Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Henry the VIII is a flamboyant historical figure, remembered as much for his earthly appetites as for fathering the English Reformation. Although he plays a central role in the novel Wolf Hall, the real story is about Thomas Cromwell and his rise from obscurity to political influence - no mean feat in an age of rigid class structure. That's what makes the book so fascinating - the speculation about Cromwell's rise to power. It also offers a pretty chilling portrait of Thomas More and insight into the machinations of the women in the court.
Hilary Mantel had already won the 2009 Man Booker prize when she was interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC Sunday Edition. She spoke about growing up in a working class Irish family, going to a ladies 'finishing school' and her quirky upbringing. It's a wonderful interview, in which she also admits the novel is not an easy read but she hopes the reader was rewarded for their efforts. True on both counts.
I think what makes the book somewhat difficult is that it assumes the reader is intimate with the chronology of events and full cast of characters. But it is time well spent.
The Last Station, by Jay Parini
This was a BPYC book club pick and many put the book down because they couldn't follow who was speaking and found it too disjointed. Each chapter is titled with a set of initials to prepare the reader for the point of view of the shifting narrators. What makes it a bit tricky is that in the Russian, familiar names and formal names are different. In the edition I was reading there was no explanation for the discrepancy, which is too bad, I think it would have helped several of the readers to persevere.
The device of telling the story from myriad points of view worked for me. Most of the characters I could place, but there was one set of initials that kept me wondering. Who was JP and why was poetry inserted? It was pointed out to me that JP is the author's initials.
It was unfortunate the book club didn't discuss it much beyond who had read and who had not read the book. Some disliked it so much and found the hopping around so difficult they simply put the book down and didn't bother finishing. But the host had gone to the trouble of preparing Russian food and it was delicious.
I read the book before I saw the movie so I wouldn't be unduly influenced by the screen adaptation. I love Helen Mirren and casting her with Christopher Plummer's Tolstoy made for a sexy pair, indeed. In the film, Tolstoy's wife comes across as deeply in love with her husband - in the book, the love is obvious but far more complicated. In the film, the wife is clearly wronged and shut out from her husbands inner circle. In the book, she more clearly represents a woman who is as committed to her ideals as her husband is to his, and she seems a woman clearly ahead of her time.
Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat
Also a BPYC Book Club pick, this memoir was made all the more riveting by having the author present to discuss the book.
I've read similar titles, like Reading Lolita in Tehran and Infidel. These stories make the personal political and sometimes drift into diatribe. Prisoner of Tehran is clearly a very personal story.
Marina grew up Christian in a Muslim country under the Shah's rule and was bewildered by the turn of events under the Ayatolla. At only 16 years old, the author finds herself tortured and about to be executed, when her interrogator intervenes to save her life. He returns five months later with a proposal she can't refuse - to become his wife or see her family and the man she loves arrested.
Her first husband was executed after a few months and she fled to Canada, her story untold for decades. People knew she had been a political prisoner, but no one asked for details. Not her mother, father, second husband or children. The need to tell the story and bear witness is part of the author's personal journey.
We take so much for granted in our society - freedom of speech, personal liberty, even libraries. It's not perfect in Canada but we have much to be thankful for.
I asked Marina to sign the Toronto Public Library book so people who sign it out after me will know the author's hands have truly touched those pages.
George Stroumboulopoulos interviewed the author on The Hour: