Books by women I re-read and loved in 2015

I spent most of 2015 working on my dissertation, so I didn’t have a ton of extra time for reading new books–but during this process, I re-read a number of books I first encountered years ago. Man, do I ever love the books I am writing about. These novels continue to be my favorites!

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger. This 1933 novel follows a young couple who are active with a socialist group in the Great Depression. They struggle with their relative privilege in a time of privation, and flail a bit as they search for meaningful work–hey, rather like we do in the present day! The novel is frequently very funny–if you enjoyed skewering the left-leaning male intellectual in The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. then you’ll be amused at the comedic lack of self-awareness the Marxist men display here–but it is also bitterly sad, particularly in light of how modern and unchanged so much of it feels.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I’ve read this maybe twice before, but I re-read it in one day and cried a little anyway. This novel is about a girl who develops the ability to taste emotions in food. When her mother bakes her a birthday cake, she is overwhelmed by her mother’s sadness and helplessness, and she turns to junk food to disconnect herself from these too-intimate insights into the emotional landscapes around her. As she gets older, she learns to manage it and can sort out the tastes of the tomato farmers and herb growers in a marinara sauce. It’s a whimsical premise taken quite seriously, and the result is a commentary not only on how we eat but how interconnected our lives are, how much we need those connections, but how hard it is to bear them.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. This novel has nothing to do with anything I was working on. I just had a hankering for something familiar in which I could learn something new, as is so often the case when one re-reads Middlemarch. Daniel Deronda was written later in Eliot’s life and, perhaps oddly, seems more morally rigid: Grandcourt is simply wicked without any of Bulstrode’s philantropy; Daniel and Rachel are pure and virtuous without Dorothea’s pride or character growth. But despite that and despite the book’s length, I was once again completely absorbed by Gwendolen’s rise and fall, Daniel’s yearning for a sense of cultural belonging, and all the glittering detail of their rather glamorous lives.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I must have read this book three or four times already, but what happens is that any time I pick it up to look for a certain quote or flesh out my notes for a chapter, I then get sucked in and read it all over again. It’s not a long read; it’s lush with description of venerable old houses and dazzling ballgowns and trembling lips or curls, but despite all that it moves like a police procedural through the stages of malaise and marital deception. Chapters end on the cusp of crisis–does May know, or doesn’t she?! Will Ellen stay, or won’t she?!–and you must keep reading. And despite all that, it’s still as tender and moving and unforgiving a portrait of romantic love as I’ve ever read. No wonder it won Wharton a Pulitzer.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Another book I’ve read half a dozen times, in part because I used to assign the novel to my college composition class. The comp textbook was themed around popular culture–advertising, narrative media, political journalism, etc.–so from there we would move to Atwood’s dystopian vision of a corporatocratic future, in which society is stratified into those who work for multinational companies (and live safely on their insular compounds) and those who live outside and have little choice but to consume the food and clothes and media these companies provide. In the character of Jimmy, who we see grow from a sweet little boy to an entitled but deeply inseure man to the seemingly sole survivor of an apocalyptic event, the novel makes a biting critique of toxic masculinity, late capitalism its compulsory consumerism, and climate change denialism all at once.
The sequels to this novel are not quite so sharp or compelling, but I think I’ll have to re-read those too just to stay in this world a little longer.

Not a novel, but I have to give a shout-out to Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo. First published in 1993, this book seems a little dated in some respects, such as its persistent concern with anorexia as a metaphor. But its sharp observations about bodies and capitalism, feminine beauty standards, and the shifts in cultural attitudes toward body size are still terrifyingly relevant, and I continually appreciate Bordo’s consistent if brief acknowledgements of how individuals of different races, genders, and cultural identifications negotiate these standards differently. More on this blog.

And if you missed it: books I read for the first time and loved in 2015!

Books by women I read and loved in 2015

The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon. Just as last year was my Year of Elizabeth Gaskell, 2015 was my year of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Like George Eliot, Braddon had the audacity to live with a man who was not her husband in the 19th century; unlike Eliot, Braddon wrote sensation novels about crime and adultery and mistaken identities, which were wildly popular in her day and somewhat forgotten in ours. Like P. D. James in our era, Braddon was a very smart and self-aware writer of genre. In fact, The Doctor’s Wife was so fun for me to read because it pushes back against some of the genre expectations. The doctor’s wife is not particularly clever but is an ardent reader of sensation novels, so you assume she’s going to end up like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. But she refuses, and meanwhile there’s a lot of great commentary on the genre as well as on popular art and poetry of the period.
The Doctor’s Wife is also long and rambling, so it might not be everyone’s jam. If not, try Lady Audley’s Secret, which is a fairly tight thriller and also includes some sick burns against Pre-Raphaelite painting. I also read Braddon’s Henry Dunbar, The Golden Calf, and The Phantom Fortune, which are a bit shorter and all very absorbing.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. My love for this quiet and meditative post-apocalyptic novel is well-documented.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. In summary, this book is like a checklist of details I would normally find boring or played out: small town in the 1970s, dead teenage girl, family drama, etc. etc. Yet this is one of the most elegantly written and finely imagined novels I’ve read all year. As the teen girl’s family staggers and breaks down in the wake of her death, the narrative wheels back and forth in time to reveal a thousand decisions and circumstances–racial microaggressions, gendered expectations, the burden of familial love and the loneliness of social isolation–that brought them all to this juncture…. suggesting that no one, but really everyone, is responsible for the tragedy. I drank the book up in two days and cried a lot as it was ending.
If you’ve read it and loved it too, check out this lovely and thoughtful interview with the author courtesy of Nicole S Chung on The Toast.

A Thousand Acres by Jane SmileyKing Lear set on a family-run farm in mid-century Midwest, told from the perspective of the eldest daughter Ginny. The Lear adaptation is no mere gimmick: although there are recognizable allusions to the play, this is Ginny’s story and the major and minor dramas of her life are modern and finely detailed. It’s a great food studies book: lots of domestic and agriculture asides–I was wound up for days after finishing this book, thinking that I ought to be mending or putting up pickles or cooking breakfast for somebody–and the characters’ struggle with organic and traditional farming technique is still very relevant. The book is also horrifying and tragic, but beautifully told.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. Most of the time when I am praising books, I say “I couldn’t put it down!” But I did put this book down, often, and I read it very slowly, especially at the beginning: it is so dense with sensory detail and cultural hints about its fantasy realms that it’s like every scene unfolds in slow motion. But this makes sense for the narrator, who travels the island pepper farm of his childhood to a decadent empire across the sea, and immerses himself completely in the experiences of being in the big city. I took little sips of this book for the first quarter of it, and then suddenly things picked up and hurtled toward a rather unexpected convergence of ghost story, adventure story, and love story. This is a book to buy in print, not on Kindle as I did; it’s a book that revels in books, the highs and lows of giving oneself over to storytelling, and it would be a pleasure to read it in a more tactile form.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I picked up this book at the recommendation of Michelle Vider and it did not disappoint. Do not judge it by the free sample, if you go that route, because the story begins very comfortable and familiar with an ordinary girl who turns out to be secretly extraordinary. But then there’s a battle a mere quarter of the way through, and then another, and then another, and the author does not pull punches on these scenes, which are rendered in cinematic detail and are all the scarier and higher stakes in contrast with scenes of beauty and wonder and the raw vulnerability of the heroine. I did not mean to read this book in three days but I couldn’t do otherwise.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I actually started this book several years ago, but set it aside for some reason. I remember liking it well enough to read some passages out loud to my partner of that time, but I wasn’t expecting the level of self-referential snark and breaking the fourth wall, and probably moved on to a novel of more traditional manners. But I returned to it this year expressly for those qualities, and it is a delight, even though I was deeply horrified by Catherine’s terrible friends. Also: “That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure” is the perfect hollaback, and while I don’t think Catherine is capable of delivering it with the icy contempt it deserves, I am sure that I can.

Honorable mentions: I did read Ancillary Justice, and while I found the writing a little unsatisfying–it’s hard to keep up with that ambitious worldbuilding, maybe–I did find its galaxy and its story very interesting and would be happy to talk about it with you! (In fact I have a half-written post in the draft box that uses the ship’s plural perspectives to draw out some of my weird feelings about working in retail, so we’ll get to it.) And I read Lolly Willowes, a short and pleasant novel about a 19th century woman who gives the finger to the marriage plot and becomes a witch. A post I wrote about that book for my food blog got Freshly Pressed and now I have something like three thousand “followers,” some percentage of which may be real humans.

Last year, when I tallied up my favorite books written by female authors, I resolved to find and read more books by queer and nonwhite authors in 2015. I did not fully see this resolution through, in a large part due to the unusual circumstances of my year: I quit my full-time job to work toward completing my dissertation, leaving less money and less mental energy for leisure reading. When I did read for fun, I chose cheap or free books within my comfort zones: popular novels by 19th century women, fantasy fiction, etc. I also re-read a lot of books this year: some for my dissertation, others for comfort.

For the next year, I look forward to doing a little more research and expanding my literary horizons: Ancillary Justice gave me a taste for science fiction, a genre I haven’t spent much time with since I was a teen, and I know there are a number of women out there doing amazing work in the genre. If you’d like to follow along, I keep my shelf up to date on Booklikes.

On strong being the “new” pretty

I drafted this post months ago when the posts linked below were posted; just now got around to fleshing out the text I wanted to quote.

At The Daily Dot, Anne Thériault addressed the implications of hashtags like #StrongIsTheNewPretty and #StrongIsTheNewSkinny in the context of current media depictions of so-called Strong Female Characters (with a shout-out to this essay by Tasha Robinson which I loved). Thériault’s argument is that the new boss is pretty much the same as the old boss–same old racist, ablist, oppressive beauty norms dressed up as “inspiration” or “empowerment.”

….We don’t need updated standards for how women look or act—we need to scrap those standards altogether. We need characters and memes that reflect the diversity of women’s lives.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville (where I first saw the above link) adds that this supposed celebration of strong women rings a bit hollow because when women exhibit strength and fortitude in ways that challenge oppressive norms, they are definitively not celebrated.

Never is that more clear than when a woman actually exhibits strength in her own defense. When she draws boundaries. When she physically harms a man who is trying to harm her. When she engages in self-care. When she categorically refuses to put up with splaining or harassment or catcalling or whatever other horseshit variation of misogyny to which some dude is trying to subject her. . . . That’s how the Strong Woman becomes the weak bitch, when a woman is strong for herself and for the pleasure of nobody else.

Both of these posts are brief but thoughtful and worth a quick read. To this, I wanted to add that not only is fitspo just another shade of thinspo, it’s not anywhere near a new shade. The athletic, fit, toned female body has been celebrated as the ideal female body for several decades. I’ll let Susan Bordo, author of Unbearable Weight, do the talking. My notes are from this edition: Bordo, Susan.  Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. For those of you following along at home, a .pdf of the relevant chapter, “Reading the Slender Body,” is currently hosted by Middlebury. This essay was first published in 1989; the 10th anniversary edition is largely unchanged, and yet its argument is still relevant to this conversation we are having in 2015.

The stated purpose of “Reading the Slender Body” is to explore how diet and exercise are encoded and normalized in culture, and to define the ideal of slenderness that dominates contemporary visual imagery of bodies (particularly women’s bodies). Bordo begins by discussing how bodies can function as symbols in two contrasting ways: body shape is sometimes interpreted to indicate the individual’s position in the social hierarchy, and sometimes it is read as an expression of the internal state of the individual (187). She gives a few historical examples to illustrate: in the early 19th century, successful tradesmen might flaunt a bulging stomach, considered by themselves and their peers to be an outward symbol of material wealth; in the same era, aristocrats favored a slender form that seemed distant and aloof from base hunger or bourgeois grasping. Eventually the bourgeois too came to embrace a genteel slenderness, and around that time excess weight gradually accrued the connotation of moral laxity. The late 19th century is when doctors and what I suppose you might call lifestyle experts started advocating weight loss to the general public, although this would go in and out of vogue over the next century. In a similar fashion, the symbolic function of muscular bodies has shifted: where visible muscles were once associated with manual labor, animality, and weak mental faculties, we now sometimes read muscularity as a sign of self-control and self-discipline (191,193).

Of course, the interpretation of the body is very dependent on other intersecting signifiers of race, class, gender, and so forth. To return to the example of muscles, it’s important to observe that lower class men and men of color with bulging muscles still risk being depicted or viewed as animalistic. And since muscles continue to be associated with masculinity, the muscles of women are expected to be sleek and toned, not bulging. Combined with the specific expectations of female physicality, the slender body is particularly “overdetermined” as the ideal for women, causing women to grapple with it to a greater degree than most men (187, 205).

So what is a “slender” body? One that is not only shed of excess weight, but has smooth lines and taut surfaces. “Until the 1980s, excess weight was the target of most ads for diet products,” Bordo writes; “today, one is much more likely to find the enemy constructed as bulge, fat, or flab” (189). A slender body can be visibly muscled, but not to the point of disrupting a sleek, spare silhouette. A slender female body may have prominent breasts or buttocks, but those attributes should only set off the contrast of a trim waistline and toned limbs. The slender ideal is not necessarily a small body but a “contained” body, with firm flesh that doesn’t wiggle. Bordo considers the slender ideal of the 1980s and the more waifish ideal of the 1960s as more alike than different:

This perspective helps illuminate an important continuity of meaning in our culture between compulsive dieting and body-building, and it reveals why it has been so easy for contemporary images of female attractiveness to oscillate between a spare, “minimalist” look and a solid, muscular, athletic look. . . The two ideas, thought superficially very different, are united in battle against a common enemy: the soft, the loose, unsolid, excess flesh. (191).

In other words, Bordo would almost certainly see “strong is the new pretty” as mere repackaging, another rotation of fashion’s wheel. Sometimes the “it” girl is a waif, sometimes a bombshell, sometimes a sporty Cool Girl, but in late capitalism she is always a fit girl.

Bordo cites one reason for this–and perhaps one key difference between weight loss obsession today versus the 19th century–from another theorist named Robert Crawford: contemporary capitalism puts two simultaneous and conflicting burdens on its constituents. We are supposed to be producers and providers in this economy, and so we must suppress our desires in order to be productive workers. We are also supposed to be consumers, and as consumers we are continually barraged with products meant to incite desire. “The regulation of desire thus becomes an ongoing problem, as we find ourselves continually besieged by temptation, while socially condemned for overindulgence” (199). The ideal of the slender body emerges out of that hostility toward uncontrolled indulgence, or perhaps the anxiety of our lack of control in general:

The firm, developed body has become a symbol of correct attitude; it means that one ‘cares’ about oneself and how one appears to others, suggesting willpower, energy, control over infantile impulse, the ability to “shape your life” (195).

On the flip side, if a body is not firm and contained, it may be read as undisciplined, uncontrolled, willful, careless—a bias that is has been shown again and again in studies of workplaces, medical services, or social relationships. (Here’s a recent one.) Weight bias demonstrates both of the symbolic functions of body shape: in a great deal of media, journalism, and social research, fat on a body is viewed as an outward symbol of inward lack of control. Not coincidentally, fat on a body is also frequently read as a lower-class indicator, or at the very least “absence of all those ‘managerial’ abilities that, according to the dominant ideology, confer upward mobility” (195). The ideology of the slender body feeds into existent biases against nonconforming, bulging, soft bodies. (Which is, after all, most bodies!)

Insert unfortunately necessary disclaimers here: this is not an essay against slenderness! There is nothing wrong with being fit or toned or what have you. Bordo’s essay is a criticism of the ideology of the slender body, a complicated system of ideas and images that elevate the status of slenderness at the expense of other body shapes. The ideology of the slender body is the violent, militaristic language of “targeting” bulges and “burning” fat; the near uniformity of slenderness in the world’s most visible women, who are nonetheless Photoshopped free of their creases and curves; the ubiquity of fat bias; and in a thousand other cultural artifacts.

And this is also not to say that it is wrong to enjoy or admire physical strength, to find one’s own strength empowering, or to work to become stronger. Being strong feels great! And as Bordo emphasizes throughout her chapters, women should not be thought of as “dupes” to certain ideologies of beauty; if women pursue the bodily ideal, it may well be because we desire the privileges that supposedly come with it. Or, perhaps for some, to reject the full-figured curviness of a Victorian or postwar ideal may be a way to embrace “liberation from a domestic, reproductive destiny” (206).

But the aim of “Reading the Slender Body” is to draw out some of the encoded meanings of this body type as it is depicted and reproduced in culture, and that includes shedding light on the ways it operates as a vehicle of oppression. Strength is a privilege enjoyed by the temporarily able-bodied, and being strong does not always correlate to appearing fit or strong; bodies that do not visually meet fitspo goals are not less valuable bodies. And I wish to tie Bordo’s essay back to the links that introduced this post, which remind us that the expressions of strength we value in women are still severely curtailed by cultural demands to be supportive, available, and accommodating. If anything, trying to squeeze “X” (strong, fit) into the framework of “Y” (pretty, skinny) only emphasizes that containment.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Summer Movies Matter

Where have I been these last few months? Writing. Cooking. Job-hunting (again). Updating my food blog. And watching a lot of new TV and movies.

I have not and probably will not read anything about Jurassic World I like more than this post by Michelle Vider, “Drink up that toxic masculinity”:

So I’m walking away from Jurassic World having enjoyed it an enormous amount, both for the spectacle it provided and for its view of toxic masculinity. It isn’t enough to consume media and check off the Y/N box next to IS THIS FEMINIST. That’s not how it works. Feminism is a lens through which we can mark the continued growth and evolution of gender roles, and that learning process should never be as easy as a Yes or No question.

That’s a pretty fair summary of my own response to this movie. I had a blast.Was it a good movie? Nah, I don’t think so. Can I recommend it? Probably only if you, like me, went to see Jurassic Park twelve times in the second-run theater when you were a kid. Yet I woke up thinking about the film for several days after, and there are very nearly enough Things I Love about this movie to make a list!

  1. So much homage to Jurassic Park. Jurassic World is basically a Jurassic Park fanvid. Some of the shots are framed exactly the same. JW characters revisit the location of a significant JP scene and it’s all lovingly recreated and covered with a layer of bones and dirt. A character wears a vintage JP tee.
  2. The movie’s twin villains are Big Corporate Entity and the Greedy General Public who forces Corporate Entity to churn out bigger and scarier attractions. This conflict is delivered without either irony or false earnestness, which is remarkable because of course churning out bigger and scarier attractions than JP is exactly what the movie itself does.
  3. The level of depth, dialogue, and character development was pretty much exactly what I expected when I saw the following bit in the trailer: 
  4. i.e. not very deep, not very developed. And yet! I was pleasantly surprised by this film more than once. Mostly by which characters were allowed to survive.
  5. My companions and I laughed so hard throughout the whole movie that a man across the theater yelled at us. That’s how much fun we were having.

I would never in a million years have gone to see Mad Max: Fury Road if not for Tumblr. I’m not familiar with the series, I’m not into vehicle-based action movies, and if you told me that the series centers around a lone wolf type who wanders around the desert, I would have politely declined. But instead I heard that the film centered around women. Not just one token female character, but lots of women. “Dodecabechdel test,” actually, was the line that hooked me. I couldn’t think of another film that featured twelve women all talking together. And talk about a movie that I think about for days after viewing it: I saw MM:FR in theaters nearly a month ago and not a day goes by that I don’t reflect on it at least a little.

There’s so much good writing about this movie online and, to be honest, some of my favorites are just the one-off posts on Tumblr that zero in on tiny character moment like Nux not knowing what a tree is or the implications of Max’s back tattoo. But here are a few longer pieces I liked:

  • From The Daily Dot: “Fury Road passes the Bechdel Test, of course; it also passes the Mako Mori Test, on at least seven different counts.Mad Max: Fury Road leaves those mediocre measurements of gender representation—which the vast majority of Hollywood films never even attempt to pass—so far behind that it seems almost silly even to use them as yardsticks in the wake of the strength of Fury Road‘s narrative. . .  Fury Road is every inch the high-testosterone, manly action movie of your dreams. And even when they show weakness, its female characters are still fully in charge of their own destinies.”
  • Tumblr user and fetal amputee Laura wrote about how incredible she felt seeing Imperator Furiosa kick ass onscreen with one hand. Then she created to write about it some more. Then she was interviewed by Nerdist.
  • In addition to having beautiful composition and dramatic use of color in each shot, this movie is remarkable in its use of center-framed shots to focus your eye on the action in the center of the screen. Tumblr user bonehandledknife digs into this a little further, comparing Fury Road to The Avengers: Age of Ultron and reframing shots from MM:FR to show how they would have looked if they had been framed in more traditional golden ratios. Conclusion: center-framing was crucial to portraying the female characters as people rather than decorations.
  • More Tumblr: here’s how the narrative would have gone if Mad Max got the conventional Movie Hero treatment.

I did watch the new season of Orange is the New Black. I probably won’t make a separate post–most of the Things I Love about the show still stand–but I did just want to say that I really enjoyed the season. Seasons 1 and 2 had unmistakable villains and high-stakes conflict; Season 3 stands out because those elements are much less clearly defined. On the other hand, S3 focused more on developing and deepening relationships–and showed that the ability to grow and connect is the defining trait of which characters become heroes or villains.

  1. Taystee, Poussey, Suzanne, Black Cindy, and Janae have to mend their relationships after Season 2’s big villain, Vee, tore them apart and left them wounded. Their process of making peace with themselves and each other is mostly private and internal, which is not something we’ve gotten to see much of in a show with a billion characters, most of whom don’t go in for long earnest talks.
    Taystee’s been a favorite of mine for a while, and her realization that she is effectively the new mother of the group was hilarious, touching, and wrenching all at the same time.
  2. Big Boo and Pennsatucky have both been villains of a sort in earlier seasons, but it’s impossible not to root for them in S3 because we watch them grow and confront some of their fears. I’ve always felt that Pennsatucky was a character not well understood by the show–one of the few in S1 who didn’t get a lot of depth or sympathy from the plot–but she certainly got her character development in 3.
  3. On the other hand, Piper seems not to have learned a thing. Like the New Corporate Overlords who take over management of Litchfield, her decisions generate a lot of pain and conflict and serve no one but herself. Arguably, she and they are the two Big Bads this season.
  4. Season 1 dropped the viewers right in the middle of an insular community with tensions and hierarchies firmly in place; we see through Piper’s eyes as she learns to navigate them. Season 2 shakes up those dynamics by introducing a rival queen. But in Season 3, we see a lot of the characters we’ve come to know either on their way up or down. The previous leaders have left, died, or stepped down; we’re seeing their followers attempt to step up and lead in their place. Even the subplot backstories for Chang and Norma, who are both typically treated as ciphers or jokes, have narratives about choosing to lead or follow. It may feel like a radical shift to see origin stories three seasons in, but as the series continues I think we’ll get a sense of the circular pattern of such shifts.

I am also watching Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I have so many feelings about it, but since most of those feelings are “!!!!!!” I think I’ll have to wait until the series ends before I can gather my thoughts. But if you want to talk about it with me in comments, have at it.

5 Things I Love About the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall

As I noted in my books by women roundup, I loved Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I had grown very skeptical about historical fiction, because I’ve read very little of it that had writing chops necessary to sell the historical research. Mantel’s books work for me because they are so well written and carefully observed; it’s an interpretation of history, but it’s also a really absorbing narrative. And while there is certainly plenty of the sex, poison, and political intrigue that make long-dead royalty so fascinating to us now, the conflict in these stories go much deeper than greed or sexual jealousy. England under Henry VIII is on the verge of its Renaissance, but half the country is still wild, muddy, and savage. The protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, spent his young adulthood overseas, learning the art of war from the Italians, the science of memory, and the craft of good business in Italian and Dutch counting-houses. His Continental education makes him a rich and influential man in England,  while England’s court is torn apart by terribly primal, carnal matters of husbandry and breeding.

The character of Cromwell as drawn by Mantel fascinates me because he does nothing without a purpose, and yet it’s not clear what drives him. He accumulates wealth, but gives much of it away, so greed  isn’t his motive. He cultivates safe spaces for Protestant religious practice but retains a lifelong loyalty to a Catholic cardinal. He rises in court and in authority, but doesn’t get drunk on power; his inner monologue reveals a man who never believes he is completely safe. But he likes good things and an orderly home; he likes for jobs to be well done and for a kingdom to be well run; he likes for people to get their due–and he will take risks–calculated risks–to procure these ends. Mantel weaves these details into complexity rather than inconsistency, and if we don’t get to know Cromwell deeply, we can still recognize what is human in him.

Every time Cromwell walks into Anne’s rooms, he is greeted with an exaggerated tableau of virtuous domesticity.


I drank up the BBC adaptation as soon as I could get it, and it was overall an extremely satisfying experience, although I still can’t believe they crammed two books into six episodes. I would watch another six hours of this adaptation, no question. Here’s what made the television version work for me:

  1. After the hot mess of The Tudors, it’s such a relief to see a well-cast ensemble. All the characters look just as they ought. Henry is older–old enough to know better–and kingly, a big man who is imposing but not menacing, princely until he loses his temper. Anne is small and tightly wound, pretty but a little drawn around the eyes, a raw nerve. Cromwell is perhaps more handsome than he ought to be, but retains just enough roughness that you can see why other characters think he’s a thug. I have a slighter harder time telling apart some of the senior lords and the boyish courtiers who put on the pantomime skewering Cardinal Wolsey, but one might easily argue that the latter are interchangeable.
  2. Along the same lines: age appropriate actors. Mark the dancing-master is young, just a boy really, which makes his involvement in the trial even more tragic. Cromwell’s nephews and ward are very young men, and Thomas More is very old. It’s more than an aesthetic choice. For the men, age diversity underscores the dynamics of apprenticeship to mastery and old guard to new guard that shape political change. For the women, realistic age diversity shows us insight into womens’ lives we don’t always get to see, since we have these ideas that older times must have fetishized maidenhood even more than we do, and that women young and old were equally powerless. Anne, nearly 30 at the time of her coronation, is noticeably older than many of the women in her court, and for the most part considers them unworthy of her attention. Anne and Mary Boleyn are both very beautiful; though some members of the court have taken mere children as brides, it’s not exactly the norm, and it’s clear that the Boleyn women know the value of their adult beauty. Johann, Cromwell’s sister-in-law and sometime lover, is attractive and appropriately lined and aged for a fortysomething woman who hasn’t had the costly cosmetics and care of the court. Jane Seymour, 20 years old, looks real-20 and not Hollywood-20, still girlishly round and blank in the face.
  3. Jane, Jane, Jane. I love Mantel’s Jane. In so many versions of this story, Jane is the milquetoast angel in the house, so acquiescent that she demurely dies after giving Henry his much-longed-for son. In Mantel’s books and in this adaptation, Jane is weird. She is quiet and awkward, certainly inexperienced, but not stupid or simple. No one likes her or pays any attention to her until Cromwell does and then (always more of a follower than he’ll admit) the king does. Her family panics and starts trying to teach her how to be courted; she basically ignores them, prioritizing her own safety and sense of rightness. Jane is on the rise just as Bring Up the Bodies ends; I cannot wait to see her as Queen when the third book is published.
  4. Henry is well-cast and well-played. Somebody in the show refers to Henry as a lion; you can pet him and pull at his ears if you like, but you have to remember that he has claws. Book and film depict this Henry, a Renaissance prince who must be many things to many people. He is a man who was raised to be king, and he is indeed very regal and knowledgeable and artful–and he also believes in profane female magic and a vengeful God. He is a man who loves his buddies, and craves their approval as well as that of the woman he loves.  He is a man who is surprisingly prudish about sex–at least, people talking about it openly–who has at least one child out of wedlock. He is a deeply vulnerable and frightened man, who has bad dreams and imposter syndrome. One of the big questions of the book is: what is it to be a subject of a man who is, after all, just a man, yet who is said to be God’s anointed ruler of the land? Henry onscreen is a man who to all appearances believes himself imbued with divine right and power, and yet glances out of the corner of his eye at his lady love or his laughing court, smiling tightly, uncertain what the joke is or what her reaction will be. Cromwell is loyal to this sovereign lord and serves his interests, yet to do so, he must monitor those moments of weakness closely and swoop in before the king does something rash.
  5. This is not to exclude the excellent performances by Claire Foy and Mark Rylance, written about elsewhere. This show has excellent face-acting all around. In court you can’t say everything you feel–that’s a good way to lose position, or perhaps even your head–and in the book, part of Cromwell’s job is read between the lines and understand what the king means apart from what he says. For example, when Anne demands that Thomas More be arrested, Henry lifts his eyes eloquently to Cromwell–what can I do?–and Cromwell understands that he must arrest More but leave him a way out. For his part, Cromwell says little to the gentlefolk, especially when they say and do crazy things to him. Mary Boleyn practically throws herself at him, and his face is mostly impassive–waiting–but you can also see a little fear, because what would happen to him if he were to forget his place with her? Mary is not too greatly loved but her family, but a breach of conduct with her would be a good reason for his enemies to attack him.

More fun: Hilary Mantel published an excerpt from her character notes for a stage adaptation of the books, and it is a little bit of prose poetry itself.

The Laws of (Marketing) Magic

A few months ago, I wrote on Facebook that about 60% of the staff at my current job refers to my work as “doing my magic.” It’s a variation of an old meme:

  1. Something is needed
  2. Sara does her magic
  3. Profit!

At first, I was somewhat flattered by this–“I really feel like a magician, y’all” was my exact phrasing. But it’s starting to wear on me a bit, so I thought I would take the opportunity to remind everyone that even magic has rules. Consider Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration from the Harry Potter universe: while magic allows you to summon or conjure many things, there are certain materials or conditions that can’t be created magically. One is food, which–as Hermione explains–can be multiplied or summoned but not made by magic. Money is another; I imagine that money can’t even be multiplied, because that would create substantial problems with an economy based on precious metals. If a wizard wants money or food, they must trade goods or services like any Muggle.

In the kinds of marketing I do–writing and designing promotional material for print and digital distribution–the relevant magical law is the Iron Triangle. Also known as the project management triangle, but obviously “iron” sounds a lot more alchemical.


The version of this I learned from working with printers is: you can have it fast, cheap, or good; pick any two. In other words, you can optimize the costs of your project (which tends to be the major concern for nonprofits I’ve worked with) and you can have it done well, but you have to allow time and plan well. Timing and planning is not a specialty of my current employer, however, and I find myself butting up against the laws of marketing magic regularly as my supervisors assign me last-minute tasks or make eleventh-hour changes. And while they understand certain mathematics of production–if we order double the brochures that we planned, the final bill will be greater than the price estimate we were given–that it might take more time to print and fold those additional brochures came as a surprise to them.

A couple other magical laws that may apply to marketing:

Knowing the true name of a thing makes it easier to magically affect. So, for example, when I am asked to remove all the Times New Roman font from a document that contains no TNR, I have no idea what to do. (Turns out my supervisor does not like serif fonts, period, but I did not know that at the time.)

Certain magic cannot be performed without artifacts of power. I just created a glossy full-color trifold brochure in Microsoft Publisher, y’all. And it looks pretty okay. But it was not easy. You have to sort of jury-rig bleeds and crop marks unless you want a white border all the way around your piece. Also, you can’t do much to modify the .pdf resolution settings, and you can’t create a CMYK document even pretty much anything printed in color is printed in CMYK. I yearn for Adobe software.

More fun with the magic of making-to-order:

How a web design goes to hell, from The Oatmeal

A sweeter, gentler story about book design at The Toast

An entire Tumblr dedicated to difficult clients.