Royal Affairs: British Monarchs Behaving Badly

November 27, 2008

Leslie Carroll’s Royal Affairs:  A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy examines infidelity in the British monarchy from Henry II to Charles, Diana and Camilla.  It is fairly exhaustive and no major lover or mistress is left unturned (no small feat when dealing with a monarch like Charles II).  You have the homosexual lovers of Edward II and James I.  You have Henry VIII’s wives recounted in detail.  You even have Queen Victoria and John Brown whose actual sexual relationship is not seriously believed but as an emotional attachment is included.  I was actually a little disappointed that she ended with Charles, Diana and Camilla because why would I care to read about that old tale again, but Carroll made it interesting. 

My biggest quibble with the book is that Carroll’s writing is extremely dry.  Everything is presented factually and objectively, which is great, but it sort of took the oomph out of a book about GASP! infidelity.  It’s not necessarily a fun book, but you will learn quite a bit since she covers about 800 years of history.

Also recommended:

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Mistress of the Sun: Beware the Female Icarus

November 16, 2008

Sandra Gulland’s Mistress of the Sun is the historical fiction account of Louise de la Valliere, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses.  Tomboy Louise, a noted horsewoman of nobile but impoverished birth, eventually finds herself serving Madame Henriette, the king’s sister-in-law at court.  There she catches the eye of Louis himself and a love affair is born.  Louise is one of the first mistresses of the young Louis.  She is pious and her piety struggles with her love for the man, her dislike for the King and her fear that evil stalks her for her wanton behavior.  Louise finally chooses to save her soul and herself and renounces the king for life in a convent.

Gulland’s book was a little slow to get going and a tad difficult to get into at first, but once Louise makes it to court, the action speeds up.  She is part of the early years of Louis’ reign when Louis is young and full of energy and the desire to do good.  There is no Versailles yet.  Tomboy Louise, meek and angelic in appearance, seems an unlikely candidate for Louis’ eye, yet she does and keeps it for years.  It was a bit disconcerting to read her declare her love for Louis on one page and then strive to avoid hurting the queen, Louis’ wife, on the other.  I doubt many royal mistresses would be so considerate.  She suffers in silence…she is Louis’ mistress before he began flaunting them, and as a result, his liaisons with her and the resulting childbirths are secret.  I can’t imagine what that must have been like.  To give birth and then get up and attend a ball, acting as if nothing had happened.  Forced to give up your child to others to raise because he or she might be used as a pawn.  I had a lot of sympathy for Louise.  Though I still found it hard to understand exactly what attracted the king to her. 

Gulland also weaves a strand of the supernatural throughout the book.  Louise attempts to tame a wild horse through bone magic in her youth and when it succeeds, she fears the evil she committed stalks her.  That she herself is evil and damned.  Her life and time at court is intertwined with that of Athenais de Montespan, at first friend and later rival and also mistress of the king who is connected with witchcraft. 

Gulland’s tale is interesting, and she takes what little is known of Louise and creates an engrossing narrative.  There is a dreamy quality to the book that prevents most of it from seeming real.  At times it reads more like an intriguing novel set in 17th century France instead of a work of historical fiction based on the life of a real woman.

Also recommended:


Bonk: For a good time, call…

November 9, 2008

Because I am in the last, super-busy weeks of the semester, I thought I could use a little diversion, so I was thrilled when Bonk:  The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex arrived for me at the local public library.  Bonk is Mary Roach’s (Stiff, Spook) latest investigative science book.  As its title suggests, it explores the history as well as current focus of sex research.  Chapters deal with whether Kinsey was really a voyeur, what an orgasm is, clitoral research as well as whether orgasm impacts fertility (using pigs!!!) and various machines, tools and strategies for research through the years.

First of all, it is amusing, yet sad the lengths and obfuscations to which scientists have to go to obtain funding for research that even tangetially touches sex.  As a culture, we are obsessed with sex (having more of it, having it better), yet we remain so squeamish about it.  Roach’s latest book tackles the topic with sensitivity, appreciation and also humor because let’s face it, a lot of the lengths researchers had to go to to research sex as well as their hypothoses and experiments are flat-out funny. I’m thinking in particular of the experiments to see how sperm gets into the uterus. Good stuff. And God bless the people who inseminate pigs and other large animals.  Oh, and let’s not forget the sex toy manufacturer she visits (reminded me of an HBO show I watched years ago–nothing like little old ladies adding hair to a dildo to make you do a doubletake) or the man who implants penis pumps. 

I’m not sure if I enjoyed this book as much as I did Roach’s other two books, but it was very interesting.  If anything, I felt like its structure was a bit harder to follow (seemed a bit meandering at times) and that she seemed to explore the same few topics from various angles.  Roach provides numerous footnotes, which are sometimes irritating in sheer volume but are always relevant and humorous.  Roach is a funny writer, and her approach to the topic is perfect. 

Also recommended:


A Southern Belle Primer: Guess mine was lost in the mail?

November 9, 2008

A Southern Belle Primer or Why Princess Margaret Will Never Be a Kappa Kappa Gamma by Maryln Schwartz was a somewhat bizarre book. Though published in 1991, it seemed like a book from a much earlier period.  It deals with a world in which certain silver patterns are expected on a wedding registry and what those patterns say about the bride registering.  Apparently, chicken salad should never contain dark meat.  I am not a fan of dark meat, so I likely would not have committed that egregious faux pas, but good to know.  It deals with a world in which women become festival queens with elaborate costumes and balls to which women must wear dresses of a certain length or else they will receive a sternly-worded letter. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Southerner born and bred.  I was born in Salisbury, North Carolina and grew up in a town a little west of Winston-Salem.  Therefore, I consider myself Southern.  However, as with the other books set in the South that I have posted about this year, I could not find myself, traditions or experiences in this book.  I wondered if it was age.  As I said, this book seemed to refer to an older generation.  But I also have friends who were honest-to-God debutantes complete with white gown, presentation and debutante ball.  I knwo women who followed the tradition of displaying for guests to view to the wedding gifts received by the bride-to-be.  Soooo…maybe the conclusion I should draw is maybe I am not of that world that book sought to illustrate.  And maybe that’s ok.  After all, I don’t even like iced tea.  It was just a little weird to read this book and feel like there is a whole other South of which I am not a part.  And I sort of have to wonder what attitudes and beliefs are being preserved by participating in those traditions. It’s probably just my childhood wish to be Quality, royalty, nobility that is being dented. 

The book was cute and amusing.  It won’t present foes of the South with anything that would change their mind, but if you are an insider or wannabe belle, you’ll find it instructive.


Death By Chick Lit: Cute but not cute enough

November 3, 2008

Death By Chick Lit by Lynn Harris has a cute premise: a talented, frustrated writer discovers that everyone BUT her is managing to get published and write hugely successful, lauded chick lit. But maybe they aren’t so lucky after all as one-by-one, the latest chick lit “it” girls are murdered. Can Lola solve the murders and salvage her career at the same time?

See, it sounds like a fun book, a wink at those familiar with the chick lit genre and its formula. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it past the first hundred pages. Lola seems confused in her priorities, declaring that despite being newly married, she will make sure her friends feel like nothing in her life has changed even though her husband (incomprehensably to me) wants to spend more time with her. I understand why she is bitter about her friends’ success, but Harris lays it on a little thick. It isn’t funny…more pathetic.

The structure is a little weird in that you think you are in the present and then suddenly, you are in the past as she is bringing you up to speed on certain friends and events, but the transition is not smooth.

It was just an insufferable book that I couldn’t get through.  Again I am baffled by the good reviews.  In my opinion, Harris was trying too hard.