Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review #26: Bedlam by Greg Hollingshead

A fine Canadian historical novel by a fine Canadian novelist about a mad Englishman in the Napoleonic Era.

James Matthews, husband of Margaret, has just returned to England in 1797 after spending three years in a French jail. He is almost immediately sent to Bedlam, the sprawling hospital for the mad in London, apparently for reasons both medical and political. Matthews, who worked as a tea broker, was convinced he could help stave off war between the French and English because of his contacts with French revolutionaries and their British sympathizers. But, Matthews is also quite demented and paranoid and it is the ambiguities of his story that make this a compelling novel.

The story takes place between 1797 and 1818, and includes the first-person voices of Margaret, who ends up moving to Jamaica; John Haslam, an apothecary and medical doctor at Bedlam; and Matthews himself. Both his loving wife and Haslam try to determine why James remains in Bedlam for years although he appears essentially harmless. Through the eyes of these two characters, the novel also becomes a study in loyalty, ambition and conscience. The author’s re-creation of early nineteenth century London, especially the dreary hospital itself, is marvelous and the language is entirely appropriate to the period: “…it was time to rise dizzy and bilious and head out into another day in the place Matthews in his witting way called simply Old Corruption.” The dialogue is particularly well written and the character of James Matthews exhibits all the turmoil and eccentricities one would expect of a brilliant British madman.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review #25: Flames Across the Border, 1813-1814, by Pierre Berton

This year is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. This nonfiction book by Pierre Berton gives an engaging, sometimes thrilling, account of another in a long series of useless, meaningless conflicts.

An engrossing popular history that reads like a fast-paced novel, this is Berton’s second book on the War of 1812. The first, The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813, covered the first part of this war that accomplished little for either side but re-established the line between a fledgling American nation and the British colony to its north.

Rather than pile fact upon dull fact, Berton captures the reader’s interest by telling the story from the point of view of its players – dozens of soldiers, commanders, politicians and civilians who took part in the planning, battles and diplomacy of the war are heard from in their own words.

Berton’s descriptions of characters are excellent and his ability to place the reader in the midst of battle is incomparable – his account of the naval battle of Lake Erie is particularly engaging and extraordinarily gruesome. Throughout, the book is rich with detail – a gentleman soldier sits down to a meal: “a tough steak of half-cooked beef, a piece of dry bread, a mug of tea made from sassafras root, sweetened with sap from the sugar maple.”

By the end of the war, its major causes – impressment of British deserters from U.S. ships and the blockade of Europe – were rendered irrelevant by the final defeat of Napoleon. This event freed up the all-powerful British navy and tens of thousands of experienced British troops, who promptly attacked and burned Washington, D.C.

Despite thousands of dead, the astounding incompetence of most leaders, and three years of fighting, the war accomplished nothing for either side. Nevertheless, this history of ineptitude and vanity makes for fascinating reading.