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: 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

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: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

10847Blurb:

Brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty insist they were commanded to kill by God. Krakauer’s investigation is a meticulously researched, bone-chilling narrative of polygamy, savage violence and unyielding faith: an incisive, gripping work of non-fiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behaviour.

Review:

I find it difficult to talk about religion because it’s forbidden to call it into question without being labeled “amoral” or quite simply just without hurting other people’s feelings. But this inability to discuss it has led to a lot of crimes committed in the name of God, and I think, like everything, to create positive change, religion needs to be interrogated. But as Jon Krakauer exposes in his exploration of Mormonism Under the Banner of Heaven, religion refuses any attempt at interrogation, hiding itself behind the specter of “faith.”

Faith. Impossible to understand because when you ask any questions about it, someone will respond that you merely “have to have faith.” How can you evaluate something that can’t be seen or heard or touched but merely felt? Krakauer does so by going back to the very beginnings of the Mormon faith, telling the story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets from God unearthed in Upstate New York to Brigham Young and his bloody war against US domination. At the same time he intersperses anecdotes from modern Mormons, particularly from the Fundamentalist sect, who believe, on faith, all sorts of weird things. A common belief among these men (they’re always men; since the Church only allowed black priests in 1978, I think sexual equality won’t arrive for quite some time) is that they all happen to be God’s one and only unique prophet who can interpret his word on Earth.

This story is a wild ride, incredibly readable despite dealing in straight fact, simply because for any non-Mormon and particularly for any non-“faith”-y person, it’s obvious, hilariously so, how ridiculous this religion can be. For example, if you look at historical documentation surrounding Mormonism, Joseph Smith’s divine proclamation supporting polygamy is not divine so much as he wanted a godly excuse for his earthly philandering ways. Celestial marriage, as the Mormons call it, has been the most divisive issue in the Church ever since, pretty funny considering it was created because the Church’s founder just couldn’t keep it in his pants.

Another surprising thing I learned from this book: Mormonism was born in blood. Lots of it. The Western world loves to call out Muslims as bloodthirsty barbarians, but look no farther than the late 1800s in Utah, where Mormons murdered hundreds of “Gentiles” sometimes for political posturing, sometimes just because.

If you’re at all interested in Mormonism, that uniquely American brand of faith which, by the by, is also one of the fastest growing religions on the planet, Under the Banner of Heaven is a terrific entry. For the faith or the faithless, there is something here. I finished it with a greater understanding of Mormon history but still no appreciation as to why some people are so compelled to believe. And for once, I’m okay not knowing, cognizant that “knowing” would mean “unknowing” almost everything else.

4 stars out of 5

Review: Black Boy by Richard Wright

6582864Blurb:

Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.

Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.

Review:

Black Boy is a deeply horrifying and intelligent memoir from Richard Wright, a Mississippi black boy who became so much more than black boys were supposed to become. His earliest memories on a Southern plantation and the tough streets of Memphis become fantastic stories that he, unfortunately, had to live.

Richard is different, who knows why, but he’s different. All the black families living on his street are hungry, but Richard wonders why he’s hungry. Why can’t his mother, a cook at a restaurant serving heaping plates to white customers, give him enough to eat? He’s too young to understand, but this inquisitive behavior will follow him through various tragedies.

At the age of twelve, before I had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.

At its core, the memoir is a book about a boy becoming a man. But Richard is a black boy who becomes a black man, and so instead of your basic coming-of-age story, you have a story about a boy coming of age in a society that hates him. And because Richard is so smart, he tries to learn why it hates him. This line of questioning is extraordinary given that the conditions of black people in Jim Crow South are almost like those of people living in pre-agricultural societies: they are so consumed with fulfilling basic human needs (the only constant through Richard’s numerous moves across the South is an everlasting hunger), that no time remains for them to develop things of worth and permanence.

Richard discovers the complicity of black people in their own subjugation. Indeed, this book is rarely about the oppressors, about the white people pushing the heads of black people into the ground. It’s about a culture where a white man doesn’t even have to push a black man down: he’s already lying there, starved and beaten. For the beginning of his life, white people are a hazy specter in Richard’s world. The racism of Richard’s time is so devastating and so complete because another race barely even needs to exist to perpetuate it. Almost every one of Richard’s friends refuses to shake the status quo, indeed sometimes doesn’t realize there’s a status quo to be shook.

But really what I learned from Richard’s wonderful evolution from a poor Mississippi boy with no schooling to a published Chicagoan author is the importance of compassion for others whose lives we cannot imagine. In the North Richard works as a dishwasher in a restaurant with a bunch of young white girls waitressing. They are not ill intentioned, but still they will never understand him, will never even seek to understand him, and will thus simply add to a culture that denies him basic personhood. This is bad. Imagining others is important. And that’s why Black Boy was so thrilling to me. Here is a man with a life story that I will literally never be able to fathom. And yet, he’s trying. He’s trying to make me fathom it, with every brilliant thought and sentence he’s got.

I fail. I cannot imagine living as a black boy in Mississippi in the 1910s. But gosh did this book get me close. And getting closer is what the world needs.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Marie-Antoinette by Stefan Zweig

1320141Blurb:

Life at the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette has long captivated readers, drawn by accounts of the intrigues and pageantry that came to such a sudden and unexpected end. Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette is a dramatic account of the guillotine’s most famous victim, from the time when as a fourteen-year-old she took Versailles by storm, to her frustrations with her aloof husband, her passionate love affair with the Swedish Count von Fersen, and ultimately to the chaos of the French Revolution and the savagery of the Terror. An impassioned narrative, Zweig’s biography focuses on the human emotions of the participants and victims of the French Revolution, making it both an engrossingly compelling read and a sweeping and informative history.

Review:

What is the sum of a life? The manner in which an individual toiled away the majority of her living hours, the way history chooses to remember her, or how she approaches her final days, trying to live while knowing all that awaits her is death? In evaluating the sum of Marie-Antoinette’s life, the answer to this question is critical. Her rich story has been combed over by many a magnifying glass both during and after her reign as Queen of France, and it’s so full of anomalies that more than two centuries later, it’s still impossible to fully appreciate this historical figure, icon of an era, both vixen and victim. Stefan Zweig, however, in this seminal biography, does his best. In a way he seems to acknowledge the impossibility of it by noting the existence of several distinct Marie-Antoinette’s, one for each distinct epoch of history she occupied in her abridged life of 37 years.

He begins with Marie-Antoinette’s voyage to France at the age of 14 to unite the feuding Bourbon and Habsburg crowns. Married to the impotent, indecisive, and altogether unroyal dauphin—soon-to-be Louis XVI, who will keep the most hilarious personal journal of all-time: his entry on July 14, 1789, the day the Parisians take the Bastille and kick off the Revolution reads, “Rien,” that is, “Nothing”—Marie-Antoinette tries to lose herself in a world of superficiality. Gambling, dances, dresses, and theatre occupy her first decade in France. She is the symbol of the era of rococo, the brilliant zenith of an age of luxury and carelessness birthed by Louis XIV. From Versailles she idles away her days, much to the chagrin of her mother, Empress Marie-Thérèse of Austria, who pleads her daughter for political seriousness. Marie-Antoinette responds, “Que me veut-elle? J’ai peur de m’ennuyer,” her words a motto for the era (“What does she want from me? I’m scared of being bored.”).

But the tableau darkens. For Marie-Antoinette, home, that is, Versailles, will soon become a second-rate palace in Paris, which will become a guarded tower in prison, which will become a single jail cell, which will become an unmarked grave. She doesn’t know it, but we and Stefan Zweig do, which makes her various inadequacies in the years leading to the Revolution, evinced in fantastically entertaining affairs like “L’affaire du collier,” where she’s blamed for the theft of a diamond necklace, so vexing. A girl who does everything to eschew seriousness will be killed for it. And we read on…

Finally, Marie-Antoinette realizes her mistakes and, late in the game, seems ready to play. The rules have changed, however. Blood and terror rule in Paris. The Queen of France is now “Madame Déficit.” It’s even a greater shame, then, that right when Marie-Antoinette finds herself a meaningful life with two children and a Swedish lover, her life is certainly over.

Zweig details this extreme love story and the incredible inner strength Marie-Antoinette demonstrates until her final step on the platform of the guillotine with extraordinary psychological and personal detail. Unlike other biographers, Zweig does not content himself in reciting facts; he is there to unpack and repackage this ill-fated queen’s very essence. His approach is somewhat suspect, based both on personal correspondence discovered in the Austrian archives and the records of her Swedish lover and the Freudian insights popular in Zweig’s time. But it’s so carefully researched, so lovingly researched, that it feels infallible.

Lately I’ve been wondering where humans find strength to survive in trying times. Where Marie-Antoinette found hers is a mystery: probably a combination between love for her family and friends and an ingrained, inborn belief that she was divinely royal. Has there ever been such a life? Such a magnificent story? Here Zweig recounts the life of a relic, the last and most gleaming example of an era, left to rot, headless, in an unmarked grave. But what Marie-Antoinette gives us, those who ponder her fate centuries later, is the possibility to remember her, marvel over her, and adopt some of the fortitude and wisdom with which she faced her final days.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox

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Blurb:

When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape.

Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.

Review:

Although I normally find it reductive or even counterproductive to proclaim how far feminism has come in mere centuries when things like this still exist, after finishing Julia Fox’s biography of two Spanish queens–Juana the Mad and Katherine of Aragon–I have to say, oh my GOSH, isn’t it great how far feminism has come in mere centuries?

Because these women suffered. And even though sometimes their suffering equated to “I might have to sell my bejeweled golden plate because my prince husband widowed me and now my father-in-law, the King of England, won’t pay for new dresses (#royalproblems),” they still suffered acutely simply because of their gender. But as I’ve observed again and again in pre-feminist times, women found subtle ways to fight back.

By examining the cases of these two sisters—the younger daughters of famous Spanish power couple Ferdinand and Isabella—we find many of the textbook sexist tactics used to deny women their personhood. From birth, princesses are told they ought to have been princes, a nasty bit of belittling caused by ridiculous male primogeniture laws. But no matter, princesses can also serve the kingdom by marrying foreign princes. They are raised as such, to recognize that their supreme role is to move to a faraway land, sometimes as young as 14, to marry a man, sometimes much older, that they’ve never met, and to abandon their home country likely forever and always.

It stretches the limits of my imagination to even consider that: packing up at age 14 saying goodbyes that will last forever.

Once married, the women must breed breed breed. Produce as many princes and princesses for the kingdom; princes are, of course, de rigueur, a job that Queen Juana does magnificently well as the consort in Burgundy and a job that Queen Katherine fails at miserably. The queens must watch as their husband inevitably chooses one of their ladies to be his mistress and must pretend not to be offended by any bastard children given titles.

Sometimes, if all the boys in the family happen to die (literally the WORST thing these people could imagine happening in the entire UNIVERSE—European royals of the sixteenth century are wonderfully dramatic), a queen will inherit actual power. Normally, however, one of her own relations—a male cousin, a father, even her own son—will attempt to wrench control of the power from her, as happens in the case of Juana, who is imprisoned and labeled “loca” to invalidate her claim to the crown. Calling a woman crazy to deny her autonomy…Sexist Playbook Rule #1, although the Hapsburg kings were not the first to use it nor would they be the last.

There’s a terrible amount of death. Dozens of miscarriages, perfectly healthy bridegrooms keeling over in under a week, heads rolling for questionable allegations of treason. Widowed queens marry their widower nephews. This time period is literally incomprehensible to me. Again and again throughout the story of these two tragic Spanish queens, I had to stop to wonder, “Why the hell did these people care? Who cares about ruling Castile when you already rule half of Spain, Navarre, Sicily, and Naples? WHY?”

This time period is incomprehensible to me, not only in terms of outdated gender ideologies but governmental and religious ideologies as well. It’s frustrating and confusing and crazy stupid fascinating, and I was so glad to try to understand it (for I will never actually understand it) via the stories of these two regal but oh-so-very-doomed women.

4 out of 5 stars