Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Rival Queens LGIf Shonda Rhimes were to write a book about Renaissance France, it would likely resemble The Rival Queens—a dramatic and almost soapy page-turner by Nancy Goldstone. I don’t mean this as a knock, but more as another case of truth being stranger than fiction.

The court of the Valois Kings was a treacherous place, rife with scheming, betrayals, love affairs, and murder. G.R.R. Martin has cited this era in France as a source of inspiration, and fans of his books (or of the Game of Thrones TV series) will recognize parallels and at least one major plot development.

The Rival Queens are Catherine de’ Medici and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois—two singular and fascinating women who both were queens of France. Their fractious relationship was par for the course in the House of Valois, which seemed to have nurtured few familial bonds. Catherine pitted her children against each other to the extent that they were, at times, in greater danger from one another than from their professed enemies.

Her oldest son, Francis I, was sickly and died not long after marrying Mary Queen of Scots. The younger brothers schemed and connived as they competed for the throne. Two of them succeeded to the crown, and Marguerite was married off to become Queen of Navarre. However, this made her position even more tenuous, and she had some close and harrowing escapes from assassins and kidnappers sent by her mother and her brother, King Henri III.

Goldstone felt that historians had been unkind to Marguerite and wanted to tell her story in a more sympathetic light. I must say that I came away with a real respect for this woman who thought fast under pressure, maneuvered through relentless threats, and somehow managed to survive. Also, unlike her mother, she was very popular with the French people who called her “Queen Margot.”

Goldstone zooms out to show how European rivalries and the rise of Protestantism fueled the wars at court. In addition to Mary Queen of Scots, both Elizabeth I of England and Phillip II of Spain appear as significant influences on French politics and diplomacy.

The book offers historical detail and insights into daily life, but its salacious tone reads more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a scholarly biography. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading Gregory. I enjoy her novels, but I know they are fiction. I find it disturbing, though, when “nonfiction” veers into unfounded supposition and sensationalism.

For example, without any cited source Goldstone credits Nostradamus as predicting “the tragic death of Princess Diana” and “the horror of 9/11.” Seriously? Which prophecies and which translations? This feels rather spurious and hokey. In particular, the 9/11 claim has repeatedly been proven to be a hoax—here I cite Snopes and LiveScience.

Goldstone is capable of much better than that and seems to have gotten a bit swept up by the melodrama of her material. I actually preferred her earlier work, Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, as that felt more weighty and academic, while still being so readable. However, I think that readers will take to this fictionesque style of writing—The Rival Queens really is hard to put down.

Overall, I recommend this book. It’s a riveting account of two extraordinary queens and of the machinations of a dynasty that is just as intriguing as the Tudors but has gotten much less attention.

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

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Jane's Fame LGIn 1820, three years after her death, Jane Austen’s publisher remaindered all copies of her books. She sunk into obscurity “out of print, out of demand, and almost out of mind.” Today, of course, Austen is a worldwide phenomenon.

Claire Harman offers an engrossing account of the erratic and somewhat inexorable rise of Austen’s popularity in Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Harman flavors her narrative with diverting bits of trivia, for example Rudyard Kipling was a fervent Janeite! He considered Austen’s gravesite at Winchester Cathedral to be the second holiest place in England after Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford.

Harman begins with a look at Jane the author. In particular, I was fascinated to learn that Austen devised a proto cut-and-paste approach to revision by pinning small paper cutouts with new wording over sections of a working draft.

Austen struggled, however, to get her works published. Ultimately she sold both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice at somewhat bargain rates just to see them in print. The success of these books allowed her to get a better deal for Mansfield Park, which financially was her most successful work, earning her £30 a year. Emma, however, sold the most copies on its initial run.

Tragically, it was just as Austen was gaining success and recognition—albeit anonymously as her works were published by “a Lady”—that she died. Her tombstone made no mention of her as an author.


An 1816 first edition of Emma.

An 1816 first edition of Emma.

During the nearly 13 years her books were out of print, copies were treasured and traded by a niche of faithful readers, including several luminaries of the literary world. Sir Walter Scott had the full set and read Pride and Prejudice at least three times. Other admirers included Robert Southey, Maria Edgeworth, Benjamin Disreali, Lord Tennyson, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—but not William Wordsworth because, according to Coleridge’s daughter, he had no sense of humor.

Both English and pirated translations of Austen’s novels were read in France, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and even in America. I was gobsmacked to learn that James Fenimore Cooper’s first novel was actually a reworking of Persuasion titled Precaution, which flopped.

In 1833, Austen’s books were reissued as part of low-cost series, Standard Novels, sort of the Penguin Classics of the day. These editions began to sell steadily, gaining steam as the Victorian age took hold. Interest in Austen the author also grew steadily, erupting by the 1870s into the cult of the “Divine Jane.” Noted literary critic Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, lampooned this as “Austenolatry”—a riff on “Bardolatry” the cult of Shakespeare. Not long after, another critic named George Saintsbury coined the term “Janeite,” still so popular today. At Winchester Cathedral, so many visitors turned up looking for Austen that her nephew and biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh erected a memorial plaque.

Janes Fame pb

During World War I, Austen’s novels were a favorite among British soldiers and were well stocked in the trenches. They were also prescribed reading material to the wounded for their soothing and “salubrious” effects. By the 1920s, a “Janeite cabal” ran the Royal Society of Literature which would brook no criticism of the author. Beyond these hallowed halls, Austen had also exploded into the mainstream, via magazine articles, compilations, decorative special editions, and Austenalia: sequels and continuations of her novels. There was also a clamor for her letters, juvenilia, portraits, and any other related memorabilia, all of which were unearthed and published.

Jane had her share of detractors, though. Ralph Waldo Emerson had found her to be without genius or wit—a startling and somewhat paradoxical appraisal, but then he was rather severe. Surprisingly, Henry James felt she was overrated. Mark Twain’s derision of Austen has long been celebrated by her detractors, but what I didn’t know is that Twain repeatedly tried to read her works.

Still, Austen continued to gather fans: W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, and even the crotchety Winston Churchill. Another unlikely candidate, Aldous Huxley, wrote the screenplay for the first film adaption of Pride and Prejudice in 1940.

Memorial plaque honoring Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

Memorial tablet honoring Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

There are so many other delicious tidbits, as Harman takes us through different film adaptations and pop-culture trends to the current online zeitgeist of fansites and blogs. But I don’t want to give away the too much of the book, which I highly recommend. Throughout, Harman manages to keep Jane very much in the present with anecdotes, family memories, quotes, and a clever musings as to how Austen would react to all this. Indeed, we all wonder and that’s part of what drives our Janeite mania.

Even after reading her novels, her letters, various biographies, and, yes, many of the Austenalia takeoffs—we still thirst for more of Jane Austen.

As Harman quotes Katherine Mansfield:

“The truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone—reading between the lines—has become the secret friend of their author.”

I read this book as part of the Austen in August annual reading event hosted by Roof Beam Reader. #AusteninAugustRBR

Worn Out With Civility at Mansfield Park

Jane Austen, Genius of Economic Game Theory?

How Did I Not Know About Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice?

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks, from Boring to Brilliant

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Mx3 is a pre-Halloween celebration of books about Murder, Monsters & Mayhem!

death in the city of lightDavid King’s true account of a serial killer who roamed Occupied Paris during World War II served up an Mx3 triple play: murders, a monster, and mayhem. “The Monster of rue La Sueur” is what the French press dubbed Dr. Marcel Petiot, a well-respected and charismatic physician who led a macabre double life.

Petiot was convicted of murdering 26 people and suspected of killing nearly 60. The total body count could not be confirmed because most of the victims were chopped up and later found scattered around the city.

The doctor had set up a SAW-esque torture chamber, fitted with large hanging hooks and also a sophisticated Lumvisor viewer, so he could watch his victims suffer a slow, confused death. King offers an interesting look at the emerging field of forensics, as the police tried to identify Petiot’s victims from a mound of smoldering body parts.

The mayhem of wartime Paris worked to the killer’s advantage. Chillingly, he would lure desperate refugees to his lair by the dark of night, offering a safe passage out of France. At that time, people often disappeared at the hands of the SS, so few questions were asked when they did. French detectives initially held back on their investigation, believing that they had stumbled onto the work of the Gestapo. Petiot managed to elude authorities for months during the chaos of the German evacuation, the Allied Invasion, the Liberation of Paris, and the subsequent purge of the French police in which the detectives on his case were arrested for collaborating during the war.

King imbues Death in the City of Light with a smoky, atmospheric look at life in Occupied Paris: shrouded street lamps, air raid sirens, food shortages, a thriving underworld, and growing distrust among neighbors. As such, this book reminded me of Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City.

The patient, determined French Police Chief Georges-Victor Massau came off much like the lead in a detective novel. Turns out, Massau was a great friend of mystery writer Georges Simenon and was in fact the inspiration for Chief Inspector Maigret.

2013MX3My one beef, however, is that some of the most spine-tingling and conclusive revelations came in the Epilogue.

King dwells on the sensational trial, but relegates the harrowing, firsthand account of the only victim who escaped to the endnotes.

Halloween Reads on Word Hits:

Join Us for a Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read

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“While oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if
compassion is a form of love.”
—Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

YMaF paperbackMann Gulch, Storm King Mountain, and now, Yarnell Hill. Oh, it was awful to learn about the loss of those 19 brave Hotshot firefighters from Prescott, Arizona. It will be a while before investigators fully understand this tragedy, but the takeaway is that wild fires are erratic and unpredictable. So much so that even the most experienced and elite crews are risking their lives each time they head out to the fire line.

For those looking for some understanding, I highly recommend Young Men and Fire (YM&F), Norman Maclean’s brilliant, wonderfully written account of the Mann Gulch Fire which killed 13 men in 1949. Maclean, who also wrote A River Runs Through It, did not live to see YM&F win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Not only is this a thoroughly researched and fascinating investigative report, but the book is also an eloquent, moving rumination of an aged man facing mortality:

“It was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

By odd coincidence, I was reading Young Men and Fire back in the summer of 1994, when 14 men and women were killed fighting a fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. As in Mann Gulch, these firefighters were confronted with flames that suddenly changed direction and began racing uphill towards them. Unlike people (especially those wearing bulky protective suits and carrying heavy gear), fire typically moves faster going uphill than downhill.

Maclean’s son John wrote about this second tragedy in Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. While it’s not the elegiac masterpiece of YM&F, John Maclean’s book is a compelling, page-turning read in the vein of A Perfect Storm. The younger Maclean shows how several seemingly minor human errors amassed together, leading the firefighting crew into an inescapable deathtrap. The snap of an American flag shifting into northwest wind (as noted by a National Weather Service forecaster) turns out to have ominous portent.

Usually I pass along books, but this hardcover I've kept.

Usually I pass along books,
but this hardcover I’ve kept.

Like those fires, early reports are that the Yarnell Hill fire took a 180-degree change in direction. Indeed the last photo taken by one of the Hotshots does not herald danger, but shows the men atop a ridgeline at a safe distance from the burn.

I’m ready for a reread of both books, as I try to come to terms with yet another group of promising, vibrant young people sacrificed in their prime. Thoughts and prayers of sympathy for their families and for the community of Prescott.

Meanwhile, I feel an immense gratitude and respect for those incredibly brave men and women, heroes, out trying to tame so many wildfires during this drought-ridden summer of record heat.

I think of Norman Maclean’s words, as I salute them:

“It is very important to a lot of people to make unmistakably clear to themselves and to the universe that they love the universe but are not intimidated by it and will not be shaken by it, no matter what it has in store.”

Young Men and Fire, University of Chicago Press

Young Men and Fire (Wikipedia)

The Mann Gulch Fire (Wikipedia)

Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, official site

The Storm King Mountain or South Canyon  Fire (Wikipedia)

Loss of 19 Firefighters in Arizona Blaze (CNN)

Last Photo Taken of/by Prescott Hotshots

How You Can Help the Families of the Fallen Prescott Firefighters

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Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Thomas Jefferson,
by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

I recently got some fascinating new insights into the Declaration of Independence through Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson was chosen as author by default. He was the third choice, actually. The drafting committee wanted Benjamin Franklin, who was already rather a big-name celebrity in America as well as in England. But Franklin declined, saying he hated writing for a committee.

They turned next to John Adams, a fiery orator for ‘the Cause’ in the Continental Congress. But Adams recused himself, concerned that his vocalizing had caused him to be seen as a ‘radical.’ Adams wisely knew that they needed someone who was seen as a moderate to sway those who still hoped for a reconciliation with the Crown.

At the time the members of the Declaration’s drafting Committee of Five did not realize the importance of the project. Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and even Jefferson were each anxious to return to their home states, for the debates over state constitutions. These negotiations were considered to be the real grass-roots action. As Jefferson holed up in Philadelphia laboring over the Declaration, he yearned to be at the Virginia General Assembly.

Still, Jefferson poured his heart and soul into the Declaration of Independence, creating what was not only an historic legal document, but also a masterpiece of writing. The second sentence has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” by literary theorists.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

At the time, however, Jefferson’s genius wasn’t quite recognized and his opus was heatedly critiqued and edited by the Continental Congress. Jefferson “sat silently and sullenly throughout the debate,” which sounds a bit like the writer’s workshop from hell. “At one point, Franklin leaned over to console him, reminding Jefferson that this was the reason he never wrote anything that would be edited by a committee.” Ultimately, several large sections were cut, and it was this revised version that was printed and circulated throughout the country.

Ellis points out that almost more than the existence of the Declaration itself, Jefferson’s famous closing words, “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” became a rallying cry and a pledge that spurred on the revolution.

Still, Jefferson became a rather obsessed with his original draft. “He devoted considerable energy to making copies of his unedited version of the document, restoring the sections deleted by the congress, placing their revisions in the margins so as to differentiate his language from the published version.”  While he sounds like an editor’s nightmare (from my experience at magazines, it’s usually the writers who resist editing that need it the most), the congress took out some very key elements.

First, they deleted all references to slavery and also to Jefferson’s proposal to end the slave trade, which he roundaboutly blamed on George III. This ominous omission still haunts us today. They also cut a thorough anti-king argument which Jefferson modeled after the British Declaration of Rights, a seminal act which set precedent by limiting the Crown’s power, reinforcing Parliament’s authority, and outlining the rights of petition and free speech during England’s Glorious Revolution. This seems a most genius way for Jefferson to use Parliament’s own words and laws to reinforce the Americans’ rights.

They also rejected Jefferson’s doctrine of “expatriation,” in which he theorized the that since the colonists had come to America “at the expense of our own blood and treasure” (with no financial or other support of Great Britain), they were not beholden to that country. There were several other deletions including a tirade against George III for sending mercenaries to attack the colonists. In all, I tend to agree with Jefferson on many of his points. Then again, brevity is also important in these matters, especially when copies were made by hand. You can read Jefferson’s unedited version here.

revolutionary_summerEvery writer has known that mixed emotional jumble of having hard-wrought words deleted or rearranged. Often, however, a writer can find a strange satisfaction and even appreciation in this transformation. Not so for Jefferson. As he grew old and the country he helped found took shape, he grew less fixated on his version of the Declaration but never really got over it.

Ellis, however, defends Jefferson on this point. “At that time, he came off as a rather self-absorbed young man, though his early recognition that the language of the Declaration mattered a great deal proved to be prescient.”

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, by Joseph J. Ellis

The U.S. Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson

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revolutionary_summerI really enjoyed Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph J. Ellis. This book offers several fascinating and new (to me) insights on that seminal time frame from May to October of 1776, which Ellis calls “the crescendo moment” in American History.

Ellis puts a somewhat sympathetic focus on General William Howe. Ellis explains the thought process behind Howe’s cautious military strategy, particularly his aspirations of diplomacy. Rather than crush the rebellion, Howe wanted to return to Britain having brought the Americans back into the fold. He believed, as did many of his countrymen, that the cry for independence came from a loud minority and not from the general American public. This was reinforced by the welcome he got when he landed on Long Island, then the largest concentration (with New York) of loyalists to the crown. Howe’s strategy was to demonstrate his martial dominance, thus bringing the Americans to their senses, and then negotiate peace with them. He had several opportunities early on to end the war with a decisive blow, but held back. Ellis adds a whole new intrigue to the dance between Howe and Washington, as we see each misinterpreting the other’s motives and moves.

Ellis also seeks to dispel the myth of the Minutemen, whom fables (and even schoolbooks) have credited with beating the British. In fact, these state militias were just that … only in for a minute. They were the last to show for battle and the first to desert. Washington complained to John Hancock, “great numbers of them have gone off, in some cases by whole Regiments.”

Joseph J. EllisInstead, it was the trudging, poorly-rationed regulars of Washington’s Continental Army, who fought the hardest and who kept up the battle, which became a drawn-out war of attrition. The states preferred to outfit their own militias, or Minutemen, rather than supply a unified army. This was partially due to regional loyalties, the beginnings of the state vs federal clash, and also because “the very idea of a robust Continental Army was generally regarded as an American version of the British Army.” This mistrust promoted word-of-mouth praise of Minutemen accomplishments. The press happily went along and reinforced this.

Indeed, I was a bit shocked to discover how controlled and complicit the press was in furthering “the Cause.” While they prominently reported unfavorable news about Howe and the British, they kept silent on Washington’s dramatic setbacks. “Most of the population remained ignorant that the Continental Army had suffered any kind of defeat at all … American newspapers did not report it.” Very interesting considering that “freedom of the press” would ultimately be such a cornerstone of our constitution.

Ellis also spends a great deal of time on the Dickenson Draft, the first outline of the Articles of Confederation. Already there are kernels of unrest between those who would later become federalists or states’ rights advocates. And already there is a giant schism between the north and the south over slavery, so much so that southern states threatened “an End of the Confederation.”

founding_brothersOverall, Ellis kept me thinking and rethinking a period which I have read so much about. He peppers his arguments with erudite allusions to Aquinas, Thebes, Tolstoy, the Peloponnesian Wars, and such comparisons as Howe to Hannibal and John Adams to Cicero.

I highly recommend Revolutionary Summer! A stirring read with so much information for such a short book (only 185 pages). Those who don’t normally read historical non-fiction will be quickly drawn in, and history buffs will find several new aspects to consider. Finally, I also highly recommend Ellis’s book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Revolutionary Summer (Knopf)

Joseph J. Ellis official website

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Jane Austen Game TheoristWe all know that reading Jane Austen is good for you. Scientists at Stanford proved this last fall with MRI scans that showed reading Austen’s work boosted neural activity and even increased blood flow to the brain. Now, it turns out, we Janeites have also been unwittingly indulging in sophisticated Game Theory Economics.

Yes, Game Theory—the very discipline which garnered John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) the Nobel Prize in Ecnomics.

UCLA professor Michael Suk-Young Chwe argues this in his new book, Jane Austen Game Theorist.

Instead of bothering with chalk boards and lengthy variable-laden formulas, Austen imparts economic wisdom via the subtext of Marianne Dashwood’s swoons—indeed, Chwe cites this as an example. Who knew that while I was reading about Fanny Price deciding which necklace to wear, I was actually engaging in “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation.”

As I reread Pride and Prejudice for the 200th Anniversary, I will be subconsciously learning the mathematical analysis of strategic thinking. Just like when moms puree broccoli to hide in brownies. And all this time I thought I hated math.

Seriously though, tremendous kudos to Chwe for giving us yet another way to examine Austen’s work. If more economists read Austen, perhaps we could finally settle the debate over the Laffer Curve.

Chwe’s emphasis, however, is more on the political ramifications of Austen’s strategic thinking, and I must say I am fascinated by his approach. According to Chwe, Jane’s observations and theories can be applied to the Cold War stalemate, as well as to military mistakes made in both Vietnam and Iraq. And that’s just what I have gleaned from reviews and excerpts … I cannot wait to actually get my hands on this book!

Janeites, this would be a perfect pick for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013.

All this does make me feel better about myself, mathematically speaking. Even though I struggled with trigonometry in high school, I made it through each of Austen’s books twice so I must have actually been a math prodigy. I’m also feeling rather smug about opting out of ‘Intro to Economics’ in college for a course that compared Northanger Abbey to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (No joke—great class!)

One can’t help but feel bad for those poor souls who actually studied economics. Why bother with the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times when you can just read Emma? Or Jane Austen, Game Theorist?

Given that prominent economists like Thomas Schelling (Nobel 2005) endorse this book, I do wonder if the all-knowing Jane also offers clues as to how I should invest my IRA? I will have to keep this in mind as I dig into Jane Austen, Game Theorist, and when I reread Persuasion.

Economics, Game Theory, and Jane Austen via PBS NewsHour

Game Theory: Jane Austen Had it First via The New York Times

More Austen on WordHits…

The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks: Boring to Brilliant

How Did I Not Know about Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

So Glad Jane Austen Made Me Do It

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Spoiler Alert: This Book Has No Ending

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