Two Histories of England

Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed upon his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2nd to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. That sentence opens Jane Austen's youthful send-up of high-minded history. She was just 16 when she wrote it, but her trademark wit and impatience with lazy romanticism are already prominent in this brief, sometimes hilarious parody. Her dunce of a narrator performs feats of sublime illogic, as in this time-tangled summary of a duke's execution: ?He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it.? If Austen's private parody highlights her genteel sarcasm, Charles Dickens's long-popular A Child's History of England is an equally potent distillation of the author's writerly character. Sentimental, moralizing, and careless with facts, A Child's History (offered here in abridged form) is also a display of Dickens's unequaled mastery of telling detail: the little dog that faithfully lay down beside the decapitated Mary, Queen of Scots; ?His Sowship,? James I, fecklessly knighting supporters on his way to his English coronation; and the doomed Charles I, ?who had always been a quick walker,? on his tragic route to the block. Both writers make the most of the many executions, finding pathos and sardonic humor in what winds up as a bloody history indeed. -

April 18: "[W]ould it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?"

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.