Sunday, September 4, 2011

It should be stated that I am hugely interested in English history (as well as American History) and am delighted with books like Carolly Erickson's "Royal Panopoly: Brief Lives of The English Monarchs". Indeed they were generally brief, in fact - as well as in the accounts in this book.

As an account of every day life, it is fascinating. Their lives were colorful, if brief - and through much of English history it's evident that even minimal intelligence was not a prerequisite to ruling. War was constant, the masses led miserable lives. When a king was dethroned - it was seldom with dignity. Many met ghastly deaths at the hands of their own courtiers. The kings had so many bastard children by various mistresses that we all have to be descended from princes, as well as peasants. Sounds grim but it makes fascinating reading.

The pace is so fast that's it's hard to keep track of 'who's on first' but to trace the history of a country through such a span of time, starting with William the Conqueror, demands brevity
"the fiddler in the subway" by Gene Weingarten

I recently read "the fiddler in the subway" by Gene Weingarten (the lack of caps is his idea). Weingarten is a humor columnist for The Washington Post and has snagged two Pulitzers for his columns.

The title column rose from his speculation of what would happen if a world class violinist - Joshua Bell - was in a Washington subway station, playing. Would anyone notice? They did not. While there is a wry humor in his writing - there is something else - something touching. He writes about his stay on a small, isolated island just off the coast of Alaska. In the Bering Sea, it is closer to Siberia than Alaska. The native people there live without any promise of the future and smuggled alcohol is a constant source of woe. Yet they persist.

Another essay deals with his assignment to find a town that could truly be called 'the armpit of America'. Butte Mountain, Nevada won hands down according to Weingarten's research. (Interestingly, that town was one of the places where Jeannette Walls and her nomad family of "The Glass Castle", alighted for a brief period). He captures the feel of such dead end places perfectly with humor - and empathy.

Getting back to that violin player. Many years ago we visited Washington DC, spending several consecutive days on The Mall. Each day when we headed for the subway to take us back to our hotel, a tall black man stood at the entrance, playing his classical violin. On the last day, I halted my husband, said 'wait a minute', hauled a $5 bill out of my wallet, placed it in his violin case and said 'thank you'. He nodded and said the same thing to me...

It surely is a 'different kind' of book but one that held my attention.