Happy Birthday, Anne!

June 20, 2008

Anne of Green Gables was published this month 100 years ago, and today (June 20) is actually the very day that L.M. Montgomery held the newly-published book in her hand.  Kate has an excellent post on this momentous day.

Anne of Green Gables was and is an important book to me.  Anne truly is immortal, and I am glad that I can honor the publication of this classic.

Happy Birthday, Anne.  You haven’t aged a day.


Why Mermaids Sing: Murder and John Donne

June 19, 2008

In 1811 London, someone is brutally killing young men and displaying the bodies in prominent places where they will be found quickly and attract much notice.  Never fear, for Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is on the case. It is obvious that the murders are connected based on items left on each body and the manner of death, and St. Cyr quickly tracks down the significance of the items to a John Donne poem.  What is less obvious is why the murders are connected.  St. Cyr along with a quirky cast of characters must figure out this connection before more murders occur.  At the same time, his mistress is acting mysterious and facing demons of her own and his relationship with his father continues to be strained.

Why Mermaids Sing is C.S. Harris’ third installment in her Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series.  I read the first book, What Angels Fear, a few years ago and stumbled across the sequels recently.  I remember liking the first book a lot.  I checked out the second and the third book in the series, but I grabbed the wrong one and read the third one first.  After reading the third one, I don’t think I’m going to go back and read the second one.

This book was an extremely quick read.  I had read 100 pages before I even realized it and finished it in about 4 hours.  It’s a good beach read.  In some ways the plot was too elegantly handled.  There is a grittiness to the situations faced and the characters themselves.  They are all haunted and scarred in ways visible and invisible, and the connection between the murdered sons is quite gruesome, but it’s almost easy to overlook because of the elegance of the novel.  Harris has a Ph.D in history, and her details and depiction of the beliefs and mores of the time are great.

This book won’t change your world, but it is a good, quick read if you like Regency or period murder mysteries.  In a lot of ways, it reminded me of From Hell and other books dealing with Jack the Ripper (even though they are set in the later Victorian era).

Also recommended:  The Alienist (Carr)

The Outlaw Demon Wails: Rachel Morgan #6

June 13, 2008

The Outlaw Demon Wails is Kim Harrison’s 6th and most recent book in the Rachel Morgan series.  I’m caught up!  In book 6, Rachel is still reeling from Kisten’s death, and she and Ivy are feverishly trying to solve his murder.  She also discovers even more secrets about her family, including revelations about her father.  In order to help elves Ceri and Quen, Rachel agrees to a dangerous mission to the ever-after to retrieve an important sample from the demons for Trent Kalamack.  Oh, and did I mention that a certain demon is actively trying to kill her?  Rachel manages to muddle through, but what she learns about herself and the origin of some of her abilities will cause her to reassess everything.

I liked this book a lot and think it may be the best on in the series so far.  There’s a lot going on in it as usual, but it moved quickly.  I loved the development of Rachel’s mother’s character.  She is a great character, and I hope future books have more of her.  I still wish that Rachel wasn’t quite so unforgiving of Trent.  It’s a little bizarre that she has managed to come to terms and accept her growing use of demon magic and realizing that things aren’t black and white, but she stubbornly sees him as evil.  Because I’ve never been a big fan of the Ivy/Rachel…relationship?, I was glad to see it somewhat resolved 

Middlesex: Neither one nor the other but in between and both

June 11, 2008

My book club picked Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex for our June meeting.  I had read it before, but it had been 5 years, so it was good to re-read it. 

Middlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides who discovers at age 14 that she is a hermaphrodite or intersexed (I believe this is the preferred term).  When she was born, she appeared to be a girl, and through a series of missed opportunities, her condition remained hidden for years.  Thus, she was raised as a girl.  Once she enters puberty, however, she is perplexed to discover that she is not only NOT developing like other girls but also having romantic feelings for girls.  An accident leads to a trip to the emergency room where her condition is finally revealed.  Genetic testing indicates that Callie is in fact genetically a boy.  The doctor urges Callie to continue living as a girl, believing that nurture has overpowered nature.  Callie realizes that this is false, and Callie becomes Cal. 

It may seem that I just gave away the plot of the book but dear reader, I assure you that I haven’t.  You know from the beginning that Calliope is a hermaphrodite and in a way, Calliope’s story isn’t really the main story.  The main story could be the experience of his/her Greek grandparents in Turkey and their immigration to the United States in the 20s.  It could be the story of her parents growing up in the 30s and 40s, their developing relationship and subsequent life together.  It could be the story of Detroit over a 60-year period.  It’s a story about family.  It’s a story about genetics and what we inherit.  It’s a story about fate or destiny vs. free will.  It’s a story about geography as place.  It’s a story about women’s roles, cultural identity and what we hide and what we reveal. In short, there is so much going on in this book that it would be impossible to neatly summarize all the plot elements.

I don’t think I enjoyed this book when I read it 5 years ago, but I really enjoyed it the second time around.  I wonder how much of that is due to being 5 years older and having a different perspective than I did as a 25-year-old.  This book is especially well-suited for a book club because it is so deep and rich that it benefits from discussion, and I liked it even more after my book club met to discuss it.  I’m still turning bits of it around in my head days later.

 Callie’s hermaphroditism (is that a word?) is the result of a recessive genetic mutation on the 5th chromosome.  Each of her parents provided the gene, so the theme of genetic fate is prominent.  The way Cal presents his history starting with his grandparents, it is clear that he believes he was fated to be a hermaphrodite.  But I wonder if this is Cal’s opinion revisiting his life and trying to make some sense, some reason for why he was born this way.  He appears to view his intersexuality as neither good nor bad but something that just is.  It’s just how he was born and how the genetic cards were dealt (gambling and games of chance are another big theme).  It’s interesting because from all that I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel (an authoritative source!), many intersexed individuals pick their gender and will undergo surgery in order to become physically the gender they most identify with.  Cal remains in a sort of limbo.  He identifies as a man, but he also still retains feminine traits.  He is lonely, yet he knows that his status dooms many relationships.  It’s like he purposely chooses to remain middlesexed.  It perplexes me a bit.  One theory proposed by my book club was that he doesn’t want to lose the feminine perspective.

It is interesting to ponder what makes us a man or a woman.  Is it our genes or is it how we are raised?  I suspect it’s more nature than nurture. But it’s also cultural.  We seem to have a need as humans for defined genders.  I’m a woman or I’m a man, and being unable to categorize someone so neatly results in cognitive dissonance.  But who hasn’t felt other than their defined gender at times?  I suspect that gender identity is more fluid than we might think.  I was not a tomboy as a child.  I wore dresses, played with dolls and fantasized about getting married and having babies.  But it’s funny because I often feel less feminine, less like a girl than my friends seem to be.  I often feel very masculine at work and believe that I am perceived as not very feminine.  However, I have a boss who can make me feel like a girl.  He and I don’t communicate well sometimes, and when I talk to him about it, I find that I am suddenly talking about feelings and girly things.  

Some of the history about Detroit in the book surprised me, and I’m going to need to do a little research.  Is it possible that the Detroit Riots were a sort of second American Revolution?  Unfortunately, we never reached that part of the 20th century in American history class in high school.     

I highly recommend this novel.  It is an American classic.

Also recommended:

  • One Hundred years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez).  It has a similar mythic feel as Middlesex, and happily, it is our next book club read as well. 

Four Queens: Not Just Pretty Faces

June 6, 2008

Nancy Goldstone’s book Four Queens was an interesting book to read on the heels of Herman’s Sex with the Queen.  Goldstone’s book examines the lives of Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia and Beatrice, daughters of the Count of Provence and the contribution they made to European politics in the 13th century by marrying extremely well, with each becoming a queen.  Marguerite married King Louis IX (later “Saint Louis”) of France.  Eleanor married Henry III of England.  Sanchia married Henry’s brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall who later became the King of Germany.  Beatrice inherited Provence after her father’s death (in accordance with Provencal tradition) and married Louis IX’s brother Charles who later became King of Sicily.   

These four women hailed from a fairly insignificant and less prosperous county in France that became strategically important due to international politics of the time:  it bordered Toulouse, long a thorn in the French king’s side as well as Saxony, a desirable neighbor.  These sisters were not only beautiful but also well-educated, a rarity for women in that time.  It was said that their mother referred to them as her “boys” and had them educated thusly.  As a result, these women were able to become major players on the world stage.

Goldstone has a deft touch with her material.  Biographies and histories can be a bit dry by nature, but Goldstone manages to imbue the sisters with personalities, making them come alive.  I appreciate that these women’s stories have been told.  Their story would be inspiring enough due to the fact these four women were politically active and strong rulers, but they were also surrounded by other very strong, in some cases domineering women.  Marguerite’s mother-in-law was Blanche of Castile, a woman who ruled France before and after her son came of age and most definitely did not want to cut the apron strings.  Eleanor’s mother-in-law Isabella, former Queen of England, married the son of an old lover (who was meant for her daughter) in France and continued to scheme against the French royal family for years (she had an ancient feud with Queen Blanche).  The sisters’ own mother was forceful and an able ruler of Provence.  

The women lived during a volatile period of time in Europe.  Henry III was the son of John, infamous for necessitating the creation of the Magna Carta.  Henry’s rule was marked by agitation and conflict with the barons and constant swearing and repealing of oaths governing his powers.  Louis IX would have made an excellent monk and spent enormous sums of money and the lives of thousands of men to fulfill his need to free Jerusalem with a crusade.  As a result, their stories are a wonderfully sudsy soap opera containing sibling rivalry, religous fervor, rebellion, nepotism, war and conspiracy.

While the women in Goldstone’s book were typically competent and strong, the men were not as impressive.  Louis tries hard but is more interested in religion than kingship.  Henry means well but has little aptitude for politics or governance. His brother Richard neglects his wife and believes HE would make a better king than his brother.  Charles, Beatrice’s husband, earns the dislike of his Provencal subjects and breaks promise after promise on his quest for power.   The popes are ridiculously corrupt.  The difference between the men and women is so pronounced that I wonder if Goldstone has exaggerated any of the characteristics in order to make the men seem as incompetent or undependable as possible while depicting the women as more competent and dependable. 

But that isn’t to say that the women were perfect.  Goldstone’s work doesn’t gloss over their defects or mistakes. Marguerite and Eleanor disapprove of Beatrice’s inheritance of Provence and pettily emphasize how they are queens and she is not, an insult Beatrice never forgets.  Eleanor, while strong, does not have the political aptitude she thinks she does and makes many mistakes, becoming hated by her subjects and estranged from her son.   Despite having so much power and influence, the sisters’ stories are sad in many ways.  They have this in common with Herman’s depiction of what life was like for a queen.

I liked this book.  I didn’t like it as much while I was reading it, but after I’ve reflected on it, it impresses me much more than I thought it did.  The telling of the story is great, but Goldstone had fantastic material with which to work:  Four sisters from a fairly insignificant family who all became queens and were literate and strong as well.  What a story!  Goldstone told each woman’s story in separate chapters, which worked well to allow the reader to focus on one woman at a time, but it occasinally frustrated me when periods of time overlapped and I had to remember who was doing what when.  Goldstone also had no footnotes and few citations in the book, making me wonder how many of the conclusions she drew and suppositions she made had any basis in fact.

Overall, though, it was an intersting book about a unique, interesting family.

Also recommended: 

  • The Queens of England (Norah Lofts)
  • Jean Plaidy’s Plantagenet series.  She also has series on the Tudors, Georgians, Stuarts and Queens of England.  Engrossing historical fiction.

Sex with the Queen: Infidelity Most Royal

June 2, 2008

Sex with the Queen:  900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics is Eleanor Herman’s follow-up to Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adulter, Power, Rivalry and Revenge.  The latter book dealt with the (not very glamorous) life of a royal mistress or courtesan while the former deals with, obviously, the queen’s sex life.   While the usual suspects like Catherine the Great, Diana, Princess of Wales and Anne Boleyn are represented, Herman also focuses on other, less well-known royals of Spain, Denmark, England, Portugal and France.  The book is organized chronologically, beginning with queens in the medieval period and ends with the 20th century.  A good deal of time is spent on the period of time between 1500-1900.   While Herman presents queenly sexual adventures, she attempts early on to establish the thesis that being a royal bride and consort wasn’t the great honor it would appear since queens often had to put up with hideous, occasionally insane or troubled if not cruel spouses in order to fulfill their primary duty of royal womb and were often driven to find love where they could.  The reader is meant to have some sympathy for the position of these unfortunate women.

This book is a quick, gossipy read that is decently researched.  Herman makes some attempt to back up her stories with facts.  Some of the stories are less interesting than others, but overall, the book is fun.  I think the primary feeling I was left with after reading the book was pity.  No, I don’t envy these women.  Despite having plenty of money and luxury (in many but not all cases), their lives were hard.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to marry and copulate with some of the horrid specimens of manhood that some of these kings were.  In this, I know Herman was not exaggerating…especially with the Spanish kings.  Many of them were so inbred that generations of insane, often deformed monarchs ruled.  Can you imagine being a 16-year-old bride, knowing your duty was to THAT???? 

I did wonder at some of her stories, though.  For example, Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen.  I wasn’t sure it was established that they were lovers.  The same for Empress Alexandra and Rasputin.  I wasn’t certain that story belonged in the book.  And maybe Diana, Princess of Wales’ story is too recent to be included, and it was clear that Herman wasn’t a big fan of the late princess.  I appreciated how many pages were devoted to the lusty Catherine the Great, but I objected at how Herman depicted some of the unfortunate, neglected queens as insatiable.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with liking sex, but it seemed to make these women even more pitiful and pathetic than they already were.  I feel like in her attempt to inject naughty, salacious bits in her story, she occasionally hurt the depiction of the queen.  No, no one made these women take lovers, and in many cases, they chose horribly.  But at the same time, does it help to paint them as insatiable?  I’m not sure it helps her thesis much, especially when you see the women making disastrous decisions for their countries based on their infatuation with their lovers.

Would I love beautiful gowns and fabulous jewels?  Yes.  Would I love to be called “Princess Bibliophylia” or Your Majesty?  Certainly!  But I wouldn’t want to trade my freedom to choose my path for any of it. 

This book’s a good beach read.  Enjoy with a potent potable and thank heavens it is the 21st century.