A massive, fictionalized history of London!

Way back last year, I bought a bunch of Edward Rutherfurd novels that take place in a specific city/country and span centuries. These books, of which he’s written like ten, function as both amazing historical fiction and an ode to their respective places. Last August I read Paris and could not stop gushing over it. This year, I read London.

92160I know you’re probably sick of me talking about London, but hear me out.

I started this book in December, weeks before my trip to London over New Year’s, but since it was Christmas and I was really busy, I didn’t finish it until I returned from my trip in January, and reading this book ended up being the perfect bookend (pun intended) to a wonderful return to the city. This book made me get to know the city’s history, even as I wandered its ancient streets.

It begins in pre-Roman, Celtic Britain, and ends in 1997. Between those 1100+ pages, six families come to life over 2,000 years. In these pages, we get to know Londinium, the Roman city, with its amphitheatre, gladiators, and rampant money counterfeiting. We see William the Conqueror invade the city in 1066, and build the impressive fortress, the Tower of London, on the banks of the Thames. We see the plague rip through the towns, the Great Fire absolutely demolish the wooden houses, and Mayfair rise up from its ashes a century or so later. The same families appear in each chapter, and the author is tongue in cheek, knowing that the readers know so much more about each family’s history and ancestry than even they know.

I have always felt that historical fiction, provided it’s as accurate as humanly possible, is the best way to learn history. I don’t think history can really be learned from history books (if you’re anything short of a historian) and Edward Rutherfurd is not only a very detailed history writer; he’s also a masterful storyteller. Each chapter is rife with vivid characters, heightened tension, excellent plot development, and the perfect set-up for future characters—and future settings. It’s like two dozen novellas in one, or as if someone had dictated their family’s history to a talented ghostwriter.

“Each year, each age, leaves something. It gets compressed, of course, it disappears under the surface, but just a little of all that human life remains. A Roman tile, a coin, a clay pipe from Shakespeare’s time. All left in place. When we dig down, we find it and we may put it on show. But don’t think of it just as an object. Because that coin, that pipe belonged to someone: a person who lived, and loved, and looked out at the river and the sky each day just like you and me.”

A character says that to another on the very last page, two archaeologists walking through the Museum of London (which I was lucky to visit when I was first there, and it’s a must-see). I love that quote.

Some people will have trouble getting into this one; it is a slow starter. But it’s absolutely worth the effort.

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7 Travel tips for a holiday in London

London is my favorite city (that I’ve visited). Aside from New York, which is home, London has my heart. I spent this past New Year’s Eve there, the second time I’d visited since studying abroad in college, and I didn’t want to leave. I decided to share some travel tips in case you’re also planning a visit to the city!

Frequent your local pubs. //

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Wherever you’re staying will have probably a dozen good local pubs within walking distance. Get to know them, as they will each probably have a great history, story, and special brews on tap. Seat yourself anywhere, and order both food and drinks at the bar. Pro tip: always drench your chips in vinegar. It’s the only way.

When pub food gets old, check out the diverse multinational cuisine in London, especially Brick Lane if you love curry (I do)!
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Snapshots of London, my New Year’s vacation

Over New Year’s, I visited London for the second time, and I’m so happy I was able to go back to one of my absolute favorite places in the world. I thought I’d share some photos and highlights of my trip here, and later on this week, I’m going to share some travel tips for visiting this amazing metropolis.

Last time I was in London (in college), I took upwards of 5,000 photos, I’m sure. This time, I had basically seen all the “big sights” so I let myself relax in terms of photos. But here are some of my favorite moments:

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Did Anne Boleyn write this letter or not?

In case you didn’t know, this blog is named after Anne Boleyn. I’ve been reading about her since I was just a kid, and I think she’s one of the most interesting and influential historical figures ever. When I first learned everything there was to know about her, there was one thing that still remained a mystery: did she write a letter to her husband and king, Henry VIII, right before she died?

There’s a letter that’s commonly said to have been written by Anne, but historians are still fighting about whether or not it’s a forgery. It’s said to be one of the best-written letters in the English language, and it’s totally sassy. Basically, the letter accuses Henry of wanting to get rid of Anne just because he was lusting after another woman, and Anne refuses to confess to a crime she didn’t commit. It’s saucy stuff. Read the whole thing here, and be amazed.

26246011So, given that there’s a lot of myth surrounding Anne, Sandra Vasoli, the author of the faux autobiography about Anne, Je Anne Boleyn, decided to do a lot of research about the letter and tried to prove it was authentic. The result was the e-book Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower: A New AssessmentIt’s sort of complicated to parse, but allow me to say that despite the effort Vasoli puts into trying to convince the reader that Anne did write the letter, I’m still not convinced.

If you’re any kind of fan of history, you know how easy it is to think you know historical figures as if they were people living today, like they’re friends. It’s also easy to fall into thinking that people from history thought and acted like we do. Actually, it’s the complete opposite. History is so freaking complicated because culture varies so drastically even in the span of 50 years. How are we supposed to understand the motives and passions of people who lived in the 16th century? It may as well be a different planet. For lack of a better term, 16th century people (and most historical figures) are complete aliens.

Even though I did enjoy reading some new insight into Anne’s letter, it’s clear from the book Sandra wrote that just because she wants to believe Anne wrote it, she skews her argument in that angle. The book isn’t really convincing because instead of providing new evidence and refuting older arguments, all she does is trace the possible movement of the letter hypothetically from Anne’s hands to where it sits now, in fragments at the British Library.

So many questions are still left infuriatingly unanswered, and the small amounts of evidence Vasoli uses to answer these questions are insufficient. Like, if Anne didn’t write the letter, who did, and why?

I enjoyed reading this book but it left me with even more questions than before. This is why it’s so hard to study history: because we get emotionally attached to historical figures (obviously, I do too!) and then we can’t study it objectively. But as long as there is literature about Anne Boleyn and new things to discover, I’ll be waiting to buy it all, read it all, and learn a little bit more.

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Walking "In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn"

Okay, this will be the last Anne Boleyn–oriented post for a while, I swear. I can’t help it; when May comes around I keep getting email notifications about the anniversary of her death and I just get the itch to read about her all over again. I began with the “Anne Boleyn Bible,” as it is affectionately nicknamed: Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne BoleynThen I finally bought In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, a fan-written, exhaustive account of all the places Anne would have visited in her lifetime, a list that takes 287 pages to explain and describe. The result is nothing short of mesmerizing.

9781445607825A couple years ago I visited the UK on a study abroad trip and visited Anne’s memorial in the Tower of London, then I went to Hampton Court Palace and snapped pictures of the artifacts on the ceiling of the “Anne Boleyn Gateway” and then I took a solitary trip to the idyllic Hever Castle where Anne spent her childhood and I thought I had seen, if not all of it, then most of it. Oh, how wrong I was (photos below of my trip!).

Authors Natalie Grueninger (@OnTheTudorTrail) and Sarah Morris visited something like 75 locations during their Anne Boleyn Grand Tour and took it upon themselves to write an extremely well-researched book about these places that is one part guidebook and one part ode to Anne. The authors take extensive pains to delineate exactly which parts of British castles/palaces/houses are contemporary to Anne’s time, deconstructing each site wing by wing.

Excerpted from the entry to Richmond Palace:

“Richmond Palace in Surrey…was also well known to Anne Boleyn, as it provided an opulent backdrop for a pivotal moment in her life, one that would establish Lady Anne as much more than a passing fancy….Approaching the house from the river, Anne would have seen the elegant facade of the royal apartments rising from the banks of the Thames…All that is now left to see of Richmond Palace, where a young lady once outplayed a cardinal, is the main gateway and part of the outer range facing the green.” (68-69)

They intersperse the entries with historical background (in wonderfully chronological order) and emotion-filled conjectures about what Anne would have seen, where she would have walked, how she would have felt. And though it falls slightly into sentimentalism at times, suspending my inner critic allows me to imagine Tudor England as it would have looked to a young Anne, an Anne as Marchioness, as Queen, and finally, as a condemned traitor awaiting her death. The result is both informative and slightly chilling. It’s…real.

One of the authors, Natalie Grueninger, runs a fabulous website called On The Tudor Trail, “a website dedicated to documenting historic sites and buildings associated with Anne Boleyn and sharing information about the life and times of Henry VIII’s second wife.” Definitely check it out! Get the book on Wordery.com at this link.

A few photos from my own meager Anne Boleyn tour:

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Hampton Court Palace

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Hever Castle

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The Tower of London memorial

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Hampton Court Palace

 

Reads & Recs: History, Funny History, and a Girl Boss

FUNNY HISTORY: Now, it’s no secret I love Anne Boleyn (see here and here) and that Tudor history is a hobby and a passion for me (not unusual, really). Recently I followed a hysterical Twitter account posing as Henry VIII, @KngHnryVIII, and every day found myself laughing out loud at his outrageous tweets about bacon, cake, and defecating on the map of Spain. When I saw he was promoting an e-book on Amazon, I didn’t hesitate to spend a whopping $2.50 on it, and it was so, so worth the money. I would have paid $10 for this thing, and that’s saying a lot for someone who lives on $3 paperbacks from thrift stores.

71JSwrDSOuL._SL1000_The book is called Monarch of Your Bedchamber and the subtitle is, “Henry VIII’s Long Awaited & Extremely Helpful Guide to Relationships: Sex, Wooing, Marriage, Mistresses, Divorce, Beheading, A Bit More Sex & Full Metal Codpieces.” Full metal codpieces are over-represented in this book but I truly wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now, this spoof book isn’t just funny, it’s brilliant. It manages to be irreverent about history and accurate (mostly accurate, at least) at the same time. Narrated by King Henry himself, this book provides advice for the modern reader and a tell-all about his life—and his afterlife. I can’t help but include some choice excerpts that made me snort whatever drink I happened to be sipping at the time:

King Henry ruminating, on his deathbed, about dissolving the monasteries:

“I signed my will, entrusted my soul to Jared-Leto Jesus, and uttered my final words, which have been reported as ‘Monks, Monks, Monks…’ Which is only partially correct as I was actually working on a song that went ‘Monks, Monks, Monks, I tooks your junks, junks, junks away in trunks, trunks, trunks.'” (loc. 1105)

On the death of Catherine Parr’s husband, Lord Latimer:

“Her husband, Lord Latimer, was, however, doing the kingdom the huge favor of dying just then, albeit at a pace that I found slow to the point of being unpatriotic.” (loc. 1051)

And then there are examples of “Tudor erotic poetry:”

“You are my boiled swan,/My cheese,/My eel pie,/My succulent roast beef,/You—sweet lady—are/my bacon/With boobs.” (loc. 1200)

He also takes The Tudors to task for being inaccurate, which I thought was hysterical considering this “King Henry” admits to being in love with a time-travelling robot and is able to use Twitter from the beyond.

I also strongly suggest you follow his Twitter account for haikus about bacon and sex.

9781445607825ACTUAL HISTORY: So that’s what I read last week. This week, I am reading Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger’s In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, a book which tracks Anne’s important locations, such as the place she was married, her birthplace, and the castle where she grew up. It also makes an effort to locate and describe her possessions, like the set of virginals she played currently on display at the V&A, the psalter she owned, and her Bibles translated to English and French. It’s lovely for someone like me, someone who has read about Anne for a long, long time. Get it here!

The author, Natalie Grueninger, runs an excellent blog called On The Tudor Trail. Definitely check it out!

 

9780399169274A GIRL BOSS: On my TBR list this month is #GIRLBOSS, the memoir/advice book by the founder and CEO of Nasty Gal, Sophia Amoruso. I’ve heard great things about this book and I’m trying to get my hands on it soon. I’ve read that it isn’t condescending or cheesy like self-help books tend to be. As a fan of Nasty Gal and—you know—a girl, I’m really excited to read it! Get your copy here.

So what is on your To Be Read piles/lists this month? Let me know in the comments. And Happy Memorial Day Weekend for those in the US!

 

 

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links. Images from Amazon or Wordery unless otherwise stated. 

"The Frangipani Hotel," Vietnamese ghost stories

The Vietnam War is an undeniable part of American history. It’s painful, true, and it’s there. It always will be. It’s like a ghost, always hovering on the fringes, never forgotten. In The Frangipani Hotel, young author Violet Kupersmith addresses the ghostly nature of the Vietnam War and combines that theme with her interpretation of traditional Vietnamese ghost stories. These stories, a mix of old and new, vividly capture the ghost of the Vietnam War and the effect it had on that generation of Vietnamese and the generations that followed, whether in the motherland or in America.

The result is stunning, even more when you take into account that this collection is a debut by an author two years out of college. Yes, I am so jealous, but also overjoyed at her success. It gives me hope. This collection contains nine short stories, all penned when the author was in university, all with two things in common: a touch of the supernatural and the feeling of displacement that followed the destruction of the Vietnam War.

18167000In the first story, simply an opener, a Vietnamese-American girl begs her grandmother to tell her the story of “the boat trip:” how her ancestor escaped as a refugee in 1975, headed for America. The girl needs an “A” for a school project, and her grandmother chides her for taking her family and her history for granted. This short opening story sets the stage for the rest of the book, in which the characters deal with the past and the present, their identities and their culture. The characters’ lives have been changed forever by the War. It is a new Vietnam, and the characters must face it.

Some set in Vietnam, some in America, these stories are also retellings of traditional Vietnamese ghost stories, which I found incredibly moving. Reading these stories afforded me a glimpse into pre-war Vietnamese culture, which I had known very little about prior to this (they teach you about the War, after all, but not so much about Vietnam as a country). Kupersmith’s stories not only took me to a modern Vietnam, cramped side streets, pho stalls, and oppressive heat included, but also to a time before colonialism, and highlighted a rich, imaginative culture that often scared me to my very core.

These are ghost stories, and ghostly they are. There are animate corpses walking on water, their intestines ripped and bloody. There is a young, immortal girl preying on the men who fall under her love spell. An old man periodically transforms into a fourteen-foot python in modern Texas, seemingly spreading his disease. Alleycats with sharp talons. Nightmarish banh mi vendors. A dying, shriveled man who feeds on your stories and takes your face. Each story incorporates a legend or folktale, updating it with modern cultural themes and one eye trained on the Vietnam War.

The result is an ode to Vietnam, and to the author’s cultural history. It’s both American and Asian, old world and new. The writing is also deft and precise, impressive for someone only a couple years older than myself, in fact. Each story contains a fresh voice and interesting characters, and if the stories lack depth sometimes, I can forgive the author due to lack of experience and wait eagerly for her novel. I’m sure it will blow me away.

Kupersmith actually reminds me of a less exhausting Jhumpa Lahiri. Her characters are more resilient, to be sure, and the immigrant experience is described with less emphasis on self-pity, and more on new beginnings. With a reanimated corpse or two thrown in for good measure. Also, it just happened that I read this work right after I read Daphne du Maurier’s collection of stories, also touched with the supernatural and featuring suspenseful events, and this work reminded me of du Maurier’s careful plotting, the way she introduces a mystery in the beginning and leads the reader as if by a leash to a breathless climax, only to be left wishing for more. Four stars.

Note: I received this title from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This title will be released on April 1, 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, Random House. 

References

Kupersmith, V. The Frangipani Hotel. (2014) Random House.

A New Elizabeth I, courtesy of Margaret George

I suppose it was only a matter of time before pseudo-biographer and talented historical fiction author Margaret George took on the enormous task of Elizabeth I. She’s a historical figure so exhaustively portrayed in literature and film yet so little truly understood (which is, perhaps, her appeal). I’ve avoided novels about Elizabeth since I read Jean Plaidy’s Queen of This Realm when I was in high school and the last biopic I saw was the one starring Helen Mirren (which I enjoyed). Because of all the tropes and cliches and crap people believe about her, it’s much more interesting to me to read history and historical debate to hear the story. However, since I’ve read George before without disgust, I though this one was worth a shot. 

elizabeth1-reviewJust like her novel about Helen of Troy, Elizabeth I was interesting and enjoyable, but not extraordinary and sometimes bordering on too sentimental. Elizabeth I was devilishly interesting because of her complicated personality and her all-too-obvious human weaknesses; coupled with her larger-than-life persona, it’s no wonder flocks of people in the past five hundred years have been enchanted with her. George dulls her down, to the extreme. The first problem is with the period she chose. Gloriana is older, and all the important and interesting stuff is over. The Armada is defeated, Leicester is dead, Elizabeth absolutely detests his widow Lettice, Essex isn’t es-sexy (which in my mind, he always was, probably because of Hugh Dancy’s swoon-inducing portrayal in the aforementioned Mirren biopic), and Shakespeare figures in such a way that borders on literary blasphemy (I’m Catholic: I know what I’m talking about).

So, in short, not a great read. The writing is sort of juvenile, and like the Helen novel, I finished reading with no more real insight into the psychology and personality of Elizabeth I, which is what good historical fiction should do. It’s deemed problematic by some, but good historical fiction should make the reader believe that this version, if not true, is at least believable. George fails at that, sadly. Much better is Jean Plaidy’s Queen of This Realm. I haven’t touched it since I was fourteen but I still remember the striking characterization of Elizabeth and how her narration perfectly explicated her complex personality. The narrator-Elizabeth would split her personality into Rational and Emotional, and she knew herself so well that I was convinced I knew the real Elizabeth. That’s what good historical fiction ought to be capable of. The novel also canvasses the whole of Elizabeth’s life accurately, succinctly, and without rush: no mean feat. Really, I should read that book again. #TeamPlaidy

The one scene I loved most in the novel was ridiculous and purely sentimental; however, I loved it because I am a fan of Anne Boleyn (not “The Tudors” kind, although I do love Natalie Dormer for her historical knowledge and savvy portrayal in the second season). The scene is when Elizabeth visits Hever Castle and becomes very emotional at the place where her mother was born and grew up. Having visited Hever Castle, I can imagine Elizabeth wanting to go there to be close to Anne, even if she never got the chance (she probably couldn’t show emotional support for her mother during her lifetime; evidence shows E. was not chatty about her mother, though a ring she had cast features a hidden portrait of Anne inside, showing how much Elizabeth must have cherished the memory of her mother).

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a photo from my visit to Hever Castle

So, that’s it. One scene in this novel had me cheering, but I think this novel has proven my skepticism toward faux biographies about behemoth historical figures. Next: The Memoirs of Cleopatra!

another one because pretty

another one because pretty

really, this place is gorgeous

really, this place is gorgeous

Human Kindness & Cruelty: My Review of "Cloud Atlas"

Every now and then a book comes along that grabs you by the throat and threatens to never let go. It’s uncommon and infuriating and wonderful. When you’re reading, nothing else exists and when you’re finished, just thinking about the book sends shivers through your body again. Does no one else feel this? If they don’t, then it’s time they picked up Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas seems simple: there are six narrators each with his own memoir/diary-type section. The first is set in the mid-1800s, the second in the 1930s, the third in the 1970s, the fourth in 2001, the fifth in a not-so-distant dystopian future, and the last on a post-apocalyptic island inhabited by a tribal people. The stories are connected in that the next narrator is reading the diary/memoir/autobiography of the previous one. In the first half of the novel, each narrative stops abruptly, and in the second half of the novel, each story continues and they appear in descending order, tying up loose ends and completing the story (for the most part). And just in case this wasn’t a bit too confusing already, five of the six narrators are related in some way [I don’t want to spoil it!].

pictured: the rock I use to keep books open when I write about them

pictured: the rock I use to keep books open when I write about them 😉

There are many reasons why I loved this novel and why I think about it all the time. Obviously, with six narrators, the narrative has a lot of opportunities to become confusing, but Mitchell is such a nuanced and detailed writer that no confusion occurs. Not only does the author give each character a distinct voice, personality, and unmistakable speech habits, but also, each section of the novel is a completely different genre altogether. These aspects of the novel, coupled with the vibrance of the many settings and the elegance of the prose, elevates this story from gimmicky to profound. That’s why I was so disappointed with the movie: they kept the raw bones of the story but stripped it of what made it powerful–tragedy, loss of humanity, and humankind’s capacity for cruel and absolute power, both over the Earth and over others. They made it into a kitschy, easily-digestible story with a neat and frankly, a laughable ending. Cloud Atlas the novel is far superior and far more entrancing.

The first “novella” is the story of an American notary making his way back to San Francisco on a treacherous journey from the Chatham Islands; the second is that of a roguish bisexual composer writing to his former lover; in the third, a feminist investigative reporter in the 70s faces the scoop of a lifetime and sexism at every turn; in the fourth an aging vanity publisher finds himself [hilariously] incarcerated in a nursing home; in the fifth, a clone in a corpocratic Korea regales her executioner with stories of how she became self-aware; and in the sixth and final story, a tribe member in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii becomes acquainted with a “civilized” anthropologist.

Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, Sonmi, Zachry–the names all evoke in me affection and nostalgia and even vestiges of the fear I felt when reading. These are the books that stick with you and change you.

This book is about many things, and to list them all would be foolish and simplistic. Indeed, each story can hypothetically stand independent of the others, so that it’s like reading six distinct novellas, each with vivid characters and its own “point,” so to speak. But a common thread that runs through the narrative(s) is humanity’s relation to others and to the Earth. The first narrator–and the last–is a man named Adam who owes his life to a freed slave. The experience he had with the freed slave causes great changes in Adam’s philosophy and he ruminates on the structure of his current society and, essentially, how we may define humanity and how all of mankind may relate to each other:

If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being…You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this:–one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

This passage, on the second-to-last page of the novel, directly involves the reader, forcing us to answer some difficult questions about humanity’s capacity for both cruelty and compassion, kindness and subjugation. Implied on every page of this novel is the fact that people need other people to survive, and not just in societies or communities, but by actively practicing equality, compassion, and generosity. Colonialism destroys the colonizers and the colonized. A society built on consumerism strips away what makes us human and replaces it with a need for things. Indulging our basest instincts–power, greed, cruelty–can only result in the total destruction of mankind.

My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?

And the very last line of the novel reminds us that all of us, as humans, are connected in a vast web of future, past, and present, and that we are all beholden to each other to create a better world to live in.

This novel has become popular recently because of the film adaptation but I want to warn you: stay far, far away from the movie. It’s sappy and childish and the book is a world of its own. Many worlds, actually. Reviewing this book is like reviewing six, just like reading this book is like reading six. If Mitchell had released each section as a short story and fragmented each the way he did in the novel but staggered their releases, we would have a Harry Potter–release-night kind of hysteria on our hands, that’s how addictive these stories are. And it would have made a helluva marketing scheme.

References

Mitchell, D. (2004) Cloud Atlas. New York, NY: Random House