespeare’s son was the inspiration for the play. In fact, in an interview for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, O’Farrell and Barbara Bogaev discuss that it’s unclear exactly when some of the plays were written, including Hamlet.

Regardless, this is a lovely book. It brings to fictional life a woman who is often only remembered for being left a “second best bed” and makes her a really interesting, strong woman with a mind equal to Shakespeare’s. It brings a little color to Hamnet’s brief life and brings the rest of the family alive. The only thing that struck me as a little off, after reading World Without End, where the plague ravaged whole villages, was that only two people got sick in the family, and there was no outbreak around town, but that’s not what the book would focus on, anyway.

A lovely, heartfelt read. And despite the grief, it’s not depressing.

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I don’t often blog about sequels, but Ken Follett’s World Without End is not really a sequel. I was telling a coworker today that you can read it without having read The Pillars of the Earth, because while it takes place in fictional Kingsbridge, it starts a couple hundred years later. So while there are a few references to the history of the town and the people who lived there in the time of The Pillars of the Earth, you can easily follow the story without having read the earlier book.

In the 1300s, Kingsbridge now has both a prior and a prioress, and whereas Prior Philip in the first book was a savvy leader who could handle political maneuvering, but was basically basically benevolent, the Priors in the second book are decidedly not (the men anyway — the Prioresses are much more like Philip). They are deeply conservative theologically and socially, they make no attempt to understand the town they control and the lives they impact, and the worst two scheme, plot, spy, blackmail, manipulate, undermine, lie, and even steal. One of the characters sits thinking about this: “Godwyn’s influence was malign, but all the same his power never ceased to grow. Why was that? Perhaps because he was an ambitious man with no conscience — a potent combination.” This week, that really resonates, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile in similar struggles ensue among secular leaders in the guild, where some greedy and selfish folks try to hold back those who would innovate our of concern for their own power and prestige, and petty grudges trump what’s best for the common good. The heroes of the book, a builder named Merthin and a wool merchant turned nun/healer named Caris, struggle against these difficulties in the town and the priory. Caris also fights misogyny and clericism: while her experience tending the sick leads her to discover what works best and how to actually help people get better, the priests are the ones who go to college, studying ancient medical texts. They order bloodletting and goat dung poultices while Caris determines that cleaning wounds with wine, hand washing, separating the seriously ill from other patients, and even, yes, mask wearing, are more effective.

It was strange to read about a sermon denouncing the wearing of cloth masks as heretical (the prior has heard this is a muslim practice) during a plague outbreak given the world’s present circumstances, and a plot twist predicated on one faction of hospital workers refusing to wear masks and the unfortunate outcome (no spoiler, I’m sure — more mask refusers than wearers got plague, which was more or less a death sentence). Follett writes about the temptations of power and greed and how these temptations lead to cruelty and violence., and undermine community and the common good. Maybe because I was expecting it this time, it didn’t bother me quite as much. Or maybe because the horrors of right now — COVID and white supremacists and Trump apologists and the willingness of so many elected leaders to lie and mislead and for so many Americans to believe lies and be misled — are so much more tangibly awful than the fictional violence of the middle ages. Anyway, I skimmed the more violent details.

Follett published this book in 2007, a time when the Anglican communion was in turmoil about LGBTQ clergy, so I appreciated that he makes it clear in World Without End that we’ve always had LQBTQ clergy. It’s an especially nice touch that Follett makes these characters among the more likeable and responsible people in the book. I also enjoyed the parts of the story that describe the various innovations and social changes that impact his characters’ lives. And he makes an interesting narrative choice by opening the book with a group of children witnessing a mysterious event in the forest and then following the paths of those children through adulthood.

Again, I enjoyed this very much, although I ended up staying up too late reading to find out what happened. I’m looking forward to starting A Column of Fire.

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Several years ago I found both The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett on the local library’s book sale shelves. The paperbacks are huge and heavy, and I suspected I’d want to read them back to back, so I’ve been waiting to have time to do that. I read one and have started the other over the past week, as well as a Christmas gift, The Book of Margery Kempe.

My edition of Pillars has a preface by Ken Follett about how he came to write about the building of a medieval cathedral. He grew up in Wales, and writes, “When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called Plymouth Brethren. For us, church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues, and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.” He goes on to describe living in London in his twenties, and buying a book to learn about architecture. This led him to visit the cathedral in Peterborough while he was waiting for a train on a reporting trip; he was so amazed that he says, “Cathedral visiting became a hobby for me.”

Eventually, he read The Cathedral Builders and The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel and learning this background planted the seed of an idea for a novel. He first sketched it out in 1976, but his agent didn’t think there was enough “melodrama.” He became a very successful writer of thrillers, including Edgar award winner The Eye of the Needle. But the cathedral book was still on his mind. He was on to something, because when he eventually wrote The Pillars of the Earth it became one of his best-selling books; he credits readers for this in the preface, explaining that word of mouth was what made it so popular.

I found it hard to put down. I definitely liked the story of Philip, Prior of fictional Kingsbridge (a different place than the real market town in Devon, apparently), the building of the cathedral, the running of the monastery, and the sections of the plot about the village, the wool business, and the community. The political, historical and social contexts are very interesting, as are the details of various building techniques and inventions. Follett hired Gimpel as a consultant when he was finally writing the book, around ten years after he thought of the idea. I didn’t care for the violence and brutality, realistic though it may be for the times (between 1123-1173).

But I think one of the appeals of The Pillars of the Earth is that Prior Philip, as Follett notes, has “a very practical, down-to-earth religious belief, a concern for people’s souls here on earth, not just in heaven.” To me, Philip represents the potential of the church to help people — especially people without much status, power, or money — thrive and live harmoniously, becoming their best selves despite human tendencies towards greed, revenge, and selfishness. That’s the overarching theme of the book, that even in a world full of unknown and unpredictable threats, as well as the more predictable and not always so benevolent dominance of a wealthy ruling class, true faith and the selfless love that grows out of it will see people through.

As heroes go, Philip is unusual: a celibate man of God who tries his best to atone for his wrongs and forgive his enemies. Also appealing are Ellen, who lives self-sufficiently in the forest for much of the book, and Aliena, who deals with numerous setbacks, mainly caused by men, but manages to live mostly as she wishes. None of these “good” characters are perfect; they sometimes do the wrong thing, which makes them more realistic. There are plenty of villains (and as I think about, they rarely do anything good) including other clerics, and reading about the civil and religious maneuvering and strife and the suffering they caused makes one marvel that mankind persisted.

Or that the church persisted, which brings me to Margery Kempe. Her Book, which covers much of her life (around 1373-1440), although it focuses on the period in her adult life when she received what she felt were revelations from God, is considered the first autobiography in English. Technically, she dictated it because she was illiterate, like many people (especially women) of her time, but it is considered her own account. The Computer Scientist thought I would find her interesting. I read her Book (actually, two books, published together) before starting World Without End, which starts in 1327, so overlaps with her lifetime.

I say she felt she was receiving revelations, because the translator (from Middle English) of this edition, Barry Windeatt, makes clear in his introduction and notes that her “assumption of a direct and special link with God” is in his view “a spurious claim, because her main concern, despite the attempts at visionary writing, would seem to be with the view others held of her as a person of particular religious capacity.” He goes on to say, “I don’t think there is any evidence of a continuing psychotic process at work here. The most satisfactory description would be of a hysterical personality organization; her behaviors served as a constant source of attention and, in her own terms, of confirmation from others around her.” He says “continuing” because by her own report, she had at least two breakdowns: one, probably post-partum depression and the other late in life for a period around two weeks long. Keep in mind that Windeatt comes to his scholarly conclusions after studying many other mystics, including some who claimed to have holy crying fits.

If someone acted like Margery today, no doubt people would suggest mental health treatment (or maybe she’d be running for office?). She had what many people in her time felt was a delusional sense that God, primarily in the person of Jesus, was speaking directly in her mind, and one manifestation of this was uncontrollable crying and “roaring” fits, often in churches. Margery even notes that she felt depressed “because of the dread that she had of deceptions and delusions,” but that God assured and comforted her. She also felt she heard directly from Mary and a number of saints. She was certain that she was persecuted for her mystical experiences, and honestly, seemed to relish this persecution because she felt is ensured her reward in heaven. And while there were many people who did harass, arrest, mock or threaten her, and she was often accused of being a fake at best or a Lollard at worst (a follower of John Wycliffe, whose views influenced later reformation figures), there were many others who thought she was telling the truth.

Either way, her book is an interesting view of the times and of an extraordinary life. She lived in and around Lynn in England, and was the child of a successful businessman who also served in many municipal offices. She married, had fourteen children, and had her own brewing business for a while. And during the times when she received her communications from God, she traveled all the way to Jerusalem, and took other pilgrimages in Europe, often setting out without much of a plan or many resources and managing to make her way. She annoyed her fellow travellers (some of whom claim they wouldn’t even take money to keep traveling with her, others of whom make up to her as soon as they see she’ll help them eat or travel better). She befriended a number of monks and priests, who read scripture and theology to her. She seemed to have what Windeatt believes in an excellent memory and an eye for detail. And when her husband was old and seriously injured in a fall, he “turned childish and lacked reason” so she “looked after him for years afterwards.”

Whatever you may think about her religious experiences, she seems to have genuinely believed, devoted herself to prayer, and acted generously towards others, both materially and in sharing what she learned and what she felt God was saying to her. She’s a fascinating character. And she would have known some of the places and possibly some of the people (she met a number of bishops) in Ken Follett’s books.

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