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: The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

2198274Blurb:

In 2000, Douglas Preston fulfilled a dream to move his family to Italy. Then he discovered that the olive grove in front of their 14th century farmhouse had been the scene of the most infamous double-murders in Italian history, committed by a serial killer known as the Monster of Florence. Preston, intrigued, meets Italian investigative journalist Mario Spezi to learn more. This is the true story of their search for–and identification of–the man they believe committed the crimes, and their chilling interview with him. And then, in a strange twist of fate, Preston and Spezi themselves become targets of the police investigation. Preston has his phone tapped, is interrogated, and told to leave the country. Spezi fares worse: he is thrown into Italy’s grim Capanne prison, accused of being the Monster of Florence himself. Like one of Preston’s thrillers, The Monster Of Florence, tells a remarkable and harrowing story involving murder, mutilation, and suicide-and at the center of it, Preston and Spezi, caught in a bizarre prosecutorial vendetta.

Review:

There are frequently days when the crappiness of the world is too awful to even contemplate and I struggle not to simply fall to the ground, wrap my head in my hands, and give up. But after reading The Monster of Florence, no not anymore, because I have a talisman, a mantra of sorts, to repeat and cling to in these moments of darkness. I have a reminder that even if things are bad, they are not and could never be as uncomprehendingly inefficient, vile, pathetic, medieval, and, yes, even evil, as the Italian justice system. For the rest of my life, if I read an article about the incompetency of an American judge or watch a documentary about the failing criminal system, I can finish and soothe myself, “Well, at least it’s not Italy.”

How lovely it is for others to fail so that we can reassure ourselves that we are not the worst. This nonfiction story traces the beginnings of “Il mostro di Firenze,” the titular Monster of Florence, a serial killer worthy of the fascination for those who “love” (this is far from the right word, but I’m struggling to find better—evidence of an unhealthy fascination that should be discarded despite our undying interest?) serial killers. His trail of corpses spans decades in the picturesque Florentine hills. He kills couples in the midst of sex, shooting them with his infamous Beretta, and then cuts away pieces of the woman’s genitals to keep. His reign of terror was so great that by the end, he only victimized foreigners since every young Italian couple knew not to venture into the hills, no matter how much they wanted to find a secluded place to have sex.

And that’s only the killer. He’s far from the most interesting part of this tale. The plodding and misguided police investigation fingers numerous suspects but apparently never the right one. It becomes a humiliation for the authorities, which is where things proceed to become even more interesting. Scapegoat satanic cults are summoned from nowhere, bodies of innocents-now-presumed-guilty are exhumed years later and claimed to have been “replaced,” false evidence is planted in innocuous gardens, and journalists attempting to solve the case are arrested as accomplices.

The very writers of this book—an American journalist partnered with an Italian—are considered criminals for daring to question the extremely suspect conclusions of Italian prosecutors more eager to close the case than to find the right suspect. At one point a criminal profile of “Il Mostro” is assembled by the greatest team of FBI profilers on the planet only to be hidden away because it did not correspond to the suspect the Italian authorities wanted to convict. The judicial system is so profoundly incompetent that you get verdicts like this,“Acquitted; for the reason that the allegation is nonexistent.” In Italy the authorities can run free and fabricate charges, ruining dozens of lives in the process, all in the name of “justice” which for them is nothing more than saving or building their own reputations.

If you are fascinated by incompetency, you must read this book. If you watched the Amanda Knox case, aghast at the supposed “evidence,” read this book (the prosecutor in her case is also a villain here, coming up with crackpot theories about the Monster and then creating the evidence to support them after the fact.) Unfortunately, it’s not the best written book—Spezi and Preston wrote it half in Italian, half in English and then translated the other half for their respective audiences. It shows: the writing is often clunky, particularly the dialogue which reads like an airport thriller novel.

The Monster of Florence is about ego, not only the ego required to kill but also the ego to decide who is a killer. But it’s also about our egos, our ego as readers of true crime, that same ego that makes us slow down at a roadside accident and wonder, “What happened here?” It is egotistical to assume that we can unmask, that we even deserve to unmask, the identity of an unknown and notorious killer. Is truth feasible when so many people desperate to find it are running around looking for it? It’s folly, and it takes a system as disastrous as Italy’s to show it.

3 stars out of 5

Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

 

2619Blurb:

Dickens’s magnificent novel of guilt, desire, and redemption
The orphan Pip’s terrifying encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes, and his mysterious summons to the house of Miss Havisham and her cold, beautiful ward Estella, form the prelude to his “great expectations.” How Pip comes into a fortune, what he does with it, and what he discovers through his secret benefactor are the ingredients of his struggle for moral redemption.

Review:

In Great Expectations Dickens takes Pip, a young orphan of modest means, from a marshy graveyard to London high society, twisting his fate again and again to ask the question: who makes a man—himself? Or everything and everyone who builds him up? Is the importance of living a good and true life only discovered in the highs and lows? Can great expectations be given or must they be earned?

The actual plot, while frequently entertaining with its sharp turns and interlocking character backstories, is too fantastic to properly address these questions. Pip’s journey is long but the significant bits, places where he learns the value of money, the visage of true love, the treasure of friendship, and the loyalty of familial love, are short and subsequently seemingly unearned.

The characters, fortunately, are sharp and bright as stars on a clear night. We have the youthful tragics of Miss Havisham that have left her cold and frozen, icing the heart of her beautiful ward Estella, and eventually that of Pip’s as well. Joe, sweet Joe the blacksmith, whose accent was practically unreadable at times but never failed to shine as a beacon of humanity. And of course, the unforgettable Wemmick, a law clerk who has built a castle in London for himself and “the Aged,” his death father whom he communicates with either by cries and cannonball firings.

It’s a good story but one that failed to seam together for me. Reminiscent of Maugham’sOf Human Bondage and plenty of other bildungsromans, yet heavier on plot and lighter on epiphanies gained through growing-up.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: One Day by David Nicholls

9395692Blurb:

15th July 1988

Emma and Dexter meet on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways.

So where will they be on this one day next year?
And the year after that?

And every year that follows?

Review:

One Day was a novel endowed with a very important task: to occupy me during six hours of train travel. And what do you know, it did its job, not overwhelmingly well but just well enough that it will always be a fond memory, a solid 3-star read.

Smartly composed and occasionally insightful, One Day still undeniably belongs to that genre some are determined to label “chick-lit.” But it’s literary, and although it gives us what we want, we have to work for it. The going is tough before the much-wanted, inevitable relationship gets going. Nicholls is realistic if not a bit ruthless about love. He reminded me that two people can love each other to infinity and beyond and still make each other bleed with nasty words. And that’s why if this is “chick-lit” it’s definitely of a superior rank. Love, while still lovely, is not entirely rosy under Nicholls’ pen; for him love is beautiful 90% of the time, but the other 10% is lived in darkness and suffered in sharpness.

The conceit of the story is that its told on the same day—July 15—over twenty years. Emma and Dexter meet in the 80s and the story ends in the new millennium, when they’re a bit fatter and greyer, but wiser too. Vast swaths of time are lost because as readers we are only privy to the happenings of one day per year. The novel is accordingly obsessed with time, ticking and tocking me until I was struck by the mundane but true realization of how long a year is, how much change 364 days can offer.

Some stories give us exactly what we want but they don’t suffer for this predictability. If these stories surprised us, they would have, in some way, violated a contract between the reader and writer: I read certain genres to be lightly entertained when embarking upon a six-hour train journey. With One Day I was not shocked; I was not made to think; and for this I was contented.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3711Blurb

Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families—one headed by Archie, the other by Archie’s best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for “no problem”). Samad —devoutly Muslim, hopelessly “foreign”— weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire’s worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.

Zadie Smith’s dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant café, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes —faith, race, gender, history, and culture— and triumphs.

Review

Part of the problem of spending more than a year in a country that doesn’t speak your native language is that you start to speak zero languages perfectly. My English, planted and watered from age zero, no longer blooms: the whistly interdental “th” in words like thistle and think occasionally exits my mouth as “z”; my prepositions have gone to absolute shit—a sentence like “I go in London” sounds completely acceptable to me until an American friend points it out; and my vocabulary has dwindled depressingly, so much so that it took me 30 seconds of searching—“dwe, drin, drendle…”—to find the word “dwindle.” My French suffers similarly but also rears its obnoxious Gallic head at the most inopportune times. On the phone with my mother I can’t find the words to say, “You’re being ridiculous,” so I’m forced to pronounce, “N’importe quoi,” even though her Anglophone brain will certainly not understand. And likewise I’m finding it difficult to find the proper English words to explain my dislike for Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, though I can say in French that it was her “déjanté” (possible translation: nutty?) tone that put me off.

Kinda funny then—in French, I would say “assez cocasse”—that this entire novel is about the feeling of unbelonging culturally and religiously told from the point of view of various Jamaican and Bangladeshi immigrant and immigrant children in London. The older generation, exemplified by the phony Muslim Samad who complains about his sons’ ungodliness while engaging in adultery with his red-headed English mistress, clashes with the younger generation, led by three British-born children of immigrants who don’t have time to care about their ancestors or culture or religion because they’re too busy trying to find cigarettes to smoke.

It’s hilarious at times, particularly when a certain character drops repartee that is just dripping with sarcasm and/or hypocrisy. It shines brightest when the characters aren’t aware how ridiculous they’re being. But after a certain point, Smith trips and falls into parody. It becomes so ridiculous that it’s impossible the characters don’t realize how ridiculous everything is.

Like learning a foreign language and like adapting to a new culture, writing a book that is comic yet not comical is a difficult balancing act. You must push envelopes but never blow them wide open. Unfortunately what Smith does in Act II of White Teeth, her debut novel, is tantamount to taking a bomb and exploding the envelope to smithereens. It’s over the top, and she loses the characters, the story, and, worst, the reader. Stories should be inventive and exciting and new, and Zadie Smith is certainly a welcome break in the somewhat stolid line of British literary tradition, but I also advocate mostly coloring inside the lines, simply moving envelopes and not destroying them, respecting the old ways while also giving heed to the new.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

20588698Blurb:

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told,” writes Lena Dunham, and it certainly takes guts to share the stories that make up her first book, Not That Kind of Girl. These are stories about getting your butt touched by your boss, about friendship and dieting (kind of) and having two existential crises before the age of 20. Stories about travel, both successful and less so, and about having the kind of sex where you feel like keeping your sneakers on in case you have to run away during the act. Stories about proving yourself to a room of 50-year-old men in Hollywood and showing up to “an outlandishly high-fashion event with the crustiest red nose you ever saw.” Fearless, smart, and as heartbreakingly honest as ever, Not That Kind of Girl establishes Lena Dunham as more than a hugely talented director, actress and producer-it announces her as a fresh and vibrant new literary voice.

Review:

For someone who has branded herself as “not that kind of girl” by titling her first book Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham is still a very specific kind of girl with a very specific kind of (girl) fan, just not that kind.

Lena Dunham is the kind of girl who can write a sentence that makes you guffaw, “That can’t possibly be true!” and yet you believe it. A sentence like this:

He called me terrible names when I broke up with him for a Puerto Rican named Joe with a tattoo that said mom in Comic Sans.

She’s the kind of girl who observes, reports, analyzes, and reanalyzes until a situation is both gravid and devoid of meaning.

She’s the kind of girl who’s self-indulgent, self-involved, yet self-aware, so you can’t fault her for it. The kind of girl with a lot of self, for better or worse.

And therein lies her ineffable charm. Lena is a self. A voice to be adored, hated, broadcasted, muted, screamed over, listened to raptly. A voice to be heard. It’s refreshing to hear someone so young believe and argue that she has something to say. This confidence in self thus leads to hordes of fans, other girls full of various selves they want to share but don’t exactly know where or how or even if they can, because it might be scary.

I just wish Lena had taken this platform that she has built and decorated and adorned with Emmys and haters galore by age 28 and said something more…relevant? It’s a haphazardly constructed book, assembled like a 3rd grader doing papier mâché for the first time: ideas glued together, but no idea quite full enough to stand alone, no idea quite properly connected to the one attached to it.

People who have big, bursting selves that they are eager to share with a world that is often not ready to receive them frequently become bloated on their own raucous tales. I am a listener. When I meet people, I say barely anything about myself and pepper my partner with questions. I am a listener, and I’m completely content living my life this way. But sometimes you meet people who take advantage of your proclivity for listening. Lena, I expect, is one such person. Sure, I agreed to read her book, which means I willingly consented to listening to the mundanities and brilliances of Lena Dunham for at least two hundred pages. But it was too much at times. I don’t want to hear about that one time at summer camp when you were 14 years old unless you were my 14-year-old cabin bunkmate during my 14-year-old summer at Camp Birch Trails and we’re reminiscing. And maybe not even then.

Midway through the book, tempted to skip another essay seemingly rehashing the same old topics that I stopped caring about one hundred pages ago, I asked myself: are there stories that simply don’t need to be told? As a lover of stories and storytelling, my knee-jerk response is to say no, loudly and declaratively. But I’m reconsidering. Not every story has some latent meaning, awaiting discovery and retrospective analysis decades later. Not every story deserves to be shouted from rooftops or graven on paper. Some stories are just things that happen. To us they’re important. We should keep them, love them, learn from them. And then we should pack them in boxes in the backs of our minds, mature and aware that they are simply some parts of our “selves” that we don’t need to share.

3 out of 5 stars