Saturday, December 31, 2005

Fictional History

So somehow, in the last week, I managed to read two books. One of said books is for a review I'm writing for CityBeat (250 words is all I get). The other was a nifty book that popped up on my reserve list at the library. I don't know if your public libraries have this cool service, where you can select from about 50 different mainstream authors currently publishing, and as soon as a new book by one of your authors is published, the library automatically adds it to your list of requests. Pretty freakin' cool, IMO.

The first book is The Constant Princess by Phillipa Gregory. Historical, romantic fiction in the vein of Diana Gabaldon but not nearly as dense or epic in scale. The story revolved around Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. It told the tale of her childhood in Spain, growing up under Ferdinand and Isabella, learning about battle from the frontlines, etc. and then moved on to her betrothal and eventual marriage to Arthur, Henry VIII older brother who died at 15. If you have any interest at all in Tudor or English history, Arthur's death is not a spoiler, so nyeah.

It was fascinating to see Gregory's vision of Henry VIII's indulgent childhood, and to view the contrasts between the English and Spanish courts at the time of the early 16th century. Allegedly, Catalina (her name in Spain before she became Queen of England) kept quite the secret in order to put herself on the throne. But she doesn't necessarily come off as conniving. That role is reserved for Anne Boleyn, HVIII's second wife. The book ends before much of the history beyond Katherine's reign is revealed or discussed. Instead, the political hoo-hah between the courts and the papacy, between Scotland and England, England and France, Spain and just about everyone else--these "paper battles" as they've come to be in history books come alive. The characters are more than just names. If I could have read this in high school when I was studying World History, I would have enjoyed my class so much more.

Apparently, Gregory has written other tomes as well, also in an historical vein. While this was not a quick read, it was satisfying. If I ever find myself with oodles of free time (ha!!), I will look up her other works.

The second book I read in one day, because I'm that much of a geek and it was that quick of a read. Scott Turow's latest is Ordinary Heroes. I've been a fan of his work for a long time; I've always enjoyed reading his stories rather than watching them on the big screen. For me, he is up with Nelson DeMille and James Patterson on the "brain-candy" front.

Ordinary Heroes is about Stewart Dubinsky, a 56 year old writer, newly retired from his newspaper beat, who sets about to write a novel. When his father dies, he returns to the house of his childhood and is commanded by his mother to go through his dad's personal effects. Of course he finds letters, and of course those letters reveal a side of his father he never knew. It's a little trite, but stay with me.

Stewart decides to write his father's story, which he has to cull from multiple sources, as his dad's escapades in WWII (as a lawyer cum officer, of course--Turow is a lawyer by trade) are classified by the CIA. He finds out that his dad was court-martialed--a fact he never knew and on which his mother refuses to elaborate. So he tracks down his dad's D.A. (or whatever the equivalent office is in the land of US Army justice)--a 96 year old dude who is living in a retirement home but still has all of his faculties, and of course, has a manuscript written by Stewart's father explaining everything.

Turow jumps back and forth between past and present, and ultimately parks Stewart's father, David Dubin (he Americanized his surname in pre-war years) between two Army officers (not sure of their ranks, as they change throughout the story)--Teedle and Martin. David's tale is a fascinating one, taking him from a small town in the Midwest to Europe--England, France, and Germany, and eventually Luxembourg--and routing him from behind the desk to parachuting from a plane, crawling on his belly in a battle skirmish against the Nazis, lying motionless for nine hours in the snow, playing dead to avoid being shot down, and commanding a group of backwoods American Joes who don't like that their commanding officer is a) Jewish and b) green in terms of battle experience, all the while chasing the elusive, possible double agent Robert Martin and his "girl," Gita Lodz, for the magnanimous Teedle.

As I said, it's a very fast read. The only thing I didn't like was the heavy-handed commentary about war in David's mind near the end of the story. However, never having faced combat or anything close, I can't speak to the truth of his thoughts. It just felt a little too much like Turow commenting on the current situation in Iraq; especially when we learn that Stewart and his friends found ways out of serving in Vietnam, much to David's liking.

Normally, I avoid books on war as too graphic for my taste--which is odd, since I don't mind reading forensic thrillers like Patterson writes, or espionage type books that DeMille has penned. Hard core war stuff doesn't usually hold my interest. But I think the frame within the story--Stewart's ultimate search for his father's truth and by extension, his own truth, held me rapt.

Definintely a good read.

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