These are the books I’ve been reading lately.
Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
I love history, but I generally don’t like historical fiction. Usually, historical fiction just strikes me as inserting some 21st century ideas/woes/storylines into the a different time period, and the result is often clunky and disjointed. But as a history teacher, I love history, and I know that the best way to learn history is to be drawn into a good story. For me, this usually looks like well-written biographies or other non-fiction tomes that focus on a war or period. But these books have made me reconsider historical fiction. Actually, I just want to read everything Hilary Mantel has ever written. These novels transport you to Thomas Cromwell’s world. Thomas Cromwell is, to quote Hilary Mantel, “the smart Cromwell.” Related to Oliver Cromwell through his sister’s son, he is becomes Henry’s chief advisor, much to the dismay of the English aristocracy (he’s the son of a blacksmith). She writes these characters so well. Henry VIII is charming and dangerous and foolish and magnificent, often in the same chapter. I was riveted by the unfolding of the English reformation (which is really closely linked to the Protestant reformation in general). Another thing I loved was the way she refused to “Tudorize” (the awful tv show) this period of history. There’s enough that’s sensational about this time period without adding in steamy bedroom scene after steamy bedroom scene. I literally google The Light and the Mirror (third book in this trilogy) to see if she’s any closer to publication.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
I said I wanted to read all of her books. And this was a way of gleaning new information for my French Revolution unit and reading another one of her novels. I’m not yet finished with this book, but I’m actually stringing it out because when it’s done I will be bereft. This follows the meteoric rises and falls of Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maxmilien Robespierre. I started this over break, and was constantly sharing interesting bits with my family members. I fell a little bit in love with Robespierre (so earnest and so well-dressed). But most surprisingly, I changed my mind about a character. I generally never change my mind about a character, but I am now rooting for Camille Desmoulins (even though ultimately all of these men will have a bloody rendez-vous with Mme. Guillotine). With his stutter and brilliant writing and true devotion of democracy and actually bettering the lives of the 98% of France, it feels like in another time with another set of friends he would have been a truly great reformer. At its core, this novel is about the ties of friendship between Robespierre and Desmoulins and Desmoulins and Danton. Yes, there’s a revolution going on, but these relationships makes the novel so readable. And a bonus is that I now know the difference between the Jacobins and the Girondists. In fact, the whole mess is much less confusing now having read this novel. And by the way, I am no French Revolution newbie. I majored in French in college, took a class devoted to French history, and I’ve taught the French Revolution for the past five years. If you want to learn a lot about the French Revolution and you don’t care about feeling sorry for Marie Antoinette (she is on the periphery of the story), you ought to read this book.
Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? by Guy Consolmagno and Paul Mueller
The format is a little cheesy, but this was one of the most thoughtful and fruitful discussions about the relationship between science and faith. Both of these men are astronomers as well as being Jesuits and working for the Vatican Observatory. I never knew the Vatican had an observatory, but it doesn’t really surprise me. Really, though, what took me the most by surprise was the spiritual depth in this book. The book is broken into chapters that involve a conversation around a commonly asked question. My favorite chapter was about the end of the world. I did read this a few months ago, so my memory is a little fuzzy, but one of the men shared a story about babysitting a friend’s son. This child was convinced that there was a monster under his bed. Despite checking and re-checking, this little guy was unconvinced and inconsolable. Eventually Father Paul offered to lay down on the floor next to his bed until he fell asleep. The little boy was able to fall asleep, and Father Paul cried as he lay next to the bed. He cried because he would never have his own children, because of child abuse within the church, and because even though the child was afraid, the priest’s presence had made him feel safe. This was the conclusion of the chapter, they discuss what could cause the end of the world, the mind-blowing idea that the universe is expanding, and human mortality. And in the end Father Paul shared this story to illustrate the truth that despite all of our fears (which may be realized someday) God is with us. (“Surely I will be with you, even unto the end of the age.“) If you have any interest in science, or any interest in the intersection of science and faith, I would highly recommend this book. In fact, writing this little blurb has made me want to re-read it!