Here is a selection of books that I have read in the past six months or so. This was a very good crop of materials and I recommend all of them.
The Last Duel- Eric Jager– I don’t usually engage in hyperbole but The Last Dual is the most thrilling nonfiction book that I have ever read. The author, Eric Jager, a medieval literature professor at UCLA, is a maestro of building tension. When I was reading the climax of the book on a road trip, I had to stop reading for a bit because I was getting too tense (I had also swilled a lot of coffee which didn’t help). I’m far from being a Vulcan but I’m a pretty even keel kind of guy. Nevertheless, I was so consumed by the dramatic tension of the climactic duel that I had to remember to breathe.
The Last Duel involves a Norman Knight named Jean de Carrouges and a squire (a squire in medieval France was not a lowly as one in England) named Jacques Le Gris. They both begin the book as fast friends but soon politics and royal favor intervenes with the temperamental and politically obtuse Jean falling out of favor with King Charles VI while Jacques rises at Jean’s expense. Then enter a vivacious young woman named Marguerite whom Jean marries, but allows Jacques to kiss on the lips while they are attending a royal function. Jacques becomes obsessed with her and thus plants the seed for the fatal duel.
Jean takes part in an expedition to Scotland in order to raid England in hopes of turning his finances around, but unfortunately it is an unmitigated disaster. The Scots don’t want the French there and refuse to give them much help in their raids and sieges. The French, after a few successes, get routed by the English and Jean barely makes it home alive and is in worse financial shape than when he left and is probably sick with malaria. After Jean returns to France and when he is away meeting with the King, Jacques forces himself into their chateau and rapes Marguerite. Or does he? Marguerite tells her husband, which at the time was a risky thing to do in that wives were property and the husband had to champion them as if the crime was committed to the husband themselves. They do not receive the proper deference from the authorities so they challenge Jacques LeGris to a duel to the death. This is where the tension goes through the roof as the de Carrouges navigate the hurdles of the late 14th century French legal system. The duel is allowed and here is where there is doubt thrown on whether Marguerite was actually raped or not when you realize the rewards that Jean will reap if he kills Jacques in the duel. His lifetime of setbacks will be gone in an instant. But if he loses the pregnant Marguerite will be burned to death on the pyre overlooking the duel. You see what I mean about tension. The duel itself is as brutal as anything I’ve ever read and I will not spoil who wins. I cannot recommend this book enough. Also, Eric Jager has a new nonfiction book that came out last month called Blood Royal which is also set in medieval France and is a detective, murder-mystery and I cannot wait to devour it.
Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age– Kim Stanley Robinson -A majestic novel imagining life during the Aurignacian Period in France by the great futurist Kim Stanley Robinson. His highly researched book really transports you to the time period of mammoths, bitter cold, shamans and Neanderthals. His depiction of an escape from a slave society with the help of a Neanderthal friend and a chase across what seems to be all of Europe is relentlessly page-turning. Also his portrayal of the how the cave paintings in Chauvet cave were made and their symbolism is ripped right out of the scientific journals. (Also I think he was inspired by Werner Hertzog’s doc. Cave of Forgotten Dreams)
Life of Samuel Johnson– James Boswell– Samuel Johnson was the author of the first English dictionary, a Dictionary of the English Language, and was also irascible, witty, a poet, essayist, and if he deemed you worthy, a great friend. James Boswell’s book is supposed to be the greatest biography (or at least an important milestone in the writing of biographies) ever written and I did enjoy it, but it is more of an accumulation of charming anecdotes than a structure that most are used to when reading a biography. But within these anecdotes are idioms by Johnson that have attained a permanent place in the English speaking world, including: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” (I always thought Allen Ginsburg coined that one) and “Hell is paved with good intentions.” Maybe one of the most interesting aspects of the biography is the fact that James Boswell, a Scot and a serial philanderer, ever became such a great companion of Johnson’s in the first place, a man who was a famous hater of Scots (especially David Hume) and a strict Anglican.
Laurence in Arabia– Scott Anderson-I am only about a third of the way through this book but so far it’s a great read. It is not only about the inscrutable T. E. Lawrence, archaeologist turned Arab freedom fighter and son of a Irish baronet who ran away with his daughters’ governess to raise an illegitimate family of five sons including T.E., but also about the German agents, Jewish spies, Turkish officials, American oilmen and pompous British officers who made one of the stupidest blunders in military history by landing in about the only place in Turkey (Gallipoli) that the poorly maintained Turkish army could defeat them (this is the part I just read). *bonus Scott Anderson also wrote another recommendable book that I read about the horrors of the 1995 war in Chechnya and the Texan who died trying to stop it called The Man who Tried to Save the World
Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War–John Stubbs– The image of the Cavalier of the English (really British) Civil War has usually been of dandy fop monarchist with cascading love locks. The main perpetrators of this stereotype were men such as Prince Rupert and William Cavendish. But the author, John Stubbs, wants you to take another look. Sure some of them wore silk and colorful ribbons but others were as plain and teetotaling as any puritan roundhead. Case in point, King Charles for all his failures had a strong work ethic and was as prudish as they come. That being said the author concentrates on Cavaliers who were more into writing and drinking than swashbuckling. John Suckling, Ben Jonson, William Davenant, Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace and Robert Herrick are the subjects of this book with John Suckling and William Davenant getting most of the attention. These men were no puritans, but hard drinking and womanizing playwrights and poets who drank together and traded verse and gossip in Cheapside bars such as The Mermaid. William Davenant succeeds the dour Ben Jonson as the king’s dramatist and suffers a truly gruesome bout of syphilis where his nose falls off. But the only one to fight in the war was John Suckling. Suckling was probably the most stereotypical cavalier. He dressed his soldiers in silks and owed giant sums to his tailor. But as with all the Cavaliers Stubbs covers, Suckling was more complex than just that. It is said that he invented the game Cribbage, served with Gustavus I, the King of Sweden, during the Thirty Years War, invaded Scotland with King Charles I in the first Bishop’s War, and even sat in the Long Parliament. They all were talented writers that believed that one should not rebel against a king even if that king is a despot for even a tyrant is better than anarchy or in this case Puritan rule. William Davenant returned to prominence after the Restoration but Suckling committed suicide in France after the Civil War, a broken man deep in debt.
John Donne: The Reformed Soul- John Stubbs– Not finished reading but just as good as Reprobates so far
Breaking Loose Together: The Pre-Revolutionary Regulator Rebellion in North Carolina– Marjolene Kars- The Regulator rebellion in NC was a an agrarian movement that was a response to rampant land speculation and government corruption in the Piedmont region of North Carolina in the 1760’s and early 1770’s. The author, Marjolene Kars, got her MA in history from Duke University but is also a Dutch national, so this gives her a unique perspective on this neglected period of North Carolina history nestled between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution. And what she has written is a social history of the common folk of the Piedmont North Carolina who were profoundly influenced by the Great Awakening, a movement that was diametrically opposed politically and religiously to the Anglican elite of the Colony. They first address their grievances through the legal system but when they are thwarted by Colonial officials they turn to irregular means of restitution such as forcibly closing Colonial courts. Governor Tryon raises a militia to answer these threats to his power and roundly defeats the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance in 1772 thus ending the rebellion but planting the seeds for the Revolution only four years later. This book is a great companion piece to A Very Mutinous People by Noeleen McIlvenna (a book that I reviewed on this blog) about the first conflict between the ordinary folk of NC and the Planter elites.
Alexander Hamilton– John Chernow- This book made me like Alexander Hamilton a lot. My view of him had been jaundiced by Gore Vidal’s Burr and David McCullough’s John Adams. It also reintroduced John Laurens to me as Hamilton’s best friend and comrade. So instead of thinking of him as a belligerent bean counter I now think of him as the economic and civic wunderkind that the created many of our institutions and saved us from economic collapse after the Revolution.
John Laurens and the American Revolution– Gregory D. Massey- An great book about a complicated and overlooked Revolutionary War figure. Massey examines three major traits that about this scion of South Carolina and son of the President of the Constitutional Congress, Henry Laurens; his republican, liberal idealism, his suicidal recklessness in battle and his anti-slavery beliefs. I will be writing a longer piece about this book in the future.