Saturday, June 28, 2014

"1700 Scenes From London Life," by Maureen Waller

Whether you're a writer or just plain curious, “1700 Scenes From London Life,” by Maureen Waller is a great resource for understanding what it would have been like to live in that time and place. In today's London, you can visit the house where Benjamin Franklin lived from 1757-1775, which is an excellent example of the construction described in this book.

London town homes were “vertical” in design -- that is, several floors high, with only a few rooms on each floor.  
“[T]he houses have one floor made in the earth, containing the kitchen, offices [privies?], and servants’ rooms.  This floor is well lighted…a sort of moat, five or six feet in width and eight or nine deep, is dug in front of all the houses and is called the ‘area’.  This moat is edged on the side next the street with iron railing.  The cellars and vaults where coal is stored are very strongly built beneath the streets, and to reach them you cross the area.  Almost all the houses have little gardens or courtyards at the back.”
A typical terraced house would have:
Basement – a kitchen, cellar, and servant’s quarters.
Ground floor – parlour.
First floor – dining room, drawing room, lavatory.
Second floor – Bedrooms and a closet.
Garrets – servants’ rooms

A tax on windows was implemented in 1696, which prompted many Londoners to brick up their windows. Residents tried to alleviate the windowless effect by placing mirrors around the room -- copying a style of decor popular in France. It was also popular to place mirrors between sash windows in order to maximize the effect of limited light.  Painted plaster ceilings were popular, especially in the principal rooms.  Walls were typically painted, while wall-paper was a less common option.
Benjamin Franklin's London home; built circa 1730
Beds had a feather mattress and hangings, with warmth provided by blankets of wool, cotton, silk, or quilted fabric.  Down-filled comforters were not used in England until the 18th century.  Clothes were kept in the “garde-robe” – a closet or dressing room directly off the bed chamber.  Women would have an elaborate “toilette” (brushes, combs, face powder, etc.) set out on a dressing table that was equipped with a mirror.

Upholstered furniture came in around the turn of the 18th century; the word “sofa” was apparently introduced in the 1690s. Chairs still had to have high, straight backs in order to accommodate corseted and coiffed ladies. Other typical furnishings included a card table with chairs, a cabinet for displaying decorative ornaments.

Dining tables were round or oval, rather than rectangular, and would have been covered with a white linen cloth for meals.  A nearby buffet or cupboard would hold drinks until these were wanted at the table.  Plates, cups, and tea and coffee canisters were stored on shelves in the dining room.  Lighter weight furniture was made of walnut or mahogany, which was replacing the previously traditional oak.  Side tables might have elaborate inlaid designs (“marquetry”).

Rooms were “heated” from the fireplaces, which in London mostly burned “sea coal” (i.e. coal delivered by sea, in contrast to charcoal) from Newcastle.

In 1700, no house had a “bathroom” as such, nor did they have running water.  The less well off retrieved water from community standpipes or took deliveries from water carriers.  Wealthier households paid to have water piped into a basement cistern.  Communal bathhouses were popular, as they saved the trouble of carting a bathtub and hot water upstairs at home.  Otherwise people washed themselves (as much as they bothered) from a basin.

Chamber pots and close stools were emptied into a cesspit or dumped out the window.  "Night soil men" showed up periodically to empty the cesspits, but sewage often overflowed to contaminate drinking water.

“Medical treatment” was available -- for a price -- from apothecaries, physicians, barber-surgeons, unashamed quacks, and “travelling mountebanks” complete with clown and monkey.  Bedlam (the famous institution for incarceration of the mentally ill) was a popular entertainment venue, where the public could tip porters for a look at chained and raving “madmen.”
“The Royal College of Physicians and the Worshipful Company of Barber-Surgeons were entitled to a maximum of ten criminal corpses a year free of charge for purposes of dissection.  There are occasional hints that representatives of these learned institutions visited Newgate [prison] to pick out the best specimens before death and tipped the clerk of the court to ensure that their executions coincided with a scheduled anatomy lecture.”  
Not only was the allotment insufficient for the needs of the named institutions, there was no provision at all for the growing needs of private teaching hospitals.  Thus the body snatching trade.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Print versus audiobooks: why are audio versions sometimes best?

I was reading a discussion over on Goodreads, and several commentors remarked that they hadn't liked "Wolf Hall," by Hilary Mantel, because it is written in present tense. I could understand the objection: unless handled extremely well, a strong and unusual stylistic choice -- like present tense -- can come across as affected and annoying. "Wolf Hall" is not just delivered in present tense, it's written in a very limited third person point of view -- as if Cromwell were wearing Google glass with a connection to his brain. The effect is reminiscent of those annoying people who constantly refer to themselves in third person (e.g. "Bob Dole likes ice cream," said Bob Dole).

Nonetheless, in the case of "Wolf Hall" I thought the author used the extreme style with great skill. After the initial shock of starting a historical novel not written in the usual simple past and first or third person, I was pulled into her control and forgot about anything but the story and characters. Hilary Mantel made Tudor times my present; she took me by the hand and led me to eavesdropping with her, just over Cromwell's shoulder -- or seeing his view through that Google glass.

Hampton Court Palace
 And then it dawned on me why the book had worked so particularly well for me: I never actually "read" it all.  I listened to the audible audio version, and experienced it as if it were a documentary.

Most of the time I pick up books in audio because I have a monthly credit at audible, and it's cost effective to use it for new books I want to read but don't want to pay hard-cover, new-book prices for. That was the case for "Wolf Hall," but now I'm thinking I should analyze my experiences to make my choices even more strategically. The more I think about it, the more I'm coming to understand that audio is a better format for some books.

Sometimes, like a Shakespeare play or epic poetry, a work needs to be performed. The human voice adds something that can't quite come across in silence.

Another example of a book I thought worked particularly well in audio form is "World War Z" (forget about the movie, the book is completely different). This tale of a world-wide catastrophe is told as a Studs Terkel-style compilation of interviews with survivors. Each individual story provides a unique puzzle piece, which combines with all the others to tell a complete story from beginning to end.  "World War Z" is probably a good print or e-book read as well, but it really shines with hearing the literal voices of interviewee's memoirs.

Last but not least, I'm not sure I should admit that I've never particularly enjoyed reading the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. I first read it many years ago, with a bit of struggle, but I did get though it (feeling guilty for not enjoying it more). After experiencing the beautiful films, I wanted to give the books another go. Once again, I got bogged down in the epic style, skipped over all the songs, and ended up dropping the plan in favor of reading something else instead.

A special offer on the audio books inspired me to give them a try, and it was a revelation. I recommend the original audio version, narrated by Rob Inglis. They are unabridged, which alone is a good reason to go for this version. He has all the voices perfectly, and actually sings the songs, which turns out to be important. I had always found them old-fashioned annoyances to skip before, but in fact they contain a lot of information important to the tale.

If you've never tried an audiobook before, any of these three would make a good place to start.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"The Plantagenets," by Dan Jones

"The Plantagenets" is one of the few books I've purchased as the combined Kindle and Audible versions with "Whispersync for voice." I thought it would be good value, as the combination cost only slightly more than my monthly audible credit alone. I haven't really used the pairing as intended: to seamlessly switch back and forth between the audible and eyeball versions. However, I liked the idea of having the e-book version on hand as a reference – one drawback of audible "books" is the difficulty of going back to find a particular passage or check a detail. As much as I love the flow of audiobooks, they do not function well as resource material.

As an audiobook, The Plantagenets was engaging listening, although I thought the narration was a bit flat. It takes a lot to put me off the narration though, so once I got used to the style it didn't bother me much.

In comparison to Thomas B. Costain's four-volume series, which I recently reread, this single volume is doesn't cover all the same information in as much detail. Overall, I did not notice any major differences from Costain's version of Plantagenet history.

There were a couple of points the author made that particularly caught my attention. For one thing, he discusses Thomas Becket's struggles to fit in as Archbishop of Canterbury – upon finding himself abruptly presiding over life-long churchmen who disliked and mistrusted him on principle. There's a suggestion that rather than undergoing some kind of religious and personality conversion, he felt unequal to the role he'd been assigned and determined to do whatever it took to fill it. In order to accomplish that, he needed to embody the views of those he suddenly found himself leading. Perhaps much of his former famous extravagance had been a bit of a front to amuse Henry, and Becket's natural bent had always been a bit more ascetic.

Also, the author firmly concludes that Richard II was the worst of the Plantagenet kings – worse than John, Henry III, or even Edward II. I had always thought of Richard as more capricious and pitiful than actively malign, but perhaps that is an impression formed from Shakespeare – maybe even from (my) being insufficiently attentive to Shakespeare.

Richard's deposition is accounted worse for the country than that of Edward II -- because Edward II had a son who was clearly his legitimate heir. Therefore, a rebellion could be (and was) carried out within the lineage, and did not so violently overturn established order. Henry IV's claim on the throne, in contrast, took a bit of spinning, and everybody knew it.

In the end, Henry IV's usurpation of Richard II's throne was considered to set the stage for the Wars of the Roses. Suddenly deposition and usurpation of a sitting king by someone else with a distant claim became a thinkable outcome.

Dan Jones has a new book "The Wars of the Roses" scheduled to come out in October of 2014. I'll be keeping an eye out for its release!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Summer Reading Suggestions: a List of Lists

Lots and lots of summer reading lists appearing recently, as summer approaches. I thought it would be fun to share a few that vary from the more usual best seller and beach-reading recommendations:

Black sand beach, Island of Hawaii

From Science Friday: "Your Summer Science Book List." I haven't personally read any of the books listed (yet), but both fiction and nonfiction titles are suggested.

From the TEDBlog, a list of about 70 reading recommendations from favorite TED speakers

From author Antonia Hodgson, a list of 10 intriguing historical novels. I've actually read several of these, and can add my personal recommendation for the Shardlake series of Tudor-era mysteries. Start with the first one: "Dissolution." Also, Umberto Eco's, "The Name of the Rose," is a classic, and established the concept of historical mysteries as a popular genre.

The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, has compiled a bibliography of over 2,000 mystery novels set in the San Francisco Bay Area. There should be enough there to enhance your trip to California, and keep even the most avid reader busy for quite some time!


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Music, Books, and Memories: Reading as Memoir

Michael Krasney did a "Forum" radio segment this morning titled, "Unforgettable: The Songs We Keep on Replay." He starts with a quote from Jay-Z:
...when you hear a great song, "you can think of where you were when you first heard it, the sounds, the smells. It takes the emotions of a moment and holds it for years to come. It transcends time."
You could say the same about books. I've been trying to "declutter" my collection a bit, but I think part of what makes it so hard do is that my books are my memoir -- my printed and bound connection, not just with the words on the page, but with who I was and what I was doing when I read them.

I have a few books from my childhood, more from adolescence and early adulthood. A few college texts, like the two I mentioned in my last post. Lots of yellowing paperbacks I hung on to because they're classics, or out of print, or I like re-reading them periodically. Some of these, like the four-book Thomas Costain set on the history of the Plantagenents, are associated with strong and specific memories of the time I spent reading them. Other books reflect hobbies and interests old and current, or not yet taken up beyond the reading: cooking, horse-riding, crochet, writing, scuba diving, gardening, and decorating.

Books are a big part of travel too. There are guide books, of course, but also books on the history and culture of my destination that I like to take along or read before I go. Ann Mah's "Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris" accompanied me to Paris last year. I read it on the Eurostar, while hurtling through the Channel Tunnel and across the French countryside.

Recently I decided to slowly read my way once more though my book collection -- specifically as a means to rediscover my past self who collected, read, and loved each one enough to keep and carry through a number of long-distance moves. I've just finished a re-read of Daphne Du Maurier's "The House on the Strand" -- a book I've long considered one of my all time favorites. I still find many things to love there: it's set in Cornwall, it has a time-travel element as two plot lines develop simultaneously, and it has an unreliable narrator (the first, I think, that I personally encountered in fiction). Just like the first time I read it, I still share the narrator's growing addiction to the medieval past as he evades responsibilities in the present day so he can get back to the far more interesting events of an earlier era.

Next I think I'll re-tackle "Mary Queen of Scots," Antonia Fraser's biography of the ill-fated queen. We're headed back to Scotland later this year, and I'm very much looking forward to revisiting the Palace of Holyrood House and other sights in Edinburgh (where I haven't been since the mid-1960s). My paperback copy is dated 1971, possibly the first paperback printing following the original 1969 copyright. I can't think of a better way to revive old memories of a previous visit, while getting ready to create new ones.
Palace of the Holyrood House, 1966


Monday, June 09, 2014

Napoleon A. Chagnon and the Fierce People

I first read "Yanomamo: The Fierce People" as a textbook for an undergraduate Anthropology course back in the mid 1970s. His study of a constantly warring Amazonian tribe, who were largely (at the time) untouched by modern governments was an interesting contrast to some of the other ethnographies we read -- such as Colin Turnbull's "The Forest People" which is about (the much gentler) Pygmies of the Congo forest.

For some reason I hung on to both of these books, probably because they are classics in the field, but honestly haven't thought much about them in the intervening years. So I was interested to hear Chagnon interviewed on last night's "To The Best of Our Knowledge" broadcast "Heart of Darkness" on violence in human nature.

I do recall hearing at various times that he had got much of his information wrong (due to informants helpfully telling him what they thought he wanted to hear, which was not necessarily the truth), and may have somehow contributed to a devastating measles outbreak among the tribe.  Apparently such accusations were not substantiated and his work has seen him inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

I have not read his newest book, "Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists," but it's going on my "to read" list. As the title suggests, he discusses both his research and the various reactions of cultural anthropologists and evolutionary biologists.


Saturday, June 07, 2014

Audible Offers "The Great Courses"

Maybe has had these available for a long time, but I only just discovered them recently when searching for what they had on "vikings." If you're not familiar with The Great Courses, this description is from their website:

Imagine if you could have unlimited access to the world’s most engaging professors and their profound insights. Then, imagine if you could learn from these professor's audio or video courses where you wanted to, when you wanted to, and how you wanted to. Now you can with our extensive collection of more than 390 Great Courses in diverse subjects and fields including history, science, philosophy, mathematics, literature, economics, and the arts.
No, really. These are not boring lectures that will put you to sleep -- assuming you pick up something you're interested in.  All are presented by top-rated professors, who are experts in the field and adept at catching and holding the listener's interest.

I have bought a couple of the courses on CD, and we've listened to them on long road trips. They can be quite expensive, but there are often good sales. I had never thought to check availability or prices on audible or amazon.

I was quite pleased to find an 18-hour lecture series on "The Vikings" for the price of my monthly audible credit. So far I've only listened to the first lecture and part of the second; it's exactly what I was looking for but couldn't find in book form.


Friday, June 06, 2014

Richard II: Two Works of Historical Fiction Set During His Reign

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

John Ball's couplet, June 6, 1381, spoken to the assembled crowd of peasants at Blackheath as they marched on London to meet the 14 year-old King Richard II.

 "The GoldenHand," by Edith Simon was first published in 1952. My vintage copy is some years newer than that, but the cover price of 95 cents gives some idea of its age. "The Golden Hand" is a book I've read and reread many times, and it still grabs my imagination. It's not a perfect book, by any means, but succeeds at world building as well as in creation of interesting, rounded characters that develop and grow as they struggle to cope with events such as the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt.

It is one of those sweeping epics, following characters high born and low, from one generation through maturity of the next. The changing lives of individuals mirror the larger changes in society brought about by mass death followed by a severe labor shortage and upheavals in leadership – and the eventual dawn of a merchant middle class.

The building of a cathedral, to honor an unearthed relic, lies at the center of book. The monumental task serves throughout as a source of employment, an outlet for artistic expression of the talented, and a source of spiritual wonder.

"The Golden Hand" is somewhat reminiscent of Ken Follett's more recent books: "The Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End." Ken Follett's books are set in an earlier time -- the wars that will eventually put the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, on England's throne. While I enjoyed those books too, I think "The Golden Hand" is actually a better read. Maybe it's because I first read it as a teen, and retain a romantic, "first love" attachment. Or maybe it's because the characters are better drawn and more believable.


"A Burnable Book" by Bruce W. Holsinger came out in early 2014, and is also set during the reign of Richard II. Stylistically more sophisticated than the basic historical epic, it involves a number of historical figures as well as fictional characters in the mysteries surrounding a brutal murder and a possible assassination plot against the king.

The story is told (mostly) from the point of view of poet John Gower, a less well-known contemporary and friend of Geoffry Chaucer. We meet Chaucer, as well as John of Gaunt, Katheryn Swinford, Joan of Kent (widow of The Black Prince and mother of King Richard), and John Hawkwood of The White Company. Major parts are also played by a group of desperate and frightened prostitutes, as they struggle to survive – and do the right thing – knowing that society considers them completely disposable.

The author is a medieval scholar, and a good writer who knows how to use just the right details to make his world and characters come alive. My only criticism would be that tying up the plot required some contriving that I just didn't quite buy. Still, I hope Mr. Holsinger will write more fiction, and I will be keeping an eye out for it.