Thursday, September 24, 2009

53. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Machiavelli is officially my hero. The Prince is so straightforward and honest, and, yes, brutal, I want to give him a hug. He sees clearly. Especially in contrast with Castiglione, who stuck to ideals and praised virtue at all costs, Machiavelli blithely exposes the truly successful machinations of rulers.

And yet, despite his base view of human nature, despite his advocacy of war and vice, he is much more humanistic than usually given credit for. The manifesto is succinctly laid out, with sections on how to manage new and old principalities, how to manage armies and people and nobles, how to maintain money and property, and gain power over other principalities. He illustrates each section with an example from antiquity and an example from modernity, demonstrating his education and perception respectively. He values the stability of the state above all, the state that will actually benefit the greatest number of people, even if it need be assured through the destruction of the old royal line.

Machiavelli addresses his book to Lorenzo de Medici, who reconquered his principality from under a government in which Machiavelli held a large amount of power. Machiavelli is unemployed and exiled, and decides to beg for a job through a book so honest, his intentions cannot be misread. He died before it was published, but his last section makes me wonder about the true purpose of the manifesto. He exhorts de Medici to "rise up against the barbarians" and unite Italy, a feat, of course, that will not be completed till nearly three centuries later. Is this Machiavelli's true aim? is his brutal manifesto only a tool to gain the beloved country of the ancients and restore confidence to the people of Italy, so that perhaps he, the clever statesman could rule, or, as before, establish a republic? Did Machiavelli fully believe his own rhetoric?

I read my own views into his work, and my experience of humanity has been much the same, and yet I still see potential, I am still optimistic for change. Was he, too?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Sweet New Year

52. The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione, translated by Charles Singleton

L'shana Tova, a sweet new year, to my fellow Jews. If I had started my list at Rosh Hashanah last year, I would have answered my challenge to read 52 books in year. As it is, I started the count on January 1. I could simply continue the list for this year, or I could start a new one for Rosh Hashanah. I will take some time to think about which is the best option.

The Book of the Courtier, was, interestingly, an assignment for my Sixteenth Century British Literature class. The teacher seems to use the "British" part loosely, half of our books are in translation. However, she is correct that these books influenced the English Renaissance strongly and therefore are appropriate for the course. I would prefer to learn international literature anyway, so I should not complain.

Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier in 1528, in homage to his deceased prince, Federico, of Urbino, and all the courtiers of Urbino, particularly the Duchess, wife of Federico's son and successor Guidobaldo. Urbino was a very small Italian principality in Lombardy, Duke Federico served as a mercenary for the Vatican against the Florentines as well as vice versa.

There are actually four books, each chronicling the conversation of a successive night at the Court of Urbino. In the first book, the Duchess deputizes the lady Emilia Pia to choose a game from those that the courtiers suggest. She chooses a game to delineate the qualities and behavior of the perfect Courtier. The courtiers then take turns speaking and arguing about what he ought to be. The First Book concerns mostly his qualities, and the Second Book the use of his qualities. In the Third Book, the women pressure the men to describe a perfect Court Lady to match the Courtier. The Fourth Book discusses how the Courtier should behave in love and courtship.

The conversations reminded me of what I imagine would occur in a saloon, or brief intellectual conversations I've had with my friends that I wish lasted longer and for which I wish I could be better informed and much wittier. Castiglione does an excellent job of making the arguments sound natural and the men react, while extremely civilized, very humanly. If theoretical games and endless discussion of love and disparaging versus defense of women in elegant language interests one, this book is a gold mine. I am sure some would find it boring, and I, of course, found their centuries-old logic flawed (mostly in regards to women), but overall it is extremely thoughful, well written, and well worth serious contemplation.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

51. A Brief History of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley

I didn't really intend to read this straight through, it just sort of happened. I reached a point where I thought, I could finish this...and then I had to. It's a comprehensive guide to the British monarchs, but I think I would appreciate something more detailed, with more evidence.

Ashley likes to shake up stereotypes, but he doesn't provide proof for his assertions. That's understandable in a book like this, but when he states that both Bloody Mary and Edward VI inherited congenital syphilis from their father Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I escaped it, I want to know more. I'm somewhat of an amateur Elizabethan scholar, and I've never heard that before. Where did he get the evidence to suggest that? Ashley praises the infamous Macbeth, and seems to think Richard III wasn't all that bad. He criticizes Richard Lionheart and mostly lauds George III. Elizabeth I does escape any unusual censure, though Victoria was apparently only any good because of Albert. William and Mary both get accused of homosexuality.

I haven't read any other standard work on the kings and queens of England (barring several biographies on Elizabeth I), so I don't know how Ashley measures up. Perhaps there is a way to provide more evidence in succinct fashion. Recommended to scholars and as a reference for interested parties.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Books!

To celebrate the 50 book mark, I finally went out and used a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card I'd been hoarding. My purchases totaled $50.51, all in paperback, the easier to fit in my suitcase. Perfect, yes?

My selections were:

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Tongue by Kyung-Ran Jo

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss

Since I've started using Bookmooch, I have three books on the way:

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

A Taste for Adventure: A Culinary Odyssey Around the World by Anik See

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Will I finish all these by the end of the year? I doubt it, since I will also be contending with the formidable list for my Sixteenth Century British Literature course, not to mention my Theater in Society course....but at least I feel secure of quality reads in the forseeable future.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Game of Europe

50. Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone

In the thirteenth century, the four daughters of the Count of Provence; Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice; each became a queen. Nancy Goldstone tells the lives of these four sisters in a straightforward manner that essentially sketches a thirteenth century history of Europe.

Marguerite, the eldest, becomes queen of France, the wife of St. Louis IX. Eleanor, the next sister, is the choice of Henry III, king of England. Shy and beautiful Sanchia is given to Richard of Cornwall, the king of England's brother, who later contrives to be elected King of the Romans, or much of modern-day Germany. Beatrice, the youngest, inherits Provence from her father, and attracts Charles of Anjou, younger brother of the King of France, who briefly conquers Sicily and crowns her queen.

Goldstone characterizes each sister and their respective spouses, as well as important players like their parents, Raymond Berenger V of Provence and his wife Beatrice of Savoy, and their mother's brothers, the influential Savoyards. The book is impeccably well researched, relying extensively on primary sources, and Goldstone represents my favorite attitude in a historian. She asserts facts only, and when she enters the realm of speculation, that is, the feelings of such-and-such in regard to such-and-such, or so-and-so's knowledge of some plot or other, she cites evidence that would support her, and then acknowledges that it cannot be determined for sure. She often uses short descriptions from contemporaries, such as Matthew Paris, an English monk who spent time in the English court and was familiar with the constant news and rumors, and Jean de Joinville, a friend of Louis IX, who wrote the Life of St. Louis. She quotes chronicles kept in contemporary monasteries and letters from the Provencal sisters themselves as well.

The history of thirteenth century Europe is a constant deluge of battles and political maneuevring. Kings, emperors, counts, dukes, and barons fought to defend their land and property, to seize others' land and property, and claim titles, distinctions, and glory. Marriages and the influence of women also make and break alliances. Continental Europe and England are the gameboard upon which they play. For these men and women, secure financially and socially, war and crusades were entertainment. They ostensibly fought for land and money, but any land and money gained was used to make more war.

Their behavior seems so quintessentially human to me. We have achieved a more peaceful world now, perhaps because of the rise of the bourgeoisie. The Provencal sisters' story demonstrates conflict between religion and politics, between smaller and bigger regions and spheres of influence, and most of all within families. Though much more dramatic than comparisons today, Goldstone shows us how much, and how little, we have changed.