Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I was never required to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for school, which I'd say was a bad decision, if not a particularly surprising one, on the part of whatever committee planned English and History curricula for Alabama in the 1970's and 80's.

Over the past twenty years I gradually realized it was a book I needed to read, though all I knew about it is that it involved Huck and a runaway slave named Jim on a raft down the Mississippi River, that it's an Important Book in American Literature, and about the famous "Then I'll go to hell" scene. So when I got it as a free ebook as part of an iPhone app, I decided it was high time I remedied the defects of my education.

I'm glad I've read it--I can cross it off my bucket list, for starters--but I think I would've gotten more out of it if I'd read it at a younger age. I enjoyed it, but with more intellectual appreciation than emotional engagement. Knowing its Importance to American Literature, I was somewhat surprised to discover how much of it is pure kids' book. (Not that I was oblivious to the deeper layers there, or how much satire and social criticism there was in the antics of the Duke and the King, but the surface of the read wasn't what I was expecting.) It's brilliantly written, of course, and the "I'll go to hell" moment, once I finally got there, was wonderful. I was relieved, however, to read the Wikipedia article after I finished the book and discover I was far from the only person to think the Tom Sawyer plot at the end dragged on pointlessly! I'd been afraid I'd been committing some kind of unpardonable sin against Important American Literature.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Breath of Snow and Ashes

I've spent the past week with A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Diana Gabaldon, 2005), so I'm now all caught up with the Outlander series, just in time for An Echo In the Bone to debut next month.

This is the sixth doorstopper tome in the series, so it's by no means the right place to start. But it's a wonderful place to spend time with characters you already know and love. This volume takes the characters from 1774 to 1776 in North Carolina, with Jamie, who knows how the Revolution is going to turn out thanks to his time-traveling wife, daughter, and son-in-law, having to balance that knowledge with the fact that most of the rest of his friends and relatives are Loyalists.

What Gabaldon excels at is combining the grand, violent sweep of history with the little intimate moments of daily life. I hope I can write something half so rich someday.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dangerous Games

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Margaret MacMillan, 2009) is adapted from a series of lectures the author gave at a Canadian university. Because of its origin, it's a short book that doesn't go into tremendous, footnoted detail on any of its examples. On the other hand, it's a quick, accessible overview of an important subject.

Basically, MacMillan's thesis is that history is very useful for us in the present, but only if we're willing to view it both broadly and realistically. We get in trouble with nationalistic histories designed to show how brave and just and chosen by God our nation is, or with cherry-picking our historical analogies (Chamberlain at Munich being a popular choice with which to smear one's opponents).

All that, on the face of it, seems too obvious to bother with. But that doesn't keep us from making the same mistakes again and again. I know that the more I learn about the past, the less surprised I am to learn that the assumptions I walked in with are false. This applies to everything from the relatively trivial (clan tartans in Scotland were the product of 19th century marketing rather than ancient tradition, the Duke of Wellington never said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton) to the deadly serious--just from MacMillan's book I learned that everything I'd always heard and assumed to be true about WWII being caused in large part by the punitive reparations placed on Germany after WWI isn't quite as straightforward as that, and that a lot of the Soviet rhetoric of the Cold War was just a cloak for the same Russian nationalism and strategic self-interest that existed before the Communist takeover.

It's a good book, and one that questions the assumptions of all sides of the political spectrum.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Kensington Palace: The Official Illustrated History

I must admit that I did not read every single word of Kensington Palace (Edward Impey, 2003). A few scenes in my WIP are set there, so I got this book through interlibrary loan in hopes of finding floor plans and images to help me make the setting more vivid. So I skimmed through the details of William and Mary's and Anne's reigns, and I didn't pay much attention to anything after my story's time period.

The floor plans weren't as detailed as I hoped, so I'll just have to fudge a bit. Which may be just as well, because a whole page of, "She sneaked from Room X to Room Y, then ducked out into the passage because there was no connecting door to Room Z," would make for dull reading. But I did get my visuals, so I think I'll be able to make my scenes evoke Kensington Palace rather than Random Great House.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Loving a Lost Lord

I have to start with my usual caveat about hating the cover. If I were Queen of the Publishing Industry, no cover in any genre would be approved unless everyone on the editing, design, and marketing teams could honestly say they'd be perfectly comfortable reading the book on a plane, a bus, the cafeteria at work, in front of elderly parents and young children, etc. It's easily possible to make a cover that's romantic, even sexy, that's still tasteful. This, IMHO, isn't it.

Loving a Lost Lord (Mary Jo Putney, 2009) is the first in a new historical romance series about childhood friends known as the "Lost Lords" because they met at a school for aristocratic problem children. The story opens with several of the friends coming together to search for one of their number, the Duke of Ashton, who is missing and presumed lost at sea. He isn't, of course--he merely has amnesia and thinks he's married to the lady who found him. If that sounds a bit over-the-top, it is, and to enjoy this book you need to be in the mood to embrace the OTT--besides the amnesia, it's got murder attempts, long-lost relatives returning from the supposedly-dead, etc. And it has a certain degree of prequelitis, with multiple friends of the hero clearly being set up for their own stories. I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who's never read Putney before--my favorites of hers are One Perfect Rose and Shattered Rainbows--but if you're already a fan, you'll enjoy the start of a new series.