Monday, November 16, 2009

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily

I came of age in the 1970s at the height of the Women’s Movement. It was a heady time full of marches and protests and petitions. Women’s Studies departments were formed at colleges and universities. The study of history, full of dead white men, was expanded to include herstory, bringing to light the lives and achievements of women in the past.

Women have come a long way since then, now full partners at home, in the workplace and in the history books. But I still find myself, when confronted with a choice of books, always reaching for the one by or about women.

It was with great anticipation that I began reading “The Lady Queen”. Imagine, a woman ruler in medieval Italy, surrounded by “chauvinist” aristocracy and popes who shamelessly exploited women. How did she come to rule? How was her rule different from the men who preceded her and then followed her? How did her subjects feel about being ruled by a woman? What, if any, changes did she make to Italian culture?

Sadly, only my first question was answered. The rest of the 300+ pages were filled with the usual battles, funerals, coronations, plots and counter-plots found in most history books. This book was written for a popular audience, yet it is all the things that everyone hates about history. Just a dry recitation of dates and historical figures.

Ms. Goldstone tries to excuse the paucity of material concerning the actual life and rule of Joanna on records that were lost during WWII. What I found most frustrating were the tantalizing hints of her life. Her concern with and improvement of healthcare, the arts, and religious orders are mentioned again and again but never expanded upon. I kept hoping for more details on them which would, directly or indirectly, tell me more about Joanna as a person and as a queen.

Joanna’s life was ended by assassination. There was a problem with what to do with her body because she had been excommunicated and couldn’t be buried in hallowed ground. A religious order, of whom she had been a benefactor, came up with a solution. I just wanted to scream. What had she done for them they were willing to put aside their religious convictions and provide her with a resting place?

Alas, this book does not live up to its title. I know very little more about Joanna and her “notorious reign” than I did before I read this superficial biography.

Review copy courtesy of Walker & Company

Friday, November 6, 2009

No Tomorrow

I love reading books on history. Occasionally I grow tired of heavy, dry tomes and want something lighter and fanciful. I don’t care much for modern literature, preferring books written a century or more ago. But not because they are historical. I like them because they were written by people living at that time in history. They allow us to experience the feelings and dreams of people who lived long ago.

Often historical novels or Hollywood films get all the details are correct but the thoughts and emotions of the characters are modern. I understand that this makes the characters more accessible to modern audiences but I hunger for authenticity.

Vivant Denon was no ordinary author. In fact, “No Tomorrow” is the only fiction he is known to have written. The rest of his works were travelogues. He was an engraver, a courtier and a diplomat. He accompanied Napoleon on his military campaign in Egypt. Denon was the first Director of French Museums. He was largely responsible for the collections in the Louvre. It is safe to say that Vivant Denon was no hack writer.

This brief tale of a young man’s seduction by an older married woman is a window into the past. The opera house where they first meet is seen through the eyes of an author who had spent many hours in opera houses. Their long flight by coach to her husband’s secluded estate necessitates changing horses multiple times much as we would refill the tanks in our cars. Just as we use water to symbolize intimacy, the lovers consummate their affair to the sounds of a stream that runs past the summer house where they sought privacy.

On an emotional level, modern readers may be shocked to learn that sex in France during that era was regarded very differently from our own more puritanical outlook. This is the authenticity that I seek. To be able to vicariously experience the emotions and outlook of a world so different from our own. Not to be titillated, but to actually live, however briefly, in that time.

“No Tomorrow” is not graphic. It is not pornography. It is more dreamlike than erotic. It is a story in the Romantic tradition. An age that ended with the French Revolution and the guillotine. Knowing this as you read it lends poignancy to the story.

Review copy courtesy of New York Review Books Classics

Monday, November 2, 2009

Time's Up!: An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis

Almost everyone today agrees that Global Warming is real and is happening even faster than originally estimated. We can see the effects already in the melting of glaciers and sea ice, storms of increasing frequency and intensity and devastating droughts. Added to the ongoing degradation of the environment caused by industrial farming and fishing, the pollution from the burning of coal and gas to produce electricity and fuel our cars and you have the makings of an environmental catastrophe.

Just how devastating this catastrophe will be if we continue on our current course comprises the first half of Keith Farnish’s excellent book, “time’s up!”. His explanation of the complex food web and the adverse effects of climate change and pollution is the best I have ever read. It is detailed but easily grasped. Most amazing is that he makes what is normally a dry, academic subject, interesting.

The second half of his book is about what he calls “Industrial Civilization”, how it is holding us in thrall to consumerism while destroying the planet and how he thinks we can and should break free. I heartily agree with him about the ill effects of the so-called Industrial Civilization, but Mr. Farnish and I part company on the solution to our woes.

He advocates the complete destruction of Industrial Civilization. Much like Communism, this is an idea that sounds good on paper, but doesn’t work in real life. We have already had a taste of what total destruction of Industrial Civilization would be like in the ongoing global recession. Academically, it seems like a great idea to rid the world of greedy corporations, but as we have so painfully experienced, in the real world that means throwing millions of people out of work. The ripple effect can be seen in every town in the For Sale signs on front lawns and the empty storefronts previously filled with small businesses.

The author uses his own life, going off-grid and growing his own food, as an example of how we should all live. Obviously, he has never seen Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens or (insert the name of the megalopolis closest to you). There are not enough community gardens or local organic farms close enough to feed these huge population centers.

He also advocates the elimination of motorized transportation. He gets around just fine on a bicycle. Mr. Farnish lives in southern England. The climate there is so warm that people work in their gardens in January. I suggest that he try bicycling during a frigid Minnesota winter. Or perhaps a jaunt through the Rockies (the Donner party comes to mind).

He also loses sight of the fact that his book was grew out of his blog. If everyone quits their jobs and goes off grid as he so fervently advocates, then there will be no one to run the internet (hence, no blogs) or to publish books. They will all be in their backyards chopping wood and tending to their tomatoes.

There is the germ of a different solution in part three of this book. That is the use of people power (my phrase, not his) to effect change. Instead of the destruction of Industrial Civilization, the grassroots efforts he promotes could aim for the evolution of Industrial Civilization towards a more benign effect on the planet. Prior to the recent financial meltdown shareholder revolts, trying to wrest control of companies from greedy Boards and CEO’s, were growing more and more common. Farmers Markets are springing up all over. To keep them stocked with produce will require more organic farms which could eventually lead to fewer factory farms. Drivers are getting rid of their gas-guzzling SUVs and replacing them with smaller fuel-efficient or hybrid cars.

Eastern Europeans, who successfully rebelled against a Superpower, can attest to the power of citizens to effect change. We should all be inspired by their example to make the changes in our lives and countries to slow down global warming and the destruction of our environment.

Mr. Farnish ends his book on what even he agrees is a controversial note: healthcare. Or, more exactly, the lack of healthcare when we all go back to the land. He feels that that we don’t need modern medicine. In this, he is showing his youth. I grew up listening to the stories of my grandparents’ generation (his great-grandparents) of what life was like before the advent of modern medicine, i.e. before antibiotics and most vaccines. When all that doctors could offer was palliative care. When a simple cut could mean death from infection. When epidemics of childhood diseases raged, killing and maiming hundreds, sometimes thousands of children.

I find it difficult to believe that the author would rather that doctors spend their time gathering herbs for poultices rather than in laboratories working on vaccines for scourges like the Swine Flu that could very possibly kill his own children.

Review copy courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing