Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Buccaneers

I'm working my way through a biography of Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee, and it's very slow going. Part of the problem is that Lee assumes the reader has actually read ALL of Wharton's books - from her tracts on architecture and gardening to all of her novels and short stories. I've read pretty much all of her major novels and most of her short stories, but I've never read her non-fiction bits.

The one novel that I hadn't read is the one that Wharton didn't actually finish - The Buccaneers. She died before she finished the book, leaving a summary of what she planned to have happen to the characters. A modern author completed the book for publication in the early '90s.

It's immediately apparent when you get to the part where Wharton leaves off and the new author takes over. The voice and pacing and characters change perceptibly.

The story centers around a group of American young women who come from money that is too "new" for New York society, so one family's governess suggests that they all try a season in London. The girls take London by storm and end up marrying various members of the aristocracy and government, not all of them happily. The title of the book comes from one of the British husband, who compares his wife and her American friends to buccaneers taking over London and getting what they want.

Despite the things I didn't like about the book - the noticeable change in authors, the change in tone and style - I really did like the story and was upset when it ended. I wanted to know what happened next.

The Princes in the Tower

Alison Weir has made a good career of writing about the Tudor reign, and this book is one her better ones. She managed to get her hands on good source material written by contemporary historians who had first-hand access to the events in question.

In The Making of the Tudor Dynasty the authors devote all of two sentences to the murders of King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, while this book is devoted to the events leading up to and after the murders.

I am always amazed, with histories like these, at how much material there is for researchers to use. These events happened centuries ago, yet there are documents still in existence that give amazing detail as to what was going on.

Weir's ultimate conclusion, based on all the evidence she found, is that Richard III really did have his nephews murdered to secure his seizure of the throne of England - don't worry, I didn't just spoil the ending for you.

Still, even though the conclusion is a forgone one, it's still a gripping book. Weir knows how to write a good story.

The Making of the Tudor Dynasty

I've read a lot about Henry VIII and his wives, but I didn't know much about Henry VII and how he came to power. I attempted to read a book about the Wars of the Roses, but I just got bogged down and gave up.

This book, by two British scholars, leaves out a lot of the extraneous history and focuses solely on the Tudor family and its Welsh origins, which, for the most part, makes it easier to follow than the other history I attempted. At times, however, the writing is too dry and scholarly.

It's definitely true that history is written by the victors. Richard III, who usurped the throne from the young Edward IV, comes across completely as a bad guy, while Henry VII, kept in exile in Brittany for most of his young life, is the hero, coming in to rescue England from its inept ruler.

I would have preferred, however, that the authors had carried on a bit with detail of Henry VII's reign instead of ending the book very quickly after the Battle of Bosworth. It seemed like they spent so much time getting to the point of the Tudors coming into power, only to end it with a litany of the men who benefited by their support of Henry VII.

A Voyage Long and Strange

Tony Horwitz wrote this book after visiting Plymouth, MA and seeing the rather disappointing Plymouth Rock. Then he realized he didn't have a very good idea of what happened in the century between Columbus's "discovering" American in 1492 and the Pilgrims' landing in 1620.

As it turns out, a lot of people explored America, both before and after Columbus, who never actually set foot on North America, and the before the Pilgrims' arrival - mainly Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish explored a large portion of the North American continent, including the Pacific coast, the Grand Canyon and the Oklahoma prairies.

Having grown up in Florida, where the conquistadors are part of local lore, I already knew a lot about them, just like I knew that St. Augustine, FL is the oldest, continuously settled European city in the US.

In the book, Horwitz follows the trails of many of the explorers through the US, looking for signs of their presence. He even travels to the Dominican Republic, where Columbus first landed, hoping to get a glimpse of the supposed remains of the explorer.

It's a fascinating journey, both through our history and our country - one well worth reading.