In English history the Tudors are seen as the bridge between the medieval world and the early modern one. They certainly helped to shape a lot of what we think about the nation state, the relationship with church and our understanding of monarchy among other things. Henry VII was the founder of that dynasty although his story has often been overshadowed by those of his more famous son and granddaughter. Penn’s portrait of Henry is of a scheming and distrustful man who ruthlessly exploited the wealth of his kingdom and his subjects (often in highly illegal ways) for the glory of himself and the furthering of his political ambitions. The narrative mimics Henry’s own kingship – as he withdraws from public life so he moves in to the background of his own story, the details fleshed out with tales of intriguing among his ministers. And even here, in this biography of Henry VII, his son and future daughter-in-law bestride everything, colouring every mention with thoughts of what will happen decades later. Henry may have been the founder of the Tudors and Penn may have done a great job of recording his life but in reality he is merely the prologue of the real story to come.
A few weeks ago I read a book that had been nominated for the Samuel Johnson prize (Empires of the Dead). The Pike was the winner of that award. And it’s not hard to see why. I must admit I had never heard of d’Annunzio before. But what a life! He was a character who truly was something you just couldn’t make up. Hughes-Hallett’s book is an absolute masterpiece in biography. Not stuffy and staid and predictable but creative and playful and hard to pin down – as shapeshifting as its subject. Marvellous.
I’ve always been fascinated by maps. I love looking at them. I don’t really know why but they have this magnetic quality that seems to draw me in whenever I walk in to a room. A book that combined both maps and history sounds like a perfect match to me. The structure of the book really enhanced the enjoyment. This wasn’t just 12 random maps. Instead each map not only talks about the progression of map making over time but also explores key themes such as faith, empire, globalism and nation. There is no doubting that Brotton knows his stuff – the book contains an absolute wealth of knowledge. Fortunately he’s also an interesting and engaging writer. On this blog I’ve mostly moaned about books being too long but if this had been a history in 15 or 20 maps then that would have been fine with me.
I love bikes and I love Holland. The wife and I have been to Amsterdam many times and so a book about the two jumped off the shelf at me (not literally of course). The book weaves the life of an American ex-pat with the history of the bike in the city. The biography piece was less interesting as I just didn’t have a massive amount of empathy with the author. The sections about the struggles cyclists had with the city council to get decent infrastructure was very insightful. However you did get the feeling the book was padded out in certain areas. For example one chapter on the second world war would have been enough but instead there were several which you couldn’t help feel was just because the author had access to lots and lots of archive materials. Does nobody edit books these days?!!
“You should read Empires of the Dead” was the text I got one evening. There was a show on TV for the Samuel Johnson prize shortlist. Not one to turn down a recommendation I grabbed it on Amazon (other booksellers are available, you know, if you want to pay more) and read through it in one night. To say I never knew the story behind the war graves makes it sound like I’d even really considered there was a story behind them. And I think that’s one of the great things about great books – they make you think about things in a new way and look at the way from a different perspective.
I’ve been reading a lot about French history recently. And one of the things that kept cropping up in the background was Dreyfus. I knew a little about it from my university course but not much detail. This book details not just the trials and the issues around Dreyfus the man but also all the other people connected to the controversy. Lots of people got involved at some stage or another on both sides of the debate – it really did tear French society apart for years and the aftermath lingered for a long time. A very thorough overview of the whole affair.
Charles de Gaulle is a figure that looms over twentieth century history. As a proud Englishman I think it’s just genetics that makes me dislike him! He was tall, he was French and he was a bit annoying/aloof. This book didn’t dispel any of those thoughts but it did flesh out some of the other things he got up to. It was an amazing life from a complicated character.