Small Print, Lots of Names, Too Many Details

During March, I plunged into reading, tackling some two serious reads as part of several challenges on LibraryThing. I blogged about the idea of reading challenges on my education blog. “Gamifying” reading can be a way to expand your reading options or, in my case, dig into some of the many books I have purchased and never read. There are lots of books on the shelves these days.

Here’s the list. I’ve marked the challenge books:

Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men were both long, serious books, but also incredibly engaging. Well written narratives with, whether fiction or non, compelling characters who show the full range of human emotion, inspiration and ambition. I filled in with more light reads although Grasshopper Jungle, a dystopian, end-of-the-world young adult book, managed to provide some real insight into the teen heart and mind within its dark comedic tone.

By the end of the month, however, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the last challenge book I had planned for the month. A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin met the challenge of being about someone who was part of WW I but was much longer than I thought. I’m old school that way: I judge a book by its girth in the physical world. I haven’t gotten used to judging it by its dots. I dove in with just two days until the end of the month and enjoyed what I read but then stalled out when it became clear that I was not going to meet the challenge. I’ll get back to it but for now with Spring luring me into the garden, I just don’t have time to dig in the way I need to for such a tome.

Since I try not to bring screens to bed, I needed an analog book to read. In the spirit of World War I and feeling a little guilty about Helprin, I picked up The First World War by John Keegan. I bought this book after reading Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants, thinking I wanted to know more about WW I. While the content was interesting and the book was well written, it had small print, lots of names, too many details for me to really enjoy it. I’m still not sure I know how the war started except that the nations had all geared up for war so any excuse would have probably led to the disaster. I really felt like I needed an atlas, a primer in pre-WW I nations and a “who’s who” list. I may get back to it some day but for now, it’s way MORE than I want to know.

Fortunately, I was saved by a trip to the Green Valley Book Fair near Harrisonburg, Virginia. My trip yielded a small pile of books, and I started reading The Heart of Everything That Is, a biography of Red Cloud, in the hotel room that evening. It was an engaging, sometimes irreverent history, unbiased in its brutally honest depictions of both white and Native Americans. I finished it quickly and then discovered I didn’t have the energy to go back to the two WW I books that were waiting.

So, prompted by a drive across the state that went through Prince Edward County, I picked up Israel on the Appomattox, the story of a community of freed blacks created near Farmville. It’s been on the shelf for some time now. So, I’m one chapter in and just mired in the small print, lots of names and too many details.

I love history and historical fiction so what’s the problem? Why the Red Cloud bio but not the WW I history? The purpose of the text seems to be the difference for me. The biography included historical details, but the primary focus of the book was to tell the story. Not every thread was pursued, not every moment of every event filled in. We didn’t get a long bio of every person mentioned but followed a few important figures.  And, I didn’t have a sense that there was going to be a test at the end. In the end, I probably remember more of the details that were included in The Heart of Everything That Is (because there weren’t quite so many of them), and I have a good general sense of what happened in the mid-19th century American west.

I may be ready for WW I and Prince Edward County at some point in the future, but not right now…my free reading time is often limited to before bed, and small print, lots of names and too many details are not really appealing. I feel like I am completing required reading rather than really enjoying myself. I want a light but interesting story that is engaging but not overwhelming. Maybe I’ll try WW I from a different angle. At the book fair, I found Elsie & Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson. It’s the true life story of two women who worked as ambulance drivers during the great war. It’s got a welcoming cover, a decently sized font, and the first prologue is immediately engaging:

Eighteen-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elise Knocker, divorcee and mother of a young son, were madcap motorbikers who had met while roaring around the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, and had competed in motorbike and sidecar trials for the last year.

Here’s history wrapped in a story with the kind of compelling characters that made Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men such riveting reads.

A Rousing Good Tale

The library book I am finishing is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s English adventure story Sir Nigel. It is the prequel to The White Company, which I read last month. Here, we learn about Sir Nigel as a young man off to the wars with Edward III. He vows to commit three brave deeds before he can win his love, the dark beauty Mary.

It is a violent tale, full of battle scenes, with fields littered and boat decks littered with bodies. And yet it is also full of chivalric values such as honoring women and engaging in fair play. The language is full of high sentiment and ringing phrases that sound a little silly to the contemporary ear. As I read, I imagine myself as ten-year-old boy in an earlier generation thrilling to the stories of heroic knights and their beautiful ladies.

Yet, this is any adventure story…it is one written by the creator of Sherlock Holmes. A writer with definite opinions about the world. The book is full of detailed descriptions of the medieval world as well as observations about the class system. In a particularly funny scene, the upper class squire and his lower class attendant share a flea ridden bed in an inn. While the attendant scratches and rolls to ease his itching, the squire lies still as it is improper for a gentleman to show any inconvenience: “To a man who had learned the old rule of chivalry there were no small ills in life. It was beneath the dignity of his soul to stoop to observe them. Could and hear, hunger and thirst, such things did not exist for the gentleman. The armor of his soul was so complete that it was proof not only against the great ills of life but even against the small ones.”

I picked up this book after finishing Arthur & George, historical fiction about Doyle. I have all the Holmes mysteries on my Nook; those I got for free at Both of the adventure books are available there along with a long list of other books written by Doyle. They are also available at Project Gutenberg.

Historical Fiction Mysteries

Well, the sick husband passed the cold along to me so I’ve spent a lot of time in bed for the past 72 hours.  I finished the Wyeth biography (really terrific read) and then puttered over the books to decide what to read next.  I found two mysteries that seemed like perfect sick bed reading: The Apostate’s Tale by Margaret Frazer and The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, which features Abigail Adams.  I’ve finished the former and am half way through the latter.

Dame Frevisse is the sleuth in The Apostate’s Tale, the 18th book in the Sister Frevisse series.  She’s a nun at the priory of St. Frideswide.  The portrait of life in a 15th century priory was well drawn, and her characters were compelling.  She let us into the thoughts of both Dame Frevisse and the apostate nun who returns to the priory, dragging the outside world with her.  The side tale of a young woman considering becoming a nun is interesting in its portrait of life choices for women in that time.

The main problem I had with the book was that I had solved the mystery long before she did.  There was lots of internal questioning that seemed tedious and repetitive and you wondered that she hadn’t put it all together since the path seemed pretty clear.  But I’m willing to forgive that since the prose was good and I read these more the historical views rather than the mystery.

The Abigail Adams mystery is promising.  Whereas the Frevisse mystery did not refer to politics at all, this story is completely tied up in politics, set as it is in 1773 Massachusetts.  The Boston Tea Party looms on the horizon.  Both real and fictional characters include British army officers, Sons of Liberty, wealthy merchants and slaves.  Of course, Abigail is the sleuth and she manages to charm merchant and Army officer alike.  The author depicts daily life with careful detail and is particularly insightful about the relationships of owners and masters and their slaves and servants.

I have not had any luck figuring out the mystery.  There are lots of players and it can be a bit complicated with family connections.

Not sure what’s next after this one…I haven’t made much of a dent in the pile that I assembled in December.  John Adams still sits there.  Maybe that’s the natural follow up, a nice blending of my two latest themes: biographies and mysteries.  It’s just so imposing.  Similarly, I’m interested in the history of London that’s on the pile, but it just seems like too  much of a commitment.  I wonder if you tend to read shorter books in a year when you’re doing something like the 75-book challenge?  I do take that a bit into consideration.