Review: The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be KingKara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King* is what I would call a speculative biography. The subject of the book, Hatshepsut, Egypt’s second female king, is shrouded in mystery for the very simple fact that she lived a very long time ago and thus very little is known about the details of her reign.

Egyptologist Kara Cooney (you may recognize her name, since she produced a Discovery Channel series on Ancient Egypt) attempts to fill in the gaps with The Woman Who Would Be King. Ms. Cooney is careful to note which of her conclusions are speculative, and which are based in archaeological evidence (the book’s Notes section is extensive), though the book necessarily relies heavily on the former.

Hatshepsut, though she ruled for a period of over twenty years, has been overlooked in history compared to, say, Cleopatra VII, Ms. Cooney argues, because Hatshepsut does not fit patriarchal culture’s paradigm of a powerful woman ruler. Based on the extant evidence, Hatshepsut did not come to power through treachery or force, nor did she make a bad end. Her reign was marked by peace and prosperity for Egypt’s people (though not for Egypt’s southern neighbor, Nubia).

Though I am an ardent feminist, I found this argument less interesting than the history Ms. Cooney presents in The Woman Who Would Be King. In its pages we learn about the elaborate religious rituals Egyptian kings were expected to perform (I’d rather like to see such strenuous feats as a requirement for members of the U.S. Congress), the ways that royal families consolidated and retained power, and why it’s so difficult to understand the psychology of important historical figures like Hatshepsut, her adviser Senenmut, and her co-king Thutmose III.

Hatshepsut’s story, in Ms. Cooney’s telling, is one of political savvy, astute emphasis of her important religious role, and careful cultivation of a changing public gender identity. Were she alive today, I suspect Hatshepsut would be the world’s foremost expert on re-branding.

I think The Woman Who Would Be King will be be of particular interest to readers of historical nonfiction, people with an interest in Ancient Egypt, and anyone who enjoyed Ms. Cooney’s Out of Egypt series. I’d be very interested to read Ms. Cooney’s perspective on a historical figure for whom we have more records and artifacts in the future.

Ms. Cooney explores so many possible ways of thinking about Hatshepsut’s life that I found myself wishing I could read one narrative all the way through to its end. I haven’t read any historical fiction about Hatshepsut, but my friend and fellow blogger Audra at Unabridged Chick, who reads tons of historical fiction, recommends Daughter of the Gods, by Stephanie Thornton.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“We were born before the wind”: Van Morrison’s Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics

Lit Up InsideVan Morrison’s collection of lyrics, Lit Up Inside*, is out today, and if you’re a fan, you’re going to want to pick it up. Famously private, Mr. Morrison doesn’t often comment on his work, so this selection (roughly 100), which is about a third of his total output, is itself a statement.

The lyrics chosen range from the famous early work (“Moondance,” “Gloria,” “Brown Eyed Girl”) to songs from his recent catalogue. Many are grounded in the singer’s native Ireland, in its cities and working people (the introduction by Eammon Hughes focuses in particular on urban geography), and of course in Van Morrison’s romantic lyricism and interest in the divine.

Like his music, the lyrics collected in Lit Up Inside often defy categorization; some are really lyrics alone, requiring music to reach their potential greatness; some read like Beat poetry; some are prayers. All of them made me want to listen to Van Morrison, which is perhaps the best compliment I can pay the book. 

Thanks to Lit Up Inside, I just revisited two of my favorite albums.  Astral Weeks is just plain brilliant, and who doesn’t love Moondance? “And It Stoned Me” is one of the best songs about childhood of all time. “Crazy Love” is on my top-five list of greatest love songs. “Everyone” was our wedding recessional, and now our son likes to dance to it on sunny Sunday mornings. 

I have maybe five of his forty-odd albums, so I’m not a die-hard Van Morrison fan by any means, but this selection gave me the opportunity to focus on the lyrics alone, and thus Mr. Morrison’s engagement with literature, religion, history, and social concerns (reflected in Mr. Morrison’s choice of the venerable and independent City Lights as the United States publisher).  But it also made me think about how poetry and music make each other, and I think for Van Morrison, even more than, say, Leonard Cohen, the two are inextricably linked.  If you’d like to know Van Morrison better, I wholeheartedly recommend Lit Up Inside.

Here’s a link to “Into the Mystic,” which is the poem of the week.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

photo (132)Yes, I’ll talk about the controversial title in a second, but let me say this first: at one point, I looked up from reading this book and said to my husband, “Hilary Mantel is unbelievably good.” One look at my face and he replied, “That good, huh?” Yes, that good.

Now, about the title story, which is the last story in the collection: it’s a good story, a fascinating premise. It does not depict the assassination of Margaret Thatcher, but the narration makes it clear that in the story’s alternate timeline, the assassination happened. The story is an examination of character, of history, of choices. The narrator, a woman who lives near an eye clinic where the Prime Minister has had surgery, lets in a man she thinks is a plumber, but who turns out to be an IRA operative. He holds her as a semi-willing hostage, and the pair discuss what he intends to do. It’s chilling and strange, and none to flattering toward Margaret Thatcher, who is still a divisive figure in the UK (Baroness Thatcher died last year), where the controversy over the story is much louder and nastier than it has been here (there have been Orwellian calls for Ms. Mantel’s imprisonment, for example). However, I imagine that if a similar story had been published here about Ronald Reagan so close to his death, the commentary would be just as deafening.

As a girl, I loved reading about Margaret Thatcher; I considered her a role model, since at the time I wanted to go into politics (also astrophysics—ah, the follies of junior high). Now, as an adult, I admire her in some respects, though I don’t think I’d find her domestic policies agreeable. What I’m trying to say is that I have no ill-will toward Margaret Thatcher, and my only objection to Ms. Mantel’s story is that though it depicts Margaret Thatcher as a public figure, not a private person, it should perhaps have been held back for another year or two in deference to Baroness Thatcher’s family’s mourning.

By the way, I do not know who chose the title for this collection of stories, but the cover suggests to me that the American publisher, in any case, is not at all alarmed by the prospect of controversy, and perhaps welcomes it.

Most stories in the collection have been previously published (the oldest, by publication, dates back to 1993, but most were published after 2000), and their contemporary settings will come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Ms. Mantel’s glorious rendering of Tudor England in the Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In “Sorry to Disturb” (which, incidentally, I think would have made a better title) a woman living in Saudi Arabia comes to regret allowing a stranger in to use the phone, which leads to an increasingly awkward series of social encounters. Another story, “Comma,” finds a young girl and her slightly older friend sneaking around an invalid’s house; rarely have I found a child-narrator so interesting.

“How Shall I Know You?” finds an author on a dispiriting stop of her book tour, alternately loathing and pitying the people around her. The last line of the story took my breath away; was a good story up to that point, but the last line made it blossom into something magnificent.

Other characters in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher* include a girl watching her sister slowly die from anorexia, a philandering husband, a traveler on a train who sees her father’s ghost, and couple on holiday who leave too much unsaid.

These stories are often grim, often chilly, and often funny. The characters tend toward the grotesque, but reveal just as much about the reader as they do about themselves.

And oh lord, the language. Ms. Mantel’s images are detailed, strange, perfect. A girl’s twisted hair ribbon makes “her head [look] like a badly tied parcel” (40); table linen is fringed “like the ears of a teddy bear” (25); “big eyes—unripe fruits–were bulgy with incomprehension” (107). In context, they can be eerie, or funny, but they’re always illuminating.

Hilary Mantel is an absolute wonder. If you like short stories and exquisite writing, don’t miss this book.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“the stooping haunted readers”: Louis MacNeice’s “The British Museum Reading Room”

I just got a copy of Van Morrison’s Lit Up Inside (City Lights), and I’m looking forward to diving in soon (I hope to talk about it in next week’s poetry post).

In the meantime, here’s a poem by another Irishman, Louis MacNeice, which has nothing to do with brown-eyed girls. “The British Museum Reading Room” is, I think, my favorite poem of his, and I hope you’ll tell me what you think in the comments!

Recommended Reading: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie

photo (131)As you might have noticed, the photos that accompany my review posts are not the lovely, high-definition pictures of a book cover alone, but rather photos of the copies of the books that I read.

One of the reasons for this is that I’m perhaps overly cautious when it comes to copyright, so I don’t like the idea of pulling covers from Amazon or publishers’ websites.

The other reason, though, is that I want to show writers and publishers that I am reading physical books.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an e-books-are-evil rant; even though I find them problematic in many ways, I understand why many people like them. I even have an e-reader (an ancient Nook) that I used when I was pregnant and commuting by train or bus and didn’t want to lose my grip to turn pages (much as I love Boston, it’s not the kind of town where pregnant women are automatically offered a seat, even if they are visibly pregnant). It was also a godsend when I was nursing and only had one arm free. But ever since, it’s been a backup device, there if I think I might want to read Jane Eyre or Sense and Sensibility on a trip.

I prefer physical books, and for this simple and selfish reason, I don’t want printed books to go the way of the illuminated manuscript. I like their heft, I like flipping the pages, I like seeing the type and the layout and width of the edge left to read. I like seeing my friends’ books arrayed on their shelves. I like seeing my own books arrayed on my shelves. I like bookmarks, reading lights, notes in the margins, and of course, reading glasses.

(I love books.)

And that is why you’ll see my humble photos of the books I read for as long as I run this site.

And that brings me to Gutenberg’s Apprentice*, Alix Christie’s debut novel about loyalty, family, religion, invention, and the printing press.

Let me say first, before I delve into the novel, that is is a gorgeous book. Ms. Christie owns and operates a letterpress, and the book designer must have taken her expertise into account when putting Gutenberg’s Apprentice together. The typefaces are perfectly chosen, the initial capitals resemble those in Gutenberg’s books, and the cover is spectacular. The map inside is hand-drawn and serves as the book’s endpaper, too.

Now, like most people who took Modern Euro in high school, I knew that Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type, which allowed books to be printed on an unprecedented scale. Books became accessible (if sometimes dangerous to own) and widespread, which meant, among other things, that more writers could influence more people.

What I did not know, however, is just how much work it took to print the Gutenberg Bible, and how much the hand of man figured in the machine that changed the world.

The apprentice in Gutenberg’s Apprentice is Peter Schoeffer, a young scribe dedicated to the art of copying manuscripts. Called home to Mainz by his foster father, the merchant Johann Fust, he hopes that he’ll soon be back in Paris, working on a large commission. To his dismay, Fust wants to apprentice him to a wild-eyed man named Johann Gutenberg, who is working on an invention that Peter views initially as evil, the work of the devil meant to eclipse the beauty of hand-lettered manuscripts.

Duty to Fust, who rescued him from an impoverished orphanhood, prevails, and Peter joins Gutenberg’s highly secret workshop. Backed by Fust’s funding, Gutenberg hopes to perfect his movable type technique and reap the rewards of selling cheaply printed books; Fust, too, hopes that printed books will make their own market and make him even richer.

Peter finds the work backbreaking, the master harsh and impatient on his best days, and the need for secrecy claustrophobic. Slowly, too, he finds himself caught between his master and his father, neither of whom trusts the other. Mainz is a city gripped by conflict; the complicated politics of Church and guild constantly threaten the work of printing, especially when it’s finally decided to begin a massive project: printing the Bible.

The work, always under threat of discovery, stretches on for years, but in those years, Peter begins to find in the workshop a kind of family. He takes pleasure and pride in his work, but more than that, begins to believe that they have been ordained by God Himself to accomplish this great task. The frame of the novel finds him looking back over these weary years:

He once believed that what they did would lift them higher, ever higher–he sensed the godliness that flows throughout Creation brush them. Until it cracked, and their whole workshop filled with anger and recriminations. With each succeeding year Peter has seen the world become unhinged, cacophonous, the very earth stunned by the pounding of machines. And he’s begun to wonder if God did not unleash some darker force with that great shining net of words. (4)

It does seem, given the labor involved—carving molds, casting type, mixing ink, pressing paper and vellum—a kind of miracle that the Gutenberg Bible ever came to exist. I had the privilege of seeing one, once, at the University of Texas, and it is a marvel. It’s enormous (two volumes). Its paper is creamy and its columns perfectly set, the ink a deep, crisp black. Gutenberg’s Apprentice helped me see the immense effort that went into creating this book, the men behind the machinery.

Ms. Christie’s book immerses the reader in mid-fifteenth-century Mainz, in its tangible details and its political climate; we feel the mood of the times. Her prose is straightforward and clean, bringing technical details to artful life.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice invites us to imagine how we would have viewed the printing press had we lived half a thousand ago, and how the inventors of the press might view our own historical moment. The sense of fear and hostility, curiosity and anticipation toward the printing press resonates with our own culture’s ambivalence about the proliferation of texts and voices in the age of digital media. Who can know what was meant to be, and who can predict what comes next?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

In Memoriam: Carolyn Kizer

Carolyn Kizer, who won the Pulitzer Prize nearly thirty years ago, and who was one of the most respected American poets, died last week. As is too often the case, I do not know her work as well as I ought to, but I’ll be taking the time this week to read some of her poems; perhaps you will too?

I commend to you her utterly charming poem “A Child’s Guide to Central Ohio” and the fiery yet funny “Pro Femina.” Her final collection of poems appeared in 2001–Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000. 

If you have a favorite Carolyn Kizer poem, please tell me about it in the comments section!

Recommended Reading: The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

photo (130)I love Westerns, I love books that keep me guessing, and I love a book that makes me see a landscape. Kim Zupan’s debut novel, The Ploughmen*, is all three, and was an excellent reading experience.

John Gload is a murderer, plain and simple. Murder is how he made his living, and in his late seventies, he’s finally been caught and is waiting for his trial. He’s smart, strong, and utterly unrepentant.

Valentine Millimaki is a sheriff’s deputy, the most junior man on the force and its most skilled tracker; together with his dog he searches for people lost in Montana’s wildernesses. Haunted by the death of his mother, on a bad streak of finding only bodies, and fighting to keep his marriage going, he comes to sit my Gload’s cell at night, to talk and to listen.

The two men have more in common than they know, and slowly, they share more with each other. Valentine’s job is to extract information out of Gload that will damn him at trial; Gload finds himself concerned by Valentine’s appearance, as the long night shifts and daytime insomnia take their toll.

For the rest of us, thought, thought Millimaki, the distance from reason to rage is short, a frontier as thin as parchment and as frail, restraining the monster. It was there in everyone, he thought. It was there in himself. (113)

The Ploughmen is tense; I was never sure what would be revealed next, or how the two men’s relationship would develop. It’s not a tale of redemption, but neither does it glory in cruelty for its own sake. The violence in the novel isn’t sanitized, but it almost seems to be played off-stage.

Often Westerns are described as “spare,” but The Ploughmen is the opposite. Mr. Zupan’s prose, almost old-fashioned, given the novel’s contemporary setting, luxuriates in the Montana landscapes he knows so well; seldom have I been able to picture a place so clearly.

Far below through the greening trees he could almost see the place along the creek where they’d swum one afternoon in their courting days. To get there they pushed through undergrowth and came out near the creek and from the tall grass and thin willow stems at their elbows rose a cloud of small orange butterflies and they went before them on the warm air like a blizzard of flower petals strewn before heroes. (120)

Despite its beauty, at times the landscape, with its blizzards and wildlife and craggy ravines is just as brutal as John Gload’s hands. Valentine is used to seeing death from exposure, and John Gload has caused death by violence, but old age and sorrow too haunt the jail they share together.

The Ploughmen is about searching, no matter how little hope there is, and no matter how strange or difficult the object of the search.

Highly recommended reading. Also recommended: Rory’s wonderful review.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.