Sunday, 26 April 2020

Henry VIII & Donald Trump in a time of pause...

Feel like your life is on pause right now? It’s a stressful, anxious time – fearful too, especially if you wake at 3am with little hope of sleep.

I don’t have a cure but I do have a suggestion – a good book or two or three.

I’m reading two at the moment – wildly different but both engrossing. One, I’d been waiting for a long time, and the other I came upon by accident, more or less.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel was worth the wait. If by chance you haven’t read the first two books of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, I envy you.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were mesmerizing accounts of commoner Cromwell’s rise through the perfidious court of Henry VIII.

It’s hardly letting the cat out of the bag to reveal that we witness his comeuppance in the final book. 

It’s a rare person, indeed, who fared well in Henry’s narcissistic presence – the parallels with the present White House are startling.

Henry is better spoken than our current president and more interesting, perhaps because in his autocracy the Tudor king need only lie to himself.

Whatever your political persuasion you will find yourself rereading paragraphs both for the power of the prose and the sheer thrill of comparison.

You’ll emerge from an hour or so of this book steeped in the fascinating lore and the machinations of Henry’s world; alas when you switch on Fox or CNN you will be catapulted back into a comparable litany of delusion without the buffer of history for protection.

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane is on more familiar ground – the Irish-American family – but it is no less gripping. 

From the first page you’re enmeshed in the net of this finely honed story and instantly rooting for the well-drawn characters even as you sense their flaws and fear for them.

Then just when you believe you’ve arrived at the core of this interlocking drama of the Gleeson and Stanhope families another twist is introduced and you’re once again skating on dramatic thin ice.

For me this is a story of heredity and what happens to the good and bad we Irish bring with us when dropped into the far larger pool of Irish America. Mary Beth Keane suggests various possibilities all of which are believable - many riveting.

Although as different as chalk and cheese she sometimes reminds me of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. Each has the capacity of ensnaring you within a couple of paragraphs.

Might I suggest any collection of Ms. Wharton’s short stories for these difficult times? You’ll meet a cast of characters well suited to these troubled times. 

I’d recommend Age of Innocence, perhaps her best known novel, but while I love the two women characters May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska, I’m always disappointed with Newland Archer’s practical but bloodless decision in the final chapter. But then who knows what that says about myself?

I’ve read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls three times now and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s a terrific story of the Spanish Civil War. It’s also about the power of idealism and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause.

Hemingway’s genius is that you never fully understand protagonist Robert Jordan or why he persists on his mission. In some circles Hemingway has fallen from favor because of his macho reputation, and yet there’s a tender, if fragile, romance at the heart of this book that is very compelling.

Two slim books from the backwaters of different continents will have you in stitches – An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) by Flann O’Brien and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; they will also provide limitless stories and quotes with which you can regale your friends when the pubs finally reopen.

And if plays be your thing read the exquisite Girl From The North Country, the collaboration between Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan.

And for fans of Nobel Prizewinner Bobby, listen to his aural treatise on the Kennedy Assassination, Murder Most Foul. At 17 minutes it will either put you soundly asleep on some dark night of the soul or confirm that he is the greatest living artist. Your call!

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