Long Live the King!

On this day in 1977, the undisputed king of rock ‘n’ roll was found to have abdicated while yet on the throne. Sad times. But, in the one respect in which monarchy passes the Turing test, it is self-replicating. So here are some recommendable authors who specialize in kings, queens, and the odd regent. And the really odd Lord Privy Seal.

1. Alison Weir

lizI didn’t have much in the way of a penchant for royalty until I made a run at Shakespeare’s historical plays one summer. The Bard presents excitement and challenges aplenty without the added hurdle of my not knowing whit one about his cast of characters. Alison Weir to the rescue. For just about every one of the history plays, Weir has one or more fascinating books that lay out the facts of the era, the leading figures, and  more than a few clues as to the long-term impact of their decisions.

My favorite, purely for reasons of sorting out who’s who, is The Six Wives of Henry VIIIWeir takes you beyond the porky religious scofflaw with the turkey leg and gives you the skinny on a man so famously brilliant, athletic, charming, and pious that the whole world was starting to believe maybe there was something in that whole “divine right” business.

2. Margaret George


Margaret George does a truly fine job of fictionalizing a historical figure with such slavish conformity to primary sources that there seems to be no fiction at all. Her portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, is an exhaustive spelunk into one of the “lesser” royals of a contentious age.

Though typically hefty, George’s books read like novels. If you’re truly ignorant of history: Bonus! You’ll never see the end coming. Mary certainly didn’t.






3. Philippa Gregory

boleynPhilippa Gregory takes rather a few more liberties in her tale-telling, but doesn’t seem to stray to the irresponsible. She tells this tale, for example, from the point of view of Mary Boleyn, and one cannot reasonably expect to extrapolate whether she felt envy over the cut of another woman’s dress. However, Henry does not become a penitent who is eventually raised to the altar, so all the coloring seems to be safely between the lines.

Her specialty is the women of the period who tend to be the more interesting sex (in the days of primogeniture, there was less suspense over how the menfolk would fare). Her writing is truly melodic—perfect for a month of chapters before bed.




4. Christopher Hibbert

victoriaHibbert does a nice treatment of Victoria (would that Shakespeare had been around to manage that one!) here and elsewhere and also, should you care to venture beyond the sceptered isle, such other “luminaries” as Mussolini, the Medicis, and the Borgias.

He also does a line of city biographies, about which we simply must post some other time.

Queen Victoria is all history, but beautifully told, not overly long, and sprinkled with some lovely photos. You’ll leave with a sense of the lasting impact made by this woman (and not merely because she was wider than tall upon her death, poor bereaved dear).



5. Hilary Mantel


True confession: I didn’t fall in love with Mantel’s works because of the reviews, the Booker, or even the writing. As an Irishwoman with a grudge, I was captivated by the opening scene in which a Cromwell has the living tar beat out of him. I accept that this is not OK and firmly resolve to avoid near occasions of political cruelty (no small resolution in these days, Dear Reader).

Wolf Hall brilliantly explains how the best minds of the day could come to all the wrong conclusions. Bring Up the Bodies (which I have not yet finished) is, thus far, equally promising. I took in Wolf on audio and can recommend that as well.



Surely there is room by your throne for a royal bio or two? Perhaps one or more of these might find their way to your porcelain shelf next time you wonder “What should I read next?”


Celebrate America!

If you are reading this from one of the countries where the U.S. currently has troops deployed and you are not happy about it, you are exempt from this imperative. (Unless you’re one of those ISIS pilgarlics: You are exempt from nothing.)

My fellow Americans, there is more to our great land than grilled meat, low-grade explosives, and flags made in China. Please consider some great books on great people and events in our (really quite largely noble) history.

1. Hamilton

Hamilton“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

If you’re waiting for Broadway tickets to tell you, you’ll need a fat load of cash or a metric tonne of patience. But Ron Chernow has the scoop on Alexander Hamilton. In fact, it’s where Lin-Manuel Miranda got his info.

I’ll admit that I didn’t tap my toes during my reading, but I did look forward to every whispered turn of each deckled page. Hamilton’s impact on our republic is hard to overstate and his story is the very fabric of the American dream.

2. 1776

1776Big fan of David McCullough here. Pick up any of his works and you’ll get the facts and a lot more. His John Adams won the Pulitzer, but for sheer Americanness, you can’t beat 1776. He makes a persuasive case that the result of the Revolution wasn’t just inevitable, it was nearly impossibly unlikely.

McCullough dramatically describes just how much of the young republic’s future rested on the well-dressed shoulders of George Washington and and the rag-tag band of ordinary Joes who did a very extraordinary thing.



3. Revolutionary Summer


Joseph J. Ellis has a slew of books on the nation’s founding, but none is an easier, breezier read than Revolutionary Summer. It’s hefty enough to be respectable, but you can get through this in a long, well-spent afternoon.

If you’re not already a fan of Ellis, this one is likely to send you looking for Founding Brothers and my own favorite, American Sphinx.






4. Lies My Teacher Told Me

liesHelen Keller’s socialism, our “unknown war” with Russia, that time we dissolved the Haitian legislature—these are just a few of the gems James W. Loewen scatters along our path as he leads us along his argument about what is wrong with history education in our schools. As a member of the publishing establishment, I’m sorry to admit, it’s us and Loewen is right.

Textbooks are not bought in the marketplace, they are adopted by school boards and these customers are more concerned with bright graphics and inoffensive content than accuracy, scholarship, or comprehensiveness. Just a taste of what gets left out of our history curriculum will leave you hungry for more.


I hope one of these books will make it into your picnic kit, along with mosquito repellent, sunblock, and the ice-cold beverage of your choice. If you end the day burnt, dehydrated, et up, and ignorant, my hands are clean. Happy Fourth!

The Battle of Gettysburg

They say that tragedy + time = comedy. If that’s true, we’re going to need a couple hundred more years to find anything funny about this historical event. On this anniversary of the start of the three-day struggle, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s time for party hats. It was the deadliest battle in the costliest war America ever fought (and we’ve been involved in some doozies). But if we celebrate also by commemorating or solemnizing, I think we’re doing right by those lost on both sides.

Now for the fun part: Some great Civil War–related reads:

1. Team of Rivals

team of rivals

Doris Kearns Goodwin hit the (quad?)fecta with this one: Pulitzer Prize, #1 on the NYT list, a movie deal (with Spielberg, no less), and a blurb from a sitting president. Dang, girl. Not since Nixon joked, “Sock it to me” on Laugh In has someone landed such a coup.

This book is not, strictly speaking, a Civil War book, but you won’t get the Civil War if you don’t get Lincoln and this is the best way to make that happen.

Kearns’s sources are solid, her analysis trenchant, and her writing a delight. Get yourself a Goodwin.




2. Confederates in the Attic


Ever wonder why the Civil War continues to fascinate so many? Tony Horwitz digs to the bottom of the war’s continuing hold over generations of descendants of the conflict. This is a page-turner of a romp through modern-day reenactments, Klan rallies, and a pilgrimage to Appomattox (yes, dropping by Gettysburg along the way) that somehow manages to be funny.

This is a great gift for the good ol’ boy in your life.






3. This Republic of Suffering


Think of all the soldiers who went to Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 to 2013. Now imagine the impact on our country if all of them had been killed. Now imagine if it had been three times as many. That’s about the equivalent death toll in percentage of Americans killed in the Civil War. Blessedly, it is hard to conceive of such a thing.

But this book does. It will make you cry. Do not try to read it in public or if you are depressed or recently bereaved. Drew Giplin Faust reminds us that our remembrance of the Civil War ought not to be about dressing up and playing soldier or watching Dukes of Hazzard or casual racism. These were real lives and too many ended too soon.



4. Army of the Potomac


These can be hard to find in print, but Catton’s trilogy is the must-have work on the Civil War. You can get it in Kindle or, for the Civil War buff in your life, find a well-loved hardcover set on Ebay or your local used bookstore.

One reviewer quips, “If every historian wrote like Bruce Catton, no one would read fiction.” I won’t follow him off that cliff, but I will agree that Catton spins a good yarn.






5. The State of Jones


You’ll likely not have heard of Newton Knight unless you’ve read this book, and you’ll not have known about this book except for this blog (you’re welcome) and the new film starring Matthew McConaughey, The Free State of Jones. Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about the film, but the book got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, so crank up the AC, make yourself some popcorn and learn about one of the most intriguing tales of the Civil War.

It seems Mr. Knight was so persuaded by the South’s claim that it had a right to secede that he led the secession of Jones County, Mississippi. He raised the Union flag over the courthouse and fought a guerilla war against the Confederacy. His belief in racial equality was apparently quite genuine, as one look at his descendants will tell you, but he had a thoroughly not modern approach to equality between men and women, as one look at his other descendants will tell you.  No one can be right about everything.

If the Civil War doesn’t fire your cannon, not to worry: We’ll be back tomorrow with more great answers to that best of questions: What should I read next?

The World Is on Fire

globe on fireWell, it was. At least, the Globe was on fire, on this very day in 1613. The illustrious Bard was still among the living and had completed all but one of his plays (or all of his plays, depending on your view of the provenance of Two Noble Kinsmen).

There’s our Bill, having spent health, fortune, and toil jotting down the finest words ever strung together in English, watching the only venue where his plays could be performed go up in smoke. Sometimes I think I’m having a bad day and then I remember this. Good work will pay off, we must continue to believe, even if we’re not the ones collecting.

For Shakespeare, those collecting are publishers. (Good thing, too, because they’re not collecting on much else besides adult coloring books.) The plays have been translated into more than 100 languages, included, I kid thee not, Klingon (buy’gnop!). About ten million copies are sold yearly (as individual plays or collections), making for a tidy sum to either offset the earnings of a house’s more literary offerings or augment the fat coin rolling in for 50 Shades of GreySo, the Bard’s gifts keep giving, as he helps the book trade keep body and soul knit together.

Let’s return the favor. Dust off that copy of Midsummer (this one has pictures!) you’ve had since high school, take in a live performance, or brush up on your Shakespearean insults (if you’re going to insult someone anyway, you might as well be classy about it). Or, if you’re especially high-minded, treat yourself to the whole shebang. This tome is an all-in-one self-improvement manual, personality enhancer, and home security system.

As Bill himself would advise, “Assume a virtue if you have it not” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4).