Thursday, 26 February 2015

Thursday List: The Best of Wolf Hall

Best of Wolf Hall

The TV version of Hilary Mantel’s historical novels has ended, and there’s no sign of the third book in the trilogy appearing any time soon. Yes, I have already done endless entries on the books, and yes there was recently a list of books on the Tudors (and there will be more non-Mantel Tudors coming soon): but still I had to console myself by making a list of my ten eleven favourite moments from the two books.
1) His children are falling from the sky.
That’s the first sentence of Bring up the Bodies. It’s a reference to Cromwell’s falcons, named after his dead daughters, and surely the best opening line of any book this century.
2) ‘There is the matter of all the other women who want to marry you. The wives of England, they all keep secret books of whom they are going to have next when they have poisoned their husbands. And you are the top of everyone's list.’
The artist Hans Holbein talking to Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Well yes he would be, wouldn’t he?
3) His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
A description of Thomas Cromwell, explaining the perception above. And, blogfriend Samantha Ellis (author of How to be a Heroine) suggests, a fine description for the ‘ideal man’ part of a dating profile.

4) The completely engrossing dinner party at Thomas More’s house in Chelsea in Wolf Hall – plot, character, joyous entertainment, sadness and jokes all come together in a tour de force of writing, a scene you could read again and again. ‘They laugh. You would think they were friends.’
5) ‘I picture you in a hovel, wearing homespun, and bringing home a rabbit for the pot. I picture your lawful wife Anne Boleyn skinning and jointing this rabbit. I wish you every happiness.’
Thomas Cromwell tells Harry Percy how life works (in Wolf Hall), when Percy is threatening to cause trouble. Another tour de force: total bullying, horrible to read, but hilariously funny.

6) The wonderful, brilliantly-portrayed, Duke of Norfolk has been visiting his armourer and is still wearing some bits of it ‘so that he looks like an iron pot wobbling to the boil.’
7) ‘You know what More used to say. “If the lion knew his own strength, it were hard to rule him.”’ 

‘Thank you,’ [Cromwell] says. ‘That consoles me mightily, Sir Purse, a text from the grave from that blood-soaked hypocrite. Has he anything else to say about the situation? Because if so I’m going to get his head back off his daughter and boot it up and down Whitehall till he shuts up for good and all.’
Cromwell being respectful about his old foe and colleague Thomas More.
8) ‘[Anne Boleyn] is selling herself by the inch. The gentlemen all say you are advising her. She wants a present in cash for every advance above her knee.’
‘Not like you, Mary. One push backwards and, good girl, here's fourpence.’
Cromwell outlines the difference between the two Boleyn girls.
9) No doubt they are discussing the new alliance; he seems to think she has another treaty tucked down her bodice.
Anne Boleyn meets the King of France: the King of England gets jealous. A superb scene, and perfectly portrayed in the TV series.
10) The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter; the summer has gone, Thomas More’s daughter has got his head back off London Bridge and is keeping it, God knows, in a dish or bowl, and saying her prayers to it. He is not the same man he was last year, and he doesn’t acknowledge that man’s feelings; he is starting afresh, always new thoughts, new feelings.
Thomas Cromwell at the beginning of Bring Up The Bodies.

ADDED LATER: remembered a vital one:

11) She laughs. ‘They could tell Boccaccio a tale, those sinners at Wolf Hall.’
Cromwell and Anne Boleyn companionably chatting and sniggering over the gossip from the Seymour family. But is the whole court Wolf Hall, and this a vital comment on their morals?

And now we’re just waiting for the next book.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

published 1952

Margaret Millar

The women’s section of the cell-block was empty except for Virginia. Miss Jennings unlocked the door. ‘Here’s that man again, Mrs Barkeley.’

Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing yellow, and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes.

She raised her head and gave him a long unfriendly stare that reminded him of Mrs Hamilton, though there was no physical resemblance between the mother and daughter.

‘Good morning, Mrs Barkeley.’

‘Why don’t you get me out of here?’ she said flatly.

‘I’m trying.’

observations: I love this photograph so much, I once MADE UP a book extract to go with it.

I found it in the early days of the blog, but thought it was so specific I would never have a chance to use it – so: I had it as an avatar for a while. And, for an April Fool entry back in 2012, I wrote a  few paragraphs that could be illustrated by this photograph. That’s pretty extreme. I tried to imagine the book-within-a-book in Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent: you can see the fake entry for Fleur Talbot’s Warrender Chase here.

And finally, happily, here is a real book to go with the photo!

It’s Margaret Millar’s centenary year - she was born in February 1915 and died in 1994. She was American-Canadian, and was married to thriller writer Ross MacDonald.

It’s probably fair to say that Millar is revered among crime fiction fans, but not well-known outside that circle. She wrote sharp thrillers, dark and serious, with normal suburban people thrust into dangerous and difficult situations. She didn’t waste words, and crammed a lot of plot into relatively short books (some modern authors, stretching themselves out over 500 pages, could learn a lot from her). There was usually a very good twist or surprise at the end: one that would make you think back and work out with satisfaction that (for an example not from this book) no, X and Y had never been in the room together. She was a mistress of plotting.

In this one, a young married woman has been out on the town, drinking too much, sitting in bars with someone else’s husband. When this other man is found dead, she is the main suspect, and that’s why she’s in jail. Her mother comes to try to help her, and a young lawyer is on hand too. All kinds of unexpected things happen, starting with someone else confessing to the crime. We are shown inside various households in a small town in Michigan, following some miserable marriages and unhappy people. The town is called Arbana, and from its position would seem to be Ann Arbor.

I loved this sentence from the jail visit above:
The overhead lights went off suddenly and the feeble rays of the morning sun filtered in through the barred windows like dim hopes.
… not that most people in Millar’s books can be very hopeful.

But the books will surely live on among conoisseurs of crime fiction.

The picture (it dates from 1950, this book from 1952) is from the George Eastman House colletion. It is called Woman in Cell playing Solitaire, and is by Nickolas Murray.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert

published 1976

Night of the Twelfth

[A private boys’ school: Mr Manifold has replaced another teacher, Millison, who had problems with the boys]

‘I hear you pulverised One-B,’ said Alastair McMurtrie.

Manifold inspected the seven boys who made up One-A. Most of them he could already identify. McMurtrie, freckled, snub-nosed, well-developed, with the build of a second-row forward. Jared Sacher, a dark beauty with alarmingly intelligent eyes. Peter Joscelyne, small, quiet and withdrawn. The Warlock brothers, totally unlike each other, yet each with a hint of their father’s often-photographed face. The fat boy with the permanent smile must be Monty Gedge and that left – forgotten the name – father a barrister – Paxton. Terence Paxton.
‘We had quite a lively first meeting,’ he agreed…

‘They’re a bunch of stupid kids,’ said Sacher. ‘It was only that Mr Millison was such an ass. I’m sorry, sir. But he was. You know what started the rot? It was in Scripture. One of them asked him what a harlot was. Well, really! That’s been a standing joke for years. All he had to say was, it’s the biblical name for a tart and they’d have known where they were.’

‘What did he say?’

‘According to those that were present he blushed and said, “Well, Paine, it’s – um - a girl who has – er – lost her way.” After that they pulled his leg until it nearly came off. When anyone on one of his walks took a wrong turning, they used to shout in unison, “Come back, you harlots”.’

observations: When Christine Poulson and I shared our lists of favourite books set in schools (last week, see here and here), neither of us included this one – but Christine remembered it later and mentioned it in a comment, so I decided to read it, and am still quite thrown by it. It is a strange mixture of a traditional school mystery (lots of funny dialogue, rather wonderful young teacher, very knowing and precocious but delightful boys) and a thriller – the son of the Israeli Ambassador is a pupil, and there could be danger – and something more weird: there are signs that a sadistic killer on the loose.

It’s a lot to fit in in a short book, but Gilbert does a masterly job of combining these strands, and has some excellent diversionary tactics, which only strike you when you think about the story afterwards – and I thought about it quite a lot. There are interesting discussions in the staff-room about corporal punishment, and a lot of attempts at psychological diagnosis. I ambled along with the plot, finding the thriller aspects and police investigation much less entertaining than the scenes in the school, and I had spotted a few good clues - and then the final quarter kept me pinned to my seat as I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen, in a way that I don’t often feel. Christine described the book as chilling, and it certainly was - positively unnerving at times.

The 14-year-old boys plan to drink some vodka as an end-of-term treat, which surprised me as much as the murders: a half-bottle cost £1.80, relatively a lot more than it would cost now - in modern terms that’s something like £17.

The boys are going to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and my one criticism is that very little is made of this, it has no relevance to the plot. (Josephine Bell’s Death at Half-Term also deals with a performance of  Twelfth Night in a school).

This is a clever and very entertaining book, it is very funny at times, and Gilbert leads you astray in the smartest of Christie-like ways – you make assumptions about all kinds of things…

Michael  Gilbert's Smallbone Deceased - from 1950, nearer the beginning of his remarkable and lengthy writing career - is on the blog here

The picture is from the New South Wales archives.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

published 2014

Some Luck

[1925. Rosanna’s sister, Eloise, has been living with the family on the farm, but now has left]

Rosanna had never been especially patient; she felt herself stamping around the house in a state of permanent irritability, and had even written Eloise a letter down at Iowa State, where she was taking home economics (and doing very well – who was surprised at that?) living in a dorm with lots of girls, and learning to play the piano. To Eloise she wrote: “If I never sufficiently expressed my appreciation for your sense of order and unflagging energy, I am sorry. I appreciate it now.”

Eloise wrote back, “Can you make me a velveteen dress if I send you the pattern? I’m sure Ma would blanch at the very sight of the pattern! Tres au courant!” Yes, Ma would, thought Rosanna, but she made the dress. It was an easy pattern, and made her, too, feel tres au courant.

While she did the hem, she watched Irma and Joe with the everlasting box of dominoes, the box that she had given Joe last summer and that he would not let out of his sight.

observations: Jane Smiley is renowned for the wide variety of her books’ settings – from Greenland to Hollywood, taking in a New York apartment along the way. But Iowa – her home state – pops up a lot, as do horses and agricultural themes. This one is set on a farm in Iowa, and for a large part of the book it stays there. It’s the first part of a trilogy, following one family through the 20th century, and is both epic and small-scale at the same time.

She does something I’ve never seen before: she has one chapter for each year from 1920 to 1953, a scheme that will take the story forward in the subsequent books. Once you see it, you wonder why more writers don’t do it – in particular, it seems an ideal plan for Anne Tyler. In fact if I read the book without knowing, I would have guessed it was a Tyler book.

It’s a strange book: it kept me reading, but in a fairly dutiful way. There was an awful lot about the farm arrangements: ‘Walking dollars is what I call hogs’, and a funny ‘farmer joke’, about one who won a million dollars and, asked what he would do with it, replied “I guess I’ll just farm till it’s gone.”

There are many descriptions of the farm seen through the eyes of very small children, and I could have done without that. There were flashes of wonderful writing – ‘It was dim in the barn, but arrows and sparkles of light pierced the dark walls here and there’ – but most of it is written in a very flat, even tone.

And then around the middle there are a few magical passages. A description of the way siblings think of their parents ends with: ‘Six children, six different degrees of love and respect for her parents, and occasional discussions about exactly in what ways Mary and Otto Vogel deserved what they had gotten.’

There is a spell-binding description of Walter giving treasured mementoes to his children on his birthday, and I loved Eloise on ‘the perennial question of motherhood – how honest to be.’ Many of the conversations are excellent – great dialogue, with the randomness of real life and absolutely convincing.

And the picture of life seems very authentic too (even in its dullness) – a world where a young married couple have the wife’s sister living with them to help with the chores and the babies. Respectability and church, drought and Depression and fears for the future, the change from horses to a tractor and a car, attending family get-togethers bringing a pie for the shared meal: it is all there.

People do leave the farm. The oldest son Frank (a very intriguing character) goes to college, and goes to war. For me the book became a lot more entertaining when there was more from outside Iowa: there was a most unexpected turn when Frank gets caught up in the Red scares of the 1950s.

Although the book was something of a long haul, it is very memorable, and I expect I will go on to read the later instalments.

The picture is from the Cornell University archives, and shows, exactly, ‘simplified home sewing’ in 1925.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Dress Down Sunday: I Can’t Believe You Let Yourself Be Photographed Without Lipstick


from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

the book (again): Girl In A Band – A Memoir by Kim Gordon

published by Faber & Faber, February 2015

Kim Gordon DD 1

[“Making The Nature Scene” is a track from Sonic Youth’s second release and first album, Confusion Is Sex]

The lyrics sprung from real life. “Making the Nature Scene” came from walking past the hookers lined up on Grand Street. In the dead cold of winter, they would flock there most nights, standing in a circle around a makeshift oilcan bonfire in leg warmers and stilettos. They were staples of the neighbourhood landscape, standing tall like funky trees, leaning back, single hands on their hips, standing in a column “making the nature scene.”

The gold sparkle of the ladies’ leg warmers caught the light of passing cars, flashed in the dark spaces around nearby buildings. I’d been reading about the Italian architect and designer Aldo Rossi, who believed that cities never shake their histories, that they preserve the ghosts of their past through time.

Kim Gordon DD 2

[Sonic Youth played in London for the first time in December 1983, at The Venue, supporting Australian band SPK]

In the early eighties, the music scene in England was large for an island, chaotic and cutthroat. Musicians literally paid to get onto a bill. Via a friend, we landed a gig opening for an industrial band, with another girl named Danielle Dax opening for us. Before the show, Danielle cornered me in the bathroom. “Look,” she said, “ there are a lot of important people coming here tonight to see me.”

Her meanness and competitiveness were almost shocking – it was like junior high all over again. Like a lot of English acts, Danielle had a specific look about her, a mask, an almost freakish persona. For the English, rock and roll has a lot to do with climbing over that country’s class structure, kicking out the bars of their birth.

observations: These two extracts give you a pretty fair flavour of Kim Gordon’s style. She might be talking about fashion one minute, and shifting from there to some academic or philosophical thoughts about the arts and artistes. It all makes sense, but it does sometimes make you stop and think, before you can see the connection.

If Danielle Dax had been the least bit unfriendly towards The Slits, anyone who’s read Viv Albertine’s book would be expecting to read a dissection of the reasons why a female would have picked on them like that. Kim Gordon, however, hones in on the fact that Danielle Dax is English. She is kind and complimentary about many people throughout the book, but her remarks about the English music scene are surprising, to say the least; unless she would have us believe that all US musicians are generous sweethearts to each other, and that none of them have either a look or a persona. Neither of those ideas would stand up to the things she says herself about, for example, Johnny Thunders or Courtney Love.

Musicians can’t really win: there will always be people who want to hear more about band politics and less about music, or vice versa; or less about you, in your own book, and more about your famous friends. Personally, I’d have liked to read more about the making of the albums and the mechanics of Sonic Youth’s unconventional guitar tunings; but I don’t suppose this is the right book for that. (Another group member, Lee Ranaldo, satisfied some of those cravings in his interview for the book My First Guitar. I wrote about that book here.)

The main photo is of Danielle Dax who, as you can see, certainly did have “a specific look” – although I’ve cheated, using a shot from a little earlier in the 80s when she was in a duo, The Lemon Kittens. (The other member, a man with a luxuriant beard, wore much the same outfit and make up.) She continued to have wild hair and wear wild clothes.
The other photo is from the session mentioned in the previous CiB article about Girl In A Band, and was used in the gatefold of the album Daydream Nation. It’s shown here superimposed upon the location where it was shot. The composite photo is used with the generous permission of Bob Egan, who curates the brilliant website PopSpots where there are plenty more pictures like this.

Finally, let me declare a very very small interest. Of the hundreds of things Kim Gordon has achieved, there are no less than two that I had already done: headlined at the ICA in London, and met Niagara, the exotic singer from the US band Destroy All Monsters (who once memorably said to Kim Gordon: “I can’t believe you let yourself be photographed without lipstick.”) So I think I can safely say I blazed a trail for her…

[For more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below]

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon – Leisure Suits

published 2012

Telegraph Avenue 4

[Musician Cochise Jones has a wardrobe full of leisure suits. This is his favourite: ]

The gem of his collection, it was profound and magical in its excess. White, piped with burnt orange,Telegraph Avenue 3 it had a rhinestone-cowboy feel to it, except at the yoke and at the cuffs of its sleeves and trousers, where it flamed into wild pseudo-Aztec embroidery, abstract patterns suggesting pink flowers, green succulents, bloodred hearts. Cochise had worn this suit, which he always called “my Aztec number”, three times before: once backing Bill James at the Eden Roc on the night when Hurricane Eloise hit; once at the Sahara in Las Vegas, where it attracted favourable comment from Sammy Davis Jr; and once, with improbable consequences, before a hometown crowd at Eli’s Mile High.

Telegraph 5
After that storied night in the annals of Oakland rumpus, Cochise had retired the Aztec number, sensing that it was a leisure of destiny. A suit not be squandered on an ordinary day in a man’s life, even if that man, on an ordinary day, rocked the B-3.

observations: First entry on the book explains more about the plot.

Ancient but revered musician Cochise Jones visits the key setting of the book, Brokeland Records in Telegraph Avenue, the whole time, and wears leisure suits. I had to pursue this – it’s not really a concept in the UK, I didn’t know if it meant a track suit. So I looked it up on Google Images, and I can only recommend that any interested reader to the same. The array of clothes that comes up is startling. What you see here is a mere taster, though sadly there was nothing quite living up to the number described above. I have no idea what B-3 means in this context. is not just a great title for a website, it is a treasuretrove of images.

Telegraph Ave Monk

Just to even the sartorial/style balance, there is also a description of Archy wearing very sharp suit and adjusting ‘the angle of his genuine Basque beret’, which seems the perfect reason to produce another picture from the William P Gottlieb collection of jazz photos – two of which we used in the previous entry on the book. This one is Thelonius Monk. (Really I’d just like to run all the pictures from this collection at the Library of Congress).

The book seems to take place in 2004, and Barack Obama, then the Senator from Illinois, makes an entertaining cameo appearance.

The small record shop is beautifully described, though it is familiar stuff from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, from the film Empire Records, from real life. Archy says: ‘our kind of people, we already got a church of our own… and that church is the church of vinyl.’ The book is very well written, but – unlike Chabon’s other works - it isn’t surprising. But still, as I said last time, Chabon on a bad day is better than most people’s best.

There's much more of Michael Chabon on the blog – click on the labels below.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis

published 1946

HOrizontal man 2
[reporter Jack is in a student bar, trying to get information for his story]

He sat down discreetly, not giving the girls any kind of obvious eye. One of them was quite a tomato – what is referred to as a long-stemmed American beauty. This was going to be what you call mixing business with pleasure. The other [Kate] was on the dumpy side, with a frowsy feather cut and horn-rimmed glasses like the young man’s own. She was wearing dungarees and a sweatshirt; the first had on a pink sweater and skirt

Horizontal man 1
[later he arrives at Kate’s student residence and asks her on a date]

‘Now will you go fix your face for me?’ he grinned.

‘Yeah,’ she said, flushing, ‘yeah!’ and turned to fly up the stairs when he caught her on the landing and kissed her resoundingly.

‘Take those damn pants off,’ he said, smacking the logical place, ‘and drop them in the nearest incinerator!’…

In something more than a jiffy, Kate reappeared, looking respectable in a sweater, skirt and cosmetics. She took her polo coat from the coat rack and they went out of the door in silence….

observations: Helen Eustis died recently, at the age of 98: this was her best-known book, and it won the Edgar Award for best first novel in 1947. It’s a campus murder mystery set at a women’s liberal arts college in New England - it was interesting to find out from her obituary that the womanizing academic who is murdered (plenty of those he has treated badly might have a motive) was based on her own professor husband.

It reads quite strangely to modern readers for a number of reasons: the main one is impossible to discuss without spoilers, so all I will say is that it must have been rather startling at the time, whereas in 2015 the direction of the book gives itself away. I also found it had a great unevenness of tone: there are some very dark passages, a look at lives that are difficult and disastrous, and a serious attempt to see psychiatry and psychology as a way of helping people. But then Eustis will turn to the couple above, who seem to have wandered in from an episode of Scooby Doo or Nancy Drew (Scooby Drew?). We need to judge books by the standards of their own time, but it still is rather depressing that Kate, above, who is obviously one of the brightest people in the book, has to put up with the dialogue above, and from a woman writer. Kate is also told by her new boyfriend that she is too fat, and he over-rides her food choices in a bar for that reason.

Their route to coupledom is obviously meant as light relief, which works only occasionally, as at the point where Jack asks Kate if she ‘wants to be a virgin all your life?’
‘There’s a difference between abstention and discrimination’ said Kate huffily.
And although it is a serious book, there were occasional funny moments. I liked the colleague being asked over the phone to take part in a memorial event for the murdered professor Kevin Boyle:
‘I wondered if you would be willing to say something [to the group]? What do you think?’
I think it is a maudllin, disgusting self-advertising notion, and quite typical of your very vulgar mind, he thought. ‘Very well; at what time?’
Eustis is plainly trying to be uptodate about gay people: there’s a student who says Kate can’t be a lesbian because she is full-busted, and a claim that where you found the picture of Van Gogh’s young man in a straw hat ‘you would find a homosexual.’

The students all drink like crazy – beer, and whisky, and brandy Alexanders. This is interesting – now they most certainly couldn’t, not in bars, as stringent rules apply. Then, as now, the minimum drinking age in Connecticut is 21– but obviously not much notice was being taken of that in 1946.

The book is readable enough and quite gripping, although it’s a pity so many of the characters are grotesque and miserable. Eustis led the way in creating a new kind of psycho-sexual thriller, and like many trailblazers looks a bit clich├ęd now. I still enjoyed the picture of life at a small college in the snow, and the contemporary details.

Pictures from the New York World’s Fair in 1940, a fashion show for college students, via the New York Public Library. A 'typical student' in the book is described as wearing a ‘nondescript tweed coat and the usual socks and moccasins’ and brown mittens.