Imagination Begins

In The New Yorker’s “Briefly Noted” negative mention of Hilary Mantel’s memoir “Giving Up the Ghost,” the writer called it a “bleak memoir” and wanted “a story more plainly shaped, and one that gave some sense of the growth of her remarkable imagination.” But a few weeks ago, finishing my Mantel re-read, and awaiting the release of her controversial collection of short stories (“The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”), I thought again about the memoir.

Instead of failing to explain her imagination, for me it revealed its development in a harsh childhood – her thoughtfulness, her love of stories and belief in magic (and ghosts). You can hear the voice of the little girl who grows up to bring Thomas Cromwell and other memorable characters to life.

Not bleak, because the language animates it for me, but it is sad. Unable to bear children, through what seems near medical malfeasance, Mantel poignantly expresses a longing for children and grandchildren, who for her will never be.

I thought about her and about imagination during my recent time with Lady Baby. There’s no knowing where imagination will lodge, what inspires it, what triggers the making up of stories. But what a blessing for humankind.

While not yet making up stories like Mantel about how, at four, she will turn into a boy who can be a “knight errant” or seeing ghosts (to my knowledge), an element of the fantastic inhabits the stories we hear lately from Lady Baby, along with a very practical, rooted in the real world element – for now.

You’ve heard about Nick and Baby Boy before – and that tale’s not all told. Nick now has another little bitty baby, named Sam, who came out of his belly (just one of Nick’s abilities, along with running a chain saw and driving various pieces of heavy equipment).

On a walk we encountered Nick with his German shepherd Quesadilla. Lady Baby explained that Nick didn’t say hi because he didn’t see us. Some blocks later we saw Quesadilla again, as a corgi behind a fence, other times he appears a bulldog or a little white dog on a leash. In the most conversational way, Lady Baby will spot a dog (or a guy) and say “That’s Quesadilla!” (or “That’s Nick!”). They shift shapes with ease – always identified nonetheless.

Lady Baby’s language now makes these made-up stories (I assume they are made up) really elaborate. In the neighborhood, she pointed out Nick’s mother’s house, and we had a long conversation about relationships – Nick’s mother being also Baby Boy’s grandmother and Sam his brother. The stories ground themselves in reality (specific makes of pick up truck) and unreality (surprisingly good weather in Prudhoe Bay).

I sent a card before my arrival with a picture of her suitcase, and wrote that I was packing my suitcase. Mrs. Hughes returned a video of Lady Baby “reading” the card: “Dear Baby Boy and Nick, Monday will be your suitcase. Love, Baby Boy’s grandfather.” She reworded my letter so handily with perfect form and a huge smile.

When talking about the Nick stories, on the way to the airport as I left, Mr. Carson said he thought they were social, a way to be part of the conversation. We all talk about our friends and what they do – and that’s what happens when Lady Baby tells her stories about Nick.

Great stories. Imaginative stories.


Totally Tudor

Thomas Cromwell grew rich while he ruthlessly tortured and beheaded countless people, and manipulated a king of England. Thomas Cromwell adored his wife and children, took in orphans, fed the poor at his gate, and encouraged the Protestant Reformation. Thomas Cromwell, a large, orange-striped cat, lives peacefully with Wolsey and two canines at Downtown Abbey.

So many Cromwells to fill the mind!

While I painted “Friends for Frances,” I listened to my husband’s Great Courses class: “The History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts” – entertaining lectures presented by Robert Bucholz, a modern historian with a sense of humor, passion and curiosity about the lives of common people, as well as royals.

And then we succumbed to evenings with “The Tudors,” long-form television complete with historical inaccuracies and startling accuracies – brutality (blanket-over-my-eyes scenes), bad medicine, and head lice, buffered by fine costumes of velvet and ermine, jewels and poufy hats.

My Tudor immersion worsened. Having watched “The White Queen” (gateway drug) before “The Tudors”, I grew curious about Philippa Gregory’s many historical novels. Soon in the car a plummy English voice narrated the (romantic) story of “The Other Boleyn Girl.” And I returned to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell (so appealing he is), and read again “Wolf Hall.”

We have a lot of fun here talking about the characters and events in this period of history, so drenched in both significance and soap opera, as we ponder which Tudor version might be right (assuming there is a right).

What were Anne and Mary Boleyn really like? How annoying was Thomas More? Did Henry inspire love in his queens, or were they solely pawns manipulated by families and nations for power? Some characters transcend all the iterations – Queen Catherine, unfailingly gracious and devout (sometimes attractive and other times not), Henry, petulant, childish, and corpulent (history), but studly (television). Not to mention the elusive Cromwell.

The television “Tudors” engages the imagination and skill of so many people – actors and the creator Michael Hirst, of course, and people to manage the horses and the digital effects, to keep the bosoms heaving, and the king’s behavior in line. People to check the historical settings – getting the curtseys and the miladys and the food and the dances correct. Cameramen and sound guys, stylists with hair extensions – a zillion people making video magic.

And then there is Mantel, (described in Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent 2012 New Yorker profile ) alone, and thoughtful in her workspace: “I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, what if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper — you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”

And still she does it, page after page.

Now I’m rereading “Bring Up the Bodies,” second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy (much pleasure resides in revisiting excellent things in this age of constant new). But eagerly await the third book (“The Mirror and The Light”), though I will be sad to see the end of Mantel’s Cromwell.

Aah, but also – another version of the whole story will appear in 2015, when the BBC presents “Wolf Hall” in a six episode series!

a Tudor rose-1


Royal Bodies – Then and Now

The press has excerpted bits of Hilary Mantel’s London Review of Books lecture, “Undressing Anne Boleyn,” delivered at the British Museum (, reducing her literate comments to schoolyard insults leveled at the Duchess of Cambridge – and it’s causing a giant flap.

Maybe when we glance in fascination at the royals, we look for clothes and mistakes, but Mantel’s long gaze is historical and stares at monarchy itself – a foreign concept to us. But a fascinating one, and you know my heart is with the pageantry of it all – whatever would the British put on cookie tins without the royals?

So I like to think of Kate as smart, picture her recognizing her place in history (knowing she is neither Anne Boleyn nor Marie Antoinette but a modern woman), and rising above the media fray, embracing the fuss even. While Mantel describes herself, as “as a person of expanding girth and diverse afflictions,” Kate is young and beautiful, pregnant with an heir to the throne – royalty!

But Mantel wins with words! Oh it is delicious this piece. Mrs. Hughes, after reading it, said: “How does Mantel do that? Take every thread and weave it together in the end to make the reader feel so satisfied.”

That lecture must have been some event, an evening when the well-worn British praise “Brilliant!” would be exactly right. It’s “Wolf Hall” for our time with Mantel’s descriptive passages about Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana so true and imaginative at the same time.

As she works on the completion of her trilogy, Mantel’s heart must really be with the Tudors centuries ago – but her mind can look at now and make magic for us. She considers her own experiences with the British royals with a seemingly spot-on description of the slightly tacky ring to all of it, when the fairy dust blows away and the folding chairs and the sticks from the canapés are revealed. She is masterful. In her descriptions of the queen parting a room of trying-to-be-cool guests or Diana’s moment of transformation into princess, the prose sings – just like the books.

Mantel asks, “What does Kate read?” I hope she reads Mantel and chuckles. Truly, she has the last laugh. She loves her prince and he loves her, she gets to live in Kensington Palace – I wish her well. And I’m nuts for Mantel.

©Katy Gilmore

Summer Reading

Never enough but all of it good! Hilary Mantel’s unforgettable Thomas Cromwell accompanied me on airplanes as I devoured “Bring Up the Bodies” – the second book in Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy. You know how it all comes out – what happens to Anne and even Jane, the next in Henry’s lineup. That doesn’t make any difference to the utter pleasure of reading Mantel’s recreation of the moments and manipulations of Henry VIII’s wife exchanges. I stalled, paused in my reading often, because I didn’t want the book to end.

And on takeoffs or landings, or in bed – I enjoyed another of Vicki Lane’s Elizabeth Goodweather mysteries (“In a Dark Season”). Elizabeth, Katherine, Anne, Jane – such classic names – such different characters.

Two other books occupied August. Since Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes recommended it, I read, near gobbled up, after a visit with Lady Baby, John Medina’s “Brain Rules for Babies.” I wish I’d read this book when I was a young mother – it’s full of wisdom about babies and about negotiating married life in the company of babies and children.

Medina’s basic rules are twofold: Start With Empathy and Focus On Emotions. He describes two simple questions to ask that help create an “empathy reflex – your first response to any emotional situation.” Because he is a scientist, a developmental molecular biologist, he uses numbers and the results of modern research to back up what often seems common sense – explaining why parental time and attention matter and that spanking isn’t a good idea.

It’s a great book for parents and grandparents. Toward the end, he writes: “You may think that grownups create children. The reality is that children create grownups. They become their own person, and so do you. Children give so much more than they take.”

The other book, the most unusual, is by Leanne Shapton, an illustrator I admire. I’d ordered “Swimming Studies” for my Kindle app by mistake, and read it in one Anchorage-to-Seattle sitting. Luckily, my husband got the hardback. It comes with no dust jacket, end flap material printed where endpapers might be, and an embossed bathing cap on the water-blue cover.

The book is Shapton’s memoir of her life as young swimmer training for Olympic trials, her continued fascination with water and bodies in water, and her eventual turn toward art. She’s brave and honest, and her descriptions transport – you feel the squeeze of a bathing cap, the atmosphere in a bus full of young athletes on their way to a competition, the chlorinated air of swimming pools, her elation, and her exhaustion.

Her book isn’t a sport memoir so much as a meditation on her journey (often a watery one), as Shapton figures out how her former swimming life inspires her life as an artist.

Because I’ve been thinking about people’s thoughts and plans for participating in The Workroom, it resonated when Shapton quoted “The Nuts and Bolts of Psychology for Swimmers,” by Keith Bell. He writes about training discipline, the nonnegotiable commitment to practice. Words that apply equally to working on a creative project, once you have set a goal: “It doesn’t make much sense to have to decide whether to take each individual step in a trip you have already decided to make.”

I love Shapton’s watercolor portraits of fellow swimmers, rectangles of pool water, and gallery of vintage swimsuits – in both digital and paper forms (and it was fun to compare the illustrations) – the book is a treasure!