Monday, May 4, 2015

The Copperhead

The Copperhead
© 1893 Harold Frederic
108 pages

War can destroy a city without the first shell falling on it. Such was nearly the fate of Four Corners, New York, a small farming community in its upper reaches. Far removed from the battlefields of the Civil War, the village nonetheless suffered its injuries.  So far as Abner Beech was concerned, the world consisted of the Four Corners; the South was a distant land, its problems those of its own people. Before the crisis erupted, he was not alone in his sentiment:  most of his neighbors were kindred spirits, one Methodist lunatic excepting. That was Jee Hagadorn, from a long and illustrious line of puritanical scolds. He is, among other things, an Abolitionist, and once the war begins he ascends from the fellow everyone avoids to spearheading the town's support of the war effort. Abner Beech is astonished at how quickly his neighbors become enthusiastic about the prospect of great hordes of young men lining up to kill one another, and scandalized by the impending doom that lays in store for the Constitution in the wake of Abe Lincoln's assumption of war powers, and widespread support of it.   Beginning the book as a pillar of the community, Abner quickly falls from grace to become a pariah, spurned at church and forced by his own contrariness to keep to himself on his own farm.  Matters worsen as his own child marches off to war, wooed by the lunatic warmonger's daughter, and eventually he is subjected to  a torchbearing mob outside his home.  Although the original novel's Beech is not nearly as sympathetic as his dramatized counterpart  in Copperhead (the viewing of which prompted me to read this),  he is nonetheless heroic in both holding on to his principles, and his in being easy to forgive. The story ends on a happy note, indeed far happier than the movie's.  Modern readers will find Beech prickly, but the enduring lesson has not changed regardless. War is a sinister thing, able to turn friends into bitter enemies simply for holding the wrong opinion.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Faith and Treason

Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot
© 1997 Antonia Frasier
384 pages

       Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot….or, as contemporaries called it, the Powder Plot.   Its scale, for the 16th century, was ambitious, especially so for its novelty.  No one-shot assassination, in this scheme at least thirteen conspirators worked together over a course of several months on a plan that would simultaneously involve kidnapping a royal princess and blowing up Parliament – killing, in one fell swoop,  King James, his son the prince,  the royal ministers, and the assembled lords of England. The plan was undone by a mysterious letter, but even its collapse was exciting, featuring explosions and a shootout before legal trials wiped up the last of those involved.  What possessed these men on such a murderous undertaking?  Faith and Treason is an excellent history of the affair, prudent and compassionate. While no one would fault Antonia Frasier for heaping abuse on men who knowingly plotted the death of innocents, who intended to create widespread confusing by massacring the entire government of England and then conspiring with foreign powers to impose order,  she does not. She simply tells the story of what happened with an eye for understanding why, and much of it seems to be misplaced youthful bravado, matched with the Crown’s longstanding persecution of religious minorities and the crushed hope of James' about-face from earlier tolerance. The tale is a tragedy, not only for the misguided aims of these men who were foolish enough to think anything good could come of obliterating a nation's entire corpus of leadership, but because it backfired. Despite the urging of the Pope for English Catholics to live in peaceful hope, despite  the general lack of restiveness among their populace, and despite the fact that the closest potential European allies (Isabella and Albert) had little interest in meddling in English affairs, the conspiracy persisted. In its wake, Catholicism bore the taint of treason, and would suffer it for two centuries more.   Fraser's history is remarkable for its lack of vitriol, and thorough depiction of how the plan came together piece by piece, man by man, and then abruptly fell apart.


I dedicated the month of April to England in part to clear space for reading a little Dickens and a little Austen, and here the month is past and I haven't read one of either. The month was still a success, though, with lots of history and historical fiction, and more to come. Read of England will carry on until I have read Dickens and Austen, and yesterday I launched into Great Expectations.  This is no self-punishment, because I'm not out of my mood yet and have two more English histories I'd like  to take on before moving on to another big theme.

So far, and note that a couple of these haven't gotten comments yet but will:

English Classics
...maybe Come Rack! Come Rope!, but does it count if no one has ever heard of it?

English History
Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge
Faith and Treason, Antonia Frasier
The Fall of  Saxon England, Richard Humble

 Fiction, Set in England
Armada, John Stack (Historical)
In a Dark Wood, Michael Cadnum (Historical)
The Other Queen, Phillipa Gregory (Historical)
Ruled Britannia, Harry Turtledove (Alt-History)
The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
Bachelors Anonymous, P.G. Wodehouse

Books by English Authors
Medieval Essays, Christopher Dawson.
More will follow. After this reading will be fairly mixed until mid-June, when I'm planning for a bounty of books relating to colonial America and the patriotic rebellion of 1776.   More on that later.

Also, the 2015 Reading Challenge continues apace,  and I am twenty books into it. Those taken:

A book with more than 500 pages (Politics on a Human Scale, Jeff Taylor)
A book published this year  (The Empty Throne, Bernard Cornwell)
A book with a number in the title (Selma 1965, Chuck Fager)
A book written by someone under 30 (I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai)
A funny book (Bachelors Anonymous, P.G. Wodehouse)
A book by a female author (Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge)
A mystery or thriller (The Iron Web, Larken Rose)
A book of short stories (The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse)
A book set in a different country (Map of Betrayal, Ha Jin)
A nonfiction book (Winter World, Bernd Heinrich)
A book based on a true story (The Marriage Game, Alison Weir)
A book based entirely on its cover (The Internet Police, Nate Anderson)
A book that came out the year you were born (Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card)
A book with a love triangle (The Other Queen, Philippa Gregory)
A book set in high school (The Chosen, Chaim Potok)
A book with color in title (Green is the New Red, Will Potter)
A book that made you cry (The Pigman, Paul Zinde
A book set in your hometown (Casualties, David Rothstein)
A play ("The Importance of Being Earnest", Oscar Wilde)
A book you started but never finished (The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bachelors Anonymous

Bachelors Anonymous
© 1973 P.G. Wodehouse
191 pages

"It is never agreeable for a man who is engaged to one girl and has just proposed to another to find himself in the company of both of them."

Ivor Llewellyn and his lawyer Mr. Trout have been through five divorces together, but it's time to say goodbye. Llewellyn is headed for England, but he leaves with parting advice from his good friend Trout:  for heaven's sake, man, steer clear of marriage!  Trout's own secret at avoiding matrimony is simple: he belongs to a discrete club of gentlemen who, when one of their members is headed down the slippery slope of copulation, rescues him.  At the first batted eyelash, the first romantic date, the members of Bachelors Anonymous step in fight off the lady-types and redeem their pal.  While there is no such club in England, Trout suggests that his friend look into employing some reasonably level-headed fellow in London who can help safeguard him from unwanted female affection.  They find such a man in young Joe Pickering, whose heartfelt first play has just been ruined by a diva stealing all of the lines.  In the comedy of errors that follows, however, and a string of coincidences so preposterous that even the characters are boggled at them,   the book ends with at least two marriages.  Wodehouse is a delightful absurdist; there is some pleasure just in the silly situations he comes up with, but the style of the story works to great effective. The characters are often pompous, and Wodehouse sneaks in little barbs that are completely nonsensical, but in a novel of this sort not altogether rout of place. He informs the reader, for instance, that one particular character’s  flight to England arrived on time, thanks to the complete lack of a hijacking.  It’s so apropos of nothing, and yet if the flight was hjacked, it’s the sort of  random happenstances that would fit into a crazy, silly story like this. This is nothing but entertainment, of course, but it’s lively and stylish.

In a Dark Wood

In a Dark Wood
© 1998 Michael Cadnum
256 pages

In a Dark Wood tells the story of Robin Hood, the merry thief of Sherwood Forrest, from the perspective of the sheriff whose peace he breaks. Sir Geoffrey of Nottinghamshire may be the High Sheriff, but he’s no villain given to dressing in black, kicking children, and shaking down widows for the king’s tribute.  He is a dutiful functionary of the Realm, obliged to administer the king’s business. Before him lives are weighed in the balance, arguments are settled, taxes taken in. It’s  soul-smothering work, really, and his wife is no relief, taken up as she is with a handsome falconer.  When a prankster takes up residence in the forest flanking the king’s High Way, demanding tolls, Geoffrey is at first annoyed,  and then – interested.  This Robin is no simple thief. He doesn’t seem to be interested in taking great hauls, sabotaging the king’s interest, or persecuting innocent travelers; he’s out to have fun. He must be stopped, of course; the king’s law is perfect and none who thumb their noses at it can get away scot-free.  But Geoffrey shies from becoming the man’s ruin, just as an overtaxed man might feel a pang of regret after suddenly roaring at a giddy child to stop singing. There is something wrong in the silence that erupts.  There are no heroes here, no villains, only men crushed by the burden of responsibility and those free of it finding ways to rescue one another from meaninglessness. It’s an interesting take on Robin Hood that restores the sheriff to his full humanity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Boudica: The Life and Legend of Britain's Warrior Queen
© 2006 Vanessa Collingridge
390 pages

To the Roman mind, the isles of Britain lay in the shadows between the light of civilized Empire and the dark depths of the unknown Oceanus which encircled the world. Naturally the ambition of the Caesars would be to attempt its capture. Repeated invasions led by both Julius Caesar himself and successors like Claudius created an effective Roman presence in wild Britannia, complete with a few cowed client states. Those who resisted were crushed or humiliated. When one tribe strayed from the straight and narrow leading to Rome, their queen was beaten and her daughters raped.  The name Boudica may ring but a distant bell for Americans, but the avenging queen is a figure of legend in English history. Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica examines not only the life of this long-dead heroine, but how her legacy of opposing conquest and humiliation has been remembered throughout English history.

Boudica  is storied, personable, and sometimes speculative on occasion, but is as thorough as a history about a life so scantily recorded can be. Collingridge offers an expansive background (delivering an entire history of the Roman people that focuses on their frequent altercations with the Gauls), and uses archaeological evidence like coins to supplement the official Roman accounts of the revolt.  The background is useful for casual readers of history in understanding “Celtic” Britain;  as Collingridge points out,  Celtic is a relatively modern label that assumes more unity than actually existed.   The native British and the continental Gauls did share certain a general culture, with similar art and gods, but not only did the Britons view their European relations as a people apart, but even on the island they were divided into a multitude of warring tribes. Contemporary research unearths more questions than answers;  the amount of Roman artifacts lying around Britain decades before Caesar braved the Channel indicates that there was more traffic across the channel than previously thought.  Some attempts to settle questions remain purely in the realm of the imagination;  Collingridge hints that there may have been a famine in areas of the island around the time of the invasion, given the burned remnant of imported French grain.  There is little that is really known about Boudica; even drawing from two Roman histories, we only know her tribe, the assault against her, and her subsequent part played in a rebellion that burned to the ground three Roman settlements, including London.  The importance of Boudica lies not in what she accomplished during her life (the rebellion failed), but how she is remembered.  Female rulers brought nothing but woe to the Romans, but for the English she would regarded as a source of inspiration. This was especially true during the reigns of Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, where her ideal as a roaring, wounded mother helped generate devotion to the Queen as a feminine ideal, and support for her benevolent empire.

Collingridge makes the most out of limited material and tells a good story. This is terra incognita for me, but she does a solid job establishing how sketchy our appreciation of pre-Roman Britain is.

The British History Podcast,  Episode 10: Boudica's Rebellion

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Other Queen

The Other Queen
© 2008 Philippa Gregory
448 pages

 Bess of Hardwick has survived three husbands, but her fourth may be too much. Sure, he’s the Lord High Steward, whose family came over on the Norman Mayflower,  but the man’s sentimentality will be his undoing. Sixteenth century England is wracked by reformation and political conspiracy; it's a time that warrants discretion and pragmatism, not romantic heroics. Look at Scotland, where the lords have just deposed their queen, accusing her of conspiring to blow up her late husband!   Of course, the Earl of Shrewsberry didn't mean to drive his family, the Talbots, to ruin.  He was asked by the Queen to provide shelter her ousted cousin the Queen of Scots. Is it his fault that she attracts conspiracies  like a flame attracts moths?  And is it his fault that this damsel in distress is so utterly, utterly, lovely? So obviously in need of protection? Such is the story of The Other Queen, of a woman who tears a man's life apart by undermining his loyalty to both Queen Elizabeth and his own wife. 

At first, keeping a ward of Queen Elizabeth seemed like an honor and a boon. If she had only been a confined guest for a short time, she might have very well been.  Alas for the Talbots  the young queen initially being sheltered from those rampaging Scots quickly becomes an object of suspicion and intrigue. As the English court dithers about what to do with her, she hangs as a millstone around the neck of the Talbots. She's a very royal creature, Mary;   Queen Consort of France, Queen Regnant of Scotland, and -- shall England be added to the list? It could, for Mary has Tudor roots, and that posits a problem for  Good Queen Bess and an opportunity for her enemies. How easy would it be to justify overthrowing a spinster queen reigning over a schismatic church , replacing her with a merry young princess who Europe loves and who is perfectly capable of producing a few proper heirs?  She's a lightening rod for trouble, this Mary, and maybe it's just as well that she's in England, under watchful eyes. Mary's royal appetites, however -- the size of her staff, her curious insistence on bathing her face in white wine --   are going to drive her guardians into bankruptcy if she doesn't get them killed first. Although the model of saintliness to her hosts, Mary is constantly writing letters and scheming ways to escape to Scotland and regain her throne, or even to claim Elizabeth's.  England's leaders aren't blind to this, and they have a spy within the house that casts suspicion on Shrewsberry himself.  For his part, he is slowly smitten by Mary, and doubly so when people keep asking him pointed questions. What has she done to make them so angry, poor innocent lamb?  Eventually things go south, of course, and this being Tudor England it ends in executions.

 There's a lot going on this novel. It's historical fiction, and Tudor drama gives an immediate kind of soap opera drama. Personal and political are mixed;   Elizabeth's advisers want to keep a close eye on Mary, but her presence in England heightens her threat. Throughout the book the Earl of Shrewsberry is gradually seduced by Mary;  not sexually but in a style reminiscent of courtly love. He wants to be her knight in shining armor, even though her whims are destroying the fortune his wife has painstakingly built up and his defensiveness regarding Mary erodes  his reputation at court.  Mary is playing him like a lyre, though,  as her own chapters reveal to the reader.   I'd expected this to be sympathetic, and the book does make her out to seem a utterly lovely creature much of the time, but...jellyfish are also pretty. They are no less deadly for it, and when Mary is finally tossed into the tower and dispatched the only person I felt sorry for was Bess.  I may give Gregory another try or two;  soap operas aren't much my style, but she has a great variety of works out there from the looks of it. She certainly succeeds in bringing to life again a long-dead queen.