Archive for December, 2013

Back to Baca

Originally, I’d meant to read Jimmy Santiago Baca’s The Lucia Poems over the Thanksgiving break, but it was only yesterday that I got a chance to settle myself into this collection of poetry, a companion volume to The Esai Poems, which I reviewed back in November. Each of these books carries the subtitle Breaking Bread with Darkness, which captures the wrestling Baca is doing in these poems: engaging in the day-to-day business of child-rearing and work (Breaking Bread) while simultaneously observing and responding to events in the world around him (Darkness).

Lucia is six years younger than her brother Esai, so these poems deal with more recent events (the Gulf oil spill, the hurricane in Haiti) as well on-going events treated in the earlier book (the war on terror, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict).

Again, Baca’s poetry is at its best when he balances the security and love of home with the uncertainty and danger of the broader world. He tells Lucia “I believe your laughter is the truest form of democracy/that you can spread peace through the hearts/of Haitians destroyed by the hurricane,/[…] Lucia, you know that a day in the park/petting stray dogs/is worthier than a visit to the White House/or an appearance on Oprah.”

While the book can’t solve the challenges we face, it offers a way of living with them without accepting them, fighting them without being conquered by them. Whether or not you’re a parent, this is a book that, like The Esai Poems, can see you constructively through hard times.

December 31 2013 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Revolution of Individual Voices

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus, ed. Layla Al-Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel, and Nemonie Craven Roderick (Penguin)

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution is a diverse, necessary book that gathers together first-hand accounts of 2011’s “Arab Spring.” The eight pieces it contains (four by women, four by men) offer a view of events during those months that is both more detailed and more reflective than what was available in the Western media at that time. The authors of the individual pieces come from across the Arab world: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

Because these are individual accounts, they sometimes lack the context that a more traditional history or politics book would offer, but those individual perspectives are what make Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution such compelling reading.

As Samar Yazbek’s introduction reminds us, “these events have been long in the making…. What we witnessed on television was only a small part of a larger struggle that didn’t begin with the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi, or end when one dictator took a plane to Saudi and another a bullet to the head.” These struggles continue though we (at least here in the U.S.) see much less of them, now that our rather homogenous press has moved on to other topics.

This sense of being “in the midst of” is another aspect of this book I find particularly compelling. We (the U.S. again) and our media seem to prefer stories that are limited in time and complexity, but these writers show us a movement in flux, in action. A revolution doesn’t end with the ouster of a particular leader or a single election. These revolutions continue to be fought, offering progress, but with little hope of tidy resolution. We may think of the Arab Spring as “over,” but it continues, despite the fact that our cameras are now trained in other directions.

The voices in these pieces vary widely by gender, nationality, and religious and political perspectives. In one sense, Arab Spring was a single movement, an upheaval crossing national boundaries, but it was also multiple movements, shaped by the unique circumstances of each region.

Malek Sghiri from Tunisia, puts his country’s struggle into the context of his own family history: “[my family] lacked immunity to the virus of revolution and resistance and it infected us all, uncles, aunts, sons and daughters.” At one point, when an interrogator tells Sghiri that he had questioned Sghiri’s father during a previous uprising, Sghiri responds: “I hope God grants you a long life that you might get to interrogate my son as well.”

Yasmine El Rashidi, author of “Cairo, a City in Waiting,” at one time did speech-writing for Egypt’s first lady, following official instructions to “stress [the government’s] work on poverty elimination,” but became a well-known blogger of the revolution.

Mohamed Mesrati of Libya relates his growing understanding of a childhood fable as a commentary on the silencing of the Libyan people: the populace, terrorized by the king’s elephant prepare diligently to present a request that the elephant be removed, but when the time to speak to the king arrives, their terror leads them to ask instead for a mate for the elephant “to enrich his life and bear his children.” Gradually, he comes to see the tale as tragic, rather then humorous.

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution won’t give you a comprehensive understanding of current revolutionary movements in the Arab world, but it will give you a taste of the lives lived by these revolutionaries, of the courage their protests demanded, and of the consequences they faced for their participation. I don’t know of any other resource offering such valuable, substantial material.

December 30 2013 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

My Ten Best Reads of 2013

When I look over the books I’ve read in 2013, I realize that very few of them were published this year. So instead of a best books of 2013, I figured I’d do a best reads of 2013. My rules were simple: these had to be books that I read for the first time in 2013 (no rereads), and they had to be books that left me feeling transformed in some powerful way. I’ve arranged the books in an order that makes sense to me, but it isn’t a ranked ordering. I loved all of these books, and I’m not claiming that any one is better than the others.

My one best read of 2013 that was actually published in 2013: Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel by Susan Nussbaum. This novel, with multiple narrators, is set in a residential care facility for disabled teenagers. Some good things happen; many bad things happen. The individual characters are an eclectic bunch, all of whom manage to carve out lives of their own in a situation that at times seems unbearable.

My next two best reads are both pieces I included in my recent post on narrative voice. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2012) is a lyrical retelling of the Trojan war. Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk (2012) is a heart-breaking story of one young woman’s attempt in 1830 to transcend her impoverished, violent environment through the power of literacy.

Hilary Mantel’s 1998 The Giant O’Brien is  (unlike many of Mantel’s works) a quick, if heart-breaking read about a group of impoverished friends in 1782 London—one of whom makes his living as a side-show giant and whose corpse is coveted by the anatomist John Hunter.

Helen Humphrey’s 2007 The Frozen Thames straddles the fiction/non-fiction divide and is a Fabergé egg of a book: a collection of very brief, sparkling vignettes—one for each known year in which the Thames froze—based on historical sources.

Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies is the oldest book on my list, originally published in 1994. Like The Frozen Thames, it’s inspired by history—in this case by the story of four sisters who participate in the struggle to free Honduras from the Trujillo dictatorship.

Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad (2007) is set in two time periods: the siege of Leningrad during WWII and the present-day U.S. This novel has a thread of magical realism running through it that comes as a delightful surprise within the context of the brutal Leningrad winter.

Ramona Ausubel’s No On Is Here Except All of Us (2012) depicts a Jewish village in Romania that attempts to write itself out of history and to begin its own history anew in order to avoid the growing anti-Jewish violence of World War II. This achingly painful work is made bearable by a remarkable thread of whimsey.

Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010) tells the story of a young woman of mixed heritage who is the only survivor of the murder of her siblings by their mother, who then committed suicide. She’s being raised by her African American grandmother and wrestles continually with both being and not being a part of the community she now finds herself in. This book shines a light on the complex and volatile role of race in present-day America while simultaneously creating unforgettable, highly individual characters.

I’m finishing up my list with Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees which was issued in hardback in 2012 and has just been released in paperback this winter. I have been buying up the remaindered hardbacks wherever I find them because I feel compelled to share this remarkable novel with as many of my friends as possible. This book, the story of two sisters who bury their dead parents in the back yard in order to avoid being put into the foster care system, depicts a world of poverty, violence, and drug use—but this bleakness is balanced by unlikely relationships the girls build with some of the adults around them.

And there you have it. I’ve read 180+ books this year (yes, yes, a bit obsessive) and these ten beauties are the best of all of them.

December 26 2013 | Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

“Sinful Folk” I’d Love to Spend More Time With

Sinful Folk: A Novel of the Middle Ages, Ned Hayes (Campanile Books)

Ned Hayes’s Sinful Folk is based upon one of those small historical events—a tantalizing mention that goes unexplained, so the lack of a full record makes it the territory of the novelist, rather than the historian.

In this case, the mention was of a suspicious fire that killed five young men in 1377 and the decision by a group of folk from their village to travel over 200 miles in mid-winter to present the young men’s bodies to the King and demand justice.

For us, a journey of 200 miles may seem negligible: three or four hours in a car and there you are. In the 14th Century such a journey was a truly heroic undertaking for several reasons. First, those making the journey were peasants. Not the happy, well-fed, well-clothed, folk-dancing peasants one encounters at a present-day “medieval” fair. Real, 14th Century peasants: hungry by mid-winter, unsure whether the food they’ve stored will see them through the remaining months of cold, dressed in rags, their feet wrapped in strips of cloth with a bit of leather tied to their soles for a little more protection, illiterate all of them—except the central character, Mear—blaming witches and Jews for the misfortunes that befall them, quick to fight, accustomed to sudden injury and death. These are the people traveling 200 miles, on foot, in the snow.

In addition, at that time peasants needed sanction from their Lord or local Abbott if they wanted to undertake any sort of a journey. The villagers, as Mear reminds us partway through the narrative, “have no blessing or sanction from our Lord, Sir Peter, to be abroad upon the open road. This makes us vagabonds; any man may kill or injure us without consequence.” The territory they pass through is populated by people as poor, as hungry, and as desperate as they are. They can hope for no assistance and must constantly fear attack, theft, and murder.

The story is told in Mear’s voice, and reading it, listening to it is a genuine pleasure. Mear isn’t the 21st Century ethos in a 14th Century body that populates too much of the fiction set in this period. Mear is a man—actually woman—of the time: educated and intelligent, but with a sense of what is possible and what is right that is shaped by his—her—era and social class.

Mear, Miriam, posses as a mute man and has done so for ten years, since first arriving in the village. Over the course of the novel, we learn her life story in bits and pieces and come to understand why she’s made this choice. Mear’s story provides the primary narrative thread holding the novel together, but this novel has other narrative threads as well, including the slow process of discovering how and why the five young men died. These threads weave over and under the story of Mear’s past, creating a whole that offers both complexity and integrity.

It may sound clichéd, but I truly didn’t want this novel to end. Over and over again it provokes real thought about the characters, about human values, about the limited vision of Mear’s time and of our own. It offers immediate entertainment, but is also the sort of work that will hold up to repeated readings. I would happily spend many more hours, and many more pages, in Mear’s company.

*****

Ned Hayes’s Sinful Folk is currently available as a Kindle download via Amazon and will be released as a paperback by Campanile Press on January 22. This is an absolutely wonderful read, so let me just note that I don’t know which is the better choice: to buy the electronic copy so you can begin it now or to wait for the print edition for the pleasure of holding a physical copy of this excellent read. I read this book as an electronic ARC, but I’m planning to pre-order it in print, so I’ll have both. And I expect I’ll be making my way through the print version more than once over the next few years.

December 21 2013 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

The Narrator’s Voice

A strong, active narrative voice is a joy to find. Yes, I read and enjoy books that aren’t written in first person, but a strong, first-person narrator rocks my world, so it’s not surprising that many of the books on the “Essentials” shelf are written in first person. I thought I’d say a bit about a few of my favorites, in hopes of convincing you to spend some time with these characters I’m so deeply fond of.

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller—When Melissa began reading this book, I found her choice quixotic. The Trojan war? Really? A bunch of men killing each other on a grand scale over a woman? But this books absolutely sings—appropriate enough given the title. The narrator is Patroclus, best friend and lover and Achilles, son of a human father and sea goddess mother. Patroclus knows he lacks the warrior’s skills and temperament of Achilles, yet when Achilles leaves for Troy, Patroclus does as well. The love the two share is exquisitely rendered and counterbalances the violence of Greek society even as the characters remain firmly planted within that society. Patroclus’ clear, quiet, gentle voice will haunt you after you’ve read this novel. Achilles may be semi-divine, but Patroclus is wonderfully, self-consciously human.

A taste of Patroclus’s voice: This feeling [for Achilles] was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This and this and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.

Fair and Tender Ladies, Lee Smith—I’ve written recently about this book, so I’ll be brief here. Ivy, the narrator, is an intelligent woman growing up in Appalachia, where her intelligence isn’t necessarily appreciated. She says what she thinks, she does what she wants, from childhood to old age. Hearing Ivy’s voice as she matures, spending time with the woman she becomes is, quite simply, one of the greatest pleasures I’ve experienced as a reader.

A taste of Ivy’s voice: My hair is long and yaller-red it comes down to my waist and Silvaney holps me to wash it, we spread it over a chairback to lift it to dry in front of the fire. Momma came in last night when we was all drying our hair, Silvaney and Beulah and me and Ethel. Silvaneys hair is real long and curly and wellnigh white, and Ethels is a real light yaller, and Beulahs hair is as red as that sourgum tree rigt now up on Pilgrim Knob. She takes after Daddy the mostest.

The Colour of Milk, Nell Leyshon—Like Fair and Tender Ladies, this is a book about a brilliant young woman with very limited options. The novel is set in 1830s England, and the narrator, Mary, has been sent by her father to work as a housemaid for the local vicar. On the one hand, the reader is glad to see Mary out of her father’s house, where she’s been subjected to his sudden, violent outbursts. On the other hand, as a housemaid, Mary still finds herself vulnerable to the whims of others. The one apparent blessing in the midst of her uncertain life is the reading lessons the vicar gives her, but I call it an “apparent blessing” for good reason. The book is written in her country dialect and the voice is rushed and troubled, as if Mary’s story is pouring out of her more quickly than she can set it on the page.

A taste of Mary’s voice: in this year of our lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves. and each leaf has veins which run down it. and the bark of each tree has cracks. i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk. my name is mary and i have learned to spell it. m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.

Never Fall Down, Patricia McCormick—This book straddles the fiction/non-fiction divide. It tells the story of Arn, a boy struggling to survive the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Arn survives through quick thinking and a willingness to do what’s necessary, which comes to haunt him once he’s left Cambodia and is first in a refugee camp in Thailand and then in the U.S. His story is told in his voice as rendered by McCormick, who knows him personally and has spent extended periods of time listening to him recount his childhood. McCormick attempts to recreate Arn’s voice exactly, writing English as spoken by this immigrant, short sentences, grammatical infelicities, and all. In the abstract, I would expect this to make the book feel condescending—the Western author playing at the broken English of an immigrant—but this isn’t the case at all. The voice is genuine and gripping. I particularly appreciate that the book follows Arn to America and lets us see the difficulties he has transitioning to life in this country.

A taste of Arn’s voice: We walk three day. One long line of kid, all in black, one black snake with five hundred eye. Very tire, my leg heavy like boulder, my mind think only of the next step, then one more step, just walking, no thinking, no caring. Some kid die on the way. They die walking. Some kid cry for their parent or say they tire, they hungry.

I, Iago, Nicole Galland—I had my doubts before I began this book, but it was on sale and I figured I’d take a chance. Iago? The most evil of all evil literary villains? But this book works. At the beginning we like Iago not just despite, but because of his cynicism. Then we watch how this cynicism ripens, becomes something deeper and worse. We see someone we liked transformed into someone we despise. And we do despise him, and we can’t do anything but despise him, but we can’t forget that we liked him once.

A taste of Iago’s voice: They called me “honest Iago” from an early age, but in Venice this is not a compliment. It is a rebuke. One does not prosper by honesty. One does not rise in the social ranks. One does not curry favors. Honesty causes upset, and Venice is serene. The Serene Republic. It says so right there on the seal of state, which I could read when I was two, or so claimed the governess who struggled to keep up with my precociousness.

I offer you this taste of my favorites. Enjoy!

December 15 2013 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Return of the Non-Neurotypical Detective

Not too long ago, I reviewed The Dante Connection, the middle book in Estelle Ryan’s (currently) three-book detective series featuring a main character, Genevieve Leonard, who is a high functioning autist. At the time, I found myself wondering if this would wind up being a series I would follow. The answer to that question is yes.

Yes.

Although they’re nothing alike, I think Genvieve Leonard will be my new Amelia Peabody. Having now read the first and third books in the series (The Gauguin Connection and The Braque Connection), I’m hoping Genevieve and I can have a long and happy relationship. She’s smart, she’s independent, and I find the way she both works around and makes use of her autism absolutely fascinating. I could use a few hundred pages of her company every year or so.

The Gauguin Connection is still available as a free download from Amazon, so give it a gander—you’ve got nothing to lose, and you might make a new friend.

December 09 2013 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Save the World in Your Spare Time

I’ve just finished reading through a review copy of Chandra Clarke’s Be the Change: Saving the World with Citizen Science and have to say that this little eBook is something everyone should own. It’s an electronic format-only book, and not everyone I know has an eReader, but those who do are getting a copy for Christmas (sorry if that’s a spoiler for any of my dearer readers).

Clarke, who also writes the blog Citizen Science Center, has a clear, lively prose voice—and she knows her subject. What she does in this book and on her blog is gather and share information on scientific projects that can genuinely use the help of ordinary non-scientists (of course, scientists can participate too).

The best-known citizen science project is probably SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), which offers a downloadable program that will enable your computer to spend time analyzing radio astronomy data to try to detect life on other planets. Similar analysis programs do everything from running docking simulations on malaria proteins in order to help with drug development to searching for neutron stars.

But maybe you want to participate a bit more actively instead of letting your computer do all the work in its down time. Projects at this level often involve analyzing photos, films, or sound: humans, for now at least, are still more discerning viewers/listeners than are computers. You can look for evidence of cancer in tumor samples, try your hand at folding RNA, or listen to a live-feed underwater microphone and note whale songs. I’m planning to help classify sea floor ground cover and species on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s HabCam (or Habitat Camera).

Think you don’t have time to participate in citizen science? Think again! Clarke points out that “Americans (just Americans!) watch more than 200 billion hours of television every year. If that statistic doesn’t boggle your mind, consider the online game World of Warcraft: one source suggests its 11 million players have spent as much as 5.9 million years on it… or as much time as humanity has spent evolving as a species.” Your ten or twenty minutes may not seem like much, but when enough people participate they can accomplish wonderful things.

You can buy this eBook for only $2.99. You can visit Clarke’s web site for free. Find a project that suits your interests and, yes, save the world in your spare time.

December 08 2013 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Poetry and Fascism, Tudor Style

O.K., the title might seem a bit of a stretch, but if you stop and think about what life must have been like in Henry VIII’s England, fascist isn’t inappropriate. Loyalty to the nation meant unquestioning loyalty to the crown. This was a “Christian” state in which the meaning of Christian changed regularly and was determined by the crown. Dissent was a capital offense.

This is the setting for Nicola Shulman’s highly engaging Graven with Diamonds, The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Poet, Lover, Statesman, and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII.  Wyatt’s poetry was wildly popular during his life, but has been looked on less favorably ever since. It’s sort of an obscure, but obligatory stop along the road that runs from Chaucer to Shakespeare.

What Shulmam does is to look at the politics of Wyatt’s time in order to understand the popularity of his poetry and to shine light on some of the less well-known aspects of his life. Anyone who reads much Tudor history will recognize Wyatt’s name because he was one of the men confined to the Tower at the time of Anne Boleyn’s fall—and the only one of that group to make it out alive. What fewer people know is that Wyatt went on to a career as a diplomat and, despite repeated political intrigues against him, managed that rarity (yes, yes, I’m exaggerating) for a courtier in Tudor England: a natural death.

What’s brilliant about Shulman’s book—and it is a brilliant book—is the way Shulman combines genres in order to think about Wyatt, his times, and his work in genuinely new ways. This isn’t just an individual biography, isn’t just portrait of an era, isn’t just a critical study of a minor poet. It’s all of these and something more.

In Henry VIII’s fascist England (and fascist is my term, not Shulman’s) the game of courtly love was played for deadly stakes. As Shulman puts it, Wyatt “like Mandelstam or Akhmatova, was a poet writing under tyranny.” To be a success at court, one needed to master courtly love, while at the same time never engaging in behavior that might come back to be used against one. Anne Boleyn and the men she flirted with, but most likely did not have sex with, learned this lesson the hard way. What was an enjoyable intellectual and emotional play-acting could become deadly real as the mood of the King, and therefore the mood of the time and law, shifted.

This situation—the need for language that was vividly emotional, but topically ambiguous—was ideal for a poet like Wyatt. As Shulman shows us repeatedly, not only could any one of his poems serve as a window into more than one event in his life, his poems could also serve as windows into the lives of others and were used in this way. Wyatt’s poems were copied out by hand, passed among courtiers, used as occasional pieces, with minor modifications as needed. That interpretive plasticity is what made Wyatt so popular. Whatever a courtier was feeling, there was a Wyatt poem that covered it.

One of Shulman’s central claims is that Henry’s court was so dangerous because Henry himself took love so seriously. Others played at courtly gestures; Henry lived them. This meant that when one of his wives fell from grace, all those around her were at risk as well because they all had, as courtiers did at the time, engaged in badinage that suddenly could be taken literally.

For those inclined to explore the sort of musings Shulman offers, this book is a delight throughout. It enables one to imagine life under Henry in a way that standard histories do not. If you currently think of Wyatt as an unimportant figure or his poetry as inconsequential, you’ll have reconsidered that thinking by the end of the book.

This book is a delight not just because of its intelligence, but also because of Shulman’s knack for finding slightly whimsical, but perfectly apt, ways of describing people and situations. Catherine of Aragon had “a little pointed chin like a lemon.” She characterizes the continental linguists of the era as perceiving “English in its current state… [as] a shaggy and hopalong means of expression.” At one point, in a comparison I find more entertaining than accurate, Shulman depicts Henry as “sincere in all his doings. If he were alive today, he’d be Canadian.” In other words, reading this book isn’t just interesting, it’s fun.

*****

In the interests of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that I received an electronic review copy of this book, but I don’t think that influenced my evaluation of it.

December 06 2013 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York

I’ve just finished reading Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York: a Tudor Queen and her World. Alison Weir is one of the great stalwarts of current historical biography in Great Britain, and I’ve read and enjoyed a great many of her books. (She also produces historical fiction, though thus far I’ve only read her biographies.)

I imagine one of the great challenges of writing this sort of work is the fragmentary nature of the evidence one has available. One the one hand, one has to do a great deal of “what if” thinking to fill in gaps in the record and to understand the significance of the material that remains—but at the same time, one can’t go too far in one’s imaginings. (Perhaps that explains the historical fiction she writes.)

Weir began her career as a biographer with her 1991 The Six Wives of Henry the VIII, one of several group biographies of these women to appear around that time. Since then, she’s worked her way through a variety of royals and near-royals including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I, Mary Boleyn (sister of the more-famous Anne), the Princes in the tower, the bastard son of Henry VIII, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Her books have made for consistently interesting reading, a deft balance of intricate detail and clear prose.

I admit that I didn’t find Elizabeth of York one of her best books, but I also gladly admit that I enjoyed every minute of reading it nonetheless. I think the problem lies in the mismatch between my expectations as a reader and what’s actually possible given the historical record (or lack thereof). I find myself hungering not just to know the events of Elizabeth’s life, but to spend time inside her head, seeing her world as she saw it, feeling things as she felt them. And this, of course, is absolutely impossible.

Monarchs in the Tudor era spent their entire lives surrounded by others—courtiers, petitioners, diplomats, abbesses offering honey or rosewater in hopes of a greater gift in return. But this was not our era of the paparazzi. My impression is that even when the events of the day were being recorded, the record focused on the outer lives and experiences of these figures. The desire to “know” them, not sexually, but still intimately, seems much less strong than it is today.

As a result, we can’t “know” Elizabeth of York in the way we know close friends—or even our favorite screen idols. What we can know is drier stuff: household accounts, lists of fabrics ordered in anticipation of court events, highly formulaic correspondence between those in positions of power, a grant of a few pounds (actually quite a substantial amount at the time) in exchange for the rosewater mentioned above.

What I rely on biographers for is an ability to tease meaning out of these lists and accounts. What can fabric for a new holiday dress suggest about the relationship between king and queen? When is a grant an act of politeness; when does it demonstrate something about deep emotional loyalties?

Reading Elizabeth of York, I found the lists (of fabrics, food, jewels and such) very, well, list-y. The book allows for interesting inferences. For example, the price of real goods seems much higher (the present-day equivalent of £100,000 for the purchase of a carriage) than the cost of actual labor (often times equaling less than the equivalent of £100 for a year’s skilled work), which may say something about the value of individual lives at the time. But what to make of a long list of six and seven yard cuts of fabric in unfamiliar weights and weaves? It’s not just that I’m reading a list, but that I’m reading a list of items I can’t always picture—and sometimes the author helps me out with a bit of commentary and sometimes she doesn’t.

So Elizabeth of York was interesting. It piled up details for me to think about. It offered a precise timeline of the course of Elizabeth’s life. What it didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, do is offer me a sense of Elizabeth the individual. One leaves this book feeling more familiar with the practices and economies of the era, than with its characters.

It may be that what I really need right now is Weir’s fiction. It might be fun to see more of the imagining she does that can’t make it onto the pages of her biographies.

You can find Elizabeth of York in your local independent bookstore beginning tomorrow, December 3.

*****

Please note that this review is based on a free, pre-publication e-version of this book that I received from the publisher. I don’t believe that affects my objectivity—but just saying.

December 02 2013 | Uncategorized | No Comments »