Friday, August 21, 2015

What's Kristine Reading? August Edition

   Last month, I read a book that was kind of off of my radar, but really enjoyed it.  This month's book? Not so much. This month's book is literally an example of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. And that book is "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel.


   Everything about this book screams "Kristine." It's historical fiction (possibly my favorite genre), by an English writer (she's actually Dame Hilary Mantel). And it's based on the time period of Henry VIII, which is arguably the most prolific era for scandal in British history. Let's face it, the Tudors were a mess. Royal affairs, bribery, beheadings... Oh, and that little thing of bringing down the Catholic church - the Tudors had it all going on. All fodder for an engaging story. It also won the Man Booker Prize, which is awarded to the UK's best original novel every year. Though this book was 600+ pages, I should have knocked it out in a week, if not a weekend.
   Y'all - it took me two years to finish. TWO YEARS. If it wasn't for my rule of always finishing a book once I start it (I've only not finished one book that I can remember), I would have thrown this book in the fire almost immediately. It was that hard to read.
   I'll get into why in a minute, but let me just give you a rundown of the plot. With other books, I would state "Spoiler Alert" here, but I'm assuming that everyone reading this knows the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. If not, stop reading this and go pick up a history book. "Wolf Hall" tells the fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell. Not born into nobility, it tells of his rapid rise from the son of a poor, abusive father to Henry VIII's chief advisor / evil genius during the time of Anne Boleyn. The dissolution of the Catholic church in England and Henry's annulment of Queen Catherine of Aragon? That was our man Thomas. Fascinating time period and an extraordinary man. This should have been an amazing book. Yet, it wasn't. And here's why.
   I had no idea what was going for most of this book. Seriously. Here's what I took away from "Wolf Hall."

  • Thomas Cromwell was born poor and his dad was a jerk (to put it mildly).
  • He somehow got a job as a secretary to the very powerful Cardinal Wosley. 
  • He married and had children. His wife and one daughter died of the plague.
  • Through his connection with Wosley (I think), he met King Henry VIII.
  • King Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon. They had a daughter, Mary, who wasn't male and therefore couldn't be an heir. 
  • Queen Catherine was previously married to Henry's brother (gross).
  • Anne Boleyn? Not a very nice person. Manipulative and had pretty loose morals.
  • Same goes for the rest of the Boleyn family, though I actually felt bad for Anne's sister Mary, who was forced to be the King's mistress while Anne was pregnant (again - GROSS!).
  • Cardinal Wosley fell out of the King's favor, yet somehow Cromwell didn't.
  • Lots of people were beheaded or burned at the stake.
  • There was a witch. Or at least, King Henry thought she was a witch.
  • Cromwell bailed Anne's cousin out of jail.
  • At some point, thought I'm not sure exactly how, Henry divorced Catherine and married Anne.
  • Royals throughout Europe hated Anne. 
  • Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.
  • There is a family named Pope who somehow had claim to the throne.
  • There was a guy named Thomas More, who also died at the stake.   
   That might look like a lot, but for a book of this density and length, it's not. I was completely lost for most of the text. This was for several reasons. The first being the details. Oh my God, the detail in this book! Give Mantel credit - the woman knows how to research. But I think 50% of the book had nothing to do with the action of the book. While I like a good setup for an action, this was way too much. 
   Also, and this isn't really the author's fault, but everyone in this time period was named Henry, or Thomas, or Mary, or Elizabeth. You get the idea - they weren't very creative with names back then. And everyone had several titles. Sometimes Mantel would use a first name to reference a character, sometimes a last, and sometime a title but not always the same title. I had no idea what character she was referring to half the time.
    Mantel also did this really strange thing of starting paragraphs with "He." Why was this confusing? Because she would be talking about the King, and then start the next paragraph with "He," so I would assume she was still referring to the King. Nope - not necessarily. It took me a really long time to figure out that 90% of the time, she was referring to Cromwell with this "He."
   Additionally, and probably most importantly, the book was just confusing. It was one of those books where you could read a page three times and still have no idea what was going on. I KNOW Cromwell masterminded the annulment of Henry and Catherine, and I'm sure it was stated in the book, but I still have no idea how. I'd also love to know how seemingly everyone around Cromwell ends up dead at the request of Henry, but so far, Cromwell has been spared this fate. How does that happen? I guess he was really charismatic as he just kept rising up the corporate ladder while everyone is being exiled or beheaded. I would have loved to have known why this was, but I don't. Because I had no idea what was going on.  
    Maybe I'm just too shallow to appreciate a book of this depth. Maybe it's because I'm American and not British, so I don't care about the minuscule details and all of the titles confused me. I don't know. What I do know it that I read A LOT of books, and rarely have I had to struggle to finish one as much as I did "Wolf Hall."  

   On a side note - I'm actually racing this weekend! I'll be down on Hunstville, AL for the Rocketman Olympic triathlon. Not that I'm in shape...  Dealing with Hef's illness and passing pretty much left me in a state of shock and then depression from which I'm now just recovering. I basically had nothing but pizza and ice cream for a while there, with absolutely no exercise. So, I'm not expecting too much from Rocketman. But it's supposed to be a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it. Race report soon!