Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs: B

From the front flap:
Poignant, funny, and utterly original, Ethel & Ernest is Raymond Briggs’s loving depiction of his parents’ lives from their chance first encounter in the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s.

Ethel and Ernest were solid members of the English working class, part of the generation that lived through the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century. Briggs’s portrayal of how his parents succeeded, or failed, in coming to terms with the events of their rapidly shifting world is irresistibly engaging, full of sympathy and affection, yet clear-eyed and unsentimental.

I’m pretty sure Ethel & Ernest is the first nonfiction comic I’ve read, but it’s definitely a nice medium for telling a story like this one, which depicts the evolving relationship between Ethel and Ernest, the parents of creator Raymond Briggs, as they meet, marry, encounter newfangled gadgets, digest political prognostications, have a son, grow old, and pass away.

Briggs never outright tells us much about his parents, but rather shows it through their interactions. His mother is older than his father, for one thing, votes for a different party and considers herself to be middle class and proper. Ernest votes Labour and is inclined to think of himself as working class, and is occasionally chastised by his wife for the uncouth things he says. Still, they clearly get on well, and Briggs paints their eccentricities lovingly.

My main complaint about Ethel & Ernest is that it seems to move too quickly. It focuses on acknowledging historically significant moments and inventions, with a few personal milestones thrown in, and doesn’t really focus much on their day-to-day life or feature scenes that last any longer than a couple of pages. It works as a quick retrospective of their life, but not as deep and moving a one as it could have been.

I liked what was there, but I wanted more. Perhaps that’s the American in me, and even this is far more than a Brit from that era would’ve dreamed of sharing, but it seems I could’ve loved these characters if given the chance, but instead I only sort of mildly enjoyed them.

The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir: B+

princesintowerFrom the front flap:
Despite five centuries of investigation by historians, the sinister deaths of the boy king Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, remain one of the most fascinating murder mysteries in English history. Did Richard III really kill “the Princes in the Tower,” as is commonly believed, or was the murderer someone else entirely? In this utterly absorbing and meticulously researched book, English writer Alison Weir, an authority on the history of the British royal family, at last provides a conclusive solution to this age-old puzzle.

There are two schools of thought on Richard III. One group, dubbed “revisionists,” believes that Richard’s unsavory reputation is undeserved and that he did not do the awful things attributed to him. The second, “traditionalists,” hold that Richard was tyrannical and ambitious and certainly did commit many terrible acts. Alison Weir is firmly in the traditionalist camp and, after reading her work, I must (reluctantly) conclude that Richard probably was behind the deaths of his nephews.

The way Weir organizes her information is interesting. After devoting the entire first chapter to an introduction and evaluation of her sources, especially contemporary ones, she proceeds to tell the story by citing many of the sources in turn. These do not always agree, and when they don’t, she points it out and explains which, in her opinion, is likely the most accurate account. The result is a narrative that feels thorough and yet not unnecessarily bogged down by detours into conjecture. While I lament the passing of my romanticized view of Richard III, Weir ultimately did compile enough irrefutable evidence to convince me of his villainy.

Some things about the way the information is presented rankle a bit, however. It’s clear from pretty early on that Weir, despite claiming that she approached the question of Richard’s guilt with an open mind, is completely dismissive of the revisionist view, saying “the majority of serious historians have rejected it.” Too, she often seems to base her arguments on behavioral assumptions like (paraphrased) “Surely a man of such integrity would verify his facts” or “This was published during a time when many people who knew Richard III were still alive and would spot inaccuracies.” Okay, sure, but in a political climate where beheadings occur frequently—and when the monarch (Henry VII) in power wants to avoid attention being called to the House of York, as Weir points out herself—are these people really going to feel free to defend him? It’s not that I dispute her conclusions based on the evidence, and I’m by no means a historian myself, but I do have to wonder whether this is how research is normally conducted and presented.

In any case, Weir’s account of Richard’s life, deeds, and legacy is a fascinating and, ultimately, convincing read, even to someone like me who has enjoyed (and likely will continue to enjoy) reading historical fiction in which Richard is presented in a positive light.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: A

daughtertimeFrom the back cover:
Confined to a hospital bed, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Grant is engrossed with a portrait of Richard III. How is it possible, he wonders, that such a sensitive-appearing soul could have been the odious villain, the Wicked Uncle responsible for the murder of his own nephews to secure the British crown for himself? Grant reconsiders 500-year-old evidence and brilliantly arrives at a compelling new answer to one of the most intriguing mysteries in history: who really murdered the Princes in the Tower.

“For truth is rightly named the daughter of time, not of authority.” – Sir Francis Bacon

After an embarrassing accident, Inspector Grant faces an extended convalescence in a hospital bed. Helpfully minded friends have dropped off some novels, but they hold no appeal. It’s only when Grant’s friend Marta, knowing his interest in faces, brings by a selection of historical portraits that the irksome prickles of boredom begin to fade. Particularly captivating is the portrait of Richard III, whose sensitive expression speaks more of illness and suffering than the villainy for which he is chiefly remembered. His police instincts roused, and together with a research assistant (also supplied by Marta) to do the necessary leg work, Grant sets about proving whether Richard III really did murder his nephews as history claims.

Ever since reading Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, I’ve had an interest in Richard III and, if pressed, would count myself among those who believe in his innocence. The Daughter of Time comes to the same conclusion, eschewing the hearsay accounts that fill the history books—often penned by historians from the Tudor years who did not like to write too favorably about the Plantagenets—in favor of contemporary sources and, when that isn’t available, a basic understanding of human nature. Taking it one step further, Grant examines the question of who had the most to gain by the princes’ deaths, and ends up making the case that Henry VII was ultimately responsible.

The wealth of historical information required to make these points is presented in a way that’s anything but dry; on the contrary, I found it fascinating. What makes The Daughter of Time so great, though, is that the storyline in the present is also fun. In what other novel does the protagonist spend the whole of the book confined to bed, his mind challenged and engaged but his body immobile? Anyone who ventures into Grant’s room is liable to be subjected to questioning on the topic of Richard III, and indeed, it’s a member of the hospital staff whose change in opinion regarding the much-maligned monarch is the first triumph of the inspector’s efforts.

Now that I’ve read something so pro-Richard, I feel the need to achieve a balanced view by reading an account that casts him as the murderer. Look, therefore, for a review of Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower in the near future.

Firehouse by David Halberstam: B+

firehouseFrom the back cover:
“In the firehouse the men not only live and eat with each other, they play sports together, go off to drink together, help repair one another’s houses and, most importantly, share terrifying risks; their loyalties to each other must, by the demands of the dangers they face, be instinctive and absolute.” So writes David Halberstam in this stunning book about Engine 40, Ladder 35—one of the firehouses hardest hit in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two rigs carrying thirteen men set out from this firehouse, located on the west side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center; twelve of the men would never return.

Firehouse, by David Halberstam, is nothing if not a tribute to the men who gave their lives on September 11, 2001. In this short but effective book he attempts to depict the special camaraderie between firefighters, evoke the fraternal atmosphere of the firehouse, and paint a portrait of each of the men from Engine 40, Ladder 35 who lost their lives that day.

Though many of the men have things in common—working class backgrounds, coming from a family of firemen, or pride in their culinary abilities—Halberstam provides enough anecdotes about each to render them as a distinct person. Instead of mere names in a list, they become people: Steve Mercado the mimic, Jimmy Giberson with the enormous feet, or Vincent Morello who so wanted to be a firefighter that he took nearly a 50% pay cut to achieve his dream. We learn about their families and the reactions of their loved ones to their eventual fates. Some of the stories are quite moving, and I’d be lying if I said I never got sniffly.

Halberstam paints a rosy picture of life as a fireman, as befits a book with the chief purpose of commemorating the actions of heroic men. Having grown up as the daughter of a fireman, however, I’ve heard many complaints about the job, too, especially regarding the interference of bureaucracy, which is touched on in Firehouse but not elaborated upon. I’m not saying Halberstam ought to have dwelled on the negatives, but his relentlessly positive depiction of the job as one loved by all was a sour note in an otherwise moving tribute.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson: B

From the back cover:
In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.

Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.

Gripping from the first word and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form.

As in The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck offers parallel tales of highest achievement and foulest crime. The book begins by showing how the invention of wireless telegraphy will be responsible, in 1910, for the capture of wanted murderer Harvey Crippen who has fled England on a ship bound for Canada. This gives the reader a nice hook to be reading towards as the narrative then cycles back a dozen years or so to show how things all began.

While it’s interesting to follow the progress of wireless telegraphy and the deterioration of Crippen’s marriage, I felt that sometimes the author was a little too proud of including random details his research had unearthed. One particular instance that sticks in my mind is a description of the childhood home of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless, down to the kind of plants that grew in the tubs that flanked the front door of the residence. He does, however, do a very good job describing the flawed personalities of those involved, particularly Marconi and his seeming inability to understand how his actions might hurt or impact others.

While the history is a little slow going at times—I never really understood the technical and scientific issues—by virtue of its construction, it gets more exciting as it goes along. In fact, I’d venture to say that the final chapters, featuring a Scotland Yard detective who hops a fast steamer in an attempt to intercept Crippen’s vessel before he can reach Canada and the world’s breathless anticipation of the results, are positively riveting.

Too, I liked the epilogue that mentioned what the central players ended up doing with their lives after these exciting events. It’s unfortunate that the whole book ends with an irritatingly unanswered question, though. I’m not sure why the author thought that necessary or desirable.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: B

From the front flap:
In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson tells the spellbinding true story of two men, an architect and a serial killer, whose fates were linked by the greatest fair in American history: the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, nicknamed “The White City.”

What The Devil in the White City excels at is evocation of time and place. One really gets a sense of what life in late 19th century Chicago was like, and what kind of people populated it. Impressive self-made men, desperate laborers, women coming to the big city on their own for a life of independence, criminals like Holmes (the aforementioned serial killer) who exploit the unsuspicious natures of those around them…

Where it dragged for me was in the planning stages of the Fair, with innumerable names being bandied about, so many men flitting in and out of the scene that I continually had to go back and try to refresh myself who this guy was and why was he talking to this other guy, etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the serial killer bits were interesting, and the Fair was, too, once it actually got up and running.

All in all, I liked it and will be checking out Thunderstruck in the near future.