12 January 2015

Reading through Travel

I can't really remember any real lengthy stretches in which I wasn't reading something. During college and high school I wouldn't read as often for fun during classes (though there was almost always some books being read for class), but generally I would find something to read while on break. Even now, there's plenty of other things to do, but I still make a point to get some reading done before bed every night. I've got an extensive list (that's always growing) of books that I'd like to read, including many of the books I've picked up through my travels. I tend to be drawn to history books and really enjoy making the connections between what I'm reading and the places that I've been. I've found some really interesting reads along the way as we've made our trips, of which I'm sharing four of my favorites today.* Whether or not you've been to these countries or plan on visiting them, these books are interesting historical reads with excellent narratives.

Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798 by Tom Dunne

I've got a certain soft spot for Irish history - it's something that has captured my interest for many years being of American-Irish heritage and growing up around Boston. I've read several books about different historical events in Ireland, so when we visited Dublin, I picked this book up at a great independent bookstore figuring that I'd find something I wasn't likely to see in the States or at the English language bookshops int he Netherlands. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this chance-find is one of the best book purchases I've made in my lifetime. This particular book did a lot to change not only what I knew about the (failed) Rebellion of 1798 but also how I thought about how our own backgrounds and experiences inform our understanding and retelling of historical events. Part "standard historical retelling," part autobiography, and part historiography, Dunne mixes his own life experiences and his family connections/stories to the Rebellion, but also considers how English historians have approached Irish history and how modern political outlooks change our retelling of the past. Since reading this book, I find myself considering personal and political/historical biases of writers of history and thinking more widely about how I approach my understanding of historical events.

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones

Admittedly, I didn't find this book during our visit to London last year, but I did pick this up at an English language bookshop shortly after our return. I was putzing around the history section (as I often do) and started reading the back cover. Realizing that I didn't know a whole lot about the Plantagenet dynasty that preceded the well-known Tudors but did much to establish the English monarchy, I decided to give the book a try. I'll say right off the bat that this is one of the best historical narratives I've read. Jones writes in one of the most engaging manners while bringing you detailed information of a family line's rule spanning nearly 250 years. It's also interesting to read how Arthurian legend influenced certain rulers and how the tales of Robin Hood really related to King Richard and his brother, King John. My only complaint about the text is that it doesn't provide and footnotes/end notes - which I like to read over for sources and additional information about how the author draws certain conclusions - however, that doesn't take too much away from the informative and exciting story that is accessible even to those that generally don't care too much about history. The book is expected to be developed into a television mini-series and released sometime this year, which I'm really looking forward to.

The Tulip by Anna Pavord

Tulips are a major part of Dutch history and what many outsiders know of Dutch culture. But do you really know how much of a mark these flowers have left on Dutch and European history? Family fortunes were made and broken on a few bulbs. Particularly beautiful and unexpected mutations were immortalized by professional artists in case so perfect a bloom was never again to be seen. Elaborate names were bestowed upon particular strains and gained international prominence, like modern racing horses. Pavord provides a wonderfully detailed account of the wild origins of the tulip and it's transition to an expensive show-stopper and back into "commonplace" flower that few think about outside of a seasonal bouquet. This book was one of my first real introductions into Dutch history, and it's a great place to dive in, if only because we'd never assume that one little flower would captivate and drive a country and the rest of the world.

The Last Knight of Malta: Fighting against the ruin of an Order by Thomas Freller and Gabrielle von Trauchburg

I'll admit right away that I'm only about 2/3 of the way through this book. When I was in Malta with my friend Farrah, it was hard to miss how important the Order of St. John had been to the island, so I wanted to know a bit more. So far, this book has been a real treat into the international politics of an order of knights as well Napoleon's reach into even the most mundane sounding daily politics. The book follows the experiences of Josef Maria von Rechberg, a man from a prominent Bavarian family who dedicated his life to the Order of St. John and was fighting against ruinous external and internal forces bent on destroying the Order. While I found the naval descriptions a bit tedious at the beginning of the book (and I would say that this is the least narrative of my recommendations here), the struggles of one person in the "big picture" are rather fascinating - but especially so if you have walked the streets of Valletta.

If you're looking for travel-inspired history reads - these books are great starters. And if you've got recommendations for me, I'll gladly hear them - I'm always looking to make my "to read" list a little longer.

BONUS RECOMMENDATION: Dutched Up! Rocking the clogs expat style

Is it historical? Not really. Is it self-serving? Sure. But my co-authors in this anthology of expat experiences in the Netherlands are fantastic and hilarious writers that provide a wide look of life as an expat beyond just bikes, tulips, and canals.

*In the interest of transparency, all book links to Amazon.com are affiliate links. If you click on one of these links and make a purchase at Amazon, I get a few pennies and the thrill of excitement of someone taking my recommendations seriously.

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