Tag Archives: history

Santa Needs More Magic

SantacoverIt’s that time of year when I look forward to reading a good ole sappy Christmas story to get me in the mood.  This year I chose “The Autobiography of Santa Claus” by Jeff Guinn, based on its description as a fictionalized history of Saint Nicholas and how the various legends of Santa got their start.  It began with promise.  Santa, recounting his life in his own words, instructs the reader, “You’re right to believe in me.”  He goes on to describe the events of his life starting from a young boy around 280AD in Lycea, Turkey, when he first learns the joy of giving gifts to the poor.  The story continues as he becomes a Bishop, (donning the classic red with white trim gown), and spreads his mission of leaving anonymous gifts.  Along the way, Nicholas acquires some paranormal powers: he doesn’t age, and he can travel twice the speed of normal humans.  So, over the ages he meets with number of famous military leaders, artists, explorers, and writers in a sort of Forrest Gump-like fashion, and by inserting himself in some instances, changes the course of events.  We are treated to his encounters with Charlemagne, Marco Polo, Columbus, Leonardo di Vinci, Charles Dickens, and Teddy Roosevelt to name a few.  Santa also collects an entourage of helpers to include some unlikely characters such as Attila the Hun and King Arthur.  Despite the travels and historical encounters, the story is flat.  Great portions of it merely tell  of historical events in Santa’s voice, and with barely disguised opinions about the outcomes.  These portions were so long and tedious that I nearly put the book down and gave up.  On a positive note, there are fun little Christmas facts interspersed about how traditions such as carols, the name Santa Claus, Teddy bears, and Christmas trees came into being.  And, he also gives writers a great deal of credit for the spread of the Santa legend.  Overall, I was very disappointed with the heavy-handed history lessons, which made me want to run back and re-read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” because I suspect much of the history was as legendary as Santa himself.  The story was a great concept that missed the mark.  It could have been clever and witty by having Santa inserted into all types of historical settings with a crazy cast of characters, and instead it was dull at best, preachy at its worst.  Looking for an uplifting Christmas story, the skip this one for sure.  ClassicSanta

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How Much History, How Much Fiction?

poisonHistorical Fiction.  A genre that probably needs some defining.  What exactly constitutes a historical fiction novel?  Is it enough to set it in a real place and time, with the occasional walk-on character from real world events?  Where is the balance between the history and the fiction?  The historical fiction work is a novel after all, it is meant to entertain, sweep the reader away, elicit emotions, well, you know–otherwise it would be a history book.  What brings me to pose these questions is a work I just finished by Sara Poole called “Poison.”  It is a book in her series about the renaissance, which focuses a great deal on the Borgia family.  The gist of the story is this: the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia’s “poisoner,” –a man employed to do his bidding by poisoning enemies or taking measures to see that Borgia is not poisoned– is killed, but his daughter, Francesca, assumes his role.  As such, she vows to avenge her father and gets embroiled in a plot to kill the reigning pope, Innocent, and replace him with Borgia.  All this must be accomplished before Innocent can sign a writ, backed by Torquemada, expelling the Jews from Rome and all the lands under Christian rule.  Granted, the historical characters were real, Borgia was portrayed particularly well, and there may have been a precedent for such a situation involving the Jewish ghetto, but that is where the history ends.  This particular novel devotes much time to the romances of the main character.  Astoundingly, every young male from Borgia’s son, to the evil monk villain, to the Jewish resistance fighter are preternaturally handsome and manly, and this is not lost on Francesca.  She herself is no slouch, just check out her comely image on the cover.  Hmm, did renaissance women wear their hair down like that?  I think she appeals more to our modern sense of a heroine.  And I believe that is the fiction end of the bargain.  In order for books to sell, the publishers (and authors) want them to appeal to a wide audience– maybe scoop in some of the romance readers, maybe appeal to a women’s fiction crowd.  I find that although Poole has done her homework on the Borgia family, the facts seem ham-fisted into the story, more like a book report than a plot point, and some of the language is too modern.  On more than one occasion, our heroine repeats the phrase, “Make no mistake, ….” so that I could not but help imagining George Bush speaking.  There was also a case of using an expression from a later era, such as “take him down a peg.”  But all that aside, it seems to me on balance the fiction and exciting plot and romances of the story take a decided more important role than the history.  Poole could be described as a Philippa Gregory mixed with Janet Evanovich.  Oh, and if you like a nice, tidy ending…forget it.  This work was clearly left hanging in order to such the readers into a series.

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Arthurian Legend Endures

YoungKingArthurSean Pidgeon’s new novel “Finding Camlann” is described a a work of “lyrical prose (which) brings together history, myth, and dream, sweeping the reader into the mysteries of the past and the pure delight of storytelling.” I agree that the novel covers the history, myth and legend of Arthur well, but take exception to the claim that Pidgeon’s prose is lyrical.  The story is a good one: archeologist Donald Gladstone is following the tracks of the legendary King Arthur, trying to tease away the real man, if indeed he did exist, from the cobweb of legend which surrounds him.  All is brought to a head by the discovery of an ancient grave containing the mysterious remains of soldiers who have undergone the three-fold death (got to read the book for that), and what appears to be a King and Queen, holding a decorative goblet–the Holy Grail, you ask?  Donald, in his efforts to contain the media hype and outrageous claims about the discovery, enlists the help of an enigmatic Oxford professor of Welsh history and leader of the Welsh nationalist group Tan y Ddraig (no, that is not a typo), and a lovely linguist working at the Oxford English Dictionary, Julia Llewellyn.  Pidgeon, clearly well versed in Welsh history, linguistics, and lore, spins a good tale about the location of Arthur’s last battle and grave site based on poem written in Old Welsh.  Against the backdrop of the hunt for the real King Arthur is the story’s leitmotif: finding the man who was responsible for a Welsh nationalist bombing, which led to the death and injury of many in a small town.  The activity of the nationalist group is played against the search for Arthur, which for some goes beyond a historical curiosity to a hope of resurrecting the mythic great Welsh leader, or the ever present hope of finding an “Arthur” for Wales. The story is of particular importance to Julia, who has suspicions that the man responsible may be her husband, or father. Excalibur But the real main character in this novel is Wales itself: as the poetry, lore, landscape, history, and people are lovingly portrayed.  The plot hangs on a very rigorous understanding of Welsh/Arthurian history, so it may lose some readers….along with the fact that Pidgeon puts many of the poems and phrases in the original Welsh.  He does provide, however, and handy chronology of events from the building of Stonehenge (2400BC) to the death of Owain Glyn Dwr (1416) along with a guide to Welsh pronunciation of the place and personal names (for which I was eternally grateful).   Pidgeon has a good story, but his writing was uneven.  He had to rely heavily on a lot of “telling” with very little “showing” or action.  The times our hero is on the hunt of a discovery, it seems far too convenient when he stumbles across clues and makes discoveries that seem to just fall in his lap.  A lot of the dialogue is forced and wooden, because the character has to impart great amounts of history or legend to the reader in order to follow the plot.  Overall, it is a book I would recommend to the lover of Arthurian legend, an aficionado of ancient languages and linguistic mysteries, or to a one interested in the fascinating area called Wales.  I enjoyed it for those reasons.  And, I am prepared to forgive the author for creating a bitchy villain who shares my last name… Camlanncover

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Life After Death?

butterflybowlOn this snowy day in Maryland, trapped in the house, what better time for blog updating?  …and tackling the weighty issue of whether there is life after death, and if not, what?  If you search on “life after death” in Amazon or any other search engine, you will find a host of books written on the topic, ranging from personal Near Death Experience (NDE) accounts and physicians’ testimonies,  to religious tracts, to downright fanciful frauds (my opinion).  Two books which I recently read on this phenomenon are worth mentioning.  The first is called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D.  It is a short book in which Dr. Alexander recounts his experience of falling into a coma for seven days after contracting a rare brain infection,  a description of what he experienced during the coma, and his miraculous recovery.  He described a low-level world of nothingness, and then seeing a musical light which brought him to a higher plane.  When he described sitting on a butterfly’s wing and talking to a beautiful female guide, I started thinking, “Uh, oh, this is a bunch of bunk…”  But the compelling twist to this story is the fact that his brain was in such a non-functioning state that he should not have been able to experience these visions, so it brings up the question of what is consciousness, if it is not coupled with, or is an off-shoot of brain function?  It is a very compelling story for skeptics, seekers, or outright atheists just on the face of it: the trials of a mysterious, deadly illness and miraculous recovery.  But beyond the surface, it is a fascinating exploration of the human mind, the concept of “spirit,” and the nature of consciousness.  In order to make it a more balanced story, Dr. Alexander proposed nine neuroscientific hypotheses to explain his experience, and why each one of them was not sufficient to explain it.  Much of the book is taken up with the story of his illness and the background his own personal struggles, but in the chapter entitled “The Enigma of Consciousness” he steps into the role of a more objective researcher to examine what he underwent in the face of what we know about consciousness (not much, it seems).  Whether you believe he “saw” heaven or not, this book opens up fascinating questions for further debate on the role of the brain in determining personality, soul, and whether it is a necessary component of what we call our consciousness.  It spurred me to pick up several books on neuroscience and how the brain works.   In my follow-on reading, I came across the opposite of Alexander’s experiential proof of heaven, in a work which takes the purely reasoned approach: Dinesh D’Souza’s Life After Death: The Evidence.   If you have never read D’Souza, you are in for a treat, because whether you agree with him or not on any given topic, he is a brilliant writer and pure logician.  How can you logically prove that there is life after death, you ask? D’Souza walks the reader through a rebuttal of the atheist argument, and examines the evidence from philosophy, neuroscience, physics, and history all in a readable, accessible style. In his introductory chapters, he puts forth his goal of making a reasonable argument that it is perfectly reasonable to accept that the immaterial consciousness does survive the material body, and that we (believers) should not relinquish science and reason to the enemy (atheists).  And, he achieves his goal brilliantly.   greenbackgroundbutter

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The Real Downton Abbey

earlstaffnowdowntownabbeyIf you are a fan of Downton Abbey, and who isn’t these days, you owe yourself some time with a great little book written by the present Countess of Carnarvon, entitled “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.”  The book is an account of the life of heiress Lady Almina, who in 1895 married Lord Carnarvon, to become the Fifth Countess at Highclere Castle, the real life setting for Downton.  Lady Almina and her considerable fortune helped prop up the struggling finances of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon and also allowed for some major improvements to the castle.  The book chronicles the glittering life of balls and social events, along with the strict protocol and daily duties for both the family and the staff.  With the outbreak of The Great War, the castle was turned into a hospital under the direction of Lady Almina, who treated each wounded soldier as an important guest.  She and other titled society women worked tirelessly during the war, spending their own fortunes to run hospitals and charity works, and putting their lives in danger.  The accounts of the horrors of WWI are made all the more grisly when placed in juxtapose with Lady Almina’s previously privileged and frivilous life before the war. Not any family, upstairs nor down, was left untouched by the carnage of WWI; a war which in one day accounted for the death of over 60,ooo soldiers at Somme (France).  The era is captured with unflinching and unsentimental prose, outlining the contributions of an entire nation staggering under the crushing toll of that war.  Interstingly, the family at Highclere seemed to me like a microcosm of the changing world at large: the members of the family were involved in so many of the new inventions (Lord Carnarvon was a gadget nut, who loved the new airplanes and motorcars), Amina became involved in politics, Lady Almina survived the Spanish Flu epidemic,  they entertained at dinner the likes of T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell to discuss Middle East issues, and Lord Carnarvon was a partner with Howard Carter and financial backer for the explorations in Egypt which led to the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Later, the writer Evelyn Waugh coined the phrase “very Highclere,” to mean that something had been superbly carried out.  Lady Fiona Carnarvon has kept the bar high in her account of the indomitable Lady Almina and this very readable history of Highclere Castle.  She expressed the sentiment that the family does not own Highclere, but rather the castle owns them in a sense, and they are merely tenants.  The castle will endure, thanks in part to the popularity of the Downton Abbey show, and to the good stewardship of Lord Carnarvon and his family.  It certainly has a rich history worthy of preserving.

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How Theft Changed History

If it is pouring rain and windy out, and hunkering down against “the storm of the century,” what does one chose to read?  Well, my choice was something warming, historical, and well…related to the natural go-to drink in any  crisis situation.  I picked up a fascinating book called “For all the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History” written by Sarah Rose.  It is described as the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage in history–the tale of the British East India Company’s struggle to break China’s monopoly on the tea trade.  The main perpetrator in this adventure is a Scottish gardener, horticulturist, and plant hunter named Robert Fortune, who goes to China in disguise to collect plants, seeds, and other specimens, in addition to the growing and processing know-how to enable cultivation in British-controlled India.  It is difficult to image a time when China held a proprietary stranglehold on the entire tea industry– a product that had become pervasive in every English dining room.  Tea’s cultivation and processing was such a closely guarded secret that the English did not know that black and green tea came from the same plant (different method of processing).   I was also not aware of the extent to which the 1-in-3 opium addition of the Chinese population at that time could be laid at the feet of the British, which brought it in from their holdings in South Asia as part of a trade balance.  The author’s proposition that the theft of tea and its re-cultivation in India changed the face of history, and she makes some compelling arguments: some involving the opening of China and mass emigration through the coolie slave trade and the development of the Enfield rifle, which brought down the British Raj.  I would recommend this book to those who enjoyed such works as Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.”  One of the most compelling issues raised by the book was the question of whether British stole, what was then akin to China’s intellectual property–the cultivation and processing of tea.  Could such a “theft” occur in today’s global market? Food (or should I say drink) for thought.

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