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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Requested Reviews

Requested Review – “Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files, Kevin 11 Read 9/6/15

“Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files by Kevin 11 is the second book in a trilogy that follows the 23rd precinct of the Brooklyn Police Department. Although this book is the second in the series it is a prequel to the events of the first which actually made it a great starting point for a new comer like me.

The story follows the men and women whose job it is to fight crime in New York City. However, all is not as it seems in the 23rd precinct and the reason as to why cases keep stalling and going cold is far from what anyone imagined.

My first thought when reading this book is how much it feels like a TV series. The chapters are episodes and the cases within them are solved by the time the imagined credits role. Similarly, throughout every episode there are hints of something bigger that builds and builds until we get to the season finale. I must admit I loved this. I loved the way each episode focused on a different member of the BKPD but the other characters weaved through all the stories. Like a good series on netflix I could dip in to one episode at a time or binge read two or three after the other. I really enjoyed reading this book.

The characters are really well written too. As the narrative is told in the first person from many different points of view I loved the way my opinion of a character would be formed from what the narrator told me and then I would be surprised when the narrative finally came around to be told from that character’s point of view. Similarly, hearing a character talk about another member of the precinct whose story I had already read, I would be able to think to myself “just you wait you’ve got that person so wrong” and feel really smug about it. The characters and the relationships between them were so very well thought out the story was seamless.

I have only one criticism of this book and it is a very small one. I like detective novels where I the reader have to try and figure out the case as well. I love that feeling of it suddenly clicking and getting to the answer before the characters in the book and then sometimes there being a huge twist and me being completely wrong. I missed that element in “Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files. The cases we follow are very much as an observer rather than a participant and I think this is because the focus is more on the detectives themselves rather than the cases they solve. The story of the detectives is enjoyable in itself, I just would have liked a bit of both worlds.

“Frankly Twisted”: The Lost Files by Kevin 11 is published by Flowered Concrete and is available on July 21st. Find out more: http://www.floweredconcrete.net/

The author also has a blog you should check out: https://kevinanglade.wordpress.com/

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: anybody who loves CSI, Law & Order etc.

P.S. Not suitable for young audiences

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The Big Read

No.100 – Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie Read 18/7/15

I had hoped to save No.100 of the BBC Top 100 for my last book as it has such a neatness to it but it didn’t quite work out that way. Being over 600 pages long Midnight’s Children counts as one of the 15 long books I am trying to read this year. I had originally intended it to be only books over 700 pages but I buckled. Anyway, I picked up Midnight’s Children as I continue to avoid War and Peace. 

The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai who like a thousand others across India was born at the exact hour of India’s independence. He and these other so called “Midnight’s Children” have mysterious and magnificent powers and as the letter to Saleem from the Prime Minister proclaims, there lives shall be a reflection of the new India’s.

As much as I love classics I also love reading books outside of the western tradition and Midnight’s Children is an excellent specimen. I learnt so much about modern Indian history as this book is as much India’s life story and it is Saleem’s. Much like The God of Small Things it is a very stylish book full of evocative language and unconventionally structured. The linguistic style works perfectly to conjure up a world both alien and familiar.

I loved that the narrative told the story of Saleem’s grandparents and parents so that we come to know the journey of the characters that have such an impact on Saleem’s journey. This bigger picture means we see the significance of the smaller details that keep appearing like the silver spittoon and perforated sheets. I enjoyed the theme of recurrence, of things too neat to be a coincidence. It would have been much too neat had I left this book until last, unnervingly so, but the way things turned out has restored my faith in the random nature of the world.

Despite the magical realism of this book it is a very honest depiction of a troubled country. It doesn’t shy away from controversy and upset quite a few politicians I am sure. I liked that about it, the lines between what is real and not real blur at times except the historical events. I don’t know how accurately Rushdie describes them but there was never any doubt in my mind what actually happened and which bits were artistic licence. Yet, he blends the two together so well that I could almost accept the entire book as the truth. Almost.

My only criticism is that it is long. I know I should have guessed that with the 647 pages but there aren’t 647 pages worth of events or characters in this story so there are moments that feel like filler. These parts are well written and enjoyable enough I just couldn’t help thinking when is something going to happen. In these parts, where I found myself drifting off slightly, was usually hidden some small clue as to the events that were yet to come. Had I been paying attention maybe I would have solved a few mysteries a little quicker.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: people who don’t like historical fiction.

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The Big Read

No. 46 – Animal Farm, George Orwell Read 2/7/15

Now if you have been with me here at Bernie and Books for a while, first of all thanks for sticking around, but also I am sure you will know my feelings about the only other work by George Orwell I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four. I shall say no more but read the review if you like. I approached Animal Farm with a little trepidation but I tried to keep an open mind.

Animal Farm is the story of Manor Farm where the animals over throw and drive out their farmer Jones. At first the animals form and live in a peaceful republic but the pigs, Snowball and Napoleon start to use their superior intelligence for their own gains. Now it was quite obvious from the first page that this book is a political satire and a criticism of communism, I had expected nothing less from Orwell, but it says an awful lot about human nature. “Human nature? But it’s about animals!” I hear you cry and that is true but Orwell uses the different animals to show the different levels of society. It is very cleverly done, the horses working tirelessly without a thought for themselves, the sheep blindly following whatever they are told, the ducks and chickens doing their small part and my favourite of all the cat, who slyly manages to avoid doing any work are all people I have seen in social structures around the world.

With the pigs Orwell shows brilliantly how power can be abused and manipulated. How those with power can very subtly oppress and make you believe you are free at the same time. This book was written in 1943-44 and it is almost like a dummies guide to understanding what was happening in dictatorships across the world at that time. It said on the cover of my edition it was a obvious criticism of Stalin but it can also be read as a criticism of Hitler, Mussolini and any other dictator you can think of. Most tellingly it is still relevant today. From North Korea to Syria and Iraq, even in Britain I see the horses and I see the pigs. This book has made me ask are we really equal?

It is an excellent political statement. I just can’t stand the narrative. It is all statement no story. At times I felt like I was reading a non-fiction book rather than a novella. Perhaps this is was original when Orwell was writing. Perhaps people weren’t used to analysing a text for its political subtleties so it had to be brutally honest. I don’t know. I just like to be credited with a bit more intelligence as a reader. I have thought long and hard about this because I didn’t want my previous experience with Orwell to influence me and I see much more than I did with Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘the point’ of the book but I still have issues with the method.

Rating: 3/5

Would recommend to: anyone trying to understand politics.

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