just in time for the olympics #cbr4

I’ve had London: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd sitting on my shelf for many years and the pages had started to yellow. I don’t know why I picked it up, but I remembered that the Olympics were in London after I started reading. Great timing!

London is one of those historical novels that follows a family through the millenia. With a different storyline in each chapter, he traces the paths of several families resident in the city. These works are fun for their historical breadth. London in particular hits the highlights of the city’s history from the first Roman site to the building of the Tower of London to the Great Fire and up to the Blitz. Some of the chapters I enjoyed most were The Whorehouse, Hampton Court, God’s Fire, London’s Fire, and The Suffragette either for the plots or for particular characters.

The difficulty for a book like this must be balancing the “here’s the history” part with “here’s the story”. Rutherfurd does a pretty decent job moving between the historical parts and the characters’ stories. While not perfect, he pulls off these transitions much more effectively than others I’ve read.

I have two problems with this type of novel though. One is that the character development is nonexistent (for the most part). You really don’t have much time with the characters. Plus the focus of the chapter is developing the plot, so sometimes the characters get lost in the mix. Once you start to believe in a character, they are dead and you’ve moved on to the next group. If you read the book knowing this will happen, you are much more likely to enjoy it.

Second, in these types of novels the author often tries hard to connect the generations through some sign that all the generations share. In London it is a shock of white hair and webbed fingers (wtf?!) that passes through the generations of one family. Saylor in Roma used a medallion that was passed down through the generations. In some ways the physical object seems more believable than TWO genetic mutations. I just don’t understand why this is necessary. It adds nothing to the story to see a character suddenly resemble one from many years ago. Rutherfurd tries to interweave this into the different stories to show the connections between the generations, but it never really succeeds in my opinion.

Overall this chronicle of the history of London is a great summertime read if you enjoy history but don’t mind the problems of historical fiction. Keep in mind that it is over 1100 pages long (therefore should count for like 5 CBR4 books!). If you want to read this book in time for the London Olympics, get started now! I have a copy available at Paperback Swap.

The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Finished: Jan. 17
Rating: A-

I have to admit I sometimes enjoy a good epidemiological history. Johnson’s account of the 1854 cholera outbreak in Victorian London is engaging, but the focus isn’t so much cholera as the larger challenges of urban living. Within the vein of epidemiological history, I preferred Marilyn Chase’s The Barbary Plague in which she describes the development of the bubonic plague in Victorian San Francisco from 1900-1909. Of course she had a larger event to describe so the focus stayed solidly on the plague. Johnson’s account seems a bit more scattered, but it reads well. His descriptions of the city and its…um…untidiness are strong enough that you feel like you could be standing (and smelling) in the middle of Soho. He is able to balance his narrative elements against his description of the cholera virus and medical aspects of the story.

As someone who enjoys the beauty of data visualization this book is a good look into the gathering of real life data and the illumination of a problem through the visualization of the data. Unfortunately, the idea of the ghost map felt a bit perfunctory like it was tacked on to the end of the story. Also, his epilogue, on the difficulties and triumphs of modern urban living in relation to sustainability, disease, and nuclear weapons while a fascinating read seem to take the focus away from his original story (and from the ghost map again). Overall it is a good read, especially if you like medical histories.