Stikkordarkiv: history

One Summer: America, 1927 – Bill Bryson

bryson_1927Trying to get through the backlog, so this will be short. Though, looking back, not as short as my review of At Home which read in its entirety: «If anyone can tip me off about other authors who are as good at collecting, organising and relating anecdotes as Bill Bryson, please, please do.» Which is pretty much true for One Summer as well.

What can I say? Bryson has picked an interesting year and presents interesting stories in interesting ways. His anecdote-collecting skills have not waned and besides the usual suspects (Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, amongst many others) are lots of people I’d never heard of (well, ok, that might not say much, but bear with me) with stories that are definitely worth hearing. Such as Carrie Buck, who was sentenced to being sterilised on the grounds that both she, her mother and her daughter were «imbeciles», and that they should not be allowed to reproduce. On the whole the chapter on eugenics is particularly chilling, perhaps even more so with hindsight, knowing what was to come in Europe a few years later (mind you, some of the atrocities carried out in America, such as agains Carrie, were bad enough, even though fewer people were affected).

Ending on a happier note, I quote:

When tabloids became the rage, Macfadden launched the Graphic. Its most distinguishing feature was that it had almost no attachment to truth or even, often, a recognisable reality.

(Page 51.) Much like some of our more popular tabloids nowadays, then.



A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night – Deborah Harkness

I purchased A Discovery of Witches for the Kindle last summer on the strength of a recommendation from a friend, and started the book while in hospital having labour induced at the end of August. I read around half before we were allowed home (mostly while waiting for the pills to take effect). Once we got home I had other things to read and since I hadn’t been entirely enthused I forgot all about A Discovery of Witches. Until about a month ago, when something brought it to mind and I decided I might as well finish the thing. So I did, and immediately purchased Shadow of Night and read that, too and then cursed because the final installment of the trilogy is not out yet. You could say I got more caught up in it now that I was then.

So why did I not care too much for it in August? Well, in a word: Vampires. I’ve never been a big fan, and the whole Twilight thing with sparkly vampires and abusive or at least unhealthy relationships has ruined what little interest I might once have shown. Not that I’ve read (or seen) Twilight, it just feels like I have because of the barrage of information about it from both fans and critics. Anyway, Matthew is, if not exactly sparkly, a little too shiny in the first half of the first book. Besides, the ‘tall, dark and handsome with a troubling past but a heart of gold’ thing is really not very inventive.

However, Diana, her untried and unpredictable powers and her penchant for history eventually hooked me, despite rather than because of the relationship with Matthew. Besides, the novel is teeming with interesting ‘supporting actors’. And yes, of course I am curious to see how it all ties together at the end – I sure hope it does.

Shadow of Night is the more interesting book if you’re into history, as Diana and Matthew go back to Elisabethan London. Harkness obviously knows her stuff, though she wreaks havoc with several real historical characters’ reputations (and that’s part of the fun). Having Kit Marlowe as a deamon makes perfect sense, for example. The tiny little historical details are the best, though, and I vastly enjoyed that part of the story.

However, and there is a big However – or more accurately: Several of them.

I still don’t feel engaged in the love story. I’m engaged in Diana’s happiness, so have to accept that Matthew may be part of that, but it’s a bit like seeing you best friend fall for a douchebag: A big part of me wants her to snap out of it (though I realise that’s an unlikely outcome considering the rest of the plot). That’s one big However.

The other, which is less of a narrative problem and more of a ‘perhaps this is too close to Twilight after all’ sort of social issue is that there really are some major skeletons in Matthew’s and the de Claremonts’ closets. Really major. There’s more than a bit of ‘I used to be a bad boy but you changed me’ meme going on. I don’t like it. It may be elegantly resolved in the third book, so I will suspend judgement.

So will I buy the third book the moment it is out? Probably. And then I’ll get back to you. In the meantime: If you like vampires that are almost sparkly, you might want to check this out, if not, this is probably not the book for you. I’m not sure it’s the book for me.

Ps. Bøkene gis ut på norsk av Pax, oversatt av Elisabet W. og Marius Middelthon. De to første har fått titlene Alle sjelers natt og Nattens skygge.

London – Edward Rutherfurd

london_edward_rutherfurdI’m finally done! And the reason it took so long is really none of Rutherfurd’s fault (well, except in writing such a thick book, though I’ve read worse), but simply because life, really.

Anyway, I liked it. I felt I learned quite a bit, which is nice, though I must admit my head is not made for remembering dates, so I got confused several times and had to search backwards to a page with a date on it. Several people on Goodreads have complained that since it spans such a lot of time and events there is no time to get to know the characters, but I found that to be a minor problem – and I do tend to dislike being rushed on to a new set of characters just when I’ve gotten interested in the present set. This is why I’m not a major fan of short-stories. But Rutherfurd’s trick is to stick to a few families, and to give them somewhat hereditary traits – not just physical, but also of temperament – so that one the whole you can tell from the name of a character whether he/she will be a «hero», a «villain» or someone bumbling but generally well-meaning for example. Well, towards the end the families intermarry and intermingle and it all gets somewhat complicated, but by then I was hooked anyway, and there was still a sense of «I will root for you since your grandfather was so nice» or perhaps «I will root for you since your father was so shitty».

I had one small, but niggling quarrel with the book, though. I may have mentioned that I’ve learnt pretty much all the history I know from novels, which makes this a perfect fit. And more than anything, I love the little daily-life details. The «how a Roman forged coins», for example. Interesting stuff, I tell you. But I need to trust the author, I need to believe he (or she) knows what he (or she) is talking about. And therefore passages such as this one throws me:

But Dame Barnikel was happiest of all when she was brewing ale, and sometimes she would let young Ducket watch her. Having bought the malt – «it’s dried barley,» she explained – from the quays, she would mill it up in the little brewhouse loft. The crushed malt would fall into a great vat which she topped up with water from a huge copper kettle. After germinating, this brew was cooled in throughs, before being poured into another vat.

(Page 524) Except barley (or any grain) won’t germinate after it’s been milled. In fact, «malt» isn’t dried barley, it’s barley that has germinated and is then dried, and there is a crucial difference. «Dried barley» is just a grain whereas the germination means the «malt» is bursting with sugars which is what the yeast later feeds on in the process that actually makes alchohol. What happens after you mill is quite rightly that you add hot water to the «coarse flour» (called «grist»), but that water is meant to extract the sugars (and partly set off enzymes that convert even more of the starches into sugars to be extracted, if you want to get really technical) in a process called mashing.

And I know it’s a very, very small detail and not at all important to the story, but it grates, and it makes me wonder where else he’s tripped up and which details I now think I’ve learnt turn out to be less than accurate.

But let’s return to happier thoughts, because I really did like the book, and end with a quote which is really a much better representation of Rutherfurd’s skill:

And so with confidence he could give his children these two important lessons: «Be loyal to the king.» And perhaps profounder still: «It seems that God has chosen us. Be humble.»

By which, of course, he really meant: be proud.

(Page 787)

The Queen of Subtleties – Suzannah Dunn

The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn was found in a big basket of paperbacks in English in a charity shop in June. It happened to be on the top of a precarious pile on our office chair when I was in need of a new book to start reading, and so it got read.

I find I’ve been almost topical, what with the new Boleyn sisters film coming out in theatres over here just at this time. I’m not all that fascinated with the Boleyns as such, but I found this book intriguing mostly because of the other main protagonist, Lucy Cornwallis, the king’s confectioneer. Her story fascinated me, however, in that respect the novel is rather more disappointing than not, since there is less substance than I could have wished. I am asking too much, I suppose, as Dunn herself says nothing is known of Lucy Cornwallis except she is the only woman in an otherwise male-dominated household, and so any further details there might have been about how she ended up in such a position (which is mostly what intrigues me) would be pure speculation on Dunn’s part anyway, and I might as well speculate on my own. Still, quite a charming little book and it certainly left me wanting to read more about this period (just not another Anne Boleyn biography, not just yet, anyway). One of Dunn’s sources, Simon Thurley’s Henry Viii’s Kitchens at Hampton Court, goes straight onto my Mt TBR.

Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson – Paula Byrne

What? An entry with a single book? Since when is that something I do?

Oh, right, I used to do that all the time. Well. Enjoy it while it lasts…

Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson by Paula Byrne arrived in my mailbox a while back as a rabck. The previous journallers for this copy suggest that I should probably get around to reading Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman which is hanging around on my shelves somewhere, and I will, I will, but I thought – also from the comments – that I might as well read Perdita first, leaving the better book for desert, so to say.

In fact, I might as well not write much about Perdita, the first journaller says it all:

Mary Robinson was, without doubt, an extremely interesting and colourful figure, but this book fails to do justice to her story. The author flags up forthcoming information, continually repeats herself and includes so many quotes that the reader loses the plot altogether.

Well. I didn’t mind the quotations so much, but I got rather fed up with the incessant «more of that later»s and the endless repetitions. The most jarring repetitions were the tidbits of biography concerning peripheral characters. Whether you should even need to point out that the Duke of York is the Prince of Wales’ brother is a moot point (honestly, would you read a biography like this and not know that?), but when the information is repeated a few pages later – though now also mentioning the younger two – I simply feel condescended to. * As for the «more of that later»s the most annoying manifestation is I’m sure Byrne said she’d be telling us how Mary met Coleridge at some point, but she never did (or did I blink and miss it?). Not majorly important, and I may have dreamed that single foretelling, but still, it vexed me.

What actually really bothers me, though, is the book’s title. Let me quote a passage from Byrne herself:

The book’s [Mary Robinson’s Memoirs] frequent bouts of self-exculpation, together with its overwrought sentimental style and the unfortunate fact that it breaks off long before she began her career as a serious author, have damaged Robinson’s reputation, encouraging romantic novelists of later years to portray her as ‘Perdita’ the royal mistress rather than ‘Mrs Robinson’ the distinguished writer. As late as 1994, the Memoirs was republished under the title Perdita. (p 383)

Uhm. Yeah. Ok. I know. The publishers insisted, and even biographers must make a living somehow. In that case, perhaps a judicious edit or two – or a comment on your own choice of title would have been appropriate?

A flawed book, then. But on the whole, also an enjoyable book. I knew next to nothing about Mary Robinson, despite the abundance of women’s lit. courses I’ve suffered though, and I enjoyed getting to know her. I will certainly make sure I read one of her novels, at the very least. I suspect I have one or other of them, bundled into a Penguin classic with Maria Edgeworth or someone of the kind. I might even read Byrne’s Jane Austen and the Theatre (listed under «Also by Paula Byrne» at the beginning of the book) at some point, just because I tend to read books about Jane Austen (mind you, it’s been a while, too many books, too little time). But I won’t be in a hurry on that last one.

* (A footnote! Don’t you just love footnotes?)
I was going to use John Taylor as another example of the repetition of biographical tidbits, as I’m sure Byrne manages to mention him being an oculist-gone-publisher at least ten times throughout the book. However, being lazy, and not remembering the first name, I thought I’d simply search wikipedia for «Taylor oculist». Ahem. Not that wikipedia is the be-all-and-end-all of knowledge, but there seems to be something fishy going on here and I’m going to have to look into it further (as that’s the kind of getting-totally-stuck-on-pretty-unimportant-details kind of person I am). Anyway. Wikipedia has John Taylor (oculist) listed as dying in 1772, when Mary was 15 (or thereabouts, see postscript in Byrne), and Byrne has John Taylor being one of Mary’s closest friends in 1794. Obviously not the same John Taylor. Wikipedia has another John Taylor who is billed as a British publisher, but he would have been 13 in 1794, a tad too young to be a confidante for a Mary in her late thirties. I will investigate further and get back to you.

None of this changes the tediousness of the repetition, of course.

According to Queeney

According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge is another sales find (yay! booksales!), a fictionalised «biography» of Samuel Johnson’s last 20 years, especially focusing on his relationship with the Thrales, and his infatuation with Mrs Thrale. The writer of the amazon synopsis labours under the misapprehension that Queeney – daughter of Mr and Mrs Thrale – is the narrator of the book, which is blatant nonsense. The narration is certainly centered around her, as she is present at a majority of the events described, but it is in the third person and we also get insights into things she could not possibly have seen or known. However, each section of the book is prefaced, so to say, by a letter written by Queeney some years after Johnson’s death, in response to promptings by one of his biographers. From these we learn that her memories are not pleasant to her, and this colours our interpretation of the rest of the narrative.

I notice that the reviewers have found the book filled with «humour and wit» and such like, I can’t say I saw that, it certainly didn’t make me laugh out loud, though I did, perhaps, smile occasionally. In any case it is a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man (not the least fascinating thing about him being the influence he excerted over his friends and acquaintances).