Friday, January 30, 2009

Napoleon in Love

Every once in awhile I make myself read a book that disagrees with my own settled opinion of the historical figures I'm focusing on in my alternative history WIP. I figure it keeps me honest by forcing me to at least acknowledge that other perspectives exist.

Napoleon in Love (RF Delderfield, 1959), a history of Napoleon's marriages and major affairs, is one of those books. I'm no admirer of Napoleon's. I swear Delderfield had a man-crush on him. He gets all huffy and wounded over anyone who ever betrayed or double-crossed Napoleon, which struck me as a bit rich, to say the least, because it's not like Napoleon never used anyone for his own selfish interests, oh no!

That said, it really is good for me to be reminded that not everyone hates my antagonist. :-) A warning to anyone who comes across this book, though--it really shows its age. Delderfield indulges in broad stereotypes of just about every ethnicity other than the French and the English. And while I don't think Marie Louise was the sharpest knife in the drawer, I don't think she could've possibly been as bovinely dull as Delderfield accuses her of being.

Still, as much as this book annoyed me, I don't regret reading it. It's a colorful view of Napoleon's court, and I got some potential ideas for the WIP.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

The Tales of Beedle the Bard (JK Rowling, 2008) is a set of five fairy tales set in the world of Harry Potter. They're purportedly translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger, though we don't get any notes or commentary from her. (Much to my disappointment, as Hermione is by far my favorite character. Surprise, surprise, I root for the bookish know-it-all.) Each tale, however, is followed by commentary by Albus Dumbledore, allowing Rowling to bring some snark and get in some explicit digs against censorship, bowdlerization, and bigotry.

Some reviewers on Amazon complain that it's a slight book, which I don't think is fair. It's supposed to be bedtime stories beloved by wizarding children, so it wouldn't make sense for it to be as long and intricate as the later Harry Potter books. It's a charming, quick read (I finished it in about 45 minutes), and I look forward to sharing it with my daughter in two or three years when she's old enough for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. (Yes, we have the British editions. We bought the first two in Canada, and my husband ordered the rest from so our set would match.)

Lost on Planet China

I enjoyed Maarten Troost's books on living as an expat on various Pacific islands, so I naturally gravitated to his new book, Lost on Planet China (2008), wherein he explores China for several months with a view toward possibly moving there for a few years with his young family. He decides not to, at least in part because of the extreme pollution. Environmental wreckage is a running theme of this book, and I have to say it made me less interested in visiting China rather than more. I get sleepy, itchy-eyed, and sore-throated during our rare stagnant air advisories in Seattle, so I don't like to think of trying to breathe in Beijing.

Troost doesn't stay in any one place long enough to get a strong feel for it, but I walked away from the book with an overwhelming sense of a place that's at once totalitarian (with government censorship of information such as just how lethally bad the air is) and on a practical, everyday level, anarchic.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Best Books of 2008

A very belated list, since we're two weeks into the new year already. But I've been running almost nonstop since January 1. We had a family wedding on the 3rd, flew back to Seattle late on the 4th, and had to plunge straight into work on the 5th. I've had two very busy weeks at work, but now I have a four-day weekend in front of me (I'm taking the 20th as a vacation day), so I finally have time to sit down to reflect on 2008 and plan for 2009.

Anyway, here are the books read in 2008 that made the strongest impression on me, in no particular order. Heavy on the nonfiction, and heavy on the Wellington:

Wellington: the Years of the Sword, by Elizabeth Longford. My favorite Wellington biography, and one of my favorite biographies, period. Longford doesn't adopt the reserved, critical distance of a more modern biographer, but her obvious affection for her subject doesn't blind her to his faults.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Epistolary novel set in the immediate aftermath of WWII--well-written, and a fun read.

Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fisher. Gave me a new perspective on British and American history and culture.

Peter Wicked, by Broos Campbell. Another entry in my favorite Age of Sail series that no one has heard of.

No-Man's Lands, by Scott Huler. An adventurous traveler tries to follow in the footsteps of Odysseus.

Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz. Explores the living memory of the Civil War.

Rapture Ready, by Daniel Radosh. One of the best outsider views of evangelical culture I've read.

The Sharing Knife: Passage, by Lois McMaster Bujold. I love this world and this series, and I can't wait for the next installment.

A Soldier's Wife: Wellington's Marriage, by Joan Wilson. The sad story of two basically good people who were very bad together...with lots of wonderful detail on turn-of-the-nineteenth-century British aristocratic life for the researcher.

Napoleon and Wellington, by Andrew Roberts. Fascinating joint biography.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Deciding the Next Decider

Deciding the Next Decider (Calvin Trillin, 2008) revisits the entire 2008 presidential race, from the aftermath of the 2006 midterms to Obama's Grant Park acceptance race, in rhyme. It's a quick bit of whimsy--I started it last night as I was settling down for bed and finished it on the bus this morning. But it also made me relive so many moments from the past two years, so much agony and angst and uncertainty along the way to the all-but-novel experience for me of voting for the guy who won!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Watching the English

In Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Kate Fox, 2008) a social anthropologist takes on her own people. I'm internet-acquainted with Fox, just barely. She frequents a horse board where I mostly lurk and occasionally post equine questions related to my WIP. (She owns a splendid Arabian stallion named H Tobago. I'm normally not a fan of chestnuts--give me a glossy dark bay or a dapple gray--but I think Tobago is close to the platonic ideal of a horse.)

Watching the English is another book I wish I'd been able to read before my year in England. I actually didn't find the English as socially awkward as they're characterized here. I made several good friends and had a wide circle of acquaintances to go to the pub with, and got into countless fascinating conversations comparing and contrasting our countries. Maybe it helps that I'm not overly given to personal revelations in casual conversation, since that's apparently one of the prime English complaints about Americans. Could being a Southerner who was Raised Right give one a certain degree of English-style reserve?

I do wish I'd understood the nuances of the class system as outlined throughout Fox's book. Not because it would've changed how I treated anyone, but because it's interesting, all these little shibboleths.

And here I have to tell my favorite story from my time in England: I had lunch with a family from the church where I was working, and after the meal I was playing with their 4-year-old daughter. I told her to "try the red button" on a toy, and like many, maybe even most Americans, I replaced the "tt" in "button" with a glottal stop. The girl fixed me with a solemn glare and told me I was supposed to say "button," pronouncing the t's with utter precision. I smiled and said that I was American, and we have a different way of saying some words. The parents fell all over themselves apologizing--which wasn't necessary, as I was amused rather than offended--and said they were just trying to make sure she didn't develop a common accent. As soon as this came out of the mother's mouth, she realized that what she'd said was far WORSE than her daughter's attempt at retraining my errant American tongue. Next came deep crimson blushes, stammered apologies, assurances that I didn't sound common at all, that they knew the rules for Americans were different, and so on.

Anyway, having read Fox's book, I can now see that those parents were aspirational middle-middle or upper-middle class, anxious about maintaining and displaying their status. And if I were English, I'd want to be either upper or working class, because if Fox is right, they're the ones who don't feel like they have anything to prove and get to just be themselves!

(As a side note, often as I read I thought of how Seattle really is the England of America, in everything from a general reserve and reticence to gardening obsession to our strange habit of thanking bus drivers for simply doing their jobs. In England it came naturally to me--I think I thanked them at first because they were actively helping me navigate Bristol, but then noticed everyone else did it and kept it up--but when I moved to Seattle, after returning from England, I thought it was weird. Nobody ever did that in Philadelphia. Anyway, if I'm right, maybe climate is destiny. Turn people loose in mild, hilly, pleasant but damp conditions, and they become English.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

First Books of 2009

And now, my first books of 2009, read at my mom's house and on the plane back to Seattle...

My first book of the year was Joan Wolf's Golden Girl (1999). I've always enjoyed Wolf's romances--they're well-written with rich historical background--and I liked everything about this one but the villain. The villain is the hero's army mentor turned personal secretary, and it's strongly implied (though I don't recall it ever being explicitly stated) that he's gay and in love with the hero. He's certainly jealous and possessive, unable to bear the idea of anyone being closer to the hero than he is, so when the hero's marriage of convenience turns into a love match, the friend snaps, ultimately trying to murder the heroine. And that bothered me. It's not that the villain was gay, as such, but that his villainy was so wholly rooted in his sexuality, and that it took such an extreme form.

Next I read For All the Saints? (NT Wright, 2004). Unlike Simply Christian, which I read a few weeks ago, this one isn't written for a general audience. Instead it primarily addresses the Anglican theology of the afterlife, ways he feels that it is drifting out of orthodoxy, and its impact on the liturgy. From my perspective as an American Presbyterian of Baptist upbringing, it felt very academic, but it was worth reading as a history of Christian theology of heaven, hell, and purgatory.

Finally, I read the first book of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles, The Last Kingdom (2004). It's a wonderful book. The first-person narrator, Uhtred, a Saxon boy brought up by the Danes after his father's death in battle in 9th-century Northumbria, caught and held my interest from the first page. If the rest of the series is this good, I could like it as much as the Sharpe books...which is saying a lot, given my high interest in the Napoleonic Era and almost entire ignorance of Alfred the Great.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Last books of 2008

I spent the last week at my mom's house outside Birmingham where my internet access was limited to my iPhone, so I didn't blog my reading. Here are my last two books of 2008. First three books of 2009 to follow in a day or so.

Dancing Into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo (Nick Foulkes, 2006) isn’t your usual account of the battle that closed the Napoleonic Wars. If you want to know what happened on the field, you should read Alessandro Barbero’s The Battle, the Wellington chapter of John Keegan’s The Mask of Command, Jac Weller’s Wellington at Waterloo, or even Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Waterloo. But if you’re me and can do rough dioramas of Quatre Bras and Waterloo from memory using tableware (I’m such an exciting dinner companion, I really am!), or if you couldn’t care less about military history but love juicy 200-year-old gossip, Foulkes’ approach gives the conflict a context missing from the more conventional approaches.

Foulkes only spends a few pages on what happened on the battlefield, focusing instead on the social whirl in Brussels leading up to the battle, what the common soldiers thought of the countryside, Wellington’s behavior before and after the battle, how little the waiting civilians in Brussels knew of what was going on just a few miles away, etc. I recommend it to my fellow history geeks to round out your picture of the events of June 1815.

My last book of 2008 was Scandalizing the Ton (Diane Gaston, 2008). In 1818, a widow who’s already the subject of gossip because of the revelation that her late husband was a murderer causes further scandal by getting pregnant, with the timing such that the baby might be her husband’s, but it might not. The reader is in on the mystery--the book opens with the heroine engaging in comfort sex with a gentleman who aids her when she gets hurt fleeing the Regency equivalent of the paparazzi. Eventually she ends up with the father, but it’s a bumpy ride.

It’s a well-written and well-researched book, and I especially enjoyed the secondary romance between the heroine’s maid and a reporter who develops qualms of conscience about engaging in gossip rather than true journalism. But in the interests of full disclosure, I did have a problem with the heroine’s willingness to pass the baby off as her late husband’s. While that late and unlamented gentleman didn’t leave any property to speak of, he did have a title, and if the heroine’s baby had been born on time, he would’ve disinherited the cousin who was the rightful heir to the earldom. I guess it really doesn’t matter THAT much, but it DID nag at me throughout the story.

I think I’ve just over-internalized a character who’ll eventually show up in my WIP series (unless I change my mind before I get that far). She gets pregnant under similar circumstances and immediately decides her only choices are to marry the baby’s father if he offers or to have the child in secret and adopt it out, because she’d feel too guilty if the kid turned out to be a boy, thereby disinheriting her first husband’s brother. Of course, my Rebecca is A) painfully perfectionist and B) the product of generations of Puritans. Plus, if I didn’t make her so uncompromising on this particular issue, she’d cross an ocean to get away from the man with whom I intend her to have a somewhat tempestuous, mostly happy, and always interesting marriage, and I couldn’t have that, could I? But I digress. I should go work on the WIP instead of babbling about it.