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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Reads & Recs // On the dreaded book rut

Do you ever have periods of time when you just can’t seem to sit still book-wise? When nothing you want to read actually seems appealing to you, and other things, like watching masses of Food Network, are infinitely preferable? Yeah, that’s what I’m going through now. I love reading more than I love most things (except maybe food) but there are these two competing aspects of my personality: one that loves to do nothing but sit at home and read, and the other that hates to be stuck in the same four walls day after day, and would much rather get all dressed up and do something fancy and/or adventurous.

Since around August, it’s been hard for me to sit still with a book. I’ve been restless, busy with a social life, and recently, overwhelmed with Christmas obligations (not complaining), traveling, and work stuff that’s been stressful. I began reading Edward Rutherfurd’s London in December, and only made it to page 400 in three weeks. Pathetic, Lisa. 😉

So in an effort to get myself back on track, here are the books I’ll virtually inhale during the month of January, and wish me heaps of luck! Because despite what it seems like here, I am a notoriously slow reader.

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Book Lust | New York, Paris & London Historical Fiction

The danger of a bookstore is that everything you could ever want to read is yours for the taking. I love online shopping when it comes to shoes and clothes, but I hate online shopping for books. I love the feeling of entering this inner sanctum of stories and having the freedom to sift through them, pick them up, and take some home with you. It’s a little bit like magic. Tonight I went to Barnes & Noble and wove through the stacks with a wobbling pile of books on my arm and a gift card in my wallet. I chose books well over the limit enforced by my $100 gift card so I had to make cuts. Unfortunately, the cuts I made were three books from Edward Rutherfurd oeuvre: Paris, New York and London. Has anyone read these books and would like to share what they think? Cause I’m dying to read these.

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I’m a lover of cities as if they’re friends or lovers. When I visited London, I left a huge piece of my heart there and think of it as a home. Paris was similar; even though I spent so little time there, there was something about the city which embraces you. Paris changes you. And of course, I live on the outskirts of the greatest city in the world, and constantly find myself entranced by New York as long as I’ve lived in its shadow. Rutherfurd has taken three living, breathing cities with gargantuan histories and turned them into characters. His stories promise odes to the three major cities of the world, containing not only thousands of years of history, but fictional and fictionalized characters to populate these disparate worlds. I imagine it’s so easy to lose yourself in these books and be carried away to different times, each set against the backdrop of New York, London or Paris.

But since I couldn’t leave the bookstore without all three, and since I ran out of B&N gift card credit, I’ll have to wait to score these. Breathe, Lisa. Breathe.

Novella #5: Alexander's Bridge

Fifth in my novella a day challenge was Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge. I had only read one Cather before this one, My Antonia, but from what I know about Cather, this book diverged from her normal topic matter. It’s set in the city rather than in the rural West. And it’s unsettling.

9781612191058This is a character-driven novella: Bartley Alexander is an architect gaining world renown for his ingenious construction of bridges in the early 20th century. He is happily married to a woman of grace and talent, yet he is anxious and dissatisfied with success and domestic happiness. Bartley is a former Ivy League student, an energetic, creative soul being bogged down by age. He misseshis youth and vigor, in a rather selfish, annoying way. While on a business trip to London, he meets an old flame, an actress whom he discarded for his wife ten-odd years earlier. He sees her again, and the rest is history.

On that instant he felt that marvelous return of the impetuousness, the intense excitement, the increasing expectancy of youth.

I didn’t love this book. Even flipping through it to write this review, I couldn’t believe how little I remembered, despite having read this book not more than a month ago. I feel like subpar or underdeveloped books are easily forgotten. Strangely, this Cather novel falls into that category for me.

Bartley Alexander is constantly admired and talked about with something like idol worship, but what exactly is so great about him is never apparent. His mistress/former lover, Hilda, has a bubbly personality but her hero worship of the droll Bartley was a little exhausting. Bartley’s wife, the dynamic piano player, was easily my favorite character and the most overshadowed in this slim volume.

The ending is stupid, frankly. It left me with such an empty feeling, as if I’d been cheated out of an ending that would have satisfied whatever emotions had been triggered by reading about this agonizing love triangle. It felt like a cop-out.

Anybody else read any Cather? I loved My Antonia, and recently acquired O Pioneers! so hopefully I find that one more to my liking!

Buy the book at Wordery.com at this link.

Re-Reading Harry Potter

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Yay!! I can’t wait to read these books again. I usually read them once a year, sometime in the summer when I have the time to devote to them, but it’s been a while since I’ve read these books. I was obsessed with them since I was nine or ten years old and truly, not much has changed since then. Harry Potter never gets old.

The first book is still full of the magic I fell in love with when I was a kid. Am I too old to get my Hogwarts letter? I recently got my sister to finally read the series, as well as my best friend, and I’m in awe at their experiences reading the books for the first time. I wish I could wipe my memory and read these books without knowing anything. But I’ll settle for frequent re-reads.

Is there a book you can’t help but read over and over? Do you love Harry Potter as much as I do??

London Travel Diaries, Historical Places

I wanted to share with you guys some pictures of my trip to London a couple years ago. I was there for a month taking a class during college, and I got to experience some amazing adventures. My favorite historical places I visited were Hampton Court Palace, The Tower of London, and Hever Castle. Here are some pictures of my time there.

Hampton Court Palace

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The Tower of London

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Hever Castle

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My favorite places were steeped in history and although the exhibits can be kind of kitschy and cheesy (like the skit between actors playing Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn), you can still feel the echoes of what had happened when you walked through these beautiful old places. It was eerie and sort of comforting. Places like these tie you to the past.

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My Favorite Books: "The Crimson Petal and the White"

I wish I could live inside this book. Like literally open the spine and dip down in between like I’m tucking myself into bed and watch the entire book play in front of my eyes like a really lifelike movie set where everything is real and no one sees you. Wait—like Harry in Chamber of Secrets­, yeah just like that. My Favorite Books: The Crimson Petal and the White.

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. (3)

The best books I’ve ever read are the ones that don’t come from recommendation or from hype or heavy advertising. No, the best books I’ve ever read are the ones that come to me inexplicably. They’re the ones I stumble upon when I’m looking for another book. They’re the ones I buy because I like the front cover, or the way the pages feel, or because it reminds me of something else.

I picked up The Crimson Petal and the White because it was mentioned by Emily Gilmore in Gilmore Girls, no joke. She reads it and recommends it (drunkenly) to Lorelai, and so when I found it in Barnes & Noble, I had to have it. Little did I know it would easily become one of my top ten favorite books of all time. Faber draws the reader in from the first page by introducing himself as your guide to late-Victorian London. He addresses the reader directly, as in the quote above, using second person, which he uses sporadically throughout the novel. The direct address adds a new level of reality to a world you think you know. To quote The Real World, you have no idea.

Faber’s Victorian London is part Dickens and part a parody of Dickens, and a parody of what most people are used to reading about the Victorian era. Yet, his work is astoundingly well researched and it throbs with life. Nothing looks or feels like Faber’s Victorian London. Each “level” of society is described in such minute detail, exhaustive but addictive, that never dips into encyclopedic and easily transcends the divide of the last hundred-odd years. And I have never read a character I’ve liked better than (though perhaps I’ve liked some just as much as) Sugar, the prostitute and protagonist.

Sugar is the most talented prostitute in London by virtue of reputation–she’ll do anything, and everything the other girls won’t, and she’ll do it with a smile. Working in a “house of ill repute,” Sugar has racked up an impressive list of clients and boasts a varied repertoire of sexual favors.

What I love most about Sugar are her fierce independence, her intellect, her cleverness, and her sense of self-preservation. She’s also not conventionally beautiful: skinny, flat-chested, freckled, and afflicted with a form of psoriasis called ichthyosis, she’s nevertheless charismatic and irresistible. Sugar is aware of her power over weak men. She’s smarter than they are and confident in her abilities. She’s also insecure and emotional, maternal and protective. Sugar begins the novel convinced that she knows the world and that she hates everyone in it. She’s a hard cynic in the beginning but by the end, she is forced to question her worldview and her blind hatred for others and finds a way to steal happiness.

Then we have William Rackham, the sniveling, cowardly, attentive, proud little man who contracts Sugar as his personal mistress. A perfume magnate and an objectively powerful man, Rackham feels inferior to Sugar and grows obsessed with her. Curiously, Rackham likes her not only for her perceived sexual appetite or for her body, but also for her ready mind and quick wit. Rackham treats her almost like an equal, like a modern-day wife, seeking her advice about difficult business dilemmas and reveling in her intellect. Despite his pride and arrogance, he likes having a verbal sparring partner as a bedmate, and fancies himself in love with her. Through her relationship with Rackham, Sugar moves up in society and finds within herself a capacity for kindness, maternal love, and selfless courage.

Rackham is enough of a complicated character but joining this stellar ensemble cast are his brother, the virginal, self-flagellating, intellectual Henry Rackham; William Rackham’s wife, the mentally ill and cripplingly sheltered Agnes Rackham; the progressive, masculine, and religious Emmeline Fox; the naive and bed-wetting little Sophie Rackham; and a smattering of vivid others that flesh out the narrative with questions about spirituality, religion, feminism, sin, pseudo-science, social structures, and so, so much more. This thing is a masterpiece, I tell you.

It’s a hefty one, about 900 pages, but it feels like a 200-page beach read. It’s that addictive. Read it, read it, read it. 🙂

This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

When your first picked me up, you didn’t fully appreciate the size of me, nor did you expect I would grip you so tightly, so fast. Sleet stings your cheeks, sharp little spits of it so cold they feel hot, like fiery cinders in the wind. Your ears begin to hurt. But you’ve allowed yourself to be led astray, and it’s too late to turn back now. (3)

There, now: aren’t you hooked?

Recently, a BBC mini-series was released and when I saw the commercials on television featuring my favorite actress, Romola Garai, as Sugar, I yelled in excitement. The adaptation isn’t perfect but it’s nice: I think Rackham and Sugar are cast perfectly but the others are a miss, and the movie fails to capture most of the nuances that make this book so unique. Still, it was worth watching just to see Garai as Sugar. I read that she fought for the role, which makes me admire her even more.

Here are a couple stills from the movie:

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and a promo of Romola Garai as Sugar:

romola-garaiPhotos from this website and this awesome Tumblr.

Stay tuned for more of Michel Faber’s books that I thrifted a while back…I’m reading my way through his oeuvre and I’m surprised by what I’m finding!

References

Faber, M. (2002) The Crimson Petal and the White. Edinburgh, UK: Canongate Books.

You Can Call Me Queenie: My Review of “Small Island”

Having just bought another copy of this book, I found myself reopening it at random and reading paragraphs here and there, and I was absorbed yet again. Small Island is a book I probably wouldn’t have read if it weren’t assigned reading in my study abroad class in London, but now that I’ve read it (and seen the BBC adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch) I find myself thinking about it all the time. Small Island is the story of the influx of Jamaican immigrants to London following World War II. When the British economy was collapsing and good ol’ Mother England found herself in need of cheap labor, she opened her ports to the denizens of her former colonies. Small Island dramatizes the real results of this historic event.Photo Nov 08, 1 33 26 PM

A lively cast of characters propels the events in this novel. First there is Queenie Bligh, a modest woman who comes from poor beginnings in the wild North of England who marries up. Her husband, Bernard, is a proud yet cowardly man touched by bigotry who is nevertheless capable of astonishing kindness. The husband and wife come into contact with a pair of Jamaican immigrants, Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, who enter into a marriage of convenience and find that their perception of England as the kind “mother country” is far from the reality.

The foursome each take their turn at narrating this gorgeous novel, which only rarely falls into cliché. The four first-person narratives are intertwined which could easily have been confusing and tedious, but each character has such a distinctive voice and strong personality that it is so easy to get caught up in the story and become seriously emotionally invested in the characters. It’s akin to reading a very detailed diary.

Levy adds to the story, as the daughter of Jamaican parents, the use of Jamaican Patois (or Creole) in the narratives of Hortense and Gilbert. This accurate use of language lends another level of reality to the events and allows readers a more in-depth insight into the thought processes of the characters. It’s like when you watch a British movie and start thinking in a British accent (or something like that). I never felt like the author was present in the book; her voice was completely superseded by her characters’, which is the mark of a well-written first-person novel. Four first-persons, to be exact.

The novel’s poignance lies in the depiction of the reality of life for many Jamaican immigrants. Their lives were full of hardships from the second they stepped onto English soil. Many were met with violent racism, turned away from jobs because of their race, and lived in government housing with terrible conditions. Moreover, many found that their perception of England as loving “mother country” was little more than propaganda. In the novel, Gilbert says:

All we ex-RAF servicemen who, lordly in our knowledge of England, had looked to those stay-at-home boys to inform them that we knew what to expect from the Mother Country. The lion’s mouth may be open…but we had counted all its teeth….only now were we ex-servicemen starting to feel its bite. (268-269)

The novel takes you deep inside the cultural history of Britain during this time period and inspires sympathy for the characters, both black and white.

The historical setting is well presented and the characters are strong and well-developed but the real beauty of this novel is how it tugs at your heartstrings (Yes, I’m a sap, let’s move on). While Bernard is away fighting in India and briefly MIA, Queenie meets and falls in love with Michael, a Jamaican immigrant and ex-RAF soldier. The two enjoy a brief affair but Queenie is crushed when Michael leaves for Canada and does not invite her to accompany him. Unbeknownst to Michael, Queenie bears his child, a biracial child whom Queenie knows will face enormous social obstacles in his life with a white mother in a racist world. Bernard, when he learns of his wife’s infidelity and more importantly, the race of the man who impregnated his wife, surprisingly accepts the responsibility of raising his wife’s illegitimate child as his own, despite the child’s race. Queenie’s heartbroken response sheds bright light on the difficulties blacks faced in England in the 1940s:

He’s coloured, Bernard…and he’s not your son…You might think you can do it now while he’s a little baby saying nothing. But what about when he grows up? A big, strapping coloured lad. And people snigger at you in the street and ask you all sorts of awkward questions. Are you going to fight for him?….Are you going to be proud of him? Glad that he’s your son?….One day he’ll do something naughty and you’ll look at him and think, The little black bastard, because you’ll be angry. And he’ll see it in your eyes. You’ll be angry with him not only for that. But because the neighbours never invited you round….And all because you had a coloured child. (431)

I have to say, even if this book never crosses your path, take the time to watch the BBC film. The acting is top-notch and the ending will make you cry (me cry—it’ll make me cry).

References

Levy, A. (2004) Small Island. New York, NY: Picador.