Tag Archives: books

Ye Olde Literature

It just occurred to me today that I have spent a significant amount of this year in Tudor England. No, I am not in possession of a time machine – except in the most allegorical way. But the books I have been reading over the last few months are, in large proportion, set in Tudor England. This is largely because I have been catching up on various book series.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

First, I finally got around to reading Bring Up The Bodies (BUTB) by Hilary Mantel – the sequel to Wolf Hall (WH), which I read when it won the Booker Prize. I have no excuse for why it took so long to get to the sequel, except that I found some of the linguistic techniques she used in WH quite hard-going, and so the sequel had failed to be the first to my hand when looking for something to read. When I finally did pick it up, I sped through it; Mantel appears to have dropped the conceit for the second book which caused me the most difficulty with the first (not using quotation marks, or a new line, for dialogue; together with marking it only with “he said” or “she said”, rather than the name of the character). It made BUTB a much easier read, but a contrary bit of me misses the literary device. I read very quickly, almost too quickly, as I can miss a lot of the detail. Proof of this is the fact that I can often go back and read a book again, straight after finishing it, and pick up new things on the second read. So it was a useful discipline, having to read more slowly (or rather, to be accurate, read the same paragraph a couple of times) so I could follow the dialogue correctly.

Both books (and there is, I believe, the promise of a third to complete the trilogy) focus on the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble origins to become Henry VIII’s chief minister. WH is set during the years of Henry’s wrangling with the Church to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, which resulted in the split from Rome and the establishment of the Church of England with Henry at its head. I trust that doesn’t represent spoilers for anyone reading this! BUTB is set during the period of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII, and documents her fall from grace.

I am embarrassed to admit that I was barely aware of Thomas Cromwell before embarking on WH. Since then, both from reading Mantel’s books, and some of the others listed below, I have realised quite how influential he was – which, given the times he lived in (where, for instance, your class dictated what you could wear, and to flout the ”sumptuary laws” was a criminal offence), was quite a feat – but at the same time, humanises a historical figure considered by some to be a monster.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

I am currently reading the sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation, by C.J. Sansom, also set during Henry VIII’s reign. The first five – Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and Heartstone – were interesting companion pieces to WH, as Thomas Cromwell appears as a character in some of them. Indeed, I read the one in which Cromwell dies (I forget which one that is) just before reading WH, which confused me greatly! The series are, broadly, whodunnits with Matthew Shardlake, a (fictional) hunchbacked lawyer as the central character. But the richness of atmosphere Sansom creates gives a wonderful insight into the social, religious and political culture of the times the books are set in, together with the “sightings” of real historical personages within Shardlake’s narrative. As well as standing up well on their own within their genre, these books are a real treat for anyone with some knowledge of the history. Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t read all of this series and don’t want to read spoilers.

SPOILERS! I think I whooped out loud when I read Shardlake’s description of “the Lady Elizabeth”, and realised this was the adolescent future queen (sorry, I’ve forgotten again which one this was in). And Heartstone features Shardlake taking a trip to Portsmouth, culminating in him finding himself on board the Mary Rose as she sinks! This may not sound all that impressive to some of you, but I have a vivid memory of being pulled out of my primary school class to watch the raising of the very same Mary Rose, which had been lying at the bottom of the Solent ever since. That’s how to bring history to life (not making schoolkids watch interminable hours of not very much happening, but establishing a personal connection between the reader and subject)!

Spoilers over! Lamentation is set near the end of Henry’s reign, but the political and religious intrigue is as fierce as it ever was. I’m really enjoying it, not least because I have come to really like Matthew Shardlake, who Sansom brings to life as a complete human being, with successes and failings both.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

Another couple of series as well, albeit different from the first two for a couple of reasons: they are set in Elizabethan England, rather than the earlier Tudor times I have been reading about, and they involve – to varying degrees – one of my guilty pleasures, the supernatural. I have read all of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, about a woman vicar in Herefordshire who has taken on the role of diocese exorcist (or “deliverance consultant” as the modern church would have it – although that just makes me think of rednecks duelling with banjos, which is unfortunate). So I was pleased to discover a couple of other books by Rickman, about Dr John Dee, again a historical figure who was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. The Bones of Avalon and The Heresy of Doctor Dee are, like Sansom’s Shardlake series, whodunnits but with a bit of a supernatural twist.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

I was on tenterhooks waiting for the final instalment of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, The Book of Life (BOL), to come out in July, and filled in the anticipation of that event by rereading A Discovery of Witches (DOW) and Shadow of Night (SON) to prepare. I am a big fan of the fantasy sub-genre that has many names but I like to call urban gothic, i.e. set in a recognisably modern world, but with vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night. A wider discussion of my love of this sub-genre shall be reserved for a possible future blogpost, but Harkness’ trilogy deserves an honourable mention for anyone interested in the genre but wants to draw the line at teenage angst. These books are about grown ups.

DOW is set in present day Oxford, where an American historian can’t escape her witchy heritage when she discovers a strange book in the Bodleian library and meets a mysterious vampire. The first book establishes the mystery that our main protagonists, Diana (the witch) and Matthew (the vampire), investigate throughout the trilogy, and leads us from Oxford, to southern France, to New England. SON has Diana using her magic to take herself and Matthew back to Elizabethan England (with a trip to Prague) in search of more clues; a tricky visit, not least because Matthew has already lived through this period once. BOL brings us back to the present day, with a whirlwind of cities as Diana and Matthew race to solve the mystery, and save themselves from persecution for their forbidden relationship.

It may seem odd to include this series under the Tudor England category, when only one book is set there. But when you have a book about vampires who have lived through that time, the series continues with an Elizabethan flavour despite the setting. Plus SON involves so many walk-ons by historical characters (including a certain Dr Dee) that it is a joy to turn the page.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how important Audible has been, during my immersion in ye olde England. I first started listening to audiobooks in my teens, primarily to help me get to sleep. At that time, it was well nigh impossible to get anything but abridged versions on cassettes (then later, CDs), so it was with untrammelled joy that I discovered Audible – whose catalogue is increasing all the time and are now primarily unabridged versions. There is nothing worse than looking forward to a favourite passage of a book, only to find the abridger has cut it out! Whilst there is still the occasional misstep, particularly with unusual names or specialist vocabulary (as an Oxford graduate, I winced at the American narrator’s pronunciation of “viva” and “Magdalen” in the Harkness books), I can rise above that to enjoy the luxury that is being read to.

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Literally Literature

I have a lot of books. I have just got to the point of my decluttering marathon where the books have to be addressed. I’ve had a very constructive afternoon and evening, but I’ve barely started with the difficult decisions that are ahead.

Buying books used to be my pick-me-up. I developed a slight compulsion with buying new books if I found them at all interesting, for fear that they might disappear and I would never be able to find them again. That this would result in a nagging feeling of loss (however slight) for the rest of my life. Rare was the occasion I stepped into a bookshop and failed to buy fewer than five books. I blame it on my library-going habits as a teenager; the maximum number of books was six, and I often ended up with more than one trip a week, because I had already read the allotted six.

Then the Amazon Kindle came out. I was an “early adopter”, buying one the same week it was available in the UK (when the books were still charged in dollars). There were a lot of things about it I fell in love with straight away; like reading from a screen that didn’t feel floodlit, and being able to go on holiday without a back-breaking suitcase (because books are heavy…). But the one feature which separated the Kindle from all other e-readers and revolutionised my spending habits was the introduction to Samples.

You can download the first few pages in any Kindle book for free (Amazon persists in describing it as a chapter, but it is rarely as narratively helpful as that). Overnight, my compulsion to buy books evaporated. Well, not immediately, because it took a while for UK publishers to embrace Kindle. But very quickly, my modus operandi became noting books’ details to check if they were available on Kindle, and only buying them if I couldn’t download a sample.

All that happened in 2009, and – with the exception of cookery, yoga and graphic books – I have bought very few actual books since. In actual fact, with a cruel sense of irony, the Kindle does not keep a record of the samples downloaded and, therefore, since I’ve upgraded versions, I have now lost the samples I was originally so concerned about. The Kindle, because of the sample option, completely changed my buying habits; I buy far fewer books (even digital versions) than I previously did. When I see something new, I download a sample, but tend to wait to purchase the full version until I am ready to start reading it. And, noting the exceptions listed above, I rarely read paper books any more. The last time I did, a few months back, it seemed awfully heavy and cumbersome, particularly turning pages in bed.

So in my declutter marathon, books represent a particular problem. Ownership of books, and display of them on my shelves, is tied tightly into my sense of self and how I express my identity to others. However I do need to reduce the numbers taking over the flat, and that means that any kept and displayed take on a far greater relevance; being part of a small tribe, rather than one of a teeming horde, as they had been before.

I have started work on the fiction/non-fiction (i.e. the type of books I ceased to buy in 2009) I bought since moving into the flat in 2005. I put shelves up in the hall when I moved in, but the books I owned at that point already filled that space to capacity. So post-2005 books are readily identifiable by their presence in the overflow shelving which was beginning to threaten a sideways crab-style walk down the hall. The ones I have read have so far been quite easy to cull, and I need to spend some of tomorrow filling boxes with books destined for charity emporia. I know the books that moved house with me will be harder to say goodbye to, so I suspect space is going to be the taskmaster.

But I have another category of books I am really struggling with; those bought but not yet read. My conscience rebels (I know, silly, right?) at the idea of giving up on a book I have not read, even though there are loads of them, I’m unlikely to choose to read a paper copy over digital now, and getting rid of the paperback hardly prevents me from putting it on my Kindle in future. I’m toying with the idea of boxing them all up and enforcing a tombola approach (e.g. I have to read something from the stash once a month). But I’m concerned that approach would just be storing up future clutter issues, rather than resolving them once and for all.

I expect you think I’m exaggerating; people often do, regarding my book collection. Please survey the state of my living room floor.

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This was the situation earlier this evening. The three rows of books in the foreground are cookery books, the overflow of yoga books (most of which live on bedroom shelves), graphic novels and some reference books. Most of these will be staying.

The four rows in the background are most of the unread books, lying there awaiting their fate. There are some more in the bedroom that I need to add to this stash to get a true understanding of the scale of the problem. That can wait until tomorrow. However I am not exaggerating when I say that the books in the photo are less than a quarter of the books I currently own.

For tomorrow, I have to get these books into some sort of order, even if it is only a holding pattern until the May bank holidays provide a little more time.