Tag Archives: history

Leen Times, by A.R. Dance

I am a bad, bad Nottingham devotee. I didn’t know that the Leen was a tributary of the Trent until I picked up this book and then Wiki-ed “Leen”. I know that the Fleet ran/runs underneath London, but I didn’t know what rivers and canals helped establish my home.

I also don’t know the entire history of the gentry and landowners around here, apart from a bit about Wollaton Hall and the Castle. But luckily there is a book like Leen Times (and its precursor, Narrow Marsh) which provides a highly readable background to early 19th century Nottingham, with a bit of plot thrown in against the slightly cardboard characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It wasn’t “good”, but it wasn’t that bad, and I liked it. I thought Narrow Marsh had more dramatic tension – the plot was clearer and the villain was less cardboard-cut-out – but I wasn’t reading it for the plot, really. I was reading it for the references to places I know, for the evocation of being where I am but not when I am, for picturing Nottingham and Beeston and Chilwell before they became almost one entity.

And that’s what I got. The main characters wandering through the streets and highways on their way to Beeston and Chilwell, stopping at some points that still exist today (and some that don’t). They talk about the Reform Act riots that happened in Wollaton Park – that was the topic of the last performance tour at the Galleries of Justice that I went on. They witness the burning of the Beeston Silk Mill and hear about the burning of Nottingham Castle.

It also made me wonder about the history of some things – like the Hallams. The greengrocer in Beeston is called “Hallam’s” – is that a connection to the Hallam who was manager of the Chilwell manor, or the Hallams of Hallams Lane? Was the Duke of Newcastle oppressive, or was he just conservative and uninterested? How long did it take to get Beeston’s silk mill running again, and how does the silk trade reflect in how Beeston is now?

But, like I say, the writing wasn’t great. There was more than one moment that could have used an editor, either to say “This is really obvious” or “This is unnecessary.” (A particularly egregious sentence pointed out the irony of the hero having gone down the same path as the villain, several years before. But the villain is unaware of the fact that it’s the same path! Look at the irony!) And I do think that the story itself, such as it was, suffered from having the same villain as the first book. The “revenge” storyline was weak and the villain became a little bit one-dimensional and insane because of it. I think if the main conflict storyline had been more interwoven with the railroad storyline – for example, have a villain be a canal rival who wants to stop railroad development, or even something more on the modern side where people don’t want to see their land going for a railroad – it could have been a stronger book.

As research goes, though, it’s clearly a labour of love, and evocative enough. People outside the Nottingham area aren’t going to be able to find it, I don’t think – but then they might not care about the background as much as I do.

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The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

I ran across this book as part of the Morning News’s Tournament of Books. I really enjoy following their tournament every spring, but since I’m not in the US, March Madness sometimes sneaks up on me. This year I was lucky in that Wil Wheaton, who I follow consistently online, was one of the first-round judges, so I knew exactly when it started. His round was this book against State of Wonder.

He really didn’t like State of Wonder. I can understand why, of course, and he was right that he’s not the target audience for it. He also really, really loved this book. So I thought, “okay, that’s one recommendation right there…..if I run across it, maybe I’ll give it a try.” It ended up winning the Tournament, and then I saw that it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and then it was on sale at Waterstones. It was inevitable.

It’s a Western, in setting and tone, but like the best books do, it doesn’t limit itself to the themes of its genre. It’s about two brothers, gunslingers, on a job to kill a prospector in California. It’s about the demands of loyalty to family and to employer and to morality. It’s about recognising the social structures of the time and your part in creating or maintaining them. And it’s about the discovery that what you’ve done all your life isn’t what you want to be.

Where it particularly excels is in the actual language. Westerns for decades have had a particular voice – a weird combination of completely simple and completely high-flown. It’s hard to maintain without seeming foolish, but deWitt pulls it off. Eli isn’t the most intelligent or educated man, but he’s not stupid, and he’s well-meaning. He recognises the way the world works, and his part in the badness of it, and does what he can to make amends. He can never do a lot, but he does what he can, and he tries to temper Charlie’s excesses as much as he can.

It’s an incredible journey, not just geographically, but emotionally as Eli finds their way of life more and more untenable, while Charlie continues to find exhilaration in the extremes. Ultimately, they completely change places, with Eli becoming the leader and Charlie sinking into submission.

It’s not a book for everyone (what book is?) but it’s fast, and clear, and intriguing. Read the judges’ analyses on Tournament of Books, and then decide for yourself.

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England, England, by Julian Barnes

I may have read this book before, years ago. The premise of it – billionaire turns the Isle of Wight into an England Experience/theme park type place – seemed really familiar, and I kept getting a sense of déjà vu while I was reading it (without actually recalling anything about it). This is not meant to be a slam against Julian Barnes at all, just that if I did read it, it was years ago and probably a random discovery from a library bookshelf. If I did read it before, I enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed it this time.

There are several major themes in this book, but one of the most important ones (and most explicit ones) is the idea that, eventually, replica becomes reality. This is a stated belief and inspiration when they are planning the park, and it is proven in many different ways throughout the narrative. The actor playing Samuel Johnson, for example, starts dissociating and believing that he actually is Samuel Johnson; the locals playing “peasants” start wanting to sleep rough.  The tipping point of the second part is a showdown between the Merrie Men and the SAS team that stormed the Iran Embassy.

And the third part is the fallout of this new reality, taken to extremes: Old England has now become Anglia, an isolated and isolationist agrarian society based around the Saxon heptarchy. Everything that has internationally defined England has gone to the Island, tourism has collapsed, and the only thing left for England is to become locally focused again.

The idea that replica eventually becomes reality is an interesting one. It starts from the idea that, if it’s more convenient, people are fine with seeing the replica of something rather than seeking out the real thing – an example of this is Michelangelo’s David, in Florence. Then the replica becomes indistinguishable from reality (again, with David, who’s going to say that they haven’t seen it, just because they’ve seen the replica in the square rather than the original in the museum?). And ultimately, the replica becomes as desirable as the reality – especially if reality is difficult or inconvenient to access.

I don’t know if that’s always true, though. I think from a logistical perspective, people are willing to accept replicas in place of reality (buy a postcard or poster of a painting rather than the real thing) but I think that we value things that are more difficult to attain, whether that difficulty comes in the physical object or the experience. I buy prints of paintings I like because I can’t feasibly get the originals – I value an original painting more highly. From a logistical perspective, it’s great that all of the quintessentially English experiences are on one island, easily accessible if you’ve got enough money. From a value perspective, I prefer the journey – the ability to treat each site as its own experience rather than an item on a checklist. From an emotional perspective, I also appreciate the time in between the experiences to absorb and reflect on wherever I’ve just been – if I went to the Island and was faced with Stonehenge next to Robin Hood next to Nell Gwynn’s orange (juice) stall next to Buckingham Palace, I think my brain would explode from overload. (And, for the record, I saw David in the museum, as well as in the square. I also think that one of the reasons that the replica is so easily accepted in place of the original is because it is in the original location, while the original is in an artificial location – so I don’t think the David analogy is quite right for their replica replacing reality argument, but that’s the one that they use, so there you go.)

I also have some serious questions about the society on the Island. For something that is supposed to be a self-contained entity, there are a lot of ways that it defies its containment. The Island simply could not exist independently of the rest of the world, and that’s something that I think that Pitco completely ignores. It works in the context of the book (which is, of course, all that it’s meant to do), but it should never be forgotten that the Island is, in fact, a theme park, not a functioning country the way that it pretends to be. There is no allotment for sick, elderly, or young – presumably they must be shipped over to Dieppe.  If there were an apocalyptic event and tourists could no longer come to the Island, the whole system would collapse. They’d want Anglia’s help then, wouldn’t they? WOULDN’T THEY!

……….whoops, got a little bit carried away there……….

Speaking of Anglia, one of the more intriguing things for me was the list and discussion of “what is England” – England specifically, rather than UK generally, as one of the points of the Island project is to counterbalance devolution. One of my classes on my study-abroad year dealt a lot with the idea of English identity, versus British identity – Scottish independence or at least autonomy was a big deal at the time, and we visited the Scottish Parliament which had either just opened or was just about to, and we also talked a bit about Wales and touched on Northern Ireland (which is a whole other topic in and of itself, beyond even UK devolution). Come to think of it, that might be where I read or at least encountered this book before. Any Notts want to help jog my memory?

Anyway, it’s always struck me as an interesting, and essential idea. What defines a nation? (In the same vein, what defines an individual?) Is identity reliant on how we see ourselves, or how others see us, or some mix of the two? What about when how others see us is radically different from how we see ourselves? How can we adjust the way we present ourselves to others, without altering how we see ourselves? And, eventually, to get back to the main theme, does how we present ourselves, and how others see us, irrevocably alter how we see ourselves and become the reality of our identity, even if we were acting the whole time? Does our replica identity end up becoming our real identity?

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Mr. Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, by Kate Colquhoun

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the various historical non-fiction books that I’ve been reading in the last year or so is how smoothly they integrate their research into their story. There have been occasional points where things get bogged down in the details, but overall, I feel like I’ve experienced the story and the time period instead of just learning about it.

Mr. Briggs’ Hat is no exception to this. Certainly the first half of the book, detailing the discovery of the murder and the investigation, is incredibly gripping. (I also benefited slightly from having relatively recently both read and watched The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: there are a couple of familiar names amongst the detectives. [Wow, could I use any more adverbs there?]) I was incredibly impressed at the efforts put in to capture Muller; the detectives not only combed the streets of London for evidence, but took two witnesses to New York to help identify and extradite him.

The second half of the book, while no less interesting, does get more into the political layers, implications, and ramifications of the trial. Once they’ve decided that Muller is the culprit (based on quite a lot of circumstantial evidence, which isn’t quite as tenuous as it sounds to modern ears), things in 1864 get intricate. There’s the necessity of extradition from New York, complicated by the already fraught tensions between the American and British government and populace because of the (US) Civil War. There’s the fact that Muller is German, and Prussia was making moves toward German unification that included aggression toward Denmark (a UK-sympathetic country, due to the Princess of Wales being Danish). And then there’s the ongoing debate about suitable punishment for murder: capital punishment or lifetime with hard labour? Public or private execution?

And that doesn’t even get into the difficulties with the case itself. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the murder (who had been threatening Briggs about a loan, who were the other two men supposedly in the carriage with him), and the witnesses on both sides aren’t exactly stellar characters. But despite all the confusing details with the case, it’s never questioned that Muller is the culprit.

And, despite the hook of the murder case itself, the book isn’t really “about” that. It’s about the political and social forces that collided within the scope of the investigation and trial – without getting at all bogged down into socio-political commentary. It paints a picture of the relatively new field of professional detection, and the constantly changing world of public opinion when it comes to crime and punishment. Colquhoun weaves all the threads together so deftly that sometimes it is like being back in 1864. Hovering over it a bit, not always actually walking the streets, but that’s the benefit of history – you know how things turned out, so you don’t have to deal with the uncertainty that the “locals” would have felt. (….now I think I need to read more Ian Mortimer……)

It’s also increased my “want-to-research” list quite substantially…..not a bad thing.

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Joanna, the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily, by Nancy Goldstone

I know quite a lot about England in the late Middle Ages (1100-ish to 1500-ish). I can rattle off kings, battles, works of literature, major and minor social upheavals, geography and demographics, you name it.

I know next to nothing (relatively speaking) about the rest of Europe, and essentially nothing about the rest of the world, in that same time period. I vaguely know some of the major points, but just as names, not as details.

This book taught me a lot, in other words. Not just about Joanna, although obviously I knew nothing about her going in, but about Europe outside of England and France during the Hundred Years War. And it was fascinating. The constantly shifting balance of powers between the kingdoms, other non-monarchical countries, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy – not to mention the Pope versus the Cardinals – was dizzying. And Joanna managed to do that and, mostly, rule alone and keep her power for thirty years.

She had terrible taste in men, though. Her first three husbands were not exactly stable, and each one of them signed treaties and promised faithfully not to interfere with the government of Naples. Of course, as soon as they had the chance, each one of them interfered with the government of Naples. Her first husband was an idiot (possibly in a medical sense) who took advantage of Joanna’s illness to release a notorious murderer from prison, and ended up being murdered. Her second husband was a cousin, who only waited about a month before he started physically abusing her in public. Her third husband had spent half his life in prison, and was mentally affected by that – he also physically abused her and then started wandering the world in search of his own kingdom.

But she managed, somehow. She governed effectively, in the midst of an economic meltdown and a number of Hungarian invasions (her first husband was a cousin, and Hungarian, so they had some claims to the throne), managed to sweet-talk three different Popes into various things, and even controlled Sicily for a while – something the monarchs of Naples had been trying to do for at least 50 years.

The book itself, besides being outrageously informative, is very readable. I powered through it, in part because I couldn’t put it down.  By the end, though, I did notice that Joanna was almost idealised: she didn’t do anything wrong, never made a mistake, was never unreasonable. I didn’t come in with any preconceptions about Joanna (unlike, say, Isabella of France when I read Alison Weir’s biography of her), so I don’t know how balanced the book was or what impressions it was trying to correct. I did feel, by the end, that it wasn’t balanced. I’m sure there were negative things about Joanna, and negative reputations and rumours over the centuries – maybe I’ll seek those out now in an attempt to get a fuller picture. At the very least, I’m pretty sure that some people will have seen her merely as a pawn of the various popes, especially the ones that she got on well with, instead of someone working the system and trying to maintain whatever power and status she had.

It was excellent as an introduction (for me) to “my” time period, outside England. I have added a lot of things to my “must research more” list, including Neapolitan history, the kingship of Jerusalem (Joanna held the title of Queen of Jerusalem, but by now it was an honorific; the lack of information didn’t dim my desire to know more about it at all), the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Great Schism.

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The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

A few days ago, I finished reading The Help. I can’t imagine that there are many people reading this who haven’t at least heard of it – I know at least three people who regularly read this are the ones who recommended it to me, at various times – but just in case: In 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman, an aspiring writer, decides to write about the lives of the black maids working for her circle of friends.

But even that is somewhat wrong, because it gives far too much agency to Skeeter and not enough to the maids. It is, after all, 1962, and the Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. The women might not see themselves as having much power at the beginning, but they certainly do by the end. Skeeter’s project wouldn’t have worked without the cooperation of the maids – and everyone involved knows it.

The shifting of power is a major theme in this book. At the beginning, the world is run by Hilly, a local politician’s wife and Skeeter’s “best friend” – and one of the coldest employers in town. She has the power to make or break anyone, from the black maids and their families to the white women who, for some reason, look up to her, fear her, and follow her every mandate. She struggles to maintain her power throughout the book, isolating everyone who dares to cross her until you’re a little bit surprised that she has anyone left to boss around. At Christmas, I watched “The Flint Street Nativity”, a comedy special about a children’s Christmas program, and there was a character there that Hilly really reminded me of. This character was the leader of a trio, and constantly pronounced social doom on one or the other of her friends in the form of “Come on, we’re not talking to her anymore.”  This lasted until the two friends got wise, and one said, “Let’s talk to each other…and not to her.” I really wanted someone to do that to Hilly: if they all stood up to her, her power would cease.  (Of course, that’s essentially what Skeeter’s project, and its eventual publication, did, even if that wasn’t its original goal.)

The most obvious people in the book who start off with no, or limited, power are the maids. They’re black in a society ruled by white. They’re poor in a culture ruled by money. They’re women in a world ruled by men. Their jobs hang on the good will of the white women, and punishment for any infraction is not limited to firing, but can include exile and/or incarceration. At one point, they talk about the possible consequences of sharing their stories, and imminent death – a very real possibility in the South in the early 60s – is by far the least of their concerns.  By the end of the book, they’ve realised that sharing their stories has given them their own power. Their jobs may be the same, but because everyone in Jackson now knows what their treatment has been, many of them are stronger then before. They are certainly less afraid, and that in itself is a major improvement for their lives.

Skeeter – the white woman who collects the maids’ stories – is part of her own power shift, on two fronts. The first front is, of course, Hilly. This one is completely internal – Hilly doesn’t lose power as much as Skeeter realises that Hilly has no power over her. Up until the end of the book, Hilly attempts to exert her form of power over Skeeter, ostracizing her at every level. Skeeter, though, becomes so involved with her writing and the necessity of keeping her work secret that Hilly’s attempts become almost laughable to her.

The second front for Skeeter’s power struggles is her mother. Skeeter’s mother is a Southern belle of the “old school” – she was surprised and disappointed that Skeeter actually finished college with a degree instead of leaving to get married, she is horrified by the idea that Skeeter would work (again, instead of getting married), and she is constantly demanding input on Skeeter’s hair, clothes, makeup, general appearance, and activities. But, as with Hilly, Skeeter’s writing projects give her a new confidence in dealing with her mother. Her success in getting the maids to talk to her eventually reveals information about their own (former) maid, and the way her mother treated that maid. She finally gets her mother to see her as an adult, and after her mother’s death feels independent enough to leave Mississippi and pursue a career.

There are other, individual power shifts over the course of the novel – like the maid who successfully teaches her pre-school-aged charge good self-esteem mantras and stories about colour-blindness. Or the maid who uses the strength and power from telling her story to Skeeter to finally leave her drunkenly abusive husband. Or the white woman who finds the power to stand up to Hilly, and who openly declares that her maid is her friend. Plus, it’s 1962 so there’s the Medgar Evars assassination, the March on Washington, and the way that the world was changing.

I was also going to say something about the problems of writing any work purporting to show the “reality” of blacks when you’re not, but Skeeter as a character – and presumably Kathryn Stockett as a writer – becomes aware of the patriarchal tone of her first requests and does her best to fight against them. She (Skeeter) still, by the end, doesn’t really have any concept of the consequences that the maids face if their parts in the book are revealed, but the maids themselves are ready to face them – and the implication is strong that at least one or two of the employers will support the maids if Hilly and her coterie strike back.

There is a lot more in this book than just the power struggles, but this is just one blog. Next step? I suppose I should watch the film…..

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Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is brilliant, and in this novel set she revisits her favourite continuum (Oxford time travel: see also, The Doomsday Book, Fire Watch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog) and my favourite of her themes (chaos theory). In Blackout and All Clear, three historians go through to various points of early World War 2: one to an manor housing evacuees, one to observe the Blitz, and one to observe the Dunkirk evacuation. They are under strict instructions not to put themselves into danger, and not to do anything that could alter history. Of course, they inadvertently do (or think they do) – you can’t introduce an element into a closed system and not affect it – and fear that the timeline is trying to correct itself when their access back to 2060 gets blocked off.

Of course, now they’re all in approximately the same position as the “contemps”. They may know the details that the original timeline had, but they don’t know what, if anything, has changed, and they don’t know if anyone can or will rescue them. The parallels of terrifying, imminent danger are very well-done.

Another thing that Connie Willis does extraordinarily well is weaving in phrases and motifs so subtly that you don’t notice them until you realise their importance. She gives minor characters or overheard conversations phrases that are totally appropriate to the scene and the setting, but piled all together make a great running theme, and reassurance for the reader. Of course, that does lead to the only minor query that I have. Agatha Christie is a bit of a motif (referenced at least three times, in different ways), but would the British consistently have referred to Murder on the Orient Express as  Murder in the Calais Coach? (Wikipedia has Calais as its American title.) I trust Connie Willis’s research, but I spent a couple of  minutes trying to work out which mystery people were referring to, and was very taken aback when the title was revealed as Calais. It’s also kind of pivotal at one point, in a way that Orient Express wouldn’t have been.

My favourite theme, though, is chaos theory – something that she’s worked with before in both the Oxford series and Bellwether (which I think is my favourite Connie Willis novel). Non-linear, non-obvious cause and effect, fractals (not mentioned here, but part of the math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable.Bellwether does the same kind of thing: establishing all the seemingly random events is overwhelming and the (realistic) half-sentences and interruptions are frustrating, but the clarity when chaos resolves into order is absolutely worth it.

I don’t think I would recomment this as a starting point for Connie Willis, though. The Oxford continuum’s history anand time travel laws are already well-established when this book starts, so there’s not a lot for a novice to grab on to. Start with either  The Doomsday Book  or  To Say Nothing of the Dog, but then devour these two.

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