Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

7. The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

My commutes with Philippa Gregory's "Cousin's War" books have come to an end, at least for now. Apparently, there's going to be a new book about Margaret Pole, and there are the auxiliary books about Elizabeth Woodeville's mother, Jacquetta, and Richard III's wife Anne Neville that I haven't yet read.

I've said before that Gregory makes some unusual and spurious choices vis-a-vis historical evidence, but the world that she creates in her books is amazingly cohesive. She also continues to focus on lesser known events, infusing them with dramatic tension even for the well-informed reader. A book on Elizabeth of York has inherent frustrations, because after her marriage, she was effectively walled from influencing public policy or exercising almost any kind of agency. The White Princess reflects that reality, and I wanted to bang my head against the wall every time Elizabeth nicely acts her husband for some simple act, usually mercy to her family members, and he denies her. Still, Gregory creates a rich interior life for the princess turned queen, and her observations of court life are keen, if politically useless.

After reading The White Queen, it's interesting to see the relationship between Elizabeth of York and her mother, Elizabeth Woodeville, mirror the relationship portrayed in the earlier book between Elizabeth Woodeville and her own mother. After reading The Red Queen, it is possible to speculate about Margaret Beaufort's thoughts in her many more or less hostile conversations with her daughter-in-law. Elizabeth's cousin, Margaret Pole, emerges as her close friend and confidant, a character in her own right. This role is made more poignant by knowledge of Margaret Pole's eventual fate, and, I suppose, more marketable for Gregory's upcoming book!

Elizabeth's complicated relationship with her husband, Henry VII, serves as a bittersweet core to the book. How do you write a marriage between conqueror and conquered? Shakespeare and other near contemporaries, of course, paint Henry as Elizabeth's savior. After all, she, her mother, and sisters were for a time essentially prisoners during Richard III's reign, and he may or may not have had her brothers killed (Gregory's conjectures spin a bit differently than Alison Weir's on the subject). but the truth is bound to be a bit more complicated. Even if Elizabeth were not on good terms with Richard (and there is some evidence that they were romantically involved), he was still a York king. When Henry conquered England, it meant that Elizabeth's family was removed from power and political influence. In many cases, it meant the death and imprisonment of her male cousins, and careful dispersion through marriage of her sisters and female cousins. Gregory writes that between Elizabeth and Henry's obligatory lovemaking, there were "blood prints."

Henry VII is a hard man to love. He is consistently cruel to his wife, and yet, Gregory will not let him be a caricature. At times, he proclaims an agonized love for the beautiful woman he has been obliged to marry. He envies her family's infamous charm, which he noticeably lacks. And Gregory's amazingly sympathetic Elizabeth comes to care for him, at least at times, and to pity him. It's a complex dance that Gregory writes, for she must acknowledge Elizabeth's righteous anger on behalf of her family as well as her fears and feelings of powerlessness, but also that Elizabeth is intimately tied to this man, her enemy, and will be till the day she dies. He is her husband, and the father of her children, for better or worse.

And it is Elizabeth's children that provide the bridge between the Cousin's War and Gregory's many other books on the later Tudor monarchs. Here, we see the births of Arthur and Henry, and the childhood of the two boys. Serious Arthur is his mother's confidant, and jives well with the character later portrayed in The Constant Princess. Little Henry Tudor begs courtiers to play with him, and gets up to sing at a public banquet in his honor. One wonders if his mother had any idea what kind of man he would turn out to be.

The White Princess is a very intimate look at the early Tudor court. It is frustrating that the female heroine lacks agency compared to the heroines of Gregory's other books, but ultimately each of these women was caught in a web of social roles and networks, and, at last, had only themselves to rely on.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Not So Quiet

6. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

I've been looking forward for some time to Cain's well-publicized paean to introversion. For over a year, I've been trying to get it out of the local library and finally, my turn came around. In the meantime, I'd read the critics who said it focused too much on the business world, or overstated the barriers to introverts in pop culture. I actually think Cain covered introversion in a respectable variety of settings relevant to the contemporary American audience. And I agree that she generalizes, but even she admits that in several places. What was really, ironically, lacking from this book was a depth of focus-the very quality that Cain praises so much in introverts. In fact, the book itself is an excellent example of how the media caters to extrovert culture.

Quiet is organized into easily navigable chapters, it's filled with personal anecdotes, lists, and repetitive taglines. It's designed to catch the attention of an easily distracted mind. It covers introversion in the workplace, in education, in relationships, admirably covering all the bases-except that it covers none of them as fully as this introvert would like.

I don't mean to totally pan the book, however. I was disappointed, but I was also mollified to read about experiences that were highly relatable to me. Cain skips a full discussion of what the terms "introvert" and "extrovert" mean nowadays, and, practically, sticks to the Jungian definition. An introvert is overwhelmed by external stimuli, and recharges alone. An extrovert is energized by external stimuli, and recharges around other people. Cain drives home repeatedly the point that introverted nerd stereotypes and outgoing extrovert stereotypes are not always the case. Introverts can be gregarious, extroverts can get stage fright. It's just about how your body reacts to stimuli, but what you do about it is shaped in many different ways, especially your childhood environment. Many people who are naturally introverted are socialized to be, and outwardly appear to be, extroverts.

On Cain's list of 20 introverted qualities, I answered "yes" to 19. However, on her list of qualities associated with shyness or anxiety, I answered "yes" to less than half. I've always said I'm "quiet, not shy" and the studies Cain cites back me up! She discusses long term studies having to do with people's reaction to stimuli as infants and then their behaviors later in life. I wish she had gone more into depth on the various ranges of qualities that are associated with introversion but not necessarily the same thing.

Likewise, I really appreciated and related to the section on introverts in relationships, particularly introvert/extrovert relations. But the entire chapter was based on one amalgamated anecdote. I wish there had been more data and more honest, even if anonymous, interviews. But perhaps I'm asking for material that just isn't available.

After all, I'm glad that Quiet was written and that it's bringing attention to the potential values of introverts. I guess this was more of a book telling the world about introverts, and I was hoping more for a book by introverts, for introverts. Here's hoping.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book Review: The Malloreon Books 4 and 5

4. Sorceress of Darshiva

5. The Seeress of Kell

I'm sad that my time with Eddings' magnificently developed fantasy world has come to an end. On the other hand, it was high time I finished reading a series that I started two years ago (and, really, four years ago). The Malloreon follows (almost) the same cast of characters as from Eddings' earlier series, the Belgariad. The first series deals with a quest that takes place in the northern lands of the world, while this series deals with the southern lands. I highly, highly recommend both series to fans of high fantasy.

And, yet, although I placed the Belgariad on my list of SFF Lit, I realized while finishing up the series that what is truly most pleasing about this series is its predictability-how it slides neatly and comfortingly into genre conventions. Everything from the archetypal characters to the arc of the plot is practically a prototype for Campbell's Hero's Journey. But I pride myself on how much I value originality! Why do I love these books so much?

Eddings' books are predictable in terms of plot and even character, and that brings a certain level of comfort. But his writing style is quite different from, say, Tolkien's. Nor is it reminiscent of most other fantasy novels I have read. Eddings' tone is crisp and direct, his dialogue is humorous! And there's a pleasing dissonance in the contrast between the high fantasy setting and the characters' earthy, no-nonsense speech and attitudes. They could have come out of any realist novel. Furthermore, Eddings' settings are quite developed, and while clearly based in historical societies, they have a character and "structure of feeling" all their own. There are unusual fantastic beasts and a whole backstory (and speech) to the society of wolves. Eddings' originality is simply in the details.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

3. The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

Weir, my favorite popular historian, concludes that Richard III murdered the eponymous princes in the tower. Even to this day, the mystery has not been definitively solved, nor, Weir argues, will it likely ever be. But she bases her conclusions on the existing contemporary evidence, asserting that it is a historian's job to deal in probabilities. And so, while Richard III could not be convicted in a modern court, she feels comfortable pointing her finger.

Weir's evidence and reasoning are strong, but not overwhelmingly so. She bases her conclusions on contemporary or near-contemporary sources, relying most heavily on Italian monk Mancini, Henry VII's Italian biographer Polydore Vergil, the anonymous Croyland Chronicles, and Sir Thomas More's unfinished biography of Richard III. Weir makes strong arguments for the accuracy of these sources, not least of which that they corroborate each other in many places even though the authors were unlikely to be familiar with one another's work. Mancini was a foreigner who could be supposed reasonably impartial, and Vergil's writing does not always cast Henry VII in the best light, suggesting he was not sycophantic. More, of course, was writing likely after Henry VII's death, and personally knew many eyewitnesses and key players in events leading up to the princes' deaths, including a man, James Tyrell, who confessed to killing them. Unfortunately, though Weir thinks this strengthens More's account, his is the only source that claims the princes were smothered in their beds, a popular rumor of how they were killed. The other accounts she so trusts, however, either do not explicitly acknowledge the deaths, claim not to know how they were killed, or allege throat-slitting and poison.

Weir's strongest evidence is that the princes were not seen after Richard's coronation. This is corroborated by all contemporary sources, and why, she questions, would Richard not have produced them alive, if he wished to quell rumours? This is indeed damning, but what I really want to know is, why did he not produce them dead to prove that he was the strongest remaining York claimant to the throne? This is the only question that would make me seriously doubt Weir's conclusions.

I have no doubt that, as Weir claims, Richard was a man perfectly capable of killing his own nephews. Richard is indicated in the death of Henry VI, the king who threatened his older brother's claim to the throne. He would remember how his brother Edward IV had his other brother George executed as a traitor. And it is undisputed that he murdered several lords in cold blood, without trial, because they posed a threat to his usurpation of the throne. This included the brother and son of his sister-in-law the dowager queen, and his brother King Edward IV's best friend. It is not inconceivable that he would have murdered his brother's sons, seeing it as a necessary evil to holding the throne.

But when Henry VI was killed, it was put out that he had died of natural causes, and his body was publicly displayed. I wonder why a similar charade would not have been pulled with the princes. Perhaps he decided not to display the bodies because they would show evidence of the murder, as Henry VI's had done, but if they were smothered, that seems unlikely. Perhaps he thought it just too unlikely to claim that both boys had died at the same time of natural causes. But then again, childhood diseases were common and known to be contagious.

But, of course, Henry VII could not produce the bodies either, indicating that he could not find them. For if the bodies had displayed evidence of murder, it would have been easy to blame Richard. And if he had had them killed, wouldn't he have been informed of where to find the bodies? So I'm back to Richard. Weir successfully discredits accounts that Buckingham or others could have done it, since they were evidently kept so securely that none could enter but by the king's warrant.

The suggestion that the boys survived is discredited since bones that, by all known tests, are likely to be theirs, were discovered in 1674. The two skeletons were determined to be related, of approximately the correct ages, and discovered with velvet bits that dates their deaths between 1483 and 1674. And so, for lack of better evidence, I will have to agree with Weir that Richard III seems the likely culprit.

As always, Weir's history is tightly written in narrative form, strategically organized toward the big reveal, and then, every possible objection is taken down. I strongly recommend her work on historical mysteries in particular, her methodical work makes it easy to see her portrait of history.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bookish (And Not So Bookish) Thoughts

I've enjoyed reading Christine's thoughts over at Bookishly Boisterous each week,and while I don't think I'm nearly as funny or interesting, I'm going to give it a go!

1. Why don't "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" take the child with them? That was the question most of my students had when they wrote about whether or not they would be among those who walked away. Most of them felt it wasn't enough just to walk away, they had to take the kid too. I did have a few brave students who admitted they probably wouldn't walk away, and I had to give them props for their thought process. I wonder what my students would think of Peter Singer's dilemma.

2. I'm finally finishing up the Malloreon. I just finished Sorceress of Darshiva and I'm about to begin Seeress of Kell. I really enjoy the depths of Eddings' fantasy world and the comfort of his archetypal characters and straightforward Hero's Journey plot. However, ever since I noticed that Ce'Nedra, wife of protagonist Garion, is treated somewhat humorously as a "hysterical woman" stereotype, my enjoyment of the series has been seriously dampened.

3. I'm not sure what the weather has against Monday/Wednesday classes. Both my MW class meetings were canceled this week, while my TR classes have had comparatively beautiful weather. On Wednesday, I spent a good several minutes attacking the sheets of ice on my car.

4. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is going to be a play, and I am going to see it. Thank you Washington Post and Publick Playhouse.

5. During my commute, I am listening to the final Cousin's War book, The White Princess. My first thought was that I was unhappy it was the same narrator as for The Red Queen, because I can't imagine pious Margaret Tudor and youthful Elizabeth of York having similar voices. But I am quite liking it so far.