Cooper’s London

Summer Reading: Conquest and Conflict

I’ve been catching up with books at my bedside before the season begins and brings in a new lot. So, in case you missed them when they first came out, here are a couple of recommendations:

Hugh Thomas, The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V Allen Lane. (UK edition £; also in the US, and on Kindle)

Hugh Thomas became well-known for his definitive, prize-winning study of the Spanish Civil War, which is still a central book for our times. Now he takes us back to the era that was Spain at its most glorious and troubling. Continuing his story of the rise of the Spanish Empire (this is the follow-on from Rivers of Gold, 2003) he concentrates in this volume on the era of Charles V, with its incursions into the recently-discovered new world.

Starting with Magellan’s return from his circumnavigation of the globe, Thomas only stops at the point of Charles V’s death in 1558. Along the way we consider the Spanish conquests in Central and South America and the rich and varied stories of various conquistadors, including Juan Vasquz Corondao, Hernando de Soto and the extraordinary Gonzalo Pizzaro. You end up feeling you have been given three or four books in one, but I can hardly wait to read the next volume that will take us through the reign of Philip II and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The writing is vivid, though sometimes so dense with detail that it you need rearl stamina to keep going, yet it always turns out to be worth the effort. Most of the episodes would make one-off adventure movies of a very dark and fascinating kind. Both as a reference book and as a good read, this book stands out. Thomas also powerfully renders the troubling issues raised by the Spanish conquests in their own time; you will hear echoes of the centuries to come and the issues that ultimately led to the revolutions and turmoil we still see today in lands that were once the heart of the Spanish Empire.

This is not just a book about the adventures and adventurers of the Spanish High Renaissance; it is also important for revealing the sources of so many conflicts of the next four hundred years. I was fortunate enough to interview Thomas at the time of the publication of this book in the UK and you can hear what he has to say about his work at: The book is also very beautifully produced, a real pleasure to hold and with very good illustrations, especially the end papers.

Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire

US Random House $35.00; UK Penguin Paperback £12.99; UK Allen Lane Hardcover £30.00

Having written a hugely popular and successful biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire in the era of the American and French Revolutions, Amanda Foreman then took ten years to create a new and even bigger biography of the entire American Civil War in its relationship to the UK. Both the North and the South needed and wanted the support of Great Britain, and there were British volunteers on both sides. The “special relationships” of that era are so interestingly explored through so many fascinating characters that the book, which can give you much pleasure and astonishing insights to ponder, can also literally break your back, weighing in at about 1,000 pages of text and notes.

It’s the kind of material that James Michener would have turned into a novel, starting, no doubt, with a Georgia overrun by dinosaurs. The experience is a bit like reading the novel about the Civil War that the world has been waiting for, but it is actually a book of non-fiction. Foreman details the astonishing and complex story of the relationships between the two countries from before the Civil War through the experiences of a fascinating cast of characters, and we hear the stories of participants both on the battlegrounds and in the diplomatic and political halls of Washington and London.

The research is formidable and the tales Foreman tells utterly compelling and convincing. She has written the book in a completely accessible and compelling style that keeps one riveted and centered throughout the long, multi-layered and complex narrative. It will probably end up being one of the most admired books of the year—and it drove me back to a truly magisterial, fascinating and completely brilliant book by Dorothy Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals (which is, I believe, the source for the upcoming film about Lincoln by Steven Spielberg). Between them, these two books are the intellectual and historical background you need before re-reading both Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Irving Stone’s Love is Eternal.  Just like the Civil War!


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