For the past 3 weeks, it hasn’t been Radio WTWP (wall-to-wall Proust, with a tip of the hat to Prof. Peter Schickele) on my reading shelf. Here’s some other stuff I’ve been clearing out:
Desmond Seward’s The Demon’s Brood, a 300-page bare-bones history of the Plantagenet dynasty, from a myth-tinted beginning in the forests of 8th century France, to its 15th century end on Bosworth Field and Richard III’s burial in a pauper’s graveyard (a few hundred years later, a car park). What I already knew of this dynasty came from Shakespeare (Henry IV to Richard III), film (Peter O’Toole twice as Henry II!), and some “classic” children’s books about Robin Hood and William Wallace (Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs, written in 1810 and gorgeously illustrated by N. C. Wyeth in 1921). In other words, much of what I knew was probably based more in local legend than in actual fact. Seward’s book, although jam-packed with information, is marred by confusing typos (e.g., in Edward III’s ancestral chart, Fulk II the Good is noted as living 987-961, and in another chart the son of the Black Prince is listed as Richard III — anyone ought to know this is Richard II!), as well as a flurry of Henrys, Edwards, and Richards, as well as Margarets and Elizabeths — at least one per generation, and often more than one; when Seward mentions Henry II, I don’t know if this is the king of England or of France. Worst of all, there are no maps! Yet I finished the book, a quick read despite the problems. I now have a slightly clearer sense of the Wars of the Roses and the 100 Years War, and of the shifting alliances among the various rulers of England, France, Scotland and Wales.
Some books by and about Arthur Ransome, beyond the Swallows and Amazons series. More on these in a separate post, but what an amazing life Ransome led: not just sailing the Norfolk Broads and the Lake District, but also as war correspondent (WWI) in Russia, working his way up the ranks to hang out with (or at least meet) Trotsky, Lenin, and several others. In at least one instance, his input may have changed the course of history.
Jean Craighead George’s The Talking Earth, in which Billie Wind, a Seminole girl, is challenged by a village elder to learn how to listen to nature. Stranded by a storm in the Florida Everglades, she discovers the meaning of tribal myths and finds that science and myth aren’t mutually exclusive. George is best known for her Newbery Award winning Julie of the Wolves. The Talking Earth, a similar novel featuring a young woman who relies on animals to help her survive, although shorter, has a much stronger ecological focus.
Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk, another book featuring Native Americans, this one is set in Colonial New England, when Europeans and the Wampanoag nation met and clashed. Last fall, I heard Cooper talk about writing this book — about living near a tidal marsh untouched by centuries of development. The land seemed to tell this story for her, and all she needed to do was listen. It covers several decades of history, with European settlers slowly encroaching on Wampanoag territory. Historical characters such as Roger Williams and Massasoit appear, at a distance, grounding Cooper’s tale in fact, but never overshadowing the mystical themes. It’s a lovely story, and quite different from her Dark is Rising series.
Finally, Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, a graphic novel (first seen as a webcomic), about a medieval supervillain and his Girl Friday, Nimona. The back cover reads “NEMESES! DRAGONS! SCIENCE! SYMBOLISM!” All promises are kept in this funny, surprising, intelligent book. Nimona (note her zaftig figure) tells the villainous Lord Ballister Blackheart that the agency sent her to be his new sidekick (my reaction: does this mean I can hire a sidekick?). She has a superpower, of course, that helps her help Blackheart in his constant battle with the gorgeous Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. (Stevenson is obviously having fun with names.) Be ready for plot twists.