It has become a tradition in the Christmas season, when the available editorial fodder is either scant or, worse yet, too depressing to be suitable for the season, for columnists to recommend reading material either to be put under the tree, or for private reading in the new year. Over recent years as current history becomes ever scarier, I find myself more and more drawn to history and historical fiction, epochs, periods, or events that, even if they turn out badly, at least provide no unpleasant surprises. Here then, are authors and books in that genre that have given me great pleasure recently, and which I would recommend.
1.) Patrick O’Bryan wrote 21 (!) novels of the sea and life in His Majesty’s navy during the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the eighteenth century, featuring his heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Steven Maturin. I have read all 21 installments twice, and may be about to begin the cycle again. Each book in the series is uniformly excellent, fascinating, and a riveting read, both as swashbuckling yarns of naval warfare, British, French and American history of the period, and uniformly beautiful prose. O’Bryan’s books are a modern version of Jane Austen for guys – girls too.
2.) Years ago I picked up a book entitled The Armada, by Garrett Mattingly, a historian at Columbia University back in the fifties. I enjoyed it more the second time I read it this last year. It is the story of the Spanish Armada which sailed against England in 1588 and was defeated by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins. It is not a book of just the naval battle, but the history of Europe, Elizabethan England, France and the three Henries, the Protestant Reformation, and the Spanish/Hapsburg Empire, all realigned or realigning at the time of the epic naval battle.
3.) 1066: The Year of the Conquest, by David Howarth, is an account of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, and the personalities and countries involved in the event that transformed European history. Differences in the way that medieval societies were structured in England, Scandinavia, and Normandy are detailed in a way that makes for speculation of how our world would be different today had William the Bastard’s enterprise failed, as it surely would have had his luck been anything but incredibly good. As a bonus, you get to meet the Viking prodigy of bloodthirst, Harald Hardrada, who found time and inspiration to write a poem on the day he was killed in battle.
4.) Cecelia Holland’s The Kings in Winter tells of Muirtaugh the Harper, chief of the Clan O’ Cullinane, who wanders through one of the dynastic wars of medieval Ireland. His path, character, and motives are as difficult to decipher as the history he is involved in, but the story and setting have the stark, spare beauty of a winter landscape. This one may not be for everybody ...
5.) So if Dad will not sit still for historical fiction, you can put a book under the tree actually written by a former Winonan, my cousin, Steve Jamison, (he began life as an Edstrom), in collaboration with the late Bill Walsh, The Score Takes Care of Itself. The story of how Steve was able to forge a partnership with Walsh, the coaching legend of the San Francisco 49ers, is a very interesting part of an interesting story. The literature on Walsh and his coaching philosophy and history is not extensive, so the book is a rare find, as well as an absorbing and informative read for sports fans and those in search of inspiration.