Review: Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir

3397050Blurb:

Acclaimed author Alison Weir has been prolific with her books on English royalty covering everything from the Houses of York and Lancaster to the reigns of the Tudors and beyond. Now this remarkable historian brings to life the extraordinary tale of the woman who was ancestor to them all: Katherine Swynford, a royal mistress who was to become one of the most crucial figures in the history of the British royal dynasties.

Review:

I’m pretty sure that if you go to the dictionary and search the word “boredom,” you’ll find the traditional entry, i.e., state of weariness due to lack of interest, and a new second entry: reading a 400 page biography of an obscure 14th century minor English noblewoman who becomes a duchess in less than 48 hours.

Or maybe I’m less bored than I think during these 5 months of vacation I’m currently living, and Mistress of the Monarchy, a biography of Katherine Sywnford, is actually a more thrilling story than it first appears. Of course, as author Alison Weir informs us in the introduction, very few sources from the late 1300s remain extant. Funnily enough, this vigorously researched work with footnotes aplenty is likely more “fictional” than certain über-biographical acts of modern “fiction” that we may read today. Amateur and professional historians, beware, but to anyone less obsessed with the futile search for fact and more concerned with the uncovering of hiSTORY, there’s a great story to be found here.

Because, as Weir says in the introduction, the story of Katherine Swynford is a love story. And for a life that was lived 700 years ago, when marriage was about who owned which duchy and which Count was warring with which Duke who was warring with which King, a marriage for loooove was decidedly rare. Primary sources scant as they are, it’s impossible to say with certainty that John of Gaunt, a veritable English prince and, as the Duke of Lancaster, the wealthiest landowner in all of Europe, married a minor noblewoman from modern day Belgium because he loved her. But it does seem that he married her for true sentiment, after, of course, engaging in a decade long extramarital affair that resulted in four bastards.

Do you remember in school being assigned a 10 page paper on some esoteric subject and wondering how you’d ever find enough material to make word count? Instead of getting down and dirty with your bibliography, you’d spend time making every period size 14 font, fiddling with the margins, and artfully tabbing your paragraphs to maximize page potential. Well Alison Weir, and indeed any Medieval biographer, should have been our god to worship. Because here is a woman who noticed an extreme paucity of historical resources and said, “Well, I think I’ll write a 400 page biography!” Consequently, there are pages where Weir simply lists English castles and landholdings and complex noble genealogies, simply because these greedy feudal lords recorded more information about what they owned and who had the right to own it when they died more than anything else.

Katherine Swynford is an extremely important woman, but sadly, this is for reproductive reasons more than anything. Her bastard children with John of Gaunt will complicate the English monarchy so much that it will lead to the War of the Roses. But once Henry Tudor gains the throne as Henry VII, every subsequent English monarch (and several American presidents!) will be descended from her. This is fact, but strangely, it’s hard to care about that when we see Katherine Swynford and only think of mythical love stories.

<h2>3 out of 5 stars</h2>

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Review: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

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Blurb:

One of E. M. Forster’s most celebrated novels, A Room With a View is the story of a young English middle-class girl, Lucy Honeychurch. While vacationing in Italy, Lucy meets and is wooed by two gentlemen, George Emerson and Cecil Vyse. After turning down Cecil Vyse’s marriage proposals twice Lucy finally accepts. Upon hearing of the engagement George protests and confesses his true love for Lucy. Lucy is torn between the choice of marrying Cecil, who is a more socially acceptable mate, and George who she knows will bring her true happiness. A Room With a Viewis a tale of classic human struggles such as the choice between social acceptance or true love.

Review:

I have not been known to spend my money on particularly pragmatic things. There was an heirloom apple tree native only to New England that I absolutely had to plant in my Midwestern garden. The old-tymey homemade ice cream maker that I vowed to use every summer, which ended up meaning one summer, the very summer I received it, used it, and stored it. But one day, with any extra cash lying about, I would love to sponsor a study at a statistical research institute about love triangles. Mostly about the verisimilitude of love triangles. Walk into a library and select a novel at random, and I’d bet your chances of picking up a book with a love triangle inside hover around 33%. But in real life, not Literature, does the population have a lifetime love triangle percentage of 33%? I doubt it, and yet, in books, those creative factories meant to mimic, comment, and critique “real life” insist on this romantic concept. Love triangles everywhere, love triangles abound! E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View is not an exception.

Why does this authorial obsession for love triangles exist? For one thing, it might not be an entirely authorial preoccupation but also readerly: writers can say all they want about Art, but they are almost always just giving us what we want. Love triangles are schematics. An easy way to capture a complex thing. So here, the three-sided polygon between Lucy, George, and Cecil is about the future. Cecil is labeled “medieval” which makes George the “modern” man. It’s up to the woman to decide which way the wind is blowing—forward? Or backward? Cecil can promise her a cloistered life like her mother lived; she will live happily but in the background. Life will unfold like a masterwork painting before her eyes. George can promise very little except for one very big thing: the possibility to step into the painting and become a masterpiece herself.

It’s a really clever book and somehow manages to dismantle the manic pixie dreamgirl trope way back in 1908, that is, 97 years before the facile term was coined. So it’s even more impressive in its own historical context. For a good chunk of the novel, I was unsure if I was reading a deeply sexist book or a deeply feminist book. All becomes clear by the end, in fact, if not for the final chapter, this could have entered the annals of feminist literature.

Yet I’m surprised to see that some readers sighed over this like a true romance. Forster’s sardonic, detached narrator made such a reading impossible for me. Instead of presenting the facts through Lucy’s loveshocked eyes, he allows us to experience the events at a distance. It is worth noting that this distance is undoubtedly located above: the narrator and reader are above Lucy; we see her faults while she fails to. This choice creates an interesting effect, indeed, an effect at odds with the early feminist message Forster otherwise promotes. Again and again, Lucy says that only women can speak for women and that her thoughts, far from being ideas projected on to her by men, truly exist. Thus her back-and-forth between the two suitors is an attempt to find independence in the midst of a marriage that will undeniably rest upon dependence. She, not a man, will speak for her own hand. But Forster’s superior narrator who suspends us just above the intrigue, dangling like a chandelier in the English parlor at teatime, allows us to observe and share in his judgments (I use “his” because there is no question that Forster’s narrator, mostly an authorial stand-in, is male). The consequence being that even as women exit the Victorian era and claim greater autonomy, even in a novel that celebrates this social change, they remain objects of Art, decorous and meaningful, so long as this meaning is recognized and capitalized by a man. In short, an imperfect, funny little book that undermines itself.

<h2>3 out of 5 stars</h2>

Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

23734628Blurb:

Rainbow Rowell continues to break boundaries with Carry On, an epic fantasy following the triumphs and heartaches of Simon and Baz from her beloved bestseller Fangirl.

Simon Snow just wants to relax and savor his last year at the Watford School of Magicks, but no one will let him. His girlfriend broke up with him, his best friend is a pest, and his mentor keeps trying to hide him away in the mountains where maybe he’ll be safe. Simon can’t even enjoy the fact that his roommate and longtime nemesis is missing, because he can’t stop worrying about the evil git. Plus there are ghosts. And vampires. And actual evil things trying to shut Simon down. When you’re the most powerful magician the world has ever known, you never get to relax and savor anything.

Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

Review:

When Carry On was announced last year, I couldn’t help but feel a bit extra special. In my review for Fangirl, Rowell’s previous YA novel that featured the novel-within-a-novel that eventually inspired her new novel Carry On (did you get that?), I requested that she adapt the Simon Snow scenes to a standalone book. Because in Fangirl the Simon Snow scenes were bonkers: a mash-up of Harry Potter with an Edward Cullen-esque vampire thrown in for good measure, topped off by an astonishingly well-developed mythology for seemingly throwaway scenes.

So Rainbow wrote it (for me! And I guess the thousands of others who clamored for it), and here I am, deeply downtrodden, because I have to report that this special-order book was not what I wanted. And okay, I immediately recognize that “this book is not what I wanted” is not a valid criticism. Rainbow doesn’t know who I am and she is not writing for me and that is good! Authors tend to shoot themselves in the foot as soon as they write for an audience. But the criticism holds somewhat seeing as Carry On is not Rainbow’s first Simon Snow rodeo. These characters already existed elsewhere; Carry On, as I understood it, would simply be their movement towards center stage.

Simon, Baz, Penelope and the gang have not just found the spotlight, however. They are entirely different incarnations of the characters I recall from Fangirl. And in shocking ways too. Originally, Simon and Co. were thick, meaty characters, dripping with turmoil in the face of insurmountable obstacles, but always–always–surmounting them. They managed to shine so brightly despite the fact that their appearances were intermittent and brusque. With more than 500 pages all to themselves in this novel, I expected their stories to develop in more complex and epic ways. Yet faced with so many pages to fill, they deflate to dull versions of their Fangirl selves. Petty problems rule the day; the supreme villain is rarely mentioned. Which I suppose is true in other epic fantasy novels. Harry Potter was not always thinking about Voldemort. For serious swaths of the series, he’s more concerned with Quidditch.

But Rainbow Rowell does not have the same advantages JKR had writing Harry Potter. Carry On is as if she started writing the series at Deathly Hallows. There’s so much that happened before, but we don’t see it so the stakes are so much lower. The result is a sham, a house of cards she tries to convince us is an actual house. But the little gusts the pages made as I turned them faster–eager to get to the good bits and finally eager to finish because there were no truly good bits–blew the whole house down. And then I see that Simon and everyone was just paper, thin and lifeless paper.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

11464Blurb:

At one prestigious American public school, the boys like to emphasise their democratic ideals – the only acknowledged snobbery is literary snobbery. Once a term, a big name from the literary world visits and a contest takes place. The boys have to submit a piece of writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. But then it is announced that Hemingway, the boys’ hero, is coming to the school. The competition intensifies, and the morals the school and the boys pride themselves on – honour, loyalty and friendship – are crumbling under the strain. Only time will tell who will win and what it will cost them.

Review:

Rarely is literature so literary. To fully appreciate Tobias Wolff’s prep school bildungsroman Old School, you must have some degree of familiarity with Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. But this moving and brilliantly written novel can also be appreciated—though only halfway appreciated, I’d argue—by someone who wiled away his English classes drawing spirals on his notebook, because its ideas are so universal. Here Wolff interrogates one of my favorite questions: Who are we? The story we tell the world about ourselves or the story the world tells about us?

Any teenager but especially any outcasted teenager such as this protagonist, a Seattle scholarship student in an East Coast prep school, spends nearly every minute of his life creating his life. Before attaining the halls of high school, a teen’s identity is created by his parents. Suddenly liberated around 13, 14, 15, a teenager decides for the first time who he will be. Oftentimes, Wolff astutely notes, the person he chooses is the wrong choice, which ironically only makes the teenager work harder and harder to embody this choice.

Old School’s plot revolves around a literary competition where renowned writers visit the boarding school campus for a reading and then share a private audience with a boy whose story he read and selected as “the best.” The collegial yet fierce relationships these boys share are strained with the visit of every new writer. And even though these boys’ attempts at not only creative expression but also self-creation may be farce and lie and fiction, you sorta see that by making up false stories, the boys find themselves moving closer to the truth. Kinda how like any bookworm, far from being holed up in escapist fantasies, is on the verge of something realer than most people will ever find.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

1232Blurb:

Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julián Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.

Review:

Normally I try to maintain a semblance of eloquence in my reviews, but it’s been three days since I finished The Shadow of the Wind and all I have left to say is this book was dumb. Yes, I understand that “dumb” is the word 5-year-olds use to insult each other as their mothers scold, “Be nice!” but I have no other way to describe this book nor any desire to search for another way to describe it. It was boring, incredibly overlong, sexist, and overall unfeeling.

Despite a decent mystery (although as it unravels it becomes more and more mundane, until it’s no longer “mysterious” but, once again, merely dumb), I cared nothing about what happened here. And it showed—the farther I read, the faster I read, simply to finish and move on to something newer and better. The characters here are caricatures. It’s as if Zafon endowed them with one defining personality trait and then announced “Done!” Accordingly, they’re incapable of attracting our sympathy, problematic for a novel whose plot spins on the sympathetic interactions between characters.

All my least favorite things are here: love stories that become True Love before the characters have exchanged two words; a villain who is villainous because he is a villain who is villainous; a latent, insidious form of sexism where women are never agents and there are about 100 too many comments on their bodies and about 100 too few comments on any other aspect of their existence; and worst of all, an awesome concept—a Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where the sole remaining copies of literature go to die/rest in peace—that serves as scenery, not a motor for story.

Blah blah blah. I see Zafon popped another two of these out to complete an interconnected series. If I can give him one recompense, it’s for making the first one so bad that I’m not obliged to suffer through two more. Thank you, Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

1 out of 5 stars

 

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

18749Blurb:

With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.

Review;

My most comprehensive history course took place in my first year of high school. It bore the title “Global Studies,” a cursory naming attempt to broaden “world” and liven up “history.” We started between the Tigris and the Euphrates circa 4000 BCE. By 3000 BCE we had arrived in Egypt. It was our first and last visit to Africa during the entire year. We traveled to the agoras of Greece and the forums of Rome, to the East towards China, Japan, and India, back to Europe for the Dark Ages and then the Renaissance, and then outward into the world for the Age of Exploration and subsequent colonization. During this period, in fact, we returned to Africa. But briefly, very briefly; not to visit civilizations but to collect living raw materials—black slaves—to build civilizations across the ocean.

This is both an indictment of my high school history department and a premature attempt at self-excuse for the following failure: before opening Half of a Yellow Sun, the Biafran War did not exist for me. I did not know that in the 1960s, Nigeria suffered a series of military coups which led to the persecution of the Igbo people in the country and their subsequent secession into the state of Biafra. Thanks to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, now I know. A little more at least.

She begins the story in the early 1960s, a period of slight unrest, to be sure, but relatively tranquil. During this time, she introduces the main players who originate from various social classes. There’s the houseboy Ugwu, an uneducated rural villager, and his masters, two middle class professors. Then there’s a wealthy Nigerian businesswoman and her white British partner. Their stories all eventually overlap, but it’s a brilliant mélange to use as a base. Because once the war starts brewing, Adichie is able to show how it cuts across social categories. War, for Adichie, is omnipotent.

The strength of her characters is where she succeeds. Journalists are often maligned for focusing on “human interest stories” in the shadow of a great conflict. But as a lover of literature, I become more and more convinced that the only way to understand great conflicts and to appreciate their causes and consequences is to meet the people behind them. Perhaps it’s a foible, but I struggle to care about something until I can see its face. In Half of a Yellow Sun, I saw a lot of faces. Faces of people who I would never have the occasion to meet otherwise.

Adichie is just a great humanist author. It’s special but ultimately not terribly important that she’s talking about Nigeria, a subject of which very few have a deep familiarity. Her work would shine in any era, in any context. She has a way of shining light on people that reflect this light outward until it becomes compassion and empathy and understanding and appreciation. Under her careful hand, the Biafran War is not a mere photograph of children with twigs for arms and balloons for stomachs; it’s the story of people who told their story, but no one listened, and it’s the story of people who were never able to tell their own.

All in all, it’s a great story, which for me, is real history.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

24911006Blurb:

From bestselling author Jon Krakauer, a stark, powerful, meticulously reported narrative about a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana ­— stories that illuminate the human drama behind the national plague of campus rape.

Review:

Sometimes words don’t matter. People can make a “no” become a “maybe” or an “okay, I guess so” or, in the case of certain prosecutors, police officers, university officials, and powerful college boys in Missoula, Montana, a “no” can become “yes.” So instead of words, I’ll use numbers. Here are just a few from Jon Krakauer’s latest impeccable nonfiction, an investigation of rape in the United States:

-80% of rapes are never reported to the police
-only 0.4% to 5% of forcible rapes (that is, not of the more insidious and less understood “acquaintance rape variety) are prosecuted
-a mere 0.2% to 2.8% of these forcible rapes result in convictions with prison time
-most rapes are committed by serial offenders—the statistical chance is 90%

Which, as Krakauer summarizes, means that more than 90% of the time in the United States, a rapist suffers absolutely no punishment. The system rarely prosecutes rape cases, when they do, they rarely put them away, and so it becomes a scourge, a cycle of rapists continuing to rape because no one tells them that they can’t. This blurriness when it comes to punishing rapists leads to even blurrier lines during sexual encounters, especially in alcohol-soaked and hormonally-driven college campuses—what, exactly, is rape?

Krakauer interviews several victims of rape in Missoula and recounts their horrific stories, expunging no appalling detail. Rape can occur while sleeping, while passed out, while completely sober and saying “no,” while not saying “no” but never ever having said “yes.” When Krakauer lays out the stories, there is no blinking when it comes to whether or not it’s rape. And yet, between 2008 and 2012, various officials from the University of Montana, the Missoula Police Department, and the Missoula Prosecution Office blinked quite a lot when it came to convicting rapists. So much that one cheeky journalist labeled the normally bucolic small town the “Rape Capital of America.” Krakauer dismisses that title immediately in the least reassuring way possible: every story he’s about to share from Missoula could happen anywhere; its sexual assault statistics are comparable to the rest of the country. The United States has a deep problem in bringing rapists to justice, and Krakauer attempts to diagnose why.

The stories presented in Missoula are unbelievable unless read in full. For example, you have a police chief who argues that a girl with a blood alcohol content of .219 percent, so drunk she suffered multiple blackouts and checked into the hospital Emergency Room, was not physically incapacitated to the extent that she was unable to consent to sex. There are the various police officers who ask young girls coming to the station to report rapes, “Do you have a boyfriend? Because sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends and then feel bad about it and decide to say they were raped.” Then there’s the constant blah blah blah about the male rapist’s “upstanding moral character” and how he’s just always been a “really good kid” and how one life has already been ruined from this mess (the victim’s), why ruin a second life too (that is, the rapist’s, the person responsible for ruining a life)? Krakauer absolutely destroys the lead Missoulan prosecutor supposedly responsible for sexual assault cases. This prosecutor, intended to be an advocate for the rape victims, is on record saying “Some people would argue that if I go home with someone and we say, ‘Well, we’re going to go have sex,’ and then I fall asleep and wake up and he’s having sex with me—some people would say that’s consensual, and some people would say it’s not.”

Story after story, quotation after quotation, Missoula is a goldmine for every eye-rolling, head-shaking, fist-curling thing you’ve heard about rape. The only unsatisfying thing about the book is the grand finale. After hundreds of pages of appalling evidence that rape is one of the capital crimes facing current American society, Krakauer seeks to point his journalist finger at a culprit. Here, unfortunately, he does not swing the axe all the way. In the case of Missoula, he blames the university, the police department, and the prosecuting office, which is all true, but he neglects to climb the ladder one more step to arrive at the obvious and ultimate problem: the still unequal status of women.

Women are told to always be nice, so they do not want to ruin a boy’s life by saying he’s a rapist. Women avoid confrontation, so even in the middle of nonconsensual sexual interactions, they might not scream or run or fight back—it just wouldn’t be polite. When someone goes to the police for a robbery, the police do not say, “Okay, but you left your door unlocked and that beautiful new TV was just asking to be stolen.” They go out and gather evidence to press robbery charges. But with rape, the police ask the traumatized girl, “Were you drunk? Did you maybe make the man think you wanted to have sex with him? Did you say no? Did you make sure he heard you say no?” Rape victims are oddly not always considered victims, but perpetrators of a lie, of a ruse, of a scandal. It originates from a society that values boys more than girls. And although Krakauer’s exposé of Missoula ends somewhat positively, with the town’s justice system reflective and chastened and prepared to be better, rape as a phenomenon, unfortunately, cannot be combated until the sum of a girl equals the sum of a boy.

4 out of 5 stars