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March 15, 2012 5:26 PM

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The Passionate Reader: March 15, 2012

Everybody's heard of Henry VIII, but what of his father, Henry VII? The founder of the Tudor dynasty was a usurper who had little claim to the English throne, but proved to be an extremely modern monarch, who found...

Winter King Cover.jpgEverybody's heard of Henry VIII, but what of his father, Henry VII? The founder of the Tudor dynasty was a usurper who had little claim to the English throne, but proved to be an extremely modern monarch, who found that he could control his people by surveillance and by manipulating markets rather than simply by waging war.


Now, English historian Thomas Penn has written "Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England" (Simon & Schuster). During Henry VII's 25-year reign, the War of the Roses continued, with skirmishes and battles of every kind -- then gradually drew to a close. The king had made a brilliant match with Elizabeth of York, who gave him six children -- enough for a dynasty. But after his wife, whom he deeply loved, died, he grew steadily more paranoid and the micromanaging of his kingdom that had been an asset became a liability. Penn brings an era which is not often written about vividly to life.

Dykstra_CLOVER_HJ.jpgThen there's Natalie Dykstra's "Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Little has been written about Marian "Clover" Adams, née Hooper, the wife of Henry Adams (as in "The Education of..."), who was removed from her husband's celebrated autobiography because she committed suicide at 42, after 16 years of marriage and a long period of depression. When Henry originally said he wanted to marry her, his brother Charles objected, saying of her family, "Heavens! -- No! -- They're all crazy as coots." Sadly, Charles turned out to be right. One of Clover's aunts, Sue Bigelow, had killed herself years before, and both her siblings, Edward Hooper and Ellen Gurney, took their own lives after her death. (Ironically, there was also remarkable longevity in her family, and two of her nieces lived to be over 100, and another over 90, extraordinary for women born in the 1870s.) Two years before she died, Clover, whom Henry James considered a great wit, had discovered photography in earnest, and one of the interesting features of this biography is Dykstra's extensive explication of Clover's photos. But she was so self-conscious about her own appearance that she disliked being photographed, hid her face when she was shot and, unlike most women of her class, never had her portrait painted. Curiously, even her husband emphasized more than once in letters to friends before their marriage that she was not a beauty. Dykstra suggests that his habit of enjoying the company of beautiful women (probably platonically) in the latter part of their marriage contributed to his wife's depression.

Voyagers of the Titanic hc c.JPGNext comes Richard Davenport-Hines' new book, "Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From" (William Morrow), which surprisingly manages to say something new about the disaster -- the 100th anniversary of the event is on April 14 and 15. Julian Fellowes, creator and executive producer of "Downton Abbey," has filmed a four-part miniseries, "Titanic," to mark the occasion, which will debut on ABC in the U.S., beginning April 14. Davenport-Hines meticulously combed through the records left by survivors and other archival material.

Particularly interesting is his detailed accounts of the way in which the lifeboats were loaded and the order in which they left. He also describes the role that women played in boats; some of the sailors didn't know how to row, and it was the women who often took charge and did it themselves, among them the redoubtable Scottish peeress Lady Rothes.

Also notable is the description of the amount of disinformation disseminated by the daily newspapers in the U.S. Then there's the way in which the British papers spun the disaster to make it seem as if the incident, with its famous women-and-children-first procedures, was an illustration of the cultural superiority of England. The Titanic was traveling too fast, wireless messages warning of ice were ignored and the hole in the side of the liner, Davenport-Hines writes, was made when the captain made the mistake of turning the ship, rather than facing the iceberg head-on. (The granddaughter of Charles Lightoller -- the second officer on the ship and the highest-ranking one who survived -- however, blames a steering error which inadvertently took the ship right instead of left, and the fact that Captain Edward Smith ordered that the ship continue to move after it hit the iceberg.) Another survivor, J. Bruce Ismay -- chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, which owned the ship -- was blamed for the disaster, and he was certainly responsible for reducing the number of lifeboats from 48 to 20 to make room for more luxurious features. The accident led to a number of signal changes in established naval procedures.

Five Bells.jpg"Five Bells," by the noted Australian writer Gail Jones (Picador), is a novel set in a very different watery setting -- Sydney's Circular Quay. Jones creates an engrossing narrative which follows four characters over the course of one day. Pei Xing is a Chinese immigrant whose parents were killed and who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution; James, a teacher, feels consuming guilt over the drowning of a child in his care; Ellie, his high-school sweetheart, has moved from a small Australian town to the big city, obsessed by their early romance, and Catherine, a journalist and recent immigrant from Ireland, is haunted by the death of her brother in a car crash. (The title refers to the ringing of a ship's bells to mark certain specific sailors' watches.)

There are many beautiful picture books about, but one of the most appealing is Thames & Hudson's "Beaton in Vogue," edited by Josephine Ross, which traces the life and very luxe times of the protean photographer/illustrator/costume designer. Particularly intriguing (and rarely seen in America) are his World War II photos, from a shot of a Union Jack flying in the Beaton in Vogue 9780500290248.jpgrubble of Bloomsbury Square to a scene of WRNS officers dining in the Painted Hall, Greenwich, to a view of a Gurkha sniper in Burma. It's also amusing to revisit Beaton's own writing on fashion, in such pieces as "Putting on Local Colour" (1931), in which he describes what the fashionable woman should buy when traveling and how to wear -- and not to wear -- it. And, of course, Beaton's drawings throughout have great charm.

stein-collection002.jpgAlso impressive is "The Steins Collect" (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/the Yale University Press), edited by Janet Bishop, Cecile Debray and Rebecca Rabinow, the companion book to the same-named show of the paintings collected by siblings Gertrude, Leo and Michael Stein and Michael's wife, Sarah, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's the first show of their collection in 40 years. The differences between the Steins and other American collectors such as the Potter Palmers and the H.O. Havemeyers who headed to Paris at the end of the 19th century were that the Steins were not wealthy and they didn't bring the paintings they bought back to America, but instead kept them in Paris, showing them to anyone who was interested. In this way, they helped to create the reputations of artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The range of their holdings was amazing, with such works as Matisse's multicolored "Woman With a Hat" (1905), "The Girl With the Green Eyes" (1908) and "Le Bonheur de Vivre" (1905-1906); Picasso's "Boy Leading a Horse" (1905-1906), "Lady With a Fan" (1905) and "La Coiffure" (1906), not to mention his magisterial "Gertrude Stein" (1905-1906); Edouard Manet's "Ball Scene" (1873), Paul Cezanne's "Five Apples" (1877-1878) and many, many others.

"The Steins Collect" is comprehensive and fascinating, and includes pages of period photographs of the apartments the Steins occupied in Paris, with a number key showing where specific paintings were hung.
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