Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli Read 7/1/16

Primary fashion sources for the Renaissance are incredibly difficult to come by. Even if I did have the money to travel around Europe seeing surviving garments I would only have seen maybe 3 or 4 outfits. This is where Machiavelli comes in.

The last book I read was a discussion of Elizabeth I as a Renaissance Prince. It relied heavily on The Prince  as a primary source. So I thought to understand a little more about Elizabeth I should actually read The Prince. Now it wasn’t exactly a page turner and at only 96 pages long it was still quite hard to get through but I am really glad I have read it.

The Prince is not only relevant in the context of 16th century European kings. The ideas that Machiavelli discusses relate to modern politics and celebrity culture. The basis as many people often understand it is that the ends justify the means. So I was surprised when I discovered that really the most prominent theme in The Prince is how important it is to be loved by the people and if you can’t be loved, be feared.

There is a lot of Italian history and classical reference to come to terms with. The edition I read was translated by award winning translator Peter Constantine and his footnotes made the whole experience much more accessible. A little like when I read The Godfather you get very caught up in the world, Machiavelli’s arguments are very convincing. It all seems so rational and justifiable but with a little perspective you come to realise that removing your enemies doesn’t mean just sending them away to a remote island.

The Prince has been a wonderful primary source for my dissertation but I recommend it in a much wider context. It is chillingly pragmatic and a real eye opener for anybody interested in politic or history.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: the politically curious.

Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – Elizabeth Renaissance Prince, Lisa Hilton Read 7/12/15

This book was exactly the kind of biography of Elizabeth I that I wanted to read. It doesn’t deal with the tired subject of Elizabeth’s sex life which I find utterly uninteresting. Instead it discusses her image as a Renaissance Prince that is a modern politician rather than a Medieval ruler.

Hilton uses this biography as a means to discuss an idea of Elizabeth rather than as a record of her life. It is the kind of biography I really enjoy much like Mad World as a biography of Evelyn Waugh.  Told chronologically it follows the key events of Elizabeth’s life that show her to be a shrewd politician rather than as the romantic image of Gloriana. From the uncertain beginning of her life as an illegitimate child of Henry VIII we see how Elizabeth learnt the crucial necessity of self preservation. We see how the sexual indiscretion with Thomas Seymour nearly cost Elizabeth her life and how she learnt the importance of self image and reputation. From learning her past we she how her opinions are shaped and as a result can better understand the mythical being that Elizabeth I came to be.

I felt as if the very first chapter of this book were a test for the reader to overcome. It felt as if it was there to put off anybody who had accidentally picked up this book in the hopes of reading a conspiracy theory about how Elizabeth was secretly a man. In fact much to my pleasure Hilton frequently throughout the book dismisses many of the more far fetched myths about Elizabeth that seem to have crept in to the public conciousness. She is very discerning about Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother, something which is always romanticised and infuriates me, and she does a brilliant job of clarifying the relationships Elizabeth had with her many suitors. I understand much more about the rituals of courtly love and their political importance as a result of Elizabeth Renaissance Prince, Lisa Hilton really manages to portray the heighten emotional state of the Elizabethan court. It makes for very refreshing reading.

I will admit at times that this book did get a little too heavy for me. I am pretty good at ploughing through books I don’t like and I really had to push about halfway through this one. There are lots of references to classical images that I didn’t fully understand. Crucial to Elizabeth’s political appearance were references to figures from antiquity and knowing nothing about ancient history made it very difficult to follow. Perhaps just a footnote every now and then explaining some of the more obscure and intertwining myths would have made all the difference.

On the whole I am really impressed with this book. It has been incredibly useful in terms of my dissertation and I was able to enjoy parts of it like I would fiction.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: anyone looking for a new perspective on the Virgin Queen.

Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – Catherine of Aragorn: Henry’s Spanish Queen, Giles Tremlett Read 5/11/15

Henry VIII’s love life has fascinated people for generations and I am sure it will continue to be discussed well into the future. We all know about the six wives, the executions, the Flanders mare etc but for some reason the life of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragorn is ignored until Anne Boleyn arrives on the scene and Henry tries to divorce her. What Tremlett does is give a voice to the women who lasted longer as Henry’s wife than the other 5 put together.

Tremlett starts with Catherine’s early life growing up as a Spanish Infanta in the glorious palace of the Alhambra. He provides the reader with a detail back story that helps them to make sense of Catherine’s motives later in life. By understanding the culture of religious learning that Catherine grew up with, we understand why she was so unwilling to compromise on religious matters later in life to the extent that she was willing to become a martyr. He gives depth of character to a woman so often played as two dimensional and for once casts her as the leading lady.

The biography then goes on to cover how Catherine came to England and her marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur. So often forgotten in the discussion of Henry VIII’s wives is the fact that after Arthur died Catherine was utterly powerless and alone in a country where she hardly spoke the language. Tremlett does a fabulous job of portraying the precariousness of her position at the hands of her father Ferdinand and the miserly Henry VII. In the end it was Henry VII’s unwillingness to repay Catherine’s handsome dowry that saw her marry Henry VIII but Catherine suffered a retched existence (by the standards of a princess) as she waited for her fate to be decided.

We only get to the wedding of Henry and Catherine just before halfway through the book. How refreshing to have a biography of a women follow the journey of her life not her husband’s! Tremlett goes on to detail the many happy years the couple spent together, something else that history seems to have forgotten. Henry frequently jousted with the letter K for Catherine embroidered on his doublet. They indulged in lavish pageants where each played courtly lovers and Catherine even acted a Regent for Henry when he was way fighting in France. These details, this well rounded picture completely changes the perspective I take on ‘the King’s Great Matter’.

Before I always felt Catherine was the woman scorned in the love triangle between Henry, Catherine and Anne. She seemed bitter and spiteful at being replaced by a younger model. Having read Tremlett’s account of events I see now that the courage of her convictions suggest the genuine concern Catherine had for her own and Henry’s souls. She had suffered infidelity on Henry’s part before, she was willing to forgive him but she would not compromise her beliefs. She was so much more than a jealous wife and I am indebted to Tremlett for his work in proving otherwise.

Rating: 5/5

Would recommend to: anyone who things they know everything about Henry VIII’s split from Rome.

Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled Before Elizabeth, Helen Castor Read 11/9/15

For some reason when I think of the first Queen of England I always think of Elizabeth I, even though her sister Mary ruled for 5 years before her. Perhaps this is a testament to the impression that Elizabeth I had on British history. Perhaps it is just because she has become almost a myth. I don’t know. What I do know is that I hadn’t heard of any of the other women that make up Helen Castor’s book She-Wolves.

The book explores the curious position that England found itself in when in 1553 all nine candidates to succeed Edward VI were female. Through English history the laws of succession were blurry and bloodstained but there had always been men to fight for the throne. Now for the first time there was no option but for a women to rule. This was a society that saw women as inferior. How could a women rule over her people if she was inferior to half of them? Castor explores how this dilemma had been raging long before the start of the Tudor dynasty.

She-Wolves follows the stories of 4 women who paved the way for Lady Jane Grey, Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I. Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou each had to battle against the disadvantage of their sex and fight for their position in the world. Most have suffered the prejudices of their time and were resigned to history as ‘she-wolves’ ungodly creatures that went against the natural order (thank you Shakespeare).

Castor does a great job of bringing such far off history to life. She acknowledges that the sources she is using are often biased, often exclude the women involved entirely and she has to piece together the story from where they are conspicuous in their absence. This book is a hideous reminder of the fact our society is built on over a thousand years of women not being recorded in their own stories. Castor doesn’t go into the sexism too deeply, frankly she doesn’t need to it speaks for itself. What she does do is paint an honest picture of the women warts and all. They aren’t portrayed as heavenly martyrs fighting against the injustice of their world. They make mistakes, are headstrong and as a result are easier to empathise with.On the surface I have nothing in common with a 12th century queen but Castor tells the story in such a way that I can understand the motivations behind these women’s actions.

I love the structure of this book plus the frequent family trees. By book ending the stories of the earlier queens with that of the Tudor succession it was easier to see the precedent that Mary and Elizabeth had to fight against. In relation to the 16th century queens, it made me realise the impact the Renaissance had in allowing a women to rule of her own accord. Henry VIII was paranoid that his lack of a male heir would result in civil war but I don’t think he counted on the change of attitude that came with humanist thinking. Through education Mary and Elizabeth were able to prove their worth, if they couldn’t be men, they could be the best of women. Through contrast with the events of the past Castor highlights what an incredible achievement it was that England ever had a Queen Regnant.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: anyone interest in feminist history.    

Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – The Rival Queens, Nancy Goldstone Read 3/9/5

The teaching of history in Britain is very anglocentric. If it didn’t happen in Britain nobody appears to be bothered about it. So although I know copious amounts about Henry VIII and his 6 wives, I couldn’t tell you who any of the other European monarchs were at the time.

Turns out French Renaissance history is just as juicy and noteworthy as England’s. Catherine de’ Medici was the daughter of an Italian merchant who married the second son of the French king François I. This minor noble women ended up reigning over France for over 40 years, first as the Queen of Henri II then as Queen Consort to 3 of her sons. Even once they reached maturity she was still a key political player.

Her daughter Marguerite de Valois is the ‘Rival Queen’ of the title. Forced into a loveless political marriage the wedding day of which resulted in the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Margot as she was known, spent her life fighting the iron will of her ambitious mother. A devout Catholic she was a pawn in the Wars of Religion and a pariah in her husband’s Protestant kingdom of Navarre.

This book tells their story from Catherine’s wedding to Margot’s death and every moment is jam packed with scandal. At the time the French court was renowned for espionage and there is back stabbing and betrayal on an epic scale. Love, power and death play out in a melodrama so heightened you would think it fictional but this is actually the foundations of Western society as we know it.

It helps when writing a non-fiction book to have a really fascinating topic and Nancy Goldstone could hardly go wrong with her choice. Even so she tells the story in a way that makes me think of the next episode button on Netflix. Somehow she has made history into a page turner. I had to know what happened next. There is a section in the second half of the book about how Margot was perused across France by rival forces and it was as tense and suspense filled as any first person thriller.

Goldstone also presents a relatively balanced view of both women. History has not looked favourable on either and she does a really good job of saying “this is how it has been viewed for centuries, but the facts could also suggest this”. She is very aware of the fact that the portraits painted of both Catherine and Margot are how men saw them which was probably not how they really were. Also she draws heavily from Margot’s memoirs as a source but does a really good job of saying “she could be lying about this bit”. As a result it is a bit like unreliable narration. We as the reader are left to draw our own conclusions about both women. Personally, I think they were both out of their depths in a man’s world but did the best they could given their restricted education and position.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: historical fiction lovers who want to read non-fiction.

Other Books 2015

Behind the Character, Alvin Alvin of “Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files | Guest Post with Kevin 11

You may remember a little while ago I reviewed a book called “Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files by Kevin 11. “Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files is the second book in the series which follows the crime fighters of the Brooklyn Police Department in the 23rd Precinct. I loved this new interesting take on the detective genre and the cinematic style of Kevin 11. I find it so inspiring the way that creators today take creative freedom not only of their work but also the publishing, distribution and marketing. “Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files is published by indie book publishers Flowered Concrete and Kevin is doing a blog tour to offer a behind the scenes glimpse at this gritty world and a chance to get to know the characters a little better. I am thrilled to give you a glimpse of what Kevin has to say about Alvin Alvin (yep that’s his name).


Behind The Character:

For some reason, detective Alvin Alvin is still a mystery to me. For one, despite him being  a really good cop and highly fashionable in style and appearance, there seems to be more beneath the surface that has yet to be uncovered. Many folks are probably wondering what on earth possessed me to name him Alvin Alvin.

For one, I thought it would be really funny to give him the same first and last name. Another reason as to why I named him this way is because I wanted to slightly trick readers into thinking that I had made a typo with his name.

However, when reading both Tales of the 23RD Precinct and as well as frankly TWISTED, readers can see that that is certainly not the case. Going forward, it will be interesting to see where exactly I take him as a character. For one thing, he will definitely have big shoes to fill due to the fact that he will be taking over as Captain of the 23rd precinct. Hopefully by then, we will get a better chance to see not only how he works and interacts with others, but also, go a bit in-depth within his personal life.

I would like to say thanks to Kevin for including Bernie and Books in his tour. You can check out his blog here where you can also find all the other guest post from the tour. “Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble or via Flowered Concrete.

The Big Read

No. 71 – Perfume, Patrick Süskind

This books full title is Perfume, The Story of a Murderer which is a very accurate description. However, the title in itself is also ambiguous. How is something so inconspicuous as perfume associated with the violence of murder?

The story straight away won me over because it is set in eighteenth century Paris. For me there is no better era to set a book; why pick anything else? Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into the most stench filled place on earth, a Paris slum, but he has the most sublime gift, an absolute sense of smell. He can smell everything, things that to you and me have no odour whatsoever. Not only that, he can remember every smell and he catalogues each carefully away in his mind to create the most exquisite perfumes.

This book is so sensuously written. It is a credit to the translation that such atmosphere and feeling has survived from the original German. This book relies heavily on the description of the smells and it is expertly done so as to be completely understandable and also to conjure up the feelings that certain smells create. I am known amongst my friends to comment on how something smells like a certain period of time or memory of mine because that is the power that scent has. It can transport us through time and influence our actions.

Where does the murder come into it I hear you ask? Now that would be telling. But I will say this Grenouille is no ordinary perfumer. His extraordinary talents come at a cost to his personality and he is distinctly unlovable. The story of his life is simple and quite short. There is a really weird bit in the middle where Grenouille lives in a cave for seven years and barely sees daylight but apart from that it is his quest to create the perfect perfume.

In terms of the characters, you don’t really get emotionally involved with anyone. It is the kind of book you read as a passive observer. I am still unsure whether I like this style in general but I must admit it does work in this context. Grenouille is so detached it helps us to see his world view but also it means that the story moves along quite quickly because we don’t have to feel when someone dies.

Now it is time for a confession because I have absolutely no idea how you say Grenouille. I have been going for Gren- wee in my head but to be honest I have no clue. Please make suggestions in the comments I would be very grateful.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable read. It is a good book but I am really surprised that it is on this list. It isn’t particularly extraordinary in any way. I don’t feel the way I often do when finishing at BBC Top 100 book that is, thoughtful and as if my life has been enriched. It is a different kind of good from Midnight’s Children or I Capture the Castle but still really enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: give it a go for entertainment value.