Monday, December 13, 2010

The Tower, The Zoo and the Tortoise

After the almost constant drama and "history-witnessing" events of Fall of Giants, it was refreshing to read this whimsical little book by Julia Stuart. The central characters are a Beefeater and his wife - you know, the guys who wear the red suits and guard (and live in, and act as tourist guides for) the Tower of London. The interplay between them and their neighbors/co-workers is hilarious at times, but there is solemnity too. An underlying theme is the mourning the couple are in for their only son who died at the age of 11.

But on the whole, it's quite an entertaining little book. It's great for a history nut like me, who can only imagine what it would be like to live in a place like that literally surrounded by it.

I've already taken it back to the library but I think the dust jacket notes said it's only Stuart's second novel; I look forward to seeing more from her.

Fall of Giants

When I saw that Ken Follett was coming out with a new book, I reserved it at the library right away.

In typical Follett fashion, the story takes place before, during and after World War I, on three different continents, involving several different families who all somehow become intertwined.

It is rather a gloomy book, but I guess it was a gloomy period of history. Even when the war ended there was still poverty and disruption, especially in the defeated countries. There is love and hope too though.

Over and over again the theme recurs about how "upper class" men were automatically given leadership in the army, with sometimes not so spectacular results. One can see how World War I was the catalyst for the end of some of the European autocracies.

It's the first of a trilogy; I intend to read the others, whenever they come out some years down the road.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Another potboiler!

Just finished The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory. Yes, I know she plays fast and loose with the facts sometimes - even she admits that a lot of her books are "what if?" scenarios - and she paints a very bleak picture of how greedy and ambitious humans can be. But you can't deny her books are entertaining, and I had this one on reserve at my library as soon as I heard it was coming out!

Any student of the Tudor period knows the bare facts of how Henry VII, the founder of the dynasty, came to be. His father was Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, son of Katherine of Valois (widow of Henry V) by her second union with Welsh nobleman Owen Tudor, and thus half-brother of Henry VI, although with no claim to the throne. His mother was Margaret Beaufort, a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt by his last marriage to Katherine Swynford, whose descendants were legitimized by special decree, but barred from inheriting the throne since John and Katherine's children were born before they were married. So she was fairly closely related to the king, but theoretically had no claim to the throne either.

But the bare facts aren't always the most interesting ones. Marriages were made for dynastic reasons back then; obviously it was thought Edmund and Margaret would be a "good match" without any consideration given to their feelings about the matter, but that's how it was if you were royalty or nobility. In Gregory's book, the marriage between 25-year-old Edmund and 12-year-old Margaret is a grim, joyless affair. They have little in common, and the sex is a painful nightly duty to conceive an heir. I read another book about Margaret a few years ago, the name of which escapes me, which has them fall madly in love with each other and Margaret absolutely crushed when Edmund died a few months before their son was born.

History doesn't tell us how they felt about each other; I'd be willing to bet the truth is somewhere in between.

Anyway, their son Henry Tudor, who under any other circumstances would have been an obscure nobleman enjoying a close kinship to the king without any claim himself, became an important little boy as the Wars of the Roses dragged on and his distant cousins all killed each other. He ended up being the Lancastrian heir to the throne. It is known that his mother Margaret was remarried to a couple of Yorkist noblemen, but of course her efforts were all aimed at putting her son on the throne. We know that she had a secret correspondence with Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of Edward IV, about Henry marrying their daughter Elizabeth. Of course as we all know, this is eventually what happened, uniting the two lines of the rival descendants of Edward III and putting an end to the Wars of the Roses, other than a few fitful rebellions which were swiftly put down.

How far did Margaret go beyond that, though? Gregory has her ordering the deaths of the Princes of the Tower, although it appears someone else beat her to the punch... their fate is one of the great unsolved mysteries of history, and the debate rages on to this day over who was actually responsible, or even what actually happened. Although Margaret was definitely one of the people with the most to gain from their deaths, she was so devoutly religious that she had calluses on  her knees from kneeling and praying so much, so I really can't see her ordering the murder of two children... but of course I wasn't there so I can't say.

This is incredibly nerdy but one thing I find odd too is how Margaret supported the Lancastrian cause, yet if you look at genealogy she was actually more closely related to Edward IV than to Henry VI, although of course her first husband was his half-brother. People forget that Edward IV's maternal grandmother was also a Beaufort, a daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. Edward IV was descended from three sons of Edward III, Henry VI and Margaret Beaufort from only one, as far as I can remember. Medieval royal and noble genealogy can be breathtakingly complicated and you can go blind studying all the intermingled lines, but that's just my observation.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Metamorphosis 7

American Pastoral by Philip Roth is one of those books that has you on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen next, yet you are uneasy about what might happen.

The title refers to the American suburban dream... a wealthy family man who appears to have everything but whose life is shattered, first by the ugly side of the 1960s impacting his home, then by betrayals of others close to him. I better not say any more!

The characters are sympathetically drawn, yet we aren't allowed to be blind to their flaws. I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Metamorphosis 6

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was next on the list. It was written in the 1960s and some have hailed it as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. Apparently it is a microcosm of Colombian history. Although I'm not intimately acquainted with that subject I was able to see the parallels to colonial history in general - the first settlers living in isolation, the advent of technology with all the good and bad aspects, revolution.

It's a saga of a family that actually spans about 200 years and several generations, although it's hard to tell since some of the characters live to be over 150 years old. I enjoy "family saga novels" but this one was a bit harder to get through than some, not only because it's a bit bizarre but also because so many of the male characters have the same names. I found myself constantly referring to the family tree in the front of the book.

It is a good story though - the archetypes of the characterizations ring true. The translation from the Spanish is well done and reads smoothly.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Next P.D. James

My other flea market purchase was A Taste for Death. Once I started reading, I realized I saw it years ago on PBS Mystery. But that was all right - it was long enough ago that I didn't remember who the killer was!

Vintage P.D. James. Rich bored dilettantes, resentful servants, nosy church ladies, with an anarchist or two thrown into the mix to keep it interesting. This book was from 1986 so some of it still seems quaint to us, but her writing is fresh anyway.

I recommend it. Now I am back to the hundred must-read novels... will update when I am done the newest one

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

2 in 1 (catching up)

So I read Solar by Ian McEwan. After reading Atonement I discovered he had a new novel coming out, and immediately reserved it at my local public library. It took over two months to get it, but it was worth the wait. It is a very different novel; the ending doesn't really resolve much and the protagonist is someone you're really not meant to like but you end up feeling a grudging sympathy for him at some points.

Michael Beard is a Nobel-winning physicist whose best years are behind him and whose private life is incredibly complicated and ego incredibly large. This leads to some hilarious passages. In one, he is forced to pee outside during a Spitsbergen winter - as one reviewer said, I defy any male to read this without shuddering.

And I read The Black Tower, one of the P.D. James paperbacks I bought from a flea market.  It's an early Adam Dalgleish novel, from 1975; I was amused to see that as far back as that he was already thinking about hanging up the holster, as he so often is in the later books. These early P.D. James books remind me somewhat of an Agatha Christie novel; I mean, TYPEWRITER evidence? They seem quaint yet not outdated; the story and characters are still fresh. In this one, Dalgleish receives a letter inviting him to visit an old family friend who he hasn't seen in years. On arrival, he finds his friend has died in circumstances that, of course, aren't as straightforward as they appear.

The usual twists and surprises occur... don't want to give them away.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Metamorphosis 5

Next up was Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. A very different novel; almost entirely a monologue told to an unknown listener. Yet not boring at all... and even though translated from its original German it doesn't read awkwardly as many translations do. Austerlitz is a middle-aged man who was evacuated to England from Czechoslovakia as a child in the summer of 1939... as he gets older he feels the need to find out why. The novel tells the story of his own journey of self-discovery. But those are just the bare bones... Sebald is a master of observation, of things and emotions.

The one strange thing is that it's not divided into chapters. Even paragraphs can go on for pages and pages. So it's not really suited for reading in "chunks" as I tend to do. Reading on my lunch hour at work, I would reluctantly have to close the book right in the middle of an especially lush passage. But it's a haunting story and touched a chord in me.

I will now take a short break from the "Top 100 Must Read Novels" as I purchased a couple of P.D. James paperbacks from a flea market so I feel obligated to read them. However if, as has happened to me before, I get a few pages in and realize I've already read them, I'll be on to the next one on the "must read" list.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Metamorphosis 4

After the sometimes flowery Victorianism of Stevenson, the abrupt, slangy writing style of James Ellroy was, to say the least, jarring. This, and the huge cast of characters introduced at a rapidfire pace, made L.A. Confidential a bit hard to get into at first. But by the end of the book I couldn't wait to find out who the bad guys were... I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but let's just say this novel paints a very unflattering picture of the corruption of the oft-interwined LAPD and Hollywood in the 1950s.

This 1990 novel was later made into a movie starrting Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kim Basinger. A few years later a TV movie with Kiefer Sutherland was made by Fox - a pilot for a 13-part miniseries which never materialized. Dang, now that I looked at the IMDB entries my visualizations of how I thought the characters looked are all messed up...

I also find out from that it's the third book in a four-part series called "L.A. Quartet". I suppose I'll have to check out the others now.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Metamorphosis 3

Right now I'm reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The one I got from the library is the Penguin edition which also includes some of his short stories. These older classics are a bit harder to get through because the language seems a bit dated to us, but the story is compelling, and it's fascinating how Jekyll and Hyde are recognizable archetypes to this day.

Metamorphosis 2

Next up was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. We also join this story sometime in the 1930s and it continues until the 1960s. It is about a black family in the US; the central character grows up and needs to find himself amidst the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Lots of strangeness too but in a good way!


Trying to make myself a more well-rounded reader... I've embarked on trying to read all 100 of the must-read novels as chosen by someone at the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

So far I have read Atonement by Ian McEwen. A very good drama set in England in the 1930s to the present. A young girl from an affluent family is going through traumas like many 13-year-olds, but she further complicates her life and those of others when she makes a false accusation... and spends the rest of her life atoning, hence the title.