Shelf Awareness for Friday, September 30, 2022

Atlantic Monthly Press: Those Opulent Days: A Mystery by Jacquie Pham

Feiwel & Friends: The Flicker by HE Edgmon

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Pumpkin Princess and the Forever Night by Steven Banbury

St. Martin's Griffin: Murdle: The School of Mystery: 50 Seriously Sinister Logic Puzzles by GT Karber

Carolrhoda Lab (R): Here Goes Nothing by Emma K Ohland

Allida: Safiyyah's War by Hiba Noor Khan

Ace Books: Servant of Earth (The Shards of Magic) by Sarah Hawley


MPIBA's FallCon 2022: Bigger and Better

The first big reunion for the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association took place in 2021, but the attendance and excitement are even bigger and better this year as booksellers, publishers and authors gather for FallCon in Denver, Colo. As the show began yesterday, roughly 15% more booksellers had registered this year over last year, according to MPIBA executive director Heather Duncan (final numbers to come).

Yesterday, Duncan welcomed everyone to the first official event of MPIBA's FallCon: the Children's Author and Illustrator Keynote Breakfast. The first eight of 64 book creators to be featured at the conference discussed the inspirations for their books and what independent bookstores have meant to their lives and their careers.

The popular "Pick of the Lists," in which publisher reps do rapid-fire presentations of their big fall books and a sneak peek at some upcoming lead spring titles, was filled to capacity at both the morning and afternoon sessions. Ten authors--of both YA and adult books--described their novels at Stories for Lunch: Feast of Fiction.

For the first time, FallCon held an Exhibit Hall Opening Reception to close out the day, with many authors doing in-booth signings. The show continues through Saturday. --Jennifer M. Brown

FallCon 2022 kicked off informally on Wednesday night with craft beers and conversation at Station 26. L.-r.: Brad Costa of Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, Colo., caught up with Kristianne Huntsberger, partnership program manager for Shelf Awareness (which hosted the gathering), and "the Rebeccas" Gottberg and Crosswhite, both from Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho.

The first full day of programming began with the Children's Author & Illustrator keynote breakfast, featuring Molly Idle and Juana Martinez-Neal (I Don't Care, Nov. 8, Neal Porter Books); Erin and Philip Stead (The Sun Is Late and So Is the Farmer, Nov. 8, Neal Porter Books); Thyra Heder (Sal Boat (A Boat by Sal), Abrams); C.C. Harrington (Wildoak, Scholastic); Skylar Hogan (I'm Not Missing, little bee books); front row, Leo Espinoza (Like, Chronicle Books). (photo: Tori Henson)

Stories for Lunch: Feast of Fiction Authors (l.-r.): Kristina McMorris (The Ways We Hide, Sourcebooks Landmark); Pam Jenoff (Code Name Sapphire, Feb. 2023); Jennifer Givhan (River Woman, River Demon, Blackstone); James Wade (Beasts of the Earth, Blackstone); Trang Thanh Tan (She Is a Haunting, Bloomsbury YA, Feb. 2023); Leslie Vedder (The Severed Thread, Razorbill, Feb. 2023); Nazli Koca (The Applicant, Grove, Feb. 2023); Shelley Read (Go as a River, Spiegel & Grau, Mar. 2023); Marty Eberhardt (Bones in the Back Forty, Artemesia, Jan. 2023); Matthew Dawkins (Until We Break, Wattpad Books). Absent due to Hurricane Ian-related delays: Sarah Penner (The London Séance Society, Park Row, Apr. 2023) (photo: Tori Henson)

PM Press: P Is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book by Golbarg Bashi, Illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi

Hurricane Ian: Early Reports from Booksellers in Storm's Path

The devastating impact of Hurricane Ian on Florida continues even as the storm tracks up the Southeast coast. Ian made landfall Wednesday near Ft. Myers, Fla., and many bookstores in its path that had closed earlier in the week as a precaution have not responded or updated their social media pages yet. Massive power outages, potential storm damage and travel inaccessibility could all be contributing factors. A few have checked in, however, including: 

Portkey Books post Ian

Portkey Books, Safety Harbor, Fla.: "I'm here! The books are safe! I'm going to start putting them back on the shelves, starting with the special orders. The store has no power, but we started as a pop-up shop so we know how to operate on battery. Come say Hi, to pick up your special orders, or to take a chance on buying a random book from a random box as I unpack them. I'll post again to let you know when I close for the day. Hope you all fared well!"

Story & Song Bookstore Bistro, Fernandina Beach, Fla.: "Despite the tropical storm, Story and Song remains open today for any who need a good book to weather through this storm. Our bistro is serving a limited menu."

Sunshine Book Co., Clermont, Fla.: "Our beautiful bookstore is just fine after Hurricane Ian! Lots of debris, but that was to be expected. Thank you for all the positive thoughts and prayers, and kind words. We will resume regular hours tomorrow, and hope to see you between 10-6. This 100+ year old house held up well!"

The Vero Beach Book Center, Vero Beach, Fla.: "The Book Center is CLOSED this morning. We will reassess as the day goes on about this afternoon."

Books & Books at The Studios, Key West, Fla.: "All is well at the store. We're going to clean up a little and we'll be back open at noon. We know you finished your book/art project/puzzle, come restock!" And: "Thanks to Hurricane Ian, this week it's new book Thursday!"

Bookstore1, Sarasota, Fla.: "We managed to get an eBlast out for those needing some distraction. We hope to be open on Friday, but we are not sure. All the best to everyone."

Walls of Books, Oviedo, Fla.: "We are praying everyone is doing okay today.  We will be doing damage assessment at the store Friday and determining how much water we may need to dry up around the doors (unfortunately we have had water intrusion during regular heavy rainstorms so we expect we have some wet carpets right now). We will keep you all updated and please feel free to post here if anyone has any needs that can be met by close neighbors today."

Tombolo Books, St. Petersburg, Fla.: "The internet has been restored and we're rushing to get all those storm orders out! We'll be open Friday morning at 10 a.m. Thank you for shopping with us, even through the storm."

Pressed LKLD, Lakeland, Fla.: "We'll be back open tomorrow with fresh @honeycombbread baked goods, hot @ethosroasters coffee, great reads, and smiling faces."

We'll have more Hurricane Ian updates next week. 

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: Intermezzo by Sally Rooney

Codex Books in Quincy, Ill., Moving Downtown

Codex Books, Quincy, Ill., which sells new and used books, is relocating from Broadway St. to the old Kirlin's Building downtown at 532 Maine St., WGEM reported. The store plans to re-open on October 1.

Codex barista and sales specialist Stevie Rife said the store's management is excited about the move, and "just feel like downtown's got a lot going for it right now, so they feel like it’s just gonna do so much better down there." 

"This is so good for the downtown Quincy area to get a bookstore that will bring in customers to the downtown area and hopefully shop at the other great shops in downtown Quincy," KICK noted. 

Coloring Book Store Opens in St. Louis

Really Big Coloring Books, a store dedicated entirely to coloring books, has opened in St. Louis, Mo.

Owner and publisher Wayne Bell told Fox 2 that his company "designs, creates, edits, manufactures and ships with a full staff under one roof here in Missouri." The store carries coloring books with subjects such as sports, history, holidays and more. Customers can "purchase one copy or a literal truckload," and Bell and his team can also make personalized coloring books.

Obituary Note: Mark Laframboise

Mark Laframboise

Respected bookseller Mark Laframboise, who was a longtime book buyer at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., died earlier this week at age 60. In an e-mail tribute announcing his death "with enormous sadness," P&P's co-owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine wrote: "Mark was the best book buyer any independent bookstore could hope for. Not only did he know books; he knew P&P's customers, who gravitated to him because his passion for literature was infectious. Mark also was greatly appreciated by local authors, whose careers he championed and whose works he celebrated. And he was widely respected throughout the publishing industry, having built relationships over many years with booksellers and buyers at other stores, regional reps, editors and top brass at the major publishing houses.... Mark's voracious reading habits and literary expertise made him the go-to guy at P&P for queries about books."

Among his many accomplishments in the book trade, Laframboise was selected as a judge for the 2019 National Book Awards and served as president of the board of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association.

Recruited by Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, P&P's founders, Laframboise arrived in Washington from Colorado nearly 25 years ago. He started at P&P as a bookseller but within a short time began to help with buying. 

Graham and Muscatine noted that "one of our first acts as new owners 11 years ago was to promote Mark to chief book buyer. Today, it is hard to imagine the fiction room without Mark at his desk, eager to share his impressions of a new novel (he read two a week), his favorite new recipe, or the latest sports news, from football to women's softball to college hoops to his hometown Chicago teams. It is hard to imagine not seeing Mark hunched at his computer, with a publisher rep at his side, going through his buys for the next season. It is hard to imagine the floor without Mark bantering with a longtime customer or racing to find a mystery, collection of poetry, or new release for someone visiting the store for the first time.

"It's hard to imagine P&P without Mark. We valued his advice, his friendship, and his insatiable appetite for books. His passing leaves a huge hole in our hearts and in the life of P&P.

The comments section under P&P's Facebook post about Laframboise's death is filled with expressions of sorrow as well as memories from friends and colleagues. 

In an e-mail, Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, shared P&P's tribute with members, adding: "Mark served as a NAIBA board member from 2007 to 2018, and as President from 2014 to 2016. We will all remember his unmatched knowledge of books and authors, his wide range of interests, and his willingness to be present and available for anything the booksellers and staff at NAIBA needed. Our hearts are broken at the loss of such a wonderful person and beloved bookseller."


Image of the Day: Rebecca Makkai Celebrates with Chicagoland Booksellers

Rebecca Makkai (The Great Believers) celebrated her forthcoming novel I Have Some Questions for You (Viking; Feb. 21, 2023) with Penguin Random House sales reps and booksellers at a happy hour at Chop Shop in Chicago.

Pictured: (l.-r.) Lynn Mooney (Women and Children First), Brian Wilson (PRH), Maxwell Gregory (Madison Street Books), Stefan Moorehead (back, at the window, PRH), Carly Margolin and Lauren Margolin (The Good Book Fairy), Clancey D'Isa (Seminary Co-op), Robert McDonald (front, kneeling, The Book Stall); Eleanor Thorn (Lake Forest Bookstore), Rebecca Makkai, Stephanie Kitchen (City Lit Books), Rebecca George (back row, Volumes Book Café), Erika VanDam (Roscoe Books), Jamie Thomas and Sarah Hollenbeck (Women and Children First).

Chalkboard: Too Fond of Books

"Read more Booooks" is the seasonal message on the sidewalk chalkboard in front of Too Fond of Books, Tahlequah, Okla., noting: "Fall is in swing here in Tahlequah! Thank you to the kids who gave our ghost some friends on the chalkboard!"

Personnel Changes at Holt

At Holt:

Caitlin O'Shaughnessy has been promoted to v-p, associate publisher.

Alyssa Weinberg has been promoted to marketing coordinator.

Conor Mintzer has been promoted to publishing manager & editor, special projects. Mintzer joined Macmillan in 2016 and has worked in editorial at Flatiron and Holt.

Pat Eisemann is retiring from trade book publicity after 42 years. She began her career at Random House in 1979, after writing children's textbooks for two years in Washington, D.C. In 2010, she joined Holt. Her last day will be Friday, December 2.

Media and Movies

Media Heat: Jeff Shesol on Fresh Air

Fresh Air: Jeff Shesol, author of Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War (Norton, $18.95, 9781324022114).

Good Morning America: Lisa Lillien, author of Hungry Girl Simply Comfort: Feel-Good Favorites for Your Slow Cooker & Air Fryer (St. Martin's Griffin, $27.99, 9781250310941).

Movies: Spoiler Alert

Focus Features has released the official trailer for Spoiler Alert, the film adaptation of entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello's 2017 memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words, Deadline reported. 

Directed by Michael Showalter from a screenplay by David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage, the film stars Jim Parsons, Ben Aldridge, Sally Field, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Self, Nikki M. James and Antoni Porowski. A limited theatrical release is set for the film in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on December 2, followed by expansion domestically December 9 and widely December 16.

Books & Authors

Awards: Prix Voltaire Winner; Center for Fiction First Novel Shortlist

Same Sky Publishing House, Bangkok, Thailand, has won the International Publishers Association's 2022 Prix Voltaire, which honors publishers, individuals and organizations "for their exemplary courage in upholding the freedom to publish and enabling others to exercise their right to freedom of expression."

Same Sky Publishing House was founded in 2002 by three ex-student activists, Thanapol Eawsakul, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and Chaithawat Tulatol. Since then, the house has published a large number of academic journals and books in social science and the humanities, mainly from a critical perspective. The IPA noted that "some suggest this critical position has disturbed those who uphold the political and social status quo. The last two decades of volatility in Thai politics has impeded freedom of speech in Thailand, particularly with regards to the abolition of the monarchy--something Same Sky's work seeks to address. As a result, Eawsakul, Same Sky's executive editor, has had to endure monitoring by state officials attempting to persecute him for sedition."

Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the IPA's Freedom to Publish Committee, added, "Same Sky Publishing is a perfect example of a publisher demonstrating their bravery by standing up to intimidation and continuing to publish works they believe in."

The Prix Voltaire will be presented at the 33rd International Publishers Congress in Jakarta on November 11.


The Center for Fiction has announced the shortlist for its $15,000 2022 First Novel Prize. The winner will be announced on December 6 during the Center for Fiction Annual Awards Benefit. The shortlist:

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades (Random House)
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan (Simon & Schuster)
NSFW by Isabel Kaplan (Holt)
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga (Graywolf Press)
Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (Norton)
The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara (Norton)

Reading with... Jonathan Escoffery

photo: Cola Greenhill-Casados

Jonathan Escoffery is the recipient of the 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, the 2020 ASME Award for Fiction and a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature fellowship. His writing has appeared in Oprah Daily, the Paris Review, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature and Zyzzyva, and has been anthologized in The Best American Magazine Writing 2020 and elsewhere. Escoffery is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and resides in Oakland, Calif. If I Survive You (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, September 6, 2022) is his debut story collection and follows a Jamaican family striving for more in Miami.

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

Our hyper-observant Jamaican American hero, Trelawny, stumbles into homelessness, pseudo-sex work and the impermeable boundaries of Blackness in his tragi-comedic quest to be loved.

On your nightstand now:

I've mostly been reading debuts this year--up next is Cleyvis Natera's novel Neruda in the Park, Nishant Batsha's Mother Ocean Father Nation and Putsata Reang's Ma and Me.

Favorite book when you were a child:

It might have been Goblins in the Castle by Bruce Coville because I loved the idea of being orphaned (sorry, Mom and Dad) in a castle and setting off toward adventure through a hidden passageway I discover in my bedroom. Retrospectively, I like that it provides witty criticism of both xenophobia and our prison system.

Your top five authors:

Impossible, but let's say:

Zora Neale Hurston for capturing the inner workings of Black humor.

Nella Larsen for her unflinching portrayal of Black identities and their treatment across various geographical locations.

Langston Hughes for everything he ever wrote, starting with "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which shifted my worldview and my approach to writing fiction.

Kurt Vonnegut for bridging humor and inventiveness by engaging with humanity's many shortcomings.

Denis Johnson for some of the cleanest, most surprising prose ever.

Book you've faked reading:

I've faked so many books. It's usually by accident. I'll be at a cocktail party--a red Solo cup affair, more likely--and I'll be too tall to hear what anyone is saying. Tall people have a terrible time at these things--the chatter is always chest or navel level. And I'll think you mentioned this book when you really said that book with a similar title and by the time I recognize my misstep it's too late to restart the conversation because maybe we connected over our mutual love of that book I now realize I know nothing about and suddenly it's six months later and we're in a relationship and I still haven't read it because what if you have terrible taste?

I also faked Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in college. The prose was painful, and I figured I gleaned enough from the title to write a paper on it.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Johann Hari's Stolen Focus. I proselytized about this book for a solid three months after listening to the audiobook. I lost friends.

It's about all the entities conspiring to not only steal our focus but ruin our individual and collective ability to think. These entities include predatory algorithms deployed by social media companies and the makers of smart devices and mid-20th-century changes to the way we eat and the way we educate our children.

Book you've bought for the cover:

My books are the only art I own, so I'm especially moved by beautiful book covers. Maurice Carlos Ruffin's We Cast a Shadow has a perfect cover (particularly the silver U.S. hardcover), as does Paul Beatty's The Sellout (one of my favorite novels all around), as does Alan Heathcock's new novel, 40. I couldn't leave Marcus Books the other day without Popisho by Leone Ross because of its gorgeous cover.

Book you hid from your parents:

I never hid books from my parents, but had I been asked about what I was reading, I might have omitted all the sex, violence and sexual violence in Brian Stableford's vampire epic, The Empire of Fear, which I read when I was 12.

Book that changed your life:

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. My God, the genius in this book! Reading it opened my eyes to the long-running conversation Black writers in America have been holding about the state of Black America and the African diaspora.

Favorite line from a book:

The only line from literature that I can remember off the top of my head that hasn't transcended to cliché is from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style." Mostly I remember people in my MFA repeating it over and over, but I like the idea that a writer's "prose style" can tell you about their values, morals, proclivities and so on.

Five books you'll never part with:

Justin Torres's We the Animals because it's probably the most beautiful, musical prose I've ever read.

Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son because on top of the gorgeous prose, Fuckhead is one of the most enjoyable characters ever created because his drug-induced worldview is so tender and cruel and funny as all hell.

Nella Larsen's Quicksand because I hate that I live in a world where this novel continues to be overlooked and undervalued. I suspect that it tells too much truth about the experience of mixed Black American womanhood to ever get its shine.

Writers may be familiar with this adage: books aren't finished, they're abandoned (by their creators). I believe this is true, except in the case of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. That novel was cooked to perfection.

Finally, for their humor, creativity and empathetic renderings, I'd say Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, but I keep lending these novels out and I never get them back. If you're reading this, I want my books back.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Percival Everett's I Am Not Sidney Poitier is the most outrageously hilarious book I've ever read. I'd love to embarrass myself laughing my head off in public like I did the first time around.

Book Review

Review: This Time, That Place: Selected Stories

This Time, That Place: Selected Stories by Clark Blaise (Biblioasis, $19.95 paperback, 416p., 9781771964890, November 8, 2022)

The work of Canadian American writer and teacher Clark Blaise isn't widely known outside the world of those who regularly consume short fiction in literary magazines. But now, with the publication of This Time, That Place: Selected Stories, a collection of 24 stories drawn from some 50 years of his writing, readers will have a fresh opportunity to encounter the work of a writer whose literary talent is evident in every one of these well-crafted tales.

Born in 1940 in North Dakota to Canadian parents, Blaise spent his childhood and adolescence in nearly constant movement. That peripatetic existence is reflected in the variety of settings for these stories, encompassing some of the places where his family landed, including steamy and openly racist rural Central Florida in the 1940s ("Broward Dowdy" and the slyly comic "The Fabulous Eddie Brewster") and Pittsburgh in the 1950s ("Grids and Doglegs," the charming story of a high school nerd's memorable prom date with the girl of his dreams). There are also several set in Montreal, where Blaise lived for 12 years after obtaining Canadian citizenship and before final landing in California.

Not surprisingly, a sense of displacement and rootlessness haunts many of his protagonists. Blaise treats that subject most directly in a trio of stories involving the character Phil Porter--his name while living in Pittsburgh--but who becomes Philippe Carrier when his family must flee back to his Montreal birthplace after his father assaults a fellow employee. In "Translation," the ailing 46-year-old Phil/Philippe, now a writer who has written a well-received memoir, reflects on the phenomenon of slipping across borders, even as he feels like "the ballpoint pen [is] running out of ink" when he contemplates his remaining days.

Blaise was married to the prominent Indian writer Bharati Mukherjee, who died in 2017, and several of the later stories in the collection feature protagonists with connections to her native land. In "The Sociology of Love" and "In Her Prime," Blaise considers some of the tensions between traditional notions of love and marriage in Indian culture and the decidedly more liberal attitudes of contemporary California. "Dear Abhi" and its sequel, "Brewing Tea in the Dark," are both narrated by Abhishek Ganguly, who leaves India and achieves success in Silicon Valley but who can't escape the pull of family in his homeland.

Blaise's stories are shapely and full of keenly observed details that bring their often unglamorous settings to life. For those unfamiliar with his work, This Time, That Place will come as an especially pleasant discovery. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: Veteran writer Clark Blaise offers a diverse selection of 24 well-crafted short stories in this career-spanning collection.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Hilary Mantel--'Beneath Every History, Another History'

When Dame Hilary Mantel died last week, the entire world seemed to pay tribute, though I know that had more to do with the cultural bubble of books and film and television I inhabit than with the planet, which had many other issues at stake that day. Still, the outpouring of love and respect for this critically acclaimed, award-winning and bestselling author was, to say the least, exceptional.

I read many obits and tributes to Mantel before gradually noticing that one word was conspicuous by its absence: but. Most author obituaries can't resist a good but--as in the late author was immensely popular, but not always loved by critics; or the author's early work was groundbreaking, but later books less impactful; or the author wrote piercingly about human relationships, but had a sordid personal life. That kind of thing. 

At Octavia Books, New Orleans, La.

More common for Mantel were comments like those by Nicholas Pearson, her longtime editor and former publishing director of Fourth Estate, who said: "She seemed to know everything. For a long time she was critically admired, but the Wolf Hall trilogy found her the vast readership she long deserved. Read her late books, but read her early books too, which are similarly daring and take the reader to strange places.... As a person Hilary was kind and generous and loving, always a great champion of other writers. She was a joy to work with." Those "other writers" chimed in en masse over social media, recounting personal tales of her support--small acts and large--whether she knew them or not. 

Mantel's death has prompted my return to the flawless BBC series Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. I first saw it in the spring of 2015, when it ran on PBS Masterpiece, and have watched it at least twice since then. 

I know what happens, of course. I knew what was going to happen before I watched it the first time. I'd read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and I'd read my history books. There are no dramatic plot twists or surprise endings after repeated viewings. But rewatching the series now has been, I realize, like returning to a museum to see a favorite painting. There is always something new to see (or in this case, to see and hear) if you have the patience; if you look and listen closely. 

In reaction to Mantel's death, Damien Lewis tweeted: "The genius of @hilarymantel was to curl her fingers around the door and tip toe through the darkened corridors of the palaces and houses of Tudor England imagining the intimate moments. Her vision of Henry VIII was perfect and my privilege to play him."

When I read that, I conjured Rylance's Cromwell, lurking in the candle light of those stone rooms and hallways, always present yet, when necessary, nearly invisible; watching and listening, speaking only when it matters, curling his own fingers around the door and tiptoeing through the darkened corridors.

Mantel's novels dramatically altered my historical perspective on Mr. Cromwell, as they did for others. In my case, however, art also played a significant role in this evolution.

During the late 1990s I went to the Frick Collection in Manhattan for the first time. Entering the Living Hall, I was immediately drawn to Hans Holbein's extraordinary painting of Sir Thomas More, who seemed noble, keen-eyed, brilliant. My reaction was certainly influenced by Utopia, one of my favorite books, as well as Peter Ackroyd's 1998 biography, The Life of Thomas More

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (The Frick Collection)

On the same wall, Holbein's portrait of Cromwell had the opposite effect. I saw him as uptight and staid, like a grouchy uncle at a family reunion. He glared across the fireplace at More with envy and scorn. Or so I believed for a long time, over many subsequent visits. 

Then I read Wolf Hall in 2009. The next time I visited the Frick, Cromwell had somehow altered dramatically, his expression now radiating subtlety, mischievousness and wisdom, while More seemed a bit... dyspeptic. I knew who was to blame. Mantel had completely disarmed my longstanding prejudice against Cromwell through her fictional portrayal. 

History is also good timing. During BookExpo America 2015, on the Downtown Stage in the depths of the glass castle known as Javits Center, I heard author Geraldine Brooks tell the Washington Post's Ron Charles that the story of King David, which she had explored in her upcoming novel The Secret Chord, is a precursor to the larger-than-life histories of Henry VIII or even fantasies like Game of Thrones because "it's all in there.... This is the fundamental story that underlies all those stories." Speaking of historical fiction, Brooks said, "This is what we do. We put ourselves in other people's lives."

As I had done with Cromwell. A few hours after the curtain came down on BookExpo 2015, I was sitting in the Winter Garden Theatre, waiting for the start of Wolf Hall, Part II: Bring Up the Bodies, the Royal Shakespeare Company's breathtaking stage adaptation starring Ben Miles as Cromwell. I marveled at Christopher Oram's spare and monolithic set, which New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley had described as "a vast gray chamber transected by flame and shadow." Suddenly King Henry VIII entered, a flash of color in the somber gray space. Where, I wondered as I scanned the shadows around him, was Cromwell?

As Mantel writes in Wolf Hall: "Beneath every history, another history."

--Robert Gray, contributing editor


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