Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

October 1, 2022
by jenniferpuryear

The Restless Dead

I miss Hilary Mantel already. And I think: it is already later than we think. 

Today I’d love to share a few reflections on her life and work…

Photo by Richard Phibbs in Harper’s Bazaar

From Maggie O’Farrell (“Hamnet”), in The Guardian:

We have lost another monarch this week. Mantel was queen of literature, and her reign was, like Elizabeth II’s, long, varied and uncontested. She leaves behind a huge, unfillable vacuum, a deep sense of loss for the reading public, and a toweringly significant body of work.

As a writer, Mantel was fierce, fabulous and fearless. In her books, she took risks, she pushed back the boundaries of narrative, she grabbed hold of novelistic rules and shook them by the neck until they obeyed her. Everything she wrote, whether it was memoir, journalism, contemporary novels or weighty historical trilogies, showed the labour involved in her work – and also her love of that labour. I challenge anyone to find a word or even a comma out of place; there isn’t an ounce of fat on the bones of her work, even the books that cover 900-odd pages. It’s clear from her prose that she was profoundly committed to her craft, to editing and re-editing and redrafting it into perfection. Her voice on the page is unmistakable; it’s possible to deduce within a paragraph whether or not it was written by her. That perspicuity, those elegant sub-clauses, that precision, the psychological acuity, her logophilic daring.

As a person, she was unfailingly generous, making time to support and champion the work of other writers. She always held the ladder for those coming up behind her, which is not always the case with someone of Mantel’s stature. She loved her own work; she loved the work of others and she wanted to share it all with the world.”

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Photo by Richard Phibbs in Harper’s Bazaar

From Boyd Tonkin, the former literary editor of The Independent, writing in the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition of October 2/3…

Mantel, the English novelist who has died at age 70 after a stroke, gripped and moved millions of readers with historical fiction… Her three magnificent novels about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIII’s fixer-in-chief, who oversaw England’s rupture with the Church of Rome – stripped the robes of cliche and hindsight from one of history’s pasteboard ogres. Two of these global bestsellers won the Booker Prize; the books soon spawned high-quality adaptations for stage and television.

Tough-minded, cobweb-free, Mante’s Tudor tales helped refresh a dusty genre. Written with pace and zest, the Cromwell trilogy – “Wolf Hall” (2009), “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012), “The Mirror and the Light” (2020) – raced forward in a crisp, urgent, present-tense voice. Mantel dodged both archaism and anachronism in a language purged of period folderol yet rooted in the diction and ideas of the time: “What I’m trying to do is get my reader to walk forward with them,” she said of her characters. “They didn’t know the end of their story. They couldn’t draw the moral.”

That invigorating style rested on scrupulous devotion to the art of fiction as an enrichment of the historical record, not an escape from it. The evidence – intensively studied- supplied her skeleton. Her fiction added blood, breath – and soul. She brought the dead to life: an almost-Gothic sense of their nearness suffuses much of her work. “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims,” Mantel explained in her BBC Reith Lectures. The novelist’s calling meant not “entertaining lies” but the pursuit of hidden truths: “I start to practice my trade at the point where the satisfactions of the official story break down.”

Mantel’s Cromwell, the brutalized blacksmith’s son who rises to steer England’s destiny, is an outsider wary of the masquerades of state. His creator likewise approached power from a distance, with a lifelong skeptic’s bristling antennae. She was raised in the mill towns of northern England by Catholic parents (English-born, though of Irish stock). Her mother went to work at the mill at age 14 and later left her marriage to live with a man named Mantel. Hilary took his surname. She recalled that “childhood was a sort of gulag for me; I was cut off, adrift.”

Chronic illness aggravated that isolation. Mantel’s searing memoir “Giving Up the Ghost” (2003) follows a dismal trail of medical condescension and misdiagnosis…

After a law degree and a formative stint as a geriatric social worker, Mantel spent a decade out of England – first in Botswana, then Saudi Arabia – with her geologist husband, Gerald McEwan. [Note: Mantel married McEwan in 1972. Divorced in 1981, they remarried in 1982.]

During her expat years she toiled on the ideas-rich French Revolution epic finally published in 1992 as “A Place of Greater Safety.” It revealed her uncanny necromancer’s art of communing with the dead. Other novels – sharp, fierce, funny – anatomized the present: working-class Catholic anguish in “Fludd” (1989); modern Britain’s haunted post-industrial townscapes, and mindscapes, in “Beyond Black” (2005). In “The Giant, O’Brien” (1998), her tragicomic fiction of an Irish freak-show celebrity in Georgian England, motifs of bodily and cultural alienation converged….

The three volumes of [the Wolf Hall series] turned the mordant outsider into a bookstore favorite, a bridge between “literary” fiction and mass-market sales that millions tramped happily across. Yet she remained plucky, original, part of no gang. She lived quietly by the sea in Devon with Gerald, while her intellectually voracious essays stylishly spanned centuries and continents….

Photo by Andrea Artz

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From Sarah Perry (“The Essex Serpent”), in The Guardian:

Hilary Mantel is dead and I am ashamed of the sorrow I feel, since I met her only once, and we corresponded rarely; it occurs to me she would possibly be amused by my sorrow, and amused, too, that I’ve taken out like a holy relic the Christmas card in which she hoped I was happy and that 2015 would be good to me and to my gift, which she signed Hilary (Mantel).

A year or so before, I’d locked myself in the toilets of the offices where I worked to finish her memoir “Giving Up the Ghost”. Alone in a cubicle, I wept over its unflinching account of suffering and loss, and returning to my desk I wrote a love letter that ran to several pages. I praised what we must all praise: the elegance and rigour of her prose, the startling visions of her imagination, the candour and courage of her self-knowledge, the treacly blackness of her wit and the piercing intelligence that riveted the lot together with bolts of stainless steel. Having once read that she bound her manuscripts with treasury tags, I raided the office stationery cupboard, shoved a fistful of them in the envelope and sent my devotion first class.

In the years that followed I have loved her only more. The year 2015, as it turned out, was not as good to me as she had hoped it would be, nor were the years that followed: I became ill and endured tormenting pain, so that her writing on bodily suffering arrived for me like despatches from a traveller who had entered a bad land long before me and had left a map and a light. I loved her for her novels, unmatched by any writer now living, but I loved her, too, because she was a woman for all seasons, whose intellect was equal to every moral or political matter the world could hurl at her door. What will we do without her? I have been waiting for her word on the crown that has passed from one old hand to another, and now the word won’t come.

All afternoon I have aimlessly paced the house, followed by dogs, holding the card she sent me, thinking myself absurd. I find her in the blue-eyed model of a jackdaw that eyes me from the mantelpiece, and the deck of tarot cards I keep close to hand; I find her in the box of opioids I store under my bed in case pain returns to my life; I find her in the postcard of Cranmer she sent me once, which I have pinned above my desk. Mostly I find her at my shoulder berating me when my prose becomes weak and thin. “All houses are haunted,” she wrote. She haunts mine and cannot be shifted. What poor priest would dare?

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Portrait by Nick Lord

From The New York Times:

In one of her final interviews, published on Sept. 10 in The Financial Times, Ms. Mantel was asked if she believed in an afterlife. She did, she said, although she couldn’t imagine how it might work. “However,” she added, “the universe is not limited by what I can imagine.”

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You may want to finish with Mantel’s brilliant and controversial essay of 2013, “Royal Bodies”, in which she shares her thoughts on Kate Middleton, the Queen, and Anne Boleyn, among others. 




September 24, 2022
by jenniferpuryear

Meow

Coco

It’s hard when you do the right thing and end up in the wrong place.

My friend Mary Raymond stops in at Bacon today with a funny and heartfelt essay on how she got herself into a tricky situation, and how we might help…

Mavis

From Mary Raymond:

At this point, I blame the zucchini. It was the Saturday after the 4th of July, closing in on 1,000 degrees, when my neighbor texted to ask if I would like any of the extra zucchini her friend had shared with her. I was on my way to visit my parents, and although I wasn’t sure if they even liked zucchini, I had been indoctrinated since birth in this chief of our family’s Core Tenets: Raymonds do not turn down free food.    

I walked next door and was greeted by a pile of zucchini and a lovely tortoiseshell cat who promptly twined herself around my ankles. I knew my neighbor had a cat, but I had never met her because she was more of an indoor girl. Concerned she might have gotten outside by mistake, I knocked on my neighbor’s door. My neighbor explained that her toddler had developed a terrible allergy to the cat, breaking out in hives and struggling with asthma attacks. Coco, a beautiful, front-declawed, 13-year-old joy of a cat, had been living outside for the past couple of months. My neighbor saw me holding Coco like a treasure and asked if I would take her.

Which brings us to another of my Core Tenets: I will not ask Mavis to have a sibling no matter how adorable and charming the auditioning feline might be. Cats are solitary, territorial creatures. Although some cat introductions go smoothly, Mavis has given off a distinct “only child” vibe for all of the 17 years I have known her. This includes the 10 ½ years in which we shared our lives with her dearly departed littermate Max, a.k.a. Mr. Professor.

I told my neighbor I did not think I could take Coco, but I bet you can guess where this is headed. Coco lounged on my front porch the next day, greeting me warmly with her bright green eyes: I would be delighted to move in with you, she said. I have an excellent attorney on retainer who can draw up the adoption papers forthwith! I did not know it at the time, but I had already started to fall in love with Coco.

I spoke with my vet who suggested I give Coco a trial run to see how both cats adjusted. She insisted I first bring her in to confirm a clean bill of health. Coco sailed through her vet visit and moved into my extra bedroom/den. For the first 24 hours she slept hiding under the reclining loveseat. I was surprised that the extroverted cat I met outdoors had turned so sleepy and skittish indoors. I had forgotten how hard it can be for cats to adapt to new surroundings, and I had underestimated how traumatic it must have been for her to be left outside away from her family.

It felt like a victory when Coco moved out onto the rug on day 2 and then up onto the loveseat itself on day 3. She seemed to enjoy affection but also occasionally hissed and nipped when I pet her. I learned that she was exhibiting petting aggression and that this would likely settle down once Coco felt more comfortable in her new surroundings. I began practicing Consent with Coco™, telling her that I was going to pet her and where, pausing to see if she was OK, and alerting her before making any shift in my position. Within a few days the petting aggression disappeared, and she eagerly hopped into my lap for purring/snuggles during our visits. By the end of the first week Coco let me know she was ready to go exploring outside her room.

Over the course of two months Mavis and Coco interacted in fits and starts: sometimes ignoring each other, often hissing, and eventually shadowboxing while yowling as though being impaled with hot pokers. Over time, Coco seemed to want to engage Mavis more often. The fact that this never went well for her did not deter Coco in the slightest. I began to worry that as Coco felt more adjusted in our home, Mavis seemed to become decidedly less self-assured. She peered around corners and checked under beds like a child looking for monsters in the closet.  

As I tried to make peace between the girls, I connected with other people who have fostered cats to make sure I was doing all I could to ensure a positive introduction. We tried listening to a special Music for Cats playlist. This got us no closer to achieving armistice, but I kind of enjoyed it. We tried an (allegedly) calming cat pheromone mist that made Mavis vomit. We were all trying our best, but these golden girls were clearly not ready to share a Miami condo any time soon.

Eventually I was referred to a cat behaviorist named Angela who communicated with me through Instagram. At this point, this seemed to be the least insane development in the story. Angela theorized that part of the problem was that Mavis viewed Coco as a threat and had no idea that she was a cat. What does Mavis think she is? I asked. Angela wasn’t sure, but Mavis helpfully shared her own theories: a deranged dingo! a rabid raccoon! a very vicious velociraptor! Peak cat parenting is when your cat doesn’t know that another cat is a cat but is aces at alliteration.    

I learned that cats only respond to praise (#same!!!), and that when Coco ran up to Mavis, I should repeat Mavis’s name calmly and ask if she is OK. I was then instructed to begin praising Coco by name as soon as she shifted her attention away from Mavis and retreated. I began saying, Good girl, Coco! and Mavis, Mavis, are you OK? so often that I grew concerned I would accidentally slip both catchphrases into a conversation with a colleague and then immediately have to find a new place of employment.

Things seemed to get better. Then worse. Coco wants to play with Mavis, but her approach is a little sideways. Coco tries to send “good-time girl” vibes, but Mavis only sees “overzealous ocelot”. Mavis continues to make her world smaller because of the constant stress. I keep them separated as best I can, but that creates unpleasant restrictions for them both.  

Coco has the prettiest green eyes, the most playful spirit, and – when she is sleeping – the most adorable little snores. I love her. But I cannot keep her.

Can one of you help us? Would you enjoy having a 13-year-old, front-declawed, spayed, charmer of a cat? She is up to date on all injections as of July 15 and has been receiving monthly flea treatment as a preventative despite no evidence of fleas. Although she has lived her whole life indoors until recently, I’ve learned that she really enjoys being outside in my fenced yard. She has lived peaceably with children and other cats (just not Mavis). Thank you so much for helping Coco find her forever home! 

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Please contact Bacon at jenniferhpuryear@gmail.com for an introduction, or contact Mary Raymond directly at Mlraymond12@gmail.com.

 

 

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And just for fun…

The Naming of Cats

by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
     It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
     Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo, or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—
     All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
     Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—
     But all of them sensible everyday names,
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
     A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
     Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
     Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum—
     Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
     And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
     But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
     The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
     Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
          His ineffable effable
          Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular name.