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Reading History: "The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England"(by Dan Jones)

I’ve long been a fan of popular history. Maybe it’s my love of narrative that makes this genre so appealing to me, or maybe it’s just the fact that we happen to be living in a period in which this form of history writing is flourishing both within the United States and the UK, but whatever the case, I’m glad that we are living in such a time and that we have historians like Dan Jones.

In my view, there are few popular British historians who can match Dan Jones for sheer writing ability. As soon as I started reading this book, I found myself caught up in the sweep of events as we make our way from the disastrous sinking of the White Ship and the death of King Henry I’s only son to the similarly disastrous reign of King Richard II and his eventual deposition at the hands of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (who took the name Henry IV).

Jones brings to life the tumultuous period of the Middle Ages, in which giant figures of the Plantagenet strode across the stage of history. These range from Henry II, arguably one of England’s most successful monarchs to such disasters as Edward II, whose reliance on his favorites ultimately led to his deposition by his own wife and her lover. These were monarchs who were grand and ambitious, and who wanted (and sometimes succeeded in) creating a vast empire that often encompassed significant portions of France.

However, in Jones’s telling, the saga of the Plantagenets is a tale of fortune’s wheel, which matches the rises of a great dynasty with similarly spectacular falls into ignominy. It’s also a tale of not only of individual monarchs but of the institution of the Crown itself. As he ably demonstrates, the medieval world was one in which a great deal indeed relied upon the person of the king being someone who could hold his realm together, someone who could steer the ship of state through both the good times and the bad. Some rulers did this superbly well, while others, often for reasons that weren’t entirely within their control, did not.

While, of course, Jones’s primary focus is on the personalities of the kings and queens of the dynasty, he has a keen eye for the sorts of detail of social and cultural forces that led to both the successes and failures of the Plantagenet monarchs. These range from the influence of foreign powers–most notably France and Scotland–to traumatic events such as the Black Death, which played a key role in reorganizing medieval English society. While these events and figures are often in the background rather than a focus, they still are an essential piece of understanding this dynasty’s successes and failures.

Just as importantly, Jones is very adept with description. Reading The Plantagenets, one can almost feel the terror of battle, hear the screams of those sentenced to a traitor’s death, the deafening clamor of medieval warfare, and the pomp and majesty of a coronation. Though it’s become rather a cliche to say that a book makes you feel as if you were actually there, in Jones’s case it isn’t very far from the truth.

As with his several other books, Jones also has a keen sense of narrative momentum. There was never a moment where I felt bored or felt like I was being dragged through all sorts of detail (much as I love the work of another prominent British historian, Alison Weir, she tends to lean too heavily on material details for my taste). Indeed, for such a large book, I’m still rather surprised by how quickly I tore through it, so engrossed was I in its narrative propulsion. Jones knows how to sift through the myriad details of the medieval period and to show us those that are the most germane.

It takes a rare talent to make the medieval period–in many ways so different from the Renaissance that succeeded it–come to life for modern readers. Fortunately for us, Dan Jones has done exactly that, and The Plantagenets is all that narrative history should be and more.

I’ve already finished the sequel volume, The Wars of the Roses, so stay tuned for my review!

Reading History: “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (by Tom Holland)

I have a complicated relationship with the works of the British historian Tom Holland. While I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read, I’m always struck by two things. First is his tendency to indulge his own stylistic flourishes to an extraordinary degree and, second, to try to craft an all-inclusive argument that subsumes all things into itself. Though these might at first blush appear unrelated phenomena, they are in fact related, and each feeds into the other.

In Dominion, all of the things that I both enjoy and find infuriating about his work are front and center. Stylistically, this book is somewhat self-indulgent. It doesn’t seem as if Holland has any form of impulse control when it comes to his flights of fancy and his rather rakish and cheeky turns of phrase. To put it another way, he sometimes to be so in love with his own clever Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of pizzazz in my prose, but when it’s repeated again and again and again, it starts to get a little cloying and, ultimately, distracting. Sometimes, I think that Holland should really make an effort to find an editor who can rein him in and keep him from indulging in some of his most exaggerated tendencies.

In Dominion, Tom Holland looks into the deep roots of Christianity and how, since its founding, its permutations and adaptations have shaped the modern Western world. Beginning in antiquity, he then moves into the modern world, showing how Christianity is, in essence, responsible for everything from socialism to science to secularism. And, in a rather counterintuitive move, he even suggests that such thoroughly un-Christian institutions such as ISIS are, even if they don’t realize it, Christian (he makes a similar argument about Hinduism and Judaism). Given that Holland has made no secret of his contempt for much of Islamic thought, I suppose I shouldn’t find this surprising, but nevertheless I did find it intellectually disingenuous (to put it mildly) and intellectually imperialist (to put it bluntly).

The real issue with Dominion, and with Holland’s work more generally, is his tendency to mistake his premise for his conclusion. Throughout this book, I kept wanting to hear the actual evidence to support the large claims that he makes. It’s not enough to merely assert that basically ever aspect that we have come to associate with modernity owes its roots in Christianity, and I’m not convinced that you could truly support such a huge claim with any degree of intellectual honesty. However, I’m also not entirely sure that I disagree with some of these assertions–I agree that secularism has no identity without the religious with which it is juxtaposed–but I don’t really think that Holland effectively or convincingly proves this point or, for that matter, many of the other ones. While I think he’s on surer ground on antiquity and the medieval periods, once gets to modernity things start to unravel rather quickly.

And, to be just a bit nit-picky, Holland also tends to make some slight errors that are frustrating because they’re so easily corrected. Early in the book, for example, he says that the Byzantines referred to themselves as such, when it’s pretty well-known that, for the entirety of their existence, they referred to themselves as Romans (even Europeans referred to them as Greeks, not Byzantines). Though these aren’t world-ending, when one is writing a book of popular history, and when one has a particularly large audience, accuracy becomes even more important.

That being said, I do think that Dominion makes some important points. Holland is absolutely right that Christianity was a truly world-changing development, and he’s also right that we in the West (or, to put it somewhat differently, the Global North) do owe much of our patterns of thought and our cultural sensibilities to Christianity. However, to use it as some sort of ur-myth that explains all of modernity…well, that still seems like a bit of a stretch.

Overall, I think that Dominion is vintage Tom Holland, and those with an interest in the broad history of Christianity and its influence on the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds will find it both enjoyable to read and informative. However, it’s also important that they approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism and, if possible, to seek out other sources to flesh out his narrative.

Book Review: “Me” (by Elton John)

Anyone who knows me even passingly well knows that I absolutely love the music of Elton John. Though I’d always heard his music growing up, it wasn’t until I was in college that I truly discovered how much I really enjoyed his music. In the years since, I’ve seen him in concert four times (and hopefully going to make it to a fifth). I’ve always eagerly awaited an official autobiography and now, at last, it’s here.

In Me (could there be a more Elton John title?), we finally get the complete story of his tumultuous life from his own perspective. We witness the dizzying heights of his success, as well as the nadirs of his life, including his plunge into a cocaine addiction that takes over for much of the ’70s and ’80s, until he enters rehab in the 1990s. John is not shy about delving into the ugly details of these addictions, and his bracing honesty is refreshing and at times unsettling. I can’t imagine that it was easy for him to delve into these ugly parts of his personal history, but somehow he manages to make it utterly believable and endearing. Through this narrative, we come to learn what really makes Elton John tick, through both the good and the bad.

But we also get a window into the personal relationships that have shaped his life. We meet John Reid, his first lover and the man who was a key part of his business success (and, ultimately, some of his failure). Elton isn’t shy about telling us how much he loved Reid, and I very much enjoyed his frankness about his sexuality. We also meet Elton’s parents, a study in contrasts, his mother a woman of many emotions and a love of music, his father a stiff-upper-lip type who never seems to understand his son or his desires. I’ve long known that his relationship with his mother was difficult, but here we get a stronger sense of just how long that conflict went on. One can’t help but feel a great deal of pity for both of these people, neither of whom really seemed to understand one another. As someone whose relationship with his own mother has been at times strained, I found these parts of Elton’s story to be particularly moving.

And, of course, we also encounter Bernie Taupin, Elton’s long-time lyricist with whom he has written some of his most enduringly popular songs. These were honestly some of my favorite parts of the book, since one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed most about Elton’s music is the lyrics to his songs. At one point, John compares Bernie to Tolkien, and that seems a pretty accurate description of the types of lyrics that Taupin has always managed to produce. It’s clear that, though they’ve had their times of conflict, John and Taupin are truly one of the greatest musical duos to have graced rock-and-roll.

And, finally, we meet his husband David Furnish and their two children, both of them born from the same surrogate. Reading these sections of the book, it’s striking how much being a father has really begun to change John’s life and his perspective on it for the better. Anyone who might have had doubts about whether a 60-something-year-old man can be a father should have their doubts assuaged by this book.

Interspersed with the biographical elements of the book are insights into the music. Elton shines a light into the motivations behind so many of his most popular songs, as well as what went into both the good and the bad albums (let us never forget that Elton once recorded a disco album). However, I have to point out that, while Elton and Bernie both seem to think that The Big Picture is one of the worst albums that they’ve ever made, I always found it quite enjoyable.

Me also highlights the many important people that Elton has encountered throughout his life, ranging from the Queen herself to almost every famous or fashionable person you can imagine. Sometimes, you just have to marvel how quickly Elton John managed to rocket into the upper echelons of superstardom, and reading Me one gets the feeling that it’s precisely the precipitousness that in part led to some of his worst troubles. By the time you finish reading Me, however, you can’t help but be happy for Elton.

What I found particularly refreshing about this book was the fact that Elton is just so forthright about his own flaws. He makes no bones about the fact that he has a fearsome temper and is prone to outbursts that, to many, look more than a little ridiculous. He also recognizes that he has a bit of an acid tongue that has, needless to say, gotten him into some hot water more than once (his spats with George Michael, Madonna, and Billy Joel are well-known). Despite his flaws, however, one gets the feeling that, despite his waspishness and his temper, that deep down he really is a good person trying to do the best that he can, and that he loves fiercely, deeply, and indelibly.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that it’s too short! There were many times when I found myself wanting to hear more about the writing process and, even more, about the meanings that he saw in the music that they created. Maybe at some point there’ll be a sequel? There just seems so much more that we could learn about his music, so let’s hope so!

All in all, Me is a fascinating and unflinching glimpse into Elton’s life and psyche. To my mind, it is nothing short of miraculous that Elton has somehow emerged from all of the chaos seemingly stronger than ever. I continue to marvel at his powerful longevity. Aside from everything else, Me is exceedingly well-written, a pleasure to read from the first page to the last. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the life of this fascinating musical figure.

Reading History: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mid of America” (by Greg Grandin)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC in return for an honest review.

Every so often you read a piece of history that is blistering, refreshing, and utterly compelling. Such is historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. This book explores the ways in which the frontier as a concept, a myth, and an ideology has remained central to how America has conceived of itself and how, in the latter part of the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, the myth has at last begun to collapse upon itself.

The End of the Myth is roughly chronological, starting with the American Revolution (when the frontier was basically the Appalachians) and moving into such epochal events as the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War II, and the recent financial crisis. He has a keen eye for detail and an ability to parse primary texts to expose the assumptions undergirding ideologies. Indeed, so sharp is his close reading ability that I almost felt at times like I was reading a trained English professor (which, coming from me, is quite the compliment).

Two figures loom large in his analysis: Andrew Jackson and Frederick Jackson. The former was the first populist president, a man who based his “egalitarian” vision on the brutal exploitation and oppression of people of color and Native Americans. The latter was, arguably, one of the most influential historians of an era, one whose theorization of the frontier provided a set of parameters within which any discussion of this concept must take place.

As Grandin points out throughout the book, the frontier has, from the beginning, symbolized the political aspirations of the United States. That is to say, it has served a multitude of purposes: as a safety valve, as the engine of empire, as a means of social control. So long as there was a frontier, the inner problems facing American politics–white supremacy and all of its ugliness foremost among them–could be projected outward. Those toxic, destructive energies could be used to expand the boundaries of the nation, while simultaneously serving the needs of those in power.

Beyond the realities of the political, however, the frontier has also served as a unifying me The frontier, and the promise of infinity that it represents, allowed Americans to believe that they were immune to the cyclical nature of history, with its rise and fall of empires. The frontier promised perpetual growth. Because of the frontier, America could convince itself that it existed outside time itself, a fantasy that would inevitably come crashing down into ruin as the realities of the limitations of the frontier became more and more obvious as the 19th and 20th Centuries progressed.

As Grandin explains, now that the frontier has utterly closed, the very energies that it was meant to channel have redounded upon the country. In the wake of globalization, endless wars in the Middle East, and the financial meltdown of 2008, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The social unrest and problems that have always existed at the heart of America’s accomplishments–and which were, to an extent, deflected by the frontier–have now burst into the open. The wall, with all of its ugly rhetoric and racist overtones, is the ultimate physical symbol of the closing of the frontier.

Grandin pulls no punches in what he sees as the political ramifications of the frontier myth and its demise in the 21st Century. Sometimes, in fact, I found his political claims (and investments) overshadowing his historical consciousness, particularly in his analysis of the Clinton and Obama years (admittedly, this may be because of my own political investments). Nevertheless, I do think that there is a danger in allowing one’s political investments to so transparently mold the perspective one takes on events.

Despite that, this is the sort of bracing, politically-engaged history that is like a breath of fresh air. Grandin tears away the air of obfuscation that allows so many (particularly white) people to believe that the frontier is some sort of infinitely tappable resource that can be exploited at will. Just as importantly, Grandin suggests that, if we want to create a more just and equitable country, we must confront the very ugly and violent parts of our collective past. Only by confronting our original sins can we move forward into a hopefully bright future.

Reading History: “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” (Alison Weir)

By this point, Mary Boleyn has become best-known as the major protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the (according to Gregory) younger sister of Anne Boleyn.

Alison Weir, one of my all-time favourite biographers of British royalty, undertakes an effort to excavate what we know of Mary.

And, as her work reveals, that’s not too much. Unfortunately, much of Mary’s life remains shrouded in mystery, precisely because she has been so thoroughly overshadowed by Anne’s dominance in the popular imagination of the Tudor period. It thus takes all of Weir’s considerable skills as a historian/detective to extract from circumstantial evidence details about Mary’s life, her loves, and her actions.

We do know (with a fair degree of certainty) that she was the mistress of the King of France, a dalliance that no doubt stained her reputation and endangered her future in the English court and may have rendered her particularly susceptible to the amorous attentions of Henry VIII (who always wanted to outdo his French rival).

And we also know that, contrary to the mores of the time, she ended up marrying the man she loved, at least on the second time around. Indeed, the decision to once again endanger her family’s fortunes by going against her father’s wishes may well have contributed to her later penury. Weir makes it pretty clear throughout the book that Mary was something of a black sleep among the Boleyns, particularly her father (anyone who has seen Thomas Boleyn in film will find this quite easy to believe).

Nevertheless, even Weir’s capable hands can only spin so much material out of these few threads of information. The book is one of the shortest that she’s written, and it feels like it. As a result, Weir sometimes has to resort to discussions of issues, people, and materials surrounding Mary, rather than the actual woman herself. Of course, this does give us a good sense of the world that Mary inhabited, as well as the various connections that she would have had as a member of a noble family. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Mary is a bit of an absence, a glaring hole around which we can construct a narrative but who nevertheless remains elusive.

Thus, if I have a complaint about this book, it’s that Weir tends to wander off on tangents that are only faintly related to the subject matter. Some of this no doubt reflects the fact that she could find relatively little to say specifically about Mary in the sparse sources, but it does make for difficult reading at times, particularly as Weir–as she often does–tends to indulge a bit too much on the material culture aspect of her biographies. If you want to learn about the many things that early modern nobility spent vast amounts of money on, you will learn much in this book.

For me, arguably the most interesting part of the entire book was the discussion of Mary’s two children, Catherine and Henry, both of whom became very prominent members of Elizabeth I’s court. Weir lays out a convincing case for Mary’s daughter Catherine being the result of her affair with Henry VIII (there was allegedly a pronounced physical resemblance between them), though the same is probably not true of Mary’s son Henry (ironically). Weir also goes into some detail analyzing portraits that may (or may not) be those of Mary.

Overall, I would rate this in the bottom tier of Weir’s books. She tends to make some assumptions and assertions that aren’t adequately supported by the evidence that she has presented. Such is certainly the case with her assertion that Mary’s mother Elizabeth was a woman of ill-repute, evidence for which is quite sparse and relies on a decidedly selective reading of what evidence exists. (For what it’s worth, Weir makes a more compelling case for this in her recent historical novel about Anne, Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession).

Nevertheless, even a low-tier Alison Weir outing is still a good read, and you will learn a great deal about the workings of the Tudor court, the luxuries and dangers of the period, and the fraught position that women occupied in this dangerously beautiful world.

Book Review: “The Black Elfstone”(Book 1 of “The Fall of Shannara”) by Terry Brooks

It’s a rare thing that I finish a book in three days, but that is just what happened with fantasy maestro Terry Brooks’ most recent book The Black Elfstone, the first in a planned tetralogy titled The Fall of Shannara. Set roughly two hundred years after the loosely connected Defenders of Shannara series,  this novel sees the Four Lands under assault from a mysterious invader, one that possesses a form of magic that stymies even the Druids. These mysterious invaders, led by a powerful young woman, overcome anyone who stand in their path, including a Druid delegation. As a result, they threaten the very stability and order of the entire Four Lands.

The exiled Ard Rhys Drisker Arc, one of the story’s four protagonists, gradually finds himself drawn into this conflict. At the same time, he also takes on an apprentice in the form of Tarsha Kaynin, a young woman blessed (or cursed) with the power of the wishsong, who desperately wishes to tame its power so that she can save her afflicted elder brother Tavo. Meanwhile, the High Druid’s Blade Dar Leah has to contend with a Druid order that appears poised on the brink of chaos. All of them, in one way or another, will clearly be drawn into a conflict that might well bring to an end the entire world that they have so far taken for granted.

The pacing in this new novel is as breakneck as anything that Brooks has written, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the pace of the events unfolding. While we are only given tantalizing glimpses of the invaders that seem poised to conquer the entire Four Lands–and while the many schemes and plots, particularly those undertaken by the Druids, are still only half-glimpsed–that only makes the novel that much more tantalizing. Brooks has always been a master at plotting, and this novel proves to be no exception. While some might complain that he always ends his books on a cliffhanger, I personally find that that heightens the anticipation for the next novel (at least we don’t have to wait more than a year for the next installment).

Some have criticized Brooks’ recent work for being repetitive, but I tend to see this as a deliberate attempt on his part to show the ways in which history, and those caught up in it, often can’t help but repeat the mistakes that came before. This is most clear with the Druids, who once again seem so entangled in their internal squabbles and power-plays that they can’t see the larger threat that may sweep them away in its wake until it is too late. The ongoing tale of the Shannara bloodline reveals the brutally cyclical nature of history. Just as humankind seems to have lifted itself out of its own petty squabbles and achieved some measure of stability, its own folly and desire for destruction seems to plunge it right back into its darker nature.

While the Shannara books have always been marked by a fair measure of violence, Brooks looks to be striking out on some new territory here, showing us that the Four Lands have become an increasingly dangerous and unstable place. The Elves have retreated, once again, into their own enclaves, content to let the rest of the world succumb to its own folly. The border city of Varfleet is as seedy as ever, and there are entire guilds devoted to nothing but the taking of human life. This is not a world for the faint of heart.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that this kind of world produces some very broken and troubled characters, chief among them Tarsha’s brother Tavo. Unlike his sister, for whom the wishsong is a blessing, for him it is a curse, a titanic force that he cannot control and that slowly drives him mad with rage and bloodlust. While they are disturbing, the chapters devoted to his perspective are some of the most compelling in the entire novel. He is a person who is fundamentally shattered in his psychology, misunderstood by his parents and tormented by practically anyone else. Is it any wonder that, in his fractured state, he should see his sister as his enemy? We don’t know yet what his part will be in the climax, but my guess is it won’t be pretty. I do hope, though, that he is offered at least a measure of salvation or redemption.

The writing here is lean, and Brooks tends to not spend too much time describing meals or clothing (a foible that sometimes bogs down otherwise quite compelling works of fantasy). However, no one has quite the ability to describe a landscape as he does, and the Four Lands remains one of the most exquisitely described landscapes in the history of epic fantasy. These are lands that have outlasted many of the characters that we have grown to know and love, and so there is something both comfortingly familiar and yet strange about them.

While I’m sad that Shannara is coming to a chronological end, I’m glad that Brooks is doing it on his own terms, and I am supremely glad that it is off to such a strong and stirring start. As someone who has grown increasingly irritated with George R.R. Martin’s chronic inability to produce a volume in anything resembling a reliable manner (and as someone who has been disappointed with the declining quality), I find Brooks reliability to be a great boon. What’s more, he has also stated that this won’t be the end of Shannara altogether, as there are still several bits of history that he may flesh out. Presumably, this means that we may yet get to see the formation of the First Druid Council under the Elf Galaphile, along with a number of other stories.

Still, I know that I will be shedding more than a few tears as I make my way through this chronological end of one of epic fantasy’s greatest sagas.