The word verdugo is, of course, from the Spanish office of torturer for the Inquisition. That group’s work was much admired in England by the Tudors (Henry VIII, Queen Mary, Elizabeth…), who set about to stretch the limits of the human body with such things as the rack, the wheel, the unsparing use of heat and, of course, the noose and sword. Even though official torture declined in the Age of Reason, the best verdugos knew more than anyone about the limits of endurance of the human body and so went on to become the fathers of modern-day physical therapy.
This is close to my heart since, after I used it for decades to run marathons, climb mountains, and jog simple loops around our local trail, my knee was ripped from my body in December and replaced with an artificial one. Two modern verdugos have racked and ruined me since my knee replacement surgery December. I spent that month and this with Henry VIII and his henchmen on my mind. Is there a silver lining to all this morbid reflection? Yes, of course. Immobilized and feeling sorry for myself in the holiday season, I read a lot of books, especially about the Tudors.
Thus, on to another episode of On the Nightstand. If this is your first visit to On the Nightstand, the books we review are rated by how well they keep you awake. A 20 watt book helps you drop right off but a 100 watt book keeps you awake all night, turning page after page after page. With that, let’s see what’s …
On the Nightstand
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. With time on my hands (and torture on my mind) I chose to fill in some of the gaps of books I had never gotten around to reading, especially this first of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels. As best I can remember, I never put it down. While her subtle hiding of Cromwell’s acts, thoughts, and speech behind the device of referring to him only as ‘him’ took some sorting out, her writing is brilliant and point of view superb. Her Cromwell wove a complex web, not only to do Henry VIII’s difficult bidding but also to settle some scores of his own. For the first time, I cared about Cromwell instead of Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, and, most assuredly, the Howards. Off with their heads….100 watts isn’t enough.
The Watchers, by Stephen Alford, is a non-fiction history of Queen Elizabeth I’s spies who, for more than forty years, worked in the shadows to save her from the many religious plots against her life, usually by Catholic adherents of her sister (Bloody) Mary or her cousin Mary (Queen of Scots). It is a masterpiece of research into the hidden histories of men of whom we’ve never heard who went throughout Europe to spy on English ex-patriots who were plotting to overthrow the queen. We learn of the rack and screw, the broken limbs, the confessions, and the bonfires. Unfortunately, Alford’s prose is no match for his research, somewhat overwritten and prone to giving away the stories in the first sentences. 80 watts for the obscurantists of history.
Dissolution, C.J. Sansom. This novel about an obscure lawyer sent to an obscure monastery to ferret out who was killing Cromwell’s representatives is more murder mystery than historical fiction, using late medieval names and places and religious conflicts to hide the fact that it is just one big game of Clue (was it the Abbot with the candlestick or the bursar with the poison?) Sansom is a bit too proud of getting on paper the obscure terms of monastic life (precentor, pittance….) and architecture (redorler) on the way sorting out a lot of mysterious deaths, impossible obstacles, and characters who don’t seem any more real then than now, even though he does check in with the late Anne Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Jane Seymour and, of course, Thomas Cromwell. Dissolution is an 80 watt mystery bulb, but if you want well-written historical Tudor fiction, Hilary Mantel has already co-opted the field.
To escape this gloom, I turned to:
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. It is a shift to pre-Tudor England (by about eight hundred years). Set in an apocalyptic post-Roman era, at the dawn of the Viking invasions, this is another of the author’s brilliant but enigmatic ventures in which the heroes are always searching for something that is just out of reach and not clearly understood. Axl and Beatrice leave their village of twig huts and idiots to seek their long lost son, encountering treachery, imprisonment, monsters, and … well, you should read it for yourself. 90 good watts.
The Children Act, by Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Saturday, is the story of a law that provides that a child’s welfare shall be judges’ paramount consideration. The law seems to be common sense, indeed easy to understand, but in Judge Maye’s first case she must decide whether to order a hospital to separate conjoined twins, one of whom will die if separated, both of whom will die if they are not. What is the paramount consideration for the child who inevitably will die? And this is the easiest case Judge Maye faces. It is a thoughtful book, one that reminds us that even the simplest conflicts are never black and white. 100 watts.
Letters from Liberia: The Adventures of an Ebola Medical Volunteer, Dr. Joe Spann, MD. Nothing to do with Tudors or the English or anything close, Letters is the work of a physician who walked away from the comforts of home, practice, and security to go to a country where the norm was to pass dead bodies in the road on the way to such unknown destinations as Bong County. His clinics were grim places where there were essentially no lab or medicines. In Monrovia, at the Golden Beach Club, a devil dances to help immunize the bodies that wash up on shore. Dr. Spann ultimately spent most of his time in Fish Town where he helped set up an Ebola unit to work with US Army medical volunteers. It is safe to say that every single page paints a picture of both the Africa we expect and of an Africa beyond imagination, both very sad but also very funny. 100 watts.
In the queue:
One of the great things about having awful impediments is the growth of my book stack. I’m currently reading or wrapping up for your next installment these great light bulb reviews:
Ghost Mountain Boys, James Campbell, about the 32d Division’s impossible crossing of New Guinea’s mountains to attack the Japanese in Buna.
Ghosts of the Mountain, by Mark Bowlin, the continuing adventures in WWII Italy of the Texas Gun Club and the only book I expressly requested to have by my side during my brutal and unfortunate convalescence.
Down to the Sea, Bruce Henderson, a narrative history of the US Navy’s largest loss of destroyers in WWII, and not at the hand of the Japanese…,
and maybe (if I finish) the
Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante. This four volume set is brilliant, disturbing, penetrating, and absolutely un-put downable. I have finished the third volume. Ferrante is remarkable in her detail of the relations, internal as well as external, of two life-long friends, their families and enemies, in a changing world. Without saying more, the story so evenly yet completely praises and ravishes people in post-War Naples that the author writes only under a pen name, and wisely so. The writing is superb!
But wait – there’s more!
First Draft, by Jack Woodville London. This is my literary newsletter, a personal-to-you missive of what I’m up to. It includes short bits about what I’m writing, the progress of my next novel, my news (such as publication of the Military History article I wrote about the American battle of St. Étienne-à-Arnes in World War I), and people and places I’ve visited for research.
And, in First Draft and nowhere else, you can read my serialized novel about Bart Sullivan, the scoundrel and black marketer who made life miserable for everyone in Virginia’s War. Titled ‘The (very) Brief War Diary of Bart Sullivan,’ I publish it for you in First Draft, one chapter at a time, and nowhere else. It’s free.
To subscribe to First Draft (and read Bart’s wartime diary), send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow this link https://jwlbooks.com/subscribe/ to the subscription pop up. I hope you’ll subscribe and share my journey.
See you soon.